“Poor strangers, they have so much to be afraid of.”
― Shirley Jackson, We Have Always Lived in the Castle
This is an amazing book. I didn't realize going in that Shirley Jackson had written the famous/crazy/haunting short story The Lottery.
I think it is hard for books to capture the pressures of society and its norms on the individual. There is a bit of hysteria that goes on in the mind regarding the world outside of ourselves, that many novels glide right over as they head straight to the action. We Have Always Lived in the Castle captures the inner workings of an unhealthy family in such a true way it is difficult to read. Nothing much happens here, yet everything is laced in fear and suspicion.
The only other books I've discovered which are able to capture the overbearing role a person's mind and thoughts play in their life are older ones, like Poe, or the more recent American Genius, A Comedy by Lynne Tillman. It takes a truly incredible author to chronicle little external action, and still create a gripping read.
My only regret here was listening to the Audible version rather than getting the hard copy with the intro from Jonathan Lethem. The audiobook didn't include his introduction, and the narrator really overplayed a story that could have stood on its own without the theatrics.
What happened to that little kid from The Shining, once he grew up? What would have happened to his dry drunk of a father, if he had found Alcoholics Anonymous? These are two of the questions Stephen King wanted to answer in Doctor Sleep, he explains at the end of the novel. King has built up quite the tale out of the Overlook Hotel’s ashes: this was just awarded best audiobook of the year at Audible.com a few days ago.
Doctor Sleep brings us that little strong, sweet, and smart kid Danny Torrance all cragged and grown up; Danny is such a painful portrayal of innocence lost he’ll make you wistful for your own early childhood, before all the mistakes started piling up. The Overlook still haunts poor Danny’s dreams, and he’s now a drunk who despises himself for turning out like dear old dad.
King takes us through Danny’s alcoholic bottom with the descriptive language he has such a knack for, making the first bits of the book difficult, but necessary, to get through. King loves to linger a bit on the rough stuff in life; rather than having an off-putting effect, this is part of what makes him a horror powerhouse. The man who spent paragraphs describing wind-up teeth in “Chattery Teeth” and didn’t shy away from documenting the split of a woodchuck into two in Under the Dome turns his attention to Danny’s low points with alcohol, and we are spared no detail of where Danny’s drinking takes him. Danny’s recovery through Alcoholics Anonymous is a part of the story, something that is becoming more common in novels and television shows.
Oddly enough I may have been happy with a story of Danny Torrance without the horror, but rather than only documenting Danny’s struggle to find recovery, King introduces a new and unlikely set of villains: a nefarious band of energy banshees called the True Knot, disguised as old folks touring America in RV’s and campers. They feed off of the shining that those like Danny possess. They sense something delicious in a bright young girl named Abra, who shines something strong and needs a mentor like Danny desperately.
The characters here were delightfully vivid for me. The evil figures, roving in a band of trailers, were reminiscent of the post-apocalyptic armies in Robert McCammon‘s Swan Song, and I’d be interested to know if King was influenced by that classic in any way while writing this book. King has in Doctor Sleep, as he does in many of his books, an appreciation for the full spectrum of human capability. It would have been so simple for King to write Abra as a one-dimensional sweetheart, but she has her own dark side–as we all do, King seems to be noting.
Where the story lost me a bit was in the action. Without giving too much away, many of the battle scenes felt a bit silly to me because they were taking place, well, in people’s minds. When used in books and in films, incredible mental powers (let’s face it, all magical powers) can often feel a bit hokey as they can at anytime become a cheap trick. I think King relied on this type of thing too much towards the end of the book. Things become much more cerebral than they did in The Shining, and I was disappointed there wasn’t a more epic The Stand style battle between good and evil.
The final question here is Abra, Danny’s delightful and powerful-beyond-belief mentee, whose temper matches her strength. Will we meet Abra again, in her own book? It would be wonderful to see the capabilities of an older Abra, adolescent and out-of-control. It seems like too good of a story not to tell.
"You are truly the worst terrorist I have ever met. With nonsense like that and your friends in the CIA. I thought you would be another spider, hiding under the rug, sneaking out to bite. I have met them, these soldiers of god. That's not you. You're not even a good patsy. You think too much for yourself. And you care so much about individuals! It's all personal for you isn't it? You're a fucking civilian!"
