Tag: Everything is Illuminated

Best Books Read in 2012

I didn’t read enough books to make a 2012 only list, so these will be all the books I read last year, old and new. And listed in order from worst to best. Find me on Goodreads and follow along as I try to read 40 books this year. I got through 34 last year, so I’m rounding up to the nearest ten.

30. Ready Player One – Ernest Cline

“No one in the world gets what they want and that is beautiful”

I really didn’t care for this one at all. Too many references and not enough character. It’s kind of a silly story about a guy so famous and rich people study his favorite books and movies to find clues to winning his inheritance. There are some fun sequences, and the virtual reality world has some interesting concepts to it, but I just didn’t care about any of the characters and their silly preoccupations with this rich guy and their own minor flaws. There’s nothing a few words with a therapist couldn’t fix here. Silly.

29. Batman: Hush – Jeph Loeb

This one suffered from comparisons to the Arkham City game I played just before I read it. It tries to cram a bunch of the characters and villains into a big conspiracy or something and it just ends up feeling like a visit to each person’s area in a videogame with a boss fight and then a few words about not knowing what’s going on. And the new villain is pretty dumb, I thought. Just play the game, it’s got a better story and a better sense of how to use these characters. I don’t know what all the fuss is about.

28. The Fall – Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan

“Power revealed is power sacrificed. The truly powerful exert their influence in ways unseen, unfelt. Some would say that a thing visible is a thing vulnerable.”

The second book in this vampire series continues to build the mythology but I mostly didn’t care about it. There are a few scary scenes but it just didn’t mean anything to me. It’s just so rote. Not enough GdT in this collaboration.

27. The Map of Time – Felix J. Palma

“Merrick belonged to that class of reader who was able to forget with amazing ease the hand moving the characters behind the scenes of the novel.”

This book kept almost being really great. It would peak during the middle of each of the three stories set in Victorian London when things looked like they would be going in one direction. But then they would turn to something less interesting and less exciting. I get what Palma’s going for (I don’t want to spoil what is a fun if frustrating read), I just didn’t really care about it. It’s unfortunate. A book with Jack the Ripper, time travel, and H.G. Wells should be great. This is mostly missed potential.

26. The Infernals – John Connolly

“Why is there always one bloke in these boy bands who looks like he came to fix the boiler and somehow got bullied into joining the group?”

The followup to a really great book (The Gates), this one also disappointed. It got better once everybody got into Hell and there was some nice fairy-tale qualities there, especially in the torture forest scene. All the characters from the first book return and that’s kind of a bad move, I think. It would have done better to introduce more new characters instead of rehashing old ones in new roles. It’s still a fun and easy read, scary enough for a kids book, but again, much missed potential.

25. A Feast for Crows – George R.R. Martin

“When you smell our candles burning, what does it make you think of, my child?”
Winterfell, she might have said. I smell snow and smoke and pine needles. I smell the stables. I smell Hodor laughing, and Jon and Robb battling in the yard, and Sansa singing about some stupid lady fair. I smell the crypts where the stone kings sit. I smell hot bread baking. I smell the godswood. I smell my wolf. I smell her fur, almost as if she were still beside me.
“I don’t smell anything,” she said.”

The least of the A Song of Ice and Fire books is still a pretty good book. I understand Martin’s decision to split this book and the next in half, characterwise, but you really lose a sense of the scope when you’re only dealing with certain characters in the whole book. There are lots of memorable happenings, though, including a fantastic arc for Cersei.

24. X’ed Out – Charles Burns

I loved Black Hole, Burns’ previous graphic novel, so I thought I’d give this one a try. Mostly I’m just confused by it. It’s surreal as hell and I don’t know many of the references I’m told are contained within. I’ll finish out the series, but I’m not in any hurry to do so.

23. The Thief – Megan Whalen Turner

“They’re going to leave me. All I wanted to do was lie in the dry prickly grass with my feet in a ditch forever. I could be a convenient sort of milemarker, I thought. Get to the thief and you know you are halfway to Methana. Where ever Methana might be.”

I’m assured that the rest of this series gets really good and I believe it because the book gets better as it goes along and by the end I really liked the world and the characters. It’s kind of typical genre fare for the majority of the story and even though it’s told in first person you don’t get any sense of the main character until the end. That’s all on purpose, though, so it’s not as bad as it seems at first glance. I’m excited to keep reading this year.

