The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson

"You see why I had to killer her, I recon. Or do you? It went like this..."

This is the first book I have read that is classified as "noir" and I didn't know what to expect. The Killer Inside Me falls under the roman noir genre, translated as "black novel". Functioning sociopath: check. Cheap woman: check. Unassuming victims: check. The Killer Inside Me is the first person account of a man conflicted between the person he thinks he should be and the killer he actually is. On the surface Lou Ford is a good-natured sherrif in small-town Texas. He speaks in cliches and says things like "gee wiz" and "oh gholly". He is a little dull and overall, quite forgettable. But underneath this facade he is an intelligent, cunning man who his hiding a dark past and doing his best to suppress his malicious tenancies. When we meet Deputy Lou Ford he seems as normal as any other small-town cop, but as his inner psyche slowly unfolds it becomes apparent that there is something very off. What ensues is a raw and somewhat obscene account of a string of murders where the innocent are repeatedly pegged as the perpetrator.
Hell you’ve probably seen me if you’ve ever been out this way – I’ve stood like that, looking nice and friendly and stupid, like I wouldn’t piss if my pants were on fire. And all the time I’m laughing myself sick inside. Just watching the people.
As far as narrators go, Lou Ford is a memorable one. He is well-crafted; we follow Lou as he struggles with his sickness until he eventually gives in to it completely. The reader isn't aware of the extent of his sickness until about half-way through the novel, when we realize he is only murdering people for the simple pleasure of it, fueling the killer inside of him. Upon it's publication in 1952, I can only imagine what a stir this book caused. Even though it has probably lost some of it's original shock value, I still consider it to be a sharply lurid account of the inside of a killer's mind, exposing the concerning oddities of humanity itself.
How can a man ever really know anything? We’re living in a funny world, kid, a peculiar civilization. The police are playing crooks in it, and the crooks are doing police duty. The politicians are preachers, and the preachers are politicians. The tax collectors collect for themselves. The Bad People want us to have more dough, and the Good People are fighting to keep it from us. It’s not good for us, know what I mean? If we all had all we wanted to eat, we’d crap too much. We’d have inflation in the toilet paper industry. That’s the way I understand it.
The unraveling of Lou's sickness was for me, the most interesting aspect of the novel. Overall I enjoyed the book, but there were parts that fell a little flat for me. With simple prose, I felt it was too straight-forward at times, as if the author didn't trust his readers to read between the lines. Of course this one isn't for the faint of heart, but the descriptions of the killings were among my favorite parts of the novel. They were suspenseful and interesting, without being overdone. Now that I have a better idea of what to expect from noir fiction, I hope to discover more new-to-me authors that can deliver.

Publisher: Orion, 1952


A Reading with Jeffrey Eugenides

Photo from the Boswell Books Blog*

I enjoyed a beautiful Sunday afternoon at Boswell Books yesterday for a reading with Jeffrey Eugenides. You guys all know that I'm a big fan of his work and when I heard he was coming to Milwaukee to do a reading I immediately marked my calendar and made sure to keep the entire day open. The reading was scheduled at noon, so the night before the reading I took it easy and went to bed early, knowing I would want to get there early and get a good seat. (I sat just behind the tan leather couch pictured to the right, above.)

