Thursday, September 24, 2015

Pretty Girls by Karin Slaughter (fiction)

Years ago I was obsessed with more general titles of mass fiction, particularly crime and detective novels. I didn't realize there was better reading to be found.  I admit that Jeffrey Deaver and Patricia Cornwell were favorites.  And while there is nothing wrong with mass market fiction, it quickly felt stale.  Most of these authors also tried to up the shock value within each book in what inevitably was made into a series.  With life being hard, I realized I didn’t want to read such depressing and at times depraved reading.  That’s when I focused on lesser known authors and titles, with a draw towards translated fiction.

However, recently I was sent an ARC of Pretty Girls, a book that promised a deep mystery about a serial killer. I don’t know why, but I fell for it. One lazy afternoon, I curled up with it.  At first, the premise was intriguing.  A father of a missing daughter is writing a long letter to her, to let her know what she missed while absent. Not knowing whether she was dead or alive, he persisted.  From that we see the rest of the family and how they reacted to the loss. Two remaining daughters go in different directions, forever marked from the loss and the constant wondering about her whereabouts.

The sisters, Claire and Lydia, are as different as possible. One tough and able, moving forward despite addiction issues and violence.  The other, simply checking out of life to let her amazing husband make all decisions for her and spending her time as a socialite. Both women still seethe with rage but keep it hidden.

Now, stop if you are wary of spoilers. I won’t be too specific, but I will try and explain why this is one of the most appalling books I’ve ever read. Instead of giving up, I had to continue reading to see if it was truly as awful as I imagined.  It was.

After Claire’s husband dies, her life unravels quickly, and it’s discovered that her husband was not as he seemed.  She handles this by falling apart, finally reaching out to her distant sister Lydia (found urinating on his grave) to help her figure out what to do. From here the novel dissolves into a violence-soaked whodunit wherein both sisters fight and argue while at the same time trying to solve the problem and see if they can find their lost sister too.  Improbability becomes the underlying theme.

Claire is an especially bizarre character: smart but without a shred of emotion (except tennis-invoked rage).  She’s benign and boring, and her existence is pinned to her outrageous beauty. She’s unsympathetic and spoiled. Her beauty is mentioned endlessly, as Lydia's chubby body is as well.  I'll get back to this, it's important!

What ensues next is an urgently-paced effort to find the killer, one who rapes women with machetes and uses waterboarding with his own urine as torture.  Yes, you read that right.  Branding, dismembering, burning skin: ho hum. It becomes so common, in nearly every page, that one stops being shocked.  And that’s what disturbed me the most.  I felt sick, like I was contributing to such violence just by reading this.  Was it giving potential serial killers ideas?  Was this misogyny intended to make us reflect on the 'wonderfu'l sisterhood that tries to rid the planet of the monster? Or reflect simply on horrifying images?

Did the female author find it necessary to use this to fuel our interest?  To show that women are most often the victims of violent crime? Maybe she had a message, but it’s lost in the violence itself.
One thing especially stood out: nearly all the women in the story face such brutality. They are graphically described by their body parts, what happens to them, and inventive ways to torture them. They are literally in pieces.  Unlike anything you think you’ve seen on Forensic Files or any number of horror films. And they are categorized with generic labels: either beautiful, or fat, or well-dressed, or frumpy, or rich, or poor. No further explanation or revelation. Labels.  From a female author, that was a surprise.

And yet, the men. The men in the story remain fully functional.  Their bodies are not chipped away at. They are not described in such helpless positions with no way of escape.  They remain whole, despite a literally countless women hanging from cattle hooks, disemboweled, and violated.  In fact, the only real comment the author makes about the men in the novel is her strange obsession with their mustaches, commenting significantly on every single one.  The men are also not given superficial labels.

Of course, this “mystery” is of the “no one can be trusted” variety and yet very little makes it where you care. As it appears, beyond the suspension of disbelief,  everyone is a criminal.  It’s too vast a conspiracy with little explanation for how it began.  Events in the first part are never tied to latter parts. Motive is what appears to be lacking.

The author then tries to solve it and tie it up in a few last improbable chapters that are actually laughable.  The sisters try and save each in other in a last ditch effort at unity but are so dazzlingly na├»ve that you want to smack them yourself. It was a tiny bit refreshing that the problem is solved by two women rather than the inevitable bored male detective who usually comes in to save the day. But that's not enough to salvage this gory mess.

And of course, everyone lives happily ever after.

