The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer is a book about life and its endless possibilities.
When the novel begins, a group of six childhood friends are on equal footing; all of them have an artistic talent and the environment to nurture that talent. As we follow the group into adulthood we see those endless possibilities dwindle into a single reality. We see varying degrees of love, money, talent, ambition, and satisfaction and the roles they play in the lives of these six intertwined friends.
Comparing the outcomes of these six fictional lives is a small step away from comparing our own lives to our own peers. This novel, however, can show us that finding the perfect balance to happiness is not always as straightforward as we would like it to be.
The quote below summarizes this theme of the novel. The funnel however, does not stop after childhood, the funnel continues to narrow and squeeze with every choice we make.
“When you have a child,” [Ash had] recently said to Jules, it’s like right away there’s this grandiose fantasy about who he’ll become. And then time goes on and a fuel appears. And the child gets pushed through t that funnel, and shaped by it, and narrowed a little bit. So now you know he’s not going to be an athlete. and now you know he’s not going to be a painter. Now you know he’s not going to be a linguist. All these difference possibilities fall away.”
The Interestings is in the running for the best book cover. Although not particularly representative of the story, the attention it draws is undeniable.
If you are looking for pure entertainment, this book is not for you. However… if you let this novel plant seeds in your mind, and if you let your wandering thoughts water those seeds, you may find yourself emerged in something much larger and much more rewarding than a novel.
One more good quote…
“Part of the beauty of love was that you didn’t need to explain it to anyone else. You could refuse to explain. With love, apparently you didn’t necessarily feel the need to explain anything at all.”
There is an argument surrounding A Visit From the Goon Squad whether it is a novel or a collection of linked short stories. This gray area is a main reason I loved the story. It jumps in time, switches character perspective, and at times feels plain messy. Messy in a very tidy way. Just when I thought I was getting lost and confused, Egan would slip in a quick reference to time or character that would ground me again.
In a Nutshell
A Visit From the Goon Squad is not an easy plot to summarize. The main character changes from chapter to chapter. Often, a minor character in one story will become more prominent in the next. The settings range from New York City to Africa, from childhood homes to safari adventures.
Each chapter is a fresh start, a new story, but the thread that connects them makes them much more than if they were standing alone.
Music and Time
The array of characters are mostly related to the music industry in some way. We connect with musicians and agents; missed talent and forgotten stars. The variety provides different views of the world and each one draws interest in their own way.
Time kills. I think Egan would agree. Every character is defeated, or at least beaten down, by time. We see hopeful talent that falls flat, golden memories tarnished by reunions, and optimism sours into demise.
I read A Visit From the Good Squad by Jennifer Egan several months ago and never posted a full book review until now. As it is an exceptional book that made my list of Favorite Books of 2015, I thought late was better than never.
Bird Box by Josh Malerman is one of the most suspenseful books I’ve ever read. The intense mystery is set in the very first chapter and does not cease until the very last page.
The only comparable suspense novel I can think of is The Shining, and that is high praise.
A Strange, Strange World
In the first chapter we meet Malorie and two four-year-old children who are trying to escape a life of terror to a place they can only get to by rowing blindfolded down a river for several miles. Why is her life filled with terror? Why does she have to be blindfolded? Why are all the windows on their house boarded up and covered? Why has Malorie not seen sunlight for over 5 years? Why does she never refer to the children by name? Where are all the people?
All these questions and more hook the readers’ curiosity and the intense danger Malorie feels is transferred to the reader. With every chapter, more answers are revealed but more questions also arise. Malerman reveals just enough to keep the reader understanding this strange world more all the time, but keeps the door closed on the biggest secrets until the very end.
Great Suspense Stems From Great Writing
Without giving too much away, I will tell you that the characters in this world refuse to open their eyes outside. This had two major effects on the writing: 1) sight was often lost, and the author deepened upon the other senses for description, 2) not knowing what could be right next to you, something dangerous, something deadly, adds a lot of suspense all by itself.
