Tag Archives: death

The Mother Who Never Was

Deb-SlavenThe needful background for this story is that a little over a month ago my mother died.  I avoid the use of any euphemism or distracting turn of phrase here because more than any other person I’ve ever known, she simply slowly and irrevocably shriveled up and just passed from existence.  In point of fact I’m not sure that she was ever truly alive in any meaningful way at any point when I knew her.  

To understand this one has to go back many years to her childhood.  She was the eldest of three children and the only daughter; her mother was a very kind and simple woman while her father was an emotionally abusive alcoholic.  I got very little information from mother about her childhood but she recalled with great vividness many episodes in which her father careened down the road, drunk off his ass, taking great pleasure at the screams of his terrified children in the back seat.  By the time I knew my grandfather he had mellowed considerably but one could still see the vestiges of a domineering father figure.

When it came time for my mother to head to college, she aspired above all to work with animals.  She ended up at Purdue so she was in the right place at the right time but unfortunately, her father would have none of that.  He insisted, as mom tells it anyway, that being a veterinarian was not a proper profession for a woman and that he would only support her if she trained to become a teacher instead.  My shy and retiring mother didn’t agree but she went along with the plan.  Sadly, uninspired by the curriculum, she didn’t make it past her first year of classes.  Within 12 months she was back in Frankfort working in a factory.

C.T.S 1985 (I Think)After a few years back in town she met my father; in a way they were a good match.  My father was a rebel and my mother needed that influence.  Grandpa, of course, wasn’t terribly happy about it.  Family history has it that there were a few instances in which my grandfather made his displeasure with my father clear using a firearm.  I suspect on some deeper level that my mother married my father at least in part just because he disapproved so strongly.  They married in 1972 and less than two months later I was on the way.  I’ve written elsewhere in this blog about my mother’s view on motherhood so I won’t rehash it but suffice to say that a human child was the last thing she needed at this juncture in her life.

My parents remained married for about 15 years and putting both halves of the story together they really seemed to be working at right angles to each other.  To hear my father’s side of the story, his basic issue was that he seemed to just lose interest in her.  She didn’t grow as a person, he said, at all during the years of their marriage.  As a result he ended up seeking fulfillment in his artwork, carpentry and (it is rumored) “outside the marriage.”  On her side, she said she was doing everything she could to make him happy.  I understand completely why she would have done so; given her relationship with her father, this was just how relationships with men are supposed to go.  She tried to emulate her obedient and subservient mother but that was the last thing my father wanted out of a marriage.  He hung on as long as he did only out of some sense of duty to me, I suspect.  

When their marriage ended, things went downhill quickly, but I recall exactly one lucid and connected conversation with my mother from that time.  After my father had left the house for good she sat on the bed next to me and said simply, “well, it’s just you and me now.”  I recall feeling elated; not because I wanted my father to leave but because I wanted desperately for things to change.  Even if they changed for the worse there was a chance that I’d not be stuck in that room.  Sadly, that moment of lucidity passed in a flash.  A few months later she attempted suicide (pills) and I was put in the care of my grandparents permanently.  

My contact with her after that was sporadic at best and when we did speak our conversations were awash in her intense mental illness.  She insisted that my father was still harassing her by driving past the house multiple times a day.  People at work, she claimed, talked about her behind her back and were trying to get her fired.  Eventually she told me in rather impolite terms to stop calling her at all; she honestly believed I was only calling to check up on her so I’d know when she died and could get her money.  At the time of her death I hadn’t spoken to her for years except to tell her when my father passed away.

A month ago when I walked into my mother’s house for the first time in over a decade I didn’t know what to expect.  I had hopes, of course, that somehow I’d find some answers to the puzzle that was my mother.  This woman gave birth to me but to be honest I didn’t really know her.  She was an archetype of mental illness and abused child but at no point did I ever really KNOW her as a person.  I had hoped on some level to finally unravel part of the mystery to find out who my mother really was as a person beyond the high-level view I had.

