‘Dark Matter’ presents a choose-your-own-adventure book without letting you choose its ending

In an alternate universe, I didn’t move back home with my parents after graduating college.

I travelled abroad for a year. Feel in love with a fellow expat and settled down in a city with a giant castle.

Or applied for grad school. And got into the Iowa’s Writers’ Workshop. Or Columbia. Or Anaheim. Or Syracuse.

Or moved directly to New York City.

Or Los Angeles.

Or Alaska.

Or Maine.

I’m a published author.

Or a literary agent.

Or a documentary filmmaker.

Or an on-air multimedia journalist.

Or a radio producer.

I’ve won a Pulitzer.

I’m married by now with a dog and kids.

Or maybe I found out I physically can’t have kids.

Or perhaps I’m divorced, but happier than I’ve been in years.

Or perhaps, none of those things.

It’s impossible to know how your life would have been different if only you made different choices.

Not in this life anyway.

But knowing these alternate realities are possible in Blake Crouch’s sci-fi thriller novel “Dark Matter,” which seems like it’s written with a movie in mind.

Crouch describes these alternative realities as fish tanks with us as fish swimming in our own bowls of dark matter — unaware that these other fish tanks with other versions of ourselves exist simultaneously in other realms we can’t access.

The fictional man who discovers this phenom of quantum mechanics — that these other realities exist and that it’s possible to travel between them is a version of Dr. Jason Dessen, a scientist who gave up the possibility of romance and family to achieved the impossible — building a black tardis (whose inside is a never-ending corridor lined with endless doors to other realities) that makes it feasible to travel between fish tanks.

What he does with his life’s research: Steals the life of himself, Jason Dessen — the happily married college physics teacher living a cozy life with the woman he loves and their 13-year-old son, Charlie — by transporting his doppelgänger to his own world and replacing him in his.

Meanwhile, the “Dark Matter” reader also travels — not as accomplices to the scientist who engineered a bridge between worlds, but through the tedious hallways of endless doors and the mind of wronged victim Jason, who had his whole world stolen from him.

What we see in the sea of possibility though: Only one singular linear path in this multiverse of unlimited ones.

That’s part of the problem.

As much as Crouch cleverly reinvents what we know, redefining the definitions of identify theft (Is it still identify theft if you’re stealing your own identity?), suicide (Is killing yourself still suicide if you’re killing another version of yourself?) and existence itself (Is the cat dead or alive?), “Dark Matter” is also limiting in that it eliminates choice and only offers us one possible possibly predicable outcome in a world where every possible reality supposedly exists.

That doesn’t necessarily make “Dark Matter” a bad choice — just a flawed and less satisfying one. At least in our own fish tanks where we can’t see other reflections of ourselves, we can choose our own endings.

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“Dark Matter”
By Blake Crouch.
340 pp. Crown New York. $26.99.  
2016.

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Why ‘The Dinner List’ is the perfect Christmas read

When first I read the hokey premise — an entire book based on a dinner with five people, dead or alive — I didn’t think I was going to like Rebecca Serle’s novel “The Dinner List,” but Christmas cookies, the smell of pine, cold weather and a string of Hallmark movies has made me more susceptible to the book’s charms.

“The Dinner List” is no different from Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” or O. Henry’s “The Gift of a Magi,” or Frank Capra’s “It’s A Wonderful Life” — a magical story about love and redemption and forgiveness.

While the “The Dinner List” episode doesn’t actually take place during the holidays, like its predecessors, Serle’s book contains a magical whimsy — one where angels and ghosts of Christmas pasts can impart wisdom on the living. In “The Dinner List’s” case, we’re asked to believe that it’s possible for the living to dine with the dead, including film legend Audrey Hepburn.

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“The Dinner List”
By Rebecca Serle.
275 pp. Flatiron Books. $27.99.
2018.

The rest of Sabrina’s dinner list (or top five guests that she’d like to dine with most) contain her best friend, Jessica; her favorite college professor, Conrad; her dead estranged father, Robert; and her ex, Tobias — who for the next four and a half hours (and past decade or so) rehash memories of their lives.

Most of the novel revolves around dissecting the shelf life of Tobias and Sabrina’s relationship — how they met and reconnected, how they fell in love — trading hair for chains and pocket watches for combs, making compromises that they’d eventually resent the other for.

