Monday, April 1, 2024

The Divorcées, by Rowan Beaird: How to Forge Your Own Path

If you're a woman in the 1950s and you want to get divorced, you go to Nevada, and hang out for six weeks at a "divorce ranch" -- a niche industry taking advantage of Nevada's laissez faire laws and catering to courageous  (and usually wealthy) women who want out of their marriages. In Nevada, no one really cares about the reason for your divorce. Nevada will happily take your money, sever your connection, and send you on your way.

This little-known corner of history is the backdrop behind The Divorcées, the terrific, juicy, gin-soaked debut novel by Rowan Beaird. 

Lois is a mid-20s woman living in Lake Forest, Illinois, and married to a fellow named Lawrence who she decidedly doesn't love. She only married him because that's what women do. They get married. After four years of marriage, Lois has decided, mostly because she doesn't want to have children (an even more courageous decision in mid-century America) and Lawrence does, along with a several other indignities to which he subjects her, she wants out of her marriage. 

So even though her father is furious, she goes to the Golden Yarrow, a divorce ranch in Reno, Nevada. After six weeks, she can establish Nevada residency, and get a divorce with very few questions asked. When urbane but mysterious socialite Greer arrives at the ranch, her face bruised and her past shrouded, all the girls are immediately drawn to her. But she chooses Lois, for reasons Lois can't begin to comprehend, as her confidante. 

Who is Greer? What's her story and what does she want? And will she help Lois forge her own path, or will she lead Lois to her demise?

How society looked down its nose at divorced women is a major theme of this novel, as is the idea that women weren't truly free to choose their own best lives. The Nevada divorce ranches make for super fertile ground for exploring this idea through the characters of Lois, Greer, and several other women, each with her own reason for being there. We root for these women, even the ones who seem flighty and superficial, but we root the most for Lois. 

The novel slow burns through the first half, as Lois gets situated and attuned to the day-to-day of her new home. But the lushness of Beaird's writing carries us through. You truly have a sense of place at this desert ranch. When the story really gets going, it's tough to put down. In fact, I read the second half of this novel in one day. I couldn't wait to see whether Lois makes it or not.

This is a really accomplished debut, and I can't wait to see what Beaird does next! 

Wednesday, March 6, 2024

The Book of Love, by Kelly Link: A Very Long, Very Magical Debut Novel

You can't talk about about Kelly Link's debut novel The Book of Love without mentioning the following:

    • Kelly Link is a beloved short story writer.
    • Her debut novel clocks in at 630 pages.
    • That's weird. But weird is par for the course.

Far be it from me to buck a trend. The Book Of Love is equal parts strange, irreverent, funny, confusing, and in total, very much Linkian. You'll get some David Mitchell vibes here, maybe some Leigh Bardugo, a little Haruki Murakami, but all Kelly Link. It's not magical realism, per se, and it's not fantasy, and it's not science fiction, but it's some weird mash-up of all three. 

Here's the story: Three teenagers, Daniel, Mo, and Laura, wake up in the music classroom of their former high school, and are informed by their weird former music teacher Mr. Anabin that they've been dead for a year, but are now back. Sort of. Not to worry, though: Their families think they've been on a music study abroad program in Ireland. Because Mr. Anabin is magic. And so are the other two "beings" who join them in coming back from the realm where they'd spent the last year: A guy named Bogomil who can turn himself into a wolf and other animals, and another really odd guy named Bowie.

So the three teenagers rejoin their lives and try to figure out what the hell happened. Laura's older sister Susannah, is the other principle character, and she's a little salty she's been left behind for the past year. Daniel and Susannah had been a not-so-discreet couple, but had broken up right before Daniel (and the other two) died -- was this heartbreak part of their death? The big mystery of the novel is just exactly what happened the night all three died. 

From this reasonably simple premise, the "rules" for the world of this novel grow ever more complex. There are alternate realms, a magical missing key that opens doors between realms, a goddess named Malo Mogge, and hundreds-year-old feuds being played out as the three teenagers try to figure out whether they're going to die again soon. It's a lot, and as it gets more complicated, it gets a little tougher to understand and remember everything. I had fun imagining the storyboarding for this novel -- like Link talking to her writer friends, trying to puzzle out a story problem, and them going, "Well, you could say the key is also a coin or a cup, and maybe Mo's grandmother's romance novel characters can come to life...or you know, whatever." Every time Link seemingly solves a story problem, though, the solution has ripple effects for the rest of rules of the novel, and so thing just get increasingly complex. 

Another thing that's really interesting about this novel is its pacing, how Link navigates time. The whole story takes place over just four days. The first 100 pages, in fact, are just a few hours. This takes some skill to do effectively, and Link does. 

Any time a writer writes a 630-page book, especially one previously known for short stories, complaints about the book being too long are inevitable. While I really enjoyed this, my main criticism isn't that it's too long in principle, it's that it got too long because the rules of the world became so detailed and confusing. There are pages and pages of characters just sitting around talking about how this world works. Simplifying would've, reduced the page count.

But simplifying may also have detracted from imaginativeness of the story. It's a fine line, which Link toes throughout. Even though I was confused a lot, it was truly fun to "watch" Link puzzle out story problems she'd set for herself with such a detailed world. 