At one point, Malerman integrates counting into a suspenseful scene. Set outside in a world full of unseen dangers, the characters are putting themselves at risk every second they are outside. The counting draws attention to those danger-filled seconds ticking by.
Without a doubt, Bird Box is the best book I’ve read so far this year. If you love suspense, horror, apocalyptic stories, or simply good writing, you should read this book!
After reading Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life, I wanted my next read to be lighthearted and plot based. So, I picked up an old Dean Koontz novel, By the Light of the Moon. The two books could not be more different. Of course genre plays a big part, but the difference in writing styles is striking.
Koontz’s writing style is heavy in description and his plot moves forward minute by minute. Wolff puts the bare bones on paper, jumping right to the action and cutting all unnecessary description, plot, characterization, ect. I don’t think This Boy’s Life contains a single wordy sentence. Koontz, on the other hand, loves lengthy metaphors and diving deep into characters’ thoughts, even during heated action scenes.
Koontz and Wolff are two of my favorite writers but their styles could not be more different. Reading their books back-to-back really opened my eyes to those differences. Let me show you some specific examples.
Here are a few sentences that begin chapters in Wolff’s This Boy’s Life and Koontz’s By the Light of the Moon.
- The sheriff came to the house one night and told the Bolgers that Chuck was about to be charged with statutory rape.
- My father took off for Las Vegas with his girlfriend the day after I arrived in California.
- When I was alone in the house I went through everyone’s private things.
- Shortly before being knocked unconscious and bound to a chair, before being injected with an unknown substance against his will, and before discovering that the world was deeply mysterious in ways he’d never before imagined, Dylan O’Conner left his motel room and walked across the highway to a brightly lighted fast-food franchise to buy cheeseburgers, French fries, pocket pies with apple filling, and a vanilla milkshake.
- These were extraordinary times, peopled by ranting maniacs in love with violence and with a violent god, infested with apologists for wickedness, who blamed victims for their suffering and excused murderers in the name of justice.
What difference do you notice? Length? Who is more action-oriented? Who is more introspective?
By the Light of the Moon: 140 pages into the novel less than three hours have passed in the plot with very little background/flashbacks. A high-speed car chase (not really a chase but a mission) that lasts approximately 10 minutes in real time, stretches 15 pages in the book. At times, I forget the chase was even happening because the side tangents and in-depth character thoughts were so dense.
This Boy’s Life: the plot skips large chunks of time, covering approximately eight years in total. In the following sentence Wolff captures the entire time frame of 7th grade (aka puberty): “I kept outgrowing my shoes, two pairs in the seventh grade alone.” Of course Wolff does go into normal-speed scenes in his memoir, but they are strongly action-based with little filler.
Which writing style do you enjoy more?
Does one style draw you in more than the other? Why do you think that is? I personally enjoy both. Certain months I relish the bare bones of Wolff, Carver, and the like. Other months I crave the second-by-second, in-the-mind-of-the-character stories of Dean Koontz, Stephen King, and others.
Comment with two writers who are very different, yet you love them both.
Here is my favorite blog post of the year, a list of my favorite books read in 2015. Although the publishing dates range from 2001 to 2014, they all found their way to the top of my reading list last year and I’m very glad they did!
Life of Pi by Yann Martel
This novel is inspiring, imaginative, unique, and fulfilling. It’s a story I want so badly to be true that sometimes I ignore the label of fiction it possesses.
Journey. Expedition. Adventure. None of these words quite capture the magic felt while cruising the Pacific’s current with Pi Patel, a zoo-keeper’s son who finds himself stranded on a lifeboat in the middle of an ocean with a murderous bengal tiger.
Without cramming Life of Pi‘s theme into a single word or phrase, it is about… Humanity. Peace. Storytelling. Faith. And how we interprets these things. What we choose to believe and how we push away the improbable as impossible.
I recommend it to anyone who wants to be inspired by imagination.
Dry by Augusten Burroughs
One of the best pieces of creative nonfiction I have ever read. Burroughs’ brilliant storytelling mixes pure truth with dirty humor in this memoir about his struggle with alcoholism.
