Before the Fall

I had a conflicted reading of this book. Part of it was that the book was billed as a mystery/thriller and that’s not what was delivered.Fall

The book starts with some New York elites preparing to leave their summer homes on Martha’s Vineyard on their private jet. We quickly meet the characters who will become the crux of the story: the media mogul and his family, banking scheister and his wife, the pilot, co-pilot, flight attendant, and the struggling artist.

The plane crashes (not a spoiler, it’s given away on the book jacket) and only the artist and the media mogul’s son survive. From there an investigation is launched into why and how the plane crashed.

While the plot moves forward regarding the investigation we get flashbacks of each of the individuals’ lives and how they came to be on the plane.

Mixed in the plane crash investigation plot line is a sub-plot about how the media, specifically a Fox News-like cable news channel and how a Bill O’Reilly/Alex Jones type character spins the story to find “the truth”.

The big takeaway from this book is the danger of toxic, privileged masculinity. In each layer of the plot, the men who feel they are “deserved” of the things they deem theirs cause the most damage. The author subtlety works this message in and it allows the reader to come to this conclusion on his or her own.

An enjoyable read, with important social critique, better editing and organization could’ve improved this read, but I’d still recommend it.

The Cider House Rules

Have you ever read a book and were looking for how the title relates to the story? then when you found the connection you thought it was pointless and then wondered why you’re still reading the book? That’s pretty much my experience with The Cider House Rules. cider

There’s an interesting story at the heart of this book but it gets lost in the mire of random character musings and odd plot spin-offs. We start with Homer Wells and how he can’t find a permanent adopted home away from St. Cloud’s Orphanage. Then suddenly we’re given a complete background on the man who runs the orphanage, Dr. Wilbur Larch. Who finds himself both delivering babies and giving abortions. Then we go back to Homer Wells who clearly becomes the main focus of the book. Homer’s story focuses on him finding a home and making a family and struggling with the idea that he belongs at St. Cloud’s; as if he owes them something.

I liked Homer but I don’t think the author knew what to do with him sometimes. As a reader, I sympathized with him, was weirded out by him, admired him, and cheered for him. Maybe that’s what we’re supposed to do? Several of the other characters were
entertaining if not obnoxious at some points. There were also a lot very odd sexual things happening in the book.  More time was spent talking about, and saving, pubic hair than I cared for.  And that was just the tip of the iceberg.

Several good ethical points were brought up in this book regarding birth control, abortion, the medical field, race relations in the North pre-, during, and post-WWII, but again, they all mire together and by the end you just want the book to stop.

It Can’t Happen Here

There’s a good story in here somewhere. The premise is intriguing. What would’ve happened had a populist presidential candidate, who campaigned on the promise that he would give the lower classes exactly what they wanted, had won the 1936 presidential election? The result is a watered-down version of Nazi Germany in Sinclair Lewis’s “It Can’t Happen Here. Happen

This book has seen a boon in sales recently, seeing as how we have elected a populist president who’s given the lower-classes (i.e. blue-collar Whites) what they wanted. The difference is that so far the checks on power have not failed and we have not devolved into tyranny. While the political consequences of the book have no come true, I understand why some would want to read about a book that warned against this type of political upheaval; it’s a good cautionary tale. What doesn’t work is the vehicle Lewis uses to carry his idea in.

We bounce around from Doremus Jessup, a rural Vermont newspaper editor, and the cadre of despots in Washington. The plot of the book reads like a movie you may have seen on TCM or the like. It’s set in the 1930’s and the actors can’t decide whether they are going to stick with melodrama or devolve into stand-up comedy. It wasn’t clear to me whether Lewis was trying to keep the book from becoming to heavy by adding in the random comedic attempts or whether he just didn’t know how to write characters that are complex.

The protagonist, Jessup, reminded me a lot of “1984”‘s Winston accept that Jessup is not as misogynistic, nor as poor-me as Winston. At the same time, my eyes are still sore from the many eye-rolls when Jessup complains that he just wishes he could spend more time with mistress in order to escape all of his wife’s flippant comments about American politics.

I’m also not convinced that Lewis wasn’t a hermit. A lot of the dialogue seems flat as if everyone is reading the script some seventh grade wrote about mobsters. The worst offenses occured whenever Shad Ledue would try and make a pass at Sissy. If men really talked like that, and women really responded as she did, I’m shocked that humanity has been able to survive.

Ok, enough savagery. Read this book if you dare, but maybe read it in installments with something more exciting in between to cleanse your literary palate.

The Sisters Brothers

Carl and Eli Sisters are two hired guns on the West Coast during the California Gold Rush era. We follow them from their hometown of Oregon City to San Francisco to the foothills of the Sierra. They are hired gunmen and their target this time is a prospector who may have found a way to discover gold using science. Along the way, we learn the complexities of being a gunslinger that is often times overlooked in many of our Westerns as well as the fact that these brothers share many of the same qualities and complexities that modern brothers exhibit. Sisters

Patrick DeWitt unravels some of the myth around Western gunslingers.  He makes them in seem more complex and less heroic, more relatable yet more detestable.  I appreciated this more “human” look at this American archetype.  Too often I feel we tend to romanticize the West and the people who settled it.  With nostalgia has come a gloss of denial. Ultimately, The Sisters Brothers are no John Waynes.

