I just read a cool book, so I’m writing a review. Sort of. I’ve never written a review before, so please bear with me as I stumble my way through this.
The book I just finished: The Feed, by Nick Clark Windo, takes place in the not-so-distant future—about forty years after the internet has been integrated into humanity’s brains. This story kicks off when the ‘feed’ permanently shuts down, leaving the global population unconnected for the first time in decades. At times, it’s some pretty hard-core sci-fi, and it requires some suspension of disbelief (at least for me) to fully enjoy it. And the plot, at times is a little shaky.
But here’s the thing: the writing is phenomenal. The characters masterly unfold slowly across the span of the book. And each scene is vividly painted with carefully selected words. Each evening as I marked my page and shut the book, I felt the warm realization of unwasted time.
But that’s enough about The Feed, it’s not the book I’m reviewing.
I’m at a crossroads as a writer. I’ve been writing and blogging for almost five years. Early on, my pieces were filled with unbridled introspection. I told stories from my past and teased-out surprising (to me) self-discovery. I learned who I was and what made me tick, and I churned out remarkably good personal essays. I was a beginner with enthusiasm. Two and a half years ago, I packaged my best stuff into a small memoir published it, and I began the second phase of my writing career. The phase I’m ending right now.
The book I’m reviewing is Ghosts of Bergen County by Dana Cann (Tin House).
Oh, you recognize a similarity in our names? Yes, he’s my brother. Full disclosure: One of the things I like most about his book is that when you look it up on Amazon, the website often displays my book as an alternative recommendation.
Dana has spent his entire adult life becoming the writer he is today. He writes regularly, many times each week, and for years and years he pursued continuing education and then a Master of Fine Arts degree. He now instructs writing classes, but more importantly to this essay, he wrote a really good book.
I got this off of Amazon:
Gil Ferko is a private-equity lieutenant who commutes to Manhattan from the New Jersey suburbs. His wife, Mary Beth, has become a shut-in since a hit-and-run accident killed their infant daughter. When Ferko reconnects with Jen Yoder, a former high school classmate, Jen introduces him to heroin. As his dependency on the drug grows, his downward spiral puts his life in danger and his career in jeopardy.
While browsing books in my public library, I’d never grab this one. Lots of triggers here: mental illness, fear of screwing up at work, substance abuse. These are the exact topics that weigh heavily on me in everyday life. Plus, I have a standing rule to never read books about dead children. Dead children don’t work as entertainment. After Dana’s book was published, it took me months to psych myself up to open it.
My concerns were well-founded. Shortly after I started reading Ghosts, Mary Beth’s depression began to bring me down. I found myself taking longer and longer breaks from the book. Eventually, I stuck it back on the book shelf and moved on. A year later, my own depression under control, I revisited Ghosts and found a book to love.
So far in my life, I’ve only ever taken one writing class. This was twenty-five years ago. Many people subscribe to the notion that with writing, you either have it or you don’t. Yes, practice will improve your writing, as will reading, lot’s of reading, but writing can’t be taught in a class. I’ve decided this is complete BS. A couple of months ago, I read a blog post debunking this theory. The author convinced me that just like any other art form, instruction is not only possible, but actually mandatory for improvement.
Like The Feed, Ghosts of Bergen County is in no hurry to spoon-feed its readers information. The story unfolds slowly, the pieces initially unconnected like at the start of a jigsaw puzzle. Like many of my favorite books, Ghosts has two parallel plots developing simultaneously. In each chapter, I’m drawn into a plot line, only to find that the next chapter is telling a different story. Yes, it’s a common story-telling convention, but it really keeps you reading.
Also like The Feed, Ghosts forced me to suspend my disbelief.
“Ghosts,” you say, “I have a hard time believing in them as well.”
Actually, no. During my first year out of college, I shared a small suburban house with two friends. We lived in the town neighboring where I grew up. On Christmas night, I returned home from spending the day with my father to a frigid house. My roommate had turned off the heat before going to visit his parents.
I cranked up the heat and went to my second story bedroom to watch Chitty Chitty Bang Bang while lying under my comforter. Midway through the movie, I heard the front door slam and I could hear a man and a woman talking downstairs. I went down to see who else had returned home. At the bottom of the stairs, there was… no one. The house was empty. This whole scene repeated itself twenty minutes later. I wound up going to sleep in my still chilly house, all alone, and really freaked out.
No, I believe in Ghosts. The unbelievable part of Ghosts of Bergen County was that the two plots, taking place decades apart, all came together at the end of the book. The coincidence is pretty hard to overlook. I’m not an apologist for my brother; if his book has a flaw, this is it. But while it may detract from the story, it certainly doesn’t detract from the writing.
As I was reading The Feed, marveling at how great the writing is, I began to think about Ghosts. The story is carefully crafted and the word choice is art. Just accept the fact that the ends will be nicely tied up at the end of the book, and you’ll enjoy it immensely.
A couple of times each year, I become invested in a book. I consume it, devour it, ingest it. This happened with The Feed and it happened with Ghosts. The characters in Ghosts became so real to me that I actually missed them when I finished the book. I slightly mourned finishing both off these books.
Is Ghosts a five-star book? I guess not. It’s not on par with The Grapes of Wrath or The Great Gatsby. Five stars is reserved for genius. But I’d give it a solid four. And I’d give The Feed a three-point-nine. Next time you’re looking for a book to read, consider Ghosts of Bergen County, or if you enjoy sci-fi, try The Feed. And while you’re expanding your must-read list, don’t forget to add Fragments—a memoir, by yours truly.
As a nod to my desire to enter a new phase as a writer, and a realization that Dana’s education and habits have helped him become the writer he is now, I’ve decided to step up my game. Last week I signed up for my first writers conference. It’s this summer. This commitment has helped rekindle some enthusiasm that has been dampened for quite a while. I’m hoping to parlay my family’s languid summer schedule into a few more writing sessions each week.
Thanks for reading my first book review and indulging my tangents. At one point, while reading Ghosts, I came upon a scene in the book based on true events. This scene also wound up in my story Ennui:
Charlie, Jean and I went out to Jean’s favorite bar. It was large and empty. Jukebox, pool table and a long oak bar that seems mandatory for every New York drinking establishment. It wasn’t a nice bar, and not a dive, just a place to get drunk and shout to your friends over amplified music—maybe hook up with someone as the night gets old. But since there were less than ten of us in the place, it was quiet and low key. A nice place to drink and talk and shoot pool.
Jean’s life had stalled. She listened with excitement as I described my hastily planned bike trip. It sounded like the perfect break from her routine, her urban life. Before the night got too far along, before we were slurring along to the songs on the jukebox, before the bartender locked the door and pulled out a couple of joints for the bar-patrons to share, before bullshit drunken boasting dominated the night’s conversation, Jean committed to joining me on the whole trip.