Today’s photo of the day is untitled, and is by photographer elsa bleda (Flickr). To nominate a photo of the day yourself, drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org; or see our Flickr favorites page and Instagram account for all the online images we’ve recently liked.
If you were to hold a contest to find The Most Underrated Commercial Author Who’s Sneakily Actually A Pretty Great Literary One, certainly Dennis Lehane would be on the shortlist, a Boston native and graduate of Florida’s prestigious Eckerd College whose string of crossover popular/critical hits include such Hollywood blockbusters as Gone, Baby, Gone, Mystic River and Shutter Island (and who in fact now lives in southern California himself, where he’s been a staff writer on such critically lauded shows as The Wire and Boardwalk Empire, and regularly plays himself on the metafictional crime-novelist action-comedy TV show Castle).
And this streak continues with his newest, Since We Fell released just a few months ago, which technically is an action-packed crime thriller (and make no mistake, that’s not “crime thriller*” with an MFA asterisk), but that is set up and reads at many points like a slow-burning literary character study instead, one that wouldn’t be out of place sitting next to books by Joyce Carol Oates or Doris Lessing. And I specifically mention those female-oriented novelists, of course, because this is famously Lehane’s first-ever book to feature a female protagonist, from an author who got famous writing about a series of blue-collar white male tough guys from poor neighborhoods on the Eastern Seaboard, but who Lehane has publicly talked about “no longer connecting with” now that he’s a rich and famous middle-aged celebrity out in Los Angeles.
Switching to this new kind of hero has turned out to be a smart move for him, because Lehane has been able here to take all the push-pull between toughness and tenderness that’s marked his earlier novels, and apply it again but to a situation that’s the opposite from previous audience expectations, here presenting a woman who’s as hard and unrelenting as any of his male protagonists but whose softer and more complex side works particularly well within the realm of literary fiction. Specifically, it’s the story of Rachel Childs, whose tale wanders and meanders for the entire first two-thirds of the page count before we even get to the thriller setup that so strongly defines the last third.
The daughter of an equally complicated woman, a once-famous but now faded ’70s self-help author who’s turned into a manipulative but genteel alcoholic in old age, the main issue propelling the first two-thirds of the book is the mystery over Rachel’s long-fled biological father, and the equal mystery of why Rachel’s mother refuses to divulge even the tiniest little clue about his identity, even taking the mystery to the grave which sets Rachel on an obsessive quest in her twenties for the answers. And indeed, it’s tempting to call this book a bait-and-switch when we finally get to the last third, and learn that the main crime-thriller storyline actually has not a single thing to do with anything that happened in the first two-thirds, at least when it comes to the literal plot elements not aligning together between the two sections in any way.
But that’s why I call this a sneakily literary character drama, because what the first two-thirds of this novel does is give us an ultra-deep, ultra-complicated look at Rachel, what makes her tick, and what things have happened in her life all the way up to this point that makes her tick in the way she does; and all of that, from the trust issues to the bad relationships, her time as an investigative reporter in developing nations undergoing revolutions, her panic attacks and eventual time as a shut-in, gives us a richly dense sense of why she behaves as she does when the traditional genre part of her story finally kicks in. Most genre authors would make their entire book about just that last third; and that’s what makes Lehane special (and in turn has made projects he’s been a part of like The Wire special), that he takes the time and effort to let us get to know what are usually in genre novels a series of cardboard-cutout plot-mechanic-shufflers, to understand their motivations and what in their pasts make them behave the way they do here in the present.@dennis_lehane's #SinceWeFell is a sneaky literary character tale, masquerading as a crime thriller Click To Tweet
As a result, it makes Since We Fell a fascinating novel, the rare crime thriller for those who usually don’t like crime thrillers, and an opportunity for usual genre fans to get a sense of why fans of richly layered literary fiction become so obsessed with their own form of “genre” writing (that is, if you count “MFA fiction” as a type of genre unto itself, which I do). I’ve been burning through a whole series of books here recently that have each scored in the high 9s, and this is another of them, one of the most thought-provoking and thrilling reads I’ve had in the last year, and that will undoubtedly be making CCLaP’s best-of lists in December. It comes strongly recommended today, whether or not you’re a usual fan of crime fiction.
Out of 10: 9.7
Today’s photo of the day is entitled “DARE TO DREAM,” and is by Greek photographer Simon Silaidis (Flickr | Instagram | website). To nominate a photo of the day yourself, drop us a line at email@example.com; or see our Flickr favorites page and Instagram account for all the online images we’ve recently liked.
