Monday, December 14, 2020

New Dork Review's Top 10 of 2020

So...that was an unusual year, right? Thankfully, there were still plenty of great books! 

Here are my 10 favorite of the year (in no particular order):  

10. The Cold Millions, by Jess Walter — Jess Walter really hits the mark here — fascinating characters, a well-told historical story with plenty of resonance to today, and just a lot of fun. There are gangsters and anarchists, labor warriors and dirty cops, bums and even dirtier rich guys...and a whole lot of anger, I couldn't turn these pages fast enough. 

9. Cher Ami and Major Wittlesey, by Kathleen Rooney — Yes, Cher Ami is a pigeon. And yes, she's one of the two alternating narrators. But it works! And this inventive, smart historical fiction about a little-known episode of World War I is all the better for it. Like Jess Walter, Rooney is such an adroit storyteller, she got me to care a lot about something about which I knew nothing before picking up this novel. And truly, pulling off a pigeon narrator — even though the human Major Wittlesey does his duty of narrating parts, as well — is a high risk, high reward prospect. Here, it worked, and the reward to readers is indeed very high. 

8. Red Pill, by Hari Kunzru — Pure and simple, Kunzru is a genius. I didn't review this one because I couldn't — it fully blew my mind too much to write coherently about it. But I still can't stop thinking about this novel, its construction, its ideas, its terrifying timeliness. The story is about a writer who goes to an artist retreat in Germany, and winds up basically losing his damn mind. But the how and why here are just so fascinating. This is the first novel I've read of what will sure be many that deals with the unique psychological and long-lasting issues of the Trump era. This novel also includes my favorite quote of the year (it's about the protagonist visiting a psychiatrist): "Their work was predicated on the assumption that the world is bearable, and anyone who finds it otherwise should be coaxed or medicated into acceptance. But what if it isn’t? What if the reasonable reaction is endless horrified screaming?" That's how 2020 felt, didn't it? That the only natural reaction is endless horrified screaming? 

7. Homeland Elegies, by Ayad Akhtar — Inventive, passionate, and heartbreaking. This novel that blends memoir and fiction in a way I’ve never read before is about the immigrant experience and how Trump and his cult have put a hard stop on the American dream for so many. It also presents a fascinating take on how Trump and Cult 45 could possibly have happened — a combination of American greed, anti-intellectualism, and truly a desire to stick it to big city liberals. And finally it’s about what it really means to be an American and how fraught being a Muslim American (or even just an American with a “Muslim name”) can be. I intensely loved this book. 

6. Utopia Avenue, by David Mitchell — Duh. Naturally a new Mitchell would be on my list. And this one, like all else of his brilliant oeuvre, is pure reading joy. Ostensibly about a 1960s folk band, really it's about music, art, and inspiration as only David Mitchell could portray them. It almost seems like a slight to call this more conventional, but don’t worry, he’s still got some Mitchell-ness waiting for you here (#horology). This might be my second favorite of Mitchell's novels, after The Bone Clocks. 

5. American Dirt, by Jeanine Cummins — Everyone who puts this novel on his/her year-end list would be wise to acknowledge two things: 1) There was considerable controversy in early 2020 about the authenticity and accuracy of this novel, and 2) Remember when that controversy was the biggest of big deals? And then the world went nuts, and a literary fiasco seemed like a tempest in a teapot. Anyway, controversy aside, I really loved this tale of a mother and her son's escape from Mexico. I thought it was riveting and heartfelt, and shined an important spotlight on the plight of the migrant. 

4. The Index of Self-Destructive Acts, by Christopher Beha — This long, immersive novel was a surprise inclusion on the National Book Award longlist this year. Because of that, and because it's partly about baseball, I gave it a shot. And I was immensely rewarded. In baseball, as in life, one should never underestimate one's ability to screw up. That's essentially what this novel's about. So if, like me, you like watching otherwise smart people do dumb things, this novel's for you too. It's early 2009, the excitement of Obama's election has warn off, and the grim reality of the financial crisis has set in. Set in New York City, this is the story of several characters whose lives intertwine and whose decisions (usually poor) affect each other, often in devastating ways. It's one of those terrific literary trainwrecks from which you can't look away. But I kept reading precisely because I was hoping any of them would be redeemable, that they'd learn lessons. Do they? You should check it out to find out. 

