Thursday, March 23, 2017

The One-Eyed Man: A Perfect Novel For These Troubled Times

In these troubled times, you never know what will be someone's last straw of relative sanity. In the case of K, the protagonist in Ron Currie's funny, ripped-from-modern-culture new novel, The One Eyed Man, it's hand soap. Why hand soap? Because this hand soap insists on calling itself "liquid hand wash." And that just seems absurdly stupid to him. 

Why this bottle of liquid hand wash, of all the nonsense I’d encountered in nearly forty years on the planet, was the thing that suddenly sent me over the edge, I cannot say. I will simply report what I know: that there in Tony’s bathroom I was visited by the hammer-stroke certainty that the culture I counted myself a part of, the culture that had weaned and reared me, had become proudly, willfully, and completely divorced from fact.

If you like this paragraph, and I intensely do, you'll probably really like this novel. These lines form the cornerstone of K's life strategy going forward. He decides, partly because of this moment of clarity and partly because something has snapped in him after his wife's death from cancer, he'll make every decision in his life based only on pure facts, not on emotion, not on manipulation, and not on what others think.

And furthermore, he decides to confront stupidity in all its forms. As one example, he takes on a redneck with a racist "WHOSE NEXT" bumper sticker. This earns him a punch in the face — the first of many beatings he takes as a result of his new policy about resisting bullshit in all its forms. One of the things I love about this novel is that it's partly about the sheer amount of stupidity we have to either deal with or ignore simply to get through an average day. Most people can relate to that.

K's new outlook, combined with the small measure of fame he achieves by breaking up a robbery at a coffee shop at the beginning of the novel, lands him a reality TV show called "America You Stoopid." Here, he takes on all our worst unexamined assumptions and stupidities, and those who hold them to be gospel — no one is safe, not liberal, conservative, religious person, or atheist. Currie (and K) reserve particular contempt for gun nuts, which leads to a spectacular, almost Stephen King-esque ending.

I've loved both of Currie's other books I've read, Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles and Everything Matters!, and I loved this too. In this world of "alternate facts" and constant purposeful manipulation of the truth, even at the highest levels, this novel really lands solidly. But beyond that, as always with Currie's writing, it's just madly entertaining. It's definitely dude-lit, but without the often annoying self-deprecation that hallmarks most dude lit. There are no punches pulled here. And it's terrific. Highly recommended. 

Friday, February 24, 2017

Dark At The Crossing: On The Syrian Civil War

If you don't know much the about horrific tragedy of what's happened in Syria in the last several years, Elliot Ackerman's terrific, taut, engrossing new novel Dark At The Crossing is a good first step to learning. But as good as this novel is, it's not a war novel. Instead, it's a story about the terrible, no-win choices — the trade-offs one has to make, the pangs of conscience one has to ignore — war creates for those whose lives have been devastated by war. 

Ackerman's bona fides to write about the Syrian Civil War are beyond reproach — he served five tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, and won a Purple Heart, Silver Star, and Bronze Star for Valor. He currently is based in Istanbul, covering the Syrian Civil War war for various news outlets.

The novel is about a guy named Haris Abadi, an Iraqi-born, American-naturalized would-be warrior who was an interpreter for US troops in Iraq, and now is attempting to cross into Syria from Turkey to fight for the Syrian Free Army. It's 2014 and ISIS is beginning its rise, creating a three-way conflict between themselves, the rebels (Free Syrian Army), and Assad's regime. Abadi, who has some demons to exorcise from his service in Iraq, hopes to earn redemption by fighting for what he sees as a just cause.

But he makes it no farther than the Syrian/Turkish border before he is promptly robbed and left to fend for himself. He's rescued by a man named Amir, a Syrian living in Turkey who works for a "research firm," preparing reports about the war for foreign governments. Amir, and his wife, Daphne's, young daughter was killed in an explosion in Aleppo, and Daphne has never quite recovered.

