Monday, February 5, 2024

Martyr! by Kaveh Akbar: IMMENSE. BRILLIANT.

Does this ever happen to you? You're connecting to a piece of art on a very deep level, and suddenly, totally independent of the content of that art, you start getting choked up. Like you feel so overwhelmed and awed by what this piece of art is doing that it literally causes you to get emotional. 

It's sounds dramatic, I know. But it does occasionally happen to me. And it happened to me reading this novel. 

It's that good. There's not much of a plot, per se. It's about one Iranian American dude's search for meaning. You'll have to trust me it's not boring. Not even a little bit boring. I honestly didn't know you could do with words what Kaveh Akbar does with words here. 

Rather than a regular review, here are 10 thoughts on this truly one-of-a-kind work:

1. This is a novel not about the meaning of life, but the meaning of death. Our protagonist Cyrus's mother died in the Iran Air Flight 655 disaster (the US mistook the commercial flight for a war jet and shot it down) in July 1988. Cyrus was a baby when this happened, and doesn't remember his mother, but this has always haunted him. When someone dies before their time, what does it mean? Is the way they died meaningful? Why? How? Cyrus, depressed, a recovering addict, and just floating through his 20s in a small college town in Indiana, wonders if he "martyrs" himself (commits suicide), would anything about his death be meaningful since his life to this point has been so devoid of meaning? Is that the only thing stopping him from doing it?

2. This is a novel both about the inadequacy and also the power of language. This argument throughout the novel is one of its strengths. Regarding the former, one character says: “A photograph can say ‘This is what it was.’ Language can only say ‘This is what it was like.’” But regarding the latter, another character says, “An alphabet, like a life, is a finite set of shapes. With it, one can produce almost anything.” I'd submit that this novel itself is a testament to the power of language. It's one of the more profound and beautifully written pieces of fiction I've read in a long time!

3. This is a novel about addiction. Cyrus is a recovering addict, and now that he's mostly kicked his habit in his late 20s, he's lost his way again. At least booze and drugs gave him direction. Now he's trying to fill that void by writing poetry. And failing. 

4. This is a novel about ass-backward American values. We don't value art anymore. We should.

5. This is a master class in craft from a structure standpoint. What we think are flashbacks or background info slowly start to gain momentum and then absolutely EXPLODES into the real-time action as crucial facets of the story. To say more would be to spoil. Just trust me -- and trust the writer. He knows what he's doing. 

6. Cyrus's uncle Arash has a most unusual role in the Iranian military. During the Iraq-Iran war, he dresses in a dark cloak, holds a flash light to his face, and rides around a battlefield where men are slowly dying. The idea is they seem him as an angel, and they're convinced, then, to be "martyred" honorably, rather than committing suicide. This detail is not just significant to the story, it's one of those things you read in a novel that just blows your mind. This blew my mind. 

7. Some of my favorite -- and the funniest -- parts of this novel are conversations Akbar gives us between, say, Lisa Simpson and Cyrus's mother, or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Cyrus's younger brother Beethoven (who doesn't actually exist, neither in the real world or the fictional world of the novel). They're dreams Cyrus has, which would normally be kind of annoying. These are not only immensely entertaining set pieces, they also further the themes of the novel. That's to say, they do have a purpose.  

8. The blurbs! I basically picked this up because of the blurbs. Lauren Groff, Tommy Orange, Leslie Jamison, JOHN GREEN, and Mary Karr. You get a collection of writers this varied to all offer immense praise on a book, you read that book. 

9. One of the reasons I almost DIDN'T pick this up is because I HATE the cover. It's cartoonish, almost like a Monty Python sketch as cover art. There are definitely funny parts to this novel, but this cover design belies the novel's profundity. I hope they'll go back to the drawing board for the paperback.

10. Two more fantastic quotes: “At the intersection of Iranian-ness and Midwestern-ness was pathological politeness, an immobilizing compulsivity to avoid causing distress to anyone." AND “She was Christian but American Christian, the kind that believed Jesus had just needed a bigger gun.”

Summary: READ THIS. I read the last 200 pages of this novel in one day. I'm going to have to go back reread it to let it sink in more. But on first reading, just WOW. It's February 5, and I already have my favorite novel of 2024. 

Friday, January 5, 2024

Best Books I Read in December

It's only the first week in January and I'm already behind. I suspect I'm not the only one who feels this way. December is so busy for three weeks, then nothing -- except good cheer and reading and cheese. Then back to the grind. But so, I read a ton of books in December* -- here are the best five:

Trees, by Percival Everett -- Are novels about racism, lynching, and mass killings supposed this to be funny?  I'd never read Percival Everett before and a bookseller friend (Javier at Exile in Bookville, if you know him) recently told me how big a fan he is, so I sheepishly asked him for a good starting point, and this novel -- which is marvelous! -- is what he gave me.  If you're up for the snappiest, wittiest dialogue, a lively irreverence, and a foundation of sad truth, this is a read for you

Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott -- Goal for 2024: Read many, many more craft of writing books. So I started in December with one of the "cornerstones of the genre." Really good, really inspiring. 

