Martin Dressler: Overview

Martin Dressler coveruh…huh.

Tl; Dr

A Dreiser-esque bildungsroman makes sense until about 80% of the way through, at which point it turns abruptly into a completely different novel written by R.L. Stine. At least, it’s what I imagine a Goosebumps to be like. I was always too chicken to read them.

That’s not a great summary.

Martin Dressler is an entrepreneur. We watch him grow from childhood, get his first job, and climb to heights no one could have predicted. He builds an empire of hotels, which ends spectacularly–in more ways than one.

Writing Style

I will say, the writer is consistent throughout. As I said in a previous post, he writes very much in the style of Theodore Dreiser. You’re really immersed in the world and mind of the characters, but it’s heavy on the facts and light on emotive elements. I love the style. It’s vivid in the way a good expose in Rolling Stone is vivid. And towards the end, even though the story goes full-on bat poop, the writing is the same. It’s just that, now, someone’s writing a good expose on a a circus-themed nightmare he had.

Characters

Martin is the main character, and he’s not likeable. You root for him anyway, because he’s a visionary. He also does some admirable things. His ambition causes him to aim high, and it’s hard not to cheer as he refuses to sell his ideas short. He ignores prejudices of his age and has a competent woman as his closest business confidant. But he’s unfaithful and a bully and entitled and, at the end, melodramatic.

Martin’s wife is also insufferable. She reminds me of Linton from Wuthering Heights–frail, waifish, self absorbed. I will say she isn’t whiny, though. Just a total waste of oxygen. Anyone around her has no choice but to make their lives about her or suffer the consequences. Now, you know I don’t mind unlikable characters, as long as they’re interesting. This one is not. And things end ridiculously with this character. Absolutely absurdly.

Anyway, characters are not the selling point of this book. The story is. Well, 80% of the story is. I don’t even know what the last 20% of this book was.

Highlights

I loved reading about the beginning of Martin’s life. As a bellboy, he notices details like the texture of luggage and the shine of brass, and the way he describes the bustle and brightness of the lobby is entrancing.

It was also great to watch Martin’s empire grow. You get to see the nuts and bolts of how he used new marketing techniques and how he found people with complementary skill sets.

There are good things about this book. I enjoyed reading it. UNTIL.

FWIW (My Opinion)

What in god’s name was this author doing. <– That was rhetorical.

The shift from a grounded, great-documentary-style to this starkly contrasting horror fantasy at the end was so utterly bizarre that I felt like my head was spinning, Exorcism-style (which would have been in place with this ending). Let me explain.

You’re just reading a story where Martin is building more and more experimental hotels, imagining whole villages underground with stores and themed activities and–kind of like one of the more over-the-top cruise ships, frankly. And then, all of a sudden, everything is totally out of control. But not in a way that feels like plot continuation. More like a way that feels like the author had a mental breakdown.

I won’t throw a spoiler out there, but Martin’s wife does something in contrast to every non-fantastic thing this book stood for until this point. After this, we’ll further see that all bets are off for realism. The new hotel Martin builds is like a freak show combined with a brothel combined with a nonstop pagan ritual. It’s like you’re in the casinos in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas after taking everything potent in the suitcase and having it go very badly for you–in other words, totally incongruous with the rest of the novel. The switch happens without warning, for the most part. I was turning pages in total disbelief that this was the same book.

I cannot understand for the life of me what the idea was here. I mean, I read a bit about Millhauser, and it sounds like he was indeed trying to transition into the fantastic, but gradually and elegantly. That transition was about as gradual and elegant as slamming into a brick wall at 70 miles an hour. I’d say the ending is unsatisfying, but it didn’t even feel like I was the conclusion of the same story.

Guys, hard pass. Too bad. It was good reading until things went nuts.

Hyperion: Overview

 

Cover of Hyperion by Dan SimmonsBlog post subjects over the last four years will show that science fiction hasn’t historically been my jam. I read much of Jules Verne’s works over the years, and the husband and I were putzing through the Stranger in a Strange Land audiobook. (We stopped because there was a glitch in the app we were using, and we never picked it back up–no knock on the book, really.) But that’s about where my sci-fi journey ends.