So as the novel unfolds, Daphne and Haris form a bond, and endeavor to help each other get across the border, each for his/her own reasons. But how will they accomplish this? What part of their souls will they have to sell?

I took a chance on this novel after writer Nicholas Mainieri recommended it, and it's one I'll highly recommend as well. It's as engrossing, authentic-feeling, and well-written as anything I've read this year. If you've read and enjoyed novels/story collections like Phil Klay's Reployment, David Abrams' Fobbit, Kevin Powers' The Yellow Birds, or Ross Ritchell's The Knife, all novels written by soldiers, you'll love this too.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

A Man Called Ove: Just Friggin' Delightful

A Man Called Ove, by Swedish novelist Fredrik Backman is one of those odd-but-awesome book stories where the book did okay when it was first published (in 2014), but has recently enjoyed a renaissance due to word-of-mouth recommendations, as well as the hit Swedish-language movie (oh, and probably the overwhelming need for a feel-good book in these rather trying times). So, for the sake of upping my cultural literacy I gave it a shot.

Often, as I was reading it while working at RoscoeBooks, someone would see the book on the counter and comment on how delightful it is or how much they loved it.

Even after I loved the first chapter (in which Ove squares off with a sales associate at an electronics store as he tries to buy an iPad), I tried really hard not to like it the rest of it. It's a little a cheesy at times, the grumpy-old-man trope is nothing even remotely new (for my money, Sully from Richard Russo's Nobody's Fool is still the paragon), and the translation is often a bit clunky. But, then, by the end....I loved it. It won me over. I couldn't help it.

It's a charming tale of a guy named Ove, confronting what he believes to be all the various violations of good sense and decency of everyday life in his little neighborhood in a small town in Sweden. We learn in the first few pages that Ove's wife has died, and he's been forced into early retirement. So with nothing else to live for, Ove decides to exit stage left. But then life keep interceding — he can't help himself from helping other people. (The one thing that kind of shocked me about this novel is its sort of cavalier attitude toward suicide. But not a big deal...)

Ove becomes more lovable the more you learn about his backstory — chapters alternate between his current life and his history, which includes more than his fair share of tragedy and sadness. In the present, he makes begrudging friends with new neighbors, a family four with a fifth on the way. We also learn about his long-running feud with his neighbor Rune, a grouchy guy just like him. But against all decency, in Ove's view, Rune has the gall to drive a Volvo instead of Ove's beloved Saabs. The final nail in the coffin in their tenuous relationship is when Rune buys a BMW. Then it's all-out war.

In the present, Rune has fallen on tough times, and the dreaded "white shirts," government bureaucrats who have been Ove's life-long nemeses, are threatening to remove Rune from his wife and his home and put him in state-sponsored care. Will Ove help Rune, or will their long-stand rivalry be too much to overcome?

If you're for something you can laugh with, that's heavy at times, but ultimately redemptive, this is your novel. You may not totally like Ove all the time, but it's hard not to enjoy his story.

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Lincoln In The Bardo: Saunders' Strange Debut On Empathy, Grief

First off, in case you're wondering already, a "bardo" is a Tibetan word for an "intermediate state," a sort of purgatory between one life and another. In George Saunders' ridiculously smart, entirely weird first novel Lincoln in the Bardo, a bunch of interstitial beings (ghosts, if you want to not think too hard about it) hang out in a graveyard and discuss their personal lives, as they were, as well as life in general, truth, kindness, empathy, and grief.

What sparks these conversations is the arrival of a new person to their bardo — Abraham's Lincoln's son Willie, who has just died of typhoid fever. It's February 1862, the nation is at war, and Lincoln is doing all he can to hold both his personal life and the country together. Lincoln periodically visits to mourn his son. It's funny, and perhaps significant, that Lincoln himself, despite the title, is never actually IN the bardo. He's in the grave yard where the other occupants of the bardo are stuck, but he himself isn't in that interstitial state. He's still alive!!

