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Tuesday, July 3, 2018

My 5 Favorite Books of 2018...So Far

Dear authors: More of the same for the rest in 2018, please. The first half sure has been phenomenal. Here's a list of my five favorites so far this year.



5. Florida, by Lauren Groff — A collection of short stories, sometimes linked, sometimes stand-alone, that easily cements Groff as one of my favorite, must-read writers. If you'd have told me I'd enjoy a collection of stories about motherhood and living in Florida as much as I did this one, I'd say you must live in Florida. But Groff is the rare writer whose care for her characters infuses her reader with that same care, no matter the subject.

4. An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones — What a profound, innovative take on marriage. Jones's novel never takes the easy way out — she makes some incredibly brave choices. That includes an ending that just left me floored. It's morally complex, it's beautifully rendered, it's just fantastic.

3. Let Your Mind Run, by Deena Kastor — This isn't just one of the best running books I've read this year, it's one of the best books period. Kastor — an Olympic medalist in 2004 in the marathon, and the American record-holder in the marathon — chronicles how she's mastered both the mental and physical aspects of running in this deeply personal, passionate memoir. And it IS memoir — telling the stories of her earliest running life to college to turning pro and success as an Olympian and Chicago and London Marathon champion. It's a hugely inspiring read, and a must if you're a runner.

2. The House of Broken Angels, by Luis Alberto Urrea — This story of a family in San Diego that gathers for one last birthday party for their dying patriarch is just riveting. It's a novel that's brimming with life, colorful characters, and deep insight into we quirky humans.

1. The Overstory, by Richard Powers — Yes, it's a 500-page novel about trees. And yes, it's that friggin' phenomenal. I know, again, it's hard to believe a novel about trees could be so entertaining and memorable. But this one is. I intensely loved this book about humans and their place in nature. It really has forced me to examine the world around me with new perspective.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Neverworld Wake: Testing The Boundaries of Friendship...and the World

Marisha Pessl's first foray into YA fiction yields an entertaining, inventive, fast-paced story about the limits of friendship, secrets, and how those friendships influence your world. Similar to her much ballyhooed debut novel, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, the plot for Neverworld Wake is about a group of private-school kids trying to parse a mysterious death. But there's quite a wrinkle this time.

Our narrator Beatrice's magnetic boyfriend Jim died a year ago under mysterious circumstances, and Beatrice is still devastated. Jim's death was ruled a suicide but no one really believed that. After a year away at college, Beatrice returns to her small Rhode Island hometown, and goes to meet her four former friends who she hasn't seen or talked to since Jim died. They go out drinking and seem to all get along again, ostensibly beginning to repair these friendships that Beatrice realizes she'd desperately missed.

But then, near tragedy! They narrowly miss getting in a spectacular car accident on the way home. Or do they? That night, a weird old guy named The Keeper shows up at the door, and tells them they're sort of maybe dead? Are they? What's happening? It turns out to be true! They find themselves trapped in a timeless limbo between life and death, re-living the same 11 hours over and over again. This so-called Neverworld Wake, they're informed, is an amalgamation of how each sees the world; each of them brings a unique influence to this new reality.

And so, imagine how much the limits of your friendships would be tested if you have to live the same day over and over again, with the same five people. They all deal in different ways, as Pessl slowly unveils to us the "rules" of this new world — the main one being that each night before the wake starts over, they're supposed to vote on which one of them (and it can only be one and the vote must be unanimous) will return to life in the real world. The rest will die.

Eventually, after 10 (or 10 million?) wakes, they come to the realization that continuing to investigate Jim's death must be the key to solving the Neverworld Wake (though it's never really clear why this is so — one my main quibbles with this novel I mostly enjoyed. There's more than a few plot holes and a bit of deus ex machine to boot. But I'm not trying to be a jerk about it).

But as they come closer to solving the mysteries of the wake — including how they've all personally influenced how the wake acts and its "rules" — they also come closer to solving Jim's death. Each carries with him or her a secret that is related.