We bought Hyperion on Audible because it was a favorite of my husband’s when he was younger. The way he described it was intriguing–an involved, imaginative system of future worlds imagined by author Dan Simmons, conveyed through the personal stories of pilgrims off to see the world’s creepiest deity: the Shrike. So into the car speakers it went.

Tl;dr Synopsis

With a war that may destroy humanity on the horizon, seven people are summoned to go on a pilgrimage to see the Shrike, a giant, walking Ginsu knife set who probably didn’t get very many hugs as a child, what with the being made of sharpness and all. (Just kidding. The Shrike was probably never a child. It was never innocent.) To pass the nights on the way to see this metal nightmare, the pilgrims decide to tell their stories. Most of the book consists of the personal stories, and each pilgrim has a strange, usually sad connection to the world of Hyperion and this uber-terrifying Lord of Slicing and Dicing.

Writing Style

You know, the writing (other than the obnoxious use of ellipses as throat clearing) is way better that I would have thought. This is terrible of me, but I assume books that are very plot/action-centric will be designed with writing quality taking a backseat to various happenings–that, at best, writing will not get in the way of the plot. But the writing style of Hyperion was consistently elegant and creative, I thought. The dialogue could be over the top, especially in the beginning when the author was trying to establish the different personalities of the seven pilgrims. But to be fair, that’s a really hard thing to do: introduce seven characters and expect your reader to keep them straight. It was when Simmons wrote the lines for the poet that he went most over the top, but I also found the poet’s lines were the ones that most often the showcased what Simmons could do with the written word. I also think Simmons is a well-rounded reader himself. His many references to classic and contemporary lit weren’t lost on me. Much of Hyperion revolves around John Keats, and I thought that was a nice touch. Simmons’ writing did his references justice.

Characters

The characters won’t be your life-changing new best friends, but they’re decently developed and seldom cliche. All are quite serious, with the possible exception of the poet. I was quite pleased with the woman character being second on the list of most capable fighters on the quest and that Simmons made her of a stocky, muscular race.  Some of the characters are obnoxious–the poet is bawdy and full of cursing. And while the scholar is in possession of a heartbreaking story, there’s a current of pretentiousness and self-importance that runs just under the surface of all that he says. But overall, I think Simmons did a pretty good job with the people who populate his book.

Highlights

I personally found the very first story the most moving (and the most horrifying). The poet’s story is fascinating as well, and so much understanding of the Shrike, the history of Hyperion, and why things are the way they are come in his chapter. The last story is a little male-gaze-y (please, make sure I’m always up-to-the-moment on the texture of the female character’s breasts), but it becomes very moving at the end. It’s also a familiar story. The cruelties of colonization is a song being played on repeat throughout history, and I think Simmons would argue that it will continue playing as long as humanity is around.

Who Should Read this Book

I don’t think you have to be a sci-fi fan to love this book. It’s a fabulous choice if you’re looking for an “escape novel,” one you’d read every night to take a break from your own life. It isn’t exactly uplifting, but reading it was a great experience.

For What It’s Worth (A.K.A. My Opinion)

I just adored some things about this book. One: there’s a skillfully executed mimicking of The Canterbury Tales‘s structure. Two: I thought the in medias res intro left enough to imagination but not so much that it was too confusing. Related: the way each story filled in blanks bit by bit was quite satisfying. It was generally a great device for story creation. I’m having trouble thinking of anyone who’s done this in the same way. The mini-stories themselves are all very involving and inventive.

As you saw, I have a few bones to pick with the book. But it’s really very few. As few bones as you’d have attached to your skin after the Shrike fillets you.

Ew.

Interpreter of Maladies: Overview

Interpreter of Maladies CoverI’ve actually had Interpreter of Maladies on my bookshelf since it was published. I think maybe my grandmother gave it to me right when it came out. The cover is very familiar to me, but I’d never read it until now. My loss.

This will be short, but don’t take it as a knock on the book. It’s good. It’s no Crime and Punishmentof course. But I liked reading it.

Tl; Dr

This is a easy, quick read. It’s series of short stories that focus on the intersection of Indian and American culture. Many stories are about marriage and the comforts found in reminders of home.

