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Friday, September 22, 2017

Little Fires Everywhere: Privilege, Parenting in the Suburbs

There is a TON going on in Celeste Ng's terrific new novel, Little Fires Everywhere — but for this novel, it's a strength, not a weakness. A huge cast of characters create all sorts of problems for each others, sometimes purposefully, sometimes inadvertently, sometimes just unthinkingly. It makes for a thrilling, fast-paced, drama-infused novel about everything from privilege to teen pregnancy to long-held family secrets.

Set in 1998 in the quiet carefully planned community of Shaker Heights, Ohio (a suburb of Cleveland where Ng herself lived as a kid), the story is about a clash between two families that couldn't be more different. Mia Warren and her 15-year-old daughter Pearl live in a rental house owned by the Richardsons, an upper-class family with four high-school aged kids, Lexie, Trip, Moody, and Izzy.

Much like the community she lives in,  Mrs. Richardson has rigorously ordered her entire life — college, marriage, steady job (she's a journalist for the local newspaper), and children. Mia, on other hand is a fly-by-the-seat of her pants avant-garde photographer. She and Pearl have criss-crossed the country, moving on whenever Mia's well of inspiration dries up. But now, Mia has decided to settle down for a bit and let Pearl be a kid, make some friends, form some connections. And it works: Pearl becomes fast friends with the Richardson kids, and idealizes their steady normal life, while they in turn think her mobility is fascinating.

The novel literally starts a fire — specifically, the Richardson's house, but we don't know why. It's just suspected that the youngest daughter Izzy finally lost her mind, lighting "little fires everywhere" throughout the house. Then we back up and get to know the families and their interactions. But the novel really gets going after about 100 pages when friends of the Richardsons — the McCulloughs — have adopted an Asian daughter abandoned at a fire station a year ago. The birth mother, a woman named Bebe — who happens to be a friend of Mia's from the Chinese restaurant at which she works — wants the child back. Bebe had left her daughter at the fire station during a bout of anxiety and depression (she'd moved to across the country with a boyfriend, who promptly leaves her penniless and friendless when he finds out she's pregnant). Now that she's better, she's been trying desperately to find her daughter, and when Mia makes the connection between Mrs. Richardson's friend's adopted daughter and Bebe's lost daughter, Bebe desperately tries to reclaim her. The ensuing legal battle divides the community, and the two families.

Part of the point of the novel is about how easy it is to cover up or not be penalized for mistakes when you're wealthy and white. That parachute, however, does not exist without money and privilege. As well, the novel shows how money and privilege can sometimes erode empathy. There are several moments that illustrate this, but one in particular: Bebe is given once-a-week visitation rights of her daughter until the case is decided, and Mrs. McCullough is annoyed that Bebe can't let her know more than a day ahead of time when she'll come. Bebe's work schedule is erratic, and this job is only way she can make ends meet. Mrs. McCullough is annoyed that she's inconvenienced, not trying to understand what it must be like for Bebe.

This is a fascinating, complex, but briskly written novel. It's hard to put down, frankly. Ng effortlessly plugs you directly into her story and her characters. I actually liked Little Fires Everywhere better than Ng's terrific debut, Everything I Never Told You. You've probably seen Little Fires Everywhere just about, well, everywhere. Ng was even on Seth Meyers recently! The novel is worth the hype — highly recommended.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

The Heart's Invisible Furies: An Absolute Masterpiece

John Boyne's new novel (out today!) The Heart's Invisible Furies is an absolute masterpiece. It's the story of a life, an Irishman named Cyril Avery, born in Dublin in 1945. But that single simple sentence belies the power, intensity, humor, emotion, and pure reading pleasure of this 600-page piece of fiction. It's a novel about guilt and redemption, about fate and free will, about love and loyalty, about secrets and betrayal, and simply about living a life in your own skin. It's absolutely brilliant — honestly, one of the best things I've read in a long time, at least since A Little Life, to which this novel shares some similarities.

