This was a confusing book for me in a number of ways. I really loved the premise (genetically engineered parasites revolutionize medicine in the nearThis was a confusing book for me in a number of ways. I really loved the premise (genetically engineered parasites revolutionize medicine in the near future) and the characters were all well-drawn (I liked that people you expect to be difficult or shady based on every other conspiracy/horror/thriller novel end up being nice, normal people and the ones you expect to be background characters end up being unexpectedly nefarious) so I had no problem reading it and staying engaged.
On the other hand, it had a very peculiar pace and a weird structure based off a central "twist" reveal.
Put it this way: sometimes a reader picks up on the clues a writer is leaving and guesses the end way earlier than they should. That's what happened to me in this book. I guessed what the "twist" was a few chapters in. I knew for sure by the quarter mark in the book. That the rest of it—the whole of the plot, really—hinges on this reveal, meant that I spent a ton of the book frustrated with Sal, the main character, for not knowing what was so patently obvious to me.
And to clarify how central this revelation is supposed to be, it's literally on the last page of the novel. There is no proper ending to this book (it's a series), so the whole thing is a slow build to something I guessed right at the very beginning. And okay, fine, sometimes you get lucky with your speculation as a reader. It's not necessarily a flaw in the novel. Plenty of stories are just as enjoyable when you know the ending as they are when it blindsides you. But in the case of Parasite, I don't think it worked without the mystery. There were too many scenes of people standing around and talking about variations on the same science/research, too many action sequences that weren't tense enough, too much of Sal gingerly dancing around the central premise for the benefit of the reader but at the expense of her well-being.
What I think happened in this case is that for me to really enjoy Parasite the way I could have, it would have needed to be a short story. Condensed down to 8,000 words I think this could have been a devastating commentary on medicine, scientific hubris, the essence of humanity and the role we as humans will play in our eventual extinction. Instead it meanders and feels stretched to meet a specific format. It's not that there isn't a novel's worth of material inherent in the concept, just that the strong short story in this novel should have been the start to the novel in this series.
I suppose the main question at this point is whether I'll continue on with Parasitology. And I think the answer is no. I like Mira Grant's writing and there is enough in here to enjoy for me to check out Feed, perhaps, or some of the other work by this author, but while there is some intriguing ideas in this book and series, it's not enough to keep me coming back....more
I didn't care for this book as much as Down A Dark Hall, perhaps because it lacks the supernatural element I enjoy. Somehow Don't Look Behind You nevI didn't care for this book as much as Down A Dark Hall, perhaps because it lacks the supernatural element I enjoy. Somehow Don't Look Behind You never quite generates the suspense it probably needed, and I think it's because all the danger to protagonist April comes from her own stupid decisions. Maybe if Vamp were clever enough to find her without her making a mistake, the tension would be higher. But as it is, the witness protection program comes off as bulletproof... unless one of your witnesses is a petulant teenager with no concern for anyone other than her petty issues.
I didn't mind that April was flawed, sometimes unlikable, it was more that without her mistakes there was no real plot. And what seems to be a common thread between Down A Dark Hall and this book, the ending was very rushed feeling.
I still like Duncan's pacing skill and her characterizations are compelling, so I'll happily chalk this up to a plot that just wasn't for me and continue working my way through her books....more
To be clear up front, my reading experience of this book was weird. My wife bought the CD audiobook for me on clearance and I started listening, enjoyTo be clear up front, my reading experience of this book was weird. My wife bought the CD audiobook for me on clearance and I started listening, enjoying it, but I felt the pacing was so different from my earlier experience with Jennifer Weiner that I searched the case to see if it was an abridgment. Nothing indicated it was and I knew this was an earlier novel compared to Fly Away Home so I kept listening. Then, near the three-quarters mark, I was deeply invested in the book and decided I needed to finish it with my wife's hardcover copy. It didn't take long to realize the audio was not just abridged but heavily abbreviated. Hacked apart, I would characterize it.
I'll say this plainly: I hate abridged novels/audiobooks. I don't see the point of them. I don't care if the author approves the changes. I don't want a summary of a book, I want the book. I don't care if abridgments exist, I just want them to be plainly marked so I can avoid them like rich guys avoid taxes. Anyway, I felt sort of tricked when I picked up the hardcover and realized I'd missed a lot of the story, particularly because I'd tried to find out if that was going to be the case.
Fortunately, I was able to skim back and pick up the context well enough that I think I got a reasonable sense of the actual story being told here. I won't hold any of the audiobook packaging weirdness against the book—and I couldn't anyway because I was enjoying the audio before I realized what I was missing—and generally speaking this is a very good book. It's sort of a murder mystery, sort of a comedy, sort of a treatise on domestic desperation. Weiner's protagonist, Kate, is funny, frustrated, and feels very real. She struck me as a possibly polarizing first person narrator; she wears a lot of her flaws on her kid-stained casualwear like celebrity cause ribbons on the red carpet. Not everyone, I expect, is going to tolerate her pining for what amounts to an ill-advised make-out session years before, nor will they appreciate the irony in how efficiently she manages her childrens' schedules so long as it permits her time to pursue her private investigation into the death of her neighbor.
For a book with a grisly knife murder at its center, it's surprisingly lighthearted. It took me a little bit at the beginning when Kate stumbles on the body to reconcile her snarky voice and inappropriate jokes with the scene being painted. But shortly after the vibe settles in and I found myself really enjoying the ride. The mystery is very cozy, and sort of whodunit although I never felt any real compulsion to try and solve the mystery on my own. This is an interesting contrast to how I normally read mysteries, because the viability of the reader-solution often heavily weighs on how much I like many genre staples I've read. Here, I didn't really care. I was, in fact, more interested in what happened to Kate than in whether she cracked the case.
I wish I'd read the full version of the book all the way through. From what I understand this was Jennifer Weiner's only foray into genre fiction beyond her usual general fiction trappings, and I think that's kind of disappointing. I read Fly Away Home and liked it, but I like that sense of external forces driving the plot that genre fiction brings. Personal thing, but if I heard Weiner was releasing another genre book or a genere-influenced work, I'd be first in line....more
What I'm enjoying most about the Xenogenesis series is how damn thoughtful it is. This is idea science fiction at it's very best, exploring what it meWhat I'm enjoying most about the Xenogenesis series is how damn thoughtful it is. This is idea science fiction at it's very best, exploring what it means to be human through the lens of wild speculation. It's post-apocalyptic and full of invading space aliens but it's not grim, fatalistic or even swashbuckling. It's about relationships, about potential, about sex and gender and adaptation and growing up. It's about change. Change happens all the time, Butler points out, but can we—as humans—ever really embrace it?
Compared to Dawn, I kind of missed the presence of Lillith, who is relegated in this volume to a supporting role. Instead we mostly follow her son, Akin, the first male construct (hybrid oankali/human—basically the new generation of oankali) and the first to look almost completely human, at least in his larval stage. Lillith and the other human survivors introduced in the last part of Dawn have been transplanted to a repaired Earth and though some humans are working and breeding with the oankali, others have splintered off into human-only villages. They are bitter at being sterilized, at being at the mercy of the aliens, and early on Akin is kidnapped by a group of them. Fortunately, Akin is a wonderful character in his own right, and is absolutely the right person to see this chapter in the broader story through.
