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Tuesday, December 30, 2014

New Dork Review Top 10 of 2014

What a stupendous year in books! So many highlights: I finally read Jane Eyre, I was dazzled by David Mitchell and amused by Murikami, and James Michener took me on a 1,200-page historical trip to Hawaii (prior to an actual trip to Maui in May). In total, for the fourth consecutive year, I broke my previous record (61) for books read (67) in a year. Yep, it was a great year. 

Here are the 10 best novels published in 2014 I read this year. They're in no particular order (except for No. 1 —The Bone Clocks. My favorite of the year.)


Broken Monsters, by Lauren Beukes — I haven't been glued to the page of any novel in a very long time like I was to the last 100 or so of this one. It's a cool, creepy, contemporary tale of the broken American dream — and what happens to people when their dreams go to dark places.

Shotgun Lovesongs, by Nickolas Butler — This story about friendship, secrets, music, celebrity, and loyalty takes place in a small town in Wisconsin. Several different characters narrate parts of this novel about mid-30s lifelong friends, and how their friendships have changed as they've gone out into the world, and then returned. It's just a fantastically profound and fun novel — and one that hit me just at the right time in my life to really love.

The UnAmericans, by Molly Antopol — I stepped up my short story reading in 2014, and of the 10 collections I read, this was my favorite. These character-driven stories will are by turns devastating and enlightening – but they're all about imagining yourself in someone else's shoes. Wonderful. 

Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel — I'm not a huge fan of the burgeoning post-apocalyptic novel genre, but this story is so much more than a traditional "what happens after everyone dies" story. Going back and forth to before and after the flu that kills much of the population, this intricate story is a masterwork of craft in how St. Mandel slowly reveals themes and each characters' back stories. It's a novel that slowly builds on itself for a whole that is so amazingly good.

The Sleepwalker's Guide To Dancing, by Mira Jacob — Another story that jumps back and forth in time, I loved the protagonist of this story, and her attempt to deal with her slowly-going-insane-(or-is-he?)-Indian-immigrant father.

An Untamed State, by Roxane Gay — Just a horrifying novel about a woman kidnapped, raped, and beaten in Haiti — and then she has to try to re-acclimate herself with "normal" life with her husband and son. I include this on my list for several reasons, but mostly the sheer bravery it must've taken to write this book.

Fourth of July Creek, by Smith Henderson — A novel about our limits — both in terms of our "freedom" to deal with others' problems and of our ability to deal with tragedy. This novel has perhaps the most sobering and sad end-reveal of any novel I read this year.

O, Democracy!, by Kathleen Rooney — I loved this small-press novel by Chicagoan Rooney about a staffer for the Senior Senator from Illinois during the 2008 election. It's, I guess, satire — but dammit if it doesn't feel real.

The Martian, by Andy Weir — The most fun I had with a book this year, this novel about a stranded astronaut on Mars is part fiction about science, part goof-off novel, part testament to human ingenuity. Word is that Matt Damon is starring as Weir's astronaut in an adaptation of the novel, which in my mind, is an absolutely inspired piece of casting.

The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell — This is my favorite of the year. Mind-blowingly good. Mitchell is a genius. 

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Five Great 2014 Novels You May Have Missed

(This post originally appeared on Book Riot.)

One of my favorite annual year-end articles is Slate’s “Overlooked Books” of the year. As is usually the case, this year’s list of 27 novels includes some terrific picks, such as Lauren Beukes’ Broken Monsters and Ben Marcus’ Leaving The Sea.

But even the venerable Slate list can’t capture everything. So it’s always fun to supplement this list with one of my own. So here are five terrific 2014 novels you may have missed.

5. O, Democracy by Kathleen Rooney
If you don’t laugh about our broken political system, you’ll probably cry. This small-press novel about a young woman named Colleen who works as an aide to the Senior Senator from Illinois during the summer of 2008 will actually have you doing a lot of both. It’s a semi-autobiographical novel about Rooney’s own experiences, which is good to know, because at times it seems so absurd, it’s almost unbelievable. But then you remember how goofed up politics is these days, and so when you read about a candidate who tries get people to believe that dumping pollution into the lake is actually good for marine life, because they can eat it, you think, “yep, that actually seems about right.” If you have an interest in politics, or Chicago, you’ll really dig this novel.

4. Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson
It’s debatable whether this debut novel is actually overlooked – this novel got a lot of looks due to word-of-mouth that spread quickly after its mid-summer release. But if you haven’t looked yet, I’d highly recommend you do. It’s a story about a social worker (a vastly under-represented profession in fiction) named Pete Snow in early 1980s Montana. Pete encounters a kid who appears to live in the woods with his anti-government, ultra-religious father, and so Pete has to decide how much he really can (or should, or be permitted to) help this kid. All the while, Pete’s dealing with his own disaster — his ex-wife (a drunk) has moved to Texas, and now his teenage daughter has run away. Henderson writes with pinpoint accuracy, making complex issues actually enjoyable to read about and consider. Purposefully set during the time Henderson seems to be saying is the dawn of the current culture wars, many of the issues are similar to those driving the national conversations these days. This is truly a great American novel.

3. The Sleepwalker’s Guide To Dancing by Mira Jacob
This is the best-titled novel of the year, in my view — so it’s a good thing the story itself, which took Jacob more than 10 years to write, is great, as well. Amina, late 20s, a freelance Seattle photographer, and the daughter of Indian immigrants, rushes to her parents’ home in Albuquerque to try to determine why her father, Thomas, is having day-long conversations with his dead mother. We zoom back to 1970s India to examine Thomas and his mother’s rocky relationship, and then to early 1980s Albuquerque to learn about Amina’s and her brother’s childhoods. You’ll think “Jhumpa Lahiri” right away because it’s an Indian immigrant story, but whereas Lahiri is mostly straightforward and earnest, Jacob is often playful, witty, and funny — even as she’s telling us about some rather weighty issues. It’s a strangely fluid story for as much as it jumps in time and place.

2. The UnAmericans by Molly Antopol
This is easily the best short story collection I’ve read since George Saunders’ Tenth of December. It’s all killer, no filler — a rarity for story collections. But what makes these stories truly memorable are the characters in each — either foreigners (literally un-Americans), as in my favorite story “Minor Heroics,” about Jewish brothers in Israel, or immigrants to America who struggle for one reason or another, as in the heartbreaking stories “The Unknown Soldier” and “The Quietest Man.” In total, these stories are about imagining a world beyond our front door and identifying with and understanding people who live in that world — it’s an idea we’d all do well to take more to heart.

1. Shotgun Lovesongs by Nickolas Butler
If you read and enjoyed Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings, you’ll love this novel of four mid-30s friends who grew up in Little Wing, a tiny town in rural Wisconsin. One has become a famous rock star. One is a Chicago business bonehead who convinces his new wife to move back to Little Wing. And two have gotten married to each other and stayed in Little Wing to tend the family farm. How these friends react to revealed secrets from the past, new problems with love and loss, and their new and different stations in life will affect their friendships now and into the future. This is just a massively great novel — one that seemed to just hit me at the right time of my life, and therefore has had a lasting effect. I cannot get it out of my head. Hopefully that’ll be the case for you, too.

What would be on your list of underrated or overlooked novels of 2014?

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

The Bone Clocks: Brilliant, Hypnotic, Best Novel of 2014

This novel is amazingly brilliant. And I loved it. Absolutely, intensely loved it. It's a great companion piece to Mitchell's most famous novel Cloud Atlas, but it's also a nod to Mitchell's other novels (characters from Black Swan Green and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet pop up again), as well as ground-breaking films like The Matrix and Inception. In total, The Bone Clocks is just about the bravest, smartest, most entertaining, most inventive, and most fun to read novel I've put into my brain in a very long time.