Although perhaps just a small blip on the grand radar screen of the literary world, Homeland: Phantom Pain is a release worth mentioning. Showtime and Audible came together to create this free 30-minute audiobook, narrated by Sergeant Nicholas Brody himself, Damian Lewis. A noir glimpse into Brody's journey between Seasons 1 and 2, Phantom Pain is a chance to see what we miss when we can only spend an hour a week with these characters.
Lewis is a fantastic narrator, which isn't always a given when actors turn to story narration. We can't forget Molly Ringwald's bracing performance of The Middlesteins, in which it seemed she was gasping her way through each line almost desperate for the book to end. Lewis's narration is understated but comes across as softer than he portrays his character on the show, and there is something irresistibly charming about him writing a letter to Carrie: "I tried to imagine what you were doing at that very moment. All mussed up in your bed or all put together in your suit, with your ID tag clipped to the pocket." Lewis manages to convey emotion without distracting from the words he's reading, which can be quite a challenge. Narrators must walk a fine line between blasé and hokey, Lewis does it well.
The story here is poignant for both the main characters on the show, and emphasizes a bit of the love story that has been lost in this second season without getting sappy. I was skeptical of listening to this at all, even thought I downloaded it quite a while ago, as I thought a TV tie-in work of fiction would be pretty low quality. I think anyone who likes to read and watches the show will be pleasantly surprised, however. This isn't an adventure style promo-piece, it is a great addition to the show that gives us a realistic glimpse into Brody's struggle to come to terms with being the most wanted man in the world, traveling in foreign lands, with memorable and untrustworthy characters.
This would make sense with Homeland, as with many of the TV shows as of late. As Difficult Men, a book I recently reviewed noted, TV has gone through a sort of cultural renaissance. Where it was once considered fairly low brow (and certainly, much of it still is), TV shows like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Wire, and certainly Homeland can claim to be works of art on par with many movies or books. It would then make sense that this type of television translates more successfully into literature.
The buzz is that more of these stories are on the way... We can only hope!
The Never List chronicles the aftermath of heroine Sarah’s traumatic kidnapping, in which she and her best friend were chained in a basement and tortured with two other girls. It is a quick read and it is hard not to fall for Sarah’s frank and wry narrative voice.
Clearly, this is a book only for the bravest of readers. I was a bit hesitant about the subject matter, as I enjoy a great twisted tale of suspense but dislike the sort of gruesome and gory torture porn that horror films like Hostel have made popular. The Never List is tastefully done for such dark subject matter, in the way that I think the best tales of suspense often are. Although we get flashbacks of what Sarah and the other girls suffered through, the focus of the book is not on human suffering.
Zan has done a great job of creating a gang of likable female sleuths who have overcome an awful trauma together. When the three kidnapping victims who escaped the basement are told their captor will be eligible for parole, they reunite to investigate loose ends of their case. The male FBI agent assigned to their case is comically absent, a benevolent force always a phone call away but a bit too slow. The Never List is the girl-power thriller that The Shining Girls wanted to be; these women are honest, flawed, strong, taking control of their past and their future.
I heard about this book because of its odd timing – right around the time of its release (July 2013) we all watched in horror as women were rescued from Ariel Castro’s home in Cleveland. The similarities between the real life news story and the events in the work of fiction are bizarrely similar–three women kept chained in a house by a sadistic man. There is an interview on mybookishways.com about Zan’s almost surreal reaction to watching the news in Cleveland unfold. As she says, “I’d written a book based on my worst nightmare, and there it was on the screen—real.” It was such an eerie coincidence.
You will find yourself cheering for Sarah as she overcomes fears, deals with her past, and becomes a stronger person. This is the best sort of audiobook to listen to, as it kept me looking for chores around the house I could do while I kept listening. My house is swept, my laundry is done, and I'm all finished with The Never List.
