Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Legends Of The North Cascades, by Jonathan Evison: On the Power of Human Connection

Jonathan Evison's latest novel, Legends Of The North Cascades, a multi-narrator story set in two time periods tens of thousands of years apart is certainly ambitious. But this great adventure story continues a common theme in Evison’s novels: Connection, belonging, finding a place in the world among other humans. He writes: "Our only buffer against the cold, cruel world was one another." This is hard to admit sometimes, especially because humans are consistently disappointing. But like it our not, as the pandemic has certainly shown, we are at heart social beings.

After the death of his wife, Dave, a three-tours Iraq veteran, and his 7-year-old daughter Bella, go to live off the grid in the North Cascades mountains. Dave's had enough. Humans have nothing to offer him anymore. Even though you know this isn't going to work out, and is dangerous to the point of irresponsible, it's hard not to root for him, to nod along with his reasons. Sometimes we've all had more than our share of humans.

Meanwhile, Bella forms a sort of mythical connection to some people who lived on this land centuries before. Just like Dave and Bella, these early humans are just looking for their place in the world too. 

I loved this book, mainly for the character Bella. Writing children can't be easy, but Evison nails this, giving her only as much as she can handle. After all, "The sad reality of the world was that nobody was quite as resilient as a child, and nobody paid a higher price for it."

Thursday, June 3, 2021

Mary Jane, by Jessica Anya Blau: 'Almost Famous' in Book Form

Yes, there's definitely an "Almost Famous" feel to Mary Jane, Jessica Anya Blau's terrific 70s-set coming of age novel, right down to the sing-alongs with rock stars. Mary Jane, 14, living with her extremely traditional parents in a nice bedroom community in Baltimore, gets a job nannying for the five-year-old daughter of a couple nearby. But this couple has a secret: They're harboring a hugely famous actress and her hugely famous rock star husband, while the rock star is being treated for addiction. Mary Jane is star-struck at first, but soon gets over it: Celebrities are just like us, after all. Well, mostly. 

Throughout her summer, Mary Jane learns a lot about the world as it really is and people as they really are. But as importantly, she starts to learn about who she really is. 

We all have that moment (or hopefully many moments) when we are exposed to new ideas, and learn something (or many things) that completely contradicts everything we thought we knew...or what our parents had taught us. How we comprehend and deal with these new ideas plays an incredibly important role in who we become. Mary Jane has about one of these moments a day as she becomes more and more embedded in this bohemian household. 

If you remember what it was like to be an awkward teenager suddenly finding out that not everything is as it seems, this is a perfect novel for you. Also, if you love music, this is a perfect novel for you. This is smart and funny and hugely entertaining. A huge win!

Thursday, May 27, 2021

The Plot, by Jean Hanff Korelitz: Literary Thriller, Literally

Is there anything worse than being unoriginal? In art, as in life, being called "derivative" is a fate worse than death. But when art is based on life, where is the line between invention, inspiration, borrowing, and flat-out stealing? For an artist, is there any worse crime than stealing someone else's work?

That's what this intense literary thriller is about. And when I say The Plot is a "literary thriller," I mean that literally. The plot of this novel is about a plot of a novel. And there are plenty of little literary chestnuts here if you're paying careful attention -- from the current debate about appropriation to Oprah's Book Club and James Frey to little jokes about Dan Brown. In fact, given Dan Brown's history with, um, "borrowing" plot, I couldn't help but think our protagonist here, a once-struggling-then-wildly-successful writer named Jake, bares more than a passing literary resemblances to Brown.

Jake is a struggling writer who stumbles on a once in a lifetime opportunity for fame and fortune. But taking said opportunity might be a little less than ethical. Or is it? You can see where this is going, right? Will he take it? What will be the repercussions? And what twists and turns lie along the way? 

So this winds up being a carefully plotted thriller that, while not exactly original itself (John Boyne's A Ladder To The Sky was about nearly this same thing), does have a few surprises in store for us along the way. I was immensely entertained all the way through.

Friday, May 14, 2021

Early Morning Riser, by Katherine Heiny: Charming, Hilarious Tale of Midwestern Life

If Richard Russo and Sarah Silverman had a book baby, it might look something like Katherine Heiny's charming, hilarious tale of small town Midwestern life, Early Morning Riser

It's almost too easy (lazy?) to compare this novel to Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio...but it definitely has that feel (there's even a character here named Willard!). A cast of goofy, quirky, sweet characters in the small town of Boyne City, Michigan, are all up in each other's business. They're mostly friendly, sometimes passive aggressive, but they always help each other, especially when tragedy strikes. 

Jane, our protagonist, moves to Boyne City as a young woman to teach second grade. She's really the only "normal" person in this tale. She meets Duncan — the town's manslut, who has slept with nearly every eligible woman in a three-county radius — and naturally begins dating him. She thinks he looks the Brawny Paper Towel Man, which is hilarious in itself — the small-town Midwestern ideal of masculinity. 

The novel is basically about Jane's life — her relationship with Duncan, her horrendous (though often laugh-out-loud funny) mother, and all the other people in this small town, including Jimmy, a developmentally disabled man who everyone in the town works together to take care of. Jimmy is the heart and soul of this novel. 

In total. this novel is about how we find happiness, no matter what hand we're dealt in life. Heiny writes, "Odd how rainbows could go on appearing when there was so much evil in the world..." But they do. And similarly, despite all odds, despite unspeakable tragedies, despite hurdles and heartbreak, we do figure out how to be happy. If we're lucky. 

In total, this is just a sweet, often laugh-out-loud story that just makes you feel glad to be a reader. Loved it!

Monday, May 10, 2021

The Night Always Comes, by Willy Vlautin: Spec-freakin'-tacular

Compact, pitch-perfect, and immensely powerful, The Night Always Comes, by Willy Vlautin, is a crushing look at the failing American dream and the widening divide between those who take (mostly mediocre men) and those who strive against a system stacked against them.

I know I'm in the minority in this, but I don't normally like short novels. I like to sit with a set of characters, with a setting, with a set of themes, etc., for a good long time. But in 200 pages, Vlautin manages to construct a novel that feels fully developed, fully realized (and all-too-real), and fully populated with an amazing cast, some of them good, most of them not, but all of them with a little bit of both.

He gives these people long nearly unbroken conversations with each other, and then frequently juxtaposes those lines of dialogue with long "soliloquies" where characters expound on everything from their relationships to each to other to their simmering rage about their dreams seemingly being out of reach. The effect is that you just feel amazing close to these people in such short amount of time. It almost feels like a play. This shouldn't work, but it does.

I'm being purposefully (and probably annoyingly) vague about the details of the plot. You can read more about that on Goodreads or where ever, but basically, a Portland woman named Lynette pulls out every stop she can imagine to scrape together the money for the down payment on a house. You immediately and unmitigatedly root for Lynette — even as you find out about some of her own past issues. She's as tough as they come, and the 36 hours chronicled in this novel really test her mettle.

This is a spectacular read, gritty and real. It's now the leader in the clubhouse for my favorite book of the year.