On a more serious note: this book, which is about the historical collapse of societies like the Greenland Norse as well as the impending collapse of everything else, will make you want to die. And sooner rather than later, because Jared Diamond’s message is very upsetting to amateurs (like myself) who don’t understand how problems of this magnitude could possibly be fixed.
People say that he overstates the number of starving people in the world, that his book is all doom and no optimism, but okay: Jared Diamond is brilliant, won a Pulitzer for Guns, Germs and Steel (which is just as interesting and far less upsetting), won a National Medal of science, and speaks twelve languages: English, Latin (doesn’t count), Greek, German, French, Spanish, Russian, Italian, Finnish, New Melanesian, Indonesian, and some New Guinean language. He manages to parse thousands of years of history into a short list of the things that have led to collapse in the past (deforestation, water management, overpopulation, overconsumption, etc.) as well as the human-induced things that are leading to collapse in the present (climate change, toxins, energy shortages). He also manages to tell the story of each civilization in a way that you can understand but is clearly not oversimplified, which is a feat in itself.
But the most interesting and scariest thing about Collapse is the way he separates environmental destruction from economic, military or social destruction: he shows how a society can have everything going well (lots of money, defense, peace, law-abiding citizens, technological advances) and still have a brutal, apocalyptic collapse! Help!
Well, this is not a book I have read. But perhaps I should look into it. The catchy slogan gives me a really nightmarish picture of a thousand special-needs children dressed in matching salmon jumpsuits, sitting in a warehouse where the light slants in from the scary windows, being forced to knit sweaters for some crazy person’s tiny dog while a voice booms over the loudspeaker, “Through your hands you shall learnnnn.”
So Dan Brown gets a lot of press for both of his Tom Hanks vehicles, Angels and Demons and The Da Vinci Code. (One of my friends suggested that if Tom Hanks were to run for president, he would win, no question: do you agree?) But I want to bring attention to two equally terrible, equally awesome gems in the four-book Dan Brown oeuvre. I cannot express how very little brain activity is necessary to read these books. I read the entirety of Digital Fortress while in line at the DMV, and really I’ve never had a better Wednesday.
The point is, unlike most other bestselling books of the I-bought-this-at-the-grocery-store size, Dan Brown’s shit is absolutely ridiculous. He has no time to waste on Grisham-y lawyers or Steel-y romance. He goes straight for the big time–ancient codes, earth-shattering secrets–in this super-American, sexless-blockbuster way that is so formulaic (yet endlessly hilarious) that you can visit Slate and generate your own bestseller with their Dan Brown Auto-Plot thing. But specifically, Deception Point is about the following: Antarctica, a sexy senator’s daughter, a NASA cover-up, extraterrestrial life, murder in an ice pool, bribery and Delta Force. Digital Fortress is about a sexy code-breaker, supercomputers, the National Security Agency, cryptography, and a maniacal Hiroshima victim. Seriously, I hate Dan Brown, but it’s like, sometimes you just want Taco Bell instead of real food.
Also I think it’s funny that Digital Fortress puts Dan Brown firmly in the category of Watchmen addicts who think that spending more than two seconds contemplating “Who will watch the watchmen?” or “Who will guard the guards?” is a solid, important use of time. All of these people also really like zombie movies, so I suggest that Dan Brown’s next book be about zombies. And anyway, back to DP/DF: I recommend both of these books wholeheartedly, because they are so terrible.
I tell this story so much that I might as well just get it tattooed on my forehead, but I just want to announce to the world that I read this book in King’s Cross Station, eating a weed-infused blueberry muffin every hour on the hour and weeping my eyes out. It was the highlight of my life. But as the book was coming to an end (you know how you look at where your hands are in the pages and think 20% left, 15%, 10%, fuck)–the halls of the station was darkening, and the trains were leaving and the shops were closing down and I was turning the pages with some sort of hallucinogenic dread that the series was over. So, emotionally, kind of a mixed bag.
