Slaughter the Tropes

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We all know and love a good zombie flick. We know the tropes: the girl who walks away at the end covered in blood; the slowly opening door and the shamble, all background noise going dead; the sound of someone crying and the hero walking towards the sound, only to find a zombie at the end of the hallway.

You can’t have a zombie story without these things. But some people have a knack for looking at a story we all know and understand, and turning it on its head. Making it just familiar enough to bring us along for the ride, and just strange enough to make us love every moment.

World War Z was that kind of book, a zombie infestation at the macro- and micro- level, a globalized world in a globalized epidemic, everyone responding in ways that made sense.

Raising Stony Marshall is that kind of book, too. What if there were a zombie who was a baby? What if that dead baby grew into a boy, then a man?

If zombies weren’t just shambling hulks, what would they be? What would they mean? How would we deal?

That’s what the immaculate Daryl Gregory asked himself. That’s the story we lucky readers got. Tropes both present and sliced open, exposed, completely understood and embraced for themselves, and yet re-framed so expertly it’s like you’re reading the story for the first time.

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Everybody Wants To Be A Hero

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We all want to be the hero in a crisis. We want our name in the papers, we want the opposite gender to swoon for us, we want our friends and colleagues to respect us.

Maybe the reason we all crave that attention, that vindication, is that none of us actually feels very heroic. We feel scared, we feel like we’re wasted in our jobs. We fall for other’s wives, husbands, girlfriends, boyfriends. We know ourselves, but we want other people to have a certain image of us. And that image is often quite far from the truth.

That’s what this century old novel, “The First Rescue Party,” is about. A man who wants to be a hero, but not just because he wants to stand out from the rest. There’s the paradoxical urge to become friends with his equals, to stand out but as part of a group.

In the end, it all comes down to loneliness.

Faerie Tale

A fairy is a mincing, annoying, squeaky little creature with a skinny dress and impractical butterfly wings, right? That’s what has become dominant: the tame, safe version of the fairy.

Most novels can’t quite rid themselves of this image. Their faeries are descendants of the dark days of Faerie, sure, but they’re human, relatable, never too evil, and always kind of cheesy.

But every once in a while, a writer finds a way to make faeries fucking terrifying. He makes them haunt your dreams, paints characters that you believe would lead you down a path filled with fear and horror, would steal your soul. These faeries are uncanny, inhuman, strange and frightening.

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These are real faeries. They don’t mince–they overwhelm. They don’t bless–they inspire fear.

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They are anathema to the kind of human life that we have spent centuries creating and perfecting. So putting the leak in the world that leads to Faerie next to a totally ordinary suburban family was a genius move on Feist’s part. And his wild hunt wasn’t the sort of vaguely silly, unrealistic, corny kind. It’s the kind that could run you into the ground and then tear your flesh apart.

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A novel…in verse?

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Remember that terrible, boring, endless poem your English teacher made you read in high school? The words were archaic, the rhymes didn’t make sense because pronunciation had changed, and the characters were all freaks.

So it’s fair to associate stories told in verse with horribleness. But you shouldn’t, because David Rakoff made the verse epic cool again:

She was certainly never an expert at men,

But an inkling was twinkling, especially when

The next day he all but confirmed Helen’s hunch

When he leaned from his office and asked her to lunch.

Their talk was all awkward and formal to start

He said that he found her efficient and smart.

She thanked him, then stopped, she was quite at a loss.

She’d never before really talked to her boss.

That is the goddamn tip of the iceberg. The novel tells the story of lives that DO genuinely intersect (there’s nothing worse than a bunch of POVs with only tangential relationships to each other). It spans the best part of a century. And every freaking bit rhymes.

The characters, their pain, and they haunting humanness all feel real. They may have followed you after any novel. But the way it’s told, the effect of the rhyme, makes the book into anĀ experience. Like a smell, or a taste, when you open the book again everything will come rushing back to you. A few verses and you’ll remember all the joys and sorrows of the novel. And you’ll think in rhyme for hours.

Living Long, Living Well

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We all want to live a long time. Look at all the health and diet plans. Look at the “gluten-free” craze sweeping the world. We all want to be healthy. Even people who have trouble with it aren’t unhealthy because they don’t care–they’re unhealthy for a whole mess of reasons, mostly having to do with “I don’t have time.”

But living a long life is about more than going vegetarian–which we should all at least partially do, by the way. Beside the point.

Miserable people don’t hit 100. Dumb people don’t hit 100.

People who have a community live a long time. People who can tell you why they get up every morning live a long time. People who trust the world to unfold around them, and to get better, live a long time.

And in the end, it’s not about living to be 100. As a great television character once said, “some people live more in 20 years than others in a hundred.” It’s about living a life that’s full. Learning, experiencing.

Not traveling and seeing the world. Not becoming an expert in 12 fields. Learning more from the things you care about. Drawing joy from the people around you. Understanding intimately the rhythms of your life, and why you live by them.

Living a long time isn’t about health, or sleep, or exercise–although all those things help. Living a long, full life is about becoming wise.

We all want to be “wise.” We want to dispense advice, we want to know what to do when we’re scared. And we don’t do that just by living a long time: we do that by understanding the world around us. By reaching deeper. By learning.

Living a long life isn’t about hitting goalposts. It’s about living now.

An Unexpected Journey of Fun

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Do you know what’s engraved on every single weapon in the “Hobbit” movies?

Did you notice that each tiny region and family unit in “Hobbit” has its own accent? That there are several family units among the 13 dwarves, and they all have perfected their accents to sound alike? That they can all pronounce dwarvish–which they never speak on screen–perfectly?

Yeah, I bought the Desolation of Smaug “official movie guide.” And you know what? It was awesome. Sure, there’s the trivia–a lot of Orcs are stuntwomen, and James Nesbitt’s entire family was cast in “Smaug,” including his daughters as Bard’s daughters.

But more fun than that is the insane level of detail poured into every single piece of stuff that appears on screen for as much as a second or two. Have you been paying attention to everyone’s ears? Well, there are people who have. There are people who do nothing every day but keep ears in good condition. There are refrigerators in New Zealand where sandwiches sit next to boxes of pointy ears.

There are subcultures in a production as big as “the Hobbit,” and the level of work in every single frame of those movies is massive. And it’s delightful to read about.

To Be Transported by a Book

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I don’t know much about Azerbaijan. Or Armenia. Or Georgia. I know they’re in a part of the world Alexander the Great trundled over. I know the USSR had control for a while. I know there are some Muslims, and some Christians there. That’s it.

So picking up “Ali and Nino,” I had no idea what I was getting into. I had no idea I was about to be transported to a desert on the other side of the earth, where a culture completely alien–and far harsher–than my own was the ordinary standard.

The time, the place, the people: these are magnificently evoked by the writer (or writers, as some say). A young man and a woman are in love. It’s a basic story told the world over. And, just as in every culture there are matches deemed questionable by the culture and the mores of the time, in this one there is also a shot at a Romeo and Juliet: the girl is Christian, the boy is Muslim.

The love story is the abiding thread, the touchstone of the novel. Everything else is in flux. The cultures, the shifting array of government an allegiance. The religions are different in each place, the similarities between people deceive, and the most dangerous place can be the safest at the same time.

At the core of the novel is the idea of home. Home is the place you know, the place where you understand what is happening and why. And as history turns, home is what is lost. Home is what changes on you, until you cannot recognize it; until you must change or die.