Book Review: Bird Box by Josh Malerman (coming out May, 2014)

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: ***** (5 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

(It is hereby stated that I read the advanced reader’s copy of Bird Box and a few details might change before publication.)

When I wrote my preview of Bird Box after meeting Josh Malerman at the HarperCollins dinner a couple of weeks ago, I made a series of predictions about what it would be like. Let’s see if I was right, shall we?

No one will let slip any concrete details about the plot of Bird Box, but it seems to be one of those gripping, horrifying tales which ensnares your attention at the beginning and completely ruins you for any weekend plans.

Well, my weekend plans were decidedly not ruined. But boy, oh boy, was my attention ensnared. I started reading Bird Box at the train station before a long ride to NYC, and I can’t remember a single detail of the commute. All I recall is burrowing deeper and deeper into my pirate scarf as my nerves got overwhelmed by the tension in this book. It’s “unputdownable,” that’s for damn sure, and I was almost reluctant to close it – halfway finished in a couple of hours – to have adventures in the big city.

I got so sucked into the story I didn’t even notice my mother taking photos in the station.

The story follows a woman as she rows down a river with two young children, blindfolded. That image alone is enough to hold my attention hostage. If there’s a combination I love, its desperation and boats! Where are they going? Why aren’t they looking? So many questions, and I’m nervous about the answers.

Yes, the story does start with Malorie gathering her two children – four year olds who have never laid eyes on the world outside their boarded-up and bloodstained home – and blindly setting out in a rowboat with the hopes of getting the three of them to safety. I got my desperation, I got my boats. But the narrative actually alternates between the immediate events of Malorie’s dangerous journey and flashbacks showing a bit of what happened to turn the world into this nightmare. She starts out living a perfectly normal life, getting accidentally pregnant, arguing with her sister about the strange and scary events which are popping up all over the news. Grisly murders and suicides, seemingly without motive, are becoming an epidemic. When the mysterious deaths start to be reported in the USA, people start to panic. No one knows what makes people snap, what turns ordinary friends and neighbors into frenzied killers. All they know is it’s something they’ve seen. So people stop looking outside. They blindfold themselves, they board up their houses, they eventually stop going outside all together. The whole country – maybe the whole world – becomes like a ghost town. The monsters – and are they monsters? – roaming outside are like infinity, or the end of space: you can’t see it without going mad and self-destructing.

But Malorie is pregnant, so she finds her way to a house with a handful of other people in it; people determined to survive. They have a system of blindly getting water from the well each day. They have a cellar full of canned food. As she falls into a routine with her new friends, and gets closer to her due date, Malorie starts trusting some of her housemates more than others. Tensions run high, as they naturally would during a horrifying scenario like this. (I would like to mention how pleased I am that there isn’t much romantic nonsense to get in the way of all this terror. Huzzah for someone who can create compelling situations without trying to make everything about sex!) Some characters want to venture outside with blindfolds and broomsticks to find food and information, while others think that’s suicidal. And all this time they’re hearing things outside – brushing against things on the way to the well – in little moments which made my blood run cold. When another stranger joins the household, all the pent-up drama has to unfold one way or another.

The story-telling shifts between this frightening backstory and the very sensory experience of Malorie’s journey, paddling a boat with her blindfolded children trained to listen and report every sound that they hear. Because who knows what could be in the woods. Do animals go mad, too, when they see these creatures? And what’s the sound that’s been following them down the river? And this whole time the reader has to wonder what exactly happened in the house, years ago, to leave Malorie alone with the children and the bloody walls? The answers are the stuff of nightmares, but there’s still hope that she might survive to get somewhere safe. The whole story is about safety, really. It made me realize how much I take my own comfort and security for granted.

While I’m not always keen on post-apocalyptic settings, I am very keen on atmospheric adventure novels and surreal horror stories.

I would actually say that Bird Box was not so post-apocalyptic as I imagined it would be. The world outside is in shambles, sure, and a great many people have died. But it’s not in the too-distant future. There was no huge destructive event and people aren’t roving the waste-land with machetes and rigged-up jeeps. Nor is there any big government conspiracy to wrap our heads around. This is a proper horror story with the creeping, eerie, something-is-terribly-wrong-oh-god-don’t-open-your-eyes sort of danger. I like this book way more than some of the large-scale zombie novels and dystopian futures set in a world of rubble.

