Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Home Fire: Mesmerizing and Intense

Kamila Shamsie's new novel Home Fire (it's out today!) is one of the more mesmerizing, intense novels I've read in a long time. It's about a London family — daughter Isma, and twins Aneeka and Parvaiz — whose mother died awhile ago and whose father abandoned them and died after being captured fighting for the Taliban in Afghanistan. He was held at the infamous Bagram prison (where he was likely tortured), and was being transported to Guantanamo Bay when he died mysteriously.  Isma and her siblings don't know what happened to him, or even where his body is, and no one in London — least of all their ambitious-at-the-cost-of-integrity Member of Parliament, Karamat Lone — will help them.

The novel begins as Isma is traveling to America to go to graduate school — Parvaiz and Aneeka are 19 years old now (she is 28) and she feels like having basically raised the twins herself, she can finally set out on her own path. In Amherst, she randomly runs into Lone's son, Eamonn. They form a tenuous bond, and when Eamonn (a sort of drifter not dissimilar to Donnie Jr or Eric Trump) returns to London, he meets the rest of Isma's family including Isma's beautiful younger sister Aneeka. Meanwhile, the other twin Parvaiz has been recruited by a man who knew his father during the jihad. Parvaiz becomes enamored of the notion of the Islamic State and whisks himself away to Raqqa to join ISIS.

The novel spends one section on the specific story of each of these five characters (Isma, Eamonn, Parvaiz, Aneeka, Karamat), giving the novel as a whole more nuance than may otherwise have been possible. In fact, one of the themes of the novel is simply the importance of nuance. Too often, politicians like Karamat Lone try explicitly with rhetoric and policy to score cheap points by appealing to the lowest common denominator —by scaring their constituents with the notion of "other," not taking into account nuance. Basic humanity (along with any shred of their decency and integrity) is often the victim. And that's the case here, too. 

Home Fire is also a story about family loyalty, even in the most terrible circumstances. When a family member betrays his country, still, isn't his family entitled to learn about what happened to him? If a twin brother realizes the enormity of a mistake, shouldn't he, with an appropriate punishment, still be afforded basic human dignity? Shamsie deals with these touchy subjects gracefully and lucidly. 

Indeed, this is one of the more beautifully written novels I've read in a long time. But it reads at the pace almost of a thriller — an seemingly impossible trick I still have no idea Shamsie pulled off. I forgot to breathe from time to time, especially on the last page, which...just...wow.

This is definitely a favorite of the year. I loved it for its urgency and how current it feels. Highly recommended! 

(Side note: Apparently, and I didn't know this until finishing the novel, this story is a modern retelling of the Sophocles play, Antigone. But you don't need to know anything about that play to enjoy this — I didn't. I'm sure it helps if you do, but it's definitely not necessary.) 

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Touch and Hello, Sunshine: Two New Novels On The "Evils" of Social Media

Courtney Maum's fun, insightful new novel Touch looks at what can happen when technology becomes a stand-in for actual human connection. But this isn't some near-future dystopia, nor is it a preachy screed against the "evils" of social media. It's a funny, modern novel about how one woman learns a valuable lesson and revises everything she thought she knew.

The story is about a woman named Sloane who makes her living as a highly successful, highly accurate trend forecaster. After 10 years in Paris, she goes to work for a huge NYC tech company called Mammoth that is putting on a conference called ReProduction specifically tailored for purposefully childless people. While working to develop products for non-breeders, Sloane starts to be annoyed with how everyone in her meetings is so distracted all the time, so she petitions the company's CEO to ban cell phones from meetings, and to implement an old-school suggestion box. Both work better than she could've imagined, and so this is the beginning of Sloane's "A-ha" moment. 

Meanwhile, her partner Roman, a French intellectual and "neo-sensualist" is working on the theory that touch is over — that no one wants to touch each other in any capacity, even sex. He thinks that technology, specifically virtual reality, is a much more personal experience than actual intimacy.

When Sloane discovers this theory, first she's furious with her idiot boyfriend. And then she realizes how much she actually longs for the pre-social media days of face-to-face interaction and touch, and begins a campaign at Mammoth to return to simple gestures of affection: conversations in person, hugs, etc.

But this touches off a war at Mammoth (which has now brought on Roman, as well). On one side, is Sloane's camp: Those who think we've hit the tipping point and a pushback against the impersonality of social media is imminent. People will return to touch and real intimacy. On the other, is Roman and his cult-like followers, who think intimacy is meaningless. If I had one problem with this novel, it's that this is sort of a false choice — by an reasonable measure Roman's position is ridiculous (and made more so by the fact that he wears a Zentai suit so that he literally cannot be touched). But I also understand why Maum made Roman's theories so absurd as to seem cult-like: It's so it would be easier to root for Sloane and her old-school ideas. And it works! We do.