Writing Style

Though the book is vivid at times, it’s mostly subdued and quiet. The first story, about a couple who has experienced a recent miscarriage, was the most haunting for me. But many of the stories had the same echoing resonance as this first one, kind of clanging around in my head after they’ve concluded.

Lahiri’s style is indistinct to me, but that’s not really a criticism. Her writing does not get in the way of the stories. She conveys them with ease, without including the distractions more amateur writers will throw in. She is a teller of interesting tales, and while her style is elegant and serious, it is also not the kind of voice you would recognize if you read something she wrote.

Characters

There aren’t a lot of characters that stand out to me. It’s hard to develop deep characters in a short story, and I think only the most masterful of short story magicians (ah, Karen Russell!) can do such a thing. There are some unusual and interesting folks that you’ll meet in Interpreter of Maladies: the observant interpreter himself; Bibi Haldar, the outcast old-maid-in-the-making; and eccentric Twinkle, who so obliviously leaves her husband feeling alone in the marriage. But I had to really think about it to remember characters that I thought stood out. It’s the stories that stick with you.

Highlights

I kind of think that these are nicely ordered from fantastic to medium to good, story-wise. The biggest snoozers in the middle, and the first three stories are especially gorgeous.

Story one, “A Temporary Matter,” is the pinnacle of Interpreter of Maladies, to me. The couple’s sorrow and emptiness is heartbreaking, though not as heartbreaking as their hope, if that makes sense.

“When Mr. Pirzada Came to Dine,” the second story, is about a child whose family has a visitor that treats her with kindness. Over time, she realizes that he has his own family far away and she could never serve as a replacement for his flesh and blood. It’s piquant and sweet.

The eponymous story, story three, is about a translator turned tour guide. For just a moment, he becomes wrapped up in a family’s life as he drives them around India. But in the midst of the trip, he sees to the heart of the family’s dysfunction.

These three stories especially are worth reading, though I also have a soft spot for “This Blessed House” and “The Third and Final Continent” as well.

FWIW (My Opinion)

Most stories contained in Interpreter of Maladies are sad ones, tinged with homesickness, showing characters reaching out to the place of their roots. There is lots of cooking and lots of market shopping in the books, and there are many ways that the characters feel caught between two cultures, even if they can’t articulate what they’re feeling. I thought it was a great read. I’d recommend it to anyone looking for something short, especially if they have interest in Indian culture. It isn’t lighthearted, that’s for certain. But most good lit isn’t.

Aaaaand Updates!

Moving on…lord, I’m trying to read The Stranger. It is going badly.

The Pulitzers came out recently, and I figured I had a bit of catching up to do (plus I missed one when I was skipping through the early 2000-aughts). So I snagged The Stranger, winner of 2016’s prize, thinking I’d take a detour for a more recent bearer of the gold seal. I don’t know if I can make it. It is utterly uninvolving.

Also, the husband and I are audiobook-reading Dan Simmon’s sci-fi opus Hyperion. That is going way better. I’m thrilled with the imagination of this author. It’s unlike anything I’ve ever read. But more on that later.

 

 

Empire Falls: Overview

A Twitter user with the handle @writing_class tweeted this picture:

Problem

That’s a perfect way to describe how I’ve been feeling about everything I’ve been reading lately, Empire Falls by Richard Russo being no exception.

Tl;Dr Synopsis

In Empire Falls, a mild-mannered but frustrated Boomer protagonist watches his life fading away. He wonders how to reach for more than running a diner in the small, fading town he never really left, full of people he grew up with. Over the course of the book, he begins to understand things about his past and how people in the town may be more strangely interconnected than he first suspected, and he sees that he will have to fight to give his daughter something better.

Writing Style

Russo’s style is dry. You won’t get a lot of editorializing from the author, certainly. But that’s not necessarily a knock. The thoughts and speech and actions of the characters are what move the book, and the author does a really great job of letting the conversations sculpt the characters instead of their stories or the author’s description. His style’s ancestor is Hemingway, and a more recent comparison I’d make is to Elizabeth Strout. The main thing that sets him apart is humor. Russo is funny, in a serious way. This shows up right near the beginning of the book:

Whiting men, all of whom seemed to be born with sound business sense, each invariably gravitated, like moths to a flame, toward the one woman in the world who would regard making them utterly miserable as her life’s noble endeavor, a woman who would remain bound to her husband with the same grim tenacity that bound nuns to the suffering Christ.

