On Amy Bloom’s “Lucky Us” and Amy Bloom Live

21 Oct
Lucky Us

Lucky Us

Apparently, I needed a six-week hiatus from all things book-related, but you better believe I’m back now, despite the glorious initiation of the NFL regular season. (Just don’t expect any blog posts on Sunday nights.) I can’t think of a better author to get me off my lazy ass than Amy Bloom, with her powerful, imagistic storytelling and her epic whirlwind plots. On August 4 at the Seattle Public Library, Bloom read from her newest novel Lucky Us and immediately hooked me on her quiet authority. She filled the room with her presence before she even read a word, and when she did start reading, the author of Away–nominated for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award–reminded me why I love her stories.

In Lucky Us, half-sisters Eva and Iris work out their tumultuous love-hate relationship with World War II-era America as their backdrop. Eva’s story begins when her mother leaves her on the doorstep of her father and half-sister, and she narrates her life as she knows it: being the shadow of the captivating, horrible, hilarious characters around her. The narrative alternates by chapter–from Eva’s first-person perspective to the letters from Iris years into the future to the close third-person perspectives of secondary characters–as the sisters and their makeshift family travel from coast to coast back again, picking up and losing members along the way.

Fireside Chat

Eva, like many of her fellow Americans, spends her days entranced by the voice of President Franklin Roosevelt in his Fireside Chat.

Here are the three things you need to know about Amy Bloom:

1) Her greatest strength is writing incredibly three-dimensional characters. With Bloom’s background in psychology, she shows that she knows people. None of her characters are perfect, but they are all relatable. They are all believable. They are all real people. In the reading she gave in Seattle on August 4, she said, “The goal for me isn’t to create characters. The goal for me is to create human beings.” In the short length of the novel, Bloom creates a plethora of human beings. None of them seem to be very likable, even the passive, apathetic Eva, but something can be said for creating a unlikable human beings really, really well.

2) Bloom believes “World War II is where you saw the seeds of change begin to crack,”  and that belief led to her extensive research of the state of a country on the brink of yet another global war. From era-specific music to the lure of Hollywood, from the bombing of Pearl Harbor to the internment Japanese- and German-Americans, Bloom sets a solid historical foundation for her sweeping family epic.

Manzanar

One character finds himself

3) For Bloom, novel-writing is like a race against time and space. She has to cover as much ground and as many years as she possibly can, and she’s only got 250 pages to do it! While her short story style is concise–pithy even–and jam-packed with content, Bloom’s novels feel plot development on steroids. Lucky Us begins in Eva’s youth. She is an abandoned daughter, a younger sibling in the shadow of her flippant, teenage half-sister, but by the end of the novel, decades have passed, and everything has changed. It may feel as if Bloom writes in generalizations because years pass in a single paragraph, or characters travel cross-country in half a sentence. But truthfully, Bloom’s prose is so efficient and terse that she doesn’t need a hundred pages to describe a road trip.

SPL

Bloom is as succinct and impactful in person as she is in her writing. At her reading in Seattle this summer, she established herself as an expert on people and an expert storyteller.

Read this book if … you enjoy historical fiction, character-based stories, and/or American epics. There are many things Bloom excels at, but my favorite is her apparent love and respect for the American epic.

Don’t read this book if … you’re a sucker for details. Bloom doesn’t care much for those. She’s a brilliant character sketch artist. She’s genius at the long game. But her broad brush strokes aren’t for everyone.

This book is like … Bloom’s first novel Away in its scope and similar content. Away tells the story of Lillian Leyb, a young, first-generation immigrant to the United States. Lillian embarks on a cross-country journey from New York to Alaska in order to be reunited with her daughter who was separated from Lillian and left in Russia. Lucky Us also reminds me of A View from Castle Rock by Alice Munro. The Nobel Prize-winner Munro writes mostly short stories, as does Bloom, and both authors’ attention to history and epic perspective feel extraordinarily similar. One major difference is Bloom’s tendency toward the romantic and Munro’s tendency toward the understatement. Both are excellent.

Amy Bloom

Amy Bloom has been nominated for the National Book Award and the National Book Critics Circle Award. All to say, she’s a badass.

