Thursday, January 22, 2015

War Sucks: On Phil Klay's REDEPLOYMENT and Dinaw Mengestu's ALL OUR NAMES

One of the really fun things about being, um, less than deliberate in how I pick books is reading very different novels right after one another that complement each other, theme-wise. That's the case with Phil Klay's National Book Award-winning short story collection Redeployment and Ethopian-American writer Dinaw Mengestu's 2014 novel All Our Names.

These are two very, very different books —but they have one commonality: they both explore how stupid, brutal, and absurd war is, and its lasting affect on both its participants, but also those who become collateral damage in one way or another.

In Klay's collection about soldiers in the Iraq war, a major theme is the effect on soldiers' psyches of the horrific violence they witness daily, as well as the complex psychological effects of being duty-bound to kill. Sometimes they're racked with merciless guilt, sometimes they think it's awesome and go eat lunch (hey, you don't get cherry cobbler often!), sometimes they come home and do things they'd never have otherwise done (shoot dogs, visit hookers, exaggerate what really happened). Several stories in Klay's collection also deal with the question of who, really, are the "good guys" in war? Of course, we assume we are, but the average Iraqi certainly doesn't see it that way.

One story, in particular, my favorite in the collection, titled "Money as a Weapons System," shows how we're often doing more harm than good in Iraq — it's a Catch 22-esque story about a guy who is tasked with redevelopment in Iraq, trying to rebuild a water treatment plant, but winds up teaching Iraqi women how to bee-keep and having to take photos of Iraqi kids fake-playing baseball, because a rich ignorant guy in Oklahoma thinks it's important to spread American baseball as a symbol of freedom. It's so sad it's funny. (Or so funny it's sad?)

In Mengestu's novel, about an uprising against an oppressive African regime in the early 1970s, the fighters of a small band of revolutionaries are supposedly on the side of right — they're fighting against injustice, after all. But they still commit acts of atrocity against common citizens.  And common citizens commit terrible violence against other citizens. So, who really are the good guys? Here, it's even less clear.

The novel involves two alternating strains of story — one taking place in Africa, one in a small Midwest town soon after the events (it's the early 1970s) that had just happened in Africa. The US-set strain of story furthers even more the theme of "those without sin can cast the first stone." The African refugee begins a romantic relationship with his mid-20s white social worker (who is narrating this part of the story). She takes him for lunch one day at her favorite diner, and both are saddened (though not totally surprised) when it's suggested that they're making people uncomfortable, so wouldn't it be better if they finished their lunch elsewhere. The point is that it's absurd that a man could escape the lawlessness and violence of an African revolution to come to what is supposedly an enlightened, first-world country like the U.S., but then still be discriminated against. Will their relationship survive?

Both of these are fantastic books, and I highly recommend both, whether or not you read them one after the other.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Four Post-Holidays Mini-Reviews

YA, thriller, and two non-fiction — I was pretty much all over the place (per usual) for holiday reading. Here are four mini-reviews of those books: 

Revival, by Stephen King — This novel fits neatly into the most common King criticism: "great story, odd ending." It's the story, told over the course of about 50 years, of a guy named Jamie Morton — he grows up in small town Maine, joins a band, experiences first love, gets hooked on heroin, and then is cured after a chance encounter with the minister from his youth, Charles Jacobs. This guy Jacob's got all kinds of tricks up his sleeve — having abandoned God after an accident claimed his wife and son, he experiments with what he calls the "secret electricity," a power, that when harnessed, can cure disease, addiction, and do all kinds of other cool tricks. But is Jacobs nothing more than a side-show shyster (it certainly appears that way when he starts a new religious movement based around his ability to heal) or is he actually tapped into a secret power like the world has never seen? As Jacobs and Morton meet each other through the years, the novel speeds through to a conclusion that, frankly, goes a bit off the rails — but it's typical King. You've enjoyed the story so much to that point, you don't even mind how strange the ending is. I liked this much, much better than King's early 2014 effort, Mr. Mercedes. If you're a King fan, I think you'll dig this.

Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand — I wanted to read this before seeing the movie, but after reading, I'm not sure I even want to see the movie anymore. Yep, it's quite the inspirational story. Louis Zamperini is testament to the that old familiar tune: "If it weren't for bad luck, I'd have no luck at all" — but on a rather grand scale. Imagine surviving a plane crash, surviving 47 days at sea on a raft, and then thinking you're about to be saved, only to be strafed by an enemy plane. But of course he survives that, too, and then nearly two years of deplorable, inhumane treatment in several Japanese prisoner of war camps. It's truly amazing, and as well, a testament to the horrors of war. Hillenbrand, as she must, takes some liberties to construct a narrative that really does read more like a novel than a history. And what a great read it is.  
I'll Give You the Sun, by Jandy Nelson — I don't read a ton of YA, but I was drawn to this unique story about artsy California teenage twins. And I loved it. The story's told from the alternating perspectives of Noah and Jude, Noah's when the twins are 13, Jude's when they're 16. Noah is gay and has a crush on his neighbor, a baseball star named Brian. Jude's story is more about the after-affects of a tragedy, and how it has affected her relationship with her brother. As these inseparable twins collide with life, they become more separable than they ever would've thought possible — they actually do horrible, cruel things to each other. Much of the story is really sad, and you're just amazed how these emotionally fragile kids don't totally meltdown. But, more so, it's a story about becoming who you are. Indeed, as Noah tell us, ruminating on how his classmates all seem to try too hard to fit in, including his sister, "They're like toads changing their skin color. How come I'm always just me?" Indeed, the highlight of this story is the enthusiastic, colorful, whimsical way Nelson writes — that's what I really liked about this, and why it's a story really worth reading.

The Innovators, by Walter Isaacson — It was fun to learn how little I actually knew about the history of computers and the Internet. Isaacson's thesis here is that no one person "invented" the computer, or the Internet — innovation happens as a sort of constantly evolving process where ideas are borrowed, built upon, and re-imagined in new ways. Not exactly an earth-shattering premise, but there are tons of "did you know?" moments in this history — about Al Gore's real role in "inventing" the Internet (he never actually claimed to invent the Internet, but he really was key in making it more available), the history of the personal computer including Bill Gates' and Steve Jobs' roles, and the origins of their nearly lifelong feud. Even if you don't know your microchip from your microprocessor or your HTML from your HTTP, this is a fascinating history that really, at least for me, helped filled in some huge gaps in my knowledge of these machines we rely on every day.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

New Dork Review Top 10 of 2014

What a stupendous year in books! So many highlights: I finally read Jane Eyre, I was dazzled by David Mitchell and amused by Murikami, and James Michener took me on a 1,200-page historical trip to Hawaii (prior to an actual trip to Maui in May). In total, for the fourth consecutive year, I broke my previous record (61) for books read (67) in a year. Yep, it was a great year. 

Here are the 10 best novels published in 2014 I read this year. They're in no particular order (except for No. 1 —The Bone Clocks. My favorite of the year.)

Broken Monsters, by Lauren Beukes — I haven't been glued to the page of any novel in a very long time like I was to the last 100 or so of this one. It's a cool, creepy, contemporary tale of the broken American dream — and what happens to people when their dreams go to dark places.

Shotgun Lovesongs, by Nickolas Butler — This story about friendship, secrets, music, celebrity, and loyalty takes place in a small town in Wisconsin. Several different characters narrate parts of this novel about mid-30s lifelong friends, and how their friendships have changed as they've gone out into the world, and then returned. It's just a fantastically profound and fun novel — and one that hit me just at the right time in my life to really love.

The UnAmericans, by Molly Antopol — I stepped up my short story reading in 2014, and of the 10 collections I read, this was my favorite. These character-driven stories will are by turns devastating and enlightening – but they're all about imagining yourself in someone else's shoes. Wonderful. 

Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel — I'm not a huge fan of the burgeoning post-apocalyptic novel genre, but this story is so much more than a traditional "what happens after everyone dies" story. Going back and forth to before and after the flu that kills much of the population, this intricate story is a masterwork of craft in how St. Mandel slowly reveals themes and each characters' back stories. It's a novel that slowly builds on itself for a whole that is so amazingly good.