And the characters he’s really poured love into (those will be obvious when you read the book) are immensely snarky. They’re passive aggressive and get walked all over, but it’s great when they talk back. It’s another way he puts humor into the book.

This story moves very slowly, and Russo is a quiet writer. Much like his characters, you have to listen up to hear him.

Characters

Empire Falls CoverMiles Roby and his daughter Tick are the previously mentioned characters the author loves. Really, nearly everyone else in the book is perfectly hateable. Janine, Miles’ ex-wife, is vapid and childish, though it’s sometimes easy to take her side when you see what she’s been handed. Her fiancee (who likes to call himself the Silver Fox) is a preening boar. Jimmy Minty, the town cop, is close to pure evil–a result of crippling insecurity and a never-ending persecution complex. Ug, and Miles’ father Max is just insufferable. He’s so pathetic and obnoxious that it almost makes it hard to get through the book. Luckily, Miles and Tick are there to quietly hate on everyone under their breath for our amusement.

In this fading, formerly industrial world located in rural Maine, there’s still a Rockefeller figure that owns half the town. She, too, is pretty evil, but she’s very fun to read. Clever, jaded, and sharp as a tack, this old queen of Empire Falls plays puppetmaster throughout most of the story. The plot involving her, Miles’ mother, and the old mill-running family is the real draw of the book, but there are a number of good things happening throughout. There’s a strand that follows Janine and one that follows Tick at school. There’s of course the day-to-day for Miles, though that’s hardly interesting. And maybe that’s the point.

The pulse behind all the characters in the book is that they feel trapped in a town that’s dying and the’re powerless to do anything except watch minute after minute go by, everything always decaying–fast enough to depress you but so slow enough to be boring. That’s what molds all the characters into who they are.

If they made Billy Joel’s “Piano Man” into a book, Empire Falls would be it.

Highlights

Miles retells a story from his childhood, when he and his mother went to Martha’s Vineyard and she met someone that made her blossom. The vacation, as told from the child’s perspective, reveals so much–including Miles’ fascination with the place as an adult. It’s really beautifully written, and I can vividly remember much of that chapter because it was told in a way that was so memorable.

Who Should Read the Book

Not everyone. As I said, the book is slow. The characters are largely infuriating and not at all a joy to experience. Even Miles is a frustrating character to read. It’s hard not to want to shake him.

But despite all this, I loved Empire Falls. I think a lot could be said for the symbolism of the river that the powerful family in the book tries to reroute–so much of what makes Empire Falls tick is how fate and free will plays a part in the characters’ lives. There’s a great discussion to be had there, and if I were better at blogging more frequently, I’d love to have started it.

The people who will enjoy this are people who like minimalist style and slow-moving plots. Think slightly faster than The Picture of Dorian Gray, which is a long book with lots going on but a base plot that could be boiled down to a sentence. It’s a subtle book, minus the kick-you-in-the-face climax. Deep thinkers and introverts will connect. People who like a lot of zest and action will absolutely not. And that’s okay.

FWIW (My Opinion)

This was a sensitive, sad piece with a lot of complexity and just the right amount of straight-faced humor to not make things too maudlin.  I really enjoyed some of the more undercover strings running through the text. This puppy could really come alive for people through discussion and analysis.

Have fun getting “Peter Frampton Comes Alive” out of your head now. Wait, here.

Piano Man!

Start humming. That’s really the song you should leave Empire Falls with.

Middlesex: Overview

CaptureBy way of introduction, I’ll say this: the first thing I did upon finishing Jeffrey Eugenides’ Middlesex was buy another book by Jeffrey Eugenides. I mean, the instant I closed the book, that was the very next thing I did.

Tl;Dr Synopsis

An intersex male-identifying protagonist describes a family history from his grandparents up to the present, featuring his current life events.

Wow, I can’t believe that long, winding, beautiful book can be summed up in a single sentence.

