In need of a book for a flight home from Los Angeles, I picked this one up at the Burbank Airport bookstore. Not usually a reliable source of promisinIn need of a book for a flight home from Los Angeles, I picked this one up at the Burbank Airport bookstore. Not usually a reliable source of promising reading, but in this case I managed to pick something worthwhile. Zombies? you say. Worthwhile? you say. Well, yes. When the zombies come packaged in a high-concept, well-researched, well-written novel that anchors the fantastic and speculative in human realities, a good read is born. At the time I bought the book I didn't pay any attention to the fact that it was soon to be a movie (starring Brad Pitt, no less). So now that I do know about the movie, I'm interested in seeing how the film will overcome what I felt was the book's shortcoming--the lack of a main character. The story is told as a series of interviews (dozens of them) with survivors of the zombie war. They're consistently interesting, sometimes gripping, and often creepy, and all together comprise a comprehensive picture of the world war between humans and the rise of the reanimated. But other than the interviewer, who takes a personality-deprived backseat to each interviewee, there's no protagonist. There's no one to identify with. There's no continuity in character. So I'm curious about one thing: What role will Brad Pitt have? A reanimated interviewer?
All in all, a good book, an accomplished method of storytelling, such as it is. I just missed getting inside a main dude's head....more
The book's been around a long time (as have I, but it's taken me a while to get to it), and it's been reviewed a gazillion times already, so I'll keepThe book's been around a long time (as have I, but it's taken me a while to get to it), and it's been reviewed a gazillion times already, so I'll keep this short. The story, only somewhat true (but he warns you of that upfront and reminds you again later with long, literate passages that could only be manufactured), is angst-ridden (for those readers who like angst)and engaging but probably only deserving of three stars or so. The writing, though? Five big ones. Dave Eggers has a smart and creative way of telling the story, and that combination alone is enough to carry you along on a current of admiration and curiosity (not what will happen next, but what will he do next?). ...more
The funny thing is, well before I read this book I sometimes thought to myself that the whole middle east conflict would maybe go away if we just openThe funny thing is, well before I read this book I sometimes thought to myself that the whole middle east conflict would maybe go away if we just opened up our country to all the Israelis and had them give up Israel (I know--a huge leap) to whomever wanted it and move here. Maybe we could let them have Kansas or Wyoming, although Mississippi or Utah might be more interesting choices. Texas? Possibly. Wasn't Rick Perry, Texas's fine governor (and presidential candidate for a day) talking of seceding anyway? But with this book, Michael Chabon beat me to the punch, at least in a literary sense, with his story of the Jewish state, rather than setting up in Israel, locating to Alaska after World War Two. It's well imagined and authentic in its depiction of what a large Jewish settlement/state would look like in Sarah Palin (vice presidential candidate for a day) country. Once the author gets you firmly established in the improbable setting and what is for most readers a somewhat foreign or at least exotic culture, he weaves in a story of a diligent but troubled cop sniffing out the residue of a crime and at the same time trying to cope with shady characters and his own personal problems. Interesting and engaging stuff, and Michael Chabon pulls it off well. His talent takes an appealing but complex premise and makes it work....more
This is a book I wouldn't have picked up on my own. It's going on twenty years old, it's by an author I hadn't read, and the whole idea of reading morThis is a book I wouldn't have picked up on my own. It's going on twenty years old, it's by an author I hadn't read, and the whole idea of reading more stuff about Elvis (or worse, the phenomenon of Elvis impersonators) would've initially felt like a waste of time. But my brother talked to me about the book, and then he gave it to me, and then I read the synopsis and some reviews and realized the author, P.F. Kluge, had some strong credits and at least one other book, Eddie and the Cruisers, I did recognize (because it was made into a movie I saw).
So I dove in. And I'm thankful that I did. The story--part adventure, part suspense, part mystery, part romance, part sociological study, part cultural analysis, part commentary on ugly Americans (individually and institutionally) and the fact that the ugliness isn't restricted to Americans, part condemnation of the exploitation of women, but at its heart a tale of friendship and perseverance--pulled me right in and kept a hold on me all the way through.
