Tag Archives: fiction

Book round-up: what I’ve been reading lately

It’s been a long time since I’ve done a good ol’ fashioned book round-up on the blog. To be precise: it’s been eight months. Oops. As usual, I’ve read more books in eight months than can fairly be reviewed in one sitting, so I will sort them into my handy categories of Great Reads, Good Reads, Meh Reads, and Bad Reads. The Great Reads, I think, each deserve a word of explanation.

So, here goes.

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Great Reads

Fangirl, by Rainbow Rowell: Rowell’s sweet, moving novel about a college freshman (Cath) who loses herself in writing fan-fiction as she struggles with her real-life relationships was un-put-downable. As usual, Rowell continues to produce the only “romance novels” that I can stomach. Smart Bitches, Trashy Books review here.

Carry On, by Rainbow Rowell: A sort of companion novel to Fangirl, Rowell visits the universe that Fangirl‘s Cath was obsessed with — a Potter-esque school for aspiring magicians — and creates a love story between two of the main characters. Confused? This NPR review may help.

Fortune Smiles, by Adam Johnson: This collection of short stories is as beautiful and poignant as any of Johnson’s other work. I continue to marvel at his ability to bring to life such an array of rich, believable worlds (North Korea, post-Katrina New Orleans, Palo Alto) with such nuanced, complicated characters. Adam Johnson is such a treasure. Did I mention Fortune Smiles won the National Book Award?

The Royal We, by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan: I never wanted this book, which can fairly be described as the literary equivalent of a rom-com, to end. It follows a pair of Prince William-Kate Middleton analogs (in this case, the fictional Prince Nicholas and his American girlfriend Rebecca Porter) from their meet-cute to their wedding, with lots of juicy drama and intrigue thrown in for good measure. I really felt like I understood the now Duchess Kate’s plight after reading this book. Cocks and Morgan, the geniuses also known as The Fug Girls, make a delightful novel writing team. I recommend The Royal We even to readers, like me, who hate most romance novels and are trepidatious about rom-coms. Read it. Or, just wait for the movie to come out.

Ghettoside, by Jill Leovy: I was turned onto this book by a recommendation from (personal hero) David Sedaris, who encouraged all of his Facebook followers to check it out. Leovy, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, explores the epidemic of violence among African-Americans, the often toxic relationship between law enforcement and poor communities, and the systemic failure of the criminal justice system to prosecute black murders. Fair warning: Ghettoside is not an easy read, but it is fascinating, and gripping, and important. New York Times review here.

The Year of the Runaways, by Sunjeev Sohata: Months after finishing this book, which tells the story of several Indian immigrants struggling to carve out lives in the U.K., and a British-Indian woman whose life intersects with theirs, I cannot stop thinking about it. As soon as this book ended, I experienced that particular kind of mourning one feels when you have to say goodbye to characters you really care about. What makes The Year of the Runaways even more remarkable to me is that it is Sohata’s debut novel and he never read a novel until he was eighteen. What?! Guardian review here.

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, by John Berendt: This classic came out in 1994, but I never thought to read it until now. Berendt manages to make a true-crime novel read like fiction — and charming, winsome fiction, at that. Despite the fact that this book is about a murder, it made me want to visit Savannah and stroll through its storied gardens.

Good Reads

Fates and Furies, by Lauren Groff

The Turner House, by Angela Flournoy

Troublemaker, by Leah Remini

Challenger Deep, by Neal Shusterman

The God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy

Bringing Up Bébé, by Pamela Druckerman

Little Victories, by Jason Gay

The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, by Stephen King

The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro

I Didn’t Come Here to Make Friends, by Courtney Robertson

The Expatriates, by Janice Y.K. Lee

The Run of His Life: The People vs. O.J. Simpson, by Jeffrey Toobin

After Birth, by Elisa Albert

The Dark Net, by Jamie Bartlett

Meh Reads

A Spool of Blue Thread, by Anne Tyler

Loving Day, by Mat Johnson

The Executioner’s Song, by Norman Mailer

We Were Liars, by E. Lockhart

The Red Parts, by Maggie Nelson

Bad Reads

Black Eyed Susans, by Julia Heaberlin

The Tastemakers, by David Sax

 

 

Great reads, good reads, meh reads, and bad reads: a book round-up

Since May, which was the last time I posted a book review round-up, I’ve read (or started to read and gave up on — more on that below) almost thirty books. THIRTY. The experience of reading approximately six books a month for the past five months has had some sharp peaks and deep valleys, as you might imagine. Some of the books I read were fantastic, wonderful, absorbing, un-put-downable! Others, however, were real stinkers. Weirdly, it’s the stinkers, rather than the masterpieces, that are sticking with me as I sit down to write this, perhaps because it seems like there were just so many of them, and they were all so disappointing/maddening.

Given the quantity of books I’ve consumed over the past five months, I’ll not be writing reviews of each one. Instead, I’ve divided the books into four rough (and necessarily reductive) categories: Great Reads, Good Reads, Meh Reads, and Bad Reads. Instead of individual book reviews, I will let the categories do the talking. If you’d like any more color on any of these books, drop me a note or a comment here and I’ll tell you what I think.

Now, a brief explanation of my categories:

A Great Read, in my estimation, must possess excellent writing as well as a gripping plot (if fiction) and/or unique perspective/angle on its subject (if non-fiction). The experience of reading a Great Read is one of absorption. You look forward to reading the book, and while you’re reading it, you’re lost in its world. You want to tell people about it. You want others to read it so that you can share the experience of it with someone else. I will vouch for all of the books in my Great Reads category. They are, like I say, great.

Standards are slightly lower for Good Reads. A Good Read must be thoroughly enjoyable, with solid writing and/or a lively enough plot/story to make up for just pretty good writing. A Good Read is a book that you look forward to picking up, but won’t necessarily tell anyone about at a dinner party.

A Meh Read is just okay, either because the plot is sluggish, or the writing is not up to snuff, or both. A Meh Read, however, is not bad enough for you to actually stop reading. Whatever failures of writing or plotting or research they may contain, Meh Reads are not terrible or a waste of time, necessarily. They’re just okay. They’re the reading equivalent of a shrug. They’re meh.

Bad Reads, of course, are actively awful. Most of the books on the Bad Reads list landed there because the writing was so piss poor that I wanted to toss the book into a bonfire and dance around it while muttering dark incantations. As a writer who would gladly saw off an appendage — any appendage! You name it, I’ll saw it! — to have a novel published, it irks me, to put it lightly, that so many books with stupid, crappily constructed plots and lazy, hackneyed writing are getting published and purchased. And from a reader’s perspective, it’s endlessly frustrating that these horrid books are marketed to the unsuspecting public with bait like, “If you liked Gone Girl, you’ll love [Shitty Novel That Sucks]!” Here’s the thing: we all liked Gone Girl because it was fast-paced and twisty, with smart observations about male-female relationships, and Gillian Flynn can actually write. Yet somehow, any piece of dross that fancies itself a “psychological thriller” gets compared to Gone Girl, and we, the reading public, keep falling for it. Or, at least, I do, and I consider myself a somewhat discerning reader (although perhaps I shouldn’t give myself so much credit). Three out of the four books on my Bad Reads list are “psychological thrillers” that I was dumb enough to pay good money for. I only managed to get all the way through one of them (The Good Neighbor, which contained shockingly bad writing and enough loose plot threads to knit a winter sweater); the other three I gave up on in order to preserve my own sanity.

