Thursday, November 30, 2023

Best Books I Read in November

You're probably already inundated with the best of the year book lists, but over here, we have just one more post to get through before we get to my favorite books of the year (next week). Here are the best books I read in November:

From Dust To Stardust, by Kathleen Rooney -- This is a dazzling Jazz Age tale about silent movie star Doreen O'Dare (based on real-life star Colleen Moore), her rise through the burgeoning movie industry, her fraught first marriage, and her construction of the magnificent Fairy Castle, a huge doll house now housed at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry.

Down to the dialogue, wardrobes, and hairstyles, Rooney really gets the Roaring 20s right here, and this is a joy to read. If you like Rooney's novel Lillian Boxfish Takes A Walk (which I did a lot!) or are just a fan of a good period piece, you'll love this too.

The Latecomer, by Jean Hanff Korelitz -- In some ways, this is a pretty standard dysfunctional family story (which is fine, I LOVE these stories) -- the family here, the Oppenheimers, is a rich New York brood doing rich New Yorker things, like buying art and managing a hedge fund. Also, the father is kind of a tool and has an affair, and this affects all the children.

But this terrific novel also strikes out on its own and breaks many of the conventions of the traditional dysfunctional family story. The bulk of the story is about the kids: A set of triplets who all hate each other. It is fascinating to watch their dynamic play out here as we switch between their perspectives. Two of the three are sympathetic, root-able-for characters, and the third, like his father, is a tool. But they're all interesting, and do lots of interesting things.

Then of course, as per the title, there's a new sibling. The Latecomer. And that's when things start to get REALLY dramatic.

This is a novel that starts slowly and builds over time (this novel's a SHINING EXAMPLE of why you don't DNF after 50 pages).😊

Again and Again, by Jonathan Evison -- I'll read ANYTHING Evison writes, but even so, I had to talk myself into this one. I've just never been a huge fan of reincarnation stories. Just not my thing -- I'm not sure exactly why. Maybe because as a literary device to move a plot, it seems a little too gimmicky. But this novel is far from a straight-forward reincarnation story, if there's such a thing. Evison's got plenty of surprises in store for us here.

This is a novel about finding connection, finding love, and why these are the only things that matter. Told with Evison's signature charm, you'll love these characters, and you'll love digging into their relationships to each other.

If you've read Evison before, you'll love this one too. If you haven't, this is a great place to start with him.

Birnam Wood, by Eleanor Catton -- A wholly unique thriller that makes the political personal and the personal political. It's a novel about the limits of a personal ethos: When are you willing to compromise what you believe to get what you want?

I'd read this novel was about a group of "guerilla gardeners," and that had kind of put me off it for a while. And while it is about that, it's not REALLY about that. Birnam Wood is a collective that plants gardens in public space and on unused private land (like that rich people have which they never use), and the story is about what happens when a billionaire, who unbeknownst to them is up to all kinds of other shady stuff, offers to sponsor their group.

Even with several digressions about politics or culture or any other direction to which Catton (who is a BRILLIANT writer) lets her mind wander, this truly reads like a thriller -- twisty and turny and shocking and really tough to put down, a book I was constantly thinking about when I wasn't reading.

Monday, November 20, 2023

Catching Up, Part 3: Best 4 Books I Read in October

October was a pretty eclectic reading month, which as you may have noticed, is par for the course for me. Here are the best four books I read last month (and woohoo, we're almost caught up!):

Bliss Montage, by Ling Ma -- The commonality to all these stories is something fantastical that winds up being a literal representation of a symbolic or metaphorical point Ma is making with the rest of the story. A secret passage way in a college office, 100 ex-boyfriends living in the same house, an invisibility drug, etc., etc. The effect of this is to create two planes of meaning in each story, the literal, and the literal but symbolic, which drives a point home doubly strong. Alienation, the need to escape, the ghost of our past, etc., etc.

I loved this! It was so much fun to engage with and think about these stories. Immensely readable and profoundly smart. One of the better collections I've read in a while.

