Mark Haddon (of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time fame) comes at us with this brilliantly diverse and surprisingly dark collection of stories ranging from mythological to contemporary and realistic to sci-fi to adventure and more.
I was honestly surprised by every story and found myself drawn into each one in a different way. The title story is the first one and reads like something plucked from Stephen King's head: a pier with hundreds of people on it collapses and descends into the water, dragging many to their deaths. It's hard to look away from the page, but at the same time, it's written with this over-arching perspective, like a doctor performing an autopsy with no emotional affect. Chilling and beautifully done.
An underlying thread throughout the stories were themes of loneliness and unhappiness and how people deal with that—people who live on the fringes of society like a morbidly obese man, a man who has nothing left in his life but his two dogs, and a dysfunctional family at Christmastime to name a few.
There were also elements of mythology woven throughout, sometimes more overtly, such as in "The Island," which was an Angela Carter-esque retelling of the Greek myth of the Minotaur. In other stories, it was more hidden, and in some it was just a smattering of the supernatural in an otherwise familiar world, like "Wodwo," the aforementioned Christmas family tale
There is so much to talk about here! So much to explore and so, so much to appreciate. There's a lot to be learned from a well-crafted short story and I think these tales easily flirt with the greats. The style of this collection reminded me a lot of Adam Johnson's National Book Award winning collection from last year, Fortune Smiles. Haddon is not one to over-tell a story. If anything, he underplays his hand until the last second, and then throws down that ace-high straight flush with a devastating flourish.
A few of the stories have such unexpected twists at the end that they really got me thinking—more like searching—the characters' minds, looking for what made them tick, where their decisions came from. They were such human characters and those shocking moments that left me puzzling and rethinking the entire story made me realize that the characters were more than was written on the page: they had internal lives and intentions and breath beyond their short dialogue.
Just because we get the chance to peek in through the window that the story provides doesn't mean that's the whole story, and that is what's so magical in the worlds that Haddon has created here.
It's short story month, so whether you are a writer, reader, or whatever, jump on this collection. I don't get people who say they don't like to read short stories—besides being so much fun, they are an amazing way to learn about writing! I think short stories are such a telling format; they highlight weaknesses like wine stains on a white carpet. It's easier to hide in a novel since there's so many pages, but in a short format, every word counts.
All the greats write short fiction, so there's got to be something to it. Interesting, diverse story collections like this one are worth picking up—trust me. Have I ever led you astray before?
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I'm pleased to announce that this post is part of the author's blog tour! If you are interested in following Michael on the tour, here's a quick schedule of events and link to pages!
5/23--Girl Who Reads and Clash Magazine
5/24--Alternating Current and Irresponsible Reader
5/27--Rainbow of Books
If you had all the time in the world, what would you do? I see that list forming in your mind: places you'd like to go, books you want to read. Maybe you'll finally finish restoring that old car or get that garden planted.
I didn't tell you—there's a catch. You have all the time, so much time in fact, that time literally doesn't move. It is even slower than those last few dragging hours of school before summer vacation, when you swear the second hand on the clock keeps going slower and slower and the sweat is sticking to the back of your legs and it's going to hurt when you have to rip yourself off the chair and you can basically watch the dust pile up on the bookshelves and what are they trying to teach you today anyway? Slower than that. Imagine that time has stopped entirely—it's totally frozen. The only only problem is, everyone else is frozen too. Everyone except for you.
That's the situation Duck finds himself in at the beginning of this book.
I found Duck to be a very interesting character. He's at a turning point in his life, balancing between childhood and adulthood. Duck is definitely not very mature yet, and he doesn't want to be, but he is being thrust into these very serious situations. He's had a falling out with one of his friends. He has to choose where to go to college, which is a huge step for deciding a future, but also it might mean moving away from his best friend who forms a large part of his identity. Most importantly, his mom has just lost her battle with cancer, a battle that he was fighting with her.
You grow up when you are faced with things like that. But in the face of the world freezing, Duck doesn't set out to face his problems, he continues to avoid them with some wild shenanigans about his hometown of Washington DC.
I think in the world of the book, the frozen state of things is very real, but it is also a metaphor for the stasis of Duck's life. He doesn't know where to go without guidance from his friends and especially from his mom. He doesn't know what's next for him and he certainly isn't ready for it. The freezing is a stay of execution from having to make these decisions.
