Shep Knacker has spent most of his adult life preparing for “The Afterlife”—his shorthand for early retirement in a Third World country where his nest egg will last longer. Numerous research trips with his wife Glynis have narrowed down the options to an island off the coast of Africa. Yet Glynis always finds one reason or another to delay The Afterlife. Impatient to pull the trigger (after all, he sold his handyman company for $1 million a few years back and has been miserably slaving away for the asshat new owner since then), Shep decides he is ready to start enjoying The Afterlife NOW—even if that means going without Glynis and their teenage son Zack. With one-way tickets in hand, Shep girds himself to do battle with Glynis to convince her that he isn’t willing to wait any longer, that The Afterlife must begin now. However, it turns out that Glynis has news of her own—she’s been diagnosed with a rare but deadly form of cancer called peritoneal mesothelioma. What can a good husband do? Of course, Shep delays The Afterlife. Yet as the months tick by and the balance of his retirement account dwindles steadily due to mounting medical bills, Shep begins to realize that The Afterlife might never be in his grasp.
You just never know what you are going to get with a Lionel Shriver book. After thrilling to the parallel universes in The Post-Birthday World and feeling depressed and disturbed after her stunning We Need To Talk About Kevin, I signed up for her latest book without hesitation. I so wish I’d listened to the reviews I’d read beforehand that said that the book felt more like a diatribe against the U.S. health-care system than a novel as So Much For That was a bit of a slog.
Shep’s best friend, Jackson, takes on the role of pissed-off ranter—launching on these epic rants about Mooches and Mugs (his favorite term for all the corrupt asshats who are sticking it to us idiots). These rants quickly grew tiresome, and I felt that Shriver let Jackson run on way too long. In addition, I thought the ending was unrealistic and uncharacteristic of Shriver. I honestly couldn’t believe how she ended the book. If there was ever a book made for an unhappy ending, this was it. Yet Shriver turned everything on its head and gave these very unlikable characters an almost fairytale ending that just didn’t jibe with the rest of the book. (Well, except for Jackson.)
That being said, Shriver is still is darn good writer. Her focus on little details and her way with words made this book tolerable. However, her writing skills often created vivid and graphic scenes that were almost too much for me to handle. At one point, when Shriver described some bodily functions plaguing Glynis, I felt my stomach turning with nausea. In addition, a subplot with Jackson’s botched surgery contained one too many graphic descriptions that almost turned me off of intimate relations forever. Let’s just say this: you’ll never look at an “Enlarge Your Penis” spam e-mails the same way again.
In the end, this book felt more like Shriver communicating an agenda rather than writing a novel. Still, the lady (yes … Lionel Shriver is a woman … it threw me off the first time I read her books) can write and that saved this from being a complete turn-off … but just barely.
ABOUT THE NARRATION
I thought Dan John Miller did an excellent job narrating what must have been a difficult and long read. His voice was gripping, and I didn’t mind spending more than 17 hours listening to him. In fact, his narration may have kept me in the book longer than if I had read it in print. (I definitely would have skipped over almost any Jackson rant in the print version.) In addition, Miller created different voices for each character, including Shep, Glynis, Jackson and Jackson’s disabled daughter Flicka. (I’ll confess, when I first heard his voice for Flicka, it was a real turn-off and almost seemed like a parody. Yet, as I listened, I grew accustomed to it and thought perhaps the voice brought the character to life in a way she might not have come to life in the print version.) It was amazing to me how Miller could morph into each character’s voices and I’d know immediately who was talking … even between Shep and Jackson.
People who have an axe to grind against Big Government, the health-care system, politicians and the “system” in general … you’ll find an ally in Jackson! I honestly don’t know that I’d recommend this book to anyone. It wasn’t an easy read/listen, the characters were often unlikeable, and the “plot” felt more like a chance for Shriver to communicate an agenda rather than craft a cohesive and gripping narrative. (I’m not saying I disagree with Shriver’s agenda and criticisms. I just felt she bludgeoned the reader with it.) Although Shriver can write, she has written better books than this one.
Warning: This book will have you diagnosing your friends, family and acquaintances as psychopaths. Proceed with caution!
This is my second Jon Ronson book, and it was a kick to visit with him again. This time out, he explores the madness industry, which seems a perfect fit as he is drawn to the bizarre and odd. Exploring topics such as the development and influence of the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) and psychopathy in the corporate world, Ronson makes a case that we are all a little bit mad … but some of us are the “right kind of mad,” others are insane (but harmless) and there are those who are almost another species altogether (the psychopath). Fascinating, rambling, informative and often very funny, The Psychopath Test is both entertaining and educational. The audiobook is narrated by Ronson himself, and his voice is a perfect fit for a book written in the first-person.
