I Can't Not See Val Kilmer

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Bucking the Tiger

Bruce Olds

Fiction, 371 pages

I’ve seen Tombstone too many times. The 1993 western’s lines are engrained my skull forever: Val Kilmer as Doc Holliday: “I’ll be your huckleberry.” or “Your a daisy if you do.” Or his showdown with Johnny Ringo which apparently never happened. Who’s looking for history anyways with Hollywood? As cornball as Tombstone is, I still love it. Val Kilmer’s pasty-white portrayal of Doc is probably his best role—outside of Elvis in True Romance (also from 1993). I think we can conclude it was Mr. Kilmer’s best year. Tombstone is another example of how films overwrite my mind’s image in a book. I just can’t picture anything else but the movie: Lord of Rings—ruined. Godfather, never even tried to read Puzo. It’s not whether the movie is quality or if it’s better than the book. Maybe I see movies more times than I read a given book.

Anyways.

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Bruce Olds’ debut novel: Bucking the Tiger, (BTT) begins with an author’s note about the form of his novel and the form is one of his strong suits. BTT is a mashup of narrative, quotes, poetry, song, encyclopedic lists, confessions, lover’s quarrels, newspaper articles… I think Mr. Olds is at his best when he works like this. The same goes for his second novel, Raising Holy Hell, which is brilliant and stark. There’s even a brief mention of John Brown from Doc Holliday’s character 3/4 of the way through BTT. I like to think that John Brown’s story was already percolating in BTT.

One my favorite sections from BTT was Holliday’s guide to poker, which I am pretty sure is fiction. Holliday stresses that the action is key, not the money. Staying in the game is the most important part of life. What you do, how you play, not the amount you win. The money is just the syntax of poker, not the end goal. This reminds me of the adage about washing dishes: be the best dish washer you can when you do it. No matter the task, do it well. Olds portrays Holliday as a man obsessed with quality, not quantity, for a man with only a few decades will never have the later.

I don’t think many people are reading Bruce Olds, and that’s a shame. I was fortunate to read him in grad school and he’s held up over the last five years in my library. I think you’ll find the same.

Rare Meat

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The Book of X

Sarah Rose Etter

Fiction 284 pages

I had to put this book down and read it in stages. I just couldn’t speed read it.

The Book of X is troubling, beautiful, visceral, and full of meat harvesting. The main characters scout their land like oil prospectors and dig for meat, blood soaked like oil riggers. If you ever saw There Will Be Blood, just replace all the oil scenes with blood and marbled meat walls. I thought the novel was going to dip into the horror genre, but I’m glad it didn’t. Etter’s novel glides just above and beyond a simple genre. The closest I can come up with is gothic. Her novel is haunting like Mr. Poe’s work. The living world of family members, shitty lovers, old friends, towns—the very earth—all haunt her protagonist.

I loved the novel’s formatting. The short paragraphs feel like Tweet’s, snippets of poetry, slashes of mental anguish. These rapid fire sections worked and probably made the novel’s darkness and weight easier to get through.

I am excited to see more titles from Two Dollar Radio and Ms. Etter. You should check out this brilliant work.

Y The Last Man: A Good Cup of Coffee

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Y The Last Man: Vol. 1-10.

Brian K. Vaughn, Pia Guerra, Jose Marzan Jr.

Vertigo Comics / DC

I gotta admit, the first time I browsed through Y The Last Man #1, I wasn’t that impressed. The look and feel of the comic looked fine, but I just wasn’t blown away. And the main character seemed really goofy—which he is—but he’s more than that, and having read the entire series, the goofiness, the sad sap that he starts off as is not where he ends.

My English teacher, Dr. Zaidman, always talked about the difference between average restaurants and great ones: it’s all about the coffee after dinner. Y The Last Man ends perfectly. The Epilogue and final scenes are poignant, somber, and creepy. I loved the ending—no small feet for a 60 comic run.

