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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.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The Mark and the Void: Satire of the Banking Crisis

If there's only one good thing to come out of the Great Recession, it's this hilarious novel. You may remember Paul Murray from Skippy Dies, a terrific, goofy novel about Irish prep school kids. Well, The Mark and the Void is terrific and goofy, too — but with a much more "serious" subject. I's a satire of two professions: Bankers and novelists. And you'll be surprised to find they have more in common than you might think.

"The financial corporation has become a machine for producing unreality," Murray tells us at one point, paraphrasing a philosopher several characters in the novel admire. And that's it: Just as writers produce fiction — which, frequently, life imitates — so too do bankers produce fiction which has real-life consequences. The entire world economy was brought to its knees by bankers inventing new investing mechanisms, and selling them to each other and naive consumers, and then betting they'd fail, and then inventing new ones, and going so deeply in debt that the only way to get out was to go further in debt so they'd be bailed out by government (which spent money much-needed for social services to save billionaires). All this ultimately created a vicious circle that is so absurd when you think about it (or read Murray's novel that makes it funny in a laugh-or-you'll-cry way), it really is the stuff of bad fiction.

Our protagonist here is a French banker named Claude, who works at a mid-sized investment bank in Dublin called Bank of Torabundo (Torabundo is a fictional island in the Pacific with lax tax laws. The bank is incorporated there. And Dublin has notoriously loose banking laws, so of course that's where the bank is headquartered.) One day, a novelist named Paul introduces himself, telling Claude he's working on a novel about an Everyman banker, and would like to shadow Paul for a few days to learn about what he does. Let's just say Paul has an ulterior motive.

And we go from there, alternating between Paul and Claude's often hilarious burgeoning friendship, and Claude's day-to-day often hilarious and absurd banking duties. Claude also has a love interest — a beautiful Greek waitress and painter. And he enlists the inept Paul's help to get the girl, often with truly comic consequences.

There is some real comedy gold in this novel — one example is a fake Forbes profile of the bank's new CEO, who broke into banking after professional golfing, who was rewarded with his new post because he crashed another bank, and whose wives keep "committing suicide." Another is a scene in which the Wolf of Wall Street-like dude named Howie takes a bunch of potential investors out for a crazy night of booze, coke, and strippers. It's exactly as you would imagine it.

I loved this book — it's a really, really smart satire populated with wonderful characters. And I learned more about the actual causes of the banking crisis from this novel than anywhere else. It finally makes sense how utterly absurd (and absurdly criminal!) it was/is. Very, very highly recommended.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

A Brief History Of Seven Killings: Brutal, Mesmerizing, Masterful

Late in Marlon James's amazing Booker Prize-winning novel, A Brief History Of Seven Killings, a Jamaican character tells an American journalist,
"Jamaica can get shoot through your veins and become like every dark sweet thing that not good for you." 
Not only is that sentence a near-perfect thematic description of this hard-to-put-down 700-page novel as a whole (the allusion to drugs is intentional, of course), but also it's exactly how I feel about the novel itself. This is a novel, and these are characters, that will stick with you for a long time. I don't know if it was "good" for me, per se, but I know I enjoyed the hell out of it.

The closest comparison I can think of to this novel of Jamaican gangsters, CIA agents, double-crossing drug dealers, and one enterprising Rolling Stone journalist is that it's a Jamaican version of the HBO show The Wire. This novel, like The Wire, turns stereotypes on their heads (gangsters that read Bertrand Russell, gay hit men, etc.) in a complex plot where everyone has an agenda and loyalty is a sliding scale. I loved The Wire, but I liked this even more — the characters here are even more complex, there's even more moral shading, and it's a plot with even more scope and reach than could ever be done in a TV show. We go from the mid-1970s Kingston, to the late 1970s Kingston, Montego Bay and Miami, to the crackhouses of mid-80s and early-90s New York City.

That said, the first 300 pages take place over only two days in early December, 1976 in Kingston. We meet several characters — street kids, dons, enforcers, American journalists, CIA agents, Cuban "consultants," an upper class Jamaican woman, politicians, and even a ghost!  The diverse characters, who take turns narrating their own stories in their own voices, are what makes this novel great. The distinction and variety of these voices (James writes his Jamaican characters in Jamaican "dialect," but it's not difficult to read, and you get used to it quickly) really draw you in, which is quite a feat. Sometimes, novels with lots of narrators keep you at arm's length, because you're more invested in some characters than others. Not so here — each of these is interesting for his/her own reasons, and I never started reading a section thinking "Ugh, can't wait to get through this guy's story to get back another."

And but so, the Kingston gangs have close ties to Jamaican politics (if you're going to read this, and I highly recommend you do, do some quick Wikipedia-ing on the Jamaica Labour Party and the People's National Party), and with an election coming up, and a concert (Smile Jamaica), the eyes of the world are on Kingston. The real fulcrum of the plot and what sets everything spinning is a real-life event — an attack on reggae legend Bob Marley at his Kingston home just days before the concert and weeks before the election. This scene and its immediate aftermath are depicted from several perspectives in about 50 I-forgot-to-breathe pages that are truly, unimaginably great. These pages are when I knew I loved this novel. From there, we go 1979 in Jamaica, then to New York and Miami as the gangs team up with the Columbian drug cartels and take over parts of New York. But the attack on Marley looms large through the rest of the novel, even after Marley's 1981 death, literally until the last page.

One word of warning: This book is intensely violent — so it's not for the faint of heart in that regard. And the plot is complex, but certainly not impenetrable. You just have to keep in mind characters' motivations, loyalties, and why you think they're doing what they're doing. Just trust James that things will make sense.

So it's certainly not a novel everyone will be interested in, or like...but I loved it! It just feels like something so cool and inventive and unlike anything I'd read before (which, amusingly, is in stark contrast to most people's impression of Man Booker winners). I'd been trying to talk myself into reading this since it first came out last year, and I'm super glad I did. So if you're on the fence too, just take the plunge. It's an immensely rewarding reading experience.


Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Fates And Furies: A Story of a Marriage...And Then Some

To say Moby Dick is a story about a whale is like saying Lauren Groff's stunningly good new novel, Fates And Furies, is a story about a marriage. It is, sure, but that doesn't do it justice. In 2015, seemingly the year of the Marriage Novel, Fates And Furies is THE marriage novel. I turned the last page of this book, exhaled, and just said, "Wow."

It's the story of Lotto and Mathilde who meet at a college party, fall instantly in love, and marry two weeks later, much to the consternation of Lotto's wealthy mother, who immediately cuts him off.

In New York City, the newlyweds struggle to make ends meet. Naïve, narcissistic, but lovable Lotto tries his hand at acting, but his magnetic personality doesn't translate to the stage quite as easily as he'd hoped. Mathilde works at an art gallery to support her husband. But they're young, they have tons of friends, and they're beside themselves with love for each other. What could possibly go wrong?

