Wednesday, December 11, 2019

Running With Sherman and Unfollow: Reviews of Two Recent 5-Star Memoirs

I've read more nonfiction this year than in any other year past, and these two most recent ones are two of the best I've read this year!

Running with Sherman, by Christopher McDougall
This summer, I was browsing through RoscoeBook's collection of autumn ARCs, and noticed this book with a familiar cover composition and colors. "Hey, is that ... That looks like Born to Run...Woohoo! A new book by Christopher McDougall! ... Uh, but it's about donkeys?" So I had a hard time talking myself into this new one...it just seemed so silly. But talk myself into it, I finally did — and I'm so glad I did. It's spectacular!

Sherman is a poor neglected donkey rescued from a farm near McDougall's own in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania (famous for being a hotbed of Amish activity). He slowly nurses Sherman back to health, with the help of some of his neighbors, and a goofy goat named Lawrence. But he's told that for Sherman to survive, he needs to be given a purpose. So, why not donkey racing?

McDougall had already become somewhat versed in the odd sport of burro racing in research for Born to Run when he was in Leadville, Colo., site of one of the most prestigious (and difficult) trail ultramarathons. Burro racing is a huge deal — a sort of homage to the region's past. So McDougall, his wife Mika, and a troubled teenager named Zeke begin training a team of donkeys to run a race in Colorado.

Along the way, as in Born to Run, we get riffs on whatever McDougall becomes interested in as he's writing the book. Here, that includes his experiences with a quirky Amish running club, how the human/animal connection is mutually beneficial and has benefits ranging from healing from injury to treating PTSD, and how exercise can be a boon to mental health, among many other topics.

So then eventually, McDougall and his rag-tag team make it to Colorado to run the race, but not without a few hiccups and challenges to overcome.

This book is just an absolute delight — a perfect read for animal lovers, runners, or anyone who just loves a good heart-warming, funny story. McDougall is often friggin' hilarious — whether he's talking about a fart contest with the donkeys, or having to clean his donkey's "downspout," there are dozens of laugh-out-loud moments here.

Unfollow, by Megan Phelps-Roper
This story is insane. It's also insanely well-written, wise, and courageous. I actually stumbled across the book on the Nonfiction New Releases shelf at RoscoeBooks, knew nothing about it, but when I saw the subtitle — A Memoir of Loving and Leaving the Westboro Baptist Church —I knew immediately it was something I had to read.

So you've no-doubt heard of — and likely been disgusted by — Topeka's Westboro Baptist Church. They're a group of terrible humans who began protesting against homosexuals, and soon gained despicable notoriety for picketing soldiers' funerals and other high-profile events.

Megan is raised in this wretched environment since birth. Through the 1990s (she's only 6 years old in 1992 when the church first starts protesting), she participates in everything the church, founded by her grandfather, Fred Phelps, does. As the social media era dawns, Megan in her early 20s becomes the church's de facto Twitter guru, even arguing with celebrities like Kevin Smith about the church's doctrine and practices.

But the highlight here is the moment of Megan's catharsis in her late 20s. Not often do you see such a moment of revelation so clearly written. She is painting with her sister, and starts to wonder, in an almost zen-like moment, if what the church is doing to her mother — they're basically shunning her for some imagined transgressions — isn't exactly what the church as a whole is doing to everyone else. And they're doing this based on faulty doctrine. After a bit, she and her sister make the immensely difficult and courageous decision to leave the church and her family.

Near the end of the book, she includes a long discussion about doubt vs. certainty (the benefit of the former, and the danger of the latter), and this was one of my favorite parts of the book. After Megan leaves the church, she travels around speaking about her experience and her moment of revelation, and she finds people mostly forgiving of her. But like Tara Westover in Educated, she can never quite quit her family. This is always so hard to understand. Yes, they're her family, and all she ever known, and she loves them, but also, they subjected her to what amounts to child abuse, raising her in this rigid hateful church.

So then the questions is: How much do you blame someone for the terrible things they did when, for all intents and purposes, they didn't have a choice, they were ostensibly brainwashed? Even though Westboro actually prized education for its members, this idea of insulation is why so many cults fear education — they fear their followers will see the world for how it really is, and not their narrow-minded, tightly controlled indoctrinated view. To me, this is fascinating — how people come to these realizations that the world is different than they'd always been taught. It takes an immense amount of courage to turn your back on a lifetime of belief.

