Thursday, January 11, 2018

The Changeling (Review): A Genre-Defying Modern Fairy Tale

There are novels that defy easy categorization...and then there's The Changeling, by Victor Lavalle. This novel is nuts, in the best possible way. It's basically a modern fairy tale about how our parents either mess us up or send us out adequately prepared to deal with the world. That's a massive oversimplification for this massively entertaining novel, but it's the gist.

It starts mundanely enough — with a boy meets girl story. Apollo Kagwa, New Yorker, meets, falls in love with, and marries, a librarian named Emma. Soon, they have a child — delivered on a subway train during a power outage (a near-mythological birth!)— they name Brian, after Apollo's father. This is odd, though, because Apollo's father abandoned he and his mother when Apollo was four. But he left behind a children's picture book he used to read to Apollo depicting a fairy tale where a child is stolen by a goblin. This is foreshadowing at its finest.

Emma and Apollo begin having marital problems which culminate in....boy, you just have to read this to find out what happens. Suffice it to say, their baby disappears, and Apollo spends the rest of the novel — an odyssey through New York City, to a mysterious island inhabited by women and finally to the only forest in New York City, a park in Queens — trying to find his child and his wife.

This novel is so cleverly written, incorporating tropes from myths (I mean, dude's name is Apollo, for one), to fairy tales (bread crumbs, evil parents, etc.), to even Biblical themes (which of course, depending on your own beliefs, may actually just be myth as well). But this is novel thoroughly modern — there's bits here cautioning about privacy issues with social media, specifically, and the potential dangers of technology, generally. These parts are a nice juxtaposition with Apollo's profession of used book dealer. Indeed, it's through his job — selling a first-edition, signed To Kill A Mockingbird — that he meets the mysterious William, who becomes a major part of what happens.

As things get weirder and Apollo is less and less sure about everything he thought he knew about reality, the novel gets increasingly violent as well. Apollo is sort of tested to the lengths of his own humanity. What will he be willing to do to save his child?

I loved this book - it's really unlike anything I've ever read. It didn't garner too much attention when it was published last June, but it's showed up on several "Underrated Books of the Year" lists, including this one from Bookstr. If you want to read something wholly unique, check out this terrific book!

Monday, January 8, 2018

The End Of The World Running Club (Review): There Is No Finish Line

There are lots of reason to take up running. To lose weight. To feel better, etc. I started running a couple years ago because I desperately needed to do something to stem the tide of quickly approaching middle age. But if you're Ed Hill of Scotland, you start running because if you ever want to see your family again, you have 500 miles to cover and only three weeks to do it... (Cue dramatic movie trailer music...) And oh yeah, it's the apocalypse!

That's the juicy setup for Adrian J. Walker's novel The End of the World Running Club, a story of Ed's fight for survival traversing the British Isle after civilization has been basically destroyed by a massive meteor shower.

Ed's kind of schmuck, frankly. He's a bad father, a worse husband, and is nursing a worsening drinking problem. So, to him, an apocalypse might not be the worst thing in the world. He's just about had enough anyway:
"The truth is I was tired of it all. I was tired of the clamor and the din of the world that made less sense by the day and a life that had me just where it wanted. The truth is that the end of the world, for me at least, came as a relief."
That's not a super cheery sentiment (though I did kind of laugh when I read those lines — it's not too much of a stretch these days to root for the end of the world, or at least a huge change to how things are now, right?), and it doesn't exactly put you in Ed's corner. He's not your traditional hero of the apocalypse, that's for sure.

But so, a series of events result in Ed being separated from his family, and we learn that evacuation boats are leaving from the southern tip of England with his family on Christmas day — 21 days hence.

So Ed starts running. He's not sure why. It's not a conscious decision. And he's never done it before. He just needs to run. With a crew of four others, Ed begins making his way south through a devastated post-apocalyptic landscape.

The thing I enjoyed most about this novel (and why I picked it up in the first place) is Ed's thoughts on running. Before the meteors hit, and life was normal, Ed had admitted he'd been lazy — that his kids had been a valid justification in his mind not to have the time or energy to work out. And not only that, but he'd also hated runners because he thought they were just showing off, rubbing it in his face with their long strides as he stood outside a pub smoking a cigarette. They are fit and in shape and he's a fat dumb drunk. I loved that part — I had similar thoughts about runners (usually while standing outside a bar smoking a cigarette, often while day-drinking) before I started running. And even post-apocalypse, when Ed starts running, he still hates it, it's still draining. It takes a while for him to break through the proverbial wall and embrace running.

Even if you're not a runner and could care less about running, there's still plenty here to keep you interested. It's also a novel about how people — both good and evil — deal with the apocalypse, and how it makes them more good or more evil. Ed and his crew encounter several other survivors, both friends and foes, as they traverse the country. Some help, some don't. And Walker's pace is breakneck, things move along rather quickly.