Much of the "action" of the novel reads like a play. Our main three "actors" include a guy named Hans Vollman, who died getting brained with a falling ceiling beam, a freak accident. Poor Hans had recently gotten married, and was about to finally consummate his marriage with his beautiful young wife when he's abruptly ripped from life and deposited in the bardo. Roger Bevins III is a gay man whose lover made fun of him in front of their friends, so he killed himself. And finally, there's a reverend named Everly Thomas, who acts as the sort of conscience of the novel. While we don't know how he died, he knows more than all the the ghosts — he's the only who knows he's dead, having actually made it all the way to the pearly gates before absconding to the bardo. But he has a secret.

And so the occupants of the bardo — including Willie — learn that they can "enter" corporeal bodies (as well as each other), and hear that person's thoughts. It's sort of a literal way of seeing the world through someone else's eyes, and trying to understand their sides of things — a constant theme throughout the novel. 

Interspersed throughout these conversations are snippets from real newspapers and letters from historical people detailing the mood of the country at this point in history. It's not good, to say the least. For instance, Lincoln is crushed in the press for having a big party at the White House, both while the country is at war and also while his son is sick. 

While the novel clocks in about 320 pages, you can probably read it two or three sittings. It's not text heavy at all. But to truly unlock what Saunders is up to here, it definitely requires a re-reading or two. I have not yet done that, mostly because it was a novel I sometimes felt like I was enduring more than I was enjoying. I mean, this novel is unquestionably the work of a genius writer. There's no doubt about that. And I would recommend it highly just for the wholly unique reading experience, as well as it's quite-frequent profundity. But it's certainly not something you'll want to bring to the beach with you this summer.

(Finally, if you're interested, here's my favorite paragraph from the novel, that helps tie together the themes of empathy and grief: 
“His mind was freshly inclined toward sorrow; toward the fact that the world was full of sorrow; that everyone labored under some burden of sorrow; that all were suffering; that whatever one took in this world, one must try to remember that all were suffering (none content; all wronged, neglected, overlooked, misunderstood), and therefore one must do what one could to lighten the load of those with whom one came into contact; that his current state of sorrow was not uniquely his, not at all, but, rather, it’s like had been felt, would yet be felt, by scores of others, in all times, in every time, and must not be prolonged or exaggerated, because, in this state, he could be of no help to anyone and, given that his position in the world situated him to be either of great help or great harm, it would not do to stay low, if he could help it.”)

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

A Separation: Slow-Burn Meditation on Failed Marriage

Katie Kitamura's novel about a failed marriage isn't like Gone Girl or any of the other tent poles of the recent entries into the "bad romance" genre. This is a wholly unique take on this type of novel, and it's really terrific.

A Separation, which is out today, is a slow-burning, introspective, and incredibly astutely observed look at a relationship that has gone sour. It's the story of an unnamed narrator and her husband Christopher, Londoners who have separated, ostensibly due to Christopher's multiple infidelities.

Christopher has gone to Greece to work on a book, and then promptly disappeared. Christopher's mother Isabel — a domineering, annoying woman who never warmed to the narrator because she "stole" her son — calls our narrator and asks her to go to Greece to find her husband. Isabel doesn't know the two have separated, and the narrator chooses to keep that secret.

So to keep up appearances, off to Greece she goes to find her soon-to-be-ex-husband. While she's there, she begins to slowly reconsider her separation — or at least try to better parse her feelings for it and for Christopher, now that they're even more separated than they were before. She literally has no idea where he is — didn't even know he'd gone to Greece. What's happened to him? Will she find him? Has he taken even more extraordinary means than are usually necessary to separate himself from her? Or is he just on another tawdry tryst?

