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Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The New Dork Review 10 Best Books of 2016


Well, we've made it (almost!) through 2016, and while it was a troubling year in many respects, it was another great year in books. Here are my 10 favorites (plus a few under-the-radar hits, as well.)

 


10. Everybody's Fool, by Richard Russo — What a treat — indeed an absolute gift from Russo to his fans — to be able to return to North Bath and visit our friend Sully a few years after the events of Russo's fantastic 1993 novel Nobody's Fool. But this great story is really about the goofy, troubled small town cop Raymer, and his many problems. Sully's still around quite a bit, though, and this is a must-read for Russo fans (of which I am one of the biggest). 

9. Dark Matter, Blake Crouch — I liked this well enough when I finished it in September, but I sure didn't think then it'd end up on this list. But I still constantly think about how original and fun to read it was, so here it is! A trippy, time-traveling, mind-messing thriller — just a really fun, cool book. 

8. Nutshell, Ian McEwan — What a bizarre little novel! It's a retelling of Hamlet, only told from the point-of-view of a fetus. And strangely — and I know it's a leap of faith to believe me on this — it works! This is easily McEwan's best novel since Atonement

7. The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead — This year's National Book Award winner is every bit as harrowing, shocking, inventive, and incredibly well-written as you've heard. If you only read one book on this list, given the current state of things, make it this one. Essential.

6. Behold The Dreamers, by Imbolo Mbue — This tale of immigrant hardship really messes with your emotions. Just when you think you know who you're supposed to be rooting for in this novel, Mbue turns all expectations on their heads. But what's really great about this novel is how it shows that maybe the American Dream has become corrupted by a corrupt system, and may actually not be available to everyone anymore. A sobering conclusion, to be sure — but presented in a terrific, profound story.

5. Commonwealth, by Ann Patchett — 2016 is the year Ann Patchett moved into my top tier of favorite writers, and this book is one of the main reasons why. About how complicated family relationships can be, it's Patchett's most personal novel, and certainly among her best. This novel also includes the best first sentence and best first chapter of anything I read this year. (Tip: You don't have to do this to enjoy Commonwealth, but I'd suggest you read her fantastic, personal essay collection This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage before you read Commonwealth — the collection sheds a ton of light on the story she's telling in Commonwealth.)

4. Homegoing, by Yaa Gyasi — Probably the most common book on everyone's "best of..." lists this year, I can't not include it. For the writing, for the commentary on race and privilege, for how it all comes together in a beautiful ending, I really loved this book.

3. A Gentleman In Moscow, by Amor Towles — This is one of the more purely pleasurable reading experiences I've had in a long time. Towles's protagonist — a Russian count sentenced to house arrest in a fancy Mosow hotel — is one for the ages. Towles' sentences and dialogue crackle with wit and humor, and there's plenty of plot to keep this story moving quickly. 

2. The Nix, by Nathan Hill — Another safe choice, yes, but this debut novel is incredible. It really is. Covering everything from politics to geeky internet gaming to entitled millennials, every sentence in this novel (including the one that spans 12 pages) is carefully crafted and nearly perfect.

1. Version Control, by Dexter Palmer — MORE PEOPLE NEED TO READ THIS NOVEL. It's such an original, fiercely smart piece of fiction — but not the least bit difficult or inaccessible. At its core, it's the story of a family in crisis. I won't say more — you just have to read this, and be surprised at all its twists and turns.

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Here are a few under-the-radar novels I really loved this year, too: 

Problems, by Jade Sharma — Not for the faint of heart, this short, graphic and explicit, subtly hilarious debut novel tells the story of a hot-mess, drug-addicted woman in NYC who can't seem to get out of her own way. But amidst the mess, there are these little pieces of self-awareness and profundity that lead us to believe all may not be lost for this character.

The Infinite, by Nicholas Mainieri — A violent, gritty, atmospheric, action-packed novel, this takes place in post-Katrina New Orleans, as two teenagers — Jonah and Luz — try to make their flagging relationship work. Luz, pregnant, is sent by her undocumented immigrant father back to Mexico to live with her grandmother. Jonah decides to go "rescue" her. Along the way, both run afoul of violent Mexican drug lords. When Mainieri isn't writing pulse-pounding action scenes, he's astounding you with his description and sense of place. It's an amazingly accomplished debut novel!

Heat & Light, by Jennifer Haigh — A precise, smart, contemporary tale of a small quiet town in Pennsylvania in which loyalties begin to fray because of a big loud energy company that invades the town to sign its residents up for fracking leases. If you've seen the movie Promised Land, this is a better take on the idea presented in that movie — that greed and environmental destruction team up nicely to destroy values, neighborliness, and good manners. The best part of this novel, though, is Haigh's command of character — these are real people you feel like you know.

Wednesday, October 26, 2016

A Gentleman In Moscow: Charming, Clever, Funny, Spectacular

If you haven't heard of Amor Towles, it's okay — I hadn't either until about a month ago. If you have, likely because you read and LOVED his first novel, Rules of Civility, then you're probably gaping at the screen, incredulous that anyone HASN'T heard of him. People really love that book.

Anyway, the point is: I took a chance on Towles's second novel A Gentleman in Moscow because of how passionate his fans seem to be. I couldn't be happier I did. This novel is utterly spectacular — one of the more purely pleasurable reading experiences I've had in a long time. Towles is clever and funny, wise and profound, and reading him is exactly what you want to reading to be. 

His story is about Count Alexander Rostov, a Russian aristocrat who is arrested after the Revolution, and sentenced (in 1922) to house arrest in Moscow's beautiful, elegant Metropol hotel. There, Rostov watches 40 years of Russian history unfold vicariously through the eyes of a wild, wonderfully rendered cast of characters, including two precocious young girls, an American diplomat, and the employees of the hotel.

Rostov himself is a man of the world — by turns philosophical and sarcastic, charming and witty. Only a writer as gifted as Towles could invent a character as fascinating as Rostov — he's a character I will not soon forget. He knows which French wine goes with every possible dish and can explain Russian literature, Newton's laws, and Greek philosophy as well.

We find out in the first third of the novel some of Rostov's backstory — and a tragedy that nearly ends him as well. We learn about Russian history and literature, and we ruminate on some of the similarities and differences between the Soviet collective and the American individual. While not a tremendous amount happens, it's just so fun to read, you don't even notice.

In total, this is a novel about making the best of the world you live in — about how your fate is a result of both your choices, but also forces beyond your control. The only thing you can do is live your best life. And part of living your best life should be reading this novel. Extremely highly recommended!

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Homegoing: A Non-Negotiable, Absolute Must-Read

Yaa Gyasi's Homegoing is the runaway word-of-mouth hit of 2016. Everyone at BEA in May was talking about it. Then people read it — and absolutely raved (three months after its publication, it has a 4.42 rating on Goodreads). And Gyasi even got a 5-minute segment on The Daily Show during which Trevor Noah called it "the most fantastic novel I've read in a long time."

Does it live up to the hype?

It lives up to the hype.

