Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Best 3 Books of February

It's been a slow reading month in terms of quantity, but not quality. I spent most of my month traversing the 900 pages of what will no-doubt be one of my favorite novels of the year, The Deluge, by Stephen Markley. 

It's a strange experience reading a novel about catastrophic climate change and sea level rise on a beach -- a little like reading a novel about a plane crash during a flight. But that's what I did -- I spent 9 days in Kauai reading and relaxing. And there were many mai tais. Many, many mai tais.

And but so, other than The Deluge, here are three other great books I read this month.

3. Running While Black, by Alison Desir Mariella -- You may know Alison from her much-read and discussed essay in Outside published not long after Ahmaud Arbery's murder. This is basically a book-length expansion of that essay, exploring how and why the distance running community is too white, and how she is working to change that. As a white distance runner, this is an uncomfortable read, for sure. But a vital one. 

2. The Rabbit Hutch, by Tess Gunty -- Sad, and weird. Weird, and sad. But maybe outright brilliant? This story of a dying Indiana town won the National Book Award last year. There are some serious Winesberg, Ohio vibes here. But Gunty's prose and imagination are the stars of this show. What a talent! This is her debut novel, and like everyone else, I'm very excited to see what she does next.  

1. I'll Take Everything You Have, by James Klise -- Sorry, cheating a little here -- I read this back in December, but it comes out today, and if you're into great YA coming of age stories, this is it! 

ICYMI: Two Reviews Posted in Feb

1. The Deluge, by Stephen Markley -- Sure to be a favorite of 2023.

2. I Have Some Questions For You, by Rebecca Makkai -- Also, a leader in the clubhouse for a favorite of 2023 (though I read this last November).

Friday, February 24, 2023

The Deluge, by Stephen Markley: Truly, A Masterpiece

If you'd been feeling a little too optimistic about the state of things these days, let Stephen Markley's climate fiction (Cli-Fi, in the parlance of our times) The Deluge quickly (well, maybe not that quickly, it's 900 pages after all) disabuse you of that optimism. Yes, while The Deluge is anxiety-inducing, it's one of the best reading experiences I've had in a long time. It's nothing short of a masterpiece -- and I don't just mean that because it IS 900 pages. I would've gladly read 900 more. 

If I had infinite time, a plethora of patience, was a 98-fold better writer, and could trust myself not to descend into a pit of despair and rage, this is the novel I'd love to write.

The Deluge starts at present times and spends its considerable bulk moving 20 years into the future to examine the social, political, and cultural effects of the greatest threat humanity has even known: climate change.

Markley tells this story through the shifting perspectives of several different characters, though none is more fascinating than activist Kate Morris -- who is sort of a mix of Greta Thunberg and Megan Fox. Kate starts an organization called A Fierce Blue Fire, which I only mention that because I LOVE that name. But also, there's an enraged and un-PC scientist who is furious with everyone for not recognizing the severity of the threat, an eco-terrorist, an ad executive, a genius coder, an opioid addict living in rural Ohio, scores of politicians, rock stars, activists, and regular folks. 

The thrall of this novel is how real this invented future feels. From wacky religious politicians who somehow string a huge swath of followers along to industry interests continuing to maintain outsized influence on legislation to so many people just putting their heads in the sand and deciding climate change isn't even real, Markley is really adept at framing the problem. The problem itself is manmade, but the barriers to fixing the problem are self-inflicted as well.

And then there are the storms. Wild fires, hurricanes, earthquakes become more prevalent and destructive as the climate crisis worsens. Again, all this feels so real, I felt myself needing to google "Los Angeles fire of 2031" or "Hurricane Kate destruction," etc.

It's only February but I can confidently say this will be on my best of 2023 list. I loved this book. 

Tuesday, February 21, 2023

I Have Some Questions For You, by Rebecca Makkai: About The Murder Show

Few novels meet the current moment with the confidence and astuteness of Rebecca Makkai's new novel I Have Some Questions For You. This thrilling literary mystery centers on our disturbing obsession with crime (especially against women) as entertainment. Why are we so fascinated with violence? Does our fascination with violence interfere with real justice when a crime becomes part of the public consciousness?

Heady questions, for sure, and Makkai isn't done there. This novel also looks at the power (for both good and bad) of social media, how we remember the our individual histories, and what we can really do to right past wrongs. 

Yes, there's a lot going on here. But at 450 pages, there's plenty of room here to handle it all. The novel is about Bodie Kane, an early 40s podcaster and film professor who returns to her elite New England boarding school to teach a class. She becomes obsessed all over again with the murder -- a supposedly solved murder -- of one of her classmates when she was still in school back in the mid 1990s.