Good: the entire beginning and the entire end, except for the epilogue. The wedding is awesome, the escape is awesome, Hermione’s inventiveness and her extendable bag is awesome, and then Ron starts whining and it’s all over. (The scene in the Malfoys’ basement is the only good part of the middle to me.) And of course, the Battle of Hogwarts is the best chapter title/chapter ever. When McGonagall starts organizing groups of fighters I thought my head would explode with happiness, and I think I actually burst into tears when Mrs. Weasley said “Not my daughter, you bitch!” Get it, Molly! (Of course, the muffins are always in play here.)
Bad: clearly, the camping trip and the epilogue. Any time that J.K. Rowling has to write about Hermione boiling mushrooms and describe the musty smell of a possessed snake-corpse–not good. And the epilogue, for some reason, always reminds me of the opening sequence of Growing Pains.
This is my favorite book after Prisoner of Azkaban, maybe because it features so much Snape–who is the best character of the entire series. I read this Salon.com review of the movie that called Alan Rickman’s Snape “sexy,” and I felt really validated, because although I wouldn’t really call Snape sexy I feel the same way about him that I would about a sexy person: basically, give me more.
Good: the structure. Each memory feels like a little piece of candy, and you have to wait just long enough for the next one. Also, the emphasis on mystery. Every Harry Potter book has a mystery that gets solved in the end, but this one has two amazing ones: the Horcruxes and the Half-Blood Prince. Also, Fred and George’s joke shop; the crazy potions; realizing that Harry loves Ginny through the two careful mentions of the “flowery scent” that Harry keeps remembering from the Burrow; the ridiculous scene in the cave, which when I read for the first time I felt like I would pass out from suspense at any second.
Bad: the annoying euphemisms J.K. Rowling uses for when Harry and Ginny hook up–what does she call them? “sunny, happy hours by the pond” or something; the entire end, which is so sad, and drags on.
J.K. Rowling said on BBC that she had wanted to kill off Arthur Weasley in this book, but couldn’t bear to do it. Thank goodness, because this is not the pleasantest one of the series: Harry runs around through most of it growling “What’s happening to me? Why do I feel this way?” as if Lord Voldemort’s brain-invasions are creepily equatable with wet dreams and puberty. But I have no dislike for this book, because of the…
Good: Institutional information! Which sounds terrible, but in the Harry Potter world it’s awesome and it’s crucial for their adventures in the seventh book. You find out that the Order of the Phoenix has a history; you see inside the Ministry of Magic, in particular the tremendous bit with the Department of Mysteries; you see how the press gets corrupt with the school gets corrupt with the government. It’s basically The Wire. Plus, you meet Luna, and the chapter where Fred and George basically blow up the school is amazing.
Bad: Occlumency; Harry’s bitching at the beginning of the book; thestrals (not actually bad, they’re awesome but every scene involving a thestral, which is a black, winged skeleton-horse you can only see if you’ve seen someone die, seems inherently doomed); stupid Kreacher and the stupid terrible end, which made me cry.
Murakami has a very distinct surreal style, but it’s usually one kind of surreal (the surreality of boring daily life starting to slip away from you) versus the other (the acid trip surreal). This book is both, which is awesome. And supposedly it’s some metaphysical Hegelian dialectical blah blah blah all the way through, but when I read it in 2003 there’s no way I was really going to understand any of that, and I loved it anyway.
The plot on its own should be enough to make you want to read it. It’s two intertwined stories: one is of a teenage boy named Crow, who runs away from home attempting to escape an Oedipal prophecy and takes shelter in a silent library run by a hemophiliac transsexual. The other story is about an old man named Nakata who (get ready) was on a field trip gathering mushrooms during World War II, when a flash of light in the sky rendered all the children unconscious. While the other kids woke up soon afterwards, Nakata was unconscious for weeks, and when he came to, he had become a somewhat of an idiot savant who can communicate with cats. In his old age, he runs a service finding lost cats. There’s a murder and a trucker and a mountain retreat that all revolve to bring these two characters (who may be doubles or shadows of each other) together in the end.