Writing Style

Eugenides is funny and easy to read. Yet there’s a literary voice and knowledge of device that differentiates his book from a comedian’s journal. He combines the ancient with the modern (which, incidentally, is a huge theme in the book) by using turns of phrase found in the literature of Greek antiquity to describe his story. And his writing packs a punch right from the beginning. He starts with “I was born twice.” (What!? So good!)

Here’s the introductory sentence in its entirety:

“I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day of January 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.

Now this is the way to start a book.

Eugenides had something going on in Middlesex that I at first wanted to call a giant hole in his writing abilities, and that was the treatment of a first-person perspective as omniscient. If you can’t quite recall all the terms from your junior high reading courses, that just means that he was writing as an “I” but saying things an “I” couldn’t possibly know–what other characters were thinking, exact conversations that were had while he was in the womb. But he addressed this in the most interesting way. He portrayed himself as actually being the mutation lying dormant in the bodies that came before him, allowing him to be present at all previous events through ancestors. This suits the novel so well, since so much identity comes to him through not just his Greek heritage and family values, but also the gene that makes him who he is.

–And now, a quick break for who he is–

Here’s a quick rundown of the non-cis-gender identities, as best I know. (This was probably the best source I found.) I needed a primer, so maybe you do, too. Please, anyone, correct me if you find these to be wrong, and I’ll update.

Transgender–Umbrella term for those who don’t feel the gender identity assigned to them at birth reflects who they really are. (See Caitlyn Jenner, or better yet, read the awesome letter from Lilly Wachowski of The Matrix fame)

Transsexual–sometimes used to describe a transgender person that has chosen to make biological changes via hormone therapy or surgery. The term is becoming passe and is, frankly, a little personally invasive.

Transvestite–Ye olde term for a transgender person that meant “cross-dresser”: considered offensive today.

Intersex–Formerly “hermaphrodite” (a etymologically misleading word not really used anymore), this means that a person was born with ambiguous anatomy. Cal from Middlesex is intersex. When born, he appeared to his half-blind doctor to fully female and was raised as such. A closer look would have shown some anatomy to be atypical, and he carried an XY chromosome pair–the set used to classify humans as male.  See here for more detail, or just read the book. The narrator is very open about what’s going on.

Note: none of these things have anything to do with what gender an individual is attracted to. That’s something else entirely.

–End break–

Another thing that really makes the writing in this engaging is that the author communicates so well about things that not many people understand. The description of Cal growing up and trying to understand bodies and attraction and identity brings to life a kind of struggle many people could never imagine. I couldn’t.

Eugenides also puts within reach the kind of things that happen slowly and are therefore hard to pinpoint: the development of superstition, the attitudes toward race, the slow decay of love. I feel like I look around at the people around me sometimes and think, “How did you even get to this place?” But after reading Middlesex, I don’t know…it’s just seems easier to understand things that happen even around me, outside of the book’s scope. 

Characters

Cal is a beautiful, empathetic narrator. He’s the perfect person to tell the story of the family. He does so with such humor and compassion, and you never quite forget that it’s him talking, but he never takes you out of the story. Cal himself builds up to his own life–he doesn’t become a major part of the action until the end–but you feel very much as if it’s him telling you a story the whole way through.

Desdemona and Lefty are fleshed out characters that live full lives, though their marriage is kind of sad and their stories are a bit tragic. I don’t know that either is exactly likable, but you feel like you know them and their struggles, especially Desdemona’s old world superstition and Lefty’s pull away from Desdemona and toward the excitements he remembers from youth.

Cal’s parents are less remarkable. Their courtship is, well, interesting. But neither character really seems developed. The mother is especially unmemorable, and if it weren’t for Milton’s notable racism, he wouldn’t stand out, either. The section that focuses on them is the lowlight of the book.

Highlights

The magic of this book is that it deals with so many issues at once without becoming lecture soup. I mean, gender identity, immigration, Greek culture, family dynamics, racism, religion, war, incest–it’s all covered. But none of it is sermonizing. It’s all just part of the story.

My favorite two parts were near the beginning, with Lefty and Desdemona growing up, and near the end, when Callie spends her days with who she calls “the object.” Both parts left me enraptured. The middle of the book is a little bloaty, but nothing that didn’t stop me from going straight for the next book. (I picked up the Virgin Suicides, which is so far wonderfully written but lacks the humor of Middlesex.)