Even though the murderer was quickly apprehended, tried, and convicted, it's a case that has never really died. Internet sleuths have poured and re-poured over all evidence (real and imagined) and unleashed multiple theories ranging from crackpot conspiracy to "hmm, that may actually make some sense." As she returns to the haunts of her youth, Bodie begins to believe something may not quite be right about that supposedly open-and-shut case, as well. Was justice miscarried for reasons of convenience? Is there more to this story?

Though it's almost too easy, comparisons to Donna Tartt's The Secret History are inevitable -- but that's a good thing, because this novel proudly stands on its shoulders as a terrific entry in the "slow-burn boarding school murder mystery" genre. Like good fiction should be, this novel is terrifically entertaining, but also may leave you with some uncomfortable questions for yourself.

(And now for some levity... As evidence that the "murder show" has -- or had, at the time of this skit in late 2021 -- reached the peak of the zeitgeist, here's Saturday Night Live's Murder Show song. This just absolutely slayed me. Pun intended and I'm not apologizing.)

Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Best 3 of January

I've been pretty erratic in the frequency of posts the last several years, and so I wanted to introduce a new feature here this year. The idea behind the "best 3 of (month)" is several-fold: First, it'll force me to post at least once a month, which is a sort of new year's resolution this year: to be more consistent with these ramblings I neglect for long periods of time, then miss, then start again. Secondly, I read more books than I'm able to give proper review treatment, but I want to tell you about them too -- so this monthly feature will round up a few books I may have discussed other places, but not here yet. Thirdly, it'll give this space that can get stale from time to time a little more variety in type of posts. Hopefully it'll be fun and useful and maybe cool and hopefully you'll like it. As always, thanks for reading.

In January, I read eight books. Here are the best three:

1. South to America, by Imani Perry: This won the 2022 National Book Award for Nonfiction, and I picked it up after seeing Perry's acceptance speech, which is absolutely chill-inducingly inspiring (I just watched it again, and got a little choked up again, too). This book, of course, is wonderful too -- something really unique, as it's part travelogue, part memoir, part cultural history, and part essay collection. The goal here is to show us that the South is not a monolith: The South, from Louisville to New Orleans to Miami, is diverse and vibrant and faces as many different problems as any other region in the country. I assumed I'd read this slowly, a chapter or two at a time, but Perry is such an engaging writer, I couldn't put it down. Very highly recommended!

2. Heat 2, by Michael Mann and Meg Gardiner: Pure book adrenaline, and the dudiest dude book to ever dude. This is both a prequel AND a sequel to Mann's 1995 movie about a group of bank robbers and the cop tracking them down. It probably should've been one or the other -- or two separate books. But it was a fun read anyway. It's over 500 pages and I read it in a weekend.

3. The Echo Chamber, by John Boyne: Boyne, quickly becoming one of my favorite writers, seemingly publishes with the frequency of Joyce Carol Oates on speed. I almost missed this, a novel he published late in 2021. (And he published All The Broken Places, which I haven't gotten to yet, last fall). But I'm glad I caught it. It's effing hilarious -- a skewering of our social media-addicted, influencer-addled culture. It's another long book, but a page-turner. Loved it.

January post review:

1. The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, by Shehan Karunatilaka

2. The Last Chairlift, by John Irving

3. Extended Stay, by Juan Martinez

Final note: You can always see a title by title breakdown of what I'm up to Goodreads, if you're so inclined. 

Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Extended Stay, by Juan Martinez: Horror Hotel

In Juan Martinez's debut novel, Extended Stay, an opening scene of unimaginable real-world horror leads into a screamingly terrifying novel of equally unimaginable supernatural horror. 

An old Vegas hotel, the Alicia, which makes the Overlook Hotel look about as scary as a Ritz-Carlton, is the site of this horror parable about the immigrant experience and immigrants' "function" in a exploitive capitalistic society.

"Because we were never people. We were fodder," ponders our protagonist Alvaro, a Columbian immigrant who comes to Vegas with his younger sister after witnessing the gruesome murder of the rest of his family.

Alvaro works in the kitchen at the Alicia, and quickly becomes a favorite of the hotel's manager, who offers to let him and his sister live at the Alicia for free. It's too good an opportunity to pass up -- free rent! -- even as Alvaro begins to notice some really strange things about the hotel. 

After Alvaro and Carmen move in, things get progressively weirder, and infinitely more terrifying. Time skips. Moldy walls bleed insects. People disappear. Corridors expand beyond all physical limits. And then...Alvaro finds something called the Nightmare Room. Terrifying. The Alicia is alive, and it wants something from Alvaro. But what? 

I don't much read horror -- I'm not particularly squeamish (but this truly isn't for the faint of heart), it's just not my first-choice of genre -- but I couldn't look away from this. If you're looking for something to disturb you out of your winter doldrums, this is it. 

A final fun note: I went to Juan's book launch party last night at Women & Children First here in Chicago. Here are a couple photos from a terrific event (Juan was in conversation with writer Lindsay Hunter).