It's the story of two half-sisters and their descendants, beginning in late-18th century (what is now) Ghana. One sister's family stays in Africa, the other immigrates to the U.S. The novel reads like interconnected short stories, each about one new generation of the families, and covers more than 300 years. It's a novel about slavery and colonialism, family loyalty and suffering, and ultimately, ends with a note of hope.


I don't know what else to say about this book, except to remind you that if it's true that reading brings empathy, than this is an absolutely essential, non-negotiable must-read novel. The ending is something I'll not forget for a long time.

Read this.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Here I Am: Expansive, Exhausting

Here I Am, Jonathan Safran Foer's first novel in 11 years — the most anticipated novel of the year for many book nerds, me included — is a massive tome that sort of meanders through a bunch of big, important questions. What does it mean to be a Jewish man in this crazy world? How can any marriage survive the pressures of modern culture? And just what is Israel? 

Yeah, that last one throws you for a loop when Foer branches out and goes all geo-political. Again, this not a narrowly focused novel. It isn't a novel that'll be confused with anything like a focused, taut Phillip Roth novel.

The real story is about an upper class Jewish family living in Washington, DC. The parents Jacob and Julia, early 40s and married for about 15 years, are having marital issues. The cause of these problems so far is nothing major — just, as relationships do, suffering from the pain of a thousand small cuts. But it's soon clear all these un-discussed minor issues only need one major one to catalyze into a full-blown marriage blow-out. When Julia finds a phone Jacob had been using to sext with a co-worker, well, we have our major issue. And there's a major fight, where one tells the other "You are my enemy." Will they work out their problems and stay together for the sake or their family? Or will they dissolve their bond?

Yeah, these aren't exactly cheerful characters, and this is not a cheerful book. Nor is it an especially gripping one. You've heard the clichè "compulsively readable"? This is not that book. There are moments of wit, levity, and stretches that really do pull you in. But on the whole, it's a really exhausting read, not the least because it's 600 pages (and you know I'm person who actually enjoys long novels!).

One reason why this it's exhausting is the way Foer has his characters talk to each other — dialogue is a huge tent pole for the ideas of this novel. It's how we see how these characters — Jacob and Julia, most notably, but also their three children, Sam (13), Max (10), and Benjy (6), all of whom are precocious and witty almost to the point that they're not believable — relate to each other, their neuroses and pretentiousness (indeed, much of this novel could be described as neurotic and pretentious), and their complaints against one another. Indeed, there isn't too much self-reflection depicted here. Foer includes long strings of this rapid-fire dialogue with characters constantly asking for minor clarifications or making jokes or repeating the question the other person asked becomes an

And then there's an earthquake in Israel. And the marriage collapses further. And Jacob's grandfather dies. And we spend the last two-thirds of the novel with these strands of story mixed in with the Big Profound Questions Foer wants us to consider (or that he's considering, which he needed this novel as the vehicle, or something). Also, there's an incontinent dog.

I give this three out of five stars — I'm not sure I'd recommend it to anyone but the biggest Foer fans. There were definitely parts of this novel — about pages 150-250, and parts of the last 100 pages — that are utterly brilliant, and as fun to read as anything I've read this year. But the rest just really wilted and withered.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Dark Matter: Whoa, Dude, Trippy Thriller

Blake Crouch's trippy thriller, Dark Matter, has the feel of a late-night, stoned-to-the-gills dorm room conversation. But it's also a read that zooms at along at breathless, breakneck pace, partially owning to the fact that it has the feel of a thinly veiled movie script (short, sparse sentences, lots of chase scenes, exposition in dialogue, cliffhanger chapters, etc.). This can be annoying or exciting, depending on your personal reading preferences. In this case, I enjoyed it — the movie script aspect of the writing doesn't detract from the story itself, which is an inventive take on the fiction about science genre (which is different, barely, than science fiction, I think).

But before we get into "Dude, but what if there are infinite universes and therefore infinite burritos?"-type questions, and more thoughtful discussions about superposition (you know, Schröinger's cat) and theories of what dark matter might be, we meet our protagonist: A normal guy named Jason Dressen, who is an average upper middle-class Chicagoan. Jason is a physics professor at small-time Chicago college, happily married to a beautiful woman named Daniela, and the proud parent of a teenager named Charlie. Jason had given up his promising career as a research physicist in his late 20s to marry and have a child — a decision for which he's often questioned by his colleagues, but about which he has no regrets.

One night, Jason goes to have a drink with one of these former colleagues, who incidentally, has just won a major scientific prize Jason may have won if he'd stayed the research course. On the way home, Jason is kidnapped at gunpoint, shepherded to an abandoned power plant on Chicago's south side, and made to take a mysterious drug. He wakes up in a lab, not remembering much. But he's safe, and all the people around him — obviously scientists of some sort — are hailing him as some sort of scientific hero.

What the heck just happened? Naturally, he doesn't understand, and his first instinct is to run away as fast as he can. But then he's shown the research he abandoned 15 years prior — only now, that research has been followed through to completion, resulting in a device that allows humans to travel to multiple universes, which he has apparently just done!

Of course, this has all kinds of terrifying and fascinating and morally complex consequences. But at that point, the main consequences for Jason are terror and sadness that he seems to be now in a different world from his beloved wife and son. From there, the plot unfolds quickly across multiple version of Chicago (indeed, multiple universes), as tries to find his way back to them

You could read this in one sitting if you wanted to. It's a great thriller to wrap up your summer or take on a plane. Highly enjoyed it.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The Nix: Spectacular, Spelling-Bindingly Readable

Wow. The Nix, by Nathan Hill (out today!), is really spectacular — about as engaging, spell-bindingly readable, smart, and funny as fiction gets. This is the Franzen novel to read if you don't like Franzen the man — expansive, modern, political, and just immensely entertaining. There are shades of Don DeLillo, Donna Tartt (if you liked The Goldfinch, you'll LOVE this), and (I don't say this lightly) friggin' David Foster Wallace here (yes, there's a 12-page sentence, but even beyond that, Hill's astute observations of us in the modern world are incredibly DFW-esque).

It's a novel about what it means to engage with the world, to do your duty, even as the going gets tough. It's a novel about how personal politics aren't usually purely formed, similar to how some believe that by its very nature, altruism can't be perfectly unselfish (because there's always the good feeling for the doer of doing something good). And it's a novel about trust and loyalty, between friends, lovers, and parents and children.

We span 45 years here, from the violent protests at the Chicago Democratic National Convention in 1968 to the less violent but still powerful protests of Occupy Wall Street and the 2011 Republican National Convention in New York City.

The story is about a woman named Faye who was involved in the 1968 protests. After the protests and then a sad, quiet life with her husband Henry and son Samuel, she suddenly leaves them (Samuel is 11) and disappears.

Samuel, now in mid-30s, is a failing writer, and an-about-to-be-fired English professor at a small Chicago college. (Brief interlude: There is a section right at the front of this novel showing Samuel confronting a student who has been caught plagiarizing a paper. It is the best, funniest 20 pages I've read in a long time.)

