Friday, December 15, 2017

The New Dork Review 10 Best Books of 2017

This year, it was harder than ever to pare down my list of best books to 10. But it was very easy to pick my favorite: John Boyne's The Heart's Invisible Furies has been my no-hesitation answer to "What's your favorite book of the year?" since I finished it in August. It's just phenomenal — so good it may wind up as one of my favorites of all time.

And so the reading year was good for those reasons — many good books, one GREAT book. But there a number of other reasons, too. For one, this year is my highest volume reading year every — more than 77 books and 27,000 pages when it's all said and done. Secondly, I finally finished the Harry Potter series! I read some great genre fiction by Dan Brown and Nelson DeMille. I plowed through two giant tomes, each clocking in at over a thousand pages: Susanna Collins's Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell and Kim Stanley Robinson's Green Earth, a huge terrifying cli-fi (that's science fiction about climate change) novel. And I read some great books by huge-name literary writers, which didn't even make this list, including Jennifer Egan ( Manhattan Beach), George Saunders ( Lincoln in the Bardo — a book I more admired than enjoyed), and Nicole Krauss ( Forest Dark).

'twas a great year, indeed. Here are the highlights:

10. Radio Free Vermont: A Fable of Resistance, by Bill McKibben — Full disclosure: Bill McKibben is a personal hero of mine, so there was a 100 percent chance I was going to love this book. But even if you've never heard of McKibben, you'll love this satire about a band of misfits who lead a charge to secede Vermont from the US. It's much-needed smart salve in this era of stupid.

9. Sing, Unburied, Sing, by Jesmyn Ward — My first thought when I finished reading this year's National Book Award winner: "That was a near-perfect novel." Ward is an amazingly evocative writer — you feel what she wants you to feel, see what she describes vividly, even smell what her characters are smelling. And this book has quite the message about injustice and racism, too. It's a brilliant novel.

8. Home Fire, by Kamila Shamsie — This book is mesmerizing and intense, especially the last scene, which is among the pantheon of best last scenes ever. Though it's a retelling of the ancient Greek play Antigone, this novel about family loyalty is as modern and urgent as anything I've read this year.

7. Trajectory, by Richard Russo — Of course one of my favorite writers' new short story collection would be on this list. With these four stories, Russo departs a little from his tried-and-true ground of small down-and-out towns. Here, there are stories about a Hollywood screenwriter, a real estate agent, and college professors. But they're all infused with Russo's signature empathy.

6. Lillian Boxfish Takes A Walk, by Kathleen Rooney — Often books you read early in the year get overlooked on year-end lists, but this book, which was one of the first I read this year, has stayed with me all year. That's mostly because the character — fierce, funny Lillian Boxfish — is incredible. We learn her life story as she strolls through New York City on New Year's Eve, and it's a fascinating story, to say the least.

5. Afterlife, by Marcus Sakey — A highlight of the reading year was an event at my neighborhood bar with Sakey, in which we all sat around a table and talked about books. But this novel, which Sakey describes as a myth, is one of the more inventive books I've read in a while. It's part crime novel, part love story, part epic battle of good vs evil played out on multiple planes of existence. If you're not familiar with Sakey, first read his amazing Brilliance Trilogy first, then read this.

4. The Hearts of Men, by Nickolas Butler — Another absolute highlight of this reading year was an event I organized at RoscoeBooks with Butler. Butler is as cool in person as he is on the page. But I loved this novel even before that event was a possibility. It's about what it means to be a good person, and like Russo, Butler's writing shows terrific care for his characters. If you liked Shotgun Lovesongs, you'll love this too.

3. The Leavers, by Lisa Ko — Another ripped-from-the-headlines novel that oozes with urgency, Ko's terrific novel is about our horrifically broken immigration system, and how it rips families apart. But like Lillian Boxfish above, I loved this novel for its character, Polly Guo, another courageous woman battling life uphill.

2. Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng — Ah, the dysfunctional family tale — there was no way I'd get through a whole year-end favorites list without at least one entry in my favorite subgenre. This novel moves along at breakneck speed and Ng is incredibly smooth, amazingly insightful writer.

1. The Heart's Invisible Furies, by John Boyne — Every great once in a while, you really need to read a book that reminds you why you love reading. This was that book. It's an absolute masterpiece — heartbreaking and hilarious, and as engrossing and immersive as anything I've read in a very long time.