This book is really terrific, and highly recommended if you were a fan of Educated, or if, like me, you're a fan of the "losing my religion" story.

Thursday, December 5, 2019

My 9 Favorite Non-Fiction Books of the 2010s

Last post, we took a look at my favorite novels of the last decade. That list was incredibly hard to pare down to a manageable number. This list, my favorite non-fiction reads from the last 10 years, not so much. That's mostly because I read vastly more fiction than non — probably by a ration of 8 to 1 or so. But still, some of my favorite books of the last decade are memoirs, current events, sociological studies, and more recently, running books. Here, in no particular order, are my 9 favorite non-fiction reads of the last decade.

The Noble Hustle, by Colson Whitehead (2014) — Everyone knows Whitehead now as the purveyor of powerful fiction like The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys. But if you want a more light-hearted, much-funnier Whitehead, read this chronicle of his experience training for and participating in the World Series of Poker. It's so great! This book is my go-to recommendation to any dude who claims he doesn't like fiction but wants a good, engrossing read.

Evicted, by Matthew Desmond (2016) — I read this both because of the ecstatic reviews and its spot on the NY Times 10 Best Books of 2016, but also because I lived in Milwaukee for 10 years and wanted to see what this book had to say about one of favorite cities. It's a stunning read, sad and rage-inducing. The idea here is that shelter should be a human right. But clearly, that is not the case now. Still, reading about it is extremely eye-opening. This IS a book everyone should read.

Becoming, by Michelle Obama (2018)— Powerful, engaging, inspiring, and given the current state of things, heartbreaking. This might be the best memoir I've ever read.

— Educated, by Tara Westover (2018) — I'm so inspired by stories like Westover's about people who were raised in rigorously religious, non-intellectual settings, and managed to overcome that upbringing. Westover's story is a doozy! Imagine not setting foot in a classroom until you're a teenager, but then going forth to eventually earn a doctorate. What was fascinating about this book, too, is that she can never quite quit her family who was so evil to her. That's a theme in a lot of these "losing my religion" memoirs — stop believing, but never give up on family.

26 Marathons, by Meb Keflezighi (2019) — Meb is the rare runner who has crossed over into popular culture. That's because he's a perfectly delightful human. Ever since his win at the Boston Marathon in 2014 (the year after the bombing), Meb has been a gracious ambassador for the sport of running. He retired from racing recently, and has published this book about all his professional races. But it really reads more like a memoir of his running career — his ups and downs, injuries, sponsorships (and not), disappointments, and successes. I got to meet Meb a few years ago and he's as nice in person as he seems in all his interviews (and in this book!)— and it's so great when that happens! Meb! Meb! Meb!

When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanthi (2016) —This is maybe the most difficult book I read this decade. It's the last piece of work by a dying man and it's about his struggle to find meaning in his life. When I wrote about this, I said "It's 220 of the saddest pages I've ever read in my life," and that holds true.

Going Clear, by Lawrence Wright (2013) — Wow! As I said above, I love stories about people bucking their "cult." But in this book, cult is literal — as it's about several people who escaped Scientology. What stood out to me about this book is how much influence, power, and money the Church of Scientology really has. It's terrifying! But knowing is half the battle, and this is an amazing read.

Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself, by David Lipsky (2010) — Duh, right? If you've been here for any amount of time, you probably are aware of my David Foster Wallace fan-boy-ness. And this terrific book about a Rolling Stone writer taking a road trip with DFW as part of his book tour is a rare insight into "everyday DFW." He's just as funny, smart, quick-witted, grouchy, and goofy as he appears in his novels and essays. And I loved the movie adaptation of this book, with Jason Segel as DFW. I still miss DFW (is it weird to miss someone you never met?) and often read a novel thinking, "Man, DFW would've LOVED this book!" Hard to believe he's been gone 11 years.