In the first scene of the novel, Faye re-emerges — she throws rocks at a right-wing presidential candidate visiting Chicago — and Samuel, who is about to be sued for not delivering the novel for which he received a big advance, is convinced by his agent Guy Periwinkle to write what will no-doubt be a runaway bestseller about his mother. (Second quick interlude: The conversations between Samuel and Guy throughout the novel are another highlight. Really damn funny.)

Samuel, still angry with his mother, agrees. And we go from there — back to Faye's childhood in a small town in Iowa, forward to Samuel adulthood in Chicago and New York City, back to Samuel's childhood in the generic Chicago suburbs, to the Iraq war, seedy bars, Norway, and just about everywhere else in between.

As I said, this book is expansive. Allen Ginsberg is in this book. So is a dude named Pwnage who is the champion of a World of Warcraft-like game called Elfquest. There are ghost stories. Sexting. A love story. Some funny stuff about publishing. Bullies and sexual abuse. Politics. Radical hippies. Traitors. It's just AWESOME. 

This is easily one of the best novels I've read this year. Despite how full it seems, it's also the shortest 600-page novel I've ever read. What I mean is that it felt like it could've been three times its size, and I would've happily kept reading. I spent about 3 hours on just the last 20 pages, reading one page at a time, because I didn't want it to end. This is a novel that, if you're thinking of picking it up (and by all means, do), I am immediately jealous that you get to read it for the first time. Enjoy!


Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Behold The Dreamers: What Happened To The American Dream?

There's been no shortage of controversial, combative rhetoric about immigration in this election cycle, so much so that it's hard to separate the Internet meme from the facts. But if you want to find out just how badly our stupid immigration system is broken, check out Imbolo Mbue's terrific, morally complex, heartbreaking debut novel, Behold The Dreamers.

But this novel isn't just about how difficult it is for those who come to this country seeking opportunity, it's about how the American system as a whole has been rigged such that in many cases many people never really have a chance at all. Maybe it's a pessimistic view of the American dream, but imagine yourself in New York City in 2009, at the height of the financial meltdown, and it's not hard to see how pessimism could be pervasive.

The story is about a Cameroonian immigrant named Jende who comes to the U.S., drives a taxi, saves fiercely, and finally is able to bring his wife Neni and six-year-old son over to the U.S. For a minute, all is well — Jende gets a "high-paying" job as a chauffeur for a Lehman Brothers executive named Clark, Neni begins taking classes to become a pharmacist, and they're generally enamored of the Big City and the opportunities it affords.

But then it all goes wrong. For everyone. But what's fascinating about this novel is how Mbue turns expectation on its head. She shows us how crisis and pressure expose and exacerbate the flaws in even the best people...and even more so in the worst. You'd expect that you're rooting against the rich banker Clark and rooting for the hardworking immigrant Jende. But it's certainly not that simple.

Along with dysfunctional family stories, immigrant stories are one of my favorite subgenres of fiction — Americanah (one of my favorite books ever) to all of Jhumpa Lahiri's stories to The Newlyweds, The Sleepwalker's Guide To Dancing, and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, among many others. And this novel takes its place firmly in that pantheon. It's such an assured, well-written debut — as smooth and readable as any veteran writer could produce. Highly recommended! 

Tuesday, August 16, 2016

The Underground Railroad: Alternate History, All-Too-Real

When I got to talk briefly with Colson Whitehead while he signed my copy of The Underground Railroad at BEA this past May, I bragged to him that his book The Noble Hustle was my go-to hand-sell for dude customers at our bookstore (yeah, I'm so cool </sarcasm font>). I asked him if he still played poker, and he said he doesn't much because he has a young daughter now. It was a breezy, quick conversation, and I was thrilled I didn't make a fool of myself in front of the famous author, as I usually do.

Now that I've read his sobering, brilliant, unflinching, utterly spectacular novel, I feel like a prime asshole — like given the subject matter of the book he was signing, I should've been a tad more somber, or respectful, or just less trying to impress him. Because clearly, the thing he was he was signing as I jabbered away about poker is the work of a genius.

Indeed, don't be surprised if The Underground Railroad winds up on many of the end-of-the-year literary prize shortlists, if not the least for sentences like this: "Then it comes, always – the overseer's cry, the call to work, the shadow of the master, the reminder that she is only a human being for tiny moments across the eternity of servitude." Or this: "The southern white man was spat from the loins of the devil and there was no way to forecast his next evil act."

Whitehead's sentences are magisterial, they absolutely just crackle. A blurb on the back from John Updike (presumably an older blurb, but relevant here for sure) tells us "Whitehead's writing does what writing should do; it refreshes our sense of the world." That's it, right there. On the nose.

In this novel, Whitehead has refreshed not just our sense of the world, but the world as it could have been to give us an alternate history in which the Underground Railroad is a real, physical railroad. (Why? It'll make sense when you read, but it's something you should discover on your own — it's pretty profound.) Some time in the early 19th century, a teenage slave named Cora escapes from a brutal Georgia plantation and travels on the railroad throughout the South. In each state she visits, Whitehead gives us a different alternate history, or different approach, to the "African problem." In South Carolina, for instance, blacks are relatively free, but are forced to be sterilized and terrifying medical experiments are performed on them. In North Carolina, blacks are outlawed, period. Georgia is pretty much the same as it actually was. Slaves are beaten, brutalized, raped, and basically treated like the human property they were considered to be. Just utterly devastating. Not easy to read.

All the while, a slave catcher named Ridgeway chases Cora from state to state. Cora's mother had also escaped, and Ridgeway had never been able to find her, to his eternal shame. It's not until near the end of the novel, in one of the many fascinating mini-profiles of characters Whitehead includes between each chapter, that we find out what actually happened with Cora's mother.

Another of the profiles is about a doctor in South Carolina (who treated Cora on her way through), who grave-robs for cadavers to learn more about the human body. He mentions the irony of only being able to learn about life after one is dead. And also, that it was easier to find black cadavers because their graves weren't as well guarded, and black bodies were just as useful to him as white. And, therefore: "In death the negro became a human being. Only then was he the white man's equal."

This is one of the best books of the year. I enjoyed the hell out of reading it, but it frequently had to be put aside for a minute, a deep breath required, before continuing. It's a truly great piece of fiction.


Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Before The Fall: The Summer's Go-To Plane/Beach Read

A small charter plane full of rich people crashes just after takin goff from Martha's Vineyard. A middle-aged artist named Scott — a last-minute addition to the flight — survives, saves a 4-year-old boy who is the only other person who lived through the crash, and swims eight miles to safety with the boy on his back.

How did this happen? And, more importantly, why? Why did some survive and others didn't? What does it mean?

Amidst a plethora of red herrings and several digressions on life in this modern age, the media, and fate, these are the questions we wrestle with throughout Noah Hawley's big-hit summer novel, Before the Fall. It doesn't sound like the typical formula for a summer-read thriller, but it reads quite quickly, and it's a mystery that (hopefully) will keep you guessing until the end.