It's also a good read for fans of stories as wide-ranging as Forrest Gump to The World According To Garp and A Prayer For Owen Meany. Indeed, Boyne's dedication is simply, "For John Irving" — which, frankly, is what initially drew me to this novel. The first two sections of the novel are an unmistakeable tribute to Irving — both in style and substance. The first describes the circumstances of Cyril's birth — his mother is a 16-year-old unwed Catholic in rural Ireland. Her pregnancy causes her to be shamed in front of her entire church, and then banished from her town and family. She moves to Dublin to make it on her own. The second section describes Cyril's childhood as a seven-year-old boy living with adoptive parents Charles (about to go to jail for tax evasion) and Maude (a novelist who hates popularity) in Dublin.

From there, Boyne tells Cyril's life story in seven-year increments. I don't know what else to tell you about this novel to pique your interest if you're not already intrigued. But one of the things I loved about this book is how surprisingly funny it is. I can't emphasize this enough: It's consistently laugh-out-loud funny. Frequently, there are several-page strings of dialogue, which is almost always annoying when other writers try this. Here, they're simply fantastic and fully display Cyril's sarcastic, dry sense of humor. I chuckled on just about every page.

But this novel is massively heart-breaking as well. This isn't a spoiler: Cyril is gay, and the first half of the novel is about him trying to come to terms with this fact of himself—how impossible it is to be himself in mid-century Catholic Ireland, and how he keeps that secret from those closest to him.

The novel follows Cyril from Ireland to Amsterdam to New York in the 1980s (devastating sections on the AIDS crisis) and then back to Dublin for Cyril's twilight years. From the very beginning, we know at some point he and his birth mother reconnect (the whole novel is Cyril's first-person account, and Cyril tells us he's narrating from before he was born based on the story his mother told him later). This creates such glorious tension throughout the novel because there are several instances in which fate puts Cyril and his birth mother in each other's paths. And the conversations they have before they know who each other is are some of the funniest, even as they ooze with tension and drama.

This is the best novel I've read in a long time — it has definite "new classic" potential. Every once in a while, you really should find a book that reminds you why you love reading so much — and for me, this was that book. It's all I can do right now as I write this not to pick it up and start it all over again.

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Home Fire: Mesmerizing and Intense

Kamila Shamsie's new novel Home Fire (it's out today!) is one of the more mesmerizing, intense novels I've read in a long time. It's about a London family — daughter Isma, and twins Aneeka and Parvaiz — whose mother died awhile ago and whose father abandoned them and died after being captured fighting for the Taliban in Afghanistan. He was held at the infamous Bagram prison (where he was likely tortured), and was being transported to Guantanamo Bay when he died mysteriously.  Isma and her siblings don't know what happened to him, or even where his body is, and no one in London — least of all their ambitious-at-the-cost-of-integrity Member of Parliament, Karamat Lone — will help them.

The novel begins as Isma is traveling to America to go to graduate school — Parvaiz and Aneeka are 19 years old now (she is 28) and she feels like having basically raised the twins herself, she can finally set out on her own path. In Amherst, she randomly runs into Lone's son, Eamonn. They form a tenuous bond, and when Eamonn (a sort of drifter not dissimilar to Donnie Jr or Eric Trump) returns to London, he meets the rest of Isma's family including Isma's beautiful younger sister Aneeka. Meanwhile, the other twin Parvaiz has been recruited by a man who knew his father during the jihad. Parvaiz becomes enamored of the notion of the Islamic State and whisks himself away to Raqqa to join ISIS.

The novel spends one section on the specific story of each of these five characters (Isma, Eamonn, Parvaiz, Aneeka, Karamat), giving the novel as a whole more nuance than may otherwise have been possible. In fact, one of the themes of the novel is simply the importance of nuance. Too often, politicians like Karamat Lone try explicitly with rhetoric and policy to score cheap points by appealing to the lowest common denominator —by scaring their constituents with the notion of "other," not taking into account nuance. Basic humanity (along with any shred of their decency and integrity) is often the victim. And that's the case here, too. 