So the novel is actually six interconnected stories with one central character — Holly Sykes — as the anchor.  She herself (in first person) tells us the first (in 1984, she's a 16-year-old girl running away from home in a small town in England) and the last (in 2043, as a 75-year-old living in the Irish countryside as the world collapses). The four stories in between, all as fascinating and entertaining as Holly's first-person story, expand on the overall narrative — which, and this is going to sound crazy, is about two factions of immortal beings whose souls can occupy human forms, but who are at war with each other, a classic good vs. evil story.

The real genius of the novel is how Mitchell grounds this fantastical, metaphysical, centuries-long war in very human stories. And furthermore, it's amazing how Mitchell positions Holly at the center of all these stories, even when she's not overtly the protagonist. Stories Nos. 2-4, about a douchey college kid in the early 1990s, a war-zone journalist in 2004 Iraq, and an aging boozy English novelist (Martin Amis, perhaps?) traveling the world in the last half of the 2010s are all fascinating and terribly fun to read as set pieces. There's humor, there's tragedy, there are love stories, and there's treachery.

But again the true genius of this novel is how details from each story begin to fulfill the promise of the clues Mitchell gives us in the first 100 pages (in Holly's first story) for what he's really up to. And then it's the fifth story where things get weird, and Mitchell brings it all together — and there's a battle, and a labyrinth, and a golden apple, and it's just so breathtakingly original and imaginative, you're in true, utter amazement. I was, anyway. It's one of those cases where you read a few pages, have to put the book down for a minute, go "wow," and then continue reading.

This is my favorite novel of the year, and I need some time to decide yet, but it's not out of the realm of possibilities that it winds up as one of my favorites of all time. It'll be hard to tell, though, as it's clear Mitchell is sort of building an entire fictional world piece by piece with each of his novels, spinning off characters, reappearing characters, and furthering themes. I don't know of any writer working now or in the past as ambitious as Mitchell seems to be. I was on the edge before, but now I'm officially an incorrigible Mitchell fanboy. Man, this was good. And I'm jealous of you if you're going to soon pick it up for the first time.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Three Mini-Reviews: Station Eleven, An Untamed State, The Laughing Monsters

It's so much fun to write about novels you're enthusiastic about and can recommend highly. Here are three:

Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel — Novels like this one that are so carefully constructed, so meticulously crafted, and so freakin' engrossing just absolutely astound me. How did she do this? How did she pull it all together? And how did she make it so much fun to read? All I know for sure is that she did, and this is one of the best novels of 2014. It'd be too easy to pigeonhole this novel as a post-apocalypse book — though, it is that. A band of survivors who call themselves the Traveling Symphony caravan around what had been Michigan 20 years after a deadly flu has wiped out 99 percent of Earth's population. They play music and perform Shakespeare, because, as one of our protagonists, Kirsten fervently believes, "Survival is insufficient." But the novel is also the pre-flu story of an actor named Arthur, his first wife Miranda, his friend Clark, and a guy named Jeevan who pops up in various roles throughout. So we jump back and forth in time to before the flu, to right after the flu, and then to 20 years after when the Traveling Symphony encounters a prophet — a religious fanatic who means them harm. Each piece of the puzzle falls into place, furthering both our understanding of these characters' connections to each other and also the themes of the novel as a whole — loyalty and friendship, the value and necessity of art, and, of course, the uncompromisable importance of empathy. I can't recommend this more highly — it's a book you won't soon forget. 


An Untamed State, by Roxane Gay — Unflinching. Devastating. Gay's debut novel is about a woman named Mireille who is kidnapped in Haiti. She is raped, beaten, and stripped of her humanity — indeed, she begins thinking of herself as "no one," both as a survival mechanism (she has to separate the person she is in captivity from from the woman she was prior to the kidnapping) and as a way to try to rationalize how these men, her tormenters, could be so cruel to another human. Eventually, when she's released, she and her husband must figure out how to be with each other after such an unspeakably horrible ordeal. It's not all smooth sailing. This is a book that, as much as you want to "look away," you can't. It doesn't exactly reinforce your faith in humanity, but it does reinforce your faith in a writer's ability to tell a horrific story with grace. I won't say this was a good time with a book, necessarily (indeed, it can even be insulting to men at times: "Girl children are not safe in the world where there are men," Gay writes) but it was one that was hard to put down. And I'm very glad I read it. Reading to try to understand something foreign isn't always easy, but it is essential.


The Laughing Monsters, by Denis Johnson — You may know Denis Johnson from his highly acclaimed short story collection or his National Book Award-winning novel, Tree of Smoke. This short novel is a zany spy story about a guy named Roland Nair who is working, ostensibly, for NATO Intelligence — he's sent to Sierre Leone to find out what his former friend and long-time schemer, Michael Adriko, is up to. It's presumed the answer is "no good," and Nair soon finds out how right that is — but he has a few schemes up his sleeve as well. Will he join forces with Michael on one last get-rich-quick caper, or will he rat him out? This is just a good romp of a novel — you spend most of your time with it trying to figure out who will be loyal to whom, or who might be betrayed. Is there actually honor among thieves? And it's all set against the chaos and strange customs (to an American audience) of modern Africa, as the two (along with Michael's fiancee) travel from Sierre Leone to Uganda and then to Congo. This is a quick, one- or two-sitting read, and a good introduction to Johnson, if you've never read him before.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Some Exciting New Dork News...and a Few Reviews

I don't have an actual bookish bucket list, but if I did "working at a bookstore" would be near the top. And now I can (pretend to) cross it off! A new indie called RoscoeBooks is opening just a few blocks from where I live here in Chicago, and despite the fact that this is damn near akin to hiring an alcoholic to bar tend, the owner is graciously allowing me to work there a few hours a week. I couldn't be more excited! The store opens this Saturday, Nov. 22 — if you're in Chicago, come say 'hello.' I'll be the one with ridiculous perma-grin-goofy-happy smile on my face. 

And but, one of the reasons I'm super excited to be a bookseller is, yes, to be able to recommend books I love to other people, but also to learn more about what other people are reading that fall outside my immediate comfort zone. Another reason I'm excited is working at a bookstore will only make it more apparent that there's always something to learn about books. So in some ways, this is selfish excitement, because I'll get to discover books I may have otherwise missed. And that's already happened just in the last week as a result of talking with the other booksellers (see below) and helping to shelve (I assume it's natural to talk to the authors as you shelve their books, right?). So anyway, yeah — I'm stoked. This...will be fun.

And so, here, have some reviews:

Submergence, by J.M. Ledgard — If you've never heard of this book, don't worry — I hadn't either until a few weeks ago. But the new owner of RoscoeBooks recommended this, and I read it in about two sittings. It's a short novel about a guy named James who is a British spy and gets kidnapped by Islamic extremists in Somalia. It's also about a woman named Danny who is a biomathematician — she studies microbial life in the deepest depths of the ocean. And finally, it's about how the two met, and how they discuss life, and why we're all here ("We're nature's brief experiment with self-awareness," Ledgard writes — a mind-blowing idea, when you really think about it.), and chance and luck, and art and literature, and it's just fantastic. The story's told in brief snippets, alternating perspectives between Danny and James, and between the present day, and when the two met at a French hotel on the Atlantic coast. If you've read and enjoyed Anthony Doerr's All The Light We Cannot See, I think you'll love this, too.