I couldn't help but laugh when he takes a visit to the museum. It is the perfect representation of the frozen world: all these taxidermy animals posed in natural positions in dioramas—that's what Duck sees everywhere now, a frozen museum scene of people getting coffee, driving cars, walking, watching TV, doing anything and everything, but at the same time, doing nothing. I guess at least at the museum things are supposed to be still...
The book is written with a light, irreverent tone that is very catchy. It's easy to like Duck, easy to ignore that he is ignoring his problems even as they are revealed through flashback scenes. I also enjoyed the asides—the guide to your frozen world sections—where Duck instructs readers on what to do if this ever happens to them. It reminded me a bit of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy.
The book has some action in it too! There's a mystery to be solved, but whether or not Duck will get around to it is anyone's guess—he's got plenty of time after all.
How will he go forward with life? What if there is no forward? Ever? Tomorrow is Thursday, people. If the world froze tomorrow and you were the only sentient being left moving, would you feel good about the way you left things?
And now, an interview with Michael Landweber!
SHELF STALKER: First, a few warmup questions. What are you currently reading?
MICHAEL LANDWEBER: I’m in between books right now if you’ve got a recommendation. But some recent books I’ve enjoyed include The Golem and the Jinni by Helene Wecker, the Southern Reach trilogy by Jeff Vandermeer, Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, and the Magicians trilogy by Lev Grossman.
SS: I'd recommend Adam Haslett's newly released Imagine Me Gone if you are in the market for a good literary fiction book. You can even read a review right here on my blog! Can you choose three favorite authors? Why those authors?
ML: Kazuo Ishiguro. I highly recommend Never Let Me Go and The Remains of the Day. Ishiguro’s use of language and his ability put yearning and fallibility on the page is amazing.
Tim O’Brien. The Things They Carried is a shotgun blast of a book. It is a devastating portrait of war and the soldiers who fight them. For me, it broadened my perspective on what a short story can be.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Love in the Time of Cholera and One Hundred Years of Solitude taught me that the magical and the real could thrive together on the same page. His writing and the worlds he creates are so grounded that anything that happens, no matter how unusual, feels true.
SS: If you could pick one book to read again for the first time, what would it be, and why?
ML: Crime and Punishment. Dostoevsky. I read that book in high school and remember being stunned and confused by it. It was a difficult read. But it opened my eyes to the possibilities of writing the anti-hero and ways to explore the morality of indefensible actions. I haven’t reread it since. I suspect that if I read it today it would be like reading it for the first time. As an adult, my take on Raskolnikov will certainly be more nuanced. Or maybe less. I don’t know. OK, you just convinced me to put this on my summer reading list.
SS: And here’s one that’s a segue into the book: If you had a superpower, what would it be?
ML: That’s a tough one. The temptation is to be like Superman who has so many different superpowers that they had to invent Kryptonite to give him any weakness. But that’s cheating. I think I would want to be invulnerable. It would be pretty cool to never worry about getting hurt, no matter how stupid you are being.
SS: Turning to your book, the first thing I’m wondering is where the idea for this narrative came from. Can you tell me about that?
ML: This is an interesting question because I honestly can’t pinpoint where the idea came from. It just kind of grabbed onto my brain and wouldn’t let go. I was drawn to the themes inherent in the concept. From the start, this idea has been a way to explore the boundaries of human morality when there are no external checks on behavior. In other words, if you knew no one was watching and you would never get caught, what would you do? That was the question I wanted to explore.
SS: The main character, Duck, is not only physically stuck in a frozen world, but he also seems to be stuck in this limbo moment in his life—that moment between childhood and adulthood. Really, he’s still a kid (and definitely still acts like one) but these adult responsibilities are beginning to pile up on him and he doesn’t quite know how to deal with it. Can you talk more about Duck? Do you think he is representative of most kids around that age?
ML: I think that Duck is representative of most teenagers. Obviously his circumstances are unique, not only because time has stopped, but because his mother has cancer and his father suffers from a mental illness. That’s a lot for him to deal with that most teenagers don’t face. But I think what is universal is Duck’s uncertainty about the future. It is a common feeling for teenagers on the cusp of living alone for the first time in their lives. Even when you’re lucky enough to have adults there helping guide you, that is a tough transition. It is a period marked by insecurity and often unfortunate choices. Duck is probably a little more conservative in his choices that most teenagers would be. But he is a cautious person, which is in part a direct result of dealing with both his mom and dad’s illnesses. But I think that confusion about one’s place in the world and concern about what is expected of you in broader society outside the bubble of your childhood is a common thing for teenagers.
