When a work of popular art – a book, a movie, a television show, an album – is subject to massive publicity in advance of its release, it can be nearly impossible for said work to live up to the hype. A bar set too high almost inevitably leads to disappointment.
However, on increasingly rare occasions, a work not only lives up to the hype, but actually transcends it.
Emma Cline’s “The Girls” was the subject of hyperbolically-powered scrutiny; a fictionalized riff on Charles Manson, the women who surrounded him and the Sharon Tate murders, the book was the subject of a bidding war involving a dozen publishers and resulting in a three-book deal worth seven figures. The film rights were purchased before the book even went to the auction block. Could the book really be worth all this fuss?
The answer is an emphatic yes.
“The Girls” is the story of young Evie Boyd, a 14-year-old girl living in California during the tumultuous summer of 1969. She’s got pretty standard teenage worries – she doesn’t have many friends, she’s worried about boarding school, she struggles to get along with her divorced parents.
However, that all changes when she catches sight of a group of girls raiding a dumpster. Wild and free, they are everything that Evie yearns to be – particularly their dark-haired and enigmatic leader. She’s not at all sure what they’re about, only that she desperately wants to be part of it.
She gets her chance thanks to a conveniently-timed broken bike chain. A bus – awash in sloppily-rendered Free Love imagery – stops to help; onboard is Evie’s dark-haired muse, a 19-year-old named Suzanne.
Suzanne and the rest pull Evie into their sphere – one whose orbit centers on the mysterious and charming Russell, an older fellow who has used a combination of charisma and manipulation to bring together a number of similarly lost souls at his ranch. He’s even on the verge of cutting a record deal thanks to music star Mitch Lewis.
Evie is quickly accepted, earning her keep by stealing from her mother and swelling the communal coffers every time she returns to the ranch. While Russell is supposedly the center of it all, Evie is drawn in by Suzanne – though that isn’t enough to prevent Russell from using her in a similar fashion to the rest of his disciples.
Blinded by her desires and devotion, Evie doesn’t see the darkness descending. She can’t see the banality in Russell’s platitudes or the anger that roils just beneath the surface – anger that results in an act of horrifying violence.
Interspersed throughout, we spend time with the Evie of today, a middle-aged woman whose has spent her life drifting, unable to escape the shadows of her past. Her tangential involvement has largely kept her out of the lurid true-crime stories and the history books, but her connection to them all (but especially Suzanne) remains. An encounter with a girl not much older than Evie was then brings all the memories of that time – good and bad alike – bubbling back to the surface.
“The Girls” pulls off quite a trick – it is both a coming-of-age story and a dark memoir. Evie’s story is both of the experience and of the aftermath of the experience, and while the story of 1969 is the more compelling, one could argue that the present-day narrative is more emotionally fraught despite a general lack of affect. Alternately sweeping and stomach-churning, we see and feel the trap closing on young Evie even as she remains blissfully, almost righteously unaware.
By pulling the ripcord before plunging into full-on Manson-esque horrors, Cline allows for the maintenance of empathy – Evie never bears witness to the truly evil depths to which Russell is capable of sinking, and so she can be forgiven. She was led astray, yes, but she escaped – albeit not necessarily willingly – before sacrificing her humanity in the rain of starry-eyed violence and ill-spilled blood that consumed her companions.
As for the writing itself, well – it’s exquisite. The narrative alone is worth the price of admission, but Cline’s stylistic choices are captivating in every sense; the beauty of her exquisitely-crafted sentences working in jarring harmony with the sad brutality inherent to the story. Cline captures perfectly what it means to be lost and searching for meaning…and the unfortunate choices that can spring from that search.
“The Girls” is every bit the book that it has been purported to be – one well worth every iota of attention and acclaim that it has received. It is powerful and genuine, beautiful and haunting – in short, an utterly stunning piece of work. Simply magnificent....more
In a world increasingly driven by rapid advancement in technological capabilities, it can be a little weird to exist as one of those people who, by accident of birth, straddles the line between those largely disconnected from the internet world and those who have no concept of a world without it.
It’s that perspective – an understanding of both sides of the digital divide – that makes the ideas addressed in Virginia Heffernan’s “Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art” (Simon & Schuster, $26) so fascinating. That isn’t to say that those on either end won’t also be enthralled, but gap-bridgers will likely find it especially engaging.
Basically, Heffernan is laying out the aesthetic philosophies inherent to the internet. No big deal. Her thesis is a fairly simple one: that the internet – the whole massive, sprawling, vast and varied construct – is a work of art. One of the greatest ever achieved by mankind, in fact.
What was once a simple extension of traditional media has evolved into something far greater than the sum of its parts. It is its own world in every sense of the word, a place filled with good citizens and bad, people devoted to building society up and those devoted to tearing it down. The internet is a realm that manages to be both macro- and microcosm.
But above all else, it is an idea – an idea in whose construction we all, to some extent or another, have collaborated.
However, while there’s no avoiding the internet’s presence, what that presence actually means is much more difficult to articulate. It seems almost mad to say this considering its ubiquity, but we’ve only just begun to tap the possibly-limitless cultural potential of the internet. We’ve seen the zeitgeist-shifting influence the internet has had on society at large in what amounts to a single generation; considering the exponential growth of tech and our increasing reliance on connectivity, we can likely expect undreamed-of changes over the course of the years to come.
The experience of being human has irrevocably changed thanks to the internet. The way we experience our reality is nothing like the way we did five years ago; compared to the social and communication dynamics of 20 years ago, it starting to edge into the realm of the unrecognizable. You might view that change as good or bad, but at this point, we can all agree that it is inevitable.
What Heffernan offers with “Magic and Loss” is hard to describe – call it an artistic analysis of the internet. It’s a look at how the rapidly-changing parameters of online existence affect us and the way we look at the world. Whether she is exploring the comforting repetition of mobile gaming or fundamental alterations of what it means to read, Heffernan takes a compelling look at what it means to be a part of such an immense and collaborative undertaking.
Cultural criticism presents some interesting obstacles. Personal connection is key – that’s what really informs meaningful insight – but venture too far in that direction and you’ll wind up with a slog of self-involved navel-gazing. However, if you fail to create that connection, the work will ultimately feel shallow and detached. It’s a fine line.
“Magic and Loss” is the sort of book in which it would seem nigh-impossible to strike that balance. The truth of the internet is that it is undeniable in its omnipresence – one could argue that in this day and age, any connection at all is by definition too personal, with all of the self-curation we can do.
Heffernan argues – quite effectively – that rather than the ego-stroking time-waster it stands accused of being by so many critics, the internet is actually more than just a technological development. It is a societal development, the sort of great leap forward that defines an era in the eyes of history.
“Magic and Loss” offers both intellectual insight and entertaining reading – a look at how it defines all of our lives interspersed with a look at how it defines one life in particular....more
Nostalgia – particularly pop culture nostalgia – is a powerful thing. Many of us are bound with an ongoing and eternal affection for the things that we loved during our formative years. Sometimes, that affection is justified; other times, not so much.
Hadley Freeman is possessed by that sort of sweet love of memory, unabashed in her adoration for the films of the 1980s. Her book “Life Moves Pretty Fast: The Lessons We Learned from Eighties Movies (and Why We Don’t Learn Them from Movies Anymore)” is a deep dive into her lifelong fascination with the films of the 1980s. She explores these films in terms both macro and micro, offering a wildly entertaining look at the reasons behind one woman’s obsessive devotion.
Make no mistake – this isn’t some sort of encyclopedia of 1980s cinema. “Life Moves Pretty Fast” is part cultural exploration, part memoir by proxy; Freeman takes time to dig into some of the themes inherent to the popcorn movies of the period, but does so through the lens of her own personal tastes.
She takes some time to argue that “Dirty Dancing” might be the preeminent feminist film of the 1980s, deserving of a place alongside more often cited fare like “Working Girl” or “Baby Boom.” She talks about “When Harry Met Sally…” as romantic comedy perfection the likes of which we’re unlikely to see again, thanks to the industry’s move toward male-centric gross-out comedy.
Freeman spends a fair amount of time talking about Eddie Murphy’s place atop the heap, viewing his massive 1980s success as perhaps the closest movie-going audiences had ever come to seeing a black star in a film where his blackness didn’t matter. She also takes some time sharing her personal relationships with movies like “The Princess Bride,” “Back to the Future” and – her all-time favorite – “Ghostbusters.”
Unsurprisingly, Freeman spends a lot of time dissecting the oeuvre of John Hughes, the undisputed king of 1980s teen comedy. She views Hughes as one of the best-ever at portraying teenagers as teenagers while also offering a surprising depth of insight regarding social dynamics – particularly as they pertain to class differences.
As our past recedes into the rearview, our feelings about the cultural artifacts of that time tend to crystallize, so it’s easy for us to remember the messenger while forgetting the message. That isn’t to say that these films are deep and insightful treatises on the human condition disguised as teen comedies, but dismissing them as kitsch isn’t fair either.
Whether you like them or not, there’s no disputing that the films Freeman talks about tended to be fairly heartfelt and honest. They were allowed to feature idiosyncratic actors. They told stories that maintained a high level of relatability, but never felt like they had been focus grouped into bland flavorlessness. They were quirky and weird and flawed and sweet.
In short, they were the sort of movies that could never get made in the Hollywood of today.
“Life Moves Pretty Fast” works on a couple of levels. First, it’s a delightful look back for those of a certain age (including yours truly) who share Freeman’s affection for these movies and recognize their cultural value. Secondly – and perhaps most importantly – these conversations offer insight into the sort of person Freeman has become and how exposure to these films during her formative years might have shaped that becoming. It’s a fast, engaging and wonderfully entertaining read in which Freeman shares her passion.
We’re long past the point where we should be surprised by anything Stephen King does.
Despite a long, lauded and lucrative career, King’s recent output certainly hasn’t been that of a writer content to rest on his laurels. Far from it – the last five years alone have seen a brilliant bit of alternate history (“11/22/63”), a crime novel (“Joyland”), a return to his horror roots (“Revival”), a phenomenal collection (“The Bazaar of Bad Dreams”)…and the Bill Hodges trilogy.
“End of Watch” marks the third and final book of that trilogy, the continuing story of retired police detective Bill Hodges and the far-reaching consequences of his involvement in the investigation of a horrible crime and the madman who committed it.
Bill Hodges is still hard at work at Finders Keepers, the not-quite detective agency he started with his friend and partner, the socially awkward Holly. His health is heading downhill fast, but at least he has largely found peace with the unsatisfying end to the Mr. Mercedes saga – Brady Hartsfield sits comatose on the brain injury wing of the local hospital, a mere shell of his former self.
But all is not what it seems.
People with connections to Hartsfield – whether they were part of the Mr. Mercedes massacre or in attendance at the concert he very nearly blew up or simply working near him at the hospital – are dying. Specifically, they are taking their own lives. On the surface, the Hartsfield connection seems little more than a coincidence. After all, he can only manage a few steps or a few words in his current condition.
Bill Hodges isn’t so sure.
See, there’s a lot of odd talk around Hartsfield. The nurses tell stories of things moving by themselves – faucets turning themselves on, blinds rattling for no reason – and their whispers attribute it all to him. He can do things that no one can do. And when a discontinued video game device proves capable of helping him do so much more, Brady Hartsfield has everything he needs to set into motion a plan that will allow him to finish what he started…and finish his business with Bill Hodges and friends forever.
King has shown a willingness to play with genre in the past – particularly crime and noir fiction – but he’s never done anything quite like this. The Hodges trilogy is largely unlike any other work he has produced, a trilogy of thrillers that (until the last book) mostly eschews the supernatural.
For the most part, it’s just some good old-fashioned rip-roaring storytelling. From the flashback that starts the book to the thrilling confrontation that brings it to a climax, the narrative is relentless. Even the quieter and/or more introspective moments have an urgency to them that really fuels the fire. Basically, you just grab on and hold tightly and see where Mr. King has decided to take us.
Of course, King being King, it’s no shock to see the spooky stuff show up. Anyone who was paying attention could see the groundwork being laid for a finale with a bit more of a paranormal flair. While the first two books were largely straightforward thrillers, those hints of the paranormal were there. And it’s a good fit – forcing the practical, logical Hodges into confronting a reality in which such things exits adds another layer to an already complex character.
