Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Mid-May Reads Round-Up: Paperback Edition

I'm a little behind. Life has intervened...but in a good way. Long story short: I got a new job! Starting June 1st, I'll be doing marketing and communications for StoryStudio Chicago and its parent nonprofit, Stories Matter Foundation. I'm stoked! I actually took a short story class at StoryStudio about a decade ago, and I loved it! And since then, while always intending to go back for another, I'd always had them sort of in the back of mind as an organization that would be fun to work for. So now I couldn't be more happy to be joining them. Check them out -- they do wonderful work! 

Don't worry, though, I plan to continue The New Dork Review of Books, as long as I can find a few minutes here and there to tell you about books I love. And speaking of which, I read several really great books in the last few weeks. Oddly, and I didn't do this on purpose, maybe just the way my brain works when it's stressed, these are all paperbacks I'd had on my shelf for varying amounts of time.

1. The Five Wounds, by Kristin Valdez Quade: I haven't been able to stop thinking about this novel since I finished it several weeks ago. It's the story of three generations of the Padilla family, a small-town northern New Mexico group that is struggling with all the problems common to poor small town folks: drugs, lack of opportunity, teen pregnancy, crime, more. Told from the perspectives of grandmother, son, and granddaughter, Quade writes with incredible empathy and insight. You intensely feel for these people, especially during the times they're trying to do right by each other. It doesn't always go well, and there are tragedies and setbacks. But there is redemption, too. Even when people make poor decisions, even when they're at the worst, and EVEN when they're cruel to one another, we have to try to understand why...and still root for them. It's a slow-burn roller coaster (how's that for an oxymoron) and one of the best books I've read this year.  

2. Black Buck, by Mateo Askaripour: A workplace novel. A satire about silly tech-bro start-up culture in NYC. But most importantly, a dead-serious contemplation of racism both in the professional world, and also the world at-large. This strange but super smart novel veers off into all kinds of surprising directions (sometimes to a fault), but ultimately it's a really satisfying, entertaining read. Often laugh-out-loud funny ("After waking up with a headache bigger than Kanye's ego" " or "my throat was drier than a nun's vagina," eg) but you'll still come away with this with a better sense of how difficult it is to be Black in America.

3. The Idiot, by Elif Batuman: Plotless and meandering, but also witty, surprisingly funny, and uncommonly profound. Everyone read this book a few years ago, and there were many different reactions, from "most annoying narrator ever" to "wow, she is great!"  I thought I'd pick it up and give it a try because a sequel titled Either/Or is out May 24. I liked it more than I thought I would. The character is super relatable — I remember exactly what it was like to be a rudderless college student in the mid-1990s, tossed into the adult world, not quite equipped with the emotional maturity to handle adult situations. But you learn...slowly and with much pain.

4. The Shining Girls, by Lauren Beukes: In order to toss around review cliches like "compulsively readable," which this novel DEFINITELY is, I think there should be certain standards to define the term. If so, then here's my metric for compulsively readable: I read the last 200 pages of this book in basically one sitting. So yeah, this is good. This Chicago-set novel is one I've had on my shelves for years. For my money, Lauren Beukes is one of the more underrated thriller writers working today. I finally picked this up now because of the series on Apple+. And I'm very glad I did. What an amazingly original story - a time-traveling serial killer is hunted down by one of his victims who survived his attack. Loved it! 

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Marrying the Ketchups, by Jennifer Close: Sweet Home, Chicago

If you are a Chicagoan, the fall of 2016 was the absolute epitome of the "best of times, the worst of times." The Cubs won their first World Series in 108 years...and then six days later, there was an election, and I don't remember the rest, but I think it was really bad.

These are the backdrop events for Jennifer Close's fantastic new novel, Marrying the Ketchups. Sullivan family patriarch Bud has dropped dead of a heart attack. In his wake, he's left an institution Oak Park restaurant and a devastated family. A life-long Cubs fan, poor Bud checked out just before that rainy November night in Cleveland when the Cubs lifted a century-old curse, and that fact alone is all the more devastating to his family.