The Book of Strange New Things, by Michel Faber — This big, sprawling novel has one of the more inventive premises of any novel I've read in awhile. It's about a Christian missionary named Peter who is hired by a mysterious corporation called USIC to travel to a distant planet (which humans have dubbed Oasis) to preach the Bible to the native population (which Peter calls Oasans). Peter must leave his beloved wife Bea— who was his savior when he was a drug and alcohol addict, and who was his reason for his being "born again."  Life on Earth in general, and his wife Bea's life specifically (as he learns by communicating with her via a rudimentary emails machine — and Faber includes these missives at great length), begin to deteriorate and Peter feels helpless, but has success with the Oasans. Peter is the second minister to visit Oasis, and the Oasans, who refer to themselves as Jesus Lover Five, Jesus Lover Thirty, etc, are eager to learn more about Jesus. The novel, though often a bit too deliberate, is an interesting reflection on the egoism inherent in particular religious doctrine (being so sure you're right and everyone else is wrong) specifically, but humanity in general. When you finally see the whole picture —why the Oasans want a Christian minister and to learn about "The Book of Strange New Things" (the Bible) — you'll realize it's a conclusion that matches the ingenuity of the whole plot itself. But it's just a really long walk to get there.

A Map of Betrayal, by Ha Jin — I loved Ha Jin's novel War Trash, but I was only so-so on this one. It's the story of a Chinese spy who spends the last half of the 20th century in the U.S. taking an American wife and working at the CIA. It's also the story of his daughter, who in present day, is trying to learn the truth about her father and the rest of his family — her father had a whole other family back in China before he came to the U.S. It's a short, brisk novel that I thought actually read more like an outline for a novel than a novel itself. What's here is intriguing, but it just felt too slight.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

How To Build a Girl: Assault on Cynicism

You don't pick up a novel about a teenage girl who attempts or reinvent herself and expect it to be a cautionary tale about how cynicism is exhausting. But here we are — and it's the main reason I really dug Caitlin Moran's filthy, funny coming-of-age novel, How to Build a Girl.

Johanna Morrigan is a 14-year-old girl living in small town in England. When she makes a terrible gaffe on live TV after winning a poetry contest — she does a regrettable Scooby Doo impression, which doesn't sound that bad at first, but in the scorching cauldron of the teenage world, it's all but a death sentence — she's forced to reinvent herself in such a way that she thinks will protect her from the emotional gauntlet to which teenagers are subject. So she decides to become Dolly Wilde, a slutty goth cynical music critic.

It goes well for awhile, but then, predictably, it all goes horribly wrong. It's often said that the measure of good novel is that its characters learn something, are able to change, and therefore readers learn along with them, this novel has that in spades.

Dolly/Johanna sleeps her way through the early-1990s indie rock scene, while using her poison pen to totally eviscerate all the silly new bands she's actually relyingson for her next sexual escapade. All the while, she cultivates a crush on a singer/songwriter named John Kite, who sort of becomes her spiritual guide through her burgeoning adulthood.

But then, the predictable comeuppance. And soon after, Moran gives us a page-and-a-half rail against cynicism that is absolutely shiver-inducing for its insightfulness. It's something EVERY teenage should be forced to read. Here's a taste:
“For when cynicism becomes the default language, playfulness and invention become impossible. Cynicism scours through a culture like bleach, wiping out millions of small, seedling ideas…Cynicism is, ultimately, fear...And of course the deepest irony about the young being cynical is that they are the ones that need to move, and dance, and trust the most. They need to cartwheel through a freshly burst galaxy of still-forming but glowing ideas, never sacred to say ‘Yes! Why not!’”
Man, I love that. And I really dug this novel — it's another novel that's rather waaaaaay outside my comfort zone. But it's worth the trip.

(Side note: There's a scene in the novel where Dolly/Johanna goes to review a Smashing Pumpkins concert. It's mid-1992, about a year Pumpkins had released their debut album, Gish. And she actually goes backstage, and briefly talks to D'Arcy (the bassist) about how she thought the show went. And Moran tells us that Johanna finds out later that D'Arcy and guitarist James Iha were in the midst of a breakup, and drummer Jimmy was starting his heroin habit, and singer/guitarist Billy was deeply depressed. And if you've read this blog for any measure of time, you know that Smashing Pumpkins is my favorite band of all time, and seeing them as characters in a novel damn near blew my mind.) 

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Cornucopia of October Mini Reviews

It's been a helluva month — multi-day trips to four cities (Vegas, Milwaukee, Cincinnati, and New Orleans) in a span of 18 days. That's really good for reading, but not great for writing about reading. So here are a bunch of mini-reviews to catch you up on the half-dozen books I plowed through amidst bad airport food, better wedding food, and the best NOLA food. It's a pretty eclectic group. Enjoy!

Books I Loved
Fourth of July Creek, by Smith Henderson — This utterly fantastic novel (one of my favorites of the year) is about a social worker named Pete Snow in the early '80s in rural Montana. When he meets a kid who seems to live in the woods with his father — an ardently anti-government roughneck — he does his best to empathize with the kid and his father amidst his own troubled family life. He's left his cheating, booze-addled wife and soon, his own teenage daughter runs away. This is a novel that will stay with you long after you've finished.

Black Swan Green, by David Mitchell — I'm gearing up to tackle Mitchell's new novel The Bone Clocks by delving into his backlist a bit. This 2006 novel is a year in the life of a boy named Jason Taylor, as he tries to navigate hallway politics at his school, bullies, girls, fighting parents, and a stammering problem. It's an often funny coming-of-age story that includes plenty of Mitchell's flourishes of wit and profundity. There are so many highlight-able passages, but my favorite is describing February as "not so much a month as a twenty-eight-day-long Monday morning."

Books I Liked, With Minor Reservations
Brutal Youth, by Anthony Breznican —  This novel about a Catholic high school is absurd in both the good and bad senses of the word. The kids at the slowly failing St. Mikes have no qualms, no conscience, and no hesitation towards cruelty whatsoever. And neither does their evil pastor, Father Mercedes, who wants to close the school to cover up his own secrets. You have to suspend disbelief a bit to go along with some of the important plot points here. As well, you have to ignore a few first-novel foibles (everyone seems to have "meaty hands," e.g., and dialogue could use a bit of a spit-shine), but if you can do those, you'll be treated to a hard-to-put-down novel that will make you think back on your own crappy high school experience and thank your lucky stars you weren't at St. Mikes. 

Attachments, by Rainbow Rowell — This was a cool story about a creepy (but with a heart of gold?) IT dude who "eavesdrops" on the emails of two employees at the newspaper at which they all work. He finds himself falling in love with one of the two women, just from her cool, witty, quirky style. She also crushes on him, not knowing who he is — calling him My Cute Guy — even though they never talk. Rowell has given us a nice little irony here: The man falls in love with the woman sight unseen (not how it usually works), and the woman falls in, if not love, in infatuation with the man based solely on his looks (not how it usually works). My hesitation with this novel is that the male characters are terrible — they're silly steroetypes (the IT guy plays Dungeons and Dragons, and lives with his parents, and the girl's boyfriend is a slacker rockstar who won't marry her because he loves her too much ... groan) that only vaguely resemble real people. But overall, it's a fun, quick plane read.

Books I Thought Were Good But Not Superb
The Handmaid's Tale, by Margaret Atwood — I'm glad I finally read this terrifying dystopian novel about what happens when women are merely objects for breeding, but it was a bit of a slog for me, frankly. I think that's partly due to the fact that I'd known a lot about it already, so it kind of felt like I was just reading to fill in the gaps, which I realize is a silly reason not to like a novel.

Your Fathers, Where Are They? And the Prophets, Do They Live Forever? by Dave Eggers — Eggers' is always a must-read author for me, and his latest is a strange all-dialogue novel about a guy who kidnaps various people and has conversations with them, with the goal of trying to make sense of his life that has gone off the rails a bit. It's all just okay. However, there's a long section about police brutality and unnecessary violence that is really interesting in light of the recent Ferguson situation. It's a one- to two-sitting read, so worth checking out if you're a die-hard Eggers fan, but it's probably a pass if you're not.