We don’t know exactly what’s out there. Josh Malerman has turned withholding information into an art form, yet his descriptions of sounds and feelings alone create more tension than some people would be able to bear. Is that a breeze or a breath on her neck? Is there a creature in the well? Is this bucket slightly heavier than it was a few seconds ago? Does that sound like another boat, to you? Why did the birds stop chirping, in their box out the window which serves as an alarm? Sounds are scary, silence is scary, and sometimes people are scariest of all. The atmosphere of Bird Box was foreboding and relentless. It’s easy to imagine the nightmare Malorie is living, even though we never get to really see it. And, as I’m Atmosphere Girl with a capital “A,” I declare this book well done indeed.

So, did this book keep me awake at night? It honestly didn’t get the chance, because I finished it on the train ride home. But the ideas and shaken nerves I got while reading it stayed with me for days. I had to choose a funny book next to calm me down, because my neighbors’ dogs were barking unusually late at night while I was chopping kindling and I nearly bolted inside with the axe still in my hand. If you’re the twitchy, fearful sort, Bird Box will mess with your head. If you like being relentlessly terrified for several hours, go buy this book when it comes out in the Spring. Bird Box will be a great book for anyone who wants to really think about what it is that’s scaring them, and for people who might be a little tired of the horror genre’s usual conventions. Josh Malerman has written a chilling, unique, and utterly captivating first novel, here, and I’m very glad to have had the chance to read it. I’m not sure the lady next to me on the train enjoyed my company (there was a lot of gasping and nail-biting and scrunching up in my seat), but there was no way I’d be going to bed without knowing what happens to Malorie, her children, and the messed-up world around them.

Book Review: The Accursed by Joyce Carol Oates

 

 

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: **** (4 stars)

Plot: *** (3 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: *** 1/2 (3 1/2 stars)

 

This is the sort of big, clever, historical, dry book I really like. But, as a fairly obvious warning: it’s big, clever, historical, and dry. It won’t be the sort of book everyone likes. I feel compelled to admit that it took me nearly a week to finish The Accursed, and that’s a long time for me. The writing was complicated, the plot took enormous detours, and the “historian” narrator sometimes talked himself in circles. As it’s the depths of winter, and I have a comfortable reading chair, I can totally get into sprawling stories with an endless parade of characters. The setting and drama – and there’s drama a’plenty – captured my attention even if the novel’s pace was sometimes a slog. I happily kept reading through the superfluous chapters about socialism and the transcribed Christian sermons because I was determined to see what befell the characters. I’m also not bothered by academic prose. Many people ain’t got time for that shit. And that’s ok, but this will not be the best choice for those readers.  I’m giving the book 3 1/2 stars rather than 4 because I don’t know tons of folks to whom I would recommend this book, no matter how much I enjoyed it.

The Accursed is the history of mystifying, diabolical events plaguing the well-to-do families of Princeton in the early 1900s. Real figures like Woodrow Wilson, Upton Sinclair, and Jack London play major roles in the affluent setting, though the fictional Slade family is at the curse’s center. The book contains extensive footnotes; chapters told in letters; diary entries; and an ever-changing cycle of points of view. We read about the story’s strange events, horrors which are inexplicable to so many people, through an ever-changing kaleidoscope of perspectives. I assumed that I knew who the main character would be in the first chapter, and got attached to the fellow, only to change my mind completely in the next chapter. And again, and again, the focus shifted. In situations like this, it gets hard to decide who is right, who is wrong, who is hallucinating, and who sees the truth. When unexplainable phenomena – and is it really phenomena, at that? – strikes a group of people set staunchly in their respective ways, everyone sees his or herself as a hero and a saint. The devil wanders in and out of The Accursed in several guises, and eventually it becomes hard to tell whether evil forces or human nature are to blame for so much humiliation, ignorance, passion, and misery.

It would take me ages to try and formulate a concise summary of the 688 page saga’s plot. A lot of stuff happens in Oates’s book. A stranger comes to town. Young women behave in ways their families could never have imagined. Political and social unrest presses in on Princeton, in the form of lynchings nearby and the rise of the working man around the country. The rich are fearful, the rich are scandalized, the rich write in their diaries about who won’t be invited to tea again anytime soon. There’s a nightmarish bog-kingdom where a supernatural villain imprisons his transfixed wives. There’s a big to-do about campus politics. A girl’s school is attacked by invisible snakes. Sometimes 1906 Princeton seems just as exotic as Bermuda and Antarctica, where certain characters escape from the claustrophobic social scene even though they cannot escape the curse’s reach. Mark Twain annoys the heck out of Woodrow Wilson in Bermuda, and that made me very happy. (Team Twain!) Men murder their wives, women think about poisoning their friends, Jack London is a jerk when he’s drunk, people travel in their dreams. The pages are many and the plot goes all over the place.