So this was a fun read — it freshens up the post-apocalyptic thriller genre just a bit. There's plenty that's familiar, but turning this into kind of a running novel was a neat take.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Future Home Of The Living God: Terrifying, All-Too-Realistic Dystopia

The most terrifying dystopias in fiction are scariest because of how closely they predict how the world could actually be. The resemblance to real life is one of the many reasons why National Book Award winner Louise Erdrich’s new novel, Future Home of the Living God, is so fantastic…and frightening. In this novel, babies are born as underdeveloped human-like creatures that can’t support themselves, and scientists don’t understand why. The leading theory is that evolution has reversed, or as Erdrich’s protagonist, 26-year-old Cedar Hawk Songmaker, explains on the first page: “Apparently – I mean, nobody knows – our world is running backward. Or forward. Or maybe sideways, in a way as yet ungrasped.”

Because of this crisis, reason and rationality have all but gone away and society itself is slowly devolving into authoritarianism. Streets are renamed after Bible verses. Neighbors turn on each other. Panic begets panic. Civility dies. Society has gone backwards, too.

But this novel is less about the “world” in which it takes place and more about the characters’ ability to navigate it. Erdrich deftly uses the “rules” of her world to explore how rapid change and fear can strip basic human empathy, dignity, and kindness. But it can also bring about instances of amazing courage and heroism.

This is also a novel about motherhood. Cedar, who is four months pregnant, writes this story as a diary to her unborn child. The novel unfolds in three distinct acts. In the first Cedar, who lives in Minneapolis and was raised by adoptive parents Glen and Sara, goes to visit her birth mother on the Ojibwe Reservation, ostensibly to learn if there are any hereditary diseases in her family. But also, as she sees the world crashing down around her, wants to find out why she was given up at birth.

As Cedar tells the story, she frequently reflects on her pregnancy, writing about each stage of her baby’s physical development — the baby has fingernails now, the baby’s synapses are forming and firing. Given the external circumstances – that other babies are being born underdeveloped, the effect of these reflections are poignant, and heart-breakingly hopeful.

As society continues to deteriorate, the authorities search for “normal” babies and begin rounding up women, both pregnant and not, fearing the human race is going extinct. Cedar, rightly so, is terrified and begins to formulate a plan. The novel really picks up thrilling speed in the second act. And even as Erdrich pumps the breaks a bit in the third act, returning to the introspective, poignant prose present in much of the first part, she’s still got several tricks up her sleeve — surprises and twists that shed whole new light on everything that’s come before.

The comparisons to The Handmaid’s Tale here are inevitable, but apparently that’s a likeness with which both Erdrich and Atwood are comfortable. Like Atwood’s masterpiece, Erdrich’s novel is profound, subtly beautiful, and extremely bleak.

Friday, December 15, 2017

The New Dork Review 10 Best Books of 2017

This year, it was harder than ever to pare down my list of best books to 10. But it was very easy to pick my favorite: John Boyne's The Heart's Invisible Furies has been my no-hesitation answer to "What's your favorite book of the year?" since I finished it in August. It's just phenomenal — so good it may wind up as one of my favorites of all time.

And so the reading year was good for those reasons — many good books, one GREAT book. But there a number of other reasons, too. For one, this year is my highest volume reading year every — more than 77 books and 27,000 pages when it's all said and done. Secondly, I finally finished the Harry Potter series! I read some great genre fiction by Dan Brown and Nelson DeMille. I plowed through two giant tomes, each clocking in at over a thousand pages: Susanna Collins's Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell and Kim Stanley Robinson's Green Earth, a huge terrifying cli-fi (that's science fiction about climate change) novel. And I read some great books by huge-name literary writers, which didn't even make this list, including Jennifer Egan ( Manhattan Beach), George Saunders ( Lincoln in the Bardo — a book I more admired than enjoyed), and Nicole Krauss ( Forest Dark).

'twas a great year, indeed. Here are the highlights:

10. Radio Free Vermont: A Fable of Resistance, by Bill McKibben — Full disclosure: Bill McKibben is a personal hero of mine, so there was a 100 percent chance I was going to love this book. But even if you've never heard of McKibben, you'll love this satire about a band of misfits who lead a charge to secede Vermont from the US. It's much-needed smart salve in this era of stupid.

9. Sing, Unburied, Sing, by Jesmyn Ward — My first thought when I finished reading this year's National Book Award winner: "That was a near-perfect novel." Ward is an amazingly evocative writer — you feel what she wants you to feel, see what she describes vividly, even smell what her characters are smelling. And this book has quite the message about injustice and racism, too. It's a brilliant novel.

8. Home Fire, by Kamila Shamsie — This book is mesmerizing and intense, especially the last scene, which is among the pantheon of best last scenes ever. Though it's a retelling of the ancient Greek play Antigone, this novel about family loyalty is as modern and urgent as anything I've read this year.

7. Trajectory, by Richard Russo — Of course one of my favorite writers' new short story collection would be on this list. With these four stories, Russo departs a little from his tried-and-true ground of small down-and-out towns. Here, there are stories about a Hollywood screenwriter, a real estate agent, and college professors. But they're all infused with Russo's signature empathy.

