Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Baby Teeth

By Zoje Stage

St. Martin’s Press     2018
320 pages     Thriller/Horror

Why, oh, why did I ever start Baby Teeth? That was the question I asked myself over and over as I sat transfixed, suffering along with Suzette, a mother living in fear of her young daughter, Hanna. The plot summary of the book is almost beside the point, but here it is from the Amazon website.

The trials of parenthood are known to all: the sleepless nights, the teething, and the tantrums. In Baby Teeth, mom Suzette faces an additional trial: a young daughter, Hanna, who makes Wednesday Addams look positively angelic. Hanna is besotted with her father and violently opposed to sharing him with her mother. Withdrawn, refusing to speak, she’s waging a campaign of terror with Suzette as the prime target. But, apart from issues at school that Dad is able to excuse away, he sees no evidence of the terror his wife reports and stands ready to defend his silent angel, even against her mom. It’s the classic bad seed setup, but author Zoje Stage ups the ante, using alternating chapters to devastating effect. The swings from Suzette's panicked attempts to right the ship and fix her daughter to Hanna's chilling interior monologues drive much of the suspense in this creepy thriller. And the alternating chapter setup allows Hanna the last words, words which left me open-mouthed. Ever wanted to shout, “He’s behind you!” at a horror movie in a theater? Well, Baby Teeth may leave you wanting to howl something similar at the pages of a book.

The Hanna chapters are the most devastating because the reader is exposed to the machinations of a truly depraved mind—in a brilliant 7-year-old. At one point Hanna muses: “she knew how adults thought. They liked what they could see right in front of them, solid things. They encouraged imagination but hated anything imaginary. Hanna knew they didn’t understand how reality was malleable. It flowed on a wave in front of Hanna’s eyes, and she could choose to be outside or within it.” This, of course, is not how an ordinary child would think—but Hanna is not an ordinary child. For one thing, when she finally speaks to her mother, it is with the French accent of a child burned at the stake as a witch. No wonder Suzette is totally freaked out.

An excellent essay in the New York Times by Ruth Franklin looks at books and movies about “bad seeds.” Franklin references The Bad Seed and We Need To Talk About Kevin but particularly discusses how the mothers are the ones who suffer the worst from evil children, because the fairly absentee father can only see what is presented to him when he returns from work in the evening. In the case of Baby Teeth, he only sees his loving and adoring daughter, and all the evil Suzette reports to him seem to have no reality.

Is Suzette to blame for this evil child? Franklin asks this question as she explores how Hanna and the other psychopathic children of literature got that way? “Are some children simply born evil?” This was the thought that haunted me as I turned the last pages of the book.  Recently, my daughter who teaches in a public preschool had a 4-year-old boy in her afternoon class who was truly psychotic. By the time he came to my daughter’s classroom in February, he had already been kicked out of three other schools. He became her only charge when he was in attendance, and she had to monitor all his craziness—from manipulating his classmates, to horrendous fits, to the time he tried to strangle her. There were many days when the principal had to be in the classroom with my daughter because the boy was too manic to be contained. Eventually he was referred to mental health professionals and sent home for the rest of the school year. Like Suzette, this little boy’s mother was afraid of him and was helpless to know what to do. 

There are moments when every parent thinks that they are going crazy; there are moments when children lose control. For some children, fit throwing is a way of life, and this is the type of fear that Zoje Stage exploits in Baby Teeth. Is my fit-throwing child OK, or is there something wrong with him/her. Hopefully, none of them are like Hanna.

Here is Zoje Stage’s website. This is her first published novel and has received tremendous reviews.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Waiting For You at Midnight

By Vicki Salloum

Moonshine Cove     2018
240 pages     Fiction

In Waiting For You At Midnight, Vicki Salloum’s intimate look at grief is raw and very real—so real, in fact, that the reader forgets that it is a novel.

When Arabella Joseph’s husband Logan died of cancer in 2015, she is overcome with grief and fear. She muses, “What am I going to do without you? That is the quintessential question. How can I live a life without you? I am without any defenses. I am scared and alone and in pain.”

