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Thursday, September 12, 2019

Nights In White Castle: Rushin' Through The 1980s

If you enjoy Steve Rushin's particular brand of humor and wit in his articles in Sports Illustrated, there is a 100 percent chance you're going to love his new memoir, Nights In White Castle. I, for one, enjoyed it immensely! But in the interest of full disclosure, beyond the fact that I already love Rushin's stuff, this book held particular allure for me because Rushin is a Marquette alum (I am too!), and part of this memoir is devoted to his four years in college in Milwaukee.

But I loved the rest, too. This memoir is about 10 years of Rushin's teenage and young adult years. We start when he's 13 years old (this is a sequel of sorts to another memoir, Sting-Ray Afternoons, but you don't have to have read the first one), growing up in a rowdy house in suburban Minnesota with two older brothers, one younger one, and a younger sister. He's a bit of a nerd, despite starting for his high school's elite basketball team. He and his buddies always wrap up their weekend nights at White Castle, which Rushin loves, both for the terribly great food, but also for the cross-section of people he sees there. He and his buddies start a basketball tournament in Flip Saunders' back yard called the Saunders Hoops Invitational Tournament (SHIT, for short), and writing about this tournament is his first submission to Sports Illustrated, his dream job.

He matriculates to Marquette in the fall of 1984 and participates in such Marquette rituals as living in the hallowed freshman dorm McCormick Hall nicknamed "The Beer Can," watching (but not participating, at least that he would admit) in the Naked Beer Slide at the bar The Avalanche, and eating late-night Real Chili. Obviously, I loved these parts. The Avalanche closed during my first year at Marquette and I never had a chance to set foot inside (no fake ID for me). Side note: The Avalanche was also one of Chris Farley's favorites during his time at Marquette. It was sure fun to read about its golden age!

After college in Milwaukee, Rushin lands a job as a fact-checker at Sports Illustrated, and is quickly indoctrinated into the fast-paced world of New York City, consumer magazines, and sports scene of the late 1980s and early 1990s. It's quite the whirlwind! 

But so, this is book entertaining as hell, whether or not you're particularly interested in basketball, or Milwaukee, or the suburbs of Minnesota, or the 1980s, or magazine writing. Luckily for me, I'm interested in most of these things. And so I loved it.


Friday, September 6, 2019

Wanderers: It's the End of the World As We Know It

If there's a cooler, more fun, more terrifyingly accurate to our times, more immersive book out this year than Chuck Wendig's new novel Wanderers...well, there's not. This book is incredible — an 800 page novel that's at once a tribute to Stephen King's classic The Stand, but also wholly its own thing. While it is an end-of-the world novel, it feels fully possible, fully real. That's true because Wendig is terrific at conveying how messed up our current society is. The truth these days may be stranger than fiction, but Wendig is brilliant at fictionalizing the zeitgeist to match the craziness of the real world today.

The main question we start with is, given the fractured nature of our current moment, what would cause it to break? A mysterious affliction takes over a number of people, who basically begin sleepwalking in a pack — they don't react to any stimulus, don't have to stop for food or the bathroom, and are basically "locked in" to their sleepwalking. Constantly, they head west. A group of "shepherds" — family members of the ever-growing flock, including our protagonist Shana, whose sister, Nellie, is the first sleepwalker, follow the flock to protect them.

Meanwhile, it's an election year, and the culture wars are in full throat, as a Trump-like candidate named Creel attacks President Hunt, a decidedly Hillary Clinton-like figure, for being "weak" on the sleepwalkers. He stirs up his base by arguing the sleepwalkers should be wiped out because they represent a security risk, they're the tool of the devil, etc. Sound familiar? And the crazies fall in line, including a rural Indiana preacher named Matthew, who is sort of co-opted into a celebrity when he makes a particularly damning homily against the flock. One of his parishioners, a guy named Ozark, who is a gun-toting far-right-winger, and who will play a more prominent and nefarious role later in the novel, also brings Matthew into his fold.

So the sleepwalkers are the catalyst for an advanced stage of the culture wars. But the question really is: What's causing the sleepwalkers to sleepwalk? Is it a mysterious comet that passed over? Is it a disease? Are they actually demonic robots? No one knows, but it's up to a disgraced CDC scientist named Benjamin Hunt to find out. Through a mysterious woman named Sadie, he's introduced to an artificial intelligence, Black Swan. Sadie led the team that designed Black Swan to gather data from all over the world to predict disease outbreaks before they turn into epidemics.

