Wednesday, December 12, 2018

My 10 Favorite Books of 2018

I know I probably say this ever year, but this year has been an especially great year in books. I read a little less this year than I did in the past few years, but I think enjoyed these 10 books as much if not more than any previous list. Here they are, not necessarily the best books of 2018, but my favorites.

10. An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones — I loved this book for Jones' brave choices and the difficult questions she asks us to consider. A morally complex tale about a woman whose husband goes to jail for a crime he didn't commit, this novel really makes you think about what marriage is, what stresses it can survive, or maybe what stresses marriage should not survive.

9. Asymmetry, by Lisa Halliday — This is unlike anything I've ever read, and I'm still floored that this is a debut novel. The novel is two distinct 100-page stories, and then a third much shorter one that acts as a coda. The fun, beyond reading Halliday's smooth, clever, fiercely smart writing, is eventually figuring out how the first two stories are connected. One's about a young editor's affair with an aging writer. The other is about an Iraqi-American being interrogated at London Heathrow. The coda is the aging writer being interviewed on a radio show. It's really inventive. And, if you're a Philip Roth fan, and I'm a huge one, the first story is so much fun. So many little Rothian inside jokes.

8. The House of Broken Angels, by Luis Alberto Urrea — Here we have a representative from my favorite "genre" — the dysfunctional family story. And while this does have its funny moments, it has a ton of heart too. It's about a huge Hispanic family that gathers in San Diego to celebrate the last birthday of their dying patriarch. There's much drama and old disagreements are rekindled, but overall, it's just a touching story about being proud of how you've lived as you look back.

7. Florida, by Lauren Groff — You may know this about me already, but Groff is one of those writers whose grocery list would probably get five stars from me. But this, her first intentional short story collection (as opposed Delicate Edible Birds, which was just a bunch of stories that had shown up in various publications), is just as good as any of her novels. Thematically linked by storms and snakes, motherhood, Mother Nature, and general malaise, these stories are elegant, emotionally resonant, and totally engrossing.

6. Educated, by Tara Westover — This is THE dysfunctional family story of the year, and it happens to be real! Westover's memoir is about growing up with an increasingly crazy survivalist religious father in Idaho. With the help of one of her brothers (and at the attempted-hindrance of another) she gets a sufficient ACT score to enroll at BYU, even though she's never set foot in a classroom. From there, her world expands, but still, she can't quit her family. And this tension is often maddening, but incredibly fascinating. As is this quote, especially cogent for our times: “I had come to believe that the ability to evaluate many ideas, many histories, many points of view, was at the heart of what it means to self-create.”

5. A Terrible Country, by Keith Gessen — This story of a mid-30s failing academic named Andrei who travels to Moscow in 2008 to care for his ailing grandmother surprised me for how much I liked it. It's often really funny, but really interesting too in that it's a deep but very entertaining dive into Russian life — specifically, how everything is such a terrible hassle. Andrei gets involved with politics and has to decide just how deeply held his convictions are. Or, does he always have his "American-ness" as a fallback, which means he'll never be able to be as intensely involved as his new Russian friends.

4. The Great Believers, by Rebecca Makkai — Probably the one book from my list you'll see on just about everyone else's list, as well, this was one of the more sobering, difficult, but utterly brilliant novels I've read in a long time. It's about the AIDS crisis in Chicago, and its lasting effects on the families and friends of both survivors and victims. This is the one novel this year that truly felt to me like a work of art.

3. Let Your Mind Run, by Deena Kastor — This isn't just one of the better running books I read this year, it's one of my favorites period. Kastor's memoir is inspiring, sure — but it's the advice she gives along the way about getting your head right that's really helpful. It's a really personal, courageous book — and you can tell Kastor wrote it herself. I got to meet her in September and gush about how much I loved it and she was super gracious. This a must read for any runner or athlete.

2. A Ladder To The Sky, by John Boyne — So having never read him before last year, this is now the second year in a row a Boyne novel lands in my favorite 10. This one is an extremely different type of novel compared to my favorite book of 2017, The Heart's Invisible Furies. But I enjoyed it nearly as much. Boyne is so cleverly funny, his dialogue is as witty and crisp as you'll find in fiction these days, and his story here is so deliciously evil. Maurice Swift is a character you won't soon forget. And what's more, there are a lot of great little Easter eggs and inside jokes about the reading and writing life. So much fun here.

