Books by Kasen

A look at books, new and old.

Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter

I love a book that tells you everything you need to know in the title. This book is about Abraham Lincoln hunting vampires.

And Seth Grahame-Smith pulls it off. This book is fairly well-researched, though it doesn’t delve much deeper than a history channel special. Grahame-Smith does a fantastic job of adding vampires to a fourth grade US history class.

Abraham Lincoln, when he wasn’t splitting rails, practicing law or shaking the earth with the greatest speeches in history, spent many years slaying vampires – the real threat to American freedom.

On this point, Grahame-Smith does a few things I really appreciate. I appreciate the lack of diatribe about the characteristics of vampires and the various methods of killing them. Anybody who would pick up this book probably already knows all this. When I pick up Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, I want to see Abraham Lincoln driving stakes into the hearts of vampires. I want to see him slice the heads off the undead. Grahame-Smith obliges.

The format of the book is quite pleasing. Supposedly, it is based on secret journals detailing Honest Abe’s hunting. That said, Grahame-Smith tells much of the story in Abe’s own words, inserting many “journal entries” into the more omniscient narrative.

Perhaps the most appealing part of the book is the use of Abe’s real words. Undoubtedly real journal entries and speeches sit beside sprinklings of Grahame-Smith’s fabrications. In some cases, Grahame-Smith merely inserts the word “vampire” into a historical document. Often, I found myself wondering what words Abe wrote himself and which ones Grahame-Smith invented.

The books biggest drawback is it’s brevity. While I appreciate Grahame-Smith leaving out the finer details of vampire killing, I thought the book was missing something. Maybe it was a lack of true description. There are a few glorious pearls of vivid description, but many events are described in a detached, second hand manner. Even the journal entries carry the air of somebody writing years later – remembering, not describing the heat of the moment.

Grahame-Smith’s greatest strength is his ability to balance a ridiculous premise and the desire to be taken seriously as an author. He delvers even the most outlandish claims in a deadpan manner – telling it straight, but with full knowledge that Abraham Lincoln was probably not a vampire hunter.

In all, this book is masterful work. Grahame-Smith created a genre of mash-ups, and I think only he has the power to control that genre. Grahame-Smith is a powerful writer. His descriptions are impeccable. He creates a believable voice for Lincoln.

Read the book and judge for yourself.

11/22/63, by Stephen King

Jake Epping travels back in time to save a friend and stop the Kennedy assassination.

I cried at the end of this book. It was beautiful, the way King wove the story together. The past harmonizes, and so does this book.

It’s King’s best book I’ve read in years, possibly his best ever. It combines an enormous amount of research with King’s creativity, creating a mammoth powerhouse of literary genius.

At this point, it is worth noting that I listened to the audiobook. Audible.com had a deal whereby I could get a free one, and I wanted to read this book for some time. It’s huge – something around 35 hours long. The reader, Craig Wasson, did a wonderful job. He has a pleasant voice, and he’s very good at creating voices for the different characters – affecting accents from Maine to Texas.

Most of the book is action-less. The main character spends much of his time collecting evidence – was Lee Harvy Oswald the lone shooter? Only the best read Kennedy scholars could match the way King works the events into the story, though he admits he twisted things to fit the story as it was needed.

The book is ostensibly about stopping Kennedy’s death, but that event comes much later in the book – almost the end. If you are expecting a long diatribe about what would have happened had Kennedy lived, look somewhere else.

The story revolves around a high school English teacher, Jake Epping, and his adventures in “the land of ago”. King does a fantastic job of creating a world for readers, filling the senses with the sights and sounds of a world foreign to 21st century readers.

The book bears many of King’s trademarks. It isn’t quite as eerie as some of his other books, but it has a healthy dish of the supernatural – time travel, for one.

I like the way King doesn’t explain the supernatural – it just is. The point isn’t to discover the cause of the supernatural, like the rabbit hole that takes Epping back in time. Rather, King’s focus is on how characters react and overcome the supernatural. 11-22-63 is no different.