I loved Sloane as a character, and enjoyed watching her learn her lessons, often painfully. Maum is fearless, sharp writer, and this is a terrifically enjoyable novel. 

In Laura Dave's Hello, Sunshine, a less successful novel than Touch, the idea is that modern culture's obsession with celebrity gives these celebrities free reign to be inauthentic — indeed, to downright lie — as much as is required to maintain that celebrity. As well, even if we're not celebrities, all of our social media feeds are carefully curated versions of ourselves — that online, we're not our authentic selves either. And while that's true, it's kind of a simplistic backbone for a novel — especially one that, while mostly an amusing and light summer read, has some other plot-related issues as well. 

Here we have Sunshine Mackenzie, a burgeoning YouTube star for a cooking show where every Sunday night she makes for her architect husband Danny a recipe from her wholesome farm childhood. She's signed a book deal for a cook book and is about to get her own show on the Food Network. The only problem is, it's all a lie. In fact, Sunshine is from Montauk and her cooking show was created by a sleazy producer named Ryan who creates Sunshine's backstory and steals recipes from his own wife. (Side note: Plot problem No. 1 with this novel is that as soon as Sunshine gets even a modicum of fame, it would've taken about 5 minutes for someone at TMZ to get a tip complete with a high school yearbook photo etc., that she's not from a farm in the midwest, she's from friggin' Long Island.)

Though she has a seemingly great life and her star is rising, things go south for Sunshine right at the beginning of the novel — she's hacked and not only outed as a fraud, but also it's revealed she had an affair with Ryan. Her husband leaves her, she loses her fancy NY apartment, her book deal, new show, and her dignity. She retreats to Montauk where she tries to make amends with her estranged older sister named Rain (yes, Sunshine and Rain — their father was a little crazy). Will Sunshine find out who really was behind the hack that ruined her life? Will she find some measure of redemption, or will she always be known as a fraud?

This is a quick, airy summer read not to be taken too seriously. Again, at least in my case, that's because as soon as you start questioning parts of the plot, you'll want to throw it across the room. The points the novel makes about our obsession with celebrity, and the positive feedback loop that creates with celebrities' need to maintain that celebrity at all costs, as well as the inauthenticity of social media, are good ones but, not exactly earth-shatteringly original. Still, they're good reminders. If you're a Laura Dave fan, you'll probably dig this. I took a chance on it, and I'm not sorry I read it, but I wish I'd liked it more. 

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

My Three Favorite Running Books

It's not easy to find good running books that aren't memoirs that tell the same basic story: "I had a major life event or 'come-to-Jesus' moment. So I started running. It was really hard. But SO REWARDING." As a relatively new runner (one marathon under my belt, one scheduled for October), I love running books that break out of this mold; books that make me really want to lace 'em up and go chase the sun. Here are my three favorites:

3. What I Talk about When I Talk about Running, by Haruki Murakami — This was one of the first running books I read (I read it last March), and I when I finished it I went out the next morning and bombed out 13 miles — a distance I'd never even approached before. It was that inspiring! Murakami gives us tons of fascinating insight about the mindset of a runner, and how closely it parallels that of a writer — most notably, discipline. Murakami chronicles his training for the NYC Marathon and an ultramarathon that nearly killed him. During this 50-mile race, he describes passing through a "physical door," after which he didn't feel his body (or the pain) anymore, and that's how he was able to finish. (He quotes a somewhat cheesy but inspirational phrase among distance runners, "Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional.") Fascinating stuff. It's a short read — less than 200 pages — but really packs a punch for the inspiration!

2. The Long Run, by Catriona Menzies-Pike — I loved this book that's part memoir of Australian writer Menzies-Pike's life as a late-blooming runner, and part history of running generally, but specifically women's running. Menzies-Pike lost both her parents in a plane crash when she was 20, spent 10 years sort of drifting and drinking, but then discovered running at age 30. She wasn't someone who immediately loved it, or who saw running as a way to give her life structure, or anything like most running memoirs proclaim. Instead, she signed up for a popular race in Sydney because it was just something to do. Eventually, she grew to love running and before she knew it (though after a few fits and starts) she was running marathons.

This book (it just came out in May of this year; it's one of my favorites of the year!) landed for me because like Menzies-Pike, I didn't have a "life-long love affair with running," or any of the other cliches you often see in running memoirs. I started running the day after my 39th birthday to get in shape and lose some weight. I had no idea I'd be running marathons either, and actually enjoying it!