1. The Overstory, by Richard Powers — Yes, it's about trees. And yes, it's that freakin' good. My favorite novel of the year, though, really is about a bunch of characters — activists and scientists, computer geeks and artists — and their relationship to nature as a microcosm of ALL of our relationship to nature. One of the more profound, artful, non-preachy novels I've ever read. And this quote wins forever: "This is not our world with trees in it. It's a world of trees where humans have just arrived."

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Six Great Novels To Feast on During the Holidays

Here are six terrific recent reads for you to feast on during the holidays. I've read these over the last few months but am just getting caught up now on pulling some thoughts together. Enjoy, as I did!

The Great Believers, by Rebecca Makkai — I finished this novel more than two months ago, and it still hasn't left me. And I still haven't found anything intelligent to say about it that hasn't already been said. It's extraordinarily powerful. Devastating. Illuminating. Authentic. Harrowing. I loved this book. It's a tough read, to be sure — about the AIDS crisis in the 1980s in Chicago. This will be on everyone's "favorites of the year" list — mine included. It's a magnificent piece of art. (This isn't a spoiler, but pages 334 through 337 of this book absolutely destroyed me — probably the best section of a novel I read all year.)

Charlotte Walsh Likes To Win, by Jo Piazza — The midterms elections are behind us, but this terrific novel about a fierce woman named Charlotte Walsh who is running for Senate in Pennsylvania is good any time. Walsh, a high-powered Silicon Valley executive, is running against your typical terrible old white guy who constantly condescends to her, spreads nasty rumors about her, and engages in just about every possible brand of dirty politics you can imagine. You'll pretty easily recognize him. But Walsh perseveres, and as you read, you realize just how much harder it is for women to run for national office than it is for men.

North, by Scott and Jenny Jurek — I read this for inspiration during the run-up (sorry) to the Chicago Marathon. Jurek is one of my running heroes, so there was a 100 percent chance I was going to love this, but man, he outdid himself this time. The book's about his attempt to break the Fastest Known Time for running the entire Appalachian Trail, heading north from Georgia to Maine. To do so, he'd need to average about 50 miles per day for more than 6 weeks. Seriously?! He and his wife Jenny write alternating parts, him about running, her about what it was like to crew for him. Needless to say, not everything goes according to plan. But part of the inspiration here is how both Scott and Jenny were able to overcome every obstacle, and how they did it together.

Virgil Wander, by Leif Enger — This is just a delightful little slice of life about a small town in the upper Midwest. For fans of Richard Russo and Nickolas Butler, Enger's novel chronicles the eponymous middle-aged theater owner who just survived an accident which has rendered him a little...different. He can't remember adjectives and thinks that he's an intruder in his own life. But this new lease on life — a literal mid-life crisis — allows him to see the world differently. So Virgil, along with a cast of Winesburg-Ohio-esque small-town characters spend their time flying kites, planning festivals, and speculating about the mysterious disappearance of one of their town heroes, a former minor league baseball player who died in a plane crash over Lake Superior...or did he? But not everything is as pleasant as it seems. The town is slowly dying and some of its residents aren't as nice as the others. A powerful finish completes a terrifically satisfying reading experience here.

Anatomy of a Miracle, by Jonathan Miles — This was a book I saved all year, to read something I knew I'd love when I really needed something good. And good, it is. It's a thorough and thoughtful examination of our current culture, and some of the absolute absurdities of it — that people tend to shoehorn events and their implications into their current worldview instead of re-examining or re-evaluating their worldview based on new information. (To paraphrase something Jon Stewart once said: I used to think people's reality influenced their politics. Now it's clear people's politics influences their reality.) The story is about a paralyzed Afghanistan veteran named Cameron Harris, who one day, gets out of his wheelchair and walks. There's no medical explanation, so naturally religious groups descend upon Biloxi, Mississippi, the site of this wondrous miracle. But is it a miracle? Miles is right on target here about how the media covers politically charged events, how celebrity can infect morality (both of the celebrity and the people who "worship" him/her), and the age-old debate of science vs. religion. Cameron is a deeply sympathetic character, especially as we learn more about him. And Miles nails our current zeitgeist right on the head.