Part of what makes this novel special is that it's a novel about ambiguity, but told in language so precise and carefully chosen. Kitamura is an amazingly talented writer — her narrator can spend several pages watching a conversation between two people, describing their facial expressions and cadence, and tell us what she thinks they're talking about. And it's fascinating! But again, this is not a novel you'll confuse with a thriller. Watching the introspection, watching her her puzzle things out as best she can with incomplete, indeed, ambiguous information is truly the strength of this great read. 

Despite the commonality of failed relationships, this is also a novel about subverting what's normal, what's expected. To further this notion, the narrator tells a brief story about a friend who went on a date with a man she really liked. At the end of the night, he invites her up "for coffee." Instead of inventing an excuse, she tells him she can't because she's on her period, which is actually true. On the surface, it's a hilarious non-sequitur. But everyone knows coffee doesn't mean coffee — only her friend has subverted the purposeful ambiguity of what it means to be invited up for coffee. The guy never calls her back.

It's little touches like these that makes this a really terrific reading experience. There is a lot going on in this slim, taut novel, many themes (grief, loyalty, and whether monogamy is still pragmatic) intersect and augment each other. It's a savagely smart and masterfully crafted novel — very highly recommended.

Friday, February 3, 2017

Rules of Civility: Love Triangle in Late 1930s New York

If you're one of Amor Towles' rabid fans (I am a new one!), you probably know his story: He spent 21 years working in banking before publishing his first novel, Rules of Civility, in 2011. Thank goodness he found his calling! Because whether this fellow is writing about horrific traffic accidents, jazz, women's clothes, or sordid love triangles, he's always entertaining. I expect he could write technical manuals about elevator maintenance, and they'd be enjoyable. He has such a fluent, articulate, evocative, warm style, and it's on full display in this terrific novel of 1938 New York City.

Katey Kontent and her friend Eve meet a dashing banker named Tinker (the names, my god, the names!) on New Year's Eve, 1937, and are swept up by his charm (indeed, civility) and he by their spirit and cleverness. These are two modern, independent women, enjoying all that New York City has to offer. But what starts off as a possible competition for Tinker's affections and perhaps a love triangle morphs into something...well, I don't want to say. It's the surprise — the way Towles flips your expectations totally on their ears that makes this novel especially fun.

Part of the strength of this novel beyond its plot is how alive late 1930s New York is. The drinks flow, the buildings shimmer, the steam rises in the summer, and the jewels of New York's society folks — of which Katey and Eve find themselves for the first time — sparkle. New York will be shattered by the war in just a few short years, but for now, it's a sort utopia. And Towles captures this really well.

Full disclosure: I actually liked A Gentleman In Moscow, which I read last fall, a bit more than this novel — there are few dead spots and missteps here. But again, because of Towles' smooth style, I didn't mind too much when the plot lags. It's a quick read, and one that leaves you more than a little shocked when you unlock its secrets.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Dream Author Panel: What If I Could Interview Zadie Smith and David Foster Wallace?

Zadie Smith and I have one very important thing in common: We both count David Foster Wallace as our favorite writer. She explains her DFW fandom in her terrific essay, "The Difficult Gifts of David Foster Wallace," which starts out as a review of DFW's short story collection Brief Interviews With Hideous Men and morphs into a very heartfelt tribute to him and his genius. (She started the essay before he died and finished it afterwards.)

Ever since reading that essay almost a decade ago, I've wondered what it would be like to be a fly on the wall as those two discussed books and the writing life. So at the prompting of the good folks at Eventbrite, an event planning software company, who are working on a project to collect posts by book bloggers on their dream author panels, I decided I'd up the ante and imagine what it'd be like to actually be the one interviewing them. Like my goofy post about Thomas Pynchon, what follows is an imagined present-day conversation between DFW, Zadie Smith, and me as the moderator. (I mean, if I'm going to write about a dream author panel, why not put myself right in the middle?!)

Me: Zadie, in your essay, you wrote about Dave's famous quote, "Fiction is about what it is to be a f$@#king human being," can you explain why you admire that quote specifically, but also what it says about Dave's own approach to writing fiction?