Home Fire is also a story about family loyalty, even in the most terrible circumstances. When a family member betrays his country, still, isn't his family entitled to learn about what happened to him? If a twin brother realizes the enormity of a mistake, shouldn't he, with an appropriate punishment, still be afforded basic human dignity? Shamsie deals with these touchy subjects gracefully and lucidly. 

Indeed, this is one of the more beautifully written novels I've read in a long time. But it reads at the pace almost of a thriller — an seemingly impossible trick I still have no idea Shamsie pulled off. I forgot to breathe from time to time, especially on the last page, which...just...wow.

This is definitely a favorite of the year. I loved it for its urgency and how current it feels. Highly recommended! 

(Side note: Apparently, and I didn't know this until finishing the novel, this story is a modern retelling of the Sophocles play, Antigone. But you don't need to know anything about that play to enjoy this — I didn't. I'm sure it helps if you do, but it's definitely not necessary.) 

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Touch and Hello, Sunshine: Two New Novels On The "Evils" of Social Media

Courtney Maum's fun, insightful new novel Touch looks at what can happen when technology becomes a stand-in for actual human connection. But this isn't some near-future dystopia, nor is it a preachy screed against the "evils" of social media. It's a funny, modern novel about how one woman learns a valuable lesson and revises everything she thought she knew.

The story is about a woman named Sloane who makes her living as a highly successful, highly accurate trend forecaster. After 10 years in Paris, she goes to work for a huge NYC tech company called Mammoth that is putting on a conference called ReProduction specifically tailored for purposefully childless people. While working to develop products for non-breeders, Sloane starts to be annoyed with how everyone in her meetings is so distracted all the time, so she petitions the company's CEO to ban cell phones from meetings, and to implement an old-school suggestion box. Both work better than she could've imagined, and so this is the beginning of Sloane's "A-ha" moment. 

Meanwhile, her partner Roman, a French intellectual and "neo-sensualist" is working on the theory that touch is over — that no one wants to touch each other in any capacity, even sex. He thinks that technology, specifically virtual reality, is a much more personal experience than actual intimacy.

When Sloane discovers this theory, first she's furious with her idiot boyfriend. And then she realizes how much she actually longs for the pre-social media days of face-to-face interaction and touch, and begins a campaign at Mammoth to return to simple gestures of affection: conversations in person, hugs, etc.

But this touches off a war at Mammoth (which has now brought on Roman, as well). On one side, is Sloane's camp: Those who think we've hit the tipping point and a pushback against the impersonality of social media is imminent. People will return to touch and real intimacy. On the other, is Roman and his cult-like followers, who think intimacy is meaningless. If I had one problem with this novel, it's that this is sort of a false choice — by an reasonable measure Roman's position is ridiculous (and made more so by the fact that he wears a Zentai suit so that he literally cannot be touched). But I also understand why Maum made Roman's theories so absurd as to seem cult-like: It's so it would be easier to root for Sloane and her old-school ideas. And it works! We do.

I loved Sloane as a character, and enjoyed watching her learn her lessons, often painfully. Maum is fearless, sharp writer, and this is a terrifically enjoyable novel. 

In Laura Dave's Hello, Sunshine, a less successful novel than Touch, the idea is that modern culture's obsession with celebrity gives these celebrities free reign to be inauthentic — indeed, to downright lie — as much as is required to maintain that celebrity. As well, even if we're not celebrities, all of our social media feeds are carefully curated versions of ourselves — that online, we're not our authentic selves either. And while that's true, it's kind of a simplistic backbone for a novel — especially one that, while mostly an amusing and light summer read, has some other plot-related issues as well. 

Here we have Sunshine Mackenzie, a burgeoning YouTube star for a cooking show where every Sunday night she makes for her architect husband Danny a recipe from her wholesome farm childhood. She's signed a book deal for a cook book and is about to get her own show on the Food Network. The only problem is, it's all a lie. In fact, Sunshine is from Montauk and her cooking show was created by a sleazy producer named Ryan who creates Sunshine's backstory and steals recipes from his own wife. (Side note: Plot problem No. 1 with this novel is that as soon as Sunshine gets even a modicum of fame, it would've taken about 5 minutes for someone at TMZ to get a tip complete with a high school yearbook photo etc., that she's not from a farm in the midwest, she's from friggin' Long Island.)