In truth, Hodges might be one of King’s best heroes. The trilogy has allowed King – and by extension the reader – to stay with Hodges for an extended stretch. The result is the kind of flawed protagonist that makes for compelling reading; a guy who can be brilliant, but mostly finds success through combining his instincts with a willingness to work. Toss in some crusty old-guy wit and charm and you’ve got yourself a winner.
As for Hartsfield, he’s made all the scarier by the changes King makes. His villainy is supernaturally charged here, but it wasn’t always. The Brady Hartsfield we first met was evil, all ego and entitlement – but he was a man. An evil man, but a man all the same. Seeing that man imbued with the potential for all-new, seemingly-impossible sinister deeds is far more horrifying than meeting the monster with his powers already manifest.
While “Mr. Mercedes” was a more-or-less straightforward thriller with a catch-me-if-you-can vibe, “Finders Keepers” went in a different direction, exploring the relationships built between author and audience. The first was a bit more visceral, the second a bit more cerebral. “End of Watch” makes for an interesting end to the story. King takes the opportunity to fold his otherworldly aesthetic into the picture, creating a departure of a final book that still fits comfortably into the big picture.
All in all, “End of Watch” is a fitting finale and a fond farewell to Bill Hodges. It’s just more proof that there’s no one in the game quite like Stephen King....more
Have you ever considered the possibility that we’re wrong?
Not about small things – nobody is right about EVERYTHING – but about big things. It’s easy to sit in the now and think that we’ve got everything all figured out, but the odds of that actually being the case are pretty slim. People from every era, every century have been absolutely sure that they were right about the way the world worked – physically, emotionally, culturally, whatever – and yet our understanding of it all has been in a nigh-constant state of flux.
We look back at scientific theories and artistic criticisms from the past and marvel at just how far off-base they were. Which begs the question: when people from the future look back, what off-base ideas of ours will be marveled at in turn?
That’s the central conceit of “But What If We’re Wrong?”, the latest offering from pop intellectual and cultural commentator Chuck Klosterman. Basically, Klosterman combines his own intellectual curiosity and deep pop culture knowledge with an assortment of interviews from some pretty heavy hitters – George Saunders, David Byrne, Neil DeGrasse Tyson, Brian Greene, Junot Diaz, Richard Linklater and more – to try and come up with plausible responses to questions that are currently unanswerable by definition.
It is, as you might imagine, freewheeling and wide-ranging, bouncing from high culture to low and arguing whether the future will see any difference. It is smart and funny and thoughtful and downright exceptional.
Klosterman’s starting point is seemingly simple, yet difficult to truly conceptualize. Basically, he operates under the assumption that it isn’t necessarily that we have the wrong answers, but that we aren’t even aware of the right questions that will be asked.
While the scientific types are understandably reluctant to concede that our fundamental understanding of something like gravity might turn out to be wrong (though there are a couple of guys in there who have some pretty out-there ideas), the context provided through a look back to someone like Socrates and how it took centuries for his now-ludicrous notions of gravity to be superseded is invaluable. People have believed wrongs to be right for centuries at a stretch – how can we be sure we’re not in such a stretch ourselves?
Unsurprisingly, Klosterman is at his most engaging when he ventures into the cultural realm. Alongside plenty of notable names, he explores the nature of canon and context, arguing that perhaps the artists destined to be most celebrated and beloved by far-future generations are largely unknown to us or – even more counterintuitively – widely known, but largely disparaged and/or discounted.
Klosterman goes deep in his own areas of expertise – music and sports and television. He questions who will be the representative of the “rock” genre, offering up a number of choices featuring their own respective pros and cons and questioning just what it takes to serve as the sole example of an entire musical movement. He also talks about the possible evolution of the game of football – and team sports in general – offering up multiple ideas about how that landscape will change (and likely sooner than many of the other notions addressed in the book at that).
And the TV stuff is just great. He puts forth the argument that television will be remembered in the future much like the days of radio are remembered now, as part of a continuum upon which the culture has traveled further. He also builds a formula for determining which TV shows will carry the most perceived value in the distant years to come – and winds up with a really surprising answer.
Klosterman has made his reputation as a thoughtful instigator of imaginary hypotheticals and pop culture deconstruction. His previous nonfiction works, while always loosely themed, have largely been collections of essays that could (and often did) stand alone. “But What If We’re Wrong?” is different. Yes, many of these pieces could work on their own, but this is easily his most central idea-driven book – 2013’s “I Wear the Black Hat” is the only one that really comes close.
And we’re the luckier for it.
Klosterman’s best work comes when he bounces his idiosyncratic ideas off others before really digging deep – and that’s all this book is. Wave after wave of brilliant, respected thinkers – writers, musicians, scientists, what have you – make appearances, helping Klosterman to mold and shape his ideas into their most compelling and intellectually stimulating forms. And it’s hilarious, of course. Klosterman’s well-honed wit is readily apparent, adding the perfect seasoning to this mélange of hypotheticals.
“But What If We’re Wrong?” is a well-written and utterly engaging intellectual exercise - frothy and funny, yet thoughtful and possessed of surprising depth. It’s another outstanding offering from the mind of Chuck Klosterman....more
One could argue that we’re currently riding a wave of literary science fiction unlike any we’ve seen before. Genre tropes have been embraced by “serious” writers in a way that has opened up seemingly endless possibilities and allowed for new ways to ask some of the age-old questions addressed by literature.
Emma Geen’s debut novel is “The Many Selves of Katherine North”; it utilizes a sci-fi structure to tackle big questions about personality, ethics, identity and the nature of reality. Using some near-future tech and a split-timeline narrative, Geen creates a rich and complicated heroine whose unique gifts might well be making the transition from blessing to curse.
Katherine – Kit to her friends and family – works for a massive conglomerate called the Shen Corporation. She is what is known as a “phenomenaut” – she and others like her project themselves into vat-grown bodies of animals in an effort to undertake an assortment of research. With her trusty neuorengineer partner Buckley always in her head to steer her and tether her to her human life, she spends weeks of her life living as a fox, a bear, a spider, a bat…pretty much every part of the animal kingdom.
At 19 years old, she has been jumping for seven years – far longer than anyone ever has. She lives in fear that she will be diagnosed with the dreaded decrease in “plasticity” that will remove her from active duty. Many have come and gone since she came onboard at age 12, but Kit refuses to allow herself to join them.
However, when some of the darker and more sinister machinations of ShenCorp start to bubble to the surface, Kit is left adrift. The motives of everyone – even those closest to her – come into question; even when she’s living the instinct-driven lives of her animal surrogates, she’s not sure she can believe her own senses. Katherine North has lived many lives, but she has lost track of the most important one – her own.
Emma Geen brings a formidable depth of philosophical and psychological understanding to this, her first novel. Her rendering of Kit’s time spent living with and becoming animals makes for fascinating reading, granting the reader a real sense of seeing the world through the eyes of the other. That’s far from the only shift of the perspective paradigm, however – the narrative split bounces back and forth between time periods, allowing the more mysterious aspects of the story to unfold in parallel.
“The Many Selves of Katherine North” exists in a meticulously constructed near-future that is quite close to our own. The complex dynamics of this place – a world where the best operatives in the most lucrative profession just happen to be children – are particularly conducive to introducing certain ethical questions. And of course, Kit herself is tailor-made to bring forth fluid, flexible ideas regarding the notion of identity.
Of course, it all works because Geen has put together a compulsively readable sci-fi thriller. The mysteries keep unfolding, with plenty of twists and turns, red herrings and left-field surprises. And since the timeline keeps shifting, different mysteries move to the forefront at different times. One might think that the consistent inconsistency of the narrative would prove confusing, but Geen handles it beautifully, balancing Kit’s dueling perspectives with aplomb. While the book shines brightest when we follow Kit into the bodies of her animal analogues, the truth is that it’s all pretty fantastic.
“The Many Selves of Katherine North” would be an accomplishment from any writer, but the fact that this book comes from a first-time novelist is simply astonishing. Emma Geen has built a vivid and wildly engaging world around an incredibly compelling protagonist, creating a piece of work that transcends genre. No qualifiers are needed; this is a great book....more
One of the things that first drew me into sports fandom was the prevalence of numbers. Professional sports count a lot of things; as a kid with a proclivity for math and a lot of time on his hands, it’s no surprise that I would embrace that side of things.
It was baseball at first – and baseball remains my first love – but my fascination with these numbers slowly grew to encompass other professional sports. The explosion in advanced metrics in more recent times has only fueled that wonky fire that was built so many years ago.
But what if the numbers involved a sport I didn’t much care about? A sport like soccer?
Bringing soccer and math together is the sole goal of David Sumpter’s new book “Soccermatics: Mathematical Adventures in the Beautiful Game.” Sumpter combines a depth of mathematical knowledge and a lifelong love of football to offer up a whole new way to look at the world’s favorite sport.
In Part I – “On the Pitch” – Sumpter spends time exploring the notion of how math can be used to further understand the action on the field. He introduces a number of mathematical models aimed at illustrating the patterns that help make the greatest players great. He also looks in depth at the vast array of measurables scattered throughout the action and devotes time to determining what they mean in terms of on-field value and how individual brilliance can skew predictive methodologies.
In Part II – “In the Dugout” – Sumpter turns his analytical eye onto the tactical side of the game, looking at the sorts of influences that can be exerted by a team’s manager and how their decisions can both directly and indirectly impact a particular game. He also digs into game plans and schemes, as well as the probabilistic effects of these choices.
And in Part III – “From the Crowd” – the author takes yet another step back from the pitch, focusing now on many people surrounding the soccer realm. He explores the nature of fandom and models the social dynamics of crowd behavior. In addition, he takes a look at the huge gambling industry built around the game and the statistical necessities that come with running book on such a massive sporting enterprise.
You wouldn’t think that heavy math with charts and graphs galore would necessarily be a strong fit with die-hard soccer passion, but the truth is that “Soccermatics” brings the seemingly-disparate worlds together neatly. Sumpter has found the sweet spot between the two, using his love of one to elevate the engaging nature of the other and vice versa.
I have only the vaguest familiarity with soccer – it has never captured my attention – but even a general sports fan with a passing knowledge of the game will see recognizable names. Plus, Sumpter’s love of the game is infectious – it’s impossible not to be drawn in. Add to that the fact that my attraction to the wonkier side of sports never really went away and I’m in. While I may not be onboard with all of the specifics, it’s all quite fascinating in the general sense.
Whether he’s talking about the outlier brilliance of someone like Lionel Messi or the repercussions of managerial decisions or the depths of knowledge plumbed by the gambling establishment, Sumpter brings methods of mathematical understanding to all aspects of the game.
“Soccermatics” is a fascinating book, an intelligent work that strives to reflect the minute intricacies of the game by way of the numbers while never condescending to or overwhelming the reader. Soccer fans and math lovers will be thrilled, but in truth, a general understanding of both is really all you need to enjoy this one....more
I’ve long been a proponent of that subset of speculative fiction known as alternate history. There’s so much wonderful potential in the notion of exploring the many differences that can spin off from a single fundamental change. And if that change introduces a fantastical element, so much the better.
That’s the path traveled by Dan Vyleta in his new novel “Smoke.” It’s a sprawling narrative that ventures into a world where a man’s relative virtue or wickedness cannot be concealed, a world where one can be marked as good or evil with a single glance.
England, a century or so ago. An England similar to the one from our history, but not quite the same, for this England is filled with Smoke.
That’s capital-S Smoke, a visible and inescapable indicator of sin. Smoke (and the Soot it leaves behind) is the marker of impurity of thought and deed. It is what separates good from evil. Wickedness cannot be hidden in a world filled with Smoke.
In this world, the aristocratic upper classes do not Smoke, thus illustrating their inner virtue and right to rule. Meanwhile, the downtrodden masses are filthy with the stuff – urban centers like London are filled with inescapable dark clouds. Those who are without Smoke live in the country, far removed from any potential contamination.
