Sunday, June 6, 2010

Shock and Awe

Gabriella Herkert
Catnapped and Doggone

What book surprised me the most recently? That’s a hard one. As always, this paid by the word author and question ambiguity fanatic couldn’t come up with one simple answer because “surprise” can mean so many things. Are we talking Happy Birthday surprise party when the house is being cleaned for absolutely no discernable reason and I’m sent on a mysterious errand with a friend I hardly know who has heart palpatations when I forget my wallet and want to go back to get it? Is this the blind date who’s actually kind of good looking, funny and doesn’t eat off his knife surprise? Or maybe it’s the music is playing and the coeds still decide to split up and search the basement surprise? So many flavors. I chose two very different kinds of surprise – one in which I was surprised by how a book I would never have chosen for myself resonated with me and the other for its ability, despite numerous readings, to still have me asking myself new questions about the important questions while laughing out loud.

A writer friend of mine, Janet Spurr, sent me Joan Anderson’s The Second Journey. Now you have to know Spurr a little to understand. She’s a big believer in self-help. She is also, in any room, with any group, the shining light and raucous laughter that makes a gathering of individuals into a party. I’m not talking dancing on tables or buying rounds for the house – she is just plain fun. It’s as natural to her as breathing. Somehow she gets everyone to join in unselfconsciously. She’s forever trying to pull me out of my own head, where I live, oblivious to the people and opportunities around me. I’ve had a hard time lately and my answer to that, to everything, has been to put my head lower, move my feet faster and grind. Spurr sent me The Second Journey in an effort to get me to pull my head up, look around and think about what really mattered to me instead of just what I happen to be good at. I read it because Spurr took the time and trouble to send it to me when I was feeling blue. The author, having spent a year away from her family after her children move away, becomes relatively famous for a book she wrote about the experience. A few years later, her life is packed with obligations and running around and she’s lost the part that made her world new and fresh again – writing. My kid has been an intense corporate job and writing used to be my escape. Lately, like Joan Anderson and her book tours and publicity demands, writing, actually creating character and story, have been relegated to just one more thing on my list complete with deadlines and committee revisions. I’ve become a working author with the emphasis on work. And it feels like work which, ironically, doesn’t lend itself to the best writing. So, I’m searching for the joy again. The indefinable zing that makes writing such a renewing and little kid at the playground experience for me and my readers. Even though my life is very different than Joan Anderson’s some of her words rang loudly in my ears and I’m still thinking about them weeks later. ‘But the way we were is not the way we are, and why would I want to have those parts of my life that have lost their zest?’ I need zest. My books need zest. And my readers deserve zest. Second Journeys is about resetting to find your place of magical thinking, writing, creating, sharing. It made me think of how I can get back to writing as adventure, as escape, as endless beach vacation without the credit card bill. In the daily grind, I’d forgotten. Joan Anderson made me remember. It didn’t come with candles or birthday cake but it was eye opening all the same.