Five. That’s a game they’d play. List five words that describe what your life is like right now, right this minute. A type of temperature check that Tobias and Sabrina played throughout their relationship.

Happy. Warm. Open. Fall. Now.

Food. Wine. Cute. Here. Love.

Anger. Regret. Sadness. Forgiveness. Love.

“Like playing Jenga,” writes Serle. “It was terrifying and exhilarating because every time I took another piece out and the tower stood, I felt like I’d won. What I didn’t remember is that at some point in a game, the entire tower falls.”

“The Dinner List” is about the fall — falling for, falling in love, falling in and out of a relationship, falling apart — and how to live with the existing rubble.

Perhaps dinner helps.

David Sedaris’ ‘Calypso’ is comfort food

If there’s an author I keep returning to for the past decade or so — ever since I’ve heard a rerun of “Santaland Diaries” play on “This American Life” around Christmas in a parking lot (and turned the volume way up on the car radio even after I cut the engine), it’s David Sedaris, whose collections of personal essays always feel like warm and filling mac and cheese — my go-to comfort food.

Reading Sedaris’ essays were a staple when I used to volunteer weekly at Longview’s literary circles, a mix of college students and elderly residents who took turns reading and discussing short stories every Friday night. Sedaris’ essays, which delved into his and his family’s personal lives, gave us a springboard to discuss our own childhoods and futures (Did our parents give away our hard-earned Halloween candy too like Sedaris’ parents did? Would you dress a boil on your partner’s butt?)

I wonder what Eleanor (Is she still alive?) would have thought of “Calypso,” Sedaris’ latest collection, which delves into the many facets of aging (like living past your mother’s age at the time of her death, inheriting guest rooms, trying not to shit yourself in an airplane seat and losing to your niece at “Sorry!”)

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“Calypso”
By David Sedaris.
259 pp. Little, Brown and Company. $28.
2018.

More than a half-dozen of this collection’s 21 essays, including “Company Man,Now We Are Five,” “Stepping Out,“The One(s) That Got Away,” “Leviathan,” “A Modest Proposal,” “The Perfect Fit,” and “Why Aren’t You Laughing?” have been previously published in The Guardian or The New Yorker between 2013 and 2017; however, “Calypso,” still offers fresh material (even after 10 personal essay collections), including “A Number of Reasons I’ve Been Depressed Lately” (most of them involve a Trump presidency); “The Comey Memo,” which centers upon how former FBI Director James Comey once stayed at a beach rental property doors down from the Sedaris family’s Emerald Isle beach house (named the “Sea Section”); “Untamed,” about how David and his boyfriend/fiancee Hugh regularly fed a fox they named Carol; and “Calypso,” a story about how David tried to feed his tumor to a snapping turtle with a abnormal growth on its body.

Sedaris is still master at the weird flex.

(But hey, I’d probably flex too if I saw a fed a fox in my backyard. I mean, would it have really happened if it wasn’t Snapchatted and Instagramed storied?)

And that’s enough to be thankful for.

 

 

‘Severance’: A girl’s coming-of-age ghost story starring New York City and a zombie apocalypse

Ling Ma’s debut novel “Severance” is like HBO’s “Girls” without Hannah Horvath or Marnie Michaels or Jessa Johannson or Shoshanna Shapiro or Adam Sackler or Charlie Dattolo or Ray Ploshansky or Desi Harperin or Elijah Krantz or Tad Horvath or Loreen Horvath.

Instead we get 20-something-year-old Candace Chen — whose girl entourage just consisted of Candace Chen (after her college boyfriend joined the Peace Corps and her college friends traded in side-walk café happy hours for shitty jobs).

Just orphaned and untethered Candace Chen — who wanders and grows up in New York City during her early twenties, taking photographs of the city and posting them to her blog, NY Ghost.

Just Candace, who trades time spent on her blog for a real job organizing the production of specialty Bible printing at a publishing company.

Candace, who wanted to be able to afford Uniqlo scarves and Shiseido face wash, but also “wanted to feel flush with time to do things of no quantifiable value, our hopeful side pursuits like writing or drawing or something, something other than what we did for money.”