SS: Duck also basically runs the show in terms of characters in the book. What was your process for writing a book with such a small cast?
ML: The first step in my process was to ask myself why I thought it was a good idea to write a book with such a small cast. After all, in the scenes where time is stopped, Duck is basically in a one-man show. But once I decide to write a story, no matter how challenging or inadvisable it might be, I follow it through to the end. With this book, I knew that it would only work with flashbacks. Duck’s backstory needed to have motion even if the world didn’t. Duck’s voice was also key since he was the reader’s sherpa into this odd world. In my view, that meant he had to be interesting and funny and intelligent and just a little bit tragic. Or at least he had to be sarcastic. Deeply sarcastic.
SS: And as a part two to that question, could you tell me about your writing process in general?
ML: My writing process has changed over the years. I used to write for 4-5 hours at a time, usually late at night. Even though a fair amount of time was spent staring at the wall waiting for words to come, I still managed to churn out stories and even drafts of novels relatively quickly. Of course, a lot of the material that I wrote in my younger days is locked in a drawer never to see the light of day. Now, I tend to write in shorter, more concentrated bursts of 1-2 hours. It can be any time of the day when I don’t have other obligations. I only work on one project at a time. I don’t outline – I just start at the beginning and write through to the end. I keep some notes at the end of the manuscript in progress to remind me where I’m going, but otherwise it is just me and the blank page until I have a first draft. I am not a fan of revising; I find it painful. But of course I do it and it usually takes three drafts before I am comfortable sharing the book with others. I also like to write with really loud music blasting whenever possible.
SS: How is the setting of Washington D.C. important to the book?
ML: I’m often guilty of setting my writing about places I’ve never been. Actually, that’s a bad habit I’m trying to break. I live in Washington, DC, so from the research perspective it saved me a lot of time to set it here. I already know the geography and the sights and what the culture is like (which is not necessarily what you see on cable news). And I needed a setting that would be compelling even if time stopped. Duck is writing a guidebook, after all. The White House and Congress and the Smithsonian museums were all fun places to set a teenager loose with no supervision. But on another level, I wanted the reader to believe that the entire world was frozen, rather than this being an isolated thing. When the capital of the free world isn’t moving, you’ve got to think that time is stopped everywhere.
SS: If you were the only person moving in a world where time stopped, what would you do first? (I’ll admit: I stole this one from your “reading guide” at the back!)
ML: Honestly, I’d probably panic and then look for someone to rescue me. But I think what I’d really enjoy if time stopped and I was the only person moving would be to have nothing to do but write my next book. Of course, I’d have to write it all out longhand. So I guess the first thing I would do would be to find an office supply store and steal a lot of spiral notebooks.
SS: And finally, are you working on anything new currently?
ML: I’m in the middle of the first draft of a new novel. It is set in the near future in a world where teleportation is a commercial form of transportation. Keeping with my books so far, it is another family drama with an unusual twist.
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"You're afraid it's the End Times because we're surrounded by death and ruin. Nurse Willowes, don't you know? Death and ruin is man's preferred ecosystem. Did you ever read about the bacterium that thrives in volcanoes, right on the edge of boiling rock? That's us. Humanity is a germ that thrives on the very edge of catastrophe" (324).
Anyone who believes that horror isn’t for them should read this book.
I know that’s might be a difficult challenge given the hefty size of The Fireman. Weighing in at 768 pages it is no quick read—but it’s no slow-burn either.
I devoured these pages hastily as though the book was going up in flame in my hands, but I tried to take my time and really read every word because there is such craft behind the lines. Hill has really come into his own with this and his last book, NOS4A2—another honker at 686 pages.
While this book isn't being marketed as horror—just try to find some keyword mentions in the flap copy—it’s hard to ignore all the signals that Hill is giving us. The post-apocalyptic setting and all the death, chaos, destruction, and collapse of humanity that goes along with that, for one. And there are other elements: the emergence of a cult, a sci-fi disease, some paranormal activity, a handful of pretty evil people, and of course, a badass heroine who is smote at every turn.
This isn’t to say that you need these elements to call any book a horror novel. They are just pieces and honestly don’t mean much on their own.