So one of the main lessons of the story is that just like each of these characters' personalities and talents, their flaws and foibles, literally influences the Neverwold Wake, so also do these things influence how a friendship looks and reacts and survives in the real world. My favorite quote from the novel, that brings this point home really profoundly:
“We are all anthologies. We are each thousands of pages long, filled with fairy tales and poetry, mysteries and tragedy, forgotten stories in the back no one will ever read.” 
As with her first two novels, Pessl displays her supreme talent here — she's really just a magnificent craftswoman as a writer. I don't read much YA — and frankly, have no idea what makes a novel a YA novel; why was this YA, but Special Topics In Calamity Physics was not? — but I enjoyed this. It's a quick, engrossing read and despite its flaws, is really smart, as well.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Florida: Groff's Short Stories on Storms, Snakes, Motherhood, and Malaise

Good news, Lauren Groff fans: She is just as entertaining and smart a short story writer as she as a novelist. Not that I was worried. But her newest short story collection, Florida is terrific. Thematically linked by storms and snakes, motherhood, Mother Nature, and general malaise, these stories are elegant, emotionally resonant, and totally engrossing.

Five of these stories include the same character we know only as "the mother." The mother bears more than a passing literary resemblance to Groff herself — she lives in Florida, is a writer, is from upstate New York, and has two small boys. These five stories are all about how her interface with the world is different now that she's in charge of someone else's life. She's struggles to come to terms with what can be controlled and what can't. There are panthers and snakes, sinkholes and ever-worsening storms — all symbols for the perils of the world from which she tries to protect her sons. But the mother never seems quite comfortable with motherhood, marriage, or people in general. And that's what makes these stories so fascinating.

In "Flower Hunters," for instance, a story about the mother sitting on her porch reading an 18th century naturalist while her husband has taken her sons Trick-or-Treating, Groff writes that the mother "is frightened that there aren't many people on the earth she can stand." I loved this story for its intimate moments of self-reflection. "Stop waiting for someone to save you, humanity can't even save itself! she says aloud to the masses of princesses seething in her brain; but it is her black dog who blinks in agreement." That's Groff at her finest — a mix of humor and a somewhat despairing truth in the same sentence.

The six-non-mother stories are also equally intriguing, all in their own ways. There are two abandoned girls stranded on an island. There is a homeless college student. There's a woman visiting her rich best friend in France. And more...

There are general themes of abandonment, nagging sadness or malaise, and just general uneasiness with life throughout all these stories, but they're still engaging and often laugh-out-loud funny in spots. Groff is so adept at plumbing our quirks and stranger qualities, and rendering them sympathetically.

Groff is always a must-read for me. Indeed, my Lauren Groff fandom is well-documented. Groff could write about watching paint drying while doing income taxes, and I'd still be riveted. And I was here too. Highly recommended!

Thursday, June 7, 2018

The Overstory: What Is Our Place In This World?

Look, I realize talking you into a 500-page novel about trees could be a tough sell. But what if I told you that Richard Powers' new novel The Overstory could quite literally change your life. It's that powerful; as immense and magisterial as the trees it's about. If the measure of a good novel is one that gets you to see the world differently, or think more openly, then this is an absolute masterpiece. Powers writes: “The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story.”

And wow, is this a good story. Through the interconnected tales of nine characters, Powers asks us to really think about our place in the world. How should humans see where they belong in nature, much of which has obviously been here long before humans were? Indeed, near the end of the novel, Powers presents us with the famous thought experiment: If the time frame of the Earth's existence is thought of as a 24-hour day, humans in our current form have only arrived four seconds before midnight. Four seconds! 

And so thinking in those terms helps you frame the central question about our place in the world generally but living symbiotically with nature specifically. As Powers writes, "This is not our world with trees in it. It's a world of trees where humans have just arrived." I don't know about you, but I get chills when I think about that. If you've read the brilliant novel Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn, a an oft-cited, foundational piece of environmental literature, Powers' message here builds on an idea presented in that story as well: That we are made for nature, not nature for us.

But it should be made clear that this novel isn't just 500 pages of high-minded environmentalism. It's a fascinating story of people, each of whom is affected by trees in different ways. We spend the first 150 pages meeting each character, in a summary of how each got to the starting line of the story. And then the story starts — and what a story!

