Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Winter Reading: Four Mini-Reviews of Great Books

I went on rather a bookish hot streak over the long holiday break — four pretty great books in a row. Let me tell you about them!

The Book of Unknown Americans, by Cristina Henríquz — Let's start with my favorite of the four — this multi-narrator novel about immigrants from several Latin American countries who all live in the same apartment building in Delaware is as timely as it is heartbreaking.

Alma has came to the US from Mexico with her husband Arturo to enroll their daughter Maribel, who suffered minor brain damage after an accident, in a special school. Arturo, a successful contractor in Mexico, picks mushrooms to make ends meet. Mayor, our other narrator, is a shy awkward teenager, whose parents immigrated from Panama when he was a baby. Soon Mayor and Maribel form a connection, even as both their parents struggle to make ends meet during the great recession. Scattered throughout are the stories of others in the apartment building who all came to or stayed in the US for different, but noble, reasons. Ultimately, the point is this, as expressed by the landlord of the building, a man who himself came from Paraguay: "I know some people here think we're trying to take over, but we just want to be a part of it. We want to have our stake. This is our home, too." Or, as dramatically put by another immigrant from Mexico, as if speaking directly to any backwards racist Trump supporter: "We're the unknown Americans, the ones no one even wants to know, because they've been told they're supposed to be scared of us and because maybe if they did take the time to get to know us, they might realize that we're not that bad, maybe even that we'd a lot like them. And who would they hate then?" I loved this book — it's a novel that every white American should read, and consider carefully; an extremely important book.



Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, by David Shafer — This is a fun, fast globe-trotting thriller about a secret cabal called The Committee that is plotting to take control of all the world's personal data, and then sell it back to only those who can afford it. But this thriller, told from the perspectives of each of three main characters, is really good because it's the rare thriller that focuses more on its characters than it does its break-neck plot. The stories of a  bad ass woman named Leila, who works for an NGO in Burma, a down-and-out trust fund hipster in Portland, Oregon, and a douchey, full-of-shit self-help author (who happens to be a drunk) all converge to create a fascinating contemporary (and cautionary) tale about privacy and the Internet. This is a great book for a plane trip or a sunny beach vacation — smarter than your average thriller, but still a quick, engrossing read.


The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro — This book is NOT a great book for a plane trip or sunny beach vacation, but it's still a great novel. Ishiguro's imagery, metaphor, and layers of meaning are utterly fascinating here — there's just so much to unpack, it's the kind of novel if you read 15 times, you'd discover something new each time. On the surface, it's a story about a couple, Axl and Beatrice, in medieval England who set off on a quest to find their son. There are dragons, and Sir Gawain, and a mysterious mist that robs people of memory. This novel's an allegory of the highest order — with intimations to our own time about war and its effects (especially on children). It took me awhile to talk myself into reading this, but I'm really I glad I did. Ishiguro is a master.

If you want to read more on this book, check out this super insightful review from RoscoeBooks bookseller Emily.


The Improbability of Love, by Hannah Rothschild — This was a bit of a deep cut and a little outside my reading comfort zone, but I really liked it — Rothschild's debut novel (published Nov. 2015) is the story of an über-valuable lost painting (said painting sometimes narrates its own story at times, which, you just kind of have to deal with) and how an early-30s London woman who has been jilted by her husband finds it in a junk shop, not realizing what she's purchased. Things go a little crazy from there. The novel's been billed as a sort of satire of the uppity art world, and it certainly is that — it's often really funny. But it also has elements of art-world thriller, as well as some serious meditations on the meaning and value of art and its ability to inspire.

Monday, December 21, 2015

The New Dork Review Top 10 of 2015

Man, I love reading books. This year was an especially terrific reading year (here's my Goodreads Year in Reading, if you're interested, and how could you not be? Right?!)  — new novels from some HUGE names, like The Franzen, Harper Lee, Dr.  Seuss, Toni Morrison...though none of those wound up as one of my favorites of the year. This year, I again shattered my previous record for books read (74, and counting) and pages (26,000+). I re-read To Kill A Mockingbird, I finally got to some Toni Morrison backlist (Sula) and need to get to much more, and I read a ton of wonderful short story collections. And but so, here's my list of favorites of the year (note the difference between "favorite" and "best") — they are in no particular order, except for No. 1.

The Mark and the Void, by Paul Murray — This novel from the acclaimed Skippy Dies writer is so hilariously absurd, often laugh-out-loud funny. You wouldn't think a novel about bankers could be so entertaining, but Murray's skewering of the financial industry (along with a subplot about how fiction inspires reality) is really fun.

Between The World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates — The only non-fiction on my list, this book is a bit of a paradox. It's profound and deliberative and incredibly smart, but it's not an entirely enjoyable reading experience. It's only after you finish do you realize how good it is, and that it really should be required reading for everyone. Empathy. It's not underrated.

Beneath the Bonfire, by Nickolas Butler —
This short story collection follows Butler's magnificent debut novel, Shotgun Lovesongs. This collection is just as good...if not better. We're still in rural Wisconsin, but the stories give Butler more opportunity to introduce to a wide range of wonderful characters.