After spending several hours digging through the contents of her house, it became clear that there were no answers.  There was one photo album; it contained pictures only of herself and every animal she’d ever owned.  All photos of me or other family members were absent.  She had very neatly trimmed everyone else in the universe out of her life because her brain had tricked her into thinking that everyone she knew, past and present, was a deceiver and out to get her somehow.

The only glimmers of her came in the form of a few oddments.  She had become fairly obsessed with Sam Elliott as evidenced by a box of magazines and several movies.  Her cedar chest contained a few remembrancers from past pets: a parakeet perch, her last dog’s collar.  She kept legal documents, tax returns, one letter from my ex wife with photos of the kids.  My mom turned to the Bible at some point for hope and inspiration but it was short lived; she had a notebook devoted to the topic but only the first page was ever used.  All in all the physical footprint she left on this world over almost 70 years was remarkably scant.

Either my mother was very good at hiding herself or (as my father would say if he were here) maybe there just wasn’t anything there in the first place.  He was very intent on the idea that in many ways my mother was a non-person because she never put herself first enough to develop into someone real.  Life was always about making her father happy or making him happy but it was never about making herself happy.  So maybe I went into that house looking for a mom that never existed in the first place.  

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Interview with Jonathan R. Rose, author of the new horror novel Carrion

My Video Skype interview with Jonathan R. Rose, author of the grimmest book I’ve read in a while, Carrion, a post-apocalyptic zombie scenario told from the perspective of the zombie.

He talks at length about the aspects of his home in Mexico that made their way into the book and his deeper message in the book about what it really means to be human…

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Carrion Jonathan R. Rose

As is often the case, I received this book free for the purpose of review. Despite that kindness I give my absolutely candid thoughts below.

The nutshell summary on this book is that it follows a single zomboid individual as he travels through the remains of a great metropolitan city appeasing his insatiable appetite for human flesh.

To the positive, the book is one of the most profoundly grim pieces of writing I’ve come across in a few years. The author has painted us a desolation that is unforgiving and an antagonist who does anything and everything to slake his thirst for blood. Rose’s descriptions are vivid, evocative and detailed. Also, unusual for a book of this sort the text is fairly clean with only a handful of editing errors.

To the negative, even with all the grim detail, the story fails to create real emotion because it is, often almost cartoonish. No matter how vividly described, a situation that is not sufficiently realistic will tend to sap away the tension needed to build a real crescendo. In this case, so many plot issues such as the “monster’s” perpetually broken ankle that doesn’t really seem to do much to slow him down and the complete ineptness of his adversaries keep breaking up the pace of the story. Add to that the distraction of the author’s odd choice of metaphors at times and what could be ticklishly horrifying turns into something much less.

Further, I’m not entirely sure I found the author’s point in this book beyond merely playing with gratuitous violence. The anti-hero plods through the story devouring the populace but I didn’t really see any overarching point to the thing aside from a very generic good versus evil theme.

In summary, the author’s work has tremendous potential and for a first novel this one is exceptional but still fails to come into full flower as a novel. It has many great elements for those who adore an unabashed blood and guts fest but those with more complex appetites will find themselves still rather hungry.

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Book Reviews: American Afterlife: Encounters in the Customs of Mourning by Kate Sweeney (***)

Every once in a while I actually pay money for a book and in this case I rather wish I hadn’t. Usually I go into a “positives vs negatives” analysis on books but in this case I think I’ll opt for more of a “this is what this book is” concept.