“‘Anyway,’ he added softly, ‘a man’s ghoulish shadow is not the man.’” –Night Film, Marisha Pessl
Night Film by Marisha Pessl is a big, bold statement of a book; released at the perfect time, right before Halloween when everyone is craving a scary story told in the dark. Pessl brings us “a myth, a monster, a mortal man” in Stanislas Cordova, the film producer at the core of the novel. He’s described as “a crevice, a black hole, an unspecified danger, a relentless outbreak of the unknown in our overexposed world.” Cordova’s films are outlawed (an inspired copycat killed a girl in imitation of one film), and bootlegged “black tapes” are passed among obsessive Cordovites. Renegade underground screenings of Cordova’s films take place, and fans flock to a secret website where they post their darkest secrets as well as the most mundane bits Cordova trivia. The film producer’s beautiful but haunted daughter Ashley commits suicide, and a ragged journalist past his prime, Scott McGrath, decides to look into the death. McGrath reluctantly picks up a few delightful sidekicks, and they begin to unravel the mystery surrounding Cordova, his family, and his films.
I was originally listening to Night Film from Audible, and I realized I must be missing something as at times the narrator seemed to be reading captions from photos and newspaper articles. I discovered a used copy of Night Film at Diesel Books for $8 (score!) and was glad I did. The book features photos of Ashley before her death, articles and pictures from the New York Times on Cordova and his films, and other pieces of evidence displayed as they are discovered. Until they add a .pdf to the audiobook, I’d recommend grabbing an actual copy of the book to avoid missing out on the full story. There is additional media built around the book, including an app called the Night Film Decoder and Night Film found footage on the web. I’m sure cynics will see this as too much hype, but I saw it all as a great addition to the story.
Night Film is reminiscent of the post-modern masterpiece House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski and the terrifying European hit Syndrome E by Frack Thilliez. All of these books are built around creepy (and nonexistent) films; in House of Leaves, a documentary about a house with shifting boundaries is studied, and in Syndrome E, a terrifying old film is found and blinds a man who watches it. I’m not sure why reading imagined documentation is so irresistable and terrifying. In Night Film, Pessl takes care to blend Cordova and his horrors into our current culture, pointing out details of the films in which fans have found meaning. This careful interweaving of fiction and reality heightens fear by making stories feel real. All these imagined dark films are made all the more terrifying by people’s reactions to watching them, which in the real world we just don’t see or experience. A man begins to lose his mind when reading about the documentary in House of Leaves; Cordova’s films are “so horrifying, audience members are known to pass out in terror.”
I haven’t read Pessl’s first book, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, even though it was highly praised. It is now at the top of my list of books to get next. The plot of Night Film is fantastic, but being able to place the looming figure of Cordova believably at the center of our world took some serious writing talent. Pessl has wit, and displays it Night Film‘s moments of much-needed comic relief. The Night Film Quotes page on Goodreads is full of memorable gems. Night Film is the best kind of horror novel, with just the right amount of brains and brawn on board.
Who knew the land of quality television could be so intriguing? I’ve dabbled with books discussing the evolution of TV into a medium capable of showcasing intelligent and quality work. Everything Bad Is Good For You by Steven Johnson discussed the development of the multi-story arc, describing the complicated story lines once reserved for soap operas which began to drift into primetime dramas with Hill Street Blues.
Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad by Brett Martin (I’m not kidding, there are really two subtitles there) takes this concept further, covering what he calls TV’s “third golden age”: the era that began with The Sopranos, continued with The Wire and Mad Men, and finally crescendoed with Breaking Bad. The title stems from not only protagonists of the third golden age, like Tony Soprano and Walter White; but also from the intense and exacting personalities behind these characters, like David Chase, David Simon, and David Milch (yes, the number of Davids discussed gets confusing).
I love stories of the persistence required to reach success, as it reminds me that great things don’t just seem great to everyone and blossom easily, and a lot of the tales behind the most popular TV shows today are full of rejection and stumbling blocks. Breaking Bad was passed over by several networks and almost didn’t get aired after the pilot was filmed, but AMC gave the show a chance after everyone else said no. Matthew Weiner stewed over the pilot of Mad Men for eight years, at times literally carrying it around with him wherever he went.