It gets harder to figure out where Hell has a hand in the novel’s events as the novel progresses, and, interestingly, the narrator himself isn’t too sure. The child of some minor characters in The Accursed, our narrator has set out to chronicle the events with an eye for including all the facts. All. The. Facts. Some readers will get really annoyed about this, because there are many details which could have been overlooked without altering the plot one bit. While constructing an in-depth study of a certain time and place – and the social complexities therein – Joyce Carol Oates may have been a little self-indulgent with the editing process. But I honestly had fun with this book. I liked the witty banter just as much as I liked the horrifying visions. I learned new things: before reading The Accursed I couldn’t have constructed two sentences about Upton Sinclair or Woodrow Wilson. Now I want to go find out what sort of people they really were. I also appreciated how the inherent racism and sexism of the time period was brought to light, without pardoning the characters for their ignorance. Some younger characters learn to be more thoughtful about their fellow man as their world changes around them, and some otherwise likable men and women tout hideous opinions which should make any reader today cringe. Oates neither excuses nor condemns the accepted judgements of the early 20th century. She just subtly reminds us how dangerous it is to think that certain races, genders, and classes deserve their misfortune. Because misfortune happens to everyone in this story, and it’s impossible to say if anyone deserves the fates they suffer.

I have recommended The Accursed to a friend who loved Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke, because the style and subject are similar. Both books are heavy with historical details and vivid characters. They each take a fascinating time period and introduce supernatural elements to the scene, thus exposing the ridiculous qualities of real life, which may as well be fantasy for all the sense it makes. I liked Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell quite a bit more than I liked The Accursed, because I thought the supernatural elements were more cohesive and the plot was much cleaner. (You can read an old review of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norell here, which I wrote with my best book-friend.) That being said, fans of American history and literature might well prefer The Accursed. There were themes and structures of folklore in each book, each rooted firmly in the country of its origin. The nightmare world in The Accursed followed some grisly fairy-tale patterns which reminded me of Clarke’s haunting fairy lands. I can’t really compare The Accursed to other examples of Joyce Carol Oates’s writing, because it is so different from the few books I’ve read (like the YA novel I read over the summer). The writing here is so invested in the historical and biographical tone I almost forgot that such a curse never really existed. I’ll take that as a very good thing indeed, because if I’m drawn into a world so deeply I lose myself in it, then the book must be doing something right. Not all of you will like The Accursed, and it may not always be the right time to delve into such a behemoth, but if you’ve got time to kill and a mind for some complex drama, give it a try. At the end, you’ll be able to return to the real world more easily than some of the doomed characters you meet along the way.

Four New Books from HarperCollins: The Bookshelf Pirate Has Dinner With Authors

People keep making the mistake of letting me out into public. A pirate on cold medicine in a restaurant full of book people: this situation had the potential to end in broken glass, spoiled endings, and elaborate apologies. But, for reasons which continue to befuddle yet flatter me, my coworkers and other literary grown-ups keep treating me like a real person. I got the wonderful opportunity to have dinner at Erbaluce – in Boston – with some fellow booksellers from the area, the lovely reps from HarperCollins, and four absolutely smashing debut authors. The food was amazing, the books sound fantastic, and as far as I can tell no one was physically injured in the course of the evening! At least, no one was run through with a cutlass or butter knife, and therefore I can call the night a success.

In a strange and delicious combination of musical chairs and literary speed dating, a knife was clanged against a wine glass in between each course to haul the poor authors out of their chairs and to a different end of the big table. This ensured that we got to speak to each of them for a part of the evening, and kept the waiters on their toes. (I should note that the staff at Erbaluce was so patient with us. They’re obviously enthusiastic about the food and the atmosphere where they work, and it was such a pleasant experience.) There was a really interesting mix of people; each of them had such a different writing experience to share and wacky areas of expertise gleaned from research and work and life. The books aren’t necessarily similar to one another in genre or purpose, but all four seem really interesting and I can’t wait to get started on the stack once I finish reading The Accursed.  Here are the books HarperCollins was promoting.

The book which intrigued me most, with its mysterious summary and a sinister atmosphere that practically leaked out of the pages, is called Bird Box by Josh Malerman. I’m certainly going to read this one first. I’m a grim little person and the very little I know about Bird Box makes it sound like just my cup of menacing and brackish tea.

No one will let slip any concrete details about the plot of Bird Box, but it seems to be one of those gripping, horrifying tales which ensnares your attention at the beginning and completely ruins you for any weekend plans. That’s what I hear from everyone who’s read it, anyway… Hugh Howey, author of Wool, says this about Bird Box: “A book that demands to be read in a single sitting, and through the cracks between one’s fingers” One thing I can say for sure is that no one seems to have read only a few chapters of this book. It’s of the dreaded “unputdownable” variety, the sort of tense and mind-blowing read – supposedly – which gets into your brain and shakes you awake at night.

