“Station Eleven” then read “Before the Fall”

As I was reading the June-released Before the Fall  by Noah Hawley (yes, the one you’ve seen in the book store) I was trying to remember where I’d read something like it: the give and take narrative, everything explained in backstory. The myriad of characters. The slow unspooling of storytelling.

I read Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel this past winter and was immediately entranced by the no-rush-here writing. You’re dealing with a post-apocalyptic world, but just as important is theater, and art, and what makes us human.

Before the Fall is not post-apocalyptic in the usual sense: unlike Station Eleven, there is no mass outbreak of disease that kills 99% of the population. And yet the books have a similar feel, perhaps, because the tragedy of a plane crash separates like into “before” and “after,” in the same way a apocalypse must have a similar line of demarcation.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.18593543

Hell is the absence of the people you long for

Station Eleven takes its name from a comic book one of the main characters is writing and illustrating, the story of people who left a ruined earth on a starship that is slightly broken, so they live in a world of perpetual twilight (pictured above.) But that’s not what the book is about: it’s about a theater troupe, traveling between towns in a post-biological disaster North America.

stationelevenhcus2But that’s not really what it’s about either, since half the book takes place before the disaster ever happened. So Station Eleven is really about what it means to be an actor, or the wife of an actor.

It’s also about how different people react to tragedy, and power. It’s about finding yourself adrift in a new life and making yourself anew.

One of the best things about this novel is that it’s about a whole lot of things. It’s a new take on dystopia. Rather than focus on the President of the United States, or the Person Who Discovered The Imminent Tragedy, this is not a book about people trying to prevent an apocalypse from happening. This is about Joe Schmoes (and very rich Joe Schmoes) who have to deal with life before and after the world ends.

And it switches focus a lot (though, if I remember correctly, it always stays in omniscient?) Every chapter you’re with someone new, and it may be before or after the world has ended. So this is not in chronological order, but maybe it’s in emotional order? Operating on train of thought, rather than the rigidity of calendar dates.

Life is a series of decisions and reactions. It is the things you do and the things that are done to you. And then it’s over.

And then there’s Before the Fall, which focuses on a plane crash, and about how one man
who shouldn’t have been on the plane swims to shore with a little boy on his back, and what happens afterwards. It’s about tragedy porn. And the twenty-four-h26245850our news cycle. And about human beings having lives that happen to mesh on one airplane, or around one airplane, or because of one airplane.

Like Station Eleven, it’s about a lot of things. This one does involve the FBI, the people in charge. The billionaires. But it’s also about art, and the meaning of art and the meaning of being an artist, and what it takes to be a hero.

This one definitely is omniscient–you can bounce from the point of view of the artist who swam to shore with the little boy, to the FBI agent in charge of finding the plane, to a jealous ex-husband, to a television star, all in one chapter. You bounce between the investigation to one of the characters, twenty years before. Again, this is in emotional, not chronological, order.

There’s more of a conclusion to Before the Fall than in Station Eleven. After reading, you can pretty much predict what’s going to happen after the book closes. This isn’t necessarily a good or bad thing, but after Station Eleven I felt like I needed another book to explain the ending. One leaves you wondering, the other leaves you guessing.



“The Outsiders” than read “The Body”

Full discloser: The Outsiders is my favorite book in the world. My mom gave me her copy when I was stuck in the summer between fifth and sixth grades. It was the first book that, when I finished, I read it entirely over again. It’s the book that made me want to become a 8165656writer.

The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton (who was, famously, fifteen when she wrote the manuscript) is a coming-of-age story. Ponyboy Curtis is the youngest member of a gang of greasers in 1950s Oklahoma. It’s the book that gave us, “Stay gold, Ponyboy,” and, “Things are rough all over.” (It’s also the book that inspired the 1982 movie starring the hottest guys of the 80s, like Tom Cruise, Emilio Estevez, Patric Swayze, and Rob Lowe, *swoon*)

Five years after The Outsiders movie was released, Stephen King published “The Body” as one of the four works in his story collection Different Seasons (also in that collection: “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption.”) Probably better known by its film adaptation title, Stand By Me (screenplay also by Stephen King) “The Body” is the story of four friends trying to find their presumed-dead fellow classmate.

