OUTLIERS by Malcolm Gladwell

Every once in a while you read a book that not only changes how you view the world – but has the potential to change the world. Outliers is one of those books. It digs into our misconceptions about achievement, talent, economics, culture and luck. This book examines how your generation, your date of birth, your upbringing (and so much more) can significantly affect whether or not you achieve in this world.

Malcolm Gladwell is good at getting conversations started. He runs through a room full of huge subjects, lifting back curtains to give us glimpses into his hypothesis. You can learn a great deal from this book, but most importantly it asks you to do more work on your own. The conversation started here is important – and forces you to reflect upon your own circumstances in relation to where you currently are in the world. You’ll probably want to thank you parents or, if not, maybe change your own parenting. You may have heard of a few of these theories before – but I was honestly surprised by quite a few revelations in this book, leading me to “Ah Ha!” moments of my own while reading.

This book should be required reading… for all humans.

RATING: FIVE STARS

Title: Outliers
Author: Malcolm Gladwell
Originally published: November 18, 2008
Genre: Self-help book

 

UPROOTED by Naomi Novik

Nine hours later… and my reading day is complete! UPROOTED certainly deserves the Nebula Award (that’s for the best sci fi or fantasy novel in America, mind you… high praise and illustrious company indeed). It’s a stand alone novel that feels like a saga cause there is a lot going on in this book! World-building, politics, history, magic, traditions… it all reads as if it’s common knowledge, easy to follow and mentally thick. Your head will simply go with the flow when you’re reading it.

The gist of the story is this. Every ten years, a powerful wizard called The Dragon takes a young girl to live with him, locked away in a magical tower. In ten years time, the girls come out… but they’re always changed. And they never, ever go home again. Enter our plucky and extremely likable main female character, the next girl chosen by the wizard. The wizard really stole the show in this book, as the grumpiest, funniest, snarkiest and most memorable male lead I have read in a while. Well done, Novik! This isn’t a romance novel, though. If you expect that, you will be disappointed…cause it kinda tries but just fails in that respect. I must admit, I was a little disappointed but c’est la vie.

Our antagonist is the WOOD… a mysterious dark forest filled with horrors… that is slowly encroaching on the kingdoms, swallowing villages as it goes. This is some deliciously eerie and scary stuff… people going instantly insane, cows wandering in and coming out all twisted and deformed, people being eaten by trees. Just freakin’ awesome. AWESOME.

On the outside of the wood, we have two kingdoms with a shaky truce. That gets demolished within a few chapters and war breaks out. There are crafty, devious wizards of the court. There are undying queens buried alive. There is a young woman reborn by magic curiously impervious to harm. There is so much going on! And all the while the narrative remains this consistent, evenly paced melody of words that just lulls you along through this crazy world. Like Willy Wonka when they’re on the ferry boat and everyone is freaking out but he’s just kind of maniacally calm.

I loved how magic was explained in this book. I won’t attempt to explain it… just read it. READ IT! It’s a truly beautiful story…

RATING: FIVE STARS

Title: Uprooted
Author: Naomi Novik
Originally published: May 2015
Genres: Fairy tale, Fantasy Fiction, Romantic fantasy
Awards: Nebula Award for Best Novel

I’LL GIVE YOU THE SUN by Jandy Nelson

“I’ll Give You The Sun” is a story about fraternal twins, both resoundingly artistic with jealousies and rages that compete with mythological gods. This story is told in alternating voice, between the siblings, and in alternating times… before and after. Before what and after what are the mystery of the novel – and there are several befores and several afters hidden in the pages. In the end, it’s a heartbreakingly beautiful story about family, unconditional love and conditional love, first loves and deep seeded regrets. The plot in itself is outstanding – a very richly layered story with fully realized characters, both young and old. I feel in love with everyone in this story, and saw a little bit of myself reflected in each of them.

But the story is not what makes this book great – it would have been pretty good if anyone wrote this plot, probably – but what makes this book shine is revealed in the cover: huge implications in small words, “I’ll give you the sun” indeed – the title surrounded by a radial explosion of colors. That’s what this book is – words crafted so unusually, so cleverly, so astoundingly that they paint in your head. It’s overwhelming at first, all that language, all those images, but it tames down a bit after a while. Or maybe I just grew accustomed to it after a while, I’m not sure. I’ll have to re-read it for closer inspection. And I’m sure I will re-read it.