3. Deacon King Kong, by James McBride — I quick search reveals I only used the word "rollicking" one time on the blog this whole year (which is a damn shame — but 2020 didn't feel very rollicking did, it?), and it was in reference to this amazingly entertaining read. I mean, how could you not LOVE a novel with a character named Hot Sausage. Set in a Brooklyn housing project in the late 1960s, the sometimes goofiness here belies a series of serious themes of racism, injustice, and drug abuse. McBride is as good a pure storyteller as we have writing right now. 

2. Transcendent Kingdom, by Yaa Gyasi — Science vs. religion: The debate continues in this fantastic novel from Gyasi, who scored huge with her debut novel Homecoming. There is no sophomore slump here! You wouldn't expect a novel about such a heady subject to be so entertaining. And there's a lot going on in this novel: It's about the immigrant experience, substance abuse, family loyalty, and a lot more. But it all comes together deftly.   

1. Hollywood Park, by Mikel Jollett — This is the only non-fiction book on my list, and actually it's also the only book that IS in particular order — it's hands-down my favorite book of the year. I'm not ashamed to admit I shed a few tears reading this sad, very introspective memoir about Jollett growing up in California, being emotionally abused, struggling with substance abuse, and so much more. This is one of the more self-assured, self-aware, and well-written memoirs I've ever read. REALLY loved this book. (Oh, and the album of the same name is pretty good, too.) 

(Note: I haven't finished A Promised Land yet, but if I had before this post, it SURELY would've been on this list.)

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Afterland: A Mad Dash Through Men-Less America

Things are bad, but they could always be worse. Imagine if the coronavirus were massively more deadly than it already is...and only killed men. That's the premise of Lauren Beukes's terrific new thriller, Afterland. It's 2023, several years after a horrific global pandemic has killed off nearly all the men on the planet. Now, the women left are rebuilding society, and as you'd expect, doing a pretty stellar job. A select few men are immune and the governments of the world are banding together to try to figure out why. There is also a moratorium on new pregnancies until scientists can learn what caused the pandemic and develop a vaccine. 

So that's the world Beukes builds as she sets her story in motion. Cole and her pre-teen son Miles, who live in South Africa, are stuck in the U.S. They've been here since the pandemic began, and are desperately trying to get back home. (Cole's husband died from the virus earlier.) But they've been under government care (control?), so scientists can study Miles, one of the lucky males who is immune to the virus. 

Through a series of events, in which Cole's rebel sister Billie inserts herself into the story with not-the-best intentions, Cole and Miles bust out and begin a mad dash across the country to try to catch a boat back to South Africa. Along the way, and with Billie hot on their heels, we see America transformed. The new men-less country still the America we know, but there of course HUGE differences, as well — and Beukes is fascinating as she imagines how this world would be both the same and different without men. But there's plenty of action, too. Will Cole and Miles make it safely across the country? Will the be co-opted by a group of cultish religious weirdos who think saying "sorry" to God will bring back the men? And just what actually is Cole's sister up to, and will she be successful? 

I read this novel during election week to take my mind off...well, what might have been if things went worse than how they wound up. It was just the thing. Afterland definitely has some echoes of Chuck Wendig's fantastic novel, Wanderers — in terms of plot, how both writer imagines their alternate America, and also in terms of "cool" factor. If you've read Beukes before, you know what I mean — she is Her last novel Broken Monsters is one of my go-to recommendations for a scary crime novel. And Afterland is certainly a worthy successor. 

