Broken Monsters: Too Many Plots, Not Enough Monsters

17 Feb

books14f-1-webAt first glance, Lauren Beukes’s Broken Monsters has one of the most WTF magnetic plot summaries I’ve read in recent memory: “Detective Versado has seen a lot of bodies. But this one is unique even by Detroit’s standards: half boy, half deer, somehow fused together.” YES, Law & Order superfan me thought to myself at the bookstore. Yesyesyesyes.

Broken Monsters begins with the discovery of deer boy, but he is not the last human/imal corpse to be found among the ruin porn, working-class families and upstart artistic communities that constitute post-recession Detroit. The novel unfolds from the alternating perspectives of several residents of this busted city: Detective Gabriella Versado and her teenager daughter Layla; aspiring freelance videographer Jonno and his artsy girlfriend Jen; and street-savvy and world-weary Thomas Keen (d.b.a. “TK”), a homeless man with a fierce loyalty and a sharp intuition. Continue reading

The Martian Deserves Everything It’s Getting, Matt Damon Included

29 Jan

The_Martian_2014The most surprising thing about The Martian isn’t that it’s going to be a major Ridley Scott film starring [typecast?] astronaut Matt Damon in the leading role. Or that the novel’s author, Andy Weir, wrote some 350 page of extremely technical aerospace detail with little more than Google research. Or that he published the book himself through Amazon, where it is currently (having since been picked up by a major publisher) tooling around in the Top 10 science-fiction list. No, what’s most surprising about The Martian is that in spite of its Cinderella-story creation and enthusiastic technicality, in spite of its corny humor and disorganized pacing, in spite of the fact that it’s primarily narrated by one person who spends all his time completely alone, this is one of the most unique and excellent novels I’ve read in recent memory.

“The Martian,” in this case, is Mark Watney, a NASA astronaut (slash botanist slash engineer) who gets stranded on the red planet when a dust storm-related accident separates him from his crew, who assume him dead and have to get the hell out of Dodge (i.e. abort their mission). When Watney comes to—saved by a fluke congealed blood situation worthy of a reverse Darwin Award—he is left with the daunting task of figuring out how to survive on an uninhabitable planet until his only possible rescue: the next Mars mission, in four years.  Continue reading

Bird Box Is Creepy As Hell And I Like It

22 Jan

83296177dfebdbf60972d38be97824cfNo one is sure how it started. Or what started it. One day there was a report of a man in Russia who was riding in a truck with his friend. He asked the friend to pull over and then attacked him, removing his lips with his fingernails. A few days later, another report: five thousand miles east of St. Petersburg. A mother buries her children alive and then kills herself with broken dishes. Then a video; a man trying to attack the videographer with an axe, and eventually succeeding. No one knows what spurs the attacks or why, just that people see something—just, something—and then violently murder those around them before killing themselves. The only way you can be sure to avoid catching it, whatever it is, is to avoid opening your eyes.

No it’s okay. I’ll wait while you shit your pants. Continue reading

A Brief History of Seven Killings: Not Brief, Includes About a Billion Killings

8 Jan

A_Brief_History_of_Seven_Killings.JPGTo go from reading A Brief History of Seven Killings to reading anything that isn’t A Brief History of Seven Killings is like running a marathon with ankle weights and then taking them off for a walk around the block. A challenging, sweeping, impressive novel, ABH7K is a mental and emotional workout. It taxes the brain and the heart—the former’s capacity for ensemble narration and multiple dialects, and the latter’s tolerance for brutality.