Nature’s First Green Is Gold

Both stories feature characters who come from so far on the wrong side of the tracks that the tracks are a dot in the distance (though not literally: the boys in “The Body” follow tracks through a vast New England forest.) Ponyboy can’t envision a way out of Tulsa, Oklahoma, yelling, at one point, “It ain’t fair we get all the rough breaks!”  Even though his brothers encourage him to continue with school, to go to college, to make something of himself, after seeing the deaths of two of his friends, Ponyboy talks about dropping out of school.x8jfvsaz2qzuo

Similarly, Gordie can’t see past his small, cramped town. His friends all have abusive fathers, and his own parents neglect him, particularly in the wake of the death of his brother. He sees a future of shop classes and cars and girls, a future of hanging with his gang.

It’s hard to see past the chain-link fences, the broken homes, the teenaged angst, but, like in every good coming-of-age story, these boys don’t have to do it alone. After all, it takes a gang to raise a child.

“People drag you down,” a twelve-year-old says in “The Body.” But people can bring you up, too.

It’s Hardest Hue to Hold

“The Body” is one of Stephen King’s odder books, not only because of the age of the main character (“The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon” features an even younger protagonist) but also because it’s told from the point of view of an older narrator looking back on his life. The children are older thanu11fjv6ufsiin their years, the adventure a wild tale similar to (though smaller than) It. 

There’s an elegance to all the contained short-stories in Different Seasons. Perhaps because, unlike some of King’s works, these are more firmly rooted in the real world. The enemies are not a spider, or aliens, or the actual embodiment of evil–it’s corrupt systems and school shootings and small towns.

And, of course, the clumsy grace that comes with coming-of-age.


“The Godfather” then read “The Family Corleone”

If you, like me, grew up in an Italian-American household then you, like me, were exposedlp7p8eqdooqnc to such gems as “Leave the gun, take the cannoli” at an age where you barely comprehended what a gun was. (You always knew what a cannoli was, you were born knowing what a cannoli was.) Even if you’re not Italian-American, even if you’re just American-American, even if you’re just alive, you’ve heard of The Godfather. Because The Godfather is wonderful.

It’s one of those situations where the movie totally lives up to the book. Where the movie actually expands upon the book (Mario Puzo, author of The Godfather, co-created the movies.) And there have been accepted sequels, written in the 2000s by an old professor of mine, Mark Winegardner. But if you, like me, are interested in what happened before Vito Corleone became Vito Corleone, then you really need to read the latest sequel, which is actually a prequel, The Family Corleone.

“I’m gonna make him an offer he can’t refuse”

Written in 2012 by Ed Falco, The Family Corleone is actually based on an unproduced screenplay written by Mario Puzo. It takes place in Depression-era New York: Luca Brasi is about to become an accolyte of the Corelones, Sonny is going to be involved in the family business, Tom Hagen’s going to become an accepted member of the family, and tumblr_mw7y694jut1s1l02qo1_400Mike’s…well, Mike’s twelve, he’s not really a main part of this book.

But what is a main part of this book is a languorous storytelling of both the backdrop of 1930s New York and what feels like a very real insight into the criminal underbelly we’ve all grown to love. It’s interesting to think that The Godfather was the first in a line of loveable anti-heroes. We’re not supposed to like these guys, these murderers, but when a main plot of The Family Corleone revolves around foiling an attempt to assassinate Vito, you care.

To me, The Godfather is more than just nostalgia. It hovers in that no-man’s-land between fact and fiction, which is part of what makes it so timeless. There are countless articles tracing the characters to their real-life inspirations.  There are the stories you swap while watching the movie for the ump-teenth time you have an uncle who’s kind of in the same shady business…

“Maybe we shouldn’t get Michael mixed up in this too directly”

Though we mainly follow Michael, the youngest of the Corleones, though The Godfather book and movies, The Family Corleone is more concerned with Luca Brasi, Vito, and even Sonny. Which makes for a pleasantly different book. There’s discussion of mergers (most of the book centers around Vito becoming the most powerful Don in New York by consolidating his power and taking out the little guys) but it also has to do with family moments, girlfriend trouble, and ear infections.

Overall, Ed Flaco’s novel is a nice addition to this series of New York crime that never seems to go out of style.


Room then read The Deep End of the Ocean

I usually try to do a really well-known book with a slightly-less-well-known one. I hope people have heard about Room. It’s another best-seller (I think) and is told entirely from the point of view of the five-year-old narrator, Jack. Written in 2010 by Emma Donoghue, Room is both incredibly interesting and curiously sad.