I’m off mystery novels like this now for a good long time, if not forever.  A violent world surrounds us, so sinking into this sewer of ugliness is not going to make anyone feel good. Except perhaps a serial killer who is bored and looking to up his game  (for which this may serve as a "how to" manual).  It’s that awful.  I don’t know how popular this author is, probably very, but in my small little voice I have to say what she’s written is as disturbing and hateful and as misogynistic as anyone could be accused of being.  She’s not done a service for women by creating characters that solve crime and empowering them. Instead,, she’s created women that are eternal victims, who even in their victory are disappointing and weak.  That itself is a crime.  

The author's last name? Slaughter.  Go figure that one out.  If it's a pseudonym, I can't imagine a more apt one.

Thanks, but no thanks, to Century Publishers for the Review Copy.

This novel releases September 29, 2015.

If you are in fact desirous of some good suspense novels that aren't this gory, I'd recommend a look at The Devotion of Suspect X by Higashino, any of the Benjamin Black "Quirke" series, Klausen by Maier, The News Where You Are by O'Flynn, or any of the other titles listed under the Fiction tab above, or leave a comment if you wish.

Monday, September 14, 2015

Super Better by Jane McGonigal (game theory, games for mental and physical improvement)

Originally published in the New York Journal of Books, September 14, 2015. 
 Releases September 15, 2015.

Super Better: A Revolutionary Approach to Getting Stronger, Happier, Braver and More Resilient—Powered by the Science of Games by Jane McGonigal

By Amy Henry

Jane McGonigal has been acclaimed for decades for her theories in gaming and the value of games in relation to positive psychology and problem solving; however, it wasn’t until 2009, when she suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI) that she created the concept of Super Better.

Super Better is a very personal method of transforming the depression and anxiety related to injury into a successful mode for coping and actually getting better.
She goes from plain Jane to “Jane the Concussion Slayer,” a new identity used as “a way to start feeling heroic and determined instead of hopeless.” Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is examined in detail throughout the book, as she shows that there is a positive component, an alternative, called post-traumatic growth. In this she seeks to show how one can not only recover from TBI but also become better than ever before for the experience.

Her core strategy, or the rules of the SuperBetter game, are seven touchstones for each player to achieve. They are achieved simultaneously, not as individual steps. She does encourage one to start with the simplest, but ultimately wants her readers to focus on interacting with all seven features of the program. The first is “Challenge yourself,” and this is the most dramatic of the set: many injured or depressed people don’t feel up to another challenge than the one they are already battling. Instead, she shows how challenge is possible, necessary, and rewarding.

She starts with quests, some so simple as to seem silly; however, willingness to try these simple tasks is a way of opening up the mind to new achievements. And it’s the mind that controls much of the pain experiences and anxiety issues that trouble the entire person.

The book is filled with anecdotal evidence as well as serious scholarly references. For example, she discusses burn patients, who suffer excruciating pain when their wounds are cleansed. Yet a virtual reality game, set in a snow filled environment, was given to some patients to play during the process. Their focus on the game and the impression of the snow enabled a reduction in pain so great that some didn’t realize their wounds were being cleaned while they played. Why does it work? The mind was intensely distracted, and the benefits were enormous:

“In order to prevent pain signals from turning into a conscious awareness of pain, patients need to swing their spotlight of attention somewhere else—and keep it there.”

In this, it’s cognitive focus that provides the needed distraction to focus pain somewhere else. And much of this is as simple as playing a game of Tetris. Tetris, the old-school video game, employs a simple but fast paced strategy of matching tiles in specific ways. Created in 1984, it still commands huge benefits when one is discussing cognitive focus. More traditional games like Scrabble, crosswords, or puzzles simply don’t offer the speed and required attention to become sufficiently distracted. So McGonigal encourages readers to focus on digital games with color and speed to divert attention.

Some of the applications of such gaming benefits are still evolving to be used for maximum benefit. In one case, Oxford scientists found that people exposed to a horrific situation that would likely result in them suffering PTSD could alter that eventuality by playing Tetris within six hours of seeing or being involved in the triggering situation. 

Fascinating, yes. But in real life how does one predict a situation of such staggering proportions? And then, how would one possibly be able to ensure a Tetris game would be on hand? Further, would a victim even be willing (or able) to dispel their shock and pick up a video game? The benefits are intriguing, but the application is still impractical.

McGonigal also addresses the many stories in the media about how bad video games are and how they distance people from real life. She clarifies this by asking why people are playing these games for hours:

“If you typically play games to escape your real life—that is, to ignore your problems, to block unpleasant emotions, or to avoid confronting stressful situations—you will have a very difficult time translating your game skills to real life.”

Yes, gaming to escape is not beneficial. But if one is choosing to “play with purpose” as a form of quality family time, or to learn a new skill, or to relax after a rough day, then gaming can be a positive force. Viable applications are discussed throughout, mostly in cases of pain management. And specific Challenges, such as the Ninja Challenge, can aid any person in altering their minds, bodies, and relationships.

