Literary Inspiration: Furiously Happy

Furious Collage

With apologies to the friend who gave me this book, Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things by Jenny Lawson, I hated it.  Just loathed every page, every anecdote, every mea culpa and every non-sequitur about horribly misshapen, taxidermized rodents.  And there were quite a few of them, often expressed as quarter page-long footnotes.  Furiously Happy was tonally bizarre and as all over the place as Lawson professes her mental health to be.  Instead of making me happy, it just made me furious (as evidenced by the front cover amendment I made at the end of one particularly enraging chapter, an egregious act I’m only mildly pissed at myself for having carried out – you DO NOT abuse books in such a fashion.  Unless the book in question is beginning to mess with YOUR mental health.)

Known around the interwebs as The Bloggess, Lawson’s writing is often compared to the works of David Sedaris, and is bolstered by such high profile literary talent as Neil Gaiman, Augusten Burroughs and Christopher Moore (should have been a tip-off; I dislike all three of those authors.)  She’s an engaging writer with an easy, meandering style.  She’s also legitimately funny, with a scattered sense of cat-centric humour that edges on the dark and inappropriate, and I like that.  But I did not like this book.

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Two years ago I read Lawson’s first book, Let’s Pretend This Never Happened: A Mostly True Memoir, a somewhat fictionalized account of her life, which depending on how and when you looked at it, could either be deemed charmingly quirky or grounds for about five child endangerment lawsuits.  I suspect that after reading multiple tales of how her father – described as a gregarious Viking of a man with a penchant for taxidermy – traumatized Lawson and her sister with dead squirrels stuffed into popcorn boxes, or her own haphazard attempts to dispose of the family pug’s carrion-nipped corpse, the concern trolls came out in force, probably questioning how her unusual upbringing – and, by extension, the one she was giving to her own young daughter – could in any way be deemed “okay,” or even entertaining literary fodder.

So when it came to Furiously Happy, I can imagine that the overriding editor’s note was to explain that while humorous, and embellished in certain instances, these anecdotes are rooted in the larger issue of the author’s poor mental health.  That Lawson didn’t just bail out on her kid’s recital because she’s a flake that got distracted by a dead animal – you would not believe the number of times this happens – but because she’s MENTALLY ILL.

Which, alarming number of taxidermy stories aside, you’d never know, until Lawson begins shouting it in your face every second page.  The world’s a weird place, and I think most of us are just bumbling through as best we can, beset on all sides by varying degrees of anxiety and depression.  That’s the unfortunate downside to the gift of life – having to live through the thing.  But the situations that Lawson describes as being so very damaging to her existence – and they are, if she’s being in any way truthful – are the things nearly all of us confront every single day.  The social anxiety that keeps us trapped in our homes, the depression that keeps us confined to our beds, the heartbreak we think we couldn’t possibly live through.

If there is an overriding thesis to Furiously Happy, it’s that everyone deals with poor or flagging mental health in different ways, and what works for some people – what apparently works for Lawson is getting so angry at her rebellious mind, she comes right back around the other side to “furiously happy” – does not work for all people.  Getting right with your own head takes time and effort, and nobody’s process is the same.

But not all people have endlessly patient and understanding families, husbands on important business conference calls who allow you to barge into the guest bedroom so you can shriek about feral swans, or publishers willing to finance a trip to Australia where the very best thing you can think to do is behave like an infuriating American tourist in a plushy kangaroo costume (seriously.)  Not all people have children who understand why you bailed on their recital because there’s too many other people there.  Not all people have access to a rotating cadre of therapists, or the necessary funds to even seek out mental health care.  Not all people are bestselling authors who CANNOT shut up about how wacky their lives are because MENTALLY ILL.  I started out the book feeling deeply sympathetic toward Lawson’s condition – as my boys in TOP say in the song Migraine, “Sometimes to stay alive, you’ve gotta kill your mind” – and by the end…well, you can see what I did to the cover.  It was just one vignette after another, all amounting to “I did something wacky/bizarre/borderline certifiable that led to me hurting myself and/or the people around me, but I cannot help myself, I AM MENTALLY ILL.  Isn’t that funny?!”

THAT person is not sympathetic.  But the other side of Lawson’s condition is self-harm and suicidal ideation, and that person IS sympathetic.  No one wants to hear of a person so worn down by life and all its attendant maladies that they just want to check out.  It’s why there’s a justifiable stigma around suicide.  It’s the place most of us just don’t want to go.

And Lawson doesn’t want to go there either.  If anything is clear from Furiously Happy, it’s that she’s a fighter, and for the sake of her family, her friends and her community of readers, she’s going to continue fighting.  I respect that; there’s no other way but forward, even in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds.  But the real insights on mental health in this book are so buried beneath its stupid, infuriating veneer of forced wackiness, you can hardly find them.  It’s really asking too much of your readers to guffaw at the inconsequential fight over clothes you had with your husband in one chapter, and then react in sympathetic horror to your bloody self-harm in another.  The tonal and emotional shift is just too great.  I hope Lawson continues the good fight, but I don’t ever need to read another thing she’s written.

