I Don’t Want to Kill You: Book Review

Dan Wells is a magician. Well, ok not really.  He’s a writer, and over the course of three books he takes an unsympathetic/unlikeable character and makes you root for him.  Its one of the hardest tricks in the fiction suite to do right–Severus Snape was an example of this done right– but seeing how effortlessly Dan pulls it off it may as well be magic.

The series, collectively titled the ‘John Cleaver’ books, follows the series’ narrator: a teenage sociopath who exhibits all the classic symptoms of a serial killer (pyromania, lack of empathy, and animal cruelty among others).  John’s family owns the local morgue where John occasionally works, which set the basis for scenarios that exacerbate John’s serial killer tendencies.  John is always in conflict with this inner nature, going so far as to establish rules to act ‘normal.’  In all three books he’s pushed to the breaking point, forced to abandon these rules to take on killers plaguing his home town.

The morgue becomes a major setting in the three novels, as John examines cadavers like a sociopathic modern day  Sherlock Holmes to determine each killer’s modus operandi and emotional weaknesses. Indeed, John cites the famous detective’s saying: “ when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth?” in the book.

All the morgue scenes, including descriptions of the embalming process, are very realistic (or seem very realistic), which begs the question how Dan conducted the research for those scenes. But I digress. The serial killer facts and lore that John cites in his narrative grounds these books in reality, and helps to humanize the villains to the point that the reader can understand their motivations.  These monsters are not caricatures or cardboard cut-outs. They are in a word: human.

The first book, I am Not a Serial Killer, which I reviewed here earlier, reads like a crime novel with horror elements, or a horror novel with crime elements depending on which way you look at it. I understand that some readers were put off by the horror in the first novel, but looking at the story arc over the trilogy, it was an essential element.  Without giving too much away, John faces a supernatural adversary who engages John in a downright macabre cat and mouse chase.

Mr. Monster, the second book in the series, follows a format similar to Book 1 with respect to the horror tropes, but I Don’t Want to Kill You stands out as the best in the series, and as my personal favorite. It has (no pun intended) killer pacing; it doesn’t feel like a single scene is wasted or unnecessary, and despite a few questionable character motivations towards the end of the book, the main characters were well rounded. And where the first two books tended to emphasize the horror, book three’s focus was romance.  But I hesitate to call it a horror/romance novel because those two elements are so disjointed and might give you an entirely wrong idea about the book.  Instead let’s put it this way: it’s a horror novel where the romantic relationships are a significant part of the story.  Despite the romance, there’s not exactly a happy ending, so I wouldn’t recommend reading it on those grounds alone.

After following this story through three novels to the last word of the last sentence my first thought was: “It can’t end now. There has to be more.” It’s perhaps the greatest testament to Dan’s skill as a writer is that he managed to turn a teenage sociopath into a likeable character. And there’s good news: although the third book ties up the story started in I am Not a Serial Killer, the ending hints at more stories. I’ll be first one to say it.  More please.


Made By Hand: Book Review

I read Seth Godin’s review of Mark Frauenfelder’s Made by Hand: Searching for Meaning in a Throwaway World a few months ago and immediately put Mark’s book on hold at the library. Now, a few months later my hold was processed and I finally got Mark’s book. Here are some of my thoughts:

Made by Hand is an essay on DIY culture, a maker manifesto written by BoingBoing’s Mark Frauenfelder, a fellow maker (editor-in-chief of Make Magazine) who decided to try out some of his own DIY projects in a decision to live a fulfilling life by being more connected to the world around him. There are two preview chapters and other freebies at the Made by Hand webpage that I encourage you to check out.

Mark’s honesty about the DIY experience, including all the bruises and failures, was what made this such an entertaining read. We follow Mark’s journey from the time he decided to get into DIY projects through his various pursuits: cigar box guitars, espresso machine hacking, urban free-range chicken keeping, and kombucha tea to name a few.  The experiences at times were hilarious, heartbreaking, and educational. I’ve been following some of these projects through the occasional posts on BoingBoing, and reading about Mark’s experience has inspired me to try my hand at a few of my own. (For a recent example, check out my iteration of Mark’s homebrew ginger beer recipe).  Most of Mark’s projects look hard, but they look like too much fun that it would be a shame not to try them out.

There was one passage in the book that resonated with me, and its not a part of the book review proper but I felt it appropriate to share:

A cartoonist isn’t like a writer. Writing requires a special kind of focus. Your mind must be utterly devoted to the task at hand. When I’m breaking down a strip or hammering out dialogue, I’m using that writer’s focus. But drawing and inking are different. They use different parts of the brain. I often find that when I’m drawing, only half my mind is on the work — watching proportions, balancing compositions, eliminating unnecessary details.

The other half is free to wander. Usually, it’s off in a reverie, visiting the past, picking over old hurts, or recalling that sense of being somewhere specific — at a lake during childhood, or in a nightclub years ago. These reveries are extremely important to the work, and they often find their way into whatever strip I’m working on at the time. Sometimes I wander off so far I surprise myself and laugh out loud. Once or twice, I’ve become so sad that I actually broke down and cried right there at the drawing table. So I tell those young artists that if they want to be cartoonists, the most important relationship they are going to have in their lives is with themselves.