Left alone with Candace, who hates her unfulfilling, life-draining, soul-sucking, corporate job, but doesn’t quit — even after an epidemic that reduces everyone it infects into a mindless fevered “zombie-like” state of endlessly repeating the same motions over and over again until their bodies fall apart.

Part satire, part coming-of-age, part immigrant story, and part “Why I left New York” story, “Severance” is a book in the spirt of Lena Dunham’s “Girls,” telling the story of what it’s like to a millennial woman failing and finding out what it means to be her own person in a capitalist society. Then in alternating non-chronological order between past and future, it tells us how life as we know it ends (As Ma tells it, the beginning of the “End” consisted of a lot of Googling — from “how to survive in the wild” to “how to shoot a gun” to “2011 fever survivors” to “7 stages grief” to “is there a god.”)

Somehow, Ma makes growing up in the past in a world we sort of know more haunting than a quasi-zombie post-apocalyptic future where maggots eat your face.

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“Severance”
By Ling Ma.
291 pp. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. $26.
2018.

 

She tells the story in ‘The Silence of The Girls’

They say history is written by the victors.

But you have no control over if or how you’re remembered — or who lives or dies or tells your story.

The songs and poems of glory are not written for her.

Circe was a witch.

Helen, the face that launched ten thousand ships, doesn’t get a happy ending.

And Briseis, who was a queen related to Trojan royalty, is even more nameless and faceless, becoming a sinking footnote buried under Agamemnon and Achilles’ heels in Homer’s Illiad.

Then comes Pat Barker, who makes sure to put the voices of women back into the narrative in her novel “The Silence of the Girls,” reframing the Greek myths of the Trojan War mostly through the perspective of a female concubine who watched her city burned, her sisters raped, her husband and brothers massacred and her past erased.

Briseis’s words feel like ten thousand tiny stings, but they shouldn’t be silenced.

“One thing I do know: they won’t want the brutal reality of conquest and slavery,” she says. “They won’t want to be told about the massacres of men and boys, the enslavement of women and girls. They won’t want to know we were living in a rape camp.”

Through Barker’s pen, Briseis tells that story as well as that of her captors: the Greek hero Achilles, Achilles’ friend and second-in-command Patroclus, the Greek king Agamemnon and how they were all running out of time. Their stories still overshadow hers, which Briseis freely admits.

“Looking back, it seemed to me, I’d been trying to escape not just from the camp, but from Achilles’ story; and I’d failed. Because make no mistake, this was his story — his anger, his grief, his story. I was angry, I was grieving, but somehow that didn’t matter,” Barker writes.

The world needs to hear more stories of women who live in fear under the shadow of powerful men because they do matter.

Perhaps if the voices became a chorus, the world will finally hear them sing.

(I’m secretly hoping Lin-Manuel Miranda picks up Briseis’s story and turns it into a musical.)

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“The Silence of the Girls”
By Pat Barker.
293 pp. Doubleday. $27.95. 
2018.

 

‘The Last Equation of Isaac Severy’ is a pleaser rather than a stunner

They say deaths comes in threes.

That’s certainly the case in Nova Jacobs’ debut novel, “The Last Equation of Isaac Severy.”

The first death was Isaac Severy’s (who dies before chapter one even begins), an old famed mathematician whose note to his thirty-something-year-old adopted granddaughter Hazel read, “Three will die. I am the first.”

The next death’s predetermined, too, by a secret equation of Severy’s invention — one that could perhaps stop death and crime, make millions and start wars.

But as valuable as this formula is, no one really knows what Severy was working on or where to find it.

Especially not Hazel, one of the few members of her family that isn’t mathematically inclined. Still, it’s Hazel that Severy entrusts his legacy to, sending her a typewritten note with three important instructions: destroy his work in Room 137, find his equation and delivery it to John Raspanti.

(Jacobs really seems to like the number three.)

Told in three parts, “The Last Equation of Isaac Severy” circles through the alternating perspectives of three characters — Hazel Severy; her older brother, Los Angeles police detective Gregory Severy; and Isaac’s son (and Hazel and Gregory’s uncle, yes, uncle) Caltech string theory professor Philip Severy — spiraling through love, grief and their own respective treasure hunts for something remarkable, while settling for the golden mean.