Who Should Read the Book

This is hard. I want to say everyone will like it, but that’s probably naive of me. If you like coming-of-age stories or stories about families, this will probably tickle you. If you like feeling like someone you know is telling you a story when you read a book, this may be up your alley. But if you like fast-moving, action heavy plots, this isn’t probably your speed. It’s long and, at times, slow going.

You will probably know whether or not you like the book in the first few pages. The writing style is clearly established early on, and the type of characters you’ll meet are met quickly.

FWIW (My Opinion)

This was a very bright spot in my Pulitzer journey. I loved the whole experience of reading Middlesex. It’s pretty clear to me that this won the Pulitzer because of its treatment of social issues (being born different, issues of prejudice), it doesn’t hurt that the writing is fantastically entertaining and entirely pleasing.

March: Overview

51I8X5w-eeL._SX324_BO1,204,203,200_.jpgIf you were once a child and are female, someone probably gave you Little Women at some point. Whether you read it or not is another thing.

I read it. But I also read every word on cereal boxes as I crunched away at breakfast and was consequently the only eight-year-old to be familiar with terms like “butylated hydroxyanisole” and “red #40.”

I’m much more picky about my books (and my cereal) these days. It’s hard for me to remember Little Women, but if it’s anything like March, it was probably so-so, and it was certainly not Pulitzer-worthy. But let me explain.

Tl;dr Synopsis

“Tl;dr” is a pretty good summary of how you should approach this book. No, I’m sorry, it really isn’t that bad. I’ll get more objective for you.

Here’s some necessary background: Meg, Jo, Beth, Amy, and their mother Marmee were the heroes of the book Little Women, written by 19th century author Louisa May Alcott. Largely absent from the picture is the father’s experience. He went off to take part in the Civil War and returned when Beth fell ill.

March is meant to be an expansion on Little Women, telling the story of that father. It alternates between (a.) documenting his rather brutal and traumatizing experience as a radically abolitionist chaplain in the army and (b.) sharing background material from his younger years. It also includes letters to his wife, which describe mostly the changing of the seasons and the physical surroundings, pointedly leaving out the gruesomeness of the war. The book is written in the first person, from March’s point of view. Except when it switches to Marmee’s point of view, which happens near the end for a few chapters. Yep. Lots of narrative-technique fidgeting going on here.

Sorry, back to objective.

The main themes of the book are war and slavery, with a bit of family sprinkled in.

Writing Style

Here is where I have the most praise for the author. Mid-19th century literature is what I grew up reading (you know, when I wasn’t busy with nutrition labels), and the style of writing feels like home to me. Usually when a contemporary writer tries to mimic the tone of this time period, it’s groan-inducing. But Geraldine Brooks, author of March, did a splendid job of affecting the tone of an 1860s writer. She either grew up on the stuff too, or she did a great job studying the phrasing of the time period.

But tone isn’t exactly the same as language, though naturally word choice is essential to tone. The language surrounding the issue of slavery and race relations didn’t ring authentic. Even the most vehement of abolitionists of the Civil War era would have used different words than were used here. Now, that’s forgivable. No one wants their book to be taken out of context, and if Brooks had decided to be more true to the time, her book could easily be taken not as a period piece but instead as a offensive book written in the 2000s by an ignorant white lady. But I think the word choice here, while judicious, was the tip of the iceberg. There’s a problem with the novel that runs deeper.

Characters

The main character, the patriarch of the March family, is not believable. He can talk the 1860s talk, but he’s clearly a character plucked from 2007 and placed into the time period, modern (educated) sentiments about equality/race and all. It’s as if he’s lived in an absolute vacuum. The treatment of African Americans as “other” never ceases to astound him, even after seeing it over and over. It’s absurd.

Certainly, the nature of the cruelty shown toward an entire race would have shocked insulated people in the north at that time. But no one was going to be surprised that slaves were treated differently than white people. I mean, it’s the sad truth that you can’t even expect that African Americans will be treated with equality today, except for in the most progressive circles.

I don’t want to go into it too much, but feel free to read yourself and see what you think. March expresses ideas that are totally not in keeping with the time, all while being continually shocked when people didn’t feel the same or couldn’t see what he saw. It just isn’t accurate. More than that, it isn’t imaginative to just take what any civilized, modern-day person would think a turn it into the basis for the hero of a Civil War novel.

