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

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

We're All Damaged: Dude Lit For Days

Lots of dude lit seems to start with misery — a cheating wife (This Is Where I Leave You), or a lost job (The Financial Lives of the Poets), or a mysterious medical issue (Everything Changes). We're All Damaged, Matthew Norman's new novel (after his fantastic debut, Domestic Violets), starts similarly — with a divorce.

Starting with sad is an easy narrative choice, after all, but a solid one for this genre. That's because it allows our dude narrator — in this case, an early 30s dude named Andy — to go through the rest of the novel in his self-deprecating, woe-is-me tone. And we can easily laugh at/with him, because a) he doesn't have any REAL problems (I mean, these narrators aren't exactly Nelson Mandela), and b) he's damn funny!

Like Judd in This Is Where I Leave You and Tom in Domestic Violets, Andy is your prototypical dude lit narrator: amusing, but sad. After his wife dumped him during a meal at Applebee's, he cuts tail from his hometown of Omaha, and runs to New York. But now, as the novel gets going, he has to return to Omaha because his grandfather isn't doing well.

There, he's surrounded by a goofy cast of characters, each of whom exasperates him more than the last. His d-bag older brother still picks on him. His dad shoots squirrels in the backyard (with paintballs). His mother is a rising star in the conservative talk radio circuit, and may soon get a call up to the "big leagues," Fox News. (Recently, she's been terrorized by The Glitter Mafia, a group of gay men who take exception to her narrow and outmoded views on marriage equality, and take it upon themselves to periodically bomb Andy's parents' home with Ken figures, glitter, and blow-up sex dolls.) And then there's Daisy, a mysterious, tattooed, and alluring woman, who, for reasons Andy can't fathom, befriends him and professes to help him get over his divorce.

So Andy spends two weeks hanging with Daisy, drinking lots, saying goodbye to his grandfather, being annoyed by his parents, dodging the Glitter Mafia, and plotting bodily harm against his ex-wife's new fiancee, a hunky ambulance driver. And that's the novel! Not to minimize it, but we're not exactly talking Pulitzer here. It is, however, a great, fun read — and despite the avalanche of self-deprecation and 90s references, it is a novel that has some heart, as Andy slowly begins to figure it all out.

I'd definitely recommend it — a great summer read for dudes at the beach, on the plane, or wherever you just need some goofiness for a few hours.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Imagine Me Gone: A Sobering Look At Mental Illness

Adam Haslett's new novel, Imagine Me Gone, is not a cheerful book. Far from it. But it is an incredibly well-written, sobering, and insightful look at how mental illness can turn a normal family to a dysfunctional one.

But this isn't your run-of-the-mill dysfunctional family story — it's more about the dysfunction itself, and how it affects each family member differently, both in terms of their relationships with each other, and also with others.

John, a Brit, and Margaret, an American, meet and fall in love in London in the 1960s. Despite John's warning signs — including a stay in a "facility" — Margaret decides to marry John anyway. She thinks she can change him or cure him or at least help him live with his mental illness, an affliction understood in far less detail then than now.

The story unfolds from there, as they have three children, Michael, Celia, and Alec, and move back and forth between a small town in Massachusetts and England. Michael, we soon learn, carries on his father's legacy (when Michael's a kid, there's a bunch of foreshadowing and hints about how Michael and his father are inextricably tied) — afflicted with acute anxiety. Michael is a fascinating character — he loves music, using it as a way to reconnect with the world that he has so much trouble with, and becomes an activist and crusader for black rights and reparations.

Michael is something of a tortured genius — the tools are there for success, but he can't seem to arrange them properly to use them to be successful. That's especially true as he grows increasingly dependent on an increasingly huge cocktail of medications.

One of the more fascinating themes of the novel is how mental illness skews empathy. Michael is certainly capable of empathy, but not necessarily for the people he should care for. And it's increasingly difficult for his family to understand this. His mother, for instance, who also sees him as her dead husband's proxy, enables him in the wrong ways, paying his bills and encouraging the worst of his bad habits, especially after his periodic unrequited-love-related breakdowns.