(It should be noted that children tend to Smoke until they come of age – this fact indicates to many that children are born in sin and must purify themselves in order to achieve virtue. Should they die before such a task can be achieved, they are eternally damned.)
Two young men at an elite boarding school find themselves standing apart from their fellows. An affable young aristocrat named Charles is the only one to befriend a moody and angry young man named Thomas, a boy of noble birth whose family bears a secret (or not-so-secret) shame. The two commiserate with regards to the unpleasant and unrelenting demands of the school’s social hierarchy.
However, when they head off to spend a holiday with one of Thomas’s distant relatives, they begin to suspect that there is far more to the notion of Smoke than they have ever been told. Secrets are revealed, putting the pair – and those close to them – in grave danger. They cross paths with saints and sinners alike, meeting murderers and revolutionaries and geniuses along the way. Charles and Thomas become enmeshed in a struggle between good and evil – one where it remains unclear which side is which.
For while those who Smoke have sinned, perhaps not all who sin will Smoke.
It wasn’t so long ago that a book such as this one would have been dismissed as little more than genre work – entertaining, but lacking in any real literary merit. But there’s no denying that the critical establishment has become far more understanding with regards to the sophistication and power that can be generated through speculative elements.
And make no mistake – “Smoke” is a sophisticated and powerful work.
The notion of Smoke allows for a number of metaphysical questions to be asked – questions about the nature of sin, about human behavior, about class and about social order – in ways both direct and indirect. From the lavish bedchambers of an aristocratic manor to the pitch-black depths of a coal mine, we see people running the gamut of the human experience. These are people who are waging a war of the soul – some battling to purify souls that are actually untarnished, others smugly celebrating Soot-dark souls that they believe to be clean.
To be truthful, this is a scattered work in some respects. There’s a chaos to the narrative that occasionally makes it difficult to follow. However, the story is well-worth the effort. Comparisons have been made to the work of Dickens – Vyleta himself has named the author as an influence – and they seem apt, although Dickens tended to bury the darkness; the twisted nature of Vyleta’s narrative sits much closer to the surface.
“Smoke” shows us a world where sin is inescapable, where our very thoughts can betray us in our less virtuous moments. It is a dark and dreary place, one where not even the light of truth can shine through the dense fogbank of sin’s Smoke....more
The concept of the apocalypse has long been a popular one in fiction. Exploring the possibilities of the end of the world is fallow ground for the imagination. And while the recent proliferation of these ideas has certainly led to more than a few watered-down offerings, there’s still room for surprising and powerful stories to be told.
Joe Hill’s “The Fireman” is a sweeping, haunting tale of civilization’s collapse and the hard-fought individual battles that must be won in order to survive. The world Hill gives us is one that is filled with horrors, but also with moments of humanity.
A plague of unclear origin has struck mankind. The disease – named Draco Incendia Trychophyton by scientist, but called Dragonscale by most – springs from a wildly infectious and deadly spore. The infection shows itself by way of black and gold marks all over the body – marks that could be considered beautiful were it not for the fate they indicate.
Carriers of Dragonscale are doomed, you see. Doomed to burst into flames and die an agonizing death. There is no antidote. There is no cure.
This is the world in which Harper Grayson lives. In her former life, she was a Mary Poppins-obsessed school nurse. But with the rise of Dragonscale, she devoted herself to caring for the afflicted, treating hundreds before the hospital, sadly and inevitably, burned to the ground.
Alas, Harper winds up with markings of black and gold. She and her husband Jakob made a pact that they wouldn’t allow themselves to burn alive if infected, but there’s a problem – Harper is pregnant. She wants to live, for the baby’s sake if not her own. Jakob snaps, ultimately abandoning Harper to her own devices as society crumbles around them.
Fear and anger leads to the rise of self-proclaimed Cremation Squads – glorified lynch mobs devoted to tracking down and brutally exterminating any and all of the infected. Rumors of internment camps soon outnumber any murmurings of hope. Essential services are all but nonexistent and wildfires run unchecked across thousands upon thousands of acres.
But Harper is not alone.
A stranger she met once upon a time, back when things were just beginning to fall apart, finds his way back into her life at a particularly opportune time. This man, clad in a fireman’s jacket and wielding a halligan bar, devotes his days to saving the sick and exacting vengeance on those who do wrong. It is only with his help that Harper can hope to save her own life – and that of her unborn child.
“The Fireman” is an energetic and sprawling book, packed with prose that sometimes burns as hot as the story it tells. Despite its heft – well over 700 pages – the narrative plays out with almost shocking speed. Too often with books of this size, we see overwritten stretches that can derail narrative cohesion and disrupt the overarching flow. There’s none of that here; even with such a sizeable text, every plot point, every action, every word feels vital and necessary to the whole.
Take the world-building, for instance. It would be easy to get bogged down in the minutiae when creating a story such as this one, but Hill deftly weaves necessary exposition throughout; he adds threads to the narrative as needed, but does so via a variety of means, keeping everything fresh and engaging. The details are in service to the story, rather than the story being built around the details. The end result is a backdrop that is an ideal match for the tale being spun.
Literary apocalypses are at their best when they focus primarily on the struggles of the individual in the context of the grander scale. That’s exactly what Joe Hill does with “The Fireman,” using the plight of one woman as the entry point to a vast world filled with horrors both known and unknown. Small stakes can sometimes be the most powerful ones; that’s certainly the case here.
In Harper, Hill has given his story a capable and intelligent protagonist, but one with her share of imperfections. In truth, there’s a depth and complexity to most of the dramatis personae here that far exceeds what you ordinarily see. There are none of the “white knight” types you sometimes see in books of this ilk; sure, there’s plenty in the way of good and evil, but Hill never hesitates to work with the greyness in between. In times of horror and desperation, even good people can (and sometimes must) do bad things.
“The Fireman” is the sort of book that has all the makings of a genre classic. It is smart, scary and shot through with veins of sharp commentary and dark humor. It acknowledges that when the end is nigh, sinners might be the enemy, but sometimes they are no worse than the saints.
In the end, if the world is burning, who else do you call but a fireman?...more
If you were to try and determine who the reigning “grand old man” of American letters might be, you’d have to think that Don DeLillo is on that very short list.
Since his debut novel “Americana” hit the scene in 1971, DeLillo has risen to the top of the literary ranks. Over the past four-plus decades, he has produced a stunning body of work; he is primarily known for his 16 novels, but he has also produced numerous short stories and a handful of stage plays.
And even now, as he approaches 80, he’s still writing.
His latest novel is “Zero K”, a meditation on the nature of death, man’s connection to technology and the meaning of love – all shown through a speculative lens.
Jeff Lockhart has arrived at a mysterious compound located somewhere in the vast emptiness of Kazakhstan. He has come to this place at the behest of his father Ross, an ultra-wealthy titan of industry with whom Jeff has long had a strained relationship.
Jeff is also here for Artis – Ross’s wife, Jeff’s stepmother – who is dealing with the late stages of a debilitating and terminal illness.
Ross has become a major partner in a concern known only as “The Convergence” – a concern whose goal is life extension through cryogenics. This compound operates at the bleeding edge of technology, of course, but it also seeks to address the more metaphysical questions regarding this kind of immortality. The group – a collection of geniuses, philosophers and billionaires – is attempting to address the notion of life-beyond-life in a holistic manner.
Jeff struggles with the implications inherent to the notion – particularly when his father says that he himself will join Artis in taking the journey, despite being in relatively good health. The relationship (or lack thereof) between Jeff and his father is made all the more complex; Jeff has difficulty reconciling this man who appears to be willing to follow his wife into the unknown with the person who simply walked out on him and his mother years ago.
There’s a time jump at the book’s halfway point, one that takes us two years into the future. This is where we reconnect with a Jeff who has developed new relationships – particularly with his girlfriend Emma and her son Stak. That dynamic is explored for a stretch, but the Convergence continues to have a hold on Jeff’s life; a hold that may prove to be simply inescapable.
Thematically, this exploration of relationships is right in step with DeLillo’s usual fare. While there are plenty of questions about the ethics of technological advancement, the core of the story is the strained relationship between Jeff and Ross Lockhart. It is that dynamic that serves as the soul of the narrative. Unfortunately, the book’s sparse runtime – it’s less than 300 pages – doesn’t really allow the depth of character exploration that would allow the reader to fully connect with that central relationship.
Still, said sparseness offers its benefits as well. The first half of “Zero K” carries that special brand of DeLillo convolution; Jeff’s exploration of the Convergence – weirdly dystopian video projections, inexplicable mannequins, meetings with monks and mad philosophers – is a rich reading experience not least because of the spare quality of the prose.
However, the time jump of the book’s second half kills some of that early momentum; at times, it feels almost as if you’re reading an altogether different book. Things ramp back up thanks to a well-wrought ending, but Jeff’s back-half romantic relationship doesn’t have the same impact as what we see in the early going.
(There’s also a sort of intermission that offers a glimpse at a sort of inner monologue from one of the Convergence’s subjects. It’s short, but haunting, with a whiff of mid-century avant-garde to it. It’s a compelling departure from the rest of the more-or-less traditional narrative.)
“Zero K” does occasionally feel as though DeLillo was never quite committed to the speculative nature of the story; there’s a technophobic vibe throughout that sometimes fails to jibe with the story being told. That said, it’s still Don DeLillo we’re talking about here; the degree of craft on display here is astonishing. Even with its flaws, this is an intellectually engaging and exquisitely written book.
While this book probably doesn’t belong on the list of DeLillo’s best work, it’s still an example of a brilliant writer putting his prose mastery on display. “Zero K” might be uneven, but its thoughtfulness and dazzling construction make it a worthy entry into the bibliography of one of our greatest living literary talents....more
It seems safe to say that the entertainment world might be reaching the point of dystopia fatigue. With all of the books/films/TV shows built on a post-apocalyptic foundation in recent years, audiences could be forgiven if they began to get a bit tired of the whole thing.
However, those who choose to dismiss the trend out of hand will miss out on at least a few quality offerings amidst the copious forgettable mediocrities.
One such offering is the work of Francesca Haig. Last year’s “The Fire Sermon” promised to be the start of something different in the dystopian realm; the second release in that series – “The Map of Bones” – largely delivers on continuing forward with that promise.
It has been over 400 years since the cataclysmic event known only as “the Blast.” The Blast has fundamentally altered human biology, with every birth resulting in twins. One twin – the Alpha – is a perfectly healthy baby. The other – the Omega – is born with some sort of infirmity. The twins are forever connected – so much so that when one is hurt, the other feels pain. And when one dies, they both do.
This is the world in which Cass – one of the rare Omegas whose difference manifests internally. She is a seer, subject to horrifying and uncontrollable visions of the past. Despite the best efforts of her twin Zach – a member of the ruling council known as the Reformer – she has fallen in with the Omega resistance forces devoted to fighting back against the Alpha stranglehold.
When Cass learns of the Alpha’s intention to use the ancient technology to further subjugate the Omegas, she begins searching for a solution. A possibility presents itself – one steeped in the leftover documentation of an organization from the time of the Blast – that might have answers. Answers that may be able to not only defeat the oppressors, but undo the damage that led to the twinning in the first place.
Of course, there are many who would rather keep things as they are, leading Cass to rely on allies both expected and unlikely to aid her in her quest to change the world – and perhaps to save it.
One of the most compelling aspects of the first book was the degree of world-building undertaken by Haig. “The Map of Bones” continues that trend even farther, filling in the backstory of this blighted world in bits and pieces; we learn about the immediate aftermath of the Blast just as Cass and her cohorts do. Haig resists the temptation of broad strokes, instead choosing to be very particular about the ways in which the gaps are filled.
One could argue that Haig relies too heavily on her narrator – Cass’s interiority, while certainly rich, is obviously a limiting factor with regards to scale. However, while scale is undeniably important when spinning a tale such as this one, there are other methods of building it – methods Haig wields with gleeful precision.
The relationship dynamics at play are complex ones, with each character operating in a reality in which they can never have complete control over their own safety. This lends every act an element of danger unlike the usual concerns that populate this kind of story. This added layer brings the depth of characterization that is sometimes sacrificed in genre fare.
