Monday, September 19, 2022

Book of Extraordinary Tragedies, by Joe Meno: "Family will find a way"

Joe Meno is the best, and his new novel, Book of Extraordinary Tragedies, is another terrifically quintessential Chicago story from him. It's a novel about family and striving and choices, and whether or not anyone is able to escape their fate, their history, their family's past. 

Mitt Romney famously said that if someone really wants to go to college, all he has to do is "borrow money from his parents." For Aleks Fa, who wasn't born on third base thinking he hit a triple, that's not an option. Aleks, a 20-year-old southsider navigating life in a Polish neighborhood with an absent father and a sick mother, is the only thing keeping the rest of his family together - getting his three-year-old niece Jazzy to preschool, looking after his 13-year-old brother Daniel who is having some trouble, and taking his older sister, Isobel, a former music prodigy and math genius, to chemo. It's a lot. 

It's 2008 and the Great Recession is just starting. But to this family that barely scrapes by -- and only then by all helping each other -- the financial collapse barely registers. That's just how the world works, to them. People are poor. They struggle. Money is barely a real thing. So for a family like this, and an extremely likable and root-for-able character like Aleks, is there even a path out of poverty? What if hard work simply is never enough?

Meno gets this just right -- it's a story that feels real and immediate. And there are moments of pure levity -- especially in the relationships between Aleks and Isobel -- two siblings who spend as much time at each others throats as they do genuinely caring for each other.

I really loved this book. I love Meno's insightful writing and how he portrays Chicago. It really has that Chicago gritty feel. I've loved all his books, but this one is my favorite from him. 

Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, by Gabrielle Zevin: Friendship For the Win

Everyone is right. Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, by Gabrielle Zevin is truly extraordinary. It took me a bit to talk myself into reading this novel, because "two friends design video games" just didn't sound like something I'd be interested in. But I'm here to tell you, as someone who doesn't care a whit about video games, if that's also what holding you back from reading this: Give it a shot. Video games are basically the decorative curtains in this novel. And actually I learned a lot about how video games can be their own art form, which was immensely interesting.

Anyway, to bring this point home, and this isn't an original sentiment, but this novel is a lot like Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay in the sense that the story transcends the subject. Like, I didn't care about comic books either, and LOVED that book. And I loved this book too.

Let me throw out another bit of comparison to help arrange this in your mind: This is like The Social Network crossed with Lauren Groff's novel Fates and Furies, only this story is about friendship, not marriage. But like that novel, the themes of creativity, collaboration, and trust are all over this book, too.

Briefest of plot summaries: Two friends, Sam and Sadie, who grew up loving video games, reconnect in college and start a company to make video games together. But as their success grows, their personal friendship becomes increasingly fraught. Will their partnership -- both business and as friends -- survive?

What stands out about this book, other than it being just a great feat of storytelling, is how immersive it is. It is one of those novels that as you read, you get lost, you barely know you're reading. Then it's three hours later. And your eyes hurt a little. 

It's not flawless, but my quibbles are minor -- and they don't take away from just how much fun I had with this, how affecting it is, and just what a great overall reading experience it is. Definitely a favorite of the year.

Thursday, August 25, 2022

Cyclorama, by Adam Langer: Is Understanding the Past Enough to Avoid Repeating It?

"In spite of everything I still believe people are really good at heart."
-- Anne Frank

Is this notion the naivete of youth, or a sentiment that bears out accurately?  As much as history has repeated itself in the last several years, it's often hard to believe that people are really good at heart. That question is the central through-line for Adam Langer's astonishingly agile and immensely entertaining new novel, Cyclorama.

The first half of this novel is about a group of high school kids in the early 1980s in Evanston, Illinois, putting on a play about Anne Frank. They are your typical high school kids. They party, they have crushes and rivalries, and they try to dodge skeevy adults, including their ultra-skeevy drama teacher. 

Then we switch to 34 years later, it's 2016, the Mango Mussolini has just been elected, and we catch up with all these characters again to see how so much of what they experienced in high school informed their adult lives. Some are famous, some have been beaten by life, and some, for better or worse, have simply wound up becoming who they were supposed to be.

This ingenious structure lets Langer explore the idea of history repeating itself, both for all these characters (how did the trauma some of them experience so long ago inform their modern lives? And why are these still important?) and also for the world at large. Langer draws parallels between Anne Frank in 1942 and immigrants in America in 2017 being hunted down and deported. Think just being aware of history means it can't repeat itself? Think again. 

But so are people basically good? This novel doesn't give easy answers. But what a fascinating, immensely entertaining, carefully constructed and executed, and inspiring read. This is near the top of my list of favorites of the year. HIGHLY recommended.

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.