"Things were happening to her. They were bad things, but at least they were happening."
I'm a fan of Emily Gould, kind of just in general. I like her i...more"Things were happening to her. They were bad things, but at least they were happening."
I'm a fan of Emily Gould, kind of just in general. I like her internet writing and I liked her collection of essays, and I think she has one of the most interesting businesses around, one that's built on taste and heart and smarts.
Which is why I'm not surprised that this is such a good novel. Funny, of course, but also really honest and true and moving. I'm not embarrassed to say that I teared up a little at the end (on a plane, no less). I said early on in reading this book that it reminded me a bit of Lucky Jim, and there's some of that there throughout, though it's ultimately a more sincere and (is this word terrible to use in a book review?) generous novel. (Side note: Isn't it funny how Lucky Jim and much of Kingsley Amis's work is kind of sexist (sometimes very sexist) and yet these days, the authors who seem to be best at his particular brand of novels featuring hapless and wonderful characters are all women like Kate Christensen and Emily Gould? What do you make of that?).
I read this book in about 6 hours, mainly on two flights and one kind of great lonely dinner in New York. It's a book that feels current and relevant and just very alive. I love how it embraces the way humans use technology today (there are many descriptions of texting, emailing, IMing, scrolling through Twitter, and just general fondling of smartphones). I love the New York it describes and the brilliant skewering of the start-up and blogging worlds. The dialog is well rendered and sounds like people I know talking. It is also, in a subtle way, very well plotted. But I think what most people are going to love about the book are its two heroes, Bev and Amy. The book is, after all, the story of their friendship, and it was almost instantly a story I wanted to read. As it progressed, I found myself sucked into their troubles -- Bev's pregnancy, Amy's career troubles -- and was sort of blindsided by how much I cared about them. I'd read a bunch more novels about these two characters, Patrick Melrose-style. Yeah, I'd be into that.(less)
If you're looking for an unbiased review, you can look elsewhere. I'm married to the author of this book. I read drafts of this at various stages and...moreIf you're looking for an unbiased review, you can look elsewhere. I'm married to the author of this book. I read drafts of this at various stages and since I know the author in the Biblical sense (hey now), I am completely incapable of giving an unbiased review. But if you're interested in hearing why I think this is such a tremendous novel and such a fun read, read on.
There are many "post-apocalyptic" books in existence, but what I love about California is that it feels very mid-apocalyptic. The apocalypse here is not that of the molten lava variety or the devastating plague nature, but rather the slow, inevitable decline that likely awaits us all. Lepucki doesn't dwell too much on the whys and hows of the world of California. We know that for the 99%, the world is a brutal place, one that only vaguely resembles our own. Those who can have fled the major cities--now riddled with violence and decay--either for the cloistered sanctuary of a "community," where life is a sort of clownish replica of the world we inhabit today, or to set out on their own in the wilderness.
Frida and Cal are two such pioneers, living alone in a hand-made shack. They grow what they can and kill what they can and try to make a go of it the way their ancestors likely did. One thought that recurred as I read a later draft of California is that Frida and Cal's existence is one logical conclusion of hipsterdom. Too hip for the city, they now live out a kind of fantasy life of burlap and denim, the ultimate farm-to-table life. Their world is small and fraught until Frida becomes pregnant and decides that they must set out to find other nearby settlements.
This is the story of a family, complete with all the politics, grudges, in-jokes, and tenderness that most of us will recognize as true. That it happens to take place during the end of our world makes it all the more compelling. Beautiful language abounds, as does mystery. Violence hangs over the book, but presents itself only in small bursts, little cataclysms.
I could go on and on about this book, but what I'm really looking forward to is discussing it with some other people. It's a book full of ideas and life. And I can't wait for all of you to read it.
* While the book wisely eschews most historical irony, there are a few fun Easter eggs. My favorite involves a certain contemporary author. Keep your eye out for that one.
* Some of my favorite sections of the book--those detailing life on the bizarro campus of Plank College--were cut from the book. It was the right decision, but man, do I miss those pages. I'm hoping Edan will make a little DVD-extras-type thing out of that section to satisfy my campus-novel lust.(less)
This is a fascinating look at the US and specifically CIA involvement in Afghanistan from the late 70s to early 2000s. Each of the major players -- Bi...moreThis is a fascinating look at the US and specifically CIA involvement in Afghanistan from the late 70s to early 2000s. Each of the major players -- Bin Laden, Ahmed Shah Massoud, Prince Turki, Pervez Musharraf, William Casey, George Tenet, Mullar Omar, etc. -- get their own mini-biographies. Coll does a tremendous job of contextualizing each major moment in the Afghan jihad against the Soviet Union and the subsequent radicalization of the region and blowback against American involvement.