Saint Mazie, by Jami Attenberg — Fierce! That's the best way to describe Mazie Phillips-Gordon, the star of Attenberg's novel about what it means to be a good person. Mazie helps homeless people in NYC during the Great Depression, but is also a boozer, smoker, and sexer of married men. She's a wonderful, nuanced character, and this is a wonderful story told with Attenberg's deft, hip style.

The Kind Worth Killing, by Peter Swanson — If there was any book for which I was a nutjob evangelist this year, it was this one. It pains me to see The Girl On The Train (though it's a fine read) wind up on "best of the year" lists, because this is sooooooo much better.

Glow, by Ned Beauman — This will easily be the most divisive pick on this list, but I just loved how much fun it was. I think about 75 percent of people I've recommended it to haven't liked it. It's a silly, complicated book, to be sure. But I just had a great time with it.

A Brief History of Seven Killings, by Marlon James — Cheating on this one, because technically it came out in late 2014. But the 2015 Booker Prizer winner is so phenomenally good, I had to include it. Literally dozens of voices build a narrative about Jamaican gangsters (and an assassination attempt on Bob Marley), CIA agents, journalists, drug dealers, and hit men. Whenever I talk about this book, I can't help but compare it to The Wire...only this is better. Utterly amazing.

Fates and Furies, by Lauren Groff — There was a 99.9 percent chance I was going to love this story about a marriage before I even read the first word. And I did. It's one of those novels that I am simply in awe of — how did she put this together, and write it so beautifully? 

The Tsar of Love and Techno, by Anthony Marra — One of the last books I read in 2015 is one of the best. From pre-WWII Siberia, to modern day Chechnya, these nested, tightly connected stories are stunningly good individually, but when you consider how they fit together as a whole, it's just mind-boggling..  

A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara — This book, man. This effing book. It crushed my soul into a little cube, which it then used for bouillon. I read this book in February, and still can't get these characters out of my head. A harrowing, masterful, fascinating, utterly wonderful novel — not just my favorite of 2015, but the best thing I've read in a long, long, long time.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Six Fantastic Overlooked 2015 Books

We can't all read everything, and often, some terrific novels slip through the cracks. Here are six I was lucky enough to catch this year — all that didn't get nearly the recognition or readership they deserved. If you're looking for a diamond in the rough, check out any of these six fantastic books.

Days of Awe, by Lauren Fox — This great novel about grief cracks my list for a couple of reasons: 1) It's one of the funnier sad novels I've read in a long time, and 2) It takes place in Milwaukee — which gets it many bonus points in my book! This is a hip, modern story about adult friendships tested by tragedy — and it packs rather the emotional punch. Fox is a smooth, witty, smart writer.

The Knife, by Ross Ritchell — Ritchell, who is a former special forces soldier, writes his debut novel about special forces troops operating in "Afghanipakiraqistan" — the nebulous theater of war these days. It's an ultra-authentic-feeling war novel, but what I liked about it most is that it really gets to the heart of the moral dilemma some soldiers wrestle with regarding killing and death. The novel is also pitch perfect in terms of capturing the camaraderie of soldiers at war. If you're a fan of modern war novels, give this one a shot. And if you liked the movie Zero Dark Thirty, there's a good chance you'll dig this too.

Foreign Gods, Inc., by Okey Ndibe — Cheating a little here, because this was a late 2014 novel, but I read it in paperback in 2015, so it counts. It's a strange story, mixing myth and reality, about a Nigerian immigrant taxi driver who returns to his tiny village to steal the village's god, in the hopes of selling it to a NYC art dealer. As you can imagine, things don't go as planned. (And I don't mind admitting, I was drawn to this novel by its terrific cover art.)

Beneath the Bonfire, by Nickolas Butler — This terrific collection of short stories will also be on my overall "Best of 2015" list (stay tuned). Butler's follow-up to his novel Shotgun Lovesongs, which was also one of my favorite books of last year, definitely cements his place as a must-read writer for me. He's really terrific, and if you liked Shutgun Lovesongs, you'll love this collection, too — the setting (rural and small-town Wisconsin) and characters are rather recognizable.

Bonita Avenue, by Peter Buwalda — Almost nobody read (or has even heard of ) this crazy Dutch novel about a terribly dysfunctional family. But if you're a sucker for a story about bad things happening to bad people as a result of making really, really bad decisions, this is a novel for you. Part Philip Roth (sexual deviance), part Jonathan Franzen (dysfunctional family), part Coen Brothers (violence!), but all grouchy Dutch! 

All My Puny Sorrows, by Miriam Toews — I read this for a book club, and wasn't expecting to enjoy this tale of sisterhood, one of whom is desperately depressed, as much as I did. It was a tough read at times, not pulling any punches in how it treats the issue of suicide. And the questions it makes the reader consider aren't easy either: What would you do if someone you loved simply didn't want to live anymore? But ultimately, it feels complete and profound, and with characters who stay with you.

Friday, December 11, 2015

The Tsar of Love and Techno: On Art, Life, War, and Peace (Phenomenal!)