For example, you could argue that McCarthy’s terrifying post-apocalyptic vision The Road (which Hill even alludes to along with a plethora of other books, songs, and pop-culture references) is considered literary fiction and not horror. And I would not argue with you! I’m not one to split hairs over genre, I just think horror has historically been given a bad rap by many consumers for no good reason and great books like this one are rewriting the boundaries and hopefully bringing new readers to other great contemporary horror authors like Dan Simmons, Stephen Graham Jones, Lauren Beukes, Ania Ahlborn, Adam Nevill, Paul Tremblay, and Stephen King.
Alright, there, I said it: Stephen King—the elephant in the room (or perhaps the monster in the closet?) when it comes to Joe Hill. For those who might be unaware, Hill is a pen name—Joe is King’s eldest son. So while Hill did escape notice for a while when his first book, 20th Century Ghosts, came out, once the cat was out of the bag, it was like the cat from Pet Sematary—one that wouldn’t stay dead. Hill draws constant comparisons to his dad, and its hard to deny the similarities, especially in these two most recent books. But Hill has no qualms stating that his dad has always been a big influence, so of course it affects his writing.
I think Hill has a similar sense of story—of the scope of a narrative—and also of the human connection to that narrative that King has always shown. There’s something innate about storytelling like that, and it’s difficult to forcibly create. I think its something some writers are just able to translate better than others. But Hill has grown up in a different world than King and he comes at his stories from a different, more modern angle. This is becoming more and more clear to me with King’s more recent novels—King sees things from a different perspective now, an older perspective, and he has always written his novels best with a piece of himself in mind. (Short stories are a different matter. King is a master of the short story—check out his newest collection, The Bazaar of Bad Dreams, if you don’t believe me.) But Hill is more attuned to our world right now and writes with a more modern push.
In The Fireman there is a spore nicknamed Dragonscale that could infect you and make you susceptible to spontaneous combustion at any moment. The world is in a panic, the infected are pariahs—because no one quite knows yet how the disease is passed along—and Harper is pregnant and showing the first signs of the ‘scale, black and gold swirling tattoo-like marks on her body. Marking her as one of the walking dead, basically.
Harper is an odd-duck sort of gal. She's a bad-ass nurse with a take-no-prisoners, no-fear attitude when it comes to people with the 'scale. Before she had it, she was volunteering at the hospital every day, putting herself at risk to help these sick people who didn't stand a chance. But she also has this deep-seated passion for Mary Poppins and her compassion runs wide and deep. It's a strange but strangely real mix of independence, strength, and motherly warmth and she does develop into a real person. A great heroine, and honestly a great female role model in a book. I wish there were more like her!
Enter the Fireman. A mysterious infected Englishman who is able to control fire: creating torches out of his hand, throwing balls of fire, and other fantastical tricks that you'll have to read to believe. How does he do it? Are there others like him? And most importantly, is there a way to survive?
Death is a difficult thing to face, but it will come for us all in the end. I think that's one of the reasons people have such a visceral reaction to horror. There don't seem to be people who are just so-so about it. You either HATE it, or you LOVE it. Horror makes us confront our mortality, and if it does it well, it reminds us that it's okay to be scared, but we have to live too. We can't let fear get in the way of life and horror can be a release from that.
I think stories are important that way, and good stories are even more important. Here's a quote that really stuck with me from Renée, an infected patient of Harper's at the hospital, when she's discussing her book club on why she chose The Bridge of San Luis Rey:
"Partly because it's about why inexplicable tragedies occur," Renée said. "But also it's short. I feel like most folks want a book they feel like they have time to finish. You don't want to start A Game of Thrones when you might catch fire all of a sudden. There's something horribly unfair about dying in the middle of a good story, before you have a chance to see how it all comes out. Of course, I suppose everyone always dies in the middle of a good story, in a sense. Your own story" (28).
Oh, Joe! Hit us where it hurts... The Fireman is full of moments like this—ferociously human moments in the midst of the action and chaos. You see real people going through these struggles and they bring a sense of hope into the bleak world, hope that I'd hope somehow existed if the world really did go down the crapper or up in flames.
