Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Mr. Peanut: The Miasma of Marriage and Death by Nut Allergy

Delightfully Dark: Mr. Peanut

"When David Pepin first dreamed of killing his wife, he didn't kill her himself. He dreamed of convenient acts of God." Those are the opening lines that hooked me on Mr. Peanut. Its author, Adam Ross, worked for nearly a decade on this debut novel. The New York Times called him a "sorcerer with words."

The death by anaphylactic shock of David Pepin's nut-allergic wife, Alice, may or may not have been murder. The story is based on a real-life incident in Ross's family, and he assembles a series of tableaus involving Pepin and two detectives investigating Alice's death. One of the men is convicted 1950's-era wife-killer Sam Sheppard, here dropped into another role. The author makes us squirm by pulling back the curtain on each of their troubled marriages in subtly relateable ways almost too dirt-under-your-fingernails disturbing to acknowledge.

Ross references the artwork of M.C. Escher in this set of braided stories that are at times as illusory as the art. (On Twitter, he goes by the handle @escherx.) As the character David Pepin writes a novel within a novel, the story becomes a Möbius strip, looping back on itself, and Detective Sheppard questions its namesake hit man about Alice's death while Mobius questions him right back about Sheppard's own infamous murder case.

The real strength is Ross's writing. My favorite passage: "Once, while David was waiting to board an airplane, he saw a mother try to stop her inconsolable daughter from crying. But what made it unique was how loud the girl was. She wailed. She howled. She screamed, no shit, at the top of her lungs, for so long that it made the expression at once literal and surreal too, as if the squalling were a gnome standing on a ladder inside her neck, the topmost rung by her tonsils, and pulling down on the cord of uvula to hold her mouth open, using the girl's whole head as a kind of loudspeaker."

My own husband was as patient as a priest as I insisted on enthusiastically quoting several paragraphs – including the one above – aloud to him in bed, interrupting his own reading. I've loaned Mr. Peanut to two friends are they've both returned reviews of "excellent." This hardcover has been toted from place to place, passed around, and even dropped in a toilet, but it's a keeper, and I'm nearly turning blue with anticipation of Adam Ross's next book.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Ooh, Something Shiny!

My new Kindle skin. So pretty! I couldn't resist.

Earlier this week I was browsing for Kindle covers when I ran across a book-themed skin. (Ugh, I hate the word "skin" when used with electronics. It sounds very Silence of the Lambs.) But this one is so pretty! Have you ever found something you never knew existed, much less that you might someday want – badly – and it's just so beautiful you can't stop looking at it? This was one of those. The book design is luscious, and perfect for an electronic library like the Kindle. The maker, GelaSkins, has lots of other nice designs too, but I kept coming back to this one. It was calling to me – it was howling to me. I bought it.

A Good Find Deserves a Giveaway

To celebrate I'd like to give someone a $25 gift code to buy something you find pretty – or comforting, humorous, enjoyable or utilitarian – on Amazon.

To enter, comment below telling me about an impulse purchase you've made and love (or hate), or something else spontaneous you've done. For extra entries, follow Rainy Days on Google Friend Connect or Networked Blogs (lower left sidebar - one entry each) and leave an additional comment for each extra entry.

This giveaway will start on 3/15/11 and end at 11:59 pm Pacific time on 3/28/11. Open to US and Canadian residents 18+. Limit one initial entry per person. I'll pick a winner using and notify you by email, so be sure your email address is either in your profile or in your comment.

Winner Update 3/29/11

Congratulations to mandala, whose comment #142 was randomly selected as the Amazon winner! Thanks to everyone for sharing your impulse purchase experiences – I loved reading about them!

Friday, March 11, 2011

Movie Review: 127 Hours

127 Hours

Last night I was feeling a little cranky. I'd gotten through a recorded episode of American Idol in about 20 minutes by fast forwarding through the group number, mansion move-in, and Ford commercial, as well as much of Ryan's blather and the departing contestant's futile last-ditch singing effort. I'd bought myself some free time before going to bed.

Then my husband said he felt like watching a movie. No! That wasn't part of my plan for the evening. He'd seen a promo for 127 Hours, though, the Academy Award-nominated picture about a climber who gets pinned by a rock in a Utah slot canyon and eventually hacks off his own arm to escape. (This shouldn't be a spoiler; it's the basis for the movie.) It's been on my "to see" list, so I slid back down on the couch.

