Monthly Archives: January 2013

Book Review: The Passage

Help! Virals!

The Passage

Author Justin Cronin listened to his daughter, and now life is awesome. Now we have The Passage.

The first installment of a trilogy of the same name is a little difficult to summarize – and by “a little difficult,” I actually mean a Herculean task that suspiciously resembles impossibility.

Attempt #1

Basically, a rare Bolivian jungle virus is discovered and extracted by a Harvard scientist and the US military. Cursory evidence suggests that the virus, if properly harnessed, could be injected into humans and turn them into superheroes who stay young not forever, but for awhile.

Are these things ever properly harnessed?

Exactly.

Injections fail, test subjects escape, infection spreads, mayhem ensues, and the world falls into a post-apocalyptic state. Most people are dead, some are “turned,” and few humans remain. Those  “turned” are dubbed virals, which strongly resemble vampires. Hate sunlight. Drink blood. Mostly kill, but sometimes turn their victims. Super strength and speed. Etc.

Attempt #2

There is no way to summarize the book without making it sound like an installment of a horror trilogy that only appeals to a specific genre reader (see above). The summary provides the framework of a plot that is made great by its characters, particularly Amy – the heart of Cronin’s story. An abandoned girl whose journey spans miles and decades, Amy’s appearance nearly 100 years after the outbreak (Year Zero) infuses members of the First Colony (94 surviving humans) with the hope needed in their journey to survive and reclaim the world.

High-lights: non-linear plot, varying perspectives, biblical undertones, Peter, Alicia, Wolgast, masterful suspense, interjections of letters, emails and official reports, overlapping story lines, calling pants “gaps,” slow revelations, and the virals. Definitely the virals – for so many reasons.

Low-lights: heaviness of the text (solved by reading on a Calarco Kindle), occasional uneven prose (almost forgivable in such an epic tale), Richard (terrible human)…that’s about it.

Takeaways: These vampires do not sparkle or seduce and this text is better described as a dystopian journey rather than a horror story full of blood and guts and stuff.

The Passage is dangerously absorbing and fascinatingly rewarding. Read it so I have a friend to geek out with and someone to accompany me as I read Cronin’s first sequel, The Twelve.

-Signing off, Jenny Barrows (who will forget to eat, sleep, or bathe as she reads The Twelve…apologies in advance)

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Bennett Amador’s Book Review

Seeking Love in America

By Bennett Amador

Women from the early 1900s came to Buddha in the AtticJapan to live with unknown already chosen spouses. These hopeful “women” were as young as 11, and as old as 31. The author, Julie Otsuka, describes their journey with unrivaled prose, written in a poetic fashion. She is the author of When The Emperor was Divine, a book about the American-Japanese in World War II. Both books are written in similar style; Otsuka writes plainly and concisely but her words leave a strong sentiment. She does not focus on the individual but rather the collection of women. To make her point she writes in the 1st person plural. One might think the stories would become detached or lacking individuality, but she overcomes this by occasionally telling anecdotes in the 1st person singular. The minimalist tack is effective and thought provoking, particularly because so much can be inferred by her words.

Julie Otsuka’s first book The Buddha in the Attic is considered a prequel to “When the Emperor was Divine”. Otsuka’s distinct writing style is evident in both novels.  The focal point is the Japanese-Americans’ lives affected in WWII. She refers to specific characters of the book as “the boy” or “white dog.” The effect is that the reader connects to “the woman” and “the boy,” while at the same time facilitating the realization that the war affected many Japanese-Americans. She utilizes a similar strategy in The Buddha in the Attic by maintaining the focus on the group of Japanese women coming to the U.S.