 

On John Darnielle’s “Wolf in White Van”

14 Oct
Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle

Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle follows the meandering voice of Sean Phillips–disfigured and left in solitude by a tragic event in his childhood–into the Trace Italian, in the hope of finding refuge from reality.

If it weren’t for a friend of mine, I would never have heard of John Darnielle’s debut novel Wolf in White Van or John Darnielle’s acclaimed band the Mountain Goats (Thank you, @shriver!). Yes, I know. I’m a dirty philistine, but my eyes are open now. I may not throw on the Mountain Goats’ bouncy tunes by choice, but I will pick up any other novels Darnielle decides to write, because Wolf in White Van was an absolute thrill to read.

In Wolf in White Van, Sean Phillips narrates his reclusive life with an only half-lucid, meandering voice that leads readers through the maze of his memories and fantasies. Sean is the inventor of Trace Italian, a mail-in role-playing game set in post-apocalyptic America. Players from around the country send Sean their moves, and Sean mails them their results in return. Encroaching hunters offers players the choice to run, hide, or forage for food; finding a hut in the desert offers the choice to explore it or move on. Each choice leads to another. Each road destroys the possibility of other roads. Trace Italian is a universe of infinite possibility, and though the goal of the game is to find the Trace Italian–a safe refuge hidden from the horrors of this barren world–readers will learn that sometimes the goal isn’t at the end of the game but at the beginning, where it all started. When Lance and Carrie–two teenagers looking for escape–find themselves lost in Sean’s creation, even Sean’s fortified sanctuary begins to crumble.

“I feel my own freedom remembering this turn, what it means to find a place where the world’s shut out for good at last, where all signs point back at one another and the overall pattern’s clear if you look hard enough.”

Everything unravels and points backward in time toward the event that both destroyed and rebirthed Sean’s life, and event that directly led to his creation of the Trace. As a teenager, Sean was grossly disfigured and hides away to save others the discomfort of seeing him, hearing him speak, enduring his presence. Trace Italian provides most of the contact Sean has with the outside world, and he forms bonds with its players through small, insightful signs they give him with their handwritten game turns.In the astrologer’s hut. Through fragmented passages and no semblance of linearity, Darnielle etches out a schizophrenic narrative that circles a single tragic event in Sean’s past, and try as he might, he cannot shut out his own memories. There is no refuge that can protect Sean from himself. Everything he does traces inwards into a dark interior, more complicated than his ruined exterior.

Trace Italienne

A trace italienne, or star fort, is a type of gunpowder-age fortification designed to minimize risk by cannonball to the main walls of the fort. To Sean Phillips, the Trace Italian is a mythological sanctuary and the goal of his mail-in game.

If there is any criticism I can offer of Darnielle’s debut novel, it’s that WiWV is too brief. I’m a big fan of escapism and so is, supposedly, Sean Phillips. But we spend very few pages in the meat of Trace Italian. A couple of paragraphs of Sean’s second-person, choose-your-own-adventure role-playing game gives readers a glimpse of a vast, alien world, but I felt like I was told I was looking at a Brachiosaurus while being shown a single vertebra. I didn’t quite believe the Trace could be a real haven for Sean or a real danger to Lance and Carrie, because I didn’t quite believe the Trace was a real place. I wonder what Darnielle could have done with another hundred pages.

All you need to say is, "White van," and your mind is filled with dark and threatening possibility.

All you need to say is, “White van,” and your mind is filled with dark and threatening possibility. Add the word “wolf,” and you have yourself the worst kind of predator.

The area where he excels is creating incredible, surreal images in a way that reminds me of Don DeLillo or Haruki Murakami. Young Sean Phillips spends his post-event time watching the Trinity Broadcasting Network in the wee hours of the morning, bingeing on talk shows hosted by pink-haired pastors’ wives and evangelistic specialists on the evils of popular culture. Sean is drawn in by the bizarrely repetitive segments that cover the same topics using almost exactly the same words over and over again. One specialist warns of the rock and roll lyric that, played backwards, actually says, “wolf in white van.” It’s a message from Satan. It’s a sign of evil. Sean wonders what it means. He explores the ludicrous but inherently dangerous image of a starving, predatory wolf in an inherently dangerous vehicle like a white van. There is a monster, lying in wait, setting the trap, luring its next meal.