Of the many, many things that I could go on and on about in a review of this book, I'd like to mention the cult aspect. Without giving away the plot, there is wonderfully creepy cult-like group that is slowly developed throughout the middle of the book. There is a hivemind concentration to them that Hill is purposefully using as a foil, and its totally unlike any of the cult movies and books that I've seen and read (Emma Cline's The Girls excepted, but that's a beast of a different color that I'll be posting on soon enough!). To see this group of people go from a normal, functioning, community to something more sinister, something that fills me with unease, something that could turn deadly at any moment—the heimlich turned unheimlich—and it is squeamish and perfect and so, so realistic.
They use these stones as a punishment: if you've done something bad, you have to hold the stone in your mouth for a certain amount of time. No speaking, no eating, just silent contemplation of your wrong-doing. It seems innocuous, doesn't it? But this internal self-stoning is just one of the ways the leader of this little cult formation maintains control. It reminded me, in a way, of Jackson's "The Lottery," but in this case, they are stoning themselves—and doing it happily for the cause.
Everything is internal; just as those with the spore burn from within, their death literally waiting inside them, this innocent-seeming justice system works at them from the inside, alienating those who might oppose it while bringing the pack closer together. Like a flock of birds turning in an instant altogether, like wolves, going in for the kill.
Read it, and go ahead and dig into his other works too. You won't be sorry. It may be the end of the world, but Hill leaves room for humanity, for the hope of future, even as it burns around us.
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What frame of mind does this title put you in? The statement is vague enough to apply to a lot of situations, though most of the ones I'm imagining involve conflict and anguish.
Bring it on, Reid.
This debut (out June 14) is the fourth book put out by Scout Press, and they continue to be a strong little imprint dedicated to interesting, literary works. They aren't afraid to try something different and new, to release something that's completely unique—which is honestly a breath of fresh air, especially in the thriller department. This is the second thriller they've done, with a new book by Ruth Ware due out later this year. (You may have heard of her first book Scout Press published, In a Dark, Dark Wood.) I'm Thinking of Ending Things was not at all what I was expecting. And I say that in the best way possible—I promise you! Unfortunately, it's also very difficult to describe just what's going on without giving too much away.
Here's the basic outline: Boy and girl drive out to the deserted countryside to meet the boy's parents for dinner. Girl thinks about their brief relationship and gets repeated calls, which she ignores, from a mysterious person who has been harassing her for weeks. They meet the parents, who are nice enough, but something is a bit off. On the way back, battling a snowstorm, they take an unexpected detour where things turn south quickly.
I know it's a bit nondescript, but trust me, there's so much more going on beneath the surface. There's plenty to discuss besides the plot!
With a small cast of characters, Reid creates a very tightly condensed atmosphere brimming with unease. Things are not quite right, and there are clues hidden throughout, almost throwaway moments, that will bring everything to clarity at the conclusion. This is one of those books that you almost have to flip back to the beginning and read again once you've finished, trying to ferret out the pieces you missed before.
It's an intelligent book, but deceivingly so because it's so simply written. Very simple sentence structure, not a lot of flowing descriptions like you often see in "literary" fiction. But if you aren't paying attention—to paraphrase Ferris Bueller—you could miss it.
I seem to keep reading books back-to-back that have some sort of connection, and I kept seeing strings bridging this book to the last one I read, Imagine Me Gone. There is this interesting internal investigation, an examination of the mind with every conversation the boy and girl have, and at every moment you know there's potential that it's going to breach the edge of the dam and spill over, that the truth will come out even as some sort of destruction is imminent. Can you hang on long enough to find out what it is? Reid examines how the mind protects us and will do almost anything to shield us from harm's way.
Another way the tension is built is through intermittent uses of a collective narrator speaking from some moment in the future about something horrible that has happened, something that we don't know yet, but something that is coming, something we cannot stop the trajectory of. That is good writing. It reminding me of Faulkner's "A Rose for Emily," the way tension is built and built by this group of narrators who already know the story, and then wrung out all at once, like the neck of some unsuspecting chicken. So good, so skin-crawlingly climactic in those last seconds that you feel nothing but shock. Get ready for a major dose of that with Reid's book.
It's definitely a psychological thriller, and you definitely will need to be paying attention to all the little details, or that moment at the end will just leave you with an unsatisfied "wha?" face instead of a "WHOA" moment.
If you like thrillers with a psychological twist but are tired of the same old-same old formulaic books, add this one to your to-read list! I can't wait to see what Reid comes up with next. He will be one to watch, carefully though, like you'd keep your eye on a hungry tiger.