Why We Love Baseball, by Joe Posnanski -- This book has been a terrific companion for the end of the season, playoffs, and the World Series. I laughed a lot, got choked up a few times, was awed, amazed, and surprised. Full of trivia, inside info, and stuff you'd just neve consider, this is an absolute must-read, baseball fans.

Hot Springs Drive, by Lindsay Hunter -- All hail Lindsay Hunter! Full review of this great book is here. 

The Other Americans, by Laila Lalami -- An astonishing work! Loved this a lot. Full review of this great book is here.

Friday, November 10, 2023

Catching Up, Part 2: Best Books I Read In September

Yes, I know it's not September. But here we are, still catching up on some great books I read during my late-summer hiatus. This week, we're knocking out September reads. Here are the three best books I read two months ago. 🤣

The Bee Sting, by Paul Murray -- This is an epic, absolutely heart-wrenching dysfunctional family saga. Murray gives us nearly 650 pages of story here that goes by in a flash -- I wish there'd been even more.

It may be true that all unhappy families are unhappy in different ways, but most unhappy families have at least one commonality: They keep secrets from each other. And the Barnes family sure does here. Some of these secrets are mundane, some are massive with the potential to crumble the foundation of a family that isn't exactly on solid ground in the first place.

The joy in reading this novel is how carefully Murray peels back the layers, revealing each new piece of information, each secret, each secret's effect on the others, at exactly the perfect time. This novel is a stand-out, also, because each of member of this family of four is interesting in their own way, and Murray gives each their proper place in propping up the narrative and the family -- and also potentially destroying the the narrative and the family.

This was an absolute wheelhouse book for me -- no chance I wasn't going to love it. And I did. Murray's best book since the spectacular Skippy Dies. 

They Can't Kills Us Until They Kill Us, by Hanif Abdurraqib -- I'd read a few of these essays in their original homes, but you don't get the full effect of Abdurraqib's MASSIVE talent until you read all of these pieces together. They're just a joy to read and he does the one thing that separates GREAT writers from good writers: He gets you to care about things you had no idea you could care about.

What I loved about this collection is the range -- mostly about music, but he talks authoritatively about everyone from The Wonder Years, to Fall Out Boy, to Nina Simone. He never takes the easy road or makes the easy joke or resorts to cliche. He treats each of his subjects as if it's the most important topic of all time. That's a gift -- and again, it makes him a joy to read. I loved this and can't wait to read more by him.

Swimming For Sunlight, by Allie Larkin -- I read Larkin's novel The People We Keep during the summer and absolutely loved it, and I found this in a used bookstore on a trip recently, and it's about (in part) a difficult rescue dog named Barkimedes. So, yeah. 

An absolute hall of fame first line "My husband brought a date to our divorce" leads into a funny, touching read about starting again, overcoming trauma and anxiety, and rebuilding a life. And why dogs are the best. Though sometimes people are okay too, if you let them be okay to you.

Monday, October 30, 2023

Hot Springs Drive, by Lindsay Hunter: The Real Housewives of Suburbia

Not long ago, my spouse and I went out for drinks with an acquaintance -- an extremely gossipy fellow who is plugged in to the neighborhood tea. Our neighborhood, Roscoe Village, on the north side of Chicago, is made up mostly of million-dollar homes inhabited by wealthy families. When we bought our modest condo here, our real estate agent called our neighborhood "the suburbs." The tagline on bridges and in the newsletter for our neighborhood is "the village within the city." That's all to say, it's a pretty pleasant place. 

Over drinks, our friend absolutely dished the dirt on "the real housewives of Roscoe Village." "You wouldn't believe the things I know," he told us, smirking. He named no names, but told tales of adultery, scandal, and much worse. Ensconced in our apparently naive and sheltered bubble, we were shocked at first. The next day, we couldn't help looking at the parents watching their kids in the park with a little more suspicion. But then as we thought more about it, none of this was that surprising, honestly. People with more money than good sense and who have experienced few consequences in their lives get up to a lot of "adventures." (I know that sounds judgmental.) It just hit differently that this wasn't some Netflix special or a romance novel. It was our neighbors! 