As we progress through Scott's post-crash life, we also get the backstories of the principle characters who died in the crash — a media mogul who started a Fox News-like organization, and his much-younger wife. Would someone want him dead? Then there's the billionaire hedge fund manager who learns right before the flight he'll be indicted for money laundering. Are his investors — including non-friendly nations like North Korea — trying to silence him? There are the pilots, including a drunken playboy who's waltzed through life on the strength of his Senator uncle's nepotism, an Isreali bodyguard, a beautiful flight attendant, and the mysterious painter, Scott. These stories are important as they offer clues (maybe?) to why the plane might've crashed. Plus, they're just fun to read.

It's a terrific set-up for a mystery, especially as an odious Bill O'Reilly-like character (named Bill Cunningham) on the Fox News-like station starts pulling conspiracy theories out of thin air, baselessly wondering if the hero Scott isn't all he seems to be. This guy is a pure and unadulterated asshole, especially as we learn some of the tricks he gets up to in order to get stories and fodder for his hate-filled spewings.

Hawley (who is the creator of the TV show Fargo, and has worked in other TV capacities, in addition to publishing novels) is definitely a better-than-average thriller writer. I enjoyed the digressions and thought the novel in general was smarter than your average brain-candy plane/beach read. It's certainly not a Pulitzer-winner, but it's enjoyable — a perfect read for a long trip or a lazy summer afternoon.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

The Mirror Thief: Epically Mitchell-esque

I finished Martin Seay's epic, lengthy, intricately detailed, awe-inspiring debut novel The Mirror Thief about a month ago. And I still don't know exactly what to say about it, or to whom exactly to recommend it — other than readers who like good, challenging books (like David Mitchell writes, for instance).

But I got to see Martin Seay talk at Printer's Row Lit Fest this past weekend, and it helped crystallize some of my thoughts on the novel. He talked about how the novel had started as a writing prompt in an Experimental Fiction grad school class. The prompt was to write a story about someone telling a story about another story. And so The Mirror Thief is just that: It includes three distinct stories.

The first, which reads like a crime thriller, takes place in 2003 Las Vegas. An ex-Marine named Curtis tries to find a mysterious gambler named Stanley and runs across various shady characters throughout his odyssey through the absurd, unreality of Las Vegas. (He's staying at the Venetian, by the way. You'll see this as part of a pattern.)

The second story is in 1950s Venice Beach, California, and reads a little more like good old-fashioned literary fiction —  it's about 16-year-old Stanley hunting down the author of a book of poetry titled The Mirror Thief. There's some really cool stuff in this part of the story about readers' relationships with books, and subsequently, authors — who may or may not disappoint them if they meet in person (incidentally, Martin Seay decidedly DID NOT disappoint when I saw him in person. He says things like this: "When you spend all day hanging out with imaginary people, you can get a little weird.") 

Seay at Lit Fest
Finally, the third story whisks us back to 1592 Venice, Italy, where we delve into the "actual" story of the person chronicled in the book of poetry Stanley loves. His name is Crivano, and he's mixed up in a plot to kidnap mirror makers. At Lit Fest, Seay explained that Venice had nearly a monopoly on mirror-making, and if you had that skill, leaving Venice could get you killed. So smuggling mirror makers out of Venice was kind of a big deal. This section is intricately chronicled (almost to a fault) with historical detail and is really fascinating.

Whew! Got all that? The nested stories allow Seay to explore myriad themes from myriad angles. What is real? How do we know what is real? What is luck, and is it real? Is reality simply a reflection of what we hope/want it to be? Etc. 

Seay mentioned he spent five years writing this and seven finding a publisher — it's an amazing amount of time for such an amazing book to finally see the light of day. Thank goodness it did. This has been a novel slowly gaining word-of-mouth momentum — and truly, if you're a David Mitchell fan, you will like this, I think. 

(Totally random side note: Seay is married to novelist, poet, and essayist Kathleen Rooney, who penned one of my favorite novels of 2014, O, Democracy! The two make up quite the Chicago literary power couple!) 

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Lily And The Octopus: About a Fiercely Loved Dachshund

This is a tough one — how do I, in good conscience, recommend this novel, Lily and the Octopus, by Steven Rowley (out today!), which is about a dog with brain cancer? Especially considering that the dog is a dachshund. Especially considering my wife and I have two dachshunds. But I do — I recommend it wholeheartedly. Because as sad as it can be, it's also charming, and funny, and often surprisingly profound. It's a just good read that spans the emotional spectrum — and after all, that's what you want from fiction, isn't it? To feel?  I do, for sure.

Okay, so technically, telling you the dog has cancer is a bit of a spoiler — Lily is the dog, and the octopus is a metaphor for a brain tumor. But if you decide to read this, you learn this fact pretty quickly, and in my opinion, you deserve to know this going in. As well, if you've read anything about this book before diving in, you'll figure it out. And I'm sure glad I knew going in. The other piece of info worth knowing: This isn't complete fictional, which actually adds another layer of emotional depth to this story. The author Rowley also had a dachshund which also had brain cancer, and so this novel is part memoir, part catharsis.

So we go back and forth in time to when the narrator (a guy named Ted) adopted Lily, has relationship troubles with his boyfriend, suffers through Lily's back surgery (a common problem with the breed — luckily, neither of our dachshunds have had that issue yet), and tries to destroy the evil octopus that has perched itself on Lily's head.

The highlight of this novel is the narrator's voice — self-deprecating at times, defiant and fierce at times, vulnerable and sad at times, but always smart, interesting and fun to read. Of course, both Lily and the octopus talk, too. Talking animals are always a risky decision, but the whimsy with which this novel's written makes this feel perfectly apt — talking animals fit in fine.

One of the gauges, though it's almost a too-easy comparison, to whether or not you might like reading this is if you enjoyed Garth Stein's The Art of Racing in the Rain. I loved that novel, but like this one, it absolutely leveled me. I've had many conversations with dog lovers who could not read that one. So if that's you, this probably isn't the book for you, either. However, if you love dog books, and you love to put through an emotional wringer, this is DEFINITELY the book for you.

Yoshi and Baxter are new Steven Rowley fans

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

We're All Damaged: Dude Lit For Days

Lots of dude lit seems to start with misery — a cheating wife (This Is Where I Leave You), or a lost job (The Financial Lives of the Poets), or a mysterious medical issue (Everything Changes). We're All Damaged, Matthew Norman's new novel (after his fantastic debut, Domestic Violets), starts similarly — with a divorce.

Starting with sad is an easy narrative choice, after all, but a solid one for this genre. That's because it allows our dude narrator — in this case, an early 30s dude named Andy — to go through the rest of the novel in his self-deprecating, woe-is-me tone. And we can easily laugh at/with him, because a) he doesn't have any REAL problems (I mean, these narrators aren't exactly Nelson Mandela), and b) he's damn funny!