In the beginning the setting is what got my attention. For the most part the story takes place in Olongapo, the Philippines, a place I had the opportunity (if you can call it that) to visit when I was in the Navy many years ago. It was a wild place, a town built by and around the U.S. military. It may not have been the original sin city, but it had a reputation as the biggest. Hookers, bright lights, forbidden back streets, gambling, mugging, hookers, STD's, bar fights, liquor, rock and roll, and hookers. Next to it, Las Vegas was a kiddie playground at the local park. When we left port there was a long line of guys with long faces outside sick bay, hoping to get some pills for the mysterious urinary tract infection they'd picked up just recently.
But aside from relating my memories of the place to the Olongapo so vividly brought to life by Kluge's writing, I was carried along by the characters. Biggest Elvis and his two co-impersonators are strongly developed and brought to life and differentiated. They're sympathetic despite their faults. They're trying to figure out life and their place in it while trying to deal with it at the same time. They learn. They grow. They change. And the author doesn't neglect the tier of characters just below the big three, and the tier just below that one, even though there are lots of characters. The father figures and manipulators and exploiters, the downtrodden, the abused, the victims, the sailors, the laborers and servants and musicians and bar girls and good girls and people with scruples and people with none.
There was an overriding tendency among the real-life sailors who walked the garishly lighted, loud, smelly, streets of Olongapo, whether they were fresh out of high school and looking for their first sexual experience or a mid-thirties married lifer renewing old acquaintances, to lump the so-called take out girls all together in one sorry category--a homogenous product, all the same, something to use and put back on the shelf. But in Biggest Elvis, Kluge does a wonderful job of bringing these women (girls, in most cases) to life as individuals. Each has her own story, her own likes, dislikes, aptitudes, goals, her own reason for doing what she's doing, her own level of pride and self-respect despite her job and station in life. Under his telling, they become humanized and sympathetic and the shame we feel isn't for them it's for the systems, the U.S. and their own government, that exploited them.
But even these women have their limits. They're used to adversity and standing on their own two feet, and once they've made it obvious that they're not just marching-in-lockstep objects, all they need is a little help from their friends.
You may not connect with this story as I did. But the writing is exceptional, the story is engaging and unique, and the characters are memorable.
The Things They Carried was published in 1990, about the time of the first Gulf War and sort of halfway in between the Vietnam War and the wars in AfgThe Things They Carried was published in 1990, about the time of the first Gulf War and sort of halfway in between the Vietnam War and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and whatever costly mess the war merchants have us destined for next. It's a book I've been hearing about since its publication, but elective wars, even without their usual glorification, aren't high on my list as topics I want to spend my time on. Nevertheless, must-reads are must-reads, and good writing sometimes transcends subject matter, and I finally decided to give it a go.
I'm glad I did. Tim O'Brien is a master writer. The honors he's received are all well-deserved. He transports us into the minds and hearts and guts and grunt existence of a bunch of American kids, average age twenty or so, trying to survive in a foreign and hostile land, trying to make sense out of a nonsensical situation, trying to salvage their humanity. They carry their lives on their backs. They live in the mud. They see their friends die. They lose their limbs, their souls, their minds. Even after they go back to"civilization", they're haunted. Years later, the war comes back to bite them.
I felt a real connection with the story (stories, really, but closely linked). The author and I are about the same age. We both faced the draft at about the same time after spending some years in college. We both had a decision to make: go or don't go. Do you let yourself get drafted, do you go to jail, or do you go to Canada? He flirted seriously with Canada. But in the end, he chose the draft, which he considered the easier choice. Not easier for what he was signing up for, but easier because it was the acceptable thing to do. It was a choice without shame and long-term exile. He grew up in Minnesota, I in Washington state. For both of us, Canada was a convenient option. But I chose the "easy" way out, too. In fact, mine was even easier. I opted for the Navy, which I thought would be better than bullets and napalm and swamps. I had to do four years rather than two, but I figured I had a better chance of making it back.