Though she has a seemingly great life and her star is rising, things go south for Sunshine right at the beginning of the novel — she's hacked and not only outed as a fraud, but also it's revealed she had an affair with Ryan. Her husband leaves her, she loses her fancy NY apartment, her book deal, new show, and her dignity. She retreats to Montauk where she tries to make amends with her estranged older sister named Rain (yes, Sunshine and Rain — their father was a little crazy). Will Sunshine find out who really was behind the hack that ruined her life? Will she find some measure of redemption, or will she always be known as a fraud?

This is a quick, airy summer read not to be taken too seriously. Again, at least in my case, that's because as soon as you start questioning parts of the plot, you'll want to throw it across the room. The points the novel makes about our obsession with celebrity, and the positive feedback loop that creates with celebrities' need to maintain that celebrity at all costs, as well as the inauthenticity of social media, are good ones but, not exactly earth-shatteringly original. Still, they're good reminders. If you're a Laura Dave fan, you'll probably dig this. I took a chance on it, and I'm not sorry I read it, but I wish I'd liked it more. 


Tuesday, August 1, 2017

My Three Favorite Running Books

It's not easy to find good running books that aren't memoirs that tell the same basic story: "I had a major life event or 'come-to-Jesus' moment. So I started running. It was really hard. But SO REWARDING." As a relatively new runner (one marathon under my belt, one scheduled for October), I love running books that break out of this mold; books that make me really want to lace 'em up and go chase the sun. Here are my three favorites:

3. What I Talk about When I Talk about Running, by Haruki Murakami — This was one of the first running books I read (I read it last March), and I when I finished it I went out the next morning and bombed out 13 miles — a distance I'd never even approached before. It was that inspiring! Murakami gives us tons of fascinating insight about the mindset of a runner, and how closely it parallels that of a writer — most notably, discipline. Murakami chronicles his training for the NYC Marathon and an ultramarathon that nearly killed him. During this 50-mile race, he describes passing through a "physical door," after which he didn't feel his body (or the pain) anymore, and that's how he was able to finish. (He quotes a somewhat cheesy but inspirational phrase among distance runners, "Pain is inevitable; suffering is optional.") Fascinating stuff. It's a short read — less than 200 pages — but really packs a punch for the inspiration!


2. The Long Run, by Catriona Menzies-Pike — I loved this book that's part memoir of Australian writer Menzies-Pike's life as a late-blooming runner, and part history of running generally, but specifically women's running. Menzies-Pike lost both her parents in a plane crash when she was 20, spent 10 years sort of drifting and drinking, but then discovered running at age 30. She wasn't someone who immediately loved it, or who saw running as a way to give her life structure, or anything like most running memoirs proclaim. Instead, she signed up for a popular race in Sydney because it was just something to do. Eventually, she grew to love running and before she knew it (though after a few fits and starts) she was running marathons.

This book (it just came out in May of this year; it's one of my favorites of the year!) landed for me because like Menzies-Pike, I didn't have a "life-long love affair with running," or any of the other cliches you often see in running memoirs. I started running the day after my 39th birthday to get in shape and lose some weight. I had no idea I'd be running marathons either, and actually enjoying it!

The book's also fascinating learning about the early pioneers of women's running — Kathrine Switzer, Bobbi Gibb, and more — and all they had to endure just to be runners. As well, Menzies-Pike gives her memoir a decidedly feminist bent, explaining the parts of being a woman runner even today that are, at best, annoying at worst, outright harassment. She even spends a chapter looking for runners in literature, which is fascinating — especially as she notes the dearth of women runners.

I don't think I was exactly the intended reader for this book, but I loved it nonetheless. Whether you're a Boston Qualifier or a Sunday fun-runner, this book has something for you. I learned as much as I was inspired to keep running from this one.