The book's also fascinating learning about the early pioneers of women's running — Kathrine Switzer, Bobbi Gibb, and more — and all they had to endure just to be runners. As well, Menzies-Pike gives her memoir a decidedly feminist bent, explaining the parts of being a woman runner even today that are, at best, annoying at worst, outright harassment. She even spends a chapter looking for runners in literature, which is fascinating — especially as she notes the dearth of women runners.

I don't think I was exactly the intended reader for this book, but I loved it nonetheless. Whether you're a Boston Qualifier or a Sunday fun-runner, this book has something for you. I learned as much as I was inspired to keep running from this one.

1. Born to Run, by Christopher McDougall —Here's the one running book most every runner (and lots of non-runners) have read. I am ashamed to admit I finally just read it last week — it's one of those books I'd always meant to read, but always put off for some reason. Glad I finally did!

McDougall chronicles his journey into the barren mountains and canyons in Mexico searching for a hidden tribe of super runners called the Tarahumara Indians. He eventually finds them with the help of a mysterious gringo who goes by the moniker El Caballo Blanco who has sort of joined up with their tribe — he's a quirky, fascinating dude, to say the least.

McDougall tells us about the history of ultrarunning, delving into the Leadville Trail 100 — an almost mythologically difficult 100-mile race that takes place every year in the Rocky Mountains. This race was many Americans' first introduction to the Tarahumara, who competed and won the race for two years in the early 1990s.

McDougall takes us on a few tangents — during one of which he famously rails against the running shoe industry, citing studies that supposedly prove that running shoes neither help prevent injuries nor make runners faster than running barefoot. Sure. He also spends several dozen pages on a theory of evolution. Did humans actually evolve to be distance runners (literally born to run), and therefore, be to be able run prey to death? Both of these digressions are interesting, but I'm not sure how much stock I put in either one.

The book concludes with an absolutely pulse-pounding story of the first race pitting American champion ultramarathoners (Scott Jurek, Jenn Shelton, etc) against the Tarahumara in a race in the 100-degree heat and rocky canyons of the Tarahumara's home. It's an incredible event — and one McDougall even took part himself, pushing himself to his absolute limit.

I loved this book, even with a few hesitations. McDougall has a tendency to sort of gloss over how difficult ultramarathoning really is and, also, out of necessity, needs to invent a few details here and there for the story's sake. But on the whole, if you're going to read one running book, this is the one I'd recommend.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Afterlife: Mythological Battle of Good vs. Evil

No two ways about it: Marcus Sakey's new novel, Afterlife, is ambitious. Even though it clocks in at only about 300 pages, it has elements of several recognizable creative triumphs: The movie Inception, Stephen King's Dark Tower series, Gaiman's American Gods, and Nelson DeMille's best police thrillers, for starters. Hell, there's even a love story here. Perhaps this is why Sakey admits in the acknowledgments, "This one was a beast." Sakey spent "nearly a decade" with this novel, writing and rewriting, fleshing out ideas, and solving problems.

The result is a polished, compelling, inventive "alt-fic" (a genre Sakey just invented) novel that's by turns smart as hell and as shocking as they come. This was a novel I had to put down several times in astonishment, take a deep breath, and then keep reading. It's really mesmerizing in spots — Sakey gets pacing just right here, which is no small feat given the relative complexity (especially in the last third of the novel), the characters, and just how all this fits together.

Here is what happens: Will Brody is an FBI agent chasing a serial killer in Chicago who gets his jollies sniping innocent victims at gas stations and grocery stories. Acting on a tip, Brody is searching for clues in an abandoned church, when it blows up. He's dead. This happens on page 38 — a risky decision for any novelist to kill a main character so early. (Not a spoiler: This is on the back blurb.)

His boss and erstwhile secret lover, the ultra-competent director of the FBI's Chicago office, Claire McCoy, vows to find the killer(s). And while doing so, she also must mourn in secret because no one knows she and Brody were together.

Meanwhile, Brody wakes up. Sort of. He's in a place he comes to understand is an "echo" of real-life — an afterlife that resembles real life in many ways, but has many glaring differences as well.

In this afterlife, there's a choice, just as there is when you're alive: You can choose to be good, and help other people. Or you can choose to be evil, and live only for selfishness. In the opening pages of the novel, we actually get a glimpse of what this evil looks like. And it's terrifying. So Brody soon finds himself stuck in this mythological battle of good vs evil in the afterlife. That's all you need to know plot-wise to get you started. What happens with Claire and Brody's cross-dimension love story? How does Brody fight this mythological and powerful evil? Read it, man. It's worth the trip!

