Short Stories: The Best (And Least) of THE BEST AMERICAN NONREQUIRED READING 2011.

517cPqAMibLEvery year The Best American Series publishes a group of books anthologizing short fiction in every form of genre. While delving into the year’s best short fiction or short mysteries is always a treat, The Best American Nonrequired Reading always provides the most interesting gems of writing from the year. Below I chronicle some the best of the best (and the least of the best) of 2011’s nonrequired reading.
• The “Best American Profile of an International Pop Star” was Gary Shteyngart’s GQ profile of M.I.A. The 7,000-word article gives intriguing insight into her personal life while also giving the reader context for her music. While you may not have thought about her much recently (except for that weekend when “Paper Planes” was playing everywhere), this piece will have you trying to get your hands on any of her albums.
• That isn’t the only profile that paints a fascinating portrait of a real person. Chris Jones’ Esquire piece “Roger Ebert: The Essential Man” tells the melancholy story of Ebert’s last years alive. His impact on film criticism is undeniable, and Jones gives us a glimpse of how Ebert approached it while also depicting his heartbreaking battle with cancer.
• Clare Beams’ “We Show What We Have Learned” (from Hayden’s Ferry Review) takes a simple story about an elementary teacher and her students and turns it on its head. To say more would ruin the surprise, but it’s a story that uses its language in a playful way.
• A story that is equally playful but far more insufferable is Neil Gaiman’s “Orange” (taken from Southwest Airlines Spirit Magazine). The story is taken from a “Confidential Police File” and only contains the written responses of the subject’s response to the investigator’s questionnaire (leaving you to guess what the question was in the first place). It’s a story steeped in magic realism, and will undoubtedly please any fan of Gaiman. However, this story (my third time reading something written by him) officially made me give up on ever liking him as a writer.
• “Solitude and Leadership” is taken from The American Scholar and is a speech originally delivered by William Deresiewicz to a plebe class at West Point. It’s a speech that will connect with anyone going through a job transition or feeling frustrated with promotions at work, among other situations, as Deresiewicz lays out what kind of people become leaders.
• Joyce Carol Oates’ “A Hole in the Head” (from The Kenyon Review) is a meandering thriller about cosmetic surgery. It’s notable not only for its author but also because it’s a captivating story. Yet, when it was over, I couldn’t help but feel disappointed. There were so many directions the story could have gone that I felt cheated when it didn’t address them. But then again, maybe that’s what really good short fiction is all about?
• Another story that could have gone in many fascinating directions but didn’t is “Pleiades” by Anjali Sachdeva (from Gulf Coast). It briefly chronicles the life of a girl who was born as a septuplet as an experiment by geneticist parents. There could instantly be a TV show born out of that idea (and might resemble Orphan Black) but Sachdeva merely hones in on just a few moments while telling this bittersweet tale.

There are, of course, far more short pieces of fiction and nonfiction alike dispersed throughout this book (as well as a list of notable pieces that didn’t quite make the cut, leading to infinitely more reading). I encourage you to pick up the book and explore it for yourself. You never know what story might inspire you.

