Staff Favorites

Kunal Nayyar
Reviewed by Donna D.

“This is not a memoir. I’m not a president, or an astronaut, or a Kardashian. This is a collection of stories from my life.” Kunal Nayyar, better known as Raj Koothrappali from the hit sit com The Big Bang Theory, begins his “biography” this way. Although his role as the nerdy astrophysicist afflicted with selective mutism launched him to fame, he recounts personal moments in his life with only a sprinkling of his experiences on set thrown in here and there.

In the first chapter, we discover Kunal’s love for Winnie Cooper from The Wonder Years and his subsequent disappointing first kiss. We are then taken on a journey of family traditions experienced in India and life-lessons taught to him by his father, including the importance of choosing one’s battles. Then, the setting changes and we follow Kunal to the United States for his college adventure.

During his undergraduate studies, he meets people from all walks of life. He falls in and out of love and gets his heartbroken many times as he attempts to land roles in the acting world. Throughout the telling of all of his escapades, Kunal maintains an air of humor and self-deprecation that keeps the audience entertained.

Funny and light-hearted, this book brings to light the struggles and benefits of merging two cultures. It gives us a look at the man behind the character of Rajesh Koothrappali. A must-read.

Peter Straub
Reviewed by Nathan
Peter Straub

“What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?” “I won’t tell you that, but I’ll tell you about the worst thing that ever happened to me…the most dreadful thing…” These are some of the opening lines from Peter Straub’s 1979 novel Ghost Story. Set in the fictional small town of Milburn, New York, Ghost Story is about a community besieged by dark forces bent on destroying the town. It possesses a great story, has loads of suspense, and is one of the finest horror novels I’ve read.

Reduced to its basic plot, Ghost Story is a tale of revenge. Five young friends (who call themselves the Chowder Society) accidentally murder a woman and cover up their crime. They begin telling ghost stories as a way of dealing with their guilt, only to be haunted by the woman’s ghost fifty years later. Desperate for help, they turn to a young horror author to help exorcise their demons.

But Ghost Story is about much more than this basic plot, although it is a difficult novel to summarize. That’s because Ghost Story is wrapped in ambiguity. Why the creatures (it’s ambiguous if they are, in fact, ghosts) have decided on Milburn is unclear. Presumably, it’s tied to the habit the main characters have of getting together and telling ghost stories in an attempt to bury their dark past. But it’s not made clear if the town’s danger is independently real or a product of the Chowder Society’s imagination. Likewise, the horror author can’t figure out if events in the town are influencing his new book or vice versa. Plus the event from their past tying them together may not have happened at all the way they remember. Even character identities are in flux; at one point a ghost tells a main character “I am you.” 

Ghost Story contains numerous references to previous horror authors. It has characters named after Nathaniel Hawthorne and Henry James (one of the Chowder Society tells a ghost story that is basically James’s The Turn of the Screw) and the plot is rather similar to Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot. But the reader doesn’t have to be well versed in horror literature to understand, or be scared by, Ghost Story. It’s the kind of novel that slowly develops and draws the reader in with deliberate pacing and careful character building. Ghost Story is an overlooked horror classic, and anyone interested in digging a little deeper in the genre should check it out for Halloween.

Elizabeth Kolbert
Reviewed by Nathan

Elizabeth Kolbert’s latest book, The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, is a great book about a tragic subject. As its title suggests, The Sixth Extinction is about the ongoing mass extinction event. Whereas other extinction events have been caused by passive environmental changes or sudden catastrophes like asteroid collisions, the sixth extinction’s cause is pretty clear-it’s us.

Kolbert devotes individual chapters to issues that are accelerating the extinction rate. These include ocean acidification, the rapidly increasing level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, deforestation, global warming, and overexploitation. Kolbert also examines several species that are going extinct because of these changes, including golden frogs in Panama, trees in the Amazon, bats in New England, and corals in Australia. Kolbert is quick to point out that humans have been altering the environment for a long time; she has convincing evidence that the extinction of many of the mega fauna from the last ice age, along with Neanderthals, was caused by humans. What’s changed in the last one hundred years or so is the rate of extinction, not its actual occurrence.

The Sixth Extinction is incredibly well written and researched. It’s easy to see why it won the Pulitzer Prize for general non-fiction in 2014, as it explains all of its concepts in a very straightforward manner. It’s intended for a general audience and it’s the best book on its subject I’ve read in a long time, maybe ever. The Sixth Extinction is equally profound and depressing, although it also has occasional moments of dark humor. I highly recommend it for anyone interested in environmental issues.

Brian Azzarello
Reviewed by Nathan

Christopher Nolan’s film The Dark Knight rekindled interest in one of Batman’s most recognizable villains. Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker in that film was met with such acclaim that DC decided to release a one-off graphic novel, simply titled Joker. Written by Brian Azzarello, Joker tells the story of a low-level thug named Jonny Frost and his encounters with the titular character. Frost is tasked with picking up the Joker after he is released from the insane asylum and then proceeds to work for him as the Joker tries to take back his criminal empire.

Azzarello succeeds in producing a grittier, more realistic version of the character. Those familiar with Frank Miller’s Sin City series will be right at home with this neo-noir interpretation of the character. It’s not a Batman story, who’s only in the book for about five pages. Joker is also completely lacking in any of campy humor older versions of the character often displayed; there’s nothing funny about the Joker here, and his crimes are repulsive and disturbing, not to mention gory.

There’s a couple flaws to The Joker. Comic purists may take issue with changes to some of the characters in Azzarello’s Gotham; Harley Quinn is a gun-toting stripper with one line of dialogue, the Riddler is now a gun-runner who walks with a cane, and Killer Croc is a stereotypical hulking thug. Not all of these changes work, but a bigger problem lies in the storytelling and the nature of the character. Part of what makes the Joker such an interesting villain is that it’s impossible to know or understand him. The Joker’s actions are irrational and don’t really have a point, which makes for difficult storytelling. Nor are we really given much of a reason to care about Jonny Frost, who’s mostly just along for the ride.

But somehow Joker still works for the most part. It’s one of the few Batman stories to successfully probe the mind of one of comics’ most depraved and complex characters. It may not quite be up the standard of The Killing Joke (which is probably still the best Joker story) but it’s still definitely worth a read for comic enthusiasts. 

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