I was mainly drawn to this book because of The Wire. I thought it was so audacious and smart, and it illustrated how systems can just not work in a way only illustrated by books and movies in the past. The poignance of the one-liners, and the level to which the writers let things play out (legalizing drugs?) seemed more akin to the complicated plot development of novel than the forgettable actions taken on traditional TV shows. The Wire’s creator David Simon has had an incredible life: he seemingly forced his way into journalism first in college and then at the Baltimore Sun, and then embedded with Baltimore police for a year and wrote books about his experience in the city. The first book, Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets inspired the boundary-pushing TV show Homicide: Life on the Street; the second book, The Corner: A Year in the Life of an Inner-City Neighborhood inspired The Wire. I hadn’t realized the level of research Simon had done before creating The Wire, and now I realize it shows in the work.
Difficult Men manages to examine the success of these shows from many levels. Martin discusses the history of the cable business with the same ease as he analyzes our fascination with Tony Soprano. This book shows that at the core of most TV, there are writers yearning to create stories of a certain quality. These guys are studying Chekhov and hoping to create art in the truest sense of the word. As movies keep devolving into blockbuster action flicks and series based on teen novels, it is easy to see why TV has been forced to step up to the plate as an outlet for intelligent and complicated work. This was a timely read for me, as Breaking Bad was ending shortly before I read this and it seemed like everyone was talking about the show everywhere I went, to a level I’d never experienced before. TV seems to be the most evolving genre of our time, with companies like Netflix and Amazon now financing their own shows. It will be interesting to see what sort of masterpiece the brilliant and difficult writers of the TV world come up with next.
Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm Ravaged Hospital was everything that makes nonfiction great to read: a subject worth uncovering, documented by a voice with a clear penchant for obsessive detail. Sherri Fink recounts the struggle for survival at New Orleans’ Memorial Hospital, which acted as a port in previous storms, in the days following Hurricane Katrina; she discusses at length the choices made by hospital staff (several doctors and nurses made the choice to euthanize patients they felt couldn’t be evacuated) and the investigation that followed.
I could not stop telling people about this audiobook. First off, I had no idea things got this bad at Memorial Hospital during Hurricane Katrina. The scenes described were more harrowing than any fiction could be: hospital staff stuffing preemie babies in their shirts to evacuate as there was no space for incubators, nurses ventilating patients by hand due to power outage, stifling heat with smashed windows acting as the only ventilation, while gunshots were heard outside, and rumors of martial law were spreading. Hurricane Katrina was a testament to our government’s inability to organize a response to disaster, and Five Days at Memorial illustrates the high human costs of that inability. This was at points a difficult book to get through; the descriptions are so clear I felt sick even imagining such an experience, let alone living through it. I kept asking myself, “Why doesn’t the army come to relieve these exhausted hospital staff members, and help them evacuate these dying patients?” It was so frustrating to know this happened in America and there was nothing I could do about it now.
The questions of justice presented here are some of the most difficult questions that exist about human life, and at points reminded me of the perplexing moral issues presented in Michael Sandel’s epic Justice class at Harvard, free on iTunes U. Is it right to evacuate the most able-bodied people, who need the least help and will be the quickest to get into helicopters? Or is the more moral choice to evacuate the most sickly to safety first, as they are the most in pain and most in need of help? The questions presented at Memorial Hospital in that hellish time after the storm speak to historical ethical dilemmas, and Fink does a great job of explaining the dangers with and benefits of each choice.
Kirsten Potter narrated the audiobook, and did an incredible job. This story could have easily been overdone by a different narrator. Potter managed to stay neutral but interested, the voice of a reporter bearing witness to history rather than a character actor.
Although the second part of the book (covering the aftermath of choices made at the hospital) may not be as gripping as the harrowing account of survival in the storm, I think this is the portion that makes this book so important. We can all guffaw at the tragedy, but examining it with a critical eye is the only thing that will keep it from happening again. Perhaps the most terrifying part of Five Days at Memorial is its end, when Fink embeds with American medical disaster teams after the earthquake in Haiti. Seemingly logical decisions to preserve oxygen for those who need it most almost cost a young woman her life. It seems like in a disaster, the luck lies with those who have the most innovative, creative doctors who are able to see beyond the complicated machines of modern medicine.