One of the things I loved about this novel is Sakey's vision of how the afterlife works. I got to sit down and talk with him about it a few weeks ago as I worked on a piece for the Chicago Review of Books, and Sakey told me the sort of spark for the novel was how we're so sure that there is going to be an answer for what happens when we die. So what happens if there's either not an answer, or the answer is completely unexpected? Sakey's afterlife has some very specific rules in how it behaves and how its occupants can behave in it — and spelling these out had the potential to bog down what is otherwise an extremely fast-moving story. But Sakey describes these "rules" quickly and clearly and moves on. It's a definite strength of the novel.

Another strength here is dialogue — Sakey is funny. Sakey is cool. And after talking with him for an hour, it's apparent how much of his personality comes out on these pages in dialogue. He mentioned that to him the patron saint of dialogue is Aaron Sorkin, and you can see that influence here. Dialogue is quick, snappy, sharp, and often really funny.

This is one of my favorite novels of the year — I really enjoyed it, both for sheer entertainment, but also for its inventiveness. I had a blast with book. Highly recommended!

(Side note: Ron Howard's company Imagine Entertainment has already optioned the novel, and Sakey is writing the screenplay! He said he loved this book enough, and that his vision of it was so clear, that he thought it was worth taking on the screenplay himself. I'm really hoping this one makes it to production!) 

Thursday, July 13, 2017

The Hearts of Men: What Does It Mean To Be a Good Person?

Nickolas Butler writes with more empathy and feeling for his characters — even those who act like jerks — than just about any novelist I've ever read. That was definitely true in Shotgun Lovesongs — one of my favorite books of the last five years. It's true in his terrific story collection, Beneath the Bonfire. And it's perhaps most true in his new novel, The Hearts of Men.

This is readily apparent in one of the opening scenes of this fantastic, heart-wrenching novel: Thirteen-year-old Nelson's parents throw him a birthday party, and he waits patiently for the boys in his Boy Scouts troop to arrive. But they never do. It's a long, excruciating day for poor Nelson. But finally, an older boy named Jonathan arrives, shoots some arrows with Nelson, and then having completed his obligation, takes his leave. It's a near-perfect way to open a novel: We immediately feel just gutted for poor, nerdy, friendless Nelson. 

And then it gets worse: We follow Nelson to his beloved Boy Scout camp in northern Wisconsin. There, he's constantly picked on — the other boys taking perverse pleasure in pulling particularly mean pranks on him. And even more sadly, he doesn't get much support from his father, a typical emotionless 1960s fellow, who doesn't exactly wear his emotions on his sleeve. His father seems more embarrassed by his son than protective of him. Jonathan, the older popular boy, who seems to be a good kid, is Nelson's only agent. 

So we follow Nelson through various misadventures at scouting camp, and then we jump forward 30 years. In the second part, it's the mid-1990s, and we follow middle-aged Jonathan, who now has a teenage son of his own named Trevor. Jonathan is preparing to take Trevor to the Boy Scout camp, per tradition, even though Scouting isn't really en vogue anymore. Nelson is now the camp's director after a stint in Vietnam, and he and Jonathan have remained acquaintances through the years. Jonathan has kind of morphed from a good kid to a bad father and husband. But he's an affable fellow, so it's hard to dislike him. Throughout this part, we learn a new, more modern definition of manhood in a sort of "what not to do" way. Jonathan pesters his son, has an affair, and just generally does everything a good father and husband probably shouldn't.

Finally, the third part, takes place in 2019. This may be the best, and most harrowing, part. It's about yet another trip to the camp — this time with Trevor's son, Thomas. Only this time, Trevor's wife Rachel goes on the trip, which creates some consternation among the other fathers there. Nelson is still there, and he and Rachel become good friends. In this part, we find out what it means to be a truly despicable man. It's a hard section to read at times, but again, probably the best.

So on the whole, this three-part novel is about not just want it means to be a good man, but simply what it means to be a good person. Are you a good parent? A good friend? Are you a faithful spouse? Can you be a good person if you're not any one of those things? Butler seems to be wrestling with these questions as much as he asks his reader to. And that's why it's so apparent how much he cares about his characters — which of course, we do too, then.

I loved this book. Butler (who, by the way, is reading and signing at RoscoeBooks on August 16!) is a must-read writer for me now. And this novel is a sure sign that he's only getting better. Highly, highly recommended!