Also, I loved the characters -- Daniel is kind of just a bone-headed bro, Mo's a sassy queer fellow who doesn't suffer fools, and Laura is the super cool, disaffected teen belonging more in the 1990s than in Gen Z. And then Susannah. Susannah, to me, really becomes the star of the show, even though she isn't one of the three characters who died. She's easily the most interesting character, and changes the most over the course of the novel. She has layers. She contains multitudes.

So yeah, 630 pages of Kelly Link is a vastly different reading experience than a 20-page Kelly Link short story. Because of course it is. Is it worth the effort? One hundred percent. It's as imaginative and inventive a novel as you'll find, and it's just a lot of fun to read. 

Monday, February 5, 2024

Martyr! by Kaveh Akbar: IMMENSE. BRILLIANT.

Does this ever happen to you? You're connecting to a piece of art on a very deep level, and suddenly, totally independent of the content of that art, you start getting choked up. Like you feel so overwhelmed and awed by what this piece of art is doing that it literally causes you to get emotional. 

It's sounds dramatic, I know. But it does occasionally happen to me. And it happened to me reading this novel. 

It's that good. There's not much of a plot, per se. It's about one Iranian American dude's search for meaning. You'll have to trust me it's not boring. Not even a little bit boring. I honestly didn't know you could do with words what Kaveh Akbar does with words here. 

Rather than a regular review, here are 10 thoughts on this truly one-of-a-kind work:

1. This is a novel not about the meaning of life, but the meaning of death. Our protagonist Cyrus's mother died in the Iran Air Flight 655 disaster (the US mistook the commercial flight for a war jet and shot it down) in July 1988. Cyrus was a baby when this happened, and doesn't remember his mother, but this has always haunted him. When someone dies before their time, what does it mean? Is the way they died meaningful? Why? How? Cyrus, depressed, a recovering addict, and just floating through his 20s in a small college town in Indiana, wonders if he "martyrs" himself (commits suicide), would anything about his death be meaningful since his life to this point has been so devoid of meaning? Is that the only thing stopping him from doing it?

2. This is a novel both about the inadequacy and also the power of language. This argument throughout the novel is one of its strengths. Regarding the former, one character says: “A photograph can say ‘This is what it was.’ Language can only say ‘This is what it was like.’” But regarding the latter, another character says, “An alphabet, like a life, is a finite set of shapes. With it, one can produce almost anything.” I'd submit that this novel itself is a testament to the power of language. It's one of the more profound and beautifully written pieces of fiction I've read in a long time!

3. This is a novel about addiction. Cyrus is a recovering addict, and now that he's mostly kicked his habit in his late 20s, he's lost his way again. At least booze and drugs gave him direction. Now he's trying to fill that void by writing poetry. And failing. 

4. This is a novel about ass-backward American values. We don't value art anymore. We should.

5. This is a master class in craft from a structure standpoint. What we think are flashbacks or background info slowly start to gain momentum and then absolutely EXPLODES into the real-time action as crucial facets of the story. To say more would be to spoil. Just trust me -- and trust the writer. He knows what he's doing. 

6. Cyrus's uncle Arash has a most unusual role in the Iranian military. During the Iraq-Iran war, he dresses in a dark cloak, holds a flash light to his face, and rides around a battlefield where men are slowly dying. The idea is they seem him as an angel, and they're convinced, then, to be "martyred" honorably, rather than committing suicide. This detail is not just significant to the story, it's one of those things you read in a novel that just blows your mind. This blew my mind. 

7. Some of my favorite -- and the funniest -- parts of this novel are conversations Akbar gives us between, say, Lisa Simpson and Cyrus's mother, or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Cyrus's younger brother Beethoven (who doesn't actually exist, neither in the real world or the fictional world of the novel). They're dreams Cyrus has, which would normally be kind of annoying. These are not only immensely entertaining set pieces, they also further the themes of the novel. That's to say, they do have a purpose.  

8. The blurbs! I basically picked this up because of the blurbs. Lauren Groff, Tommy Orange, Leslie Jamison, JOHN GREEN, and Mary Karr. You get a collection of writers this varied to all offer immense praise on a book, you read that book. 

9. One of the reasons I almost DIDN'T pick this up is because I HATE the cover. It's cartoonish, almost like a Monty Python sketch as cover art. There are definitely funny parts to this novel, but this cover design belies the novel's profundity. I hope they'll go back to the drawing board for the paperback.

10. Two more fantastic quotes: “At the intersection of Iranian-ness and Midwestern-ness was pathological politeness, an immobilizing compulsivity to avoid causing distress to anyone." AND “She was Christian but American Christian, the kind that believed Jesus had just needed a bigger gun.”

Summary: READ THIS. I read the last 200 pages of this novel in one day. I'm going to have to go back reread it to let it sink in more. But on first reading, just WOW. It's February 5, and I already have my favorite novel of 2024. 