Honorable Mentions: The Resurrection of Joan Ashby, by Cherise Wolas; The Patriots, by Sana Krasikov; Dark at the Crossing, by Elliot Ackerman

Nonfiction favorites:

The Long Run, by Catriona Menzies-Pike — A funny, smart memoir about the Menzies-Pike's relationship with running, this book also is a great history of running, especially women's running.

Priestdaddy: A Memoir, by Patricia Lockwood — Holy Lord, is this memoir funny. Lockwood's Catholic priest father (he converted to Catholicism after starting his family) is as quirky and strange as any Vonnegut character. And Lockwood is a fantastically hilarious chronicler of the absurd.

Fantasyland How America Went Haywire A 500 Year History, by Kurt Andersen — This cultural history details how and why it's come to pass that a significant portion of the population chooses its own facts, and in many cases, reality. Science and fact-based journalism no longer matter, you get to pick what to believe. From the Pilgrims, through the "damn the man" 1960s, then the conspiracy-theory minded 1980s, and finally finishing with the "alternative facts" environment of today which got Trump elected, Andersen's writes his history with a barely controlled rage at how so much stupidity there is out there and how we ended up with that buffoon in the White House.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Artemis: Silly Sciencey Fun...But Mostly Silly

There's just no way Andy Weir could've been as good as he was in his debut, The Martian. That novel is the most fun I've had with a book in a long, long time. So even though the hype for his follow-up was feverish, you just had to know Artemis wasn't going to be quite as good. And, sadly, it's not. But if you liked Weir's schtick in the The Martian — wisecracking smart ass is also brilliant MacGyver-like sciencey schemer — you'll probably find enough fun here to keep turning the pages

The story, which takes place on the moon, is about Jazz, a spunky woman who makes ends meet by smuggling contraband to rich guys on the moon's first permanent colony, Artemis. One of those guys proposes a big pay day for her if she can sabotage some of a big company's big moon rock harvesters. Of course, things go awry, and Jazz uncovers a plot that goes much deeper than simple corporate espionage and malfeasance.

Weir ranges from legit hilarious to silly and Beavis-ish (which I love!) to just dumb. Part of the silliness in this book is that I'm not sure he's exactly comfortable writing a woman character. Jazz seems less like a woman and more like a geeky dude's ideal robot woman. She talks and thinks like a nerdy virginal dude in his goofy dorky fantasies would hope women think and talk like (but don’t actually ever). Sometimes it's funny, often it's not.

And then the science and "did you know?" stuff ranges from genuinely fascinating to “Huh. Cool story, bro” to WAY-too-in-the-weeds. There's one scene in particular near the end, that, unless you want to know a bunch about pressure valves and the metallurgy of welding, is INTERMINABLE. And that's too bad because that's supposed to be mid-rush-to-the-end of the novel. It's slows it down considerably.

Even so, I was still mostly entertained. It’s an inventive story that probably feels smarter than it actually is. Certainly a step back from The Martian, but how could anyone be that good twice in a row?

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Origin: The Dan Brown Plot Machine Takes On Creation, the Singularity

Where do we come from? Where are we going? When we wrestle with humanity's toughest, deepest, most profound questions, of course we look no further than Dan Brown for guidance and wisdom. Right?

I kid. We look to Dan Brown to distract us for a few hours with a highly improbable though somehow entertaining plot, which includes more than a little unintentionally hilarious "dramatic" writing, and even still a few things that make you go "hmmm..."

In Origin, the Dan Brown Plot Machine's new Robert Langdon vehicle, we meet Edmond Kirsch, a brilliant computer scientist and futurist — think Elon Musk crossed with Steve Jobs, with a pinch of Richard Branson — who has made a stunning discovery which will not only destroy every notion of organized religion, but also will change everything we thought we knew about everything! Where do we come from? Where are we going? ..... And where is the bathroom?

But wait! Before Kirsch can reveal his scientific discovery, he's summarily assassinated mid-presentation at the Guggenheim Museum in Spain. Langdon and the comely museum director, Ambra Vidal, now must find Kirsch's cell phone password to launch his presentation in his stead. LUCKILY, as Kirsch was working with Vidal to prepare his presentation, he let slip that his password is a 47-character line of poetry that includes a prophecy.

