Sunday, May 25, 2014

The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks

This book is not approved by animals
I'm very fond of my old brass alarm clock. Once I tied a wasp to the striking-surface of each of the copper-coloured bells on the top, where the little hammer would hit them in the morning when the alarm went off.
I always wake up before the alarm goes, so I got to watch.

Because I brought this up in my 10 Favorite Books post and then saw it for mere five dollars at Elliot Bay Bookstore, I had to reread this monster.

I was interested in seeing whether it was still as disturbing to me as it was when I first read it over a decade ago: I had watched a lot of horror movies as a kid and read a large portion of Stephen King's catalog by the end of my teens, but nothing had quite prepared me for the nausea and terror when I read The Wasp Factory. It is true: I did have to put it down every few pages to read some Hitchhiker's Galaxy to remind myself that happy thoughts still existed in this world. I had completely forgotten how short this book was because in my memories it took me way longer to finish it; it was just all the breaks I had to take and how intense this book is. The paperback version I have now is mere 184 pages.

This time I read The Wasp Factory in two days during commutes. Apparently it had made me such an impression that the reading experience was barely any different than ten years ago: I wasn't quite as disturbed because I already knew everything, but it didn't make reading the story much easier. This time, though, I didn't not need Douglas Adams as my crutch.

I'm partial to Banks's writing style, and even in this horrifying story he's in his element with descriptions that are surprisingly vivid in their brevity without ever going for the clichés. It's actually quite amazing how he can write so well about things so deplorable, which is probably why I like this book so much: there's such craft involved in knowing what is truly unsettling to people without resorting to a gorge fest. There is hardly any blood in this story.

The Wasp Factory is the story of Frank, a teenager living in a remote island off Scotland with his father. Right off the bat we know he's not quite there: his everyday life is filled with superstitious rituals that usually involve slaughtering small wild animals in order to foretell the future. When he finds out that his older brother Chris has broken out of a sanitarium and is on his way back to the family in a wake of burning buildings and dogs he must consult the dead beings. While Frank waits for his brother's arrival he tells us about all the murder and mayhem surrounding his family; a paint-by-numbers picture that is slowly filled in before our eyes, making us understand faster than Frank himself does the reasons for his actions.

Just pick up this book if you are intrigued; do not read anything about it because it's one of those books where your reading experience will be ruined if you know all the plot twists. There are moments in the story that now, upon second reading, I should have really seen coming from the deliciously placed foreshadowing elements, but then again... the story is so enthralling in its grossness and weirdness that I would have needed not to be completely taken by it to coolly analyze its content while reading. And that would not have been fun. Just let this book happen to you. That is, if you like to be horrified every now and then.

Monday, May 19, 2014

Hyperbole & A Half. Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened by Allie Brosh

Once upon a time, someone linked me to a web comic/blog about Allie wondering whether her sweet, sweet dog was actually mentally challenged. I was immediately hooked with Hyperbole and A Half, Allie's blog. Although her drawings are definitely on the simple side, she manages to capture expressions and body language perfectly. In that dog story, the Simple Dog's confusion in trying to understand Allie's IQ tests is palpable in just a few strokes. You may also know Allie from this one image from her web comic that quickly became popular on the intarwebz.

Then, Hyperbole and A Half stopped updating, causing concern among the readers. A lot later, Allie came back with a new comic, which was part one of how she was battling with depression. It was scary: this person who was so damned funny was suffering, and we didn't know!

Adventures in Depression and Depression Part 2 are amazing: Allie explains with humor and insight what being depressed feels like, and why someone telling you to take up yoga to cheer yourself up won't work. One comparison that stuck with me was her cartoon self holding dead fish as a metaphor to her feelings, trying to tell people they are dead; instead of knowing what to do with this information, people would try to help Allie look for her fish (they're not lost--they're dead!), or they'd suggest that Allie try feeding them (too late--they're dead!), or take bees as pets instead (how does that help with the dead fish?). If anyone needs to explain depression to others, this should be used as reference material.

You can read her for free online, so why buy this book? For me it was a no-brainer: Allie Brosh has delighted my everyday for so long that I will be happy to support her in the hopes that she'll keep on writing and drawing. It's selfish of me, I know.

Also, the book contains the hilarious story "Parrot," which I either had managed to skip online or it just does not exist anywhere else. In it, Allie and her sister are given a toy parrot that repeats words back to them, which is probably the stupidest gift to give children (unless, as Allie suspects, the gift came from someone who hated her parents). The kids begin to terrorize the household with this toy robot immediately. Just the way that robot parrot is drawn, expressionless, recording gurgling sounds from the garbage disposal in the sink had me in stitches. The cheer-ups this book provides are worth the price.

Friday, May 9, 2014

Random Acts of Senseless Violence by Jack Womack
Light vacation reading by the pool! Vacation was a month ago, deadlines have since taken my typing life over, but better late than never, right?

Random Acts of Senseless Violence is a fictional diary written by Lola, a 12-year-old girl in a sometime-near-future New York. She writes about her posh private school, her concerns when her teacher and screenwriter parents aren't getting enough work, nonchalantly mention the city burning and presidents being assassinated, one after the other. Civil unrest and the consequent police and army response are closing in on the family's apartment while Lola's little sister becomes slowly unresponsive, and both parents battle with their own demons.

Because Lola is twelve, she does not get into the political and economic reasons why the country is burning and terrorized, and why her aunt begs her mother to let the kids join her in her gated community for safety--it's all left for the reader's imagination, which makes it all the more horrifying. The more Lola needs to spend her daily energy on mere survival, the more her writing style deteriorates into street slang, devoid of prescriptivist punctuation rules. She slowly becomes the young people she and all the friends she once had used to loathe.

With all of its disturbing violence and unsettling feel of dread, RASV is a remarkable teacher of empathy. Which is, quite honestly, why I like a lot of science fiction: the stories remove us from our reality, make us read about people and their plight and understand where they are coming from, only to realize that we have in fact been reading about our neighbors all along. Although the novel cannot conclusively explain why people engage in seemingly random acts of senseless violence, we learn about a scenario or two where this could happen: when people need to protect their loved ones; when people are oppressed enough. It is only us, watching it all unfold from our high castles, who think it is random and senseless.