Firstly, what I expected was hard non-fiction. I wanted a tightly-connected book that described the history of funeral practices in some level of detail. Instead what this book gives you is a rather loose cobbling together of a few historical tidbits and a surprising amount of memoir. Imagine something of the form, “roadside memorials have become increasingly popular; Steve built a roadside memorial in 1976 when his wife died in a terrible accident. She was blonde-haired and blue-eyed and stood 5’8 with a wispy figure and a penchant for pancakes that would make any man weak in the knees.” OK, I’m making all that up but that’s the general form we’re talking about. The book seems to be about 15% history, 15% current day practices and 70% personal anecdote from the author’s time writing the book. It’s well-written certainly and entertaining in some ways but it’s completely not what I expected when I plunked hit the ‘buy’ button.

The second important thing to know is that the book is not really terribly historical. The first chapter talks about funeral practices of days gone by from hair jewelry to cooling boards but the second chapter is about memorial tattoos and from there we’re very much stuck in the present day. So this is a book about TODAY and only remotely historical.

In summary, it’s entirely possible that you’ll love this book. The author is a good writer and entertaining in a certain sense of the word but you should not buy this book with the idea that it’s going to teach you much about the history of the mourning process. It contains a plethora of anecdotes both relevant and not; some entertaining and some not but if you, like I was, are just looking for an exploration of the morbid history of how we deal with those most final of destinations…. this isn’t that book. Mary Roach’s “Stiff” is probably more your cup of tea.

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Of Mushrooms and Aircraft Carriers

When I started blogging a decade ago I did it under the banner of “The Tattered Thread” on the idea that the any attempt to tie one post together with the next would be a pretty difficult endeavor. I think this is the way with most of our lives. The daily experiences of any one person as viewed from the outside are silly non sequiturs relevant of nothing. Sure we may have kids or a job to tie things together somewhat but the really interesting “stuff” that we encounter every day is just randomness. Over the years I’ve tried to tie my life together into themes that made some sense to the outside world, to somehow bundle myself into tidy quanta of existence that someone might actually care about. After a decade, that’s just fraught with silliness and is a dead end. All my thematic blogs are desolate ghost towns. So to that end I go back to what I meant to do in the first place and simply make with the randomness.

As of late I’ve tried to make every iota of my time somehow productive (a side effect of the Amazon reviewer obsession that I’m finally coming out of), including driving time and as a consequence I’ve picked up podcasts again. I find that increasingly my in-person conversations rely more and more heavily on the phrase, “did you hear about…” and invariably that topic came from some podcast or other whether it be The Moth or Welcome to Night Vale or something else. The one that haunts me now is an episode of This American Life in which they went on board an American aircraft carrier on station in the Arabian Sea. It was not so much the specifics of what they had to say that struck as it was the atmosphere, the realization that these ships are floating cities with everything a person could need for years on end. They comprise these microcosms of society with their own culture and are wonderfully self-sustaining mobile representatives of the United States. It really is a breathtaking concept to realize just how large these ships are and that the total population of carriers in the whole world is 12 and the U.S…. owns them all.

Speaking of things on a grand scale, I’m reading 5 books at the moment and one of them is Mycophilia.  It’s a book, to summarize, about mushroom hunters.  So far it’s only 20% about the science of fungi (a supreme disappointment to me) but that 20% is revelatory.  Yes, we all know fungus as a force to break down organic matter and sprout those cute little fairie rings but the book describes the epic scope of fungi in the real world.  In a healthy forest covering thousands of acres, the fungi comprise a key component of the entire ecosystem.  And we’re not talking about a few isolated patches, we’re talking one fungus, one individual fungus, that covers thousands of contiguous acres.  These are some of the oldest and largest organisms on the planet.  And before you say, “so what?” realize that the forest couldn’t exist at all without them.  Plant roots are exceptionally poor on their own at extracting and absorbing nutrients.  They need something to help them break those biological components down to their simpler elements.  Enter the fungus.  Without fungi, the forest would die a horrible death.  Wonder why that bush you brought back from the nursery died after a few years?  It’s likely because plant didn’t have the fungi it needed to survive.  It’s theorized that 90% of plants have some fungal partner that must be present in order for them to thrive. The complexity of nature cannot be underestimated or under appreciated.