I read this book in service of my friends’ reading challenge for the theme of “Yellow/Gold is the color of novelty, so read a yellow novel.”  Consider it read, and now nail art-ed as well, a matte-and-glittery design – and quite yellow, indeed – inspired by the book jacket cover art.

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Literary Inspiration: Middlesex

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Have you ever, fearing the absolute worst of something or someone, just put that something or someone off, for days, weeks or years?  I mean, hopefully if that something is, say, renewing your license and that someone is twenty one pilots’ drummer Josh Dun’s arms the Queen, you could hotfoot it a bit, but by and large, there are a spectacular number of obligations, experiences and even people that we can, and do, put by the wayside, sometimes forever, but mostly just for what feels like forever.  Then, many moons later, we finally get our acts together and do the uncomfortable thing that we’ve been putting off for absolutely no good reason whatsoever, and it’s no big deal.  Or, more likely, it turned out to be a great time/the very best course of action/just the thing that  needed to happen, and all we can do is berate ourselves after the fact for our nonsensical dithering (also known as WhyDidn’tIDoThisSooner-itis.)

I’ve done this with countless big ticket purchases (cars, mattresses, our apartment) and experiences – 13 Disney-less years of existence prior to 2017 would certainly bear out that assertion.  And I do it with the media I consume as well – whilst tidying up our possessions in contemplation of the nearly-completed renovations to our apartment, I found all manner of forgotten movies, television shows and books, things I meant to get to, but never did, because at one time in the distant past, they just weren’t speaking to me.

But life is short and all that not-so trite shite, and in my advancing years, I’ve learned that putting off the uncomfortable, the awkward, the expensive and the unpleasant does you no favours in the present, and maybe even a good deal of damage in the future.  So go ahead and buy that new mattress that both your back and sleeping patterns so desperately need, even though you know it’s going to be a righteous pain in the ass to move it in and dispose of the old guy, and mattresses are so expensive, so why even bother in the first place, even though you’re pretty sure if you sleep one more night on the back-breaker from hell, you’ll wake up crippled (totally speaking from personal experience here, and yes, our new mattress – delivered four days ago, and indeed, it was a pain moving it in – is divinely comfortable, and we’ve been getting great sleep, and Why Didn’t I Do This Sooner?)  Or hit up that restaurant/theatre/gallery/club/bar that you’ve always been interested in visiting, even though it’s in a completely inconvenient part of town with absolutely zero parking, and, and, and…just go, struggle a bit with the parking, sure, but ultimately enjoy a fantastic evening and discover a fun new activity, and Why Didn’t You Do This Sooner?  TL;DR?  The only predictable thing in life is its unpredictability, and the universe WILL be a dink.  So stop making excuses and get on with it already.

And that goes doubly for the movies and TV shows we (don’t) watch, the music we (sometimes) listen to and especially the books we (forget to) read, which have a tendency to languish on IKEA Billy bookcases for decades until we take them down and finally devour them as part of a friend’s reading challenge (the third prompt, “Carpe read ’em – a title on your TBR for 1+ years”), unexpectedly love the crap out them and then spend the next week berating ourselves for not reading them sooner.  Once again speaking from personal experience, this time regarding Jeffrey Eugenides’ 2002 Middlesex, a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel from the author of my favourite book, The Virgin Suicides, and a novel that sat, unread, on my IKEA Billy bookcase for 17 years, because I ultimately just wasn’t that interested in the story and could never work up the motivation to even crack open the front cover.  And this is a book that was gifted to me because I asked for it!

Middlesex Bookshelf

But I was wrong to put off this novel for so long, because it was a certifiable discovery, one of the most enjoyable things I’ve read in years, and one tagged with a front cover pull quote from my hometown newspaper, no less!

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But on its face, I get it, Middlesex doesn’t look like much.  This is the story of Calliope Stephanides, an American-born Greek growing up in suburban Detroit in the 1960s and ’70s.  Cal is born with ambiguous genitalia, a fact that goes completely unnoticed by her aging doctor, her loving, but increasingly WASP-y family, and even herself.  It’s not until Callie fails to develop like other girls her age that her parents take her to a specialist in New York City, an act that blows the lid off a huge family secret and sets the wheels in motion for Calliope to truly become Cal.

The story actually begins in 1922 in Bithynios with the man and woman who will become Cal’s grandparents fleeing the Turkish troops laying waste to their small Greek island.  We follow them as they immigrate to America, settling quickly in Detroit, with Cal’s grandfather, Lefty, taking work in the then-flourishing auto industry, whilst also dabbling in a bit of rum-running, gambling and speakeasy-ing on the side.  We watch as Cal’s grandmother, Desdemona, struggles with new American customs, holding firm to the old ways, though still desperately trying to outrun the past.  We see Lefty and Desdemona begin a family, and then watch as their son, Milton, grows into a deeply romantic young man, whose spurned affections for Tessie, the girl next door, lead him into a deeply ill-considered stint with the Navy.  But Milton returns to Detroit whole, and counting their lucky stars, he and Tessie marry and they begin a family of their own.  We then watch as their daughter, Calliope, grows up in the shadow of the floundering Motor City, a product of her Greek immigrant grandparents more than she could ever know.