Ultimately we both made it back. But while I was floating around on a vintage aircraft carrier, peering from a safe distance at the green coastal jungle of Vietnam and in little danger of any harm coming to me despite my "combat" status, he was actually there, slogging through swamps and shit fields (literally), shooting, getting shot at and shot, cozying up to grenades, avoiding land mines, eating crap food, sleeping in mud, watching his friends die horrible deaths for no apparent reason. So he came back with memories I could only imagine. Was his choice really the easy one? Not at all. But I know what he meant. It's easy to go along. We "go along" every time our so-called leaders trump up the reasons and justifications for another war and the media jump on the bandwagon and we don't throw them out of office and boycott the media or find those that actually care about the truth and priorities.
Tim O'Brien's "easy" choice had harrowing results. His reward was an uneasy tour of duty in an enemy country that ironically is now our friend. He had to carry the necessities of life and death and the baggage of war and after he was done with the fighting and surviving he had to carry it all home with him. We're fortunate that he's a writer, and not just any old writer but an exceptional one, and that one of the things he carried was the ability to put his experiences and thoughts into the pages of this book, where a quarter of a century later, we're able to read and witness and absorb and if we're lucky, learn.
Getting ready to start your novel? Partway through the first draft? Done with the first draft and ready to re-draft or revise? Struggling? Not strugglGetting ready to start your novel? Partway through the first draft? Done with the first draft and ready to re-draft or revise? Struggling? Not struggling but want your manuscript to stand out? Get this book, and don't just put in on your bookshelf. Read it. Explore it. Underline. Highlight. Keep it open and within arm's length as you move along. Whether you're frequently published or new at this game, it's an invaluable tool. I had an earlier edition early in my career and practically wore it out. The newer edition (2004) is equally as valuable. The chapter on voice alone is practically worth the price of the book....more
Some of us remember the original movie (you know--John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn), and more of us are probably familiar with the Coen Brothers'2010 remSome of us remember the original movie (you know--John Wayne as Rooster Cogburn), and more of us are probably familiar with the Coen Brothers'2010 remake with Jeff Bridges in the starring role and Hailee Steinfeld as Mattie Ross, a girl of singular convictions and courage. But if you haven't read the book, do it. When Charles Portis's most famous novel was published, the Boston Globe called it "An American Masterpiece." I can't argue with that. It truly is. If you like stories with complex characters, adventure, suspense, bravery, loyalty, eccentricity, humor, lyrical writing, delightfully unexpected dialogue, and yes, true grit, you'll love this book. Rarely, if ever, do I read a book and find myself unable to NOT laugh out loud. But I read parts of TRUE GRIT on the train in Europe, laughing at the dialogue, marveling at the writing, prompting people around me (including my wife) to wonder, prompting me to read passages out loud to prove that I had reason to laugh. Check it out. The five stars are earned....more
I don't know why I've never gotten to this one before. It's been around a long time, it's gotten great reviews, it's a memoir set practically in my owI don't know why I've never gotten to this one before. It's been around a long time, it's gotten great reviews, it's a memoir set practically in my own backyard that concentrates on the early teen years of a boy growing up in the fifties in a series of dysfunctional situations. Right up my alley, in other words. My not actually diving into it until now must have been the old too many books...thing, I guess. But an editor suggested I read it, and when an editor suggests something...
We tend to idealize the fifties, the decade between World War Two and Vietnam, between the greatest generation and the cultural revolution. The fifties and early sixties were Ozzie and Harriet and Leave It To Beaver and generalized stability--home, work, school. That's the image, anyway. But in THIS BOY'S LIFE Tobias Wolf pulls aside the curtain and lets us see what growing up at that time was really like for at least one kid. And he does it with skill, both in remembering what was important and in writing it in such a way that it becomes important--and relevant--to the reader. His storytelling and character-development skills are such that I found myself constantly chanting inside my head: this isn't fiction; this really happened.
The book felt credible, which is a feeling I haven't always come away with after reading a memoir or any work of nonfiction. It wasn't that I believed that every piece of dialogue and detail Wolf conjured up was exactly accurate, but that the substance was there, and the dialogue and detail felt representative of the substance. The fact that nothing here was particularly self-serving (young Tobias comes across as a real survivor but one with a lot of faults), contributes to the story's credibility. Believable protagonist = believable context = believable narrative.
