Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Subverting the Suburbs: My Interview with Claire Lombardo

Please note: What follows is the first two paragraph of the introduction to an interview I did with Claire Lombardo for the Chicago Review of Books. Because again, I want CHIRB to get all the clicks they deserve for being nice enough to let me interview famous and incredibly cool writers like Claire, please click on this link to read the full interview (don't worry, it's free, there's no paywall or anything).

Claire Lombardo hit the rare debut novel trifecta with 2019’s The Most Fun We Ever Had: Readers loved it, critics praised it, and it sold hand over fist. That’s quite an accomplishment for a previously unknown novelist debuting with a 500-page book. The novel’s staying power and appeal were still evident: this past month Reese Witherspoon chose The Most Fun We Ever Had as her book club pick for April.

Now Lombardo is back with her second book, Same As It Ever Was, another long novel about a somewhat-functional family set in the Chicago suburbs. But Same As It Ever Was is certainly not, well, the same as it ever was. Whereas her debut had a polyphonic point of view, alternating between the voices and characters of four sisters, Same As It Ever Was is the third-person-limited story of Julia Ames, a middle-aged librarian and mother, navigating the slings and arrows of upper-class suburbia. It’s a more contemplative novel, and also a terrific study in tension-building.

Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Craft: Stories I Wrote for the Devil, by Ananda Lima: Wow. Just Wow.

Craft: Stories I Wrote for the Devil (out today!) is unlike anything I've ever read. I mean, I've read hundreds and hundreds of books in my life, and this is something completely original. It's somewhere between a short story collection, a book of linked short stories (like Olive Kitteridge or The Tsar of Love and Techno), possibly a memoir, and a novel. I didn't know fiction could do this. Reviewers don't really know what to do with it so far, either -- which is fun. It's sometimes called horror, sometimes sci-fi, sometimes literary fiction, sometimes none of the above OR all of the above. Yep, everything about this book defies categorization. 

Full disclosure, and only partially a humble brag -- Ananda Lima is a colleague of mine at StoryStudio Chicago. I'd been looking forward to this book, though, before I'd met her. But I soon learned she is a kind human and an enthusiastic and generous literary citizen. It's been so fun getting to know her! So frankly, even though I'd been looking forward to it, I picked up her book last month with no small amount of trepidation. What if I didn't like it? How would I talk about it if I didn't? Thankfully, that concern quickly faded. I can tell you with a crystal clear conscience, it is truly fantastic. 

So here's the deal: The book begins with a story about a writer who slept with the Devil on the night of a Halloween party. The subsequent stories are all related, but often in surprising ways. Sometimes the Devil reappears, sometimes he doesn't. Sometimes "the writer" is writing about writing the stories. Sometimes the same story is told from different perspectives or in different ways. Sometimes the stories *seem* to stand completely alone. 

Anyway, the effect, or at least the feeling I had reading this, is that each of the stories is standing in a circle, sort of winking at all the others. The cover art for this book does a great job of subtly capturing the notion that these stories build on each other or are nested within each other (either or both). The connections aren't always overt (but sometimes they are), but also, you don't need to "get" how the stories are connected to enjoy the book on a story-by-story basis. 

I don't know if that makes sense. It's hard to describe well what Ananda is doing here. But what IS clear is that it works. I definitely recommend this for all readers, but especially for readers who are also writers. (If you've ever been in a writing workshop, the story "Idle Hands" will cause you untold amounts of glee.) This is very high on my list of favorites of the year so far. I'm just in awe of this small, but mighty book! 

Tuesday, June 11, 2024

Blue Ruin, by Hari Kunzru: Does Money Lessen Art?

Hari Kunzru is quickly becoming one of my favorite writers. Each of his last three novels -- White Tears, Red Pill, and this one, his latest, Blue Ruin (no, I don't think the colors thing is a coincidence) -- I've started with a little hesitation. But each time I've been absolutely floored, really loved each one. 

For my money, Kunzru is one of the best capital L capital F Literary Fiction writers working today. Especially in the case of Blue Ruin, and in contrast to many Serious Literary Fiction novels, Kunzru's books about art are not pretentious and stuffy. They're as entertaining as they are intellectually engaging, going about tackling their Big Important Questions.

In Blue Ruin, the Big Important Questions are these: Should art be a commercial enterprise? That is, does money changing hands lessen art and/or artist? Further, what are the boundaries between art and life? Are they even boundaries at all? 

These big questions are framed around a plot that takes place during the early days of the pandemic. A grocery delivery driver named Jay makes a delivery at a remote New York compound in the woods. The person who placed the grocery order just happens to be Alice, a woman with whom Jay had a torrid affair in London in the late 1990s, as he was coming up in the London art world. 

Is this a coincidence? Or part of a bigger story/plot? You see, Alice wound up leaving Jay for Jay's former friend Rob, a fellow artist. Is Jay still bitter? Is he hellbent on revenge?

We learn the backstory of the young artists' time in London, of Alice and Jay's fraught, often drug-fueled relationship, and Rob and Jay's divergent paths as artists. Each part of this novel is so carefully constructed -- revealing each bit of backstory right when it'll have the most impact on our understanding of what's happening in the present. Will Jay and Rob reconcile? Will Jay steal Alice back from Rob? What's the deal with the douchey conspiracy-theory-minded gallerist named Marshal?

I LOVED this book! Kunzru is so adept at tautness -- maximum impact in minimum pages. I haven't been able to stop thinking about this book for days. A favorite of 2024, for sure. 

Thursday, May 30, 2024

The Second Coming, by Garth Risk Hallberg: A Big Fat Bowl of Meh

Please note: What follows is the first paragraph of a full hatchet job review I wrote for the Chicago Review of Books. For copyright reasons, and because of course I want CHIRB to get all the clicks they deserve for being nice enough to publish me, please click on this link to read the full piece (don't worry, it's free, there's no paywall or anything).

At some point, we book-loving people will have to stop with the David Foster Wallace comparisons for any white male writer who toes the line between aggravating his reader with verbosity and writing long beautiful sentences imbued with the genius of their creator. But today is not that day. Nine years after his second novel, City on Fire, made an asteroid-sized splash in publishing, Garth “the next DFW” Risk Hallberg (even the three-name thing, too!) is back with his third effort, The Second Coming.

Read the full review at Chicago Review of Books.

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.