It doesn’t hurt that Haig can really write. Too often, craft is secondary to plot advancement, leading to stories that – while engaging – don’t resonate as much on an artistic level. Haig’s background as a poet has obviously informed her use of language, resulting in passages that are far better-crafted, far more lyrical than what you usually see in post-apocalyptic fiction. Comparisons have been made to Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road”; heavy praise to be sure, but not unwarranted.
“The Map of Bones” is an excellent continuation of a fascinating series. In a sea of derivative dystopias, this series is a soaring outlier. Haig has given readers a beautifully-written, complicated and often terrifying world. The third (and final) book cannot get here soon enough....more
Sports fans have long become accustomed to the massive amounts of money that are inherently part of professional sports. Whether we’re talking about the huge salaries paid to athletes or the immense television deals or the exponentially growing sums required to purchase teams, money is simply everywhere in pro sports.
However, it wasn’t always that way.
Veteran sportswriter Matthew Futterman offers a look at the evolution of the sporting economy in “Players”. It’s an examination of just how much the landscape has changed over the past 50 years.
Futterman’s journey starts in 1960, when a young lawyer named Mark McCormack had an idea that would utterly alter the accepted career trajectory of the professional athlete. When McCormack partnered up with golfer Arnold Palmer, whose star was just beginning to truly ascend, what followed would redefine the very nature of the relationship between players and owners.
McCormack was essentially the proto-agent, the first to devote himself to serving the best interest of the athlete against that of the league in which the athlete played. That first relationship led to more, and still more, ultimately resulting in the sports/entertainment empire known as International Management Group, or IMG.
From there, Futterman takes us on a journey across the decades, looking in on every significant shift in advantage away from the old-guard powers that be. He talks about the tennis world’s transition as it entered the Open era and the rancorous relationship between the new breed of professional players and the erstwhile gatekeepers of the game’s traditions. He discusses the advent of free agency in Major League Baseball and the parts played by union chief Marvin Miller and star pitcher Catfish Hunter.
The chapter discussing famed tennis coach Nick Bollettieri and the impact his methodology has had on the nature of youth athletics is a fascinating one. So too is the chapter about legendary hurdler Edwin Moses and the ultimate redefinition of the Olympic ideal. The changing paradigm of play in the NFL spearheaded by Bill Walsh is also given close examination.
All of this, plus some wonderfully in-depth and insightful material on the financial ramifications that impacted the sports world regarding the massive success of Nike and the ubiquitous proliferation of sportscentric cable and satellite networks.
If one hopes to follow the money in sports over the past half-century, there’s only one direction to go – up.
It’s easy to argue that professional athletes make too much money; we see those numbers and can’t help but be taken aback. However, the truth is that they are only getting their fair share of the mind-boggling money being brought in by pro sports teams and leagues. For too long, they were being denied their piece of the pie. Today, they’re getting that piece – and the pie is much, MUCH bigger.
Futterman spends the most time on the Palmer/McCormack relationship, and with good reason – the partnership between those two men largely laid the foundation for the financial wellbeing of the modern athlete. McCormack’s vision – which ultimately changed not only the lives of athletes, but the manner in which the very games they played were conducted and conveyed. Much of how the current sporting world works – for better or worse – can be traced to the path followed by McCormack and IMG.
There’s a lot of sports history to unpack in these pages. It’s a wonderful walk through the different eras of professional athletics, offering the opportunity to remember some very different times. While there will certainly be a ton of new information for casual fans, even the most hardcore will likely find themselves surprised on numerous occasions. That accessibility springs from Futterman’s narrative touch – he handles this potentially dry subject matter with ease, creating a story that entertains and engages even as it educates.
“Players” is a must-read for any sports fan who seeks a better understanding of the foundation on which the object of his or her admiration rests....more
Sports fiction is a tricky business. Recreating the visceral, visual splendor of sport in the context of a compelling narrative presents a number of potential pitfalls, all of which could effectively result in a swing and a miss.
Baseball is perhaps the most literary of American sports. It has a rich and checkered history, filled with character and controversy – plenty of material from which a writer might pull. There’s room for broad satire (Philip Roth’s “The Great American Novel”) and intimate drama (“The Art of Fielding” by Chad Harbach) alike, but there’s not a lot of margin for error – the line separating good baseball fiction and bad baseball fiction is extremely thin.
Introducing elements of the fantastic only serves to further complicate things, though when it works (think W.P. Kinsella, or Bernard Malamud’s “The Natural”) it REALLY works.
Now alternative history icon Harry Turtledove has taken the field with a baseball book of his own. “The House of Daniel” takes a look at a 1930s America that looks familiar in many ways as it suffers though a Great Depression. However, there’s one big difference between this America and ours.
In this America, magic works.
That’s the America where Jack Spivey lives. He’s scuffling along in the town of Enid in Oklahoma. Just about everyone is scuffling along in the aftermath of the popping of the “Big Bubble” back in 1929. Thousands of people are out of work – not least because employers have realized just how cost-effective zombies are.
It’s not just zombies, either; wizards and werewolves, vampires and demons – this America is a magical one.
Jack makes a few bucks playing center field for the Enid Eagles, one of the scores of semipro teams that dotted the country in the days before big league baseball was bi-coastal. He also supplements his income by performing “favors” for Big Stu, one of Enid’s less savory characters. But when Jack can’t follow through with one such favor – allowing a person of great interest to Big Stu to get away – he’s in a conundrum. If he goes back to Enid, there’s no telling what might happen to him.
Serendipity leads Jack to a local ballgame featuring the House of Daniel, a noted barnstorming team rendered unique by two things – their affiliation with a Wisconsin religious sect and their long hair and beards. An unfortunate on-field incident leaves the House of Daniel short an outfielder; while Jack isn’t the greatest to ever swing the bat, he’s deemed good enough to join up.
What follows is a meandering journey through the American West as Jack and the rest of the team move from town to town, playing exhibition games against local semipro teams and splitting the gate. Through Texas and New Mexico, the team makes their way toward Colorado for the legendary Denver Post semipro tournament before continuing through to Oregon, Idaho and ultimately California.
Turtledove has always had a remarkable knack for tweaking the familiar and extrapolating his way forward into a world that is compellingly close to, yet markedly different from our own. This magically-infused America is just one more example.
However, what makes “The House of Daniel” such an interesting read is how that world is portrayed. Jack Spivey has always lived in a world of magic; it is so familiar that it almost seems mundane at times. And that’s fantastic – magic is just another part of life, and far from the most important one. Occasional references are made to things like vampires (mostly pests) and elementals (in constant negotiation with wizards and engineers regarding resource usage and development) – as well as the odd conjure man trying to help the home team beat the House of Daniel – but for the most part, magic and its impact remain largely in the background.
(There’s one pretty significant exception; you’ll probably see it coming thanks to Turtledove’s dropped hints, but still – no spoilers.)
Again, the Kinsella comparison seems fairly apt, though his work leans more toward magical realism, while Turtledove falls more into fantasy. Still, the two are in line on one thing – baseball is the centerpiece.
And there’s no disputing that “The House of Daniel” is definitely a baseball book with fantasy themes, as opposed to the other way around. The games are lovingly and meticulously detailed, all from the perspective of a guy who knows that he’s never going to be more than a pretty good ballplayer. The on-field action and the off-field camaraderie – that’s the focus of this story. It’s a look at the baseball world in the days when St. Louis was the furthest west MLB outpost and radio and television had not yet achieved prevalence. The days when every town had a team of its own, one that played for a few dollars, yes, but mostly for bragging rights....more
“The lack of money is the root of all evil.” – Mark Twain
Mark Twain is one of the most beloved figures in the history of American letters – in the history of America, period. His combination of homespun charm and lightning wit made him the preeminent humorist of his day. His storytelling brilliance was unmatched in his day and – one could argue – remains unmatched to this day. He was also a larger-than-life character, with an heiress for a wife and an almost uncanny affinity for bad business deals.
You couldn’t make up Mark Twain.
Twain’s popularity has led to plenty of biographical ink being spilled in an effort to articulate his sardonic wisdom and wide-ranging adventures. But relatively little has been said about the era covered in “Chasing the Last Laugh: Mark Twain’s Raucous and Redemptive Round-the-World Comedy Tour”. Author Richard Zacks goes deep on an underexplored chunk of Twain’s career.
In 1896, Mark Twain’s circumstances were less than ideal. His publishing house was spiraling downward. A series of terrible investments was capped by Twain’s involvement with a typesetting company that nearly proved ruinous. Thanks to some maneuvering (with an assist from fellow investor and friend, the Standard Oil tycoon H.H. Rogers), Twain avoided utter destitution, but he was left with significant debts and few ways in which to settle them.
What came next was something unprecedented. In an effort to raise the money to pay off his creditors, Twain agreed go on tour. He would travel around the globe, performing a show built around his “greatest hits” in terms of his stories. In essence, he was a stand-up comedian, telling funny stories in theaters and opera houses all over the world.
As he (and his wife and two of his daughters) circumnavigated the globe, Twain kept lengthy notes with regards to his observations of the world around him. As the trip progressed, he honed and perfected his performance – it seemed that Twain’s tales resonated with audiences everywhere. He struggled against obstacles such as illness (no surprise – 60 is awfully old to be dealing with the rigors of 1896 travel), but ultimately embraced the experience.
When you think about it, there’s something remarkable about the idea of Mark Twain slowly drawling his way through some of his best stories while standing on a stage in India or South Africa. The fact that such a tour was financially viable is kind of astonishing in a time when it took a week or more to cross the Atlantic. Such massive popularity was practically unheard of, yet Twain sold out performance after performance in which he told people stories that they likely already knew.
Seriously – remarkable.
Zacks is a gifted storyteller in his own right, which is as it should be; a master storyteller such as Mark Twain deserves nothing less. He brings that world to vivid life and finds the nuances in Twain’s interpersonal interactions. Those relationships – with his wife, with his daughters, with his friends – are a huge part of the book, allowing us to learn about Twain in his own words.
And through it all, Twain is the man you hope he would be, an indomitable spirit who is brilliant and wise and – oh yeah – just happens to be acknowledged as the funniest man in the world.
Really, what “Chasing the Last Laugh” captures is the spirit of Mark Twain. Through thorough investigation of Twain’s notes – as well as the letters he exchanged with his two daughters who remained home – Zacks has recreated a small piece of an important and fascinating life. It’s a beautifully researched work.
This book services Twain fans of any degree – there’s plenty here for the hardcore, but the story is so quintessentially Twain that it works even if you’ve only a passing familiarity with his work. It’s an intimate look at an incredible experience, with ample helpings of the humor that made its subject so great.
Mark Twain is one of the greats; “Chasing the Last Laugh” is a funny and revealing reminder of just how great he was.
“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness.” – Mark Twain...more
The collapse of civilization is undeniably fascinating.
Whether we’re looking at the dissolving remnants of our own once-great society or the growing pains of the new one that sprung up behind it, writers and readers alike have long had their imaginations set ablaze by post-apocalyptic possibilities. We’re enthralled by the aftermath.
However, “aftermath” means different things to different people.
Benjamin Warner’s “Thirst” takes a much more immediate look at what happens when cataclysm strikes – and how fast.
Eddie Chapman has been stuck in a sweltering summer traffic jam for hours. There are accidents and injuries aplenty, but no emergency personnel are in sight. He decides to abandon his vehicle and make his way home on foot, but along the way, he notices that the trees alongside the stream are burnt and all of the water in the streambed is simply…gone.
When he gets home, he discovers that there’s no running water there, either. His pipes – as well as the pipes of his neighbors – have mysteriously run dry. As the July temperatures keep rising, Eddie and his wife Laura are left scrambling to find something – anything – to drink.
Before long, certain frightening realities arise. Not only do they not know what has happened to the water, but the combination of their exponentially growing thirst and the realization that no one is coming to help leads to a violent breakdown that is shocking in both its brutality and its swiftness.
There is perhaps no basic human need that we take for granted more than drinking water. It is one of our fundamental survival requirements, yet it is so ubiquitous that many in this country never even consider the possibility of its absence (though the concerns of certain communities such as Flint, Michigan and others in recent months have confronted us with a stark reminder).