22. This Book is Full of Spiders: Seriously, Dude, Don’t Touch It – David Wong

“There are two types of people on planet Earth, Batman and Iron Man. Batman has a secret identity, right? So Bruce Wayne has to walk around every second of every day knowing that if somebody finds out his secret, his family is dead, his friends are dead, everyone he loves gets tortured to death by costumed supervillains. And he has to live with the weight of that secret every day. But not Tony Stark, he’s open about who he is. He tells the world he’s Iron Man, he doesn’t give a shit. He doesn’t have that shadow hanging over him, he doesn’t have to spend energy building up those walls of lies around himself. You’re one or the other – either you’re one of those people who has to hide your real self because it would ruin you if it came out, because of your secret fetishes or addictions or crimes, or you’re not one of those people. And the two groups aren’t even living in the same universe.”

Jason Pargin writes the second in his comedy/horror series under the pseudonym of his main character. The first book in the series is higher on the list. This one is less inventive and not as fun, but I seem to be one of the few with that opinion. It’s still a fun read. Again some scary parts but I would have preferred more.

21. The Wise Man’s Fear – Patrick Rothfuss

“I swear I’ve never met a man who has your knack for lack of social grace. If you weren’t naturally charming, someone would have stabbed you by now.”

Another followup in a fantasy series. When will they end? I can’t deny the cleverness on display here and I never hated my time reading. Everything just feels so drawn out. There’s a part in the middle that feels interminable. I liked the first book a lot better and I will again continue the series, this one didn’t do much for me, though.

20. God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater – Kurt Vonnegut

“I love you sons of bitches. You’re all I read any more. You’re the only ones who’ll talk all about the really terrific changes going on, the only ones crazy enough to know that life is a space voyage, and not a short one, either, but one that’ll last for billions of years. You’re the only ones with guts enough to really care about the future, who really notice what machines do to us, what wars do to us, what cities do to us, what big, simple ideas do to us, what tremendous misunderstanding, mistakes, accidents, catastrophes do to us. You’re the only ones zany enough to agonize over time and distance without limit, over mysteries that will never die, over the fact that we are right now determining whether the space voyage for the next billion years or so is going to be Heaven or Hell.”

This was a re-read for me of the second Vonnegut book I ever read. I remember liking it more than I did this time. Now I recognize the almost comical single-minded focus of the satire. Yes, rich people are silly and care about silly things. It’s good, it just isn’t as good as I remembered.

19. Red Seas Under Red Skies – Scott Lynch

“Mew,” the kitten retorted, locking gazes with him. It had the expression common to all kittens, that of a tyrant in the becoming. ‘I was comfortable, and you dared to move,’ those jade eyes said. ‘For that you must die.’ When it became apparent to the cat that its two or three pounds of mass were insufficient to break Locke’s neck with one mighty snap, it put its paws on his shoulders and began sharing its drool-covered nose with his lips. He recoiled.”

Here’s another second in a fantasy series with a higher previous entry on this list. Heh. Anyways, our master theif and his musclebound best friend go to the high seas and infiltrate a pirate ship in the pseudo-Italian fantasy world. Lynch has created a fantastic group of characters and an excellent world, but this one was a little too scattershot, especially when compared to the first in the series.

18. Mistborn: The Final Empire – Brandon Sanderson

“What? Is that boy crazy?”
“Most young men his age are somewhat crazy, I think,” Sazed said with a smile. “However, this is hardly unexpected. Haven’t you noticed how he stares at you when you enter a room?”
“I thought he was just creepy.”

Look at that, another fantasy novel. I guess I like those. Another great group of characters and a very interesting magic system based on burning metals to attract or propel things and do other stuff. And the toppling of the evil emperor is always a fun goal.

17. The Passage – Justin Cronin

“Rust, corrosion, wind, rain. The nibbling teeth of mice and the acrid droppings of insects and the devouring jaws of years. The was of nature upon machines, of the planet’s chaotic forces upon the works of humankind. The energy that man had pulled from the earth was being inexorably pulled back into it, sucked like water down a drain. Before long, if it hadn’t happened already, not a single high-tension pole would be left standing on the earth.

Mankind had built a world that would take a hundred years to die. A century for the last light to go out.”

What a weird vampire book. The opening is so intense and then it turns into a strange soap opera for a few hundred pages. And then it becomes a road novel. And then it becomes The Walking Dead. And it’s also pretty damn well written for a vampire book. I’m excited to read the follow up to see if Cronin can keep up the weirdness.