He spends enough time among the humans to develop a fascination with them, which informs the bulk of the book's conflict. Oankali direct their evolution by "trading" genes with species they encounter. The constructs like Akin will be a merging of the two species but will call themselves oankali. Older branches of the oankali are allowed to continue as part of the alien society, but what of the humans? They are a dead end species and Akin must decide if he should fight to grant them similar protections as outdated oankali branches.
The brilliance of Butler's work is that despite there not being a ton in the way of action or obvious tension, there is a gripping quality to the story. Much of the driving action is a series of small calamities and momentary dangers. But the underlying concerns are as big as they come, full of the sorts of thought exercises the very best SF can ignite. I loved thinking about this book. Did I sympathize with the Resisters? Would I be the sort of person to see the larger vision of the oankali? What would Akin's solution near the end of the book mean to the people who were almost convinced but couldn't get over the hurdle of being forced into breeding themselves out of existence? What did it say about humanity that the people originally selected to be re-awoken by the oankali in Dawn were potentially amenable to re-integration and so many of them chose to be Resisters?
As with Dawn, the set-up is deliberate but fascinating. The ending where things happen is a bit rushed and a lot of the relationships don't develop in a comfortable way, which is to say it unfolds in an unpredictable manner and not all readers are really going to cheer for how it shakes out. Unlike Dawn, which felt like it had room to continue but was complete in itself, Adulthood Rites has a much less self-contained feeling. It's book two of a trilogy, though, so I can forgive it that. Put another way, there's no scenario in which I won't read book three. I'm all in with the series at this point....more
It's a pretty good ghost story, a pretty good YA suspense/horror novel, and a fun, quick read. However, I was unaware the book had been revised in 201It's a pretty good ghost story, a pretty good YA suspense/horror novel, and a fun, quick read. However, I was unaware the book had been revised in 2011 and shoehorned into a more modern time period so a book I knew was released when I was a kid (it actually pre-dates me by a few years, which is increasingly rare to say) talking about WiFi and mobile phones threw me off until I did some more research.
After reading the whole thing, I think this is one that is better read in its original version. The story would make perfect sense if set in 1974, but in the modern age there are just too many suspensions of disbelief necessary for the core of the plot to work. And honestly I dislike the notion that young adult readers can only be entertained by stories set in a time they are familiar with. I read lots of books about kids growing up in the early-to-mid 20th century when I was young—when those times were as far behind us as the 1970s are now—and I had no problem relating. In fact I liked the historical element of them, even if they were originally written as contemporary stories.
I think, revision notwithstanding, the book has a slight problem with a stunted finale ((view spoiler)[what happened to Lynda!? (hide spoiler)]) but I didn't see the Blackwood reveal coming until a few paragraphs before the characters figured it out and the pacing is really well done, covering several months and creating a sense of isolation and menace without ever seeming to drag or to feel rushed.
Bottom line, fun, fast read but grab the original and skip the updated version.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
It's fluffy—basically every 90s action/romance/thriller in book form—but I won't bother to pretend I didn't have a good time reading it. A solid airpoIt's fluffy—basically every 90s action/romance/thriller in book form—but I won't bother to pretend I didn't have a good time reading it. A solid airport/beach novel: likable and competent characters, tense pacing, compelling plot, exciting action, the obligatory hot love scene. Maybe forgettable in the long run, but I think you'd have to be pretty cynical not to at least enjoy the ride....more
This book really surprised me and won me over. In the beginning, the modern (and fairly jarring) epistolary format was hard to follow, I didn't undersThis book really surprised me and won me over. In the beginning, the modern (and fairly jarring) epistolary format was hard to follow, I didn't understand what was happening or who these awful people were or why this kid kept interjecting.
But I kept at it.
Around the 1/3rd mark, I was hooked, though I still kept it at a distance because I was being stubborn about how hard it was to get engaged to begin with. Even though, by then, it didn't matter because it had already started working for me. But narrator/compiler Bee was charming and Bernadette was just so compelling and the crazy antics were wearing me down.
I don't know where Maria Semple's masterful set-up finally coalesced into something I loved, but by the time Bernadette actually vanishes (much later in the book than I'd expect from the title), I was smitten. The characters are all so wonderfully flawed and ridiculous; charming in their stupidity; detestable in their improbable bohemian wonderfulness. In short, they feel human.
The plot is just as ludicrous as the characters, and it made me love Seattle more than I already do, made me think visiting Antarctica isn't a completely insane thing to consider, made me wish I had worked at Microsoft—even briefly—so I could know how true the version painted here is to real life. It made me say "No way would that happen!" only in a gleeful, satisfied way and not in an incredulous way. It made me want to listen to The Beatles. It made me laugh and worry and wonder and hate anything that kept me from reading just a little more.
Still, I have to be a little hard on Where'd You Go, Bernadette? because it was so tough to get into at first. And, while I liked the ending—primarily because of the voice—I felt it was frustrating to have so little sense of closure on a few of the elements that played pivotal roles in the first half of the book. There are hand waves at it, but it was just off the mark.
Despite those few relatively minor gripes, I really enjoyed this book. I'll recommend it to almost anyone with just the minor caveat that if you can't get into the format, give it a little longer than you might otherwise before giving up. Some people, I suspect, it simply won't work for. Others will be like me and take a while to warm up. For those, and those who are able to dive right in, you're in for something special....more
Beautiful, vibrant book packed with humor and humanity. It's really the kind of book that doesn't need synopses and plot breakdowns because it's simplBeautiful, vibrant book packed with humor and humanity. It's really the kind of book that doesn't need synopses and plot breakdowns because it's simply about life and, as one might guess, love. With all that encompasses.
My one hesitation with this though is that there is a particular predatory nature to one of the characters, including a very casual relationship with an underage girl who is placed in his care. Unlike, say, Lolita, where the tension between the depravity of the romance and the emotional states of the two involved is expanded upon, in this book the relationship and others similar to it are treated with a flippant tone that unnerved me as much or more than the fact of it. There is maybe an argument to be made about the symbolic aspect of the relationship (I'm no English major but the symbolism in this book is extensive) but I still think the off handed matter-of-factness to it was too unsettling to let slide.
Still, it's only a single complaint about an otherwise devastatingly gorgeous work....more
Emily St. John Mandel's novel is about an apocalypse, I guess. Actually, it's really more about art, and about what truly matters in life, even when lEmily St. John Mandel's novel is about an apocalypse, I guess. Actually, it's really more about art, and about what truly matters in life, even when life is stripped down to—essentially—bare survival. In that way, Station Eleven ends up being far more hopeful and beautiful than most novels that take place after or during civilization-ending catastrophes.