If you read Anthony Marra's much-acclaimed 2013 novel A Constellation of Vital Phenomena — a harrowing, beautiful, brilliant novel about the wars in Chechnya — then, like me, you've been waiting patiently for his next thing. Thankfully, the wait wasn't long. Here it is — a collection of interconnected stories (truthfully, this reads more like a novel than a short story collection) titled The Tsar of Love and Techno that is, in a word, phenomenal.

There are nine distinct stories, but characters recur, constantly building the overall story — similar to, say, Jennifer Egan's, A Visit From the Goon Squad. At the center is a minor work by a Russian painter — a landscape scene of a meadow outside of Grozny that carries significance in many different ways to many different characters over the course of the book. The stories range from the Siberian nickel-mining and former Gulag town of Kirovsk in both pre-WWII and present day, to the streets of St. Petersburg, and to Grozny, Chechnya at various times.

What's wonderful about this book is how tightly knit and neatly nested these stories are. A brief anecdote about one character in one story becomes the basis for another story later. This is a character-driven book, and these are wonderful people — a Russian movie star/beauty queen, a Russian oligarch billionaire, an "art-restorer" in the time of Stalin whose job is to touch up art to remove dissidents...and also to make Stalin look better, a Grozny bureaucrat and art lover, a Russian gangster and soldier-for-hire named Kolya (if there's a "main character," its him), a St. Petersburg scam-artist named Sergei, who gets a list of Americans to scam from Tom Hanks' Facebook fan page (because those people MUST be naïve...hilarious.) These wonderful characters flit in and out of each others' lives, constructing a cornerstone theme about how life imitates art imitates life until the two are nearly indistinguishable. Also, war is horrific.

If you've read Vital Phenomena, you know this: Marra is a supremely talented writer. Perhaps the one thing I loved most about this book is his ability to evoke such a range of emotions throughout this collection as a whole, but often on the same page. One of the stories — perhaps my favorite, titled "The Grozny Tourist Bureau," — is about a fellow who is put in charge of revamping Grozny's lagging tourism industry after the wars are over and Grozny is basically a pile of rubble. It's by turns hilarious and heart-breaking, and I loved it.

I'm always a little skeptical when a writer publishes a collection of stories immediately after a hugely successful novel. But this isn't just a collection of previously published pieces. It's possible some of these were published elsewhere first (I don't want to find out, to be honest), but this book has such a deliberate, purposeful feel. It is easily one of my favorites of the year — extremely highly recommended. (By the way, its current Goodreads rating is 4.42, and it made it on NY Times list of 100 Notable Books, so it's not just me who thinks this books is terrific.)


Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Avenue of Mysteries, and Its Place in the John Irving Oeuvre

There's no pulling punches on this one: John Irving's new novel, Avenue of Mysteries, is bad. It's my least favorite of all the books of his I've read — which is 10 of his 14 novels. Yes, indeed, Avenue of Mysteries takes its place at the butt end.

It's a nearly focus-less, spaghetti-at-the-wall story, but with a totally cliché overarching theme of the intersection of dreams and memories. An aging writer named Juan Diego travels to the Philippines to honor a promise he made as a boy. During this trip, he periodically falls asleep and dreams of his childhood in Oaxaca, Mexico. His sister Lupe (the two kids are orphans) can read people's minds. They love dogs. Juan Diego is a good reader. They are devoted to Our Lady of Guadalupe. There are ghosts, demons, arguments over Catholicism, arguments over where writers get their ideas (autobiography vs imagination), there is deviant sex, there is a Jesuit-in-training who falls in love with a transvestite prostitute, there are circus performers and lions, the AIDS epidemic, Viagra, etc., etc., etc. 

It's an utter mess. And the worst part? You'd think with all these disparate elements, Irving could at least spin us a good yarn. But no. The story itself — about Juan Diego wondering around in the Philippines with two mysterious women with whom he periodically has sex and the bildungsroman-esque flashbacks/dreams to his childhood in Mexico — is, with a few exceptions here and there (the 75 or so pages about the circus were great!), totally snooze-inducing. It's long, it's often repetitive (he re-uses the same phrases, or tells us the same piece of information several times, often multiple times in the same chapter or on the same page, as if we've forgotten, and he's reminding us...or he just needed a bit of editing), and, at the end of the day, just not the same quality of story for which Irving is known.

So this makes four of Irving's last five novels that haven't even approached the level of his most famous and best works, like A Prayer for Owen Meany, which is still one of my Top Five favorite novels of all time. The Fourth Hand (2001) was okay, but just sort of odd, and a bit thin. Until I Find You (2005) was long and repetitive — my second least favorite of the 10 of Irving's novels I've read. Last Night In Twisted River (2009), however, was fantastic. I really loved it, and I thought this heralded a return to form for Irving. But then In One Person (2012) was decent, but uneven, and then with Avenue of Mysteries (2015), Irving just went off a cliff.

Is this it for him? It's definitely a conspicuous downwards trend. Indeed, I can't even say for sure that Irving, one of my erstwhile favorite writers, is a must-read for me anymore if he publishes anything new. All I do know is that reading this made me really sad, and if you're on the fence about reading it, my recommendation is to read something better.