Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Recursion, by Blake Crouch: Is Time an Illusion?

With apologies to Matthew McConaughey, time may not be a flat circle after all. Rather, time may be an illusion. That's because consciousness is actually memory. And memory is reality. Wait, what? If your head is spinning, you're in the perfect spot to tackle Black Crouch's mind-blowing new thriller, Recursion

Yes, much like his last novel Dark Matter, which explored the notion of multiple universes, his newest thriller provides a different but similarly cerebral thought experiment: What if we can "live" in several timelines — or versions of our lives — simultaneously? I know it sounds confusing, but in the hands of a writer as talented and smart as Crouch, and within the framework of his ingenuous, turbo-speed plot, it really does all make sense.

The story starts with an NYPD detective named Barry, who tries to stop a woman with "False Memory Syndrome" from jumping off a Manhattan skyscraper. This leads him to begin investigating what FMS really is. Meanwhile, 10 years prior, a researcher named Helena is working on a project to digitally map memories. Her goal is to help people with Alzheimer's like her mother retain their precious memories. But her research is co-opted by a mysterious billionaire named Marcus Slade — think Elon Musk crossed with Dr. Evil. And what they actually discover is a way to re-plant consciousness inside a digitally mapped memory so that basically you're traveling back in time to relive your life over again at the start of that memory.

What could possibly go wrong?

And as importantly, what happens when your second (or third or infinity) timeline catches up to the present again? That's the stuff good thrillers are made of — and this is a very, very good thriller. The plot shifts several times in surprising ways, exploring the unintended consequences of this idea that memories can literally be lived in. What are the effects on other people? How does this version of time travel deal with the "grandmother/father paradox" (if your grandmother dies in the past, then how are you even born)? And what the hell is False Memory Syndrome anyway?

Like Dark Matter, this novel feels more like fiction about science than science-fiction. It's a subtle difference, I realize, but this novel feels so terrifyingly realistic — especially as you read more about how the exponential increase in computing power and AI means that it might be possible by like 2030 to literally map and store a brain, or part of a brain, or a memory, digitally. Yikes. Again, what could go wrong? But I'm glad we're just reading about this in fiction now — and super entertaining fiction, at that. If you enjoyed Dark Matter, or novels like Dexter Palmer's Version Control (one of my favorite novels of the last decade), you'll definitely enjoy this one too.

Friday, June 7, 2019

Memoir-palooza: 3 Terrific Recent Personal Stories

When I was a dumb young (young dumb?) book blogger, I wrote an awful post about the difference between autobiography and memoir.  You know how you often look back at stuff you wrote awhile ago and cringe really, really hard. That's that. Anyway, I just mention that because, for whatever reason, maybe mid-life self-reflection or maybe because they seem to be the genre du jour and there are a lot more really good ones published these days, I've read a ton of awesome memoirs lately. I never used to be a big fan, but the more I read (Educated! Becoming!), the more I love them. Here's a rundown of three recent ones I really enjoyed.

Born A Crime, by Trevor Noah — A memoir that alternates between serious-as-a-heart-attack and shoot-Coke-out-of-your-nose-hilarious (which I did reading this on a flight), this book is always immensely entertaining. It combines a chronicle of Noah's South African childhood, mixed with his commentary about the absurdity, stupidity, and cruelty of apartheid. There is religion and mysticism, terrifying mini-buses (I dare you to read the first chapter and NOT continue with this book, as he tells a story about having to jump out of a moving minibus with a particularly scary driver), a fiercely strong mother, a burgeoning comedy and DJing career, and so much more. I still watch The Daily Show most nights, so it's a little embarrassing it took me until now to read this. But I loved it!