What Warner does is force us to wonder – what would we do? What would we do if such a fundamental need went from omnipresent to nonexistent almost instantly? How long would it take for the basic social order to break down, turning our friends and neighbors into suspected thieves and killers? How long would it take for trust to completely disappear?
Warner’s answer – not long at all.
The prose in “Thirst” offers the same feeling of sweltering oppression as a triple-digit July day. As the narrative develops, so too does that sense of suffocation – the reader is wrapped in the same overwhelming heat as Eddie and Laura. There are stretches when the tension is ratcheted up so high and written so evocatively that you’ll occasionally find your tongue sticking to the roof of your mouth and you’ll be seeking out a glass of something cold to drink.
In these moments, “Thirst” actually makes you thirsty. Think about that.
While there are stretches in which the narrative seems to get bogged down a bit – there are occasional moments of circular wandering – even that feels appropriate to the slowly building chaotic confusion inherent to the circumstances. And when Warner really takes us inside the incremental deterioration of Eddie’s empathetic compass and basic morality, the results are chilling despite the story’s high heat.
It’s easy to think that the end of the world will arrive big and boldly, leaving little doubt as to what is happening. But as “Thirst” shows us, the notion that civilization can come apart thanks to something deceptively simple is just as frightening. Not aliens or zombies or foreign powers (at least, not as far as Warner ever tells us), but rather just the disappearance of something so taken for granted that we rarely if ever even consider the possibility of its absence.
In short, “Thirst” is a tight, tense thriller that will leave you with a lingering appreciation for your kitchen faucet....more
The collision of creativity and capitalism in the art world has been ongoing for seemingly forever. Art and money have been locked into a delicate dance, lucrative for some but devastating to far more. And in the current climate, the commodification of the creative arts is definitely front and center.
Author Molly Prentiss’s “Tuesday Nights in 1980” takes us back to a different time, one that explores an era in which the notion of instant artistic celebrity was beginning to really gain steam in the churning creative crucible that was New York City. As the 1970s transitioned into the 1980s, so too were the economic attitudes of the art world.
It is the dawning days of 1980. New York City is still at peak gritty, a vibrantly dirty place packed with big-dreaming artists who have not yet been gentrified out of the abandoned warehouses and storefronts in which they strive to ply their trades and perfect their crafts. Everywhere you turn, people are hoping for their big break.
Raul Engales is one of those people. He’s an Argentinian painter who, thanks to an unexpectedly early arrival while his parents were in NYC, is also an American citizen. Not long after the death of his parents, Raul decides to head to New York to try and make it as an artist. He leaves behind his sister Franca; he disapproves of her marriage and just wants out of Argentina. She is left to deal with the realities of the oppressive government regime. He is quickly assimilated into the quirky and colorful world of art – with all the good (and bad) that that entails.
James Bennett is a critic, the darling of the New York Times Arts section. It’s a gig at which Bennett excels, despite having largely stumbled into it, due primarily to the fact that he is synesthetic. Essentially, his condition – which causes him to make unusual and vivid sensory connections – allows him to write about art in a manner both brilliant and unique. He is viewed as odd on a personal level, but his reviews are universally celebrated for their fairness as much as for their stylistic flourishes and idiosyncrasies.
When Engales is discovered by a noted gallerist, it looks as though he is poised to become the next big thing on the scene. And Bennett’s reaction to Engales’s work is as deep and powerful as anything he has ever encountered before. Both men are on the cusp of reaching a new level of accomplishment.
And then – tragedy strikes. Each man is hit with a painful, profoundly personal loss; one lashes out in anger, the other retreats within himself. Neither is able to manifest their particular brand of brilliance any longer. It is only when they are brought together through their relationship with a small-town girl from Idaho – not to mention the appearance of a young orphan boy under mysterious circumstances – that these two can hope to escape their irrevocably interconnected downward spiral.
What Prentiss has done with this book is capture the foundational spirit of a moment in time. The transitional nature of that moment is a large part of what makes it so compelling; the skill with which Prentiss renders it would be impressive coming from any writer, but the fact that this is a debut novel makes it doubly so.
“Tuesday Nights in 1980” is at its best when it highlights the uneasy relationship between creation and consumption. In Raul Engales, you have the wild artistic talent, driven to create because he has no choice. The force of his personality is omnipresent, a microcosm of the struggling artist reaching for success. On the other hand, there’s Bennett, a man whose life is built around his unique method of consuming art. He sees and feels what no one else does, yet it is only through criticism that he can convey that unusual perspective. It’s indicative of the delicate balance inherent to the art world - one constructs and the other deconstructs, each hoping that his voice will be heard.
The run-down seediness of the setting – a delightfully detailed rendition of a New York City that has largely disappeared – also contributes to some of the most lovingly meticulous and stimulating prose in the book. Prentiss’s NYC is crumbling at the edges, but still possessed of an inescapable energy and vivacity that evokes the vast and varied life inherent to that time and place.
“Tuesday Nights in 1980” shows art, love and everything in-between through the lens of one of the art world’s most profound evolutionary leaps. Molly Prentiss’s tale exquisitely illustrates the simple reality that there is indeed beauty in truth – no matter how painful (or powerful) that truth might be....more
Part of the fun in picking up a debut novel is the lack of any real frame of reference. Sure, you might be able to glean some information from a synopsis or a book jacket. Perhaps the author has other writings – short fiction and the like – from which you might discern a sense of style. However, the ultimate truth is that you don’t really know what you’re going to get. It’s a roll of the dice, with all that that entails. Sometimes, you’re disappointed.
And sometimes – as with James Anderson’s “The Never-Open Desert Diner” – you wind up a winner.
Ben Jones is an independent trucker who has carved out his own small idiosyncratic route through the Utah desert. His customers are a motley bunch, vastly different characters united by a single shared trait – a love for the isolation inherent to the Southwestern badlands. However, tough times have led to fewer customers and less demand for his services. As a result, he’s on the verge of going under.
But when circumstances lead Ben to discover a mysterious cello-playing woman living alone in the midst of an abandoned development out among the dunes, his life is quickly and completely thrown into chaos. Claire is fleeing some sort of darkness from her past and hiding in the desert. Despite that, a romance soon blooms between the two.
Alas, it won’t be so easy. Claire’s past starts catching up with her, bringing danger to the desert. And it isn’t just Claire who is endangered – Ben and many of his secretive customers also find themselves in dire straits.
Through it all looms the shadow of the never-open desert diner, a once-popular roadside stopover spot that played host to a horrible event that led to its being closed for business ever since. There are many stories about that event, but only a few know the whole truth.
“The Never-Open Desert Diner” is an engaging, character-driven thriller. Ben Jones is a wonderfully nuanced everyman sort of hero, a guy who isn’t particularly interested in saving the day but reluctantly willing to do so. His quirky sense of loyalty makes him an engaging figure. His relationships are a wonderful window into his character – his rough-and-ready back-and-forth with diner owner Walt, his gruff tenderness toward the pregnant teenager Ginny and his burgeoning romance with Claire provide an intimate portrait of the man.
The supporting players also shine; Anderson has populated his stretch of Route 117 with a colorful cavalcade of characters. There’s the religious fanatic who wanders up and down the highway carrying a massive cross while between sermons. There are the desert rat brothers living in surprisingly well-appointed boxcars and sporting shadowy pasts. And of course, there’s Walt, who has diverted his energies from the now-closed diner into motorcycle enthusiasm and misanthropy.
These are the people who populate Anderson’s narrative. The sandy emptiness of the desert serves as an ideal setting for such a diverse crew, though one could argue that the desert itself is a character in its own right. The descriptions of that setting, lovingly rendered, are where the book’s moments of poetry shine brightest.
In terms of the narrative itself, it’s quite compelling; there are plenty of interesting twists and some nice red herrings throughout. It should be said that the book’s ending does occasionally succumb to freneticism. While the majority of the book unspools briskly, the final pages ramp up the pace to a degree that sometimes feels distracting. However, the strong energy of that pacing largely compensates for the odd rushed moment.
Ultimately, “The Never-Open Desert Diner” is a quality page-turner. It’s the kind of thriller whose compulsive readability ensures that once you start, you’ll have difficulty stopping. With quirky oddballs for characters and a beautifully rendered setting, this is a story with plenty to offer....more
As this year’s NCAA basketball tournament gets set to tip off, we’re going to be deluged with talk about March Madness. One of the terms that we’re going to hear a lot is “one and done,” describing players who – thanks to the NBA’s age requirement – are spending the requisite one year in college before declaring for the draft and heading off into the world of professional hoops.
But it wasn’t always that way.
Jonathan Abrams’s new book “Boys Among Men: How the Prep-to-Pro Generation Redefined the NBA and Sparked a Basketball Revolution” is an in-depth look at the decade that redefined the NBA draft and, in many ways, the very nature of pro basketball.
There had been a handful of high school players who made the leap to the NBA in the past, but while Moses Malone became a star, guys like Bill Willoughby and Darryl Dawkins served more as cautionary tales, talented players whose too-fast ascendance resulted in a failure to capitalize on their vast potential.
It took years before another player opted for the draft directly out of the prep ranks. In 1995, Kevin Garnett declared and was immediately met with skepticism. Conventional wisdom held that high school players simply weren’t physically or emotionally prepared for the rigors of the NBA. However, Garnett’s immense talent and solid work ethic won out when he was selected by the Minnesota Timberwolves with the fifth pick in the draft.
In the 10 years that followed, the grooming of high school players became a cottage industry. Elite invitational camps became the best way to showcase a player’s skills on a wide stage. NBA scouts started haunting high school gyms. Shoe company representatives were throwing money around. Shady agents and assorted hangers-on insinuated themselves into the lives of players.
There were a lot of successes. The year after Garnett came out saw another pair of high schoolers drafted in the first round – Kobe Bryant and Jermaine O’Neal. The next year brought Tracy McGrady into the league. Later years saw the emergence of stars like LeBron James and Dwight Howard and Amar’e Stoudemire.
But there were some less luminous lights, as well as some outright busts. Players like Kwame Brown and Eddy Curry never lived up to the hype, while guys like Korleone Young and Leon Smith are basically the answers to sad trivia questions, if they’re remembered at all.
The high school-to-NBA pipeline was shut off in 2005, when as part of the newly-negotiated collective bargaining agreement, the league imposed new rules that stated a player must be at least 19 and at least one full year removed from high school before being drafted. This led to the aforementioned “one-and-done” phenomenon, in which elite players play in college for one year before moving on.
The draft is a crapshoot in any sport under any circumstances; the truth is that there are no guarantees that any player will become what he is projected to be. But during this stretch, the draft became even more volatile and unpredictable, with teams trying desperately to project the future growth and skill development of teenagers. With more variables comes more variation, so it’s no surprise that there are some swings and misses.
Abrams has done some deep diving, to be sure. He has written what certainly reads like the definitive work on this particular era – an era that, even in the midst of rapid growth, still desperately sought for a worthy follow-up to the extended dominance of Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. Through scores of interviews, Abrams has really captured the free-wheeling spirit of this unique stretch of NBA history; it’s truly a compelling read.
The behind-the-scenes stuff regarding the time’s biggest hits – Garnett, Bryant, James – is plenty interesting on its own, but it’s the stories of the also-rans and never-weres that really resonate. In truth, there were relatively few prep players drafted who didn’t manage serviceable NBA careers, but that only makes the true busts that much more impactful, both in terms of their teams and their own personal narratives. Ultimately, the massive hype that accompanied many of these selections resulted in an outsized perception of their relative value on both ends of the spectrum, stars and scrubs alike.
Abrams displays not only a clear passion for the NBA, but a particularly insightful understanding of the particular era explored here. There are a lot of moving parts that need to be addressed, but Abrams manages to smoothly transition from idea to idea, from player to player. The understanding of how the process evolved – and how the league itself evolved in turn – is what moves the needle on this one from solid to very good.