The question becomes, who is the wolf? Is Sean the disfigured monster luring innocent victims into his trap of a universe? Or is Sean the victim, the lured one, the innocent one? As Sean lies prone–both in the isolation he created for himself as an adult and in the hospital in his past, recovering from an unbelievable tragedy–and builds the Trace Italian within himself. He raises walls of dirt and forgotten things, and cloaks himself in his own version of the truth.

“When I was a child, I dreamed of powers like these, but I no longer have those dreams. I am free.”

John Darnielle

John Darnielle reads Wolf in White Van for the Macmillan audio book. Check out first few minutes on SoundCloud!

Read this book if … your body is ready. WiWV is a crazy ride, short as it is. Read it also if you’re already a fan of The Mountain Goats. The novel reads as if Darnielle expounded on one of his angsty death ditties–short chapters feel like verses, and the rhythmic prose moves the story along to a steady beat. Make sure you listen to “The Sunset Tree” on repeat while you read.

Don’t read this book if … disjointed narratives bother you. This plot doesn’t move linearly, and it may take some careful reading to follow along. A casual reader may still find it entertaining, and Darnielle’s voice is captivating whether you know what he’s talking about or not, but WiWV requires a good deal of attention to keep pace with the experimental story structure and keep track of the heavy symbolism.

This books is like … the dark, scary version of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One, in which a virtual reality game is substituted for a written one and the whole story is told from the perspective of players instead of the creator. On the level of narratives, WiWV reminds me of Arundhati Roy’s God of Small Things and, on a lesser scale, of Don DeLillo’s The Body Artist or maybe Mao II, but without the over-the-top, self-adoring postmodern mumbo jumbo (mumbo jumbo that I deeply love, so don’t get me wrong).

Book v. Big Screen: Gone Girl

10 Oct
David Fincher's adaptation of Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl stars Ben Afleck and Rosamund Pike, and was released to theaters October 3, 2014.

David Fincher’s adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl stars Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike, and was released to theaters October 3, 2014. Flynn wrote the screenplay.

Undoubtedly, this is what we all want to hear: “How does it compare to the book?” Book readers revel in the masochistic practice of scrutinizing the film adaptations of our favorite novels, probably because the pain makes us feel more alive, and despite the fact that I am of the school of thought that forgives films for the heresies they must commit in order to keep the visual media gods happy, no one can escape a straight-up, side-by-side comparison. (Read my book review of Gone Girl here.)

Gone Girl, the movie and the book, unfolds the mystery of the missing woman Amy Elliott Dunne and her husband Nick Dunne. Nick’s story begins on the morning of Amy’s disappearance from the couple’s home in North Carthage, Missouri, while Amy’s story begins years earlier, when the two first meet at a party in New York City. From there, the film alternates between the two voices as viewers learn that the truth is never one-sided.

Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike) tells the story of a budding romance through the pages of her diary. Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) begins his story on the morning of Amy's disappearance. Whose story do we believe?

Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike) tells the story of a budding romance through the pages of her diary. Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) begins his story on the morning of Amy’s disappearance. Whose story do we believe?

The film, a killer 149 minutes long, maintains an obsessive loyalty to the novel in a way only a loving, infatuated mother could swing, so it’s no wonder that the novel’s author, Gillian Flynn, also wrote the screenplay for its Hollywood adaptation. Flynn lifts quotes straight from the page and sets them to Pike’s silky narration and includes them in screenshots of diary entries. Even the pacing–which switches from Nick’s perspective to Amy’s and back again–mirrors that of the book, and this format is the only thing that doesn’t seem to translate well to the screen. Instead, the pacing leaves  the movie stumbling over itself before it gets the chance to run as the plot escalates toward the last third of the story.

Affleck’s maddening cool guy routine with his punchable face is spot on, and Pike portrayed Amy with breathtaking perfection, but credit is due to the unsung heroes of the movie: the supporting cast playing Margo Dunne (Carrie Coon), Nick Dunne’s twin sister, and the lead detective on Amy’s missing person case Rhonda Boney (Kim Dickens). Both women stole scenes with the weight they added to an otherwise insane plot. Nick and Amy are so intense, so lost in each other, and so dysfunctional, that it takes the stellar and understated performances of Dickens and Coon to bring the film back toward a solid reality and away from the precipice of the unbelievable.