6. Lillian Boxfish Takes A Walk, by Kathleen Rooney — Often books you read early in the year get overlooked on year-end lists, but this book, which was one of the first I read this year, has stayed with me all year. That's mostly because the character — fierce, funny Lillian Boxfish — is incredible. We learn her life story as she strolls through New York City on New Year's Eve, and it's a fascinating story, to say the least.

5. Afterlife, by Marcus Sakey — A highlight of the reading year was an event at my neighborhood bar with Sakey, in which we all sat around a table and talked about books. But this novel, which Sakey describes as a myth, is one of the more inventive books I've read in a while. It's part crime novel, part love story, part epic battle of good vs evil played out on multiple planes of existence. If you're not familiar with Sakey, first read his amazing Brilliance Trilogy first, then read this.

4. The Hearts of Men, by Nickolas Butler — Another absolute highlight of this reading year was an event I organized at RoscoeBooks with Butler. Butler is as cool in person as he is on the page. But I loved this novel even before that event was a possibility. It's about what it means to be a good person, and like Russo, Butler's writing shows terrific care for his characters. If you liked Shotgun Lovesongs, you'll love this too.

3. The Leavers, by Lisa Ko — Another ripped-from-the-headlines novel that oozes with urgency, Ko's terrific novel is about our horrifically broken immigration system, and how it rips families apart. But like Lillian Boxfish above, I loved this novel for its character, Polly Guo, another courageous woman battling life uphill.

2. Little Fires Everywhere, by Celeste Ng — Ah, the dysfunctional family tale — there was no way I'd get through a whole year-end favorites list without at least one entry in my favorite subgenre. This novel moves along at breakneck speed and Ng is incredibly smooth, amazingly insightful writer.

1. The Heart's Invisible Furies, by John Boyne — Every great once in a while, you really need to read a book that reminds you why you love reading. This was that book. It's an absolute masterpiece — heartbreaking and hilarious, and as engrossing and immersive as anything I've read in a very long time.

Honorable Mentions: The Resurrection of Joan Ashby, by Cherise Wolas; The Patriots, by Sana Krasikov; Dark at the Crossing, by Elliot Ackerman

Nonfiction favorites:

The Long Run, by Catriona Menzies-Pike — A funny, smart memoir about the Menzies-Pike's relationship with running, this book also is a great history of running, especially women's running.

Priestdaddy: A Memoir, by Patricia Lockwood — Holy Lord, is this memoir funny. Lockwood's Catholic priest father (he converted to Catholicism after starting his family) is as quirky and strange as any Vonnegut character. And Lockwood is a fantastically hilarious chronicler of the absurd.

Fantasyland How America Went Haywire A 500 Year History, by Kurt Andersen — This cultural history details how and why it's come to pass that a significant portion of the population chooses its own facts, and in many cases, reality. Science and fact-based journalism no longer matter, you get to pick what to believe. From the Pilgrims, through the "damn the man" 1960s, then the conspiracy-theory minded 1980s, and finally finishing with the "alternative facts" environment of today which got Trump elected, Andersen's writes his history with a barely controlled rage at how so much stupidity there is out there and how we ended up with that buffoon in the White House.

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Artemis: Silly Sciencey Fun...But Mostly Silly

There's just no way Andy Weir could've been as good as he was in his debut, The Martian. That novel is the most fun I've had with a book in a long, long time. So even though the hype for his follow-up was feverish, you just had to know Artemis wasn't going to be quite as good. And, sadly, it's not. But if you liked Weir's schtick in the The Martian — wisecracking smart ass is also brilliant MacGyver-like sciencey schemer — you'll probably find enough fun here to keep turning the pages

The story, which takes place on the moon, is about Jazz, a spunky woman who makes ends meet by smuggling contraband to rich guys on the moon's first permanent colony, Artemis. One of those guys proposes a big pay day for her if she can sabotage some of a big company's big moon rock harvesters. Of course, things go awry, and Jazz uncovers a plot that goes much deeper than simple corporate espionage and malfeasance.

Weir ranges from legit hilarious to silly and Beavis-ish (which I love!) to just dumb. Part of the silliness in this book is that I'm not sure he's exactly comfortable writing a woman character. Jazz seems less like a woman and more like a geeky dude's ideal robot woman. She talks and thinks like a nerdy virginal dude in his goofy dorky fantasies would hope women think and talk like (but don’t actually ever). Sometimes it's funny, often it's not.

And then the science and "did you know?" stuff ranges from genuinely fascinating to “Huh. Cool story, bro” to WAY-too-in-the-weeds. There's one scene in particular near the end, that, unless you want to know a bunch about pressure valves and the metallurgy of welding, is INTERMINABLE. And that's too bad because that's supposed to be mid-rush-to-the-end of the novel. It's slows it down considerably.

Even so, I was still mostly entertained. It’s an inventive story that probably feels smarter than it actually is. Certainly a step back from The Martian, but how could anyone be that good twice in a row?