Sometimes, they discover, Fibonacci’s golden mean is pretty remarkable, too.

Depending on who you talk to, they can prove “The Last Equation of Isaac Severy” is or isn’t a remarkable book. This “novel in clues” isn’t a whodunit thriller or a chess game you can win (Jacobs keeps you mostly on script as she circles through the secret scars and illnesses of the Severy family). This book won’t fill any gaping holes in your life or make you a better person. No, this formulatic equation is more like a B movie — quick, light and palatably pleasing enough to wash away the questions that keep you up at night without answering them.

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“The Last Equation of Isaac Severy”
By Nova Jacobs.
336 pp. Touchstone. $25. 
2018.

 

What if the future looked like a dystopian past? Louise Erdrich explores that in ‘Future Home of the Living God’

What can you say about the future?

If it’s anything like Louise Erdrich’s “Future Home Of The Living God,” it feels like a bad nightmare you never really wake up from — a long, rambling, confusing dream with bizarre vivid imagery like a rug of disgusting brown rats gnawing through a white plastic trash bag to get at the remains of a bloody placenta from a stillbirth.

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“Future Home of the Living God”
By Louise Erdrich.
269 pp. HarperCollins Publishers. $28.99.  
2017.

The future — and the past — is vaguely explained as “a miracle”: a time when “evolution stops” or when “our world is running backwards. Or forward. Or maybe sideways, in a way as yet ungrasped.”

Nobody can explain why it stopped snowing or why miscarriages and stillbirths are rising or how advances in medicine and technology have devolved so much that something as natural as pregnancy becomes a leading cause of death again for the women involved.

But that change in order has made it especially dangerous to be pregnant.

Pregnant women, like the book’s first-person “preggerpot” narrator Cedar Hawk Songmaker, are fugitives, inevitably rounded up by a “Big Mother” police state that harnesses pregnant women and their children in prison cells for observation in a pitch to save humanity.

The survival rate for pregnant women and their offspring isn’t good, your mother tells you. And your mother fears that you might be growing abnormal features inside her belly. But she loves you even if you might be a monster and wants to let you know what the future past was like.

For one: it doesn’t make much sense. You hear snippets of conversation: talk of women conscripted to bare children. People disappearing and reappearing and disappearing again without transition. It feels disjointed as if you were drugged or floating or submerged in water — and perhaps you are.

After all, you, the reader to whom this book is addressed, is the unborn baby inside Cedar’s womb. You’re busy growing fingernails and toes and whatever else babies do while your mama, Cedar, spends her days writing diary entries she hopes you’ll read one day. You’ll be the next living god, if you live.

 

Go into the ‘The Music Shop’

The way Frank from Rachel Joyce’s book “The Music Shop” describes listening to vinyl is like reading a book rather than listening to an audiobook, reading an eBook or seeing the movie: “We need lovely things we can see and hold,” he says. “Yes, vinyl can be a pain. It’s not convenient. It gets scratched. But that’s the point. We are acknowledging the importance of music and beauty in our lives. You don’t get that if you’re not prepared to make an effort.”

Like vinyl, books can be inconvenient — they take up space, can be hard to store and are heavy to carry around. Pages can be folded or ripped. But books — especially ones like Joyce’s “The Music Shop” — make our lives richer, reminding us how to see and feel.

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“The Music Shop”
By Rachel Joyce.
306 pp. Random House. $27.  
2018.

To rewind a bit, Joyce’s book “The Music Shop” is really a love song told on multiple tracks.

On side A is Frank, an independent British music shop owner who only carries vinyl when its becoming less cool and convenient to do so. But to say that Frank is just a businessman undersells who Frank really is. (He’s a poor businessman.)

With an encyclopedic knowledge of everything from Beethoven to the Sex Pistols, Frank is a curator, librarian and doctor, prescribing musical remedies for everything from boredom to heartbreak.

He knows how music can literally save you and he’s saved many patients over years including side B: Ilse, a beautiful and mysterious woman with a green handbag who faints in front of his shop one day.

I won’t tell you what’s on the rest of Frank and Ilse’s tape, but I can tell you that you’ll be glad you made the effort to listen and to follow their journey. I was.