Great Reads

Among The Ten Thousand Things, by Julia Pierpont

Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget, by Sarah Hepola

A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara

My Documents, by Alejandro Zambra

Modern Romance, by Aziz Ansari

This Is Not a Love Story, by Judy Brown

Good Reads

Lost at Sea, by Jon Ronson

The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., by Adelle Waldman

Sisterland, by Curtis Sittenfeld

The Splendid Things We Planned, by Blake Bailey

Hyacinth Girls, by Lauren Frankel

Eileen, by Ottessa Moshfegh

Pretty Is, by Maggie Mitchell

Drink, by Ann Dowsett Johnston

The Lifeboat, by Charlotte Rogan

Meh Reads

The Golem and the Jinni, by Helene Wecker

Luckiest Girl Alive, by Jessica Knoll

The Ice Twins, by S.K. Tremayne

Visiting Hours: A Memoir of Friendship and Murder, by Amy Butcher

In the Unlikely Event, by Judy Blume

How Should a Person Be?, by Sheila Heti

Days of Awe, by Lauren Fox

A Good Killing, by Allison Leotta

In a Dark, Dark Wood, by Ruth Ware

Bad Reads

The Good Girl, by Mary Kubica

Remember Mia, by Alexandra Burt

The Good Neighbor, by A.J. Banner

The Martian, by Andy Weir

Book review Friday: several quick takes

I’ve been doing a lot of reading ever since my lovely mother got me a Kindle Paperwhite in April. Its lit-up screen allows me to read in the dark while I’m feeding Lucia at night (or early in the morning) and want to keep her room dark so as not to wake her fully. With my old Kindle, I’d have to turn on the light to read, so I ended up playing on my iPhone and reading New Yorker articles on its tiny screen instead. Not awesome. Anyway, since my reading life has been restored to me, I’ve torn through a bunch of books, and thought I’d do some short reviews here while the baby is napping. One never knows how long one has when a baby is napping, so these will be short and sweet and probably not finely edited. Here we go!

The Circle, by Dave Eggers

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I had high hopes for The Circle, mostly because Dave Eggers and his wife wrote the screenplay for Away We Go, one of my favorite movies, and because I’ve volunteered at 826DC, a great non-profit also spearheaded by Eggers. Unfortunately, The Circle was a big disappointment. Well, let me qualify that: I did enjoy the first 40% or so of the book, which consisted of some great world-building and suspense-building, but hated the last 60%, when the entire thing came crashing down in a pile of heavy-handed metaphor, unrealistic outcomes, and an increasingly irritating protagonist. There are so many problems with this book, and I think this reviewer on Goodreads ably summarizes most of them, but what irritated me most was the squandered potential the book had to be great. The set-up, in which Eggers introduces us to The Circle, a utopic, monolithic version of Google, Facebook, Twitter, and every other major tech/social media company in the Silicon Valley, was interesting in itself, and the idea that the heads of The Circle had secretive, nefarious plans had great potential for intrigue and suspense. But the plot ended up flopping majorly when it became a dull-edged warning about the dangers of intrusive social technology in our lives. Eggers doesn’t have anything new to say about the overuse of social media, unfortunately, and in trying to impart the oft-repeated message that it can be dangerous and dehumanizing, he relies on such ham-fisted, hackneyed metaphor that the book’s message comes across as obvious and trite. When I was done reading the book, I realized that I wanted to rewatch Charlie Brooker’s excellent, super creepy, and incisive TV series Black Mirror, which provides much smarter and more unique commentary about the creeping dangers of technology in society. In fact, that’s my recommendation: skip The Circle and check out Black Mirror (and don’t watch alone and/or at night — you’ll have nightmares).

Missoula, by Jon Krakauer

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I’ve loved everything I’ve read by Krakauer (Into the Wild, Into Thin Air, Under the Banner of Heaven), and his latest effort, Missoula, did not disappoint. The book provides a thoughtful look at the serious problem of non-stranger rape, particularly on college campuses, and particularly at the University of Montana in Missoula. Krakauer examines several cases of non-stranger rape in the college town and the way they were handled, variously, by the university, the police, the prosecutors, the media, and the public. I read in an interview with Krakauer in which he said that he and his publishers decided to release the book early given the disastrous, poorly researched Rolling Stone article on the alleged rape culture at UVA, because Krakauer felt that his book would provide a much-needed counterpoint to the idea floating around post-Rolling Stone debacle that many women lie about being raped. In fact, Krakauer points out, most women do not lie about sexual assault, and most victims of non-stranger rape do not ever report the crimes. This book provides an eye-opening and moving account of a disturbing problem that does not get talked about often enough.

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, by Jon Ronson

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It feels wrong to refer to a book about the devastating effects of internet shaming as a “confection,” but when I say that this book, like most of Ronson’s smart, wry work, is like a delicious piece of non-fiction fudge, I mean it in the best way. Ronson’s dry wit makes even the most serious and depressing of subjects, including the power of anonymous internet commenters to destroy strangers’ lives without so much as a backward glance, digestible and light. I tore through this book and loved every page of it. Granted, I am a giant Jon Ronson fan and will read anything he writes, but I think this is some of his best work. Highly entertaining but also chilling, this book will make you rethink that nasty Twitter post or forum comment you were about to dash off.

Hausfrau, by Jill Alexander Essbaum

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I have mixed feelings about this novel, a dark tale about a bored, repressed American woman living with her Swiss husband and children in quaint, suburban Switzerland, and the ultimate consequences of her terrible decisions. I very much enjoyed the book’s strong sense of place and its sharp musings about Swiss culture. I enjoyed the deep character development. I enjoyed the sense of something dire lurking just around the corner. But when the Something(s) Dire finally happened, I ended up feeling deflated and depressed. The book became so heavy, so dark, so quickly, and offered no hope of a redemptive arc, that in the end I felt a bit cheated, or at least misled, by it. The writing is good, the story engaging, but the ending is a big bummer, and I’m not sure it served the story — or the characters — as well as the author seemed to think it did.

Yes Please, by Amy Poehler

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Amy Poehler’s memoir is a quick, light read with quite a few laugh-out-loud passages. Poehler is a good writer and a smart person, and her book, while not particularly hefty or revealing, is a fun read. One feels that one knows Poehler much better after reading about her childhood, her early career in improv and then at Saturday Night Live, and a few dustups with famous people. She talks about her achievements as a female comedian and actress without ever veering into arrogance or Gwyneth-like cluelessness, and she comes across as a genuine person who has managed to keep a good head on her shoulders despite her enormous success.

As an added bonus, here are a few even shorter reviews of books I read so long ago I can’t remember plot details, necessarily, but can recall how I felt about them overall.

Descent, by Tim Johnston: I read a glowing review of this novel on NPR and was expecting great things. The book was good, if plodding at times, but not great. There were genuine moments of suspense that paid off very well toward the last quarter of the book, but there were also wide swaths of boring prose and side-story that I could have done without.

The Girl on the Train, by Paula Hawkins: This book has gotten a lot of buzz lately, and rightly so. An excellent, tightly constructed psychological thriller. Very, very good.

Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel: I waited far too long to read this gorgeous book about the world after a devastating pandemic has drastically reduced the human population. The book is weird, and sad, with surprising, uplifting moments of beauty and lightness. It’s also one of the few books with descriptions of art that didn’t bore me to tears. Highly recommended.