Though I loved all the love stories in this book (there is more than one), the one that hit me hardest was Noah’s. Torment, fascination, recognition… and always that burning question “Are they?” I cried on and off repeatedly while reading it – sometimes with joy, too. The only problem I had with the book was the character of Zephyr… and the bag of mixed messages there, but it’s only a side plot so I’ll happily put it aside for now and just bask in the contentment of finishing an excellent book. Anyways, it was a remarkable novel and I highly recommend it.

RATING: FIVE STARS

Title: I’ll Give You The Sun
Author: Jandy Nelson
Originally published: September 16, 2014
Genre: Young adult fiction

A LITTLE LIFE by Hanya Yanagihara

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The majority of this review will be in the spoiler section – down below – because I need to talk about this book, ramble and rave and rant.

Without spoilers – let me say this book is excellent. It’s thick, but it manages to flow smoothly from one section to the next.

There is a hook that will dig pretty deep into your subconscious, the mysterious past of one of the main characters, that will gently pull you, then drag you, then rip you out of the water as you struggle to regain your sense of reality. This mystery – and my burning need to KNOW WHAT HAPPENED, even as I knew that it would be awful and make me cry and I might regret finding out – is what truly made this book stand out from the crowd.

Like all the characters in the book, who also don’t know the secret the one guy keeps buried, but also got hints, that dared to imagine yet couldn’t quite ask outright, you are deeply, deeply compelled to reveal this mystery – even as you subconsciously shield yourself from it. There must be some psychology about this reflex – the need to know mixed with the instinct to remain ignorant. The reason we can’t help but look at car crashes, the ways it plays with our minds, the ways tragedy changes our view of things. It’s such a push and pull.

This book is a car crash you can not look away from.

And like a car crash, you will be forced to reflect on your life as you witness the decimation of others. Even though you most likely don’t know them – even though it doesn’t touch you directly – it is a shared fragility, our humanity. And how we think depends on where we are in the equation. Who are you in the scenario – The one driving the crashed car? The one driving by the scene? The one at fault in the accident? The one who walked away? The one would couldn’t? The one brought in to clean up the mess? The one who tries to get everyone around it moving again? The one who will report it? The one to examine the corpses? Inform the families? Cry at the funeral? The one who will remember that once they knew that person and now they are gone and be shaken by it? The one who will turn over to find an empty bed because of it? The one who will defend the guilty party in court? The one who will judge them? The one who will see only a singular mistake that cost so much or the one who will see only a slaughter that deserves retribution? And even as this web of interconnections spreads out and unites us all – it also thins out and we know the scene will be cleared, the departed put to rest, the fates of those affected will be altered but continue on, to new fates. And we will never forget. Or often forget. Or forget immediately. And all of those responses are correct.

This book is not, mind you, about a car crash. I mean it is. But it’s not.

This is a book about people. And how we are nothing to almost everyone, and yet how we are everything to ourselves and the few people whose lives intimately touch ours. It’s about how we get to know people and how we are never known. It’s sad and beautiful, because we are all such complicated messes. Our insecurities are deep and profound and stick with us throughout life, like a deep layer of skin we can never shed. It doesn’t matter how our personal insecurities compare to others – whether they are warranted, earned, deserved, or simply there. They are huge and they dictate our lives and are the shadow our bright suns fall into and escape from each day.

If you haven’t read it – well, you may not want to. Look at the cover. If that cover appeals to you – then you should read it. If you look at that face and think, “My God, what is this the cover image?” then perhaps it’s not. The book cover is perfect – a handsome face contorted in pleasure or in pain? Is that beautiful? Is that ugly? We always smile for pictures – or at least try to look attractively neutral. We are composed and presented – but we really can’t see what others see – what we look like when we’re caught in a moment. We don’t see ourselves when we’re lost in thought or crying or laughing or staring at a computer screen. So many things shape who we are. Our bodies. Our genetics. Our upbringing. Our experiences. We are inside and out, always.

