Saturday, August 6, 2011

Three for August

The Influencing Machine, by Brooke Gladstone.

Brooke Gladstone knows a thing or two about the news business. As cohost and managing editor of NPR’s “On The Media,” Gladstone is one of the finest reporters on the media there is. Her weekly show covers everything from video gaming to presidential reporting, and is able to pack into an hour more insight on current events than many daily news outlets are able to in pages and pages of reporting. So it comes as no surprise that her new book, The Influencing Machine, which she wrote with illustrator Josh Neufeld, deftly cracks open our commonly held assumptions about that loud, pervasive beast we call the media. When news outlets turn the focus to their own profession, the result is usually a high-minded affair. One needs to look no further than the frenzy over the recent News of World scandal to see just how important the media takes itself. In most reporting on reporting, the filter on what is happening becomes so amped up as to feel removed from the actual events. Gladstone’s book is able to sidestep this problem in a creative way: The Influencing Machine is illustrated in the style of a graphic novel, much like Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics. In doing this, Gladstone is able to make her claim that we as consumers of media influence the media as much as they influence us in a fun yet serious style. Neufeld’s beautiful illustrations help to bring Gladstone’s radio-primed voice alive on the page. Complex and often tough issues, such as objectivity and media bias, are illuminated in the hands of Gladstone and Neufeld. The Influencing Machine is a jaunty read, a textbook primer for savvy media lovers who like their news to come from ink-and-paper as well as the iPad, but have a healthy skepticism of both.

Ten Thousand Saints, by Eleanor Henderson

The first chapter of Eleanor Henderson’s dazzling debut novel begins in a small Vermont town on New Year’s Eve in 1987 with two teenage boys getting stoned under the bleachers of their high school football field, and ends with the accidental death of one of them from huffing turpentine off a pair of stolen Victoria Secret panties after a keg party. (Nothing is revealed here that the reader does not know from the opening lines of the novel.) The boys, who live to smoke pot, listen to the Misfits, and lose their “V-card,” are the kind social outcasts that can be found on the periphery of any high school movie. In Hollywood, these kids are coded by their hair, their joints, and a penchant for their “Duuuude”-ish comic relief. In Henderson’s novel, however, they are the protagonists, and they are devastatingly real. Jude Keffy-Horn, the novel’s main character, is the kind of young white male that sleeps his way through classes at any high school across America. He is aimless, horny, and wears his identity in the form of a pentagram inked onto his Converse high-tops. Following the death of his friend (whom Jude affectionately refers to as “fag”), Jude trades one way of life for another. Ten Thousand Saints follows him from a small town drugged-out youth to the newly formed straight edge community of New York City. Henderson uses the drug/alcohol/meat free straight edge community as a blistering metaphor for an adolescents search for identity, which can frustratingly bounce from one extreme to another, sometimes in the course of the same day. Henderson’s acute attention to details makes the novel seem fresh and original, even when her occasionally melodramatic plot feels overburdened. But it is Henderson’s real-eyed love for her characters, the title’s highly flawed “saints,” that makes this novel stand out.

The Passage, by Justin Cronin

On paper The Passage has a lot going against it. It sounds (and looks) like a religious novel, something close to one of those Left Behind series. It is over 700 pages. And it is about, of all things, vampires. But damn if Justin Cronin’s third novel is not a rocking good read. The post-apocalyptic thriller about survivors of a government-generated vampire plague had me hooked for a good two weeks earlier this summer. A huge success when it was published last year, the paperback makes for perfect summer reading. Cronin, a PEN/Faulkner nominated writer, doesn’t dwell too much on his supernatural creatures, but instead uses them to focus in his sprawling cast of human characters. At the novel’s center is Amy, a mysterious young girl who upsets the Memphis Zoo’s polar bears, survives a nuclear explosion, and battles vampires only to…well, let’s just say she is important to the plot, so as not to spoil anything. Cronin novel spans 100 years, and hits its stride once he destroys the world we know and zeros in on an expertly created desert colony of survivors, whose new laws and customs reflect the horrific world they inhabit. The Passage is occasionally too long (I could have done without the last 100 pages or so, which only seems to set up the next novel in the projected trilogy) and some of the many characters are a little too thin. But Cronin’s imaginative plot makes up for these quibbles. The Passage is often rightly compared with Stephen King’s The Stand, but is closer in spirit with Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, only with better punctuation!

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