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THE MOST DANGEROUS PLACE ON EARTH by Lindsey Lee Johnson

One buzzy book this winter was The Most Dangerous Place On Earth by Lindsey Lee Johnson. It’s about a high school in Mill Valley in Marin County, CA, and the very privileged kids who go there. When the book opens, the kids are in eighth grade, and one of them makes a very passionate pronouncement of love to another one. His letter was made public by the recipient, and after the relentless teasing and bullying that ensued, he jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge. Three years later, the kids are juniors and still dealing with the ramifications of the suicide.

Each chapter basically focuses on a different character, and by the end, the reader has a pretty good sense of the whole group, as well as some of their teachers. For the most part, the kids are privileged, entitled, indifferent and spoiled, with little respect for their teachers or even each other. There are overachievers (intense ballerinas and academic stars) as well as hippies, drug dealers, misogynistic athletes and thugs. Their parents are either neglectful or cloying. Johnson does manage to show other sides of these kids, eventually, but in the end it’s hard to find a redeeming person in the whole book.

What I liked:

  • Beautiful writing
  • Realistic incorporation of social media and other realities of teenage life today
  • Good pacing

What I didn’t:

  • Overall, it was pretty superficial.
  • Characters were rarely revisited (one simply disappears altogether) so there isn’t much continuity
  • Adults were very disappointing, as were parent-child relationships
  • The kids never learned lessons or changed their ways; some of them got worse over time

I kind of wonder what the author’s point was. To make us all despondent over the fate of humanity, if these kids represent our future? To try to get to the heart of teenagers? To shame us into better parenting? I’m not sure.

I’d read more by Lindsey Lee Johnson just because of her writing, but this was a bit of a disappointment.

I listened to The Most Dangerous Place On Earth on audio. It was narrated by veteran narrator Cassandra Campbell. She did an excellent job with the voices, differentiating them for each kid and sounding as natural with the boys as she did with the girls, which isn’t always the case with narration. She’s precise and easy to listen to, and and she moved the story along nicely. It’s funny – I just looked up books that she has narrated and many of them are sitting on my bookshelf. I know I’ve listened to other Cassandra Campbell performances but I can’t remember which they were.

Others seemed to have enjoyed The Most Dangerous Place On Earth more than I did. If you read it and liked it, I’d love to hear why.

 

First Book: 2016

Happy New Year!!

Sheila at Book Journey is continuing her tradition of hosting First Book of the Year: 2016. Click through to see what other people are reading on the first day of 2016.

As for me, I am reading Joyce Maynard’s upcoming novel, Under The Influence. It is one of the saddest books I have read in recent memory, but I am having a hard time putting it down. She is an excellent storyteller. Under The Influence comes out in February and I’ll likely review it later this week.

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Happy reading to everyone in the new year!

ONE MORE THING: STORIES AND MORE STORIES by BJ Novak


You’ve probably seen One More Thing: Stories and More Stories online or at the bookstore, and maybe thought to yourself, “Oh yeah, the short stories by the guy who plays the intern on The Office. How good can they really be?” I can answer that question: they are very good.

One More Thing is BJ Novak’s first collection of stories, many of which had their roots in his standup comedy routine. They cover a really, really wide swath of topics and settings, but they share one thing in common: they are funny, insightful and original. I was impressed throughout the collection by Novak’s ability to shift from the frivolous to the profound even within a single page. Some of the stories are as short as a few lines, while others stretch to 15 pages or so. And while not every one was brilliant, enough were.

My favorite stories were:

  • The Rematch, which imagines who would win if the tortoise and the hare had a rematch, and the hare actually tried this time
  • No One Goes to Heaven to see Dan Fogelberg, a view of the afterlife where everyone meets up with the people who predeceased them and goes to free nightly concerts with the greatest musicians in history
  • Missed Connection: Grocery spill at 21st and 6th 2:30 PM on Wednesday, in which an entire relationship plays out in a single “Missed Connections” post
  • Walking on the Moon, in which the glory of having walked on the moon is dismissed by someone who clearly never did it
  • The Man Who Invented the Calendar, a diary written by the person who created the calendar
  • MONSTER: The Roller Coaster, in which a focus group evaluates a roller coaster designed by artist Christo and meant to mimic life itself
  • One Of These Days, We Have to Do Something About Willie, in which a group of friends from college tries unsuccessfully to stage an intervention after one of them appears to be partying too much
  • Bingo, in which four cousins play Bingo on a family vacation

It’s no surprise that Novak writes for TV. He has an unfailing ear for dialogue and the way people really talk to each other. There wasn’t a single spoken line in this collection that didn’t ring true for me. I laughed out loud many times, and the stories made me think. They were sometimes absurd, sometimes comical, and always meaningful. There were a few that dragged for me, but only a few.

I got a review copy of the audio version of One More Thing, and it’s a treat. Almost all of the stories are narrated by Novak, with some help from Rainn Wilson, Jenna Fischer, Mindy Kaling, Julianne Moore, and others. The audio is great – you can hear Novak inhabiting his stories and characters, which I’m sure he perfected over many standup performances.  The only drawback to the audio is that you don’t know how long a story is going to be, which I think is kind of helpful when you’re reading short stories.

If you’ve been avoiding One More Thing because you think, “enough already from that Harvard guy on The Office“, I urge you to give it a try. It’s entertaining and touching, and I promise that at least a few of Novak’s stories will have a lasting impact on you.

Depressing-o-Meter: 5 out of 10. (Mostly funny but lots of poignant moments too.)