I couldn't have been more pleased with the reading. Eugenides chose two passages to read, one that lasted about 15 minutes, and another that lasted about three. The first detailed Madeline's less-than-ideal love life in college, and the other discussed the idea of the ever-evolving art student. It was truly wonderful to hear Eugenides read his own work; his clever wit is even more amplified when he reads his passages himself. After the reading he took questions from the audience. It's no surprise that Eugenides humor transcends his writing, as even his responses to most questions had the audience laughing. A few things I learned about Jeffrey Eugenides yesterday:
  • He teaches a creative writing class at Princeton every Wednesday. His wife swears he comes back home with more energy on Wednesday evenings after his "brush with youth."
  • Eugenides has been working on a short story collection that is almost finished. He confirmed that we will not have to wait another nine years for it to come out. Yay!
  • When asked if it was intentional that the theme of pollution, both metaphorically and symbolically, permeated his works, he stated, "Well, I grew up in Detroit." Enough said. (He actually expanded on this response to mention that when he was seven and eight he was quite disillusioned with the state of the world and why. He doesn't purposefully include these descriptions of pollution, but he isn't surprised they are there.)
  • Noting he had never been to a reading so early (noon) Eugenides mentioned that "writers are temperamentally nocturnal."
  • Eugenides admitted that his writing process is quite disjointed. He didn't get the idea for writing The Marriage Plot until until he wrote a couple hundred pages of a different novel involving Madeline's parents. He didn't like the tone or the direction of the novel, and it wasn't until he decided to explore his character's daughter, Madeline, that he felt he had something. He also joked that he often leaves one demanding novel behind unfinished in favor of a newer, younger novel, only to discover that it too proves to be just as demanding.
  • In Middlesex, the translation of Cal's brother's nickname Chapter 11 proved to be a problem when translating the book. The name refers to the US tax law Chapter 11 and since this law is specific to the US alone, those in Europe and Asia were a bit confused.
  • When asked if he liked to write, Eugenides admitted that he does, but there is also something masochistic about it.
Following the Q&A was the book signing, where I waited in line to get my copy of The Marriage Plot personalized and even sneak in a picture. While waiting I met a girl about my age who drove eight hours from someplace in Michigan to attend the reading. Now that is dedication! She even offered to take a photo for me when she saw me eagerly clutching my camera as I inched forward in line.

Can I just tell you how nervous I was to meet Jeffrey Eugenides? I was so scared I would say something stupid, and I was literally shaking as I stood next to him for the photo above. But, all in all, I was so happy I had the opportunity to attend this event. If you get a chance to do the same, I highly encourage it! You won't be disappointed.

*I was too chicken to take a picture while Eugenides was reading, for fear of distracting him with my flash and getting dirty looks.


The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

The Night Circus is one of those books that got so much hype before it was released that I wasn't sure I should read it right away. All that hype makes me reluctant (cf. Freedom). But then it was released on my birthday, and I thought why not add it to my birthday wishlist of books. The premise sounded oh-so unique; "The circus arrives without warning. No announcements precede it, no paper notices on downtown posts or billboards, no mentions or advertisements in local newspapers. It is simply there, when yesterday it was not... Within hours everyone in town has heard about it... It's impressive and unusual news, the sudden appearance of a mystery circus."

I've heard people say that if you chose to read one book this year, you should read The Night Circus. Well, I wouldn't go that far, but I will say this is a highly entertaining literary work of magical realism. (I'll also say you should read more than one book this year, loser.) I don't want to give too much away because part of the fun of this novel is not knowing exactly where it will take you. It's meandering and enchanting, suspenseful and dark. The non-linear structure and precise language work to build anticipation toward a complex and wonderfully imaginative ending. Not only is this a fun and unique read, but it also speaks to something greater about mankind; the circus "rêveurs" represent our proclivity to dream as a way to escape the monotony of daily life in exchange for adventure and enchantment. It also examines our fears and hesitations with the unfamiliar, our tendencies to take for granted the magic that exists in the world around us and dismiss the things we don't understand.
This is not magic. This is the way the world is, only very few people take the time to stop and note it. Look around you, he says, waving a hand at the surrounding tables. Not a one of them even has an inkling of the things that are possible in this world, and what's worse is that none of them would listen if you attempted to enlighten them. They want to believe that magic is nothing but clever deception, because to think it real would keep them up at night, afraid of their own existence.
Morgenstern's descriptions of the night circus go beyond imaginative; they are beautiful portrayals of a mesmerizing world. From the ice garden to the wishing tree, the cloud maze and the pool of tears, Morgenstren truly paints a memorable picture with her prose. If you are looking for something unique that offers a balance of enchantment, romance and mystery, you've got to read The Night Circus.