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Middlesex is a book about a person finding their true identity, inasmuch as they choose to be defined by their genetic markers.  But moreover, it’s a book about a person finding their true identity simply by living it.  We are there for every moment of Cal’s mostly average suburban life.  We see her attend school, make friends, develop an infatuation, spend time with her family – the stuff of normal childhood and teenage life.  She becomes the person she was was meant to be (or more accurately, the person he was meant to be) mostly because of her upbringing and environment – post race-riots Detroit – and less because of what gendered box she checks off on the census.  And when Callie finally does embrace the Cal side of her identity, it changes virtually nothing about his basic personality, which has always been kind, thoughtful, respectful and loving (dated though it now is, this book could be a timely resource in today’s politically-charged climate, a reminder that not all “others” are scary freakshows trying to steal the government’s money so they can swap genders as easily as pulling on a pair of pants; it’s a LOT more nuanced than that, and also a lot more normal – whatever that word means – than you might expect.)

There is a reason Middlesex won the Pulitzer Prize, and that’s because Jeffrey Eugenides is a phenomenal writer.  Bit of a literary hermit, that one – he really only pokes his head out every 10 years or so, drops some astonishing bit of prize-winning art on us and then retreats to his foxhole.  But when people speak of effortless, lyrical writing, this is what they mean.  I can think of few authors who would be able to turn such a sprawling family tree into this engaging, enlightening and slyly funny a coming-of-age tale.  I absolutely adored Middlesex.  Please read it so we can talk about it together.

As always, I have nail art to accompany this review (can it be called a review if you spend the first 800 words talking about your renos?)  Here I’ve got the Detroit city skyline as against a gradient pink sunset, the only kind there apparently were in the heyday of the Motor City, when all the smog, pollution and miscellaneous floating about the atmosphere turned every sunset into a lurid pink fever dream.

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Literary Inspiration: Ready Player One

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Fun fact: I’m a bit of a gamer.  Always have been, actually.  As a kid, I loved playing Q-Bert, Frogger and OG Donkey Kong on my family’s Texas Instruments rig whilst waiting for our gigantic claw-footed bathtub to fill.  Naked (and yes, there is a completely mortifying photo to that effect – a Polaroid, no less – and no, you will never see it!)

As a slightly older kid, I owned every generation of Nintendo and squared off with my friends every chance I could get – the Super Mario Bros. games were favourites, though I’d dabble in Sega titles from time to time.

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In high school I fell in love with the Donkey Kong Country games to such an extent, I was able to parlay my mad skills into a first place finish in a Kong-centric drinking game during a big, multi-school party.  Yup, I was definitely the “winner” that evening. 😦  And I know I used to drive my best friend absolutely bonkers because I’d play while we were on the phone together, and she totally knew.  Sorry, Sandra!

Then one Saturday morning right toward the end of high school, my dad came home from a local garage sale and tossed me an open NES cartridge, saying, “Here, you like this zombie crap, don’t you?”  The game?  Zombies Ate My Neighbors, a super rare cult classic from Konami that went on to occupy my off-hours attention for the remainder of high school and most of university.  Trust my dad to just wander into purchasing one of the rarest and most beloved zombie games ever released for a buck at a garage sale. 😉

Between the end of university and the beginning of my Life As An Adult (still waiting for that to take hold, by the way) my gaming fields went fallow – access is key, and I didn’t have either of the big consoles at the time, or a PC.  Then I met Mr. Finger Candy and we got so serious so quickly, he MOVED HIS PLAYSTATION INTO MY APARTMENT.  This really warrants all caps, because at the time, this was basically the equivalent of him leaving his penis at my apartment all day long – that’s how important that PS2 was to him (also one of the ways I knew how very serious he was about our relationship, because he was willing to entrust his most beloved possession to his new girlfriend and her roommate, who played the CRAP out of it – particularly the badass snowboarding game, SSX – every chance they could get.)

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Then a couple of years after we got married, Mr. Finger Candy introduced me to the Sims.  And the next four months are largely unaccounted for (beyond knowing that I spent nearly every second of them in the guest bedroom crafting a glorious desert trailer park filled with pirates and carnies and ill-tempered ex-celebrities.)  I haven’t played with that level of intensity since (and that’s probably a good thing; the Sims is, shall we say, demanding of one’s time) but I’ll still dabble from time to time.