Kim Dickens' Detective Rhonda Boney gives the film--and its increasingly chaotic spiral--a realistic foil.

Kim Dickens’ Detective Rhonda Boney gives the film–and its increasingly chaotic spiral–a realistic foil.

In the meantime, the true star of Fincher’s vision is the true star of the movie and provides us something that Flynn couldn’t in her novel: the barren landscape of the Dunne’s massive suburban home; the starkly contrasting image of a search party sweeping their flashlights across the forests of Missouri; flashes of red blood over the beige and grey of the Dunne’s idyllic lives. Coupled with a chilling score by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross, Fincher’s direction takes a thrilling book and translates it into an equally thrilling film.

Book or Big Screen: Is it possible to say that they are equally good? That a book isn’t dishonored by its film adaptation? That the film adaptation doesn’t botch the whole thing? It’s definitely possible to say that Gone Girl won’t need a reboot in ten years because the first didn’t do the job well enough. Thanks to Flynn’s screenplay and Fincher’s vision, the film stay incredibly loyal to the book that should appease everyone but the most zealous readers. Read the book or watch the movie; watch the movie first then the book; it actually shouldn’t make a difference this time around, just make sure you do both.

Readers, beware: While you will hear a lot of familiar lines, and you will see scenes that Flynn painted so vividly in her novel you feel like you’ve seen them before, every adaptation will have its casualties. Lord knows this movie shouldn’t be any longer than it already is, and because of those constraints, a few minor elements get washed out: Boney’s lingering obsession with the case, Shawna Kelly’s development. We can nitpick, but there isn’t much to be wary of.

Viewers, beware: You are in for a long haul. While Gone Girl never feels tedious, it is extremely detailed, and when you read the book you will know why. Get ready for a wild ride of emotion, and make sure you’re prepared to step out of the theaters and straight into the bookstore, because it’s just that good. I will say that the book medium seems to fit the plot’s format a little more snugly, but Fincher manages to capture the true spirit of the novel and the true nature of its horrible characters quite well. You’re not missing out on much for having not read the book.

On Gail Tsukiyama’s “The Samurai’s Garden”

7 Oct
The Samurai's Garden by Gail Tsukiyama

The Samurai’s Garden by Gail Tsukiyama explores the lives of Matsu, Sachi, and Kenzo–three old friends sharing a tragic past–through the eyes of  a young Chinese man named Stephen.

I’m back, bitches! Two-month reading hiatus, be damned. Thank God for book club for keeping me honest and keeping me reading, because I was going to a dark, book-less place that consisted only of mind-numbing white collar work and mind-numbing Skyriming. Needless to say, I won’t be making my goal of reading 70 books this year (unless I decide to start working my way through the 52-book Magic Tree House series), but I will be finishing the year on a strong note, starting with Gail Tsukiyama’s brief but impactful novel The Samurai’s Garden.

The Samurai’s Garden is told from the diary of a young man from Hong Kong in the late 1930s. Stephen returns home from school to recuperate from tuberculosis, only to find the dense Chinese city of his childhood suffocating and alien. He leaves for his family’s summer home in the Japanese coastal city of Tarumi, and in the solitude and peacefulness of the village, Stephen begins to heal in more ways than one. He sets out to bond with the summer home’s long time groundskeeper, Matsu, and begins a journey of discovering the heartbreaking and mysterious past of the gardener and his two childhood friends. As Stephen pieces together the story of Matsu, Sachi, and Kenzo, the Japanese Imperial Army marches its way through China, leaving in its wake havoc and death. Tsukiyama’s characters all find solace in their elaborate gardens of blossoms and stone–extensions of life beyond the tragedies that shape their lives.

Matsu spends all his time in the summer home garden. Stephen quickly learns that Matsu is devoted to something greater than just cultivating his flowers and fish pond.

Matsu spends all his time in the summer home garden. Stephen quickly learns that Matsu is devoted to something greater than just cultivating his flowers and fish pond.