There are lots of overlapping elements in play, and it's impressive to see it take shape. This is sort of the novel I read and realize it was something I wanted but never would have been able to describe or guess was an unscratched itch. It helps that Mandel realizes this ground has been trod before and doesn't necessarily shy away from the obvious comparisons (The Road, The Stand, Hunger Games, etc) and therefore isn't defined by trying to either mimic or distance from those stories.
I did think the book was a bit slow to get started; the cast is connected by a series of loose coincidences and the book follows a non-linear path so at first it's hard to reconcile the on-stage death of an actor, the photographer who gets wind of a breaking pandemic, the girl onstage during the heart attack who grows up into a traveling Shakespearean performer after the collapse of society, the actor's second ex-wife some who works endlessly on a personal graphic novel project some years before his death—and so on—with, well, much of anything. But as the characters are filled in and revealed, as the things both big and small that unite them and link them to each other become clear, the pacing starts to make sense. By the halfway point I was all the way into the world of the book, and scarcely put it down from that point until I had finished.
There is nothing, I don't think, about the progression of the book's plot that is particularly remarkable. If tracked chronologically, the chapters would tell snippets of stories from various viewpoints about life before, during, and after the end of the world as we know it. The way the book is structured though allows its themes to play off of each other, and allows for Mandel to specifically leave some elements here unresolved in a way that is actually—almost paradoxically—satisfying.
It's a smart, thoughtful, curiously delightful book that has just the right elements of darkness and triumph and beauty and ugliness. Really wonderful work, and highly recommended....more
I mentioned a little while ago that I was making a conscious effort to read work from a more diverse sampling of authors. Particularly I noted that myI mentioned a little while ago that I was making a conscious effort to read work from a more diverse sampling of authors. Particularly I noted that my personal literary canon over the past couple of years has been rather lily white. The thing about that kind of sampling is that the cultural underpinnings that inform North American/European white authors gets reflected in their settings and characters as a default. For example, most fantasy novels authored by white writers are set in some riff on medieval Europe, presumably because that's where the fairy tales and other genre standards originated, but also I think because that period gets a lot of attention in white-majority primary schools.
So when you read a novel like Nnedi Okorafor's Who Fears Death, the cultural sameness of a lot of white-authored books becomes very plain. This is a book set in a sort of post-apocalyptic, magical realism Africa. Even though it's probably not all that divergent from modern Africa (in the sense, for example, that The Road is not that divergent from modern America), just that fact alone makes it feel like this very remote, fascinating place to someone, like me, with limited literary horizons. Ms Okorafor crafts this world with a tender but unflinching hand. The world building is deft, typifying the novel as a whole being, by turns, lush and raw and gorgeous and devastating and ugly and remarkable.
This is not an easy book. There are no light, fluffy sections, no gentle fades to black when the ghastly truths of the setting come about. It follows the tale of Onyesonwu, a child born from the rape of her mother. Her mother's attackers are Nuru; she is Okeke; the results of such violent couplings are distinctive, lighter of skin, freckled, and many superstitions surround those like her. But Onyesonwu is a survivor. She has strange abilities and she longs to find a sense of purpose for those talents such as shapeshifting and healing powers, as much as she longs to find a place in the world that does not accept her.
The fact that Onyesonwu is an outcast both from her parentage and her abilities, the violent assault on her mother, the local coming-of-age custom that involves female circumcision, the oppressive brutality of the setting and the antagonist, even the darkness inside Onyesonwu herself, these things make for grim reading. But what really worked about Who Fears Death is that Ms Okorafor never quite lets it feel bleak. Onyesonwu is fiery, sharp, stubborn. She is rarely self-pitying or whiny, despite having to deal with a great deal of angst. The supporting cast are wonderful foils for the protagonist, the pacing of the action is perfectly pitched to give Onyesonwu and the Okeke the right amount of triumphs amid the setbacks and tragedies to make the ending a genuine question. In most fantasy or hero's quest tales the victoriousness of the ending is basically pre-ordained. But because the world in Who Fears Death is so grim and unsentimental, there is a genuine tension regarding the outcome.
There are so many little details about this book that made it gripping for me to read. The relationships, the fascinating blend of science fiction and fantasy, the characterizations, the breadth of the plot without having to resort to being "epic" (in the pejorative sense), the raw humanity on display at all times; it was all just so tightly woven. The book exhausted me somewhat, emotionally. I don't know that I finished it thinking, "I'd love a sequel to this." But I did finish it wanting to know more about the world Ms Okorafor had created, even if it meant having to make the harrowing trip back....more
When books get beefy—600+ pages in hardcover, for example—there is the tendency for them to become somewhat unnecessary. The extra bloat of pages doesWhen books get beefy—600+ pages in hardcover, for example—there is the tendency for them to become somewhat unnecessary. The extra bloat of pages doesn't always translate into an increase in scope or a requisite complexity to tell the story at hand. Sometimes the length of a hefty book works against it, if the story inside is interesting but the writer spends too much time faffing around on asides or subplots or secondary characters. Or maybe an editor somewhere just didn't exert the sorcery of his or her healing red pen. Then, there are times when overstuffed novels are welcome, when the book is just so good and the characters so enchanting that you don't mind indulging the authorial extravagance.
NOS4A2 falls into this last category. It tells the tale of Victoria "Vic" McQueen, aka "The Brat", following her from young girl with a knack for finding lost things, all the way into adulthood where her ability and the curious mechanics of it have left a deep scar on her life. The book winds its way up to the central plot via a protracted prologue that takes up the first third of the book. A lot of time is spent establishing the relationship between Vic and her father, Chris, which is cleverly/symbolically dropped after Chris abandons Vic and her mother. And while there are relatively few characters in a book this size, each gets plenty of attention and development such that, by the end, even though this is Vic's story, it feels important to know what becomes of Lou and Wayne and Tabitha and Bing and the others.
It deserves to be said, in case anyone felt like dancing around it, that Joe Hill harkens his dad, Stephen King. I mean that in a good way. NOS4A2 feels like a book written not by someone trying to ape King, but by a gifted writer who happens to be a superfan of the horror mega-star. By someone who has taken a scholarly approach to the library produced by a writer who happens to be this guy's dad. King's books haven't always been raw horror, and this book sits nicely alongside those parts of the King canon, The Stand, The Gunslinger, The Eye Of The Dragon. There are frightening elements to NOS4A2, but the book is not splattered with gore. Most of the torment comes from inside Vic's head.
I couldn't call NOS4A2 a perfect book. There are parts of the story that feel a little ordinary; particularly the law enforcement angle that shows up later in the book. Some of this is only in contrast to the bulk of the book which is unpredictable and exciting, so when formulas and tropes appear, they come dressed for Carnivale. The climax was also a touch disappointing because—as with several other periods of time that make up Vic's life, such as her stint in Hollywood that gets a paragraph at most—the emotional punch is delivered in a kind of off-screen/between-chapters fashion that I personally didn't care for.