I recommend it to lovers of creative nonfiction, people who want to understand what creative nonfiction is all about; and anyone interested in getting a first-person perspective of an alcoholic.
A Visit From the Good Squad by Jennifer Egan
There is an argument surrounding A Visit From the Goon Squad whether it is a novel or a collection of linked short stories. That gray area is a main reason I loved this story. It jumps in time, switches character perspective, and leaves you slightly dazed and confused.
I recommend it to readers and writers who want to think about time and those who enjoy blurred boundaries.
Redeployment by Phil Klay
This collection of short stories surrounding political, emotional, and humanity issues of the Iraq War is must-read! Klay’s writing is concise, dense, and relevant to our time. While some stories may draw you to tears, others may outrage you into action.
I recommend it to every American.
The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
The Kite Runner is one of the most powerful stories I have ever read. Like Redeployment it is a story of our times, portraying an insiders view of Iraq in the years before America declared war. But don’t mistake this novel for a war story, it is a story of human nature through and through. The story is one I will not easily forget.
I recommend it to thoughtful readers who are curious about human nature and why we do the things we do.
Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger
Set in the Minnesota summer of 1961, Ordinary Grace is an enriching story about real life and untimely death. It is filled with memorable, flawed characters; written in a clear, comforting voice; and set in a world that feels far away yet so close to the heart.
I recommend it to readers looking for an honest, realistic, heart-felt story. Also to anyone looking for an exceptional audio book!
The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson
The Devil in the White City is a story about the Chicago World Fair in 1893 and the notorious mass murderer, Dr. H. H. Holmes. While so many historical nonfiction authors are not, Erik Larson is a story teller, making the story very entertaining. The story drops teasers like a suspense novel, builds character like literary fiction, and weaves multiple story lines better than most novels in any genre.
I recommend it to fiction lovers who crave a little history.
Elegies of the Brokenhearted by Christie Hodgen
Through detailed looks at side characters, we get a gradual picture of the main character’s life. Elegies is a story of unique structure that will make you take a close look at the people in your life and the impact left lingering long after they disappear.
I recommend it to readers and writers who crave something other than the lovable main character in the typical obstacle-based plot.
Writing Prompt based on Black Box by Jennifer Egan:
Write a story in Tweets.
Write a story in 140-character-or-less segments.
It will be jerky.
It will be minimalist.
It will challenge your way with words.
And, hopefully, it will be fun!
Jennifer Egan’s short story, Black Box, was originally published on the New Yorker’s Twitter account. Therefore, each segment was required to be 140 characters or less. It is best understood, and appreciated, by reading the story itself, so please do so.
Here are two EXCEPTIONAL novel intros that immediately hooked me. Please let me know what you think in the comments. What are your favorite first chapters?
Log Entry: Sol 6
I’m pretty much fucked.
That’s my considered opinion.
Six days in to what should be the greatest two months of my life, and it’s turned in to a nightmare.
I don’t even know who’ll read this. I guess someone will find it eventually. Maybe a hundred years from now.
For the record…I didn’t die on Sol 6. Certainly the rest of the crew thought I did, and I can’t blame them. Maybe there’ll be a day of national mourning for me, and my Wikipedia page will say “Mark Watney is the only human being to have died on Mars.”
And it’ll be right, probably. Cause I’ll surely die here. Just not on Sol 6 when everyone thinks I did.
This intro does so many great things:
Bold use of “fuck” in the first sentence. A sure way to gain the attention of your reader.
It quickly explains the situation. Our main character is alone on Mars after some kind of accident.
It sets the mood. Dangerous. Life-threatening. Unhopeful.
It develops character. An astronaut. A survivor.
It sets the tone of casual, journal entry format. Fragment sentences and the use of “cause” instead of “because.”
Its develops setting. On Mars, obviously. And the Wikipedia reference sets us in recent time.
If this genre in any way interests you, I don’t know why you wouldn’t want to pick up this book!
I woke up shaking.
