REVIEW: The Illusion of Separateness

illusion-of-separatenessAuthor: Simon Van Booy

2013, Harper

Filed under: Literary, Historical

Find it at Goodreads

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 7
Entertainment..... 7
Depth..... 8

Van Booy is a distinct voice in fiction today. Unsparingly direct, his prose delivers the full emotional force of his characters’ losses and redemptions, unmediated by argot or irony. Be warned before you read The Illusion of Separateness or any of his other books: things are going to get heavy.

It’s likely no surprise that a book with a title as philosophically insistent as The Illusion of Separateness gets a little heavy. What may be surprising is what a fast read it is despite the book’s seriousness. Clocking in at just over 200 pages, moving deftly in time and perspective, Van Booy’s latest novel kept me turning pages like a good mystery.

It’s the story of a chance encounter during World War II and the chain of connections set in place by a moment of mercy. From the fields of occupied France to England, Long Island, and Los Angeles, the plot weaves its way through the lives of half a dozen apparent strangers in demonstration of the book’s epigraph, a quote from the Zen Buddhist monk and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh: “We are here to awaken from the illusion of our separateness.”
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The Week’s Best Book Reviews 7/24/13

[In this feature, we highlight a handful of the best book reviews appearing over the weekend in major newspapers. Follow it here.]


panopticonThe Panopticon, by Jenni Fagan. Reviewed by Tom Shone (New York Times).

I almost always enjoy sharp coming-of-age books, so this “pugnacious, snub-nosed paean to the highs and lows of juvenile delinquency” is right up my alley. And the fact that its protagonist is a stand-out selling point (I enjoy character-driven books, and Shone took a shine to Fagan’s characterization skills) of the novel definitely helps. I don’t recall ever coming across a review by Shone before, and his write-up is evenhanded and just funny enough.


The Riddle of the Labyrinth, by Margalit Fox. Reviewed by Margaret B. Mitchell (Washington Post).

If I could have a life do-over, archeologist would be one of the finalists (after astronaut, obviously) for career choice. I love reading and learning about ancient civilizations and unsolved mysteries. This is a book about scholars’ efforts to crack the “Linear B” syllabary discovered on Cretan stone tablets a century ago. Probably pretty dry reading if you’re not into that sort of thing, but the review is short enough that it’s worth a gander all the same.


Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish, by David Rakoff.  Reviewed by Nick Curley (Barnes and Noble Reiview).

I’ve never read any Rakoff, but I always enjoyed his appearances on This American Life. Novels in verse don’t tend to be my cup of tea, but Curley’s description intrigues me: “Rakoff throws both affection and grenades at his characters, salving and salting their wounds.” It’s not too often an author’s last book is his best (and I’m certainly not able to judge in this case), but Rakoff fans should look into this and decide for themselves.


Quickly: I’m fed up with this heat, but at least it doesn’t stink around here like the “ghosts of twenty thousand drowned cats.” Cormac McCarthy is 80 and still going strong. “Mediterranean noir” sounds pretty good to me. Fantasy Focus is my favorite sports podcast, but I think I’m probably gonna pass on Matthew Berry’s book.

REVIEW: The Shining Girls

Author: Lauren Beukes

2013, Little Brown

Filed Under: Literary, Thriller, Sci-Fi

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 9
Entertainment..... 9
Depth..... 5

With The Shining Girls, Lauren Beukes joins the increasingly crowded list of authors attempting to bridge genre writing with the literary novel. She manages to be more successful than most, turning the occasional brilliant phrase or description, and exercising above average characterization with her protagonists. This lit-thriller’s sci-fi twist is mostly satisfying, and the story succeeds in being just creepy enough to keep the reader hooked, but it doesn’t quite elevate itself to something more memorable than a beach read.

These genre-blending novels face a tough conundrum. Over-explain the uniqueness of the setting or rely too heavily on tropes and readers are left bored or feeling their intelligence insulted; under-develop the premise and rely on the more literary writing and the uniqueness of setting begins to feel arbitrary and unnecessary. There’s a fine line between the two that most authors aim for, even if they miss the mark.

Beukes errs on the side of the latter scenario: her writing is strong, and the sci-fi time travel stuff is interesting and creepy, but not fully developed. These genre elements are rendered and used to good effect, but unfortunately feel as if they exist only to serve the plot.
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The Week’s Best Book Reviews: 7/17/13

[In this feature, we highlight a handful of the best book reviews appearing over the weekend in major newspapers. Follow it here.]

returntooakpineReturn to Oakpine, by Ron Carlson. Reviewed by David L. Ulin at the L.A. Times.