So let’s just acknowledge right off the bat that it takes a writer of superior skill to even attempt to pull off what Canadian author Chelsea Rooney so successfully does here in her debut novel Pedal, first published in 2015 but that was just acquired by my local library about six months ago; namely, it’s a thoughtful and nuanced look at the inherently tricky subject of sex between adults and children, one that deliberately avoids terms like “abuse” and “victims” in order to do a much more complicated examination of where exactly the line lays between willing and unwilling participants, and whether it’s possible for these kinds of incidents to ever not result in some kind of trauma in a child as they grow older.
That’s a giant can of worms for any author to open up — sheesh, I’m a bit nervous even publishing a review of a book like this — but to save you the suspense, Rooney here is successful at it, delivering a fascinating character-based story that both acknowledges the reality of what happens in most cases of sex between a minor and a non-minor, but also opens up the possibility that not 100 percent of all cases are the same, and that even when there is cause for alarm (as is almost always the case), these situations are often exploited by medical professionals looking to sell more drugs, to come to tidy conclusions so to get patients off the books, and other various issues that have nothing to do with the act at the center of the controversy.
A self-described semi-autobiographical novel, in it we follow the misadventures of 25-year-old Vancouver slacker Julia, a grad student who drinks too much, does too many drugs, and can’t seem to stay in a relationship long enough to even be bothered by its breakup. She’s doing her thesis on the question of whether there are adult “survivors” (another term she consciously chooses not to use) of childhood sexual experiences, who look back now and don’t consider what they went through to be particularly harmful or to have caused any particular lasting bad effects, exactly the way she herself feels about her own experiences with childhood sexuality, having been fondled on a regular basis by her father before he finally left the family when she was a teen, never to be seen again.
Needless to say, the research project makes every other person in her life extremely uncomfortable, from her current boyfriend to her sister (who was also molested as a child by their father, but in a rougher and more violent way that definitely did leave scars), to her horrified academic adviser who originally thought the focus of her thesis was going to be on the prevalence of psychiatrists to falsely diagnose such victims and to overmedicate them. It’s essentially become the main focus of Julia’s life at the point where we join her, rapidly starting to turn obsessive, which she often uses as a way to ignore the fact that nearly all other aspects of her life these days are turning into a complete trainwreck.
The plot itself goes into odder and more unexpected directions starting from there, which I’ll let remain a surprise so to not spoil things for you; but the main point to make is that Rooney successfully treads a very fine line in this novel, crawling right up to the unacceptable edge of “edgy indie lit” and then redeeming herself while backing away a bit, then edging up again before pulling back some more. As simply a character study it’s fantastic, the kind of deep dive into a messy and complex woman that fans of MFA literature love the most about contemporary novels; but there’s also a lot going on, in terms of the story structure and what happens to everyone involved along the way, a great blend between character and plot that will remind astute readers of such other critical/popular hybrids as Michael Chabon and Jonathan Franzen.@ChelRooney's #Pedal is a nearly perfect novel, wise and funny and tragic and illuminating Click To Tweet
I can’t in good conscience call it a “perfect” novel — there are some who will simply be horrified by the book’s very concept itself, no matter how good a job Rooney does with it — which is why it’s not getting a fabled perfect score of 10 today (making this the longest CCLaP has ever gotten into a year of reviewing without presenting even one perfect score). But that said, it’s certainly close to perfect, a novel that is simultaneously wise and funny and tragic and illuminating, playing our emotions like a fine violinist as we go on both a metaphorical and actual journey with our riveting, infuriating hero. Both fast-paced and contemplative, for both younger and older audiences, at once tackling ultra-controversial issues while still delivering the most traditionally framed three-act story you might ever want, Pedal has something for just about everyone, a rock-solid recommendation today that will undoubtedly be making our best-of-the-year lists come December.
Out of 10: 9.9
Today’s photo of the day is entitled “Tokyo Tower and Sky Tree,” and is by Japanese photographer sapphire_rouge (Flickr | website). To nominate a photo of the day yourself, drop us a line at firstname.lastname@example.org; or see our Flickr favorites page and Instagram account for all the online images we’ve recently liked.
Recently I was cleaning out some back folders on my hard drive and came across an old file named “Writers I Should Really Get Around to Reading the Complete Works of Before I Die;” and one of the people on that list was Tim Powers, whose genre-hybrid works span across the traditional lines of science-fiction, fantasy, horror and the occult to deliver truly unique stories that make a lasting impression, which is what makes him one of the most cultishly beloved writers in the entire industry right now. (Genre fans will probably best know his “Fault Lines” trilogy from the 1990s, a contemporary story about the “secret history” of magic in southern California; non-fans will probably be most familiar with a supernatural pirate novel he wrote in 1987 called On Stranger Tides, which twenty years later was adapted into the fourth “Pirates of the Caribbean” movie, to almost no one’s satisfaction.)