So, other than the ending, why should you invest in the entire run? The heart of the series, the main question, is still relevant: How do we get along with each other? What does the world look like without men—or all but one? The series has aged well in this regard. Almost 20 years later, gender issues haven’t gone anywhere.

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Y The Last Man works for me. I struggled to get into Saga, another Vaughn title. The later was too bubbly, too damn silly. Y goes right up to that line, but doesn’t cross it. There is plenty of heavy action, violence, and family backstabbing in Y.

Of the main cast, I thought Agent 355 was well done. Her backstory later in the series was one of my favorite episodes and her final scenes were amazing. She kicks a lot of ass.

Towards the end of the series, Yorick holds up a skull and asks: “How can anyone tell the difference?” If you want your ideas of gender challenged, give this title a spin.









"East of West": What is Beauty?

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East of West: #1-42

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Image Comics

I’ve been thinking about graphic novels and comics: What are they? How are they different from novels? Film? Paintings? Which led me to a kind of Ars Poetica moment. What attracts me to one comic over another? It has to start with the image, not at the expense of good prose, but the image is critical. East of West, I believe, is beautiful. If nothing else, you should read it for that. The colors are vibrant, bold, page filling. I’m not an art major, so maybe someone else can tell me what the exact art style is. Whatever you want to call it, I love it.

And the story is excellent too. There are shades of The Odyssey, Biblical plagues, futuristic civil wars, and sci-fi/cowboy mash-up galore.

I want to know how this story ends; I want to read this again and again— and I think you will too.

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I recently heard Colson Whitehead speak. He said there are really only two genres of stories: Those you like and those you don’t. East of West feels like I’m strolling through an art gallery. There are so many panels that work well.

Finally, the story echoes ideas from McCarthy’s Blood Meridian: What is war? Is it humanity at its worst or best? Or, is there even a point to asking that question? We are defined by strife and there’s plenty here in East of West.





Satyagraha

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The Nickel Boys

Colson Whitehead

Fiction, 210 pages

I taught high school for six years. I had the privilege and challenge of teaching Letter From Birmingham City Jail by Dr. King each semester. Dr. King’s letter is a war cry for non-violent resistance: Why should someone resist breaking laws when Dr. King, himself, was in jail from breaking laws? He explains that there are two kinds of laws: just and unjust; unjust laws are no laws at all.

Colson Whitehead’s ninth novel deals with the later type of laws. How do we live in a society that hurts young people? How do we love those who jail us? Rape? Assault? Ruin for life? There’s no simple answer to this core conflict.

The novel is split into three even sections. I found the final third the most convincing: How do we go on living a meaningful life after trauma—if at all?

If you are a fan of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, then you will probably enjoy this novel. There are plenty of moments in The Nickel Boys that echoed Ellison’s classic text.

To be honest, I thought the novel was a bit rushed. There were many moments where I felt like I was being told a story I’d rather see fleshed out on the page. I think this would have worked at 400, or 500 pages.

Also, the tone seemed cool to me, distant, calm. The third person POV was fine, but the most intense scenes of the novel seemed toned down, sanitized.

Despite these reservations, I still enjoyed this novel much more than Underground Railroad. The Nickel Boys reminds me of Whitehead’s early novel, John Henry Days—it hovers between fiction and documentary.

I’m always glad for any offering from Mr. Whitehead and I strongly encourage you to check out his complete canon.





Hour of the Wolf

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Ronin

Frank Miller

Graphic Novel, Issues 1-6 Collected

I was one when Frank Miller’s Ronin went through its first print run. I don’t think my parents would have let me read it then. I only knew of Miller from his 300 title and his work with Batman: The Dark Knight Returns (I have this title in the mail).

Ronin is a perfect blend of feudal japan meets near future New York City. The border between these two themes, worlds, and visual cues is so seamless, that I missed the transition a couple times and had to double back to reexamine a few frames.

It boggles my mind that Miller wrote AND drew this comic.

