The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold.

(Yes, this is another reread, but what can I say?)

the-lovely-bones.jpgWhen The Lovely Bones came out in 2002, I was amongst the many who couldn’t put it down until the last line was read. And then… I didn’t touch it again until Keith and I were about to move to our new house; I packed it into a box, along with other items I then gave away. A few months ago, however, Keith came home with a battered copy, and I couldn’t help myself. Just as when I read it almost six years ago, I finished it over the course of something like two days. But did the novel still hold up?

Surprisingly, I think yes, but only with a grain of salt.

I’m not giving anything away with the following synopsis: The Lovely Bones is the story of fourteen-year-old Pennsylvanian Susie Salmon, who, in the winter of 1973, is raped and murdered by a neighbor. Afterwards, he literally breaks down her body into parts for disposal, while Susie’s understandably-traumatized soul shoots up to heaven. From that vantage point, Susie watches her family and schoolmates cope with her sudden and violent death — the evidence of which relies mainly upon a pompom-ed winter hat and the only found remains, an elbow.

Consider me disgusting for feeling this way, but including this incredibly evocative detail is brilliance on Sebold’s part. However, profoundly resonant details do not a novel make. Luckily, Sebold also has the narrative to rely upon; by killing Susie, she does something quite incredible: she gives us a protagonist who tells her story in both the first- and third-person omniscient.

While I remain to this day thoroughly impressed with the concept, I can’t help but wonder: is this gimmicky? Keith, of course, put it best when he said to me, “If it is a mechanism that is driving the story — instead of the story driving the mechanism — then it is a gimmick.”

So. Would the story hold up without Susie narrating from The Great Beyond, without her new-found insight regarding her family’s ongoing lives? I can’t help but think that it would not, though I do firmly believe that Sebold’s narrative choice is a gimmick of the most elegant design. Think about it: an audience attends a magic show knowing it is going to be mystified and bamboozled, after all.

Regardless of all that — and disregarding the novel’s crescendo failing to ring nearly as clearly as I’d like — the fact remains that there is undeniable strength in Sebold’s writing. The below excerpt got me the both times I read The Lovely Bones, and again when I impatiently flipped through its pages to type it here. In it, Susie describes the family dog, who has suddenly appeared in heaven, meaning of course, that he has died.

…I saw him: Holiday, racing past a fluffy white Samoyed. He had lived to a ripe old age on Earth and slept at my father’s feet after my mother had left, never wanting to let him out of his sight. He had stood with Buckley while he built his fort and had been the only one permitted on the porch while Lindsey and Samuel kissed. And in the past few years of his life, every Sunday morning, Grandma Lynn had made him a skillet-sized peanut butter pancake, which she would place flat on the floor, never tiring of watching him try to pick it up with his snout.

I waited for him to sniff me out, anxious to know if here, on the other side, I would still be the little girl he had slept beside. I did not have to wait long: he was so happy to see me, he knocked me down.

I should mention that, without fail, I get embarrassingly teary-eyed whenever a dog dies, even if I know that it is fiction. I’m a sucker that way. Still, the writing remains true. In this portion, at the very least.

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro.

This was yet another reread for me; over time you’ll see how frequently I tend to revisit the books I really love. I was inspired to give this another go because I had just watched the film for the first time last week, and wanted to research its level of accuracy as compared to the novel (rating: very accurate indeed!). Also, this past fall I read another novel by Ishiguro which I found to be so terribly disappointing; I wanted to restore my faith in him as a novelist. The Remains of the Day did just that, and thank god.

The writing is just as absorbing and engrossing as I remembered, and the book as a whole was infinitely sadder. This opinion may have something to do with the fact that I first read the novel on a sunny beach in Florida, which is very weird — The Remains of the Day is not a beachy sort of book at all. I think it’s easy to read, as all beach-type books should be, but its plot is not particularly fluffy or fun the way most beach books are. Then again, the idea of pigeonholing books into categories of where they should or should not be read seems entirely ridiculous. (Also ridiculous: the word pigeonhole.)

Something I truly enjoyed about this novel was the way Ishiguro plays around with the concept of narrator and of reliability, as well as the concept of perspective. Because Stevens is so wholly enmeshed in his role as a butler, he is in prime position to describe the minutiae of his profession. That said, Stevens is also completely incapable of seeing past that, though Ishiguro doesn’t prevent this from letting the reader catch glimpses of the circumstances taking place around his protagonist. I’ve always thought that this idea of an intradiegetic narrator is most deftly described by Arthur Golden’s Sayuri in Memoirs of a Geisha:

Autobiography, if there really is such a thing, is like asking a rabbit to tell us what he looks like hopping through the grasses of the field. How would he know? If we want to hear about the field, on the other hand, no one is in a better circumstance to tell us — so long as we keep in mind that we are missing all those things the rabbit was in no position to observe.

We can discern events and emotions, though we can’t bank on Stevens to be the one to inform us of them. That’s Ishiguro’s big gift here: acknowledging the intelligence of the reader. That, and the pure beauty of the writing.

Candyfreak: A Journey Through the Chocolate Underbelly of America by Steve Almond

candyfreak.jpgI’ve got a terrible sweet tooth, so how could I possibly not enjoy a book dedicated to candy — particularly when the candy in question is predominantly chocolate? Not only that, but to discover that the author, one of my favorite writing instructors, is a candy-lover too? And not just a candy-lover, but the big kahuna of candy-lovers? (What is a kahuna? Why do we use this phrase?)

Candyfreak was published in 2004, and I was so taken with its honesty and humor that I recommended it to everyone I knew. Afterward I put it on a bookshelf and kind of forgot about it. (Sorry, Steve.) Then, earlier this month, I read a food writing anthology that featured a passage from Candyfreak that not only had I always liked, but also highlighted one of my favorite chocolate companies of all time. Now, I was having some avoidance issues with a few other books at the time, so I rooted through my stacks in search of it and hunkered down.

I’m excited to report that Candyfreak is just as involving a read the second time around. Even though I knew it was coming, I still snickered gleefully at the following:

Here is a catalogue of all the candy in my apartment as of right now, 3:21 pm, October 6, 2003:

  • 2 lbs miniature Clark Bars
  • 1.5 lbs dark chocolate-covered mint patties
  • 24 bite-size peanut butter cups
  • 1 lb Tootsie Roll Midgets
  • Four ounces of Altoids-like cinnamon discs
  • Six ounces cherry-flavored jellies (think budget Jujy Fruits)
  • A single gold-foiled milk chocolate ball with mysterious butter truffle-type filling
  • Two squares of Valrhona semi-sweet chocolate (on my bedside table)
  • Three pieces Fleer bubblegum

I am not counting the fourteen boxes of Kit Kat Limited Edition Dark, which I have stored in an undisclosed warehouse location, nor whatever candy I might have stashed, squirrel-like, in obscure drawers.

I’ve got to say, Steve’s apartment at 3:21 pm, October 6, 2003 sounds incredibly like my own personal Barbie Dream House. Minus the Tootsie Rolls. I’ve never been fond of those.

Title notwithstanding, Candyfreak is about more than just confectionery items, chocolates and nonpareils. There’s also more to it than the history of Big Hunks, Peanut Chews and Twin Bings. It’s about Steve — his ties to the past and his hopes for the future. Candy just happens to be the thing that holds it all together.