The Covenant of Water, by Abraham Verghese -- I wasn't as breathlessly impressed with this long, epic novel as most readers, but it sure has its moments. And some fantastic twists and turns. If you liked Cutting For Stone, you'll enjoy this too. 

Terrace Story, by Hilary Leichter -- Thanks to my friend Brooke for making me read this BONKERS story about ... I'm still not entirely sure, except that it's about a married couple and their mysterious friend and a terrace that magically appears outside their apartment. You just have to read it. It's a small (less than 200 pages) but mighty novel that explores the amorphous nature of space, time, reality...and marital fidelity. 

A Little Devil In America, by Hanif Abdurraqib -- This man can write an essay. 

*Note: With a strong finish in December, my 2023 ended up as my best reading year ever, page-wise: Total of 27,880 pages (and 77 total books). It's not a competition, I know. 

Tuesday, December 12, 2023

Best 10 Books of 2023

Happy almost 2024, readers! I nearly set a new personal record for pages read in 2023 (book total will wind up somewhere in the mid-70s, which is the most in more than five years), which makes me feel really good. This year -- the year I started writing fiction again for the first time in a long time -- was in also was a terrific year for reading fiction. Having such a long list of books read in 2023 has also made it really tough to build this list. I've agonized! But here you go, my 10 favorite (plus three other sports books I loved) books of 2023:

10. Gone To The Wolves, by John Wray -- I can't understand why I haven't been able to talk many other readers into this book. (<Sarcasm font off>) Yes, it's about heavy metal. And yes, I loved it. But it's pretty niche. Still, if you want something completely different than anything you've ever read before, give this is a shot. 

9. Charm City Rocks, by Matthew Norman -- The charmingest of charming romcoms. Plus, it's about music! A wheelhousiest of wheelhouse books for me, and predictably, I freakin' loved it. 

8. Empty Theater, by Jac Jemc -- If you like your historical fiction zany and more than a bit off the wall, check out this novel of Mad King Ludwig II of Bavaria and his cousin Empress Sisi of Austria. And prepare to locate a new ass (because you'll laugh your current one right off). 

7. The Bee Sting, by Paul Murray -- This novel is this year's best dysfunctional family saga, and it's not close. This is one of three 600-page novels on the list this year, which if you know me at all, is about right. The lesson from this novel: Don't keep secrets. 

6. A Country You Can Leave, by Asale Angel-Ajani -- This is not only my favorite novel of the year that was recommended by someone else. It's also one of two books (I Could Live Here Forever is the other) for which I was an annoying book evangelist this year. If you like novels with fascinating characters doing unexpected things, this is for you. This book definitely DESERVES a wider readership.

5. Good Night, Irene, by Luis Alberto Urrea -- For pure storytelling, you won't do much better in 2023 books than this novel based on Urrea's mother's service during World War II. 

4. The Vaster Wilds, by Lauren Groff -- Still in awe of this book, and what Groff was able to do here. This is a short novel you'll want to make feel longer by taking it in slow sips, both to savor Groff's gorgeous language and also to wring every ounce of meaning out of the loaded story. 

3. I Could Live Here Forever, by Hannah Halperin -- There needs to be a support group for readers of this INCREDIBLE novel. It's truly devastating, as you'd expect a novel about all kinds of addiction to be. But if you can pull yourself together enough to finish it, it's maybe the best book I read this year. 

2. Wellness, by Nathan Hill -- A 600-page novel that felt a third as long. A story of marriage, yes, but also a story about why certainty (in religion, or politics, or health trends) prevents us from actually being open to and assessing new information and changing or updating our opinions. This makes this novel sound staid and boring. IT IS NOT. Even with digression aplenty, this is still a hugely entertaining read. 

1. The Deluge, by Stephen Markley -- I haven't ever gotten more mileage out of a joke in a year than this one: Reading a book about climate change on the beach is a little like reading a book about a plane crash on a flight. There, last time. But for real, this 900 page behemoth is the most fun reading experience I had this year. I was riveted, terrified, and immensely, immensely entertained. READ THIS! 

Choosing To Run, by Des Linden -- If you read only one sports book, let this be it. Des is as funny as she is inspiring. 

The Longest Race, by Kara Goucher -- A courageous memoir about sexual and emotional abuse...and running. Loved it! 