This book is magic. Events small and large weave together to make a wonderful tapestry. More often than I could count, things came together the way a puzzle comes together – I got that excited feeling of a new revelation. Few people are as good at producing that feeling as King is.

I cried at the end of this book. And I am not a crying man.

 

The Meadowlands

Robert Sullivan, a journalist, takes readers on an epic journey through an industrial wasteland called the Meadowlands – just outside New York City. 

I like Robert Sullivan’s The Meadowlands because I relate to Sullivan. With a penchant for quirky adventures, and a dry sense of humor to match, Sullivan’s writing becomes infectious.

For instance, at one point he goes on a months-long quest to find the annihilated remains of Penn Station. When he finally discovers the bones of the landmark building, he calls his wife. She is happy for him, he reports.

I imagine myself rooting around on some half-baked quest. My wife isn’t generally interested in many of the things I am. When at long last I’ve completed the adventure, she sighs, rolls her eyes and says “I’m happy for you” in a flat, condescending sort of tone. I feel you, Mr. Sullivan.

Beyond Sullivan’s ability to relate to a vast audience of American men with exasperated wives, Sullivan paints the picture of a desecrated wilderness temple. The Meadowlands, according to Sullivan, were once a paradise of flora and fauna. Hundreds of different plants colored the meadows. The rivers were filled with fish. Muskrat populated the swamps and grassland.

Now, the fish have adapted to swim in black, garbage-runoff infested waters. Old factories, pumping refuse into the waters, ruined habitats for countless critters. City planners and developers paved paradise and destroyed the stomping grounds of the old timers.

In The Meadowlands, Sullivan has managed to weave beauty and wonder into a tale of industrial ruin. He almost makes the Meadowlands sound like backcountry Idaho, or his mentor’s rural Alaska. It is outdoors writing at its finest – just a stone’s throw from one of the world’s greatest metropolises, New York City.

Sullivan takes readers on one of his favorite trips – up to Snake Hill, which was almost leveled – and we even follow him in city adventures on the edge of the wilderness. With almost childlike glee, Sullivan tells of how he went in search of the world’s largest collection of foreign-language translations of Gone with the Wind after hearing a rumor it existed in a nearby town. He describes a trip through the Meadowlands in a cheap canoe, a feat he is quite proud of until he finds a man who makes the trip regularly.

Another of Sullivan’s accomplishments in The Meadowlands is to find the people behind the subject. We meet some of the key players in the Meadowlands, like environmentalists and developers, as well as those whose lives revolve around the Meadowlands. A beat cop and a mosquito researcher come alive to readers.

Sullivan’s descriptions are vivid, but not overdone. Sometimes, they are underplayed to leave it up to the reader’s imagination. In that way, the Meadowlands become everybody’s back yard. What city in America exists that wasn’t once pristine wilderness? How far can you go without finding evidence of landscapes ruined or defaced by industrial development?

But Sullivan never points the finger. His point is not that corporate greed or industrial arrogance ruined the Meadowlands forever. He does detail accounts of how the Meadowlands were changed from their original form, and how some of those changes had unintended consequences, but he gives the information to readers in a matter-of-fact kind of way.

Yes, the Meadowlands have been corrupted. But fish are still caught in its streams. Yes, waterways were altered, but you can still paddle a canoe through the trash-laden waters. Just avoid drinking the water, even after it has gone through a fine filtration system.

Despite its flaws, imperfections and even destructions, Sullivan clearly loves the Meadowlands. And he wants his readers to love them, too. In the end, The Meadowlands is a story of redemption. The area went through perhaps the worst beating industrial America could have dealt it. But it has found a way to survive, even thrive in places. It gives me hope for nature, hope for life. After all, plants are starting to grow on abandoned garbage dumps.

FInd The Meadowlands here: 

http://www.amazon.com/The-Meadowlands-Wilderness-Adventures-Edge/dp/0385495080/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1342590917&sr=8-1&keywords=the+meadowlands

Black Hawk Down

By midnight, the rescue convoy was getting close…It was the wrathful approach of the United States of America, footsteps of the great god of red, white, and blue. It was the best fucking sound in the world.