Seth, The Quiet Art of Cartooning, The Walrus

Frauenfelder: I wonder if one of the main reasons people garden, or knit, or retire to their garages and basements to tinker, is because they enjoy this unusual state of consciousness. Some people might be able to achieve it by meditating, but using your hands seems to do the trick, too.

Mark wrote this in reference to a passage where he was describing the meditative nature of rebuilding a chicken coop. The act of rebuilding and allowing his thoughts to wander enabled him to remember events and memories from his childhood. This excerpt resonated with me because I’ve had similar experiences while painting or cooking or working on a repetitive task. Last year, I tore out, sanded, painted and mounted a new shelf rack into my closet. The process took two weeks to complete but it was one of the most fulfilling experiences I’ve ever had. Friends and family didn’t understand when I tried to explain the peace and meditative nature of the work to them, but it was gratifying to hear that Mark had had a similar experience.

One topic in the book really stuck with me long after I’d finished reading it. Primarily, it was one of the central themes discussed in the book and alluded to in the book’s title. Western culture has gotten used to the idea of disposable material goods. From cellphones and any other number of gadgets to pretty much anything that breaks down, our dominant solution has been to dispose of it and buy another. Mark doesn’t have a solution to change this cultural mindset, although he does recommend fixing your old tools and objects instead of ditching them and buying replacements.  He also got me thinking about my relationship to the tools and gadgets that I own and how I interact with them in every day life. I try not to think about new gadgets in terms of their “marketed desirability”, and approach them instead as tools to serve a specific purpose.

You may not have DIY tendencies, but I still highly recommend Made By Hand as an entertaining and educational story.

Inspired by Mark’s own list, I’ve compiled my own list of DIY projects since reading Made By Hand. I’ve already done some of these, and others I’m hoping to do over the next year.

– Make sushi

– Learn bookbinding (I’m taking a course this November.)

– Start a garden in my backyard

– hack my desk (as in rebuild it, my desk’s on the verge of falling apart.)

– Learn rudimentary woodworking skills

Why Shantaram the Novel Reads Like a Bollywood Movie

shantaram novel

I must admit: I’m a sucker for well written novels about India. In the past two years, I’ve sampled R.K. Narayan, Suketu Mehta, Salman Rushdie, Vandana Singh, Ian McDonald (not Indian himself, but writes damn good stories) and now Gregory David Roberts, the inimitable author of Shantaram. First impressions run something like this:

Shantaram  reads like a Bollywood movie.

Now let me explain that premise. Roberts takes many of the narrative conceits that are put to work in the typical Bollywood movie (the melodrama, the action sequences, the true love, the poetry, the religion, the philosophy, the happy endings and by god even the dance sequences) and deftly weaves them into an overarching narrative about the big questions of life:

Where are we from?

Why are we here?

Where are we going?

The novel is loosely based on Roberts’ life, particularly his experience as a heroin addict and armed robber breaking out of a maximum security prison in Australia and the story of his life in Mumbai, India where he spends approximately the next eight years of his life. He learns to speak Marathi and Hindi, lives in Mumbai under the assumed name of Lindsay (Lin), joins the Bombay mafia as a passport smuggler, runs the currency black market beat, falls in love, gets imprisoned in an Indian jail, acts in Bollywood movies, and even goes to Afghanistan to fight with the mujaheddin. The book weighs in at over 900 pages, and as a writer I’m jealous at how superbly he pulls off these tricks without overwhelming the reader. But this is not the book’s biggest strength.

When authors write cities in fiction, at some level, as the writer, they populate those vasty spaces with all the characters of their own mind. In that sense, Roberts’ Mumbai is not the one Rushdie wrote about in Midnight’s Children and its not the city Mehta explored in his travelogue Maximum City. This is a city that is uniquely Roberts and its streets, its pubs, its markets are all populated with the ghosts of his memory brought to life. His deep understanding of the hitmen, mobsters, prostitutes, slum dwellers, tourists, chai wallahs, taxi drivers, sinners, and saints that populate Mumbai are what bring the book to life in the reader’s mind, because its only through them that the reader can access Roberts’ Mumbai to the fullest.

A Few Minor Objections About the Book:

Although the poetic narrative is one of the book’s biggest selling points, it does slow down the book a few times with its overly verbose description. I did, however, like Roberts’ use of Hindi words in the book. I have a feeling that some readers will be frustrated by the seemingly arbitrary nature he inserts these phrases into the book, but it grew on me. Especially when it led to singing and dancing afterwards.

Roberts uses the novel as a platform to explore some philosophical themes that he calls The Theory of Complexity. The few times he brought this up verged on being pedantic, but the intrusions to the narrative were minor and I guess this can be given a pass when looking at the book overall.

Roberts is currently writing a sequel called The Mountain Shadow, that takes place after the events in Shantaram, but the novel can be read as a stand-alone as it ties together most of the loose plot ends. And, as is typical of Bollywood movies, we get a happy ending, one that borders on bittersweet, to the novel, but we’re never really given a closure to Lin’s story. As to what may happen to him next, I  recount to you the popular dialogue from Bollywood movie Om Shanti Om:

Picture abhi bakhi hai meri dost!*

*The movie is still not over my friends!