16. John Dies at the End – David Wong

“And watch out for Molly. See if she does anything unusual. There’s something I don’t trust about the way she exploded and then came back from the dead like that.”

The book before This Book is Full of Spiders, it serves as an introduction to a totally crazy world full of drugs that give you magic powers and meat monsters and alternate dimensions. It’s totally nuts. And funny, and even scary a few times.

15. Locke and Key (Vols. 1-4) – Joe Hill

Comic books! Horror! Pun titles! The Locke kids move back to their family mansion after their father is killed in a horrible event. They find keys that have helped the Locke kids throughout the ages fight evil. The best is the key that goes into the base of the head and opens up the mind. You can put a book in and know all of the knowledge contained within, or take out your fear. It’s a great concept and the generational storytelling is pretty awesome. I’m excited to see it wrap up this year.

14. Wonderstruck – Brian Selznick

“Ben remembered reading about curators in “Wonderstruck”, and thought about what id meant to curate your own life, as his dad had done here. What would it be like to pick and choose the objects and stories that would go in your own cabinet? How would Ben curate his own life? And then, thinking about his museum box, and his house, and his books, and the secret room, he realized he’d already begun doing it. Maybe, thought Ben, we are all cabinets of wonders.”

A fun dual tale of a young deaf woman and a boy who loses his mother. It really is a fun book, despite that description. The girl’s story happens all in pictures and the boy’s in prose and when they cross over it’s glorious. The pencil drawings a really beautiful and they accent the nice writing. I hope this follows in Hugo’s path.

13. The Lies of Locke Lamora – Scott Lynch

“I’ve got kids that enjoy stealing. I’ve got kids that don’t think about stealing one way or the other, and I’ve got kids that just tolerate stealing because they know they’ve got nothing else to do. But nobody–and I mean nobody–has ever been hungry for it like this boy. If he had a bloody gash across his throat and a physiker was trying to sew it up, Lamora would steal the needle and thread and die laughing. He…steals too much.”

I kind of loved this. It helped that I read it while on vacation to Italy as it takes place in a pseudo-Renaissance-Venice. Lynch just gets so much out of his characters and plot and setting. It’s such a fun romp. If you liked Ocean’s 11 and you can handle some fantasy stuff, give it a shot.

12. Ragnarok: The End of the Gods – A.S. Byatt

“He was beautiful, that was always affirmed, but his beauty was hard to fix or to see, for he was always glimmering, flickering, melting, mixing, he was the shape of a shapeless flame, he was the eddying thread of needle-shapes in the shapeless mass of the waterfall. He was the invisible wind that hurried the clouds in billows and ribbons. You could see a bare tree on the skyline bent by the wind, holding up twisted branches and bent twigs, and suddenly its formless form would resolve itself into that of the trickster.”

A little book, but not small. It’s the Norse myths combined with some autobiographical WWII stuff. Byatt gets nature and the nature of humanity and it’s all on display in this one little work.

11. A Dance with Dragons – George R.R. Martin

“An admiral without ships, a hand without fingers, in service of a king without a throne. Is this a knight who comes before us, or the answer to a child’s riddle?”

Martin does what he does. Nothing can match the greatness of the third entry to the series, but this one does a good job of getting back to what made the series work. It gets bogged down in Dany running the city and all that crap but the rest is so good. Some amazing scenes on display.

10. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time – Mark Haddon

“Prime numbers are what is left when you have taken all the patterns away. I think prime numbers are like life. They are very logical but you could never work out the rules, even if you spent all your time thinking about them.”

I read this all in one sitting. Haddon gets into the mind of the autistic main character so well that you see the world differently for the rest of the day. It’s inventive and even a little scary. A truly moving book.

9. Swamplandia! – Karen Russell

“A single note, held in an amber suspension of time, like a charcoal drawing of Icarus falling. It was sad and fierce all at once, alive with a lonely purity. It went on and on, until my own lungs were burning.
“What bird are you calling?” I asked finally, when I couldn’t stand it any longer.
The Bird Man stopped whistling. He grinned, so that I could see all his pebbly teeth.

“You.”

What a debut novel. It’s everything that Beasts of the Southern Wild should have been. The tale of a family in the Everglades that runs a gator show/park which gets thrown into chaos after the mother dies. It’s a fairy tale, a journey into hell, an account of working at a low-rent Sea World. It’s magical realism and I loved it.

8. Cosmicomics – Italo Calvino

“To fall in the void as I fell: none of you knows what that means… I went down into the void, to the most absolute bottom conceivable, and once there I saw that the extreme limit must have been much, much farther below, very remote, and I went on falling, to reach it.”