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‘Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine’ can save your life

Meet Eleanor Oliphant, the almost-thirty-something-year-old heroine in Gail Honeyman’s debut novel “Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine.”

She’s the UK version of Ellie Kemper’s character in the Netflix original “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.”

Eleanor isn’t as cheerful and bubbly as Kimmy Schmidt. And she wasn’t kidnapped by a man and forced to live in an underground bunker.

But Eleanor has survived her own traumas — ones that she drowns with weekend vodka binges in her apartment by herself.

It’s fine.

She’s fine.

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“Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine”
By Gail Honeyman.
327 pp. Viking. $26.  
2017.

And that’s been her routine for nine years. But then she sees this musician at a distance at a concert and she becomes convinced he’s going to become her boyfriend. This leads to a succession of hilarious and heartwarming firsts: first Hollywood bikini wax, first makeover, first haircut and first time she felt like she was pretty.

The reader is just along for the ride.

Honeyman’s novel is kind of funny and kind of sad — even if Eleanor doesn’t quite see it that way.

(Eleanor thinks she’s fine, remember?)

But the reader is like an extrovert peering at the habits of an extreme introvert, seeing someone who normally goes without seeing or speaking to anyone from the time she leaves work on Friday and returns to work on Monday.

Perhaps Eleanor doesn’t know how it feels to be anything other than lonely?

But she’s not alone.

None of us are — even if it may sometimes feel that way.

Honeyman’s novel is a call to action: to reach out and to be good to your neighbor.

It might save a life.

 

The trial of the ‘Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance’

At one point in Ruth Emmie Lang’s debut novel “Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance,” one of her characters warns another to not try too hard while trying to impress someone.

If only Lang took her own advice.

Lang tries really hard to impress you — to get you to like Weylyn Gray, a boy who grew up with wolves.

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“Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance”
By Ruth Emmie Lang.
346 pp. St. Martin’s Press. $25.99.  
2017.

First, she kills off his real human parents in a freak accident. (Surely that’s got to score some sympathy points.)

If making Weylyn an orphan doesn’t do the trick, she gives him an awesome sidekick (a unicorn pig Weylyn names Merlin) and the ability to perform real magic. This is a kid who can talk to animals and start blizzards, stop tornadoes, revive plants and start downpours.

What’s more, Lang invents nine character witnesses for the sole purpose of trying to get you to like Weylyn.

Through Weylyn’s doctor Daniel Proust, teacher Mrs. Meg Lowry, sister Lydia Kramer, mayor Bobby Quinn Jr., boss Duane Fordham, neighbor Roarke, nephew Micah Barnes, butcher Nelson Penlore, and friend Mary Penlore’s first-person narratives, the jury understands Gray — a man who becomes more fantastical and extraordinary with each retelling that his feats almost read like a bunch of Chuck Norris jokes by the end.

Through their words, Weylyn Gray is a humble giant of a man, Lang’s own Paul Bunyan. (Like Bunyan, Gray was also a part-time lumberjack in one of his past lives.)

Weylyn made their lives more interesting, sometimes giving it color when it didn’t have any (One of Weylyn’s magical abilities is to create rainbows out of thin air).

But still, “Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstances” feels and sounds surprisingly ordinary next to Superman or the X-Men or Mowgli from “The Jungle Book” or Paul Bunyan or Boo Radley from “To Kill A Mockingbird” or Tom Sawyer — that the tall tales of Weylyn Gray may not stand the test of time.

The alternating prospectives, which all sound the same, make it hard to connect with a single character, but their attitudes color how you see Weylyn. Those who knew Weylyn treat Weylyn as a novelty initially (the boy who doesn’t sit in chairs, stops tornados with his bare hands, jars the light of fireflies or patches his roof with cobwebs). To them, Weylyn sounded like an alien — a person who didn’t really belong in their world even though he made their lives more magical.

To them, Weylyn was the best kind of human (like Boo Radley from Harper Lee’s book “To Kill a Mockingbird”) — the kind of guy who “don’t do one thing except make music for us to enjoy.”

It’d be a sin to hurt him, Lang seems to be saying, just like it’d be a sin to criticize Lang’s young adult novel. Like Lee’s mockingbirds or the bird (I mean wolf) boy Weylyn, Lang created “Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstances” to be enjoyed. Who are we to shoot them down?