As Stephen regains his vigor for life under Matsu’s quiet, unassuming care, he returns also to his true passion: painting. Stephen speaks and writes like a painter–describing the garden and Tarumi life in a palette of colors and reflected light and subtle lines. Tsukiyama’s prose is a lovely portrayal of both Stephen’s painterly observations and the delicate tranquility of the characters’ lives. Hidden in that same prose, though, is the deep sadness of Matsu’s and Sachi’s stories, and the volatile elements of war and pestilence. Side by side with the growing garden and peace of Tarumi are the lingering illness Stephen battles, the growing unrest in Japan, and the affliction that Sachi and her fellow villagers endure.

In the mountain village above Tarumi, Stephen slowly unveils Matsu's hidden second life and learns why the elderly gardener never left town to follow greater dreams.

In Yamaguchi, the hidden mountain village above Tarumi, Stephen slowly unveils Matsu’s hidden second life and learns why the elderly gardener never left town to follow greater dreams.

In a story about uncovering mysteries, TSG certainly presented some heartbreaking revelations. Tsukiyama’s understated style helps deliver the blows of Matsu’s tragic past in what feels like a distinctly Japanese way. I couldn’t help but think of Kazuo Ishiguro’s prose: a steady wash of waves that carries with it torrents of emotion. But as the book drew to a close, the shocking revelations kept coming, one after another. The blows felt tedious, and because they were tedious, they felt contrived. Other than this slight bit of melodrama, it’s difficult to find fault with Tsukiyama’s obvious knack for storytelling and her evil gift for making me want to cry-read for 100+ pages.

Read this book if … you enjoy gut-wrenching, World War II-era fiction. The Imperial Army’s invasion of China is a mere backdrop to the story unfolding in Tarumi, but the historical context is firmly set, adding to the beautiful but tenuous peace of Stephen’s retreat.

Don’t read this book if … your version of tragic romance requires Atonement-style sexy times and beautiful young people. TSG is a story of lost opportunity and youth, but tragic and romantic all the same.

This book is like … Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day, a similar story of lives full of regret, of youth and opportunity lost, of the intense sorrow of unrequited love. TSG also strongly reminded me of the film (I haven’t read the book yet) The Painted Veil because of the era, the quasi-romance fraught with regret, and element of tragic illness.

Gail Tsukiyama

Gail Tsukiyama has written several successful novels, all within a similar context as TSG, which is considered her finest work.

 

On Alan Lightman’s “Einstein’s Dreams”

29 Jul
Einstein's Dreams

Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman is a mere 144 pages, but you know what they say about small packages.

I am a sucker for recommended books that my friends literally shove into my hands, and if weren’t for one of those moments, I may never have read this lovely “novel” Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman. I use the word “novel” lightly, because it’s so short I read the whole book on a single lunch break. Jim Dale could probably narrate the whole audio book in a single breath. Ernest Hemingway’s longer paragraphs could make ED look like flash fiction. Despite its shortcomings (GET IT?!), Lightman’s baby novel is packed with meaty goodness and impressive imagery.

Einstein’s Dream follows a young German physicist and his fantastical, radical theories of time and relativity. This fictitious rendition of Einstein is a shadow of his real life self. His personality is seen in snippets. The book itself is simply a series of analogies for time, as Einstein dreams night after night of different worlds in which time exists in entirely unique ways. Each chapter explores a new world and a new metaphor: a world where time stands still in the center of town, growing faster the farther away you venture; a world where people are stuck reliving a single moment in their pasts, neglecting their present; a world where people age in reverse. Lightman presents the reader with a multitude of nifty ideas that are all true in some way. Time, after all, is relative.

We know Albert Einstein as the wild-haired, eccentric, tongue-lolling senior. Lightman paints him as a young man--a romantic, a dreaming savant.

We know Albert Einstein as the wild-haired, eccentric, tongue-lolling senior. Lightman paints him as a young man–a romantic, a dreaming savant.

In one world, time doesn’t exist at all. Only a series of images exist. Image after image marches past, and it’s easy to imagine this chapter being Lightman’s favorite. It shows off his writerly abilities to capture life and movement and story in a single, static snapshot:

“The purple petals of an iris, held by a young woman. A room of four walls, two windows, two beds, a table, a lamp, two people with red faces, tears. The first kiss. Planets caught in space, oceans, silence. A bead of water on the window. A coiled rope. A yellow brush.”