Although only my second Kate Morton book, it is obvious she has a formula … but what a wonderful, involving formula it is!!
I enjoyed The Secret Keeper even better than The Forgotten Garden, though the intergenerational mystery and the going back and forth in time felt familiar. This story focuses on the secrets kept by a mother and one of her daughter’s attempts to unravel these secrets. What kind of person was her mother when she was young? Why did she react the way she did when a mysterious stranger visited the family home one day in the 1960s? The answers to these questions are quite interesting, and Morton keeps a few surprises tucked up her sleeve to reveal at the end—surprises that I found very gratifying and realized I had unconsciously hoped for. If you’re looking for an engrossing, sprawling big fat novel, you’d can’t go wrong with this one. I listened to it on audio, and the narrator (Caroline Lee) was superb. I’ve heard she narrates all of Morton’s books so I’ll be sticking to audio for all my future Morton books.
I would not have thought that there was such a thing as a literary dystopia, but Peter Heller has managed to write one. At times lovely and poetic, at other times crude and violent, The Dog Stars is one of the most realistic and lovely postapocalyptic tales I've read. (It reminded me a bit of Laura Kasischke's In A Perfect World and, as Ti and Alyce both said, a lighter and gentler version of Cormac McCarthy's The Road.) The writing is often lyrical and gorgeous. The passages on grief and loss were some of the best I've ever read. In addition, the descriptions of outdoor pursuits like fishing and hunting made me think of Norman McLean's writing in A River Runs Through It. Yet for all the lovely parts, there are equal measures of stream-of-consciousness fragments that take some getting used to. There are also moments of brute violence that contrast sharply with the more lyrical parts. It is an interesting book, and I enjoyed it once I got used to its odd rhythms and pace.
As in many dystopias, The Dog Stars takes place in a world where almost the entire human (and animal) population has been wiped out by a virulent flu. Our narrator, Hig (an outdoorsman, pilot and poet), is eking out a living at a small airfield in Colorado with only his dog Jasper for company. His closest neighbor and ally is Bangley, a taciturn weapons expert who lets his guns do the talking for him. Together, Hig and Bangley have carved out a life and routine for themselves. Hig patrols their "territory" from the air in his 1950s Cessna, while Bangley provides firepower and tactics for dealing with the less than friendly strangers who sometimes visit their lonely outpost. This is a world where you shoot first and ask questions later--an approach that doesn't naturally fit Hig and his lack of commitment to Bangley's methods often get him into trouble. With Bangley being such a closed down person, Hig's best friend and constant companion is Jasper, with whom Hig talks to as if he was a person. After life-changing events shake up Hig's world, he decides to leave the relative safety of the airfield and go past his "point of no return" to chase after a long-ago radio transmission he heard years earlier.
The things I liked most about this book was how grounded and realistic it felt. Heller really seems to have considered what might work and not work given the situation he created for his characters (how long gas would last, what kind of food would be available). It felt like Hig and Bangley were the type of people who could survive in such a world. In addition, I liked how Hig and Bangley form a kind of symbiotic relationship that becomes richer and deeper over the course of the book. But what makes the book work most of all is Hig's voice--his confusion, ambivalence, practicality, optimism and poeticism made him a deeply likable character. You want things to turn out for him. Although it takes awhile to get into his head and the rhythms of his thoughts, you'll like what you find there. If you're looking for a dystopia written for grown-ups, this would be an excellent choice.
About the Narration: Narrator Mark Deakins had quite a challenge as sentences were often choppy and fragmented. There were also times when I was a bit confused about whether something was a conversation or just Hig thinking. But Deakins did an excellent job and created a voice for Hig that felt authentic. His voices for the other characters (particularly Bangley and Pops) were terrific, and it was easy to tell when they were talking. Although this might be a book where reading it in print might be easier than listening on audio, it was a worthy listen.