The Library At Mount Char, by Scott Hawkins — This strange, genre-bending novel came highly recommended by a number of readers whose opinions I trust implicitly. And they were not wrong. What fun! It's super inventive, and really, really smart. It's a little like if a grown-up Harry Potter story met X-Men met a crime thriller. Just insane! I can't do this justice with a pithy description, so you'll have to check this one out on your own.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

A Ladder To The Sky: Writer Behaving Very, Very Badly

Conventional wisdom is that when writers are out of ideas, they write about writers. John Boyne's new novel, A Ladder To The Sky (out today!) is about writers, but one gets the sense that this novel is FAR from a last resort. Indeed, this terrific satire is one massively entertaining, hugely hilarious 350-page wink at the whole silly idea that you can pin inspiration down to a short pithy answer to the question "Where do your ideas come from?".

Maurice Swift, our protagonist, is a writer who actually is out of ideas. Rather, he never had any in the first place. He's a decent craftsman as a writer, but his stories are boring and lead nowhere. But Maurice has a dream. He'll stop at nothing to be a famous, celebrated novelist.

Boyne's novel unfolds in several sections checking in at different parts of Maurice's life. We first meet him in his early 20s using his looks and charm to seduce older writers, like aging German novelist Erich Ackermann, who has just seen his dying literary star resurrected when his sixth novel wins "The Prize." Through Ackermann, he meets (and seduces?) a gauche American writer named Dash Hardy who basically uses controversy to sell books. He proudly proclaims to whoever will listen that he doesn't read women writers, for instance.

There are so many terrific little knowing nods in this novel to important issues of the day in the reading and writing life. As another example, Maurice at one points gets in an argument about whether it's important to always finish novels, or okay not to finish books that don't immediately grab your attention. There's even an interlude — and my favorite part of the novel — when Maurice and Hardy visit Gore Vidal and his partner in their beachside house on the Italian Amalfi coast. Maurice tries to seduce Gore, seeing him as the ultimate literary prize, and possibly a potential blackmail candidate.

The thing about Maurice is that he is so ambitious (the title comes from the nugget of wisdom, paraphrased "those who build a ladder to the sky have a long way to fall"), he only uses sex or any other physical pleasure for personal gain. The only pleasure he derives from these things is that they furthers his ambitions. And there is nothing Maurice won't do to keep his literary fame alive. You'll be shocked at the lengths he'll go to. Maurice is not a character you'll soon forget. He is pure, unadulterated evil. But wow, is he fun to read about. I don't know if "dark satire" is a thing, but if not, it is now. 

I loved this book just as much as I loved Boyne's previous novel, The Heart's Invisible Furies, which was my hands-down favorite of last. A Ladder To The Sky is a VERY different novel, but no less entertaining. I can't recommend this more highly.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

4 Recent Reads: Memoir, Literary Fiction, German Translation, Mild Disappointment

Here's another round-up of a bunch of recent reads.

The Blew-Me-Away Memoir 

Educated, by Tara Westover — You may have just seen this terrific memoir on President Obama's summer reading list. And it deserves every accolade it gets. Just amazing — I read the last 200 pages of this in one breathless sitting. Westover grew up in rural Idaho to strict Mormon parents. As she grows up, her survivalist father becomes increasingly erratic, constantly working on his bomb shelter and making all his children, Tara included, help out in his junkyard, which is a literal deathtrap. Her mother, supposedly the "normal" one, believes in all kinds of "alternative medicines" and begins a business mixing oils and herbs. Westover never set foot in a classroom because her parents didn't want to submit her to the brainwashing of government public schools. But eventually she goes against their wishes, gets a good score on the ACT, and enrolls in Brigham Young University at age 17. To me, this was when the memoir really picks up steam, as she begins to learn both how little she knows of the world and also how crazy everything she'd thought she'd known really was. And still, she can't quit her family — even wondering if her memories are flawed. It's just a wonderfully, beautifully, massively intelligently written book, topped off by this quote near the end: “I had come to believe that the ability to evaluate many ideas, many histories, many points of view, was at the heart of what it means to self-create.”