PIPPIN Continues to Deliver Magic to All

They’ve got magic to do, just for you. In the newest revival of Pippin, all the world’s a circus stage, populated by the limber and attractive acrobatic Players. The Lead Player (Patina Miller) addresses the audience, readying us for the story of Pippin (Matthew James Thomas), the son of Charlemagne (Terrence Mann), and his quest to find his purpose. It’s a magical coming of age journey set to 1970s music with a 9th century backdrop.
Pippin’s quest for purpose and fulfillment takes him from joining Charlemagne’s army to a sexual orgy to a simple life in the country. Each episode proves to be unsatisfying, but his journey, narrated and coached by the Lead Player, is building towards one final, ultimate act. But the Lead Player’s role in Pippin’s life proves to be just as nefarious as the power hungry family he’s surrounded by.
photo-07Interwoven in the story are dance numbers and magic illusions performed by the Players (reminiscent of the Kit Kat Club in Cabaret and the musical numbers in the film version of Chicago). With an ensemble cast of trained circus performers and skilled acrobats, their impressive choreography and tricks appear effortless on stage. This only adds to the magic of the world of Pippin, making the show a truly unforgettable theatre-going experience.
It’s a solid and successful musical with lyrics and music by Stephen Schwartz (Godspell, Wicked). He presents a life lesson in the story of Pippin about how the quest for an extraordinary life may be ultimately unfulfilling. And, in this 2013 revival—directed by Diane Paulus—the final act of Pippin does feel unfulfilling.
The number one reason for this is the insertion of an intermission into the middle of the musical. Pippin is written as a one-act musical, and interrupting the story with an intermission kills a lot of the story’s momentum. But, as the Lead Player tells us in the revival of the show, the intermission is included because audience attention spans have shortened over time (a factor that Martin Scorsese didn’t factor into his 3-hour Quaalude opus Wolf of Wall Street). So, essentially, we only have ourselves to blame for the interruption in the story’s flow.
But even I could get past that, if it weren’t for the lackluster material provided in the second act. The magic of act one vanishes as a desolate Pippin wallows in an ordinary life. The lesson here works well for the story’s arc, but it feels that too much time is spent developing the inevitable character changes that occur (and one can only handle Pippin almost walking off-stage so many times).
photo-04Yet, what makes this act really flounder is Catherine. Played by Rachel Bay Jones with a squeaky voice, her chemistry with Pippin and her role in his life feel false and uninspired. (What’s the deal with all these squeaky love interests in musicals right now? Wasn’t Annaleigh Ashford’s nasally Lauren enough of a novelty in Kinky Boots?) It’s hard enough to buy them as a couple, much less believe her motivations when she clashes with the Lead Player’s directions. With this core story point falling flat, the rest of the musical flails in its attempts to teach a life lesson through Pippin—even with the altered ending from the original.
These quibbles aside, Pippin is still an extraordinary experience. It marvels everyone from frequent theatregoers to those newly initiated in the world of musical theatre. Many of Schwartz’s songs can stand alone, but all of the music blends well into the story (even if the 70s style feels hokey today). The inherent sexuality of the show, expressed both subtly and starkly, gives a modern edge to the show (along with some updated moments that resonate with today’s audiences). This is a show that I would love to go back and see over and over again (especially if I could get a behind the scenes look at the intricate backstage workings of the show).

Check out the casts’ performance at the Tonys for a true taste of the magic Pippin has to offer:

CARTWHEEL Is a Mental Gymnastic Story of Misperceptions and Half-Truths

In 2007, Amanda Knox was charged with murder for the death of her roommate in Italy. What ensued was a complex case with many unknown variables that still resulted in a conviction of her and others involved in the incident. Author Jennifer duBois uses this intriguing and tragic real life story as the basis for her latest novel, Cartwheel. She changes the setting and the names, but the heart of the true events remain as she explores how this terrible crime could have happened.
Cover-of-CartwheelLily Hayes has come to Buenos Aires to study Spanish. Once there, she gets caught up in a love triangle of sorts with her roommate Katy Kellers and their reclusive neighbor Sebastian LeCompte. So, when Katy is found dead, by Lily, the police are quick to accuse Lily. What follows is a tale of obscured truths and misconceived notions that culminate in destructive fashion. From the baffling cartwheel that Lily performs in her initial interrogation to the influence of the prosecutor’s wife on his investigation you’ll be squirming in your seat seeing how the characters squander their own reputations in their attempts to save them.
While duBois uses the framework of the Knox case to inform her story, she takes us deep into the characters minds to see how the case became so controversial. We see through the main characters’ eyes how their perceptions of each other and the lies they tell, often innocently, come back to hurt them. She paints a fully-realized portrait of the events surrounding the murder, but duBois never shows us what really happened the night of the murder, leaving us to guess what really happened.
It may be disheartening to know that the truth is not revealed, but the purpose of Cartwheel is to decide the truth for yourself (just as the characters so recklessly do). Consider yourself the judge as Lily Hayes is put on trial. We’re certainly given enough information to decide for ourselves (and enough information to mourn what happened to Amanda Knox). The insights into the characters are layered and nuanced, making Sebastian into a likable, yet smarmy, love interest and the prosecutor Eduardo Campos into a despicable manipulator (but that’s just my interpretation of the characters—what’s yours?).
Jennifer duBois uses a rich language to tell this story, making it all that more vivid. But duBois does not want you to think that she presumes to have the answers to the real Knox case. Knox may have allegedly done a cartwheel (a fact which has since been confirmed false); but Lily really did. And, as duBois puts it, “In the real universe is a girl who never did a cartwheel. This novel is the story of a girl who did.”

