Wednesday, October 26, 2016

A Gentleman In Moscow: Charming, Clever, Funny, Spectacular

If you haven't heard of Amor Towles, it's okay — I hadn't either until about a month ago. If you have, likely because you read and LOVED his first novel, Rules of Civility, then you're probably gaping at the screen, incredulous that anyone HASN'T heard of him. People really love that book.

Anyway, the point is: I took a chance on Towles's second novel A Gentleman in Moscow because of how passionate his fans seem to be. I couldn't be happier I did. This novel is utterly spectacular — one of the more purely pleasurable reading experiences I've had in a long time. Towles is clever and funny, wise and profound, and reading him is exactly what you want to reading to be. 

His story is about Count Alexander Rostov, a Russian aristocrat who is arrested after the Revolution, and sentenced (in 1922) to house arrest in Moscow's beautiful, elegant Metropol hotel. There, Rostov watches 40 years of Russian history unfold vicariously through the eyes of a wild, wonderfully rendered cast of characters, including two precocious young girls, an American diplomat, and the employees of the hotel.

Rostov himself is a man of the world — by turns philosophical and sarcastic, charming and witty. Only a writer as gifted as Towles could invent a character as fascinating as Rostov — he's a character I will not soon forget. He knows which French wine goes with every possible dish and can explain Russian literature, Newton's laws, and Greek philosophy as well.

We find out in the first third of the novel some of Rostov's backstory — and a tragedy that nearly ends him as well. We learn about Russian history and literature, and we ruminate on some of the similarities and differences between the Soviet collective and the American individual. While not a tremendous amount happens, it's just so fun to read, you don't even notice.

In total, this is a novel about making the best of the world you live in — about how your fate is a result of both your choices, but also forces beyond your control. The only thing you can do is live your best life. And part of living your best life should be reading this novel. Extremely highly recommended!

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Homegoing: A Non-Negotiable, Absolute Must-Read

Yaa Gyasi's Homegoing is the runaway word-of-mouth hit of 2016. Everyone at BEA in May was talking about it. Then people read it — and absolutely raved (three months after its publication, it has a 4.42 rating on Goodreads). And Gyasi even got a 5-minute segment on The Daily Show during which Trevor Noah called it "the most fantastic novel I've read in a long time."

Does it live up to the hype?

It lives up to the hype.

It's the story of two half-sisters and their descendants, beginning in late-18th century (what is now) Ghana. One sister's family stays in Africa, the other immigrates to the U.S. The novel reads like interconnected short stories, each about one new generation of the families, and covers more than 300 years. It's a novel about slavery and colonialism, family loyalty and suffering, and ultimately, ends with a note of hope.

I don't know what else to say about this book, except to remind you that if it's true that reading brings empathy, than this is an absolutely essential, non-negotiable must-read novel. The ending is something I'll not forget for a long time.

Read this.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Here I Am: Expansive, Exhausting

Here I Am, Jonathan Safran Foer's first novel in 11 years — the most anticipated novel of the year for many book nerds, me included — is a massive tome that sort of meanders through a bunch of big, important questions. What does it mean to be a Jewish man in this crazy world? How can any marriage survive the pressures of modern culture? And just what is Israel? 

Yeah, that last one throws you for a loop when Foer branches out and goes all geo-political. Again, this not a narrowly focused novel. It isn't a novel that'll be confused with anything like a focused, taut Phillip Roth novel.

The real story is about an upper class Jewish family living in Washington, DC. The parents Jacob and Julia, early 40s and married for about 15 years, are having marital issues. The cause of these problems so far is nothing major — just, as relationships do, suffering from the pain of a thousand small cuts. But it's soon clear all these un-discussed minor issues only need one major one to catalyze into a full-blown marriage blow-out. When Julia finds a phone Jacob had been using to sext with a co-worker, well, we have our major issue. And there's a major fight, where one tells the other "You are my enemy." Will they work out their problems and stay together for the sake or their family? Or will they dissolve their bond?

Yeah, these aren't exactly cheerful characters, and this is not a cheerful book. Nor is it an especially gripping one. You've heard the clichè "compulsively readable"? This is not that book. There are moments of wit, levity, and stretches that really do pull you in. But on the whole, it's a really exhausting read, not the least because it's 600 pages (and you know I'm person who actually enjoys long novels!).

One reason why this it's exhausting is the way Foer has his characters talk to each other — dialogue is a huge tent pole for the ideas of this novel. It's how we see how these characters — Jacob and Julia, most notably, but also their three children, Sam (13), Max (10), and Benjy (6), all of whom are precocious and witty almost to the point that they're not believable — relate to each other, their neuroses and pretentiousness (indeed, much of this novel could be described as neurotic and pretentious), and their complaints against one another. Indeed, there isn't too much self-reflection depicted here. Foer includes long strings of this rapid-fire dialogue with characters constantly asking for minor clarifications or making jokes or repeating the question the other person asked becomes an

And then there's an earthquake in Israel. And the marriage collapses further. And Jacob's grandfather dies. And we spend the last two-thirds of the novel with these strands of story mixed in with the Big Profound Questions Foer wants us to consider (or that he's considering, which he needed this novel as the vehicle, or something). Also, there's an incontinent dog.