Anyhow, all this was in the back of my mind as I devoured Lindsay Hunter's spicy new novel, Hot Springs Drive, about an affair between two neighbors in a leafy suburb. The affair leads to a murder, but not of either of the two parties involved in the affair! (not a spoiler, we know about the murder in the first few pages)

So we spend the first half of the novel getting to know these characters -- two completely normal suburban families. The two mothers become fast friends as they join a weight-loss club, complain about their ineffectual husbands, and prop each other up. But that doesn't stop one of the women from sleeping with the other's husband. Which is what leads to the murder. 

Then in the second half, after the murderer is revealed, Hunter explores the effect of this trauma on the two families involved. How does each person process this trauma, and move on (or not)? How does it affect them long-term in future relationships?

Both of the men turn tail and run, and all but disappear from the story, which is fine. They're both standard-issue boring husband characters anyway (one is even a used car salesmen, almost putting too fine a point on it). The kids in both families scatter as well. While most of the characters are content to let the past stay the past, two of the characters, the daughter of the murdered woman and one of the sons next door, are as haunted by their deep first love as they are by the murder. Will a romance be rekindled?

If you've read Hunter before, you'll likely agree that this novel feels like a huge step forward for her -- a writer coming into her own. But if you haven't read Hunter before, this is a terrific introduction. It's a deceptively complex novel with a ton going on beneath the surface of the plot. There are hints of Oedipus, comments on our obsession with true crime, staunch feminism (it's Hunter published on Roxane Gay's new imprint, so this makes sense), motherhood, and the various ways we deal with trauma, both healthy and not. Hunter's writing here is sharp and sultry. This is a great read -- highly recommend this!

Friday, October 27, 2023

The Other Americans, by Laila Lalami: A Powerful Feat of Polyphony

"Perhaps memory is not merely preservation of a moment in the mind, but the process of repeatedly returning to it, carefully breaking it up in parts and assembling them again until we can make sense of what we remember."

Laila Lalami's 2019 novel The Other Americans has been on my radar for some time, but it wasn't until after I got to briefly chat with her and then introduce her (embarrassingly, I totally botched her name, but that's a story for another time) for a class she was teaching at StoryStudio earlier this year that I finally picked up her novel. And it wasn't until a recent conversation with a new friend -- the new friend who said it was the best book she'd read in a long time -- that I finally decided to read it.

I loved it. It's an amazing novel, for several reasons, not the least of which is that it's easy to tell how in the hands of any lesser a novelist, this would've been a mess. That's because Lalami writes from the point of view of at least 10 different characters. Even that isn't all that unusual. But what is unusual -- and even more unusual that it's done so well -- is that she writes all these characters in the first person. They all are unique and authentic, and this polyphony-in-narrative of a diverse set of voices and a diverse cast of characters makes this novel feel well-rounded and whole.

The story is about a Moroccan immigrant family living in a small town in the Mojave Desert near Palm Springs. At the beginning of the novel, the father is killed in a tragic hit-and-run accident outside of the diner he owns. Daughter Nora rushes home from Oakland to be with her family and begin trying to understand the senseless and seemingly randomness of this accident. But is it senseless? Is it random?

The novel unfolds in the aforementioned multiple voices -- Nora, Mora's mother, a police officer and Iraq veteran named Jeremy, the owner of the bowling alley next to the father's diner, and a Mexican immigrant who may have witnessed what happened, among several others. But it's not just a multi-narrator novel, it's also a multi-genre story. It is, at once: 
  • A mystery, then a MURDER mystery
  • A coming-of-age story about finding your path, finding your voice, making art
  • A story about sibling rivalry, parental expectations, and family dynamics
  • A love story
  • A war story
  • A comment on mediocre white men, racism, sexism, and violence
  • A story of an immigrant family colliding with American norms that make little sense to them.
Lalami pulls all this off in 300 pages. You often hear the term "tightly spun" bandied about fairly frequently, but I can tell you this novel is THE definition of a tightly spun narrative. 

Some of the best books I've read this year have been couple-years-old novels (hello, The People We Keep, by Allison Larkin), and this one joins them. Enjoyed this immensely. Read this!