Like Judd in This Is Where I Leave You and Tom in Domestic Violets, Andy is your prototypical dude lit narrator: amusing, but sad. After his wife dumped him during a meal at Applebee's, he cuts tail from his hometown of Omaha, and runs to New York. But now, as the novel gets going, he has to return to Omaha because his grandfather isn't doing well.

There, he's surrounded by a goofy cast of characters, each of whom exasperates him more than the last. His d-bag older brother still picks on him. His dad shoots squirrels in the backyard (with paintballs). His mother is a rising star in the conservative talk radio circuit, and may soon get a call up to the "big leagues," Fox News. (Recently, she's been terrorized by The Glitter Mafia, a group of gay men who take exception to her narrow and outmoded views on marriage equality, and take it upon themselves to periodically bomb Andy's parents' home with Ken figures, glitter, and blow-up sex dolls.) And then there's Daisy, a mysterious, tattooed, and alluring woman, who, for reasons Andy can't fathom, befriends him and professes to help him get over his divorce.

So Andy spends two weeks hanging with Daisy, drinking lots, saying goodbye to his grandfather, being annoyed by his parents, dodging the Glitter Mafia, and plotting bodily harm against his ex-wife's new fiancee, a hunky ambulance driver. And that's the novel! Not to minimize it, but we're not exactly talking Pulitzer here. It is, however, a great, fun read — and despite the avalanche of self-deprecation and 90s references, it is a novel that has some heart, as Andy slowly begins to figure it all out.

I'd definitely recommend it — a great summer read for dudes at the beach, on the plane, or wherever you just need some goofiness for a few hours.



Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Imagine Me Gone: A Sobering Look At Mental Illness

Adam Haslett's new novel, Imagine Me Gone, is not a cheerful book. Far from it. But it is an incredibly well-written, sobering, and insightful look at how mental illness can turn a normal family to a dysfunctional one.

But this isn't your run-of-the-mill dysfunctional family story — it's more about the dysfunction itself, and how it affects each family member differently, both in terms of their relationships with each other, and also with others.

John, a Brit, and Margaret, an American, meet and fall in love in London in the 1960s. Despite John's warning signs — including a stay in a "facility" — Margaret decides to marry John anyway. She thinks she can change him or cure him or at least help him live with his mental illness, an affliction understood in far less detail then than now.

The story unfolds from there, as they have three children, Michael, Celia, and Alec, and move back and forth between a small town in Massachusetts and England. Michael, we soon learn, carries on his father's legacy (when Michael's a kid, there's a bunch of foreshadowing and hints about how Michael and his father are inextricably tied) — afflicted with acute anxiety. Michael is a fascinating character — he loves music, using it as a way to reconnect with the world that he has so much trouble with, and becomes an activist and crusader for black rights and reparations.

Michael is something of a tortured genius — the tools are there for success, but he can't seem to arrange them properly to use them to be successful. That's especially true as he grows increasingly dependent on an increasingly huge cocktail of medications.

One of the more fascinating themes of the novel is how mental illness skews empathy. Michael is certainly capable of empathy, but not necessarily for the people he should care for. And it's increasingly difficult for his family to understand this. His mother, for instance, who also sees him as her dead husband's proxy, enables him in the wrong ways, paying his bills and encouraging the worst of his bad habits, especially after his periodic unrequited-love-related breakdowns.

His siblings, meanwhile (each chapter is told from the point of view of a different character), go about their lives with Michael sort of in the background. But it's clear their father's mental illness has messed with their heads in different ways — Celia is a successful social worker, but doesn't let herself fully trust her long-term partner. Alec, young, gay, and urbane, newly ensconced in New York City as a journalist, moves from hookup to hookup without ever forming any connections at all.

I was totally floored by this book, especially Haslett's observation and intuition for describing relationships and motivation for action. Simply put, he gets humans — and is extraordinarily skilled at rendering how we think and feel, and making sentiment relatable and readable. Again, this is definitely an uncomfortable novel, but one well worth reading. 

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Everybody's Fool: Russo's Gift To His Fans

In Richard's Russo's new novel, Everybody's Fool, we get to return to the down-and-out town of North Bath, New York, and many of the colorful characters from Russo's 1993 novel, Nobody's Fool. I really loved Nobody's Fool (as well as the movie with Paul Newman as Sully — a vastly underrated film), and so getting to visit these characters again was such a treat, a terrific unexpected surprise.

Not only is it rare in fiction to be able to get to reunite with your "friends" from a previous novel, but also it's exceedingly rare that a sequel lives up to its original. This one does. (By the way, to answer a common question: Yes, I do recommend reading Nobody's Fool before this one. You wouldn't be lost in Everybody's Fool, but Russo constantly references events in Nobody's Fool, and so it's a much better reading experience having gone through those events with these characters already.)

Everybody's Fool takes place about 10 years after the events of Nobody's Fool — so we're in about the mid-1990s now. The novel begins with a meditation on death, and then we see Douglas Raymer (last seen in Nobody's Fool getting socked in the face by Sully, and accidentally discharging his police revolver), who is now the police chief, attending the funeral of his nemesis, Judge Flatt.

Raymer (who was played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in the movie...sad trombone) is a bit of a nincompoop, but we immediately feel bad for him, as we learn that his wife, to whom he was hopelessly devoted, had been cheating on him, and then died in a freak accident — she fell down the stairs and he found at the bottom. Raymer's really the central figure in this story, as he has to deal with an escaped cobra, a hot shot young office from the rival town, and several other indignities that seemingly are only put in his path to make his life difficult. There's some silliness with Raymer — he develops a sort of voice-in-his-head alter ego at one point, which is a little...goofy. But just go with it. I mean, it's Richard Russo! 

While a lot of the story is Raymer's, Sully, Carl Roebuck (the shady contractor played by Bruce Willis in the movie), and Rub all feature prominently as well, and they're all up to their old tricks. Rub wishes he could spend more time with his friend Sully, who he worships. Carl may or may not be bankrupt, and is now living in the upper floor apartment where Sully used to live (a metaphor if there ever was one). And Sully, well, he's still exactly the same — pushing everyone's buttons, being generally cantankerous, and basically holding the town together by a thread. What's changed, though, is that Sully's been diagnosed with a heart condition and may only have a couple years left — a fact which  he's keeping secret from everyone. Even so, Sully is just as great here as he was in Nobody's Fool — one of favorite characters in all of literature.

Like Nobody's Fool (and many of other Russo's novels) the highlight of this novel is Russo's keen eye for small town life, "politics," and dialogue. Whether on a bar stool or a middle-of-the-night "grave robbing" expedition, Russo just gets people. And much of this is as funny as it is in insightful. As with many Russo novels, this also has its own inside jokes and repeated references. You feel like you're in on the jokes with them. I love this about how Russo tells a story — the reader feels included.

If you're a Russo fan, this is a must read — as Janet Maslin said in the NY TImes, "a delightful return to form." I couldn't have been more delighted myself to read this. Russo's one of my favorites, and this is vintage. Loved it.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Book Expo America 16: Chicago Is My Kind of Bookish Town

I returned to Book Expo America for the first time since 2012 this week, and it was just as awesome as I remember it. I scored a metric butt-ton of yet-to-be-released, highly buzzworthy books, had a few awkward author interactions, and even some that weren't, and got to see a bunch of terrific bookish people. Here are some photos from my adventures the last two days.