I just love the combination of science and humor and inventiveness that Calvino displays here. There are all kinds of great short stories that take a scientific concept and turn them into really fantastic little fairy tales. The moon one in particular is fantastic.

7. The Wind Through the Keyhole – Stephen King

“There’s nothing like stories on a windy night when folks have found a warm place in a cold world.”

King revisits his Dark Tower world for a bit of an origin story with a fairy tale at it’s core. It’s three framing stories deep, which is fun, but the meat of the story is where all the magic is. It’s a wonderful addition to the mythos King has so lovingly curated.

6. American Gods – Neil Gaiman

“People believe, thought Shadow. It’s what people do. They believe, and then they do not take responsibility for their beliefs; they conjure things, and do not trust the conjuration. People populate the darkness; with ghost, with gods, with electrons, with tales. People imagine, and people believe; and it is that rock solid belief, that makes things happen.”

I read the majority of this years ago but never finished it. It’s big, sometimes unwieldy, and I love it. The concept alone is enough to get it a top 10 spot. Shadow is a great character and all the gods he gets to visit are well-realized.

5. A Storm of Swords – George R.R. Martin

“It all goes back and back,” Tyrion thought, “to our mothers and fathers and theirs before them. We are puppets dancing on the strings of those who came before us, and one day our own children will take up our strings and dance in our steads.”

Holy wow! So much stuff! Deaths! Deaths! Deaths! This is where the ASOIAF series really takes off. I can’t wait for the TV show to take it on.

4. Everything is Illuminated – Jonathan Safran Foer

“Do you think I’m wonderful? she asked him one day as they leaned against the trunk of a petrified maple. No, he said. Why? Because so many girls are wonderful. I imagine hundreds of men have called their loves wonderful today, and it’s only noon. You couldn’t be something that hundreds of others are.”

This might have the best writing on this whole list. It’s beautiful throughout. Check out my full review.

3. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle – Haruki Murakami

“Kumiko and I felt something for each other from the beginning. It was not one of those strong, impulsive feelings that can hit two people like an electric shock when they first meet, but something quieter and gentler, like two tiny lights traveling in tandem through a vast darkness and drawing imperceptibly closer to each other as they go. As our meetings grew more frequent, I felt not so much that I had met someone new as that I had chanced upon a dear old friend.”

I don’t know why it took me so long to read what is considered on of Murakami’s best works. I haven’t been disappointed by him yet, and the craziness on display here is why I keep going back. Magical realism at its best, and since that’s the best genre of literature… Read my full review.

2. A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius – Dave Eggers

“Pain comes at me and I take it, chew it for a few minutes, and spit it back out. It’s just not my thing anymore.”

There’s a lot of parent-loss on this list. Make of that what you will. This one is mostly autobiographical, from what I can tell, and it contains a lot of humor and pathos that you kind of expect from a situation like this. Inventive in its literary ambition, it’s a fantastic book. Full review here.

1. Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell

“Power, time, gravity, love. The forces that really kick ass are all invisible.”

It’s a rare book that has an innovative form to go along with a spectacular story. Cloud Atlas is a book of halves and it’s really cool. I love all of the different styles of writing on display here, and the characters are outstanding creations. It’s so so good.

Top 50 Books List (2012 edition): 30-16

You’ve seen my 50-31 books of all time, now it’s time for the next 15. Get ready for 30-16. Remember, series only count as one spot. Click on the titles that are links for fuller reviews.

30. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle – Haruki Murakami

“It’s like when you put instant rice pudding mix in a bowl in the microwave and push the button, and you take the cover off when it rings, and there you’ve got ricing pudding. I mean, what happens in between the time when you push the switch and when the microwave rings? You can’t tell what’s going on under the cover. Maybe the instant rice pudding first turns into macaroni gratin in the darkness when nobody’s looking and only then turns back into rice pudding. We think it’s only natural to get rice pudding after we put rice pudding mix in the microwave and the bell rings, but to me, that is just a presumption. I would be kind of relieved if, every once in a while, after you put rice pudding mix in the microwave and it rang and you opened the top, you got macaroni gratin. I suppose I’d be shocked, of course, but I don’t know, I think I’d be kind of relieved too. Or at least I think I wouldn’t be so upset, because that would feel, in some ways, a whole lot more real.”

I reviewed this book a few weeks ago and it won’t even be the most recent entry onto this list. Just go read that review to find out why this books is so awesome.