The Terrific Literary Fiction

A Terrible Country, by Keith Gessen — Putin's Russia may be a terrible country, but this is a terrific novel! It's 2008 (so well before any of the current Russian meddling conversation) and a mid-30s, failing academic named Andrei travels to Moscow to take care of his ailing grandmother. Andrei (like Gessen) was born in Moscow, but his parents emigrated to the U.S. when he was a young boy. Now, in post-Soviet Moscow, Andrei is flabbergasted by Russian culture — the head-scratching wealth mixed with the remnants of the communist era mixed with the culture of distrust. Coming from New York City, Andrei still marvels about how everything in Moscow is a hassle, how everything is just so much harder than it has to be, from finding a reasonably priced cup of coffee to making friends to play hockey with. But Andrei slowly begins to figure it out, and starts to embed himself in Russian culture, fall in love, and even take up a cause. But is it really a cause, or is it a way for Andrei to kickstart his failing academic career? How much loyalty does Andrei have to this new Russia and his family, as opposed to his "former" life in the U.S.? Gessen's writing is subtly funny and super smart. I didn't expect to like this as much as did — highly recommended!

The Profound, Heart-Breaking German Novel

Go, Went, Gone, by Jenny Erpenbeck — This understated, but glint-sharp novel is about the absurdity of government policy toward refugees. The story takes place in Berlin in the early 2010s. A retired classics professor named Richard stumbles upon some African refugees living outside in a plaza in Berlin. These people are basically just stuck — their freedom (and thus humanity) has been stripped from them. These aren't people who crossed borders illegally on purpose. Instead, for one reason or another, they found themselves caught up in the violence and unrest of the Arab Spring, and were shoved onto boats and set adrift. They are willing to work. They try to learn German. They want to be good citizens. But none these things are available to them because of the idiotic red tape of the EU migration policy. Richard finds himself empathizing more and more with the plight of these people, and as he learns more about how few options they have, giving up his own time and resources to help them out. Throughout the novel, Erpenbeck provides these short, profound set pieces about the limits of freedom, about the necessity of common sense and humanity, and many others. I loved this book. It helped me see things in a new way: The mark of any great novel.

The Book I Should've Loved...But Didn't

Ohio, by Stephen Markley — Markley's debut is set in a small town in Ohio in 2013. It's about a group of now-late-20s, former high school friends and enemies who have a complicated relationship with their hometown. I'm from a small town in Ohio. I have a complicated relationship with my hometown. I should've loved this. But I didn't. The main reason is that this nearly 500-page novel tries to be about 15 things at once. That in itself isn't a bad thing, but Ohio fails to live up to this prodigious ambition because only a few these themes are successful. Most feel superfluous or just tossed in, and winding up being distractions to what could've been an impressive character-driven novel with a cool structure. At once, Ohio is a commentary on the opioid crisis and small-town drug addiction. It's a sort of Hillbilly Elegy-esque explanation of the Trump voter, and their prejudices and politics (including what might drive someone to an extreme act of violence). It's a look at the devastating effects of the Great Recession in the Rust Belt. It's a novel about high school that too often strays into cliche — think a combination of Varsity Blues (oh yes, there are drunken football jocks) and Mean Girls (oh yes, there are plotting, vindictive high school girls). It's an Iraq war novel, a murder mystery, a bro comedy, and much more. Despite this identity crisis, I really enjoyed the structure: Starting after the funeral of a high school classmate who died in Iraq, the rest of the novel, is told in four sections from the perspectives of each of four characters who all knew each other from high school, and for different reasons are returning to their Ohio hometown on the same night in 2013. Their paths all cross, amidst backstories of their high school days and what they've been up to since. There are bar brawls and meth, war scenes and PTSD, broken hearts and even more broken people. It's a sprawling novel that almost worked, but didn't quite. Many readers have liked this more than me, so I may be in the minority. If you're on the fence here, give it a shot!