Monday, October 6, 2014

THE DOG and I AM PILGRIM: Two Mini-Reviews

Joseph O'Neill's new novel, The Dog, is a strange little piece of fiction — it's about an unnamed mid-30s lawyer who, having just participated in a spectacularly messy break-up with his girlfriend of nine years, moves to Dubai to take a job with a family conglomerate that may or may not be totally on the level. But the real story on this novel is its dense, ultra-logical (dude's a lawyer, after all), digression (and parenthesis)-laden prose. It's a style you're going to either love or hate. I loved it, much as I did O'Neill's previous novel Netherland. (I remember thinking after reading that novel that O'Neill reminded me of an Irish Philip Roth. In this novel, he's closer to an Irish David Foster Wallace.)

The story itself, which takes place in 2011, is largely portrait of Dubai — and its massive contradictions. For instance, Dubai is a place of ridiculous wealth and excess (even as it's still reeling from the effects of the financial crash), but it's still ruled by strict religious law. Dubai is a fascinating place, and O'Neill, through his narrator, delights in pointing out all its foibles and its hypocrisy — often at length.

Our narrator actually spends most of his days sending emails (both real, and hilariously, in his mind) to his employers, trying to cover his own ass in case what the rich sons who run the conglomeration of companies are up to isn't exactly legal. Sometimes he has to book Bryan Adam's for one of the guy's wife's birthday. Sometimes he teaches the guy's spoiled 15-year-old son how to do Sudoku. Sometimes, he visits prostitutes — and then spends pages justifying this splurge.

There's a mystery here, too — what happened to a guy who lives in building who it's discovered has a secret Dubai wife (in addition to his other wife back in Chicago)? Has he run away with Wife No. 2, or has some other more sinister fate befallen him?

Again, despite the fact that this novel made the Booker Prize Long List, it's probably not a novel most readers will enjoy (and given its meager 3.3 rating on GoodReads, most readers clearly haven't). But I dug it — I liked how O'Neill could use these ridiculous hundred-word sentences that would include five parentheticals, and tease out an argument about something as relatively mundane as porn. If you liked DFW's essay on whether lobsters can feel pain, you may like this novel, too.

_____________________

And then, on the opposite end the spectrum prose-style-wise: Terry Hayes' impossibly long thriller I Am Pilgrim. This novel was recommended to me earlier this summer by a bookseller at a Maui Barnes and Noble when I stopped in to pick up Stephen King's new novel, Mr. Mercedes. So I was excited about it, both because it recalled when I was in Maui, and also because any comparison to King deserves at least a glance.

The verdict? It's a decent plane read, but it's definitely a turn-off-your-brain-and-suspend-disbelief-and-overlook-silly-coincidences-type novel. The story is about a secret agent who we see in the first scene investigating a mysterious murder — the killer apparently used tactics spelled out in our hero's book of investigation techniques penned before going into hiding. This really bugs him. Then there's a radicalized Muslim who wants to destroy America. There's another mysterious murder in the Turkish resort town of Bodrum. And so our hero — Pilgrim, eventually — has to race against time to solve murders and save the world from terrorism.

Again, it's just okay. Clocking in at well over 600 pages, it actually seems longer than that. Many of the subplots and much of the background information Hayes gives could be easily condensed or cut altogether. 


Wednesday, October 1, 2014

The New Dork Review of Books Turns FIVE

If the blog were a human, it'd be heading off to kindergarten soon, playing in its first teeball league, and probably reading at a junior high level. Right?

Five years ago today, I launched this thing — and even way back then, I wasn't above making a joke at Dan Brown's expense. Good times.

This is post No. 385 since this thing launched, which frankly, is hard to believe. It's also hard to believe I still haven't gotten that cease and desist order from the blog's namesake: The New York Review of Books. Everyone be cool, and maybe they'll never find out!

But here's to 385 (at least) more! There have been some lulls, more so lately, I realize. I've always said that when this starts to feel like work, I'll quit. But most of the time it doesn't yet, so we beat on, boats against the current, borne ceaselessly back into the past. Or something.

Thanks, as always, for reading!

(By the way, today is also Book Riot's 3rd birthday. To celebrate, Riot New Media is launching a new product site called Panels. If comics are your thing, check it out. It promises to be awesome.)

Monday, September 29, 2014

Five Thoughts On A First Ever Reading of Jane Eyre

(This post originally appeared on Book Riot.)

This old Bantam Classic is the edition I read.


A few years ago, I wrote a silly post about literary confessions — one of which was that I frequently confused Jane Eyre and Jane Austen. It was mostly a joke, but also when I told people that in real life, they’d always look at me with that particular sympathy consistent only with a self-deprecating joke falling flat on its face (i.e., too stupid to be funny).

For penance, I decided I should probably read them both — so I knocked out Pride and Prejudice last year, and then just a few weeks ago, Jane Eyre. While of course it’s tough to come up with anything original to say about Charlotte Bronte’s tale of woe and redemption, I can certainly come up with five things I thought about the novel. So here you go (and normally, I’d say “caution, spoilers,” but this book’s 167 years old, and so well past the statute of limitations to require a spoiler disclaimer):

5. Jane Throws Shade — On page 33, not even 7 percent of the way into the novel, Jane tells her adopted guardian Mrs. Reed she hates her more than anyone else in the world except her idiot son. “I am not deceitful,” she says. “If I were, I should say I loved you.” This was the first indication that many of my long-held preconceptions (read as: misconceptions) about this story were pretty wrong. I thought, maybe this isn’t just a long-winded, ooey-gooey love story. And plus, that made me laugh, and I decided right then I was going to like this book.

4. Jane’s Friend Helen Imparts Life Lessons, Dies — Jane’s friend at the boarding school basically explains that you shouldn’t let shit bother you because we ain’t gonna be here long, and God awaits. “Why then should we sink overwhelmed with distress, when life is so soon over…?” That’s solid advice. So next time my boss forgets the attachment on an email or the dogs pee on the floor or the lady in front of me at the grocery store pays with a check, I’ll think of Helen. Hey, life’s short, and then you die. So just relax. It’s gonna be okay. Except, though, Helen proves the wisdom of her advice by dying young. That was sad.

3. Jane Weathers the Worst Guilt Trips — I was pretty sure I liked Jane quite a bit (see No. 5 above), but I knew I liked her after Mr. Rochester is caught in his web of deceit, (Dude’s married! And to a crazy lady! And she lives in his attic!), and his attempts to guilt her into running away with him anyway fall upon deaf ears. But I DOUBLE KNEW I liked her towards the end when Mr. St. John uses the most unintentionally comic (to a modern audience) guilt trip to get her marry him; paraphrased: Marry me, or God’ll be pissed at you. Strangely, this one almost comes closer to working than Mr. Rochester’s, but it doesn’t.

2. Speaking of Mr. St. John… — What a tool! I loved laughing at this chucklehead. And it’s too bad he’s so clueless, because his sisters seem nice. And that poor rich lady who is (improbably) in love with him seems nice, too. Good on you, Jane — even if took a touch of the supernatural to somehow hear Mr. Rochester calling to you in your head, and withstand St. John’s “unimpeachable” logic, wily advances, and a free trip to mid-19th century India!