So Langdon has a starting point for his treasure hunt. And helping them along the way is Winston, Kirsch's incredibly advanced AI who talks with an urbane British accident (because of course it does) and periodically nudges them along when they hit a roadblock.

But look out! An evil (or is he?) former Spanish naval officer named Admiral Àvila chases them across Spain, trying to kill them. Àvila has been taken in by a right-wing Catholic sect called the Palmarians, a group who hates the new "liberal" advances of the Catholic Church, and so has installed their own pope, and have endeavored to halt any sort of scientific progress.

Will Langdon find the password in time? Will he destroy religion with Kirsch's discovery? And where is that damn bathroom? 

Look, I know it's easy to make fun of Dan Brown — his faux-profound italicized thoughts are so often laughably cheesy, you can't take him too seriously. And he really treats his readers like idiots — he tells us about half a dozen times about Langdon's "eidetic memory." WE GET IT DAN. To enjoy this novel, you really do have to wade through a lot of stupid to get to the good part. But I'll admit I thoroughly enjoyed the last 100 pages here. Even if the framework is nothing new — borrowed ideas Brown packages for his own purposes in improbably silly plot — many of the "fun facts" about architecture, art, religion, science, etc., are still interesting to read about. And there's a genuinely surprising plot twist at the end.

So it's worth trudging through a lot of the dumb. And it's worth pointing out just how dumb that dumb is sometimes. Brown doesn't really seem to have any grasp of technology at all— or he assumes his readers don't (which is more likely). He often has his characters talking about "computer tablets" (as opposed to just tablets) which I realize is a minor complaint, but it's not like we're going to confuse an iPad with the Ten Commandments. And he has one of his characters unlock a locked iPhone with a technique that is laughably stupid — and of course, doesn't really work That that was the point I almost threw the book across the room and quit.

But I soldiered through. While this still doesn't approach the level of The Da Vinci Code — and Origin borrows most from Brown's biggest hit, even referencing it a few times (which he never does in his other books. Like Langdon has his memory erased before each book. So, thank you, Dan for this, at least) — it's still better than Brown's last last two (pretty terrible) novels, Inferno and The Lost Symbol. If you're a fan of Dan Brown's schtick, you'll probably moderately enjoy this. If nothing else, it's often good for an unintentionally meant laugh.

Friday, September 22, 2017

Little Fires Everywhere: Privilege, Parenting in the Suburbs

There is a TON going on in Celeste Ng's terrific new novel, Little Fires Everywhere — but for this novel, it's a strength, not a weakness. A huge cast of characters create all sorts of problems for each others, sometimes purposefully, sometimes inadvertently, sometimes just unthinkingly. It makes for a thrilling, fast-paced, drama-infused novel about everything from privilege to teen pregnancy to long-held family secrets.

Set in 1998 in the quiet carefully planned community of Shaker Heights, Ohio (a suburb of Cleveland where Ng herself lived as a kid), the story is about a clash between two families that couldn't be more different. Mia Warren and her 15-year-old daughter Pearl live in a rental house owned by the Richardsons, an upper-class family with four high-school aged kids, Lexie, Trip, Moody, and Izzy.

Much like the community she lives in,  Mrs. Richardson has rigorously ordered her entire life — college, marriage, steady job (she's a journalist for the local newspaper), and children. Mia, on other hand is a fly-by-the-seat of her pants avant-garde photographer. She and Pearl have criss-crossed the country, moving on whenever Mia's well of inspiration dries up. But now, Mia has decided to settle down for a bit and let Pearl be a kid, make some friends, form some connections. And it works: Pearl becomes fast friends with the Richardson kids, and idealizes their steady normal life, while they in turn think her mobility is fascinating.

The novel literally starts a fire — specifically, the Richardson's house, but we don't know why. It's just suspected that the youngest daughter Izzy finally lost her mind, lighting "little fires everywhere" throughout the house. Then we back up and get to know the families and their interactions. But the novel really gets going after about 100 pages when friends of the Richardsons — the McCulloughs — have adopted an Asian daughter abandoned at a fire station a year ago. The birth mother, a woman named Bebe — who happens to be a friend of Mia's from the Chinese restaurant at which she works — wants the child back. Bebe had left her daughter at the fire station during a bout of anxiety and depression (she'd moved to across the country with a boyfriend, who promptly leaves her penniless and friendless when he finds out she's pregnant). Now that she's better, she's been trying desperately to find her daughter, and when Mia makes the connection between Mrs. Richardson's friend's adopted daughter and Bebe's lost daughter, Bebe desperately tries to reclaim her. The ensuing legal battle divides the community, and the two families.

