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Thursday, March 26, 2020

5 Comfort Reads in the Time of Coronavirus

Crazy times, friends. Crazy times. Thankfully, we have books. The other day, I found myself just spacing out staring at my shelves for a good several minutes. It was really calming. As is reading itself. Whether you're reading to escape from the awful hellscape of the outside world or just to fill a few idle hours, reading is surely one of the best ways to cope with this horrific crisis. Here are a few suggestions for novels that may help you do that:



5. This Is Where I Leave You, by Jonathan Tropper — Yes, staying home sucks. However, this novel is about how funny it can be to be stuck with your family.

4. Gilead, by Marilynn Robinson — Quiet, poetic, and peaceful. I can't think of a more soothing novel to read (or reread, as I just may do now) than this slim, beautifully written series of musings about life and death, connection, family, what makes a good person, and so much more. It's "remarkable to consider" how comforting this novel could be these days.

3. The Brothers K, by David James Duncan — Today's supposed to be Opening Day for baseball, and I already miss baseball just about as much as any part of normal, non-virus life. So if you miss baseball too, why not check out not just one of my favorite all-time baseball novels, but one of favorite novels of all time, period. This long family saga is so engrossing you won't even realize you're reading for long swaths of time. (Also, if you want some suggestions for some more baseball novels, here's a Book Riot post I did a few years ago. And more recently, Emily Nemens' The Cactus League is great.)

2. The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton — Okay, hear me out on this one. You need to be distracted, possibly for a long time. You need to focus your brain on something besides what's going on beyond your front door. This book is 850 pages, requires a vast amount of mental energy, and really is pretty spellbinding in how the plot unfolds. So, it's a perfect quarantine comfort read! And it's rewarding, for sure — though, like any difficult novel, you get out of it what you put into it. (If you want some help, I wrote a summary of each chapter as I was reading to keep track of this knotted plot. Enjoy!)

1. Wanderers, by Chuck Wendig —You want a pandemic story? THIS is the pandemic story to read. Everything is wretched right now, but boy, it could be so much worse.


Thursday, March 5, 2020

Doctor Zhivago and The Secrets We Kept: A Spy Story about a "Love" Story

Doctor Zhivago is considered by many to be the greatest love story of the 20th century. But is it? IS IT REALLY? I plowed through this 700-page beast over the course of about a month (it's THE definition of a winter read), and was actually a little surprised at how unimpressive the love story really is. And on the whole, I wasn't a fan of the novel itself either. It's confusing, the whole plot relies on some outrageous coincidences, and it's way way way way too long. I know, I know: Steer clear of Russian literature if you want brevity. But I normally like these crazy-long Russian books (mostly — see, War and Peace). Really, they're more fun to write about than they are to read.


But so, the reason I read Zhivago, beyond just the goal of reading more classics and more novels in translation this year, is because I wanted to know why it was so controversial...and also I was really intrigued by Lara Prescott's novel, The Secrets We Kept. Her novel is the story of how Zhivago came to be published after it was banned in the Soviet Union. It's also the story of how Zhivago's author, Boris Pasternak, was threatened with...well, all the things Soviets who ran afoul of the State in the 1950s were threatened with.

But why was Zhivago so controversial in Soviet Russia? Apparently, simply because it pointed out how everything wasn't perfect. Zhivago struggles to find food, protect his family, and condemns the October Revolution, much to the chagrin of the State, in which no one could possibly be struggling to the degree he is. For me, the doomed love of Yuri and Lara was waaaay less interesting than learning more about World War I, the Russian Revolution, shady lawyers, and double-agent revolutionaries who give up and blow their brains out. So there definitely was some intrigue in Zhivago, and those parts I really enjoyed.