Ulin generally writes great reviews, and this one is no different. Carlson’s method, Ulin says, is “to let ideas and situations percolate, and in so doing to articulate with care and nuance the inner lives of characters who themselves may not be emotionally articulate: men mostly, middle-aged, living in the rural west and wrestling with the sense that opportunity has passed them by.” Doing this, he’s written just two novels in the last thirty years. This one revolves around a group of middle-aged men who played in the same high school band, and reunite thirty years later when one of them returns home to die. Sounds a bit like your standard we-must-deal-with-the-past novel, but Ulin can’t stop raving about Carlson’s subtlety and sharpness, so I’m assuming it’s a cut above the standard fare.

What Do Women Want?: Adventures in the Science of Female Desire, by Daniel Bergman. Reviewed by Emma Brockes at the Guardian.

Brockes gives an admirably even-handed treatment to what sounds like an irrelevant and outdated (at best) pop-science book about female sexuality. Luckily, though, even-handedness doesn’t preclude Brockes from taking some enjoyable potshots, like, “Rats are a big part of this book, as they often are in pop-science, which could boil down many of its arguments to “because a rat did it”.”

I Wear the Black Hat, by Chuck Klosterman. Reviewed by Heather Havrilesky at the L.A. Times.

Klosterman’s latest comes with an interesting premise: exploring the controversial figures of our time, like Joe Paterno. But I don’t get the sense that Havrilesky holds him to a very high standard. She mentions several of Klosterman’s rhetorical questions about Batman, and they all sound oversimplified, not to mention plain old wrong. E.g.: “If Batman were real, and you knew that a vigilante was killing criminals without due process, would you root for him or want him arrested?” Well, Batman doesn’t kill anybody, one of the carefully architected elements of his rootability. Another: what makes Batman a hero and some dude who shot some muggers on the subway less than a hero? Well, Batman’s not real, so he has no non-romantic flaws, and there aren’t any real consequences to his actions. Also, he doesn’t shoot anybody. Here’s hoping that the rest of Klosterman’s book has more heft to it… but, because of this sample, I probably won’t line up to read more of these unresearched and seemingly pointless rhetorical questions.

In brief: Last WBBR I pointed out what may well have been the most unflattering author illustration of all time. Apparently the NYT realized their gross error: they commissioned a new illustration for a different piece about the same author. … Another book about the current “golden age” of television. Sounds kind of interesting, but not interesting enough to buy/read an entire book. … If you hadn’t heard, J.K. Rowling wrote a detective novel under a pseudonym and had trouble getting it picked up, let alone getting it any kind of attention until someone discovered her real name. The problems with publishing in a nutshell. … The studio producing the Ender’s Game movie has publicly distanced itself from the idiot Orson Scott Card’s radical anti-gay views. Only because people were threatening to boycott the movie, but still, anything that pisses off Card is a good thing in my book. … Sweet God, a Zimmerman juror already has a book deal. Guess there wouldn’t’ve been a story if they just convicted the guy, huh?

REVIEW: Crashed

crashedAuthor: Timothy Hallinan

2013, Soho Crime

Filed under: Mystery

Find it at Goodreads

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 7
Entertainment..... 7
Depth..... 5

For the first 95% of this book, I mistakenly thought that this was Hallinan’s first novel, and under that umbrella it reads like the promising early work of a writer who might be great someday. As it turns out, this is only the first novel of a new series. Hallinan has actually written dozens of mysteries, including two more in the Junior Bender series in the three months since this one came out.

That’s a whole different situation, and a more unfortunate one. Hallinan’s missteps are structural: his overblown premise and a couple of cartoonish characters stop the novel from reaching its potential, as does his reluctance to fully explore the darkness of what he imagines. If this were his debut, he might well learn and grow from here. But since it’s his 13th book, there’s little hope he’ll learn from his mistakes.

While writing that last paragraph, counting books in Hallinan’s bibliography, I realized that I’ve actually read one of his other mysteries, an Edgar-nominated throwaway mystery notable only because relatively few mysteries take place in Thailand. If I’d remembered that book, I would’ve skipped this one, and indeed, they suffer from the same problems.
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The Week’s Best Book Reviews 7/10/13

[In this feature, we highlight a handful of the best book reviews appearing over the weekend in major newspapers. Follow it here.]

begleyMemories of a Marriage, by Louis BegleyReviewed by Marie Arana (Washington Post).