The story follows a woman as she rows down a river with two young children, blindfolded. That image alone is enough to hold my attention hostage. If there’s a combination I love, its desperation and boats! Where are they going? Why aren’t they looking? So many questions, and I’m nervous about the answers. While I’m not always keen on post-apocalyptic settings, I am very keen on atmospheric adventure novels and surreal horror stories. Bird Box brings characters out of a boarded up house into an outdoors so dangerous you can’t look around you without going fatally mad. Damn it, I’m already desperate to find out more, and I haven’t even started the book yet!

An author willing to eat his own book. Photo from Josh’s twitter. (Note the fine photography skills of his portside dining companion.)

Josh Malerman was great fun to sit next to for the first portion of our dinner. He listens to horror movie soundtracks, is part of a band (I really hope we get to hear a sinister soundtrack to go along with Bird Box someday), and knew an awful lot about all things freaky and weird. I’ve got to say that it put me at ease to sit next to someone who would talk about about H. P. Lovecraft at my first-ever professional dinner. (At the last dinner party I attended, my dining companions were confused about my “halloween scarf” and no one had any opinions about haunted houses. This evening was way more fun.) Nice to let the inner demons out in public now and then. Josh and his fiancee were so interesting and full of creative energy; I envy their talent, and wish I could harness some of that artistic vigor. It sounds like the book has already been snatched up by the film world, too, and I’m intrigued to see what they do with a story which relies so much upon what is not seen and what is unknown. I can’t wait to read Bird Box and get stuck in a nightmarish world full of scenes to fuel my own sleep-screaming fests.

Smith Henderson, who used his years as a social worker to inspire Fourth Of July Creek, sat by me next when the wine glass was clanged and the appetizers cleared away. (My starter was a very good fishy broth with chunks of lobster and veggies.) If I recall correctly, it took him something like ten years to write this novel, but I get the feeling it will have been worth all the time and effort. Fourth Of July Creek will probably be the sort of book one person in Concord reads and then starts talking about to all their friends. We do love our stories of isolated weirdos and messed up families. So much fodder for book clubs and heated conversation!

Henderson’s book sounds like it will be a distinctly American and utterly fascinating read. Here’s the summary from HarperCollins:

After trying to help Benjamin Pearl, an undernourished, nearly feral eleven-year-old boy living in the Montana wilderness, social worker Pete Snow comes face to face with the boy’s profoundly disturbed father, Jeremiah. With courage and caution, Pete slowly earns a measure of trust from this paranoid survivalist itching for a final conflict that will signal the coming End Times.

But as Pete’s own family spins out of control, Pearl’s activities spark the full-blown interest of the F.B.I., putting Pete at the center of a massive manhunt from which no one will emerge unscathed.

You may recall from my University years that I am really interested in wild children living in wacky environments. I spent six months dwelling on (and writing about/weeping over) literature portraying kids in volatile environments where adults are either nonexistent or irresponsible. So the premise of Fourth of July Creek really appeals to me. I’ve also been thinking about the wilderness, survival, and the strange world of inland America a lot lately. I have never been to the Midwest; the bookshelf pirate clings to various coastlines, and Montana seems as alien to me as Antarctica or Saturn. But it’s important that we broaden our horizons, and since there’s a really compelling story to sweep my imagination across the country, I think I’ll really enjoy this novel’s setting.

Smith has lived in conservative Montana but also Portland, I believe, and therefore he has a really good grasp on the area’s unique brand of weirdness both as a first-hand observer and a rational outsider. I trust him to portray the situations in his novel with integrity and vivid detail, because when we spoke I was entertained by the details and stories he shared with us about each of the very different places where he’s lived. He might not be good at guessing peoples’ weird fetishes after a few big glasses of wine, but he has an eye for human nature and a talent for turning little oddities into really amusing anecdotes. (Do I look like the cloven-hoof sort? Now I’m re-thinking the scull scarf decision…) I hope that his experience in social work will ensure that this novel’s characters are believable and complex as well as dramatic. I can see myself recommending Fourth of July Creek to people looking for a riveting airplane read or something diverting to bring on a camping trip. It comes out in June, but I want to read my advanced copy before the summer starts as a reminder that the USA can be a stage for all sorts of big bad drama and strange beliefs.

The Bees, by Laline Paull, might give Bird Box a run for its money as the most unusual premise from the evening. I know that there are tons of books with “bees” and “beekeepers” in the title on bookshop shelves these days. There are mysteries, family drama, and plenty of historical fiction. But The Bees is genuinely about bees, and I think that’s awesome. The story follows Flora 717, one lowly bee who climbs the ranks from sanitation worker, as she challenges the natural order of the rigid hive system. Themes of maternity, loyalty, and natural instinct will come up as Flora 717 uncovers the mysteries behind her hive and brings danger upon herself with each question.