While McGonigal starts with her personal recovery story, she completes the book with a positive scope that widens out the possibility of anyone becoming SuperBetter via her tactics.

Special thanks to Penguin Press
 and Elizabeth Calamari for the Advance Review Copy.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

This is Your Life, Harriet Chance! by Jonathan Evison (fiction)

Originally posted in the New York Journal of Books, September 10, 2015

This is Your Life was a popular television show in the 1960s and 1970s, an early reality show that delighted many audiences. Each episode introduced an unsuspecting guest to their past through previous friends, coworkers, and acquaintances. But who is it who decided which people were important or at least significant in our lives?
It’s with this format that Jonathan Evison examines the life story of an elderly widow in This is Your Life, Harriet Chance. Starting at age zero up to seventy-eight, we see the truth and consequences of Harriet’s tumultuous life. As Evison speaks to his protagonist directly, he reminds her that life is like “a pinball, pitching and careening, rebounding off anything it makes contact with.” Harriet is going to be forced to examine past choices that make up her identity and discover what she thought was an option was never even a choice.
As the story begins, Harriet is ambivalent about taking an unexpected cruise to Alaska, a gift from her late husband. His ghost visits her, making her children believe she’s losing her mind. They try to ban her from taking the trip, but she’s determined to go, even if it means going alone. While the random appearances of her late husband continues onboard, as if he’s trying to tell her something, all she’s getting are memories of how unpleasant he was, leaving her to wonder why she misses him so much in the first place.
Bernard is a blue-collar worker who catches Harriet’s eye, despite her being a society girl. It seems muscles can say more than trust funds. They marry quickly, and soon two children join them. The years slip by with Harriet increasingly conscious of how much she gave up for that idealized nuclear family. Then there’s the fact that after the initial thrill of Bernard’s manly persona fades, she’s left with a cranky old man:
“Conversing with Bernard reminds you of talking to your golden retriever. . . . A tilt of the head, a wag of a tail, a snarl—it’s about all you can reasonably expect.”
With these details, Evison takes Harriet back and forth through flashbacks that reveal how modern she was for her time, and how events from the past shape her beyond what she’s willing to admit. At age twenty-five, he asks her:
“Have you released your independence at long last? Have you finally stopped tracking the progress of that other incarnation of yourself. . . . Or have you simply lowered your standards?”
Ouch. Is that what is troubling her, that other self that may have taken a different and better course? One that wouldn’t involve changing her husband’s diapers or watching her daughter steal from her purse? Was there ever a choice?
Before the ship has left the dock, Harriet gets the shock of her life, and it’s not just her dead husband climbing over the railing. She’s shaken by a sudden revelation that knocks her flat, and coping with that can only involve a great deal of wine. Suddenly, Harriet isn’t exactly who she seemed just pages earlier.
Evison teases out the details by flashbacks, reminding Harriet directly that maybe she is not the only one with disappointments. This changeup sets the tone for her cruise off kilter, and she finds it difficult to recover. It doesn’t help that a sudden visitor joins her for the remainder of the trip. The pinball flippers are snapping wildly now. Her future has become a game of chance, and one can only hope Harriet doesn’t end up down the drain or tilting out.
The novel itself is intriguing. Of the frequent flashbacks, Evison handles these well, portraying a lifetime in relatively few chapters. And he shines at describing the awkward moments of life, the minutiae that can trouble us—fat ankles, visits to rest homes, the nature of boxed wine—and shows how these reveal more about us than any autobiography. He suggests our identity isn’t made of grand gestures but how we handle the irritating little things in our life when no one is looking.
The way Evison (the author) handles the direct observations and questioning of Harriet (his character) at the beginning seems fresh and innovative, but becomes a bit tiresome after many chapters. Sometimes the way he speaks to her is annoying:
“Ring-a-ding-ding, it’s your thirtieth birthday, Harriet Chance, let the party begin!”  
“So c’mon, birthday girl, turn that frown upside down, and start counting your blessings!”
Another troublesome part of the novel is Bernard’s visits to his after-life handler. Is this heaven? Hell? Maybe it’s purgatory. In any case, Bernard is in trouble for contacting Harriet. But the purpose of these interruptions are never really clear.
author Jonathan Evison
That said, the questions Harriet faces are universal and all the more compelling for this reason. Would knowing the outcome of our potential life choices make life happier? Or would we be immobilized with hesitation? Do choices really exist? As in his previous novel, The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving, Evison demonstrates a gift for dissecting past and present, and revealing the hope we all have not just to win, but to stay in the game.
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Released 9/8/15 from Algonquin Books.
Review copy provided by the New York Journal of Books.
Special thanks to Brooke Czuka at Algonquin Books.