The Sleepwalker's Guide To Dancing, by Mira Jacob — Another story that jumps back and forth in time, I loved the protagonist of this story, and her attempt to deal with her slowly-going-insane-(or-is-he?)-Indian-immigrant father.

An Untamed State, by Roxane Gay — Just a horrifying novel about a woman kidnapped, raped, and beaten in Haiti — and then she has to try to re-acclimate herself with "normal" life with her husband and son. I include this on my list for several reasons, but mostly the sheer bravery it must've taken to write this book.

Fourth of July Creek, by Smith Henderson — A novel about our limits — both in terms of our "freedom" to deal with others' problems and of our ability to deal with tragedy. This novel has perhaps the most sobering and sad end-reveal of any novel I read this year.

O, Democracy!, by Kathleen Rooney — I loved this small-press novel by Chicagoan Rooney about a staffer for the Senior Senator from Illinois during the 2008 election. It's, I guess, satire — but dammit if it doesn't feel real.

The Martian, by Andy Weir — The most fun I had with a book this year, this novel about a stranded astronaut on Mars is part fiction about science, part goof-off novel, part testament to human ingenuity. Word is that Matt Damon is starring as Weir's astronaut in an adaptation of the novel, which in my mind, is an absolutely inspired piece of casting.

The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell — This is my favorite of the year. Mind-blowingly good. Mitchell is a genius. 

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Five Great 2014 Novels You May Have Missed

(This post originally appeared on Book Riot.)

One of my favorite annual year-end articles is Slate’s “Overlooked Books” of the year. As is usually the case, this year’s list of 27 novels includes some terrific picks, such as Lauren Beukes’ Broken Monsters and Ben Marcus’ Leaving The Sea.

But even the venerable Slate list can’t capture everything. So it’s always fun to supplement this list with one of my own. So here are five terrific 2014 novels you may have missed.

5. O, Democracy by Kathleen Rooney
If you don’t laugh about our broken political system, you’ll probably cry. This small-press novel about a young woman named Colleen who works as an aide to the Senior Senator from Illinois during the summer of 2008 will actually have you doing a lot of both. It’s a semi-autobiographical novel about Rooney’s own experiences, which is good to know, because at times it seems so absurd, it’s almost unbelievable. But then you remember how goofed up politics is these days, and so when you read about a candidate who tries get people to believe that dumping pollution into the lake is actually good for marine life, because they can eat it, you think, “yep, that actually seems about right.” If you have an interest in politics, or Chicago, you’ll really dig this novel.

4. Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson
It’s debatable whether this debut novel is actually overlooked – this novel got a lot of looks due to word-of-mouth that spread quickly after its mid-summer release. But if you haven’t looked yet, I’d highly recommend you do. It’s a story about a social worker (a vastly under-represented profession in fiction) named Pete Snow in early 1980s Montana. Pete encounters a kid who appears to live in the woods with his anti-government, ultra-religious father, and so Pete has to decide how much he really can (or should, or be permitted to) help this kid. All the while, Pete’s dealing with his own disaster — his ex-wife (a drunk) has moved to Texas, and now his teenage daughter has run away. Henderson writes with pinpoint accuracy, making complex issues actually enjoyable to read about and consider. Purposefully set during the time Henderson seems to be saying is the dawn of the current culture wars, many of the issues are similar to those driving the national conversations these days. This is truly a great American novel.

3. The Sleepwalker’s Guide To Dancing by Mira Jacob
This is the best-titled novel of the year, in my view — so it’s a good thing the story itself, which took Jacob more than 10 years to write, is great, as well. Amina, late 20s, a freelance Seattle photographer, and the daughter of Indian immigrants, rushes to her parents’ home in Albuquerque to try to determine why her father, Thomas, is having day-long conversations with his dead mother. We zoom back to 1970s India to examine Thomas and his mother’s rocky relationship, and then to early 1980s Albuquerque to learn about Amina’s and her brother’s childhoods. You’ll think “Jhumpa Lahiri” right away because it’s an Indian immigrant story, but whereas Lahiri is mostly straightforward and earnest, Jacob is often playful, witty, and funny — even as she’s telling us about some rather weighty issues. It’s a strangely fluid story for as much as it jumps in time and place.

