Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Behold The Dreamers: What Happened To The American Dream?

There's been no shortage of controversial, combative rhetoric about immigration in this election cycle, so much so that it's hard to separate the Internet meme from the facts. But if you want to find out just how badly our stupid immigration system is broken, check out Imbolo Mbue's terrific, morally complex, heartbreaking debut novel, Behold The Dreamers.

But this novel isn't just about how difficult it is for those who come to this country seeking opportunity, it's about how the American system as a whole has been rigged such that in many cases many people never really have a chance at all. Maybe it's a pessimistic view of the American dream, but imagine yourself in New York City in 2009, at the height of the financial meltdown, and it's not hard to see how pessimism could be pervasive.

The story is about a Cameroonian immigrant named Jende who comes to the U.S., drives a taxi, saves fiercely, and finally is able to bring his wife Neni and six-year-old son over to the U.S. For a minute, all is well — Jende gets a "high-paying" job as a chauffeur for a Lehman Brothers executive named Clark, Neni begins taking classes to become a pharmacist, and they're generally enamored of the Big City and the opportunities it affords.

But then it all goes wrong. For everyone. But what's fascinating about this novel is how Mbue turns expectation on its head. She shows us how crisis and pressure expose and exacerbate the flaws in even the best people...and even more so in the worst. You'd expect that you're rooting against the rich banker Clark and rooting for the hardworking immigrant Jende. But it's certainly not that simple.

Along with dysfunctional family stories, immigrant stories are one of my favorite subgenres of fiction — Americanah (one of my favorite books ever) to all of Jhumpa Lahiri's stories to The Newlyweds, The Sleepwalker's Guide To Dancing, and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, among many others. And this novel takes its place firmly in that pantheon. It's such an assured, well-written debut — as smooth and readable as any veteran writer could produce. Highly recommended! 

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The Underground Railroad: Alternate History, All-Too-Real

When I got to talk briefly with Colson Whitehead while he signed my copy of The Underground Railroad at BEA this past May, I bragged to him that his book The Noble Hustle was my go-to hand-sell for dude customers at our bookstore (yeah, I'm so cool </sarcasm font>). I asked him if he still played poker, and he said he doesn't much because he has a young daughter now. It was a breezy, quick conversation, and I was thrilled I didn't make a fool of myself in front of the famous author, as I usually do.

Now that I've read his sobering, brilliant, unflinching, utterly spectacular novel, I feel like a prime asshole — like given the subject matter of the book he was signing, I should've been a tad more somber, or respectful, or just less trying to impress him. Because clearly, the thing he was he was signing as I jabbered away about poker is the work of a genius.

Indeed, don't be surprised if The Underground Railroad winds up on many of the end-of-the-year literary prize shortlists, if not the least for sentences like this: "Then it comes, always – the overseer's cry, the call to work, the shadow of the master, the reminder that she is only a human being for tiny moments across the eternity of servitude." Or this: "The southern white man was spat from the loins of the devil and there was no way to forecast his next evil act."

Whitehead's sentences are magisterial, they absolutely just crackle. A blurb on the back from John Updike (presumably an older blurb, but relevant here for sure) tells us "Whitehead's writing does what writing should do; it refreshes our sense of the world." That's it, right there. On the nose.

In this novel, Whitehead has refreshed not just our sense of the world, but the world as it could have been to give us an alternate history in which the Underground Railroad is a real, physical railroad. (Why? It'll make sense when you read, but it's something you should discover on your own — it's pretty profound.) Some time in the early 19th century, a teenage slave named Cora escapes from a brutal Georgia plantation and travels on the railroad throughout the South. In each state she visits, Whitehead gives us a different alternate history, or different approach, to the "African problem." In South Carolina, for instance, blacks are relatively free, but are forced to be sterilized and terrifying medical experiments are performed on them. In North Carolina, blacks are outlawed, period. Georgia is pretty much the same as it actually was. Slaves are beaten, brutalized, raped, and basically treated like the human property they were considered to be. Just utterly devastating. Not easy to read.