But sometimes imperfect books tell the best stories, though, so even though it has a couple of warts, I loved NOS4A2. I grew up on Stephen King's brand of grim adventure stories and this felt like a half-homage, half-revisit to those reading days of my young life and I appreciated it's ability to filter that sense into a new, exciting tale....more
From time to time I like to check out one of the books my wife enjoys and/or recommends. She's been a rabid Jane Green fan for some time so I decidedFrom time to time I like to check out one of the books my wife enjoys and/or recommends. She's been a rabid Jane Green fan for some time so I decided to give one a chance.
I feel like I want to get my literary snootiness out of the way up front so I can talk about the novel itself, so let me just say that I don't feel like Ms. Green's writing style—at least not the one on display in this book—is really for me. Her point of view dancing and tense shifting frustrated me to the point where occasionally I felt I wanted to take a big red pen to the book. I also think this may be the only author other than George R. R. Martin I've read who spends so much time discussing clothing. Sometimes the book feels like a narrative description of Pinterest for how detailed she insists on being about everyone's outfits. And while I kind of appreciated the three-protagonist format of the book, I finished it feeling as if the three pieces never quite unified into a singular whole. These sections almost felt like a trilogy of overlapping novellas, something that might be released for $1.99 each in ebook format (were the book written ten years later, of course) rather than lumped together into a sort of de facto novel.
But enough grumbling. The main takeaway I had from the book is that I was entertained, in some sections more than others, and I came to understand something about genre preference. It seems to me that where some might deride genres for being formulaic, that's not actually the case. Instead, genres collect templates whose cores are frequently recognizeable in many of the individual works. The key is that genre fans are at root entertained by these templates. Non-fans are often unimpressed with the base genre boilerplates. And yet, works which are original enough or well-realized enough to rise above the basic tropes of the genre become universally appealing. Often people go to great lengths to decouple these examples from their own genre, to distance them from the templates, even if they technically follow them.
Which I think is why I don't think of myself as liking romantic comedies, even though I have enjoyed a number of them: the templates are not inherently all that entertaining for me.
Babyville is split into three sections, each following a protagonist. In Julia's section we meet a woman with a long term boyfriend who is trying to get pregnant. She's fiercely determined to do so in order to patch up a troubled relationship. They aren't combative per se, but they don't really mesh as well as they used to. This section is the "great on paper couple finds they are happier apart" genre template; triumph out of tragedy.
In Maeve's section, a career-focused woman accidentally finds herself pregnant following an ill-advised and uncharacteristic one-time thing and slowly begins to realize her solitary, independent existence was missing some reviled domesticity. The "career woman finds happiness in home life" template.
Then there is Sam's section, in which a first time mother struggles with the isolation of being a stay-at-home mom, with the resentment of her workload versus that of her husband, and with what is probably fairly acute postpartum depression. This is where the book stops feeling like an extended prologue section and begins to come together in a sense of unified theme and central conflict. Coming two-thirds of the way in, this is kind of awkward, and in some ways despite being the most engaging section, it's also the most problematic. Particularly I wasn't crazy about the impressions Green gives about depression and postpartum depression, furthering the misconception it is something that can be readily snapped out of given the correct sequence of events of just the right trigger. This is an irresponsible impression to give, in my opinion.
In any case this final section is the most distinct from any well-tread romantic comedy template and probably why I enjoyed it the most. Which is not to say the other sections weren't enjoyable, just that they often felt familiar enough that I spent more time feeling smug at how well I was able to predict their events than just appreciating the story. A couple of things Green does well is establish a sense of place and create character relationships that feel sweet and pleasant, as if you'd want to know and be friends with the couples.
For instance, in Julia's tale I found Green's depiction of New York life extraordinarily alluring, inspiring me to want to visit or just move there and enjoy the lifestyle Julia falls in love with. The banter she establishes between Julia and Belle, Julia and Jack, and Maeve and Mark are all distinct and yet charming. She nails female friendships and their sometimes complicated loyalty structures and honesty/support minefields. And its worth noting that the ambitious structure of the book, while not always successful, is impressively bold.
Which all comes down to a bit of a mixed bag but one in which I ultimately enjoyed. It had to have some elements of "enjoyed in spite of…" but I'm not sure that undermines the basic sense of entertainment I got out of it. Not sure I'd race out to read more Jane Green books, but as usual when reading my wife's favorite authors, I'm glad to have more (pop-)cultural common ground with her....more
Gillian Flynn's dark, brazen imagination has quickly become one of my favorites. After devouring her novels Gone Girl and Sharp Objects, I had to tearGillian Flynn's dark, brazen imagination has quickly become one of my favorites. After devouring her novels Gone Girl and Sharp Objects, I had to tear through the only other book in her catalog thus far, Dark Places.
For a while, I thought Dark Places might end up being my favorite of the three. It starts with an intriguing hook, and builds with a desperation like the last point of a winner-take-all tennis tournament. Dark Places is the story of Libby Day, a woman in her early thirties; her life has been defined by the grisly murders of her two sisters and her mother. Libby survived, and famously testified in court against her older brother, sending him away to prison for life.
Libby is a broken woman, guilt-ridden, lazy, listless, unfocused, physically and mentally stunted. She's also becoming increasingly desperate as her sympathy fund, which has carried her through her wasted life, is nearly depleted. She connects with a loose organization of true crime nerds and decides they might be her ticket to a few more months of dodging the world, but in order to play ball with them, she has to dig into her past, into her tragic family, and most of all, into that fateful night.
Dark Places tracks both Libby's quest for answers as well as the events of the day and night the murders took place, swapping points of view between current-day Libby, her teenaged brother Ben in 1985, and her mother Patty leading up to her infamous death. Along the way, familiar themes are hauled out and examined in a cruel, flickering flourescent light of Flynn's twisted prose: money and poverty, family and regret, self-loathing and unlikely alliances.
The progression and escalation of the plot are pitch-perfect, each dark revelation coming fast and with furious thrills of revolting intrigue, and it's a formula that works except there is a veneer of a mystery novel here. But, because mysteries tend to hinge on their resolution, Dark Places struggles at the climax to make good on the promise of the chilling investigation phase. Perhaps it is because every significant revelation plays a part in the overwrought conclusion. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that the book's answers are telegraphed early on but obfuscated with an unlikely coincidence that strains disbelief.. Perhaps it has more to do with the fact that what I cared most about—the developing emotional connections between several key leads—fizzles in the final few chapters instead of stepping up to center stage as I felt it should.
Ms. Flynn is a remarkable writer, and her pacing, plotting, and unsettling characterizations have created in three books a wonderfully dark canon. This book isn't the sickening takedown punch it could have been, but it comes close....more
- Exhausted from a 12-hour day at work, I try to read long after I should be in bed.Some scenes of my life while reading Marisha Pessl's Night Film:
- Exhausted from a 12-hour day at work, I try to read long after I should be in bed. I nod off, snap awake, read a few lines, nod off again. I can't bring myself not to fight my way to the end of the chapter. - At roughly the halfway point, I discover the interactive elements of the book, including a smartphone app. I try to go back to find the pages that unlock new extended content, but find they are too distracting. Any time spent fiddling in this way is time I'm not spending making progress. - Given a block of uninterrupted reading time, I drink two pots of coffee rather than waste the time dozing or being too sleepy to continue reading. - Home alone as I read a partiuclarly harrowing scene, my upstairs neighbor slams her front door. Startled, I yelp and convulse so badly the Kindle flies out of my hand and falls on the floor. - My only thought as I collect the reader is, "That sceen better at least still be legible or I'm going up there." - At the 75% mark I sit down, still 200 or so pages from the end, and begin to read, thinking I'll make as much progress as I can and probably finish in two or three more days (I read very slowly). Four hours later, I finish the book, well after midnight.
