Tuesday, June 7, 2022

Either/Or, by Elif Batuman: Sex and Booze and Kierkegaard

It's rarely true, but in this case it is: The sequel is better than the original! In Elif Batuman's new novel Either/Or — a continuation of the story she started with 2017's The Idiot — Selin's story of life and love at Harvard marches on.

In The Idiot, during Selin's freshman year at Harvard, she discovered first love (but it's complicated) with a Hungarian dude named Ivan. In this novel, her sophomore year, Ivan is gone (though not forgotten) and she discovers the truths of college life: sex and booze and Kierkegaard!

Frankly, not much happens plot-wise in this book. Selin reads a lot and is often stopped cold by how what she reads (Pushkin, Henry James, even Soren himself) applies to her own life and what happened with Ivan a year ago. I joked with a friend that this novel reminded me of a much funnier, more erudite, and more astute version of me sitting in my dorm room in 1996 explaining to anyone who would listen why Smashing Pumpkins' song Mayonaise is about my life. 

Another improvement in this novel vs The Idiot is that Selin has developed a snarky, self-deprecating sense of humor. She's got a little bit of a Tiny Fey-ish thing going on here, and I loved it. Take, for instance, her thoughts on the 1980s show Voltron: 

"This reminded me of Voltron, a cartoon about five space pilots who were supposed to defend the universe. In every episode they got into a terrible predicament, where the one who was a girl was always about to have to become a sex slave and carry fruit on her head. At the last minute, they would remember to merge their five rockets, thereby forming Voltron: a gigantic unbeatable robot-man with rocket-arms and rocket-legs. It was unclear why they didn’t become Voltron earlier. ‘It’s probably because of their selfish American individualism,’ Sahin said.” 

"...carry fruit on her head..." That just slayed me!

So, if you enjoyed The Idiot, I think you'll love this too. This truly is a sequel — it picks up almost exactly where The Idiot left off as if there hasn't been a break of five years between novels at all. So it does help to have read the first one. And I'm hopeful there'll be more, because we leave off here on a little bit of a cliffhanger. But so, Either/Or was a lot of fun — extremely smart, really entertaining.  

Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Sleepwalk, by Dan Chaon: Dizzying Roadtrip Romp

If you've read Thomas Pynchon's novel Inherent Vice (or seen the equally confusing Joaquin Phoenix / Paul Thomas Anderson movie), you're in good shape to take on Dan Chaon's latest novel, Sleepwalk. But if you didn't, you should definitely check out this phenomenal book anyway. I'm a huge Chaon fan, and I think Sleepwalk is his best book yet.

Though Pynchon's novel is ostensibly a crime novel set in 1970s California, and Chaon's is a roadtrip romp set in a near-future America near collapse, the two are similar in their zany plots that zig when you expect them to zag. I mean that in the best possible way. In Sleepwalk, there are preternaturally smart chimps, violent right-wing militias, even a creepy cult. It's great! 

Though the plot is dizzying, dazzling, and constantly keeps you on your toes, the true highlight of this novel is its narrator, Billy. He's the best and most sympathetic antihero since Walter White. Billy is basically a cross-country errand boy, delivering human cargo for some shady enterprise we're not allowed to know much about. He and his trusty dog Flip (a pit bull he rescued from a dogfighting ring, so yeah, it's not hard to like this guy right off the bat) road trip around country in their camper to complete these nefarious tasks.

But then, Billy's checkered past catches up to him: He gets a call from a woman claiming to be named Cammie, and claiming to be his daughter. But whoa boy, it's just a bit more involved than that! The rest of the novel is about how Billy tries to track down Cammie, find out who she really is, and what she hopes to gain by contacting him. It's a scene, man. 

This is one my favorite books of the year so far -- it's sheer adrenaline and great fun. I mean, look at the Gillian Flynn blurb: "To say this is one of the best novels I've read in years is almost not enough." Anything I can tell you to talk you into reading this book pales in comparison to that. Give it a go!

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.