Publisher: Doubleday, 2011


Judging A Book by Its Cover

We've all done it. I book cover or title catches our eye, we don't know anything about it, and we shell out the money. More often than not these titles turn out mediocre, but sometimes judging a book by its cover can pay off.

1. The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger: I bought this one shortly after it was released, pre-blogging, and didn't know much about it. What I did know is that I liked the cover and the title intrigued me. Lucky for me, it turned out to be one of my all-time favorite read.

2. The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery: I think Europa is really good at crafting book covers that I want to buy. Again, I was lucky this one turned out to be a smart and unique read.

3. Skinny Bitch by Rory Freedman and Kim Barnouin: This one turned out to be an over-the-top argument for veganism, but I still learned a lot and haven't drank milk since.

4. Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salmon Rushdie: This was a fantastic book and I'm glad the cover and title reflect that.

5. The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd: I enjoyed this one when I was younger, but I'm not sure how I would feel about it today.

6. Driving With Dead People by Monica Holloway: This one was a so-so memoir, but the title was cool.

7. The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly: Awesome cover. Awesome story.

8. The Solitude of Prime Numbers by Paolo Giordano: This was interesting enough, but I think I liked the cover more than the story it contained.

9. Paris to the Moon by Adam Gopnik: Loved this title: I bought this just before going to Paris, hoping I could learn something about an American in Paris.

10. The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold: Again, my 16-year-old self loved this one. Not sure how I would feel about it now.

Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by The Broke and The Bookish.


Eugenides is coming to Boswell!

I'm super pumped about this one! Jeffrey Eugenides is coming to Boswell Books on Sunday, October 23rd for a reading of The Marriage Plot! You know, that book everyone is talking about that I absolutely adored. From the Boswell Books website:
What more praise do you need than Boswell bookseller Stacie’s enthusiastic recommendation: “Eugenides deftly delivers a novel of great thought and romance, using the languages of philosophy, literature and theology to astutely explore the labyrinthine pathways of the heart. The warmth, intellect and beauty that glows from its eloquent pages and immersive characters had me in tears by the end. It's been years since a novel touched my soul so effectively: I LOVED THIS BOOK!”
I am definitely planning on attending this event. I'd put Eugenides in my top five authors I'd love to meet, so I feel really lucky that he is coming to Milwaukee and I am available to attend. Since I received an ARC of this one, it's a perfect opportunity to buy a hardback copy and get it signed.

Boswell Book Company is located at 2559 N. Downer Avenue, Milwaukee WI 53211.

In a somewhat related note, you know that vest that Eugenides was photographed in for a billboard in Times Square (pictured above). The one that is basically the wardrobe equivalent to Franzen's glasses? Well, you can follow it on Twitter now @EugenidesVest.


Fall Favorites

We are well into the Fall season and I couldn't be happier. Besides the pumpkin patches, caramel apples, scarves, and crunchy leaves, I enjoy my Fall reads. You know the ones; somewhat sinister, rather bleak, lamenting the loss of summer or celebrating the complexities and nuanced darkness that exists in us all. (Some more than others, of course.) Below is a list of some of my favorite Fall reads. If you're like me and enjoy getting into the Fall spirit with your reading as well, I recommend the titles below.

Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger (2009): Her latest novel isn’t exactly a departure from the themes that filled TTW – namely love that transcends time and place - but Her Fearful Symmetry is most definitely darker and is read as a Gothic Romance. Page by page this novel becomes more eerie and bizarre, but still contains descriptions of romance and love that only Niffengger can employ.

The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins (1868): Hailed as one of the first detective novels, The Moonstone unravels the theft of a very valuable diamond, told through a myriad of unreliable narrators.