The five-year-old narrator? He was conceived, birthed, and grew to the age of five in a tiny room. His mother, who he called ‘Ma’ was

"Deep End of the Ocean" was made into a movie in 1999
“Deep End of the Ocean” was made into a movie in 1999

kidnapped off her college campus at nineteen by a man known as ‘Old Nick’ to our Jack. Old Nick only comes at night, to bring food and go to bed with Ma after Jack is asleep in Wardrobe.

It’s the child-voice of Jack that draws you in to this book. As playful and happy as any five-year-old, Jack only knows the few feet of space he’s been exposed to. Though there is a television in Room (Dora the Explorer is Jack’s ‘best friend’) Jack believes everything he sees on it to be made-up, as if their room is the entire world.

Like Room, Jacquelyn Mitchard’s The Deep End of the Ocean is about a kidnapping, but this time it’s a three-year-old boy who is snatched from his mother.

Kidnappings and Other Buzz Words

The Deep End of the Ocean has the distinction of being the first book ever picked for Oprah’s Book Club (giving you an idea of what kind of book it is.) The whole book is centered, not around the kidnapped child Ben Cappadora but his mother, Beth, and the rest of the Cappadora family. There’s grand theft auto, and affairs, and divorces. There’s a gay best friend and Italian restaurants and therapists  What’s not to like?

room-by-emma-donoghueThe story begins at Beth’s high school reunion, where Ben is kidnapped from a hotel filled with people Beth’s known her entire life. Not kidnapped was seven-year-old Vincent, who was holding his brother’s hand, and baby Kerry, too little to be put down by herself. Vincent’s scars end up being nearly as severe as Beth’s as the disappearance drags on for hours, days, weeks. Years.

It is literally a case of vanishing without a trace. The story delves into the gradual dissipation of the search team, talks about how new cases piled up in the police departments, and the Cappadoras were left to figure out life for themselves. Beth never really gets the hang of life again. She ignores her remaining kids, ignores her husband, quits her job, tries to forget…

(it’s hard to balance giving enough information to make the book intriguing but not giving too much away. it’s a hard forumla, and my friend always hits me, because we watch Buffy together and she’s seeing it for the first time and i keep giving away plot points, so apparently it’s something i’m bad at. i think i’ll stop there.)

One last thing: unlike Room, which is narrated by Jack throughout, the narration of Deep End of the Ocean skips from Beth to her husband to Vincent to other major and minor characters, all in close third person narration. I personally like that sort of thing, but it may not be your cup of tea.

The Other Things That Come To Light

There’s a sequel to The Deep End of the Ocean which was published ten years later, in 2009, called No Time To Wave Goodbye. I personally love it when books have sequels because then you know that when you close the book for the last time, there’s another one to pick up right after it.

The sequel to "Deep End of the Ocean" was published in 2009
The sequel to “Deep End of the Ocean” was published in 2009

(personal favorite story about a book series: i’ve been reading Eragon since i was in middle school. when the last book came out last year, i re-read the whole series in preperation, ending with the new book, then went back and re-read the whole series again. i guess that’s why it’s called the Inheritance Cycle)

These books are made for very specific people. Women, mostly, though I never really understood the difference between a “guy’s” book and a “girl’s” book. But if Oprah recommended it, I’m going out on a limb and saying that if you like Oprah you’ll like this book. These books. Both are difficult to get through emotionally, but it’s a heck of a ride.

“The Book Thief” then read “Ink & Bone”

I use The Book Thief here as a stand-in historical-minded YA But if you loved it or Harry Potter or The Hunger Gamesthen the first book of Rachel Caine’s Great Library series is for you.

Ink & Bone introduces us to Jess, a 16-year-old boy living in London in the year 2031. But this is not the London you know. This London has robot lions guarding its Library that spring to life and eat people at the first sign of trouble. This London has kids running joi7aiww8kmjythrough the streets to deliver first-edition copies of books–kind of like stealing books (looking at your, Liesel) and like in that German war-zone, in Ink & Bone, these kids could be caught and served capital punishment. Because this is what London could be like if the Great Library of Alexandria never burned down.

Like The Book Thief, this is a novel for people who really, really appreciate not only books but the idea of books, the essence of books. Ink & Bone is a novel for people who completely understand, with every inch of them, why books are worth dying for.

