Thursday, January 20, 2022

Olga Dies Dreaming, by Xóchitl González: An Incredibly Accomplished Debut

Olga Dies Dreaming, by Xóchitl González, is one of the best, most accomplished debut novels I've read in a long time. This book is just full of surprises, which is somewhat ironic given that it's about a wedding planner for the rich in NYC, to whom surprises are anathema. 

It's a novel that starts out like a frothy story about trying to fit in with NYC's upper crust. But as we learn more about Olga, her Congressman older brother Prieto, and their mother, the novels shifts in tone and takes on a much more political, and frankly, flat-out furious, tone. It becomes a novel about gentrification, class and race, the injustices wrought upon Puerto Rico (Olga and her brother are second-generation Puerto Ricans), neo-colonialism, corruption, and the failures of leadership. That's a pretty heavy shift from a light-hearted rom-com. But it truly works. And it's amazingly well done. 

Think about it in terms of napkins. The novel begins with Olga planning a wedding and explaining how every mother-of-the-bride has one detail Olga knows will be the bane of her existence during the wedding planning process. For this particular wedding, it's the napkins. But as you continue to progress through the book (and progress quickly, you will!), when you think about the napkins anecdote, it's a perfect symbol of the absurdity of what matters to the wealthy that doesn't really matter and at all, and it's a perfect juxtaposition to everything else in the novel that's so much more important. 

Here's a little on the plot: It's the summer of 2017, and we're all starting to figure out that the new "president" is going to be even worse than we could've possible imagined. But this is all in the background for the time being as Olga, born and raised in the Latinx-majority Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, hob-nobs with the rich and famous, sleeps with rich married men, appears on television shows to talk about weddings, and builds her wedding-planning brand. Her older brother Prieto is the Congressman for their district, and though the two siblings are close, we soon learn Prieto harbors some serious secrets. 

And there's one more twist before things really start to heat up: Their mother, a political radical and advocate for Puerto Rican independence, had left the family when they were kids. Not long after, their father falls apart, becomes addicted to drugs, and dies of AIDS. Their mother has been in contact with them throughout their lives through a series of letters. Somehow, she always knows what's going on in their lives: And she's very disappointed in Olga's career choice. 

So late in that summer of 2017, Hurricane Irma hits in the Caribbean, knocking out power to most of Puerto Rico. But if you remember, this was just the dress rehearsal for Hurricane Maria, which hit two weeks later, and absolutely devastated the island. The island got almost no help from the federal government to prepare or in the immediate aftermath. It was in many ways worse than Hurricane Katrina. (You may remember that video of the "president" chucking rolls of paper tolls into a crowd of people, people who had no food or clean water.)

Hurricane Maria becomes the fulcrum point for the novel. It's also a major turning point for both Prieto and Olga. Everything changes for them. For the better? Worse? What lessons do these characters learn? What happens with their mother?

I read this novel — it's just shy of 400 pages — in three days. I could not put it down. It's absolutely riveting, incredibly well-written, smart, and at times really funny. It's one of those novels that comes along only a couple times a year that really reminds me how much I love reading. I can't recommend it more highly.

Monday, January 17, 2022

The Revisionaries, by A.J. Moxon: The Author Is God

This freakin' beautiful mess of a novel is likely what would happen if David Foster Wallace, Thomas Pynchon, and Tom Robbins got together and tested the limits of how much a reader can stand before giving up and throwing the novel against the wall. But then Kurt Vonnegut showed up halfway through and goes, "But my dudes, we have to make it entertaining as well." And so they did.

I think I understood about two-thirds of what A.J. Moxon is up to here in his long, post-modern, super-meta novel, The Revisionaries. And I consider that a win. It's certainly a novel you need to read more than once, which is a tough ask at 600 pages. But also, in the moment, you're so dazzled by Moxon's language and sentences, you almost don't notice, that a) you're aggravated, because b) you only have a passing sense of what is happening and why. That's especially true in the last 100 pages or so as it's supposed to all be coming together, but it's told in a fractured, multi-perspective way that frankly drove me nuts.

So what's going on here? This is a novel about God, but it's sure not religious. It's a novel about the role of fiction, the author's authority, the reader's power, and where all those might intersect...but sometimes don't? That's my best guess anyway. 

The plot, which is important, but so zany it's almost beside the point here, is about a bearded acrobat woman, a preacher who performs a miracle in a place called Loony Island (so named because of it being home to an insane asylum) and builds a new church, a kid who flickers in and out of existence, a cult of weirdos dressed up as cardinals, and a guy who discovers a magical fountain and uses it to erase people's memories and recreate them as he sees fit.

Are you with me? IT'S SO WEIRD! But in a strangely good way. 

Again, I can't claim to fully understand this, but part of the point is how the author is God, but the reader still has veto power, even over God, because of how s/he interprets, understands, derives meaning from, feels about, etc., the text. And this is because each reader brings to bear a unique experience, education, philosophy on life, philosophy on reading books, politics, mood, etc. on every book s/he reads. I think?

Would I recommend that you read this? Yes, but with a bunch of caveats. If you like to be challenged, if you are okay with not completely understanding why or how or even what is going on all the time, and if you like something that's truly creative, inventive, and probably unlike anything else you've really ever read before, pick this novel up. Moxon is smart enough (you should absolutely follow him on Twitter, by the way — that is one of main reasons I bought this novel and read it), that someday soon, he's going to publish a novel that absolutely dazzles us. I can't wait for that, but I'm glad I read this one now.