“Boys Among Men” is a wonderful snapshot of an era, one whose like we probably won’t see again. It was a time when all the rules changed and everybody – players, coaches, owners and fans – was just trying to keep up. NBA junkies will eat this one up, but any fan of quality sportswriting will enjoy this engaging and entertaining read....more
Any book reviewer will tell you that one of the greatest joys of the job is discovering a writer that had yet to be experienced. The opportunity to find an author whose work resonates with and entertains you is a precious thing.
One of the first such writers I encountered in my capacity as a reviewer was Robert J. Sawyer. The book was “WWW: Wake,” the first in a thoughtful and narratively engaging trilogy. From there, the Canadian sci-fi author had me hooked. Every work of his that I’ve read offers the combination of innovative ideas and imaginative storytelling that, to me, is the epitome of what science fiction can be.
Sawyer’s latest is “Quantum Night”; once again, he is striking the perfect balance between big ideas and quality tale-spinning.
Set just a few years into the future, “Quantum Night” follows experimental psychologist Jim Marchuk, who has developed a seemingly flawless method for the detection of psychopaths. However, while being cross-examined during the first exploration of his breakthrough in court, he is shocked to discover an inexplicable six month gap in his memory from two decades prior – a gap in which he apparently engaged in some particularly unpleasant (and uncharacteristic) actions.
A reunion with Kayla Huron – the girlfriend who left him during the darkest of his dark times – leads him to her work with the Canadian Light Source synchrotron. She’s a quantum physicist who has made some earth-shattering discoveries about the quantum nature of human consciousness. These discoveries – in tandem with some highly classified experiments in which Jim was a participant – begin to lead the two of them down a path where they not only discover the basis behind Jim’s lost time, but that indicates an unfathomable reality behind what consciousness truly is.
Jim and Kayla are left with a truly daunting decision; it’s possible that they can create a paradigm-shifting global alteration of consciousness – one that could potentially head off a rapidly escalating wave of violence that has led to a United States where killing undocumented immigrants is no longer murder and that has put boots on the ground in an invasion of Canada while Russia prepares to retaliate to the fullest nuclear extent. But humanity has no choice in the matter – do the ends justify the means?
One of the things that is remarkable about Sawyer’s work in general – and this book in particular – is his ability to address complex and esoteric concepts in such a way as to make them accessible without ever once condescending to the reader. He simplifies, but never dumbs down, indicating a degree of respect for his audience that all writers, sci-fi or otherwise, would do well to emulate.
That said, his understanding and rendering of those ideas wouldn’t amount to much without a quality story in which to deposit them. On that front, “Quantum Night” is some of his best work – the relationship dynamics and depth of character here are top-notch. No matter how smart a story might be, without relatable, engaging characters, it simply won’t work. In that respect, this book is firing on all cylinders.
Sawyer’s work probably fits easiest under the umbrella of “hard sci-fi,” but there might not be another author bearing that label whose work is more readable. He consistently produces thrilling, compelling and – forgive the cliché – page-turning work.
No one uses science fiction to ask the big questions quite like Sawyer. “Quantum Night” is another exceptional addition to his already-considerable canon, combining his passion for scientific inquiry and a deep curiosity about humanity’s potential with a meticulous attitude toward research and – of course – a mastery of narrative and world building. It’s another first-rate effort from the current king of Canadian science fiction....more
One of the most exciting times of the entire sports year is fast approaching. The NCAA basketball tournament has reached the point of being a cultural touchstone – dozens of games playing out over the course of weeks, with schools large and small taking their shots at the immortality that is a national championship.
College basketball has always lent itself to fierce rivalries, but perhaps the fiercest of them all was – and to a degree still is – located in the state of North Carolina.
John Feinstein’s latest book – “The Legends Club: Dean Smith, Mike Krzyzewski, Jim Valvano, and an Epic College Basketball Rivalry” – documents that rivalry from its humble and unexpected beginnings in 1980 to the almost mythic stature assumed by all three participants over three decades later.
The first of the coaches to assume his spot was North Carolina’s Dean Smith. The coach’s career started long before those of his contemporaries; he first took the helm at UNC in 1961 and quickly established himself as a brilliant coach. While he was unfortunate to have his early years line up against the unprecedented dominance of UCLA, he was still considered to be one of the best in the game.
Smith was already well-established when Krzyzewski and Valvano came on the scene within less than two weeks of one another in 1980. The stoic and cerebral Coach K arrived at Duke by way of West Point, where he had coached to middling success. The gregarious Jimmy V, however, came to North Carolina State after shocking the world with his work at Iona.
What followed – and what Feinstein recounts meticulously – was the rivalry that rapidly sprung up among this trio of talented coaches. Smith was king of North Carolina at the beginning, with both the Blue Devils and the Wolfpack trying to keep up in the wildly competitive ACC. The at-times contentious relationships between each man evolved in fits in starts, both helped and hindered by the innate competitiveness of each of them.
Through numerous tournament appearances that led to Final Four berths and championships, surprising runs and shocking upsets – not to mention a whole lot of head-to-head matchups – each man worked tirelessly to be the best coach he could be. For them, the thrill of victory was fleeting, but the agony of defeat lingered long. Through NC State’s miraculous championship run to UNC’s long-overdue title to Duke’s ascent into the hoops stratosphere, it all plays out through the lens of these three men.
The tragic too-soon end of Valvano’s life and Smith’s sad unravelling towards the end are addressed as well. Each man had his time to stand as a colossus astride the college basketball world, though only Krzyzewski remains. The one thing that is abundantly clear throughout is that, while each of these men wanted nothing more than to defeat the others, they also carried a great deal of respect. Each subscribed to the notion that to be the best, one must beat the best.
And that is how epic rivalries are born.
Feinstein’s longstanding connection to all three men serves him well. There’s plenty of research, to be sure, with scores of colleagues, friends and loved ones offering welcome perspective into these three men. And thanks to his presence right in the thick of it during the embryonic stages of these rivalries, Feinstein was also able to rely on his memories of that time. The bringing together of reportage and reminiscence makes for some compelling reading.
Unfortunately, while the level of Feinstein’s access was in-depth, the end result is considerably less so. All three coaches are placed on pedestals, leaving little room for the exploration of flaws. Any mention of the negative is fleeting and quickly left behind; Feinstein tends to celebrate the idea of these men more than the men themselves. Still, there’s no denying that one gets a real sense of the extreme nature of the dynamics between the coaches and their respective schools.
For fans of the programs at any of these schools – or college hoops junkies in general – there likely won’t be much new information here, though the personal perspective is certainly interesting. However, there’s something fascinating about peeking under the hood of such a huge rivalry. The coverage isn’t particularly deep, but general sports fans will certainly find plenty to engage their interest....more
“Talent is a flame. Genius is a fire.” – Bernard Williams
What is the true cost of genius? How does a single-minded fanatical brilliance impact the rest of one’s life? What effects does it have on interpersonal relationships and one’s sense of self? Great problems require great solutions, but those solutions can often prove to be obstacles in their own right.
Ethan Canin’s “A Doubter’s Almanac” tells the tale of the issues raised by the obsessive genius of one particularly gifted family.
Milo Andret’s is a unique and powerful mind. From a young age, he saw and understood the world in ways that few others ever have. His academic career led him to the tumultuous campus of Berkeley in the 1970s. Even there, walking alongside other immensely gifted individuals, he is an outlier, both intellectually and emotionally.
His masterwork comes when he solves the Malosz Conjecture – a long-standing mathematical mystery that has thwarted generations on mathematicians. That solution allows Milo to write his own ticket; it lands him on the faculty at Princeton University and results in his being awarded the Fields Medal, the most prestigious award in mathematics.
But Milo’s genius is a troubled one. He struggles to follow up on his one big discovery. Soon, he is drinking too much and making numerous poor decisions with regards to the opposite sex. This combination of factors ultimately results in a great fall – one that drops him from the dizzying heights of Princeton and world renown to a pitiable job teaching math at a tiny Ohio Baptist college.
And Milo isn’t the only one punished for his actions. His family – his long-suffering wife Helena and his children Niels and Paulette – also must suffer the consequences. As the once-great man grows older and exponentially bitterer, his children are left to determine how they will choose to deal with the vast intellectual gifts that are their genetic inheritance.
The book’s second half follows Niels as he deals with the aftermath of being raised by the self-loathing Milo. He manages to exploit his gifts in a positive way, but only after struggling against many of the same demons faced by his father. Ultimately, Niels finds himself once again alongside his father, doing his best to salvage and rebuild their relationship before it is too late.
Genius is rarely without consequences in fiction, but “A Doubter’s Almanac” offers up a particularly brutal take on the true impact of that genius – not just on the person him or herself, but also on the secondary and tertiary figures in that person’s orbit. And make no mistake – the interpersonal gravitational pull of true genius is powerful indeed, drawing people in and trapping them, for better or worse, in a place where relationship dynamics will rarely (if ever) be anything other than a one-way street.
Canin is a masterful writer, creating rich and textured connections between his characters. Romantic relationships, mentor-mentee interactions, family dynamics – all are addressed with both broad strokes and nuanced detail. It’s fascinating; while the narrative is largely driven by the intellectual nature of mathematical pursuits, the beating heart of the story springs from people. It’s a delicate balance – one that the author strikes beautifully again and again.
The agonies inherent to ambition are also never far from the forefront. Whether it is Milo’s early striving or his later desperation, his naked hunger for greatness is inescapable. That hunger is hopelessly entwined with every interaction, whether it is with a lover or a peer, a wife or a child; his yearning effects and infects every relationship he has.
“A Doubter’s Almanac” is itself a work of impressive ambition, operating on a truly epic scale. Moving across seven decades, it is a tale that exquisitely details the zeniths and nadirs of true genius. Ethan Canin combines delicately muscular prose stylings with a narrative that engrosses on levels both intellectual and emotional....more
The nature of the critic is to unpack the underpinnings of artistic endeavor. Love them or hate them, critics perform a vital service in the creative continuum, deconstructing movies/albums/books/plays down to their requisite pieces and casting the bones in an effort to call forth larger cultural themes and ideas.
Some choose to do this by way of unrelenting pessimism, focusing on the negative aspects of a piece of work in order to exert a kind of creative enforcement. Others choose to shine a light on the positive, juxtaposing the good against the outline of the shadow being cast.
Either way, A.O. Scott makes clear the inherent value of criticism in his new book “Better Living Through Criticism: How to Think About Art, Pleasure, Beauty, and Truth”. Scott, longtime film critic for The New York Times, offers up his thoughts about the nature and necessity of criticism and the vital role it plays in shaping the cultural landscape.
(It should be noted that the inspiration for this book seems to have been a brief Twitter beef with actor Samuel L. Jackson, who didn’t care for Scott’s reception of “The Avengers” and implied that the critic should perhaps seek out a new line of work.)
In many ways, “Better Living Through Criticism” comes off as a defense of the job. While Scott himself is a professional critic – a gig that is gradually being supplanted by the ever-growing hive mind of the Internet – the book is about A.O. Scott’s ideas, yes, but it is also a celebration of all manner of criticism. Scott isn’t necessarily a fan of the blogosphere or online aggregation, but he also recognizes that the art of critical writing must evolve to better fit the online age in which we live.
As you might expect, there are more than a few highbrow references peppering the proceedings – Immanuel Kant, Rainer Maria Rilke and Susan Sontag feature prominently – but Scott doesn’t restrict himself to elitist expression; he gives a lot of love to movies like Howard Hawks’s screwball masterpiece “Bringing Up Baby” and Pixar’s delightful “Ratatouille.” He’s someone who sees value in work up and down the creative cultural spectrum. Through it all, his constant touchstone is the partnership he perceives between artist and critic.
A noteworthy device that Scott uses throughout is a sort of imaginary dialogue with himself. Four times, he interrupts the proceedings with a question-and-answer session in which he is both interviewer and interviewee, continuing the almost-tradition of the self-interview. Scott cites David Foster Wallace’s “Brief Interviews With Hideous Men” as his inspiration, but it vibes more old-fashioned, like the one-man Q&As that gained prominence in the ’50s and ’60s. Its presence is a touch baffling, but it does help introduce more of Scott’s own identity into the proceedings - something that is somewhat lacking in the rest of the book.