The book opens on a boat that is transporting the Japanese women from their homeland to America. Otsuka is not verbose in the first chapter as shown in the first sentence “on the boat we were mostly virgins.” The Japanese women are portrayed as innocent, full of hope, nervousness, worry “would we be laughed at?” traits not omnipresent throughout the group but also not unique to a single woman. Chapter one primarily sets the scene for the book by explaining the disappointment the woman felt when reaching the shores of California: “…we could not have known that when we first saw our husbands we would have no idea who they were. That the crowd of men in knit caps and shabby black coats waiting for us down below on the dock would bear no resemblance to the handsome young men in the photographs. That the photographs we had been sent were twenty years old…. This is America, we would say to ourselves, there is no need to worry. And we would be wrong.” This quote typifies the spirit of these women throughout the book because they are constantly faced with the harsh reality that they are not equals. World War II only further exacerbates this reality when they are sent away solely on the crime of being Japanese.

“The Buddha in the Attic” highlights the somewhat lesser known, unpopular actions carried out by Americans during World War II. The second chapter “First night,” conveys more horrors: “They took us by surprise, for some of us had not been told by our mothers exactly what it was that this night would entail. “ Each chapter advances the women’s lives “Babies,” “The Children,” “The Last Day” and with each chapter the characters evolve to develop an understanding, “they did not want us as neighbors in their valleys. They did not want us as friends.” The women slowly progress and repetition in their daily activities eventually leads to normalcy. That comfort found in normalcy is only shattered come wartime.

Otsuka writes repetitively to emphasize certain points. For example, when talking about the “picture brides” opinions on American women: “We loved them. We hated them. We wanted to be them.” The language is simple and certain parallels can be drawn to Ernest Hemingway. While reading the novel the reader feels a large sense of sympathy for these women and this is perhaps Otsuka’s greatest gift.

Otsuka writes simply, so that teens can read it and understand it, Adults will appreciate the book for its poetic style and historical underpinnings. We truly feel for these women and hope their lives positively change, however, knowing in the back of our minds, they are doomed.

David Baumann’s Book Review

Alone With Your Thoughts

By David Baumann

Anyone who has spent a legitimate length of Train Dreamstime alone knows how the mind can wander. When there’s no one to talk to, the mind can begin to form an inner monologue that you never knew existed. You can find peace and clarity in times by yourself, just as you many find anxiety and strife. It’s hard to even reach a place of such isolation in today’s world. Technology keeps us always connected, often preventing us from a true feeling of being alone in the world. These moments of inner peace can help many people reach important decisions in life, but just as easy, too much thought can lead to confusion of the surrounding world.

If you have never experienced this state of mind in your everyday life, the next best thing may be reading Train Dreams by Denis Johnson. The novel follows the life of Robert Grainier, an all American woodsman, as he lives his life in the rural northwest of early 20th century America. The third person narrator often delves deeply into the inner thoughts of Grainier as he loses his family to a tragic forest fire, and proceeds to live a life of isolation in a reclusive log cabin. Grainer travels around the area for work, befriends multiple animals, and recalls his past family and life. Maintaining what little optimism he has, “he lives a long life, owns one acre of property, has one lover, one wagon, two horses, and the train tracks that surround him.”

Reading this book brings you into the rigid northwest world of a working class America. Johnson creates a vivid landscape filled with looming forests and small blue-collar towns. The landscape sounds beautiful and luscious, yet provides an unforgiving harshness to many moments in the book. Grainier inhabits and embodies this world as he undergoes many changes. With his family tragically lost, his mind contemplates the spirits of the dead and his place as a community “hermit”. He has visions of legendary folk tales about wolves, and begins to howl late at night. Spending such long periods of isolation in the woods takes its toll on his mind. His surroundings become a character in itself, sending him messages and hallucinations of perceived importance. His mind often brings him to thoughts that make you question his sanity, yet never do you question if what he thinks is real. Everything is genuine with Grainier, his love, his fears, and his life. It’s easy to comprehend everything he experiences, even if you begin to question the actual authenticity of the events. No matter how insane his actions, his thoughts and emotion remain true.