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At first glance, it looks like such an unprepossessing book. Simple, even. Your mind fills in the missing letters on the cover without taking in their significance, but that unwritten, ubiquitous "NO" is everything—without saying anything it tells a reader, a sharp-eyed reader who's paying attention, everything they need to know.
Haslett has taken a new spin on the nuclear, dysfunctional family and he gives us their story from each member's perspective in alternating chapters. The mom and dad: Margaret and John, and the three kids: Michael, Celia, and Alec. There are large gaps in years, which may or may not be filled in by reminiscences here and there, but it makes them real—like the neighbors next door—to not know everything about them. Each character has a different agenda in their telling (not to mention a different style) and I found myself getting caught up in the mess of their lives, really letting each narrative take over as the children grew up and even as the book wound toward its inevitable conclusion.
They seem like a pretty normal family but as it is increasingly easy, even more so in today's world of infinite screens, they don't really see each other. Maybe just like you didn't really see the missing letters on the cover of this book, or if you noticed they were missing, you didn't really see what they meant, that they formed another word, full of potential meaning. What this family doesn't see is that there are some among them that are really hurting. Not getting the right kind of help.
Haslett is interested in the mind—what stirs inside it, what complexities it hides even from its user. Mental illness that goes undiagnosed, untreated, or, potentially worse, overtreated, and how it affects not only the person with the illness but all those who surround that person. And what genes are there, restless, waiting to be passed along to the next generation.
Is depression potentially a genetic trait? Even with just the genes, there's probably more at play, though I don't think Haslett is making any scientific or theoretical statements here. It's more like he's drawing a map, tracing all the discrete moments for this particular family, all the characteristics from John and his chronic depression to Michael and his more maniacal, uncontrollable anxiety. Here are the pieces, do with them what you wish.
What's more interesting than an argument of nature vs. nurture is the examination of this plague of the mind and how it affects us all, though differently. John hides his depression from his family and thinks of it as a beast trapped in him, one he wants to physically release from his body and face head-on. Michael prefers to stow away behind a wall of medications, hoping for the miracle fix that will smooth everything out. But in the meantime, his anxiety forces him to cling to everyone around him, stifling relationships and making him stuck in time, unable to finish anything or accept change. His obsessive compulsive attachment to music, especially disco, is the only thing that grounds him, makes him feel real. There is a type of fantasy in music that we are all drawn to, that love story that never ends, and Michael definitely wants that for himself. Michael is an unforgettably complex and devastating character, so full of life and potential that it's truly frustrating as a reader to watch him from the sidelines, unable to help.
And just because the other three don't suffer from mental illness doesn't mean they are exempt. There are worries about money, sexuality, marriage, job security, general happiness, the other family members, heartbreak, and plenty of other ghosts to contend with. Just like we all have.
There is so much to unpack in this novel, and Haslett really leaves you to do that for yourself. He lays the narrative out on the table and lets you take it, whatever the consequences. I like that, because I think there's so many different things that readers could take from this, depending on where they are in life and where they have been.
Haslett renders a tragic but beautiful modern familial landscape with five distinct narrators who become real through each others' eyes. This is indeed true literary fiction at its finest and I will be seeking out his short story collection You Are Not a Stranger soon. This is an extremely intelligent, though haunting, book that will not soon leave your mind or your heart. Keep it close, and listen to some Donna Summers, on vinyl if you can get it.
Also, Adam Haslett on tour right now, so check out his webpage to see if he's in your area for a reading and signing!
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I'll admit I'm always drawn to thrillers, whether or not it seems that the plot has been done a thousand times before. So when there's something slithering beneath the surface, something itching to get out, something that might make a book more interesting than just another story about a wife and her child running away from an emotionally abusive relationship, I have to have a go at that.
Sweet Lamb of Heaven stuck out to me, not only because I'm a sucker for great covers, but because there was a whiff of the supernatural about it—something left a bit unspoken because they didn't want to give away too much on the cover copy. Not only that, but there haven't been a whole lot of thrillers coming out (at least not ones that I've been thrilled about, pun intended—check out my Goodreads review of the much-ado-about-nothing Maestra if you don't believe me) so I wanted to give it a try.
"Strange things exist, astonishing oddities—transparent butterflies, three-foot-wide parasites that look like orange flowers, babies born pregnant with their own twins. There are fish like sea serpents, fifty-five feet long, lizards whose species are all female; there's the mysterious roar from outer space, the contagiousness of yawns, the origin of continental drift.