Scott’s many ideas about the value of criticism basically boil down to the notion that it is a key component to the creative process. Generally, art is intended to evoke some sort of reaction from an audience; criticism serves as an “official” take, if you will, quantifying the impact made by an artistic work.
It warrants mentioning that Scott’s choices regarding depth of exploration vary from concept to concept; sometimes, he spends more time with an idea than might seem necessary, while other times, he skims the surface of a thought that could have merited a more layered take. However, even the lightest touch offers a truthful and measured perspective.
There’s something wonderfully meta about reviewing a book about the value of reviewing. “Better Living Through Criticism” offers some broad and engaging insights into the art and craft of creative commentary. However you might view the merits of criticism, there’s no denying that this book is engaging, well-wrought and thought-provoking....more
Magical realism has become something of a go-to in the realm of literary fiction in recent years. While there have always been practitioners of said magical thinking, it seems that more and more authors have been dipping their toes into that pool – or even diving in headfirst.
As with any burgeoning crest of stylistic popularity, the degree of success varies wildly from work to work. Some use magical realism to plumb new depths and explore new ideas, while others seemingly just haphazardly tacked on some weirdness so that they might exploit a trend.
Author Yann Martel established himself as firmly in the former camp with the bestselling “Life of Pi.” His latest offering – “The High Mountains of Portugal” – is a 20th century-spanning triptych, spinning three stories connected across the years in ways both subtle and overt.
The first – “Homeless” - takes place in 1904. A young man named Tomas is lost in grief over the loss of his lover and child; so huge is his sadness that it compels him to spend his life walking backwards. In the course of his work at a museum, he discovers a mysterious journal that seems to indicate the existence of an undiscovered relic – a hand-hewn crucifix of purported magnificence. The desire to track down this artifact consumes him - so much so that he borrows his uncle’s automobile (one of the first in Europe) to drive into the High Mountains of Portugal in hopes of tracking it down.
The second part – “Homeward” – brings us to the office of a Portuguese pathologist in the late 1930s. He and his wife are devotees of Agatha Christie, their mutual love of mystery novels indicative of a larger and lifelong love. Late one night, a woman shows up at his office door demanding that he perform an autopsy on her dead husband. Despite his misgivings, he acquiesces, only to discover that this will be like no other procedure that he has ever performed. The bizarre results tie the good doctor in with the journey undertaken by Tomas decades before.
The third and final installment is “Home.” In the 1980s, Canadian senator Peter Tovy is adrift. His wife Clara, the love of his life, has passed away. He has cordial, but distant relationships with his remaining family – his sister, his son – and is at a loss regarding what he might do with himself. On a government trip to Oklahoma, Tovy finds himself at a primate research facility. He makes an inexplicable connection with a chimp named Odo; without understanding why, he decides to purchase Odo and move to Portugal – a homeland his family left when he was just a toddler – to begin a new life and carve out a whole new life.
A constant in Martel’s work has been an exploration of the connection between humanity and the “other;” whether the other is animal consciousness or a higher spiritual power or something else entirely, Martel captures the complexities of man’s relationships with influences both external and internal. Those dynamics of interaction serve to create complex and compelling characters, the sorts of people that are inherently unforgettable.
“The High Mountains of Portugal” explores that relationship with animal consciousness throughout, asking demanding questions regarding the nature of being. Martel is unafraid to offer his own definition of the soul, one that is far more nuanced and complex than religion might lead one to believe.
There’s also a deftness of phrase to Martel’s work that leads to a rich and layered reading experience. He tosses off exquisitely constructed sentences that are beautifully descriptive while also seeming just the slightest bit off-kilter. However, that imbalance rarely detracts from the experience. Quite the opposite in fact – that ever-so-slight loss of equilibrium results in prose that occasionally baffles, but delightfully so.
At its heart, “The High Mountains of Portugal” is a narrative built upon our inherent need to discover outside explanations for our inner existences. Martel’s world is one where the inexplicable need never be truly explained, where all quests are one quest. Any meanings we uncover regarding life and love might be our own, but our connections can be – and often are - universal....more
We as a culture love sports and the men and women who play them. We are fascinated by the nature of competition; we make connections that become passionate lifelong commitments. We root for the home team and admire superstar performers.
But ... why?
That’s the question that “This is Your Brain on Sports: The Science of Underdogs, the Value of Rivalry, and What We Can Learn From the T-Shirt Cannon”, by L. Jon Wertheim and Sam Sommers, attempts to answer. The book delves into the psychology of sporting participation, whether as a player or a fan.
Did you ever wonder why NFL quarterbacks tend to be good-looking dudes? Or if they’re actually all that good-looking? Check out the opening chapter, titled “Why Tom Brady and All those Other Quarterbacks are so Damned Good-Looking (or are they?)” It turns out that there’s a lot more to it than chiseled jawlines and steely resolve; in fact, it might not have much to do with their appearances at all.
Ever think about why it is that, when rooting in a vacuum, we seem to be hardwired to pull for the underdog? Or why we’re compelled to fight tooth and nail for a free T-shirt fired out of a cannon - a T-shirt that we’d never actually consider buying? There are well-reasoned, well-researched explanations here - explanations that also happen to be clever and funny and narratively engaging.
From “Why Hockey Goons Would Rather Fight at Home” to “Why We Want Gronk at Our Backyard Barbecue - And Why He Wants to Be There,” from “Why Giving Every Little League Kid a Trophy is Such a Lousy Idea” to “Why the World Cup Doesn’t Lead to World Peace,” “This is Your Brain on Sports” breaks down the sociological and psychological implications of how we engage with sports on every level, from the youth level all the way up to the highest echelon of professional performance.
Sports fandom - and even sports participation to a lesser extent - can be an extremely illogical and irrational thing. Rooting for your team is in essence rooting for laundry, watching (admittedly impressive) athletes performing feats that, while incredible, are in many ways largely meaningless. What “This is Your Brain on Sports” does so beautifully is provide a context for that seeming illogic and irrationality.
Basically, if you’re a sports fan and someone in your life simply doesn’t get it, hand them this book. It probably won’t convert them, but it’s a stimulating and fun read that might at least help them to understand where you’re coming from. It’s a smart book that is unafraid to challenge the reader, yet still manages to address complex concepts in an easily relatable way.
Wertheim and Sommers are a perfect pairing for such a book. On the one hand, you have Wertheim, a long-time sportswriter who is considered to be one of the best in the business and has long shown interest in the psychological side of sport. On the other, there’s Sommers, a Tufts University teacher and researcher in the field of social psychology who happens to be a diehard sports fan. Their respective strengths are magnified by one another, resulting in (apologies in advance for the cliche) an absolute home run.
“This is Your Brain on Sports” is a smart, thoughtful look at the “why” of sports, combining concise explanations and engaging anecdotes into a perfect storm of informative entertainment. Whether you love sports or like sports - or couldn’t care less - there’s something worthwhile to be found here. ...more
It’s time to take yet another walk with everybody’s favorite literary pedestrian.
It has been 20 years since Bill Bryson’s “Notes from a Small Island” was published. That book’s unique blend of exasperated affection and curmudgeonly wit is beloved on both sides of the Atlantic, both in the author’s adopted home and his native land.
His latest is “The Road to Little Dribbling: Adventures of an American in Britain”, a book in which Bryson’s signature sardonic style is once again aimed at the land he has called home for so many years.
Two decades later, Bryson has decided to once again wander Great Britain. His path is a self-designed route that he modestly dubs “the Bryson Line” – basically, a line from Bognor Regis (in the southern part of the country) to Cape Wrath (in the north). Traveling by train and bus and rental car and, yes, by foot, Bryson meanders his way along his chosen route (more or less) to take another look around the country that he has come to hold so dear.
Of course, Bill Bryson is no average tourist. His journey takes him to some familiar locales, to be sure, but he also ventures to a number of out-of-the-way places, spots rarely visited by casual travelers. Whether he’s sharing his thoughts on the majesty of Stonehenge or the off-putting ubiquity of litter, Bryson brings his travels to grumpy, grumbling life. His utterly intertwined senses of adventure and humor give birth to tales that manage to be equal parts informative and entertaining.
Through it all, we are subject to the magnificent digressions and tangents that are central to Bryson’s oeuvre. One never knows when he will wander off on a tangent about a bizarre night spent at a bed and breakfast or drop a factoid about how many Nobel Prize winners come from Cambridge (it’s 90, in case you were wondering). Bryson’s cleverness is in full focus as he laments the many things that irritate him and celebrates the (increasingly few) things of which he approves.
Bryson’s deep and abiding love for Great Britain is apparent on every page of “The Road to Little Dribbling.” Even when he complains – and he complains A LOT – it all springs from a place of honest devotion. Sure, he occasionally gives us the literary equivalent of shaking his fist at those damned whippersnappers to get off his lawn, but that grouchiness is a huge part of his charm – particularly when combined with a wit whose sharpness hasn’t dulled an iota in the past twenty years. Even at 64, age has yet to mellow Mr. Bryson – if anything, he’s more acerbic than ever.
And that, friends, is a wonderful thing.
Few authors are capable of the cutting cleverness that Bryson tosses off with seeming ease. Whether he’s talking about things he likes (well-maintained piers, independent bookshops, ample footpaths) or things he doesn’t (neglected downtowns, apathy toward punctuation, whelks), he is unfailingly sharp in his observations. He veers from ludicrous to trivial to maudlin to sincere, but never to the detriment of the reader; he makes sure to always invite us along for the ride (or walk, as the case may be).
It remains to be seen if “The Road to Little Dribbling” will achieve the same high degree of esteem lavished upon “Notes from a Small Island.” In truth, it likely won’t, if only because that earlier book is so adored. Ultimately, that doesn’t really matter – it’s enough to know that Bill Bryson is still out there, careening around the various rails and trails of the British Isles.
It’s not exactly a walk on the wild side, but who cares? Any walk with Bill Bryson is a walk worth taking....more
Creating a series of books that is both enduring and engaging is as difficult a task as any that an author might undertake. Building characters that warrant long-term exploration and whose adventures readers wish to follow not just once, but over and over again, well … it’s far from easy.
Unless you’re Eastport-based author Sarah Graves, that is.
Graves first achieved success with the extremely popular “Home Repair is Homicide” series – 16 books strong, with well over a million copies in print. That alone would be enough, but Graves has actually started in on a second series, and if the second book is any indication, readers can likely expect plenty more mysteries yet to come.
“The Girls She Left Behind” is the second book in Graves’s Lizzie Snow series, featuring a former Boston homicide detective whose personal quest for her missing niece has led her to become a sheriff’s deputy in the small Aroostook County town of Bearkill.
Lizzie’s first northern Maine winter is turning out to be an atypical one in terms of weather, but that is presenting its own set of problems. Namely, there’s a wildfire burning hot in the backwoods of Bearkill, leaving many in the town wondering if and when they might have to abandon their homes to the steadily advancing flames.
A young girl named Tara Wylie – notorious for running away – has disappeared. However, something is different this time … something the girl’s mother is being particularly cagey about. Meanwhile, there’s an unknown connection to a psychopathic kidnapper, a man named Henry Gemmerle who kept three women imprisoned in his basement for a decade.
Unpleasant weirdness is mounting all around as Lizzie struggles to piece together the clues that will allow her to save Tara Wylie. Even with the help of her friends and fellow law enforcement types, it remains to be seen whether Lizzie can win the race against time and bring Tara home safely.
It’s difficult to talk about mysteries and thrillers in terms of plot, simply because the twists and turns of the story are a fundamental part of the experience. And Graves certainly offers up plenty – it’s difficult to discern in just which direction the narrative will take you. That isn’t to say that the plot is confusing or convoluted – it’s not at all. It’s just that Graves doesn’t feel it necessary to hold the reader’s hand; she trusts that you’ll be able to figure it out for yourself.
(Note: In the course of reading this book, I had three separate moments when I thought I had solved the whole puzzle. In order, I was a) wrong, b) slightly less wrong and c) partially right. So there’s that.)
