This is definitely one of the best books I've read this year; possibly one of the best books I've read in five or six years. Egan's Pulitzer-winning p...moreThis is definitely one of the best books I've read this year; possibly one of the best books I've read in five or six years. Egan's Pulitzer-winning puzzle box of connected mini-narratives swirling around a few key figures working in the music business made me want to immediately re-read it, possibly constructing flowcharts and diagrams as I went. There is no single plot, no narrative through-line, but somehow the book didn't need it. Each new chapter is a new point of view, a new character, someone who follows along from a tenuous connection with the previous chapter, possibly in a totally different timeline. Egan never spoon-feeds you the temporal setting, forcing you to infer the date each vignette takes place on by contextual clues, occasionally interjecting nuggets that show you a character's fate twenty years down the road. My book club read this, and in discussing it we kept exclaiming over a little bit that we'd forgotten about, or one particular chapter that really spoke to us (the chapter told in flowchart graphics is particularly inspired), and we all agreed it was a fantastic read that we didn't want to end. My only gripe was that a few of the chapters set in the near future got a little preachy and obvious. But it's a very small gripe.(less)
This is one of the all time great true crime books, an exhaustive account of the Zodiac murders by journalist Robert Graysmith (who started his career...moreThis is one of the all time great true crime books, an exhaustive account of the Zodiac murders by journalist Robert Graysmith (who started his career as a cartoonist, oddly enough). These unsolved crimes haunt the Bay Area especially, and the murderer left boatloads of behavioral evidence, not to mention eyewitnesses, and it sort of boggles the mind that he was never caught. Absolutely horrifyingly captivating.(less)
I loved this book. Full stop. Loved. It. My initial reaction, that it's just like Laura Ingalls Wilder for adults, was echoed right there on the jacke...moreI loved this book. Full stop. Loved. It. My initial reaction, that it's just like Laura Ingalls Wilder for adults, was echoed right there on the jacket blurb (which I had failed to notice before beginning).
Caveat: I have not read Walls' famous memoir The Glass Castle. I understand that it's largely about how dysfunctional and neglectful her mother and father were. Walls started out intending to write this book about her mother's childhood on a ranch, but ended up writing about her grandmother, Lily Casey Smith, a remarkable character. Spending early childhood living in a dugout house on a river in Texas, at fifteen she rode 500 miles to take her first teaching job. She took herself off to Chicago on her own to get a diploma, returned to take more teaching jobs, broke horses, and with her husband ran a 160,000 ranch, where their two children were born.
Walls describes the book as a "true life novel." She has gathered information about her grandmother's life (she died when Walls was eight) from family oral history and discovered that most of it was corroborated by other sources, but where it conflicted, she went with the oral history. She writes the book first-person in her grandmother's voice, and what emerges is an intriguingly intimate account of this woman's life. Some things are gone into in detail, others are skimmed over, as it is with memory and stories told about the past. The life Lily led is itself fascinating enough. She is a complex narrator, resourceful and independent, but with flaws. She is severe and even cold with her children, pragmatic to the point of being mercenary, and short-tempered. I'm guessing most people found her intimidating, difficult and forbidding, but I found myself wishing I could have met her myself.(less)
4.5 stars. It really hurts to give this book less than five stars. It is nearly physically painful to type that “4.5″ instead of “5″ for my overall ra...more4.5 stars. It really hurts to give this book less than five stars. It is nearly physically painful to type that “4.5″ instead of “5″ for my overall rating, because 99% of the book is the best kind of fabulous that there is. It is only because the climactic moment in the last fifteen pages is so contrived, so unrealistic, so cliched and so off-putting that I’m knocking it down a half a star. Even with that ending, I can’t recommend this book highly enough.
That being said, I almost stopped reading it at the second chapter.
Let me explain. The book is the story of two teenaged boys who do not know each other, both named Will Grayson, one straight, one gay. John Green writes Straight Will Grayson, and David Levithan writes Gay Will Grayson. They alternate chapters, each writing their own Will Grayson’s first-person point of view. The leadoff chapter is Green, and I immediately fell in love with his style, his Grayson, but mostly with the character who’s arguably more central than either of the Wills, namely Straight Will Grayson’s gay best friend, Tiny Cooper, who is possibly the awesomest gay character I’ve ever read. He’s a huge, hulking football player who is fabulously, openly gay and real in a way that transcends stereotype. Tiny is searching for love while he tries to get the school to finance a production of Tiny Dancer, the stage musical he’s written about his life. Green seems to be writing from inside my own head. He’s drawing his cultural vocabulary from the same sources that I do, even using some of my own personal favorite non-words like “confuzzled,” and this made me feel comfortable in his prose immediately.
Then…the second chapter. The first of Levithan’s chapters featuring Gay Will Grayson. His sections are written in a no-caps, alternative-punctuation style that annoyed me right away, and Gay Will Grayson is the most irritating, stereotypical Emo Goth Kid imaginable, with the detachment and the clinical depression and the woe, betide. I nearly didn’t make it through. But I wanted to get back to SWG and Tiny Cooper so badly that I kept reading.