To close, a few even more random tidbits. I amused myself today when I came across the word ‘incipient’ in a book. It is one of those that “feels” like what it is. The short definition is “beginning to happen or develop.” This is in marked contrast to the last post’s word: ‘pulchritude’. I suspect deeply that if you gaze across the table at your date for the evening and whisper, “you are the most pulchritudinous creature in the universe” that your prospects for a next date may be severely curtailed. However, if your date looks back at you beemingly after such an utterance then she is most assuredly worthy of your most abundant and heartfelt devotion. Lastly, I came across the phrase “leopard bottom a pizza”. I’d not heard this one … ever… but it seems apropos. From a cooking standpoint it sounds… hard. It would be exceptionally easy to cross over from leopard bottom to an out and out inedible ebony panther if one did not take sufficient care.


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The evening in movies… a selection of documentaries

This evening I took a little tour, as I often do, of the newly released movies on Amazon Instant Watch. This time the new material included quite a few documentaries. I sum them up here for your perusal.

Baghdad Taxi (4/5)
As is usual, I picked this movie because it looked rather lonely and unreviewed on Amazon Instant Watch. Am I glad I did? Yes, but the whole thing makes me rather sad.

Firstly, if you are a conservative who believes that by going into Iraq that we “did them a favor” or somehow improved their lot in life then you need to look for another movie. This film is very much centered around the everyday Iraqi and the everyday Iraqi… is not happy about our presence in the region.

The overwhelming sense I got from this film was that this taxi driver could be taxi driver anywhere. Sure, he drove past lots of dunes and mosques but those could have easily been mountains and grain silos. As much as we want to assert our American uniqueness, we’re really not all that different. Forgive me if my liberal viewpoints are showing but no matter where you go in the world we’re not all that different. The only way you can tell one region of the world from another is that sometimes the green rectagonal highway signs are in Arabic.

You will no doubt get something different from this film but the grand takeaway for me is that go wherever you will in the world, people are people. The reactions of people in the street in Iraq after being invaded are no different from those in Atlanta, Georgia. Neglecting the difference in language they say the exact same things and ultimately all they want is to have their country back. It’s an enlightening illustration of the human species.

Ukranian Brides (4/5)
I picked this movie because it was very newly released and looked lonely on Amazon Instant Watch. Am I glad I did? Yeah, really I am.

So when I started this movie I expected the standard cliches: Creepy desperate dudes seeking desperate women for love and marriage. That’s not exactly what I got. Yes, there were creepy dudes who were well past their prime. And yes, they were looking for atrociously young Eastern Block women to get married to. The women though… they were surprisingly cagey and knew what they wanted and weren’t afraid to say, “um, no. Go away” despite the fact that they might be going home to a cardboard box.

On the positives and negatives of the film, this was a really revealing portrait of the way guys think. The beginning is classic male-human thinking. They’re all sitting around a big notebook full of women and just picking based on appearance alone. That is *SO* Homo Sapien male that it’s not even funny. This movie has a lot of hidden truths to reveal about the way both women and men think about relationships. The other interesting thing to watch out for is the hidden expressions of the women involved. One minute they’re bright, happy, engaged and the next their faces reveal utter and complete boredom and disinterest as if they’d rather be anywhere else.

To the negative, the one thing that stands out for me is the lack of a final status update on the couples involved. The summary says that there are three couples but really for most of the video it’s two guys who are out to find wives. I won’t spoil anything for you but at the end things… wrap up … but there’s no final statement of “3 years later they were all hit by an asteroid” or whatever to let you know how these couples worked things out or didn’t. It’s rather a letdown because now I’ll never know.

In summary, this is a good movie to watch with a significant other and one that will cause endless conversation. It’s not quite everything you could want in such a film but it is brief, to the point and does reveal quite a bit about the way men and women approach long-term relationships.