I know it goes against the grain of most in my circle, but–as you’ve probably heard on the podcast–I do not care for F. Scott Fitzgerald. Gatsby is the only one of his books I can even tolerate, but even though it’s got a worthwhile message, he’s still just too whiny for me. But an anti-Gatsby novel? What’s that? Apparently it’s just more of the excess that I don’t want to read about. Still, getting called an “elegant wordsmith” in WaPo isn’t too shabby.

America’s Obsessives, by Joshua Kendall. Reviewed by Barbara Spindel (Barnes and Noble Review).

I just started a new job (hooray!) spending my summer working with kids on the Autism spectrum, so I’m a bit more attuned into this sort of thing currently than I might otherwise be, but I think this book of famous historical Americans with OCD sounds pretty fascinating. As a bonus, Kendall includes Ted Williams on his roster of OCD biographies, which tickles a small obsession of my own.

Render, by Rebecca Gayle Howell. Reviewed by David L. Ulin (Los Angeles Times)

I’m totally on board with the whole post-apocalyptic fad (I still like zombie fiction too). Apocalyptic poetry sounds pretty forced though. However, I do like the definition Howell sets out with–”a literary genre informed by hallucination, grief, and a long view of history (primary concerns: the past, the present, and consequence)”–and the excerpts Ulin selects are intriguing enough to warrant a closer look.

Quickly: Does anyone actually want to read a book all about the song “Dancing in the Street?” This book has a great title, and seems intriguing to boot. George Orwell on Animal Farm. And I guess Charlie Kaufman is maybe adapting Slaughter-House Five for Guillermo Del Toro.

The Week’s Best Book Reviews: 7/2/13

[In this feature, we highlight a handful of the best book reviews appearing over the weekend in major newspapers. Follow it here.]

Fragile Empire: How Russia Fell in and out of Love with Vladimir Putin, by Ben Judah. Reviewed by Luke Harding in the Guardian.

It’s easy to see now—after Putin’s power grabs, and his puppet-mastering, and his arrests of dissidents, and his occasional assassination by radiation—that electing a sociopathic master spy to be your country’s president was a bit of a mistake. But it’s also not hard to see why, in the absence of such results, Putin can be kind of a likable guy. At the very least, he’s entertainingly eccentric and a genuine badass, the opposite of most countries’ milquetoast, career-politician leaders. Judah, in this new book about the rise and fall of Putin’s popularity, takes more of a political science slant, but not without a fair dose of entertainment.

Sisterland, by Curtis Sittenfeld. Reviewed by Ann Leary at the New York Times.

This sounds like a risky idea executed—not without flaws—by a talented author. Leary likes Sittenfeld’s style and her ability to create complex characters without overexplaining every last thing, but she doesn’t care for the way Sittenfeld explores the psychic aspects of the sister’s relationship. As a bonus, this review contains one of the least flattering author illustrations I’ve ever seen. For comparison, here’s a picture.

A Trick of the Light, by Lois Metzger. Reviewed by Liz Rosenberg in the B&N Review.

Rosenberg gives a brief overview of Metzger’s rocketship career arc as a sci-fi prodigy and YA wunderkind before calling this latest novel her “breakout.” As it turns out, it’s about a young man with an eating disorder. Sounds like a great treatment of that material, but I’m afraid it’s not up my alley.

In brief: Benjamin Percy, the author of a crappy werewolf novel, complains about the believability of Neil Gaiman’s latest book, in one of the most staggeringly tone-deaf reviews of all time. … Jeannette Walls’s latest book sounds pretty damn good, despite the fact that she’s rehashing a lot of the same themes she explored in her memoirs. … This review about the worth of art forgeries probably obviates the need to actually read the book.

REVIEW: Eating the Dinosaur

Author: Chuck Klosterman

2010, Scribner

Filed Under: Nonfiction

C4 Ratings...out of 10
Language..... 7
Entertainment..... 7
Depth..... 9

It had been a while since I’d read any nonfiction, so when a friend asked if I wanted to read this I said yes. I don’t really know much about Klosterman (except that he’s known for his music/pop culture writing in magazines like Spin and Esquire), but given the titles of his books (like Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs) I expected loose, even gonzo essays from this collection. That would have been fun I guess, but I’m so much happier with what I found instead.

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Book Radar: July 2013

[This monthly feature is a brief look at interesting upcoming books. Because we evidently have to say it: these are not reviews; we have not read these books. Follow Book Radar here. Click the title links to find more info about these books.] Edit: The last blurb was edited to clarify that the John Birch Society is a national organization.


