Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Chances Are...: Russo Goes Literary Mystery!

Richard Russo is back! Woohoo! Chances Are... is his first stand-alone novel in 10 years, after the sequel Everybody's Fool in 2016, a short story collection, and some essays. The new novel is something wholly unique for Russo — a literary mystery! But it's also unmistakably him. His warm, inviting, dad-humor style is on full display here, even as he's building suspense.

The story is about three lifelong friends — Lincoln, Teddy, and Mickey — who gather at Lincoln's cottage on Martha's Vineyard for one last hurrah before he sells it. The three, now 66 years old, had a similar weekend 44 years earlier, in 1971, just after graduating college, only that time they had a fourth: A beautiful, enigmatic woman named Jacy, with whom they were all in love.

But then Jacy disappeared. And as the three friends gather again, they're each haunted in different ways by the mystery, never solved, of her disappearance. Lincoln starts poking around with the local police. Teddy revisits some spots on the island for nostalgia's sake. And Mickey, well, Mickey is just as enigmatic as Jacy was — a Harley-riding rock star, he is a bit different than his two buttoned-down buddies, Lincoln a successful real estate agent and Teddy, who's lived a quiet life as the head of small indie press.

As always, Russo's care for his characters is readily apparent. And that makes this a terrific read, as is the case with all his books. Frankly, this'll likely go down as a "minor novel" when we're all looking back at his distinguished career. He makes some odd choices in the last third as we hurdle toward the resolution of the mystery. Still, though, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this. He's always a must-read for me and this novel, while certainly a middle-tier book for him, is still a must-read if you're a Russo fan, too.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Fleishman Is In Trouble: A Tale of Divorce and Marriage

Just when you think everything that could possibly be done with the "traditional" marriage/divorce novel has been done, there's this: Journalist Taffy Brodesser-Akner's debut novel about a couple in New York City. It's a story that feels fresh and original, and it's utterly engrossing and often very, very funny.

Fleishman Is In Trouble is a novel primarily about marriage, yes. But it also takes on themes of ambition, modern parenting, gender roles both in marriage and the workplace, and life-long friendships and how they change. Is it fair or right that an ambitious woman who spends 80 hours a week at the office is often considered a poor parent? Is it fair or right that a man who handles the primary parenting responsibilities is considered to be lacking professional ambition? And when these questions create friction in a marriage, is it fair to even try to assign blame?

As the novel opens, Toby Fleishman, an early-40s successful NYC doctor and his wife Rachel, a VERY successful NYC talent agent are getting divorced. Their 15-year marriage has crumbled amidst pressures of jobs, kids, finances, and more, as marriages are wont to do. Rachel is a fiercely ambitious aspiring social climber, endeavoring to make nice with all the moneyed couples of New York. She works constantly, building from scratch her own talent agency after being passed over for a promotion (probably either because she was pregnant, or because she rejected the advances of her boss) at a former job. It's hard out there for a woman in the workplace!

Toby, meanwhile, has taken on the primary parenting duties, even amidst his busy schedule as a doctor. Most women would be pleased as punch being married to a successful doctor, but not Rachel. She constantly chides the fact that Toby's ambition doesn't match her own. His meager $235,000 salary isn't enough to help them build the life they "deserve" amongst NYC's elite, she thinks. So she takes matters into her own hands, getting him a job offer at a pharmaceutical company for a million-plus per year. But he promptly turns it down and is even angry she thinks he'd take it, having to compromise every reason he became a doctor in the first place. This episode is one of the nails in the coffin for their marriage.

But then, back in the real-time of the story, Rachel just disappears! She drops off the kids one morning for Toby's weekend, and heads to a yoga retreat, but doesn't come back. And she doesn't answer her phone. And her assistant won't say where she is. This is inconvenient for Toby for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it cramps his newfound style of dating and having sex with several women's thanks to the wonders of technology and his success with Tinder-like dating apps. And here we have another of the double-standards the novel takes some glee in pointing out: Is it fair that the nerdy, unsuccessful-with-women Toby has overcorrected to become a sort of playboy? Would society look down on a woman who does the same thing? And why does society look down on Rachel, who has also overcorrected from her childhood of being poor to want a lifestyle of excess and wealth?