His siblings, meanwhile (each chapter is told from the point of view of a different character), go about their lives with Michael sort of in the background. But it's clear their father's mental illness has messed with their heads in different ways — Celia is a successful social worker, but doesn't let herself fully trust her long-term partner. Alec, young, gay, and urbane, newly ensconced in New York City as a journalist, moves from hookup to hookup without ever forming any connections at all.

I was totally floored by this book, especially Haslett's observation and intuition for describing relationships and motivation for action. Simply put, he gets humans — and is extraordinarily skilled at rendering how we think and feel, and making sentiment relatable and readable. Again, this is definitely an uncomfortable novel, but one well worth reading. 

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Everybody's Fool: Russo's Gift To His Fans

In Richard's Russo's new novel, Everybody's Fool, we get to return to the down-and-out town of North Bath, New York, and many of the colorful characters from Russo's 1993 novel, Nobody's Fool. I really loved Nobody's Fool (as well as the movie with Paul Newman as Sully — a vastly underrated film), and so getting to visit these characters again was such a treat, a terrific unexpected surprise.

Not only is it rare in fiction to be able to get to reunite with your "friends" from a previous novel, but also it's exceedingly rare that a sequel lives up to its original. This one does. (By the way, to answer a common question: Yes, I do recommend reading Nobody's Fool before this one. You wouldn't be lost in Everybody's Fool, but Russo constantly references events in Nobody's Fool, and so it's a much better reading experience having gone through those events with these characters already.)

Everybody's Fool takes place about 10 years after the events of Nobody's Fool — so we're in about the mid-1990s now. The novel begins with a meditation on death, and then we see Douglas Raymer (last seen in Nobody's Fool getting socked in the face by Sully, and accidentally discharging his police revolver), who is now the police chief, attending the funeral of his nemesis, Judge Flatt.

Raymer (who was played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in the movie...sad trombone) is a bit of a nincompoop, but we immediately feel bad for him, as we learn that his wife, to whom he was hopelessly devoted, had been cheating on him, and then died in a freak accident — she fell down the stairs and he found at the bottom. Raymer's really the central figure in this story, as he has to deal with an escaped cobra, a hot shot young office from the rival town, and several other indignities that seemingly are only put in his path to make his life difficult. There's some silliness with Raymer — he develops a sort of voice-in-his-head alter ego at one point, which is a little...goofy. But just go with it. I mean, it's Richard Russo! 

While a lot of the story is Raymer's, Sully, Carl Roebuck (the shady contractor played by Bruce Willis in the movie), and Rub all feature prominently as well, and they're all up to their old tricks. Rub wishes he could spend more time with his friend Sully, who he worships. Carl may or may not be bankrupt, and is now living in the upper floor apartment where Sully used to live (a metaphor if there ever was one). And Sully, well, he's still exactly the same — pushing everyone's buttons, being generally cantankerous, and basically holding the town together by a thread. What's changed, though, is that Sully's been diagnosed with a heart condition and may only have a couple years left — a fact which  he's keeping secret from everyone. Even so, Sully is just as great here as he was in Nobody's Fool — one of favorite characters in all of literature.

Like Nobody's Fool (and many of other Russo's novels) the highlight of this novel is Russo's keen eye for small town life, "politics," and dialogue. Whether on a bar stool or a middle-of-the-night "grave robbing" expedition, Russo just gets people. And much of this is as funny as it is in insightful. As with many Russo novels, this also has its own inside jokes and repeated references. You feel like you're in on the jokes with them. I love this about how Russo tells a story — the reader feels included.

If you're a Russo fan, this is a must read — as Janet Maslin said in the NY TImes, "a delightful return to form." I couldn't have been more delighted myself to read this. Russo's one of my favorites, and this is vintage. Loved it.