Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Best 3 of January

I've been pretty erratic in the frequency of posts the last several years, and so I wanted to introduce a new feature here this year. The idea behind the "best 3 of (month)" is several-fold: First, it'll force me to post at least once a month, which is a sort of new year's resolution this year: to be more consistent with these ramblings I neglect for long periods of time, then miss, then start again. Secondly, I read more books than I'm able to give proper review treatment, but I want to tell you about them too -- so this monthly feature will round up a few books I may have discussed other places, but not here yet. Thirdly, it'll give this space that can get stale from time to time a little more variety in type of posts. Hopefully it'll be fun and useful and maybe cool and hopefully you'll like it. As always, thanks for reading.

In January, I read eight books. Here are the best three:

1. South to America, by Imani Perry: This won the 2022 National Book Award for Nonfiction, and I picked it up after seeing Perry's acceptance speech, which is absolutely chill-inducingly inspiring (I just watched it again, and got a little choked up again, too). This book, of course, is wonderful too -- something really unique, as it's part travelogue, part memoir, part cultural history, and part essay collection. The goal here is to show us that the South is not a monolith: The South, from Louisville to New Orleans to Miami, is diverse and vibrant and faces as many different problems as any other region in the country. I assumed I'd read this slowly, a chapter or two at a time, but Perry is such an engaging writer, I couldn't put it down. Very highly recommended!

2. Heat 2, by Michael Mann and Meg Gardiner: Pure book adrenaline, and the dudiest dude book to ever dude. This is both a prequel AND a sequel to Mann's 1995 movie about a group of bank robbers and the cop tracking them down. It probably should've been one or the other -- or two separate books. But it was a fun read anyway. It's over 500 pages and I read it in a weekend.

3. The Echo Chamber, by John Boyne: Boyne, quickly becoming one of my favorite writers, seemingly publishes with the frequency of Joyce Carol Oates on speed. I almost missed this, a novel he published late in 2021. (And he published All The Broken Places, which I haven't gotten to yet, last fall). But I'm glad I caught it. It's effing hilarious -- a skewering of our social media-addicted, influencer-addled culture. It's another long book, but a page-turner. Loved it.

January post review:

1. The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, by Shehan Karunatilaka

2. The Last Chairlift, by John Irving

3. Extended Stay, by Juan Martinez

Final note: You can always see a title by title breakdown of what I'm up to Goodreads, if you're so inclined. 

Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Extended Stay, by Juan Martinez: Horror Hotel

In Juan Martinez's debut novel, Extended Stay, an opening scene of unimaginable real-world horror leads into a screamingly terrifying novel of equally unimaginable supernatural horror. 

An old Vegas hotel, the Alicia, which makes the Overlook Hotel look about as scary as a Ritz-Carlton, is the site of this horror parable about the immigrant experience and immigrants' "function" in a exploitive capitalistic society.

"Because we were never people. We were fodder," ponders our protagonist Alvaro, a Columbian immigrant who comes to Vegas with his younger sister after witnessing the gruesome murder of the rest of his family.

Alvaro works in the kitchen at the Alicia, and quickly becomes a favorite of the hotel's manager, who offers to let him and his sister live at the Alicia for free. It's too good an opportunity to pass up -- free rent! -- even as Alvaro begins to notice some really strange things about the hotel. 

After Alvaro and Carmen move in, things get progressively weirder, and infinitely more terrifying. Time skips. Moldy walls bleed insects. People disappear. Corridors expand beyond all physical limits. And then...Alvaro finds something called the Nightmare Room. Terrifying. The Alicia is alive, and it wants something from Alvaro. But what? 

I don't much read horror -- I'm not particularly squeamish (but this truly isn't for the faint of heart), it's just not my first-choice of genre -- but I couldn't look away from this. If you're looking for something to disturb you out of your winter doldrums, this is it. 

A final fun note: I went to Juan's book launch party last night at Women & Children First here in Chicago. Here are a couple photos from a terrific event (Juan was in conversation with writer Lindsay Hunter).

Thursday, January 19, 2023

The Last Chairlift, by John Irving: A Test of Endurance

Last week, after nearly three months of reading John Irving's mammoth 900-page novel The Last Chairlift a few pages a day, I texted a friend: "I have 75 pages to go, and it feels like Mile 23 of a marathon. I'm going to make it, but it hurts!"

That's probably overly dramatic. There's plenty to like here. It's one of those novels you'll read five pages and wonder why you're reading this or ever liked John Irving or like reading at all, and then he'll drop some wisdom or a plot twist or a perfect sentence and you realize why you love all those things. 

The Last Chairlift covers 80 years in the life of one Adam Brewster, a New England writer who grows up with a lesbian mother, a trans stepfather, and is surrounded by a cast of characters that let's just say wouldn't exactly be welcomed at a Waffle House in a red state. They're a fascinating group, to say the least. 

In an interview with Seth Meyers not long after the book was published, Irving explained why it was important to make Adam, the straight, white male character, the outsider in this group of characters. "It was certainly my intention to make him the odd guy out, to make him the 'queer' member of the family -- queer in the sense of strange and not up to speed." I loved that! Good fiction turns norms on their head. 

As with many of Irving's novels, he repeats a single phrase over and over throughout a novel to really drive home a theme. Here, Adam, who is telling this story in the first-person, tells us often the best advice he ever received, and the best lesson he ever learned: "There's more than one way to love people." 