— Let Your Mind Run, Deena Kastor (2018) — Since fall of 2015, which is when I started running, I've read just about every running book I can get my hands on. This my favorite. Kastor is an Olympic medalist, and world-class marathoner, and her story about her life, and how she's mastered the mental aspects of being an elite runner, has lessons for everyone, not just runners. It's an intensely personal book (Kastor, an avid reader with a BA in English), actually wrote this herself — no ghostwriter here! And so she's really adept at putting you in the shoes and in the head of an elite athlete. I was a huge Kastor fan before this book, and if possible, much more so now.

Thursday, November 21, 2019

My 13 Favorite Novels of the 2010s

At the end of decade, both of great novels and a lot of writing about them (I started this little blog endeavor on Oct. 1, 2009!), let's look back on some of my favorites of the 10 years.

In the last decade, I read 620 books. So obviously, it was EXTREMELY difficult to pare this list to 13 (and this doesn't even consider non-fiction, which are detailed in a separate post). My goal was actually to get down to 10, so I did a first pass, wound up with a list of about 30. Cut that to 20, and then cut it again, but couldn't get it under 13. I just had to include all of these.

These 13 books, which definitely represent my penchant for long novels (more than half of them are over 500 pages!), are in no particular order. If you ask me which of these is my favorite, I may tell you something different on different days. So, here you go — my favorite 13 novels of the 2010s:

Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2013) — Whenever I try to recommend this novel, and I do that frequently because it's a book I think EVERYONE should read, I get tongue-tied and flustered and struggle to find anything intelligent to say. It usually dissolves into, "Here, just read it. You'll love it." And almost everyone has. It has some of the best biting social commentary about race and culture that I read. And it takes pleasure in poking fun at we dumb Americans and our foibles. But it's also just a riveting story of love and culture clash and coming of age. And it's Adichie, so you know it's brilliantly written.

The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell (2014) — It's probably not too often you get emotional at the end of a mind-blowingly bonkers 600-page speculative fiction novel that takes you around the world and through several planes of existence. But with this one, I did. Not because of anything that was happening in the book, necessarily, but because I was so attached to this novel, I didn't want it to end. Remember how people got treated for Avatar-related depression after that movie came out? That's how I felt here. Only David Mitchell could do that with a novel, I think.

Arcadia, by Lauren Groff (2012) — This is definitely not Groff's most well-known or well-liked novel (that would probably be Fates and Furies). But this is still my favorite of hers. And I've read every word she's written, because she's a friggin' genius and one of my favorite writers. Maybe it's because it's the first book of hers I read, but this novel about a hippie commune in upstate New York just left such a lasting impression on me, I had to include it here. It's about authenticity and expectations vs. reality and it's heartbreaking and funny and just so damn good — a literary work of art, indeed.

A Brief History of Seven Killings, by Marlon James (2014) — It took me a long time to talk myself into reading this novel: It certainly has the appearance of difficulty. It has dozens of narrators, dozens of years of narration, Jamaican dialect, Bob Marley, gangsters, drug wars, assassinations, and so much more. But once I found my reading rhythm here, the rest of these 700 pages flew by. I remember thinking the whole time I was reading that this was just like The Wire, only set in Jamaica in the 1970s. Some books you read for the plot, some for the writing. And some you read as an experience. This is one of those.

The Overstory, by Richard Powers (2018) — The most recent novel on my list is probably the toughest sell: It's 500+ pages about trees. But if you're at all interested in the environment, and humans' place on earth, and downright fantastic storytelling and characters, this is a novel you'll love too. One of my favorite quotes from a novel this decade: “This is not our world with trees in it. It's a world of trees where humans have just arrived.” This one's pretty good, too: “The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story.”

Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn (2012) — The novel that launched a thousand copy cats (unreliable narrators, shifting POVs, despicable characters), made having "girl" in the title of any thriller a must for like three years, and made Gillian Flynn a household name certainly deserves every piece of accolade it gets. I remember certain people who know things about books (Rebecca, from Book Riot, for one) absolutely raving about this novel well before its release. And wow, were they right.