This story, though, isn't so much about what can wrong in a marriage, as it is about how much you ever really know about and understand the person you know and understand best in the whole world. It's also about secrets, the internal engine and behind-the-scenes support system that makes a marriage work (or not), and, as most good novels are, doing your best to be able to see the world through someone else's eyes, and not slink away from what you see.

As well, throughout, Groff sprinkles allusions to mythology (the title, duh) to set up a tension of the eternal question of what we choose and the paths we take vs. what's been decided for us. Her writing, as you know if you've ever read her before, is exceptional. Her prose sparkles. It's near-perfect — every word has its place; not a word in excess, not a word too few. And the structure she's chose here only highlights her writing: The first half of the novel is told from Lotto's perspective, the second from Mathilde's. This creates such a richer experience with both these characters than a linear narrative could have.

I haven't decided yet whether this is No. 1 on my favorites of 2015 list yet, but it's extremely close. I really, really loved this book — a fantastic reading experience.

Getting this in the mail last week is a highlight of the year.

Thursday, September 10, 2015

This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance: Evison Does Elderly

Normally, I'd avoid a novel about a 78-year-old woman like, well, a real-life 78-year-old woman in a grocery store line. But a novel about a 78-year-old woman written by Jonathan Evison? I'm all in! And this is great.

Harriet Chance has lived a long and fruitful life, and soon after Bernard, her husband of fifty-plus years, dies, she learns he'd won an Alaska cruise, which he'd never collected, at a silent auction. She decides YOLO, and goes, even after her friend Mildred bails on her, and her two grown (and scheming) children, Skip and Caroline, try to talk her out of it.

Along the way, though, we delve back into Harriet's life in short snippets of story (told in the style of the radio program "This Is Your Life"; "Look at you Harriet, a grown woman!", i.e.) that show her at various formative stages. All this gives context for the real-time action, and the revelation of a secret about Bernard that Harriet discovers not long after she's embarked on the cruise. It's a secret that changes everything...dum dum dum.

But the intriguing thing here is that we soon learn that Harriet harbors her own skeleton(s), and isn't completely blameless. Evison's revelations are carefully placed and tug us along through the narrative at just the perfect times. It's a near-perfectly constructed novel, is what I'm saying.

One of my favorite parts of this novel is how it subtly scolds readers for our (or maybe just my?) stereotypes of and annoyances with the elderly. Indeed, there's even a scene, at a time in the novel when we're at maximum sads for Harriet, when she struggles with her coupons in the grocery store, and the line behind her gets impatient. I'm not going to lie, I was a little ashamed of myself when I read that part.

Overall, though, this is quick, charming, delightful, if often sad, read. As was the case with The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving, Evison's terrific 2012 novel (soon to be a movie with Paul Rudd, by the way), Evison is fantastic at somehow making his readers happy while reading a sad story. You'll read this quickly, and if you're like me, you'll really dig it.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

The Franzen Strikes Back: On Purity

Purity is Jonathan Franzen's third "major" novel — it's his most structurally complex, robust (or verbose, depending on your POV), and smartest novel yet. It's not his best, nor is it my favorite of his, but it's still pretty awesome — as quick a read as a 550-page novel can be.

What's fun about this novel is its sheer volume of topic. Franzen utterly commands a reader's attention, as he's interesting on just about everything he writes about. Here, Franzen tackles the pressures of fame, parents and kids, socialism, relationships, sex, nuclear disarmament, Internet leaks, trust, journalism vs. new media, Oedipus, art, East Germany.

This is all included amidst a tightly spun, though geographically diverse (Oakland, Denver, Bolivia, East Berlin, New York City, etc.) plot about a 22-year-old woman named Purity, but who goes by Pip. As we first meet Pip, she's talking with her neurotic mother who lives by herself in a cabin in California. Pip, who is rather a hot mess herself, lives in a squat house in Oakland, harbors a secret crush for a married housemate, works as a telemarketer for an alternative energy company, and just wants to find her father, who she thinks can help her pay her crushing $130,000 student loan debt.

After we're introduced to Pip in the first 100 pages, we spend the next 100 pages with a man named Andreas Wolf, who comes of age during the early 1980s in East Berlin. Andreas (as we've learned in Pip's section) runs an organization called The Sunlight Project, a Wikileaks-like outfit that attempts to "cleanse with sunlight" by revealing secrets. Andreas's section basically describes how he got to be the way he is. From there, the less you know about the plot, the better and more fun your reading experience will be. Franzen masterfully connects these characters, many more, their secrets, and how many of their stories are surprisingly similar. Trust him: What may seem like coincidence initially obviously isn't. Franzen's too good to resort to coincidence.

One of my favorite things about this novel is its self-awareness. You'll no doubt see (have seen?) a ton of articles over the next few weeks that basically say the same thing: "Jonathan Franzen is perceived by many to be a jerk, but jerks can write good novels. And this is a good novel." I don't disagree with that, but Franzen seems to have occasional fun with his critics here, spending a few carefully chosen words on technology (including Twitter, which, as we know, Franzen despises), feminism (which he admires, but wonders if it's about women being equal, or women being better), and even the number of real-world "serious" novelists named Jonathan. All wonderful stuff.

Again, though, even though I really enjoyed this, it's probably my third favorite of his three major novels. At times, it felt bloated, like we went too far back into the history of some of the characters, only to make a minor point. At times, the mighty ego of the Franzen — I mean, you go into reading Franzen knowing will be on full display — got in the way of his story (most notably, during several pages rant comparing the East German Revolution with the Internet, a parallel, that, despite reading several times, I still don't understand completely).

What it comes down to though is that you're going to want to read this. It's a fascinating study of our time. And there truly aren't too many writers working today that are as entertaining to read as The Franzen is.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Go Set A Watchman: Six Questions, Six Answers

If the measure of good (or even decent) literature is that which is capable of evoking emotion, well, Go Set A Watchman sure does that. You start with nervous anticipation, you laugh a bit, you're bored at times, you're wistful, you're infuriated, you're sad, you're challenged, you put it down when you're finished, almost with a sense of relief. I can't possibly review this book. No one really can because it's not a complete novel. But I am willing to try my hand at starting with the basics, and moving into some more complicated thoughts on the book. Here is my take on the six most common questions about Go Set A Watchman.  

1. What is Go Set A Watchman? — It's an unedited manuscript that tells a story taking placing 20 years after the events of To Kill A Mockingbird.  When Lee submitted Go Set A Watchman for publication, an editor told her to rewrite, but focus on flashbacks to Scout's childhood instead. The rewritten novel is To Kill A Mockingbird. So Go Set A Watchman is essentially a first draft of To Kill A Mockingbird. We can tell this is true in several places as we read Go Set A Watchman. For instance, in Go Set A Watchman, in a brief gloss-over paragraph of the trial central to To Kill A Mockingbird, Lee tells us Atticus got Tom Robinson acquitted. Obviously, she changed her mind as she wrote To Kill A Mockingbird.

