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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.)