Muti Murders (3/5)
I picked this title only because it looked lonely on Amazon Instant Watch and in need of a review. Am I glad I did? Not especially.

The nutshell view of this is that it’s a documentary covering Muti murders, a ritualistic African practice of human sacrifice in an attempt to appease the Gods or the tribal ancestors. The movie covers an intriguing topic but it is incredibly graphic. If you watch this, you will see photos of children who have been beheaded and their heads will be right next to the body staring back at you. This is not a movie for the timid.

To the positive, this movie covers an important topic. This is serious business and several murders of this sort happen every month. It’s a real problem and it can be hoped that by exposing them through this movie we can contribute to putting a stop to the practice.

On the negative side, as I said, the whole thing is periodically very, VERY graphic. If that’s what you’re looking for then I guess you’ve found it. Also, vastly secondary to the disembodied heads on display, the documentary seems rather over-produced with lots of rather vapid transitions and spooky bumper music. It’s somewhat distracting at the least.

In summary…. yeah, I said it all above. An important message but one that turns the viewer’s stomach.

So all that said, it really helps us a lot if you visit Amazon and vote our reviews helpful. You visit, you vote, we get more stuff to review to bring you scrupulously honest reviews about. It’s as simple as that.

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Edited to Death – Good to see NPR-listeners in a book but not a great plot (3/5)

Firstly and as usual I received this book for free in exchange for a review, this time via a LibraryThing giveaway. Also as usual I give my candid opinions below.

The book centers around a professional writer-cum-sleuth who gets involved in the murder investigation of her editor and close friend. The novel is set in the San Francisco bay area and the characters are very liberal; they listen to NPR, have wine with dinner and enjoy a very socially and culturally diverse group of friends. To me this was joyful and refreshing to see in a novel but if you dislike those who practice what is generally termed an “alternative lifestyle” then you will want to look towards another book.

To the positive side, I quite enjoyed the writer’s depiction of the area and the people in it. It’s obvious that she’s spent some time there and she makes the place sound like an idyllic retirement locale if I should ever be so lucky. Her characters are vividly drawn, diverse and behave in self-consistent and colorful ways that makes them seem like old familiar friends that you’d really want to hang out with. As one who conveys people and place this author is top-shelf.

To the negative, the plot seemed rather flat and trite. I kept reading for the people but the plot seemed like one that has been played out a hundred times in a hundred books. There’s nothing particularly innovative about the story except that it’s been shifted to an unusual demographic. I religiously avoid spoilers so I can’t say much more, especially considering this is in the mystery genre, but at the end I felt like I’d read the script for an episode of CSI.

In summary, I love the writing and I love the locale but the story struck me as rather a non-event. I look forward to more from this author if it should happen to show up on my doorstep.

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Eternal Redemption (novella) – Amusing and allegorical (4/5)

As usual, this book came to me free in exchange for a review. Also as usual, my scrupulously honest opinions follow in spite of the kindness of receiving a free copy of the book.

In a nutshell, this novella is a standard Faustian tale in which our protagonist regrets the bargain he made centuries ago. The story is amusing because the author has chosen a familiar and popular premise. One can almost never lose when the devil appears in your book. The one twist we see is that we view the story from the perspective of the aftermath of the bargain rather than the time which led up to it.

The writing style of this book is rather perplexing. Within the first 5 pages, the narrator speaks much like a man would who has had the benefit of centuries to hone his mode of speech. His erudition is vastly conspicuous and his sentences ramble on interminably as if the utterer had nothing better to do for several more centuries. Personally I found the effect to be most literary and refreshing but after that brief introduction the text settles down into something quite pedestrian. To illustrate this point, from page 1:

“An ill mind acts in accordance with its forsaken nature, but is inhibited from the capacity to predict the long-term effects of an erred volition.”

Then about half-way through the story:

“He stepped into the cavern and waited, half expecting a booby trap to seal the portal shut behind him.”