Yeah, I'm with the band.
Man, I'm excited.
First stop: FOER! (This is the book I'm most excited about this year.)
This is Nicholas Sparks. If you can't say anything nice...
This book mobile thing is awesome!
The giant L. Ron Hubbard booth was...creepy.

 
Day 1 haul. 'twas a good day!
Day 2 started with Colson effing Whitehead. He is one delightful human.
So much early buzz for The Underground Railroad.
George Saunders! (I missed his signing to stand in line to meet Nathan Hill, author of THE NIX, which after HERE I AM, is the book I'm next most excited about this year.)
This is the BEA Buzz Adult Authors panel. Six books out later this year and early 2017, six books you're going to want to read! Here is more on the books and authors.
In my mind, Richard Russo is always this jolly.


(I know, jokes about BEA lines are too-easy.)

And finally, Day 2 haul.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

Version Control: Fiercely Smart, Fantastically Engrossing

Every year, there's at least one novel that catches me unawares for how much I love, and for which I wind up being an un-shut-up-able evangelist. This year, that novel is Dexter Palmer's fantastic, fiercely smart, mind-bendingly fun novel, Version Control.

This 500-page story is brimming with ideas — about technology, authenticity, race, loyalty, causality, history, science, Big Data, and yes, even time travel. It's fascinating and fun and heartbreaking and hilarious and all of the other things that make great fiction great.

So the deal is this: Rebecca and Phillip are a mostly average middle class, middle-aged couple. She works for an online dating service, spending her days trying to upsell poor dateless saps to the Platinum level. He's a physicist who has spent the last decade or so working on what he calls a "causality violation device." Yes, what this really is is a time machine, but you won't confuse this thing with any time machine in, say, H.G. Wells or even Stephen King — the only goal here, with the physics to back it up, is to send a robot back to a pre-established Point Zero, have it stay there for an hour, and return with evidence (a clock that's an hour off) that it's worked. Sadly, it doesn't work, and Phillip's once-promising career is flagging.

And so we spend the first several hundred pages hanging with Philip and Rebecca, and their friends. We get the couple's backstory, how they met, how Phillip got into physics, etc. When Palmer is focused on plot, and building affinity for his characters, he's really entertaining. But where he's at his best is when he's mixing in frequent and profoundly insightful ruminations on things like Kant's categorical imperative, our relationship with technology, how we are not the sum whole of what all the parts of our data say about us, and much, much more. All through this novel, I kept thinking, "Man, I wish David Foster Wallace was still around to see this. He would've LOVED this book."

But really, the less you know about what happens plotwise after the "getting to know you" phase, the better off you are, and the richer your reading experience will be. Just know things happen you won't expect and you'll have to put down the book, think hard, and go "wow." 

This is truly a novel that deserves a wider readership. I was as totally engrossed by it as I was in awe of how smart it is, and how Palmer uses so many different elements of our modern world (even though this is set 10 years or so in the future) to explore his themes. I really loved it — a definite candidate for favorite of the year.  




Thursday, April 21, 2016

The Nest: What's Money Between Siblings?

A great modern poet once wrote: "You can't always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you might find you get what you need." That's the theme of Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney's terrific dysfunctional family story, The Nest. The questions of the novel: What happens when something you'd been counting on — in this case, a YUGE inheritance — is suddenly gone? How do you adjust? How do you extract the wrenches thrown in the works of your carefully laid plans?

What we have here is four New York City siblings, whose father died and left them all a trust. But the catch is that it could only be dispersed when the youngest sibling turns 40. The mother, Francie, a decidedly Lucille Bluth-like character, has resisted all requests from the four to borrow from The Nest...that is until only a few months before the money's about to be doled out, eldest son Leo wrecks his car with a 19-year-old-not-his-wife waitress, and some hush money is required.

So The Nest, a windfall all four siblings had counted on, is mostly gone. And though Leo, fresh from rehab, promises to pay them all back, they're all pretty skeptical he will. The story that unfolds is about how each sibling, to varying degrees of success, deals with the money being gone. They'd made plans. They'd kept certain financial indiscretions from their significant others. They'd lied.

This novel is just an absolute delight from cover to cover. It's funny, it's sad, it's chock full of social commentary and wickedly sharp observation. And these characters are so fully real — they're all empathetic, but the moment you start feeling badly for them, they do something that makes you just cringe.

I loved it! It's one my favorite novels of the year so far. Just so fun and scandalous — well worth the considerable hype!


Thursday, April 14, 2016

Chicago: Novel of Broad Shoulders

Brian Doyle's novel, Chicago, is a brave book. It's a passionate, wistful love letter to a revered city...that includes a friggin' talking dog. It's hard to imagine Bellow or Cisneros, Roth or Wright, making that choice. But of course dog-as-character is a metaphor — for the diversity of the city itself, and eventually, for the attachment our narrator feels to it. And your ability to enjoy this novel will hinge almost solely on whether or not you can get past the fact that there's an anthropomorphized animal in an otherwise realistic novel. I was warned ahead of time, which helped, and so I ended up really enjoying this. So consider this your warning as well.

But let's back up a second: Chicago is about a young man, our first-person narrator, who moves to the city in the late 1970s (the specific year isn't important, because Doyle sort of combines events of several late-1970s years into one — the White Sox 1977 season, the Blizzard of 1979, Jane Byrne's election, etc.) to take a job as a journalist for a Catholic magazine in the Loop. He spends his free time exploring Chicago's neighborhoods with the dog Edward, who knows everyone and everything about Chicago.

Frankly, it's a story that's a bit short on story: Our new Chicagoan makes friends, plays basketball with gang members, hangs in blues clubs (like Kingston Mines), goes to White Sox games, helps his landlady out of a jam, plays matchmaker, and falls in love himself. But mostly, he spends a lot of time hanging out, philosophizing, and being shown the sites and the people with Edward, the stamp-collecting, Abraham Lincoln-obsessed talking dog. 

As is the case with Edward the dog, whether you like this novel will depend on your reaction to several pages-long "thought bubbles" from the narrator himself, as well as soliloquies by various characters the narrator meets and befriends: The building manager of his Lakeview apartment building, who is Edward's owner, but in stark contrast to Edward, barely leaves the apartment, the mailman, a bus driver, etc. Sometimes, these are so eloquent they give you chills (a particularly beautiful one about the blues, for instance), as the narrator tries to identify the soul of Chicago; what makes Chicago the most American of American cities. Sometimes, however, these feel a bit overwritten or just seem like odd tangents that don't add much to the overall piece. But the latter are definitely fewer and farther between than the former.

So, if you're a Chicagoan, and you're attached to your city, as I am, this is highly recommended. It's certainly not Augie March, my personal favorite classic Chicago novel, but it's a solid addition to the overall Chicago canon.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

The Regional Office Is Under Attack!: Fun! Fun! So Much Fun!