Part of the point of the novel is about how easy it is to cover up or not be penalized for mistakes when you're wealthy and white. That parachute, however, does not exist without money and privilege. As well, the novel shows how money and privilege can sometimes erode empathy. There are several moments that illustrate this, but one in particular: Bebe is given once-a-week visitation rights of her daughter until the case is decided, and Mrs. McCullough is annoyed that Bebe can't let her know more than a day ahead of time when she'll come. Bebe's work schedule is erratic, and this job is only way she can make ends meet. Mrs. McCullough is annoyed that she's inconvenienced, not trying to understand what it must be like for Bebe.

This is a fascinating, complex, but briskly written novel. It's hard to put down, frankly. Ng effortlessly plugs you directly into her story and her characters. I actually liked Little Fires Everywhere better than Ng's terrific debut, Everything I Never Told You. You've probably seen Little Fires Everywhere just about, well, everywhere. Ng was even on Seth Meyers recently! The novel is worth the hype — highly recommended.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

The Heart's Invisible Furies: An Absolute Masterpiece

John Boyne's new novel (out today!) The Heart's Invisible Furies is an absolute masterpiece. It's the story of a life, an Irishman named Cyril Avery, born in Dublin in 1945. But that single simple sentence belies the power, intensity, humor, emotion, and pure reading pleasure of this 600-page piece of fiction. It's a novel about guilt and redemption, about fate and free will, about love and loyalty, about secrets and betrayal, and simply about living a life in your own skin. It's absolutely brilliant — honestly, one of the best things I've read in a long time, at least since A Little Life, to which this novel shares some similarities.

It's also a good read for fans of stories as wide-ranging as Forrest Gump to The World According To Garp and A Prayer For Owen Meany. Indeed, Boyne's dedication is simply, "For John Irving" — which, frankly, is what initially drew me to this novel. The first two sections of the novel are an unmistakeable tribute to Irving — both in style and substance. The first describes the circumstances of Cyril's birth — his mother is a 16-year-old unwed Catholic in rural Ireland. Her pregnancy causes her to be shamed in front of her entire church, and then banished from her town and family. She moves to Dublin to make it on her own. The second section describes Cyril's childhood as a seven-year-old boy living with adoptive parents Charles (about to go to jail for tax evasion) and Maude (a novelist who hates popularity) in Dublin.

From there, Boyne tells Cyril's life story in seven-year increments. I don't know what else to tell you about this novel to pique your interest if you're not already intrigued. But one of the things I loved about this book is how surprisingly funny it is. I can't emphasize this enough: It's consistently laugh-out-loud funny. Frequently, there are several-page strings of dialogue, which is almost always annoying when other writers try this. Here, they're simply fantastic and fully display Cyril's sarcastic, dry sense of humor. I chuckled on just about every page.

But this novel is massively heart-breaking as well. This isn't a spoiler: Cyril is gay, and the first half of the novel is about him trying to come to terms with this fact of himself—how impossible it is to be himself in mid-century Catholic Ireland, and how he keeps that secret from those closest to him.

The novel follows Cyril from Ireland to Amsterdam to New York in the 1980s (devastating sections on the AIDS crisis) and then back to Dublin for Cyril's twilight years. From the very beginning, we know at some point he and his birth mother reconnect (the whole novel is Cyril's first-person account, and Cyril tells us he's narrating from before he was born based on the story his mother told him later). This creates such glorious tension throughout the novel because there are several instances in which fate puts Cyril and his birth mother in each other's paths. And the conversations they have before they know who each other is are some of the funniest, even as they ooze with tension and drama.

This is the best novel I've read in a long time — it has definite "new classic" potential. Every once in a while, you really should find a book that reminds you why you love reading so much — and for me, this was that book. It's all I can do right now as I write this not to pick it up and start it all over again.