1. Born to Run, by Christopher McDougall —Here's the one running book most every runner (and lots of non-runners) have read. I am ashamed to admit I finally just read it last week — it's one of those books I'd always meant to read, but always put off for some reason. Glad I finally did!

McDougall chronicles his journey into the barren mountains and canyons in Mexico searching for a hidden tribe of super runners called the Tarahumara Indians. He eventually finds them with the help of a mysterious gringo who goes by the moniker El Caballo Blanco who has sort of joined up with their tribe — he's a quirky, fascinating dude, to say the least.

McDougall tells us about the history of ultrarunning, delving into the Leadville Trail 100 — an almost mythologically difficult 100-mile race that takes place every year in the Rocky Mountains. This race was many Americans' first introduction to the Tarahumara, who competed and won the race for two years in the early 1990s.

McDougall takes us on a few tangents — during one of which he famously rails against the running shoe industry, citing studies that supposedly prove that running shoes neither help prevent injuries nor make runners faster than running barefoot. Sure. He also spends several dozen pages on a theory of evolution. Did humans actually evolve to be distance runners (literally born to run), and therefore, be to be able run prey to death? Both of these digressions are interesting, but I'm not sure how much stock I put in either one.

The book concludes with an absolutely pulse-pounding story of the first race pitting American champion ultramarathoners (Scott Jurek, Jenn Shelton, etc) against the Tarahumara in a race in the 100-degree heat and rocky canyons of the Tarahumara's home. It's an incredible event — and one McDougall even took part himself, pushing himself to his absolute limit.

I loved this book, even with a few hesitations. McDougall has a tendency to sort of gloss over how difficult ultramarathoning really is and, also, out of necessity, needs to invent a few details here and there for the story's sake. But on the whole, if you're going to read one running book, this is the one I'd recommend.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Afterlife: Mythological Battle of Good vs. Evil

No two ways about it: Marcus Sakey's new novel, Afterlife, is ambitious. Even though it clocks in at only about 300 pages, it has elements of several recognizable creative triumphs: The movie Inception, Stephen King's Dark Tower series, Gaiman's American Gods, and Nelson DeMille's best police thrillers, for starters. Hell, there's even a love story here. Perhaps this is why Sakey admits in the acknowledgments, "This one was a beast." Sakey spent "nearly a decade" with this novel, writing and rewriting, fleshing out ideas, and solving problems.

The result is a polished, compelling, inventive "alt-fic" (a genre Sakey just invented) novel that's by turns smart as hell and as shocking as they come. This was a novel I had to put down several times in astonishment, take a deep breath, and then keep reading. It's really mesmerizing in spots — Sakey gets pacing just right here, which is no small feat given the relative complexity (especially in the last third of the novel), the characters, and just how all this fits together.

Here is what happens: Will Brody is an FBI agent chasing a serial killer in Chicago who gets his jollies sniping innocent victims at gas stations and grocery stories. Acting on a tip, Brody is searching for clues in an abandoned church, when it blows up. He's dead. This happens on page 38 — a risky decision for any novelist to kill a main character so early. (Not a spoiler: This is on the back blurb.)

His boss and erstwhile secret lover, the ultra-competent director of the FBI's Chicago office, Claire McCoy, vows to find the killer(s). And while doing so, she also must mourn in secret because no one knows she and Brody were together.

Meanwhile, Brody wakes up. Sort of. He's in a place he comes to understand is an "echo" of real-life — an afterlife that resembles real life in many ways, but has many glaring differences as well.

In this afterlife, there's a choice, just as there is when you're alive: You can choose to be good, and help other people. Or you can choose to be evil, and live only for selfishness. In the opening pages of the novel, we actually get a glimpse of what this evil looks like. And it's terrifying. So Brody soon finds himself stuck in this mythological battle of good vs evil in the afterlife. That's all you need to know plot-wise to get you started. What happens with Claire and Brody's cross-dimension love story? How does Brody fight this mythological and powerful evil? Read it, man. It's worth the trip!