Although not his first-ever book (that would be the 1976 traditional sci-fi tale The Skies Discrowned, which I’m reading next), the novel of his that I most recently took on was the first to get him a lot of attention, 1983’s The Anubis Gates which won that year’s Philip K. Dick Award and was nominated for the Locus and BSFA. Like many of his books, Anubis posits that there were a whole series of hidden supernatural things going on that explain the gaps in real history from various famous moments in time that we know of; here, for example, that the birth of Romanticism in the early 1800s coincided with a group of Egypt-worshipping occultists who could do actual real magic, and that their unsuccessful attempt to bring back the pagan god Anubis from the dead resulted in ripping open a series of holes in the fabric of the space-time continuum.
Flash-forward to the early 1980s, then, and we see that a Ted-Turner-type ailing billionaire has actually figured out a way to access these space-time holes, has sold a dozen private “time-traveling tickets” for millions of dollars to his rich friends to help fund his research, and has hired an academic expert on Samuel Taylor Coleridge to be essentially a “tour guide” for this group, who are traveling back to 1810 for a night to attend a lecture by this famous poet and opium addict. Needless to say, things go to hell with this plan just as soon as they get there; and our historian hero Brendan Doyle finds himself permanently stuck in 1810 London, where he must learn to fend for himself while trying to track down a way to return to his own time, avoid the occult magicians who now know that a group from the future have traveled back to their time, and learn more about the hidden agenda that made this dying billionaire want to travel back to this specific moment in history in the first place. (Hint — it has to do with the werewolf-like serial killer who happens to be haunting the back alleys of London’s East End at this same time.)
Like most of Powers’ books, it’s a mondo storyline that sometimes gets so weird and scattered that you can’t possibly imagine how he’s going to tie it all together by the end; but like most of Powers’ books, he eventually does, with a kind of finesse and mastery over the three-act plot that makes most people an instant fan once they’ve read even a single book by him. Powers paints a portrait of early-1800s London here that is so real and concrete-feeling, it seems sometimes like you have literally stepped back in time yourself; and by sticking to the real events and people of this time with the fastidiousness of an academe (one of the other things his books are known for), he delivers not just a fantastical book but a historical one as well, one that looks at the actual things that were going on at that time and simply asks, “And what if a bunch of crazy supernatural things were also happening, at the moments that the historians weren’t around to write about?”Like most of #TimPowers' books, #TheAnubisGates is a thrilling, page-flipping mondo delight Click To Tweet
A thrilling, page-flipping delight, The Anubis Gates is a fantastic introduction to Powers’ work for those who have never read anything by him before, containing in ur-form pretty much all the elements that have made his subsequent books so beloved in the 35 years since. It’ll be interesting at this point, I think, to jump back to the beginning of his career when he was writing much more straightforward genre tales; then after that, I think I’ll jump forward to the “Fault Lines” books (1992’s Last Call, 1996’s Expiration Date and 1997’s Earthquake Weather), and see him at what many consider the height of his power as a storyteller. If you’re never delved into the career of this fascinating writer yourself, I strongly encourage you to do so.
With Steven Spielberg’s high-profile adaptation set to come out soon, I thought the time was right to finally read Ernest Cline’s 2011 Ready Player One, which I had never gotten around to reading (for no particular reason) despite having pretty much every goddamn nerd I’ve ever met excitedly exclaim, “You haven’t read that book yet, Pettus? Oh, you just gotta, you just gotta! You gotta read that book, Pettus! YOU JUST GOTTA, YOU JUST GOTTA READ THAT BOOK!!!” Okay, so I finally have! And the verdict? Eeeehhhhhhhhhhh… It turns out that there’s simply not much to Ready Player One besides an endless amount of references to empty 1980s popular culture, plus a vision of virtual reality that Cline stole wholesale from such cyberpunk novels as William Gibson’s Neuromancer and Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash; eliminate those and you’re not left with much else besides a simplistic children’s story, with sneering obvious villains and a three-act plot straight out of your community college’s “Storywriting 101” class, the entire book written in a cloying “BroSpeak” vernacular that gets increasingly annoying with each passing page.
