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I dig unreliable narrators.

Few storytelling devices delight me as much – and none more so. That added layer of ambiguity, that feeling of being unable to fully trust the very person serving as the window into the narrative … it adds a dimension that I find irresistible.

Irresistible, I should say, if (and this is a BIG if) it is executed skillfully. Obviously, stories are better when they’re well-told, but a poorly-drawn unreliable narrator is as regrettable as a sharply-hewn one is wonderful. Good can be great, but bad can be truly abysmal – and the margin for error is razor-thin.

We get one of the good ones in Susanna Clarke’s new novel “Piranesi” (Bloomsbury, $27) – her first since 2004’s acclaimed “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.” The titular character more than rises to the occasion, sharing the story of the impossible place in which he lives in a manner that is both overtly and subtly untrustworthy. And when you put that in the sort of lush and vividly-realized fantastical setting that Clarke creates, well … you’ve got something pretty special.

Published in Buzz

I’m always glad to see a new Chuck Palahniuk book. While I recognize that not everyone is as engaged as I am by his brand of blunt-force transgression, it’s tough to deny that he inhabits an important space in the literary realm. His willingness to push deep-down unpleasantness to the surface, to follow trends and tendencies to their bleakest, darkest outcomes, isn’t something you often see on the bestseller lists.

His latest title is “The Invention of Sound” (Grand Central Publishing, $27). It’s a twisted two-hander of sorts, with two primary points of view. Each of these people is consumed by a dark obsession, though they pursue and embrace those obsessions in different ways.

On the one hand, a broken man fully consumed by a Quixotic quest to track down his daughter, holding out hope that he will find her despite the years that have passed and traveling some dark paths to get there. On the other, a notorious Hollywood Foley artist, one whose gifts for perfectly capturing the sounds of violence and pain leave her regarded with unease and suspicion. The two careen toward each other, with neither knowing the other or having any idea what havoc their unexpected collision might wreak.

Palahniuk has always been fascinated with what goes on in the shadows cast by polite society. “The Invention of Sound” delves into those shadows, crafting an ugly and compelling look at the horror and violence lurking beneath the veneer, illustrating the notion that we never really comprehend what people are capable of – even those we think we know.

Published in Buzz

Food as entertainment has become big business in the 21st century. Food-based television programming and celebrity chefs are major parts of the culinary landscape, with their importance spiraling upward as each enhances the other. Food TV makes more famous chefs and famous chefs make more TV.

One of the beneficiaries of this development is David Chang. Founder of the Momofuku restaurant empire and host of Netflix’s “Ugly Delicious,” he could be considered one of the poster children for this new chef culture … though it’s not necessarily a distinction that he ever really wanted.

In his new memoir “Eat a Peach” (Clarkson Potter, $28) – co-written with Gabe Ulla – Chang walks readers through his unusual and checkered journey to the top of his profession. From his early days in a strict and religious Korean-American family to his start in restaurant kitchens to the early uneasiness of his Momofuku endeavors to his ultimate ascendance to the upper echelons of the food world, we’re given insight into how he got to where he is.

But that’s just half the story. We also learn about a life lived in constant fear of failure. Chang is brutally honest and forthcoming about his up-and-down fight against depression and his ongoing struggles with anger management. It’s a success story that features plenty of misfires. The one constant throughout is a deep-seated and genuine love of cooking, both in terms of culinary exploration and cultural storytelling.

Published in Style
Friday, 04 September 2020 15:08

Missed connections – ‘Daddy’

Emma Cline can WRITE.

Anyone who read her debut, 2016’s excellent “The Girls,” knows all about Cline’s prose gifts. She has a compelling, captivating voice and a real knack for crafting engaging narratives. But while that novel is undeniably excellent, the earliest recognition of her talents came in connection with her short fiction.

Cline’s new book “Daddy” (Random House, $27) celebrates her aptitude for shorter work, 10 stories that delve beneath the surface of the American experience. Each tale is a snapshot of the shadows cast by the outsized and unbalanced power dynamics between friends and colleagues and family members. There’s a palpable hurt at the core of these stories, a recognition of the pain that is seemingly always a heartbeat away.

The people at the center of these stories are all struggling with the grim realities of their situations. Even when the veneer of respectability is still intact, there’s a fundamental and inescapable ugliness there. Sadness and anger are abundant – everyone strives for connection, they find themselves cast adrift, spiraling away from one another even as they yearn for proximity.

Published in Buzz

Parts of who we are tend to be defined by the places we’re from. We are more than our hometowns, but forever OF our hometowns. And telling our own stories of those places can be far more complicated than we anticipate.

Kerri Arsenault’s “Mill Town: Reckoning with What Remains” (St. Martin’s Press, $27.99) is her story, a story about her hometown and her family’s life there. It is also about the place in a grander sense, defined as it is by the presence of industry and the town’s risk/reward relationship with it. Telling the tale of her family is inextricably entangled with the story of the town – and you can’t tell the story of the town without telling the story of the mill.

What follows is a memoir, yes, a remembrance of a small-town childhood. But it is also a thorough look at the lasting impact – positives and negatives alike – that the town’s reliance on and acceptance of the mill has had on those who live there. It’s a story of the compromises we’re willing to make – and the untruths we’re willing to tell ourselves – in the name of perceived prosperity.

Published in Style

They say that history is written by the victors. But so too are the victors most often the ones written into history.