Where Are They Now: BROTHERS & SISTERS

bsIt’s been almost 3 years since we last saw the beloved Walker family. Sarah was walking down the aisle with her new, biological father Nick Brody (who had rekindled an old romantic relationship with Nora). Her marriage to Luc would be a beautiful moment to end the dramatic tale of these Brothers & Sisters (even though the show’s fate was still up in the air). Once we knew that the series was over, we could easily accept the happy endings hinted at for these characters—and easily ignore the health scare that Kitty faced in the finale.
Having just rewatched the entire series (available on Netflix), I am once again at a loss. How to cope without the Walkers in my life yet again? Obviously copious amounts of red wine (in exceedingly large wine glasses) are called for. But during the Oscars telecast I noticed two stars of the series (Sally Field and Calista Flockhart) and began to wonder what all the Walkers were up to now.

SALLY FIELDSally Field earned her third Oscar nomination last year (for Lincoln), and popped up at the Oscars this year as a presentee—and even in one of the hero montages (for her Oscar-winning role in Norma Rae). She doesn’t have much on her roster right now, though. In 2014 you will only find the Walker matriarch in the new Spider-Man sequel (reprising her role as Aunt May).

600full-rachel-griffithsRachel Griffiths has continued to enjoy life on the small screen, albeit far more briefly than her past, more successful series (Six Feet Under, Brothers & Sisters), with NBC’s 2013 summer show Camp (which was not renewed for a second season). She’s now returning to her Aussie roots starring in the TV movie Stalking Julia (an Australian political drama) and joining the cast of House Husbands (an Australian TV series I know absolutely nothing about—but I’ll just wait until the US remakes it). The oldest Walker daughter (and also, technically, the oldest of the Brody brood) can also be seen on the big screen in (briefly) Saving Mr. Banks and, next Friday, in Patrick: Evil Awakens (a film about a murderous boy now in a coma).

CF-calista-flockhart-20576156-2560-1919Calista Flockhart has been nonexistent since getting knocked up by young Seth. (Unless you count a guest voice role on the animated series The Penguins of Madagascar, which I do not.) Instead, she has been spending her time keeping her body in shape (to stave off the ravishments of age) and hanging out with her hubby Harrison Ford (hence why she was at the Oscars).

600full-balthazar-gettyBalthazar Getty may have been (blessedly) written off the show halfway through, but he’s still a Walker (no matter how insufferable he is). Getty has spent his freedom from the show trying to build up a movie career. He starred in one of last year’s film about Jack Kerouac, Big Sur (Kerouac was pretty big last year, huh?). This year he’ll be in the crime drama The Judge (also starring Vera Farmiga, Robert Downey Jr., and Leighton Meester) and is rumored to be in the crime drama A Fall From Grace; and in 2015 he is signed on to be in the film #Horror (with Chloe Sevigny, Natasha Lyonne, and Timothy Hutton). If you can’t wait for his films to be available, you can brave the Showtime series House of Lies this Sunday when Getty makes a guest appearance.

Matthew-Rhys-007Matthew Rhys has made the biggest TV comeback, starring next to the impeccable Keri Russell in the FX series The Americans (which just came back for its second season). Before returning to American TV, however, Rhys spent some time back in his homeland of Britain, working on some films and miniseries adapted from classic literature—The Mysteries of Edwin Drood and The Scapegoat (in which he plays a snobby British aristocrat and his poor doppelganger—it’s streaming on Netflix if you really feel the need to check it out). You can also see the middle Walker brother portray Mr. Darcy in the BBC adaptation of Death Comes to Pemberley (which has already aired across the pond and will air in the US sometime this year).

600full-dave-annableDave Annable has had a harder time establishing himself after saying goodbye to Justin Walker. His bad luck with TV (which started with Reunion in 2005) repeated itself with 666 Park Avenue, getting canceled amidst its first season. His film career seems to be a non-starter as well. I don’t know anyone who saw him star in the Katharine McPhee rom-com You May Not Kiss the Bride (2011) or make a smaller appearance in the Anna Faris rom-com What’s Your Number? (2011).

