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."

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Six Great Novels To Feast on During the Holidays

Here are six terrific recent reads for you to feast on during the holidays. I've read these over the last few months but am just getting caught up now on pulling some thoughts together. Enjoy, as I did!

The Great Believers, by Rebecca Makkai — I finished this novel more than two months ago, and it still hasn't left me. And I still haven't found anything intelligent to say about it that hasn't already been said. It's extraordinarily powerful. Devastating. Illuminating. Authentic. Harrowing. I loved this book. It's a tough read, to be sure — about the AIDS crisis in the 1980s in Chicago. This will be on everyone's "favorites of the year" list — mine included. It's a magnificent piece of art. (This isn't a spoiler, but pages 334 through 337 of this book absolutely destroyed me — probably the best section of a novel I read all year.)

Charlotte Walsh Likes To Win, by Jo Piazza — The midterms elections are behind us, but this terrific novel about a fierce woman named Charlotte Walsh who is running for Senate in Pennsylvania is good any time. Walsh, a high-powered Silicon Valley executive, is running against your typical terrible old white guy who constantly condescends to her, spreads nasty rumors about her, and engages in just about every possible brand of dirty politics you can imagine. You'll pretty easily recognize him. But Walsh perseveres, and as you read, you realize just how much harder it is for women to run for national office than it is for men.

North, by Scott and Jenny Jurek — I read this for inspiration during the run-up (sorry) to the Chicago Marathon. Jurek is one of my running heroes, so there was a 100 percent chance I was going to love this, but man, he outdid himself this time. The book's about his attempt to break the Fastest Known Time for running the entire Appalachian Trail, heading north from Georgia to Maine. To do so, he'd need to average about 50 miles per day for more than 6 weeks. Seriously?! He and his wife Jenny write alternating parts, him about running, her about what it was like to crew for him. Needless to say, not everything goes according to plan. But part of the inspiration here is how both Scott and Jenny were able to overcome every obstacle, and how they did it together.

Virgil Wander, by Leif Enger — This is just a delightful little slice of life about a small town in the upper Midwest. For fans of Richard Russo and Nickolas Butler, Enger's novel chronicles the eponymous middle-aged theater owner who just survived an accident which has rendered him a little...different. He can't remember adjectives and thinks that he's an intruder in his own life. But this new lease on life — a literal mid-life crisis — allows him to see the world differently. So Virgil, along with a cast of Winesburg-Ohio-esque small-town characters spend their time flying kites, planning festivals, and speculating about the mysterious disappearance of one of their town heroes, a former minor league baseball player who died in a plane crash over Lake Superior...or did he? But not everything is as pleasant as it seems. The town is slowly dying and some of its residents aren't as nice as the others. A powerful finish completes a terrifically satisfying reading experience here.

Anatomy of a Miracle, by Jonathan Miles — This was a book I saved all year, to read something I knew I'd love when I really needed something good. And good, it is. It's a thorough and thoughtful examination of our current culture, and some of the absolute absurdities of it — that people tend to shoehorn events and their implications into their current worldview instead of re-examining or re-evaluating their worldview based on new information. (To paraphrase something Jon Stewart once said: I used to think people's reality influenced their politics. Now it's clear people's politics influences their reality.) The story is about a paralyzed Afghanistan veteran named Cameron Harris, who one day, gets out of his wheelchair and walks. There's no medical explanation, so naturally religious groups descend upon Biloxi, Mississippi, the site of this wondrous miracle. But is it a miracle? Miles is right on target here about how the media covers politically charged events, how celebrity can infect morality (both of the celebrity and the people who "worship" him/her), and the age-old debate of science vs. religion. Cameron is a deeply sympathetic character, especially as we learn more about him. And Miles nails our current zeitgeist right on the head.

The Library At Mount Char, by Scott Hawkins — This strange, genre-bending novel came highly recommended by a number of readers whose opinions I trust implicitly. And they were not wrong. What fun! It's super inventive, and really, really smart. It's a little like if a grown-up Harry Potter story met X-Men met a crime thriller. Just insane! I can't do this justice with a pithy description, so you'll have to check this one out on your own.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018

A Ladder To The Sky: Writer Behaving Very, Very Badly

Conventional wisdom is that when writers are out of ideas, they write about writers. John Boyne's new novel, A Ladder To The Sky (out today!) is about writers, but one gets the sense that this novel is FAR from a last resort. Indeed, this terrific satire is one massively entertaining, hugely hilarious 350-page wink at the whole silly idea that you can pin inspiration down to a short pithy answer to the question "Where do your ideas come from?".

Maurice Swift, our protagonist, is a writer who actually is out of ideas. Rather, he never had any in the first place. He's a decent craftsman as a writer, but his stories are boring and lead nowhere. But Maurice has a dream. He'll stop at nothing to be a famous, celebrated novelist.

Boyne's novel unfolds in several sections checking in at different parts of Maurice's life. We first meet him in his early 20s using his looks and charm to seduce older writers, like aging German novelist Erich Ackermann, who has just seen his dying literary star resurrected when his sixth novel wins "The Prize." Through Ackermann, he meets (and seduces?) a gauche American writer named Dash Hardy who basically uses controversy to sell books. He proudly proclaims to whoever will listen that he doesn't read women writers, for instance.

There are so many terrific little knowing nods in this novel to important issues of the day in the reading and writing life. As another example, Maurice at one points gets in an argument about whether it's important to always finish novels, or okay not to finish books that don't immediately grab your attention. There's even an interlude — and my favorite part of the novel — when Maurice and Hardy visit Gore Vidal and his partner in their beachside house on the Italian Amalfi coast. Maurice tries to seduce Gore, seeing him as the ultimate literary prize, and possibly a potential blackmail candidate.

The thing about Maurice is that he is so ambitious (the title comes from the nugget of wisdom, paraphrased "those who build a ladder to the sky have a long way to fall"), he only uses sex or any other physical pleasure for personal gain. The only pleasure he derives from these things is that they furthers his ambitions. And there is nothing Maurice won't do to keep his literary fame alive. You'll be shocked at the lengths he'll go to. Maurice is not a character you'll soon forget. He is pure, unadulterated evil. But wow, is he fun to read about. I don't know if "dark satire" is a thing, but if not, it is now. 

I loved this book just as much as I loved Boyne's previous novel, The Heart's Invisible Furies, which was my hands-down favorite of last. A Ladder To The Sky is a VERY different novel, but no less entertaining. I can't recommend this more highly.