That fact is even truer in the sporting realm than it is elsewhere. By its very nature, sport is concerned with winners and losers. And while those who win are celebrated and lauded in the years that follow, their victory burnished by the sheer volume of memory – what of those who fall short? What of those who reach the pinnacle, only to be stopped just short.

“Losers: Dispatches from the Other Side of the Scorecard” (Penguin, $17) is a collection of pieces devoted to looking at those who never quite reached the top of the mountain. Edited by Mary Pilon and Louisa Thomas – both of whom also have work included within – this assemblage of essays spans more than a century of athletic near-misses.

All told, there are 22 pieces here, 14 of which are previously unpublished. Every one of them is devoted to exploring what it means to lose, to be beaten. The reasons behind their shortfalls vary – some are faced with legendary opposition, while others simply deal with a bad day or bad luck – but all of them find ways to reflect the impact of almost. Some of these stories are funny, while others are sad and still others inspire, but all of them together paint a portrait of the truth behind loss. It’s a compelling journey through the competitive landscape, with all manner of sport and athlete represented.

Published in Sports

It’s a reality of life that nothing lasts forever. All things are transient. Everything that begins must eventually end.

And I do mean EVERYTHING.

Even the universe itself will eventually come to an end. Entire fields of study are devoted to beginnings and endings on a cosmic scale, with brilliant scientists spending their professional lives staring out into the universe and deep into the atom in an effort to understand not just how everything works, but how it might eventually stop working.

Astrophysicist Katie Mack’s new book “The End of Everything: (Astrophysically Speaking)” (Scribner, $26) is a smart, surprisingly funny look at some of the ways that cosmologists believe the universe could potentially end. Don’t worry – it probably isn’t taking place anytime soon. Most of these endings won’t happen tomorrow. Probably.

It’s an accessible and engaging work of pop science, one that finds a way to strike a balance between the intricate physics and mathematics that go into these explorations and an easy narrative tonality that allows even those without PhDs to wrap their heads around these big-by-definition ideas. Consider this a crash course in cosmic eschatology, a sort of End Of It All 101. It is informative and entertaining in the way that only the very best science writing can be.

Published in Tekk

Everyone has gaps in their pop culture knowledge. There’s just too much content out there. Even someone like myself, a person professionally tasked with maintaining a thorough understanding of the zeitgeist, is bound to miss some things.

And those blank spots can occasionally lead to opportunity.

Take “Twilight,” for instance. Now, I have a general understanding of the overall mythos, as someone who was, you know, conscious during the mid-00s – the whole thing was inescapable – but I never read the books and I actually only saw the final two movies, based on the final book in the series (I was … let’s just say confused). So yes – a basic understanding without much knowledge of the specifics.

This confluence of circumstances means that I get to review Meyer’s return to the “Twilight” universe with eyes of unexpected freshness.

This new offering is titled “Midnight Sun” (Little, Brown and Company, $27.99); it’s a retelling of the events of the first “Twilight” book, only from a different perspective. Instead of the story unfolding from Bella’s point of view, we get to experience Edward’s interpretation of events. And boy oh boy are there some EVENTS.

Now, I can’t speak to the relative merits of this book as opposed to its predecessor – I don’t know how well Meyer has aligned this latest offering with the work that came 15 years before – but I can say that, while I might not have found “Midnight Sun” to be the most literarily brilliant work I’ve read, it certainly didn’t live up (down?) to the less-than-stellar stylistic reputation of the first four books. The writing isn’t spectacular, but neither is it spectacularly bad.

Published in Buzz

There is a tremendous amount of craft that goes into writing a book. The meticulous attention to detail necessary to build a truly engaging narrative is incredible, folding together character development and plot and research, all with an eye toward continuity and consistency. And if it all comes together just right, you get a killer story.

Now imagine doing all that while constructing things so that the book can be consumed in a different order and still tell a killer story, albeit one with a different shape.

That’s what Alex Landragin did with his debut novel “Crossings” (St. Martin’s Press, $27.99), a marvelous puzzle box of a book that spans centuries and offers more than one way to consume its compelling story. It’s a novel in three parts, built to be read either in the standard front-to-back fashion or via an alternate to-and-fro chapter order.

Epic in scope, spanning a century and a half and featuring a cast of characters that is somehow both sprawling and small, “Crossings” is that relatively rare experiment in form that doesn’t sacrifice substance in the name of style. It’s conceptually cool, of course, but it’s also beautifully written and one hell of a riveting tale.

Published in Style

It might seem that writing a thriller is relatively easy. You could be forgiven for thinking so – there certainly are a fair number of them populating bookshelves out there. And there’s a tendency to underplay their merit, to consider them as somehow less than because of their subject matter.

Rest assured – writing a book, any book, is a monumental task. And writing a thriller that works, that puts the pieces together in a way that viscerally clicks? That takes real skill.

Skill like that possessed by Jen Waite.

Waite’s new book “Survival Instincts” (Dutton, $26) offers precisely the sort of well-crafted tension that we seek from a thriller. This story of three generations of women – daughter, mother, grandmother – isolated and endangered for reasons that none of them understand is engrossing and tightly paced. It captures the fear that springs from a danger that feels both predestined and utterly random while also engaging with the courage that comes from the desire to protect our own, no matter the cost.

A good thriller is a high-wire walk, one that requires an author to maintain complete control at all times. Finding the ideal balance between character and conflict requires both delicacy and bravado – and Waite pulls it off. We move from present to past and back, shifting perspectives from timeframe to timeframe and person to person, all in service to a chilling, haunting tale.

Published in Style
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