Zadie Smith: Sure, and thanks — it's great to be here with you and Dave. As I say in the essay, that quote sort of encompasses why I love Dave's fiction: Because it's about empathy. Fiction allows writers and readers alike to walk around in the shoes of someone who is not like the reader at all. It allows readers and writers to understand different situations than their own. That is why nothing is more real than fiction. And Dave does empathy in his fiction better than any writer.

DFW (nervous laugh): Am I a ghost? Kidding. I never had much use for the laws of physics anyway. It is not for me to question how I'm here. I just am. And but so, thanks for the kind words. Yes, also when I delivered that keynote address at Kenyon College in 2005, and sweated my balls off too, empathy was the idea there, too. I talked about being patient with the person in front of you at the grocery store, because you never know what they're going through, and chances are it's worse than you. That understanding of others' situations different from your own is what writing and reading fiction does. It situates you in the world.

Me: Dave, what do you admire about Zadie's fiction?

DFW: She is often described as an exuberant writer, and I agree. I love the experimentation in NW, and I love the take on celebrity and authenticity in Swing Time. But White Teeth is still my favorite. Though, while we're here, what were you thinking with The Autograph Man? A bit of misstep, no?

Zadie: Well, that's brutally honest! Yeah, I'm proud of everything I write, but that was a sophomore slump, sure. But hey man, what were YOU thinking with "Westward The Course of Empire Takes Its Way." That thing was unreadable!

Me (can't help interjecting): For those unfamiliar, Zadie is referring to a novella included in DFW's 1989 story collection Girl With Curious Hair. And she's right, it IS unreadable.

DFW: Yeah, well, I think I've since admitted when I was young writer, my calibration between reader enjoyment and reader aggravation might've been a tad off at times. That's an example of that. I finally got it right with Infinite Jest...or so people tell me.

Me (still can't help myself): I'LL SAY!

Zadie: What's interesting is how well that novel has aged; how relevant it is today in the age of addiction to social media. I mean, I'm not a tweeter or a facebooker, but do you think you would be if you were still here, Dave?

DFW (lighting a cigarette): I think you know about my love for TV and movies, but the entertainment on the web is a different beast. I wouldn't totally decry and ignore it like my buddy Franzen, but I'd probably dip a toe into Twitter just to entertain myself.

Me: Dude, I don't think you can smoke in here. And since we're well over the appropriate length of a normal blog post (wait, what?), let's stop here and go get a drink! 

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Evicted: A Heartbreaking, Rage-Inducing Study on Poverty and Profit in the American City

Sociologist Matthew Desmond's New York Times Top 10 of 2016 book, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City, is an extremely important, vital book in these troubled times. That's because the problem of frequent evictions among the poor, a problem not often discussed, is, as Desmond argues here, a foundational problem to a lot of others in America — including crime, education, and the lack of possibilities for upward mobility for many people.

Desmond's assertion here, made through a combination of meticulous research and the stories of eight Milwaukee families, is that, like health care and voting, housing should be a guaranteed American right.  However, as the book makes starkly clear, the availability of adequate housing for all is far from the current state of things. And what's especially troubling is that a single eviction (sometimes the tenant's fault, just as often not) can send a person and his or her family into a downward spiral from which it's nearly impossible to recover.

For instance, the first person we meet in the prologue of this book is a single mother with a teenage and a middle grade son. She is evicted when her bored elder son, just goofing off, throws a snowball at a motorist, and the motorist stops his car, and kicks in their front door. The landlord thinks they're trouble, so he boots them, as his is right. They find another house, but soon have to leave because the house is condemned by the city for being unlivable. And then, for the rest of the book, this woman and her kids struggle to find any stability in their housing situation — this affects her sons' attendance at school and basic faith in the system. At one point, after an eviction, this woman has to beg the new tenant at an apartment from which she's been evicted to let them stay for a few weeks until they can find somewhere else to live. It's just heartbreaking.