Boy, Snow, Bird, by Helen Oyeyemi: I wanted to like this book, a unique spin on Snow White, more than I actually did. Interesting premise, good writing, but often boring.

The Damned, by Andrew Pyper: A friend whose taste I generally trust recommended this horror novel that takes place in the suburbs and city of Detroit. Unfortunately, despite the setting, I didn’t connect with Pyper’s writing. I found the style affected and distracting, particularly the author’s fondness for peppering his paragraphs with incomplete sentences, which I suppose were intended to provide dramatic heft, but came across as unpolished and trying too hard. I’m such a stickler for good writing in the novels I read that I couldn’t get past the author’s style and ended up not enjoying this book much at all, even though its premise — a man being haunted by the ghost of his malevolent sister — had potential.

Deep Down Dark, by Héctor Tobar: A fascinating look at the ordeal of the 33 Chilean miners who were trapped underground for months and the highly technical rescue operation that finally extricated them. Some of the technical aspects of the rescue were lost on me, but the human stories of the men trapped below the earth were touching and engaging.

Whew, okay! That’s all for now. If you’ve read any of these, let me know what you think! I welcome a lively book chat any time! Especially when the baby’s asleep.

Book review: eight short reviews to round out 2014

It’s almost the end of the year and the internet is bursting with comprehensive end-of-year book round-ups. This post, I must warn you, will not be one of those. If you want a great list of recent books to check out, the NPR Book Concierge is a fun, interactive collection of book recommendations that I used to find some of these very books that I’m about to review. This post, on the other hand, will be a list of eight books that I’ve read recently, in no particular order. So — you know, forewarned is forearmed.

Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett

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A friend from high school, Erin, recommended this book to me (as well as some of Patchett’s other books, including This is the Story of a Happy Marriage), and I’m so glad she did. The premise — a famous opera singer is taken hostage, along with a number of other people, during a birthday party at the home of the Vice President of an unnamed South American country — did not immediately grab me, but I was soon sucked in by Patchett’s beautiful writing and vividly drawn characters. The book is told from the perspective of a number of these characters — both hostages and kidnappers alike — which, in another author’s hands, might have come out as clunky or overreaching, but Patchett pulls it off seamlessly, easily flowing out of one character’s head and into another’s. The result is that we get to know these people deeply and intimately, and we really care about what happens to them, even the ones who seem, at first glance, completely unsympathetic. The ending of the book is both wrenching and lovely, and will stick with you the way only a truly satisfying ending can. Highly recommended.

The Orphan Master’s Son, by Adam Johnson

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When I was a freshman at Stanford, I was lucky enough to take a creative writing class taught by Julie Orringer, who at the time was a Stegner fellow and is now a successful novelist (please check out her gorgeous novel, The Invisible Bridge). One day, as a special treat, she brought our entire class to her house in the Haight district of San Francisco and invited over her friend Adam Johnson, who read aloud to us one of his short stories from his collection Emporium. I remember sitting on the floor, eating strawberries, and listening to him read. Then, twelve years passed and I never read anything else Johnson wrote, until I became aware, two years after it was published, of his Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Orphan Master’s Son. “Oh yeah,” I thought, “that’s the guy who read to us at Julie Orringer’s house. I should check out that book.” Anyway, all of this is to say that as I was reading The Orphan Master’s Son, jaw ajar, I kept reminding myself that, oh my God, Adam Johnson READ ALOUD to me and a few other students twelve years ago, and how awesome is that? The Orphan Master’s Son is a truly impressive piece of fiction. It takes place in North Korea in the 1990s and 2000s and manages to capture the overwhelming brutality of daily life in that regime while still telling quite a beautiful story of love and hope. I’ve read non-fiction about North Korea before (see, e.g., Barbara Demick’s Nothing to Envy), but Johnson’s fictional version of the place felt even more real, even more oppressive and urgent, than the real-life stories I’ve read. This isn’t a lighthearted beach read, by any means, but there are quite a few moments of humor and lightness. Highly recommended. NYT review here, for those interested.

The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell

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I was a big fan of Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas, so I was eager to pick up The Bone Clocks, which follows a similar structure of interwoven, temporally distinct stories told from different characters’ perspectives. It’s hard to succinctly describe the plot of The Bone Clocks, since it spans sixty years and a host of characters and sub-plots, but suffice it to say the main action revolves around a metaphysical war between the good guys (the Horologists, a group of immortal souls who are eternally reborn into different bodies) and the bad guys (the Anchorites, a group of evildoers who manage to evade death by drinking the lifeblood of humans with “psychosoteric” abilities). Now that I’m writing this out, the Anchorites sound a lot like the bad guys in Stephen King’s Doctor Sleep, don’t they? Anyway, in my opinion, the drawn-out battles between the Anchorites and the Horologists were the least interesting part of The Bone Clocks; I preferred the smaller scale stories about the mortal humans caught in the middle of the larger war. As always, Mitchell’s writing is a delight — who else could coin the term “gentle-twat?”– and even the convoluted fight scenes among the warring forces were pretty fun to read. Recommended for fans of Cloud Atlas who are itching for something else weird from Mitchell’s brain.

The Paying Guests, by Sarah Waters

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This book got a lot of buzz this fall, and as soon as I started hearing about it, I knew I’d buy it since I’ve read and enjoyed (for the most part) two other books by Sarah Waters. This one might be my favorite so far. The Paying Guests, which takes place in 1922 London, explores the reverberating consequences of a series of bad decisions involving love and violence. The plot includes a torrid lesbian love affair, betrayals, money woes, the justice system, lying, scheming, cheating — it’s a page-turner! As always, I love Waters’ writing; she has a gift for capturing universal truths in little snippets of prose. When describing the main character’s solo wanderings through London, she writes: “She loved these walks through London. She seemed, as she made them, to become porous, to soak in detail after detail; or else, like a battery, to become charged. Yes, that was it, she thought, as she turned a corner: it wasn’t a liquid creeping, it was a tingle, something electric, something produced as if by friction of her shoes against the streets. She was at her truest, it seemed to her, in those tingling moments — these moments when, paradoxically, she was also at her most anonymous.” Recommended.

The Light Between Oceans, by M.L. Stedman

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Like The Paying Guests, The Light Between Oceans is another story about the lasting consequences of a series of bad decisions — in this case, the misguided decision by a childless couple living in a remote lighthouse off the coast of Australia to keep a baby who washes ashore in a boat, rather than alerting the authorities on the mainland. I have mixed feelings on this book. On the one hand, I was absorbed in the story as I read, but on the other, when the story ended, I felt quite let down by the patness of its conclusion. There’s a tough balance to be struck by an author in resolving a plot satisfactorily — tying up loose ends and answering big questions — and tying everything into such a neat bow that the story feels less authentic as a result. I think M.L. Stedman veered too far into “happily ever after” territory in concluding this story, which, at its heart, should have recognized the fact that sometimes, things do get ruined, and you can’t go back to how things were before.

Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng

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I love a good story about a mysterious disappearance. This story, set in 1970s small-town Ohio, revolves around the disappearance of one Lydia Lee, the eldest daughter of James and Marilyn. The Lee family sticks out in their small college town because James is Chinese-American and Marilyn is white and their children, consequently, are considered oddities at their otherwise all-white high school. When Lydia goes missing, speculative articles in the local paper wonder about whether Lydia’s status as one of the only “Orientals” at her school could have led to her committing suicide. The circumstances leading up to Lydia’s disappearance, we come to understand, seem to have something to do with her unhappy family and social life, but it remains unclear what, exactly, happened until the very end of the book. Along the way, Ng tells a complex tale about family dynamics affected by racial and cultural tensions. My only real complaint about the way the story is told has to do with Ng’s tendency to pepper her story with “ripped from the headlines” real news items, as if to remind the reader that, yes, we’re still in the 1970s. It adds nothing to the story of Lydia Lee to be reminded that “1976 was a topsy-turvy time, [ ] culminating in an unusually cold winter and strange headlines…” Otherwise, the story is well told, moving, and keeps you guessing until the end. Recommended.

The Fever, by Megan Abbott

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The Fever may be one of my favorite books that I’ve read in recent months. It is a deeply creepy, beautifully rendered look at what happens when a mysterious affliction sweeps through a high school, sending girls — and only girls — to the hospital en masse. What’s causing it? The HPV vaccine? Environmental causes? A virus? Or something else entirely? I flew through this book, enjoying how utterly creeped out I was by it, and didn’t read a single review until today, when I read the New York Times review and realized that, yes, there were some troubling assumptions about female sexuality baked into this story. But even accepting that Abbott’s starting point about young women and sex might be problematic and recognizing that her portrayals of female and male characters are somewhat skewed, this book sucked me in and spat me out. Highly recommended for lovers of dark mysteries.

Delancey: A Man, a Woman, a Restaurant, a Marriage, by Molly Wizenberg

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This is a slim little memoir about a couple who opened a pizza restaurant in Seattle, and the trials and tribulations they faced along the way. It’s also sprinkled throughout with some scrumptious sounding non-pizza recipes. I enjoyed reading about the nitty-gritty involved with launching a business, and a peek behind the scenes at the blood, sweat, and tears that go into the day-to-day operation of even a small restaurant. Recommended for food lovers and those looking for a light, quick non-fiction read.

What have you read this year that you couldn’t put down? Let me know; I’m always looking for my next read!

Book review(s): six quick takes

I’ve been a book-reading machine lately, largely thanks to our New Zealand sojourn. For one thing, flying for twenty hours with, like, two movies to choose from (thanks for nothing, Fiji Air) is a situation that lends itself nicely to devouring a lot of books. Plus, being in a camper van for three weeks with not much else to do at night other than read helps, too. So, over the last two months, I’ve read a dozen books, which even for me is kind of a lot. Some of these books, of course, were pregnancy and childbirth-related (if you’re in that market, do check out Ina May Gaskin’s Guide to Childbirth and Emily Oster’s Expecting Better), but most were fiction. So here, in no particular order, are six (quick) fiction book reviews.

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The Magician’s Land, by Lev Grossman: This is the third book in Grossman’s Magicians series, which tell the tale of Quentin Coldwater, a graduate of the prestigious magical university Brakebills Preparatory College of Magic, and his magician friends and foes. The Magicians books are dark and funny and deep and highly readable. The lazy but rather misleading way to describe them to someone is by saying that they’re like “grown-up Harry Potter,” but that’s kind of an understatement. There’s no butter beer and chaste kissing going on in these books. The magicians in Grossman’s books are really adults. They swear and have sex and make terrible, often disastrous, life decisions. But Quentin and his magical cohorts also get to do really exciting stuff, like explore and rule a magical, Narnia-esque land called Fillory, or, in Quentin’s case, get expelled from Fillory and resort to dark, illegal magic to try to make a quick buck. The third book picks up with Quentin, newly expelled from Fillory, trying to make it as a freelance, under-the-table magician for hire, and also follows up on the gang back in Fillory. No spoilers here, of course, so let me just say that I thought this book provided a highly satisfying conclusion to a great series. If you haven’t read the first two books, get on that.

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Life Drawing, by Robin Black: I read Black’s Life Drawing right after finishing Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs, and my great admiration for the latter may have tainted my enjoyment of the former. I find that sometimes when I read one book in close proximity in time to another, I notice parallels between them, and then inevitably begin to compare them. This can result in an unfavorable verdict for a perfectly good novel just because it happens to be stacked beside another, stronger one. Such was the case, I’m afraid, for Life Drawing. Like Messud’s The Woman Upstairs, Black’s novel traces the complicated dynamics among a long-time couple and an outsider — a woman — and the trouble that such a triangle, even when not explicitly sexual, can bring upon a marriage. Unlike Messud’s novel, Life Drawing is told from the perspective of the wife in the triangle, rather than that of the outside woman. Like Messud’s novel, there are also long descriptions of art throughout the book, since the main character, Augusta (“Gus”) is a visual artist. Unfortunately, Black’s descriptions of imaginary art are even more plodding than Messud’s, and the book suffers for its long diversions into Gus’s creative process. The book spends most of its time, however, within the uncomfortable confines of Gus’s marriage to Owen, a writer with a stalled career, and the story often gets bogged down in Gus’s thoughts about her marriage — and art, and her demented father, and so on. The plot doesn’t pick up steam until well into the novel, and by that point, I had started to become irritated by quirks in the author’s writing, including long runs of dialogue in which each character repeats the name of the character to whom he or she is speaking (e.g., “I don’t know, Gus.” “I don’t understand it, Owen.” “I don’t know what to tell you, Gus.”). The dialogue was so stilted, it launched me out of the story, which was already dragging. Maybe if I hadn’t read The Woman Upstairs just before picking this up, I would have enjoyed it more, and allowed myself to get more caught up in the psychological drama of a damaged marriage, but in the end, there was not enough drama and too much psychology in Life Drawing for my liking.

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King of Cuba, by Cristina Garcia: I’m completely fascinated by Cuba (I spent a summer doing my undergraduate thesis research there and it was so weird and wonderful that I still love talking about it) and particularly by the tortured, nostalgic, complicated relationship between Cuban exiles and their motherland. In King of Cuba, Garcia alternates between two compelling characters to tell a riveting, human story about Cuba and the dynamic between its passionate, bitter first-wave exiles and its lingering, equally passionate despot. The story is told from the perspective of El Comandante — a fictionalized version of Fidel Castro — in Havana, and, ninety miles away in Miami, Goyo Herrera, an elderly Cuban exile bent on revenge against El Comandante, who he blames for stealing his first love and ruining his country. The story follows eighty-something Goyo as he plots to take out the eighty-something El Comandante, and paints a vivid, hilarious, and bittersweet picture of life in both Havana and Cuban Miami. I tore through this book and loved every page of it.

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All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr: Al’s lovely step-mom Ginger recommended this book to me, and I’m really glad I picked it up. When I saw that it was a novel about two young people in France and Germany during World War II, I’ll admit that I was trepidatious, fearing something maudlin or ultimately hopeless. But All the Light We Cannot See is neither of those things. It follows the parallel stories of Marie-Laure, a blind French girl, and Werner, a gifted young German orphan recruited into the Wehrmacht for his technical skills. The story jumps around in time, flashing back and forth between the children’s childhoods and their young adulthoods in the throes of the war. Some reviewers hated this time-jumping format, and some loved it. I didn’t mind it, and I liked how digestible the short chapters were. Eventually, of course, Werner and Marie-Laure’s paths cross in the walled French city of St. Malo at the very close of the war, and the results are both beautiful and heartbreaking. Even though this is a novel about kids in World War II, it won’t leave you rending your clothes or tearing your hair. It’s beautifully written, for one thing, and it’s filled with very human, relatable characters going about their lives on both sides of an inhuman situation.