One interesting thought experiment that came out of my reading this book:
* If the Monica Lewinsky scandal never happens, does 9/11 happen? This is a bit of a stretch, but follow me here: In the late 90s, the CIA had several chances to kill Bin Laden with cruise missiles and/or commando raids, but Clinton -- embroiled in the Lewinsky scandal and weakened by the impeachment hearings -- didn't have the political capital to pull the trigger. I'm oversimplifying here, to be sure, as there were a lot of other factors going into whether to attack Bin Laden on Afghan soil, but it's an interesting thought experiment.
I'd recommend this book to anyone interested in South Asia and American relations with it in the last part of the 20th Century, as well as anyone hoping to better understand how the CIA works and how it interacts with the rest of the Washington machine. And in a strange way, I think this book should be taught in business school, as it's a tremendous case study of how large organizations with many different stakeholders make decisions (or fail to make them).(less)
Normally when a novel attempts to address what a novel can and cannot or should and should not be it loses my interest pretty quickly. Metafiction has...moreNormally when a novel attempts to address what a novel can and cannot or should and should not be it loses my interest pretty quickly. Metafiction has never been my thing, really. But the result in this case is a gripping thriller that's also incredibly funny and moving. The wit that Binet weaves into his story of two parachutists sent to kill the infamous Reinhard Heydrich, the Butcher of Prague and the architect of the Final Solution, is what elevates this book from "interesting experiment" into "towering achievement" territory. Simply put, this book shows what the historical novel is capable of while also constantly questioning its (sometimes heartbreaking) limitations.
One other note: This book puts the lie to the old "show, don't tell" adage. Much of the book is told in summary (partially because the author rejects the idea of fictionalizing dialog (though sometimes he does it and then reprimands himself), and it reads like almost like a guy telling you an incredible story. There are scenes and some action is dramatized, but the pace of the book benefits greatly from eschewing dramatization for many aspects of the story.(less)
Jason Fagone wrote one of the best magazine pieces I'd read in a long time about former Syracuse and Indianapolis Colt wide receiver Marvin Harrison (...moreJason Fagone wrote one of the best magazine pieces I'd read in a long time about former Syracuse and Indianapolis Colt wide receiver Marvin Harrison (Spoiler alert: He's apparently not a great guy). After reading it, I started following Fagone on Twitter, and so of course when I saw this book was coming out, I added it to my to-read list.
And I was not disappointed.
The storytelling flare that Fagone showed in the GQ piece is given a greater scope in Ingenious, the story of the automotive X Prize -- the race to build a car that gets the equivalent of 100 MPG. I should stop here to note that I know nothing about cars. Nothing. I couldn't change my own oil. Hell, I can barely change a tire. But it didn't matter here. It's not necessary to be a gearhead to enjoy this book.
And that's because, as much as it's a book about cars and the culture that's arisen around them and the threat that culture poses to the world's future, it's really a book about inventiveness and the central role the ingenious spirit has played in America. Fagone does a great job of painting the historical picture here --how's this for an amazing stat: the Model T got roughly 18 mpg; in 2008 the average American car got 20 mpg--and weaving the background of why something like the X Prize was so needed.
But what really makes this book are the portraits of the contestants. A team of amateurs in rural Illinois makes an entire car -- chassis and all! -- from hand. Another team sets out to build "the Very Light Car," a car that weighs just 825 pounds. Another team is a bunch of high school kids from West Philadelphia (yep, the same place the Fresh Prince fled to head to Bel Air). Fagone gives us their stories and makes their pursuit of the millions of dollars in prize money high drama. I found myself rooting for all of the teams, feeling devastated when they suffered set backs.
A fun read and a book that taught me quite a bit about the challenges of engineering a better car. Highly recommended.(less)
[Disclosure: I know Ivy a little bit, so take that for what you will.]
The "Dennis Lehane" imprimatur might suggest this is a straight-up mystery, but...more[Disclosure: I know Ivy a little bit, so take that for what you will.]
The "Dennis Lehane" imprimatur might suggest this is a straight-up mystery, but that's not really what it is. Visitation Street is a beautifully written and fully imagined novel about a place -- Red Hook, Brooklyn -- and the people who inhabit it. When two teenage girls decide to float out into the harbor, one of them doesn't return. Her absence deeply impacts the lives of many people in Red Hook.
Pachoda is a terrific stylist, and I found her characters (particularly Jonathan, who really grew as the book went on). Nobody is exactly what they seem at beginning of the novel, and each of them surprised me at least once over the course of the story.