The strength of this book is these personal stories that connect the cold data to real people. Desmond did nearly a year of fieldwork for this book — living both in a predominately white trailer park on the South Side of Milwaukee, and then in a small room in the city's mostly African American North Side. He tells the stories of the people he met and followed for this year — both tenants and landlords, people deserving of our sympathy and those deserving of our anger (neither is often who you think, or fit neatly into often preconceived notions). 

There are few winners and tons of losers in this book. And there's plenty of blame to go around for this broken system, in terms of tenants, landlords, policy makers, law enforcement, etc.

This is such an essential book — I'm really glad it landed on the NY Times list. I may not have read it otherwise. It's not a difficult read at all — its narrative non-fiction structure and Desmond's talent as a writer make this a smooth and easy read. It doesn't feel academic at all.

To me, the lack of empathy and often willful ignorance of others' situations is also a foundational problem to many other problems right now. And reading this book can be a small step toward working on both. Extremely highly recommended.

(And if you'd like to help right away, please consider a donation to Matthew Desmond's charity, Just Shelter.)

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Lillian Boxfish Takes A Walk: Quick-Witted Wins The Race

It's November 1931, and Lillian Boxfish, the eponymous protagonist of Kathleen Rooney's terrific new novel, out today, Lillian Boxfish Takes A Walk, is in a downtown Manhattan office meeting with her poetry editor. Lillian has already established herself as the "highest paid woman in advertising" for her witty, humorous copy for R.H. Macy's. But her side hustle is poetry, and her first collection is about to be published. Her editor tells her though that one "fairly minor thing" must yet be sorted out: the title, he and his sales department don't like it. Lillian's response: "The title? How embarrassing...after all these years, and so many verses written, to learn that I have been misusing the word minor." Lillian asserts herself, gets her way, and the title remains in tact, as she preferred it.

I read this little exchange/scene three times, and laughed a little harder each time — Lillian's sarcastic response is perfectly emblematic of her character. She's quick-witted, whip-smart, and doesn't suffer fools gladly. And so after reading that, though I'd been skeptical about how much I'd like a book ostensibly about an old lady who walks around New York City, I knew I'd love this. And I did. A lot!

Yes, it is about 84 (or 85)-year-old Lillian Boxfish, taking a walk around Manhattan on New Year's Eve 1984, but it's also about her entire life, as a copy writer, a mother, briefly a depressed person, and ultimately simply an incredible woman. The novel alternates chapters between her late-night walk in the present (1984) and episodes from Lillian's life. But even her walk is fascinating, as she meets crime-ridden and dangerous (though Lillian is never afraid) Manhattan's diverse crowd of characters — a family who invites her to join them for a steak dinner, a limo driver, an Asian bodega proprietor, some artists and gay bohemians, and a group of African American toughs (which, though near the end, results in my favorite scene in the novel, a laugh-out-loud funny exchange, but an importantly profound one as well). Manhattan is Lillian's town, she owns it, and she will do it her way.

Kathleen Rooney is a fellow Chicagoan, and I loved her novel O, Democracy! (about the absurdity of politics, so yeah, fairly relevant these days!), so I was excited to read this novel, despite it being a bit outside my wheelhouse. I always think the mark of a good writer is to convert you from something you're skeptical about or not sure you'll care about to something you really love and want to highly recommend. Rooney's done that here! Like her protagonist, she's a clever, funny, and really smart writer.  

Monday, January 9, 2017

Half Wild: Elegant Stories About Vermont

At Book Expo America (BEA) last May, I had just finished fawning over getting my book signed by Richard Russo when a publicist sort of grabbed me and asked if I was interested in a slim volume of short stories titled Half Wild by a debut writer named Robin MacArthur. Sure, why not? It was one of those heart-wrenching parts of BEA where a super-talented (as I'd soon learn), but little-known author sat at her table by herself, while all the tables around her (Russo's was directly adjacent) had long lines.