But then, in addition to the sleepwalker syndrome, a mysterious fungal infection pops up, and begins to spread rapidly! This only adds fuel to the fire of a society that is already breaking down. How are the sleepwalkers related, if at all, to this new disease? Will Benjamin and Sadie be able to stop them in time?

That's really the bare bones of this plot. There is SO much more to this book, highlighted by Wendig's writing, which is so much to fun to read. If you don't already follow him on Twitter, do that now. This this book certainly reflects his Twitter persona, which is about as entertaining as it gets. But beyond that, there are lot of thorny questions here about religion and science, belief and facts, and about the increasingly contentious culture wars. Wendig isn't interested in answers about what'll bring us back together. Rather, he wants to stress test our already fragile culture. And here he has a few answer for what will finally break it.

I read the last 300 or so pages of this novel in two sittings. Could not put it down. I can't recommend it more highly — definitely a contender for my favorite book of this year.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Chances Are...: Russo Goes Literary Mystery!

Richard Russo is back! Woohoo! Chances Are... is his first stand-alone novel in 10 years, after the sequel Everybody's Fool in 2016, a short story collection, and some essays. The new novel is something wholly unique for Russo — a literary mystery! But it's also unmistakably him. His warm, inviting, dad-humor style is on full display here, even as he's building suspense.

The story is about three lifelong friends — Lincoln, Teddy, and Mickey — who gather at Lincoln's cottage on Martha's Vineyard for one last hurrah before he sells it. The three, now 66 years old, had a similar weekend 44 years earlier, in 1971, just after graduating college, only that time they had a fourth: A beautiful, enigmatic woman named Jacy, with whom they were all in love.

But then Jacy disappeared. And as the three friends gather again, they're each haunted in different ways by the mystery, never solved, of her disappearance. Lincoln starts poking around with the local police. Teddy revisits some spots on the island for nostalgia's sake. And Mickey, well, Mickey is just as enigmatic as Jacy was — a Harley-riding rock star, he is a bit different than his two buttoned-down buddies, Lincoln a successful real estate agent and Teddy, who's lived a quiet life as the head of small indie press.

As always, Russo's care for his characters is readily apparent. And that makes this a terrific read, as is the case with all his books. Frankly, this'll likely go down as a "minor novel" when we're all looking back at his distinguished career. He makes some odd choices in the last third as we hurdle toward the resolution of the mystery. Still, though, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this. He's always a must-read for me and this novel, while certainly a middle-tier book for him, is still a must-read if you're a Russo fan, too.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Fleishman Is In Trouble: A Tale of Divorce and Marriage

Just when you think everything that could possibly be done with the "traditional" marriage/divorce novel has been done, there's this: Journalist Taffy Brodesser-Akner's debut novel about a couple in New York City. It's a story that feels fresh and original, and it's utterly engrossing and often very, very funny.

Fleishman Is In Trouble is a novel primarily about marriage, yes. But it also takes on themes of ambition, modern parenting, gender roles both in marriage and the workplace, and life-long friendships and how they change. Is it fair or right that an ambitious woman who spends 80 hours a week at the office is often considered a poor parent? Is it fair or right that a man who handles the primary parenting responsibilities is considered to be lacking professional ambition? And when these questions create friction in a marriage, is it fair to even try to assign blame?

As the novel opens, Toby Fleishman, an early-40s successful NYC doctor and his wife Rachel, a VERY successful NYC talent agent are getting divorced. Their 15-year marriage has crumbled amidst pressures of jobs, kids, finances, and more, as marriages are wont to do. Rachel is a fiercely ambitious aspiring social climber, endeavoring to make nice with all the moneyed couples of New York. She works constantly, building from scratch her own talent agency after being passed over for a promotion (probably either because she was pregnant, or because she rejected the advances of her boss) at a former job. It's hard out there for a woman in the workplace!

Toby, meanwhile, has taken on the primary parenting duties, even amidst his busy schedule as a doctor. Most women would be pleased as punch being married to a successful doctor, but not Rachel. She constantly chides the fact that Toby's ambition doesn't match her own. His meager $235,000 salary isn't enough to help them build the life they "deserve" amongst NYC's elite, she thinks. So she takes matters into her own hands, getting him a job offer at a pharmaceutical company for a million-plus per year. But he promptly turns it down and is even angry she thinks he'd take it, having to compromise every reason he became a doctor in the first place. This episode is one of the nails in the coffin for their marriage.