The Sims

I was for a time also completely obsessed with this totally messed up American McGee game called Alice: Madness Returns.  It was an utterly beautiful game, and the visuals were just incredible, but yeesh, what a mindf**k.  I adored it, and indeed, I launched this very blog with some of those working-way-beyond-my-comfort-level designs.

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And my husband is a pretty hardcore gamer, clanning up online with a bunch of buddies to run around and kill virtual things every weekend, be they rogue military factions, zombies or rogue military zombie factions.

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So still lots of gaming in my life, then, now and probably always, so it’s a no brainer that I was drawn to 2018’s Ready Player One, a Spielberg-directed Amblin throwback of gigantic nerd proportions inspired by the 2011 novel of the same name by Ernest Cline.  I adored the movie – spunky kids saving the world from fantasy-based destruction! a giant melee fight scene scored to Twisted Sister’s We’re Not Gonna Take It! and an incredible mash-up of about 200 competing video game, movie and TV titles, including The Iron Giant, Halo, Pikachu, DC Comics, Overwatch, Back to the Future, Gundam, Jurassic Park, Hello freakin’ Kitty, and an absolutely incredible scene set within the world of The Shining that’s worth the price of admission alone.  I loved it.

I loved the novel, which I read in service of my friends’ reading challenge for the second theme of “You saw the movie but didn’t read the book…now read the book,” ever so slightly less, simply because it was so intensely detailed and relentless in its references to tech and nerd culture, I found it hard to map the overall story.  It was a really enjoyable read – fun, lively, and with so many delightful little nods to the games and movies that have shaped my life – but I could also never quite shake the feeling that I was sitting an exam on 400-level nerd culture for which I had not studied, and I was about to fail HARD.  This is one of those books that probably requires a second read-through just to pick up the smaller details you may have missed the first time around.

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Barring one or two deviations, the movie and the novel tell the same story: It’s the year 2044, and everything sucks.  Humanity’s just given up on trying to solve its unsolvable problems and has retreated into an online mecca known as the OASIS, an unending virtual playground where you can do or be anything you wish.  In Columbus, Ohio, a poor young man by the name of Wade Watts has spent the past five years trying to solve a puzzle left in the OASIS by its late creator, James Halliday.  And Watts is far from the only Gunter (egg hunter) hard at work on cracking the puzzle, because the player who finds Halliday’s easter egg will assume total operational and financial control of the OASIS, a property estimated to be worth nearly two trillion dollars.  With that amount of money and power on the line, the hunt for Halliday’s easter egg lures in more than just the Gunters, with the world’s less morality-minded organizations lining up to lay their claim to the egg.  IOI, or Innovative Online Industries, an outfit that sells medically questionable allotments of ad space AND correctional services, is at the head of those companies, devoting nearly the entirety of their significant operational budget to the search for the egg through any means necessary.

When both the book and the movie open, Wade and a few friends have cracked the first clue, with IOI nipping close at their heels.  And the rest of the book follows this back-and-forth between the independent and corporate forces as they try to assume control of the OASIS for their own ends, peppered with about nine bajillion references to popular culture, technology and hardcore geekery.  There’s also a bit of romance in there.

Where the book and the movie really deviate is in tone, with the movie striking that perfect Spielbergian note of sassy childlike wonder – bad guys are trying to trying to take something good and make it bad, let’s stop them! – while the book went for something much darker.  In the movie, Wade’s parents are dead, victims, he insinuates, of a harsh world ill-suited for good people.  But in the book, you find out that Wade’s parents, paying no heed to their duties as caretakers, destroyed their family and died badly, Wade’s mom overdosing and his father dying during a failed looting attempt.  In the same vein, the IOI of the movie is almost quaint in its forgotten era bad guy tactics, with the book IOI just straight up throwing people off balconies.  But apart from the darker content, the book is just missing that sense of innocent wonder that made the movie such an appealing adaptation in the first place.

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But I really liked Ready Player One, sped through it like a beast in about three days, nitpicky little details notwithstanding.  I like these nails I did, inspired by DOS lettering, a lot less.  This is what happens when you refuse to use nail art stuff like striping tape that might make a design that needs to look precise look a lot more precise than it does.  Which is not one bit!  Egads, would you look at that S?!  On second thought, don’t look too closely at it – that thing is atrocious.  This is definitely one for the redo pile, perhaps the next time I reread Ready Player One.

Literary Inspiration: Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict

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As Bon Jovi would say, this is my confession: I didn’t particularly enjoy Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict, I’m not sure why I read it (other than it fulfilled the required theme of “A tale where the main character loves to read” in my friends’ reading challenge) and I wouldn’t read it again.  It was silly, dull as dishwater and completely and utterly lacking in wit.  Confessions was a tepid recreation of any one of Austen’s novels about headstrong young women of means boxed in on all sides by romance, propriety, social convention and Georgian Mommy Dearest, with a dash of Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

Goin’ a bit harsh here, perhaps, but this book was as boring as any one of the innumerable scenes of our heroine (*pulls out book and looks for the main character’s name, because it’s already gone*) Courtney Stone needlepointing her way through a situation that has somehow resulted in her becoming a Jane Austen-type character in Regency England.