“I Have Hated Words and I Have Loved Them”

One thing Ink & Bone does really well is it makes you hate the Library. In this version of the world, the Library in your town or city is a satellite branch of the real Library, the one in Alexandria. In your house, you don’t have books. You have what amounts to an e-reader. Every time you want to read, say, Archemedes’s On Sphere-Making, you would have to request it from the library. Not a big deal, except that the only copy of On Sphere-Making was stolen. Not a big deal, except that if you wanted something like Dante’s blasphemous Divine Comedy, or Gutenberg’s plans to make a printing press, the Library could censor your search. And, probably, kill you.the-book-thief-by-markus-zusak1

I think this is such a good book because it plays on your emotions. Libraries are inherently good. Benjamin Franklin’s idea of a free public library where rich or poor or man or woman could come in and read changed literally everything about America. The Book Thief tells us, unnecessarily, that books and the freedom to read them are what make life worth living.

Except that’s what the Library is trying to take away in Ink & Bone. That freedom to read whatever the hell you want. I guarantee the Library would censor fanfiction. And Fifty Shades of Grey. 

So…maybe not all bad.

“It kills me sometimes, how people die.”

a1wi46iw0klBut if an all-knowing library doesn’t pique your interest, just wait until you hear about the characters. Why did you care about Liesel and Rudy? Why did you care? Because, deep down, you know that the book being narrated by Death itself cannot have a happy ending. Because, deep down, you know that people die.

It happens in The Book Thief and it happens in Ink & Bone. This is not unnecessary gore. This is war, the holiest of wars, where even children are fair game. It’s some of the best action I’ve ever read, and by the end you understand why you care so much when people die in books. It gives everything higher stakes. It makes it feel like this might be a war worth fighting.

And the even better news is that this is only the first of a series! And the second book comes out in July. And the paperback of Ink & Bone comes out in April.

Marvel Movies then read Marvels

Knocking out Hitler. Just like Cinderella.

There are 25 Marvel and DC movies planned for the next 5 years. If you’re anything like me, you want to see all of them. Marvel movies have dominated the big screen ever since phase one of the Avengers began. There is a wish-fulfillment that comes from seeing ordinary people become extraordinary. Captain America is nothing but an uber-patriotic Cinderella story, where the ball is World War II and the fairy godmother comes by way of super-soldier drugs. These are fables buried deep int eh fabric of human (and, let’s face it, American) psyche. We all want to have a super power we can claim as our own.

Marvel’s Theory: Get very hot actors and no one will care it’s a remake.

If know the true names of Captain America and the Hulk, if you went to see Days of Future Past for other reasons than that every actor in the movie was a ridiculously beautiful example of human physique, if you are confused about why Spider-Man and Fantastic Four are being remade again but know you’re going to see them anyway, then I have a book for you.

I know who you are. You’re like me. You want to read the comic books, you want to be more than just a casual fan of these heroes, but you have no idea where to start. What’s the difference between Avenger’s Vol 1 and Avenger’s Assemble? More importantly, how can you ask that question without sounding like you’re trying to jump on a bandwagon?

There’s good places to start for every series (and I will do posts about individual heroes another day.) But there’s one 4-volume series that has every character you can think of in the Marvel universe.

So if you’ve already seen Ant-Man, if you can’t wait the week to see Fantastic Four and the month until Age of Ulton comes out, have I got a book for you.

With Great Power

Ken Busiek’s Marvels is not about one particular super hero. The book follows Phil Sheldon, a news photographer living in New York City. It begins in 1939 with the first appearance of caped heroes swooping over the city.

There are a lot of familiar faces in this: J. Jonah Jameson, The Human Torch, Spider-Man, Captain America, the Sub-Mariner, the Fantastic Four, the X-Men. But it’s not the story of them. It’s the story of how those with super powers swing wildly on the scale of popularity. One minute, they’re the glorious heroes. The next, heroes are being scorned by the city for demolishing skyscrapers. They are being hunted down in Red-Scare type hysteria when it becomes clear that mutants, heroes, can be the person living next door.

This book answers the question of what would life really be like if there were heroes in the world. It is not the prettiest picture. Perhaps because it rings too much of truth.

During his entire career, our narrator Phil is the champion of super-heroes, defending their actions as necessary in a world so filled with so much power.