29. The Commitments – Roddy Doyle

“Soul is the music people understand. Sure it’s basic and it’s simple. But it’s something else ’cause, ’cause, ’cause it’s honest, that’s it. Its honest. There’s no fuckin’ bullshit. It sticks its neck out and says it straight from the heart. Sure there’s a lot of different music you can get off on but soul is more than that. It takes you somewhere else. It grabs you by the balls and lifts you above the shite.”

A hilarious novel about trying to form a soul band in northern Dublin. Doyle writes music better than anybody else I’ve seen. It’s hard to do but he pulls it off.

28. Danny the Champion of the World – Roald Dahl

“I was glad my father was an eye-smiler. It meant he never gave me a fake smile because it’s impossible to make your eyes twinkle if you aren’t feeling twinkly yourself. A mouth-smile is different. You can fake a mouth-smile any time you want, simply by moving your lips. I’ve also learned that a real mouth-smile always has an eye-smile to go with it. So watch out, I say, when someone smiles at you but his eyes stay the same. It’s sure to be a phony.”

This story is the definition of ‘wonderful’. Roald Dahl is one of the best kid-lit authors there ever was, and this charming tale of a boy and his dad and their pheasant-snatching escapade is top notch Dahl.

27. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell – Susanna Clarke

“I mean that two of any thing is a most uncomfortable number. One may do as he pleases. Six may get along well enough. But two must always struggle for mastery. Two must always watch each other. The eyes of all the world will be on two, uncertain which of them to follow.”

This, like the Magician series in the previous post, came out after the Harry Potter boom. It deals with magic and magicians, although in a completely different manner. It takes place during the Napoleonic Wars and it is written to emulate the literary style of the time. There are two magicians with wildly differing points of view on how magic can be used to beat the short Frenchman which, of course, builds to an epic rivalry. It’s a large book but completely worth the length.

26. Cat’s Cradle – Kurt Vonnegut

“People have to talk about something just to keep their voice boxes in working order so they’ll have good voice boxes in case there’s ever anything really meaningful to say.”

What starts off as a man on a quest to write about the invention of the atomic bomb becomes the funniest post-apocalypse story you’ll ever read. Vonnegut does the sci-fi and the humor perfectly, as always. And the Koans of Bokonon, some guy who made up his own religion, are delightfully insightful while also making fun of the idea of religious living.

25. The Chronicles of Narnia – C.S. Lewis

“A voice had begun to sing. It was very far away and Digory found it hard to decide from what direction it was coming. Sometimes it seemed to come from all directions at once. Sometimes he almost thought it was coming out of the earth beneath them. Its lower notes were deep enough to be the voice of the earth herself. There were no words. It was hardly a tune. But it was beyond comparison, the most beautiful sound he had ever heard.”

I first heard this series as my father read it to me every night before bed. Then, when I got older, I read it myself. I went back and reread it again semi-recently and it was just as good. Lewis’s Narnia is a vast and intriguing universe with all kinds of different stories to be told within it.

24. Yertle the Turtle and Other Stories – Dr. Seuss

“And the turtles, of course…all the turtles are free, as turtles and, maybe, all creatures should be.”

This is basically a stand-in for all Dr. Seuss books. They formed such an important part of my childhood that they must have a place on this list. His felicity with the English language is something all writers should strive for.

23. Maus – Art Spiegelman

“Sometimes I don’t feel like a functioning adult”

This book (or pair of books) is a memoir and a family history of the author’s father and mother and their fight to stay alive during the Holocaust. Also, they’re all mice. The device of making each nationality a different species is the hook, but the meat is probably the best Holocaust story I’ve ever encountered in any medium.

22. The Lieutenant of Inishmore – Martin McDonagh

Martin McDonagh is growing his talent. He started by writing plays, then he moved on to short films (he won an Oscar for Six Shooter), and this year he’s releasing his second feature film, Seven Psychopaths. All of his stories, regardless of medium, share a dark sense of humor and a distinct sense of place. There’s also a surprising amount of heart in each of his stories. It’s quite a feat to get so dirty and then pull out an emotional climax.

21. Watership Down – Richard Adams

“All the world will be your enemy, Prince of a Thousand enemies. And when they catch you, they will kill you. But first they must catch you; digger, listener, runner, Prince with the swift warning. Be cunning, and full of tricks, and your people will never be destroyed.”