Shotgun Lovesongs, by Nickolas Butler (2013) — This novel was the start of what has been one of my favorite literary "friendships" of the past decade. Butler's novels remind me so much of one of my other favorite novelists, Richard Russo. So when I got the chance to meet Butler and have some drinks with him to talk books (he graciously did a reading at RoscoeBooks in August, 2017), I almost fell out of my chair when he said something about how he also loves Russo's books because of how much Russo cares about his characters. EXACTLY! That's exactly what I think about Butler's characters when I read his novels, too: The tenderness and care with which he renders them is so evident, especially in this novel about high school friends returning to their small Wisconsin hometown in their mid-30s. It's about how friendships change over time, and about how music influences our lives. It was a novel I read at just the right moment in my life and it's one of my all-time favorite novels to recommend, too.

A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara (2015) — I'm fairly certain this novel has permanently scarred me. And I'm sure I'm not alone in that. It's funny how whenever you somehow stumble into a conversation about this novel, how the reaction is almost universal: A consternated grunt, a sigh, and an "Oh my god, that book..." Every time I catch a glimpse of the cover art on this book — the guy wincing, seemingly in pain — it's an appropriate reminder of what it's like reading this novel!

The Heart's Invisible Furies, by John Boyne (2017) — Boyne, most famous for his YA novel The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas, had published more than a dozen novels. But it wasn't until I picked this one up, not really knowing what to expect, that I understood his genius as a storyteller. I was blown away. This is a masterpiece. I laughed, I cried, I wondered if Boyne is the new John Irving (to me), to whom Boyne actually dedicated this novel.

Version Control, by Dexter Palmer (2016) — Often, reading outside your "comfort zone" pays huge dividends. I remember picking up this book a little skeptically, not usually a fan of the time travel novel. But because it's also the story of a marriage, I thought I'd give it a shot. And it ended by being one of the best reading experiences of the decade! Yes, it is a time travel novel of sorts, mixed with a story of a marriage, but what stands out most is that it's chock full of ideas touching on philosophy, physics, theology, and how technology impacts everyday life. Palmer pulls off quite the neat trick here: Masking a "novel of ideas" within a really fascinating plot about a marriage going off the rails. Everyone I've talked into reading this somewhat obscure book has loved it, too. I keep hearing from friends, "Have you found anything else like Version Control?" Sadly, I haven't — this novel is wholly unique.

— Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel (2014) — A post-apocalyptic story about the power of art and storytelling? Hell yes, this is a favorite of the decade. "Survival is insufficient!" What good is living if you can't adorn it with art, stories, music, etc.? But what really sticks with me about this novel is its careful, meticulous construction. I was in awe of how St. John Mandel put this novel together, and therefore, what a pleasure it was to read.

The Martian, by Andy Weir (2014) — This was the one book I think I had the most fun with from this list. From the opening line of this novel ("I'm pretty much fucked.") through its harrowing rescue at its end, this novel is just pure reading joy. The combination of 4th grade humor and the actual science — the combination of low- and high-brow — is something I absolutely love in books, specifically, but really any media. And so it was also awesome that the movie version lived up to the fun of this novel — Matt Damon was a near-perfect Mark Watney.

The Nix, by Nathan Hill (2016) — When Book Expo America was in Chicago in 2016, I skipped the George Saunders signing to stand in line for a debut author named Nathan Hill. It was the right decision. Hill's novel is so friggin' good. It's expansive, but feels intimate — I remember thinking that even at 600 pages, I could've read 600 more. But it's so well written and such a smart book. I really can't wait to see what Hill does next. (Plus, he was just such a nice man when I met him!)

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Nothing To See Here: Flamingly Good

Nope, nothing to see here, just some 10-year-old kids on fire. No big deal! If the premise of spontaneously combusting children in Kevin Wilson's awesome new novel Nothing To See Here sounds crazy, that's because it is. But what if I told you that unexplained fire children is only one of several characteristics that make this one of the more fun reading experiences I've had this year? Would that sweeten the deal? Well, it's true!

What stands out here, and why I blazed through this novel in about two days, is how clever and how engrossingly written it is. I've heard it said that Wilson is a "writer's writer," which certainly jibes with how novelist Taffy Brodesser-Akner (whose novel Fleishman Is In Trouble is also terrific) describes Wilson in her glowing NY Times review. She says she loved this "perfect" novel so much it set her back "egregiously" in writing her own. That's about the highest praise you can give a fellow scribbler!