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Landline, by Rainbow Rowell: I loved both of Rowell’s previous novels, Attachments and Eleanor & Park, so I was excited to read her third effort, Landline. As I sometimes do, I went into this novel blind and read nothing about it before I opened it. So imagine my surprise when I realized that it wasn’t just a light romance, but a light, time-traveling romance! Well, it’s not exactly time travel, it’s more of a phone with a direct connection to the past. Am I making this book sound crazy? It seems less crazy when you’re reading it, I promise. Landline tells the story of a wife and mother, Georgie, a successful TV writer, who’s hit a snag in her marriage to her college sweetheart, Neal. When Georgie decides to stay home in Los Angeles to work on her show, rather than accompany Neal and their two kids to Nebraska to visit his parents, things hit an all-time low. But then Georgie realizes that the landline in her high school bedroom connects her to Neal’s parents’ house — fourteen years earlier, before they were married, at a critical moment in their young relationship. In other words, present-day Georgie has the opportunity to fix her present-day marriage with an unwitting Neal of the past. Putting aside the obvious conundrums that spring up every time you introduce time travel (the butterfly effect, and so on), it’s an interesting idea. Probably everyone who’s been in a long-term relationship wonders, at some point, what it would be like to go back and fix earlier mistakes. Without giving the ending away, let me just say that the magical phone works its magic, and things end up as they’re supposed to. Overall, while I enjoyed Landline, it felt insubstantial; when I was done reading it, it slipped right out of my brain and heart. It was a far cry from the raw emotional power of Eleanor & Park, which made me cry at the gym, or even the pure, earnest sweetness of Attachments, which I read two-and-a-half years ago and still remember vividly. Maybe the issue was that I didn’t connect with Georgie and Neal as characters enough to ever become fully invested in the outcome of their relationship; I was kind of neutral for most of the book on whether they should stay together or divorce. Rowell is extremely gifted at creating relationships that feel real and relatable, but in this case, the relationship between Georgie and Neal wasn’t enough to elevate the book into something emotionally powerful for me. Nonetheless, I would recommend this as a slim, quick little book to read on the Metro or the beach. Just don’t expect to cry at the gym.

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The Wife, by Meg Wolitzer: This is the second Wolitzer book I’ve read (the first was The Interestings, about which I had decidedly mixed feelings), and after reading The Wife, I can say with conviction that Wolitzer is a great writer who sprinkles a lot of resonant truth throughout her books. Like with The Interestings, as I read The Wife, I felt compelled to highlight in my Kindle lots of passages that spoke to me, that seemed universally correct (in the beginning, Wolitzer’s description of the air on a plane, “once so antiseptic,” as now “home to a million farts and corn chips and moist towelettes” made me grin/cringe with recognition). To its credit, unlike The Interestings, the ending of The Wife was not emotionally manipulative or melodramatic, and I didn’t end up feeling like Wolitzer had taken me through the wringer unfairly. My one complaint about the book is that its largest plot reveal seemed glaringly obvious to me quite early on, and I’m not sure it that was intentional or not. The book tells the story of Joan Castleman, the unhappy wife of celebrated author Joe Castleman, and it revisits their long marriage, from soup to nuts, to suss out the source of Joan’s particular unhappiness. Because the novel spans the length of their four-decades-plus marriage, dipping in and out at various points, it’s not action-heavy until the very end, when we jump back into the present and Joan faces the decision of whether — and how — to leave her husband. Despite being low on twists and turns, I enjoyed this book, even though I could see the big reveal coming from a mile away. I wouldn’t recommend it if you’re looking for a page-turner, but the strength of Wolitzer’s writing and the keenness of her observations about marriage, particularly power dynamics within marriage, carry The Wife quite far.

Well, there you go: six books to contemplate. Some hits, some misses. Stay tuned for more book reviews, coming soon, as I’m plowing through several juicy tomes at the moment.

 

Book review: The Woman Upstairs, by Claire Messud

I picked up Claire Messud’s The Woman Upstairs after seeing it at a beachside bookstore near my parents’ condo in Delaware. Despite where I purchased it, this book is definitely not what one could fairly label a “beach read.” It’s not light, or frothy, or inconsequential. It’s a book that makes you think, and makes you squirm. It’s suspenseful, despite being rather light on plot. It’s extremely well written. In other words, it’s well worth your time (even if you are reading it on the beach).

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The titular “woman upstairs” in the story is Nora Eldridge, a single woman in her late-thirties (when the story begins) who teaches third grade in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Nora’s life, when the story picks up, is consumed primarily by her duties as a teacher and daughter. She teaches, and when she’s not teaching, she’s visiting and taking care of her elderly father, who lives nearby. Although Nora went to art school, she’s long ago given up on pursuing art as a career, and instead makes art when she has time in the extra bedroom of her apartment. Everything changes for Nora, though, when a new student, Reza Shahid, enters her third grade classroom, and she soon becomes emotionally entangled with him and his family.

The Shahids have just moved to Cambridge from Paris and are attractive, glamorous, and worldly. Reza is an adorable scamp with beautiful gray eyes. Reza’s father, Skandar, is an academic who specializes in the ethics of history, and his mother, Sirena, is a professional artist who makes large, fanciful installations. Nora finds herself charmed by Reza, attracted to Skandar, and drawn like a magnet to Sirena. As the school year progresses, Nora becomes more and more involved with the Shahids: she begins to share studio space with Sirena (and consequently resumes thinking of herself as a real artist), she babysits Reza, she goes on long, winding walks with Skandar. Nora’s involvement with the Shahids shapes every aspect of her life, and animates her days. During the year she spends in the Shahids’ presence, Nora is the happiest she’s ever been, and when they move back to Paris, she feels lost. And later, she discovers a deep betrayal by the Shahids that leads her to question everything about her relationship with them.

The Woman Upstairs is interesting in that not a lot happens, plot-wise, but yet the story is hyper-engaging. This is a pretty neat trick for an author to pull off. Messud manages to build tension by layering small events on top of one another and diving deep into Nora’s inner thoughts and feelings as these seemingly mundane events unfold. Nora helps Sirena with her installation. She discusses Lebanese politics with Skandar. She tucks Reza into bed. On the surface, these might seem like commonplace interactions (albeit perhaps a bit inappropriate given that Nora is Reza’s teacher), but for Nora, these quotidien developments feel weighted with import. Messud builds Nora’s story in such a way that each interaction Nora shares with one of the Shahids contributes to a growing sense of unease, as we, the readers, wait for the other shoe to drop. And drop the other shoe does, quite spectacularly, late in the book.

What makes this book compulsively readable is Messud’s handling of Nora’s tangle of emotions — infatuation, anger, envy, jealousy, sadness — as the story progresses. As the narrator, Nora offers us a kind of double perspective, since she’s telling her own story with several years’ remove on the events. That is, while she can still relay the intense emotions and desires she experienced during her year with the Shahids, it seems she can also offer occasional glimpses of hard, cold perspective on the matter. But it becomes clear as the story unfolds that Nora is still very much caught up in her year with the Shahids, even many years later (and there’s good reason for that, as we learn). Messud allows Nora to tell her story in such an intimate way that her revelations often become uncomfortable for the reader. We’re both wrapped up in Nora’s private psychodrama and are able to step outside of it and see, quite clearly, how disastrously things are going to end for her. This is probably why it didn’t bother me that I was able to spot the development that would later drive a wedge between Nora and the Shahids as soon as it happened.