This is the story of talking rabbits. It should not, however, be confused with kid-lit. It is a very adult book, full of allusions and philosophical musings. It’s a road book and a settling book and a war book and an escape book. It’s a book about talking rabbits that is as profound as anything else on this list.

20. Hamlet – William Shakespeare

“Lord Polonius: What do you read, my lord?
Hamlet: Words, words, words.
Lord Polonius: What is the matter, my lord?
Hamlet: Between who?
Lord Polonius: I mean, the matter that you read, my lord.”

Shakespeare is a funny guy. Even his tragedies have wordplay and clever little exchanges like the one quoted above. I don’t know why, then, I don’t like his comedies all that much. He’s a master of tragedy (historical or not), but the comedies never come together for me. Give me Hamlet’s sarcasm any day of the week. Also, ghosts.

19. Cosmicomics – Italo Calvino

“I could distinguish the shape of her bosom, her arms, her thighs, just as I remember them now, just as now, when the Moon has become that flat, remote circle, I still look for her as soon as the first sliver appears in the sky, and the more it waxes, the more clearly I imagine I can see her, her or something of her, but only her, in a hundred, a thousand different vistas, she who makes the Moon the Moon and, whenever she is full, sets the dogs to howling all night long, and me with them.”

Here’s a strange book. A collection of short stories, some with an idea of a recurring character, though he takes different shapes depending on the story that is being told. Each story takes on a scientific concept and extrapolates it out into a kind of fairy-tale. Calvino’s mixture of science and fiction is unlike any other sci-fi you’ll read.

18. Winnie-the-Pooh – A.A. Milne

“What I like doing best is Nothing.”

“How do you do Nothing,” asked Pooh after he had wondered for a long time.

“Well, it’s when people call out at you just as you’re going off to do it, ‘What are you going to do, Christopher Robin?’ and you say, ‘Oh, Nothing,’ and then you go and do it.

It means just going along, listening to all the things you can’t hear, and not bothering.”

“Oh!” said Pooh.”

Pooh is a bear of very little brain. That doesn’t make him useless. He’s a vital part of our cultural heritage and the world would be a better place if everybody read this collection of short stories every five years. Sometimes it’s important to remember how things really work, and how to have fun, and what’s important, truly. Pooh, despite his very little brain, remembers.

17. Everything is Illuminated – Jonathan Safran Foer

“When I was a girl, my life was music that was always getting louder.
Everything moved me. A dog following a stranger. That made me feel so much. A calendar that showed the wrong month. I could have cried over it. I did. Where the smoke from a chimney ended. How an overturned bottle rested at the edge of a table.
I spent my life learning to feel less.
Every day I felt less.
Is that growing old? Or is it something worse?
You cannot protect yourself from sadness without protecting yourself from happiness.”

Both of Foer’s fiction works have been adapted into films. Both films lose large chunks of the story in order to fit everything into a two hour package. It is those missing chunks that are vital to the power of his stories. They are about everything. Love and loss, happiness and sadness, history and family. This book incorporates two timelines, a diary, a fictionalized version of the author, and a magical realist book that tells the history of a small town in Eastern Europe. It’s beautiful.

16. The Dark Tower Series – Stephen King

“Jake went in, aware that he had, for the first time in three weeks, opened a door without hoping madly to find another world on the other side. A bell jingled overhead. The mild, spicy smell of old books hit him, and the smell was somehow like coming home.”

I could have just as easily picked another quote from this series to stand in for all seven books worth of writing: Go, then, there are other worlds than these. It is a eulogy of sorts in the book, but it gets at the overriding idea of the series. It connects most of King’s works into a grand universe unparalleled in fiction. It’s a huge series, full of pulp and profundity, like all of King’s works.

5 Jawesome Things for the week of March 9, 2012

These are the five best things that I came across in the past week. This is now a Friday column, which probably makes a lot more sense than a Thursday column.

1. Reading. It’s Fun-damental!

I finished two books this week: Everything is Illuminated and Wonderstruck. You can read my reviews of them by clicking that link back there. They were very good. And now I’m 100 pages into A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. Every once in a while I get caught up in some other thing, some not-reading thing. And I slow or stop reading altogether for a few weeks. I start to get kinda out of whack. Messed up feeling. All over the place. The past few weeks I was in a funk of that sort, so when I started to read the energetic and wonderful Everything is Illuminated I was so happy to rediscover reading. Maybe I’ll learn from this experience. Maybe I’ll keep reading for forever now. Probably not, though. Without those absences how would I remember just how great the process of reading truly is?