I thought it might be slow. After all, how much action can take place in a story about a guy trapped under a rock? I was wrong. The opening credits roll over a three-way split screen buzzing with visuals. Bikers, crowds, activity – all in vivid colors. We meet Aron Ralston, on a solo mission to take off for the weekend climbing... somewhere. Clearly a free spirit, he drives to the desert in the middle of the night, sleeps in his car, and tears off on his bike the next day into gorgeous canyonlands. Miles away from his starting point he runs into a couple of female hikers and takes them to the purest and bluest natural plunge pool you've ever seen. Water becomes a recurring theme.

By the time he gets into real trouble, we've gotten to know Aron. He's an athletic Superman. He's independent, charming, and a little goofy. Part of what's engaging about the story is that we see him undergo not only the physical ordeal of being trapped, but also a personal transformation. He changes from a selfish, freewheeling, no-consequences type of guy to someone with a sense of perspective that was previously lacking. After moving from hope to desperation to reflection and acceptance, then inspiration to perform the brutal task that finally frees him, he emerges a different person.

127 Hours is a beautiful movie, visually stunning all the way through. James Franco makes a great Ralston. He was nominated for an Oscar for the role, in which he renders a wide spectrum of physical and emotional states – and even resembles the real-life character. There's not a ho-hum moment in the film. The writers and filmmakers made what could have been a slow plod toward a known ending into a fresh, dynamic, and compelling piece of storytelling.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Education in Trouble?

How does class size affect learning?

I try to avoid watching the news. Fires, beatings, bodies turning up in the woods... I'd rather not know. But sometimes news sneaks through. Lately I've heard a lot about cuts in education spending – both locally and nationally – and what it's doing to schools. Teachers are getting pink slips and classroom size is increasing. The average class size for ninth grade math and English in Los Angeles was recently raised nearly 75%, from 20 to 34. Detroit is considering upping their max class size to 60.

Exactly how much of a negative effect larger class sizes have on learning is a topic of debate. The obvious negatives are that kids get less individual attention, and there's more work for each teacher. Several studies have shown that students learn more effectively in smaller classrooms. Some argue, however, that having skilled teachers is more important as well as more cost effective. Unless money trees sprout in public parks across the country this summer, we'll soon be finding out how much impact the cuts will have and hoping students don't become victims of a struggling public education system.

What can you do to help your student succeed, short of selling the ancestral summer home to pay for private school tuition? Be involved. Know your child's teacher and what's going on at the school, and keep track of homework assignments. Involve your kids in extracurricular activities. Get help if they're struggling. Tutoring services are widely available, from math help to SAT tutoring. Many schools also have in-house tutors as well as guidance counselors who can help keep your budding scholar on the right track.

Also let your government representatives know that you think education is a priority, and that you vote for candidates who support schools. Since no one is dumb enough to run on an anti-schools platform, check their voting records to see what actions they put behind their words.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Crazy Cat Lady in the Making?

Too Many Kitties? Never!

I have four cats. Four is a good number, right? The answer is – mostly – yes. There are four tires on a luxury sedan, four legs on a giraffe... and four horsemen of the Apocalypse. These cats are destructive forces, laying claws to woven materials and tracking swaths of cat litter on the bed. Our house is inundated with fur, which piles up in drifts that are satisfying to suck up with our vacuum's – the "Sucking Alien's" – silver wand. We call the vacuum the Sucking Alien because it bears a strong resemblance to the head of a non-human creature with ovoid eyes and a long, tubular snout.

It doesn't help that the dog sheds like crazy, either. She's a 125-pound fat retired farm dog with a one-track mind. Food. Is there food? When's dinner? Fill my bowl, please. How about a treat?

We also have a 23-pound cat. Yep, we grow 'em big around here! Even some of our aquarium fish are outsized. We're convinced our two big boys have some Maine Coon in them, but Boo Boo, the largest, is simply a whale. He's my cuddle buddy, though, and likes to snuggle up when I go to bed with a book or some puzzles. That starts the bedtime ritual, which proceeds to my husband joining us and two more cats jumping on the bed. Boo Boo is then displaced, and the "wee one," our small black and white female, starts kneading the hell out of our big, fluffy black and white male and purring like she's reached a state of ultimate bliss.

Our fourth cat, the horribly misnamed Sunshine, hates all the other animals in the house and prefers to keep to herself.

Thank goodness my husband puts his foot down and insists on a four-unit cap on our cat population. I'm such a sucker for a furry, whiskered face, I'd probably bring home one a month until someone from A&E knocked at my door wanting to feature me on a show about cat hoarders.

I don't mind being a crazy cat lady in the making, though. My house is always full of love – and fur!

My Four Cats