Spanning 1976 to 1991; Kingston, Jamaica, to New York City; ABH7K is a spiral of subplots and broader themes surrounding the (IRL) December 3, 1976 assassination attempt on Bob Marley, which took place two days before a free concert organized to foster peace between warring gangs (who were backed by opposing political parties, who were backed by—or opposed by—the CIA/U.S. government). At various points throughout the 70s and subsequent decades, we peer inside the heads of, among others, the gang members behind the shooting, a journalist hunting for the inside story, a Marley one-night stand desperate to get out of Jamaica, CIA agents stationed in Kingston, and a murdered politician narrating from beyond the grave. What emerges through these intertwined experiences is a window onto a cyclical power struggle of epic criminal and political proportions, a complex web of—to use the appropriate regional terminology—fuckery. Continue reading

Unbroken Broke Me A Little

7 Jan

unbroken-book-cover-01As I was closing out the final pages of Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken on the train last week, a woman stopped me to ask how I was liking it. I replied that it takes it out of you—this book whose every chapter is more grim than the one before. “But it’s okay right?” she responded, shopping bags and Starbucks cup in tow. “Because he goes free in the end?”

It’s a credit to our threshold for human suffering that a World War II bombardier lost at sea for 47 days and then imprisoned in Japanese POW camps for more than two years is considered a victor in his life story. Yes, Louis Zamperini, the recently deceased subject of Hillenbrand’s wildly successful 2010 biography, was eventually freed. Yes, he lived to tell the tale. But a man does not walk away from such experiences cleanly, and the effects of Louie’s POW life on his post-POW life are apparent down to Unbroken’s very last page.

Much of this book’s plot has become common knowledge, perhaps by virtue of the comprehensive movie trailer, perhaps because of various interviews with Louis in the last few years. So I’ll sacrifice the time I’d usually spend on plot summation to jump directly to Hillenbrand, an author whose own limitations (chronic fatigue syndrome and its attendant symptoms have kept her homebound for years) are her personal testament to human resilience in the face of adversity. I’ve never read anything by LH before, and was pleased to find in her, like Erik Larson (author of Devil in the White City and In the Garden of Beasts) a penchant for research that borders on the insane (Unbroken ends with 8 pages of detailed acknowledgments and 40 pages of reference notes). This book is so thoroughly executed that it reads like fiction, and Hillenbrand’s dedication to describing 60-year-old events in vivid detail is beyond impressive. Of course, she had help—a pertinent quote from Louie kicks off the book’s acknowledgments section: “I’ll be an easier subject than Seabiscuit,” he tells her, “because I can talk.” Continue reading

The Irrefutable Best Books of 2014, As Determined by Science*

19 Dec

IMG_0092It’s been a trying year here at Sorry Television. Sidetracked by work—and, let’s be honest, an endless procession of binge-worthy Netflix inventory—I am set to close out 2014 with a mere 32 books under my belt, near enough to bi-weekly that I should probably rebrand as You’re Welcome Television (subtitle: Reading Books Every So Often, Like When the Power Goes Out). I’m already planning redemptive 2015 reading goals (a book a day? a book an hour?) but for the time being I’ll have to accept mediocrity, and foist as much blame as possible on a shorter commute’s ability to stymie even the most dedicated bibliophile.

But I can claim a smidge of productivity this month, which is why I’m Indiana-Jonesing under the content door that is Christmas week to bring you The Irrefutable Best Books of 2014, a master list of this year’s greatest hits, as determined by 21 other “best of”s written by people who have actually read them. Let’s get into it. Continue reading

Serial Fans Should Be Getting Down With Tana French

4 Dec

books31f-1-webIf you have ears and you haven’t been listening to Serial, you frankly don’t deserve them.

The beloved podcast, a pseudo-real-time deep dive into the 1999 murder of high school student Hae Min Lee and the conviction of her ex-boyfriend Adnan Syed, dropped its 10th episode today. Which means right now listeners all over the country are spending Thursday as they always do in this, our post-Serial world: debating the merits of a 15-year-old homicide investigation, and emphatically declaring or protesting Adnan’s proclaimed innocence. Somewhere, during a quick bite at the office cafeteria, coworkers are arguing over the inherent shadiness of Adnan’s accuser, Jay. Somewhere, a wife is screaming at her husband: “But what about the Nisha call!?!

As runaway hits go, Serial lives up to its hype—and I say this as someone who generally keeps the Podcasts app in her phone”s “NOPE” folder, along with Stocks and iTunes U. The program is smart and thought-provoking, and bizarrely compelling for something you experience as only a listener.

Continue reading

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