The paragraph comes near the end of the book. The major part of the danger is passed. The passage reveals the relief that comes after a terrifying day of frustration and scrapes with death.

It is clear throughout Black Hawk Down that Mark Bowden did an incredible amount of research for his book. Bowden doesn’t attribute his paragraphs. He does describe movements, thoughts, and feelings of those involved. It is clear that the information comes from the subjects.

It is easy to spot which characters don’t die in Black Hawk Down. This is somewhat refreshing in the tensest moments. When Mike Durant is surrounded by shrieking Somalis, you know he makes it out. How would Bowden find out about the incident, if Durant didn’t survive to tell the story? John Stebbens, despite his fears, makes it out in the end because he told Bowden exactly what he thought when he was told to suit up.

Black Hawk Down is a military story. In the afterword, written some years after the book initially hit shelves, Bowden says he has no military background. He is a journalist who followed a journalist’s need to tell a good, thorough story.

And it is thorough. The reader gets the sense that every minute is accounted for, even the hours waiting, hiding in deserted houses for a convoy that might never show up.

Bowden writes in exquisite detail. The reader is almost transported to the hot, blown out city that is Mogadishu on a Sunday afternoon in October 1993. You can almost feel your legs dangle out of the doors of the helicopter as it cruises across the bay, toward the target house.

At times, the reader relives the confusion as the convoy loses its way in the narrow, ill-kempt streets. You almost feel the fear as bullets whizz past, or friends are shot.  

One impressive thing about the book is its almost real time feel. Only a few times does Bowden give the reader information that the soldiers wouldn’t have had. He does tell the story from several different points of view, so you get the whole picture, but it feels more like you are a general, receiving reports and information as they develop.

Bowden went so far as to interview Somalis who were there. It is impressive that he makes the faceless enemy into real people with real feelings. He describes their fears, their anger and their frustrations with the Rangers.

Early on, he relates the story of a teenager, Ali Hassan Mohammed. Ali watches his brother die in the spray of American bullets. He sees other atrocities. He knows of past crimes committed by the invaders. Frustrated, the young man grabs a gun and runs through the streets. Ali’s chapter ends, “He would shoot a Ranger or die trying. Why were they doing this? Who were these Americans who came to his neighborhood spraying bullets and spreading death?”

Bowden sprinkles other accounts of native Somalis among the stories of embattled Rangers, fighting for their lives. Your heart breaks for people on both sides of the conflict.

Somebody else writing this story might have left out the backstories of the Rangers. Bowden goes into details about their lives: who they were before joining the army, their plans with their girlfriends or fiancés after the fight, even down to what John Grisham novel they were reading before the call came to mount up.

Bowden does an equally fine job describing life in the hangar. Endless hours of waiting, standing guard, mustering, standing down, mustering, short missions, more waiting made most of the soldiers eager for battle. Characters become endearing when Bowden describes jokes, pranks, skits and other hijinks played out in the hangar.

Perhaps the overarching theme of the book is America’s military invincibility. In the beginning, the soldiers feel like nothing can go wrong. They are the best-trained soldiers in the world. Then one black hawk helicopter goes down. Then another one. Many of the men start to question their invincibility. The convoy of Humvees sent to extract the hostages and soldier from the target building is shot to pieces by the angry mobs. Several soldiers die, and many, many more are wounded. The story, in the moment, seems like a mounting fiasco. Then, at last, the might of America, with some friends, is unleashed and the soldiers are rescued. When all are safely gathered, the situation is evaluated and it looks terrible. Most of the men have wounds, many of them serious. Some of them are dead.

Bowden makes a point to put the whole thing in perspective in the epilogue. According to him, 99 American soldiers survived a night in completely hostile city. They lost 18 men, and many were wounded. But the mission was accomplished. He praises the men for being well trained, and for using that training to stay alive.

The real feat of Bowden’s book is to write about the story for its own sake. It didn’t appear that Bowden was writing to either criticize or promote the operation. He reserves comments on performance and outcome for the epilogue and afterword. Even then, he comments that he isn’t knowledgeable enough to say what might have fixed the situation. It comes off as a pure story, free from analysis or commentary.