The Illusion of Separateness, by Simon Van Booy (out now)

Missed this one last month, but since Van Booy’s 2009 story collection got a rave review from our own Eric Markowsky, I thought this new novel was worth mentioning. It’s about World War II and how “one man’s act of mercy” affects the lives of a wide-ranging group of seemingly separate people. So, kind of like the movie Crash with Nazis. So, kind of like the movie Crash. Not quite my cup of tea, but it’s been getting a ton of positive responses and seems like a good bet for those who like lyrical, emotional, character-driven novels.

The Night Gwen Stacy Died, by Sarah Bruni (out 7/2)

This odd book follows a young man who calls himself Peter Parker and casts the object of his obsession as Spiderman’s first girlfriend, Gwen Stacy. As you can imagine, things don’t go so well for Gwen. It’s difficult to tell whether this novel will be more of a dreamy, lyrical tour de force, or more of a creepy story about a crazy guy who kills some poor girl. But at least it has a chance at the former.

A Marker to Measure Drift, by Alexander Maksik (out 7/30)

Now that’s how you write a title. (Listening, Matt Bell?) The author of 2011′s much-hyped You Deserve Nothing is back with another globe-trotting novel. This one centers around a Liberian woman who lives in a cave next to the sea, and begins having intense visions because she’s so battered by the elements. Slowly, these visions fill in the parts of her violence-filled past that she’s tried so hard to forget. That is a hell of a tough premise to pull off, but it sounds as if Maksik might have done it.


Midnight, by Kevin Egan (out 7/2)

Oddly enough, in a month with few really notable books coming out, there are several intriguing, critically acclaimed mysteries/thrillers (usually there’s no more than one in a month). This one leans more thrillery: a judge’s body is discovered on New Year’s Eve in a justice department with weird rules that mean his underlings will be fired at midnight unless they cover up his death for 24 hours. That leads to complications. I’m not sold yet, but it’s a book to keep in mind.

The Crocodile, by Maurizio di Giovanni (out 7/2)

Intriguing mystery #2 has just been translated from the original Italian. A disgraced Sherlock Holmes-like detective has been demoted after he’s accused of leaking information to the mob. Now assigned to Naples, he has to catch a vicious serial killer to clear his name. Sounds like a detective-driven novel, one that should reveal whether it fits your taste after the free ebook preview.

The Fire Witness, by Lars Kepler (out 7/9)

Intriguing mystery #3 became significantly less appealing after its flap copy claimed it should be “appealing to fans of Stieg Larsson and Jo Nesbo.” I’m not the biggest fan of either, but this straightforward detective novel has gotten good reviews, and might be worth a shot.

The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells, by Andrew Sean Greer (out now)

I still think of Greer as the guy who rewrote The Curious Case of Benjamin Button in novel form. He seems to be a critical darling and a popular shrug. This latest follows a woman whose experimental psychiatric treatment leads her to experience her alternate “impossible” lives. Then she evidently has to decide which life to live? I’m a bit unclear, but intrigued.

Blue Plate Special: An Autobiography of My Appetites, by Kate Christensen (out 7/9)

The author of 2011′s acclaimed novel The Astral now turns in a food memoir that mixes stories from her life and upbringing in with recipes and food memories.

Neptune’s Brood, by Charles Stross (out 7/2)

Charles Stross might be the most prolific living sci-fi writer. He’s written something like three dozen books in the last 12 years or so… which means that I wouldn’t expect much from any single novel. But this one sound intriguing, if not perhaps wholly satisfying: it’s all about a complicated interstellar banking system and one woman’s (sorry, one metahuman’s) attempt to find her sister. And it comes complete with accountant pirates, “subaquatic” monarchs, and good old-fashioned assassins.

Wrapped in the Flag: A Personal History of America’s Radical Right, by Claire Conner (out 7/2)

If you’re still bewildered by the actions of conservatives (such as the crazy goings-on in Texas as I type this), this might be a book that interests you. The daughter of a founder of the John Birch Society—a national organization so blindly ultraconservative that they opposed water fluoridation—explains what life was like under the iron grip of conservative fear, and how she eventually escaped.

reviews in haiku June 2013

When are the dog days?


The Hysterectomy Waltz

quite the title here

dark, satirical humor

think Catch-22



Stephen King’s new book

mostly a thriller, really

decent time killer


Travels in Elysium

this one is a slog

Man, Eric hated this book

despite his best shot

Little Houses

quasi-gothic tales

elusive, romantic tone

an intriguing set


The Book of Da

Kickstarter indie

good looking graphic novel

story’s okay too



magic gone awry

not quite up to Machine Man

read that book instead