I mentioned in a status update that it reminded me a bit in its tone of Richard Price's Lush Life. I think think is the superior novel, though.(less)
A fun and sometimes surprising history of a certain kind of TV show. If you're into any of the shows in the book, I highly recommend it. The chapters...moreA fun and sometimes surprising history of a certain kind of TV show. If you're into any of the shows in the book, I highly recommend it. The chapters can sometimes feel a bit too summary focused, but otherwise, a fun read. I found the chapters on Friday Night Lights and The Wire -- both shows I loved -- very interesting, but I liked the chapter on Buffy The Vampire Slayer, which I never watched, equally fun.(less)
Is this really the end of the Patrick Melrose novels? It feels like they could keep going. Anyway, I feel like an old friend has moved away forever. I...moreIs this really the end of the Patrick Melrose novels? It feels like they could keep going. Anyway, I feel like an old friend has moved away forever. I'll write a longer review on the other book, when I have some time to gather my thoughts.(less)
This is a master class in mood and tone, as the entire novel just drips with foreboding. I had no idea what was going to happen, but damn if I didn't...moreThis is a master class in mood and tone, as the entire novel just drips with foreboding. I had no idea what was going to happen, but damn if I didn't know it was going to suck for someone. The most likely candidates to absorb the suck were those who crossed the path of Beth, a viper masquerading as the captain of the local cheerleading team.
With its heavy dose of sex appeal, it would be easy to dismiss this novel as pandering to the h4wt quality of its subject matter - high school cheerleaders -- but Abbott is too good of a writer for that. Instead, she spins a tale about obsession, crushes (sexual or otherwise), high school power struggles, and the havoc all of the above can create.
Addy was a fun character to follow for a few hundred pages, and there was real skill to how Abbott distills the team to a few important characters -- Tacy, Emily, Ri-Ri (my favorite), etc. Writing about groups of people without getting bogged down in each one is a challenge, and Dare Me handles it all well.(less)
While not the surging masterpiece that Gone Girl is, Sharp Objects is still a brilliant character study. As a mystery, it's fairly flaccid, but there...moreWhile not the surging masterpiece that Gone Girl is, Sharp Objects is still a brilliant character study. As a mystery, it's fairly flaccid, but there are so many memorable and satisfying characters here that it's well worth the read. I most enjoyed the unsettling and (I assume) very realistic portrayal of teenage sexuality and its destructive possibilities, both to the self and to others.
I also really loved reading a female protagonist who was free to fail, to flail, and to fuck up with abandon. This is a great starter-Flynn before moving on to Gone Girl. (less)
Gillian Flynn super fan, right here. Dark Places lacked the propulsive narrative of Gone Girl, but in many ways, it's the tighter-plotted of the two b...moreGillian Flynn super fan, right here. Dark Places lacked the propulsive narrative of Gone Girl, but in many ways, it's the tighter-plotted of the two books. It's ending is much tighter and has that tuning-fork-ringing quality that I look for in mysteries. All the seemingly disparate threads come together in a surprising and inevitable way.
While I didn't find Libby tremendously compelling (one of the faults of the novel, to me, is that the stakes feel more in the past than they should...can't put my finger on why, exactly), Diondra is one of the most off the wall creepy characters I've ever encountered. Every moment she's on the page just burns. (view spoiler)[The scene in which she reveals her pregnancy made my skin crawl. (hide spoiler)] Ultimately a very creepy, very fun book.["br"]>["br"]>(less)
The funniest book I've read this year, and a criminally underrated novel. The narrator, a nameless young woman, finds inspiration in the classic novel...moreThe funniest book I've read this year, and a criminally underrated novel. The narrator, a nameless young woman, finds inspiration in the classic novel Treasure Island. She decides to use the book as a blueprint, a template for how to be a different sort of person. Drawing from Jim Hawkins' four core principles -- boldness, resolution, independence, and horn-blowing -- she sets out to remake herself. But what she succeeds in doing is unmaking her life. She essentially steals money from her employer to buy a parrot named Little Richard. She loses her job at the "pet library" (a business where patrons can borrow an animal for 48 hours), breaks up with her live-in boyfriend, and is forced to move in with her parents and her sister. There, she proceeds to destroy everyone's lives in horrific (and hilarious!) fashion.
As I read on, it became clear that the protagonist was possibly (probably?) insane. And even worse, she was probably tragically misreading Treasure Island (She barely remembers the character of Long John Silver). As she digs herself further and further into lunacy, the more it becomes obvious how terribly delusional she is, how woefully ill-conceived her sense of self is. And the crazier she gets, the funnier and more entertaining this novel becomes.
