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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.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Doxology: On Gen Xers, Millennials, Art, Music, and Politics

I've heard it said that Nell Zink is a bit of an acquired taste. Over the course of a late-blooming career spanning several novels, (she was "discovered" by The Franzen from a letter she wrote to him about birds) she has developed a rabid base of passionate fans. But there are also many detractors: She's been called too eccentric, too nontraditional, too weird.

To me, though, her books have always sounded fascinating, but I'd never read her until now. Her latest novel, Doxology is really strong, even if a bit different from your standard contemporary fiction fare, or even her own backlist. Ron Charles in the Washington Post  wrote that Doxology felt like Zink trying "to behave at the dinner table." If this is Zink behaving, I definitely can't wait to find out what she's like when she's not! 

She is, on a line-by-line dialogue basis, one of the funnier, more clever writers I've read in a long time. Her rapid-fire exchanges are Sorkin-esque, except if Sorkin had a demented, irreverent sense of humor. For example, early in the novel, Zink has two of her characters worrying about a possible pregnancy they may not be ready for. The woman concludes with "I should get a pregnancy test. Maybe it's just ovarian cancer." ... as if she's HOPING it's ovarian cancer instead of pregnancy. If you think that's funny, and I howled laughing when I read that, you'll probably love this book too. Every bit of dialogue is like this. You have to pay attention, or it'll zing right over your head.

Thematically, the novel is a really interesting look at art, music, politics, and the differences in how Gen X and Millennials seem to drift through and collide with the world. The first part is about Gen Xers Joe, Daniel, and Pam, who meet in the late 1980s in New York City because of a shared interest in music. They write 'zines, they play in bands, they meet up on Saturday nights to listen to records. It's not long before Daniel and Pam are dating (and Pam is pregnant). Joe — a prolific songwriter, but something of an odd fellow, who feels no shame, and doesn't seem to know when he annoys people — actually begins to garner some outside attention for his music. Daniel and Pam carefully manage Joe's careful ascension to fame, and helps him navigate the tricky music world.

Then, 9/11. And everything changes,. Not just because of the horrific terrorist attacks, but also because of a tragedy in the lives of this trio. From here, the novel shifts from a story about Joe, Pam, and Daniel to a story about Pam and Daniel's daughter, Flora, who is 9 years old at the time of the attacks. Growing up in the post-9/11 world, and shuttling between life in New York and her grandparents' in Washington, D.C., Flora develops an innate idealism and hopes to change the world. But as she makes her way, this idealism is constantly challenged by the amount of cynicism and corruption she seems to find. 

Flora is 24 as the 2016 election rolls around, and she begins working for the Green Party, and campaigning for Jill Stein (this, after a brief, unsuccessful stint at Sierra Club, where she realized how little difference she was making). She dates a much-older Democratic consultant who warns everyone, to deaf ears, about the real danger of Donald Trump. But working for Jill Stein again makes her confront her idealism: She believes in the Green Party, but of course, it's a third-party with no real chance to win. And so, as she realizes she may be siphoning off Hillary votes, and handing the election to Trump, she has some tough choices to make. Add to that some personal relationshiop drama, and you have a Zink-ian character nearing the end of her rope.

As you might expect, nothing wraps up cleanly. But the journey through these 400 messy, meandering pages is a blast. I thoroughly enjoyed this because of Zink's wicked sense of humor and the fact that her narrative just seems to go where it will. I mean, the plot is linear time-wise, but you sort of get the sense that Zink sits down to write and lets the plot run its course. There's no outlining here. I'm really glad I finally dove in with Zink, and this is highly recommended if you're up for a modern novel that takes on a lot of our current issues in an amusingly profane way.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

All This Could Be Yours: Toxic Masculinity, Toxic Relationships

My dad was about the nicest, most generous man you could ever meet. So, to me, reading about a guy like Victor Tuchman is rather eye-opening. Victor is the patriarch of the massively dysfunctional family inhabiting Jami Attenberg's fantastic new novel All This Could Be Yours. He is also about the most despicable character you can imagine. Thankfully, as we meet him at the beginning of the novel, he's on his deathbed in a New Orleans hospital, having suffered a heart attack.