1. Happy Endings Are Happy — It was rather an improbable happy ending, transcending time, space, and all known medical reality (Dude just starts seeing again? Now I see where Downton Abbey got the idea to have Matthew just magically start walking again), but how could you begrudge Jane her “happily ever after”? I certainly can’t. And I’m really happy I finally read this. Now onto Wuthering Heights. What? That’s Emily Bronte. Ah, crap.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage: Starter Murakami

If you've never read Haruki Murakami and always wanted to, his bafflingly titled new novel Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage is a great way to wade into his work. That's because, it's a pretty straightforward story on the surface — a 36-year-old engineer living in Tokyo named Tsukuru Tazaki is trying to find out why, when he was in high school, his four best friends suddenly broke off all contact with him, refusing to even give him an explanation for why they'd never talk to him again.

But the novel also includes some of the weird, wild hallmarks of Murakami-ism — there are some strange, often sexually-tinged dreams, a long tangent (or is it?) about a dying guy who sees people's "colors" and only people of one color (nothing to do with race) can save him, and constant questioning of the line between what's real and what's imagined and what's part of this world and what's not.

Tsukuru Tazaki, for all his self-perceived colorlessness, is still a fascinating character. But he doesn't think so — he has a small-minded view of himself, thinking of himself as boring and plain (he's the only one of the group of five friends who doesn't have a name evoking a color), and he's constantly telling people how boring he thinks he is, including his new ladyfriend Sara. But it's Sara who convinces him he needs to dredge up his past and go on his mini-vision quest to find out why his tightly knit group of high school friends suddenly stopped talking to him — an event which sent poor Tsukuru Tazaki into a near death-spiral of depression.

So Tsukuru goes back to his hometown Nagoya and then to Helsinki, Finland, to find the truth. Unlike some other Murakami novels, there is an actual, specific answer to his question about why he was suddenly treated as persona non grata. And it's shocking and sad, and brings up even more questions for poor Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki.

Whenever I'm reading Murakami, I'm always in awe of how his prose alternates between sentences that are so clunky and mundane and passages that are amazingly profound and insightful — my favorite of which is this, and which is kind of the main theme of the novel:
In the deepest recesses of his soul, Tsukuru Tazaki understood. One heart is not connected to another through harmony alone. They are, instead, linked deeply through their wounds. Pain linked to pain, fragility to fragility. There is no silence without a cry of grief, no forgiveness without bloodshed, no acceptance without a passage through acute loss. That is what lies at the root of true harmony."
Not exactly a sunny outlook life, is it? Still, when I'm reading Murakami, I'm convinced he employs some weird sorcery (like something in his novels) to make the pages just fly by. I don't know how he does it. This isn't my favorite Murakami of all time (that's a distinction Kafka On The Shore holds), it's still a really interesting, thought-provoking, entertaining read—a great starting point for Murakami novices, but with Murakami-ness enough to keep his long-time rabid fans happy as well. 

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Broken Monsters & The Children Act: Two New Releases, Two Mini-Reviews

Let's start with what is officially my favorite read of the year so far — that would be Lauren Beukes's Broken Monsters, which is out today. Set in Detroit not long after the Great Recession set in, this moody, terrifying, mind-blowing, atmospheric story is as difficult to put down as any book I've read in recent memory.

Ostensibly, it's a murder mystery — in the opening pages, our hero, Detective Gabriella Versado, is charged with tracking down a lunatic who has murdered a kid, cut him in half, and glued the top half of his body onto a deer torso. Sick stuff.

But the novel is far from a typical mystery — a wide cast of characters really adds depth and realism to this story about the shattered American dream. We follow Gabi's daughter — a witty, Internet-addicted teen right out of a John Green YA story — and her friend Cas as they concoct schemes, which, tragically, wind up intersecting with Gabi's murder investigation. Then there's the douchey new media journalist named Jonno (even his name is douchey!) whose crusade to reveal all he believes the Detroit PD is hiding from the public is really just a crusade to edify his own ego. And finally, there's the creepy, mysterious truck driver and artist named Clayton who is overtaken by what he thinks of as "the dream." Crazy stuff.

All this comes together in a last-100-pages conclusion that is not just glued-to-the-page riveting, but also profound and smart in a way straight genre murder mysteries never are. I can't recommend this more highly — I loved it.

______________________________

Next, let's talk about a return to form for one of my heretofore favorite writers, Ian McEwan, whose last two novels, Solar and Sweet Tooth,  I've not been a fan of at all. However, his new novel The Children Act is a short, entertaining piece of totally typical McEwanness. It's told his signature droll, dryly humorous, ultra-logical prose — which is a bit of an acquired taste, frankly, but works really well for this story.

It's about a London judge named Fiona who has arrived at a small measure of fame for deciding really tough family law cases, like the case of twins who had to separated for one to survive, but whose religious parents wouldn't abide that solution, because only God can decide between life and death. So they'd rather let both die. We learn about this case early in the novel — which foreshadows the two main components of the rest of the story.

First, Fiona's husband of many years decides he wants an open marriage — he accuses Fiona of losing her passion, and he wants to reclaim that (read as: sex!) with another (younger) woman. She still loves him, and at first, struggles with whether she should agree to his indecent proposal. (Should she kill a main tenet of a marriage - faithfulness - to save the big picture?) Secondly, a case comes before her court of a 17-year-old kid named Adam being treated for leukemia. He and his parents are Jehovah's Witnesses, and one of the pillars of their faith is that blood is sacred, and therefore a transfusion of someone else's blood — which is required for him to live — is profane.

With the stress of her now-irreparably broken marriage weighing on her, what will she decide? Are Adam's beliefs his own, and even if so, isn't requiring the treatment (since he's a minor) in his best interest? What's cool about this story is that judgment is handed down halfway through the novel, and the rest is about how the decision changes all the characters involved. I really enjoyed this, and I think if you've liked McEwan's more lauded novels, like Atonement and Saturday, you'll really dig this one too. 

Friday, August 29, 2014

Lost For Words, by Edward St. Aubyn: Literary Award Hijinks

In the grand tradition of the best literary satire, Edward St. Aubyn's Lost for Words boldly takes its place. That's how the character Sonny might describe this goofy novel that sends up the Man Booker Prize with equal parts snark and silliness. Sonny — an Ignatius Reilly-like fella, who is so distraught that his 2,000-page tome isn't longlisted for the Prize, he decides to assassinate the judges — is just one of a cast of grotesques, both judges and writers, who populate St. Aubyn's comic novel.

The question of the novel: What possible chain of events could lead to a cookbook (yeah, a friggin' cookbook) being considered for the Commonwealth's most prestigious literary prize? (It's prestigious, yeah, but it is now sponsored by the Elysian Corporation, a Monsanto-like outfit famous for its pesticides and GMOs.)

Well, start with five idiot judges, some of whom were appointed to the committee for reasons of pure cronyism, each of whom have their own agendas of vastly varying degrees of sophistication. Add a snafu whereby the cookbook is mistakenly submitted to the committee instead of a novel by a sexpot writer named Kathryn. And throw in a deadlocked panel, most of whom haven't actually read the books, and you'll see how it's not outrageous. (Well, it would definitely be outrageous in real life — but not so in the pages of this novel, where one of the judges even tells her daughter to lay her life savings on a wager of one of the five shortlisted novels. Which of course doesn't win.)

Some of the fun of this novel is the snippets of the nominees St. Aubyn includes. My favorite is one titled All The World's A Stage, written from the perspective of William Shakespeare. Ol' Billy gets in a battle of wits with a romantic rival, who, after Billy reveals he keeps a poem in his codpiece, tells him, "It is a naughty codpiece, for it hath naught in it." Burn! (By the way, another of the nominated novels is titled The Enigma Conundrum — John Le Carre couldn't have done better himself.)