What I want to know is whether the unknowns in nature are only unexplained phenomena or whether there are genuine anomalies—whether a true anomaly exists" (p. 90-1).
Anna and her young daughter Lena find refuge at a worn-down motel run by a friendly older man and inhabited by an unlikely motley crew while they are hiding from Anna's husband, Ned. Ned shows all the signs of a textbook psychopath.
Glibness and superficial charm? Check.
Cunning and manipulative? Check.
Lack of remorse or guilt? Check.
Promiscuous sexual behavior? Check.
Shallow affect? Check.
Pathological lying? Check.
Parasitic lifestyle? Double check.
(adapted in part from the Hare PCL-R Checklist)
And of course, he's decided to be politically inclined, so he needs his perfect family behind him to complete his look.
So slide that plotline over and introduce this other one, the one where Anna heard a voice—seemingly from nowhere, that only she could hear—from the moment Lena was born to the moment she spoke her first word. The voice was intelligent, but also difficult to focus on and it spoke constantly, sometimes reciting literature or philosophy or sometimes just spouting off things Anna could barely follow. She learned to live with it, and it only ceased when Lena was sleeping. She's crazy, right? Or is it something else?
I hope you're sufficiently intrigued, because I'm not giving away any more! As she explores, wondering whether or not she is unique, or what exactly the voice is, she delves even deeper into questions of what language is and where it comes from. We interpret our entire world through the lens of language—in a way it is a barrier as well as a window. Yes, it gives us a way to internally interpret what we see and also describe it to others, but it only gives us a certain set of pre-made instruments to do so. All the letters and basically all the words already exist. That is how we define our world. We are a bit stuck within the realm of our necessitated experience and the development of our language proves that.
It is interesting that Millet is able to interweave the sphere of this high-minded investigation of language, existence, and even spirituality into the plot of this thriller that could otherwise feel a bit been-there-done-that. Her entanglement of the supernatural is on a level that makes you wonder, what if? Because there are things in nature that we can't explain.
And maybe we just aren't listening.
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I'm no Murakami expert, but I am definitely an admirer of his works. My fascination with this magical realist/surrealist/neo-noir/pop-culturalist and general genre-rebel writer began when I received 1Q84 as a Christmas present after it was published in 2011. Seeing as Murakami has been on the writing scene since 1979 (in Japan, 1989 in the US,) I was a bit late to the party to say the least, but I caught on quickly and have devoured every book he's published since and most of his backlist.
(As a side note, I don't personally recommend 1Q84 for Murakami first-timers; weighing in at 925 pages, it is a beast of a novel and drowning in the deep-end of Murakami dreamland is not the most fun couple weeks you'll ever spend. You can work up to it, I promise, once you know a bit more of what this crazy dude is all about.)
I should have prefaced that last sentence by saying, I still don't really know what this dude is all about. And, boy, do I love it.
Hear the Wind Sing and Pinball, 1973 are two novels (more like novellas, really,) and what makes them really special is that they are Murakami's very first published works. They came out in 1979 and 1980 respectively and were translated into English in the mid-80s but mysteriously were never distributed in the United States, so now they've been retranslated and repackaged for all the Murakamites everywhere to sink their fangs into.
For my money, the short introduction from Murakami himself is basically worth the cover price alone. These pages bring us into Murakami's inner circle, showing us just a small piece of how he became a writer and got to where he is today. I'm sure it's a bit romanticized, like when he talks about finding the exact amount of money he and his wife desperately needed to pay an overdue bill just laying on the ground, but at the same time, maybe it isn't—his ideas came from somewhere, right?
What I'd never heard before was how his distinctive style came about. While I'm sure it's much different to read Murakami in the original Japanese, (oh, to be bilingual!) it was enlightening to read that when he was struggling to write, he pulled out an Olivetti typewriter and began to try to tell his story in English. With his limited vocabulary and syntax, he was forced into a certain simplicity that led to a rhythm that he liked. He then "transplanted" (his word) the language back into Japanese, trying to maintain the style he'd achieved in English.
So when you begin to read Hear the Wind Sing you are reading something that actually began in English, and then was "transplanted" into Japanese and then translated back into English. It makes language feel a bit more fluid all of a sudden, doesn't it?