Annnnndddd I was about to explain the hows and whys of how that came to be before I realized it just doesn’t matter.  Despite declaring herself a major Austenite, Courtney – Jane Mansfield now, seriously – has no idea how to navigate this world of intricately choreographed social convention, not even with the perpetual threat of blood-letting, institutionalization and her mother’s cruel threats hanging over her head.  So she sees no problem whatsoever in carrying on as though she’s still Courtney, confusing and worrying absolutely everyone with her talk of modern products and concepts, or mixing up the names of the many, many men who have apparently done her wrong.  There’s TWO half-baked love triangles in Confessions, one in Courtney’s past-present and then another in Jane’s present-past, and I didn’t care about either of them.  Arguably neither did the author, Laurie Viera Rigler, because the driving conflict of one is resolved in a three-page epilogue, and the other is never addressed at all.

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The only real emotion I was able to muster was when Courtney/Jane, worn down by her fruitless attempts to get back to her time, says to hell with it and nearly shags some random drunkard in a side parlour during a fancy party in London.  Times have indeed changed, and in Courtney’s world, having a one-night stand with some random is NBD.  But in Jane’s world, for a woman of her station – proper, wealthy, and with at least one suitor poised to propose marriage, to say nothing of the batshit mother – this indelicate act is tantamount to taping a grenade to her face.  It was a reckless move on the part of the character, and a careless move on the part of the author – Austen’s most beloved heroines are always fiercely protective of what little independence they’re able to carve out in such a regimented society, but they’re not careless with their safety or their reputations.  You’d never find Elizabeth Bennett contemplating how much fun it would be to drag some drunken lout into a coat closet for a snog while Mr. Darcy stands outside.  She’d just be looking for a way to get the hell out of the party so she could go home, sit in the parlour with her father and listen to his wistful stories about a time before Mrs. Bennett.

My own mother read this book twice, out of admitted boredom.  She was apartment-sitting while we were on holiday and our TV went on the fritz; with nothing else around she wanted to read (seriously, Mom, there is a SHELF full of Stephen King; read those, they’re great!) she willingly read this book, that she had previously loaned me, again.  I don’t even know how, and I really don’t know why.  Is Stephen King really that bad?

Anyway, the only thing more boring than Confessions of a Jane Austen Addict is needlepoint, an activity Courtney/Jane spends a lot of time attending to, so I did this folksy, stitched manicure articulating my feelings on the matter.

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Literary Inspiration: Fat Vampire

Fat Vampire Collage

So read in service of my friends’ 2019 reading challenge for the theme of a coming-of-age tale – or in this case, the after-the-colon sub-title of “A Never Coming of Age Story.”

2010’s Fat Vampire, by Adam Rex, starts off strong and engagingly daffy.  When the book opens, 16-year-old Doug is really not living his very best life, beset on all sides by bad skin, weight gain, unpopularity and a new, deeply confusing state of vampirism – confusing because post-transformation, Doug is still just as overweight, unpopular and bedeviled by acne as he was before.  No “Sleep all day, party all night” for this vampire.  And the biggest bummer of all is that he’ll remain this way for eternity.

The first 50 or so pages of Fat Vampire had me guffawing out loud, shouting lines of dialogue out to Mr. Finger Candy with glee – “And then he gets punched by a panda!”  There was so much to giggle at in those opening pages, from Doug’s botched plan to feed off a celebrity panda at the San Diego Zoo (it really does result in him getting cold-cocked by Baby Shaun Shaun’s righteously pissed off mother) to his buddy Jay’s deer-in-the-headlights attempt at distraction at the blood bank he and Doug inelegantly attempt to rob (“WE DON’T HAVE ID,” said Jay, loudly.  “‘CAUSE WE’RE CANADIAN, WE DON’T USE ID.”  “What part of Canada you from, honey?”  “THE LEFT PART,” said Jay.”)

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Doug and Jay’s clumsy adventures in San Diego quickly catch the attention of smarmy cable TV producer Alan Friendly, who’s looking for proof irrefutable that vampires exist.  The future of his low budget program, Vampire Hunters, hinges on finding and investigating real vampire activity, and his sponsors have run out of patience with his zero-sum results.  Soon, Doug has a bunch of ratings-obsessed reality TV types on his tail, with no clue how to shake them.

After moving the action back to the boys’ suburb outside of Philadelphia, the book veers off into about seven different directions, none of them particularly coherent or funny or informative of the story as a whole.  Doug links up with a group of elder vampires and discovers that he’s far from the only student at his high school to be recently transformed, though no one knows who the vampire or vampiress might be.  The jocks are werewolves.  Which is a metaphor.  Until it’s not.  An Indian exchange student by the name of Sejal shows up and catches Doug’s eye.  Sejal shows him absolutely zero interest, and when she turns down his invitation to go on a one-on-one date, he bitterly accuses her of leading him on.  Sejal doesn’t care; she’s got her own problems to deal with, including shaking her former identity as a sufferer of “The Google,” a too-twee way of saying that back in India, she was a dick to other people online.  Jay bears the brunt of Doug’s not-so-gentle good humour, and other people begin to notice the one-sided nature of their friendship.