While The Bees is Laline’s first novel, she has written several plays which have been performed in the United Kingdom. One of them, Boat Memory, is about the “native hostages” brought back to England on the Beagle, during a voyage with Charles Darwin. I really want to see this play. The intensity of investigation which has to go into writing about such cool bits of history must be similar to that which goes along with a sudden interest in Entomology. She told me about all the research which went into writing The Bees; how she wasn’t always interested in them but got drawn into the fascinating world after the death of a friend, and realized how much there was to learn about nature and ourselves in the study of these creatures. My family actually keeps bees and makes honey, so I bet I’ll be seeing our own white-boxed hives differently this summer in the aftermath of this novel.

They’re advertising The Bees as a sort of Handmaid’s Tale set in the natural world, but I bet it’ll be more unique than that. Laline Paull has written a book exploring a brutal social order, but to do so without including any major human characters is ambitious. Even in The Handmaid’s Tale, we can imagine ourselves into the situations without too much difficulty. It will take careful writing and very precise descriptions to bring most causal readers into a beehive and keep them invested in the characters, when most of us only think of the honey bees who make our tea so tasty when we’re walking through clover patches in bare feet. George Orwell managed to seize us by the hearts and minds in Animal Farm, but even that had a setting which would be familiar enough to most of us. We can cast ourselves in a horrible future, and we can understand the predicaments faced by unhappy allegorical farm animals. I am so excited to see how Laline Paull will bring us into the complex world of beehives and natural politics – with plenty of creative license, I’m sure – and make us follow the adventures of an insect with emotional investment and suspense.

The final author I spoke to on Thursday evening was David McCullough Jr., the only author at the dinner from around these parts. He had given the graduation speech at Wellesley High School in 2012, and made quite an impression on the graduates, the community, and then the country at large. McCullough is the son of David McCullough the famous historian and author, and he teaches English at Wellesley High School. You can read the transcription of his inspiring and refreshing commencement here.

His irreverent words of wisdom made such an impact that he’s now written a whole book elaborating on the ideas he touched on. You Are Not Special…And Other Encouragements is full of the sort of truth-bombs I wish my fellow graduates and I had been hit with upon leaving our (honestly rather snobby and unrealistic) prep school. He’s a preppy guy but he’s got a realistic view of the world, striking the right balance between recognizing teenagers as individuals and reminding them that so many other people are going through the same stuff and want the same things out of life. I do think that we’d all be a lot less depressed about the post-high school and post-college years if we had stepped out of those hideous graduation gowns knowing that our futures didn’t need to be so competitive and self-centered. I barely remember the graduation speech from my own High School experience; I think it was some laughably unhelpful extended juice-metaphor, since the guy owned some big beverage company or something. But if McCullough’s students keep in mind his suggestion that you don’t need success to validate your own worth, but should work hard and keep learning simply because you love what you’re doing, I think they’ll be more prepared for adulthood than many.

Here’s a quote from the speech itself, and the sort of advice I really hope will be in the book:

Climb the mountain not to plant your flag, but to embrace the challenge, enjoy the air and behold the view.  Climb it so you can see the world, not so the world can see you.  Go to Paris to be in Paris, not to cross it off your list and congratulate yourself for being worldly.  Exercise free will and creative, independent thought not for the satisfactions they will bring you, but for the good they will do others, the rest of the 6.8 billion–and those who will follow them.

Now that there’s going to be a book elaborating on his tough-love (but still loving) rally to intelligence and passion, I predict that a great many classes of 2014 will be getting book-shaped graduation gifts explaining how they aren’t special, with other encouragements. The book comes out in April and I intend to press it upon all those doting grandparents and starry-eyed relatives who believe that their special little someone is destined to step out of that crowded gymnasium and into all sorts of gratifying superstardom. If they read the book before they give it to the hapless new adult, I hope they’ll find some fresh perspective within the pages. The adults in these situations are so often the worst offenders at cultivating a desire for adoring recognition at every step of life, and it seems like David McCullough Jr, who has teenagers himself, has found a way to articulate this in a way which might actually shake things up without tearing things down. It was great to hear him swapping stories about favorite vacation spots with other locals at the table and telling us about his own (rather literary) youthful years. If You’re Not Special… and Other Encouragements is as earnest and clearheaded as he is in conversation, then there might be hope for the future go-getters and must-havers of the world.

