Please Ignore Vera Dietz

Vera Dietz has a problem. Actually, she has a thousand of them, all identical, all which look exactly like her deceased ex-best friend, Charlie Kahn. Charlie has been haunting Vera, exponentially, ever since his tragic, mysterious death. He has been haunting her because she knows the truth but is not yet prepared to share it. Wherever she goes—to her job at Pagoda Pizza, on a date with a cute guy who’s too old for her—Charlie follows. He beseeches her to clear his name, to right the wrong that occurred one fateful August night. But it’s complicated. Vera is still mad at Charlie, not only for dying, but also for betraying her months before his death: she’s mad for losing him twice. How she can reconcile her conflicting emotions for Charlie—the friend she hated, the friend she always loved—now that he’s gone?

Please Ignore Vera Dietz, by A.S. King, is certainly serious in subject matter, yet it, surprisingly, is a book that does not take itself too seriously. This is in large part due to Vera, who, for all of her doubts, regrets, and fears, is an engaging, quirky narrator. Though much of the narrative focuses on Vera’s coming to terms with Charlie’s death, and her insight into his final days, it also deals with Vera coming into her own as a person. Vera is a fully-formed, three-dimensional character, and it is this quality, more than any other, that makes the book such an affecting read.

Of course, the novel, which was a 2011 Printz Honor book, is irresistible from the start. It has an interesting structure that serves to displace its readers without actually disorienting them. That is, Please Ignore Vera Dietz is not a linear book, nor does it adhere to any single perspective. Readers get a sense of the inner workings of everyone from the dead kid (narrating from beyond) to Vera’s dad to even the pagoda that overlooks the town. In the deft hands of King, this technique never feels like a gimmick; instead, it only enhances the emotional depth of the story. This device fits perfectly in a structure that is already inventive.

Please Ignore Vera Dietz plays out almost as a mystery novel, but the interesting twist is that most of the mystery is already known to Vera. Her memories reach the reader unordered and out of context, but, naturally, they all exist within her head from the start. It is as if she is sharing parts of herself—and her history with Charlie—as she learns to accept them. To delve further into the story is to get closer to Vera’s dark past, to the secrets she has locked away even from herself. The tension is there, even if Vera, technically, has always had the power to clear Charlie’s name and resolve her struggles. The tension is there because every step of the way Vera is wishing she could just be left alone.

In the end, the resolution of the story is cathartic not only for Charlie but for Vera. By fighting her instincts to be invisible, to be ignored, she learns to stand up for what is right and what is necessary. In spite of its somber subject matter, there is undoubtedly something empowering about this story. It is not just about grief but about carrying on. It is not just about death but, more importantly, life.

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Going Bovine

What if Don Quixote were a 16-year-old kid living in Texas, whose uneventful life suddenly became an adventure when he was diagnosed with mad cow disease? What if his Sancho Panza took the form of a hypochondriacal dwarf named Gonzo, and his Dulcinea a punk rock angel named Dulcie? What if his journey took him from a secretly sinister snack-n-bowl (where no one ever gets less than a strike) to a MTV-style beach house in Florida? And what if, for good measure, the author of this epic tale threw in some stuff about physics, time travel, an evil snow globe company, the Norse god Balder and the Small World ride at Disney World? In Libba Bray’s Going Bovine, this is exactly what happens…but the strange thing is, it totally works.

Going Bovine is the kind of weird, gutsy, balls-to-the-wall experiment that could easily crash and burn, but which, somehow, is all the better for its completely out-there premise. Bray doesn’t shy away from either serious issues or all-out quirkiness, which is why this novel soars when it could easily falter. It’s not perfect—it’s too overpacked, too flamboyant, and too self-referential to be completely accessible—but its messy, sprawling nature is, for the right reader, precisely where its charm lies.

…It’s probably not hard to guess that the trick worked on me. I was completely enamored of Bray’s hyperactive exercise in wit, wisdom, and a whole new level of surrealism. I loved her sense of humor—which is a prerequisite if you plan to enjoy this book—but I was equally enchanted by her endless imagination. To begin, the premise is completely insane: Sixteen-year-old Cameron Smith is a slacker high school student who starts to have weird health problems. In short, he’s losing both his control over his body and his grasp on reality. A doctor gives a completely improbable diagnosis. Mad cow disease. And then things get really weird.

Cameron enters the hospital, but he doesn’t plan to stay. He and his roommate Gonzo are destined for great things. Armed with a magical Disney World wristband given to him by an angel only he can see, Cameron is just healthy enough to spend the next few weeks on a journey in search of the one man who can save his life. Unsurprisingly, for this book at least, the man is called Dr. X, and he’s just come back from another dimension. Cameron and Gonzo—who has been promised that there’s something in this trip for him, too—begin their journey in New Orleans in search of a jazz musician who continues to perform despite the fact that he may have died years ago. They never stay in one place too long, however, as they are constantly threatened by both the fire giants who want to kill them and their parents who want to take them home. Yeah, I know.