Somewhere in here Doug feeds off a sexy deer and turns into a raging asshole.  I missed the bit about how deer blood apparently suffuses you with sexy dickhead superpowers, but next thing you know, Doug’s skin has cleared up, the weight has come off and hey, he even has a girlfriend to abuse and ignore.  Sure, she’s albino pale, rail thin and seems to be suffering from an epic case of unexplained lethargy, but here’s finally the girl the world has promised guys like Doug.  Ah, Doug – the vampire incel hero you never knew you needed.  And he’s still a dick, except now he’s a full fledged vampire dick.

The Vampire Hunters stuff gets dealt with, sort of.  Chasing after Doug, Alan Friendly is involved in a huge car crash and is critically injured.  At the end of Fat Vampire you don’t know if he’s going to live or die – his story simply ends.  Ditto another very important character, who deserved so much more.  The book ends with a definitive conclusion undone by about a dozen what-ifs, all of them so much better than the actual ending.  It was a frustrating read, particularly after all the charm and wacky delight of the opening chapters.

Fat Vampire feels like two separate books slapped together, one filled with all the wit and awkward whimsy you’d expect from a story about an unpopular, underage vampire, and then another nastier little book about a mean and bitter man raging at a world that hasn’t given him what he feels by rights is his.  No wonder I didn’t enjoy it – don’t we have enough of that in the universe already?

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I do like these nails, though, which feature Baby Shaun Shaun, Jay’s Canadian maple leaf, Sejal’s ditched-at-the-airport pink suitcase with its heart-shaped luggage tag and my own befuddlement at the story.  Truth in nail art, yo.

Literary Inspiration: 11/22/63

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Kicking off the not-so-new year with another giant literary tome from Stephen King, master of the macabre, ninja of nostalgia and writer of the five-part non-ending.  I started reading 11/22/63 – “the one where he goes back in time and saves JFK” – at the end of 2018, but life events conspired to push its conclusion back into 2019, and so here we are, 800 some-odd (some very odd) pages later.  I gripe about King’s frequent inability to satisfactorily conclude his stories, but he’s my favourite author, and if he released an entire book of short stories written in binary code, I’d read that, too.  So a quiet little story about one man’s quest to alter the course of one very big event – with all the usual Kingsian complications in play – is riiiiiight in my literary wheelhouse.  Bring on the revisionist history!

But here’s the thing – for the daughter of a couple of hardcore Boomers, the kind of people who remember the day some combination of Lee Harvey Oswald, the CIA and a grassy knoll in Texas assassinated John F. Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States, I know precious little about the actual event itself.  Nor have I ever felt the need to rectify that particular gap in my knowledge of American politics; it’s a world so far removed from mine, I’ve never cared to seek out those details.

That’s clearly not the case with King, who devotes nearly 900 pages to the subject of JFK’s assassination.  Sort of.  11/22/63 is not really about JFK at all, and it’s only nominally about his violent, greatly disputed death.  What 11/22/63 is actually about is love.  And dancing.

Sock Hop 1

The mostly spoiler-free details, and how this very retro manicure fits into the grander scheme of things: 11/22/63 begins not in 1963, nor does it start in 1958, where the wormhole that makes this a time travel story exists.  It actually starts in 2011 – in Maine, naturally – with 35-year-old high school English teacher Jake Epping.  Fresh off a contentious divorce to a woman who loved alcohol – and other men – a lot more than him, and experiencing diminishing returns on his many years as an educator, Jake is well positioned for a major life change.  That that change would come in the form of multiple, increasingly complex jaunts into the past via a wormhole in a smelly diner pantry is most likely not the kind of change Jake was envisioning, but the Kingsian world works in odd ways.

After being shown this rip in the fabric of time by diner owner and amateur time traveler Al Templeton (made ever so less impressive because of its physical location, situated between a dirty mop bucket on one side and a stack of canned goods on the other) Jake is tasked with returning to 1958, where he will live as a regular man of the time until November 22nd, 1963, when he will travel to Texas, kill Lee Harvey Oswald, save President John F. Kennedy and spare millions from the brutal political fallout sparked by his assassination.  Al would do it himself were it not for the fact that he’s dying – time travel plays real hell on a person’s condition.

Al is adamant that, partisan concerns aside, JFK must be saved; Democrat, Republican, Sock Puppet, the global repercussions of his death are just too great.  But Jake, who has read enough science fiction in his day, has concerns regarding Al’s proposed scheme.  Assuming he completes his mission and doesn’t die right there in the 1960s, how is he to return to 2011?  And if he does find his way back to 2011, what will he be returning to?  The Butterfly Effect posits that the world will not be the same, cannot be the same, given such incredible intervention.  Al assures him that he’s been back and forth hundreds of times – often for just a few hours, but sometimes for much, much longer – and aside from a hell of case of lung cancer he picked up on his last, years long trip, the world itself seemed to suffer no ill effects.