Train Dreams remains pretty straightforward (despite some interesting encounters with wolves). It’s an honest representation of a simple man who copes with losing everything. The novel stands at a short 114 pages, yet feels much longer. It manages to span an entire lifetime with timely flashbacks and looks ahead. I would recommend it to anyone who is looking to experience a truthful representation of the “man in the woods”. Denis Johnson beautifully creates the life and death of a simple man in a complex state of mind. Train Dreams is a quick read, but well worthy of a long discussion.

Chris Cahill’s Book Review

History: A Reality Marked by Imperfections in Memory

By Chris Cahill

Think of a novel that demonstrates thesense of ending2 possibilities of youth, the danger in complacency, the validity, or lack thereof, of memory, and the emotions that permeate our own accuracy. Few novels tackle such large topics, especially in less than 200 pages. However, Julian Barnes has created such a novel, appropriately named The Sense of an Ending.

Barnes is a well-established English writer who has produced nearly a dozen other novels over the past few decades. These works include England, England and Arthur and George, both of which show his mastery in modern and former English society. His works also include short stories, essays, and crime novels.

The Sense of an Ending begins as a flashback to the end of the narrator’s secondary school days. It takes place in England during the 1960s. The narrator, Tony, describes 1960s England as England in the 1950s with pockets of typical sixties behavior. He labels his life as normal. He has two friends, Colin and Alex, and he meets a third friend named Adrian. As an intellectual, his primary foci are school and university examinations, though he is somewhat desperate for a girlfriend. Questions on the validity of history dot his time, and the group, along with their professor, try to define what history really is. Tony says, admittedly rushed, that “history is the lies of the victors.” Adrian, on the other hand, suggests “history is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.”

During his time at Bristol University Tony becomes involved with a women named Veronica; this relationship changes his view—and memory—of that time in his life. He and Veronica have a somewhat typical sixties relationship. They are mostly platonic, as this was common. Tony spends a sole weekend at Veronica’s house and meets her family. Regardless, their relationship deteriorates. They fight about their personality traits, and Tony is deemed peaceable. They eventually break up, and Adrian begins dating Veronica afterwards. Tony, though warped by his own memory, recalls being filled with anger and resentment towards them both.

Forty years later, Tony receives a letter telling him he has been bequeathed £500 and two documents. He is initially confused, but he finds out that Veronica’s mother left him these items. As he ponders their relation to him, he recalls his memories of Veronica, Adrian, and Veronica’s mother, Sarah. He decides to reach out to Veronica, who has the said documents, after decades without communication. But as Tony contacts and reconnects with her, he begins to understand the differences between his emotional memory and the truth. He discovers that he rewrites or disregards his past actions to fit his contentment while burying the truth under mountains of emotional cushion.

The Sense of an Ending is overall a hard book to like; nevertheless, Barnes is a talented author who does his job fairly well. He normally expresses his points quickly and efficiently, as the story is extremely short. Barnes also has a usually blunt style of writing that is beneficial when dealing with confusing topics like memory and history. At points, I self reflected on my memories, adding a level of interaction to the book. Regardless, I had to reread some sections multiple times just to capture an idea of what the author was trying to say. Moreover, I found the narrator frustrating by the end as a result of his actions in the book, and, for me, the actions of all the characters created a mental block. After being disgusted by their behaviors, I felt it consumed me more so than the topic of recollection. It also contains some sexual scenes that were unnecessary.

The primary focus of The Sense of an Ending is on the validity of history or memory, but it also takes into account interpersonal relationships with family members and partners.  These topics generally resonate well with a general audience. However, with the main points in the novel occurring in the 1960’s, an older audience that has experienced this era will appreciate it more than younger generations. The book does a fair job of documenting etiquette and norms and capturing the British university feeling during the 1960’s. Irrespective, most can understand the effect the time period has on the novel as a whole.

End Point: I’m not sure if I can recommend the book, but Barnes does a model job of exemplifying the fallacies of memory.