But then, back in the real-time of the story, Rachel just disappears! She drops off the kids one morning for Toby's weekend, and heads to a yoga retreat, but doesn't come back. And she doesn't answer her phone. And her assistant won't say where she is. This is inconvenient for Toby for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it cramps his newfound style of dating and having sex with several women's thanks to the wonders of technology and his success with Tinder-like dating apps. And here we have another of the double-standards the novel takes some glee in pointing out: Is it fair that the nerdy, unsuccessful-with-women Toby has overcorrected to become a sort of playboy? Would society look down on a woman who does the same thing? And why does society look down on Rachel, who has also overcorrected from her childhood of being poor to want a lifestyle of excess and wealth?

All the while, the novel takes on an interesting trick of narration, which frankly, takes a minute to get used to, but ultimately works extremely well. The story is being told to us, almost as a long magazine profile, by Toby's college friend Libby who makes frequent appearances in the novel as well. Libby is a former magazine journalist who has quit her job to raise her kids. At one point, as Libby reflects on her on career, and how she was successful writing profiles of men for men's magazines (Brodesser-Akner also writes for GQ and ESPN Magazine), she discusses how she was able to finesse out these men's stories, but also tell her own between the lines. And that's what this whole novel feels like — it's Toby's story, but there is Libby constantly between the lines, relating her own challenges, and the challenges of many women, with gender issues in the workplace, and with parenting and marriage.

So as Toby continues to struggle with Rachel's disappearance, we are riveted to find out what happened to her — and of course we do, and when we do, her story just adds another layer of complexity to all these issues that aren't easy to parse in the first place.

This is such an engrossing story, and as smart and insightful as it is about so many contemporary issues, it's also very often laugh out loud funny. Brodesser-Akner loves making fun of the self-serious NYC moms who wear a never-ending supply of workout tank tops with flashy slogans like "Spiritual Gangster" and "Eat Sleep Spin Repeat" And she talks about Toby's online dating and sex life with unflinchingly hilarious insight. But read this both because it's funny, but also just a really great, incredibly well-written modern story. Very highly recommended!

Thursday, July 11, 2019

My 5 Favorite Books of 2019 ... So Far

It's been a great year in reading so far! Three of my top five favorite books of 2019 are actually non-fiction, which is fairly unusual for me. But in addition to the two fantastic novels that made the list, several other novels (Recursion, by Blake Crouch; Little Faith by Nickolas Butler) are just barely on the outside looking in. Here's my list of my top five favorites of 2019 so far:


5. 26 Marathons, by Meb Keflezighi — Meb! Meb! Meb! If you're a runner or follow sports at all, Meb is no-doubt pretty high on your list of favorite athletes. In this terrific book, the Boston and New York Marathon champion and Olympic medalist details each of his 26 professional marathons, explaining how each race is unique, and what he's learned from each one. You'd think this has the potential to be repetitive — but it's not at all. It reads more like a continuous memoir of Meb's professional running career (with plenty from his personal life thrown in too), rather than a race-by-race account. I may never run a 2:10 marathon (or even a 3:10), but Meb's advice is infinitely useful to every amateur runner and his stories are infinitely inspiring. Go Meb! (Side note: My wife and I met Meb at a running store event a few years ago — and I am happy to report that he is an absolutely delightful human. Which is so refreshing.)

4. Daisy Jones & The Six, by Taylor Jenkins Reid — If one of the reasons you read is to have fun, then you have to read this novel. I haven't had more fun with a book in a long time. Told in an oral history format (with a very Behind the Music vibe), the novel tells the story of the rise and fall of the eponymous 70s rock band, Daisy Jones & The Six. But this inventive book is deeper than just the sordid details of sex, drugs, and rock'n'roll. There's a lot here that's fascinating about the nature of inspiration, collaboration, and art.

3. Save Me The Plums, by Ruth Reichl — Part foodie memoir, part memoir of what it's like to run a high-level consumer magazine at the height of consumer magazines, I loved this book — my first time reading Reichl (who, as I learned during and after reading this, has a passionate following). It's a quick read, and really helped me appreciate both the foodie's passion for food, and also the writer's passion for the written word.

2. Falter, by Bill McKibben — Definitely the least cheery thing I've read this year so far, even so, McKibben is always a must-read for me. Here, he tackles climate change, artificial intelligence, and gene hacking to show that humanity may be in some pretty serious trouble. But McKibben is hopeful, too, and naturally offers solutions to our biggest problems. He's a really engaging writer, even when he's gloomy.

1. The Most Fun We Ever Had, by Claire Lombardo — This is the book of the summer so far — it's everywhere. We can't keep it in stock at RoscoeBooks, and 99.9 percent of people who have read it have loved it. Me included. Even with some stiff competition coming out later this year (new Ann Patchett, Colson Whitehead, Richard Russo, etc.), it'll be hard to beat this novel for my overall favorite of 2019.