Overall, I highly recommend this book for those in the market for a masterfully written psychological drama. Check out what The New York Times had to say, too.

Book review: Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Many people had mentioned Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, to me before I read it. I had planning on reading it for what felt like a long time. And when I finally did get around to it, I wondered what had taken me so long to start. Once I picked up Americanah, I found that I could not put it down. It offered that rare combination of excellent writing, absorbing storytelling, and challenging content. Now, normally, I don’t read novels to be challenged, necessarily. I don’t go to any trouble to seek out books — particularly novels — that I think will make me feel uncomfortable. But Americanah often did make me feel uncomfortable, and it did challenge me. And I loved it.

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The novel follows its protagonist, smart and pretty Ifemelu, from Lagos to the East Coast of the United States and then back again, tracing her struggles and triumphs as she adjusts first to life in the United States and then to life in a changed Nigeria. Americanah (the title is taken from a Nigerian slang term for a Nigerian who has gone abroad and become Americanized) is about love, race, culture shock, aspiration, and nostalgia. The love story happens between Ifem and her high school and early university boyfriend, contemplative, handsome Obinze. Ifem and Obinze’s stories intersect, separate, and then intersect again, across decades and continents, until Ifem makes the fateful decision to leave her comfortable American life (and black American boyfriend) and return to Nigeria.

The race, culture shock, aspiration, and nostalgia aspects of the story are drawn in vivid detail as Ifem negotiates her life in the United States, first as a struggling international undergraduate student at a Philadelphia college, later as a successful race blogger, and finally as a disaffected fellow at Princeton. As Ifemelu is beginning to navigate her radically different life in the U.S., Obinze also departs Nigeria for the UK, where he works illegally and tries to land a green card marriage with an EU citizen before being deported. He then builds a highly successful life for himself back in Lagos, including marriage and a child.

Ifem and Obinze’s experiences abroad and back home, and the challenges they encounter as Nigerians in America and the UK, are parallel stories of people grappling with identity — racial, national, and individual — while seeking fulfillment and connections with people who don’t necessarily understand or empathize with those challenges. For Ifem, these struggles play out as she enters into relationships with Americans — both black and non-black — and tries to reconcile her identity as a Nigerian with her new identity as a black person in America. Some of the book’s most trenchant observations — and it is packed full of them — come as Ifemelu, a person who never considered herself black before leaving Nigeria, encounters America’s specific, prickly brand of racial politics. One of my favorite little scenes is when Ifemelu first arrives in Philadelphia and goes shopping with her high school friend Ginika, who has lived in the US much longer than she has. Two girls are working in the store: one black, and one white. The white girl helps Ginika.

At the checkout, the blond cashier asked, ‘Did anybody help you?’

‘Yes,’ Ginika said.

‘Chelcy or Jennifer?’

‘I’m sorry, I don’t remember her name.’ Ginika looked around, to point at her helper, but both young woman had disappeared into the fitting rooms at the back.

‘Was it the one with the long hair?’ the cashier asked.

‘Well, both of them had long hair.’

‘The one with dark hair?’

Both of them had dark hair.

Ginika smiled and looked at the cashier and the cashier smiled and looked at her computer screen, and two damp seconds crawled past before she cheerfully said, ‘It’s okay, I’ll figure it out later and make sure she gets her commission.’

As they walked out of the store, Ifemelu said, ‘I was waiting for her to ask, “Was it the one with two eyes or the one with two legs?” Why didn’t she just ask “Was it the black girl or the white girl?”‘

Ginika laughed. ‘Because this is America. You’re supposed to pretend that you don’t notice certain things.’

There are also plenty of sharp observations about the lives of Nigerians abroad, and the way they interact with each other. At one point, Ifemelu, by now a fellow at Princeton, is waiting in line for a taxi and anticipates the driver’s nationality with some trepidation.

Ifemelu joined the taxi line outside the station. She hoped her driver would not be a Nigerian, because he, once he heard her accent, would either be aggressively eager to tell her that he had a master’s degree, the taxi was a second job, and his daughter was on the dean’s list at Rutgers; or he would drive in sullen silence, giving her change and ignoring her ‘thank you,’ all the time nursing humiliation, that this fellow Nigerian, a small girl at that, who perhaps was a nurse of an accountant or even a doctor, was looking down on him. Nigerian taxi drivers in America were all convinced that they really were not taxi drivers. 

As Ifemelu becomes more familiar with the concept of race in America, she starts a blog in which she anonymously doles out observations from the perspective of a non-American black. One of those posts is titled ‘Friendly Tips for the American Non-Black: How to React to an American Black Talking About Blackness.’ As an American non-black myself, I found this post fascinating and challenging. For example, in the post, Ifemelu counsels the American non-black reader thusly:

Don’t bring up your Irish great-grandparents’ suffering. Of course they got a lot of shit from established America. So did the Italians. So did the Eastern Europeans. But there was a hierarchy. A hundred years ago, the white ethnics hated being hated, but it was sort of tolerable because at least black people were below them on the ladder. Don’t say your grandfather was a serf in Russia when slavery happened because what matters is you are American now and being American means you take the whole shebang, America’s assets and America’s debts, and Jim Crow is a big-ass debt. Don’t say it’s just like antisemitism. It’s not. In the hatred of Jews there is also the possibility of envy — they are so clever, these Jews, they control everything, these Jews — and one must concede that a certain respect, however grudging, accompanies envy. In the hatred of American Blacks, there is no possibility of envy — they are so lazy, these blacks, they are so unintelligent, these blacks.

When Ifemelu heads back to Lagos, however, she shudders her race blog and instead begins to blog about social issues in Nigeria. As she carves out a life for herself in a city that she once understood well, but in which she now feels a bit alien, she reconnects with Obinze, and their love story — complicated and fractured as it is — resumes. The resumption of their story feels both satisfying and frustrating, and the resolution (no spoilers!) is both satisfying and unsatisfying. Just like life.

I really loved this book. I want to read more of Adichie’s writing right away, and I highly recommend you do the same. In case you’re interested, here is an interview with Adichie on NPR.

Book review Monday: You Should Have Known, by Jean Hanff Korelitz

Reading Jean Hanff Korelitz’s You Should Have Known was sort of like entering into a brief but doomed relationship. At first, you’re over the moon about your new flame, and the object of your affection can do no wrong. Then, after spending some time together, the cracks start to show. Little things start to annoy you. By the end, you feel cheated and betrayed and just want it to be over, already. Then, after the dust has settled, you look back with some fondness on the whole thing, through a haze of nostalgia, and wonder if you were being too harsh all along. This metaphor, I think, is particularly apt given the plot of Korelitz’s novel, which focuses on a relationship expert whose own relationship, in fact, is not what she believes it to be.

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[Warning: spoilers ahead!]

