Tuesday, May 2, 2023

Best 3 Books of April

A chilly, rainy month is ideal reading weather, and that's definitely what we had for the most part here in Chicago. Cold, rainy weather is also ideal running weather (well, maybe not the rainy part) and so April was good for that too. As I gear up for another marathon this weekend (my 9th!), April provided two fantastic running books for motivation for getting through the tough April miles.

In addition to the two running books and the new Elizabeth McKenzie novel that's on this list below, I finished some Murakami stories I hadn't read before (Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman), I read Samantha Irby (Wow, No Thank You) for the first time, and I was nearly destroyed by a wonderful debut novel -- Hanna Halperin's I Could Live Here Forever (my review) -- about addiction that will surely wind up on my favorites of the year list. A good reading/running month, indeed. 

1. Choosing To Run, by Des Linden (with Bonnie D. Ford) -- Des is a personal hero of mine, as she is for just about every distance runner. I've gotten to meet her a few times, and she's as charming and hilarious, but also as pointed and direct about her strongly held and hard-won positions, in these pages as she is in person. 

Des IS the Boston Marathon, and the through-line for this memoir is her stunningly inspirational win at Boston 2018 in the absolute worst possible running conditions. I remember that April Monday morning like it was 10 minutes ago, scream-crying at my TV as Des cruised down Boylston, arms raised, soaked to the bone and nearly frozen solid. It was incredible. And so is this book. Boston is the angle, but she has plenty of time here to discuss her whole career, her advocacy for clean sport, her dogs and her bourbon, and so much more. 

2. The Longest Race, by Kara Goucher (with Mary Pilon) -- You know that Alberto Salazar, the disgraced leader of the Nike's vaunted Oregon Project, was dirty. But you didn't know HOW dirty and disgusting he is until Kara spills the tea in this shocking, infuriating, but ultimately inspirational, memoir. 

Even if you don't follow running, you've probably heard of Alberto Salazar. This book is Kara's account of her time with Salazar, and his junk science, odd methods, emotional and mental abuse, sexual harassment and abuse, and, of course, the doping. It was the doping scandal that made headlines and ultimately got Salazar (rightly!) banned, but when you see the whole picture -- including Nike's complicity -- it's just mind-boggling how this "project" was allowed to continue for so long. And how there haven't been further consequences. 

Kara's story makes you so mad that this could happen. But her bravery and courage are inspiring. And not for nothing this is also just an entertaining and motivating read. A good running memoir is one that makes you want to go out and pound out some miles. This one certainly accomplishes that. 

3. The Dog of the North, by Elizabeth McKenzie -- This was my first time reading McKenzie. She's great! In a word: Quirky. She's a little like Nell Zink, but maybe not quite that off-the-wall. 

This novel is about a woman named Penny who has seemingly hit rock bottom -- she's unemployed, her marriage is over, and she has to help her aging, perhaps senile grandmother get her affairs in order. This starts with Penny tricking her grandmother to leave her home so that she can remove a gun from her house. She meets her grandmother's accountant Burt, an overmatched but affable dude who lives in his office, drives a terrible van he calls The Dog of the North, and is dog-father to a Pomeranian named Kweecoats (a hilarious mispronunciation of Quixote).

Many years ago, Penny's parents mysteriously disappeared in Australia, and that hangs over her throughout the novel -- most especially when she travels to Australia with her grandfather to either try to find them, or at least make peace with the fact that they're gone.

Though forces beyond her control keep trying to sink Penny, she's somehow able to keep her chin up and keep on keepin' on. This is a great novel about how to respond to adversity. And it's really, really funny. Definitely will be reading more McKenzie!

Tuesday, April 11, 2023

I Could Live Here Forever, by Hanna Halperin: The Many Faces of Addiction

Hanna Halperin's new novel I Could Live Here Forever is exactly as devastating as you'd expect any good novel about addiction to be. What makes this novel truly great, though, is how Halperin addresses different forms of addiction. Substance addiction, sure. But also emotional addiction, addiction to a certain feeling or a certain person that makes you feel that way. This feeling, this person can be just as toxic, just as dangerous as any drug. 

This book absolutely destroyed me. But I loved it an indecent amount -- it's so good. Soooo good.

Leah is a mid-20s woman working on her MFA  at the prestigious creative writing graduate program at the University of Wisconsin. On the first page of the novel, she meets Charlie -- a handsome, mysterious, affable fellow. She's smitten, he's smitten. They're smitten.

Charlie to his credit reveals very early in the relationship he's a recovering heroin addict. This of course gives Leah -- and her friends in her MFA cohort and her family, including her overprotective older brothers -- great pause. But she loves how he makes her feel -- like the most important, most beautiful, most loved person in the world. Ever since Leah's mother left when she was 13, Leah's developed some deep-seated psychological issues about being loved. So when Charlie DOES love her, she's addicted to how he makes her feel. Despite the red flags, of which they are an increasing number, despite the signs of relapse, and despite even breaking up with him a few times, their connection continues. But at what cost to each of them?

I absolutely loved this. I loved it for its fresh take and humanization of addiction -- this isn't Trainspotting, though, we're not watching needles go in arms -- and Charlie isn't your typical junkie. I also loved it for its "day-in-the-life" story of an MFA student.

Sure, there's a definite Sally Rooney vibe about this book, but if you're a Rooney skeptic, don't let that you stop you. Halperin, dare I say, is a more direct, easier-to-read writer than Rooney is. I actually read this 300-page novel in basically three sittings. And this will definitely be the 2023 novel I talk about way too much.

Friday, March 31, 2023

Best 3 Books of March

You know the meme: Being an adult is saying "next week things will slow down a little" over and over again until you die. That was March. That's to say, March was a blur. I traveled to Seattle for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference, I watched a butt-ton of basketball, but I did manage to find a few moments here and there to read some books -- five books, total. Here are my favorite three.

3. The Wrong Way to Save Your Life, by Megan Stielstra -- If "memoir in essays" is a thing, that's what this is, and it's soooooooo good. You know that Cecily Strong character on Saturday Night Live, Girl You Wish You Hadn't Started a Conversation With at a Party? These essays are the EXACT OPPOSITE OF THAT. Reading Megan Stielstra is like sitting at a bar with a very cool new friend, and getting lost in her stories. 

2. Empty Theatre, by Jac Jemc -- This hilarious novel tells the intertwined stories of cousins King Ludwig II of Bavaria and Empress Elisabeth (Sisi) of Austria. Not at all your staid, stuffy historical fiction, this fantastic read is more like a satiric Victorian soap opera. It's light and funny, playful and provocative, and just a really fun rewarding reading experience. 

1. A Country You Can Leave, by Asale Angel-Ajani -- This book is about a 16-year-old Black, biracial girl named Lara and her fierce but deeply flawed Russian immigrant mother. The two live in a trailer park in California, and try to navigate the fraught divisions of culture, class, and race. Lara voice in this novel is completely engaging, and you feel for her immensely. It constantly seems like she's in a no-win situation, that forces beyond her control (whether privileged white people or violent men) will have an outsized impact on her life. It's not fair, of course it's not. And her mother, often drunk and spouting bullshit truisms at her, isn't much help to her.

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.