The restaurant Bud started in the early 1970s is still the cornerstone of all the Sullivans' lives, even as their lives have diverged away from the friendly confines and outdated decor of Sullivan's. After Bud's death, the novel tells the story of the Sullivan family from the perspective of three characters. 

Gretchen is mid-30s, living in New York City and fronting a popular 90s cover band. When her boyfriend, also the band's guitarist, cheats on her, she dissolves the band and moves back to Chicago to live above the restaurant. Her older sister Jane lives a bougie Lake Forest life with her rich husband (who she suspects is cheating on her) and her two kids. And then Gretchen and Jane's cousin Teddy, the restaurant's floor manager, gets dumped by his boyfriend, only to begin an affair with him after he's engaged to another guy. So yeah, all their lives a little bit of a mess. But they take comfort in each other, in between shouting matches and disagreements. Just your normal family...

The meat of the novel is each of these characters evaluating their romantic relationships, their relationships to each other, and crucially, their relationship to the restaurant, the symbol of the ties that bind their family together. 

If you were a fan of Claire Lombardo's The Most Fun We Ever Had, you'll love this book. I absolutely did — a definite favorite of the year so far. 

Tuesday, April 5, 2022

Sea of Tranquility, by Emily St. John Mandel: Is This a Simulation?

Intricate, but accessible: That is how I think about Emily St. John Mandel's stories. Her new novel, Sea of Tranquility, is that and then some. In fact, it's freaking brilliant.

Sea of Tranquility is the third novel in the Station Eleven-The Glass House universe. I hesitate to say "trilogy," because god-willing, there'll be more. And besides, the stories themselves are only tangentially connected. That's to say, you don't need to have read the other two to enjoy Sea of Tranquility (though of course having done so will provide some important context and enrich your reading experience. This fantastic New Yorker piece profiling St. John Mandel tells you all you need to know about how the three novels are related).

Of the three, Sea of Tranquility is the most straight-up speculative fiction: The thrust of the plot of the novel is a character traveling back in time to try to figure whether there's a "glitch in the matrix." So the main question the novel asks is this: Are we living in a simulation? And if so, what would cause several different characters over the course of several centuries to experience the same anomalous event? 

Structure-wise, Mandel is up to her usual tricks — she jumps all over the place in time and geography to follow the stories of several fascinating characters: A British fellow traveling to Canada, an author (who very much resembles the author of this book) of a pandemic novel on a book tour, a NYC woman who had been friends with Vincent (from The Glass Hotel), and a down-on-his-luck time traveler who lives on the moon. But as always, despite the leaps, it's not hard to follow. This won't be the only time you'll hear this comparison, but there's definitely a Cloud Atlas vibe to this novel.

Mandel uses all these literary fireworks as her vehicle to ask a very simple question with a very difficult answer: What is real? If we're living in simulation, do we need the so-called red pill to awaken to what's real, or, does it matter — as a character comments, "a life lived in a simulation is still a life."

I loved this book. Emily St. John Mandel's superpower is packing an enormous amount of plot and theme into a paucity of pages. Though this has all the elements of the best science fiction, you won't confuse this with Neal Stephenson or Philip K. Dick. St. John Mandel is a much more nimble, much less verbose writer. And her novels are the better for it. This is easily a favorite of the year so far. 

Tuesday, March 29, 2022

The Nineties, by Chuck Klosterman: A History of the Greatest Decade of All Time


Seminal Simpsons scene from Season 7, Episode 24, Homerpalooza, which aired May 19, 1996.

GenX Concertgoer 1: Oh here comes that cannonball guy. He's cool.

GenX Concertgoer 2: Are you being sarcastic, dude?

GenX Concertgoer 1: (startled, then saddened): I don't even know anymore. 

That's the nineties in a nutshell, isn't it? 

But what I love about Chuck Klosterman's new book, The Nineties, is that he reframes this decade in fascinating ways to show that everything you thought you knew about the 1990s might be wrong — even if you think you remember the decade vividly. He certainly doesn't argue that the nineties was the greatest decade of all time, but he doesn't not argue that either. 

