The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker.

A little fact about me: I like the end of the world. Always have. It’s not exactly something I’m looking forward to, per se — no zombie attack cardio training here — but I appreciate the apocalypse in fiction. It’s an excellent backdrop for drama, which isn’t to say that end-of-the-world stories are always well-written. When they are though, they can be the stuff of truly awesome nightmares, a pretty high compliment from me.

Another little tidbit of Nayiri info: one of my favorite kind of stories to read is the coming-of-age tale. Regardless of whether it’s a classic like To Kill a Mockingbird, a “modern” classic à la Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, an instantly-influential novel like The Secret History, a super-trendy title like The Perks of Being a Wallflower… I love them all. The idea of capturing a very specific time in which a character experiences a major chance that influences the rest of his or her life is fascinating to me, and when those stories are successful, it’s heartbreaking and heart-bursting to read.

The Age of Miracles by Karen Walker Thompson -- 10thirtyThe thing is, Karen Thompson Walker‘s much-hyped debut novel The Age of Miracles is neither here nor there, in terms of success. There are some surprisingly lovely moments, a great amount of creativity, and a whole boatload of schmaltz.*

First, the synopsis: one morning, the world’s rotation inexplicably slows, and eleven-year-old Julia narrates what should be a tumultuous time. Both the days and nights grow longer, quickly reshaping civilization’s reliance on a twenty-four-hour day — “We would fall out of sync with the sun almost immediately. Light would be unhooked from day, darkness unchained from night.” In spite of this, the beginning of a new era, Julia admits a truth: “But no force on earth could slow the forward march of sixth grade.” So we learn of friendships’ end, training bras, crushes on boys. We remember that youth can be lonely, that parents can disappoint, that feeling included can be everything. We experience all this as birds fall from the sky, neighbors grow sick, scientists speculate the cause of “the slowing,” and food sources diminish. It’s not that Julia — sensitive, observant, intelligent Julia! — doesn’t care or isn’t aware of the changes in the world, it’s more that her focus is on navigating her way through a time of dance parties and growth spurts: “Some girls were turning beautiful… I still looked like a child.”

This is what I like, what I find interesting, how a protagonist deals with and interprets something as universal as growing up against a creative and unique backdrop. I don’t need to know about the so-called science behind scorchingly-hot days and frosty nights. Julia wonders why whales are beaching themselves by the thousands on her Southern Californian shores, why it’s suddenly so hard to kick a soccer ball into a satisfactory arc, why earthquakes have begun pummel Kansas, and I do too… until Julia’s gaze turns to skateboarding Seth Moreno, object of her affection.

(An aside: Seth Moreno just may be as perfect a name as Jordan Catalano, or Marcus Flutie.)

The Age of Miracles, from the SFGate -- 10thirtyI’m all for young love and first love and, heck, love in general, but unfortunately this is where things can often get exceedingly sentimental. I’m sorry to say that Ms. Walker overindulges in mawkishness. To be fair, it takes her a while to get there, but once she gets going… watch out. There is a specific scene that I can’t discuss, primarily because Ms. Walker chooses to revisit it and use it as the finale of her closing sequence — man, oh man, if only I could talk about it. Let me say this: it reads as though it is designed specifically to cause a tightening in the audience’s chest and a tearing of their eyes. It reads as manipulative. It reads as cheap. It reads as formulaic.

What legitimately burns is that Ms. Walker is a talented writer. There are many passages that are elegant, and stunning, and magnetic. There are descriptions that cause the reader to pause and say, Oh, how fine. The trouble is there are just as many passages that cause that same reader to pause and roll her eyes and say, Oh, jeez. And because the last note Ms. Walker leaves us with is maudlin, that commercialized shade of sickly blue can’t help but color the rest of the novel.

Second photo from the SFGate.
* Don’t believe me? Check out the schmaltzy book trailer.
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There is Nothing Good About Being in a Car Accident…

…but it is nice to come home afterward and discover something like Amazon‘s nominees for the best book cover of 2009.  I happened to read Jonathan Tropper‘s This is Where I Leave You not too long ago (at my dear friend Amee’s suggestion — thank you!) so I am a bit partial to its Gray318-designed cover for that reason.  I can say the same for Baking by James Peterson (designed by Nancy Austin and Katy Brown) and the Momofuku cookbook by David Chang and Peter Meehan (designed by Marysarah Quinn), both of which I got for my birthday last month.  And while I do like Doogie Horner’s work on Seth Grahame-Smith’s undead take on a Jane Austen classic, I couldn’t get past the second chapter of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, so my biases work both ways, I suppose.