The narrative alternates between Arabella’s remembrances of her relationship with Logan and her struggles to move forward with her life after his death. She feels that she was only a whole person when she was with him and she initially has no understanding of what to do and when to do it.

Arabella is a writer, but also a long-time recovered alcoholic/drug addict, so her associates and friends are the people that she meets at the recovery meetings she attends on a nearly daily basis. She looks to the people in the group for friendship and companionship, but her grief and longing is so intense that she is worried that she will relapse. The relationships are powerful, and many of her recovery friends are very supportive and helpful to her. A couple of the men she meets at the meetings are interested in a relationship with her, but they also carry a great deal of baggage.

I was particularly interested in her contemplation on grief and loss. I understood the tragic journey a spouse takes when his/her partner is suffering from cancer—the dissociation, the anger, the unspeakable inability to “solve the problem.” My favorite parts, however, have less to do with Arabella’s struggles after Logan’s death than with the beautiful story of their relationship—how they found each other, how the accepted each other’s failings, and how they grew a loving and engaged marriage.

I wondered about why she wanted to have another relationship so quickly, and why she chose such damaged men to anticipate having a relationship with. Her loneliness was palpable, but the book’s climax doesn’t offer any relief from the pain which continues beyond the book’s climax. The book just stops.

This is not a cheerful book nor is it easy to read. I began it at the beach but had to put it away until I was in a more appropriate setting at home. I did, however, email the author, because in the bio it said that her husband had recently died, and the book was dedicated to him and his life. I asked her why she chose to write a novel rather than a memoir. Here is what she said: I choose to write my book as fiction because only part of it is autobiographical.  A big part of it is imagination.  Several major events in the book did not happen and many characters in the book, through inspired by people I know, were made up.  When I write, I sometimes start off with what I know and then, working in the unconscious, the imagination takes over and the result is an imaginary world that is only partly autobiographical.  However, in Waiting for You at Midnight, the voice and mood are very real.  The book, written as fiction, accomplished what I wanted it to:  it served as a tribute to my husband.  My love for him was in that book and that's all that counts.”

The value of Waiting for You at Midnight lies in its ability to help the reader understand the depth of the grief experience. At times, it almost was so close to my own grief experience that I had to catch my breath. Another book that is similar in tone but a memoir is You are Not Alone by Debbie Augenthaler.

Wednesday, July 11, 2018

The Little Old Lady Behaving Badly

By Catharina Ingelman-Sundberg

Harper Collins     2018
464 pages     Mystery/Humor

The Little Old Lady Behaving Badly describes the further adventures of the Pensioner’s League: a group of old folk’s home Robin Hoods, who are seeking to create special events for their elderly compatriots and to justly compensate the low wage workers in the nursing homes and hospitals that serve them. The book is translated from the Swedish.

This is the third book in the series, and as some reviewers have noted, perhaps it ought to be the last. It is absurdist humor at its best (?). I chose it because of the title, since I consider myself a “little old lady behaving badly,” and thus I had few expectations and quite a few laughs. Martha is the mastermind of the group, and the others take roles that utilize their skills and sometimes involve their adult children. The first crime of this episode included robbing a bank using a garbage truck to suck the money out of the safe. Of course, the truck was full of garbage, so all the loot had to be cleaned and ended up smelling of vinegar, their cleaner of choice. When they had to decide what they would do with the stolen garbage truck, they drove it into their vacationing neighbor’s pool, covered it with cement, and planted sod and bushes over it. See what I mean about absurdist!

The other adventures of the pensioners aren’t quite so funny, although they are extremely creative. And, because they are old, they never get caught and actually cause little suspicion. Additionally, the book may have been about 100 pages too long and one adventure too crazy. Of course, I have been sitting at the beach this week, so this was a perfect beach read because my brain is already fried. My next read has someone die in it, and I am having trouble getting into it—not quite appropriate for the beach.

Other books in the series besides The Little Old Lady Behaving Badly include The Little Old Lady who Broke All the Rules and The Little Old Lady who Struck Lucky Again. The book reminded me of the movie, Going in Style about old men bank robbers.