As far as the other Walkers and those who love them go, you’ll be hard-pressed to find many of them. Deceased Robert McCallister (Rob Lowe), of course, has maintained a high profile, starring in Behind the Candelabra and Parks & Recreation (he’s even tackling Ulyssses S. Grant in the upcoming miniseries To Appomattox). Former Walker Rebecca Harper (Emily VanCamp) has shot to even further pop culture stardom by headlining in her ABC series Revenge (taking over the subway ads that blistering 2011 summer after B&S ended), and she’s even breaking into the Marvel-verse in this year’s Captain America sequel. Sarah’s new spouse Luc (Gilles Marini) is holding his own with a recurring guest stint on 2 Broke Girls (among other random TV appearances). Little, obnoxious Paige (Kerris Dorsey) can be found starring on the Live Schreiber Showtime series Ray Donovan. However, her brother Cooper’s (Maxwell Perry Cotton) biggest role has been playing a young Matt Damon in last year’s Elysium. Everyone else has barely made a blip on the pop culture radar, but you never know when the Walkers will rise again like an unknown illegitimate child.


Should You Travel to VILLETTE?

Villette is the third published novel by Charlotte Bronte (and also the last novel she wrote). The novel bears more than a passing resemblance to her more well-known novel Jane Eyre—mostly because it, too, draws from much of Charlotte’s real life—but it has grown more critically acclaimed than its predecessor. But only a critic could find something important in such an aggravating novel. (I should know, since I, too, am a critic.)
The story follows the tragic, tumultuous, and frustrating life of Lucy Snowe. Written in the first person by an older Lucy, the novel serves more as a psychological study of a woman (in the 1850s) than as a plot-driven story. For plot is the one thing almost completely absent from Villette (hence why it’s such an aggravating novel).
9780141199887It begins when Lucy is a mere 14 years old, and seems to focus more on the petite doll-like Polly and her budding friendship with young Graham than on what orphaned Lucy is doing in her godmother’s home. But soon Lucy moves on from home to job to the French-speaking town of Villette, facing discouragement and tribulation along the way. The entirety of volume one feels disjointed as Lucy makes her disheartening journey to this foreign town (a not unfamiliar journey for readers of Jane Eyre).
Volume two, however, opens with a plot twist! An important character that has been popping up in Lucy’s Villette life turns out to be a character from her past. While it’s a nice surprise (if, indeed, you are surprised by it—it seemed like an obvious twist), the revelation is frustrating. Lucy is quick to point out that she knew from almost the first moment she met the character who he really was. She merely chose not to reveal to us (or him) this little revelation. This immediately makes her not only an untrustworthy narrator but also a very manipulative one. An interesting dynamic that makes you want to both pay more attention to what she is telling you and disregard everything she says.
It also sets up high expectations that more plot twists may be provided in the future of the novel. But it’s hard to insert plot twists when there is almost no plot. In fact, just as you begin to accept the novel as psychological examination of a very passive, depressive woman, you get a glimmer of hope that more will happen volumes two and three! And, while some stuff does happen, there’s a lot more to slog through to get to it.
Villette-Page_n8But how rewarding is Villette? Every third chapter my eyes would glaze over at the sheer monotony of Lucy’s unhappy life and her apparent inability to do anything to make it even a smidge happier. Or yet my eyes would lose focus at the random bouts of French inserted into conversation but lazily not translated—either by Lucy Snowe (who knows you don’t read French, since she barely knows it upon arriving at Villette) or by the Bantam publishers who released this copy (I would have happily flipped to the back of the book Infinite Jest-style to read translations of these conversations*). But loose story arcs with other characters liven up even her dullest recounting of a trip to the opera. It’s a tough sell to any reader, much less one who actually enjoys reading Victorian Era novels. (Especially when at every turn you just want to drop Villette and revisit Jane Eyre*.)
Villette forces the reader to exert patience and luxuriate in the text (a hard thing to do when you’re reading 7 novels at a time, but not an awful thing in and of itself). Yet I felt wholly satisfied with the novel’s ending. Over halfway through the novel, I began to realize that I greatly resembled Lucy Snowe (I most certainly would end up with her in the “Which Bronte Heroine Are You?” Quiz). Her dilettante ways are unappealing but her lack of amusement with so much of life mirrors my steely attitude. If she were a character written today, I know she would be just as snarky as I am (her asides to the reader throughout the novel show promise of that). There’s an essence of Lucy Snowe inside me, and so I felt compelled to finish the novel to see how much of it will mirror my own life (the somewhat ambiguous ending seems a fitting enough life for me to look forward to).
Charlotte definitely packs in plenty of her defining plot points. Instead of a mysterious woman in the attic, there is the haunting figure of a ghost nun lurking about the school that Lucy works at. Lucy gets her own love triangle of sorts, including one who seems to think of her more as a sibling than a “lover” (sound familiar?). Yet whatever good fortune we assume Jane deserves, it would feel unjust to expect similar happiness for Lucy. A woman who constantly denies herself happiness should not be rewarded with “eternal joy,” right? But then maybe you should read the novel and decide that for yourself.