Great Responsibility

In the Spider-Man movies, we see how New York can be a hostile place for a super hero. As the Green Goblin says in the 2002 movie, “You (Spider-Man) chose the way of the hero. And they found you amusing for a while, the people of this city. But the one thing they love more than a hero is to see a hero fail, fall, die trying. In spite of everything you’ve done for them, eventually they will hate you.” 

Marvels is not about super-heroes. It is about the lives they touch by their very existence. It’s about kids growing up under the scare of mutation. It’s about trying to defend idols even as their blowing up city blocks.

It’s a short book, only 4 issues. The ending has a bitter-sweet taste. Phil is our narrator, but un-special humans are not necessarily the heroes of this book. Super heroes aren’t necessarily the heroes.

In the end, you have to choose your own heroes, and choose wisely, and try not to be swayed the opinions of the fearful. And standing by your convictions will make you into your own brand of hero.

The Interestings than read A Little Life

Meg Wolitzer’s book The Interestings came out a couple of years ago (and is now available in paperback, which I love. My entire bookcase is paperbacks.) You’ve probably seen the cover. It’s the story of six teenagers (which is really just the story of the main character, Jules) that chronicles their lives from the age of 15, when they meet at a camp for gifted children, to their adulthood. It’s about their loves and losses, their marriages and kids, their relationships.The Interestings

I read The Interestings two summers ago, blowing threw it during all-night babysitting gigs. I remember sitting on the couch, two kids asleep in the bedroom, and five hours later the parents came home. I hadn’t moved. The kids hadn’t moved. The story literally had be riveted in one spot.

This is one of those books that unspools better than the best real-life drama television shows. Nothing on screen can age characters like a book can, take you through their triumphs and downfalls. We can watch as some people get more famous than others, as Jules wonders if she ever did anything right. Was fifteen really the peak of her existence? Did she marry the right man?

I didn’t think I’d find another book like The Interestings. Nothing could possibly come close to its sweeping saga. And yet I kept looking. Finally, in March, in the Goodreads newsletter, I found A Little Life. 

If You Want a Happy Book

Do not read A Little Life. If you want a real book, something that wrenches at your gut and heart, that makes you think and feel. If you want a book that makes you want to write love letters to the main characters, that convinces you that you can, that they are real and alive, then read Hanya Yanagihara’s quiet epic.

51kuUoWRHNL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Again, this is the story of friends, four instead of six, but it really focuses in on one of them. Jude meets his group in college, and they are all on their own paths. JB wants to paint. Willem wants to act. Malcolm wants to build great arching towers like the models he constructs so carefully. And Jude wants to live, and maybe, one day, be happy.

It’s a story of abuse. Terrible, horrific abuse that unfolds slowly in the backstory, that affects everything Jude encounters. It’s a story about drugs, and bad relationships. It’s a story about how the friends you think you’ll know forever drift apart.

But it’s also a story about growing up–the book follows these men from their early twenties to old age, to death. And it’s about true love. Finding your passion. Becoming famous. Becoming rich. Getting back together with old friends you’ve grown apart from.

This is perhaps the best book I’ve ever read in my life. Like The Interestings, it is long, seven hundred dense pages long, but it is one of the most rewarding reading experiences I’ve ever had.

If you like truthful stories, realistic triumphs, then try to track down a copy of A Little Life.

Unfortunately, There’s A Problem

I don’t know why, but whenever I really love a book, I look for it in a bookstore. Even if I already own it. The Interestings should be all over your local library and/or bookstore. It’s even out in paperback now, so you’ve got a week or more worth of reading for fifteen bucks.

But A Little Life is nowhere to be found. Outside of reading it on your e-reader, like me (I have a Nook, it’s amazing, super useful if you want to carry some of your library with you in college) or ordering it from an online retailer, it’s pretty difficult to find. Maybe because its themes are so dark? Maybe because it’s so dense? Maybe because its cover is real and stark and a bit off-putting? I don’t know why some books are easy to find and others aren’t, but A Little Life is in the latter category. 

Fortunately, once you get your hands on the copy, it’s way easier to share than a digital movie. No need to authorize a computer, or have good wi-fi strength. Just a simple in-person interaction, the same thing both these books are based off of.

UPDATE: as of March 2016 I know see A Little Life absolutely everywhere (yay!!) and it recently came out in paperback.