One of the things I loved about this novel is Sakey's vision of how the afterlife works. I got to sit down and talk with him about it a few weeks ago as I worked on a piece for the Chicago Review of Books, and Sakey told me the sort of spark for the novel was how we're so sure that there is going to be an answer for what happens when we die. So what happens if there's either not an answer, or the answer is completely unexpected? Sakey's afterlife has some very specific rules in how it behaves and how its occupants can behave in it — and spelling these out had the potential to bog down what is otherwise an extremely fast-moving story. But Sakey describes these "rules" quickly and clearly and moves on. It's a definite strength of the novel.

Another strength here is dialogue — Sakey is funny. Sakey is cool. And after talking with him for an hour, it's apparent how much of his personality comes out on these pages in dialogue. He mentioned that to him the patron saint of dialogue is Aaron Sorkin, and you can see that influence here. Dialogue is quick, snappy, sharp, and often really funny.

This is one of my favorite novels of the year — I really enjoyed it, both for sheer entertainment, but also for its inventiveness. I had a blast with book. Highly recommended!

(Side note: Ron Howard's company Imagine Entertainment has already optioned the novel, and Sakey is writing the screenplay! He said he loved this book enough, and that his vision of it was so clear, that he thought it was worth taking on the screenplay himself. I'm really hoping this one makes it to production!) 



Thursday, July 13, 2017

The Hearts of Men: What Does It Mean To Be a Good Person?

Nickolas Butler writes with more empathy and feeling for his characters — even those who act like jerks — than just about any novelist I've ever read. That was definitely true in Shotgun Lovesongs — one of my favorite books of the last five years. It's true in his terrific story collection, Beneath the Bonfire. And it's perhaps most true in his new novel, The Hearts of Men.

This is readily apparent in one of the opening scenes of this fantastic, heart-wrenching novel: Thirteen-year-old Nelson's parents throw him a birthday party, and he waits patiently for the boys in his Boy Scouts troop to arrive. But they never do. It's a long, excruciating day for poor Nelson. But finally, an older boy named Jonathan arrives, shoots some arrows with Nelson, and then having completed his obligation, takes his leave. It's a near-perfect way to open a novel: We immediately feel just gutted for poor, nerdy, friendless Nelson. 

And then it gets worse: We follow Nelson to his beloved Boy Scout camp in northern Wisconsin. There, he's constantly picked on — the other boys taking perverse pleasure in pulling particularly mean pranks on him. And even more sadly, he doesn't get much support from his father, a typical emotionless 1960s fellow, who doesn't exactly wear his emotions on his sleeve. His father seems more embarrassed by his son than protective of him. Jonathan, the older popular boy, who seems to be a good kid, is Nelson's only agent. 

So we follow Nelson through various misadventures at scouting camp, and then we jump forward 30 years. In the second part, it's the mid-1990s, and we follow middle-aged Jonathan, who now has a teenage son of his own named Trevor. Jonathan is preparing to take Trevor to the Boy Scout camp, per tradition, even though Scouting isn't really en vogue anymore. Nelson is now the camp's director after a stint in Vietnam, and he and Jonathan have remained acquaintances through the years. Jonathan has kind of morphed from a good kid to a bad father and husband. But he's an affable fellow, so it's hard to dislike him. Throughout this part, we learn a new, more modern definition of manhood in a sort of "what not to do" way. Jonathan pesters his son, has an affair, and just generally does everything a good father and husband probably shouldn't.

Finally, the third part, takes place in 2019. This may be the best, and most harrowing, part. It's about yet another trip to the camp — this time with Trevor's son, Thomas. Only this time, Trevor's wife Rachel goes on the trip, which creates some consternation among the other fathers there. Nelson is still there, and he and Rachel become good friends. In this part, we find out what it means to be a truly despicable man. It's a hard section to read at times, but again, probably the best.

So on the whole, this three-part novel is about not just want it means to be a good man, but simply what it means to be a good person. Are you a good parent? A good friend? Are you a faithful spouse? Can you be a good person if you're not any one of those things? Butler seems to be wrestling with these questions as much as he asks his reader to. And that's why it's so apparent how much he cares about his characters — which of course, we do too, then.