In You Should Have Known, we meet Grace Reinhart Sachs, a successful therapist in Manhattan who’s just written what is sure to be a bestselling book, provocatively titled — you guessed it! — You Should Have Known. The premise of Grace’s book is that women facing failed relationships have no one but themselves to blame: they should have seen it coming from the clues their partners were dropping the entire time. This smug premise may rub people the wrong way, Grace knows, but she believes with all of her heart that an ounce of prevention is the key to ensuring happy relationships. In other words, Grace’s message to women can be boiled down thusly: just don’t marry the wrong man, and you’ll be fine. As the book unfolds, we learn, from Grace’s perspective, about her picture-perfect life: she’s married to a successful pediatric oncologist, has a thriving therapy practice, and is mother to a bright twelve year-old boy who attends a prestigious private school, Reardon (the same school that Grace herself attended). Everything’s hunky-dory until a fellow Reardon mother turns up murdered, and Grace’s husband becomes the prime suspect. As Grace revisits her life with her husband, examining what appear to the reader to be fairly giant red flags that she somehow ignored for the past eighteen years of her marriage, she realizes, with dawning horror, that she married a psychopath. Accepting that her husband did in fact do the very bad thing he has been accused of, Grace skips town and takes her son with her, settling in her family’s cottage in Connecticut as she licks her wounds and starts over. Unfortunately, as Grace flees Manhattan, the book loses its way.

I was so excited about You Should Have Known when I started reading it because it had such great promise. The idea of a relationship expert who finds herself hoisted by her own petard when she realizes that she failed to take her own advice with spectacularly awful results (she married a murderer, whoops!) is delicious, and the suspenseful chapters in which Grace figures this out are wonderful. I loved Grace’s dawning horror as she realizes that everything she believed about her relationship was a lie. But the suspense that Korelitz builds is frittered away when Grace packs up her kid and drives to Connecticut, where she starts an idyllic new beginning in her family’s rustic lake-house and begins to fall in love with the handsome neighbor. Bluh.

All of the potential for drama and suspense escapes out of the plot like air out of a balloon as Korelitz subjects the reader to Grace’s reawakening at the lake-house. As a reader of a psychological thriller, I’m far more interested in the direct aftermath of the main character’s marriage with her husband, the dangerous sociopath, and a confrontation with said husband than I am in seeing the main character reconnect with old friends, develop a crush on the guy who lives in the next lake-house, and enroll her son in a good public school in Connecticut. It begs the question: as an author, why create a dangerous, sociopathic husband if he’s not also going to stir up a little trouble for his family? As murderous sociopaths go, Jonathan’s kind of a dud. Sure, he kills the lady in the beginning, but then he makes no attempt to make things difficult for Grace, who’s cooperating with the police, or to reclaim his son, who Grace has removed from the scene with nary a protest from anyone. In fact, Jonathan spends the entire novel off camera, which, in the beginning, helps to build a sense of unease, as if he could spring from behind a corner at any moment, but by the end, feels like a big wasted opportunity.

Also, being a writer, I took issue with Korelitz’s overuse of certain words and phrases. I guess I should take this up with her editor, but someone should have intervened after the seventh time she used the word “unlovely” to describe a building. My inner Hemingway was also cringing at all of the adverbs. SO MANY ADVERBS. Her favorite was “not unkindly,” as in, “he said, not unkindly.” Let me tell you: no one was unkind, ever, in this book. Adverb abuse gets my hackles up. And I know that no non-writers care about this, at all, but I am a writer, and I do care, so it affected my enjoyment of the book.

So, was this book a waste of time? No! I did enjoy large swaths of it. I loved the descriptions of life within the upper echelons of Manhattan, particularly in the close (and catty) environment of a private school. I thought the character development of Grace was fantastic (and, for what it’s worth, I pictured her as looking like Heather Dubrow from the Real Housewives of Orange County). I even enjoyed reading about Grace’s interactions with her long-lost friend Vita, from whom she had become alienated after her marriage to Psycho McGee (one of those large red flags I referred to above). But these things do not a psychological thriller make. I wish that Korelitz had followed the momentum of the first half of her book to its thrilling conclusion. It would have been a much different book, yes, and, in my view, would have been a better read.

 

Book review Monday: The Passage, by Justin Cronin

Generally, I like to use Book Review Monday to help spread the word about great books that are worth your time. But sometimes, I need to use this space as a public service announcement, to warn you off of books that have received positive reviews or lots of hype but are, in my opinion, crap. Today is one of those times. Brace yourselves.

The Passage, by Justin Cronin, was billed as a thrilling, sprawling vampire novel and received positive reviews from such respected publications as The Washington Post and The New York Times, among others. But I disliked it so much, I couldn’t even finish it. Let me emphasize that for me, to not finish a book is a rare thing. I struggle through books that I feel lukewarm about all the time. But my policy, since discovering at age eleven that I wasn’t obligated to read all of the Sunday comics, including the ones I hated (looking at you, For Better or For Worse), is that I shouldn’t feel bad about abandoning ship on a book, movie, or TV show that I’m not enjoying. Life is too short, right? To be fair, I made it 67% of the way through The Passage before calling it quits, so no one can say I didn’t give it a fair shake.

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Here were my issues with this book, in convenient list format.

1. It’s derivative. No, like, really derivative.

I don’t throw around the word “derivative,” because when you think about it, everything created by a human being is in some sense derivative of some earlier work. But The Passage goes beyond “derivative” and lands firmly in “blatant rip-off” territory. Cronin has put together a poorly rendered copy of plot points and themes from Stephen King’s The Stand and Salem’s Lot, David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, and a number of other better written books. Even the reviewer from The Washington Post, Ron Charles, concedes this point, writing:

Imagine Michael Crichton crossbreeding Stephen King’s “The Stand” and “Salem’s Lot” in that lab at Jurassic Park, with rich infusions of Robert McCammon’s “Swan Song,” “Battlestar Galactica” and even Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road.” A pastiche? Please — Cronin is trading derivatives so fast and furious he should be regulated by the SEC. But who cares? It’s alive!

That last sentence is where I part ways with Mr. Charles. This book is not alive. It’s so boring and unimaginative as to be dead on the table. If I wanted to read a well-rendered and chilling vampire novel, I’d read Salem’s Lot. If I wanted a futuristic, post-apocalyptic vision of the world, I’d read The Stand or Cloud Atlas. If I wanted a boring supernatural saga with a strong but sexy female lead, I’d watch Battlestar Galactica (except I wouldn’t, because Battlestar Galactica sucks).

Let’s talk about how badly Cronin rips off The Stand, in particular, in case you’re not convinced yet. Here are the main elements Cronin lifted wholesale from Stephen King’s masterpiece:

  • Government-created super virus with fun nickname kills everyone in America and the rest of the world;
  • Survivors of virus experience dreams of forces of good and/or evil as embodied by a good woman and an evil man;
  • Survivors escape to the Western United States, including Colorado and Las Vegas, of all places; and
  • Elderly African-American woman, aged 108, delivers homespun wisdom.

When one considers these elements together with the fact that The Passage is a vampire novel (because we don’t have enough of those already!), one starts to wonder if there is anything original in this book at all.

2. The historical details, including the characters’ vernacular, are bizarre and inconsistent.

The book opens in 2018, when the US government is testing the vampire super virus on death row prisoners (as you do) and then fast forwards 100 years, after the experiment has inevitably gone awry and vampires are roaming the Earth. The story’s Mother Abigail clone, Ida “Auntie” Jaxon, is now 108 years old. That means she was eight years old in 2018, which would mean she was born in 2010. We learn that she’s from Philadelphia. Okay. So first question: how many babies born in 2010 are named Ida? More importantly, how many babies born in 2010 who grew up in urban Philly would say things like the following:

“Folks call me Auntie, on account of I never could have no children of my own, and I guess that suits me fine.”