Save Me The Plums, by Ruth Reichl — Reichl, a beloved food writer and frequent memoirist, chronicles her nearly 10 years as the editor of Gourmet magazine before its untimely demise in 2009. While most readers will probably pick this up to read Reichl on food, I read this for a different reason: I wanted to get the inside scoop on the magazine business. And that's fascinating — how Reichl, who was a restaurant critic prior to landing the editorship of Gourmet, didn't know about adjacencies or the "tee-oh-cee" (TOC - table of contents) or any other cornerstones of the nerdy world of magazine editing. But she learned quickly and had massive success changing the magazine from a stuffy pub for high-fallutin' richie-riches to a magazine for everyone. It began running articles about things like whether it's moral to eat lobsters if they feel pain. (There's an entire chapter dedicated to David Foster Wallace and his "Consider the Lobster" essay, which is another reason I read and loved this book!) So yeah, I loved reading about the day-to-day of running a hugely popular consumer magazine — dealing with publisher (is it the editor's job to go on sales calls or not?), the accountants, the art directors, and everyone else that makes a magazine successful (or not). But I also gained a whole new appreciation for food culture. I am far from a foodie, but the way Reichl writes about food is so personal and intimate, you can't help but taste, smell and, savor it along with her. I really loved this book — a favorite of the year so far.

All That You Leave Behind, by Erin Lee Carter — If you've seen the terrific 2011 documentary Page One: Inside The New York Times, or if you're a long-time Times reader, you probably know David Carr, the irascible, fascinating journalist who built a huge social media following in the early years of Twitter. His daughter, now a successful documentarian, has written this intimate memoir about Carr, who died in the Times newsroom in 2015, mentoring her as she strives to make her way in New York media herself.

Culled from emails, gchats, and texts between the two, the memoir is a touching look at their immensely close relationship and how great of a mentor he was for her, even when he'd fly off the handle in one of his signature fits of rage. But Erin also has her own demons, struggling with a sense of adequacy and with bouts of alcoholism. The book reads part like an intimate biography of David Carr and part Girls-esque coming-of-age in Brooklyn. The latter gives this more than the occasional feel of self-absorption (Lena Dunham herself even makes an appearance or two!), but overall I really enjoyed this. It's a well-written, brave memoir.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Little Faith: Nickolas Butler on Midwestern Family and Faith

Nickolas Butler is one of my favorite writers because of how his novels and stories address universal themes of both life in literature, but with a decidedly Midwestern bent. His debut novel Shotgun Lovesongs, one of my favorite books of the last 10 years, is about friendship and loyalty (and music!) in a small Midwestern town. His underrated short story collection Beneath the Bonfire is about Midwestern friendships and relationships. And The Hearts of Men is about what it means not just to be a good man and father, but what it means to simply be a good person — again, with characters so heart-achingly Midwestern, you can't help but love them even as they do terrible things.

Now, Butler is back with another terrific novel, Little Faith, about two big literary themes: Faith and family. And as is the case in his previous work, Butler creates a story illustrating how these two themes are cornerstones of Midwestern life. Specifically, this story is about how interconnected faith and family are, what happens why then run afoul of each other, and the consequences of losing first one and then the other.

Lyle is a non-grumpy old man — a semi-retired Wisconsinite, married to a woman named Peg. Their adopted daughter Shiloh and her six-year-old son Isaac come to live with them after Shiloh has been out and about, sowing her wild oats. Lyle is complete taken with his grandson, spending every possible moment with him. The opening scene of the novel is the two playing hide-and-seek in a graveyard — a wonderful metaphor for the big questions that follow about faith and religion, fate vs free will, and the meaning of life.

For Lyle, faith is simply a matter of inertia. He's long since lost any real belief in a god as a result of a tragedy with his and Peg's first child many years ago. Butler touches on big theological questions like "Why would a benevolent god let bad things happen to good people?" but doesn't dwell on them. He understands this is well-trod ground, and simply has Lyle consider these questions, sometimes talk about them with his buddies (one of whom is a Lutheran pastor), and then move on.

Lyle still goes to church every Sunday, but it's more out of habit than anything else. Shiloh, however, is a newly born-again Christian. And she soon lands herself in the thrall (both spiritually and personally) of a charismatic preacher of a new fundamentalist church. (I hesitate to call it a "cult," though it is definitely cult-like.) Eventually, she moves in with this preacher, leaving Peg and Lyle and taking Isaac with her. This is devastating for Lyle, but even more devastating is that Shiloh begins withholding access to her son. She makes Lyle admit he's lost his faith, and therefore thinks he's a bad influence on her son.

This conflict between faith and family comes to a head when Isaac gets sick, and Lyle begins to suspect Shiloh and her preacher boyfriend aren't getting him the care he needs, choosing to try to "faith heal" him instead. This brings up several more thorny questions regarding freedom of religion vs. the welfare of a child. Will Lyle and Peg bring Shiloh to her senses before something really tragic happens with Isaac?