All the while, a slave catcher named Ridgeway chases Cora from state to state. Cora's mother had also escaped, and Ridgeway had never been able to find her, to his eternal shame. It's not until near the end of the novel, in one of the many fascinating mini-profiles of characters Whitehead includes between each chapter, that we find out what actually happened with Cora's mother.

Another of the profiles is about a doctor in South Carolina (who treated Cora on her way through), who grave-robs for cadavers to learn more about the human body. He mentions the irony of only being able to learn about life after one is dead. And also, that it was easier to find black cadavers because their graves weren't as well guarded, and black bodies were just as useful to him as white. And, therefore: "In death the negro became a human being. Only then was he the white man's equal."

This is one of the best books of the year. I enjoyed the hell out of reading it, but it frequently had to be put aside for a minute, a deep breath required, before continuing. It's a truly great piece of fiction.


Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Before The Fall: The Summer's Go-To Plane/Beach Read

A small charter plane full of rich people crashes just after takin goff from Martha's Vineyard. A middle-aged artist named Scott — a last-minute addition to the flight — survives, saves a 4-year-old boy who is the only other person who lived through the crash, and swims eight miles to safety with the boy on his back.

How did this happen? And, more importantly, why? Why did some survive and others didn't? What does it mean?

Amidst a plethora of red herrings and several digressions on life in this modern age, the media, and fate, these are the questions we wrestle with throughout Noah Hawley's big-hit summer novel, Before the Fall. It doesn't sound like the typical formula for a summer-read thriller, but it reads quite quickly, and it's a mystery that (hopefully) will keep you guessing until the end.

As we progress through Scott's post-crash life, we also get the backstories of the principle characters who died in the crash — a media mogul who started a Fox News-like organization, and his much-younger wife. Would someone want him dead? Then there's the billionaire hedge fund manager who learns right before the flight he'll be indicted for money laundering. Are his investors — including non-friendly nations like North Korea — trying to silence him? There are the pilots, including a drunken playboy who's waltzed through life on the strength of his Senator uncle's nepotism, an Isreali bodyguard, a beautiful flight attendant, and the mysterious painter, Scott. These stories are important as they offer clues (maybe?) to why the plane might've crashed. Plus, they're just fun to read.

It's a terrific set-up for a mystery, especially as an odious Bill O'Reilly-like character (named Bill Cunningham) on the Fox News-like station starts pulling conspiracy theories out of thin air, baselessly wondering if the hero Scott isn't all he seems to be. This guy is a pure and unadulterated asshole, especially as we learn some of the tricks he gets up to in order to get stories and fodder for his hate-filled spewings.

Hawley (who is the creator of the TV show Fargo, and has worked in other TV capacities, in addition to publishing novels) is definitely a better-than-average thriller writer. I enjoyed the digressions and thought the novel in general was smarter than your average brain-candy plane/beach read. It's certainly not a Pulitzer-winner, but it's enjoyable — a perfect read for a long trip or a lazy summer afternoon.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

The Mirror Thief: Epically Mitchell-esque

I finished Martin Seay's epic, lengthy, intricately detailed, awe-inspiring debut novel The Mirror Thief about a month ago. And I still don't know exactly what to say about it, or to whom exactly to recommend it — other than readers who like good, challenging books (like David Mitchell writes, for instance).

But I got to see Martin Seay talk at Printer's Row Lit Fest this past weekend, and it helped crystallize some of my thoughts on the novel. He talked about how the novel had started as a writing prompt in an Experimental Fiction grad school class. The prompt was to write a story about someone telling a story about another story. And so The Mirror Thief is just that: It includes three distinct stories.

The first, which reads like a crime thriller, takes place in 2003 Las Vegas. An ex-Marine named Curtis tries to find a mysterious gambler named Stanley and runs across various shady characters throughout his odyssey through the absurd, unreality of Las Vegas. (He's staying at the Venetian, by the way. You'll see this as part of a pattern.)