Farewell Summer by Ray Bradbury (2006): During an Indian summer in the Midwest a group of boys organize a small civil war against the older adults in their community to "keep living" and resist growing old. Soon the boys realize it's not their elders who are the enemy; it's time itself. What ensues is an understanding of life and time, aging and dying, and how our outlook of it makes all the difference.

The Book of Lost Things by John Connolly (2006): This is a great book to read when you want a captivating story. It's a true modern fairy tale about transitions and the loss of innocence. It's a fun suspense for the book lover, exploring how books shape the world around us and our imagination. It captures the trills, the fears and the triumphs that are held in books.

The Turn of the Screw by Henry James (1898): The question of whether or not The Turn of the Screw is an actual ghost story or the story of a woman going mad is open to interpretation, as there is no concrete answer. However, it's a wonderfully creepy novel and well worth the read.

The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson (1886): One of my very favorite fall reads, "Stevenson's famous exploration of humanity's basest capacity for evil,The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, has become synonymous with the idea of a split personality. More than a morality tale, this dark psychological fantasy is also a product of its time, drawing on contemporary theories of class, evolution, criminality, and secret lives." -Goodreads

The Collector by John Fowles (1963): I finished this one a week ago and I am still thinking about it. The Collector explores the darkest of human behavior and obsessive love in a unique and compelling psychological thriller.

Frankenstein by Mary Shelly (1818): I always found this one more sad than scary, but it's still a novel I think everyone should read, at the very least to understand who the true Frankenstein really was.

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman (2008): Another that I recently finished that is still with me; set in a delightfully macabre atmosphere we follow Nobody Owens, Bod for short, a human boy raised by ghosts in a graveyard. Bod is taught all of the things that the dead know and learns how to move around the graveyard just as a ghost does. He is granted freedom of the graveyard, visits the world of the ghouls, and befriends a dead witch who lives on unconsecrated ground.

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (1899): Dark allegory describes the narrator’s journey up the Congo River and his meeting with, and fascination by, Mr. Kurtz, a mysterious personage who dominates the unruly inhabitants of the region. Masterly blend of adventure, character development, psychological penetration. Considered by many Conrad’s finest, most enigmatic story. -Goodreads

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (2011): To be fair I am only half-way through this book, but I am enjoying it so much I had to include it on this list. Really, all the hype is justified. It's a wonderfully magical book for adults: "Opens at Nightfall; Closes at Dawn." The Le Cirque des Rêves is a circus unlike any other.


The Collector by John Fowels

"He's not human; he's an empty space disguised as a human."

I picked this one up for the RIP challenge and it turned out to be just what I was looking for - disturbing, sinister and haunting; a book that I won't soon forget. The Collector explores the darkest of human behavior and obsessive love in a unique and compelling psychological thriller.

Ferdinand Cleff, a long-time butterfly collector and curator, is a reclusive clerk who comes into a large sum of money. After paying off relatives as a way to push them out of his life, he buys a secluded home two hours outside of London. After securing the home and fending off curious neighbors, Cleff seeks to collect his ultimate prey, a young, blonde art student who he has been watching and obsessing over for years.
There were even times I thought I would forget her. But forgetting's not something you do, it happens to you. Only it didn't happen to me.
I struggled to put this book down. Fowles structures the novel in a way that grabbed me from the start. The first half of the book is told from Cleff's point of view and when I thought I would find out what would happen to his prisoner, the second half of the novel continues from Miranda's own point of view, starting with the evening she was abducted. (Yes Ferdinand and Miranda; an allusion to The Tempest.) Fowles managed to give these characters two distinct and unique voices. One of my favorite things about this novel is how Fowles made both Cleff and Miranda so unlikable that by the end, I had hoped they would just kill each other. I was always invested in the story, but as it unfolded I decided the dual characters were perfect for each other in their own messed up way. Cleff is a severely disturbed super creep and Miranda is so narcissistic and self-involved I can't help but think she deserves her misery. Each character deceives the other repeatedly, ultimately feeding their own agony.
It's despair at the lack of feeling, of love, of reason in the world. It's despair that anyone can even contemplate the idea of dropping a bomb or ordering that it should be dropped. It's despair that so few of us care. It's despair that there's so much brutality and callousness in the world. It's despair that perfectly normal young men can be made vicious and evil because they've won a lot of money. And then do what you've done to me.
As far as psychological thrillers go, the ending did not disappoint. It wasn't over-the-top gruesome, but I was disturbed and intrigued all at once. I'd recommend this to anyone looking for a novel that examines love, human nature and obsession at it's darkest.