This is not to say that one is qualitatively inferior to the other, but merely to point out that there is a wide swing in tone from the beginning to the end. So if you’re reading a sample that includes page 1 and don’t understand a word of it, fear not. It does come back down to Earth. Personally I would have preferred it had stayed in its lofty prolixity but if that were the case then I am confident that I really would be the only one who wanted to read it.

Moving beyond the writing itself, the story, while entertaining, seems to lack subtlety. I judge much about the quality of a book based on the images which come unbidden to mind as I read the text. In this case the images were those you might see in a graphic novel. The plot raced along but seemed to lack details and artistry. That is no doubt because the author’s real intent is more allegorical than descriptive, but that theme didn’t seem sufficiently strong to distract me from the rather surface treatment of the action.

In summary, it’s a worthwhile buy at its current price point but I think that the writing style within the first 5 pages caused my own expectations to ascend to unattainable heights. This novella is a unique blend between descriptive action and poignant allegory but I’m not sure it has attained exactly the right blend between the two. It definitely spurs further interest in the author and I am anxious to see what else he may produce in the future.

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Mourning (Soog) – A thought-provoking movie out of Iran (4/5)

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This title was added to Amazon’s Instant Watch collection only a couple of days ago. It’s free to Prime members so it’s certainly worth the money.

As usual I picked this movie only because it looked lonely in Amazon Instant watch and needed a nice review. I’m glad I did because it was a surprisingly deep little title.

When I read the description all I saw was the words “tragic secret” and immediately decided to start the movie without further inspection. That added a nice air of mystery to the whole thing as the first 20 minutes are a bit perplexing even if you do happen to read the whole description of the movie. They illustrate wonderfully, in a visual way, the barriers of communication that are pervasive throughout the whole thing.

This movie is not an action-packed thrill-ride but instead the entire plot, such as it is, plays out in the span of a few hours. The trio drives to Tehran through some pretty scenic country and manages somehow to communicate with each other only unintentionally as the secrets they’re trying to keep leak out. I can’t really say much more without risking a spoiler so I leave the rest to your imagination.

In summary, this is the sort of movie that makes you think and spawns conversations. It’s not the sort that blows your shorts off or makes you squirt milk out of your nose in laughter. It’s tragic, dark and… one can’t even really say hopeful. Worth a watch if you’re in the right mood to have your brain stirred up a bit. Oh, and bear with the first 20 minutes. The audio is not hopelessly out of sync and the video is not broken. All will become clear to you.

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Reviews: Killing His Fear

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As usual I received this book for free at the hands of the generous author. Also as usual, despite that great kindness, I give my candid opinions below.

On the positive side, the author has a keen grasp of psychopathic behavior and understands well the inner workings of the mind of someone suffering from schizophrenia. The narrative is also reasonably interesting and has a circumspect style told from the viewpoint of both the killer and the police who pursue him.

Sadly, the negatives far outweigh the positives of the storyline. At the simplest level, the grammar and typography is in need of a good, sound editing. Punctuation is misplaced, words are misspelled or misused, and most amusing of all there are two chapter 39s. The whole thing just seems rather slap-dash and it completely ruins the effect of story. Further, the dialog is unrealistic and childlike as characters go through stiff and unrealistic interactions with each other that just don’t sound like natural verbal discourse at all. The author seems to go through phases in which he will use a particular word (one jarring example was the word ‘gonna’ as a form of ‘going to’) 7 times in the space of one and a half pages and then never uses it again in the entire rest of the book. In another case he seems to decide that contractions are bad and just stops using them for several chapters resulting in almost robotic dialog.

In summary, the author knows his subject matter but his mode of connecting the pieces is just a shambles. His strength is portraying the mind of the mentally deranged but anything outside that realm just turns to improbable plot points that come to conclusions that are far too easy and predictable. At the heart of this novel there’s a real talent but it’s buried under rather a dark and murky bushel.

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