The second story is in 1950s Venice Beach, California, and reads a little more like good old-fashioned literary fiction —  it's about 16-year-old Stanley hunting down the author of a book of poetry titled The Mirror Thief. There's some really cool stuff in this part of the story about readers' relationships with books, and subsequently, authors — who may or may not disappoint them if they meet in person (incidentally, Martin Seay decidedly DID NOT disappoint when I saw him in person. He says things like this: "When you spend all day hanging out with imaginary people, you can get a little weird.") 

Seay at Lit Fest
Finally, the third story whisks us back to 1592 Venice, Italy, where we delve into the "actual" story of the person chronicled in the book of poetry Stanley loves. His name is Crivano, and he's mixed up in a plot to kidnap mirror makers. At Lit Fest, Seay explained that Venice had nearly a monopoly on mirror-making, and if you had that skill, leaving Venice could get you killed. So smuggling mirror makers out of Venice was kind of a big deal. This section is intricately chronicled (almost to a fault) with historical detail and is really fascinating.

Whew! Got all that? The nested stories allow Seay to explore myriad themes from myriad angles. What is real? How do we know what is real? What is luck, and is it real? Is reality simply a reflection of what we hope/want it to be? Etc. 

Seay mentioned he spent five years writing this and seven finding a publisher — it's an amazing amount of time for such an amazing book to finally see the light of day. Thank goodness it did. This has been a novel slowly gaining word-of-mouth momentum — and truly, if you're a David Mitchell fan, you will like this, I think. 

(Totally random side note: Seay is married to novelist, poet, and essayist Kathleen Rooney, who penned one of my favorite novels of 2014, O, Democracy! The two make up quite the Chicago literary power couple!) 

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Lily And The Octopus: About a Fiercely Loved Dachshund

This is a tough one — how do I, in good conscience, recommend this novel, Lily and the Octopus, by Steven Rowley (out today!), which is about a dog with brain cancer? Especially considering that the dog is a dachshund. Especially considering my wife and I have two dachshunds. But I do — I recommend it wholeheartedly. Because as sad as it can be, it's also charming, and funny, and often surprisingly profound. It's a just good read that spans the emotional spectrum — and after all, that's what you want from fiction, isn't it? To feel?  I do, for sure.

Okay, so technically, telling you the dog has cancer is a bit of a spoiler — Lily is the dog, and the octopus is a metaphor for a brain tumor. But if you decide to read this, you learn this fact pretty quickly, and in my opinion, you deserve to know this going in. As well, if you've read anything about this book before diving in, you'll figure it out. And I'm sure glad I knew going in. The other piece of info worth knowing: This isn't complete fictional, which actually adds another layer of emotional depth to this story. The author Rowley also had a dachshund which also had brain cancer, and so this novel is part memoir, part catharsis.

So we go back and forth in time to when the narrator (a guy named Ted) adopted Lily, has relationship troubles with his boyfriend, suffers through Lily's back surgery (a common problem with the breed — luckily, neither of our dachshunds have had that issue yet), and tries to destroy the evil octopus that has perched itself on Lily's head.

The highlight of this novel is the narrator's voice — self-deprecating at times, defiant and fierce at times, vulnerable and sad at times, but always smart, interesting and fun to read. Of course, both Lily and the octopus talk, too. Talking animals are always a risky decision, but the whimsy with which this novel's written makes this feel perfectly apt — talking animals fit in fine.

One of the gauges, though it's almost a too-easy comparison, to whether or not you might like reading this is if you enjoyed Garth Stein's The Art of Racing in the Rain. I loved that novel, but like this one, it absolutely leveled me. I've had many conversations with dog lovers who could not read that one. So if that's you, this probably isn't the book for you, either. However, if you love dog books, and you love to put through an emotional wringer, this is DEFINITELY the book for you.

Yoshi and Baxter are new Steven Rowley fans