For those who don’t know, it’s set in a future where America has officially gone to hell, which has driven most of its citizens to spend most of their time in a dazzling VR environment called the OASIS, which has become pretty much the de facto means for accessing the internet despite it still being a privately held company, solely owned by the “Bill Gates Times Ten Thousand” Asperger’s poster-child James Halliday. So when Halliday dies, and announces beyond the grave that the first person to solve a puzzle he’s hidden within the OASIS will become the heir to his fortune (worth as much as the annual budget of most industrial nations), and that the clues to this puzzle are all based on his nostalgic memories of the ’80s movies, music and computer games he voraciously consumed as a lonely antisocial child, suddenly the entire planet becomes obsessed with this time period as well, cleverly letting Cline both have his far-future-technology cake but also eat his pandering “Hey, do you remember THIS thing from the ’80s?! How about THIS thing from the ’80s?” cake too.
That’s perhaps the thing I liked least about Ready Player One, which I know is the very thing that many others like the most about it, making it natural that I would have a different reaction to the novel than most others. I just find it the epitome of lazy writing when an author says, “Hey, here’s a thing from the past I just mentioned! Do YOU remember this thing from the past I just mentioned? You DO??!! FUCK YEAH, WE BOTH REMEMBER THIS THING FROM THE PAST I JUST MENTIONED!!!!1!!!” Ready Player One is by deliberate invention essentially 300 pages of that, an entire storyline that very self-consciously makes conspicuous nostalgia the engine fueling the entire plot along, to the exclusion of any other well-done aspect of literary storytelling. (Also, Cline sometimes gets this nostalgia wrong, which drove me crazier than anything else; for example, no actual ’80s autistic antisocial computer nerd would’ve been caught dead listening to “burnout bands” like AC/DC and Rush back then, a historical retcon that was totally and completely invented by contemporary tattooed hipsters who want their nerd-cred but their metal bands too.)There's simply not much to #ErnestCline's #ReadyPlayerOne besides endless 80s pop culture Click To Tweet
Still, though, I have to admit that there are many charms to be found in Ready Player One as well, and there’s a reason this book has taken on a fandom that is much larger and more passionate than its publishing details would otherwise justify. For example, even though the book wallows in nostalgia like a frat bro bathing in cologne before a night of clubbing, at least Cline does this nostalgia in sometimes very clever and inventive ways; to name just the first great example we come across in the book, Cline’s physical recreation of Dungeons & Dragons’ very first adventure module (a particularly obscure ’80s reference that I myself remember with a lot of warmth) is a real thing of beauty here, and especially when the final showdown with the main baddie turns out to not be a swordfight but a duel on the coin-op videogame “Joust,” the exact kind of thing you could just imagine a frail asthmatic like Halliday creating in old age as a way of amusing his inner 14-year-old. And for it being a simplistic plot lifted straight from a children’s book, at least Cline keeps this plot going at breakneck speed, a thrillingly-paced storyline that I suspect is the main reason that people mistake it for a more complex story than it actually is. (Other nice touches include the fact that Cline finds a way to enfold Japanese nerd culture into this US-heavy story; and that a crucial part of the puzzle is solved by memorizing and reciting lines from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the ultimate nerd wet dream.)
Perhaps this book’s most lasting legacy, though, and the thing that will continue getting it attention long after its ’80s nostalgia has worn out its welcome among future generations, is that this is also Cline’s love letter to autism and the differently-abled; pretty much every protagonist in the book is clearly characterized to be somewhere “on the spectrum,” as the term goes, from the high-functioning Steve “Woz” Wozniak stand-in Ogden “Og” Morrow, to the Howard Hughes shut-in Halliday, the Roxane-Gay-like overweight black lesbian puzzle-solver “Aech,” and our hero Wade Watts who is described like a teen version of Cline himself. It’s refreshing to see a group like this, usually relegated to “comic foil” roles if included in contemporary books at all, actually turn out to be the saviors of the universe here; and it’s a testament to its fans that this book has grown into the kind of phenomenon it has while still presenting only autistic heroes, yet another sign in the 2010s of the turning tide in the way we think about what constitutes “appropriately mainstream” artistic projects (but for more, see Wonder Woman, Get Out, the female remake of Ghostbusters, etc).
So all in all, a mixed bag; a book I nominally liked, but not nearly as much as most others, that drove me crazy during giant chunks of the page count, but that I ultimately found just too charming and clever to dismiss altogether. Certainly I can see why there’s been so many bitter criticisms of Cline’s second novel, the similarly themed Armada — this book is very clearly a case of Cline accidentally catching lightning in a bottle, randomly at the exact right moment in history to do so, and we all know how difficult it is to catch lightning like that twice — but it’s enough, I think, for an obscure indie writer to have one giant massive hit like this in their career, even if they never have another one again (which I suspect will be the case with Cline). It comes recommended with reservations today, a book whose enjoyment is directly tied to how much you keep your expectations low going into it.