Granted, not all of these moments are incredibly unique when I get captured by a book. But Night Film crept around me like a shadow from behind so quickly and smoothly I didn't realize I was standing in it until it blocked out all the light. I had Night Film dreams. I concocted reasons to go back to reading it. I felt, at times, as if I were a character in the book, as if somehow Pessl had accomplished the impossible and written a story that went beyond the odd obfuscation of second-person and reached out through the pages and pulled the reader by the shirt into the narrative. By the end, I'm still not entirely convinced that isn't true.
Night Film is the kind of book about which I don't want to reveal too much plot information. It starts with discgraced reporter Scott McGrath jogging in Central Park late at night. He sees a woman in a red coat and black boots on several of his laps, but he can never quite get a glimpse of her face. She seems, perhaps, to be trying to send him a message of some sort, but she unnerves him. She's in places she shouldn't be, moving in ways that don't seem quite possible. Scott finishes his run, heads to the subway. Just as the train pulls away from the platform, he sees black boots coming down the steps, and the hem of a red coat.
When the news hits that reclusive underground filmmaker Stanislaus Cordova's troubled young daughter, Ashley, has committed suicide reaches Scott, he realizes from the accounts that the woman in the red coat was Ashley. Aside from the odd encounter at the park, Scott's history ties into the Cordovas in another way: researching the Cordova films and auteur is what directly led to Scott's fall from grace. But something doesn't sit right about Ashley's death and Scott decides he needs to finish what he started and re-open the case on Cordova.
Pessl tells the story with a narrative that switches gears subtly several times. She uses screen captures of online news articles (artfully recreated from actual sources like Rolling Stone and Newsweek), photographs (several of the characters have actors associated with them who re-appear throughout the mixed media narrative), websites, evidence, and the aforementioned extended material in the associated app. The story reads at times like a great mystery/caper, other times it becomes a research thriller like The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, and occasionally it dips into pure horror or psychological terror. Pessl takes her time getting to the satisfying end without ever getting dull or overstaying her welcome.
This is not a flawless book, though. Pessl insists on using a ridiculous amount of italics, many of which actually detract from the flow, rather than add to it. It gets incredibly annoying. The ending, while satisfactory, has a meandering quality that feels a bit—especially considering the contextualization leading up to it—as if it's occasionally trying too hard to tie up the loose ends.
But I'm happy to overlook these and heartily recommend this gripping, engaging, affecting book. When I finished it, I felt like I'd experienced something, as if I'd had a memorable real-life encounter, an enigmatic if fleeting moment I'd turn over and over in the days to come. Pessl creates a world that is so close to our own while being tantalizingly remote, it's oddly more horrible than reality and yet has an allure. The threads this winds through the narrative, beyond the words and into the reader's mind is enchanting like a bad dream you don't want to wake from....more
One reason book clubs are a good idea is that they occsionally find you reading books you never heard of, or that you might have dismissed out of handOne reason book clubs are a good idea is that they occsionally find you reading books you never heard of, or that you might have dismissed out of hand on the off chance it did penetrate your spehere of awareness. Robertson Davies's Fifth Business was such a book for me and I'm delighted to say I am glad for such injections into my reading schedule.
The book follows Dunstan Ramsay's life, related in a framework of a detailed letter to his boss in which he defends himself against a broad supposition that he is a knowable dullard. He outlines his existence as what he refers to as "Fifth Business", supposedly a term from European opera houses describing the character of central plot performance who is neither protagonist nor love interest, nor rival, nor villain. This character is defined by their ability to lubricate the stories of others. The tapestry of character presented here is significant for the way in which Ramsay's thesis—that he is a real-world Fifth Business—is both understadable and capable of such interpretation, in some ways in relation to whichever other major character you cast in the various other roles. Yet at the same time Ramsay also overlooks his own role as central protagonist such that each character who enters Davies's narrative fufills multiple roles depending upon whose story you presume is being told.
It's a complex book, one that requires some thought and—thankfully it exists in a book club context for me—further discussion. It's also quite enjoyable but in a sort of intellectual biography sort of way which makes it not dull but a very slow read. It took me nearly a month to read a 250 page book which is kind of unheard of for something I find myself enjoying. But it reads the way complexly flavored dishes taste: it demands a slower chew, a thoughtful reflection on each bite. This is no syrupy dessert to be scarfed down.
It occurred to me near the end that this book reminded me in a very peculiar way of The Great Gatsby. Granted, this is a peek into the lives of religious scholars and illusionists and philanthropists and not raw capitalists (though Boy Staunton does a superior Candadian twist on the Jay Gatsby tragic/ironic rich man's arc) and as such it has depth where F. Scott Fitzgerald had imagery. Still, there are some parallels I couldn't shake and I came away thinking it something of a shame that Gatsby is handed out like student ID cards to every high schooler and this book flounders in quasi-obscurity. Perhaps it is because Gatsby is such an American book, but I found myself much preferring Davies's work to Fitzgerald's because, extracting the nationalism, FIfth Business is so much more human....more
Richard Matheson's dark and chilling account of a vampire apocalypse chronicles protagonist Robert Neville's solitary quest for survival and understanRichard Matheson's dark and chilling account of a vampire apocalypse chronicles protagonist Robert Neville's solitary quest for survival and understanding. This is a strange, lonely book full of pathos and gritty exposition. Neville is neither hero nor anti-hero, inhabiting a kind of character space that inspires a certain degree of sympathy but managing to hold readers at a distance for not being the kind of plucky survivor one might find in other post-apocalypse settings. He works occasionally to understand the cause of the vampirism that took everything from him but life, he drinks a lot, tries to bury his past, struggles with his physical urges, spends a lot of time getting angry at his situation, at himself, at the vampires in general. Somewhere in there emerges a sense of realism; in under 200 pages Matheson manages to chronicle the malestrom of internal conflict that would likely typify the lot of the last man on Earth.
And this is a deeply troubling story. The famous black-as-night ending is horrifying in its implications and tragic language; the triumphs that either permit Neville to continue surviving (or at least fail to give him sufficient reason to give up) are wafer-thin while the ongoing devastations he endures begin to feel oppressive by the two-thirds mark. This is a horror story not because it is frightening in the sense one might expect from a story about vampires, but because it is ruthless in its willingness to break Neville's (and the reader's) heart with unflinching matter-of-factness. It sounds weird to say so, but I kind of loved Matheson for that.