I left Erbaluce nearly four hours after dinner began with my stomach full of chocolate hazelnut truffles and my mind swimming with anticipation. I have to know what is lurking just out of sight in Bird Box! I want to find out what the characters in Fourth Of July Creek seem to think the End Times entails, and how a rational hero might possibly deal with all that nonsense. I’ve got to see if The Bees convinces me to rise against social expectations I didn’t even know existed, and if nature turns out to be utterly cruel to poor Flora 717. And I’m curious to see if learning how very un-special I am proves to be encouraging after all, as I suspect it will.

Bird Box might actually bump The Brothers Karamazov off my To Be Read Next pecking order. I’m so impatient to get sucked into a story which twists my dreams and makes me nervous – it’s been far too long since I spent a disturbed evening jumping at noises with a book and my own messed-up subconscious. Far too long.

Difficult decisions, but I think the scary book wins.

Difficult decisions, but I think the scary book wins.

I’m very grateful to HarperCollins for treating us to dinner and for introducing us to such creative and hard-working writers. I’ve been inspired to read faster, to get to these books sooner. I’m also feeling the writerly energies building up in myself again after a week of not writing much at all, due to this damned cold, which took all the salt and gunpowder out of my piratical thoughts and replaced them with congestion and a desire for naps. All four of these writers were so encouraging and helpful when I told them that I was currently slogging through a novel myself.

Now that I can picture faces and hear voices behind the names on the spines of these books, I know I’ll be really excited to see the first printing on our shelves in a few months. The bookshelf pirate will be keeping a weather eye out for those readers who need to read them, even if they don’t know it yet, themselves. By then, I hope to have read all four galleys and formed opinions of my own. If we’re lucky, those opinions will be of the “Avast! Read this now!” variety.

Book Review: The Last American Man by Elizabeth Gilbert

Dear readers, it’s a really big deal that I’ll admit to enjoying this book. I don’t usually like nonfiction. I find biographies awkward and survival stories a bit of a drag. Until a few days ago, I was quite adamant that I disliked Elizabeth Gilbert, because I think that Eat, Pray, Love is one of the most overrated books to ever grace the bestseller list. I gave up on that memoir and deemed it self-indulgent waffling. So it took a lot of persuasion, a free book, and a snowy day to convince me to sit down with The Last American Man.

Star Ratings for Nonfiction

Writing: ****  (4 stars)

Narrative: **** (4 stars)

Interesting Subject: ***** (5 stars)

Objectivity and research: ***** (5 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Holy crapoli was I surprised. This is not the vague life story of a guy who tries to be extra-manly in everything he does. This isn’t a collection of ramblings about freedom and liberty, or bald eagles, or a gun-nut holed up in a shack somewhere (though there are plenty of guns in Eustace Conway’s life, a powerful sense of freedom, and a few eagles, too). The Last American Man is the biography of a man who, at seventeen years old, set off with little more than a teepee and a knife to escape from materialist society and a tense home life where his dad expected impossible perfection. He hiked the Appalachian trail, became almost entirely self-sufficient, lived with the wilderness, and decided that it was his calling to share this way of life with other people. Eustace Conway considers himself a “Man of Destiny,” and Elizabeth Gilbert sets about chronicling his pursuit of that destiny. He started out giving talks about nature at schools, inspiring young people to consider their role as part of the earth. After countless adventures; some tragedies; and several meals consisting of porcupine, he has nearly become the sort of legendary figure Transcendentalists and gentleman explorers wanted to be, but didn’t know how.

Elizabeth Gilbert’s biography of Eustace Conway is very personal, examining one man’s ideal of giving up on modern comforts to live in the wilderness, but also surprising. Halfway through the book, after I became nearly convinced that this guy had all the answers idea about mankind and nature (and the future, and life…) the narrative changed just subtly enough to show the other sides to Eustace’s story. The girlfriends who saw him as some fantasized ideal were, in turn, berated and discouraged for failing to meet his impossible standards. Beautiful scenes of Eustace teaching kids at his camp to imagine themselves as the forest floor were juxtaposed with the demoralizing fact that not everyone can truly learn to live at one with nature, contrary to what he believed at the beginning of his journey. Chapters of freedom during a record-breaking horseback adventure across the country, an adventure which might impress Cormac McCarthy, were exhilarating.  But soon enough Gilbert reminds us that the modern world is no longer so amenable to earnest, determined, natural souls.

I loved reading about how Turtle Island, the nature preserve and farm Eustace Conway worked so hard to protect, was supposed to endure as a peaceful haven against industrial greed. And then, when legal fine-print and human reality began to tear down that dream several chapters later, I shared in a tiny piece of that heartbreak. While there’s no real plot to comment upon, this being a true story – and an unfinished one, at that – the book’s pacing was carefully constructed. She builds up a reader’s investment in parts of the narrative, and in the real subjects (who are so extraordinary they may as well be called “characters,”) so that the victories and challenges Eustace faces in his pursuit of destiny might affect us keenly.