My second surprise came when I went back to an old friend – Christopher Moore. If you’ve never read him, you’re missing out on a chance to laugh so hard on a transatlantic flight that your seat mate rings the stewardess bell fearing you’re having an apoplectic fit over the Atlantic. All of his books are fun and surprising in a different way. The man has serious range. But for pure I never thought of that eye popping surprise, I suggest Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal. You don’t have to be religious. You don’t have to have read the Bible or the Koran or any of the other religious texts through which Moore has rewoven a story told from the perspective of a real person. A horny, teenage boy off on adventures with his best bud with the historical equivalent of frat parties and spin the bottle. I simply cannot imagine Atticus Finch as the point of view character for To Kill a Mockingbird. That story needs to be told by eight year old Scout. Her age, her innocence, her untainted belief in right and wrong without the fraying of experience are integral to that story remaining a classic, accessible to generations. I never imagined the stories of the Bible like that. They were told by elders after the fact. But it's an entirely different story from the eyes of Jesus and his best friend Biff, kids with no guideposts, no manual for an experience different than anyone else had ever encountered. They made mistakes. Of course they did. Jesus was in the image of man and let’s face it, getting it right the first time isn’t in the genetic makeup. Lamb tells how Mary and Joseph had kids after Jesus. Duh. That literally never occurred to me. Of course they did. Of course they would. Historically, that is the only story that could ring true and yet, because the Bible never went there, neither did my mind until I read Lamb the first time. In my more recent reading, it was the eastern philosophies and their impact on Jesus, and thus Christianity, that made me think again. Lamb was first published in 2002 mere months after the World Trade Center tragedy. Yet, Christopher Moore, in a book that was probably written before the collapse of those buildings includes Buddhism and Kali other eastern ideas as part of Jesus’ path to his true calling. I’d forgotten that part. When I first read Lamb, I spent more time thinking about the Bible and what I thought of the Bible than I ever had during Mass. This time, my surprise came in the form of thinking how all the religions of the world are intertwined. I doubt I spent any time outside of a single comparative religions class in college thinking about what has turned out to be a pretty big deal in the global community we live in. But Christopher Moore once again, on my fifth or sixth or seventh reading, got my little grey cells working overtime on laugh out loud passages that stay with me, stuck to my ribs like oatmeal in the morning. He’s got me pondering how the people who genuinely believe have so much in common. How easy it is to twist what is good and tolerant into something that promotes a personal agenda and tries to justify anger and malice. In Lamb, Jesus, in typical sometimes sulky teen boy fashion, doesn’t buy it. Not so much because he can’t see the point but because his friend, Biff, has a bullsh*t meter that doesn’t have an off switch. And what adolescent boy isn't guided by his BFF? I can laugh until I cry but don’t have to buy it either, even if I did figure that out after the Clearasil kids. Surprise? Oh yeah. Shock. Absolutely. And affirmation. Definitely. That is a good read. And, in my case, a fabulous reread.

Thanks for reading and staying open to the surprise. What isn't a surprise this week is that Bill Cameron's new book Day One is flying off the shelves. And he's coming to Seattle Mystery and a bunch of other bookstores on a signing binge. See him if you can. He's every bit as fun and entertaining in person and if you can't, he's great on the page.



Shane Gericke said...

Jesus probably got beat up a lot by his sibs because he got all the attention.

I'm gonna have to try this book; it sounds great. Which other Moore books would you recommend, especially for hilarity? I'm going on vacation and can use a great book recomnend.

Shane Gericke said...

Recommend. There. That's spelled better.

Gabi said...

There's attention and then there's being able to make your face appear in all the loaves of bread in the village. A little fame probably went a long way.

I've read and enjoyed all things Moore. I think after Lamb, Fool is a real hoot. If you've got a sci-fi bent (as opposed to just plain being bent), Fluke is a surprise. Although I may have already given away part of the rubberneck by calling it Sci-Fi. And if you're going to read things by people named Christopher and want to laugh out loud at the absurd and realistic, try Christopher Buckley's Boomsday.

Sophie Littlefield said...

Gabi, you have made both of these sound like must-read books! Especially the first...I have enough doubt-filled days that I am always on the lookout for books that can serve as inspiration, or as you say as reminders of why we loved our writing in the first place. I think, if it's not too presumptuous to say, I'm on a similar journey with you, so as one traveler to another, I wish you shiny days ahead.

Gabi said...

I wish you many shiny days as well and only hope I get to spend the occasional one with you.

Gabi said...

I'm not sure I could stop laughing long enough to have my morning toast if my face were on every slice. Then again, it's the modern day equivalent of being on a Wheaties box.

Joshua Corin said...

Gabi, Lamb is one of my all time favorites as well (and Christopher Buckley had me at No Way to Treat a First Lady). I can't think of any other comical Christophers (aside from Christopher Hitchens, but he's, how shall we say, a special case).