Ronin centers on a telepathic who is controlled by an AI, cybernetics, the concept of Dark Ages, sword play, ecological disaster, and our relationship with technology as savior/destroyer. Ultimately the title asks us to examine appearance vs. reality. Evil shape shifts and controls us through forms we respect, love, and desire.

I like how Lynn Varley uses green in the New York City scenes. The Aquarius fortress sprawls out over New York City in a sea of cybernetic green.

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I highly recommend you check out this title: It’s gorgeous, just the right amount of challenging to read, and you can finish it in a couple of coffees.

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It Was Almost December

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The Giver: Graphic Novel

Lois Lowry / P. Craig Russell (Illus.)

176 pages, Fiction

WARNING: SPOILERS…

If you never read the novel, I’d start here, with the original novel from 1993. I read it somewhere in middle school? But I can’t recall when exactly. It was one of the few NON-Stephen King novels I read between 6th-8th grade.

I reread Ms. Lowry’s novel a few years ago as a grown up. Yes, there is a YA vibe going on here, but there’s plenty of heavy grown up themes as well: euthanasia, dystopia, suicide, war, sex, who controls society?

So, the graphic novel: the illustration style is okay. The page layouts and framing were pretty repetitive. Most of the graphic novel is in black ink with no color. So, that must’ve been a challenge. True to the novel, there are only a handful of scenes with color. The last sequences where Jonah and Gabriel ride away from the community are the best scenes in the graphic adaption. The wilderness and natural vibrancy are gorgeous. Other stand-out color moments are the war scenes in red and when Jonas notices Fiona’s hair.

Mostly, I’ve been thinking about the novel’s themes about euthanasia and abortion. At first glance the graphic novel is clearly against assisted killing. There are graphic depictions of babies getting lethal injections. Jonas recoils in horror when he finds out what “releasing” people really means. He tries to rescue a baby that is about to be released. Yet, he ends up perishing along side the child on their journey into the unknown wilderness. Jonas’ final days are ones of discovery and joy but also hunger and fear. Ms. Lowry’s story isn’t as easily unpacked as it first seems. How do we balance the right to kill with the right to genuine life or quality of life? How do we decide what to sacrifice in order to have society?

If you loved the original novel, I think you’ll like this adaption. Or share it with a tween in your life.




Remainder: Remainder: Remainder

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Remainder

Tom McCarthy

Fiction, 308 pages

Mr. McCarthy asks: What is authentic? How do we find authenticity? How do we slow down life—even repeat scenes from our lives, sometimes at half speed, in order to observe and notice—not just see and pass by.

I laughed out loud a lot while reading this book. It’s not slapstick funny. Maybe it’s closer to absurd theater. You watch a man create and recreate scenes from his life. It gets pretty ridiculous. There are models of models of recreated models. McCarthy is often focused on layers of life, slicing away like an archeologist, exposing our modern tendencies. He slices away at our technology in C and does the same in Satin island: what are we, these people+machine creatures?

I’m reminded of Mohsin Hamid’s debut novel, Moth Smoke, where we see a bank worker slowly devolve into a drug addict, and, possibly, commit a terrible crime. McCarthy’s main character goes through a similar transformation.

I’m not sure I buy the ending of Remainder (Satin Island and C have very strong endings). But, I think that’s part of what makes this novel unique: it borders on absurdism and backs off over and over. This isn’t allegory. Maybe it’s comedic in the traditional sense: completion, union, and rebirth are found, even if these are oddly twisted forms.

Also, there are a ton of colons. I didn’t count, but I’d guess somewhere around 700 in the novel. I don’t know what that means. Perhaps the reader pauses and reflects back over and over, at the syntactic level, as McCarthy’s protagonist reflects back?

Either way, I suggest you check out anything by McCarthy. His novels are quirky and I’m pretty sure he’s a genius.



Books Which Resist

Ulysses

James Joyce

Fiction, 783 pages

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I bought my first copy of Ulysses when I lived in Charlotte, five years ago. I never finished it. I think I got a hundred pages in and shrugged: What the hell is happening in this book? And then I lost that copy.