These snippets are short, but allow you to get the general sense of terribleness of all these books. Sometimes they're a bit hit or miss, though, and can drone on a bit. As can the snippets of story told from the perspective of a couple of the characters, like a pretentious French writer named Didier, who is fascinated with paradox. But his pretension is just as boring reading it in this novel as you'd imagine it would be listening to this dude in real life. Another character — the only deserving author on the prize's long list – named Sam is a milquetoast lovelorn wuss, whose neurotic ramblings are also just as annoying to read about as they would be to hear in real life.

But so, if you've read and enjoyed other publishing industry satires like Steve Hely's How I Became A Famous Novelist or Adam Langer's The Thieves of Manhattan, you'll probably dig this too. It's a really short, two- or three-sitting read, and mostly pretty fun. 

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

All The Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr: Short Strains of World War II Story

I've made significant efforts over the past several years to get over my hesitation toward novels that are structured as alternating or intertwined stories. And for the most part, I've been able to overcome that tiny piece of reading neurosis — Jonathan Miles' Want Not was one of my favorite novels of last year, for example.

But then I'll read a story like Anthony Doerr's All the Light We Cannot See, which is, by most measures (including its 4.27 rating on Goodreads), a very, very good novel. And I'll again remember why this type of storytelling has a tendency to be hit-or-miss for me.

Doerr's novel is the story of a 16-year-old blind French girl named Marie-Laure, who takes refuge in the coastal town of Saint-Malo with her aging great uncle during the German occupation of France. It's also the story of a teenaged German orphan named Werner, who learns how to build and fix radios at an early age, attends an elite German academy, and is sent to the front with a new device he helped invent, the purpose of which is to locate and eliminate enemy radio transmissions. And finally, and to a lesser extent, it's the story of an evil German named von Rumpel who is on the hunt all over Europe during the war for a massive, priceless diamond known as the Sea of Flames that carries with it a legend of immortality.

Amidst a main theme of the things that connect us and the things that divide us, these stories slide back and forth over one another to build up to the real-time action: All three characters wind up in Saint-Malo. In the opening scenes of the novel, the Americans are bombing the town, Werner is trapped in the basement of a hotel with another German soldier named Volkheimer, and Marie-Laure, who has the diamond in her pocket, is taking shelter in the attic of her great uncle's mansion. This all takes place in early August 1944, but the beef of the novel is how everything will eventually get to that point.

These snippets of story are told in not-more-than-two-or-three page sections. Obviously Doerr did this on purpose and for very specific reasons. One suggestion as to why might be that the shorter, almost poetic, pieces stitch his characters closer together structurally, as they eventually maneuver closer together within the plot of the story as well. As well, perhaps he wanted the whole novel to feel like short bits of memories that sort of bleed into each other.

But for me, the effect was that it pushed me further from the characters, and gave the story a choppy, jolting feel which is certainly not the tone Doerr intended, I'd guess. So really, it wasn't actually the intertwining story structure itself that kept me at arm's length, but that each strain of story is so short.

That may seem like an extraordinarily nitpicky criticism for such a generally well-received novel. So please don't get me wrong — Doerr's novel IS astonishing as a piece of fiction and masterful in its pure literary-ness. This is a writer who is as skillful at constructing sentences as any I've ever read. So I did my level best to get over my silly hang-up with the short pieces of story. I wasn't totally successful all the time, but if you're a fan of historical fiction of the uber-literary variety, this is certainly a novel for you.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Orfeo, by Richard Powers: Music and Microbes

Few writers could cross avant-garde classical music with bioengineering to produce an entertaining, hellishly smart novel. But if you've read Richard Powers before, you probably know he's just the writer to do it.

Powers' latest novel Orfeo (a nod to the Greek mythological figure Orpheus) tells the tale of Peter Els, a 70-year-old composer who goes on the lam when authorities discover an amateur biology lab in his house. Is he a terrorist bent on biological warfare? Or is just an old guy with a strange hobby?

From the start, we're pretty sure it's not the former, but Powers delves deeply into Els' life story to explain why it's the latter. We learn about Els's influences in classical music, both traditional and non — from Mahler to Mozart to Messiaen. (A 10-page anecdote about Messiaen's Quartet for the End of the World, composed in a Nazi prison camp, was one of the highlights of the novel for me. Absolutely fascinating.) And Powers writing absolutely flourishes when he's describing a piece of music. You're almost obligated to stop and Google the piece so you can enjoy it with him.

We go back in time to learn about Els' ambition, mistakes, divorce, retreat from the world, relationship with an antagonistic collaborator named Richard Bonner (himself an avant-garde choreographer), and how he comes to believe music can truly be immortal (and by extension, make its composer immortal as well). We constantly waver between empathizing with Els and scratching our head at the choices he makes.

But part of the point of this novel, also, is how expression and art — especially music — seem to terrify authority. (In addition to the Messiaen story, Powers also gives a brief aside about the Russian composer Shostakovich, and how his 5th Symphony was a response to criticism from Josef Stalin.) Els is living in a post-9/11 world where fear spreads as quickly as the altered bacteria he's supposedly culturing. Powers writes:
“To call any music subversive, to say that a set of pitches and rhythms could pose a threat to real power…ludicrous. And yet, from Plato to Pyongyang, that endless need to legislate sounds. To police the harmonic possibilities as if there were no limits to music’s threat.”
And that brings us to the notion of biocomposing — the practice of composing music from patterns in nature. But biocomposition isn't quite what Els is up to, and to tell you what he's really doing would be to spoil the ending — but needless to say, it's an ingenious idea. And the whole thing — as Els travels around the country, still on the run from authorities, righting wrongs from his past — leads to one last piece of performance art that may finally bring Els the fame and notoriety he strove for his whole life as a composer.

I am far from an expert on classical music, and even further from an expert on avant-garde classical music, but Powers writes in a such a way as to make his subject (whether a composer, a piece, or a piece's place in history) understandable. I learned a ton from this novel! There are, admittedly, a few instances when Powers seems to get bogged down by his own expertise, but on the whole, this is a fascinating, thought-provoking story. But if you know Powers' previous novels, you'd expect nothing less! 

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Landline: Can a Magic Phone Save a Marriage?

You may have heard about the trick in this novel already, and it's a good one, to be sure: What if you discovered a "magic" phone that allowed you to talk to your spouse in the past? Would it offer you fresh insight into your current marital problems, or would it just make things more complicated, and possibly force you to realize things were actually broken beyond repair?

Those questions, and the magic phone gimmick that launches them, make Rainbow Rowell's Landline really intriguing and fun – but the soul of this novel is the very simple, yet impossible to answer, question: Is love enough?

If you think that sounds a bit ooey-gooey, you're not wrong. It is. This is part love story, part story of that love story beginning to fail. And so something like this may usually have been a solid pass for me, but I took a chance on this — well outside my comfort zone — because several Book Rioters read it for the July Riot Read, and most really liked it, even the dudes. And I loved it!

I loved it because Rowell is a super cool writer — her characters are awesome. They feel like people you may know, and while they're often neurotic and quirky, smart and witty, or mysterious and humorless, you still want to get a beer with them. Her dialogue is authentic and often funny. And the story keeps you guessing — you know what you hope happens, but you're never quite sure what will.

The two principles are Neal and Georgie, late 30s parents of two girls, who live in Los Angeles. Neal is a stay-at-home dad, and Georgie is a TV writer for a crappy prime time comedy. But when she and her longtime writing partner get an offer to pitch their own show, they jump at it. Only problem: Georgie was supposed to go to Omaha with Neal and their kids for Christmas with Neal's mother. Neal is pissed! So he takes the girls and goes anyway, and Georgie stays behind to work on her show. Is this the nail in the coffin for the marriage? Or will the magic phone (which doesn't appear until about page 70, and until you get there, you have to be a little patient) be the magic marriage-cure a magic phone should be?