All the while, the novel takes on an interesting trick of narration, which frankly, takes a minute to get used to, but ultimately works extremely well. The story is being told to us, almost as a long magazine profile, by Toby's college friend Libby who makes frequent appearances in the novel as well. Libby is a former magazine journalist who has quit her job to raise her kids. At one point, as Libby reflects on her on career, and how she was successful writing profiles of men for men's magazines (Brodesser-Akner also writes for GQ and ESPN Magazine), she discusses how she was able to finesse out these men's stories, but also tell her own between the lines. And that's what this whole novel feels like — it's Toby's story, but there is Libby constantly between the lines, relating her own challenges, and the challenges of many women, with gender issues in the workplace, and with parenting and marriage.

So as Toby continues to struggle with Rachel's disappearance, we are riveted to find out what happened to her — and of course we do, and when we do, her story just adds another layer of complexity to all these issues that aren't easy to parse in the first place.

This is such an engrossing story, and as smart and insightful as it is about so many contemporary issues, it's also very often laugh out loud funny. Brodesser-Akner loves making fun of the self-serious NYC moms who wear a never-ending supply of workout tank tops with flashy slogans like "Spiritual Gangster" and "Eat Sleep Spin Repeat" And she talks about Toby's online dating and sex life with unflinchingly hilarious insight. But read this both because it's funny, but also just a really great, incredibly well-written modern story. Very highly recommended!

Thursday, July 11, 2019

My 5 Favorite Books of 2019 ... So Far

It's been a great year in reading so far! Three of my top five favorite books of 2019 are actually non-fiction, which is fairly unusual for me. But in addition to the two fantastic novels that made the list, several other novels (Recursion, by Blake Crouch; Little Faith by Nickolas Butler) are just barely on the outside looking in. Here's my list of my top five favorites of 2019 so far:

5. 26 Marathons, by Meb Keflezighi — Meb! Meb! Meb! If you're a runner or follow sports at all, Meb is no-doubt pretty high on your list of favorite athletes. In this terrific book, the Boston and New York Marathon champion and Olympic medalist details each of his 26 professional marathons, explaining how each race is unique, and what he's learned from each one. You'd think this has the potential to be repetitive — but it's not at all. It reads more like a continuous memoir of Meb's professional running career (with plenty from his personal life thrown in too), rather than a race-by-race account. I may never run a 2:10 marathon (or even a 3:10), but Meb's advice is infinitely useful to every amateur runner and his stories are infinitely inspiring. Go Meb! (Side note: My wife and I met Meb at a running store event a few years ago — and I am happy to report that he is an absolutely delightful human. Which is so refreshing.)

4. Daisy Jones & The Six, by Taylor Jenkins Reid — If one of the reasons you read is to have fun, then you have to read this novel. I haven't had more fun with a book in a long time. Told in an oral history format (with a very Behind the Music vibe), the novel tells the story of the rise and fall of the eponymous 70s rock band, Daisy Jones & The Six. But this inventive book is deeper than just the sordid details of sex, drugs, and rock'n'roll. There's a lot here that's fascinating about the nature of inspiration, collaboration, and art.

3. Save Me The Plums, by Ruth Reichl — Part foodie memoir, part memoir of what it's like to run a high-level consumer magazine at the height of consumer magazines, I loved this book — my first time reading Reichl (who, as I learned during and after reading this, has a passionate following). It's a quick read, and really helped me appreciate both the foodie's passion for food, and also the writer's passion for the written word.

2. Falter, by Bill McKibben — Definitely the least cheery thing I've read this year so far, even so, McKibben is always a must-read for me. Here, he tackles climate change, artificial intelligence, and gene hacking to show that humanity may be in some pretty serious trouble. But McKibben is hopeful, too, and naturally offers solutions to our biggest problems. He's a really engaging writer, even when he's gloomy.

1. The Most Fun We Ever Had, by Claire Lombardo — This is the book of the summer so far — it's everywhere. We can't keep it in stock at RoscoeBooks, and 99.9 percent of people who have read it have loved it. Me included. Even with some stiff competition coming out later this year (new Ann Patchett, Colson Whitehead, Richard Russo, etc.), it'll be hard to beat this novel for my overall favorite of 2019.

Friday, June 28, 2019

The Most Fun We Ever Had: Love and Marriage, Love and Marriage

Claire Lombardo's tale of love and marriage and children, The Most Fun We Ever Had, is a stunningly confident, massively entertaining, insightful-beyond-measure novel. Multi-generational family sagas are all the rage these days, but rarely are this good. And even more rarely are debut novels novels this assured. It's my favorite novel of the year so far, one I could not put down.