*If anyone finds a copy of Villette with translations, please notify me ASAP!
*If, for some reason, you haven’t read Jane Eyre, please do so ASAP!

EXPLORE Outer Space in Smythe’s Intense Thriller

In this day and age, it seems that a book about space exploration would be dull when there are plenty of incredible space films that you’d rather be seeing (Gravity, Sunshine, Alien, Prometheus—yes, I liked Prometheus). But James Smythe’s incredible Anomaly Quartet proves that space literature isn’t dead.
The first installment, The Explorer, follows journalist Cormac on the first space expedition in decades, treating the entire endeavor like a reality TV stunt. The crew will be traveling to the farthest point man has ever traveled in space, hoping to reinvigorate the world’s desire for space travel after a disastrous expedition all but killed the global space craze. But this hopeful quest turns out to be a disaster as well. For, as we learn in the opening 50 pages, that Cormac is all alone on the ship, his fellow crew members having all died off (each in their own dramatic way, which he quickly recaps).
But there was also a secondary reason for this expedition. Scientist Guy has devoted his life to researching an anomaly he’s found in distant space, and this expedition will give him the opportunity to see it firsthand and potentially send some answers back to Earth. While things for Guy don’t turn out so well, Cormac inadvertently learns a few things about the mysterious anomaly.
Smythe packs his novel with mind-bending twists and the eerie kind of paranoia that can only be found in deep space. But he also works in an emotional through-line for Cormac that packs it’s own little punch. The Explorer’s revelations make you want to relieve the book a second time upon completing. And when you’ve gotten as much as you can out of The Explorer, check out the recently released second installment The Echo (which is an incredible novel in its own right).