If you're like me, and fun is one of the main reasons you read, then stay tuned. Because I haven't had more fun with a book in a long, long time than I did with Manuel Gonzalez's crazy, goofy, hilarious, utterly original novel The Regional Office Is Under Attack!, out today.

What it's about: A mysterious organization called the Regional Office, housed in a secret location several stories below a Manhattan travel agency, uses a cadre of highly skilled young women warriors and assassins to protect the world from all that is dark and evil, including time traveling aliens and terrorist cartels. Founded by the mysterious possibly insane Oyemi, whose origin story includes becoming radioactive at a young age, and Mr. Niles, who has always loved her, the Regional Office may not, however, be all it seems. One of our two protagonists, the young and beautiful, but mercurial Sarah, is a Regional Office lifer, vowing to defend it to the death. Also, she has a mechanical arm, which allows her to kick more than the usual amount of ass. 

Rose, a mere 17 years old, is our second protagonist and represents the opposition — the attackers of the Regional Office. She's already a graduate of Assassin School and is like a more foul-mouthed, smoking-and-boozing version of Katniss from The Hunger Games. But why is Rose attacking the Regional Office, and what is her organization of highly trained graduates of Assassin School all about?

As we learn more about the backgrounds of these characters, we begin to see a more full picture of everyone's motivations, and why they're making the decisions they are. We also learn about a mysterious man named Henry, who recruits Rose at the beginning of the novel and may or may not be playing both sides. But what is his motivation? Revenge? Love? If there's a "serious" theme at all to this novel, it's about how tough it is to make decisions without complete information, and the dire consequences of doing so.

But, really, this novel's more about fun. There's almost a comic book feel to it. And there are a million pop culture references, including several nods to Die Hard, which all the characters think they might be in at one point. It's not sci-fi, exactly, nor is it a thriller. This novel is really its own thing — I've never read anything quite like this. And I thoroughly enjoyed it. Just so much fun.

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Two Great Paperbacks: Private Citizens and The Sellout

Private Citizens, by Tony Tulathimutte — If I could nominate an alternate title for this incredibly well-written, smart debut novel, it'd be "Hot Mess Millennials Make Increasingly Bad Decisions." I really dug this book because to me the only thing better than reading about one character who can't get out of his/her own way is FOUR characters for which that's true. And that's what we have here. Four recent Stanford grads try to navigate their treacherous 20s in San Francisco, to vastly varying degrees of success.

I liked this book because it elevates itself well above the familiar theme of "life is hard when you're young and stupid." For one, stories like this almost always takes place in New York – so seeing this one unfold amidst the tech boom of mid-2000s San Francisco was fascinating. Secondly, the characters in this type of story are often good people striving against tough circumstances. These characters are decidedly...off. But they all have their redeeming qualities as well. There's your porn addicted tech guru who is dating a young ambitious woman who sees people as mere pawns in her grand scheme, a flighty nihilist who uses sex as power, an idealistic liberal activist who fails basic tests of common sense, and the perennial student with the odd upbringing

So if you liked A Little Life, but wanted a novel maybe a little shorter and a lot less horrifying, this is the story for you. Tulathimutte is a really talented, sharp writer — you might even see whispers of DFW here and there in the way he writes goofy logical double-binds and turns of phrases. Highly recommended!

————

The Sellout, by Paul Beatty — Oh man, this novel is something else — like what would happen if Chris Rock (and I'm sure Beatty would be apoplectic at this comparison) decided to convert a stand-up routine to a novel, but make it much smarter and even more irreverent. Crazy stuff here! No racial taboo is untouched in this year's National Book Critics Circle award winner, and it is utterly, completely hilarious. Though it does lose a little momentum at the end (which isn't a huge deal, it's a short book), this is one of the funnier novels I've read in long time — but it's sure not for the easily offended.

It almost reads like a collection of set pieces (comedy bits?), but a story does emerge — it's about a guy named Bonbon Me, a black guy who is a farmer, surfer, grower of amazingly good fruit and weed, and rider of horses. The story takes place in present day in the town of Dickens, California, a Los Angeles suburb/neighborhood that has been zoned as farmland, but has turned seedy, like many other black LA 'hoods. Bonbon goes about his life in typical fashion, owning a slave who happens to be the last surviving Little Rascal, trying to re-segregate schools, pining for his long-time crush who has married a rapper named DJ Panache, and working hard to get Dickens re-recognized on maps.

It's a novel rich in irony, cultural references, and laugh-out-loud jokes. If you liked Americanah, but thought it just a touch too serious, this is the book for you. Great.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

A Doubter's Almanac: Empathisizing with Tortured Genius

The trope of the troubled genius is a fairly common one, and it's what Ethan Canin is concerned with in his fascinating, immensely readable new novel A Doubter's Almanac. But what elevates this above the traditional "troubled genius" story is how Canin asks his readers to really parse their own feelings about how to react to a troubled genius, especially when that genius is, to put it bluntly, a spectacular asshole.

But what are the root causes of his assholery? Why does he behave the way he does, treating everyone around him as mere objects to serve his greater good? Does it matter? After all, if empathy is truly walking a mile in someone else's shoes, and seeing the world through their eyes, that must apply to someone who is gifted, but gauche, just as much as it does to someone who is troubled, but not gifted. Right? You may not completely agree as you find out just how horrible this guy is. You may not want to try to understand him, or much less, forgive him  But it's an interesting exploration.

Our Philip Rothian protago-villain here is a mathematics genius named Milo Andret, who, as an undergraduate earns a modicum of fame by solving a nearly half-century-old topology problem. (One of the highlights of this novel is Canin's ability to convey just enough information to help his reader understand the basics, but without getting bogged down into byzantine details.) Milo parlays this success into a professorship at Princeton, and turns his attentions and considerable talents to another problem. But he soon gets bogged down with booze, affairs with married women (and one with a sweet but sad unmarried woman), and being generally quarrelsome and cantankerous (even though he's still in his mid-30s).

Milo, like many geniuses, is constantly disappointed with the world, generally, but also most other people specifically. He's like a cross between Ignatius Reilly from A Confederacy of Dunces and John Nash from A Beautiful Mind. For Milo, "There is no joy in God's creation," Milo's doctor explains to his son at one point. "No pleasure in sunlight or water. No pleasure in a good meal. There is no pleasure in the company of friends. There is nothing. Nothing that might assuage the maw." That sounds like a justification for everything bad Milo has done, and at some level, it is. So, do we buy it?

The second part of the novel switches gears to the perspective of Milo's son, filling in the blanks of Milo's time descending to rock bottom at Princeton and how he got to be an assistant professor at a small college in Ohio. Milo's son Hans is just as intriguing a character as Milo. Will the sins of the father be repeated by the son?

This big brick of novel (550 pages) absolutely flies by. Canin is just a great, smooth storyteller, in the vein of other great storytellers like John Irving and Richard Russo. And this is just a helluva great story — even if it makes you mad at times. Some of these characters are just much better people than I could be when presented with such an axe-wound-sized asshole as Milo. But overall, I loved it — it's highly recommended!