2. What isn't Go Set A Watchman? — Despite some of the marketing and media hype, it's NOT a sequel to To Kill A Mockingbird. A sequel implies intent that a novel be written to build on the events of a previous novel. That's not what happened here. It was not intended to be a sequel, and it's not.

3. Should Go Set A Watchman have been published? — I have no idea. I'm glad it was, but we'll never actually know for sure what Lee's desires were regarding this "suddenly found" manuscript. As Jeff of Book Riot writes in this fantastic post when Go Set A Watchman was first announced, the tack to take is just to be comfortable reading knowing we won't have definitive answers. The nearest reading experience I can point to to this is David Foster Wallace's posthumous manuscript, The Pale King. Did he want that published? We'll never know. But we're happy it exists, and sad that it could've been so much better.

4. Will reading Go Set A Watchman ruin To Kill A Mockingbird? — No. No it unequivocally will not. You've probably seen all the Very Important Think Pieces, even from respected media outlets like NPR, making the case that the Big Reveal — Atticus is an old grouchy racist now — somehow kills the moral Atticus who is the paragon of empathy and ethics in To Kill A Mockingbird. That's wrong-headed and simple-minded. This isn't a case of Schrodinger's Atticus — you don't kill one Atticus by reading about the other Atticus. Both Atticuses (Atticki?) actually can exist simultaneously and in perpetuity. (So I guess it IS a case of Schrodinger's Atticus.) Remember, Lee went back to the drawing board on Atticus, so keep both Atticuses in your head — it's not cognitive dissonance. I realize it's tempting to let GSAW Atticus redefine TKAM Atticus — especially as Scout delivers lines like "You who called me Scout are dead and in your grave," which is absolutely heartbreaking — but don't. I strongly believe it's not the right way to read this book.

5. Is Go Set A Watchman any damn good?— I don't think this is quite the right question, but it's the most common one. To try to answer: It's pretty solid for a first draft. The too-easy comment I've heard frequently is that this could've been a masterpiece if it had been edited like a "normal" novel. But of course, it did become a masterpiece with an editor! That's what To Kill A Mockingbird is. As it stands, there are some major issues with Go Set A Watchman, just from continuity and "logic of storytelling" standpoint — we're missing some things (possibly things pulled out to form the framework of To Kill A Mockingbird?). And the last 100 pages...well, they're just not good storytelling. Scout has three separate conversations with three characters, Atticus as the denouement, to try to find out why Atticus is racist. While these conversations are philosophically and politically complex (go brush up on the 10th Amendment and Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka), they just don't quite rise to the level of literature.

6. Did you like Go Set A Watchman? —To sum, yes, I liked it, but with reservations — and to be clear, this is a much different question than No. 5. My favorite parts of this novel are three flashback scenes to Scout's childhood and teenage years. All read exactly as if they're torn from To Kill A Mockingbird — they're all really funny, and in at least one case, show us the affable Atticus of To Kill A Mockingbird. I can't emphasize enough how much I loved these scenes. The closest analogy I can come up with here, which certainly pales in comparison with this reading experience, is the Curb Your Enthusiasm's Seinfeld reunion episodes — there are extended parts of those where the cast dropped right back into Seinfeld mode. In these three scenes, we're right back to To Kill A Mockingbird, and they're just so great as standalone set pieces. In total, it was a mostly positive reading experience, and I'll certainly recommend it to anyone who is on the fence. I'm very glad I read it. Finally, my thoughts on it mirror the fantastic point made by Book Riot manager editor Amanda when she appeared on CNN International to discuss the book — when the Go Set A Watchman frenzy has died down, it'll wind up as simply a footnote in literary history. To Kill A Mockingbird is now and always will be unassailable.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

Book of Numbers: An Intermess

There hasn't been a novel released this year I thought would be more in my wheelhouse than Joshua Cohen's "Great Internet Novel," Book of Numbers. If not just for the breathless comparisons of Cohen to David Foster Wallace and Thomas Pynchon (though Cohen himself called this idea "good publicity, bad criticism"), than also because it's a 600-page post-modern tome about technology, the internet, and a struggling, smart ass, nearly nihilistic writer named Joshua Cohen.

I almost didn't make it. To be sure, it's a cleverly written, inventive, often funny novel, but mostly it's too clever, inventive, and funny by half. My literary hero, DFW, often talked about the proportion of reader aggravation to reader enjoyment in his stories, and admitted that in some of his work the former outranked the latter, making for bad fiction. This is the case here as well. Each sentence is littered with portmanteau, neologism, Internet-speak (which may or may not be invented), Hindu gods and theology, purposeful and annoying misspellings ("figgered" for figured, "sessh" for session, etc.), etc., etc. If that's your thing, cool. But it got to be really, really irritating after awhile — it took forever to read this novel because you can't just sit down and blow through 50 pages in an hour or whatever. To get, you have to slow down and digest. (But judging by the Goodreads reviews, most readers didn't have the patience and gave up well before the end.)

But finish it, I did. And here's the deal: A writer named Joshua Cohen is hired to ghost write the autobiography of the billionaire founder of a Google-like company called Tetration (a math term), also named Joshua Cohen. The novel's in three parts — the first and third about writer Cohen's misadventures: publishing a novel on 9/11 that was quickly forgotten, marital trouble, and then connecting with the other Cohen (who goes by "Principal") to interview him in California, Dubai, and Abu Dhabi. The middle part of the novel is a sort of draft version of that ghostwritten autobiography, showing us how Cohen grew up, founded the company, hired a goofy engineer named Moe, etc., etc. If you know the Google origin story, not much here (except for the Big Reveal) is all that original or even interesting (again, except for the Big Reveal...but even the way Cohen writes this section leaves us a bit confused). The good thing about this structural approach is that when you've just about had all you can take with one section, we totally switch gears to another and move on.

"(Clearly Very Talented Writer) is going to blow us away with a novel someday soon, but this isn't it," is one those things readers/bloggers/reviewers say when they didn't like a novel, but want to give the writer credit. It's a cop-out, for sure. But I think it's apt here. The talent is undeniable. Cohen just needs to harness it.


Thursday, July 9, 2015

Beneath the Bonfire: Rural Wisconsin in Prose

If you are a fan of Nickolas Butler's tremendous 2014 novel Shotgun Lovesongs (and if you're not, ummm...what?!), you'll love his new short story collection, Beneath The Bonfire.