It surprised me that the story didn't feel more dated than it did; this is a book that considers the mid-to-late 1970s as the future so it could have felt like a relic. It was anything but. There are a few references that might be lost on younger audiences and at least one casual use of a term long considered to be a racist relic, but by and large this is an impressively timeless work. I haven't read Matheson before this but based on the strength of this book, I will definitely be reading more....more
I've been absorbing writing advice for a couple of years from the blog of a guy named Chuck Wendig. I have this weird habit of listening to advice (abI've been absorbing writing advice for a couple of years from the blog of a guy named Chuck Wendig. I have this weird habit of listening to advice (about writing in particular) from people without judging for myself if they are good at the thing they dispense advice over. In an attempt to get better about this, I decided to check out Blackbirds.
The interesting thing is, reading this book put an awful lot of Wendig's advice into a context so hindsight-clarifying it was like that scene in the Spider-Man movie where Peter Parker realizes he doesn't need glasses anymore, in fact they make it worse. The one thing that's clear is that Wendig listens to himself. He writes with a desperation, a sweaty urgency to read on and on and on.
The beginning of the book was—well, not slow really. I liked all the component parts, but I found myself strangely comfortable with putting it down at the end of chapters. I wish I could pinpoint what it is about the lead-in that makes it work without commanding attention. The best guess I have is that it takes a little while to get a handle on the protagonist, Miriam Black. She's a drifter in her mid-twenties with a lot of baggage and a grisly ability: she can see the exact time and circumstance of a person's death just by touching them. She uses this ability to follow the soon-to-die around so she can scavenge their bodies for petty cash and one-time-use credit cards. She drinks a lot, smokes a lot, curses a lot, and has a pitch black cynic's outlook born from her constant reminder of what a heartless bastard fate can be.
The problem, if it is one, is that Miriam is a guy-in-a-girl's body. She speaks and acts and thinks the way I imagine a lot of guys think they would if they suddenly found themselves gender-flipped. The closest thing to a girly trait or action is that she choses the morning after a one-night stand to dye her hair black. It does eventually make sense for her to be such a calloused, bitter soul, regardless of sex, but in the beginning it's hard not to keep getting pulled just far enough out of the narrative by saying, "would any woman really act that way?"
In any case, somewhere between thirty-three and fifty percent through, around the time the two semi-well-tread but thoroughly enjoyable antagonists are introduced, Blackbirds starts to pick up steam. Miriam's voice becomes just enough her own that it becomes easier to forgive her the occasional outburst of odd masculinity and the plot rockets through to the solid but not flawless finale.
Wendig writes in a hyper-cinematic style that is barebones and heavy on the clever/unexpected turn of phrase and streetwise platitude, which works very well for this type of story. There is a kind of Eli Roth/Quentin Tarantino-via-Stephen King thing in Blackbirds which, if you're comfortable with those kinds of stories, will suit you just fine and in fact I would recommend this book. But there's not a ton of finesse here and subtlety doesn't really fit into the macguffin briefcase the style carries around. I like this sort of meta-genre just fine; I suspect though that it's not everyone's cup of tea.
My takeaway is that I'll put the sequel on my to-read list and I have Wendig on my radar as more than just a source for Sam Kinison Screams Writing Advice as well. It's good to see he walks his talk....more
There is one central distinction between John Green's The Fault In Our Stars and his first novel, Looking For Alaska. In TFIOS, Augustus and Hazel areThere is one central distinction between John Green's The Fault In Our Stars and his first novel, Looking For Alaska. In TFIOS, Augustus and Hazel are dynamic, well-realized characters who have insane chemistry between them. They are, perhaps, the kind of amazing humans who exist only in books, whose flaws are forgivable and understandable and whose endearing aspects are those which we might find annoying in real life. But they shine on the page. In Looking For Alaska, the central characters are maybe more real, perhaps less idealized, but they are also harder to reconcile. We have to be told to watch out for the Colonel's temper becuase otherwise he acts erratically. Protagonist Pudge needs to be annoyed with Alaska's moodiness because otherwise we wouldn't know that her instability isn't endearing, it's frustrating. And so on.
Occasionally the dynamics work. The group of friends central to the story—Pudge, Colonel, Alaska, Takumi, and Lara—finally start to gel as characters and overlapping relationships just before the central event in the story that by nature kind of undoes all the labored efforts to find that sweet spot. Mostly the first half of the book struggles to effectively establish the principals, racing through a series of establishing shots so Green can get to the meat of the book which happens in the latter half. It's a first novel, it's uneven, but it's not boring or uninteresting.
Once the central event occurs, the book begins to hit the highest points it achieves. Green's execution on the themes of grief and loss, the search for meaning and the nature of human relationships is a little uneven but there are moments of raw beauty and blistering truth. The seeds of what he will later be able to achieve with Stars are visible here, and that's impressive. Some of this second half doesn't work as well as it might; the mystery element is not terribly subtle and while I found its conclusion appropriate, it feels set up for something maybe more revelatory or packaged. That this manufactured satisfaction doesn't come and may irritate some. Personally, I thought it was absolutely the right way to go, but I'd guess some won't like the nebulous end.
I liked Looking For Alaska primarily as an exercise in considering the subjects dealt with, rather than on its strengths as a novel....more
Cormac McCarthy's The Road is about as bleak and unsympathetic a story as I have ever encountered. It follows two traveling companions, a father and hCormac McCarthy's The Road is about as bleak and unsympathetic a story as I have ever encountered. It follows two traveling companions, a father and his young son, as they traverse a scorched landscape along an unidentified road. We pick up with both unnamed protagonists at a point in time and follow them until an end, of sorts. What has come before is revealed only in the barest of details, one defining flashback and then a lot of insinuation without explanation. What happens after is left unsaid.
In a way, this is kind of the epitome of a post-apocalyptic story. The cause of the apocalypse isn't revealed, the leftovers are not unique or interesting in any way. There is no allegorical society that has arisen from the ashes, there is only the remnants; there are only survivors. It seemed pretty plain to me that the road represents life. It's sort of an obvious metaphor, but the details are what define it. There is an end, indubitably, and one which the man and the boy hope will be happy but they have no way of knowing. There is nothing else for them to do but to follow the road, try to stay on it as long as possible. Eventually something has to change and they both, in a way, long for the change but they also fear it—the road and the destination. It makes other post-apocalyptic stories seem like fluffy romances in comparison.
McCarthy's prose is… well, it's hard to decide how I feel about it. Both style and structure in this novel break pretty much every rule of fiction. I suppose this is okay. This is a novel that feels like a short story. It's a tedious slog through repetitive and only grimly interesting events. It is full of fragmented sentences and painfully raw/real dialogue. It's also kind of beautiful, the way a ruined building can be beautiful in the right light, perhaps with sunbeams streaming through the jagged edges of negative space, or maybe poetic and poignant against a somber gray sky. It feels like the story might not have worked without the signature stripped, rhythmic style. But then again, I'm not sure the story works at all, so it's unclear whether this is celebration or indictment.