Rating: 5 Stars.

So – let’s just… ditch the metaphors and get right into the mess.

Follow me to spoiler land…

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THE STARLESS SEA by Erin Morgenstern

The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern…

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which was so good it’s almost painful. I will not be able to properly express how much I loved this book and why. It’s a daunting task, like trying to explain… “What does sunlight feel like when you’re in the shade?” So I will do what most people do when trying to describe an abstraction like love and attempt the delicate process of comparison.

In many ways The Starless Sea reminded me of Galilee (or even The Great & Secret Show or Imajica or Weaveworld) by Clive Barker – full of twisted myths and terribly beautiful otherworlds, immortal heartbreak and observation, the spark of love making everything new again. It’s lighter than Barker’s work, though – filled with young people hunting old legends, like The Raven Boys by Maggie Stiefvater. Secret libraries like The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafón. Sly cats keeping secrets and hidden doors and transformative magic, like The Last Unicorn by Peter Beagle.

It’s like all my favorite books in one book.

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JUST KIDS by Patti Smith

When I finished Just Kids by Patti Smith, I started crying. For Robert Mapplethorpe, who died of AIDS, for Sam, his patron and lover who also died of AIDS. For all the artists and patrons before them, who lived and worked restlessly, many of which walking the same streets, living in the same building, drinking coffees in the same cafes. William S. Burroughs, Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Allan Ginsburg, Jim Carroll, Lou Reed. The misfit icons and legends, their stories mixed in with those who did not become famous – but whose lives were just as bright, just as fleeting. The hazy storm of memory always breaks into bright points of precision – lightning strikes of details – moments burned into your mind.

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Reading of Patti’s Smith youth – of the sharp, wild years of her late teens and early twenties – I felt as if I’d fallen into the past. A world of second hand stores and records, of poverty and purpose, of obsessions and confusion. The struggle to find authenticity against the reflections of others, if I am not this then perhaps I am that. Drastic actions and bold decisions made in an instant, real fear something only known through abstraction. Nothing can really touch you when you have your hands full of everything within reach. And every song and work of art is a special message written just for you.

I’ve been thinking a lot about impermanence lately. The passage of time, of human lives always rising up and ebbing out, over and over. I’ve finally entered into the comfortable stage of life, my once frantic mind now more of a slow but steady churn. Sometimes I feel a deeper understanding and other times I feel as if meaning is too elusive a goal.

I don’t read many autobiographies because, honestly, I prefer the cryptic autobiographies of fiction. By that I mean that all storytellers reveal themselves through the stories they tell, and I prefer the charade of costumes and imagined characters. Dozens of imagined lives stemming from one. Autobiographies always strike me as somewhat arrogant, for who can really remember their lives accurately, let alone the details of others? Still, some people have a gift for it. And some lives are practically theater already, their experiences and situations so far from the norm you can’t help but separate them into a fantasy genre all their own. Artist with a capital A and the like.  Even if you discover Andy Warhol ate the same breakfast cereal you do, you’ll never quite feel connected with him, you know? But now I feel a connection to Patti… and to Robert Mapplethorpe.

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Robert Mapplethorpe & Patti Smith

Patti Smith’s book makes you feel young again. She’s brought the stars down from the sky and blown on them, revealing dusty, pock-marked rocks in her hands. They were beautiful in the blinding light of fame, but she revels in showing the reader how desperately fragile, how flawed and horribly delicate their hearts were.

I read this book and spent hours looking at pictures of the old Chelsea Hotel in its decades of decline and decadence. I listened to Patti Smith songs, now feeling the life behind her wispy voice and the strong spirit behind her thin frame.  I was already familiar with Robert’s work – but now I saw the sensitivity behind the photos, felt the pacing self-inspection of each piece, caught meaning in details that before meant nothing to me – the feathers and beads, the religious iconography, the small smile.  This book has brought these two artists closer to me – made their strange lives more accessible. Small vignettes of other artists, writers, and performers I was already familiar with now got caught in a wider web – the human one – showing how people come and go, sometimes only for a instant, into others lives. A sandwich, a kind word, a bet, a dare, a jealous contempt or sincere admiration. Big pictures became smaller, and small moments became as wide as the sky, the colors changing depending on where you stand.

