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The Greatest Book 20110208

I consider my time valuable. Which is why I no longer attempt to force myself to finish books that aren't immediately enjoyable.

Along those lines, here is my review of the first 11 pages of Mark Levine's "F5".

The book supposedly covers the tornado outbreak of April 3rd, 1974, where (the book jacket tells me) there were 148 tornadoes in 13 states. 6 of those tornadoes were of the monster variety: the F5. (Side note: nowadays, things are rated as EF0s-EF5s.)

The first 11 pages are quite numbing. If your curiosity is at all piqued by the cliffhanger on page 4, prepare to be disappointed. Because the chapter ends on page 11 with the exact same cliffhanger. The next chapter skips on to someone else's story and if my scanning is any indication, we won't hear from these people again until page 137.

I'm sure it will make me seem more than a little bit crazy, but I literally shouted "who gives a f***" several times whilst reading the first chapter.

Though this book happens in the past, it supposed to be written like a gripping thriller where everything happens as though it's happening right now. So when I reference "the present", assume I mean "April 3rd, 1974".

See, lots of people love "Lost", but I could never get into it. The show spent far too much time in the past, dwelling on backstories. But I assume the point was that everything that happened in the past, would somehow be connected to the present day events (I never watched enough Lost to see if they ever delivered on that premise).

So think of this book like "Lost", with lots of dwelling upon the backstories. But in this case most of the backstories definitely don't have any connection to what's happening in the present.

Here's an example of the difference:

  • relevant backstory: Felica and Donnie are caught out in the middle of the storm because they're following Feclica's Aunt Kay home. There have been reports of damage in Aunt Kay's neighborhood and she is worried because she can't get her husband on the phone.
  • irrelevant backstory: EVERYTHING ELSE IN THIS CHAPTER

In addition to the general pointlessness of the backstories, there's also the jerkiness. We go from "OMG something exciting is happening" to "here's some pointless backstory" in an instant.

Here's an example:

The road is pooled with rain. Donnie shifts into low gear to try to maintain his grip on the surface. He hydroplanes. The wheels lock and kick up plumes of water. The car glides sideways. Donnie steers into the motion and regains control.

Somewhere in the darkness along the side of the road are remnants of familiarity. Donnie's house is five miles south of Wooley Springs, in an equally isolated spot called Coffee Pot. The settlement was established in the '30s by a shadowy figure from Chicago. He built a diner with a dance hall on one side, then added seven crude cabins that were rented to couples, no questions asked, and set up a boxing ring that attracted gamblers and bootleggers.

WHO GIVES A FLYING [email protected]#$.

There are miles and miles of this kind of garbage strewn everywhere. Any forward motion is completely obliterated by Levine's desire to pepper it with useless backstory.

And it's not like I'm trashing on the book for something it's not trying to be. Let me quote the book jacket here:

Like the best nonfiction, F5 is a brilliantly crafted page-turner that reads with the immediacy of a novel.

Backstories can be interesting to someone like me. I guess the sin that Levine commits here is that most of the "scenes" violate the "show don't tell" guideline of fiction. Instead, they read like someone writing a dry biography: no scenes, just boring a rattling off of trivia.

Is the rest of the book like this?

Apparently yes. The nail in the coffin was the amazon reviews. Though the book actually has 4 stars out of 5, the lower reviews echoed my sentiments on things like pointless backstory and all of the jumping around. I had been willing to give it a chance, and maybe it actually does get better. But it sounds like the rest of the book maintains the same bland, jerky storyline that kicks off the beginning.

that tricky line between fiction and non-fiction

Perhaps the big problem is this: to properly tell this story in the way a competent fiction writer would, would require that the story itself cross the line into fiction.

For instance, which would you find more intriguing:

scenario #1 (the book's style)

Felica wears the promise ring that Donnie gave her. It doesn't really promise anything at all, but is some sort of attempt by Donnie to mend their relationship after he was caught cheating on her while he was away on a senior class trip.

(Though if this were actually from the book, it would be sprinkled with many more details and be about 10 times as long.)

scenario #2

The headlights barely illuminate the road in front of them through the pouring rain.

Lightning strikes, briefly illuminating the interior of the car. Felica catches a glimmer of the ring on her finger.

Her facial expression changes, the anger completely replacing any sense of fear.

"You slept with her, didn't you?"

"What?" Donnie doesn't look at her, but the defensiveness in his voice betrays him.

"On your senior class trip."

Donnie doesn't respond, but his grip on the steering wheel tightens.

Felica persists. "Admit it. It's the only reason you gave me this promise ring."

"Now is not the time!"

And just like that, the car is floating. Donnie tries to correct, but sends the car into the spin.

It feels like forever, but the car finally comes to a stop.

Through all of the rain and the darkness, it's hard to tell where they even are.

Donnie guns the accelerator. They aren't moving. He throws it in reverse. Same result.

He looks at Felica. "Open the door. Get out."

(Those words were what ended the actual cliffhanger in the book.)

So I've tried to illustrate here what it means to show, don't tell. The big difference to me is that scenario #2 keeps you in the present. We aren't having to completely slam on the brakes to tell some backstory because it's been integrated right into the present action.

And I'd argue that if you can't figure out a way to integrate backstory into the present storyline in a pleasing way, then you need to seriously question whether the backstory is worth revealing at all.

Given Levine's writing style in the first and only chapter I read, even if this book had been pure fiction, he still would've written out every little piece of trivia in the character's backstories. He has no filter; he doesn't seem to be concerned at all with whether the backstory helps or hinders.

I think what really kills the book for me is the jerkiness though. It's hard to really dig into the story when the book keeps jumping all over the place.

It's like the book (the first chapter) had ADD, right. But if it had had true ADD it would've been distracted by the bright shiny things instead of the boring bits.

So that's why I think that-