When I got home (MacArthur, by the way, couldn't have been nicer!) I looked over the stories' descriptions and MacArthur's terrific inscription on my book — "For Greg, Enjoy these wild woods, back roads" — and made a mental note that I wouldn't just set this galleys aside so it'd be lost in a pile forever, but to keep it as a TBR priority. It took seven months, but I finally got to it. Super glad I did!

I realize that was a long walk to illustrate an instance of book serendipity, but I think the way I came to these stories actually enhanced how much I liked them. And like them, I did. They're really fantastic! MacArthur explores, in precise but not-precious prose, various characters' connections to their roots in rural Vermont.

"Love Birds" is about ex-hippies who have been married 47 years, live off the grid, can't see themselves anywhere else, and love their simple life (this story is one of my favorites).

"The Heart of The Woods" is a terrific a story about a woman who marries a rich man who flips distressed residential property to commercial real estate. Her father, a logger, is greatly disappointed with her life choices.

And the last story, my favorite in the collection, "The Women Where I'm From" ties a thematic bow on the book, as it follows a young woman named Hannah who lives in Seattle, but returns to Vermont to care for her cancer-stricken mother. Hannah is surprised by the pull her childhood home has over her and tries to decide whether to stay.

These elegant stories really resonated with me. I've actually never been to Vermont, but I do have a bit of a complicated relationship with the place I grew up. And that relationship to your roots is the real theme here. The setting of the Vermont woods is sort of just a bonus - atmospheric and, to me, a bit exotic even.

If you've followed this blog for any amount of time, you'll recognize it's rare that I post about short story collections. But I loved this collection — and I think most readers will too. Very highly recommended!

Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Moonglow: Chabon's Glowing Tribute To His Family

Would that we could all memorialize our grandparents as well as Michael Chabon does in his new novel, Moonglow — a blend of fact, fiction, memories, and research. It's an innovative form for fiction Chabon writes here — not exactly a memoir, not exactly a novel, but with elements of both. The end result, though, is a funny, messy, heartfelt tribute to his family, and it's a terrific reading experience.

The story is based on some deathbed conversations Chabon had with his grandfather as his grandfather died of cancer in 1989. It took until recently for Chabon to develop the format he needed to tell this story — as well as one recent massive discovery (which would be a spoiler to reveal) about his grandmother that surely pulled this all together for him.

The novel includes about five main strands of the story of his grandfather's life, but like memory itself, they're not arranged chronologically (despite, amusingly, his grandfather's insistence that Chabon do so if he wrote this). These stories flit in and out of themselves in the way memories do as well — they launch from a single thought or an object, or a taste or smell. Chabon also includes his own memories of his grandfather telling him these stories — the time he wanted beer with his pills or about how he got angry when Chabon continued a particular line of questioning.

But Chabon's grandfather is the star of this show — the man led an unquestionably fascinating life. He was a World War II special agent who spent time behind enemy lines trying to track down the German V-2 rocket and its inventor, Wernher von Braun. Post-war, he married a beautiful but mentally unstable woman who had endured her own horrific hardships during the war (she's French and immigrated to the US after the war, barely surviving with her daughter — Chabon's mother). And he spent time in jail in the late 1950s for strangling his boss with a phone cord (this is the anecdote that leads off the novel, so right from the opening pages, we're on board with this guy to find out what he'll do next). Throughout his life, he was fascinated with rocketry and going to the moon — even building a model moon colony, a sort of symbol of escape from his troubled life specifically, but troubled life in general here on this planet.

Though Chabon loses a little momentum in the last 75 pages or so, and at times, his structure does make it a little hard to keep track of where we are in time and what's already happened, on the whole, this is a fulfilling and enjoyable read. Chabon is a fantastically talented writer, as I'm sure you know — and this is as good as any of his best work.