Meg Baumgartner’s Book Review

Vampires Done Right

By Meg Baumgartner

Why have vampire romance novels become so endearing lately? There is something about the battles between good and evil, life and death, hate and love… that enthralls us. What better way to capture this disparity, than in a vampire-human love story? Edward and Bella, Elena and Stefan, Selene and Michael, Mick and Beth; just walk through the Young Adult Fantasy and Fiction section of any bookstore and you will see that this controversial couple concept has been fully exhausted. However, John Ajvide Lindqvist’s first novel, Let The Right One In, Let the Right One Inmanages to break this mold in and unfamiliar and refreshing fashion.

Set in Sweden in the early 1980’s, Lindqvist’s book tells the story of Oskar, a bullied 12-year-old boy with few friends, and even fewer social skills. He lives with his absent mother in a dreary suburb just outside of the city. His days consist of avoiding bullies, stealing candy, and adding articles to his murder scrapbook; a scrapbook filled with stories and pictures of the recent murders that have been occurring in the area. When a young girl named Eli walks into his odd little world, Oskar finally develops a bond with another human being. Or has he? Oskar begins to notice some very strange things about his new friend; Eli never seems to be cold, even on the chilliest of winter nights. She never leaves her house during the daytime and she has a knack for perfecting small and impossible tasks.

Throughout the story, the details of Eli and her life are slowly revealed. Eli is actually a two hundred year old vampire stuck in eternal childhood and with an unquenchable thirst for human blood. Even before Oskar is aware of Eli’s secret, he acknowledges that she seems dangerous, “-there was something in her, something that was…pure horror. Everything you were supposed to watch out for. Heights, fire, shards of glass, snakes, everything that [Oskar’s] mom tried so hard to keep him safe from;” despite these facts, Oskar is drawn to Eli. Their relationship develops into a romance marred by Eli’s secret and reflective of their awkward pre-teen age: “What he was scared of was not that maybe she was a creature who survived by drinking other people’s blood. No, it was that she might push him away.”

Let The Right One In unravels around the connection between Eli and Oskar. Oskar follows Eli as she embarks on her usual vampire routines: hunting, killing, avoiding the sunlight… Oskar learns about the relationship between Eli and her ‘father,’ Hakan. Hakan is a closeted pedophile that serves Eli by murdering people and bringing them to her to drink; Eli rejects all of Hakan’s sexual advances and for this the situation between the two begins to unravel. Despite her murderous ways, you find yourself rooting for Eli and, therefore, Oskar. The young couple finds obstacles in Eli’s world of death, pedophilia, and murder; as well as in Oskar’s world of rejection, bullying, and loss. Together,  Oskar and Eli spend the story overcoming their obstacles, growing closer to one another in the process.

Sounds generic, right? Wrong. The story of Oskar and Eli is the farthest possible thing from the usual vampire romance novels. Everything about this story deters from a classic romance: the graphicness and sheer brutality, the pedophilia, and the torment of bullies. Yet, somehow it all works. Eli is a two hundred year old murderess but she has retained an innocence that coexists perfectly with Oskar’s troubled character.

Lindqvist’s writing is problematically slow, and as the reader, you find yourself so exhausted by irrelevant details and subplots that you hardly want to continue the story. Many characters that are introduced and articulately described end up having no significant place in the plot. These sort of specifics could easily have been neglected. However, if you can get past the pace of this 472-page novel, the underlying story is definitely worth the read. While many of the scenes are snail-paced, there are moments that are gripping in their complexity and originality.

Though it seems Lindqvist has geared his novel towards an adult audience, I would argue that Let The Right One In could be enjoyed by young adult or teen readers. Some details of the story are disturbingly graphic, but the basis of them are not original, making them suitable to anyone who can handle a little blood and gore.

Theodore Wuest’s Book Review

Notes from the Beautiful Machine

By Theodore Wuest

Words have suddenly begun to fly across the screen, rapidly approaching margin-lines and my vapid assertions. I am rapidly approaching that dreaded moment for any writer, rapidly approaching the confrontation of an unsavory topic. This topic, specifically, is a better writer than I. This topic, namely, is David Foster Wallace.