2. The UnAmericans by Molly Antopol
This is easily the best short story collection I’ve read since George Saunders’ Tenth of December. It’s all killer, no filler — a rarity for story collections. But what makes these stories truly memorable are the characters in each — either foreigners (literally un-Americans), as in my favorite story “Minor Heroics,” about Jewish brothers in Israel, or immigrants to America who struggle for one reason or another, as in the heartbreaking stories “The Unknown Soldier” and “The Quietest Man.” In total, these stories are about imagining a world beyond our front door and identifying with and understanding people who live in that world — it’s an idea we’d all do well to take more to heart.

1. Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler
If you read and enjoyed Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings, you’ll love this novel of four mid-30s friends who grew up in Little Wing, a tiny town in rural Wisconsin. One has become a famous rock star. One is a Chicago business bonehead who convinces his new wife to move back to Little Wing. And two have gotten married to each other and stayed in Little Wing to tend the family farm. How these friends react to revealed secrets from the past, new problems with love and loss, and their new and different stations in life will affect their friendships now and into the future. This is just a massively great novel — one that seemed to just hit me at the right time of my life, and therefore has had a lasting effect. I cannot get it out of my head. Hopefully that’ll be the case for you, too.

What would be on your list of underrated or overlooked novels of 2014?

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Bone Clocks: Brilliant, Hypnotic, Best Novel of 2014

This novel is amazingly brilliant. And I loved it. Absolutely, intensely loved it. It's a great companion piece to Mitchell's most famous novel Cloud Atlas, but it's also a nod to Mitchell's other novels (characters from Black Swan Green and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet pop up again), as well as ground-breaking films like The Matrix and Inception. In total, The Bone Clocks is just about the bravest, smartest, most entertaining, most inventive, and most fun to read novel I've put into my brain in a very long time.

So the novel is actually six interconnected stories with one central character — Holly Sykes — as the anchor.  She herself (in first person) tells us the first (in 1984, she's a 16-year-old girl running away from home in a small town in England) and the last (in 2043, as a 75-year-old living in the Irish countryside as the world collapses). The four stories in between, all as fascinating and entertaining as Holly's first-person story, expand on the overall narrative — which, and this is going to sound crazy, is about two factions of immortal beings whose souls can occupy human forms, but who are at war with each other, a classic good vs. evil story.

The real genius of the novel is how Mitchell grounds this fantastical, metaphysical, centuries-long war in very human stories. And furthermore, it's amazing how Mitchell positions Holly at the center of all these stories, even when she's not overtly the protagonist. Stories Nos. 2-4, about a douchey college kid in the early 1990s, a war-zone journalist in 2004 Iraq, and an aging boozy English novelist (Martin Amis, perhaps?) traveling the world in the last half of the 2010s are all fascinating and terribly fun to read as set pieces. There's humor, there's tragedy, there are love stories, and there's treachery.

But again the true genius of this novel is how details from each story begin to fulfill the promise of the clues Mitchell gives us in the first 100 pages (in Holly's first story) for what he's really up to. And then it's the fifth story where things get weird, and Mitchell brings it all together — and there's a battle, and a labyrinth, and a golden apple, and it's just so breathtakingly original and imaginative, you're in true, utter amazement. I was, anyway. It's one of those cases where you read a few pages, have to put the book down for a minute, go "wow," and then continue reading.

This is my favorite novel of the year, and I need some time to decide yet, but it's not out of the realm of possibilities that it winds up as one of my favorites of all time. It'll be hard to tell, though, as it's clear Mitchell is sort of building an entire fictional world piece by piece with each of his novels, spinning off characters, reappearing characters, and furthering themes. I don't know of any writer working now or in the past as ambitious as Mitchell seems to be. I was on the edge before, but now I'm officially an incorrigible Mitchell fanboy. Man, this was good. And I'm jealous of you if you're going to soon pick it up for the first time.