If nothing else this is a master class in mood evocation. Experiencing this book is oppressive, sobering, laborious. You feel the weight of the man on yourself as reader, you grasp the terror of futility from the boy in your mind. Your journey through the book mirrors theirs through the blasted remains of an Earth they didn't want, would happily do without if there were any other choice. I suppose I hated this book in a way because its vivid intensity wrapped around me like one of the man's filthy blankets, suffocating and claustrophobic but masochistically compelling. I've heard books described as life-affirming. The Road, by contrast, is death-affirming. I guess in a way I loved this book for that.
And if I were to level a single barbed criticism at the book it would be this: as much as I respect McCarthy's refusal to coddle me as a reader, his stoic and unflinching realization of a world stripped bare of everything but survival and even that bearing a mandatory question mark, his efforts demand a distance. And here is where The Road's callous handling of the reader works against it as a judgment on humanity: it reduces humanity until it is all misery and falseness of hope and injustice. Out of this comes a moment that might be wrenching, soulful and heartbreaking except by then we've lost heart, we've shredded our soul and we have no purchase upon which to grasp. From across that divide, we cannot even work up a single tear. It is too far. At best, all we can offer is a ghoulish sniff, perhaps an ironic smile. All is as it must be. As the man might say, "we'll be okay." Except, of course, we won't; because, of course, we never were....more
...to date it is the only book that has ever made me have to put it down because I couldn’t keep reading through the tears. I’m not sure what it says about me that the death of two dogs moved me to tears where even the most emotional demise of a human in other books could not...
Now, technically that is still true, but only because I listened to The Fault In Our Stars on audiobook which means my vision impairment was not a factor in continuing the narrative. The truth is, the tragedy in John Green's novel was acute, and I felt it like a personal loss. However, this wouldn't have been possible if that tragedy wasn't framed within the context of delight in the characters he creates here. Crying at a tearjerker isn't, for most people, all that much of a noteworthy event. Just because it doesn't happen often for me (though granted, I don't read a lot of books that fall under that genre), well, I guess that says more about me than the books I read.
What I think precipitated my investment is that I pretty much fell in love with the principals in the book, Augustus Waters and Hazel Grace. Granted, I recognized there was a certain stylization happening with these two teenagers. I was reminded of the movie Juno, where these sixteen and seventeen year-olds talk with the sort of witty precision that I'm not sure exists in the real world. Granted, Green's characterizations aren't quite as precious as Juno, but they do come across as a bit manufactured. They also lack any real flaws, other than their physical ones. But what you're seeing here is me stretching to find criticisms of the book. As much as I wish I could say the precocious admirability of these characters didn't work, revealing myself to be a wizened and appropriately cynical modern person, I can't. There is a certain manipulation inherent in a book about kids with cancer—smart, astoundingly perfect kids. It seems almost cruel to create this funny, delightful first half full of sweetness and cleverness and then know that it can't end the same way. I mean, it can, but it won't. Cancer precludes happily ever after. But it's not like this is some fictional construct Green has fabricated to hang us with our heartstrings.
They discuss the concept in TFIOS of the emotional grenade, how the inherent tragedy of a terminal patient is like a destructive weapon timed to explode on the lives of those closest to them. In a way, this book served as such a vector for me, and it's worth mentioning that the conclusion reached along this line of thought is that while the grenade may feel remorse at the damage it has no choice but to cause, the decision to fall upon it may not be a choice at all. Which is to say, I knew at a certain point what was coming and theoretically I could have stopped the audiobook and halved the book into an incomplete "sick kids fall in love and go on an adventure." But I owed it to myself to let the timer keep ticking until the explosion, and to call it a decision minimizes the truth that by the time the signposts warning of the inevitable conclusion appeared, I could no more have ignored them and abandoned the book than Hazel's parents can abandon her when her medicine inevitably ceases to work.
The only question mark that remains in my mind is how much of my affection for this book is owed to John Green's creation and how much is owed to the utterly remarkable performance of the audiobook by Kate Rudd. I say in nearly every audiobook review that I don't adjust ratings based on the quality of the narration, but this instance makes me wonder if such a thing is even possible. I don't know if it was Augustus Waters and his inflected speech patterns (coming from Mr Green) I adored or if it was Ms Rudd's charming performance of those aspects. The banter-heavy conversations between Gus and Hazel sing in the audio performance. I tried, halfway through the audio, to read a bit of the print novel from the copy at a local store to see if it was Green's writing or Rudd's reading that I was truly enamored with. It was a failed experiment: by that time I was reading the dialogue with Kate Rudd's interpretation cemented to the characters. In this case, at least, I've decided I don't care. Whether it was one or the other or a combination of the two, I loved this reading experience and would gladly suffer the tears again to experience it afresh....more
Before I get too off point, I want to make clear that I liked Sharp Objects. This is a dark, grim, can't-look-away train wreck in slow motion and it gBefore I get too off point, I want to make clear that I liked Sharp Objects. This is a dark, grim, can't-look-away train wreck in slow motion and it grasped my wrist and raced me through its pages, holding me up well into the night. I read them out of order, but you can see shades of the wonderful character (or is that reader?) sadism Gillian Flynn put on display in Gone Girl here and this is the kind of book that puts an author on people's watch lists.
I'll try not to do too many Gone Girl comparisons, but I do want to get out of the way that what makes this book not quite live up to that standard is that the framework in Gone Girl was so much different from anything else I'd seen whereas this, while by no means directly derivative, feels familiar. At least at first. On the bright side, Sharp Objects has a (ahem) razor-like finale which compares quite favorably to the love-it-or-hate-it conclusion of Gone Girl.
Anyway, Sharp Objects follows Camille Preaker, cub reporter for a low circulation Chicago newspaper who gets sent back to her Missouri hometown to investigate a short series of disturbing events surrounding young girls that could be the start of something sensationally ongoing. Camille resents the assignment; home is no solace to her and she has the scars to prove it. And the scars aren't just psychological (though there are plenty of those); she's a cutter who has scarred almost every coverable inch of her body with carved words in her flesh.
The interesting part about Sharp Objects is the way Flynn constructs the narrative. This is a thriller that moves at an almost languid pace; it's never dull and the sick fascination of what drives Camille, what ails the town, what motivates her family members propels the narrative. But from an event perspective, the plotting feels prone to diversions and apparent meandering asides. It might read like a mystery except those diversions and character moments don't leave much character economy to work with, nor do Camille's motivations seem particularly aimed at solving the damn thing. In a way, Sharp Objects is more like a psychological survival horror tale, paranoid and clawing on a dwindling width of a foothold, both protagonist and reader just trying to make it through to the end somewhat intact.
What trips the novel up from being an absolute smash is a frustrating vagueness to Camille and a missed opportunity. It's apparent that our first-person narrator is a mortally damaged person, and that's no problem at all; Flynn is terrific at establishing her voice and personality. What she struggles with is giving sufficient insight behind some of the more outrageous decisions Camille makes, at crystallizing how the internal (or perhaps external) scars permit or shape the often erratic behavior as the book proceeds. There is a particular dynamic between two central characters that, if given more internal consideration or even if given more potent contextualization, wouldn't feel quite as arbitrary and, well, unrealistically creepy. I like creepy. Creepy is good, but I have to believe it and at times toward the back half of the book I found myself suppressing disbelieving laughter rather than shudders.