This is as good a time as any to direct you all to one of my favorite blogs, the Book Design Review, where book and design junkies like me can get a regular cover fix.

Oh, and I should tell you that Keith and I are fine.  Our car might not be, but we are.  In the (belated) spirit of the holiday, we are both very thankful for that.

Five Things About Me: 21 22 23 24 25.

(As promised, zombies.)

21. I love zombies.  Well, love isn’t the right word, because, when you think about it, zombies are totally gross.  They’re also utterly fascinating.  And scary.  And I can’t get enough of them.

22. I know I’ve mentioned my vivid dreams before but what I may not have mentioned is that I dream very frequently of zombies.  Sometimes I jerk myself awake in the middle of the night absolutely swimming in a pool of my own sweat, my heart beating like a hummingbird’s.  Those nights, I lie there trying to convince myself that zombies aren’t real, and then I wake Keith up to reassure me.  Other times, I wake up smiling and cheerful after a good zombie dream.

23. Yes, I do believe there is such a thing as a good zombie dream.  Here’s an example: it’s the end of the world, we’re all dead but we’ve come back as zombies and live happily in this nice zombie civilization.  I’ve got a live cooking show à la Emeril Lagasse, except I’m more like the zombie Martha Stewart and I’m teaching my audience where the best cuts of meat are on a person.  And I’ve a cage of free-range humans in the studio.  It’s a very informative show and I have very high ratings.

24. Most of my zombie dreams are bad dreams.  Here’s an example: it’s the end of the world, almost everyone is dead and I’m fighting for my life with two other survivors.  They’re heavily armed with guns and machetes, but for some reason all I’ve got is the hardcover edition of Harry Potter number five, which I’ve been swinging at zombies’ heads with surprising success.  (It’s a big book.)   Then, over the crest of a hill, we see a zombie swarm coming towards us, and leading the pack is a zombie Conan O’BrienHarry Potter number five is no match for his massive zombie head, and I wake up panicking just as zombie Conan O’Brien is about to take a chunk out of my neck.

25. I have a really hard time watching The Tonight Show with Conan O’Brien because sometimes he makes this one expression that looks just like zombie Conan O’Brien did before he ate my neck and it really freaks me out.

Five Things About Me: 16 17 18 19 20.

16. I will always think of myself as a New Yorker.

17. English is my second language, though now I speak so little Armenian the point is pretty moot.

18. I think moot is a great word.

19. I can be very impatient.  This is a flaw, and I’m working on it.

20. I can’t help but mentally redecorate or renovate almost every room I walk into.  I also immediately look for the exits, in case of an emergency like a fire or zombie attack.  (Have I mentioned yet that I’m obsessed with zombies?  No?  Next week then…)

BLTs, Boyfriends, Books, Brains.

Today I had lunch with my friend Lexi at DJ’s on the Garden, where I had a satisfying yet unremarkable BLT that cost me precisely five dollars.  I suppose this recession has been good one for one thing, that that is the recession menu.

After having a nice little chat about boyfriends, meeting the parents and dressing up during winter, my book and I got back on the subway and headed home.  I’m not that far into M.F.K. Fisher‘s With Bold Knife and Fork, but thus far I’m enjoying it immensely; that is not a surprise, as I have enjoyed her writing immensely for a while now, but what was surprising is that (coincidentally) I read the chapter on rice and grains as I stirred my first (successful) risotto the other evening, and that today, on the ride back to my apartment, I read Ms. Fisher’s thoughts on offal and brains, the day after Keith and I had the following conversation:

K: (apropos to nothing) If we go someplace that has brains on the menu, I want you to stay away from them.
N: I’m sorry — what?
K: I just think that out of the two of us, you’ll be tempted and I don’t want you eating them.  Mad cow is still an issue.  If you got it, it would be horrible.
N: Aw, you think it would be horrible if I died?
K: Well, yes — it would be horrible if you died.  But how you would die would be horrible too.
N: But I’ve had brains.
K: Well, no more brains for you.
N: But if I become a zombie, though, can I have some brains?
K: All you can eat.