That Awkward Moment When I (Sorta) Defend THAT AWKWARD MOMENT

hr_That_Awkward_Moment_4That awkward moment when you really like a bad movie. There are many reasons you do: you like the actors, you like the setting, you like the fresh(ish) take on a tired genre, you like the theme which somehow resonates with you on that day in that moment. There are plenty of reasons to like a bad movie. But if you really enjoyed the film (dare I say, connected with the film), how bad can it actually be?
That awkward moment when the film feels horribly miscast. The biggest flaw of the film is the lead actors’ ages. Zac Efron, Miles Teller, and Michael B. Jordan are playing characters in their vague mid-20s (certainly 2-3 years out of college); yet the last we saw of them, Teller was graduating from high school (The Spectacular Now); Jordan was a tragic 22-year-old (Fruitvale Station); and in the trailers before the film we saw Efron portraying a frat boy (Neighbors). Their youthful looks make them appear far too young to be in their mid-20s with some form of a career. But are they? (Maybe they’re just trying to break out of the mold they’ve been cast in.)
That-Awkward-Moment-Motion-Poster-Zac-EfronThat awkward moment when you realize all three leads are actually 26-years-old—more or less the accurate age to be playing these characters. Efron, whom we’ve seen mature over the years, is the most instantaneously believable in his role as Jason (a decade-younger Barney Stinson). While verbally sparring with Efron, Teller has enough buddy chemistry to make us buy him as being Jason’s best friend Daniel. But it’s overly-serious Mikey who, despite Jordan’s adult-seeming facial hair, feels like the odd man out. He’s a married guy facing divorce while sporting the youthful looks of a college student. His story is the least believable, and pushes him onto the fringes throughout the film.
That awkward moment when Mikey looks down on his best friends and their frivolous lifestyle. They enjoy going out each night, bedding different chicks, building up a “roster” of booty calls, yet dreading the moment when a girl gets too attached and says, “So.” So, where is this going? So, what are we? It’s a hum-drum dilemma, but they are in their mid-twenties; and it’s not their fault that Mikey got married when he was, what? 21? And how bad of a husband was he if he got Jessica Lucas to cheat on him? I don’t believe Lucas has ever played a character with a single mean bone in her body (maybe this was her attempt at breaking out of the mold).
That awkward moment when writer/director Tom Gormican seems to recognize that Mikey doesn’t quite fit in, and pulls the focus on the other two boys. Unfortunately, he has them bond over a trivial pact that haunts nearly every romantic comedy. The three amigos decide to celebrate Mikey’s impending divorce by not getting girlfriends. That’s something that Jason and Daniel have been consciously doing for years, but now that they they’ve clinked their coffee cups to it, it’s an official bro pact. And so the characters fall into the classic dilemmas we expect from a rom-com: they fall in love—Jason with the bewitching Imogen Poots (whose Ellie is far more endearing than her Allie in Greetings from Tim Buckley—but then again, Efron is a far more endearing romantic counterpart than Penn Badgley was) and Daniel with the guys’ good friend (and Robin-like wingman, I would like to add) Chelsea, played by Mackenzie Davis (whose helpful role involves telling a hot chick that she likes her shoes and then doing her version of “Have you met _____?”). Mikey is still dealing with his marital issues and doesn’t have time for the frivolous sexual relationships his buddies engage in.
maxresdefaultThat awkward moment when you like a film despite its flaws. The story may not be groundbreaking, yet it still feels fresh. I’ve been clamoring for a rom-com from the male point-of-view. And I’m not referring to bro-coms where it’s about two dudes bonding (although this film has that). This is a film about immature guys maturing in their romantic endeavors, not an easy task for “the selfish generation” as Jason aptly refers to us. It’s like getting the reverse point-of-view that we’ve seen from every other romantic comedy (about time, I tell ya!). Sure, it still falls into the formulaic pratfalls of its forebears; but what exactly did you expect when you sat down to watch it?
That awkward moment when you see yourself in the characters. These guys may be jerks who only want to hook up, but we all have those phases (unless you’re a Mikey and only accustomed or comfortable with the committed lifestyle). And maybe it’s because I’m currently in such a phase that I felt connected to Jason and Daniel’s dilemmas. It can (and does) seem so simple in the context of the film, but in real life, the lines are far blurrier, and it feels like Gormican is grasping at that. He makes these characters balance the fine line between smarmy and charming, and that’s where the casting comes in handy. For Efron and Teller are just the kind of buddies that you want to see succeed but understand when they fail. (Sure, Jordan does a good job; but I really didn’t care for him and his crumbling marriage—mostly because Gormican throws us into the divorce without establishing a resemblance of a relationship between them.)
That awkward moment when you think the movie’s theme may be a condemnation towards couples. Amidst learning to embrace being in a relationship, Jason must deal with the relationship he already has with his best friends. His (and Daniel’s) fear is that being in a relationship will make his friendship suffer. And, to some extent, that’s a correct expectation. Most people vanish into their newly founded relationships. But it is possible to balance the two (and the film hints at that). When everything inevitably goes to the toilet, Jason realizes that it’s because he devalued his relationship with his best friends. It’s the opposite effect of what happens when people do go into relationships, and it’s an interesting perspective to present (that is sadly buried in a mediocre film).
That Awkward Moment is not a good film (it was released in January). But That Awkward Moment was a very enjoyable film to watch. It addressed stories that I look for in a film, and I never once fell asleep (CONFESSION: I took 10-minute naps during American Hustle and Twelve Years a Slave). Plus, it exploits Efron’s body in a way that you hope and expect it to. If this film could be the start of something new (or at least different) in the romantic comedy genre, then it is wholly worth the price of admission (at least at matinee pricing).

Side note: As a New Yorker (can I say that yet?), I’ve been fully submersed in the Grammercy Park myth that so many of us strive for; and I fully enjoyed how the film approached it.

