The Epiphany Machine

Title: The Epiphany Machine
Author: David Burr Gerrard
Publisher: G.P. Putnam’s Sons

IMG_5251

Although the description of the titular machine sounds like something out of a science fiction or fantasy novel, this is really a book about humanity’s tolerance for self-awareness. There’s no real exploration of the magic or science behind the epiphany machine–in fact, the question of its origin and authenticity is left open. Certainly, the man who operates it has some control over it, as it eventually tells most New Yorkers that they are “stronger than terrorists” when its reputation wanes post-9-11.

Although the open questions about the machine are still bugging me, the book is absolutely complete (and probably better) without answering them. It follows Venter as a child whose parents used the machine because, as he perceives, they are “lonely, gullible and numb” to a young adult who becomes enamored with it and the knowledge he perceives it gives him. (In case you can’t tell from the cover, the “epiphany machine” is a tattooing device that gives you a personalized revelation on your forearm. The revelations are almost uniformly negative).

But the book doesn’t confine itself to people’s reactions to this tattooing device–instead, its a device that lets Gerrard explore the degree to which people can change (and whether they should) and the relative value of privacy vis a vis safety. I think its easy for authors who want to tackle big questions like that to err on the side of moralizing — of stacking the deck towards the argument they want to win and getting preachy about the conclusion they think you should draw. This book avoids that. Not only am I still pondering the machine’s possible origins, but I’m still not sure who I think is right about whether epiphany tattoos should be reported to the authorities.

What I am sure about is that this is an excellent book and I highly recommend it. If you’ve read it and have thoughts on the above, let me know! Happy reading!

The Ghosts of Belfast

Title: The Ghosts of Belfast
Author: Stuart Neville
Publisher: Soho Press, Inc.

I first read this book almost two years ago on my honeymoon, curled up in a tiny airport chair (the wedding diet was good not only for the wedding photos but also for fitting into absurd plastic chairs. Airports are the worst). My husband slept most of the way through our six-hour flight, but despite the un-honeymoon-like-subject matter, I couldn’t put this one down.

Quick summary: Gerry Fegan, the protagonist, is a former paramilitary contract killer in Ireland who, after years spent in prison for his crime and as a tentative peace has been formed between the various warring factions, sees dead people. More specifically, his dead victims–the ghosts of the people he murdered. He spends the novel avenging their deaths, while unraveling his own complicated emotions towards his community, former bosses, and new love interest.

Fegan is a man of few words, but the way Neville writes him makes me feel like I’m a fly on a wall in his head. Fegan feels really believable and, even though he though he is undisputedly the bad guy, I really felt emotionally attached to this character all the way to the end. Neville makes you care about what happens to him and Marie and Ellen (the mother/daughter he befriends). I think he accomplishes that by acknowlding Gerry’s flaws, but also showing the circumstances that led him to make the decisions he did and the behaviors that indicate real regret now, and by keeping the ensemble cast manageable. Sometimes authors get so excited about their complicated plot and cast of characters that you feel like you constantly need to check a map or list of characters just to remember who is who. I didn’t have any problem keeping up with this book.

The only criticism I have for this book is the ending. It felt a little cheap, emotionally, and was pretty much the only thing the entire book that “took me out” of the world, i.e., made me feel like the book wasn’t real (the ghosts I had no problems with, so this could be a me problem).

Let me know what you think!! Happy reading!!

 

Help for the Haunted

Title: Help for the Haunted
Author: John Searles
Publisher: William Morrow (imprint of HarperCollins Publishers)

This book is not for the faint of heart. Rarely does a book actually creep me out – yet this one did. It follows the life of Sylvie, a young girl whose parents were recently murdered, as she tries to figure out what happened to them, learn how to live with her temperamental older sister Rose, and come to terms with her parents’ unusual and controversial careers.