Friday, January 5, 2024

Best Books I Read in December

It's only the first week in January and I'm already behind. I suspect I'm not the only one who feels this way. December is so busy for three weeks, then nothing -- except good cheer and reading and cheese. Then back to the grind. But so, I read a ton of books in December* -- here are the best five:

Trees, by Percival Everett -- Are novels about racism, lynching, and mass killings supposed this to be funny?  I'd never read Percival Everett before and a bookseller friend (Javier at Exile in Bookville, if you know him) recently told me how big a fan he is, so I sheepishly asked him for a good starting point, and this novel -- which is marvelous! -- is what he gave me.  If you're up for the snappiest, wittiest dialogue, a lively irreverence, and a foundation of sad truth, this is a read for you

Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott -- Goal for 2024: Read many, many more craft of writing books. So I started in December with one of the "cornerstones of the genre." Really good, really inspiring. 

The Covenant of Water, by Abraham Verghese -- I wasn't as breathlessly impressed with this long, epic novel as most readers, but it sure has its moments. And some fantastic twists and turns. If you liked Cutting For Stone, you'll enjoy this too. 

Terrace Story, by Hilary Leichter -- Thanks to my friend Brooke for making me read this BONKERS story about ... I'm still not entirely sure, except that it's about a married couple and their mysterious friend and a terrace that magically appears outside their apartment. You just have to read it. It's a small (less than 200 pages) but mighty novel that explores the amorphous nature of space, time, reality...and marital fidelity. 

A Little Devil In America, by Hanif Abdurraqib -- This man can write an essay. 

*Note: With a strong finish in December, my 2023 ended up as my best reading year ever, page-wise: Total of 27,880 pages (and 77 total books). It's not a competition, I know. 

Tuesday, December 12, 2023

Best 10 Books of 2023

Happy almost 2024, readers! I nearly set a new personal record for pages read in 2023 (book total will wind up somewhere in the mid-70s, which is the most in more than five years), which makes me feel really good. This year -- the year I started writing fiction again for the first time in a long time -- was in also was a terrific year for reading fiction. Having such a long list of books read in 2023 has also made it really tough to build this list. I've agonized! But here you go, my 10 favorite (plus three other sports books I loved) books of 2023:

10. Gone To The Wolves, by John Wray -- I can't understand why I haven't been able to talk many other readers into this book. (<Sarcasm font off>) Yes, it's about heavy metal. And yes, I loved it. But it's pretty niche. Still, if you want something completely different than anything you've ever read before, give this is a shot. 

9. Charm City Rocks, by Matthew Norman -- The charmingest of charming romcoms. Plus, it's about music! A wheelhousiest of wheelhouse books for me, and predictably, I freakin' loved it. 

8. Empty Theater, by Jac Jemc -- If you like your historical fiction zany and more than a bit off the wall, check out this novel of Mad King Ludwig II of Bavaria and his cousin Empress Sisi of Austria. And prepare to locate a new ass (because you'll laugh your current one right off). 

7. The Bee Sting, by Paul Murray -- This novel is this year's best dysfunctional family saga, and it's not close. This is one of three 600-page novels on the list this year, which if you know me at all, is about right. The lesson from this novel: Don't keep secrets. 

6. A Country You Can Leave, by Asale Angel-Ajani -- This is not only my favorite novel of the year that was recommended by someone else. It's also one of two books (I Could Live Here Forever is the other) for which I was an annoying book evangelist this year. If you like novels with fascinating characters doing unexpected things, this is for you. This book definitely DESERVES a wider readership.

5. Good Night, Irene, by Luis Alberto Urrea -- For pure storytelling, you won't do much better in 2023 books than this novel based on Urrea's mother's service during World War II. 

4. The Vaster Wilds, by Lauren Groff -- Still in awe of this book, and what Groff was able to do here. This is a short novel you'll want to make feel longer by taking it in slow sips, both to savor Groff's gorgeous language and also to wring every ounce of meaning out of the loaded story. 

3. I Could Live Here Forever, by Hannah Halperin -- There needs to be a support group for readers of this INCREDIBLE novel. It's truly devastating, as you'd expect a novel about all kinds of addiction to be. But if you can pull yourself together enough to finish it, it's maybe the best book I read this year. 

2. Wellness, by Nathan Hill -- A 600-page novel that felt a third as long. A story of marriage, yes, but also a story about why certainty (in religion, or politics, or health trends) prevents us from actually being open to and assessing new information and changing or updating our opinions. This makes this novel sound staid and boring. IT IS NOT. Even with digression aplenty, this is still a hugely entertaining read. 

1. The Deluge, by Stephen Markley -- I haven't ever gotten more mileage out of a joke in a year than this one: Reading a book about climate change on the beach is a little like reading a book about a plane crash on a flight. There, last time. But for real, this 900 page behemoth is the most fun reading experience I had this year. I was riveted, terrified, and immensely, immensely entertained. READ THIS! 

Choosing To Run, by Des Linden -- If you read only one sports book, let this be it. Des is as funny as she is inspiring. 

The Longest Race, by Kara Goucher -- A courageous memoir about sexual and emotional abuse...and running. Loved it! 

Why We Love Baseball, by Joe Posnanski -- I love baseball, and I didn't need this book to remind me why I love baseball, but it definitely reminded me why I love baseball.