Then this amazing thing happened. Gay Will Grayson got better. I don’t mean to say that he became less emo, but his self-expression became more layered. Then, something truly awful happens to him, and this awful thing leads him to finally meet Straight Will Grayson and Tiny Cooper, and somehow I found myself liking Gay Will Grayson as well. He and Tiny make a stab at having a relationship, while Tiny tries to make Straight Will Grayson abandon his self-imposed detachment (read: defense mechanism) long enough to date their cute friend Jane. Tiny gets the funding for his musical, and things escalate from there.
I can’t say too much about what put me off so badly about the ending without spoiling you. It was logistically not believable, first of all, it wasn’t thematically fitting, second, and it was too over-the-top and feel-good for a book that had been pretty fiercely dedicated to truthfulness up to that point. It’s like they took the “And I’m gay!” ending to the movie In & Out and dialed it up to eleven.
But that isn’t enough to make me not recommend the book. I loved it, and the characters are fantastic, especially Tiny Cooper, the very model of a modern gay teenager and somebody we’ve never seen before on the page. A unique creation, both character and novel, and a great read. As a young-adult title, there isn’t any sex (just some kissing) but a fair amount of sex-referencing and R-rated language.(less)
You know when you're reading a book, a long one, and you get to that point where you're just like "Well, crap. I just have to push on through to the e...moreYou know when you're reading a book, a long one, and you get to that point where you're just like "Well, crap. I just have to push on through to the end, now." I got there last night with Justin Cronin's The Passage, and as a direct result I only got three hours' sleep.
Some books are agreeable sorts. They ask for some time with you, for you to share some emotions or thoughts as you read them. This book? Not enough. This book would like very much to take you by the throat and do some breathplay on you while playing experimental German techno music in the background. It would like to barge into your kitchen and start baking something crazy, like bacon avocado cookies. It would really appreciate the opportunity to play Red Rover with the other books because those would be some busted-ass wrists on the other team. This book demands an investment. A big investment. This book thinks you ought to make an informed decision and that eye protection should possibly be worn in this area.
(view spoiler)[ Any book of this length (750+ pages) is a big investment. The only question, do you get a decent return for it? For me, the answer here is "hell yes." When you've just read 700+ pages and are still eyeing the diminishing thickness of pages to be read with dismay that it'll be over soon, that's a return on your investment. Even when you're well aware that this book is the first of a trilogy. The Passage was my designated Big Ass Novel for April, the book I get to spend the whole month reading. It was also my Nighttable book, but after three weeks I wasn't very far because nighttable reading tends to be sleepy time for Lori. I was only 150 pages in by last Friday, so I decided to take some weekend time and really attack it. By Sunday night I was up to page 550, and last night I picked it up intending to read another fifty or so but then Book decided that it was Not With the Having Of That and that I'd be finishing it tonight, encroaching dawn notwithstanding. For this reason, today I am functioning on three hours' sleep. But it was worth it.
You can't read any press about this book without hearing how much like The Stand it is. I can't deny the comparison but the criticism to me doesn't stand up (heh, sorry) because any book that is post-apocalyptic bears some debt to The Stand. That book is to post-apocalyptic novels what Tolkien is to fantasy-quest novels. To paraphrase a higher authority than me, Terry Pratchett, Tolkien is to fantasy what Mt. Fuji is to Japanese art. It's either in the foreground, the background, or you can't see it at all because you're standing on it. That being said, there are some elements shared with The Stand that seem a bit too similar, right down to a wise old black woman (two of them, actually), a climactic nuclear bomb, and a journey to Colorado. There are also things that seem reminiscent of "The Walking Dead" (the graphic novel, not the TV show) including a group of survivors living in an abandoned prison and a ring where outsiders are sacrificed/executed.
Basically, if you took The Stand and compressed it down, that's the first 250 pages of this book, about which I must also say that Misleading Book Jacket Blurb is Misleading. The jacket copy makes it sound like the book is the journey of one little girl and her former FBI agent protector as they navigate the post-apocalypse. And it is. For the first 200 pages. Then the book takes a significant time leap and veers off into totally new territory.
I suppose I ought to say what it's about. Basically, your typical Government Project Gone Awry has been trying to use a weird virus found in some bats in an Amazonian jungle to engineer immortal supersoldiers, using twelve death row inmates as test subjects, but the virus instead transforms them into "virals," superstrong creatures kinda-sorta like vampires (although this term is rigorously avoided) who are sort of a combination of the energetic-rage-zombies of "28 Days Later" and Nosferatu. Also they glow in the dark. The virals escape and start with the killing, "taking up" (infecting) one person for each nine they just kill, and within about a month the entire Western hemisphere is overtaken. Six-year-old Amy Bellafonte, the final test subject (the one surviving Amazon project research guy thinks the virus would work better on young people), survives and becomes a sort of superhuman hybrid but not a blood-drinking viral. FBI agent Brad Wolgast hides her in an abandoned summer camp for a year until a nuclear blast kills him (kinda).