“The Girls She Left Behind” feels like a bit of a departure for Graves. It’s definitely a darker tale than the ones she’s given us before, darker even than “Winter at the Door,” the first Lizzie Snow book. However, that darkness offers a good deal of narrative flexibility that serves Graves well. She’s already demonstrated an ability to generate interesting characters; Lizzie Snow is a nicely complex protagonist, filled with as many questions as answers. Seeing those characters in more shadowy circumstances makes for a top-shelf thriller.
The key to a long shelf life for a series is threefold – basically, you need an interesting character in an interesting setting doing interesting things. So far, it looks like Sarah Graves is firing on all cylinders. Lizzie Snow is a dynamic protagonist, just the right blend of capable and flawed. The fictional town of Bearkill is definitely coming into its own – the richness of the backdrop seems destined only to increase. And Graves has spent years demonstrating an ability to construct textured, nuanced mysteries.
Put it all together and “The Girls She Left Behind” is another worthwhile entry in this series; readers can expect to see plenty more of Lizzie Snow and company in the years to come....more
We love knowing things about famous people. And the more we know, the more we want to know. Entire cottage industries have sprung up around the notion that as a culture, we very much want to find out everything we can with regards to the private lives of the celebrated.
But in a unique and interesting peek behind the celebrity curtain, Fiona Ross offers up a look at one of the most revealing aspects of anyone’s true life – what they liked to eat.
"Dining with the Famous and Infamous" is a kind of cookbook to the stars, featuring numerous food-centric anecdotes about artists, musicians, movie stars and others from the entertainment realm. This might seem like a significant limitation, but Ross manages to cook up some pretty good stories about some VERY famous people.
However, this book isn’t just about telling you what these beloved (and not-so-beloved) figures ate – it’s about telling you how to make it for yourself.
Every section of the book contains at least one detailed recipe – often more – for a dish or drink that is discussed in-depth in its respective story. And we’re talking a wide range of famous people here – figures from the worlds of cinema and music and literature and art – and while the stories range a little bit, the central conceit is always food.
The book is broken up into sections – you’ve got Artists, which features Mark Rothko, Andy Warhol, Van Gogh and Picasso among others (including some super-weird Salvador Dali stuff); Movie Stars, which includes notables such as Laurel and Hardy, Liz Taylor, John Wayne and Woody Allen; Musicians, which takes a look at Sinatra and Dylan, Woody Guthrie and Michael Jackson; and Writers, which offers up Hemingway and Steinbeck and Orwell and some rather salacious Salinger tidbits as well.
In closing, we get a section named “Finally, the Nuts,” which includes a handful of rather bizarre historical figures and their food relationships – famed libertine Casanova, noted astrologer Sybil Leek, weirdo occultist Aleister Crowley and - of course - everybody’s favorite seer Nostradamus.
So whether we’re talking about the adolescent eating habits of the Beatles or the quiet meals shared between Bogey and Bacall, “Dining with the Famous and Infamous” offers you an opportunity to eat those same foods. The book presents an opportunity for you to connect with these stars in a very visceral way – through the stomach.
While one could argue that neither the anecdotes nor the recipes alone could stand on their own, there’s no doubt that together, they are an intriguing reading experience. As you might expect, some sections prove more engaging than others – personal taste, in terms of both the celebrities and the food, is going to play a significant role. Also, there are places where the stories feel a bit thin and/or strained, suffering in comparison to the more robust offerings.
We all have to eat; it’s one of those universalities that connect everybody. What “Dining with the Famous and Infamous” does is give that connection specificity – there’s something oddly compelling about knowing what food likes (and dislikes) you might share with a movie star or a literary icon. Fans of celebrity culture and/or cookbooks will find plenty to like here....more
The best horror fiction is that which embraces and exploits the unknown. Too often, writers take the easy path, filling their pages with moments that, while scary enough, aren’t particularly surprising. Many times, the frights tend to be familiar ones.
Charles Lambert takes the road less traveled in “The Children’s Home”, an unsettling and subtle book that tells a tale of isolation and explores the true terror inherent to feelings of abandonment, offering a disconcerting look at just how drastic an impact disconnection can have.
Morgan Fletcher lives an isolated life. He is an heir to a massive fortune, though his understanding of just how that fortune came to pass is limited. He is also horribly disfigured thanks to a tragedy in his younger days. He rattles around inside his familial estate, sorting through the libraries of his forbears and interacting only with his housekeeper. He avoids reflection in all of its forms.
Everything starts to change when Moira and David show up.
These two children appear as if out of nowhere, apparently hoping to be taken in. Morgan invites the children into his home and accepts them into his life. Before long, more and more children start to appear, their origins just as mysterious as the first two.
Into this tangled web comes Dr. Crane, a local physician called in to care for one of the sick children. Far from being repulsed by Morgan’s disfigurement, he is drawn to the lonely recluse and gradually becomes a friend – one as fascinated by these precocious children as Morgan is.
As time passes, the children’s behavior becomes more erratic and eerie. They have insights and wisdom beyond their brief years; in their exploration of Morgan’s house, they make some bizarre and unsettling discoveries. These discoveries lead Morgan and Dr. Crane down a shadowy path snarled with mystery and mysticism.
The children are seeking something, you see … and Morgan is the one who can help them find it.
One hesitates to use the term muddled as a compliment, but “The Children’s Home” feels muddled in the best possible way. Lambert does an exceptional job in amplifying the general creepiness of the narrative through a sense of precise ambiguity. The overall murkiness, far from being a distraction, actually enhances the reading experience. Basically, we the readers are often as confused as Morgan himself; that confusion allows all sorts of shadows to spill into the story.
Lambert dwells in those shadows, luxuriating in the depth of cover that they provide him. The leisurely pace of the narrative is punctuated by well-executed feints, yet even those drastic shifts play out smoothly. Calling something a “page-turner” is a bit of a cliché, but there’s no better way to describe the “just one more chapter” compulsion that this book elicits.
Morgan Fletcher is as unreliable a narrator as they come, a sad and broken man who can’t help but suffer the effects of his lengthy isolation. His untrustworthiness with regards to the events going on around him adds yet another layer of intrigue to a tale already rife with unpredictable possibilities.
“The Children’s Home” is the best kind of ghost story – one that scares, one that surprises … and one that you simply can’t stop reading....more
Getting older is one of those realities that we’re all forced to face eventually. No matter how mightily we might struggle against it, the passage of time is an unavoidable inevitability. Plenty of people have put pen to paper in an effort to voice the complexity of their feelings regarding their mortality. Many of these meditations are built on strength and sadness and seriousness. Others strive to see the humor in it all.
You can probably guess on which side Michael Ian Black’s latest book falls.
“Navel Gazing: True Tales of Bodies, Mostly Mine (but also my mom’s, which I know sounds weird)” is Black’s attempt to come to terms with mortality – both his own as he turns 40 and that of his increasingly ill mother – through his trademark deadpan wit and self-deprecation.
The vignettes that make up this book cover a surprising amount of ground considering the relative narrow focus. We get to hear about Black’s experience with running and the dynamics of his relationships with his wife and children. There are stories of his developmental years – the time he tried to start a punk band; the time his two mothers sat him down to give him the “It’s OK that you’re gay” speech when he isn’t actually gay – as well.
However, the lion’s share of the book is built around his perspective regarding his mother’s health, both physically and in an emotional sense. There’s no doubt that Black’s relationship with his mom is fraught – he himself acknowledges that fact on more than one occasion. That tension is an inescapable presence, even as he does his best to avoid developing the same sorts of issues with his own family. Even when his mom continues to get sicker and sicker, the pettiness and old resentments never really go away. He loves his mom, but he doesn’t always like her very much – a reality of so many familial relationships.
Conventional wisdom says that the best comedy is based in truth. We also like to say that the truth hurts. What Michael Ian Black has done in “Navel Gazing” renders both of those notions accurate. While Black is an unrepentant wiseass – happy to undercut even the most poignant moment with a goofy joke or a wry aside – there’s no question that everything he’s addressing here is rooted in something very real. Whether he’s talking about what his mother’s deteriorating condition means to him or the fact that he can’t quite deal with losing his hair, Black somehow manages to use his own (mostly put-on) selfishness to shine a light on something more universal.
One thing: in case it’s not clear, “Navel Gazing” is a very funny book. The subject matter might make you think that it’s a bit of a downer, but Black has a knack for lightness that keeps things from ever getting too intense. Put it this way – he’s certainly not walking on eggshells.
Confronting the stark truth about age could be sad, but the way Black does it certainly isn’t. He embraces his vanity and self-centeredness without apology; you can practically hear the slight smirk as you read – which is very much meant to be a compliment. Few can do ironic detachment as well as Michael Ian Black; that tone permeates the book. However, the ubiquity of that tone makes the moments of real emotion resonate all the more. The jokes never stop for long, but those brief instances in the spaces between are sweet and genuine and heartbreakingly real.
“Navel Gazing” is a funny, engaging look at one man’s attempts to deal with getting older. Michael Ian Black has a distinct and entertaining voice – a voice uniquely suited for a smart, snarky take on a subject that could easily be taken too seriously. ...more
It has long been speculated that there was much about William Shakespeare that we simply don’t know. The keeping of records in his time was fairly spotty, so there are some gaps that historians have basically filled in using research and educated guesswork.
Jacopo della Quercia has chosen rather a different path to fill in those gaps. His novel “License to Quill” posits that Shakespeare – along with poet and peer Christopher Marlowe – was in fact an undercover operative with the English government, working as a spy in the battle against the enemies of his country.
William Shakespeare is first and foremost a playwright, renowned for his wide-ranging and popular works. He also has a past as an espionage agent for the Crown’s Ordnance Office (a “Double-O” operative, if you will), though he’s been out of the game for a while. When he is approached by a gentleman calling himself John Johnson – a gentleman who turns out to be named Guy Fawkes – for help in executing a plot against the government, Shakespeare is drawn back into that world. On orders from his old boss, he agrees to the request made of him by the conspirators – to write a play with an anti-monarchist message based in Scotland.
(No spoilers, but you can probably figure out which of Shakespeare’s plays we’re talking about here.)
Meanwhile, in Italy, Christopher Marlowe – who also served as a Double-O operative once upon a time – has been living under an assumed name after faking his own murder years previous. However, he is drawn into the plot as well, finding himself in the crosshairs of a deadly group of assassins who want him out of the way for reasons he doesn’t fully understand.
Underhanded politics, tenuous alliances, cloak-and-dagger spycraft and a little bit of folklore for good measure – that’s just part of what follows as Shakespeare and Marlowe plunge ever deeper into the murky waters of conspiracy. With only the help of the spymaster Walsingham (“W” for short), quartermaster Sir Francis Bacon and W’s secretary Penny – and a few unexpected friends along the way – these two men must find a way to thwart the Gunpowder Plot conspirators and save not just England, but all of Europe.
And if Shakespeare can win the day, he will get to retain his most precious possession – complete creative freedom when writing and performing his plays. His license to quill, if you will.
This isn’t della Quercia’s first foray into the realm of alternate history; his debut novel was last year’s excellent “The Abraham Lincoln Pocket Watch Conspiracy.” Here, he goes farther back in time to a place where the blanks to fill in are larger and more numerous; using actual historical events and records as jumping-off points, he lets his imagination run rampant – much to the reader’s benefit.
“License to Quill” is an unlikely combination of elements. Meticulous research, detailed storytelling and strong characterization – as well as an abundance of humor that strikes a remarkable balance between highbrow and lowbrow – all come together into one piece of eminently readable, wildly enjoyable fiction. It is part spy thriller, part satire, part historical fiction – and all fantastic.
This is not genre gimmickry at work, no mere parodic pastiche; while della Quercia has certainly penned his share of comic pieces, he has legitimate skills of scholarship and he wields them with aplomb. It is precisely the juxtaposition presented by those two seemingly disparate approaches that makes his work so entertaining. He folds his tales expertly into the historical narrative, deftly mining the past and incorporating his findings seamlessly; he also offers footnotes and additional readings should the reader’s interest in the real-life history be piqued.
“License to Quill” works on a number of levels. History buffs and Shakespeare fans will obviously love this book, but really, anyone who enjoys fast, funny narratives populated by compelling characters and built upon a foundation of true events is going to dig this book.