Many in the audience of this article are aware of Wallace, his distinctive voice, his cultural significance, the modernity and relative clarity of his prose. It was prose that seemed to shape the literary landscape of the 90s and 00s. But beyond his fiction, which was rather limited in quantity,lobster Wallace was a dynamic journalist. Between publishing novels and teaching, Wallace produced an array of fascinating almost-long-form essays for major publications, many of which are printed here in Consider the Lobster. In these essays, he goes many steps past reporting and enters the uneasy halls of philosophy. In one, he explores both the enigma of John McCain in his brief stint of success during the 2000 presidential campaign and the intricate social satellite around the man, the campaign press corps. In another, he reviews the latest usage dictionary, moving on to illuminate the “seamy underbelly” of the lexicographical profession and the bloodless but passionate war between descriptivists and prescriptivists on which depends the future of the English language. He praises and criticizes good writing—Franz Kafka, Fyodor Dostoevsky, John Updike—and bad writing—Tracy Austin ghosted by Christine Brennan, John Updike. And in the title essay, he takes a weekend trip to Maine Lobster Festival and ends up debating the morality of boiling lobsters.

Wallace is a talented rhetorician. A competent writer communicates with words what they think, and does so clearly. A good writer is one who constantly uses those words for more than their denotations. Wallace, without exception, is able to clearly communicate his ideas, however complex they may turn out to be. Wallace, with few exceptions, is able to imbue his writing with that previously described elevating dose of thought, whether in the form of emotional weight or, more often, a biting, developed sense of humor.

Wallace’s humor is elegant. It seems effortless how it flows through the text, without any of the flaws that make most comedy vaguely repulsive. There is no parody, caricature, vulgarity (essay on pornography very excepted), no elaborate or contrived setup for stale jokes. His humor is natural in that it stems directly from his crystalline perception, from the intricate machinations that drive his thoughts. His humor acquires its power not from falsehood, but from truth.

I seem to be gushing a bit. I do not intend to do this. Wit does not permeate his writing, as the preceding paragraph may seem to suggest. It comes in quick flashes, in cameos inset into his argument or his storytelling. And the most fascinating parts of Consider the Lobster are in the dry spells between jokes. They’re fascinating, chiefly, because they’re not “dry”; they’re damp, occasionally soaked with Wallace’s personality. Throughout his rhetoric, his arguments elegantly punctuated with wit, we become uneasily close to the writer himself. Reading his essays, I noticed his insecurities, his detachment from and attraction to other people, his extreme self-consciousness. A better reader might even recognize traits premonitory of his 2008 suicide. And while it is possible that the emotional texture is simply a pathetic device, an attempt of the author to connect with the reader, that is not its effect. Clear-cut arguments and witty observations suddenly become nauseatingly personal, and it’s distracting. They become less about their subjects and more about their author.

Furthermore, detracting from Wallace’s otherwise impeccable style is his slavish devotion to the use of the footnote. It is a constant presence in almost all of his essays. And while footnotes in themselves are not bad,[1] excessive annotation is disruptive. Wallace will occasionally write full-page footnotes, under headings like “CONTAINS EDITORIAL ELEMENTS”, which, while expanding the scope of the argument, remove any sense of coherency. Especially bad in this regard was the last essay, on talk radio, in which Wallace eschewed the footnote for lines drawn to text boxes, boxes which sometimes contained more lines drawn to sub-text boxes. Or are they meta-text boxes? The mere existence of that question elicits skepticism as to their value. Often, I wondered why Wallace didn’t just incorporate his ideas into the structure of his essay.

There it is. I’ve done it. I’ve reached that unsavory moment, the moment where I’m required to judge David Foster Wallace. Because what right have I? When he is regarded as the writer, maybe the mind, of his time? When he, by the virtue of his humor, has managed to make me chuckle in an empty, silent room? Perhaps as reconciliation, I offer this: yes, when we see the “seamy underbelly” of Wallace’s personality, his arguments are less effective. But that personality can add another dimension, an emotional dimension, to our perception of his arguments. What they lose as essays, they gain as art.