2. Warmth

Remember how last week I was so happy that it was snowing? This week I was driving around town with the windows rolled down because it was unseasonably warm and that was pretty great, too. Crank up the tunes, get some fresh air flowing, go somewhere, do something. That’s the ticket. Here’s my current happy-time-driving song of choice:

3. Movies that get better as they go along

I watched two movies in the past week that started off ok and improved greatly with each passing minute. The first was Miranda July’s The Future. It starts off as a pretty straightforward indie-comedy thing with a cute young-ish couple deciding that their lives are going to be over by the time they reach the age of 40 (because then it’s only ten years until you get to fifty and by then you can’t start anything new and you might as well be dead). So they live the next month without any obligations other than to themselves and what they really want to do with their lives. It’s a pretty silly premise that would be cloying over the course of a whole film, but luckily July sidesteps it (or leaps over it) by going all out. Things change in these two people’s lives and the changes are dramatic. It becomes quite sad in a very real way. Time stops. Things happen.

The other film was Roman Polanski’s Carnage. It’s kind of a strange title at the beginning of the film. It’s just two middle-aged couples settling a dispute between their two respective kids. It’s too polite. Things are hinted at and said behind each other’s backs. It isn’t until the second half of the film where the insults start flying and I started laughing. It’s the strangest thing. I didn’t laugh at all in the first 45 minutes or so but in the next 40 I was laughing pretty consistently. It has a dark edge to it that is fun and ugly at the same time. Of course, having John C. Reilly, Jodie Foster, Kate Winslet, and Christoph Waltz doing the arguing will help it being awesome. It isn’t a great movie, but it is pretty darn good by the end, if you can stand people being horrible.

4. Game of Thrones on Blu-ray

It looks so good! It has awesome extras! It is one of the best TV shows ever! Exclaim! For your entertainment, the three younger Stark kids singing the opening theme on the second episode commentary track.

5. Awake

This is based strictly on the pilot episode of the NBC series starring Jason Isaacs (hello!) who plays a man that got in a car crash which killed either his wife or his son, leaving the other behind. A silly sentence, you say? Yes, I respond. It is a silly sentence. Doesn’t make any sense, but it works. When Isaacs goes to sleep in one world (for example, the one where his son survived the crash) he wakes up in the other (where his wife survived). He, being a police officer as roughly one half of all TV characters are, has to solve cases in each version of his life, but they overlap, leading to strange coincidences and his partners questioning how he knows certain details. The challenge of this show will be in continuing the incredibly compelling storytelling that they achieved in the pilot episode. I know the crime element will get more air time as the series goes on and they have to do less exposition, though that exposition was handled remarkably well with the aide of two psychiatrists, one in each version of his life. The visual storytelling is really great, too. The mother’s side is warm and nicer to be in, while the son’s side is green and gray, a cooler color palate. This almost makes up for Fox cancelling the show creator’s previous show, Lone Star, last year. Let’s hope he can keep it up and keep it good. Here’s the whole darn thing!

Those were the 5 Jawesome Things for the week of 3/9/2012. What were your Jawesome Things? Leave a comment!

Book Reviews: Everything is Illuminated and Wonderstruck

“The images of his infinite pasts and infinite futures washed over him as he waited, paralyzed, in the present.”

– Everything is Illuminated

“Ben wished the world was organized by the Dewey decimal system. That way you’d be able to find whatever you were looking for, like the meaning of your dream, or your dad.”

– Wonderstruck

I was planning on reviewing Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated yesterday, but I got caught up in the next book I picked to read and by the time this morning rolled around I had already finished Brian Selznick’s Wonderstruck. So now you get two reviews for the price of one (which, incidentally, is also the price of none).  

Everything is Illuminated by Jonathan Safran Foer

I don’t know why it took me more than half a year after I finished Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close to finally read Foer’s previous novel, Everything is Illuminated. ELaIC rocketed to a top spot in my list of favorite books of all time and I had no reason to think that EiI would be any different when it comes to quality. It’s not. In fact, the two books work quite well together. It’s clear they are written by the same author since they tackle many of the same themes despite being wildly different in their characters and stories. Each book is multigenerational in scope, exploring the ways we love, lose, and live.