HOW EXCITING! Read it.
Emily Giffin made me start thinking about other books that you are likely to see sold at Target, like The Kite Runner, The Secret Life of Bees, The Lovely Bones, My Sister’s Keeper, etc: books which are not quite inspirational literature and not quite badly written, but close enough to both categories to be unnerving when viewed all at once on a shelf at Target. I wouldn’t be surprised if Target’s book-buyers decide to sell a book only if they can imagine a Dakota Fanning movie being made out of it. And while I do hold a special place in my heart for these Target books–they were my bridge between The Westing Game and the grittier world of “real” books–I am always skeptical about them.
Which is why I am glad that The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Pie Society was the only thing at the airport that one day, because it’s good! (I do hate the name, it being the latest version of The Arsonist’s Sunday Jane Austen Detective Club Agency bullshit.) But it’s like Jane Austen Light. It’s entirely in letters, which manages to be not annoying and really well-handled; it’s about postwar England, where a smart, funny, prim-ish writer finds out that this little Channel Island called Guernsey has a trove of sad, smart, funny, prim-ish and even (blah) poignant stories about the German Occupation. It’s written delicately and self-consciously, and thus manages to avoid melodrama or cheese. Read it if you are feeling whiny and want to get yourself out of your funk: this will make you happy and calm you down.
Yes, these are two different books, but not really. Emily Giffin is not quite as bad as Lauren Weisberger–whose The Devil Wears Prada and Everyone Worth Knowing, etc. feel like they are the exact same book with a day’s worth of search-and-replace work done on Word: fashion replaced with PR, green eyes replaced with blue, four-inch heels replaced with five–but still. To think of these books as two separate things would be teetering on the edge of the chick-lit black hole of thinking, where all of this stuff is told with such melodrama that it seems like an important life lesson, which it is not. Because both of these books tell the same story: two best friends, gorgeous bitchy Darcy and smart plain Rachel, get in a fight because Rachel steals Darcy’s fiance. Something Borrowed is from Rachel’s perspective, Something Blue from Darcy’s.
But putting aside my irritation that 700 pages of best-seller space has to be devoted to a plot where you must be constantly reminded of exactly how long everyone’s hair is, these books are definitely not bad. In the way that I’ve started watching Make It or Break It on ABC Family, this is terribly relaxing bullshit. Emily Giffin is a fluid, easy, precise writer, and she has it out for good in the end–she’s not so much into glamourous Manhattan lifestyles as a lot of other chick-lit writers are. And although I feel the same way about books like this as I do about ice cream–I only enjoy both things at the beach–if you like ice cream all the time then you’ll love this, or the equivalent metaphor.
When I started reading this in 2003 I was really put off by how dense and crazy it was, so I stopped. But I think most of that was because I didn’t know who Margaret Atwood was and I didn’t know what to expect–I didn’t know that a sci-fi snowglobe full of genetic engineering and child pornography and videogames called Kwiktime Osama was kind of par for the course–and when I read the book again this year I was prepared for crazy shit.
The book is set in a dystopian near-future, in which certain things that exist in our present (genetic hybrids, porn for every fetish, the giant rich-poor gap) have spiralled out of control. There has been a disease apocalypse, and one man is left alone with a bunch of neutered, unquestioning human-ish creatures, for whom he is forced to invent a story about how the world came to be, and hope that they continue to believe that they are under divine orders to bring him fish. You don’t find out till the very end exactly how and why it all happened, and with each chapter she measures out little pieces of the puzzle–it’s great.
And, sentence by sentence, Margaret Atwood pulls the story through with only a slight feeling of effort: I think it’s How Fiction Works that cites this as an example of clarity of language: “On the eastern horizon there’s a greyish haze, lit now with a rosy, deadly glow. Strange how that colour still seems tender.” Gorgeous writing, grimly funny tone throughout. And in my opinion, “Last Man” stories are nearly always interesting, at least–even I Am Legend was not too shabby.