[1] And can, in fact, serve as a channel for the writer’s sharp wit in a manner that would be otherwise inappropriate.

Jessica Larkin-Wells’ Book Review

A New Kind of Magic

By Jessica Larkin-Wells

Hopkins students who have grown up with Harry, Ron and Hermione may approach JK Rowling’s new un-fantastical book a little rowling warily. Released last September, The Casual Vacancy achieved immediate bestseller status across the world, and it earned as much of its own acclaim as the name “JK Rowling” won for it. This new novel, directed at an adult audience, was the first Rowling published that was unaffiliated with the Harry Potter series.

Reading the book can be a strange experience for readers familiar with the Harry Potter books because the subject matter and audience are vastly different. For those of you tempted to read this book because you loved Harry Potter, turn back. The novel really is adult fiction, dealing bluntly with suicide, rape, child abuse, and drug addiction. What remains of the Rowling we know is embedded in the very style of her writing: much of her descriptive skill shines through in The Casual Vacancy, along with her ability and drive to describe entire communities of people.

This is both the greatest aspect and most obvious shortcoming to The Casual Vacancy: it is a character-driven novel. The novel is emphatically not propelled by a plot; in fact, the plot itself is rather dull. (In fairness, there are few interesting books about small-town elections.) Almost the entire storyline is given on the book jacket: “When Barry Fairbrother dies in his early forties, the town of Pagford is left in shock…. And the empty seat left by Barry on the parish council soon becomes the catalyst for the biggest war the town has seen yet.” Readers, I’ll clarify: there is no literal war. And because Rowling mostly disregards the plot, she gives herself the space to focus entirely on her characters.

Early on, Rowling throws so many characters at us that it is difficult to keep them apart. (When my mom read the book, she took notes.) There is the frumpy high school councilor Tessa Wall and her paranoid husband “Cubby;” Gavin Hughes, falling in love with his best friend’s widow; Andrew and Fats, recalcitrant teens; Maureen, the old deli lady in stilettos, and her pompous and rotund business partner Howard; his fussy wife Shirley; Samantha, infatuated by the guitarist in her daughter’s favorite British band; agonizingly self-conscious Sukhvinder, and Gaia, pretty and cosmopolitan, who discovers her; and Krystal, who skips school and smokes cigarettes and is the closest thing we find to a heroine. There are more, and they all share center stage. Needless to say, it takes a long time to introduce all of the characters and establish their relationships with one another. The book jacket is surprisingly accurate: “A big novel about a small town.”

For the first one hundred or so pages, the character focus is disorienting. As readers, we are accustomed to finding a hero early in the book to root for, but that’s impossible in The Casual Vacancy. Every dozen or fewer pages, the scene changes and we are thrown into a new character’s life. Although some characters are more central in the way that they have connections to many other characters, they are not protagonists in the normal sense of the word. There is no hero in part because Rowling doesn’t write about any one character alone for long enough, but also because they aren’t all likeable. All of Rowling’s characters are pitiable for one reason or another. Whether they are self-absorbed, materialistic, or gossipy, many of the characters have a petty and disappointingly mundane side.  In Shirley Mollison’s eyes, Ruth “had much less conversational finesse… finding it difficult to disguise her greed for Pagford gossip, of which she was deprived.” Simon “had been a contented prisoner of his own contempt for other people, making his house a fortress against the world where his will was law, and where his mood constituted the family’s daily weather.”However, Rowling acknowledges these human flaws and paints them with a little humor and satire. We see the flaws and laugh, so Rowling manages to keep her characters sympathetic. She is unafraid of exposing the dishonest, selfish, and cruel sides to her characters, and still leaves us with the awareness of their deeper selves; this makes them real. As readers, we can’t distance ourselves from them because, deeply, we have similar feelings.

So although there isn’t any wand-waving, Rowling manages to conjure some magic after all. She makes us pity, and love, and care. And although the last scene is a funeral, we manage to leave the novel feeling hopeful.