Ulysses is one of those classics that everyone gasps at that an English major hasn’t read (Moby Dick was on my TBR list for awhile.) I first heard people clamoring about Ulysses in grad school.

Some novels are inviting, smooth, plaint. This doesn’t make them any less enjoyable. And then there are novels that slow the reader, that resist reading. Examples: Infinite Jest with its 300+ end notes or something like My Struggle from Knausgard which spans a million words. Ulysses also resists, but not like the previous two examples. The structure of the novel shifts between prose, play, TV script, inner and, as Tom McCarthy terms them, “outer monologues.” Some sections of the novel are word salad to me. Joyce does a fantastic job of capturing the disjointing sense of modern life: the feel of commercials, phone texts, to inner fears, to driving, to swirls of our own voices, music, eating, work, layered, layered…The story here doesn’t feel a hundred years old. It feels like driving through downtown Atlanta: sensory overload.

Someone asked me yesterday: Is Ulysses worth it? I suppose they mean the time investment.

Yes.

It’s the kind of novel that takes the book mold and warps it, bends, shatters, and reassembles into a fantastic new thing. I am not entirely sure what that new thing is and I am okay with that.

The Many Forms of Ocean Vuong

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On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous

Ocean Vuong

243 pages, Fiction

Apparently, I’m reading author’s works in reverse these days. I haven’t read a single poem by Ocean Vuong—but I have. His novel is a long form poem in places. Some lines are haikus. A couple chapters are prose poems. It doesn’t really matter: the book is incredible.

I’m trying to think what this story is similar too and I am struggling. I am okay with that. The novel is a love letter to an abusive mother, a crazed grandmother, virginity and rough sex, filth, summer jobs, drugs, crumbling cities, war, and animals. Maybe Mr. Vuong is a 21st century Walt Whitman? On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous reminds me of Leaves of Grass in that it celebrates and sings of Americans, blue collar Americans, and real American cities. Like Whitman, Mr. Vuong loves all beauty, even the kind that hurts, even the kind that drives people to hate you. The novel is grand and concise and cuts with a razor’s edge. I stopped and reread so many lines—not because they were obtuse, but just so damn well phrased.

Believe the hype. This novel will stand up over time. I suggest you give a couple reads.



Footnotes and Feetnotes

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The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet

Reif Larson

Fiction, 375 pages

So, in undergrad, I took a survey class for Brit Lit. At semester’s end, we all had to submit a final exam question. I can’t recall what my topic was, but I can recall that my exam question had feet notes: a footnote with a sub-footnote, a feetnote. At the time, I thought that this was novel, having missed Infinite Jest and DF Wallace (I was in elementary school). My professor thought the feetnote concept was hilarious and no one pulled me aside to tell that I wasn’t the first. Anyways.

While visiting family in California this week, my host threw The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet at me. BAM! What a book. This book is why I love reading. Just when I thought I knew what the footnote/annotated book could be, Mr. Larsen does something novel with the genre. I’d never heard of Mr. Larson or his debut novel from 2009. I enjoyed every illustrated margin note AND some of the illustration margin notes had sub-notes. Be still my beating heart.

The blurb on the back of the book from Stephen King was: Pynchon meets Tom Sawyer, and I think this is pretty accurate. I struggle to get through Pynchon, but I don’t with DF Wallace. Mr. Larsen feels like a less pretentious Wallace and that is a pretty damn good place to occupy. I’ve already ordered Mr. Larsen’s second book, I Am Radar.




Ghouls, Ghosts, Gondoliers

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Orange World

Karen Russell

288 pages, Short Stories

So, I never read Swamplandia!. I know, I know. I’m gonna. But, my wife’s copy of Orange World came in the mail and we read it together.

The stand out selections:

1) “The Bad Graft”: What happens when a plant inhabits a human? Answer: a lot of awkwardness. I really like what Ms. Russell does with POV in this story. Thinking like a plant and wanting plant wants is pretty fun.