Fast forward 92 years to one surviving FEMA colony in California populated by the descendants of children who were evacuated via train at the end of the epidemic. They live in a walled compound with blazing nighttime lights to keep the virals away and have their own society. Here's where you are asked to make an investment, because Cronin spends a good deal of time here on worldbuilding and character backstory for an entirely new cast of people, but it's worth the time because these are the folks we'll be with for the rest of the book and, presumably, the others. Trouble starts with two things: one, the batteries for the lights (powered by wind turbines) are dying and cannot be fixed, so soon the lights will go out for good, and two, Amy appears in the camp. She is 100 years oldish but appears about fourteen. A band of colonists sets out to find the lab Amy came from and have wacky road trip adventures involving virals and the Army and armored trains and the Republic of Texas.
Cronin rewards your patience in setting the stage for these events by making this journey from California to Colorado jam-packed with action, which he's damn good at conveying -- not too much detail nor too little -- and some really great plot twists. He's not afraid to endanger and even kill major characters so you never get too comfy. He's a little too dependent on the chapter (or section) ending cliffhanger, which we come back from several sections later to find that what was about to happen didn't happen at all. He also employs an authorial device I hate, namely the Omniscient Narrator Interruption to say things like "Peter was soon to learn just what Alicia was capable of!" and such, but that's pretty infrequent. The handling of point of view is spotty and sometimes unclear, but overall the writing is serviceable. I didn't notice it, which is my criteria for decent writing. Nothing jarred me out of the story with a Speedbump of Bad Writing.
Another reason to invoke The Stand is the writing itself, actually, which is more than a little reminiscent of King's. It's all about story, story, story and anything NOT story is given the enthusiastic heave-ho. The book is a little light on character, although we get to know some of them quite well, and Cronin does well with the women, i.e. they are as varied and distinct as the men and about equally represented. Still, given these criticisms, the book more than delivered on the promise it made me for my investment of about 400 pages before things really got going, which is to make those first hours worth my time in the end. (hide spoiler)]["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
Writing a first-person POV is always a challenge, especially such a limited one as a five year old boy. It’s the rare first-person author who doesn’t...moreWriting a first-person POV is always a challenge, especially such a limited one as a five year old boy. It’s the rare first-person author who doesn’t end up resorting to the “overheard conversations” ploy to get into the narrative facts that the narrator wouldn’t otherwise be privy to. Here, the atmosphere is so claustrophobic at first that it’s a natural fit; it becomes less so after Jack and his mother escape. I got a bit impatient after about the first quarter of the book for Jack and Ma to get out, but the story accelerated fast once Ma began telling Jack about the outside world. It’s hard to imagine how difficult it would be to comprehend the world when you’ve never seen it, but Jack’s often too-literal interpretations of things he is told rings true. I was disappointed a little in the direction that Ma’s character took in the second half but it’s certainly understandable, and the adjustment of Jack to the rest of the world is at times painful to read and, I fear, depicted a bit too easily.
I'm not much of a sci-fi reader, but this book is barely science fiction. It's more hip-cool-cyberfic, and although they don't call it by this term, i...moreI'm not much of a sci-fi reader, but this book is barely science fiction. It's more hip-cool-cyberfic, and although they don't call it by this term, it's about a fandom, albeit a fictional one. They're speaking my language. It's a really cool book.(less)
After reading this book and his other memoir, I feel like I know Dan's family, and it's great to catch up with them. Dan makes many different points a...moreAfter reading this book and his other memoir, I feel like I know Dan's family, and it's great to catch up with them. Dan makes many different points about the gay marriage debate from a very personal perspective.(less)
This book is pure enjoyment from start to finish. The characters are vivid and well-drawn, and the inside lives of people in the business of illusions...moreThis book is pure enjoyment from start to finish. The characters are vivid and well-drawn, and the inside lives of people in the business of illusions make this a fast, compelling read.(less)
What's amazing about this book...well, many things are amazing about this book, but it ought to be a text for how to handle point of view in fiction....moreWhat's amazing about this book...well, many things are amazing about this book, but it ought to be a text for how to handle point of view in fiction. The sense of impending crisis and vague but all-pervasive dysfunction is so palpable through the book, and the use of different cameras and the dichotomy between what one character know and what another does, plus what the reader knows, contributes greatly to the tension.(less)
I picked up this book because I was glad someone had finally seen fit to write about H.H.Holmes, who most probably was not but who is acknowledged as...moreI picked up this book because I was glad someone had finally seen fit to write about H.H.Holmes, who most probably was not but who is acknowledged as America's first serial killer, and a very creepy one he was at that, the sort of guy you can't make up because it would sound too preposterous and melodramatic as fiction. I knew Larson had coupled his account of Holmes' murders with the 1893 Chicago World's Fair but was prepared to accept the distraction.
What I wasn't prepared for was to find the World's Fair stuff so utterly compelling that I almost preferred that thread to the Holmes thread! The architectural history, the drama, the politicking, the insanely short amount of time they had to build the Fair, its effects on history afterwards (innumerable)...it's all fascinating.
Larson has a gift for writing pop history and making it compelling. His new book, In the Garden of Beasts, is on my to-read list. I recommend this book to just about everybody.(less)