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Small World, by Jonathan Evison: Striving Together for the American Dream

Jonathan Evison's new novel Small World is, no exaggeration, his masterpiece. He had mentioned on Facebook a few years ago that he felt like this is the novel he was born to write. And he wasn't wrong. 

Small World is a huge, ambitious, but incredibly immersive Great American novel about how we're all connected in striving for the Great American Dream. A huge cast of diverse characters both in the present and in the 19th century populate this novel with interconnected stories about how beating injustice and flourishing in this Great American Experiment is at its essence a team sport. 

So as a train speeds through a snowy night in Oregon, several passengers on this train are connected in ways they couldn't possibly know. A mom trying to give her basketball prodigy son a leg up. A woman escaping her abusive boyfriend. A family making a huge change in their lives. And the train engineer, on his last run before retirement. We get the stories of each of these people, but as importantly, we get the story of the 19th century ancestors of each of these people. An enslaved person who escapes in Illinois. Irish immigrant twins who try to make their ways in Chicago and then the sprawling West. A Chinese immigrant who pans for gold in California. And a Native American girl who yearns for open spaces and freedom. 

It's a lot, for sure. But Evison nails it! You never feel overwhelmed or have trouble keeping these characters straight. Without question, this structure was risky: There are literally eight different strands of story (and really nine, because we get both of the Irish twins' stories), and so this could've easily gone sideways. 

But I couldn't wait to get back to each story. Would the Irish twins find each other after they're separated? Would the basketball superstar get his time to shine? Would the woman escaping her a-hole boyfriend truly escape? How are all these people connected, both in the past and the present? But most importantly, how would all of these characters be able to overcome injustice, inequity, and a deck stacked against them to strive toward their American dream? 

To be honest, I'm just about done with long novels of interconnected stories (thanks a lot, Cloud Cuckoo Land). Everyone's doing it now and it's getting a little tiresome. But I'm glad I got this one in under the bell before I got tired of these, because this one is a paragon of the genre. If you've been a New Dork Review reader for any amount of time, you know I'm huge Evison fan. I've read everything he's written, and I can happily report this novel represents a major step forward for him as a writer. I've really enjoyed all his novels, but this is my favorite since The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving, which is still my favorite of his. But this is now a very close second. Highly, highly recommend. 

Thursday, January 6, 2022

The Love Songs of W.E.B. DuBois, by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers: The Power of History

Ron Charles, the esteemed book critic for the Washington Post and one of my all-time favorite book reviewers, is almost solely responsible for talking me into picking up this 800-page novel. 

Charles wrote: "Whatever must be said to get you to heft this daunting debut novel by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, I’ll say, because The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois is the kind of book that comes around only once a decade. Yes, at roughly 800 pages, it is, indeed, a mountain to climb, but the journey is engrossing, and the view from the summit will transform your understanding of America."

So heft, I did, not without some trepidation, frankly. But now, I owe Mr. Charles a beer. Because it was just as engrossing and transformative as he said. I actually included it on my top 10 of 2021 before I'd even finished it. 

The story itself is two-fold. It's a coming of age story of Ailey, a young Black girl growing up in "the City" (presumably NYC?), and visiting relatives during summers in rural Georgia. It's also the story of Ailey's ancestors, enslaved people on a Georgia plantation. So yes, it's a multi-generational family saga, but told as two separate narratives. Both stories are fascinating, and there are a TON of characters. You're warned of this with the extensive family tree Jeffers includes at the beginning. 

As good as this is, it's not an easy read from a content standpoint. Serious trigger warnings here for sexual abuse, pedophilia, and drug addiction. 

But it really is as engrossing as Charles says — it's an epic story of America, injustice, racism, the power of knowing and understanding unvarnished history, and the strength of family. 

Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Cloud Cuckoo Land, by Anthony Doerr: Stories Are Timeless

They used to say that when writers are out of ideas, they write about writers. These days, however, it seems like when writers are out of ideas (or just want to pander to readers) they write about books, or the power of storytelling, or the importance of literature, etc., etc. I'm mostly here for it. But it's not always completely successful.

To wit, I give you this lukewarm review of Anthony Doerr's much heralded new novel, Cloud Cuckoo Land. It's, you know, fine. But it's a long, needlessly complicated, questionably structured journey to arrive at the point: Stories are timeless.

So Cloud Cuckoo Land is three stories in one, and it's like Doerr put them all in a blender and then drizzled parts of each out onto the page. There's a story told from both sides of the siege of Constantinople in 1452. There's a modern-times story of a Korean War veteran directing a play in a library and an eco-terrorist who is planning to bomb the real estate company next door. And then there's the pre-teen girl hurtling through space on a space ship several centuries in the future, presumably escaping a destroyed Earth, and along with her shipmates, hoping to restart human civilization on a distant planet.

For the first half or so of the novel, I was enthralled, and the structure of skipping back and forth between these stories, seemed to work fine. But then I got tired of it because I couldn't figure out the why. Why was it necessary that each of these stories needed to keep interrupting the others. Each story builds drama, but then we're whisked off to the others. And once we start to see their central point of converge, frankly it's a bit of a letdown. The stories seem to collapse under their own weight of expectation. 

I started this book hoping for a David Mitchell-esque display of storytelling. And the premise and structure are certainly inventive and imaginative. I just wasn't sure Doerr landed it all successfully. I'm certainly in the minority in this somewhat tepid opinion, because this has landed on many "favorites of 2021" lists. But to me, it just didn't quite deliver on what it promised.

(Side note: This book is listed at 620+ pages. It's maaaaayyyybe 450. There are tons of chapter breaks and blanks pages. And this bugged me to no end, I'm not sure why. Like the publisher wanted to make the book feel more substantial than it is.)