The author has interviewed so many people in connection with her subject, and has spent a great deal of time with Eustace: sawing wood at his camp, talking in the woods, getting drunk, arguing. There are whole passages included from his extremely personal diaries, and while I felt that this intimacy seemed almost invasive, we get as well-rounded a portrait of the man and his beliefs as we could hope for. Gilbert has interviewed countless family members, acquaintances, enemies, and admirers of Eustace’s. It’s a level of personal investigation I can’t help but admire, especially because all that socialization with such strong personalities would have really stressed me out. (Clearly I should not become a biographer.) She also must have spent considerable time learning about frontiersmen from America’s colonization onward, because there are plenty of anecdotes showing how Eustace Conway is carrying on a tradition. That tradition is both one of returning to mankind’s roots and of pushing forward to some natural, pure horizon, and we’re left to decide for ourselves if Eustace will make it. Can we look past the fact that our hero has pushed so far away from the pressures of his childhood, only to be compared to his overbearing father once again? Is it enough that he has tried to live as a symbol of natural respect and self sufficiency, or do we need him to have ultimately succeeded in becoming a “Man of Destiny”? Does Eustace Conway owe us anything at all – owe us his belief that we can live as he does – the way he once claimed? Is he really the last American man?

This is an optimistic story, if not always an uplifting one. Despite the peaks and valleys and broken horse legs, I closed the book feeling a little comforted in the knowledge that this man – with his possibly-crazy vision for the world – has saved a few lives and opened countless eyes to the importance of loving the Earth instead of just living off it. I’m glad I read The Last American Man, and I’m willing to admit that it was foolish to judge Elizabeth Gilbert on only one book. This biography was riveting, touching, and yes, inspiring.

Book Review: Lockwood & Co: The Screaming Staircase by Jonathan Stroud

Star Ratings:

Characters: **** (4 stars)

Character Development: *** (3 stars)

Plot: ***** (5 stars)

Writing: **** (4 stars)

Overall: **** (4 stars)

Lockwood & Co: The Screaming Staircase is supposedly for middle grade readers and young adults, and I know my most morbid friends and I would have absolutely adored it at that age, when we spent our afternoons trying to get possessed by spirits in the church basement during Girl Scout meetings. However, it’s such a sophisticated and downright scary book that I think older teenagers and even adults who read it would not feel like they were reading a children’s book below their league. (I am, of course, a hundred percent in favor of older people reading all manner of kid’s books without a hint of shame.)   The Screaming Staircase is a supernatural thriller which is scary, funny, and intriguing to the very last page.

Jonathan Stroud introduces us to a modern London full of ghosts. In fact, the whole world is experiencing “the problem” of a dramatic rise in hauntings, for reasons yet undisclosed – and into that London he’s introduced our young teenaged narrator, Lucy, and the the indomitable Lockwood & Co. Part of “the problem” seems to be that adults are not sufficiently attuned to ghostly disturbances and therefore aren’t too effectual in ghost hunting. But kids are more susceptible to paranormal behaviors. Just like with suspected hauntings in the real world, there might be some presence in a haunted house but only someone with psychic sensitivity can make any sense of it. In The Screaming Staircase, sensitive kids are apprenticed to ghost hunters as the eyes and ears of operations or they work as night guards in important parts of the city after curfew has been put in place after sunset. Lucy starts out as one such apprentice, but quickly learns that adults are cowards and often unprepared, even when they’re supposed to be in charge. Reeling from a ghost-busting gone horribly wrong, she joins up with Anthony Lockwood’s agency, where the entire operation is run by young teenagers out of a London townhouse full of weird artifacts, sword play in the basement, and a mess of tea and biscuits.

Lockwood himself is dashing, clever, and positively brimming with enthusiasm to get rid of ghostly “Visitors” and make a name for his unorthodox little company. George, his chubby and sarcastic young coworker who researches things from a safe distance, cooks and conducts experiments on a haunted skull even when he’s taking a bath. George doesn’t inspire Lucy’s confidence quite so much at first, but Lockwood & Co give her a home and a way to channel her ability to hear Visitors into a sense of purpose. Together, the three of them take on a haunted house case which should just be a routine exorcism. Things go awry, as they so often do. They are unprepared, they find a mysterious dead socialite by accident, and they end up burning their client’s home to the ground. And that’s when The Screaming Staircase really gets going. Lockwood must agree to investigate the incredibly haunted estate of one of the richest men in the country – a fellow in the iron business does a good bit of business when supernatural disturbances become part of the daily forecast – and the three young ghost hunters get in way over their heads at Combe Carey Hall once they start digging deeper into the mysteries of its past. Blood pours down from the ceiling. Children from other agencies have disappeared mysteriously or been found dead the next morning. And yes, there is a staircase which wails and screams with violent medieval memories. Lucy, George, and Lockwood will have to rely on little more than their wits, their rapiers, and each other when they come face to face with the afterlife and realize that things are quite confusing enough on this side of the mortal veil.