In total, the novel is a career retrospective for Irving, who has said this will be his last "long" novel. There's wrestling and uncomfortable situations with young men and much older women and progressive politics and lots of writers and yes, ghosts.

When I finished the book, I texted my friend again "FINISHED!" She asked if it was worth it, and I had to think about that a minute. Yes, it's definitely always worth it to finish a novel, I responded. This one tested me for sure. But ultimately, yes, it was worth it. It did hurt at times, but also like a marathon, I knew I was signing up for pain when I started this, and finishing it did feel like an accomplishment!

I've read nearly every word Irving has written, and I'd put this one in the bottom of the middle-third of his work. It's definitely better than Avenue of Mysteries and Until I Find You, but nowhere near Garp or Owen Meany. 

Tuesday, January 17, 2023

The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, by Shehan Karunatilaka: War, Humans Are Absurd

If you read only one Sri Lankan novel this year, let this be it. Here's a quick syllogism to summarize The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, the 2022 Booker Prize winner: War is hell. Humans create war. Therefore, humans are hell. 

Maali Almeida, a Sri Lankan photographer who takes pictures of atrocities committed during the Sri Lankan civil war, wakes up dead. He doesn't know how or why he died, but he comes to understand he's stuck in the In Between, has seven moons to get his affairs back on Earth in order, and move to The Light. 

His affairs include some spicy photographs that expose some corruption on all sides of the horrific war. He's hidden the negatives and has to find a way to communicate to his former boyfriend DD and best friend Jaki so that they can publish the photos and expose the bad actors who are basically using the horrors of war for personal benefit. (I think -- frankly, this book was a little hard to follow at times, but that's the gist.)

But that short description belies the originality of this novel. Would you believe this novel's also hilarious? Maali is a goofy, irreverent knockabout, even in the afterlife. He spent most of his time alive fooling around with as many dudes as he could, drinking and gambling his meager earnings away, and generally not caring about much except his own self. 

Now that he's arrived in the afterlife, will he learn a lesson? Can he still do some good? 

This novel is an amazing feat of art -- the funniest war novel I've ever read since Catch-22. But it's also furious and profound about the absurdity of war and how terrible humans can be. "Do animals get an afterlife?" Karunatilaka writes. "Or is their punishment to be reborn as humans?" Near the end of the novel, title character Maali has a conversation with a leopard who wants to be human. The leopard says: "I can't understand why humans destroy when they can create. Such a waste."

Such a waste, indeed.

Tuesday, December 6, 2022

The New Dork Review of Books Top 10 of 2022

Mirroring Christmas creep, it feels like these "favorites of the year" lists are coming out earlier and earlier. I'm already like three weeks late and this is the earliest I've ever finished this post! 

Speaking of trends, exactly half of this year's list is made up of novels either set in Chicago, by Chicago writers, or both. It was a banner literary year in the City of Broad Shoulders...and beyond. So here's this year's list, my 10 favorite books (in no particular order) of what was an incredible reading year.


10. Mount Chicago, by Adam Levin -- This novel is soooo damn funny. And infuriating. That's sort of Levin's schtick. He's the DFWest DFW since DFW DFWed. This is my favorite thing Levin's written.

9. Last Summer On State Street, by Toya Wolfe -- A fierce, stunning novel about a young girl growing up in Chicago's Robert Taylor Homes. I loved this book for its bravery. 

8. Marrying the Ketchups, by Jennifer Close -- Just pure fun. This novel is about a dysfunctional family and their dysfunctional love lives set against the backdrop of the 2016 Cubs, the horrific election that year, and a suburban restaurant. 

7. The Nineties, by Chuck Klosterman -- Required 2022 reading for Gen X. Klosterman brilliantly gives the best decade ever a fresh of coat of paint with the advantage of hindsight. The book helps you see the everything from Nirvana to Biodome 2 with clear eyes. 

6. Sea of Tranquility, by Emily St. John Mandel -- Definitely my favorite novel of the year partially taking place on a moon colony in the 2200s. There is an enormous amount of plot -- and thought-provocation (Are we IN A SIMULATION?) -- in a slim novel. 

5. Cyclorama, by Adam Langer -- Another Chicago novel that explores whether people are basically good, the consequences of history repeating itself, and about choices made during our carefree youths potentially haunting our adulthood. Smart and immensely entertaining.

4. Olga Dies Dreaming, by Xochitl Gonzalez -- One of the first novels I read in 2022, I immediately knew this story about a Puerto Rican wedding planner in NYC would wind up on this list. What starts as a frothy novel about NYC's upper crust switches to very much a political novel about Puerto Rico. It's hard to believe this confident, accomplished novel is a debut!

3. Book of Extraordinary Tragedies, by Joe Meno -- Family will find a way, is what this terrific novel from one of my favorite writers is about. This is an odd takeaway, I realize, but I loved this book in part for how accurately Meno captures the gloom of Chicago winter in this novel. 

2. Groundskeeping, by Lee Cole -- This book wasn't written just for me, obviously. But it's one of those rare novels that felt like it was. A love story, campus novel, and examination of politics all in one. Wheelhouse. Book. Loved. It. 

1. Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, by Gabrielle Zevin -- This is this year's "Gee Greg, way to go out on a limb" pick. Yes, everyone loved this book, and everyone is right.