2) “Black Corfu”: The reversal here is delicious. Doctors are supposed to save lives. This doctor keeps the dead, dead. The sense of underworld vs. high ground is really interesting here.

3) “The Gondoliers”: Florida is no more, drowned under rising tides. I really enjoyed this story and it’s my favorite from the collection. The sense of toxic waste, the importance of family, and the idea that our plans can fail is really well executed here. You’ve probably read post-apocalyptic stories, but you haven’t read one quite like this. I wish this story was a full novel. I would have liked to see this one keep going.

4) The title story, “Orange World” is creepy and really hit home for me as I have a toddler and have seen what birth and feeding a child look like. The daily stress of keeping a toddler alive is no joke. My wife agrees that the story captures postpartum fears and turmoil.

Overall, i’d recommend picking up this collection. I struggled to get into a few of the stories here, but Russell’s turn of phrase and figurative language were amazing in every story. Now, where did I leave my copy of Swamplandia!?

Treat Yourself

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The Electric State

Simon Stälenhag

Graphic Novel, 144 pages

I can’t quite recall the first time I saw the artwork for The Electric State. I think it was Brainpickings.org, but I can’t find that page now. Either way, I was trawling through a Barnes and Noble in Atlanta and saw the cover again. I grabbed the title, flipped through a few pages, and knew I was taking it home.

Check out the this VIDEO here to see some of the artwork.

Right? Mr. Stälenhag is a visual genius. I love the creepiness and visceral nature of am alternate 1997 U.S..

The real kicker for this title—why you should pick it up and read it—is the plot of The Electric State. It’s so simple, yet profound and relatable. Everyone gets trapped by VR tech, a spec plot that is quickly becoming a possibility. The great thing about this title, is that you can read it in a couple cups of coffee and come back to again for another read. Like all great art, the story gets richer with each pass.

S is for Sensuous

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Strange Weather In Tokyo

Hiromi Kawakami

Fiction, 179 pages

I’ve always been a sucker for the movie Lost in Translation, Sophia Coppola’s love letter to Tokyo. The scene where Scarlett Johansen puts her head on Bill Murray’s shoulder—Strange Weather in Tokyo is 179 pages of that feeling. The novel captures the joy of relationships, the unexpected nature of coupling, the bizarre back and forth of authentic partnerships.

This novel is not magic realism or speculative fiction. The cover art from Natsumi Nayashi is awesome, but this is not Marquez or 1Q84. Ms. Kawakami plays it straight and I like the realism here.

I still remember the pneumonic from my 11th grade English class for sensual vs. sensuous. L for lust; S for senses. Strange Weather in Tokyo is all S: glorious food abounds, beer and sake, the joy of being near someone, the pleasures of nature, more beer and sake.

I Love Tom McCarthy

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Satin Island

Tom McCarthy

Fiction, 208 pages


There are so many ways to find a book. I just starting finding them on Instagram’s 12 million book stack pictures. I didn’t find Satin Island that way. I saw the glorious cover for this book at Eagle Eye Books in Decatur, GA. Not only is the cover awesome, the dust jacket summary and bio were written landscape style. The whole package just screamed READ ME. I took this book on a lake vacation with the fam. Satin Island breaks all the rules you hear in writing classes or from agents/editors: There isn’t a plot; no real action scenes; lots of telling and not showing.

I can already hear you: Well that sounds awful. But that’s exactly why I love this book. The main character doesn’t get his job done. The novel ends with a bizarre, macabre anecdote and I’m still not sure how it fits into the whole story. I am sure about one thing: Tom McCarthy is a genius. You’ll feel smarter after reading this book. The word choice and structure are challenging, but this is still a fast read at 200 pages. If you need something a little left field, I suggest you pick up Satin Island (If not, check out C., another amazing novel by McCarthy.)

Cheers, and happy reading!