DeWitt’s honest portrayal of the West and life in the West made me appreciate it.  While I’m not from that era, clearly, having lived in California, Washington, and Nevada, I appreicated the way in which nature is portrayed not just as a setting but as a character unto itself.  I think that the West tends to be seen today as some hippie-leftist bastion, while we forget that it was. It’s neither villainized nor romanticized.


There’s also a surprising character, Eli’s horse Tug, who represents the relationship between man and nature and how man tends to destroy the latter. Trigger warning: animals are harmed in the plot of this book. Again though, it’s not maudlin. It’s honest and, what I believe, contributed to the sometimes aloof vibe that many Nor Cal folks give off.

The Best American Non-Required Reading 2015

“The Best American Non-required Reading” is an anthology of fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and graphic novels that is selected by a committee of high school students. As a high school teacher, I was curious to see what high schoolers would select as the best literature. I found their picks interesting and surprising. Non 2015

Wells Tower’s “Who Wants to Shoot an Elephant?” was eye-opening as it was shocking to read about the account of big-game hunting. Tower is open about his bias (anti-elephant hunting) but is objective in his portrayal of the wealthy Americans who do participate in the hunt. He doesn’t villanize them, but he does ask important questions.

Victor Lodato’s “Jack, July” takes us into the mind of an addict much like “Requiem for a Dream.”

“780 Days of Solitude” is the account of the three Americans who were held in Iran on charges of espionage. It’s written by the three young people and was a take on the story I hadn’t read before. I’m interested to read their entire book this was excerpted from.

Paul Salopek’s “Out of Eden Walk” shares his journey walking from Ethiopia through Russia tracing the route of human migration. The selection in the anthology covers his time in Palestine, Jordan, and Turkey.

There’s so many more I want to highlight, but I’d basically be recommending 80% of the book. While many of the pieces were well written, I had trouble appreciating the collection as a whole.  Having so many different genres mashed into one collection, I felt that I wasn’t able to settle in a enjoy reading the book cover to cover.  I found that I had to keep shifting my thinking switching from fiction to non-fiction to poetry and it gave me a bit of a headache.  Reader beware.

The Devourers

“The Devourers” is going to be one of those books that I think people are either are going to really like or really not like. It’s a modern day story about Alok who lives in Kolkata and meets a stranger. We learn from this stranger that he’s half shape-shifter (what we might call a werewolf). Alok and the stranger develop a sort of friendship and the stranger asks Alok to type out the stories found on two scrolls the stranger has been carrying. We jump back in time to two different story lines. One is from a Nordic shape-shifter, Fenrir and the other is Cyrah, aDevourers woman we meet in Northern India but who hails from further west. As Alok types out these stories, we begin to see the connection to the stranger.

There’s many different ways of reading this book, so it’s hard to put into words what it’s about. On one hand it’s looking at the nature of humanity through non-human eyes. It’s exploring what love means to different people and how we expect and do express love. There’s also a questioning of who are identities are and whether they are fixed or fluid.

This would be a good text to add in a study of mythology/folktales as it gives the “werewolf” a sort of origin story and history much like “Dracula” did for Vampires. I would say there’s a lot more depth in “The Devourers” than “Dracula” but the former does a better job than say “Trueblood” or “Twilight” has done to update the Vampire mythology.

Station Eleven

There’s been a lot of talk about Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel.  It was a finalist for the National Book Award and a bestseller.  It’s been on display at bookstores and libraries.  So it just so happened to be my book club’s latest pick.  I had high hopes for this book.  I like dystopian/apocalyptic novels, whether they be young adult based or adult based.  But I’m always interested in novels that aren’t made-for-film type young adult novels.

Station ElevenLaunching into the book, I brought a lot of baggage.  I’ve read The Passage by Justin Cronin, The Hunger Games, and Divergent. So I was wondering how Station Eleven was going to fit into this cannon of works.  Basically it’s the story of how the world collapses due to a flu and how individuals who survive the outbreak make a life after the collapse of civilization.

The writing is fluid and yet crisp.  There doesn’t seem to be a section that isn’t well thought out or a paragraph that is a waste.  The dialogue isn’t stilted and does more “showing” rather than “telling”.  The way in which the story is told is unique.  Beginning in media res the story flashes back to the past and then jumps forward to the future post-apocalypse world.  At first it was hard to keep track of where we were in the timeline, but quickly I settled into the flow of the novel.  It actually felt a lot like Lost (TV show), which I liked, so I was intrigued to see how it was all going to come together.

The one knock against the book is that it didn’t feel quite unique enough.  In fact, one of the novels that St. John Mandel mentioned as being referenced in her own work, The Passage, seems to be the precursor to her work.  I didn’t feel like she was doing anything new with her work, idea wise; they felt very similar.  What I did like about her work was that she asks different questions about what is civilization?, what ideas are better left off dying with the previous civilization? Which should be brought into the new world order?

All in all I would recommend this to anyone who is interested in good writing and dystopian novels.  It doesn’t go to the head of the class, but it does deserve an honorable mention.

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