The story is about the marriage of Chicago suburbanites Marilyn and David, and their four daughters. After a random meeting in college when Marilyn mistakes David for her TA, and unloads on him about her class (a meet-cute, as the kids say), they fall in love and marry. They have, been all appearances, a perfect marriage. They rarely argue. They are attuned to each other's needs. They share responsibilities. And they often can't keep their hands off each other, to the eternal disgust of their daughters.

As their daughters grow up and reach adulthood, the perceived "perfectness" of Marilyn and David's marriage is actually a burden, not a boon. The near impossible standard to live up to puts a ridiculous amount of pressure on their daughters' own lives and relationships. And because the daughters don't want to disappoint their perfect parents, they often lie and keep fairly huge secrets. These make up the meat of the novel. 

What's strongest about this story is Lombardo's talent for rendering character. The novel alternates between the points-of-view of the parents on a timeline that leads up to the present day, and then also each of the daughters' perspectives in the present day as they all have their various troubles navigating the world. What's so impressive is that it's never difficult to tell them apart. In the hands of a lesser writer, over the course of 500+ pages, these characters may start blending together. But that's decidedly not the case here. I loved the oldest daughter Wendy — she's got no filter, and takes pleasure in making life hell for her sisters and parents. The second daughter Violet is infinitely irritating, and you just sort of want bad things to happen to her. Third daughter, Liza, you just feel bad for. And youngest daughter, Gracie, you sort of feel about her the way her sisters do: That she's perpetually a child, even though her adult life is a bit of a mess too.

The other strength of this book is its dialogue. It's rare that a writer is able to capture how people think, and then talk — often interrupting themselves mid-sentence. And, to further the point in the previous paragraph, each character has her own manner of speaking, which not an easy thing to pull off.

I would've loved to been a fly on the wall during the discussions between Lombardo and her editor about this novel's length. It's certainly not common for a debut writer to get 500+ pages for a family story. But Lombardo did, and I could've read 500 more pages about these people. They are fascinating, conniving, sharp-tongued, and hilarious.

This is my favorite novel of the year so far. It's so well-written, so insightful. And just so damn entertaining.

Side note: This is the 500th post on The New Dork Review of Books! I started this blog on Oct. 1, 2009, and 499 posts later, here we are. As always, thanks for reading!

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Bill McKibben vs. Steven Pinker: Falter vs. Enlightenment Now

Are we hopelessly screwed? Or is everything totally fine, and in fact, getting better? Two recent books by two prominent thinkers argue for near opposite takes on the current state of the world. Both are fascinating in how they portray our biggest challenges and threats — climate change, war, artificial intelligence, poverty, inequality, and much more. And for me, reading these two books back-to-back — Falter, by Bill McKibben and Enlightment Now by Steven Pinker — was a lesson not in pessimism vs optimism, but rather, an example of how even incredibly smart people can see the world very differently.

Bill McKibben is an environmental activist and the founder of 350.org (and, full disclosure, a personal hero of mine). His new book Falter wonders if the "human game" is coming to an end. Naturally, McKibben, who has spent his life advocating for climate change action — he wrote one of the first books describing the climate change problem, The End of Nature, in 1989 — cites climate change as the biggest threat to humanity. But he also argues that new technologies, namely artificial intelligence and gene-editing, also threaten to either destroy humanity, or just as bad, change fundamentally what it means to be human.

"A writer doesn't owe a reader hope — the only obligation is honesty," McKibben writes in his prologue. But even while he's spelling out our potential doom, McKibben is always an inspiring and engaging writer. Regarding climate change, he lays out the latest evidence and science illustrating how and why we're in trouble. Then he spends a fair amount of time arguing for the reasons we haven't made nearly enough progress on solving this problem. He discusses Ayn Rand and how she's influenced right-wing politicians like Paul Ryan and kingmakers like the Koch brothers. If you subscribe to a philosophy that only your individual happiness matters (philosophically justified selfishness), it's no wonder ethics, morals, and even laws aren't able to force you to back down from your pursuit of that happiness (in this case, read as, wealth). McKibben lays out this case without a hint of the rage he must be feeling. But the readers sure inherits his anger.

McKibben continues with a discussion of the dangers and benefits of artificial intelligence and increased computing power, based on interviews with Ray Kurzweil, the famous futurist and Google's director of engineering. Kurzweil, who some see as a crackpot and other view as a genius, fervently believes that if he can just live until 2030, he can be immortal. That's because advances in computing power and the potential for uploading his brain digitally will allow his consciousness to continue after his body no longer functions. This sounds crazy on the surface, but Kurzweil makes a scarily convincing case. But is a computer consciousness really human? Of course not. But what might be a bigger problem is if artificial intelligence becomes intelligent enough that it doesn't need us inefficient humans anymore, and either makes us its slaves, or wipes us out all together. Is it likely? Not too much so. Is it possible? Yes. And is that terrifying? Absolutely.