Book + Cause = Great Read

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Such Good Work

Johannes Lichtman

Fiction, 304 pages, Hardback

I spent two weeks looking for this book, well a book like it. I needed a comp title for a recent writer’s convention. I looked online, in person at several stores, and hounded staff around Atlanta in search of a story like mine. I may have gotten a little misty when I found Mr. Lichtman’s novel, Such Good Work.

The novel is about a teacher who is trying to care again, about a man who wants action vs. apathy—the eternal struggle. I immediately connected with Mr. Lichtman’s protagonist who struggles with substance abuse and relationship troubles. (Read his interview with Literary Hub).

The novel’s focus reminds me of Mohsin Hamid’s Exit West, except migration is approached from a non-migrant point of view. How do Americans and Europeans help those trying to migrate? For Mr. Lichtman, it’s more than fiction, migrant kids need real world help: savethechildren.org .


Keep Hustlin'

The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky, and Death

Colson Whitehead

Paperback, Memoir, 256 pages

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I kept seeing Underground Railroad on every book shelf in America. So I got online and tried to check out the audiobook from the ATL library. I was fourth in line. So I checked out The Noble Hustle instead. I didn’t know anything about The Noble Hustle or who Colson Whitehead was. I just liked the cover and saw poker.

The Noble Hustle is the funniest book I’ve read (listened to) in the last few years. Ignore the Amazon reviews. I don’t know what they are talking about. The book is brilliant. Whitehead waxes poetic about parenting, amateur poker, Frank Sinatra, city life, bizarre casino culture, dried meat history, and living life with a high M.

If you read Underground Railroad and you need a Whitehead fix until July’s The Nickel Boys release, I strongly suggest you sit down with The Noble Hustle.



Brainpickings Comes to Your Local Shelf

Figuring

Maria Popova

Hardback, Non-fiction, 592 pages

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On a recent family trip to Asheville, North Carolina, I had the pleasure of visiting Malaprop’s Bookstore again. On the way to the register, I noticed the yellow, first edition of Figuring. I recognized Maria Popova immediately as the curator of Brainpickings.org. If you don’t read that blog, you should fix that. It’s a fantastic romp through philosophy, poetry, history, literature, and science—much like Figuring itself. At nearly 600 pages, I was a little hesitant, but the clerk told me she was “half way through Figuring already and it read like a long-form blog post.” I was sold.

Figuring is the type of non-fiction that you can bounce around on. I was impressed by the sheer number of female scientists, authors, and artists Popova highlights. I learned about LBGQT lovers, environmentalists, poets, astronomers—so many names that I had never heard of. It was a little overwhelming. Ms. Popova’s history book is somewhere around Howard Zinn’s A People’s History + Carl Sagan’s Pale Blue Dot. If you love history, give this title a go.

Check out the free sample here.

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Emperor Penguin

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The End of the End of the Earth: Essays

Jonathan Franzen

Hardcover, 241 pages

Read the title essay here.I should confess two things up-front:

1) I’ve never finished a Franzen novel.

2) I’m not a bird person.

The crazy birds on Franzen’s latest essay collection caught my eye while perusing at A Cappella Books. I grabbed the book without a second thought. I find that most people are polarized by Franzen: You like him? His characters are so cold? He’s not even online…

My earliest memories of Franzen’s work go back to the late 90’s. I remember picking up How to Be Alone at my aunt and uncle’s house. My teen brain wasn’t prepared for an entire essay collection, but I did read the first essay about Franzen’s father’s Alzheimers. And then there was Farther Away. These collections have been wells of inspiration over the years. I love what Franzen says about writing, the process, reasons to get out of bed in the morning.

Which brings me around to The End of the End of the Earth. The title essay is a brilliant mash-up of memoir, travelogue, and future casting. I agree with Franzen: climate change isn’t going to slow down. The real challenge: How do we humanely deal with this reality? Franzen isn’t giving up, just facing the facts. If humans can strip the earth of resources, we will. It’s that simple.

I still don’t care about birds as much as Franzen, but his essay both encouraged and challenged me. The world’s climate is in danger, but that doesn’t mean we stop caring about each other.