To many, me included, Richard Russo is the undisputed champion of chronicling life in small or failing rural towns. But with these 10 stories set in Wisconsin, Butler does his best to out-Russo Russo. Butler's stories are about ordinary everyday people, and their relationships — bro-mance-friendships, boyfriend/girlfriend, marriage. And Butler is masterful at rendering these relationships authentically and sensitively. He just seems to understand people.

One of my favorites in the collection, "Sven and Lily," is about two dudes who spend their time shooting pool, bombing beers, and flirting with ladies at roadside bars. Sven's a seven-foot giant, and his buddy Lily (a nickname, short for Lilliputian) is a tiny little guy who follows him around like the yappy dog in those old cartoons. One night when Sven gets in trouble with a lady, Lily cover for him with his wife. Later, Sven comes over to thank him, and Lily's already been boozing and gorging on his daughter's Girl Scout cookies. "For the second time in twenty-four hours, I passed out with the television screen before me, aglow with happy faces, happy for another Today in New York City. The doorbell rang and I was covered in the crumbs of my daughter's cookies." That image just makes me laugh out loud every time I've read it. It's a goofy story, but a true one in the sense of explaining the lengths dudes will go to protect each other. Lily sums up:
"But when you know someone like Sven, you defend him, because you want there to be good people in the world and it doesn't do anyone any good to break them down into something as bad and ugly as everyone else."
But it's not just the dudes that get Butler's careful eye. He also renders male/female relationships with insight and accuracy. Perhaps the best story in the collection, though by far the most difficult to read, is "In Western Counties." It's about a woman who has never had much luck with relationships, and falls in love (or at least, infatuation) with a dashing charismatic fellow who turns out to be not only abusive to her, but also an out-and-out criminal. He runs a dogfighting circuit out of the barn of the farmhouse he's stolen from a sweet old lady. The story's about how this woman, in conjunction with a retired State Highway Patrolwoman named Aida try to stop him and get revenge. Trust me when I say the conclusion to this one is satisfying.

While many of the relationships in these stories are disasters, the collection ends on such a sweet, hopeful note. The story "Apples" is about an elderly couple who seem to be the ideal of marriage. When the man loses his job, he begins picking apples in an orchard for a rich guy. It's a quiet, funny story that ends on almost a tear-inducingly happy note. Loved it.

And I loved this collection overall. Stories range from funny to gut-punch to sensitive and quiet, but all are immensely entertaining — a rarity for a full collection. Very, very highly recommended — the best collection I've read in a long time.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Among The Ten Thousand Things: Is Cheating Always A Divorce-able Offense?

Julia Pierpont sets herself a difficult task with her debut novel Among The Ten Thousand Things (out today): how to elevate a run-of-the-mill failing marriage story above the din to make it something different, fresh, readable, memorable. She succeeds in spades.

This deft, subtly complex story stands out for its structure, its writing, and for how it handles the difficult question: "Is cheating always and without exception a divorce-able offense?"

The novel starts with a bang: A New York City couple's 11-year-old daughter Kay discovers a box of printed-out filthy emails and instant messages between her father Jack and his mistress. Kay shows it to her brother, 15-year-old Simon, and they both show it to their mother, Deb. Deb already knew about the affair, which Jack claims has ended, but the kids finding out is the last straw. Or is it?

The opening few pages of this novel get their claws in you like few novels can — and that's not just because of the immediate interest of the kids discovering the box of sexy missives. In the first scene, we see Kay's friends picking on her for not knowing how to ride a bike — a perfect way to encapsulate the transition between childhood (bike-riding) and the tough, potentially cruel upcoming teenage years. As well, in the next scene, we see Simon smoking pot for the first time with an older girl he has a crush on — just another great depiction of the peer pressure and pitfalls of being a teenager.

Indeed, much of this novel — and another reason it's better than the "traditional" failing marriage story — is that it really focuses on the effects of the affair on these two kids at such pivotal times in their lives. What kind of people will they wind up being?

Thankfully, we don't have to wait long to learn the answer. Another standout part of this novel is that after about the first third, Pierpont pauses the story and writes a short, poetic section that follows each character many years into the future. Then, she continues with the story. Your first instinct here is to scream "spoiler alert." But it's a fascinating structural choice. And near the end of that section, Pierpont explains this way: "The end is never a surprise. People say, Don't tell me, Don't spoil it, and then later they say, If only I'd known." I really loved this, both for its inventiveness and because it gives a fresh perspective for the rest of the novel, as Deb takes the kids out of New York City to the family's summer cottage, and Jack goes on a weird sort of vision quest across the country.

There's so much packed in to this slim, beautifully written story — art, Atlas Shrugged, dance, erotic episodes of Seinfeld, secrets revealed, and the fraught parent-child relationship. I loved it. It's about as confident a debut as you'll find. Highly recommended.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Saint Mazie: What Does It Mean To Be Good?

Jami Attenberg's fantastic new novel Saint Mazie is about a hard-partying maneater named Mazie Phillips-Gordon. Mazie's a real person — a subject of a New Yorker profile in 1940 about how she opened the Manhattan theater she owned to down-on-their-luck dudes during the Great Depression. But Attenberg's novel uses a fictitious diary, as well as "interviews" with some people whose relatives knew Mazie, or who knew Mazie themselves, to construct a portrait of this larger-than-life woman.

The result is just an exuberant, fun-to-read story. Mazie moves from Boston to the lower East Side of Manhattan as a young girl to escape her abusive father. She and her younger sister Jeanie live with their older sister Rosie and Rosie's husband, Louis. Mazie, in her late teenage years, takes quickly to the Manhattan life, staying out all night, flirting with fellas, and generally living for the moment. But Mazie harbors a soft spot for helping people — the paradox of her character.

Rosie and Louis — her parent figures — decide they've had a enough with her wild ways, and plead with her to take over as the ticket-taker for the theater Louis owns. She can't say no to Louis, who she loves for saving her and for taking care of her and sisters. So she agrees — spending her days in the "cage" of the ticket booth, and watching New York City slide by without her. She does manage to step out once in awhile, including with a dashing and World War I hero named the Captain, who becomes her life-long love interest, as he flits in and out of her life.

So the central question of the novel, which really rises to the surface as the Great Depression hits and Mazie spends more and more time helping the homeless: What does it mean to be a good person? Mazie assumes she's bad — she has sex with married men, she flirts, she drinks and smokes, and stays out all night. But her heart's in the right place, isn't it? Her younger sister, by contrast, is a sweetheart who never gave anyone any trouble. Bu she suddenly takes off across the country to make it as a dancer, jilting the man who loves her. She gets in trouble in Chicago and has to return to New York somewhat disgraced. Is Jeanie a good person? And then Louis — Louis may or may not be a criminal. Mazie constantly sees him meeting with shady figures, and he always seems to have money to burn. But he's a big 'ole sweetheart of a man, who loves the sisters, and treats Mazie with nothing but compassion and respect. Is Louis good?