But that leads his estranged daughter Alex, a Chicago lawyer, to begin to wonder why he was the way he was — a career criminal who beat and cheated on his wife and emotionally damaged his children. And beyond that, Alex wonders why her mother Barbra stayed with Victor all these years. So as Alex and Barbra pace outside his hospital room, as he is comatose, waiting to die, she grills her mother on their past, hoping to both learn about her evil father, but also to find any clues about her own troubles with relationships.

This is a novel about toxic masculinity, yes, which Victor encapsulates in its purest form. There really is no limit to his depravity. But it's also a novel about toxic relationships. Alex herself is divorced, and while her ex-husband is basically a good man, he has one fatal flaw: He just can't stay faithful. So, is he a good man? As well, Alex's brother Gary, who is holed up in an AirBnB in LA, and refuses to come to New Orleans to see off his father, has a HUGE relationship issue with his wife Twyla. We soon find out why, in one of the more shocking twists in any book I've read in awhile. Read this book alone to find out what that twist is! 

Attenberg introduces us to several minor characters along the way who all have some sort of relationship malfunctions, as well. Relationships are really tough, even when both parties are fully committed. But they're all but impossible when one isn't. And when they break, they have lasting, long-term consequences.

All this sounds as heavy as the sweltering New Orleans summer heat. But remember: This is Jami Attenberg. And she's really, really cool. So this is a pleasure to read at every turn. I don't know if this is my favorite Attenberg novel — that might still be The Middlesteins. But this is certainly in the top tier, and very highly recommended.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

The Water Dancer: The Unflinching Urgency of Past Horrors

When an intellectual giant like Ta-Nehisi Coates makes a first foray into fiction, you read it. You just do. And I did. The Water Dancer is a stunning novel — probably the smartest, best-written novel I've read this year. But it's heavy. Often dense. It's one of those novels I feel like I appreciated for its genius more than enjoyed as a pleasurable reading experience. But I'm infinitely glad I read this. This is a novel people will be talking about for a long time.

The novel is about the horrors of slavery, including possibly its greatest horror: The arbitrary separation of families. Our narrator — a slave named Hiram on a failing Virginia tobacco plantation — has been separated from his mother since he was a child. And despite his otherwise photographic memory, he can't remember anything about her. He does, however, know who his father is: The white man who owns the plantation, and hence, owns Hiram himself.

But his preternatural gift for memory isn't his only power. He can also "conduct." But neither he, nor we the reader, know what exactly that means or how he does it. Basically, as we see in the opening scene of the novel, there's a blue light, he blacks out, and then transports to a spot either miles or inches away from where he was before. In the opening scene, during the traumatic event when he wrecks the carriage carrying him and his half-brother, the plantation's heir, Maynard, he sees his mother dancing in the water. And so we suspect from the beginning that his ability to conduct is somehow tied to memory. This is vintage Coates: The power of memory is critical to righting past wrongs.

So Hiram grows up on the plantation, raised by a woman named Thena, whose own children had been sold away. As a young man, Hiram falls in love with a woman named Sophia. They decide to run. From there, the novel turns bildungsroman, chronicling Hiram's journey north and to several other places. He meets "Moses" — a fictional representation of Harriet Tubman, who may or may not hold the key to conduction. And he learns the ways of Coates's richly reimagined Underground Railroad.

Besides the evocative, lush writing here, the strength of this novel is how Coates relates the past to the present with unflinching urgency — a Coates signature, which you know if you've read his essays or his National Book Award-winning memoir, Between The World And Me. Honestly, though, again this 400-page novel can be a bit of a tough hang at times. During parts, I felt like I was doing homework, rather than reading for fun. But I do want to emphasize I whole-heartedly recommend this. It's a vitally important work.