EiL is a novel told in three ways. The first is one side of correspondence from a young Ukrainian man – Alex, or Sasha, or Alexi-stop-spleening-me –  who, along with his grandfather and his grandfather’s dog, is hired by a young American man named Jonathan Safran Foer to find the woman in a photograph who saved his grandfather’s life when the Nazis rolled through the area. Foer the character is much like Foer the author, a writer, and the novel he is writing about his lineage makes up another part of the book. The final part is the story of how Alex and Jonathan search for the woman in the photograph. These three different methods of storytelling achieve a similar goal to the multiple perspectives in ELaIC, doling out information and emotions with extreme care and artful elegance. Events are foreshadowed and backshadowed and right-now-shadowed. Their emotional impact hits like a hammer, one that you saw coming and came out of nowhere at the same time, one that changes everything that you know about the characters and makes perfect sense with what you’ve seen so far. It’s not as emotionally affecting as ELaIC was for me, but it’s up there. There are not a few passage that brought tears to my eyes, though they never fell.way we love and lose across time and space. Each is a mystery novel at heart, with multiple characters searching for meaning in the face of great tragedy in addition to more physical bounties. And each is surprisingly funny for such sad topics as 9/11 and the rise of Nazi Germany.

The genius of the book comes from the humor, really. Alex’s bastardization of the English language is a pleasure to read. He uses words that are close to the right ones but always one or two degrees off the mark. Foer captures the foreigner’s tongue so well that I had no trouble understanding what Alex was saying while laughing at the silliness of his expressions. He goes to the most premium night clubs and describes the invention of a certain sexual position with hilarious misunderstanding and mistranslating:

“This is the sixty-nine,” I told him, presenting the magazine in front of him. I put my fingers — two of them — on the action, so that he would not overlook it. “Why is it dubbed sixty-nine?” he asked, because he is a person hot on fire with curiosity. “It was invented in 1969. My friend Gregory knows a friend of the nephew of the inventor.” “What did people do before 1969?” “Merely blowjobs and masticating box, but never in chorus.”

The humor in the book serves to make it feel real. Nobody’s story, no matter how serious, is entirely humorless. Even in the more emotional final third of the book the touching aspects are balanced with some jokes and funny situations. There are a few pages taken from the town of Foer’s ancestors’s book of history that illustrate just how concepts like memory and history can become so closely entwined that they lose all definition and meld into one concept. This comes in one of the book’s novel sections, the part supposedly written by Foer the character. These sections have a magical realist feel to them, with men living for years and years with a saw blade embedded in their head and light shining from the act of making love. It’s wonderfully written, like the rest of the book, and Foer’s effortless blending of style and timelines and stories and themes makes it tough to wait for his next book. I promise to read it sooner than I did this one.

Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick

And now for something completely different. Or not. On the surface this kidlit book would seem to be a world away from the very adult Everything is Illuminated, but when you look again there are a surprising number of similarities. It, too, spans time periods (this time 1977 and the late 20’s are the main settings) and tells of a young man trying to find a missing person. Wonderstruck is half told in regular prose and half in wordless pictures, much like Selznick’s previous work, The Invention of Hugo Cabret. Ben, the boy in the prose section, recently lost his mother and he never knew his father. He also recently became deaf. He’s having a rough go. He decides to go off to New York City to find his father with only an address and his “museum box” to keep him company. Events conspire to bring him to the American Museum of Natural History where he meets a new friend and finds further clues to the identity and location of his father. Meanwhile, in the picture story, Rose is young and also deaf and also runs away and also visits the AMNH. The parallels in these two stories are a little more obvious than in Foer’s work, though they are almost equally moving by the end of the book.

It’s not hard to figure out where the book is going and how it’ll get there. It borrows semi-heavily from E. L. Konigsburg’s From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, and the plot machinations are simple, mostly. But that’s not what matters here. The picture section feels a lot like a silent film, which suits the time period it covers and the story itself, which concerns a silent film star as well as the young Rose. Selznick implies a lot of motion in these still pictures, often showing only a foot or a hand entering or exiting a scene. And when the story gets to the museum there are some wonderfully detailed pictures showing the displays and exhibits. And when the two stories begin to crossover the magic of the book begins to take shape.

There’s nothing special about the story or the way Selznick writes the prose sections. Even the drawings aren’t breathtaking or anything. But the skill with which he combines them at the end of the book elevates them to become more than the sum of their parts. There are a few wonderful ideas and scenes in those final 150 pages (the pages fly by when the writing is so simple and the pictures take up about 3/4ths of the book’s girth) that make the book more than worthwhile. I don’t want to spoil the magic of the book, so I won’t describe what happens. It’s not even so much what happens as how it happens that really makes the book tick. It is predictable, but the execution and a few key details really land the punch to the gut.