I really loved this novel. It's a great character study and a wonderful depiction of early 20th century New York City. And there aren't too many more fun-to-read writers out there than Attenberg (I loved The Middlesteins, as well.) She's funny, witty, smart-as-hell, and just generally a writer who really seems to enjoy writing every sentence as much as you enjoy reading them. This is highly recommended. Very highly.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Euphoria: Anthropologists in Love

An anthropologist love triangle in 1930s New Guinea? Lily King's novel Euphoria sounded a bit too soap-opera-ey for me — not exactly a novel in my reading wheelhouse. And so it took me a lot to talk myself into trying it. But the avalanche of accolades (NBCC finalist, NY Times Top 10 book of 2014, bestseller in paperback) and finding a super-cheap, new-condition paperback in a used bookstore finally tilted me over the edge. 

It's a fascinating read loosely based on the life of anthropologist Margaret Mead. In the novel, the Mead character is named Nell — she's recently married to an Australian anthropologist named Fen, who we slowly learn feels threatened in his masculinity by her success. She's published a much-read, if somewhat controversial book, and has become something of a science celebrity. He, however, is an unknown. And while the two seem to work well together, they often come to very different conclusions regarding what they're studying. And this begins to become bothersome for Nell.

When the novel opens, we see them leaving the tribe they'd been studying to attend a Christmas Eve party. There, they meet another somewhat famous anthropologist named Bankson, who has just tried to kill himself by walking into the river with rocks in his pocket. But he was fished out by the natives, and now has a new lease on life. He's desperately lonely, and so he talks Nell and Fen into staying in New Guinea, even recommending a new tribe along the same river for them to study. Nell and Fen again throw themselves into their work, but when Bankson comes to visit to check on their progress, he realizes he's already starting to have strong feelings for Nell. And Nell is becoming more and more disillusioned with her husband and his work ethic. How will the three deal with their difficult feelings for each other, their work, and the tribes they're studying?

This slim, deceptively complex novel takes on some weighty issues in regards to gender relations, cultural relativism, and the balances of "power" in any relationship. The title refers to Nell's moment when she feels like she truly understands the culture of the people she's studying. But she realizes her euphoria is false, because much like in her own relationships, you never really reach an end-point of total understanding. Relationships are constantly evolving.

King handles the complexities and themes of this great novel with a subtle, deft hand, trusting her reader to puzzle them out for him or herself. And that's ultimately why I enjoyed it — it's a really smart book that challenges its readers to give it more than just cursory thought. 

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Two Great Recent Chicago-Set Novels

Chicago-set novels are a bone fide literary Kryptonite for me — I can't resist 'em. Here are two great recent ones.

The Making Of Zombie Wars, by Aleksander Hemon
Have you ever read a Jonathan Tropper or other dude-lit novel, and thought, "Hmm, this is pretty good, but what it needs is more graphic sex and violence"? Well, here you go! Chicagoan Hemon gives us this goofy tale of a 33-year-old struggling screenwriter named Joshua Levin. Our boy Josh gets himself into hot water with his beautiful, kinky, way-out-of-his league lady Kimmy when he can't resist the charms of a beautiful Bosnian woman named Ana, a student in the English as a Second Language night class he teaches.

Joshua participates in a screenwriting workshop, and though he has many ideas for screenplays, he never finishes any of them ... that is until a great idea for a movie about zombies occurs to him. It's spring 2003, we've just invaded Iraq, and war is fresh in the hearts and minds of everyone. Part of the idea of the novel is to draw a silly parallel between art and life by showing that we dumb humans are more or less like zombies, only responding to our urges of the flesh (like sex and violence). And for Joshua, the irony here is that the only thing that can elevate him above his current zombie-esque urges is his art about zombies who can't resist their own urges.

It's a deceptively funny novel that includes a samurai-sword-wielding, Guns'N'Roses-listening, post-smoking, Desert Storm veteran named Stagger, cock rings and handcuffs, and Bosnian toughs named Esko and Bega who are constant thorns in Joshua's side.

Don't take this novel too seriously, and I think you'll dig it. It's a quick, light read with plenty of laugh-out-loud absurdity.


The Ghost Network, by Catie Disabato
This intricate debut thriller is a mixture of conspiracy theory, esoteric history and philosophy (both of Chicago and in general), and commentary on celebrity and pop culture. 

The set-up here is that a writer named Catie Disabato is publishing (with her own notes) a previously completed manuscript by another journalist name Cyrus Archer. Archer's manuscript is about the disappearance of a pop star named Molly Metropolis and one of her biggest fans' efforts to find her. But only a few months into the search, the fan, whose name is Cait Taer, also disappears — we learn this in the prologue. So what the heck has happened?

Taer's efforts to find Molly Metropolis before her own disappearance involve hooking up (figuratively, and romantically) with Molly's assistant Regina Nix and one of her confidants, Nick Berliner (great names, right?!). She has to delve into the history of the Chicago El, the faux-profound ramblings she finds in Molly Metropolis's journal, and a mysterious (and real) philosophical movement called Situationism

The cool thing about this novel is Chicago is very prominent — Cait and Regina spend tons of time just walking the streets, and we get to see a lot of great Chicago landmarks and neighborhoods. But the strength of this novel is its inventiveness, and how it manages to pull so many disparate elements into a what turns into a pretty taut thriller.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

How To Tell Toledo From The Night Sky: Tricking Fate

Childhood friends Sally and Bernice have the most noble intentions — they endeavor to raise their children, George and Irene, so that when they will grow up, meet randomly, fall in love, and live happily ever after. It'll be as if they were fated to be together, like two halves of a whole, like symmetrical souls. Of course, when you're trying to trick fate and arrange a marriage over the course of a few decades, even the best laid plans can go awry.

So this attempt to engineer destiny is the set-up for Lydia Netzer's fun, quirky 2014 novel, How To Tell Toledo From The Night Sky. There's two ways to look at Sally and Bernice's plot: They're just looking out for and protecting their children. Both Bernice and Sally's parents got divorced when they were young, and so by arranging their kids' soulmates (albeit without the kids' knowledge), they're just trying to make sure they have happy lives. The other way, though, is that by trying to trick the fate of falling in love, they're actually ruining it. They're trying to have their fate and beat it too. So the question of the novel is, will it work?

So it's a novel about fate vs. free will, yes. But it's also about empirical evidence vs. blind faith,  myth vs. truth, and about overcoming what you are sure you know to be true about the world when new "evidence" is presented. Finally, it's about learning how to be happy.

Our two star-crossed lovers, George and Irene, are both wonderful characters — flawed and neurotic and maddening. And their mothers are even worse.

