Thursday, May 9, 2024

Here Are My 13 Favorite Novels Since 1989

Ah yes, I love a good book list! Who doesn't? In March of this year, The Atlantic published a list of "the great American novels." Not one to be outdone, the NY Times recently published its list of best books of the 2000s. 

As much as I love a book list, I love a good trend, too. So I made my own book list to follow the trend. Below is a list of my favorite 13 novels since 1989. Why 1989? Why 13? No particular reasons -- they're just as arbitrary as those other two lists, aren't they? (But picking 1989 did allow me to include my favorite John Irving novel, Owen Meany, so let's go with it.) 

As always, I'm not claiming these are the BEST books of the last 35 years. What I'm claiming is that these are my favorites -- the books that left the greatest impression on me and made the greatest impact on both my reading life and my LIFE-life. Enjoy!

A Brief History of Seven Killings, by Marlon James -- This novel is just brutally violent, but so incredibly magnetically readable, even with dozens of characters, the Jamaican dialect, shifting narrators, shifting loyalties among the characters, and so many other "complications," it's still easy totally immerse yourself in. My friend Mike loves this book so much he has a tattoo of the bird on the cover on his arm, if that's any indication of how good it is. 

White Teeth, by Zadie Smith -- Zadie's 2000 debut was a vibe. Everyone was reading it! I didn't get to it until August 2005, and then I wouldn't shut about it. Also, this novel hooked me on all things Zadie, and I currently sit as a proud Zadie Smith Completist. Also, Zadie is the author of one my favorite but most awkward but totally charming author-meeting-moments ever. At a signing, I was wearing a Marquette basketball T-shirt, and when I got to the front of the line, Zadie goes, "ohhhh, do you play Marquette basketball?" Me, an unathletic 5'9" white guy. I just laughed and told her no, I was only a fan. 

The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen -- The year is 2001, I'd just gotten my first "real" job out of college, which allowed me to get an apartment on my own, as well. I was an absolutely insufferable pretentious 20-something, and I was still sure I was eventually destined for literary greatness. I grew an extremely regrettable goatee and started frequenting arty coffeeshops to read and sometimes write. I mention this sad anecdote because The Corrections was the book that kicked off this trend for me. Peripheral events aside, I really loved the book (and still do) and started trying to write like Franzen. Which I couldn't do and still can't and I'm not sure I want to. 

Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie -- I read this in 2013, not too long after it initially came out, and it was one of those amazing reading experiences -- one of those we always quest after as readers -- that cracked the world wide open for me. They say reading books imbues readers with empathy, and that's what this book did for me. I didn't know what I didn't know about race before reading this.

Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace -- The sky is blue, water is wet, and I'm a GenX white guy who loves David Foster Wallace. 😎 I actually didn't read Infinite Jest, though, until 2008 after DFW had committed suicide, which probably made for a vastly different reading experience than if I'd read before I knew all about his battle with depression. I've been meaning for years to do a reread. Anyone want to join me?

The History of Love, by Nicole Krauss -- Not to get all mushy, but I read this in May 2016 when my now-wife and I had first started dating when I was feeling all the warm and fuzzies of new love. This book is an example of a reading experience that arrived at EXACTLY the right time. It's not even really a love story, but it does have some of the most profound and thought-provoking passages about love and art and what it means to live. 

A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving -- This was the first novel I literally stayed up all night to read, finishing it as the winter light began peaking through the window one early January morning. I love this book intensely, and think often about how it wrestles with questions of fate and free will. Plus Irving is (or at least was) an absolutely master storyteller. 

The Power of One, by Bryce Courtenay -- Why did I, a person who cares not for boxing, love a novel about a South African boxer so much? I honestly still don't know. But I did. I distinctly remember reading this at a coffee shop in Milwaukee in early fall of 2004, while the baristas had Oasis's debut album on, and me getting chills because I was loving reading this so much. That's another type of reading experience that we always look forward to as readers -- a "reader's high."

The Brothers K, by David James Duncan -- Depending on what day you ask me and what mood I'm in, there's at least a 75 percent chance I'll say this is my favorite novel of all time. It's a long family saga with a healthy dose of baseball. I read this a few months after I'd moved to Chicago in 2008, and I was struggling a little bit at the time, wondering if I'd made the right choice. I had, but this novel helped me through that tough time. 

Fates and Furies, by Lauren Groff -- Lauren Groff is one of my top three favorite writers (probably my favorite, actually), and I always vacillate between Fates and Furies and Arcadia as my favorite of her novels. This novel is how you do a marriage story -- an inventive structure and a complete turning of expectations on their heads. 

Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn -- Whoa! I had no idea a thriller could be like this! This is another novel -- the book that launched a thousand copycats and a cottage industry of novels with "Girl" in the title -- that cracked my reading life wide open. I never read many so-called thrillers until this book. To me, this novel is like Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit -- it's a popular piece of art that may not rouse the passions of stuffy critics, but nevertheless, it changed the world. I still love this book without an ounce of shame, and I can say without irony that I liked it before it was cool -- having read it the day it came out in June 2012.

This Is Where I Leave You, by Jonathan Tropper -- This was one of the first novels I read and then reviewed at The New Dork Review of Books way back in ... wait for it ... 2009! I honestly had no idea books could be this funny. After reading this, I immediately devoured all of Tropper's backlist, and discovered how much I loved this goofy genre dubbed "dude lit."

American Pastoral, by Philip Roth -- I read the fall of my senior year in college (okay, it was my second senior year -- hey, some of us need five) while I was suffering through a break-up. I remember constantly thinking as I read this -- the second time I'd read Roth (and I've read him more than a dozen times since) -- that, you know what, my life isn't that bad. It could always be worse. I could be Swede. 

So there you have it: Thirteen books, each that literally changed my life. It sure was fun thinking about these books again, and as importantly, what I was doing and where I was in life when I read them. 

Wednesday, May 1, 2024

2024 is One-Third Over, Here Are My Favorite Books So Far

Four months into 2024, and I already have what will be my favorite novel the year, the novel I've already been an annoying evangelist for, and the non-fiction book I recommend with no hesitation to anyone "just looking for a good read." With new novels from Claire Lombardo, Haruki Murakami, Garth Risk Hallberg, and many other huge names scheduled for the remaining months, 2024 promises to only get better. But let's take a second and review where we are at the one-third mark. 

Three Favorite 2024 Books...So Far

3. Martyr!, by Kaveh Akhbar -- Immense. An absolutely brilliant debut novel. This story is about an Iranian immigrant searching for meaning in art, drugs, booze, love, and his past. I can't do this book justice in a few pithy sentences. It's my favorite of the year so far, and unless the next eight months produces something cataclysmically good, this will be No. 1 in December, too. 

2. There's Always This Year, by Hanif Abdurraqib -- Reading Abdurraqib is a wholly singular experience, and this is my favorite of all of his fantastic books. You don't have to know anything about LeBron or the Fab Five to enjoy this book about basketball, his life, social justice, police brutality, racism, and about a million other topics -- wherever his mind wanders. And it's so much fun to follow him. 

1. Perris, California, by Rachel Stark -- Deeply moving, deeply disturbing, and immensely readable. This is about a salt-of-the-earth family just trying to get by in a small California town, all the while dealing with past trauma. It's a really heavy read, but really accomplished. This is the 2024 book I'll spend the rest foisting upon readers. I loved it a lot! 

Three Favorite Non-2024 Books I Read in 2024...So Far

3. Appleseed, by Matt Bell -- Three separate timelines thousands of years apart converge and complement each other in this hugely imaginative cli-fi novel. 

2. Music For Wartime, by Rebecca Makkai -- One of the better short story collections I've read in a long time, Makkai really showcases the power of being concise -- how a FULL and complete and ENGAGING story can be created in just a few (or few dozen) pages. 

1. Biography of X, by Catherine Lacey -- Making art is about making choices. A life dedicated to art means making MILLIONS of choices. Not every choice will be successful. Not even MOST choices will be successful. Catherine Lacey definitely made enough successful choices though to create a truly unique piece of art with this novel. It's novel that explores the nature of art, the purpose of art, how art is made, the effects of making art, and how art is judged. This was a best book of 2023 just about everywhere, and it's worthy of all its accolades -- if, like all good art, it has its flaws, as well. Still, you likely haven't read anything quite like this. Quite a ride.

Three New Articles for Chicago Review of Books

1. How I Found My Way Back to Writing -- This essay published in January is about how I returned to writing fiction. 

2. Developing Connections in Paul Yamazaki's Reading the Room -- A review of a really special little book distilling 50 years of bookselling knowledge from one of the absolute titans of the bookselling world.

3. 5 Books by Booksellers about Bookselling -- A listicle that is pretty much exactly what the headline says. 

One Last Thing to Note:

For the first time in 15 years, I changed my Twitter handle. It's @GRZimmerman, if for some reason, you're still over on that dumpster fire train wreck hellscape that is Twitter. Here's the thing about Twitter, though: I still love it, lumps and all. If you don't stray too far from your carefully curated literary bubble, Twitter can still be fun. Find me there, if you're still there, too. 

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 DivorcĂ©es, 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.