To that effect, Jake asks how he could have seen Al the day prior, happily (and more importantly, healthily) manning the counter at his diner, pushing his suspiciously inexpensive Fat Burgers, only for him to now be (barely) standing before him, wracked with stage 4 lung cancer.  Al replies that time moves differently in the past, ticking off days upon months upon years in the then while mere moments pass in the now.  Shrugging off Jake’s continued enquiries as to how any of this can possibly be, does he not feel the least bit conflicted about the irrevocable damage he may be inflicting on both the past and the present, Al replies that it’s not as irrevocable as Jake would think – the wormhole employs a kind of reset function that wipes the slate clean in the past every time Al returns to the present.  So no harm, no foul to the people of the past, and Al can continue getting the meat for his Fat Burgers at 1958 prices.

Feeling like he doesn’t have much of a choice, and also wondering what the hell else he’s going to do with his life, Jake takes the bait and steps through into 1958.

With nothing but time on his hands between his arrival in 1958 and his date with Lee Harvey Oswald on the sixth floor of the Texas Book Depository in 1963, Jake tries to acclimate to the time, finding it relatively easy.  Seems he wasn’t a man built for the modern era after all.  Upon discovering that he has reservations about the hows and whys of his task – does he really have to kill Oswald?  Can he not just divert him from his chosen path? – Jake conducts a couple of test cases, and discovers what could be 11/22/63’s overriding theme – the past is obdurate and will resist all attempts at change.  Jake frequently, and bitterly, addresses the Al who has taken up residence in his head, accusing him of radically underselling the ease, or lack thereof, of altering the very course of time.

With years to go until his main mission, Jake sets out to learn everything he can about Oswald, tracking his movements as he and his family move from Russia to the United States, even going so far as to bug his home.  Justifiably uneasy with the thought of killing an innocent man – but not necessarily a good man; Oswald is a certifiable piece of shit – Jake’s looking for proof irrefutable that Oswald done it, or will do it.

Then, once again looking for a way to pass the time, Jake moves to a small town outside of Texas, where he finds his real purpose in the past – friends that are like family, a meaningful career as a respected educator and mentor, and love.  And it’s that love, forged on a small town gymnasium dance floor by two giddy teachers showing off their best Lindy Hops, that alters the course of Jake’s trajectory in the past, and whether his present is even something worth returning to.

In the interest of not giving away too much of what amounts to a simple story about a man finding love in the most unexpected of places and times, I won’t say much more.  But these nails are a representation of 11/22/63’s other theme, which is that dancing is everything.  I couldn’t think of anything more fitting than a manicure inspired by Jake and Sadie’s gleeful turn at the Hop.

Sock Hop 2

All in all, a very enjoyable read that had so much less to do with JFK than I thought possible for a book (nominally) about the assassination of said man.  Oh! and wonder of wonders, 11/22/63 has an ending, an actual, identifiable conclusion – and a satisfying one at that.  It was just a very sweet love story set within the more complex framework of time travel, and nicely showed off the softer side of our man Steve.  Aw, who knew King could get so warm and fuzzy?

By the by, I read this book in service of my blogging friends’ Jay and Julie’s 2019 reading challenge for the twelfth theme of “Shallowness: pick a book based on its spine appearance alone” because all 11/22/63 has its spine. 🙂

The Challenger

books collage

Hey, so would you look at that – I once again biffed my friends’ annual reading challenge, working through a measly 12 books!  I very nearly made it to 13, but Christmas came, and the time for leisurely reading fell by the wayside.  So 12 it is.  Sorry Julie, sorry Jay, I’ll try, try again in 2019 with your next, just-announced reading challenge.  Maybe next year I’ll get to 14!

But it’s not a numbers game, and it’s important to value quality over quantity, and some other trite expression that’s not coming to mind right now, but I did read a number of excellent novels this year, including The Night Circus, which was a beautiful, dreamy revelation; easily one of my favourite books of all time.  Too Big to Fail was another bright spot; I was proud to have tackled a book about such a dense, weighty and frequently boring subject matter as the American financial system.  I’ll Have What She’s Having was probably the most pointless of all the books I read this year; a humour novel without the humour is a puzzling animal, indeed.

Below you’ll find all of the books I read this year and the matching, inspired-by manicures I did for each one.  If you click on the titles, a link will take you to my thoughts and reviews of each book, plus lots of pics of all that nail art.  Once again, The Night Circus was the big winner here, its sumptuous, Victorian-esque carnival atmosphere providing ample inspiration for five different manicures, although I’m really quite partial to the gothic lettering of those Petunia (of Stephen King’s Christine fame) nails.