I really dug this book for both its premise and for Netzer's writing. There are some beautiful, poetic, profound passages as often as there are hilarious, goofy one-liners. It's a book not to take too seriously, but to take seriously enough to truly imagine the possibilities presented with this cool premise.

Friday, May 1, 2015

Five Best Books of 2015 (so far...)

(This post originally appeared on RoscoeBooks' blog.)

We’re 1/3 of the way through 2015. Amazing! But for my money, the best 2/3 of the year remain — not only because of street fests, barbeques, the World Series, leaves, Christmas, etc., but also because here come some pretty great books! So far this year, though, there have also been some pretty great books. At the 33.33333 percent mark of the year, here are my five favorites so far.

5. The Girl On The Train, by Paula Hawkins — The most popular book of the year so far is mostly worth the hype. It’s a riveting read, and even though I had a few minor issues with the novel, on balance, I liked it. It kept me up late reading, guessing, and feeling terrible for the poor hot mess of a protagonist.

4. The Kind Worth Killing, by Peter Swanson — Okay, but if you liked The Girl On The Train, you’ll LOVE this book. It’s populated with a bevy of unlikeable characters who plot horrible things for each other. At its root, it’s a dueling-narrative thriller about a failed marriage and a plot to kill the cheating wife — which, of course, doesn’t exactly go as planned. And the story gets pretty crazy from there. Give this one a shot — you may not have heard of it, but it’s really, really good.

3. Get In Trouble, by Kelly Link — Short stories: woohoo! These kooky, imaginative stories will certainly keep you on your toes. There are nudists, runaway teenagers, superheroes, sex dolls, astronauts, ghosts, and much more. But the idea here is that these fantastical (and fantastic!) stories allow Link to explore a theme of what is real, authentic, and genuine, and how can we know.

2. Glow, by Ned Beauman — This is the zaniest, most fun novel I’ve read in awhile. A nefarious American mining company operating in Burma is attempting to take over the drug trade in London. But why? And what’s the deal with the mysterious foxes popping up all over the city? This story is part Pynchon, with a mix of Murakami, and all good time. A guy who has something called non-24-sleep/wake syndrome has to try to solve the mystery of why this mining company is killing his friends. Along the way, he meets a beautiful woman named Cherish who may not be everything she seems.

1. A Little Life, by Hanya Yanigahara — It’s hard to imagine this won’t be my favorite of the full year eight months from now (even with a new Franzen and a To Kill a Mockingbird sequel!) — I was just blown away by this book. It’s as intense a read as you’ll find, but also incredibly engrossing and immensely rewarding. If you’re the kind of reader who misses the characters after you close the final page, well, that’ll be the case here too. I still miss them several months later.

(Honorable mention — Bonita Avenue, by Peter Buwalda. I just finished this massive tome about a dysfunctional Dutch family. And I really enjoyed it, but I need let it sink in a little more before I can assess its place on a “best of…” list.)

Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Bonita Avenue: Dutch Disaster, Dysfunction

If you haven't heard of Dutch novelist Peter Buwalda's debut novel, Bonita Avenue, don't feel bad — but you're going to want to take note. The novel was published in the Netherlands in 2010, and after a successful run in Europe, including several awards, it's only just made it into translated publication here in the US this January.

Thank goodness it did — what a crazy, massively entertaining novel! It's part Franzen in that it includes a deeply dysfunctional family that prides itself in keeping secrets from each other. It's part Philip Roth in that the protagonist is a crusty old dude with some, er, sexual quirks. And it's part Coen brothers (especially Fargo) in that it's about everyday people that seem to go off the rails due to bad decision, which in turn cause them to do really bad, sometimes violent, things.

The story is about a family and its patriarch, Siem Sigerius, a world famous mathematician (not an oxymoron), former world-class judoku (a person who does judo), and head of prestigious Dutch university (self explanatory). His mid-20s daughter (though she's actually a step-daughter) Joni is dating a guy named Aaron — these two get up to some schemes, to say the least. And finally, it's about Siem's estranged son Wilbert, an ex-con pervert who has just gotten out of jail after serving ten years for killing a guy with a sledgehammer. (Evidently the Dutch legal system is a tad more forgiving than ours.)

The plot of the novel is centered around a real event — on May 13, 2000, a fireworks factory exploded in the Dutch city of Enschede, taking out an entire neighborhood. This event has a ripple effect for all these characters, setting forth a series events that ensures things won't end well for many for them. (That's not a spoiler - you have that sense from the opening pages.)

One of the themes of the novel is how fate or coincidence or pure randomness (Siem had taught the math of coincidence and chance theory when he was a professor at MIT and then at Berkeley before returning to Holland) can have just as a big an influence on our lives as our choices (of course). But coincidence can compound already bad decisions. Indeed, when we make bad choices, and then lie, and then make more bad choices, and then a dash of fate is thrown in, the consequences are multiplied exponentially — like, say, an explosion, like say, at a fireworks factory.

By the way, if you're wondering, Bonita Avenue is a street in Berkeley — it's where the family lived when Siem taught there. For Joni, it's a symbol of her happy childhood, before the world and all its destructive powers, both self-inflicted and random, intervened.

This is a brick of a novel — more than 530 pages. At some points, it does feel a bit over-written, but at other times some weird stuff happens that isn't full explained, so overall, I had no quarrels with the length. The only caveat is that if you need likeable characters to like a book, this isn't a novel for you. Personally, I would've been willing to spend several hundred more pages with these delightfully despicable characters. Though definitely not perfect (what novel is?), this is a highly entertaining family saga, and highly recommended.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

The Kind Worth Killing: Devious, Deceptive, Incredibly Entertaining

Peter Swanson's devious, deceptive, incredibly entertaining thriller The Kind Worth Killing is your next choice in the "If you liked Gone Girl, you'll like..." progression. This novel includes all the requirements: Dueling narratives, despicable characters (that at times you can't help but root for), several twists, and a fantastic ending.

It's the story of a man named Ted, who has made millions in technology, and who strikes up conversation randomly (or is it?) with a woman named Lily at a bar at London Heathrow airport. They talk the whole flight home to Boston, and Ted reveals he's recently caught his wife Miranda cheating on him with a contractor building their McMansion on the coast of Maine. Ted decides, after several drinks, the best solution is to kill her. She doesn't deserve to live for what she's done to him. She is, indeed, the kind worth killing — a sentiment his new friend Lily wholeheartedly endorses, and therefore decides to help him plot to murder her.

Intermingled with Ted's tale is Lily's story as a teenage girl living in rural Connecticut with her hard-partying artsy parents — her dad is actually a famous novelist. When a pervert visiting artist named Chet does something gross to teenage Lily, she decides to get her revenge.

From there, much like Gone Girl, the less you know going in, the more fun your reading experience will be. Needless to say, the plot to kill Ted's wife doesn't exactly go as planned, and things get pretty crazy from there.