“There were other trains, I do believe.”

“I’d been sick myself so it scared me about out my skin when she told me this.”

AND SO ON. Let’s give Cronin the benefit of the doubt and assume that Ida somehow picked up her old-timey, vaguely Southern vernacular from her parents. Even with a generous reckoning, assuming Ida’s mother gave birth to her when she was forty, her mother would have been born in 1970. What person born in 1970s Philadelphia says stuff like “I do believe” and “suits me fine?” It’s like Cronin got so caught up in recreating King’s Mother Abigail, who was supposed to have been born in Nebraska at the end of the 19th century, that he lifted her patterns of speech and transplanted them onto the character of Ida for no other reason than that they are both elderly black women.

Another inexplicable and weird vernacular thing I noticed: instead of using normal curse words, the characters say “Flyers!”. This is never explained.

I only have one question: WHY?

3. The dialogue is painful.

Just trust me on this one.

4. The plot is repetitive and boring.

The characters nearly get killed by vampires — but barely squeak by! — every. single. chapter. There are also long, plodding descriptions of where the characters are walking and what, exactly, they are thinking about as they walk. The characters are so dull as to be forgettable, and I found myself rooting for them to all be eaten by vampires. Also, did I mention this book is a million pages long?

*****

Perhaps alone, each of these issues would have been surmountable. But together, they added up to a book that I couldn’t truck with, and thus The Passage has been relegated to the proverbial dustheap of my Kindle. Have you read The Passage? Did you like it? I’m curious to hear if other people were as bothered by it as I was. If you haven’t read it, save yourself some time and pick up The Stand instead. You’re welcome.

Hate reads and inspiration

I have a confession: I read a lot of blogs that make me angry. And here’s another confession: I don’t plan on stopping. But not for the reason you might think.

First of all, let’s talk about hate reading. I have a theory that anyone who spends a lot of time on the internet (yours truly included) will eventually accumulate a couple of hate reads along the way. This is a documented phenomenon. Last year, Jezebel (the notorious comments sections of which may themselves serve as a hate read, in a pinch) posted an article called “The Art of Hate Reading,” in which the author discusses the habit of “visiting a website, Twitter feed, or Facebook page for the express purpose of ridiculing — or indulging your disdain for —the author and/or content.” I do this. Oh, do I do this. I have a whole section set up on my Feedly reader devoted to these so-called hate reads, and they’re the first blogs I read every morning. They get the blood pumping, you see.

My Feedly reader - note categories for Hate Reads and Love Reads. I've already read the Hate Reads.

My Feedly reader – note separate categories for Hate Reads and Love Reads. I’ve already read the Hate Reads.

But I don’t like the term “hate read,” because I don’t really hate these blogs. Hate is a strong word, right? Hate should be reserved for murderous dictators and people who club baby seals and the CEO of American Apparel, and so on. But blogs? This stuff doesn’t really matter. You can’t allow yourself to feel real bile when reading a blog because people say all sorts of ignorant and/or provocative things on the internet, and if you went around reacting emotionally to every instance of stupidity, I’m convinced you’d drive yourself batty. So I don’t hate these blogs that I read, but I do find them baffling, crazy-making, and frustrating. Often, I want to reach through my computer screen and shake whatever ignorant sod pecked out the words that I’m reading, but I never feel actual hatred. What’s the point? Haters gonna hate. (Science has proven it.)

The flip side of hate reading is that if you stick around long enough, you’ll get exposed to communities and ways of thinking that you’ve never before encountered, up close and personal. This can be off-putting, but also fascinating. I think of reading these blogs as a type of amateur anthropological study. Consequently, the exposure to communities of crazies on the internet has informed my thinking and, more importantly, my fiction writing. After all, it’s the extreme examples of weirdness that I find on the internet that provide fodder for some of my more interesting characters. If you spend enough time on blogs, reading posts and comments, you start to get a real sense of how certain people — people you’d never meet in real life — think and talk. And that’s a pretty valuable resource for a writer. You know that old chestnut “write what you know?” If you stick to only writing about people you know in your own life, the landscape of characters in your fiction might start to get a bit dull. Of course, it’s not that everyone I know in real life comes from the same background or holds the same beliefs, but generally, there’s some truth to the saying that birds-of-a-feather flock together (and I don’t mean that in some weird, covertly racist way). The fact is, the majority of my close friends are American, around my age (late 20s, early 30s), highly educated, politically moderate, agnostic, or liberal, and non-religious and/or non-devout (or, if they are religious, I’m not aware of it). Trust me, they’re all fascinating, wonderful people and they make my life infinitely better. But you don’t come across a lot of surprises when you hang out with people with similar backgrounds and beliefs to yours. That’s where the internet comes in.

My husband thinks it’s bizarre that I read blogs that have no actual relevance to my life, but I’ve been doing it for years, and I’m not about to stop now, no matter how awful the content. This morning, for example, I read this comment on a blog that I peruse occasionally:

When you say your friend mouthed off about homosexuality, do you know exactly what he said, and how he said it? 

I ask because while I agree with your observations that freedom of speech should be sacrosanct and that Catholics have the right to believe (and, in my view, should proclaim) that homosexuality is an evil perversion, I also believe that we should not pour vitriol on those who are tempted into such a life, but rather should help them repent from it.

It seems to me that it is all too easy to forget one half of the maxim ‘love the sinner, hate the sin’, and easier still to express one sentiment in a way that crowds out the other.

If your friend was among the homosexuals at the perversely-named ‘pride’ event, trying to befriend them and at the same time enlighten them about the immoral and destructive nature of their activities, I salute him, and condemn those who set out to silence him with their drugs. I pray they didn’t sodomise him while he was under the influence, and if they did, that the does not now have HIV as a consequence.

I think if I had read this almost comically ignorant comment a few years ago, before I was an old pro at hate reading, I would have choked on my morning hardboiled egg/done a coffee spit-take/slammed my forehead on the keyboard repeatedly, etc. But now, I just find it fascinating! I mean, if I ever need to create a well-meaning but outrageously homophobic character in a book, I know exactly how he’ll talk and exactly how he’ll spell the word “sodomise” (the British way, apparently). You can’t make this stuff up… but you can learn from it and use it in your fiction.

So, to my fellow hate readers, I say go forth and hate read. And then take all of your frustration and pour it into great writing. That’s what I’m trying to do.

[By the way, I don’t want to name names regarding the blogs I read, mostly because I don’t want to drive traffic to their websites (however modest that traffic may be), but also because I’d feel bad calling out specific blogs, no matter how insane their authors are. But let me direct you to a meta-hate-read, the wonderful website Get Off My Internets (GOMI), where hate-readers come together in actual forums to discuss the bloggers that most irk them. The phrase “get off my internets” (as opposed to “stay on my internets”) is directed toward bloggers who have crossed the line from entertaining to obnoxious — but really, we don’t want these people to get off our internets, because then what would we hate read with our morning coffee? I’ll give you a hint: I spend some time in one of these forums. Not saying which one. I don’t write anything, but I lurk, and read what other people have to say about a certain irritating, self-promoting blogger I follow. There’s something validating about finding out that others are irritated by the same behavior on the internet. Don’t judge me.]