This is the photo montage world set to Phil Collins music,and who wouldn’t love that?

Lightman is a painter. Sometimes he uses broad strokes, painting vast landscapes. Sometimes he’s a pointillist. He constructs equally vast images but with the smallest details, a series of simple scenes, a bead of water on the window. In either case, the author knows how to be artful with his words, and his understanding of the physical world helps deepen and strengthen his writing. ED may not be the most compelling of novels, and who knows how much longer it will stand up to the test of time, but it is beautiful little book that I’m glad to have read.

Read this book if … you need something to do during a single lunch break. ED is a punchy, image-laden, plotless chunk of fun, and you will “hmmm” and “huh” your way thoughtfully through the whole book and end up staring into space thinking deep thoughts.

Don’t read this book if … you need something a little more tactile to hold onto in a book–like a plot or character development, those sorts of things. ED wasn’t written to tell a story. It was written to paint a still life, and as pretty as that sounds, it won’t suit everyone.

This book is like … Paulo Coehlo’s The Alchemist for its fuzzy, feel-good lyricism; Paul Auster’s The New York Trilogy, for its trippy treatment of time and reality; or Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities for a format that separates places with chapter breaks, giving each town or world its own encapsulated space.

Alan Lightman

Alan Lightman is a physicist and an incredibly prolific writer. The man understands sciency science things and writes beautifully. It’s a good thing he’s sharing it all with us.

On Mira Grant’s “Parasite” (Parasitology #1)

22 Jul
Parasite by Mira Grant

Parasite by Mira Grant explores a near future in which medical tech giant SymboGen convinces the world to become human hosts to genetically modified tape worms. What could possibly go wrong?

On my list of Most Terrifying Things are such horrors as abused apostrophes and Rush Limbaugh’s hypnotic, bigoted radio voice, but right up there near the top are also zombies and parasites. Author Mira Grant managed to tackle both those subjects in her novel Parasite, the first installation of her Parasitology series, which ends up being closer to a mash-up of Animal Planet’s  Monsters Inside Me and Resident Evil. Not as terrifying as Rush Limbaugh misusing apostrophes, but much more enjoyable.

Grant’s particular brand of terrifying things starts in the mind of Sally Mitchell, a young woman who beats all odds and wakes up from an car accident-induced coma. The only problem is she can’t remember a thing. As Sal develops, her family and friends comment again and again that she’s a completely different person. Gone is the bitchy, selfish, temperamental Sally. Sal is kind and inquisitive, respectful to everyone, and deathly afraid of driving in cars. Sal’s life was saved by a medical miracle: SymboGen’s genetically modified tape worm, D. symbogenesis, which cures everything from pet allergies to cancer. Six years after Sal’s accident, she is relearning the way to be human and navigating her celebrity as the girl whose life was saved by a worm. But when other D. symbogenesis hosts start falling prey to an epidemic of sleepwalking, Sal becomes suspicious and tries to uncover the dangerous secrets of SymboGen.

Tape worm

Tape worms and other parasites are creepily pretty in artful photos like this. They lose their appeal when you imagine them wrapped around your brain.

Sal narrates as a story of her medical miracle evolves into a story of political intrigue, conspiracy, and deadly, sleepwalking, worm-controlled zombie people. Remember that Sal woke up from a coma six years previous and relearned everything that makes a human being human. She makes a point to express her trepidation with the English language, and she often comes across as awkward or clumsy with her speech in dialogue. But her running, first-person monologue is perfectly formed, descriptive, witty at times, and sometimes downright lyrical. This isn’t the voice of someone forced to use an adult brain to learn a brand new language. This is the voice of a snarky, educated, well read author of multiple novels.

It’s a rare case when I wish for a little more distance from a narrator, but the more I learned about Sal, the less I appreciated her. Her intelligent narration made her seem fraudulent when she presented herself as a bumbling, naïve victim in her interactions with other people. The lack of consistency in Sal’s character (in addition to her banality in general) hamper what would have otherwise been an interesting story.

