Thursday, August 4, 2022

My Top 10 Favorite Book Titles of the Last 20 Years

I've been reading Anthony Marra's terrific new novel, Mercury Pictures Presents, and in reading some of the reviews, I noticed most identify it as his second novel, and his first since 2013's A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. I guess that's technically accurate, but it I was sure there was a book in between. And there is! It's The Tsar of Love and Techno, which isn't technically a novel -- it's more a novel in stories. But more than remembering details about that book in particular, thinking about it again reminded me how much I love that title. 

And so that's a long walk to tell you how I then started thinking about some of my other favorite book titles. And since I haven't done much reviewin' lately, how about a post of some of my favorite book titles? This is not an exhaustive list by any means, just the best titles that came immediately to mind. What are your favorites?

10. Shotgun Lovesongs (Nickolas Butler) -- This title, which is so memorable, refers to a fictional album. I wish it were real. The novel itself is memorable for being incredible, as well.

9. Priestdaddy (Patricia Lockwood) -- With this title you start laughing before you even start reading the book. Then you start reading and laugh even more! 

8. Praying Drunk (Kyle Minor) -- See above.

7. The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky, and Death (Colson Whitehead) -- I know nonfiction gets a little more leniency on title, but this one is still fantastic.  

6. Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles (Ron Currie Jr.) -- This one always makes me laugh because it's referring to nicotine patches. 

5. How I Learned to Hate In Ohio (David Stuart MacLean) -- Before I actually read this great coming-of-age novel, I kept reading the title as "How I Learned to Hate Ohio," which, having grown up in Ohio, was relevant to my interests. 

4. The Sugar Frosted Nutsack (Mark Leyner) -- Honestly, the best thing about this book is its title, which, if you're like me and are 12 years old, is still funny every time. When I reviewed this back in the day, having barely made it through this trainwreck, I opined that the book made me want to punch Leyner in his own sugar frosted nutsack.

3. A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again (David Foster Wallace) -- The title essay that launched a thousand copycats, this is one of the first DFW pieces I read. And I was hooked.

2. The Tsar of Love and Techno (Anthony Marra) -- The inspiration for this list, I'm not really sure what it is about this title that's so sticky. But it's really good.

1. I Love You But I've Chosen Darkness (Claire Vaye Watkins) -- Just brilliant. Also, the cover is very good. 

Hall of Shame Titles

This list starts and stops with one title: Where The Crawdads Sing (Delia Owens) -- Not a great novel either, or at least not worth its virality. But this title seems like a parody of a real title, like what would happen if The Simpsons were making fun of an early 2000s Oprah book club book.

Tuesday, July 12, 2022

Top 5 Favorite Books of 2022...So Far

We're well over halfway through the year now, so I'm just little late here on the "top 5 favorites of the year so far" post. But it was strategic! I didn't want my post to get lost in the shuffle of all the others. How's that for rationalization? 

The first half of 2022 was frankly a little light on big names and big fiction (with the exceptions of your Emily St. John Mandels and Jennifer Egans, etc.). Many reasons for that, I think — publishers moved a lot of their pandemic-delayed titles to the second half of 2021, which left the first few months of 2022 a little lighter than normal. And an embarrassment of riches in the second half of the year is a trend continuing this year as the latter months of 2022 are absolutely STACKED

Without further ado, here are my five favorite books of 2022 so far (in no particular order). 

5. Marrying The Ketchups, by Jennifer Close — Despite its somewhat odd (trying to be nice) title, I loved this family saga set in Chicago in the fall of 2016. Each of the three main characters here is a hot mess, in life and in love. Will they all pull it together, like the 2016 Cubs? 

4. The Nineties, by Chuck Klosterman — This cultural history is absolutely essential reading for people, like me, who grew up in the 1990s. Nirvana. Biodome. Bill Clinton. American Beauty. World Wide Web. You name it, it's probably here. And the book does a great job of framing the discussion to show you that your 90s nostalgia, while not exactly misplaced, may be a little rosier than warranted — or, at least, everything you thought you knew about the 1990s isn't quite right. 

3. Sea of Tranquility, by Emily St. John Mandel — The third novel in the Glass Hotel / Station Eleven universe is a whirlwind through centuries and different planes of reality. This much going on in a novel this slim would be an abject disaster in the hands of a less skillful novelist. But this works immensely well. Station Eleven is one of my favorite books of the last 10 years or so, and this one is almost as good. 

2. Olga Dies Dreaming, by Xóchitl González — This was the first 2022 novel I read this year, and boy, we were off to a good start! What you think might be a breezy piece of brain candy switches quickly to a dead-serious political novel about the plight of Puerto Ricans. Incredibly well-written. Nearly unputdownable.

1. Groundskeeping, by Lee Cole — A campus novel that's a love story and political, too. Wheelhouse. Probably my favorite of the year so far, not because I was surprised I liked it, but because I was surprised how accomplished it is for a debut. 

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!