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Rounding Up a Bunch of Recent Reads

Instead of several individual posts, each with its own long review, how about a single post with several short reviews? Is that something you might be interested in? Good, here you go.

Books I'd Whole-Heartedly Recommend

Lost Empress, by Sergio de la Pava — I loved (and was totally in awe of) de la Pava's first novel, A Naked Singularity. With this novel, he came as close to David Foster Wallace as any other writer I've read. His newest novel, and his first from a major publisher, doesn't quite rise to the same level — it's more like DFW-lite. But it's still incredibly smart, mostly entertaining, often laugh-out-loud funny, and is always the case of those writers influenced by DFW, sometimes annoying, infuriating, and just silly, too. And but so, Lost Empress is about a fierce, brilliant woman named Nina Gill who owns an arena league football team and attempts to elevate her team and the league while the NFL is on strike. But the story also includes a huge cast of characters who are all somehow related (in varying degrees of tangentiality) to the Paterson (N.J.) Pork, Nina Gill's team. De la Pava does for football here what Philip Roth did for baseball with The Great American Novel — slapstick sports comedy. But Lost Empress is also a story about how the "have-nots" of society are often overlooked by the "haves." Bring your patience, and read while you're in the right mood to handle this, and you'll definitely find some reward here.

The Comedown, by Rebekah Frumkin — In my mind, the only thing better than a story about one dysfunctional family is a story about TWO dysfunctional families. Two Cleveland families become inextricably intertwined over the course of nearly three decades, first as a result of a violent event one fateful evening and then by subsequently poor choices. Taking on race and addiction, family loyalty and love, Frumkin is an amazingly agile and talented writer. This novel is great, and I'm really excited to see what she does next!

Street of Thieves, by Mathias Enard — This French novel is a bit of a deep cut — recommended by a bookseller at 57th Street Books here in Chicago. But I loved it! It's a coming-of-age story about a Moroccan teenager named Lakhdar who has various adventures around the time of the Arab Spring and the riots against the government in Spain in 2011-2012. The theme of the novel is freedom — Lakhdar feels constantly imprisoned by his circumstances as a young Arab man. If you're looking to expand your reading horizons, I can't recommend this book more highly.

Two Terrific Running Books 

Let Your Mind Run, by Deena Kastor — I already wrote about this briefly in my Top 5 Favorites of 2018 So Far post, but as a few weeks have passed (and I'm now really in the teeth of training for the Chicago Marathon), this book continues to be an inspiration. I use a lot of what she wrote about in this book on each run to stay motivated and productive each time out. It really is one of the better running books I've ever read.

Reborn On The Run, by Catra Corbett — Corbett is a trail ultra-runner who is only the second woman to run 100 100-mile races. Also, she used to be a meth addict! And that's just scratching the surface. From bad relationships to the deaths of her parents, Corbett tells us how running has helped literally save her life. To her, running has become an obsession, but a healthy one. The difference between this obsession and her drug addiction is that she wakes up every morning wanting to lace 'em up. Whereas with an addiction, she did her drugs everyday, but it was joyless. She couldn't stop. This distinction (and the mental health benefits of running) is why there are so many former addicts become ultra-runners. It's a tight-knit, fun-to-read-about community. And Corbett's individual story is amazing! 

Books I Might Skip If I Were You

Less, by Andrew Sean Greer — Huh? This was the Pulitzer winner? It has its moments, and is charming from time to time, but this story of a failing writer who has a sort of mid-life crisis and decides to accept a bunch of invitations all around the world sort of just meanders somewhat pointlessly.

Something In The Water, by Catherine Steadman — Passably entertaining for a summer/beach/plane read, but wholly predictable. And wow, the protagonist and our narrator is a really, really stupid. I mean, so stupid it's throw-the-book-across-the-room frustrating. I yelled at her many times, "WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!" Anyway, so the deal is that a London couple finds a bag of money and diamonds in the water during their honeymoon in Bora Bora. They make a series of increasingly poor and idiotic decisions and of course they end up in serious trouble.