The Epiphany Machine

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

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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!

Severance

Title: Severance
Author: Chris Bucholz
Publisher: Apex Publications, LLC

I am not one for urine jokes (or any bodily function jokes)–but persevere past the protagonists’ prank on the “Markers,” a particular gross clique, in the first chapter of this book and you will be rewarded. I first read Chris Bucholz’s work on Cracked.com, where he churns out underrated and hilarious articles. His best series, by far, are his advice guy articles and his apology letters. They are whimsically and darkly weird and very much elicit either a love or hate reaction. (Obviously, I love.)

This book, however, is not that. Unlike his articles, which strain the bounds of reality on purpose and as part of the joke, you can tell Chris really thought through Severance’s world. It still has enough weird that you know it’s him, and to delight all of the wacky sci-fi fans out there, but it’s tempered with a tightly structured plot and real relationships that make you feel real emotions. And books that can make me feel real emotions are my favorite. (My husband is a little less enthused about walking in on me crying over fictional characters).

I also appreciate that romance is not the primary relationship. Instead, it’s Stein and Bruce’s friendship and, more so, their wavering relationship with the community in which they live and its leaders. There is an old married couple that pretend to be blasé but end up joining the adventure and have an amazing romance, but not in the way you’re expecting. They’re the kind of couple that grew into each other after a long and beautiful life together, and then when push came to shove, they leaned into each and fought against the world with all they had. And they didn’t even really have to talk about it – they just knew. For my Burn Notice people out there, it’s very Michael and Fi. (Basically the highest compliment I can give).

The other thing I think this book gets really right is that nobody is safe. I hate when the good guys are seemingly immortal–there’s no tension if there’s no risk. It’s hard to care about conflict when you know what the outcome will be. Even if the rescue comes at the very end — Star Trek, I’m looking at you — it somehow cheapens the whole adventure. Bucholz, while no George R.R. Martin, does not guard his darlings like that. And the result is a very engaging, enchanting book.

If I had to pick a moral for this story, I would say that it is: people are terrible and dumb but they’re still OK. And they deserve a chance–and you do too. It’s realistic, but reassuring.

Let me know what you think! Happy reading!

John Dies At The End

Title: John Dies At The End
Author: David Wong
Publisher: St. Martin’s Press

It says book club right in the title, so, like any book club, I think I can assume you’ve read it even if you’re only here for some alcohol & snacks. (My fave? Hard cider + snickerdoodles). I’m going to exercise that prerogative now, so skip to the next paragraph if you’re not interested in spoilers: I cannot figure out why the title is “John Dies At The End” when he, basically, is the only one that doesn’t. I suspect that there is some cool, meta reading of the novel that solves this problem for me but I don’t know what it is. I suspect neither David or John would be concerned about it. The two are the most blasé guys I’ve ever met – and yes, I did mean “met.” You can totally meet fictional characters. Let me live.

Anyway, for being an underachieving slacker, David (both the pen name of Jason Pargin, the author, and the name of the protagonist), has a lot of virtues: he’s good with dogs, he takes care of intoxicated friends, he’s respectful to women, and he shows up on time to work most of the time. On the other hand, he makes some dumb mistakes. Which leads me to one of my favorite things about this book: the characters (well, the human ones) feel so real. There aren’t any characters that don’t have any flaws.

This book essentially covers two separate but related stories: the first is John and David’s discovery of “soy sauce,” the monsters that come from it, and trip to Vegas – funny, fast-moving, unpredictable chaos. The second story is the best (at least in my opinion): the monsters re-appear, causing chaos and confusion, and John and David bumble their way towards saving the world (and the girl). If you’re feeling kind of “eh” on the first story, stick around for the second. It’s a fast read, and you won’t regret it.

You’ve probably already realized this, but just as a warning: this book is weird. It probably fits best in the “science fiction” category, but it has some horror flavoring and some of the segues more typical of literary fiction. The opening “riddle” is a good litmus test – if you find it intriguing, you are in for a treat. If you think it’s dumb, this may not be the book for you.

Let me know what you think – happy reading!