Finally, McKibben takes on CRISPR and gene-editing. CRISPR is basically a method for copying and pasting strands of DNA, like in a Word doc. This means we can quite literally change the characteristics of a living thing. So now that it's possible to create "designer babies," should we? McKibben talks about the libertarian argument (again, going back to Rand) that the government should be removed from scientific progress generally, but this specifically. His argument — and I think it lands nicely — is that nothing reduces a human's liberty more than his parents deciding what characteristics he'll be born with before he's even born! As well, gene-editing and designer babies will lead to a massive increase in inequality as it will only be wealthy parents who can afford to pay for designer babies, which in turn will be born with an even larger silver spoon...and the cycle continues.

So while things may look bleak, McKibben offers a recipe for hope, as well — fixing climate change, for one, is an all-hands-on-deck prospect. But we've solved huge problems before and we can solve this one, too. As well, the current political climate won't last forever — these things are cyclical, and Trump and his acolytes represent more an overcorrection than a long-term trend.

Steven Pinker, a Harvard cognitive psychologist, thinks that not only are we fine, we're flourishing. His book, Enlightenment Now, shows how the principles of the Enlightenment, namely science, reason, and humanism, have lead to unprecedented human progress in areas as wide ranging as life expectancy to democracy to wealth. He spends most of the book describing in painstaking detail all these areas of progress, trotting out dozens of charts showing how, for example, fewer women die in childbirth now than in 1750. Not exactly a high bar against which to measure progress, is it? And while, yes, it's great that fewer people die of malaria now and our rivers no longer catch on fire because of pollution, the problem for me is that these macro-trends are somewhat cold and unfeeling. A throwaway line early in the book is telling: He admits that the reduction in the the worldwide poverty rate isn't a comfort to you if you're a person who is still extremely poor. Or a reduction in infant death doesn't help you if you died. Of course, these problems will never get to zero, but the fact that poverty, war, climate change, terrorism, disease, inequality, and so much else still exists to a horrifying degree is evidence that everything isn't all warm and fuzzy.

And but so, after explaining how much progress we've made, Pinker spends the last bit passionately re-defending the Enlightenment values. This to me was the most interesting and fun-to-read part of his long book. Pinker is at his best when showing how certain high-ranking politicians and their followers abandoning these Enlightenment values explain our current dilemmas. Every opinion carries equal weight, no matter how uninformed, for instance. Or, in the case of climate change, the issue is people believing the charismatic authority that it's a Chinese hoax. And then they make that "belief" a status of personal identity, even though science isn't a political issue (facts don't care whether or not you "believe" in them). And so no amount of evidence would permit them to change their minds because that would mean literally changing how they see themselves and how they want the world to see them. 

This won't come as much of a surprise, but I liked Pinker's book far less than McKibben's. Pinker is often callous, glib, condescending, and droolingly dull.  As well, Pinker seems to make the occasional mistake in logic, which is odd for an immensely well-respect cognitive psychologist. For instance, in his section on environmental progress, and how we should continue combatting climate change, he argues that climate change is a technological problem that should be solvable. Fine. But he also then says that solar and wind won't be enough by themselves to solve emissions reductions because the scale isn't available yet and the technology to store electricity isn't ready for prime time. First of all, neither of those are actually true. But secondly, if climate change is a technology problem, isn't it reasonable to assume storage will also improve and solve the problem, not to mention more efficient solar panels producing more electricity (solving his non-existent problem that there's not enough room for enough solar panels).

McKibben actually calls out Pinker a few times. For example, McKibben explains, that in November 2017, 15,000 scientists issued a "stark warning to humanity." And "just like Pinker, they had charts..." Amusing. But McKibben's book certainly shouldn't be confused with a response to Pinker's. It's decidedly its own argument. If you're going to read one, read McKibben. Just because we've made progress doesn't mean we don't still have massive problems, as Pinker would have you believe. When I used to smoke, and people asked me how I can logically justify smoking knowing it was terrible for my health, my standard answer would be "By the time I get cancer, there will be a cure." Can you imagine? What a jerk I was. But that's the tone of Pinker's entire book. Problems aren't that bad because something'll come up. McKibben is much more clear-eyed (not to mention engaging as a writer!) about our issues.