But wait! There’s more. In case Sal’s blasé character profile doesn’t do it, the silly plot progressions could certainly deter a reader from picking up this novel. I can’t get over the fairly silly plot progressions. After a near apocalyptic run-in with sleepwalkers on a highway, Sal is immediately grounded for a week her parents for leaving the house without permission. After Sal learns that the horrifying sleepwalking epidemic are truly sentient, genetically modified tape worms taking over their slaver hosts, a series of cliché revelations ruins it all. At other times, plot holes or straight up plot errors cripple the narrative flow just as the story starts picking up pace.

Goa'uld

As far as icky worms controlling their human hosts go, Parasite is by no means the first to go there. My favorite tummy worms are Stargate: SG-1‘s Goa’uld–the worm babies of an alien race that use humans’ easily repaired bodies as hosts.

A friend of mine enjoyed Grant’s Parasite–a friend whose opinion I respect and whose reading tastes I trust–a friend who was able to overlook what may seem like small criticisms in Grant’s writing style, character development, and plot progressions. My review might be relatively harsh for a novel that is shortlisted for the 2014 Hugo Award, but I stand by my two-star Goodreads rating. For a book that is acclaimed and could beat out such a gem as Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice for the Hugo, Parasite falls grossly short of my expectations. The novel had some potential, but the execution was poor. Even the concept was disappointingly derivative. I wish the best to Mira Grant, but if Parasite wins the Hugo, I will pout for days and write something inflammatory on Twitter.

Read this book if … you’re a sucker for zombies and morbid apocalyptic novels. Read it if you’re the one who clicks on that link to BuzzFeed’s “10 Grossest Something Something” article. Read it if you’re not going to focus on logic or details, and you’re just along for the ride.

Don’t read this book if … the booming zombie genre gives you a case of  the Disgruntled Sighs. Grant isn’t the first one to make zombies via little bugs in your brain, and Parasite doesn’t try too hard to be original in any other way. Like me, you may get distracted by the flaws in narrative logic, and there isn’t too much to draw your attention back on track.

This book is like … The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes, which tells a very different story about a woman who is a survivor, a survivor with a terrifying burden that leads to incredible mysteries. Kirby Mazrachi barely survived the vicious attacks of a murderer, and she spends her life trying to exact justice. With a much stronger protagonist and sounder sci-fi themes, The Shining Girls

Mira Grant

Mira Grant, whose actual name is Seanan McGuire, really likes zombies, and probably has a thing for sharp, stabby objects.

What is your favorite kind of zombie? George Romero zombies? Resident Evil zombies? Shaun of the Dead zombies?

On Sarah Vowell’s “The Wordy Shipmates”

18 Jul

Sarah Vowell's The Wordy Shipmates [2008] tells a very different story of the foundation of current day American than the one we're accustomed to hearing.

Sarah Vowell’s The Wordy Shipmates [2008] tells a very different story of the foundation of current day American than the one we’re accustomed to hearing.

Even having lived in New England for four years, I rarely thought about how this country was founded. The cobblestone in Providence and the patina-covered historical society plaques on every other building foundation in Boston seemed quaint at the time, but I was more interested in hunting for a decent cup of coffee through the forests of Dunkin’ Donuts than studying landmarks. And what little understanding remained of the development of these United States of America, our Puritan forefathers, and the birth of American culture was handily overturned by Sarah Vowell’s quick-witted, nonfiction history The Wordy Shipmates.

Students in U.S. public schools are used to the story of the pilgrims–some of the first English settlers to emigrate to the shores of New England. In elementary school, I understood the pilgrims to be happy-go-lucky explorers, chowing down on turkey cylindrical hunks of cranberry sauce with Squanto, and I spent six years making hand-traced turkeys on construction paper. In high school, I learned that the pilgrims were bunch of evil, racist land thieves who ruined the best parts of this land. Vowell tells a more balanced story. She rightly points out that we in U.S. live in a world created by Puritans, whether we like it or not, and explores the culture and consequences of John Winthrop’s Massachusetts Bay Colony in a way my third grade teacher and my bland high school text books never could.

Emigrating from England to America was like booking passage on a coffin to leave a cesspool of sin (as Winthrop's folks thought of it) for a wilderness of unknown horrors and certain death.