 

It’s not just him that’s the problem with Brooks’ character writing. She threw in Thoreau and Emerson, for reasons explained at the end: Alcott’s own family was close with the Thoreaus and Emersons. But these giants of American history seemed tossed in as an afterthought, having little to do with the actual book. These historical figures also seemed to be written in with the goal of making them come alive to the reader, and this intention (and not the coordinating desired result) comes through with every word. I can just imagine the author thinking “I am a fiction writer! I shall reveal to the reader not a crusty figure from a textbook but a person with flashing eyes (every amateur fiction writer’s favorite, along with “flowing tresses”) and quirky mannerisms!” ~Holds pen high above paper, descends with flourish.~

All right. I’m being very hard on this book. It wasn’t that bad. I finished it.

Highlights

I liked reading about Rev. March growing up. The first third or so of the book is the best part.

Though I wasn’t crazy about the Emerson and Thoreau characters, John Brown entered the story in an interesting way. I thought that character was pretty well written, and if you know the Little Women backstory about losing a fortune, this was a great integration with the plot.

Who Should Read the Book

If you’re a fan of British writing of this time period and you’re not quite as familiar with American history or don’t mind a little leeway with it, this isn’t a bad book. The writing style is true, and most people probably won’t have as much of an issue with the book as I did, since I know myself to be cantankerous and amazingly picky. Oh, and if you love Little Women, this is probably a great addition to your library. It will be fun for you to see how Brooks filled in some missing pieces.

For What It’s Worth (My Opinion)

The intention behind the book was good, and I’ve largely focused on my complaints. So here’s the positive stuff. I think it portrayed the attitude of most toward slaves and abolitionists quite accurately. It even threw in some of the more nuanced issues, such as why slave owners viewed reading and writing as dangerous. And it certainly portrayed the atrocities of war and slavery in a way that was accurate–upsettingly so. It’s just that March himself, you should know, isn’t really a reflection of the time. Not from what I’ve read, anyway.

I wouldn’t read anything else from Brooks, personally. I just can’t forgive the flaws in the book’s namesake character. The book wasn’t awful, but there are too many other things out there.

Sorry for the absence. I’ve got some more things in the pipeline, including a “looking forward to 2016 books” post, and, appropriately, a post on the pains of content creation.

The Road: Overview

Capture

Post-apocalyptic tales, zombie movies—even the Party Rock Anthem video—none of it is my thing.

Also, you know what’s not on my list of characteristics of good writing? Speaking in fragments, letting fly endless streams of invented portmanteaus, and showing signs of a deep, weirdly personal revulsion for the comma.

With The Road, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter if I don’t really like stories like this. It doesn’t matter that McCarthy makes up all his own rules about the construction of an English sentence. That’s because The Road is above personal taste and grammar rules.

Tl;dr Synopsis

An unnamed father and young son are travelling by foot through a cold and barren landscape. At first, all you know is that the father doesn’t want to be seen, which seems a little paranoid, given the desolation. But soon, it becomes clear why they need to stay hidden and why they’re never safe in one spot for too long. In an event that’s never really described, the whole continent (and the whole world, the father assumes) has burned. The years after the disaster have required that the small population of remaining humans fight to survive. The struggle has brought out the worst in some.

The winters have become too harsh, and the father’s vague goal is to get him and his son south to a more sustainable climate. But what will they do once they get there? You share the feelings they must have: there’s an uneasy hope that maybe it will be some improbable paradise of safety. But you don’t want to think about that too much, since what certainly lies in wait is death, one way or another.

The Road chronicles a few months of this pair’s journey. Along the way, you experience all the moments of desperation and horror and soaring relief that accompanies them.