Alas, Bowden rounds out his tale by pointing out that the Rangers did win the Battle of the Black Sea, but because of factors outside the soldiers’ control, America lost the war in Somalia. 

The Postmortal

YOU MUST READ THIS BOOK!

In the not too distant future, scientists find the cure for aging. Age cannot kill people. People don’t change. Just to make sure, the novel’s main character, John Farrell, takes a picture of himself every morning for ten years. Nothing changes.

Drew Magary’s breakout novel, “The Postmortal”, takes readers through sixty years of American history, from 2019 to 2079. Farrell gets “The Cure”  from a back-alley doctor shortly before the president legalizes it. What follows is an orgy of youthful excess as everybody who’s anybody gets the Cure. A trip to the Fountain of Youth Hotel/Casino in Las Vegas reveals much about the nature of people when they realize that they actually are (almost) invincible. While people cannot die of old age, they can still get hurt and die from other sources – stabbings, cancer, car crashes and so forth.

Plagued by death, John blogs his way through the dystopian future. I liked the way Magary used the blog format, including attached articles, to tell the story of the future. It makes the story reach farther than a main character and his associates without running into people knowing more than they should. For example, Magary uses an article to talk about the scientist who found the cure and what happened to him.

The blog format makes the story more intimate, as well. We get a view into the mind of the character as he shares his own thoughts. More importantly, we get snapshots of events as they happened. Most of the blogs were posted the day of the event, or shortly afterward. This makes the events fresh, rather than an omniscient character telling the story from the end.

I like how the book unfolds. Rather than meeting a character in a totally different world, readers of “The Postmortal” are taken along for the ride. 2019 isn’t all that different from 2012. People post articles and comments on their “feeds”.

Even ten years later, the world looks similar. Clearly, the Cure has changed things. John, a lawyer, learns to negotiate marriage contracts. A system of 40-year cycle marriages develops. John includes a little blurb about how Utah outlaws such marriages.

Magary does a wonderful job of considering all different sides of the Cure. He presents readers with a number of consequences. Marriage is one, estates are another. He even envisions the Cure’s impact on religion. As the story progresses, overpopulation becomes an increasing problem. People cannot die, but many of them still want kids. And when the kids become old enough to get the cure…

The author is a sports writer, but he also blogs about pop culture. This experience adds a level of depth and understanding of modern American culture that isn’t found in dystopian novels. Magary imagines a world where there are still movie stars. People still connect with each other using the internet. He carefully extrapolates technological advances so they do not seem foreign. Perhaps living in an almost-Science Fiction world gives Magary a leg up on dystopian writers of fifty years ago.

The book opens with a note explaining where the text comes from. This forward presents an incomprehensible puzzle to the fresh reader, but the note makes so much sense when you read it at the end of the book. I like that Magary put it at the beginning. It was helpful to be presented with some of the vocabulary early on. The words are then familiar when you come a cross them in the regular reading.

They writing seems a little dry when put up against more vivid authors. There isn’t much action until the end of the book. You have to remember, though, that the narrator is a lawyer, not a writer. The book reads like a collection of blogs. There are novel-y parts to it, but Magary stays fairly true to his medium. I like that.

Magary’s normal blog voice takes a back seat to John’s writing style. There are definitely trace elements of the all-caps, hyperbole laden posts Magary’s readers are used to, but if you are looking for an extended Jamboroo, you’ll be disappointed. The language was quite managed – there are a few course words sprinkled about the book, but they do not distract from the story.

I did notice a few clunky points to the writing. Every once in awhile, Magary will repeat a point in a redundant sentence. Yes, I know that was redundant.

The book is absolutely believable, assuming you can get past the genetic cure for aging part. The characters act like real people. My wife even remarked, after I told her the premise, that a cure for aging would mean you could never retire. Early on, one of John’s friends realizes the very same thing. Magary could have been telling a true story.

At 369 pages, including acknowledgements that are much more like Magary, “The Postmortal” is infinitely readable. I couldn’t put it down. When I had to put the book down, I couldn’t help planning my next fix. It was fantastic. NO ONE DENIES THIS!

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