Emigrating from England to America was like booking passage on a vomitty coffin to leave the cesspool of sin that was England for a wilderness of unknown horrors and certain death. Just another day in the life.

From the beginnings of Puritan unrest in mother England to the voyage of the Arbella, from the seeds of American dissent to the horrors of the Pequot War, Vowell bounces through her research, carried along with her sardonic humor. John Winthrop leaves England for New England on his flagship Arbella, preaching on the long journey across the pond that his people are the modern Israelites, tasked with holy mission of being America’s “city on a hill.” It’s a quote from the Bible, and it’s an image that will follow the U.S. through its history as a nation.

Winthrop’s “city on a hill” was Boston, and the foundation of this colony still influences us today. Vowell’s recognition of this and inclusion of Winthrop’s far reaching touch on American society gives TWS a fun narrative: Winthrop banishes a heretic to Plymouth, and the Reagan administration sells guns in South America; Roger Williams prints some strongly worded pamphlets, and Vowell takes her nephew to a museum; Anne Hutchinson gets tossed out of Boston for leading a Bible study in her home, and JFK becomes the first Catholic elected to the U.S. presidency. Vowell’s begrudging respect for the Puritans is made plain. She identifies with them, she respects them, she finds comfort in their words despite it all:

“… in the weeks after two planes crashed into two skyscrapers here on the worst day of our lives, I found comfort in the words of Winthrop. When we were mourning together, when we were suffering together, I often thought of what he said and finally understood what he meant.”

It is, in fact, all about words: the Boston charter, Winthrop’s lengthy sermons, the Magna Carta that laid the groundwork for the impending American Revolution, and John Cotton’s pamphlet war with the notorious Roger Williams. The words of the Bible inspired the Puritans, drove them to become the people who they were with such strength that our ears are still ringing with their passionate sermons. Their words and their books founded Harvard and set the precedent for America’s higher education. Their words made peace and made war. It’s the witty words of Sarah Vowell, though, that wrap up everything–all the historical facts and sermon quotes and droll judgments–in the pretty bow of her understanding of current affairs, and it’s this contextualization and personalization that makes TWS a compelling read.

"It was not price nor money that could have purchased Rhode Island ... Rhode Island was purchased by love."

“It was not price nor money that could have purchased Rhode Island … Rhode Island was purchased by love.” -Roger Williams, after the Narragansett presented him with the whole state of Rhode Island as a gift.

Read it if … you enjoy nonfiction history, obviously. But also read it if you primarily read fiction, like me, but are looking for something new. Vowell’s snarky prose and winding storytelling keeps TWS interesting throughout, and creates a gently arcing narrative that is easily accessible for novel enthusiasts.

Don’t read it if … you have no interest in early U.S. history. Vowell’s dry humor can only carry one’s interest so far. You may want to steer clear, too, if you’re set on either pedastalizing or demonizing the Puritan settlers. Vowell gives an honest account of their lives and strives to humanize John Winthrop and his constituents. If you are some kind of fervent Calvinist, you may dislike the way Vowell criticizes the Puritan lifestyle of constant fear and self-hatred. If you still hold a multi-generational grudge against the English colonists for ruining everything, you may not like the way Vowell maintains her respect for the Puritans’ resilience, resourcefulness, and occasional compassion.

This book is like … Dean Olsher’s From Square One, a fun exploration of the art of crossword puzzles–both creating them and completing them. While the subject matter is completely different, the execution is fairly similar. And just for kicks, here’s what I wrote in the first line, which apparently still holds true, of my review of Olsher’s nonfiction book that I published in December, 2012:

“I don’t always read non-fiction. But when I do, I read about a topic I love and it’s written by a former correspondent for NPR.”

Sarah Vowell is also a long time commentator on NPR's popular radio series "This American Life." It's no wonder her writing is imbued with that cheeky cadence we're so used to hearing on public radio.

Sarah Vowell is also a long time commentator on NPR’s popular series This American Life. It’s no wonder her writing is imbued with that cheeky cadence we’re so used to hearing on public radio.

What gets you to read nonfiction? Is it your natural state of reading? Do you need inspiration or a gun to your head? Tell me in the comments below!

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 120 other followers