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.
I cannot pass by one without pausing to admire it. If it’s within reach, I cannot resist touching it. I trace the retro curves and mechanical angles before finally letting my fingers settle reverently on the keys. Glass and lacquer, enamel and chrome, Bakelite and celluloid – the keys are the most irresistible part of […]
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.
The Washington Post book review praises All the Light We Cannot See to the extreme, stating it is “enthrallingly told, beautifully written and so emotionally plangent that some passages bring tears..” The Post’s review also describes “unbearable suspense.”
I wish I felt the same way, and apparently many people do because it spent 58 weeks on the best-sellers list, won the Pulitzer Prize, and the Andrew Carnegie Prize for fiction.
Unfortunately, I thought the novel moved too slow. 530 pages of slow.
I didn’t feel the strong emotions described in the Washington Post book review and suspense did not exist for me. Although the writing and the characters were enthralling, the story as a whole fell flat for me.
Anthony Doerr has an exceptional ability to turn a phrase. His writing, descriptions in particular, are extraordinary.
Because one of the main characters is blind, Doerr is forced to use the other senses to describe was she experiences. This inspired some truly great and unique descriptions.
Read my previous post, Sounds and Smells from All The Light We Cannot See, for more quotes. Here are my favorites:
“From outside comes a light tinkling, fragments of glass, perhaps, falling into the streets. It sounds both beautiful and strange, as though gemstones were raining from the sky.”
“Madame Ruelle, the baker’s wife–a pretty-voiced woman who smells mostly of yeast but also sometimes of face powder or the sweet perfume of sliced apples–…”
Characters and Setting
The characters were round, interesting, and memorable. The differing characters worked beautifully to tell different sides of the story.
I became fond of both of the main characters, a blind girl in France and a teenage boy in Germany. Even though they were opponents, fighting for different sides of the war, I wanted the best for both of them. I believed both of them were good people caught in a horrible situation, and that always makes for a good story.
Historical Fiction is no where near my favorite genre but I did enjoy the realistic, foreign setting and the 1930s/40s time period. I enjoy learning while reading fiction.
3 stars. Beautiful descriptions, lovely characters, but the story was just too darn slow for me.
Even to the most die-hard sic-fi/fantasy/mystery/genre-loving readers and writers, its necessary to occasionally read a novel that is simply real. Real characters, in a real setting, dealing with real life issues. If you can convey the truth of human nature with crisp writing and clear intuition, the plot doesn’t matter, it will be a great story! These real stories (especially if they’re fictional) are the ones that nurture the soul in a way no genre fiction can.
Driftless by David Rhodes nurtured my soul.
Driftless dives into the lives of several characters, their stories interweaving like any small-town neighbors’ would. Rhodes builds each story with quick glimpses, each chapter jumping into the perspective of another character. We view the life of a lonely cripple who bets it all in hopes of finding new life; a mourning farmer who finds new love; a female priest that experiences the truth of the world; and my favorite story, a young family who finds themselves in the middle of a giant milk corporation scandal. Weaved into these stories are dog fights, car chases, deadly snow storms, and musical adventures. Although the story is largely philosophical and descriptive, these short bursts of adrenaline offer a great balance.
Nothing if not beautiful, the writing is descriptive and meditative. Lengthy at times but also heartfelt and comforting. Here are a few glimpses into that beauty…
Like primeval cathedral bells his mother’s voice called…
The color of the [cougar] impressed him…this kind of bright black. It drew all other colors to it, like water to a drain. The animal possessed a darkness even beyond black, with two glowing eyes as yellow as stars.
Gail, in her red coat, and surrounded by a sea of flowers, looked like a cardinal in a spring apple tree.
For more, check out my previous blog, The Outstanding Similes and Metaphors of David Rhodes.
Many of the short chapters in Driftless hold their own miniature but full stories. A few sections could be read out of context and still satisfy a reader. Its a beautiful thing that takes a talented writer. These stories help the reader feel fulfilled even when the long, slow plot seems exhausting at times.
I strongly considered 5 stars but the slow pace of the novel made me drop. If I was the editor I wouldn’t cut a single chapter, but still, the slow pace was a bit of drawback.
Ordinary Grace. The title is only the first perfect thing about this novel. The story follows a family of damaged characters, rooted in faith, through the summer of 1961, when typical and extraordinary events occur in their rural Minnesota town.
My Favorite Point of View
Our main character and narrator is Frank Drum, currently 53-years old, who tells us the story of the summer he was 13, a summer filled with death. This removed-by-time 1st person perspective is one of my favorite points of view! One of my favorite novels, Out Stealing Horses by Per Petterson, and one of my favorite short stories, “The Man in the Black Suit” by Stephen King, both share this perspective of an older man looking back on his childhood. When done right, it strikes the perfect balance of emotionally connected to the story but removed enough to not let the emotions rule the storytelling.
The Heart of the Novel
“And even in our sleep pain, which cannot forget, falls drop by drop upon the heart, until, in our own despair, against our will, comes wisdom through the awful grace of God.” – Aeschylus, Greek playwright
The phrase “the awful grace of God” appears in the beginning of the book and is fully described near the end of the book in the full quotation, explained by Frank’s father, the local preacher. The author, William Kent Krueger, said the originally titled of the book was Awful Grace but he realized Ordinary Grace was a “more gentle and more appropriate title. Much more inviting to the reader.”
An enriching story about real life and untimely death. Filled with memorable, flawed characters. Written is a clear, comforting voice. Set in a world that feels far away yet so close to the heart. Ordinary Grace is a story well worth reading.