I started high school in 1991 and finished college in 2000 (don't do that math lol), so yeah, the nineties were definitely my most formative years. I remember where I was the first time I heard Smells Like Teen Spirit. I saw Titanic in the theater. I borrowed a dubbed cassette of 2 Live Crew's As Nasty as They Wanna Be from a friend and listened to it secretly on my Walkman (sorry, mom, if you're reading this). I was amused by the unreality of The Real World. And for a brief time, I was just as perplexed by the Internet as everyone else. Oh yeah, and of course we had one of those silly see-through phones that's on the cover. (I even bought one as a gag gift for my wife on ebay a few years ago.)

Klosterman handles all these and so much more with the discerning eye of an historian, the coolness of a cultural critic, and the writerly chops of a top-tier essayist. He covers so much ground here, including Ross Perot, Biosphere 2, Friends and Seinfeld, Body Count, Napster, Bill Clinton, the 1994 MLB strike, Crystal Pepsi, Reality Bites, Alanis Morissette and Liz Phair, Pulp Fiction, Michael Jordan, cable news, Garth Brooks, and about a thousand other things. I was surprised at how comprehensive this feels. 

Even if you don't always agree with Klosterman's arguments, and there are definitely some not-universally-agreed-upon ideas here, it's still fun seeing him make his case. His main point here is that almost nothing about how we remember the 1990s is how it really was. Still, it's pretty easy to draw a straight line from much of what happened in the 1990s to how things are today, even if things today are very, very different.

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Groundskeeping, by Lee Cole: Love Is a Smoke Made with The Fume of Sighs

Fair warning to take this absolutely glowing review with just the tiniest grain of salt. That's because Lee Cole's debut novel Groundskeeping is an absolute wheelhouse book for me, so there's almost no chance I wasn't going to love it. And love it, I did! 

It's a campus novel. It's a love story. It's an examination of class and politics. It's a look at how writers are inspired to write what they write. And it's all narrated by a guy from a small conservative rural town trying to punch his way up in the world. Yeah, there's a lot going on here, but it works. Cole is a deeply astute writer and all these ingredients of story combine to create a richly satisfying dish. 

The story is this: Owen is 28 and drifting. He lives in this rural Kentucky town with his grandfather and Uncle Cort and works as a groundskeeper at the local small college. Still with aspirations of being a writer after crashing and drifting a bit, the job allows him to take an English class, a first step to getting his life back on track. Then, he meets Alma, 26, an already medium-successful poet and novelist who is a writer-in-residence for the year at the college. Sparks fly! 

But Alma's background -- her parents emigrated from Bosnia to escape the war when she young, she's a Muslim though non-practicing, and she attended Princeton -- is very different from Owen's. Owen's parents, though he's mildly estranged from both (hence why he's living with his grandfather) are both divorced and remarried, both evangelical Christians, and very conservative. Alma's parents, immigrants, doctors, well-educated, are...not those things. They're two families, both alike in dignity, but both skeptical of their children's choice of partner.

The story is set in 2016 and all around Owen's and Alma's rural Kentucky town, Trump is ascendent. Though Owen and Alma are both appalled by this development, their different backgrounds create its own tension. Owen has a mild inferiority complex, always wondering if Alma looks down on him, and bristles when she ask him about things like his past drug use, etc. Even in (or especially in?) this day and age, can two people from such different origins make it work?  

As I read, I felt about this book about how I feel about all books I'm connecting with. I didn't want it to end. In fact. let's let Cole himself explain what this is like (in the context of Owen meeting Alma for the first time): 

“I felt the competing desires, as I often did when meeting someone new, to know everything at once and to save it all for later. It was like the feeling one has reading a good book, the sensation of being propelled toward the end and at the same time wishing to linger.”

That's not a particularly original sentiment, I realize. But just the way Cole writes these sentences illustrates that point so clearly and deftly. It's a good representation of his style, his perceptiveness, and why I loved reading this.  

This novel first arrived on my radar when I noticed blurbs from both Ann Patchett and Richard Russo, two of my all-time favorite writers. So naturally I was going to check it out. If you are one of the many people, like me, who was disappointed by the latest Sally Rooney novel, try this one instead. The feel is similar, but this is so much better.