The rest of the world was on one side of the fence trying to be so high-falutin' with all sorts of supposed standards for literary greatness—however unspoken, I think there have always been rules about what constitutes a "literary" book versus the hogwash of the masses—and here was Murakami saying, I'm going to try something new.
And it wasn't even that he was trying to break down boundaries or change the face of literature. He just couldn't get the words to work for him and so found a way to make writing a simpler task. At the same time, that simplicity made him think harder and more creatively to find ways to bring his story to life. Incredible.
If you are new to Murakami, these novellas would be an interesting introduction, but I beg you to consider that this is not his strongest, most polished work. It will hopefully whet your appetite for more, give you a taste of the surrealist aspects and the alienated, internal, brooding characters he loves to craft. I wouldn't consider these novellas masterworks. They are more like glimpses of the machinery: to see all the pieces moving is fascinating, but it can be distracting too. Sometimes knowing that the hand on the clock is moving is enough; you don't need to know the exact cogs and sprockets that connect to make it turn. If you are a Murakami connoisseur who hasn't picked this one up yet, by all means, please do so. You won't be disappointed.
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It's May and you're looking for a good read. Look no further than Don DeLillo's newest! It comes out this Tuesday, May 3rd, and whether you love him or have never read him, this work of art is the type of book that makes you believe fiction isn't dead.
"Everybody wants to own the end of the world."
But what will the end of the world mean? What will it look like and when will it come? DeLillo wrests with these questions in his new literary landscape, Zero K.
The main plot centers around a facility for cryogenic freezing where Jeffrey's estranged (and very wealthy) father Ross has requested his presence for the death and subsequent freezing of Jeffrey's stepmom, Artis. The compound, named Convergence, is way out in the middle of nowhere Russia. It is almost cult-like in its construction—no windows anywhere, confusing passageways with only locked doors, no signs, and less than helpful people. At any moment, Jeffrey may find himself bombarded with larger than life projections of horrible videos—scenes of natural disasters or gruesome battles from modern wars—the point of which is never made clear, unless it's some sort of brainwashing to make people want to freeze themselves until a new world has arisen from the ashes of the current one. Artis is very ill and seems open to the freezing process, though it is Ross's idea.
Jeffrey can't really find a way to reconcile Convergence, but neither is he openly protesting it. He seems content enough to go along with it, taking everything in and playing mind games with himself. Jeffrey certainly isn't ready to let go of the current world, but he doesn't seem too attached to that either. He is on a precipice between now and the future, but it is a choice of the evil you know, or one that could potentially be much worse.
This is something that DeLillo has always been interested in, the human side of the rise of technology. Who we become as our machines advance and how we deal with what we've created. Something that came up again and again in Zero K was language. How language and the record of it makes us human, makes us separate from the beasts and machines. DeLillo is innately aware of the language he uses throughout the book—it is a stark landscape precisely punctuated with a specific vocabulary.
Not only that, but language takes on an important role in the book itself. Language is this important piece of identity. Who we are is conveyed through language of some form: speaking, or, increasingly in today's world, writing, especially electronically. But Jeff is cut off from all of that at Convergence. No one will talk to him and electronics certainly don't work. Personal identity slips away. And that's the point. After the cryogenically frozen people wake up in a new world, they will all speak one language, one that has not even been invented yet. This idealistic dreamscape world is one seemingly without differentiation or individuality—is that what it takes to bring peace? Or is it just another form of control?
For Artis, memory is most important, at least to her self-identity. She speaks to Jeffrey several times about her memories of seemingly inconsequential moments, but they are moments that make her who she is. Who would she be if she woke up without those memories?
Jeffrey's tie to identity has more to do with names. He is obsessed with naming people—everyone he doesn't know he tries to fit with a name that somehow encompasses their essence, and he takes it very seriously. This probably stems from the fact that his father's name, Ross Lockhart, is made-up, which means that his own, Jeffrey Lockhart, is just a thread hanging in space with no history or identity to back it up. The name-game Jeff takes on is almost Biblical, like Adam in the Garden of Eden, and I'm sure there's loads more that could be said about that!
DeLillo packs a lot into this book, and it's less than 300 pages. I've barely scratched the surface here; this would be great for a book club! If nothing else, read it for the language alone! No one crafts a sentence like DeLillo. This is true literary fiction at its finest.
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Associate editor, amateur photdographer, bibliophile, and occasional sleuth.