The story is about Lillian, a late-20s, down-on-her-luck woman, who takes a job as a nanny (governess?) for her friend Madison's step-children. Madison's husband is a rich and powerful U.S. Senator, who is about to be nominated for secretary of state. Madison and Lillian had been fast though unlikely friends at an exclusive high school, where Madison, as a privileged rich kid went as a matter of course, but where Lillian had to earn a scholarship. The two have remained pen pals of sorts after an unfortunate incident in which Lillian had to leave the school and go back with her "kind" at public school.

But now, Lillian, who works two jobs at grocery stores in rural Tennessee, and lives with her mother, jumps at the chance to do something different (also to reconnect with Madison), even if that something means taking on a challenge for which she is woefully ill prepared: Nannying spontaneously combusting children.

So what's Wilson up to here? Why flaming children? As Brodesser-Akner mentions in her review, it's clearly a metaphor for...something. She says she was having too much fun reading the novel to put much thought into it. My take is that the "children on fire" idea is just a way to present the children as a unique problem, and then show how rich, privileged people often just throw around money and influence to deal with their problems in ways we plebeians can't.

Privilege and wealth are certainly the undercurrent of this on-the-surface light and funny novel. Rich people have it so much easier: They have available solutions that aren't possible for everyone else, and often with methods that are less-than-ethical or scrupulous. If those problems are, say, children — specifically, children with a strange affliction that might prevent a powerful man from becoming even more powerful — well, then they're just like any other problem: They need to be dealt with. The kids' best interest is secondary to everything else. The fire thing is a good way to make this point less heavy than if the kids had a rare and very sad disease.

Anyway, so Lillian, whose charge is basically to keep the kids under lock and key, works to be the cool adult, trying to earn the kids' trust, all the while trying to minimize the effects of their affliction. They do a lot of swimming, and she reads to them, and they try to convince Carl, a buttoned-up fellow who runs the mansion, to take them on clandestine outings. But then, of course, things go awry, as they're wont to do in novels like this.

I was one of few readers, I think, who wasn't a huge fan of Wilson's previous novel, The Family Fang. And I hadn't really considered reading this new one until Wayne, the manager at RoscoeBooks, said it's the best thing he's read this year. I needed a little change of pace after 700+ pages of logging and labor organizing, and this was just thing. Really loved it!

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Deep River: Karl Marlantes' Deep Dive Into Labor, Logging

One of my favorite historical novelists, Leon Uris, died in 2003, and since he's been gone, I haven't really ever found a historical writer I like as much as I did Uris. His novel Trinity is actually one of my favorites of all time! But with Deep River, Karl Marlantes follows in Uris's footsteps by producing a compelling brick of a novel with unforgettable characters struggling uphill against injustice during a turbulent moment in time.

Marlantes, whose 2010 Vietnam War novel Matterhorn was a huge hit, grew up in the Pacific Northwest. Deep River, is basically telling the story of his family roots there. The novel is about Finnish immigrant loggers in the early 20th century, and one particularly tough woman named Aino who gives up nearly everything for the early awakenings of the labor movement.

Aino escapes Russian rule (though not completely unscathed) in Finland as a teenager, and joins her brothers Ilmari and Matti in Washington state near the Columbia River just after the turn of the century. Her brothers have already set up a home base as loggers and craftsmen, and Aino works to make herself useful while she gets her bearings in this strange new land of opportunity.

Aino is unquestionably the star of this show, as she immediately starts in, organizing the loggers to petition for better working conditions. The loggers work in a terribly dangerous environment, and they can't even get fresh straw to sleep on at night. Aino has successes and failures, both in labor organizing and love, as do her brothers. Marlantes covers about 30 years in their lives in the U.S. — there are births and deaths, tragedies and good times, love and loss. It's a family saga in every sense of the phrase.

I realize 700 pages on logging and labor is a little bit of a tough hang for a lot of readers, but I got really attached to these characters, Aino especially. And that's what kept me picking up this doorstop novel. Highly recommend if, like me, you're a fan of Leon Uris or his ilk.