Often, Swanson reveals a plot point or engineers a twist, sometimes out of the blue, and at the time, it seems a bit off, or unearned, or just too random. (Through the first 100 pages, I kept thinking, "Why would Lily, a stranger, be so willing to help Ted kill his wife?") But one of the strengths of the novel is that then Swanson fills in the back story, and it makes sense...and is usually ingenious. You have to trust the writer here, and he'll reveal the reasons eventually. That's not always the case in thrillers — where sometimes, stuff just happens, and there is no good reason why. Here, there's always a reason — and it's why this is such a tightly spun, well-built thriller.

Another strength is the character Lily — she is such a sweet sociopath. Unlike Amy from Gone Girl, who we soon learn is pure evil, Lily maintains a semblance of rationality throughout. And that's why you find yourself continuing to root for her, even as she does awful things.

As we know, The Girl On The Train has been anointed  the undisputed Next Gone Girl champion, and I liked that novel well enough. But I actually liked this one better. It's a helluva a ride, and highly recommended. 

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

God Help The Child: Morrison's Dark Fairy Tale About Child Abuse

I have to be honest, I'm not quite sure what to make of Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison's new novel, God Help the Child, which is out today. As has been her trend over her last several books, this one clocks in at just under 200 pages. And as with all her novels, she creates a work that feels whole in just a short number of pages. The departure for Morrison with this novel is that it takes place in present day — the first of her novels do so.

The novel is a dark modern-day fairy tale about child abuse. It's not a difficult novel style-wise — indeed, some reviewers have called this Morrison's most accessible novel — but it's a novel that is an uncomfortable reading experience for at least two reasons.

First, it includes some unflinching depictions of sexual abuse of children — our main narrator, a beautiful woman named Bride witnessed a sexual assault as a little girl, which has scarred her for life. Her boyfriend Booker's older brother was sexually abused and killed as a child, and Booker has never recovered. Both of these factors, we eventually learn, contribute to why Booker and Bride's relationship ends right at the beginning of the novel, but we don't quite understand why until we read a bit further. (The plot itself is very straightforward. Bride's mother Sweetness has never liked her. Bride and Booker break up. Bride attempts to help a jailed woman. Bride goes searching for Booker. Some weird stuff happens. That's the gist.)

And the second reason this is an uncomfortable read is that I don't know what it all means, and that's what's most unsettling about this story for me. Yes, child abuse is horrific. Yes, love can make us whole and be redemptive (or when withheld, devastate us). And maybe that's enough to understand — especially in such a relatively short book. But there are some fantastical, fairy tale-esque elements in this novel too — and likely, you'll have to expend some mental energy figuring out what it means, how it's all connected, and what you ultimately take away from this story. It'll likely be a different interpretation for each reader. And that's okay. Fiction doesn't always have to serve up all the answers easily and neatly.

But even if you don't fully understand the story, or even much like it, you read Morrison because she's Toni Morrison. There are passages of such profundity and beauty that you realize how lucky we are that, at age 84, she's still writing. Here's one example that I particularly liked:
The piece of sky she could glimpse was a dark carpet of gleaming knives pointed at her and aching to be released.
In the end, I'm glad I read this — it won't be my favorite Morrison novel ever. But what're you gonna do, not read the new Toni Morrison? No, you're not going to not read the new Toni Morrison.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Everything I Never Told You: Subtle Cruelty Is Still Cruel

From the first line of Celeste Ng's deftly crafted debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, we know something has gone horribly wrong for the Lee family. Lydia is dead, and we spend the next 300 pages finding out what led to this promising teenager's untimely and tragic demise. What we learn is just how subtle, even at times unintentional, cruelty can be and still be devastating.

The Lee family lives in a small college town in Ohio where father James is a college professor and mother Marilyn is a homemaker. Their three kids are all well-behaved and academically successful — indeed, oldest son James is about to head off to Harvard. Life should be good.

But appearances, in just about every sense of the word, can be deceiving. One of themes of the novel is how being viewed as different (and the subtle cruelty implicit in such narrow-mindedness) can have devastating consequences. For instance, James is the son of Chinese immigrants and Marilyn is white. From the moment of their marriage in the early 1960s, they've been an oddity to some — most notably Marilyn's mother. And what's more, Marilyn has harbored ambitions of being a doctor, something women rarely did in the 1960s — so she's dealt with the prejudices of being a woman in a male-dominated culture, and for being different in that she isn't satisfied with being a housewife or secretary. Part of the tension in the novel comes from the fact that neither James nor Marilyn ever seem to fully understand how each other feels about their "different-ness." And it creates a rift in their marriage and with their children.

Marilyn has determined that since she hasn't been able to follow through on her dream in the sciences, her daughter Lydia will in her stead. You've heard of crazy sports parents? Marilyn because a crazy science parent. And she pushes Lydia hard, probably way too hard. James also pushes his children — he wants them to be popular, to make friends, to have active social lives — something he never had growing up because he was considered "other." Again, this parental push isn't intended to be cruel, but it has that effect for their children, who feel pressured and uncomfortable in their own skins — and wind up being cruel to each other.

This novel is another great entry in the category of the dysfunctional family story, a "genre" for which I'm a total sucker. But the strength of this novel is that this family isn't dysfunctional on the level as, say, a Franzen family. The dysfunction here, like the cruelty, is much more subtle — and it slowly builds on itself until something has to break.

I loved this book — it's a novel that's as carefully constructed (in terms of structure, moving back and forth in time, and how secrets are revealed) as it is beautifully written. Very highly recommended.



Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Get In Trouble: Ghost Stories, Nudists, Superheroes

The blurb game on Kelly Link's new short story collection Get In Trouble is extraordinarily strong — breathless praise from Meg Wolitzer, Michael Chabon, Neil Gaiman, and others, as well as parallels to Raymond Carver in the NY Times, were more than enough motivation for me to give this collection a shot.

Man, I loved it. These are goofy, often darkly funny, but tremendously thought-provoking stories. At their root, however, they're also really fun to read. There are ghosts, runaway teenagers, nudists, sex tapes, hurricanes, burial pyramids, space ships, and superheroes. It's about as packed-with-inventiveness as any collection this side of Karen Russell or George Saunders.

My favorite story in the collection is titled "I Can See Right Through You" — it's about an aging actor who played a vampire in a hit movie in the early '90s (he's referred to as "the demon lover" throughout the story, which just slayed me, for some reason). Twenty-plus years later, he realizes he's still in love with his co-star from that movie (this is in the immediate aftermath of an unfortunate and very public sex tape incident with his current girlfriend), so he travels to Florida to find her. As it happens, she's filming a documentary about a nudist colony that mysteriously disappeared. And to get into the true spirit of the place, they've decided to film the documentary in the nude as well. But our aging actor is distraught to find that his love is unrequited — the actress/documentarian is dating a young stud named Ray. Ray reminds the demon love a lot of himself at that age — which will mean a lot more when you get to the end of the story. It's a fantastically fun read, and a really great conclusion.