Highly recommended.

Rating: Five Stars.

Originally published: January 19, 2010
Author: Patti Smith
Title: Just Kids
Page count: 278
Genre: Biography
Awards: National Book Award for Nonfiction
Nominations: Goodreads Choice Awards Best Memoir & Autobiography

THE BOOK OF STRANGE NEW THINGS by Michel Faber

I finished Michel Faber’s novel about a British pastor who leaves his wife behind to spread the gospel on a distant planet, Oasis. Though it is a book about aliens and their reception of The Book of Strange New Things (what they call The Bible), it is ultimately a story about human relationships. About the complexities of human nature, our beliefs and drives, and our delicate bonds with each other. The pastor’s wife Beatrice writes him letters of support – which quickly turn in tone as the world around her drastically changes in his absence.

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Though the plot revolves around this deeply religious couple, it is not slanted towards endorsement of Christian doctrine nor against it… it simply was a part of how these two people experienced the world, deeply wound around their faith, as much a part of their experience in life as their race and culture. It’s a strange, infectious story that defies your expectations of what should happen with the premise of a foreign missionary – using the tension of our expectations to build the action in the plot. It’s hard to explain, honestly, without spoilers – and so I will just leave you to muse on this idea.

Highly recommended for readers looking for an usual story. The actual book was four stars. But the lingering impressions and explorations it invites you to take on your own are five stars.

Rating: 5 stars.

Now… if you’ve read it… or you don’t mind spoilers… follow me…

 

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NIGHT FILM by Marisha Pessl

Every once in a while you stumble on a compulsively readable story. Sometimes it gets you right away, sometimes you don’t notice until you’re a hundred pages in, but you’re hooked – and you can’t stop. You literally can’t stop turning the pages. Exhaustion usually forces you – and you crawl into bed with your head swirling and wake up a few hours later feeling elated, thrilled about the prospect of jumping back into the story. You waste no time – you get yourself a cup of coffee and disappear into the page again.

Night Film by Marisha Pessl was a compulsive read. A heavy book, pages interspersed with journal articles, website screenshots, investigative notes, medical reports, and photographs. The pages were silky smooth, like quality printing paper. I picked it up randomly from my TBR pile last night… and read it until 2AM, when I couldn’t keep my eyes open any longer… then picked it right back up this morning.

I was intrigued. I was haunted. I was picking up pieces of a puzzle, hearing echoes, listening to rumors and letting my imagination run wild. It’s a terrific mystery, in my opinion, changing shape as it gets bigger. Extremely fast paced and moving quickly around the chess board – you’re never sure if you’re the pawn or the queen. I loved it. I loved its rather ambiguous ending – What is true and what is myth?

Ironically, the characters are rather boring and cliche. In a way, this worked very well with the theme – that what we imagine, the stories we tell ourselves and are entertained by, reveal more of our true natures than our daily lives. None of the three main characters were that compelling – but what drove them, what caught them up in the mystery, how they each were pulled in by it and changed – that was fascinating. The people they encountered, the enigmas they attempted to decipher… the secrets, which often revealed themselves to be sour disappoints or shoddy ordinary events, doubled down on this theme – these things were dazzling and full of life. The mystery solved is boring. Answers do not enchant us – what ifs do.

So if you like mystery – and dark turns down darker passages – that don’t rely on descriptions of gore or horror, but rather the implication of such – then this book is for you.

Sovereign. Deadly. Perfect.

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BONE GAP by Laura Ruby

Bone Gap is a quiet and masterful tale of two brothers living in a small town whose lives are changed by the mysterious appearance of a beautiful Polish immigrant. Roza is a friend and beacon of hope to 18 year old Finn, known for his dreamy, absentminded behavior – and a spark in the heart to older brother Sean, who gave up his dreams long ago after their mother abandoned them. Just as suddenly, Roza is gone again – abducted by a stranger Finn can’t describe.

The town of Bone Gap puts its head together and murmurs – was it foul play? Did she abandon them too, fly away as fast and thoughtlessly as their mother? Does Finn know more than he’s letting on?

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