The Burning World Collage

The Burning World by Isaac Marion – Another Warm Bodies novel, this one a sequel to the first Romeo and Juliet zombie romance, this entry suffers from having to act as a bridge between that novel and a third, planned book to be released later on this year.  It’s a big exposition dump, and much of the bedrock on which Warm Bodies – a gentle, thoughtful novel about the downfall of humanity – is based is blown viciously asunder (presumably so it can be pieced back together in the final novel, but dang if some of those new revelations don’t smart extra hard; now I know how old school Star Wars fans felt during the overlording of George Lucas.) 😉 I read this book for week 26’s challenge theme of “A book title that sounds like the cool name of a band.”

I Open at the Close Collage

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling – Hey now, another thing to be proud of in this reading challenge – I FINALLY finished the Harry Potter series!  Just 15 or so years off the pace, no big.  I read this novel for week three’s theme of “The next one in a series.”

451 Collage

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – I burnt the edge of a page of one of TWO forewords to this novel and applied the singed bits to my nails.  I think I might have missed the point of this book.  I read Fahrenheit 451 for week 11’s theme of a banned book – it doesn’t get more banned than being torched with gigantic kerosene fascism hoses, now does it?

Handmaid's Tale Collage

The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood – Not the most uplifting of stories, but so beautifully written.  I was just in awe of Atwood’s writing.  I re-read this novel for week 30’s prompt of “a book picked up in a thrift shop.”  I got this copy of The Handmaid’s Tale from the university bookstore in second year, and there’s nothing thriftier than an English student trying to stretch their book budget.

I'll Have Collage

I’ll Have What She’s Having by Rebecca Harrington – I’ve had this little humour novel sitting on my bookshelf for years, and I finally got around to reading it this year for week nine’s theme of a book from your to-be-read pile.  I think there’s a lot of good comedy to be mined from mimicking the wacky diets of image-obsessed celebrities, but this slight book was less observational humour and more straight up observation.  So Karl Lagerfeld is a (self-described) grumpy bastard.  That’s most likely because he starves himself stupid and consumes nothing but Diet Coke.  We’d all be grumpy bastards, too – this is practically a given.  So wither the funny?  Ultimately, there was not much humour here, just tepid commentary on predictable outcomes.  Cute cover art, though.

Bazaar of Bad Dreams Collage

The Bazaar of Bad Dreams by Stephen King – Every ’80s kid’s favourite author is getting old, and he’s super worried about the real world things that go bump in the night.  I read this zippy anthology of short stories for week eight’s theme of “A collection of short stories.”

Gawain Collage

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight by anonymous, edited by W.S. Merwin – A 14th Century epic poem – both in its original Middle English and translated forms – for week 23’s challenge theme of “An epic tale.”  Go medieval or go home, right?

The Night Circus Collage 1

The Night Circus 8

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern – Oh my goodness, I adored this book!  It was utterly enchanting – appropriate given that it’s a tale about star-crossed magicians plying their trade at a mysterious, after hours Victorian carnival.  This was a very gratifying read; I actually sighed with contentment as I closed the back cover for the final time.  I read The Night Circus in service of week 28’s theme of “a work by a debuted author.”

Christine Collage

Christine by Stephen King – I continued filling in the gaps in my Stephen King education this year by reading Christine, one of his earliest works.  It was appropriately unnerving and gory in all the right places, but absent the killer car, I was struck by the simple human heartbreak that formed the core of Christine, which was just your average, emotionally deadlocked family trying – and failing – to grapple with shifting family dynamics.  Whilst being hunted down and murdered by a sentient – and very vengeful – 1958 Plymouth Fury.  As you do.  I read Christine, a book I nabbed from my condo’s community bookshelves, in service of week 15’s theme of “A book from the library.”

Too Big Collage

Too Big to Fail by Andrew Ross Sorkin – I hate these nails (too heavy-handed, and the lighting is crap) but improbably, I really loved this book, which I read for week 14’s theme of “non-fiction to tickle the brain cells.”  More like set my brain cells on fire – I spent a lot of time shouting out various aghast “OMG, did you know”s to Mr. Finger Candy as I stomped about the house, raging at the inequalities of the global financial system.

Blue Shoes Collage 2

Blue Shoes and Happiness by Alexander McCall Smith – After the M.C. Escher-esque financial mindf**k that was Too Big to Fail, I was in need of a literary palette cleanser, which I found in Blue Shoes and Happiness.  My mom loaned me this gentle little book from the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency Series, a favourite of hers set in rural Botswana.  I read this book for week 27’s theme of “A book that was gifted to you.”

Small Spaces Collage

Small Spaces by Katherine Arden – Jay of The Scented Library gave me this spooky little book, ensuring that I’d absolutely hit week four’s theme of “a purple hued tome.”  Also that I’d be thoroughly, delightfully creeped out, and also get some great nail art inspiration out of the bargain.