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.
If you have difficulty comprehending complicated subjects on audio, this may be one best left to reading. If you can absorb science through listening, then this is one of those crucial listens, which may drastically change your perspective of the world if you are unfamiliar with Dawkins or his work.
There are very incredible topics here that people just normally don't discuss and think about, like that we are all "survival machines" designed to allow our genes to replicate. The last few chapters were especially interesting, as meme has now become such a famous word used for internet phenomenas, and Dawkins coined the word here for culturally-catching trends like fashion, melodies or song lyrics, etc. The last few chapters take the concepts he's been working with the whole book so far that I felt they were tickling the very back of my brain. He talks of how genes can be seen as not modifying only the bodies they are in but their external environment as well, if I understand correctly, in the last chapter, and this made me go "Oh my."
The most delightful part of the audiobook was the narration. The text of the book itself, which was originally published in 1976, is narrated by the soothing, concise, and English-accented Lalla Ward. But as there have been subsequent versions of the book released with Dawkins noting further revelations and thoughts and responding to his detractors, he narrates the countless footnotes and endnotes, choosing to narrate them throughout the book when they are relevant rather than at the end for ease of comprehension. The effect is as if Dawkins himself is constantly popping into your mind as you are reading his book, arguing with those who have spoken out against it and defending it when necessary. It was a very entertaining way to do things.
Listening to The Luminaries is like being dropped in the midst of New Zealand’s Otago Gold Rush, blindfolded and totally without reference, and then being spun round in circles by a stranger and let loose to feel around the landscapes and stand near their inhabitants, prospectors and bankers and Chinese diggers and tattooed Māori streaming around you, the women left to pleasure and care for these teeming throngs of men nearly knocking you over as they rush this way and that, and just as you feel overwhelming lost amidst these endless characters, totally without equilibrium in this many-plotted story centered in a town where everyone wants to make it rich, Eleanor Catton comes and takes you by the shoulder and steadies you for just a moment, and you breathe in the smells of dirty men and sea water as ships wreck upon the beach and scavengers look upon the ships and you sigh and know that despite there being too much information here, maybe just too much life here, for one book to ever express, you must keep reading.
Anyone coming off of a Goldfinch buzz and wondering what their next ambitious, too-long book will be should look no further than The Luminaries. Both books are written with the crisp observations that make them so much more than plot recounted. These are stories of life, magnified. Stories of how life could be if we all drunk in details of each other’s quirks and charms, every insecurity and affect, every ugly part and every beautiful one, and then maximized them into sentence-formed still lives spilling over into paragraphs so illustrative of this human condition we’re stuck in they act like paintings on pages changing ordinary days into phenomenas, ordinary interactions into humorous, tragic, wonderful things worth documenting. This is how these books get to be close to 1,000 pages long–life magnified is a very big thing, indeed.
The Luminaries, as I’ve mentioned, is the story of New Zealand’s Otago Gold Rush, and the story of a plethora of characters drawn together by an unfortunate set of circumstances. Men in all sorts of businesses centered around profiting off of gold or the men who find it feel uneasily bamboozled, they all sense a caper of some sort, and yet trying to pin down who has down wrong when is like trying to sift the gold dust apart from the dirt. The plot is complicated, and meant to be, as that’s the fun and beauty of the thing. Also, this is a book that uses the word “whore” quite a bit. Prepare yourself for that.
Catton includes all sorts of bells and whistles, but she really didn’t need to, as her writing stands on its own. There are astrological signs and charts of each character’s place on the zodiac, and there are chapter lengths that get progressively shorter by half until it seems almost hard to keep up with all the pieces that are being put together. Unfortunately much of this is lost in the audiobook, as it could have included a .pdf with the illustrations from the book for reference. What the audiobook version gained was narrator Mark Meadows deftly juggling the varied accents required amidst the cultural mish-mash of gold rush New Zealand. I appreciate getting lost in layers of meaning as much as the next book nerd, however, and I’ll be picking up a hard copy of the book to read again for further understanding of the whole astrological subtext.
Now that I've listened to The Secret History, I am so surprised regarding all the negative reviews surrounding Donna Tartt as the narrator. I couldn't imagine the book being narrated by anyone but the author, and I thought she did an absolutely perfect job bringing the characters to life. She really inhabited California girl Judy Poovey, illustrating just how absentminded party kids from LA and the Bay Area have a tendency to speak in a way that sounded so much like a few of my friends it made me laugh. The hesitancy and emotion in her voice as she walked us through RIchard Papen's insecurities, desires, questions, and then finally his horror and sadness, was never overdone, but always present.
The Secret History is that rare dark story which horrifies and woos in one swoop.
Oh, Ben Stiller, narrate more Audiobooks! This was such a charming narration of such a charming story, and Ben Stiller did the narration perfectly. Sometimes screen actors struggle when making the transition to audiobook, but his voice was such a pleasure to listen to, as well as the perfect level of enthused and dismayed as bored, imaginative husband Walter Mitty. This was a movie tie-in and it worked--I read the short story in school when I was very young, and hadn't thought about seeing the movie at all, but Stiller did such a great job with the narration I may now check out the film.
It was also so nice to hear at the end Stiller talking about his experience with audiobooks, as he said he often finds himself sitting in the car listening after he's arrived at his destination, which is such a common audiobook lover experience! It made me swoon a bit.
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.
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.
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