Similarly, I enjoyed much of Prescott's novel, but on the whole, I thought it suffered from some of the same issues as Zhivago: Prescott just bit off more than she could chew here. The Secrets We Kept tells the story of secretaries in the CIA typing pool, spies, Pasternak's mistress (the inspiration for Lara), and much more. Each section is told from one of these perspectives and Prescott has to do some literary acrobatics to keep this going in a way that makes sense. The novel may have been much more successful with a different structure or type of narrator.

So while each of these reads were just lukewarm for me, the experience of reading them together was actually terrific — the whole experience being greater than the sum of its parts.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Apeirogon: A Countably Infinite Number of Sides to Every Story

Colum McCann's new novel Apeirogon is certainly ambitious. It's a novel told in 1,001 sections, each sometimes a few pages, sometimes a single sentence. In total, it's a novel about mathematics, music, silence, water, borders, birds, violence, grief, peace, and about a hundred other things.

But to back up and clear up the first question: An apeirogon is a shape with a "countably infinite number of sides" — essentially what appears to be a circle. (If "countably infinite" sounds like an oxymoron to you too, well, you also must've missed that day in advanced geometry.)

But beyond the literary calculus, there is also a pretty fascinating story here: It's about an Israeli man named Rami and a Palestinian man named Bassam who both have lost daughters to violence. These men are real people, as McCann tells us in his author's note. He further explains that Rami and Bassam have allowed him "to shape and reshape their words and worlds," which of course is necessary for a novel, but also a little unsettling as that's then always in the back of our minds: "What here is real?"

For that reason, for me, the best part of this nearly 500 page novel is the 30 page section right in the middle when McCann lets Rami and Bassam tell their stories in their own words. These two parts, one for each man, presumably resemble the lectures these men are traveling around the world to give, to show how peace and friendship can evolve from even the worst circumstances. They're riveting. And heart-breaking. But ultimately hopeful.

So, what is McCann really up to here? Why go to these lengths to craft such a structure around the tragic stories of these two men? Wouldn't something simpler resonate better? My take is that what he's trying to do is create an apeirogon of words, to show the "countably infinite" sides and influences and provocations to every story. And as is often the case in novels such as these, he's also trying to show how all these parts are connected. What matters is how each part is connected to others and how each part contributes to the whole. Stories don't have convenient beginnings and endings or parts that conveniently fit together in a linear timeline.

All this literary flair may or may not work for you. For me, it didn't, exactly. So much of this feels superfluous. What's more, it's a novel that's so self-assured it also suffers from a problem of pride: Yes, it's really, really proud of itself. So while I completely respect the craft and talent here, I'd put this novel in the same category as George Saunders's Lincoln In The Bardo and Ta-Nehisi Coates's The Water Dancer: A novel you appreciate more than you actually enjoy reading.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Long Bright River: Gritty, Gutty Crime Thriller

Liz Moore's new gritty crime novel Long Bright River includes two mysteries for the price of one. First, someone is killing young, heroin-addicted women and leaving their bodies on train tracks. Secondly, Philadelphia police office Mickey, a life-long resident of Philly's hard-scrabble Kensington neighborhood, can't find her younger sister, Kacey, who also happens to be a young, heroin-addicted woman. Are the two mysteries related? Mickey, and we the reader, are terrified they might be.

Moore propels us along at breakneck speed as we alternate between past and present to look for clues to both mysteries. In real-time, Mickey is a cop and single mother trying to raise a young son. She tangles with her supervisor, who she suspects may be corrupt, and harbors a burgeoning crush on her former partner who is laid up with an injury. Mickey is an utterly fascinating character — slightly neurotic but with a tough-as-hell, me-against-the-world attitude. You can't help but root for her.

The past sections tell us about Mickey's and Kacey's childhood. She and Kacey were extremely close as they grew up, raised by their grandmother after their mother died from a drug overdose and their dad bailed on them. But then their paths diverged dramatically. Mickey (her given name is Michaela) is a bookish introvert most of her teenage years, while her younger sister acts out and gets into drugs and other illicit behavior at a pretty young age.