I panicked at first, thinking I was having a stroke or something. Then I opened my eyes, relieved, as I remembered it wasn’t me that was shaking, it was my apartment.
Outside the wall of dusty, industrial-style windows beside my bed came what sounded like a regiment of giants rhythmically striking concrete with their rifle butts in a parade drill. But it wasn’t the jolly green marines. I knew it was the elevated number 1 Broadway local, rattling to shake the dead back to life next to my new fifth floor Harlem loft apartment. Hadn’t gotten use to that train yet.
I winced, covered my head with my pillow. Useless. Only in New York did one have to actually pay for the privilege of sleeping beside an overpass.
But I was so broke I couldn’t even afford to complain. I sat up. I couldn’t even really afford to sleep. I couldn’t even afford to think about money. I’d spent it all and then some; my credit was in the sewer. By that point, I was in tunnel-vision mode, focusing my entire life on one desperate need: to figure things out before it was too late.
(False) shock to hook the reader. The world is shaking!
Character- building. A broke New Yorker with something to prove.
What is the first thing you think of when you wake up? Whatever it is, it will tell us a lot about your current life situation. The same is true for fictional characters, and Patterson gives us that before we even know our character’s name.
Sets the tone. An honest first-person narrator open to telling us his struggles.
Develops setting. A dingy New York apartment next to the train tracks.
Think of a character. Now write a paragraph describing them BUT… here’s the kicker…do not describe their looks, what they are wearing, or what they are thinking. Write in third person and use the description of their surroundings to tell us something about the character.
Here is an example from Angela Carter’s “The Company of Wolves”. Notice how the items she surrounds herself with tell us something about her character.
Aged and frail, Granny is three-quarters succumbed to the mortality the ache in her bones promises her and almost ready to give in entirely. A boy came out from the village to build up her hearth for the night an hour ago and the kitchen crackles with busy firelight. She has her Bible for company, she is a pious old woman. She is propped up on several pillows in the bed set into the wall peasant-fashion, wrapped up in the patchwork quilt she made before she was married, more years ago than she cares to remember. Two china spaniels with liver-colored blotches on their coats and black moses set on either side of the fireplace. There is a bright rug of woven rags on the pantiles. The grandfather clock ticks away her eroding time.
Looking for a character? Try one of these…
I haven’t read many James Patterson novels but whenever I do, I learn something new. His books are intelligent and thought-provoking. Zoo is no exception. Its filled with facts about animal behavior and zoology and it will force you to take a second look at how the actions of humans are effecting our environment.
Plot and Timeline
Animals all over the world start attacking human beings, literally turning the world into a zoo. This James Patterson novel, which has recently been adapted into a TV series on CBS, is a short but thrilling novel.
The novel begins in a very detailed, day-by-day structure. Fast-paced and action packed. Animals escape from a zoo in LA, lions attack and kill entire villages in Africa, loving pets turn into vicious monsters, attacking the same people they have lived with for years.
Then halfway through the novel the plot suddenly jumps ahead 5 years. Patterson explains that not much development of the animal epidemic happens during those 5 years, but a lot has happened with our main character. He has fallen in love, got married, and had a son.
Although this 5-year jump makes a lot of sense for the plot, I don’t like it from a character perspective. Falling in love and becoming a father can completely change a person and I didn’t feel like those changes got the attention they deserved. Zoo is definitely a plot-based action novel but a novel will never feel complete without a solid, realistic character in my eyes.
Smooth, descriptive writing makes Zoo an easy read. Here is an example of a memorable character description.
“The big boisterous fool is squatting against the truck of a tree, wheezing like a concertina from the exertion of the morning’s uphill march. Kahlil is fat as a swine and smokes like a broken truck. And as slow moving as sap in January.”
I have watched the first few episodes of Zoo on CBS and think the show is interesting but I don’t expect it to get renewed for a second season.
I would recommend the TV show over the book, but neither are at the top of my list.
2.5 stars. A good action-based thriller. The exact kind of novel that makes a best-seller list, as this surely did, but it lacked character development.