Brendan Koerner has tapped into a fascinating piece of US history – what he calls the “golden age of hijacking” on US planes. Hundreds of planes were hijacked in America in the late 1960′s and the early 1970′s, and many planes were hijacked on the same day by coincidence. Koerner paints the picture of a time totally opposite of flight today. There was little security at airports, there were no bag checks, and passengers could pay for their flight after they boarded. In our post-9/11 world, envisioning this former era is near impossible.
The story here focuses on Roger Holder and Cathy Kerkow, a pair of skyjackers who committed the longest hijacking in American history. I felt the details of their specific story sometimes dragged here – Koerner spends a lot of time covering their pre- hijacking and post-hijacking lives. I began to lose interest with all the meandering details – other than the fact that they hijacked a plane, I’m not sure if either of these people lived a life remarkable enough to write about.
Where The Skies Belong to Us shines in its portrayal of this Mad-Max-in-the-sky time period. The sheer number of successful skyjackings from the 1960′s and 1970′s are astonishing. The young flight industry’s attempts to deal with security on planes while also rushing to accommodate the demands of each plane hijacking are almost humorous. The naivety here is remarkable – at one point, the head of the FAA discuss the impossibility of searching each passenger pre-flight. I found the variety of skyjackers and their motives to be more interesting than the specific story of Holder and Kerkow. There were a variety of reasons people skyjacked, and a huge spread of types of people involved, and many of the skyjacking plans were simple and poorly executed (yet often successful). As with the best non-fiction today, this story is too bizarre to make up.
“Life is hard, and children have to be told how hard life can be…So they will be sympathetic to others. So they will understand that some people have it harder than they do and that a trip through this world can be a wildly different experience, depending on what chemicals are raging through one’s mind.” - Matthew Quick, The Silver Linings Playbook
After listening to the novel last year's popular movie was based on, I understand why other readers at Audible.com sing its praises from the mountaintops. The story’s protagonist and narrator, Pat, gains a lot of his charm through dry descriptions of his erratic behavior. The ease with which Pat explains his odd, compulsive actions and his simplistic outlook on life result in a very amusing read. I am not a laugh out loud person, which makes watching comedies slightly uncomfortable for me, but I did spontaneously laugh out loud a few times while listening to The Silver Linings Playbook.
The novel is Pat’s tale – he stands out from a crowd of slightly flat supporting characters. In the movie, the character of Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) has been fleshed out and amped up to meet Pat (Bradley Cooper) at his level of charm. Jennifer Lawrence’s Tiffany steals the show in the film, and in the book Tiffany doesn’t have a few of her most memorable scenes.
Another standout feature of the book was its portrayal of the joy of rituals surrounding Pat’s beloved football team, the Philadelphia Eagles. I am not a sports fan and I did just do a quick Google search to confirm that the Eagles are, in fact, a football team; however, this book made me understand and appreciate the sheer pleasure of rooting for a team with all your closest friends, yelling chants and getting hyped.
Maybe predictable for the Hollywood version of any story, the movie feels a lot lighter than the book. Extra plot arcs are created to make the movie goer care a bit more. Although laden with humor, the subject matter here is at its core bleak – mental illness, family dysfunction, loss. The jokes based on Pat’s narration, clever and fresh at the beginning of the novel, felt stale by its end.
Movies that are better than the book they are based on are rare birds – it takes a vivid, complicated movie to master a novel’s plot. Like Fight Club before it, I believe The Silver Linings Playbook has pulled off this feat. The book is charming and witty, but the movie reaches a higher level of creativity.
Matthew Quick has written several books since The Silver Linings Playbook and they all sound worthy of a read.
Alas, Babylon wasn’t the first post-apocalyptic novel (it was originally published in 1959), but it is a quick beautiful read that still has relevance today. Will Patton does a great job narrating – he sounds smooth like a song but sad like he knows the bombs have destroyed most of America. Patton clearly knows how to feel apocalypse, he was in the movie Armageddon and he currently stars in the alien-apocalypse TV series Falling Skies. Some novels seem racist, sexist, simple, or just poorly written as time plods on but Alas, Babylon maintains its original power. It is a read-in-highschool novel, as it should be. For those of us who didn’t get to this one in school, the audiobook clocks in at just over 11 hours.
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