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

The Lost Time Accidents: Time Is a Sphere

Time isn't a straight arrow, nor is it a flat circle (sorry, McConaughey) — rather, the "chronosphere" is just that: a sphere we're all trapped in. But what if the sphere could be traversed, manipulated, emerged from? If the past is memories, the future is dreams, and the presents slowly recedes into the past only due to the passage of time, what if all it took to navigate within the chronosphere is the human mind, well trained? If this sounds like the stuff you and your buddies talked about at 3 am after getting high in your dorm room, that's nearly the exact effect of reading The Lost Time Accidents, John Wray's new crazy, smashingly smart novel. But this is also a really funny novel — stopping just short of zany, but often with one-liners and scenes worthy of more than just a snort.

There are three stories at once. A guy named Waldy Tolliver is writing his family's history. He's been "excused from time," meaning he's stuck at 8:47 EST in presumably near-present day. He doesn't know why or how, and neither do we. We just accept it. 

The second story is the history Waldy is writing, and this is the meat of the novel — his great-grandfather, Ottokar Toula, living in a small town in Moravia at the turn of the 20th century discovers the secret to the universe — the Lost Time Accidents — but before he can tell anyone, he's hit by a car and dies. His two sons, one evil (Waldemar, for whom our stuck-in-time-biographer) is named, one good, Kaspar, both spend their lives in dramatically different ways trying to discover what their father had figured out. The story moves through the generations of the family, to Kaspar's son, Orson. Orson has a different relationship with family legacy, deciding to forgo physics to instead to write low-grade sci-fi. The ideas in one of his novels accidentally launches a Scientology-like cult called the United Church of Synchronology. 

Finally, the third story is our narrator/biographer telling us the story about how he met a beautiful woman named Hildegard Haven at a party before he got stuck in time. He then proceeds to carry on a scandalous (Mrs. Haven is married after all), wild romance with her, leading up to his becoming stuck in time.

Naturally, all the stories converge (to a singularity?) and I was riveted in the second half of this novel to see how it'd all work out, to see if the various characters would truly solve the mystery of the Lost Time Accidents (if there actually is a definitive solution). From how to deal with the "grandmother paradox" (if you travel back in time and kill your grandmother, don't you cease to exist? But then how could you have traveled back in time to kill your grandmother? You don't exist!) to the "Patent Clerk" (Einstein, but the family hates him, because he just barely beat them to discovering relativity) and dozens of other head-trippy ideas in between, this is a novel that is a refreshing, inventive new take on the tried-and-true time-travel novel.

If you're a fan of David Mitchell's head-warping stories, you likely won't be disappointed here. Despite the length, and some sagging of interest in the first half, this is a terrific novel if you're in to stories that are more than just a bit out there.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

When Breath Becomes Air: Where Shall Meaning Be Found?

We all know we're going to die, it's just a matter of when. So when that "when" becomes more sure or sooner than we'd thought — when it's not some nebulous future time we'd rather not think about — why then is it harder to find meaning for life? After all, nothing has changed — death is still inevitable. But that question of finding meaning in the face of sure death is the central question of When Breath Becomes Air, the devastating, but must-read book by Paul Kalanithi, and his wife, Lucy.

You know the story, Paul, a brilliant neurosurgeon is diagnosed at age 36 with terminal lung cancer. And this book is struggle to come to terms, to put his life in order, to leave a legacy (this book, but also a daughter), and to try to puzzle out what it all means.

It's as much an intellectual memoir as it is one about his life, his education, his residency, and his struggle to be a good doctor. Kalanithi is a fascinating man — curious and engaged with the world, a deep reader (he has a Master's in literature!), and with a profound respect for people. One of the best sections of the book is Kalanithi's argument, even a scientist and intellectual, not to dismiss the metaphysical — whatever that means to you, God, love, other "things" not possible to be proven by science.

I know many readers will shy away from this because it's difficult. It certainly is difficult — simply put, it's 220 of the saddest pages I've ever read (especially the 20 pages of epilogue written by his wife Lucy after he's died). But I'd encourage you to read it despite that. It's a perspective-changing, life-affirming book (ironic, I know, for a memoir about death). I'd also encourage you to read what novelist Ron Currie, Jr., wrote about the book on Facebook. It's a perfect encapsulation of why it's important to read this book, as well.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

City On Fire: Grid of Connections

City on Fire, Garth Risk Hallberg's much ballyhooed debut novel, is simultaneously way, way too long (it clocks in at 900+ pages) and not nearly long enough. Here's how that's possible: It felt too long because there were times, especially in the first few hundred pages, when I struggled to convince myself to pick up it again. But then as the novel gains momentum at about the halfway point, it's as riveting as any thriller. And what's more: Hallberg is an absolutely enthralling writer. Even when I was bored by the seemingly superfluous background info on one or any of the multitude of characters, I still appreciated how smooth and elegant he is to read. And that's why, in addition to the fact that this is a story that could've continued for several (dozen?) more years exploring the lives of these characters (most of whom I now really miss), I could've read several hundred more pages of this prose.

It's a truly great novel, a rather awe-inspiring accomplishment for a debut. Here's the deal: It's New Year's Eve, 1976, and we swing all around New York City to be introduced to a variety of characters, punks and detectives, Blue Bloods and anarchists, devious businessmen, teachers, journalists, and artists. The novel itself is plotted around a shooting in Central Park on this fateful New Year's night. So the novel is ostensibly a murder mystery, but of course, so much more. Hurdling to a conclusion the following summer, the night of July 13, 1977, the famed New York City Blackout, the novel forges a series of connections, both coincidental and not, between this cast of highly fascinating people.

The enduring image in my head as I spent nearly a month with this book was of the writer as a builder — each little chapter (and there are 94 total) fills in a gap of the story, like a brick in a wall, slowly building the complete mural or portrait on that wall. Hallberg also gives us "interludes" between each of the seven sections of the novel. These are awesome. From a punk's fanzine to a journalist's Truman Capote-esque investigative article, these set pieces add to the fullness of the portrait and are a joy to take in. That's not always the case for strategies like this — often they feel like distractions.

But slowly we learn about how all these characters are connected, and how solving a crime, in many ways, is like real life in that it's a "grid of connections" that brings the meaning to the mystery. The fluidity of time is also a hallmark for Hallberg, and certainly one of the reasons he chose the structure he did — constantly moving back and forth from real-time action to background info. Also, there are lots of birds — symbols for many things, which you can puzzle out for yourself if you decide to take on this challenge.

In sum: Yes, this is a novel that's worth the time. But if you start it, commit yourself to finishing it! The majority of the lukewarm reviews on this novel are readers who didn't finish it. This, to me, is a travesty. You don't get the full portrait otherwise — it's like judging the Mona Lisa by only seeing a sliver (to borrow a sentiment from this fantastic Atlantic piece). It's a battle that may wear you down at times, but a rewarding one in the end.