I loved this book. Butler (who, by the way, is reading and signing at RoscoeBooks on August 16!) is a must-read writer for me now. And this novel is a sure sign that he's only getting better. Highly, highly recommended! 

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

The Leavers: A Morally Complex Immigrant Tale

Lisa Ko's absolutely heart-wrenching debut novel, The Leavers, is a terrific exploration of both the cruelty of our immigration system and also how difficult it is for those coming to the U.S. to find opportunity to actually find that opportunity. Ko's novel won the Pen/Bellwether Prize for Socially Engaged Fiction last year — novelist Barbara Kingsolver's annual award for a previously unpublished manuscript that addresses issues of social justice and the impact of culture and politics on human relationships. It's amazingly worthy recipient — this is a book that needs to be in the world!

The story is about Polly Guo, a Chinese immigrant, who, in the first few pages of the novel, disappears, leaving behind her 11-year-old son Deming. No one has any idea what happened to her, not her boyfriend Leon, or anyone else who knew her. So, because Leon (a Chinese immigrant as well, who then returns to China, ostensibly to search for Polly) and then his sister Vivivan can't afford to care for him, Deming is put up for adoption and brought in by a well-meaning middle-aged white couple, who moves Deming away from his NYC home. Again, with only the best intentions, they change his name to Daniel, so he'll fit in better in their small, predominately white college town in upstate New York.

Even in the opening pages of the novel, we get a good glimpse of Polly's character: She's a strong-willed, outspoken woman who constantly strives for a better life for herself and her son, despite the obstacles thrown up in front of her. At the time she disappears, she is contemplating taking a job at a restaurant in Florida, and she's been trying to convince Leon to go with her. But both he and Deming are resistant, not wanting to leave their lives in NYC. So there's a huge question: Did she abandon her son and her relationship for a better life for herself? Or did something else happen?

The rest of the novel alternates between two threads of story. We learn more about the circumstances under which Polly came to America: As a young woman, after moving from her tiny village to the huge city of Fuzhou, and getting a taste of big city life and opportunity, Polly took out a massive loan from a Chinese loan shark to come to the U.S, leaving her father behind. Ensconced in a tiny, all-Chinese-immigrant apartment in New York City, she goes to work at a factory, doing a similar job she did in Fuzhou, but for much better pay. Oh yeah, and there's a big caveat: she's pregnant. Needless to say, life isn't easy, and when Deming arrives, she loves him, though she wasn't totally sure she wanted him (planting the seed of doubt in our minds — might she really have abandoned him?), and life gets even harder.

For Daniel, as a 21-year-old struggling musician and failed college student living with his friend Roland in New York City, life isn't easy either, but in a different way. Despite an ugly online poker addiction which has ruined his life and alienated some of his friends, he still has the safety net of his adopted family, who keep urging him to go to back to school, and pull strings for him so that he can. But as he gets more disillusioned with his adopted parents trying to control his life, he begins to wonder about his mother — and begins to takes steps to try to find her.

The revelations come fast and furious as the novel nears its end, and even once you and know and understand what happened, you're still not quite sure what to think about these characters, their motivations, and why they did what they did. It's the best kind of novel: One that really makes you hunker down for a good think once you're done.

One of my favorite novels of last year was Imbolo Mbue's Behold The Dreamers, a story about Cameroonian immigrants struggling to make ends meet in America. One of the strengths of that novel is its moral complexity — how there are no real winners, mostly losers because of our broken immigration system. And The Leavers explores similar themes, though I think I actually liked this one more: It's one of my favorites of the year so far: A timely, thought-provoking, immensely entertaining novel!

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Men Without Women: Murakami's Stories About Lonely Fellas

May is unquestionably the best month for new collections of short stories in recent memory. Last week, Richard Russo published Trajectory, which is awesome, and this week, Haruki Murakami, published a new collection titled Men Without Women.