Another great story is "Secret Identity" about a 15-year-old girl who meets a man online in a weird role playing video game, and travels to New York to meet him for what we assume is a sexy rendezvous. She arrives at the hotel at which she's supposed to meet him, which happens to be hosting a superhero convention, and waits for him in his room. When he doesn't arrive at the appointed time, she decides to get spectacularly drunk, and then later finds herself involved with a narcissistic, rich man-slut named Conrad Linthor who lives at the hotel. This story veers off into strange places that includes butter sculptures and superhero sidekicks. Again, it's just massively entertaining.

Many of the stories in the collection have real vs imagined, or perception vs reality themes — like the story "The New Boyfriend," in which a young girl finds herself falling in love with her rich friend's Boyfriend Ghost Doll. Imagine Lars and the Real Girl here. Another story is about a group astronauts hurdling through space, and they decide to tell ghost stories. And the first story "The Summer People" is about a mysterious family of perhaps somewhat supernatural beings who live in a huge house on a hill, and a teenage girl who has to take care of them.

There were only one or two of these nine stories that didn't totally click for me, so this is a highly recommended collection. I'd never read Kelly Link before, but as I learned from reading this, her loyal, outspoken fans are certainly justified.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

Thriller Time! On Child 44 and The Fifth Gospel

Plane trips are great for reading thrillers — and I rolled through two great ones in the last few weeks.

Child 44, by Tom Rob Smith, is about a series of child murders in 1953 Soviet Union. Our protagonist is the conflicted Leo Demidov. At the start of the novel, Demidov is a lackey of the State — he tracks down denounced "criminals" and interrogates them. That is, until a particular case gives him an attack of conscience — and circumstances beyond his control (a lecherous doctor, an ambitious subordinate) combine to cause him and his wife to lose their positions of prominence. 

Demidov is shipped off to a small town in the middle of nowhere, where he soon discovers a pattern of killings that match a murder in Moscow right before he was shipped out (and which he denied was a murder, as he had to). In the Worker's Paradise, there can't be crime — or if there is, it's immediately swept under the rug. So Demidov and his wife join forces to try to solve the serial murders of more than 50 children — but must do so on the down-low because, again, the official State position is that any crime is committed by drunks or simpletons. There's simply no motivation to do crime when life is supposed to be so peachy.

But one of the strengths of this novel is showing just how non-peachy life is in Stalinist Soviet Union. It's cold and dreary and people are always hungry and oppressed and live in fear. It's a terrifying peak behind the Iron Curtain. And it's a riveting thriller (and thankfully, the first in a trilogy). Highly recommended!

A movie adaptation of Child 44, starring Tom Hardy (as Leo) and Gary Oldman is out in late April. The trailer makes it look just as gritty and tension-filled as the book. I'm excited!

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The Fifth Gospel, by Ian Caldwell, is a murder mystery, a course in Catholic history, and a treatise on biblical scholarship — the latter two of which, you'll have to trust me, are much more interesting than they might sound. The story is about two brothers — one, Alex, an Eastern Catholic priest (a small denomination of Catholicism that's sort of halfway between Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic) and the other, Thomas, a Roman Catholic priest. Their father had been a scholar studying the Shroud of Turin — the supposed cloth that Jesus was buried in, but which scientists had determined was a forgery.

This had destroyed their father, and ruined his dream, and he died soon after. So the boys were raised by their powerful uncle Leo. But their father also shared a dream with Pope John Paul II (the novel takes place in 2004, near the end of John Paul's papacy) to reunify the two factions of the Catholic Church. So we get a fair amount of religious history, too — including the reasons for the schism in 1054.

But so the meat the story is centered around a researcher named Ugo who says he's discovered that the scientific testing on the Shroud of Turin was wrong — and the Shroud is authentic. And he can prove it with a book called the Diatessaron that he's found in the Vatican Archives, which is basically is unified Gospel; a combination of the sometimes disparate and/or contradictory stories told in the four main gospels. But the fellow is promptly murdered before he's able to put on his exhibit in a Vatican museum, threatening the possibility for reunification of the Churches. Pope John Paul II had planned to use the exhibit as an opportunity to return the Shroud to the Eastern Orthodox church as a sign of good faith.

So our two priests — the older brother, Father Thomas, is actually accused of Ugo's murder and held secretly somewhere in Vatican City, and our narrator is the younger brother, Father Alex — is trying to solve the crime, as well as determine what exactly Ugo was up to, who is trying stop him, and why.

If you've spent any time in Catholic school, or just have an interest in religious history, this is a novel for you. It reads like a Dan Brown book, only much better written, and not nearly as "thriller cliche" as Brown's books are.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

A Little Life: Astonishing, Unflinching

This novel is truly astonishing — easily one of the more harrowing, unflinching books I've read in a long time. Sexual violence and unimaginable cruelty are mixed into a story about loyalty, friendship, and the question of whether these truly can overcome all. The effect is that even when there are good times, you're never really comfortable — and so you turn pages frantically. You're truly invested in these characters — and not the least because you follows them for 30 years and 720 pages.

A Little Life is about four friends living in New York City, having just graduated from an elite college and now trying to make their ways in the world. One is an artist, another an architect. One a lawyer, the other an actor. These latter two Jude and Willem are the center of the story — they have a closer relationship with each other than with the other two. We see them in the opening scene renting a crappy Manhattan apartment together, an apartment that becomes a symbol of their friendship and their modest beginnings over the course of the next 30 years.

When we first meet these characters, we know something isn't quite right with Jude. He's damaged, physically and emotionally, but we don't know why. Slowly, strategically, his story is told, and you'll want to prepare yourself.

But to focus on the tough-to-read parts of this novel doesn't give a complete picture. There's hope and good times, there is love and redemption, there is art and morality, and so, so much more. And it kept surprising me — formulaic fiction, this is not. I kept thinking throughout this novel that it reminded what a novel might be like if John Irving was writing on a day his dog died (removing all his signature "preciousness") with Donna Tartt picking up story strands here and there.

I highlighted dozens of passages in this novel, a lot of them about friendship (the overarching theme of the novel), including the following, which is my favorite:
“The only trick of friendship, I think, is to find people who are better than you are — not smarter, not cooler, but kinder, and more generous, and more forgiving — and then to appreciate them for what they can teach you, and to try to listen to them when they tell you something about yourself, no matter how bad — or good — it might be, and to trust them, which is the hardest thing of all. But the best, as well.”
My advice to you if you're planning to read this, and you should, because it's great: Brace yourself. Brace yourself not just to be devastated, but also to be dazzled. It's an amazing novel.