A dome of one’s own

I’m not even slightly embarrassed to admit that, after finishing Under the Dome on Saturday afternoon, I set it down on my nightstand, took off my glasses and had myself a little cry. No, not because I’m on some experimental medication, pregnant or going through the changes. This is an emotional book! It’s a scary one, sure, but also gripping, tragic and overwhelmingly bleak.

So, context: Although I’ve known of Under the Dome for years (and of the somewhat hilarious similarities between its plot and that of The Simpsons Movie), I neglected to actually buy the thing until last week. Currently4/7ths of the way through Stephen King’s seven-volume (soon to be eight) Dark Tower series, I’ve basically been King-ed out. It was only after dinner with a friendโ€”I’m a huge sucker for glowing recommendationsโ€”that I decided to bite the bullet.

It’s worth noting that, Dark Tower commitment issues aside, I’ve always loved Stephen King. Along with Dean Koontz, one might say he transitioned me from the 200-page Christopher Pike novels of my childhood into sprawling stories with dozens of characters and themes that sailed right over my 10-year-old head. And while King’s writing is often concerned with the supernatural, it’s just as oftenโ€”if not more frequentlyโ€”concerned with human nature, with what people do and who they become when pitted against something terrifying, or life-threatening, or world-ending. Some of King’s booksโ€”The Green Mile, Carrie, Gerald’s Gameโ€”wear this theme on their sleeve, while others couch it in vampires or monsters or ancient spiritual forces. Either way, the man’s got a worldview: As a species, it doesn’t (or wouldn’t) take us long to hit rock bottom.

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Not on my bucket list

I’ve been trying to think of the best way to explain the effect this week’s book had on me, and I think it’s this: Over the weekend, I came very close to watching Blue Crush 2.

In the end I didn’t (True Blood prevailed) but the point is the thought was there. And ultimately, isn’t the biggest testament to a nonfiction book whether or not, in the end, it leaves you wanting to know more?

Actually, in the days after I finished Susan Casey’s The Wave, I found myself doing all sorts of additional research: looking up YouTube videos of surfer Laird Hamiltonโ€”who Casey interviews at length throughout the bookโ€”reading articles on wave research, and ironically, preparing my apartment for an imminent hurricane. It seems once I started learning about the world of extreme weather, the topic became all but unavoidable.

I guess I should give you a little context. The Wave is a nonfiction book, true, but it’s the kind of nonfiction book that immersed its author; for every interview with a world-renowned scientist, there’s a long afternoon spent a mile offshore, watching tow surfers take on 40-foot waves from the back of a lurching fishing boat. Susan Casey even moved to Hawaii for the duration of her research, and the book includes a photo of her gamely hanging on to a Jet Ski just a few minutes before Hamilton took her down the face of Jaws, one of the most impressive (and terrifying) waves in the world. It’s this immersion, in addition to Casey’s impressive research, that makes The Wave not only accessible, but riveting. In the vein of Mary Roach (my aforementioned favorite nonfiction author), Casey finds a way to bestow upon her readers the enthusiasm she seems to share with the subjects (scientists, surfers, etc.) of her story.

The Wave covers a broad spectrum (wave pun!) of oceanography, focusing primarily on the surfers who pursue the world’s most dangerous waves, and the scientists studying them (the waves, not the surfers). Threaded throughout the book are both camps’ understanding of rogue, or freak waves, the kind that level towns, destroy ocean liners and exist despite the fact that they’re mathematically inexplicable. Casey’s transitions from the adventures of the world’s greatest surfers to the findings of the world’s greatest oceanographers are never confusing; rather, it seems to take both perspectives to impart upon readers the enormity of the subject. A surfer who’s had a near-death experience with a fifty-footer and a scientist who’s seen the hull of a boat ripped clean off by one have different outlooks on the ocean, save one unifying reaction: deep  respect.

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“Time’s a goon, right?”

It’s a big day in the Bindrim household: my birthday, which makes this post my very first as a newly minted 26-year-old. I feel the sage wisdom of mid-20s adulthood flowing to my brain already.

I wish I could say I read some aging-oriented book this week, maybe one of those multi-generational dealies (a la The Joy Luck Club), or if I were feeling dark, The Picture of Dorian Gray. But I’ve spent years grappling with the occasional misfortune of having a summer birthdayโ€”(“No I don’t think your family vacation to Hawaii is more important than my party”)โ€”which for the most part means ignoring it for as long as possible, and then closing out my procrastination by haphazardly choosing a bar at which to drink away my mortality-related sorrows among friends.

So A Visit From The Goon Squad may not have been a choice tied to the chronology of my life, but it hardly matters. Because what it lacked in personal relevance, it more than made up for in being pretty fucking awesome.

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And then we came to the end

So little!

I suppose this week was a bit of a cheat, sort of like saying you ate a pint of ice cream for the calcium (something I have obviously never ever done.) After all, I didn’t read Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows all that long ago. But rereading it seemed apropos; once I see the final Potter movieโ€”in approximately six months, when I’ll no longer have to step over wand-carrying 9-year-olds to find my seatโ€”that’ll be the end. No more Dumbledore or Hermione or horcruxes or thestrals. A decade of fiction, over at the closing credits.

But what could I possibly write about this week’s book? Harry Potter is pretty good? Best 700-page young adult novel since Harry Potter 6? Spoiler alert: Snape kills Dumbledore? There’s not much you can say about a cultural phenomenon that hasn’t been said in the last 10 years, or even the last 10 days. Except that there’s a bittersweet finality to closing the door on these kids right around the time I’ve finally accepted not being a kid myself.

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Nostalgia is a seductive liar

So I was perusing Tumblr this week and stumbled across a question from one person I follow to another: “Curious about something: I often have this attitude towards contemporary fiction. I’m reading Steinbeck now with great joy. Are there current writers that are worth it?”

Now, this isn’t the first time I’ve come across this attitude from fellow readers. I suppose there’s something natural to looking back on books written fifty or a hundred years agoโ€”let alone Shakespeareโ€”and seeing in them something you want to believe hasn’t been replicated or improved upon since. At the same time, really? Should it not strike all of us as ludicrous to suggest that the art of writing fiction somehow disappeared in the 21st century, or that people born after, say, 1975 are somehow inherently incapable of producing literature of the same quality as John Steinbeck?

I could also argue the other side hereโ€”that upon reflection, books like The Great Gatsby, or Catcher in the Rye, aren’t really that good. (Confession: I couldn’t even get through Catcher in the Rye. I know; I’m sorry!) But that’s not nearly as important as the fact that even without shitting on traditionally celebrated classical authors, the 21st century has still produced some bombass fiction, and some incredibly talented and prolific people upon whom I can only hope silver-clad space-dwelling humans of the 23rd century will look back and say, “Man, remember when people could write like that?”

Which brings me to Jonathan Franzen.

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