(As well, Joshua Ferris — he of Then We Came to the End and To Rise Again at a Decent Hour fame — also published a collection titled The Dinner Party, which I haven't read yet, but will very soon.)

Murakami's new collection includes seven stories tied together by the common theme of lonely dudes with unusual relationships with women. Several of these stories are delightfully mundane by Murakami standards, but that doesn't mean they're in the least disappointing. There's a theater actor who hires a woman to be his driver, and unloads the story about his wife's death and possible infidelities. There a fellow who gets a call in the middle of the night informing him a former girlfriend has committed suicide. And there's even a shut-in whose care-taker comes over, has sex with him, proclaims to have been a lamprey eel in a past laugh, and tells him various stories (yeah, this last one is probably approaching the Murakami you know and love).

But my favorite in the collection is actually the most Murakami-ish. It's titled "Kino," about a guy named Kino who catches his wife cheating on him with one of his co-workers and quits his job to open a bar. Weird things happen, including a cat that shows up periodically (I told you it's Murakami-ish). There's a mysterious guy named Kamita who comes in periodically and sits at the end of the bar reading big books. Kamita eventually warns him that he needs to close the bar and escape. Which he does, though he's not sure why. And it rains a lot, and he finally feels sadness about his divorce. It's so awesome, such a strange, mysterious little story.

Another story, titled "Samsa In Love," is also just amusingly weird — Murakami imagines if Kafka's cockroach woke up as Gregor Samsa, a reverse Metamorphosis! And the Samsa character is surprised when he discovers sexual desire for a handy-woman who comes over to fix a lock.

The most serious story is "Yesterdays," which weaves Murakami's love of the Beatles with a story about how love is often about timing, and how about reminiscing about love often gives it more weight than it had in the moment. It's a really terrific, insightful story — about the most "normal" thing from Murakami I've read. I loved this one too.

There are a few misses here, but overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this collection. Murakami is just so droll, here, so strangely goofy, that you can't help but smirk along with him.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Trajectory: Russo's New Volume of Terrific Short Stories

We're living in charmed literary times, friends! Last May, Richard Russo published Everybody's Fool, a sequel to his novel Nobody's Fool, and there was much rejoicing because it was excellent. Today, he publishes Trajectory, a new volume of short stories — only his second (after 2002's The Whore's Child & Other Stories).

Trajectory is fantastic! There are only four stories here, but three of them are longer than average short stories. This includes the near-novella length "Voices," about an aging and perhaps disgraced English professor named Nate who is visiting Venice with his older brother, a shady dude who seems to have involved Nate in one of his schemes. Nate and his brother Julian have serious reckoning to do, both with their shared past, but as well as their individual pasts as well.

All four of these stories, in fact, are about aging people — college professors, a writer, and a real estate agent. In "Horseman," an English professor named Janet catches one of her students cheating, and then begins to question whether her own academic career is a fraud. In "Intervention," an aging real estate agent, who may or may not have cancer, tries to sell a house owned by a stubborn woman who won't get rid of her stuff to an obnoxious Texas couple in the dead of Maine winter at the height of the Great Recession. Challenging, to say the least.

My favorite story in the collection is the last one, "Milton and Marcus," about an aging novelist named Ryan who has dabbled in screenplays to help pay the bills. Now, he's hoping to return to the realm of the silver screen to secure health insurance from the Screenwriter's Guild for his ailing wife. He flies to Jackson Hole to take a meeting with a famous actor-turned-producer who wants to make a movie from the start of a screenplay Ryan wrote 10 years ago for another actor who has since died. While he's there, we're treated to an account of the sneaky, cynical, backstabbing nature of the movie business, and it's utterly fascinating, if not a bit sad. This story is Russo at his best — his understanding of human nature and feelings and motivations is just unapproachable. As well, this story felt the most autobiographical of any in the collection. Really terrific.

If you're a Russo fan, this is a must-read. He's absolutely at his the height of his game here — his little jokes and folksy aphorisms ("all hat and no cattle," eg) are all here, as is his typical whip-sharp insight. He's just a fun writer to read, whether short story or novel. This is highly recommended!

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.