Today’s photo of the day is entitled “Sleep in car,” and is by photographer Vincent Beck Mathieu (Flickr | Instagram | Facebook | website). To nominate a photo of the day yourself, drop us a line at email@example.com; or see our Flickr favorites page and Instagram account for all the online images we’ve recently liked.
Like a lot of middle-aged children of elderly parents, I find myself these days doing a lot of research for the first time into how to best care for and help my parents as they approach the ends of their lives (a subject now known in the 2010s by the catch-all term “eldercare”), and find myself often feeling overwhelmed by the strange behavior and often contradictory impulses of such people as they reach their end-of-life years. For those like me, then, a fantastic place to start is with Atul Gawande’s 2014 Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, which does a better job than anything else I’ve ever come across at explaining why so many elderly people end up adopting such strange attitudes at their ends of their lives, what in our society and our brains causes these attitudes, and what we can do as the people who love them to both adapt to and fight against these sometimes self-destructive behaviors.
And the reason this book is so good is because it never resorts to simplistic explanations, which by definition is going to make it hard to do a write-up today that explains why you should read it; because the answer, according to Gawande, is partly historical, partly sociological, partly biological, and partly psychological. It has to do with the way that eldercare has evolved as a subject in the first place; which, as he astutely shows, actually grew out of the Victorian institution of “poorhouses,” which were so terrible that the newly invented “hospitals” of the late 1800s were convinced to start taking in the elderly instead, a big reason why eldercare is still to this day defined mostly through medical-focused terms like the prolonging of life instead of the quality of that prolonged life.
And it has to do with elderly people’s rightful fear of being thrown into that hospital-based institutional life under which most nursing homes still operate, in which daily routines are as codified and standardized as those of prisoners or soldiers, with all dignity and chances for individual choices stripped away under the noble but misguided cause of being “safer” and “more efficient.” (According to Gawande, the three greatest negative factors that affect the elderly are feelings of hopelessness, loneliness and boredom, all three of which can be directly tied to our current institutional model of eldercare.) And it has to do with the way we quantify and justify these kinds of subjects, when it comes to things like laws, grants and government approval: after all, it’s much easier to definitively state, “We cured 58 percent of our patients’ respiratory illnesses” than, “Our patients are 58 percent happier than when they entered our facility.”
There are no easy answers to the subject of modern eldercare, and Gawande doesn’t try to present any. In fact, one of the most sobering yet interesting points he hammers home, over and over, is that the process of getting to the end of your life is simply the process of the universe taking away more and more of the options you used to have for living your life, an unalterable fact that none of us can get away from; and that the only thing we can do about it is to learn how to gracefully give up the yearning for these lost options, redefine the priorities in our lives under these new terms, and understand how to continue living a life of purpose and self-defined happiness no matter how physically or mentally impaired we might become.
That’s one of the major problems with 21st-century eldercare, when all is said and done; as Gawande thoroughly and meticulously shows, we’re simply not providing the space and opportunity for the elderly to do this kind of mental and emotional redefining, not when so much of eldercare is currently devoted to prolonging life no matter how much suffering it might cause, which inspires most people to have a mistaken “WE’RE GOING TO FIGHT THIS!!!” attitude about end-of-life medical issues, instead of encouraging and teaching them how to embrace their growing limitations and redefine the way they live their lives, which can only be done with the help and resources of the institutions that are currently not providing that help.The reason #AtulGawande's #BeingMortal is so good is because it's never simplistic Click To Tweet
I know I’m making this sound like a downer of a book, but it’s not actually as doom-and-gloom as it might appear; a huge chunk of its page count is devoted to the kinds of practical steps you as an individual can do to help the elderly person in your own life, as well as the issues you can be politically pushing for to improve the entire subject of eldercare when it comes to government regulations, punctuated by Gawande’s case-study profiles of industry innovators that he literally went out and personally visited in preparation for writing this, making it the rare Oprah-friendly nonfiction book that also has academic credibility.
But still, he doesn’t sugarcoat the fact that caring for someone at the end of their life is a difficult, frustration-filled process; and as those who are going through it know, that can ironically be a refreshing thing to hear in a book like this, within a genre that is mostly filled with happy little pink-covered guides about “Here’s How To Have a Sunny and Upbeat Disposition Every Moment Of The Day No Matter How Much It Ironically Causes Problems To The Person You’re Trying To Care For (And We’re Going To FIGHT This Thing, We’re Going to FIGHT It, You’re A FIGHTER and We’re Going To FIGHT THIS!!!)” It’s that kind of attitude which is one of the major problems with eldercare as we currently define it; and for those who have always suspected such in the back of their head, this is 100 percent the book for you.