I give this three out of five stars — I'm not sure I'd recommend it to anyone but the biggest Foer fans. There were definitely parts of this novel — about pages 150-250, and parts of the last 100 pages — that are utterly brilliant, and as fun to read as anything I've read this year. But the rest just really wilted and withered.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Dark Matter: Whoa, Dude, Trippy Thriller

Blake Crouch's trippy thriller, Dark Matter, has the feel of a late-night, stoned-to-the-gills dorm room conversation. But it's also a read that zooms at along at breathless, breakneck pace, partially owning to the fact that it has the feel of a thinly veiled movie script (short, sparse sentences, lots of chase scenes, exposition in dialogue, cliffhanger chapters, etc.). This can be annoying or exciting, depending on your personal reading preferences. In this case, I enjoyed it — the movie script aspect of the writing doesn't detract from the story itself, which is an inventive take on the fiction about science genre (which is different, barely, than science fiction, I think).

But before we get into "Dude, but what if there are infinite universes and therefore infinite burritos?"-type questions, and more thoughtful discussions about superposition (you know, Schröinger's cat) and theories of what dark matter might be, we meet our protagonist: A normal guy named Jason Dressen, who is an average upper middle-class Chicagoan. Jason is a physics professor at small-time Chicago college, happily married to a beautiful woman named Daniela, and the proud parent of a teenager named Charlie. Jason had given up his promising career as a research physicist in his late 20s to marry and have a child — a decision for which he's often questioned by his colleagues, but about which he has no regrets.

One night, Jason goes to have a drink with one of these former colleagues, who incidentally, has just won a major scientific prize Jason may have won if he'd stayed the research course. On the way home, Jason is kidnapped at gunpoint, shepherded to an abandoned power plant on Chicago's south side, and made to take a mysterious drug. He wakes up in a lab, not remembering much. But he's safe, and all the people around him — obviously scientists of some sort — are hailing him as some sort of scientific hero.

What the heck just happened? Naturally, he doesn't understand, and his first instinct is to run away as fast as he can. But then he's shown the research he abandoned 15 years prior — only now, that research has been followed through to completion, resulting in a device that allows humans to travel to multiple universes, which he has apparently just done!

Of course, this has all kinds of terrifying and fascinating and morally complex consequences. But at that point, the main consequences for Jason are terror and sadness that he seems to be now in a different world from his beloved wife and son. From there, the plot unfolds quickly across multiple version of Chicago (indeed, multiple universes), as tries to find his way back to them

You could read this in one sitting if you wanted to. It's a great thriller to wrap up your summer or take on a plane. Highly enjoyed it.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The Nix: Spectacular, Spelling-Bindingly Readable

Wow. The Nix, by Nathan Hill (out today!), is really spectacular — about as engaging, spell-bindingly readable, smart, and funny as fiction gets. This is the Franzen novel to read if you don't like Franzen the man — expansive, modern, political, and just immensely entertaining. There are shades of Don DeLillo, Donna Tartt (if you liked The Goldfinch, you'll LOVE this), and (I don't say this lightly) friggin' David Foster Wallace here (yes, there's a 12-page sentence, but even beyond that, Hill's astute observations of us in the modern world are incredibly DFW-esque).

It's a novel about what it means to engage with the world, to do your duty, even as the going gets tough. It's a novel about how personal politics aren't usually purely formed, similar to how some believe that by its very nature, altruism can't be perfectly unselfish (because there's always the good feeling for the doer of doing something good). And it's a novel about trust and loyalty, between friends, lovers, and parents and children.

We span 45 years here, from the violent protests at the Chicago Democratic National Convention in 1968 to the less violent but still powerful protests of Occupy Wall Street and the 2011 Republican National Convention in New York City.

The story is about a woman named Faye who was involved in the 1968 protests. After the protests and then a sad, quiet life with her husband Henry and son Samuel, she suddenly leaves them (Samuel is 11) and disappears.

Samuel, now in mid-30s, is a failing writer, and an-about-to-be-fired English professor at a small Chicago college. (Brief interlude: There is a section right at the front of this novel showing Samuel confronting a student who has been caught plagiarizing a paper. It is the best, funniest 20 pages I've read in a long time.)

In the first scene of the novel, Faye re-emerges — she throws rocks at a right-wing presidential candidate visiting Chicago — and Samuel, who is about to be sued for not delivering the novel for which he received a big advance, is convinced by his agent Guy Periwinkle to write what will no-doubt be a runaway bestseller about his mother. (Second quick interlude: The conversations between Samuel and Guy throughout the novel are another highlight. Really damn funny.)

Samuel, still angry with his mother, agrees. And we go from there — back to Faye's childhood in a small town in Iowa, forward to Samuel adulthood in Chicago and New York City, back to Samuel's childhood in the generic Chicago suburbs, to the Iraq war, seedy bars, Norway, and just about everywhere else in between.

As I said, this book is expansive. Allen Ginsberg is in this book. So is a dude named Pwnage who is the champion of a World of Warcraft-like game called Elfquest. There are ghost stories. Sexting. A love story. Some funny stuff about publishing. Bullies and sexual abuse. Politics. Radical hippies. Traitors. It's just AWESOME. 

This is easily one of the best novels I've read this year. Despite how full it seems, it's also the shortest 600-page novel I've ever read. What I mean is that it felt like it could've been three times its size, and I would've happily kept reading. I spent about 3 hours on just the last 20 pages, reading one page at a time, because I didn't want it to end. This is a novel that, if you're thinking of picking it up (and by all means, do), I am immediately jealous that you get to read it for the first time. Enjoy!