When I say that I would have loved this book as a young teen, I want to make it clear that I was a creepy, weird little lass. The Screaming Staircase is scary. Ghosts in Stroud’s world range from spooky phantoms seen near gallows-trees to full-fledged nightmares attacking kids in their bedrooms. There’s horror in this adventure, but what a fun adventure it is! Ghost stories for children sometimes run the risk of being too old-fashioned (like Constable & Toop, which I enjoyed but which might not grab the attention of Middle Grade readers accustomed to high stakes and snappy dialogue) or too high-tech and superficial. Lockwood & Co seems to be a series which will fall comfortably in the middle of these two generalizations to give us riveting action and relatable characters while still retaining some of that old-time-y ghost story atmosphere. I love the fact that agents use rapiers to parry with spirits and the inclusion of folkloric beliefs like the protective qualities of iron and various spiritual artifacts. The hauntings themselves are appropriately motivated by untimely deaths and unfinished business, so fans of ghost stories for both kids and adults will recognize some of the patterns which move the novel’s plot along. I like traditional ghost origins, though, and was perfectly content to wonder vaguely at “the Problem” without wishing it had been entirely spelled out for me. Maybe in future books Stroud will give us the logistics of his haunted setting, but the story doesn’t suffer for his skirting the issue.

While the ghosts and haunted houses might seem straight out of a Gothic novel, the characters are decidedly modern. I challenge any reader to put this book down not wanting to hang out with Lockwood. He’s just so cool. George, too, is so much fun to read about. Lucy immediately dislikes his mocking manners, but I usually find that the sarcastic side-kick turns out to be my favorite character in any book. He acts as a great voice of unfortunate reason, but also turns out to be brave and loyal. Huzzah for a sidekick with depth! Lucy is surly, but eager to do a good job, and I found that I could easily relate to her character. There’s plenty of background to her past as a strongly attuned psychic, and despite life’s hardships she just wants to put her talents to good use. Of course, this being a children’s book, there’s a hint that there might be something more to Lucy’s powers. That’s not my favorite literary tradition of all time; kids do not always need to find out they’re destined by to save the world, sometimes they should be just a normal sword-fighting psychic trying to save London from supernatural foes… But, once again, the threat of “specialness” didn’t ruin the book for me.

A few points did make me raise an eyebrow and wonder about certain choices. The Americanization of Stroud’s British terminology was inevitable, I suppose, but for a book which talks about changes in temperature all the bloody time it was distracting to stop and wonder why these kids were speaking in degrees Fahrenheit during otherwise bone-chilling scenes. The major villain of the story isn’t revealed as a scoundrel until late in the book, so some other unpleasant characters are sprinkled throughout to act as antagonists to our intrepid heroes. Unfortunately, the rivalry between Lockwood & Co and another group of agents seemed shallow and petty to me. It’s always great fun to watch an arrogant twit make an idiot of himself so that protagonists can have revenge upon him later, but the bully and his cohorts were too one-dimensional to add much to the story besides a glance at why big agencies with adult supervision aren’t nearly as awesome. There’s also the gore-factor. I love scary stuff, but visceral grossness really bothered me as a youngster (and it still does). There are a few little descriptions here – not lengthy ones, but vivid – which would have certainly fueled some scream-worthy nightmares a decade ago. I hope that anyone who picks up The Screaming Staircase reads the cover blurb and flips through it before dedicating a night to getting lost in the story. It’s such an engrossing read you won’t want to quit halfway through, even though you might regret it later when you start hearing a steady drip-drip-drip in your dreams.

I heartily recommend Lockwood & Co to anyone who liked the charismatic characters in Artemis Fowl, as well as the mix of modern and old fashioned adventure. Spooky kids who liked The Graveyard Book but want a little more action will love it, as will anyone who wished that superstitions and sword fights were still part of every day life. Any grown-up anglophiles who want a straightforward ghostly adventure will also enjoy The Screaming Staircase. I hope Stroud will continue to write about the exploits of Lockwood & Co, even though this book ended very nicely without too many loose ends. There’s a lot to explore in his version of London, and I want to explore it with Lucy and her friends.

My review of the second book in the series – Lockwood & Co: The Whispering Skull can be read here.