The missed opportunity is for a thematic unification. Maybe I've been reading Neil Gaiman too much, but I really expected the significance of the words to play a bigger role. Camille's career choice as a writer seemed so directly in keeping with her particular brokenness, the obsession with words and the chilling description of how those words felt to her had resonance to me as someone interested in and fascinated by language (as I presume most writers would have to be). And yet it never quite solidified into a grounding presence through the book, such that it felt by the end like a dangling thread, nagging to be pulled but threatening the structural integrity of the prose. It's not a foundational flaw, to be sure, but it frustrated me for being so right there and yet unexplored.
Still, between this book and Gone Girl, I'm loving Flynn's writing and this sort of ghastly sub-genre she's carving for herself, and I'm making plans to read her only other novel to date (Dark Places) sooner than I intended....more
That was the exact word out of my mouth upon finishing Julian Barnes's brief but extraordinary novel. There is an internal debate that rages in"Whoa."
That was the exact word out of my mouth upon finishing Julian Barnes's brief but extraordinary novel. There is an internal debate that rages in committing this review between what I desperately want to say and what I feel like I should say in order to keep the experience pure for those who read this before reading the book. I had few preconceptions about The Sense Of An Ending before reading and I felt myself well served because of it. When I handed the book, seconds after completion, to my wife and said, "you have to read this," she asked what it was about. My response was, "it's better if you find out for yourself."
And even that circles the point that I'm struggling to say without typing explicitly because while there are those (like me) who find the joy in experiencing something independent of foreknowledge (within reason), sometimes it feels that an experience is heightened by the surprise of discovery. If I could implore every person I know to read this book with a simple, "trust me," I'd be delighted to let that suffice. Perhaps if I could be assured that the supporting argument of, "you can easily finish it in a single afternoon, so there's no excuse" would cement the recommendation, I'd leave it at that.
If pressed, I can comfortably say that The Sense Of An Ending is about an old English man recollecting his life, or at least a specific sequence which has cause in his present to be reflected upon. Of course, that's what the plot happens to be, the book itself is about memory, remorse, and personal narrative. The little truths and lies we tell ourselves both with determined deliberateness and flippant carelessness. The nonlinear nature of our developing sense of self, folding back on itself through introspection and the occasional external perspective. Barnes' prose is magic, beautifully crafted and wasting no single word or literary gesture. Normally I'm a curmudgeonly stickler for perceived value. I resisted buying this book for myself: twenty-plus dollars for a hardback totaling 163 pages? Absurd. But this isn't a short book because it's glib or incomplete or hasty. It's not even short in the sense of being abbreviated as a short story might be. It is simply the length it needs to be and I wish more novelists—particularly literary novelists—would exhibit the restraint necessary to trim their work this lean.
The last thing I'll say is that I was reminded while reading this book of another recent favorite I found, The Last Werewolf. Not because the two have anything in common other than, perhaps, being written by British men, but because of their respective influences on me as a writer. I stumbled away from Glen Duncan's literary fantasy/horror novel with a deflated ego, thinking it so magnificent there might be no hope for me ever achieving such mastery over mechanics and plotting and style. Barnes's novel had the opposite effect. For as brilliant as I found his prose to be, it was wholly inspiring and encouraged me to read all the more closely as if to divine new insights of the craft from its pages. Perhaps this reflects more on my own state of mind than on inherent instructive qualities from either book, but either way I emerged on the other side of The Sense Of An Ending changed, and for the better, as a writer and, I think, as a person. I can't recommend it enough....more
Nestled between laborious descriptions of a family which, with one exception, is deserving of heavy scorn, are some interesting and almost beautiful iNestled between laborious descriptions of a family which, with one exception, is deserving of heavy scorn, are some interesting and almost beautiful insights to be unearthed in Jonathan Franzen's Freedom. These insights aren't exactly subtle, the thematic element of the book is born on the cover and in the title: the exploration of what it means to be free, the price inherent in that liberty, and the overlooked hazards of exercising any free will.
Franzen frames this discussion around a tale of the Berglunds, Walter and Patty and their kids Joey and Jessica. Reminiscent of a book I read a couple years ago, Philip Roth's American Pastoral, Freedom starts with a kind of protracted prologue outside the perspective and voice of the rest of the book that, in some ways, establishes the end point before the beginning. It's like a literary colophon that, try as I might, I can't quite grasp the significance of. The last thing a ponderous book like Freedom needs is more exposition. Since this part of the book seems to establish the character of the principals before the point-of-view sections from Patty, Walter, and Joey slowly erode some of those early preconceptions (though not always), it seems almost as if Franzen has made his own job more difficult than it needed to be.
Part of the problem is that Franzen doesn't seem to have much respect for his characters, nor for the audience to accept them and their repellant bevy of flaws without overloading on the extensive familial backstory. The prose wanders around, vaguely gesturing at the point off on the horizon, filling the characters up with pathos and stereotype as well as reams of sexual and interpersonal trivia as if the latter could somehow override the former and achieve functional well-roundedness. I was struck throughout that nothing that happens in the book—self-spoilering prologue notwithstanding—is in the least bit surprising. Characters all behave exactly as you would expect them to based on their archetype and, more to the point, the outcomes of their behavior leads to scene after scene of predictable consequence.
Which is not to say it isn't interesting, because as I said, somewhere in all this piling of superfluous detail and commonplace melodrama there are some intriguing conceptual asides and notional musings. The angst for American "freedom" and its associated, prideful name-bearing travesties may hint at why Franzen perhaps detests these characters more even than they tend to detest themselves. The showcase digressions into population control, environmentalism, conservationism, politicizing movements, consumerism, celebrity, democracy, and altruism are all compellingly expressed. I don't know that I mean I wish this were an essay instead of a novel, only that I wish the novel that props up the essays was as interesting on its own.
My overall opinion is that I wish this book had a little more heart and soul. It comes across a lot like Walter's exhaustion- and drug-addled outburst of a speech late in the book: bitter, resentful, overstaying its welcome toward the end, perhaps well-meaning but coldly focusing too much of the blame on the humanity without ever really trying to find the necessary sympathy. As a result, it's left as no more than it seems: an angry rant from a lonely soapbox.
Audiobook Aside: The performance on the audio of the book by David LeDoux is pretty great. His reading, even of the prose, is acted with genuine and appropriate inflection which makes it a joy to listen to. The only problem I had was that occasionally LeDoux attempts a dialect or regional accent to—I'm being generous here—varied success. None of it is bad necessarily, just sort of un-called for and unintentionally laughable at times. I don't rate the books based on audio performance, but I considered the book and I considered my experience listening to it and I have a feeling that had I tried to sit down and read this novel myself, I wouldn't have made it to the end. As a result, I'm glad in a way that I listened to LeDoux's narration as it allowed me to work my way through and remain reasonably entertained, even when the writing itself turned bloated and difficult....more