An artist and a college student who has a near-death experience find each other and their way into activism — spending several months living in a tree. A woman named Patricia spends her entire life studying trees, and is constantly amazed at how trees in a forest protect each other and can even communicate. She writes a hugely influential book title The Secret Forest that finds its way into the hands of all the other characters at some point. A computer programmer named Neelay falls out of a tree as a young boy, is paralyzed, and then spends his life building computer games in which players can inhabit a fully digital world. There's a psychologist who studies activists, a married couple, and a young Chinese-American woman who spends the novel shifting career paths several times.

All of these characters' intersect with each other at some point in the story, mimicking the idea that not only are we all connected in some way or another, but so is nature. But one of the more interesting character-driven aspects of the story is the role of activism. What causes a person to become an activist, to see what others don't or can't or refuse to? And further, what causes that activist to turn violent? At what point does a person talk himself into the ends justifying the means?

I intensely loved this book. And it's not just me — it has an average rating of 4.38 on Goodreads, which is nearly Harry Potter-level high. And Ron Charles, The Washington Post's book critic, says The Overstory "soars up through the canopy of American literature and remakes the landscape of environmental fiction," among many other very nice things. Every year or so, there's a novel for which I become a borderline-annoying book evangelist. This one is it. Read it!

(If you want to read a long exegesis of this novel, Nathaniel Rich, whose novel King Zeno I really enjoyed as well, wrote this piece in the most recent issue of The Atlantic. He's firm and fair and points out some of the flaws and potential logical shortcomings in Powers' argument. But my issue with Rich's piece is that I never got a sense of the simple question of whether or not he liked the novel.)


Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Heart Spring Mountain: Rediscovering a Sense of Place and History

Robin MacArthur's slim, elegant short story collection published in 2016 — Half Wild — surprised me in how much I liked it. And she pulled off a similar trick with her debut novel, Heart Spring Mountain. The story of three generations of women isn't something I'd normally leap at. But I liked MacArthur's style enough in her short stories (and her environmentalism — check out this interview in the Chicago Review of Books) enough to give her debut novel a try.

I loved it.

Like the stories in Half Wild, the setting for this story is rural Vermont — specifically a hillside where this family has lived for 200 years.

Vale is a mid-20s woman who actually doesn't live in her childhood rural Vermont anymore. Instead, she has been living in New Orleans, bartending and stripping to make ends meet. And she's lost her sense of her roots, though she may not quite realize it. She had left Vermont after high school, and hasn't been back in the eight years since after a falling out with her drug-addicted mother, Bonnie.

As the novel begins, Bonnie disappears during Tropical Storm Irene. It's late August, 2011, and Vale returns to Vermont, reluctantly, to try to find her. While there, and living in a ratty old camper on the family's property, Vale begins to research her family history, piquing her curiosity more and more as she discovers more, and furthering her sense of who she is now and where she came from.

MacArthur writes in short chapters from the perspective of different characters at different times. Vale's grandmother Lena is a fascinating character — an eccentric, living by herself in a small cabin on the mountain, and owning a pet owl, as well as one big secret that will wind up having a profound affect on Vale.

Deb is Vale's aunt who lived on hippie commune for a while in the 1970s, married Vale's uncle Stephen, and now takes care of Vale's grant aunt and Lena's sister Hazel, whose health is failing. Hazel still lives in the house that was built more than 200 years ago. The relation between all the characters is a little confusing for a bit, but once you understand who everyone is and how they're related (I drew myself a little family tree), the story unfolds much more easily.

And again, as with MacArthur's short stories, the strength here is her description of place and her evocative, poetic writing. But her style can also be powerful, especially in Vale's case. She carries a depth of emotion that seethes beneath the surface. Something about MacArthur's writing, I just connect with; it's soothing, like the best stress reliever. So even though the pace is a bit deliberate, and not a tremendous amount actually happens, it's a novel I can't stop thinking about and can't recommend more highly if you're like me and love novels in which place is as much a character as the characters themselves.