This novel takes place over the course of one year, a quintessentially Midwestern cycle. Butler is absolutely in his element writing about seasons and landscapes — his descriptions of the apple orchard Lyle works in part time are some of my favorite passages in this novel. And overall, Butler is such a natural, easy storyteller. This novel, like his others, is composed in Butler's signature warm, inviting, downright comforting style. It's just a pleasure to read. And so if you enjoyed Butler's other work, or are a fan of writers like Richard Russo, Leif Enger, or Kent Haruf, you'll love this novel too.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

3 Terrific Recent Reads

I've been all over the place lately, which is how I like it! From a comic Australian novel to a memoir to a small press Chicago novel, here's a rundown of three of really good books I've read in the last few weeks/months.

Becoming, by Michelle Obama

Why I Picked It Up: Duh.

Why You Should: You haven't already? C'mon, get with it! But seriously, this is an absolutely tremendous read: A deeply human story, a story about success amidst myriad challenges, and a story about how and why things have devolved into how they are now. I really, really loved this, as has every reader who has traversed these pages. I'm not ashamed to admit I got choked up approximately 78 times reading this.

If you're still on the fence, I can also tell you Michelle Obama is a hugely engaging writer — though that shouldn't be surprising. What is surprsing, though, is that, while oftentimes, the early parts of memoirs devolve into an episodic "then 'this' happened, then 'this' happened" chronicle of events, that definitely does not happen here. The first section (Becoming Me) about her south side childhood, her relationship with her parents and her relatives, her dad's failing health, and learning about what race means, and what it means to be black in America, is absolutely fascinating.

The second and third sections (Becoming Us, Becoming More) are about her early career as a lawyer in Chicago, meeting Barack, and building their family. And then, the White House: What a fascinating story of those eight years. It was so much fun to relive them through her eyes.

But it's not all roses: One of the more devastating recurring themes of this book — in a book FULL of devastating parts (given the current state of things) — is the vitriol and rancor people spat at the Obamas, how everything either of them said was willfully and purposefully misinterpreted and used hatefully, and how there was never any interest across the aisle on working together. It was all about hoping they failed. But truly, there is always hope, and so if you need some inspiration in these dark times, this is heartily recommended!

A Fraction of the Whole, by Steve Toltz

Why I Picked It Up: I was browsing at Unabridged Bookstore here in Chicago a few months ago, and this was on the remainder table. A blurb on the cover compares it to the A Confederacy of Dunces. Sold.

Why You Should: Because smart, often dense novels of ideas shouldn't be this freakin' hilarious. But this one is, and I enjoyed every bit of these 500 pages. The plot is propulsive, the writing is witty, and these are characters you won't soon forget. It's the story of an Australian kid, his dad, his famous criminal uncle, and their many misadventures. Toltz covers lots of ground here both plot- and idea-wise: What is God? What is our obligation to society? What is fate? Etc...

It's a novel you get totally lost in — one of those books that's so engrossing, you look up and can't believe three hours has passed. For me, it was fun to take a chance on a novel and writer I'd never heard of before, though this was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize back in 2008.

Recommend for fans of, yes, A Confederacy of Dunces, but also Ned Beauman, Tom McCarthy, and hell, even the Russians like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky.

North and Central, by Bob Hartley

Why I Picked It Up: I found this terrific novel at a recent indie book fair held at a bar in my neighborhood, at which the publisher, Tortoise Books, was exhibiting. Also, I'm a sucker for books about bars.

Why You Should: Because you like your books as booze-soaked as you imagine all writers are. A stereotype, I know. But this gritty, slim noir is about a bar owner on the west side of Chicago in the late 1970s. Andy has a "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" mentality about Chicago's corruption and mob scene, and together with his buddy, a dirty cop, hatch various schemes from the bar to take on the mob themselves and get their own little piece. I loved this book for the characters, the seminal events in Chicago history that touch these characters' meager existences (like John Wayne Gacy's arrest and the blizzard of '79), and the pared-down, in-the-trenches-of-life style of writing. This is a one- to two-sitting read, but it's phenomenal — another book I'm super glad I took a chance on.

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."