Why We Love Baseball, by Joe Posnanski -- I love baseball, and I didn't need this book to remind me why I love baseball, but it definitely reminded me why I love baseball. 

Thursday, November 30, 2023

Best Books I Read in November

You're probably already inundated with the best of the year book lists, but over here, we have just one more post to get through before we get to my favorite books of the year (next week). Here are the best books I read in November:

From Dust To Stardust, by Kathleen Rooney -- This is a dazzling Jazz Age tale about silent movie star Doreen O'Dare (based on real-life star Colleen Moore), her rise through the burgeoning movie industry, her fraught first marriage, and her construction of the magnificent Fairy Castle, a huge doll house now housed at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry.

Down to the dialogue, wardrobes, and hairstyles, Rooney really gets the Roaring 20s right here, and this is a joy to read. If you like Rooney's novel Lillian Boxfish Takes A Walk (which I did a lot!) or are just a fan of a good period piece, you'll love this too.

The Latecomer, by Jean Hanff Korelitz -- In some ways, this is a pretty standard dysfunctional family story (which is fine, I LOVE these stories) -- the family here, the Oppenheimers, is a rich New York brood doing rich New Yorker things, like buying art and managing a hedge fund. Also, the father is kind of a tool and has an affair, and this affects all the children.

But this terrific novel also strikes out on its own and breaks many of the conventions of the traditional dysfunctional family story. The bulk of the story is about the kids: A set of triplets who all hate each other. It is fascinating to watch their dynamic play out here as we switch between their perspectives. Two of the three are sympathetic, root-able-for characters, and the third, like his father, is a tool. But they're all interesting, and do lots of interesting things.

Then of course, as per the title, there's a new sibling. The Latecomer. And that's when things start to get REALLY dramatic.

This is a novel that starts slowly and builds over time (this novel's a SHINING EXAMPLE of why you don't DNF after 50 pages).😊

Again and Again, by Jonathan Evison -- I'll read ANYTHING Evison writes, but even so, I had to talk myself into this one. I've just never been a huge fan of reincarnation stories. Just not my thing -- I'm not sure exactly why. Maybe because as a literary device to move a plot, it seems a little too gimmicky. But this novel is far from a straight-forward reincarnation story, if there's such a thing. Evison's got plenty of surprises in store for us here.

This is a novel about finding connection, finding love, and why these are the only things that matter. Told with Evison's signature charm, you'll love these characters, and you'll love digging into their relationships to each other.

If you've read Evison before, you'll love this one too. If you haven't, this is a great place to start with him.

Birnam Wood, by Eleanor Catton -- A wholly unique thriller that makes the political personal and the personal political. It's a novel about the limits of a personal ethos: When are you willing to compromise what you believe to get what you want?

I'd read this novel was about a group of "guerilla gardeners," and that had kind of put me off it for a while. And while it is about that, it's not REALLY about that. Birnam Wood is a collective that plants gardens in public space and on unused private land (like that rich people have which they never use), and the story is about what happens when a billionaire, who unbeknownst to them is up to all kinds of other shady stuff, offers to sponsor their group.

Even with several digressions about politics or culture or any other direction to which Catton (who is a BRILLIANT writer) lets her mind wander, this truly reads like a thriller -- twisty and turny and shocking and really tough to put down, a book I was constantly thinking about when I wasn't reading.

Monday, November 20, 2023

Catching Up, Part 3: Best 4 Books I Read in October

October was a pretty eclectic reading month, which as you may have noticed, is par for the course for me. Here are the best four books I read last month (and woohoo, we're almost caught up!):

Bliss Montage, by Ling Ma -- The commonality to all these stories is something fantastical that winds up being a literal representation of a symbolic or metaphorical point Ma is making with the rest of the story. A secret passage way in a college office, 100 ex-boyfriends living in the same house, an invisibility drug, etc., etc. The effect of this is to create two planes of meaning in each story, the literal, and the literal but symbolic, which drives a point home doubly strong. Alienation, the need to escape, the ghost of our past, etc., etc.

I loved this! It was so much fun to engage with and think about these stories. Immensely readable and profoundly smart. One of the better collections I've read in a while.

Why We Love Baseball, by Joe Posnanski -- This book has been a terrific companion for the end of the season, playoffs, and the World Series. I laughed a lot, got choked up a few times, was awed, amazed, and surprised. Full of trivia, inside info, and stuff you'd just neve consider, this is an absolute must-read, baseball fans.

Hot Springs Drive, by Lindsay Hunter -- All hail Lindsay Hunter! Full review of this great book is here. 

The Other Americans, by Laila Lalami -- An astonishing work! Loved this a lot. Full review of this great book is here.