This was a fascinating book to read immediately after Gone Girl, as both books feature female narrators who have an idea of themselves that's radically different from the one the reader forms. Of course, in Treasure Island!!!, it's played for laughs (though there is some death in the book (view spoiler)[If you are a person who absolutely cannot handle violence against animals, you might want to think twice about this book (hide spoiler)]), while in Gone Girl...well, fewer laughs, I guess. I was never sure whether the woman in Treasure Island!!! was a psychopath in the vein of Amy in Gone Girl. She has a bottomless capacity to trample other people's feelings, to be sure, but she seems to have some remorse about it, from time to time. More likely, I think, she's some sort of autistic. She can't read social cues and seems surprised when people react with horror to horrifying things.
Whatever her mental health status, she was a wonderful mind to inhabit for the few days it took me to read this book. Highly recommended. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
This both a snapshot of New York City circa 2009 -- the height of the financial crisis, with layoffs looming like hurricanes over every desk -- and th...moreThis both a snapshot of New York City circa 2009 -- the height of the financial crisis, with layoffs looming like hurricanes over every desk -- and the story of a guy named John. It is also the debut of a tremendously original voice in fiction. Sicha has cultivated his own idiosyncratic style through years of online writing at Gawker and The Awl (of which he's co-founder), and the confidence of his style shows through here. Some may find the almost bewildering dialog at bar and party scenes (of which there are many) off-putting but I though it perfectly captured the dizzy feeling of being a little drunk in a crowd of people, many of whom you think are hot. It reminded me of how party scenes are often handled in a certain kind movie -- a roaming camera following a person or group of people through various little snippets of conversation (My favorite conversation in the book is one character insulting another character's tennis grip.).
This is also -- maybe? -- a Marxist novel. Are those out of fashion now? I can't keep track. Anyway, the way in it which it relentlessly skewers Mayor Bloomberg and other uber-wealthy characters (there's a sideways mention of Donald Trump and his daughter Ivanka, by way of her marriage to Jared Kushner...oh my god, maybe this book is "entirely factual"?!) coupled with its obsessive chronicling of John's spiraling health care and education-related debts makes this book a compelling critique of post-capitalism.
Lastly, I have to commend this book for finally stating what I've felt and said for so long: The entire Dick Whitman/Don Draper storyline of Mad Men is an embarrassingly obvious rip-off of the Principal Skinner/Armen Tamzarian plotline from the Simpsons. Finally, somebody else said it!(less)
This is a fun book with elements of a coming of age story mixed with a mystery with some spy fiction thrown in, for good measure. If that sounds like...moreThis is a fun book with elements of a coming of age story mixed with a mystery with some spy fiction thrown in, for good measure. If that sounds like it might be a mess, it's not, largely because Holt does a great job of grounding the story in Sarah, a protagonist who manages to be both unique and relatable. I love the sub-genre of books about people going to exotic locales to find long lost friends/enemies/mysterious people (Heart of Darkness, State of Wonder, The Third Man, most of my unproduced screenplays), so Sarah's journey to Moscow to uncover the truth about her friend Jennifer was an easy sell for me. But I think even if I weren't a sucker for the genre, I'd have enjoyed this one. The atmosphere of anticipation and its sinister brother, dread, serve this book so well, and the themes of identity and ambiguity are persistent without being too obvious. And there's also Cold War nostalgia (is nostalgia the right word?) and great Russian malapropisms and interesting jumps in time in this book, and so much to recommend it. A very strong debut.(less)
What do you want from fiction? The more I read, the more I realize that what I want, what fiction does for me, is allows me to live in another person'...moreWhat do you want from fiction? The more I read, the more I realize that what I want, what fiction does for me, is allows me to live in another person's mind. To be able to see the world as someone else sees it, that's what I'm looking for when I open a novel. The other pleasures of the novel -- style, voice, etc. -- all flow from the consciousness of the characters.
In recent years, very few books have given me the glimpse into a character that The Patrick Melrose novels have. Told over a period of 50 or so years, these books follow the life of Patrick Melrose, the only child of David and Eleanor Melrose. And while Patrick himself would be worth the price of admission, it's the cast around him that really brings the picture to life. The grand snob Nicholas Pratt is especially wonderful to read, though any of a number of characters would make a fine protagonist in another novel.
The tone of these books -- at once contemplative and witty -- is a miracle unto itself. The first book in the series, Never Mind, reads, at times, like a horror novel. Terrifying things happen in it, and yet, one finds oneself laughing on nearly every page (emphasis on the nearly). St. Aubyn not only has a master's grasp on character and dialog, but he changes perspective in surprising and daring ways. It's not uncommon in these books to be in the head of Patrick's son Robert for a few paragraphs and then to suddenly find oneself seeing the scene through the eyes of Patrick's wife, Mary. If this sounds like it might be jarring, it isn't, though don't ask me how that's possible.
These books feel so lived, so alive and authentic, that, cliche as it sounds, I didn't want them to end and dragged out the reading of At Last, the final book in the series, for as long as I could. Don't deprive yourself any longer--read them today!(less)