My Year in Books (2013)

• Number of books read this year: 101
• Number of books read that were published this year: 35
• Number of books read that were published last year: 9
• Number of books read that will be published next year: 1
• Number of books read that are on The List: 16
• Number of books reread this year: 10
• Number of non-fiction books read this year: 3
• Number of pages read this year: 34,704
• Average number of pages per book: 343
Last year’s book stats

Fun stats:
• Number of British books read this year: 18
• Number of Crime/Mystery books read this year: 21
• Number of books read with Nazis: 4
• Number of books read whose movie I also saw this year: 9
• Most read authors this year:
–Lemony Snicket (12)
Stephen King (4)
Margaret Atwood (3)
–Evelyn Waugh (3)

Best Books I Read This Year (That Were Published This Year):
The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards by Kristopher Jansma
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
MaddAddam by Margaret Atwood
Night Film by Marissa Pessl
The Coldest Girl in Coldtown by Holly Black
A Dangerous Fiction by Barbara Rogan

Best Books I Read This Year (That Were Not Published This Year):
The Teleportation Accident by Ned Beauman
August: Osage County by Tracy Letts
The Shining by Stephen King
Grimus by Salman Rushdie
Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

Honorable Mention:
A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence
Inferno by Dan Brown
A Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling
The Humans by Matt Haig
Fallen Land by Patrick Flannery

You Won’t Be MADD When You Read Atwood’s Final MADDADDAM Novel

17262203In her final installment in the MaddAddam trilogy, Margaret Atwood brings together the large cast of characters from Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood. Told through Toby, we learn the fate of Jimmy, Amanda, and Ren after capturing the Painballers and see how the remaining humans deal with the ever-curious Crakers, increasingly-intelligent pigoons, and survival in this post-apocalyptic world. Crake’s “perfect” new world didn’t begin as smoothly as he would have liked, and the human factor remains as a potential force to upset his intentions with the Crakers.
Continuing her flashback structure implemented in the previous novels, Atwood also tells us the history of Zeb and Adam One. Raised as brothers, the boys had a close bond not unlike that of Jimmy and Glenn. Zeb was the rebellious one, always making jokes (like Jimmy); and Adam the reserved one, always plotting (like Crake). As Zeb tells Toby about his past, we see even more connections between the characters and get some final insights into Crake’s origin’s and those of MaddAddam. It’s fascinating to see the parallels between Zeb and Jimmy’s story, and it fully paints the picture of this rich (and ever frightening) future that Atwood has developed.
Just like The Year of the Flood, MaddAddam is reminiscent of Gregory Maguire’s Wicked novels. Despite not having green skin, Toby could easily be Elphaba, speaking to bees and communing with the Crakers. Unlike Elphaba, though, Toby does not come off as wicked at all (although she does imbibe the story with the dry wit that Maguire is known for), proving herself to be the true heroine of this trilogy. (Jimmy, who is still sick for most of this novel, is more of a backseat hero.) And, just like the Wicked novels, it is sad to leave the world Atwood has created when you finish the novels. With so much more left that could be said and explored, maybe another novel could appear along the road? (And, just as unlikely, wouldn’t it be amazing to see these books adapted for television? Someone call JJ Abrams.)

This DOCTOR Won’t Put You to SLEEP

Doctor Sleep is another one of the novels this year to follow the sequel trend (see also: Revenge Wears Prada, Sycamore Row, and Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy). Stephen King returns to the world of his classic 1977 novel The Shining, picking up with the lives of Danny Torrance, his mother Wendy, and his fellow shiner Dick Hallorann. The first half of the book follows Danny’s life as he grows into a troubled alcoholic like his father. But Danny does not want to be destined to become the monster that his father was and tries to be a better man.
Doctor_SleepWe are also introduced to a new cast of characters that includes uber-shiner girl Abra and the evil yet beautiful Rose the Hat. Rose and her crew of undead shiner suckers are King’s newest terror, and after reading what they do to a helpless little boy you’ll be quite pleased that you don’t have the shining yourself. While all the characters remain more or less disconnected throughout the first half of the novel, King does a masterful job of bringing all the storylines together.
Getting through the wandering stories in that first half may feel tedious at times, but King makes up for it with the thrilling second half that I literally could not put down. It’s a rollercoaster battle between good and evil that should be familiar to readers of King’s work (and just as rewarding). If you loved The Shining (and who doesn’t?), you can rest assured that he appropriately alludes to the novel while still telling a fully new and complete story. And if you haven’t read the previous novel you will still be able to enjoy Doctor Sleep on its own. If only all sequels could be as great as this one.


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