If you're still on the fence, check out this list of books to try if you've loved Landline. For me, this was more a reverse-engineering process, as I really liked all four of these books (especially The Financial Lives of the Poets and Domestic Violets), so I figured Landline was a pretty "safe" calculated risk. And it panned out. Highly recommended!

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Mr. Mercedes: King Goes Crime

Stephen King's new crime thriller (I guess that's the appropriate genre — it's often horrific, but it's definitely not horror) Mr Mercedes is certainly entertaining, a novel you can plow through (maybe a poor choice of words) in just a few sittings. But it also sort of feels like the kind of novel King can crank out in his sleep. There isn't a tremendous amount of depth or unexpected drama here — you know who the killer is from the opening pages — and so the only question is whether or hero will be able to stop said killer from committing his heinous encore act.

To fill in the details: The killer is a dude named Brady Hartfield, a late-20s fellow who works at an electronics store and moolights as an ice cream truck driver (you'll never trust your ice cream truck driver again after reading this novel). Brady lives with his drunk mother, with whom he has a massively inappropriate relationship. Brady is the eponymous Mr. Mercedes, the title psychopath who mauled down and killed eight people waiting in line at a job fair in a stolen Mercedes Benz.

Our hero is Bill Hodges, a former detective who had failed to solve the Mr. Mercedes crime before fading into retirement. But Brady reels him back into the case in the opening pages. Brady sends him a letter, chiding him about the crime, and endeavoring to guilt poor Bill into committing suicide. Brady had already been successful in this regard with the rich woman from whom he stole the Mercedes. She killed herself a few months prior after he'd needled her as well. Evidently, this sort of thing is a sadistic power trip for him.

But of course, Brady's best laid plans go awry, and he only succeeds in re-motivating Bill to solve the case. So together with a computer-whiz teenage neighbor Jerome, a slightly off woman named Holly, and a saucy rich minx named Janelle Patterson (who is the sister of the Mercedes owner), Bill races against time stop Mr. Mercedes from committing more mass murder.

At least one part of the novel struck me as extremely odd. One of the lessons Bill learns as he continues to run down leads, is that you shouldn't let your personal feelings about people influence the weight of their evidence. He and his partner had been annoyed with the whiny rich lady who owned the Mercedes, so they didn't believe her when she said she didn't know how the killer was able to steal her car without breaking in, and that caused them to look past what might have broken the case. Later, Bill is interrogating a neighbor, and amid a rant about aliens, she tells him she doesn't trust the neighborhood ice cream man. Bill writes her off as crazy, so he puts no stuck in what she says. If only he'd istened to her! But here's the problem: King often describes Bill as a hugely successful detective with a long, storied career of solving crime. If that's true, wouldn't this have been a lesson Bill learned many, many cases prior. This may sound like nit-picking, but this lesson is sort of one of the hinges of the novel. So it bugged me.

Overall, though, this is a good, fun summer read — not quite on par with King's more popular novels or my favorite novels of his (Duma Key, 11/22/63, The Stand, eg), but not terrible either. I'd give it three out of five stars.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

The Sleepwalker's Guide To Dancing: Visions of India

Mira Jacob's debut novel The Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing is, naturally and almost too easily, drawing lots of comparisons to Jhumpa Lahiri's fiction. That's because it's a decades-long tale of a family that immigrates from India to the U.S. But whereas Lahiri's fiction is almost always unflinchingly straightforward and earnest, Jacob's contains many moments of levity that kind of sneak up on you if you're not reading carefully.

Here's one example: Kamala's son Akhil paints a mural on his bedroom ceiling, including such important figures to his new left-leaning world view as Gandhi, Che Guevara, and Rob Halford. Kamala explains to friends who don't knew who Halford is that he's a "singing priest." Kamala makes quite a few of these mistakes throughout the novel, and they're always amusing.

But on the whole, you wouldn't confuse Jacob's novel with slapstick by any stretch. There are some weighty issues to be dealt with here, and you get that sense from the opening scene: Kamala calls late 20s daughter Amina and tells her that her father Thomas is having long conversations with his mother; which would be fine, except his mother's been dead for 15 years.

So Amina rushes home to Albuquerque to find out what's wrong. We jump back to India in the 1970s to learn about Thomas's strained relationship with his mother and brother. We ease into 1980s Albuquerque where Amina and Akhil are high school students struggling to fit in as first-generation immigrants. And then we go back and forth between 1998 Seattle (where Amina makes a living as a photographer) and Albuquerque where she tries to right the ship and fend off her mother attempts to hook her up with eligible Indian bachelors.

The story hinges on what really is wrong with Thomas. Have a series of tragedies over the years finally caused him to lose touch with reality? Are his visions simply a coping mechanism? And as Amina tries to keep her own sanity, how does she deal with her own demons...and her constantly nagging mother?
  
It's a strangely fluid story for as much as it seems to jump around. And despite its 500-page length, it's a story that goes by quickly. Highly recommended!



Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Dark Places: Lukewarm Flynn Is Still Entertaining Flynn

You can almost seen the beginnings of Gillian Flynn's megahit Gone Girl in her second novel, 2009's Dark Places. Here, the narrative is told from multiple points of view (though the real-time narrative is first person) and we're not quite sure how reliable any of the characters' perspective really is. While Flynn's story here is as entertaining as ever, this is probably my least favorite of her three novels. But lukewarm Gillian Flynn is still better than at least 50 percent of what I've read this year — and probably 75 percent better, from a writing perspective, than other genre thrillers out there.

So the story for this one: Libby Day is a 31-year-old woman whose family was horrifically murdered when she was 7. Her older brother Ben — 15 at the time — was convicted of the murders based on Libby's testimony, and some weird rumors that he was involved in Satanic rituals. Libby has managed to squeak by for the next 24 years on the kindness of strangers' donations, but not now the money has run dry, and she has to figure out how to support herself.

When a nerdy dude name Lyle contacts her about an "appearance fee" at a club he's a member of, she jumps at the chance, and soon discovers a weird clique of people devoted to "solving" what they judge to be mistaken convictions or other unsolved murders.

Wavering between genuine need for money and genuine curiosity about what actually happened that fateful night in January 1985, Libby begins talking to the principals involved, including her brother who is wasting away in prison and who she's never talked to since her testimony put him away.

The story alternates between Libby's present-day attempts to find the people involved — including her drunk, degenerate father Runner, and Ben's former friend/bully Trey — and the perspectives of people on the fateful day in question, including Ben and Libby's mother Patty, a frazzled single-mother to four kids who is at her wits end about how to run their small farm in rural Kansas.

The setup here is great, but parts of the story should carry a bit of a disclaimer: "Suspend disbelief, all ye who enter here" — especially the ending when we finally do find out what happened to Libby's family. But that's okay — you don't read thrillers to compare them to the authenticity of your own real-world experiences, necessarily. You read them to escape your own real-world for a bit. At least I do. And I did enjoy this for Flynn's fantastic dialogue and intriguing characters. But if you're new to Flynn, definitely don't start with this one. Both Gone Girl and Sharp Objects are better.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

A Collection of Quotes from Elizabeth McCraken's Thunderstruck & Other Stories

I just learned what many book nerds already know well — Elizabeth McCracken is a magnetic writer. Her new short story collection Thunderstruck & Other Stories is the first thing I've read by her, and I was enthralled. These are stories you'll want to slow down and read carefully because you'll want to underline/highlight just about every other line.