This is a book about the ins and outs of the 2008 campaign (you know … the one where a young upstart named Barack Obama beat out Hilary Clinton for the Democratic nomination and went on to defeat John McCain and his running mate Sarah Palin). I’m not into politics AT ALL but I found this book utterly fascinating (which makes me wonder if I’m more interested in politics than I think or if it was just such an interesting campaign). I mistakenly thought it dealt more with Sarah Palin than it does (her part is only the last third of the book), but it didn’t matter—the battle between Obama and Clinton provided more than enough drama and intrigue. (And the whole John Edwards disaster was like watching a car accident in slow motion.) However, I did get the payoff I was looking for as the book provides a rather damning look into the selection of Palin and the realities of her candidacy. (If you didn’t guess by that last sentence, I’m not a big Palin fan.) Trust me … you don’t need to be a political junkie to enjoy this book. It was gripping from the start and, even though I knew how things turned out in the end, I was still on the edge of my seat as all the various aspects of the race unfolded. I listened to this book on audio, and Dennis Boutsikaris was the perfect choice of narrator. I’m hoping that the authors chronicled the 2012 campaign as I’d LOVE to read about it and find out the details and behind-the-scenes stuff that we don’t really get in regular news coverage. This will definitely be on my “best of the year” lists.
This is an immigrant coming of age story about a young girl named Kimberly Chang who emigrates to America from Hong Kong with her mother and lives a dual life of brilliant student and exploited factory girl living in horrible conditions in Brooklyn. I’m not completely sure why I didn’t bond with this book, but I suspect it has something to do with the fact that many of the problems in Kimberly’s life could have been avoided had she just talked to someone! This drives me nuts in characters, and it annoyed me to no end in this book. However, if you enjoy immigrant stories, this might right up your alley. I read that the author immigrated to America as a young girl so I suspect much of book is based on her own experiences.
You’ve probably heard of Dr. Oliver Sacks—the neurologist whose collections of patient case studies have been the subject of various books and movies (including Awakenings). I’d been familiar with Oliver Sacks for years (my dad had many of his books) but never actually read any of his books. Despite the fascinating case studies described in the book (idiot savants, Left Neglect, memory loss), I found the writing off-putting and never really engaged with the book. I think it was a combination of Sack’s writing style (which might be too clinical despite being accessible) and my need for more personal details and depth than Sacks was able to offer.
\Arthur Opp is a morbidly obese ex-professor who hasn’t left his Brooklyn brownstone for years. Kel Keller is a 17-year-old baseball prodigy whose education at a posh private school is at odds with his poverty-stricken home life. The connection between these two strangers becomes clear during the course of the book,with the narration alternating between Arthur and Kel. (I listened to this on audiobook, and, in a stroke of genius, they had two separate narrators for Arthur and Kel.) The book tiptoes up to the point where our two protagonists are on the cusp of a new relationship and then quietly shuts the door. This is a quiet book about loneliness, taking chances on other people, and moving out of your comfort zone. It is definitely worth checking out.
Larson found two fascinating but disparate stories that happened concurrently (the creation of the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago and a serial killer who was murdering women just blocks from the fair site) and wove them together without letting one overshadow the other. This is how I like my history (weird, accessible, contextual), and I see why everyone raved about this book. Scott Brick was a brilliant narrator, but since I listened on audio, I had to Google photos of the fair and the killer to get the visuals that Larson so eloquently described. You know when the building of a fair and the building of a killing room are equally riveting that you’re in the hands of a good writer.
First things first, this is not a book for the faint-hearted or the easily offended. I listened to it on audio when I was walking my dogs and there were times when I felt myself blushing from what I was listening to … ON MY HEADPHONES! I kept thinking “If people only knew what I was listening to now, they’d be shocked.” This is some hard-core, graphic writing … and hearing it read out loud makes it seem even more so. (By the way, Michael Kramer has the perfect voice for the material … with a kind of WTF/seen it all, done it all attitude.) The basic story deals with a love triangle between two pot dealers and their girl and what happens when they run awry of a Mexican drug cartel and the girl gets kidnapped. The writing—despite its bluntness and graphic descriptions—was good and often very funny. But this is by no means a “feel good” book. And if people in SoCal are really like the characters in this book, then I’m staying the hell away.
Bel Canto was my first Ann Patchett book, and I loved it. I then read a few more and didn’t love them. I’d written her off as “not for me” when everyone started raving about this book. Being easily influenced and because Hope Davis was the narrator, I gave it a listen. The book has an almost dream-like quality, and I found it quite involving. The basic plot it this: Researcher Dr. Marina Singh ventures deep into the Amazon to find her former mentor Dr. Annick Swenson—who has been isolated in the Amazon researching a potentially lucrative new drug for their mutual employer—to get some answers about the fate of Marina’s office mate, who preceded her into the Amazon but never returned. Patchett manages to spin a fantastical tale that also feels grounded in reality. Part of me could imagine such a world existing, and I fell under the same enchantment as Marina. The characters were always surprising me (particularly Dr. Swenson), and I’m glad I took the chance on Ann Patchett again.
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