It’s impossible to summarize the book, so the best way to review it is to give an impression of what it’s about. And that, essentially, is…well, everything. This book asks the big questions as well as the small ones. What’s real? What’s meaningful? Is there really an internet fetish site called “Naughty Gnomes”? Bray’s ideas are big, complex, and multitudinous, so the resulting story can’t help but be ambitious. Nonetheless, it is fun, entertaining, and a surprisingly breezy read despite its length of almost 500 pages. There are plenty of memorable moments, from Cameron and Gonzo’s narrow escape of the cult-like CESSNAB (The Church of Everlasting Satisfaction and Snack-N-Bowl) to the wild spring break that involves everything from gnome-napping to a dwarf in an electric chair. If you don’t get Bray’s sense of humor, you’ll likely curse her editor, and wonder why this book resulted in Bray being published rather than institutionalized. If you do, though, you’ll totally understand why it won the Printz Award in 2010 and why I’m wholeheartedly recommending it now.

Before I Go to Sleep

Perhaps the best way to recommend Before I Go to Sleep, by S.J. Watson, is to mention that I read it in three days, and that, given the chance, I would have finished it even sooner than that. I found it thrilling from the moment I first started reading, and my mind would wander to it whenever I had to step away. This is not to say that the book, in the end, was perfect, or that it was one of the greatest books I have ever read, but it was a fantastic debut that I would recommend to many different types of people. Gripping, thought-provoking, and well-executed, Before I Go to Sleep is the kind of book that almost insists on being compulsively read. You will abandon basic duties, prior engagements, and probably personal hygiene, in your quest to finish it. And then, of course, you will recommend it to everyone you know—no matter how tenuous the relationship—in the hopes of having someone with whom to discuss it.

The story belongs to Christine Lucas, the amnesiac first-person narrator who wakes each day not knowing how she spent the last one. In fact, she cannot remember how she spent the last twenty years or so—sometimes much more. A terrible accident left her unable to form new memories, or even to recall some old ones, and thus she cannot remember anything that has happened to her since she was in her twenties. She wakes up each morning not recognizing the man she is sleeping next to, and she must be told that he is her husband of more than two decades. When she looks in the mirror, she is shocked by the middle-aged woman staring back at her. Half her life has been lost to her, even though she has lived it.

On the day that we readers meet Christine, which is just one in a disconnected series of days, one that cannot be placed in any context, she has, for the umpteenth time, learned of her accident, her memory problems, and the life she leads with her husband, Ben. When he leaves for the day to go to work, she tries to occupy herself, performing simple chores around the house and wondering if this is what she does every day. Her routine is broken, however, when she receives a phone call; the man on the other line is not Ben. The stranger introduces himself as Dr. Nash, a neuropsychologist who has been working with Christine for the last few weeks, helping her to recover her memory. They have an appointment that day, one that Ben knows nothing about.

Christine agrees to meet with Dr. Nash. He explains her unusual condition to her: it allows her to retain new memories, but only until she goes to sleep for the night. Each morning, it is as if her memory has been reset. Curiously, there is no medical explanation for how or why her memory works this way. Dr. Nash tells Christine that one solution he has suggested is for her to keep a diary of her daily activities, which she has done for the past few weeks. Each day she would reread or skim through the previous entries in order to recover some sense of continuity. A few days ago, she left this diary with Dr. Nash, and he has been waiting to return it.

When Christine gets home, she opens the journal to the first page. As expected, there is her name, Christine Lucas, written in black ink across the center of the page. Added below it, however, in all capital letters is something shocking. A message: DON’T TRUST BEN. What caused Christine to write this? And how long has the message been there? Is she in danger…and how much times does she have to read this journal, to learn its secrets, before Ben comes home?

It should surprise no one that this set-up is absolutely irresistible, and that this simple but elegant mystery makes the next three hundred plus pages just fly by. The majority of the novel is made up of the journal, which contains new, shocking revelations each day, and has the added tension of featuring Christine’s interactions with characters who don’t know that she is now aware of  the events that transpired on previous days. Far from being repetitive, this journal actually brings some welcome structure to the novel. It is well-constructed, and it allows Christine’s character to develop some emotional depth, since she is able to respond to events in her past in addition to those in her present. Naturally, it is a bit too polished for an actual journal, and Christine would have to write astonishingly quickly to get down as much information as she does, but, if you can suspend your disbelief, it is an engrossing piece of writing.

Ultimately, the greatest criticism of Before I Go to Sleep may indeed be of its implausibility, which comes out in full force by the end of the novel. Watson does seem to yield to shock value, concluding the novel on a note that feels less natural than its beginning. Still, the clues are all there, and it seems that the biggest disappointment comes simply in reaching the end. There could be no satisfactory way to end a book so rich in possibility and so compelling in mystery: any solution would be a disappointment. The joy is in the journey, and in getting to know Christine, who is refreshingly complex for a character in a thriller. The resolution satisfies, but never thrills in the way the rest of the story does. The best way to read Before I Go to Sleep is just to savor every minute of it. Rush through it, but not too quickly. You’ll want to remember this one.

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