So that's the origin story for Kacey's battle with drug addiction. As she navigates her teen years, she has good periods, but mostly bad. And for the last several years, as the past sections catch up to the present, it's been one particularly bad stretch. The two sisters are not even in communication any more. But Mickey's duties as a police officer had allowed her to keep an on eye on Kacey, seeing her and her fellow "street walkers" out and about...until now. She's just vanished, and Mickey worries every time a call comes in about another overdose or another found body, she'll arrive to find that it's Kacey.

Moore expertly places us onto the drug-addled Philly streets, into flop houses and "abandos" where heroin addiction is a matter of course, just the reality of life. For that reason, this isn't always an easy read. But it's one that moves along extremely quickly — and there are a lot of surprises, secrets revealed, and twists and turns along the way.

I don't read much crime fiction, but I picked this one up because I'd heard it has a decidedly more literary bent, and because it's one of the early hits of 2020. Outside of a few minor plot holes and coincidences that sort of stretch believability, I really enjoyed this. I read about three-quarters of it on two plane rides — and it was absolutely perfect as plane-read. I looked up bleary-eyedly to be surprised to discover we were landing. Three hours had flown by in what felt like 30 seconds.

Friday, February 7, 2020

Everywhere You Don't Belong: Coming of Age in Sweet Home Chicago

My experience growing up was quite literally the exact opposite of that of the character Claude in Gabriel Bump's funny, sharp, and tragic debut novel, Everywhere You Don't Belong. I grew up in a pleasant small town in Ohio with a supportive family and no real problems. Still, I moved to a big city the first chance I got. Conversely, Claude's parents abandon him when he's young and he's raised by his grandmother in the at-times rough South Shore neighborhood of Chicago. He moves to a small college town (Columbia, Missouri) the first chance he gets. (Bump also grew up in South Shore, a neighborhood probably most famous as Michelle Obama's home, as well.)

So it's a tribute to Bump (and maybe more than a little presumptuous on my part to say) how relatable Claude felt. He's an introvert. He's awkward around girls specifically, but people generally. He likes to read. And he wants to be a journalist. Everywhere You Don't Belong is the story of Claude's coming-of-age as a boy and teenager in South Shore, surviving a horrific race riot after the police kill a black man, crushing on his long-time family friend Janice who is beautiful but gets in some trouble, and finally realizing he needs to leave Chicago and matriculates to the University of Missouri.

Bump packs a lot into this deceptively simple, fast-paced story. It's about racism. There's a bit of an unconventional first-love story. There is a careful consideration of mental health in the African American community. There are jocks and nerds. An old possibly alcoholic gay man named Paul who keeps hilariously trying to avenge perceived slights. Drugs. Gangs. More.

But possibly the biggest strength of this slim but powerful novel is its voice. It's alternately funny and dead serious, but with a subtlety that really requires you to pay attention to catch both the profundity, and also the humor. Here's an exchange between teenaged Claude and his crush Janice that illustrates this:

"Your grandma came to my house yesterday," Janice said.
"She's going around the neighborhood," I said.
"She's a little wild," Janice said.

"I'm sorry," I said. "She's worried about the future."
"I like it," Janice said. "She screamed a little."
"I'm sorry," I said again.
"They want to organize a march," Janice said.
"I'm sorry," I said.
"They want to take back the streets," Janice said.

There's so much to unpack here — it's funny, it's sad, it's a little cringe-worthy. Poor Claude is so awkward! But this is representative of many of the quick-fire snippets of dialogue throughout the novel I really loved.

Bump is getting the "arrival of a brilliant young talent" blurb treatment, a sentiment which is somewhat overused, but in this case perfectly apt. This is one Chicago writer for whom I can't wait to see what's next. I pealed through this book so quickly, I'm desperate for more of this voice! This book is highly recommended both as a terrific reading experience, and also to get in on the ground floor of a writer from whom you'll no doubt be hearing lots more.