This is John Fowles first novel.

Publisher: Back Bay Books, 1963


The Submission by Amy Waldman

"There were in life rarely, if ever, "right" decisions, never perfect ones, only the best to be made under the circumstances."

A jury gathers in Manhattan to select a memorial for the victims of a devastating terrorist attack. Their fraught deliberations complete, the jurors open the envelope containing the anonymous winners name - and discover he is an American Muslim. Instantly they are cast into rolling debate about the claims of grief, the ambiguities of art, and the meaning of Islam. Their conflicted response is only a preamble to the country's.

In short, a jury unknowingly chooses a Muslim American architect to design a 9/11 memorial. However, this is not a 9/11 novel. Waldman never cites the date of the attacks, and doesn't mention The World Trade Center, referring to the attack site simply as "the towers". Of course it's no secret Waldman is referencing 9/11, but she avoids the specifics as a way of emphasizing that instead of focusing on the day itself, the novel explores the extreme tensions and complicated race relations of the post-9/11 world. It should be noted that the premise and later conflict that ensues echos that of the Park51 debate; while similar disputes are explored in The Submision, Waldman gives her novel its own unique voice and memorable cast of characters that makes it stand out from any other non-fictionalized story it may resemble.

Waldman examines every side of the table through a diverse array of characters: those who are in support of the Muslim American architect, those who are not, those who change their mind and, of course, Kahn's own frustrations with the contest. With every point of view introduced, the subtext of the novel becomes more complicated, but never confusing. Ultimately Waldman doesn't tell us who is right or wrong, though she does make clear the blind closed-mindedness of many individuals. Rather, the novel encourages the reader to question how many of our post-9/11 fears are sensible and to what extent they are hurting the Muslim Americans in our country.
The propaganda's coming from the people who want to make you a bogeyman. They are creating a climate where dangerous things can happen. The rhetoric is the first step; it coarsens attitudes. Look at the history of Nazi Germany. The Jews thought they were German, until they werne't. Here they're already talking about us as less American. Then they'll say we need containment, and next thing you know we'll be interned.
As the title implies, Waldman weaves the the theme of submission throughout, working on a number of levels, the most obvious being Muhamed Kahn's submission into the contest to design a memorial - the submission that sets the entire book in motion. But the theme of submission goes deeper: the submission that exists between sexes and the submission that exists between cultures. Waldman also explores the refusal of submission, namely the non-apologetic attitude that is characteristic of modern-day America.

Waldman's fiction has appeared in The Atlantic, Boston Review, and The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2010. This is her first novel. If you are looking for a book that will challenge your notions of post 9/11 America, I ask you to let The Submission be it.

A big thanks to my mom for gifting this book to me, it's a favorite of the books I've read so far this year.

Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011

Let the Rioting Begin!

I'm sure by now you've heard the buzz about BookRiot - a new website dedicated to books news and reviews with a focus on variety: "sometimes we are serious and sometimes silly. Some of our writers are pros. Many of them aren’t. We like a good list just as much as we like a good review. We think you can like both J.K. Rowling and J.M Coetzee and that there are smart, funny, and informative things to say about both and that you shouldn't have to choose."

I'm really excited to be a part of the movement. I'll be posting a Book Fetish feature over there about once a week, highlighting bookish things for voracious readers everywhere. If you haven't already, I encourage you to check it out and sign yourself up. If you've got a passion for books, you're going to fit right in.