The stories themselves are...strange? They're about characters and places and things you'd probably never have any occasion to consider outside these pages — a drunk who sort of unwittingly collects animals in the French countryside, a kid in a poor Boston neighborhood whose mother disappears, a guy whose wife dies and he rents a house and tangles with his landlord about sprucing it up. If there's a common theme to these stories, it's something along the lines of beauty, authenticity, or just meaning is in the eye of the beholder. And while I realize that's a bit nebulous, the trouble for me in connecting these stories is that it's hard to see the forest for the trees amidst such profound, insightful, ingenious writing.

Indeed, instead of telling you more about these stories themselves (which I mostly really enjoyed, despite constantly thinking, "Hmm, that's an odd vehicle for discussing the notion of mortality or art or love), here's a collection of my favorite passage from this fantastic collection.
“You couldn't believe the people who believed that not mentioning sadness was a kind of magic that could stave off the very sadness you didn’t mention — as though grief were the opposite of Rumpelstiltskin and materialized only at the sound of its own name.”
“Most common mistake in the world, believing that physical pleasure and virtue are in any way related, directly or indirectly.”
“It was not nice love, it was not good love, but you cannot tell me it wasn’t love. Love is not oxygen, though many songwriters will tell you that it is; it is not a chemical substance that is either definitively present or absent; it cannot be reduced to its parts. It is not like a flower, or an animal, or anything that you will ever be able to recognize when you see it. Love is food. That’s all. Nothing better nor worse. Sometimes very good. Sometimes terrible.”
“Nothing less tolerable than a godly bird.”
“Nothing sounds more insincere than a parrot speaking French.”
“You can’t just make everything stop so people will look at you.”
"The world goes on. The world will.”
“Happiness was a narrow tank. You had to make sure you cleared the lip.”

Monday, July 14, 2014

O, Democracy!: O, Silly, Silly Politics

A "Rapacious British Oil Company" has just received permits to dump pollutants into Lake Michigan. It's crazy, but it's perfectly legal. So the Senator for whom our protagonist Colleen works in Kathleen Rooney's fantastic under-the-radar, indie-published novel O, Democracy! holds a press conference to denounce this burgeoning environmental disaster. But the Senator's opponent in the upcoming election holds another press conference and claims that dumping toxins in the lake helps create jobs, and also, there's "some evidence" that plants and animals that live in the lake use these pollutants as food.

It's preposterous! But this anecdote perfectly captures one of the main themes of this novel: That politics are ridiculous. As the staffers for the Senator discuss later, they're sure that at least 50 percent of voters will believe that plant and animal life will actually benefit from swimming in toxic industrial waste — not because it possibly could be true, but because they want to believe anything their candidate says and disbelieve whatever the other guy says. It's not about being factually accurate, it's about muddying the waters just enough to plant seeds of doubt — especially among "low-information voters."

Yes, politics are ridiculous. As Rooney says, they're also funny in a "have-to-laugh-or-you'll-probably-cry kind of way." And that certainly shines through in this novel about Colleen's experiences as a staffer for the Senior Senator from Illiniois. It's the summer/fall of 2008, and election fever — both for the Senator's re-election and for the Presidential election, which includes the Junior Senator from Illinois — is in full pitch.

This novel is based on Rooney's own experiences on Senator Dick Durbin's staff between 2007-2010. Rooney's fictional stand-in for herself, Colleen, dodges blatant sexual harassment by the smarmy yet somehow likeable chief of staff, deals with ridiculous requests from the public (can the Senator get me an extension on my mortgage so I'm not foreclosed on? Help!) and extremist protest groups, and trains new interns, including a former dancer for the Chicago Bulls (a Lovabull) who has dubbed herself J-Lock, and who annoys Colleen to no end.

The big hook for the novel is when Colleen comes into possession of a video that would absolutely destroy the Senator's opponent. She has to decide whether to make the video public — to play dirty politics, as the Senator's opponent, a despicable politician who is using every dirty trick in the book, is.

If you're interested in politics, especially those of the left-leaning variety, you'll love this novel. Rooney doesn't use any real names of people, and the Senator's opponent is totally invented, but if you know politics and Chicago, you'll be able to easily tell who she's talking about. I actually really liked this part of the novel — because when you can decipher her clues, you feel like you're in on the joke. And, each reference – to the 39th governor of Illinois who is currently in jail for corruption (George Ryan) or the current (in 2008) governor of Illinois who has ridiculous hair and will soon go to jail for trying to sell the Junior Senator's seat (Rod Blagojevic) — feels like a trivia contest. So it's just fun! (Oh, and the Rapacious British Oil Company? BP, obviously.)

Anyway, this is a small press book that really deserves a wider readership. It's a novel that's as infuriating as it is entertaining. I loved it!

Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The Rise & Fall of Great Powers: "History is the issue"

The title of Tom Rachman's second novel, after his awesome 2011 debut The Imperfectionists, is only slightly grandiose.  The Rise & Fall of Great Powers is actually much less epic than it sounds — it's about a bookish woman named Tooly who is trying to uncover her past. But this novel is still a great read. The title is a nod to the central idea of the novel*: Humans, like great and powerful empires, are built, shakily or firmly, upon their histories. But still, humans, like great and powerful empires, rise and fall, based on making the most of the present.

We first meet Tooly as a 31-year-old tucked away in a tiny Welsh village, the owner of a failing bookstore called the World's End. It's 2011, and all we know about Tooly is that the two years she's spent as the proprietor of the store is the longest she's spent in a single location in her whole life. Then, we jump back to 12 years previous, 1999, and see Tooly as a 21-year-old living in New York City. Then, we leap further back to Tooly as a 9-year-old, arriving with a guy named Paul to live in Bangkok.

Rachman alternates these three threads in each chapter to tell us Tooly's story — we learn as she learns about how her past fits together. Along the way, we meet some oddball characters. Indeed, these characters, as was the case with Rachman's debut, are the strength of his writing. Tooly, in each of her three age-iterations — as a precocious kid, as a young woman not sure about her place in the world, and then as a more mature adult, finally trying to decode her past — is cool, but it's the secondary characters that makes this novel fun. Most notably among these is the Russian fellow Humphrey, who Tooly meets when she's nine, lives with when she's 21, and then goes to visit as he's dying when she's 31. Humphrey is a chess-playing, John Stuart Mills-reading intellectual who is fond of calling people "trivial beings," and messing up hilariously English idioms. There's also the mysterious con man Venn, and the woman who loves him, Sarah, who may or may not be Tooly's mother.

What is Tooly's relationship to all these people? How did Tooly become the person she is now? We read to find out, as she is trying to find out also. Is her entire life — the person she thinks she's become — based on faulty assumptions about her past, and why she trusted those people? Is her own rise and fall (and rise again?) built on a shaky cornerstone, or a solid one that will eventually allow her to settle down and be happy?

Another awesome thing about this novel is that it's a total pander to book lovers, but in a good way. Humphrey is a huge advocate for the reading life, and Tooly often tries to interpret events in her own life through the lens of books she's loved. Near the end, as Tooly organizes some books, she thinks about what the books mean, and comes up with this gem, which is 100 percent exactly how I (and I'm guessing many book lovers) feel about books, too:
"People kept their books, she thought, not because they were likely to read them again but because these objects contained the past — the texture of being oneself at a particular place, at a particular time, each volume a piece of one's intellect, whether the work itself had been loved or despised or had induced a snooze on page forty."
I mean, right?! RIGHT?!

Anyway, if you're a fan of character-driven novels told with a bit of pizzazz structure-wise, you'll probably dig this. Rachman is a funny, profound writer who is a pleasure to read on a sentence-by-sentence basis. Highly recommended!

*The title is also a nod, presumably, to a stuffy, similarly titled work of history by a British dude named Paul Kennedy. Here's more about that book, if you're interested.