I recommend this book to anyone who enjoys a good story, well told, but particularly to writers who write fiction or nonfiction for or about kids. The writing is impressive; the voice is authentic. ...more
The story is dated, of course (it was written before even I was born), but Raymond Chandler's writing is close to timeless. The characters, dialogue,The story is dated, of course (it was written before even I was born), but Raymond Chandler's writing is close to timeless. The characters, dialogue, and figurative language are textbook-perfect. The mystery? Not so much. The "twist" was obvious early....more
It's my year for catching up with the classics, apparently, and this one has appeared on so many "don't miss" lists that it moved to the top of my ownIt's my year for catching up with the classics, apparently, and this one has appeared on so many "don't miss" lists that it moved to the top of my own personal list. Plus, there was the unforgettable movie.
Anyway, I dove in, and I found an even richer story than the one I remember from the film (although to be fair it was nearly forty years ago and I'm relying on my unreliable memory, so who knows). But I'll stop the movie/book comparisons and just tell you to read the novel. The characters stand up from the pages, bigger and deeper and broader than fictional creations; the conflict is palpable and unrelenting; and the conclusion, while foregone and inevitable (especially if you've seen the movie) and consistent with the overall gloominess of the narrative, is at least a little hopeful. It provides a graphic glimpse of what it means to be a person who embraces life, and how being around that person and witnessing that attitude can lift up even the most downtrodden victims of society's darkest plots.
The writing? Ken Kesey was a visionary with a ton of talent. A nice (and unique) combination. And the point of view character was a surprise, but given the story, a perfect choice. I'll say it again: Read it....more
I'm not sure why it took me so long to get to this treasure of a book. It's been out for a dozen or more years, and I've heard about it, seen it, hadI'm not sure why it took me so long to get to this treasure of a book. It's been out for a dozen or more years, and I've heard about it, seen it, had it in my house, noticed the Pulitzer Prize logo on the cover, but for some reason--I was hanging on to the anticipation aspect, maybe--I never got around to actually opening it up. But when I finally did, prompted to some extent by the quality of other Michael Chabon stories I have read, and to some extent by the recommendation of my brother, a big reader and fine critic, I wasn't disappointed.
Michael Chabon is a genius of a writer, opening new worlds to us and at the same time making us think he's writing about the guys down the block, or us. It may not be 1940, we may not be Jews, we may not be escape artists or comic book creators or keepers of the Golum, but that doesn't matter. We've all experienced friendships and fears and triumphs and losses. We've all made mistakes. We've all made people proud and made people disappointed. We've loved and hated. We've feared. We've persevered. Michael Chabon uses the differences we have, the past, the exotic, to accentuate the things we have in common. He uses his unique language and writing skills to find exactly the right word and phrase and sentence and paragraph and point of view. He makes characters we care about come alive. They aren't heroes, but they're heroic, and memorable.
If you're a writer, there's a big lesson here among all the lesser ones: don't be afraid to write what you don't know. If you have the chops, you can learn about the comic book business and what was going on 60 or 70 years ago or whatever you have the initiative to master. This is a big book, but don't shy away from it. You'll be happy you didn't....more
As someone whose dog has written our annual holiday letter for years, I'm familiar with the concept of literate canine. I'm even sympathetic to it. ItAs someone whose dog has written our annual holiday letter for years, I'm familiar with the concept of literate canine. I'm even sympathetic to it. It's a point of view that gives some novelty to this story, which is laced with familiar conflict--domestic problems, illness, death, custody battles, balancing one's dreams with job duties and the need to take care of your family. I would have enjoyed it much more if the dog narrator would have been less intellectual. I liked him, but for me, the voice just didn't work. Was it intentionally pretentious? I kept thinking, where does he get these deep philosophical thoughts, much less his vocabulary? He can't read, he lives with ordinary people, and all he watches on TV is car races. Novelty, yes, but also a distraction. Nevertheless, there's some good stuff in here, some decent commentary on life....more