Writing Style

First off, know that McCarthy speaks in fragments. There is no careful crafting of complex sentences, no adherence to anything like rules. Words go on paper, and he’s done. But where as I felt like editing the bejeezus out of the last author I read like this (Junot Diaz), I think putting a hand on McCarthy’s prose would be a mortal sin. You do not touch this man’s writing. It would be like trying to add a vanishing point to a Picasso or something—sure, it would make more visual sense, but you’re messing with the inventiveness of the art.  McCarthy, despite disregarding the rules of written communication, communicates beautifully. His writing is never confusing or unclear, and it’s inventive. His unusual twists on standard English do him a great service, in fact. It’s difficult to make devices like simile and metaphor not sound cliche, no matter how inventive the actual comparisons are. But this syntactical defamiliarization throws the reader off-game enough for McCarthy to use these devices without fear.

No one will accuse him of being a man of too few words, though that’s not to say the writing is simplistic. If you like Hemingway’s style, you will love McCarthy. He never tells us what his pair of protagonists are feeling, only what they say, do, and think. You’re left to fill in the emotional blanks yourself, and boy, do you. You live inside the characters.

I think one of the most moving scenes is when the two finally come upon the ocean. They had been trying to get to the shore for weeks, and you almost feel as much anticipation as they do. For what, you don’t know. You’ve just been living in their bleak world with them, looking forward to anything different that might be awaiting them, starving for some kind of hope. When they come upon the ocean, it’s gray, not blue. The sea is “shifting heavily like a slowly heaving vat of slag and then the gray squall line of ash.” The father apologizes that the ocean is not blue. The boy says, “That’s okay.” Then he insists on going swimming, despite the cold. When he comes out, he’s weeping. When the father asks what’s wrong, the boy says nothing. End scene.

You don’t have to describe the emotions, the disappointment of it all. Just what McCarthy says is enough to rip your heart out. Adding any more would be a sin. It’s minimalism at its most perfect.

That’s McCarthy’s best skill, I think. As a reader, you’re extremely active in the story. He carefully places his blanks, never leaving out so much information that you’re frustrated, but always making you do the work of walking with his characters. I think that’s a kind of respect for your audience.

Characters

You’re very much thrown in medias res into the two character’s lives, so you must form a picture of who they are from what you see of them now, not who they have been. The boy and the man are very different, though you understand why. The man is jaded and always on guard. He is the boy’s protector, and he takes that role very seriously. That causes problems between him and the boy. The son is empathetic and is willing to take risks to make human connections with others. But since that will endanger him, the man overrules all his son’s overtures to make friends with the few people they encounter who may not be savages.

Both the man and the boy are characters you understand, and though the focus of the book appears to be on the journey, it’s largely about what the situation is doing to the characters and their dynamic with one another.

Highlights

I’m not going to give it away, but there’s one shining moment of delight and relief in this book where you can almost feel your whole body relax. Straits were dire, and all of a sudden, a miracle.

At the same time, you understand when McCarthy tells us the man hates the luck. The father had accepted death was coming, and he was looking forward to the relief it would bring. He could have finally rested. Now, it was clear he was meant to keep fighting, and it was almost painful to switch back into that mode.

So, yeah, I guess the highlight is kind of depressing. This is why I don’t really like doomsday scenario books. It’s worth the experience in this case, though.

Who Should Read this Book

A beach read this is not. (Unless you’re like me and like to read Beloved while sipping a daiquiri on a cruise.)

But you’ve got to read it, just to watch McCarthy work. It’s an amazing experience. You absolutely go with these characters on the journey, and it’s nearly impossible to put down.

But, I don’t know…if you’re particularly empathetic (which I am, for what it’s worth) or feeling low these days, you might want to pick the right time in your life to read it. No judgement if that time isn’t now. The book is heavy.

For What It’s Worth (A.K.A. My Opinion)

I’m shocked that I loved this. Like I said in the beginning, it does not have the makings of a book I would even finish. The minimalist prose and the bleak apoco-scape are not on my list of favorite things. But it’s a beautiful, haunting experience, and I give so much props to McCarthy for crafting such a thing. The Picasso reference wasn’t thrown out casually. I feel like this author is an artist.

I’ll tell you what else. Taking a hot shower and feeling your hair dry all fluffy, curling up under a down comforter, throwing a delightful spinach/goat cheese/raspberry vinaigrette salad into your face—none of it will ever feel as good as it does after you finish The Road. Every little luxury in my life I appreciate now as privilege. Considering the season, it might be an appropriate thing. I don’t know the last time I’ve been so thankful for what I have.