IMG_4937

My favorite thing about this book was its subtlety – a lot of authors cannot include religious themes without coming across as judgmental and condemning regardless of whether they are pro or con. This book had a more subtle, nuanced approach which made it feel like a part of the story and not just a lecture the author felt morally compelled to include. It was also subtle with the paranormal — in my experience, books that try to flirt with the boundary of fantasy and reality often end up disappointing readers who expect a “Scooby-Doo” ending – aka, for all of the “magic” to be explained — by leaning too fantastical or disappointing readers who like to be surprised or out-witted by the author by leaning too realistic. Here, the ending was satisfying (although, again – CREEPY route to get there).

I am also frequently skeptical when authors use first-person with protagonists substantially different than themselves – here, a male author writing from the perspective of a female child. But Searles does a fantastic job. It felt realistic without being patronizing – there was nothing that felt out-of-character or “jarred” you out of the book’s reality. It’s easy to sympathize and fall in love with Sylvie, to understand her frustration at therapy, her reluctance to really rebel against her sister, and her waves of emotions about her parents. Without spoiling the story, there are two scenes that really hit home for me in capturing Sylvie: when she brings a homemade good-bye gift to Mr. Boshoff, her therapist, that shows how much she has been listening to what he has and hasn’t said about his own life, and when she offers candy to malicious trick-or-treaters who had only showed up to tease her about her (dead) parents.

If you want a happy story about sisterhood conquering all, this is not the book for you. But if you want an intriguing coming-of-age story, light some candles and dive right in! Happy reading!

 

my grandmother asked me to tell you she’s sorry

Title: my grandmother asked me to tell you she’s sorry
Author: Fredrik Backman
Publisher: Atria Books

IMG_4932

The first passage that made me cry:

“I’m not stupid, Granny,” she whispers. “I know you did all that stuff tonight to make me forget about what happened at school.” Granny kicks at some gravel and clears her throat. “I didn’t want you to remember this day because of the scarf. So I thought instead you could remember it as the day your Granny broke into a zoo–“

I would continue down the list, but I’m afraid I’d have half the book in here and I’d get sued for reproduction. Let me say, though, that I mean that in a good way. (Not the suing, the crying). This book hit home for me in a lot of ways, from the divorced parents to the go-getter mom just trying to navigate everyone’s needs, including her own. And it does it so in beautiful, unpresumptuous language that captures all sorts of universal truths.

It’s strange how quickly the significance of a certain smell can change, depending on what path it decides to take through the brain. It’s strange how close love and fear live to each other.

Okay, enough with the sappy, here are the deets: Elsa is seven and struggling with bullies at school and her divorced parents’ new families at home. It’s all okay, though, because she has her grandma and her grandma’s amazing fairy tales—until, all of a sudden, she doesn’t. Her grandma post-humously leads her on a quest that connects her fairy tales with the residents of the flat in which they lived, and, eventually, there is lots of closure for lots of people. Be warned: grandma’s first career was as a medical doctor in war zones and refugee camps, and many of the flat residents came to know her through that work, i.e., experienced significant trauma that still effects them.

Before you accuse me of never criticizing anything, let me say that, as a dog lover (check out my Instagram for puppy overload), I was not pleased with the wurse. I refuse to believe that a medical doctor told her grandchild to feed a dog chocolate. For a while, I sustained a belief that the wurse was actually a magical being or at least an exotic animal whose nutritional needs were perfectly met with chocolate and cookies, but, well — I don’t think that’s what the author intended.

Other than the wurse, I loved how this book dances around the line between reality and fantasy, between what actually happens and what we perceive happening. Don’t take this the wrong way, but I think a mere recital of what physically happened often doesn’t fully capture what people experience. Adding a fantastical element can help flesh out how people see their circumstances and why they react the way they do. If books are really about exploring the human experience–which I think they are–then fantasy serves an important role here.

Ultimately, I would definitely recommend this book — but I’d also recommend you read it in private. (Unless your local coffee shop is totally okay with you bawling).