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Shuggie Bain: Harrowing, Unflinching Novel about Poverty and Alcoholism

If you're feeling a little bit better these days, Douglas Stuart's harrowing, heartrending debut novel Shuggie Bain can fix that right up for you. Shortlisted for both the Booker Prize and the National Book Award (ed. update: And WINNER of the Booker Prize) — a rare feat for any novel, much less a debut — Stuart's autofiction (that's autobiographical fiction) is an absolutely smashing (in every sense of that word) story about a young boy growing up in 1980s Glasgow, Scotland.

Life is hard. Poverty is crushing. But Shuggie's loyalty to his alcoholic mother is unwavering. Agnes is a fierce, beautiful, confident woman who chews up and spits out most men. But when her second husband dumps her and her three kids (Shuggie is the youngest) in public housing near a defunct coal mine, and then leaves for good, she spirals out of control and takes to the drink to ease the pain. 

So Shuggie has to figure out the world mostly on his own — he's constantly picked on at school for being a "poof." He urgently wishes for a regular life — that he could be a "normal" boy (he doesn't understand his sexuality, or why he's "different" from other boys). But he does know one thing: Life would be so much better if his mother would put down the bottle and be a mother to him. There are flashes of this — even a year-long "bout" of sobriety — but it never sticks. And it's utterly heartbreaking to read. 

This novel, with its intricate time-and-place detail and deep emotional resonance, does what all good fiction should do — walks you a mile in the shoes of these characters, and makes you feel what they're feeling, understand what they understand, and rationalize what they're rationalizing. But no matter how empathetic you are or how much you try to intellectually acknowledge alcoholism, it's still nearly impossible to understand. That's true whether you're a character in this novel who wants to date and reform Agnes, or Agnes's older children who decide they've had enough and leave her alone with Shuggie, or a reader yelling at Agnes to just. stop. drinking. 

Everyone loves an underdog story, and both Shuggie the character, and the novel he lives in, are the epitome of underdog stories. Though this novel is set in Scotland, not Ireland, I couldn't help but think how much this novel resembles Frank McCourt's memoir Angela's Ashes. And one of the things I loved about Angela's Ashes is the occasional flashes of levity amidst all the despair. In life as in fiction, even the darkest moments are seeded with humor. And that's the case in Shuggie Bain, too. I loved this book.

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

The Cold Millions: Jess Walter is Back, and Really Freakin' Good!

Jess Walter is one of a very few "phone book" writers to me — by that I mean, he could write the phone book and I'd still read him. So a new Jess Walter book is an EVENT. It's been a long wait since his last novel — Beautiful Ruins was 2012! So yeah, The Cold Millions hitting shelves (today!) is a big deal. 

And even more exciting than all that: It's really freakin' good! There are gangsters and anarchists, labor warriors and dirty cops, and a whole lot of anger. In a lot ways, though these events took place more than a century ago, this novel seems like a distant mirror to our current unsettling times.

The story, which takes place in 1909, is about two brothers, Gig, 23, and Rye, 16, "tramping" around the Pacific Northwest, looking for work, and getting swept up in the contentious labor fights of the day. Gig supports the Wobblies — the shorthand name for the members of the new "labor union for all," the Industrial Workers of the World. And Rye is sort of along for the ride. Things go south quickly when they're both arrested as part of a labor rally. Rye has to spend several days in a crowded, disgusting holding cell, not knowing the fate of his older brother. 

Enter Elizabeth Gurley Flynn — 19 years old, beautiful, and an absolute force of nature in the labor movement (and a real person — she cofounded the ACLU!). Flynn takes up the brothers' cause and after Rye is sprung from jail, gets him to travel around the west with her, telling his story of injustice, and fundraising for the Wobblies. Meanwhile, a rich industrialist whose interests (that of becoming MORE wealthy, at the expense of "the cold millions," the labor that makes him rich) are put at risk by the labor unions pulls some strings in the background to try to destroy the movement. Chaos further ensues when an anarchist with allegiance to neither side enters the fray. His only goal is to wreak havoc...and havoc is indeed wrought. 

I loved this book! It's pure reading fun — you can't turn the pages fastest enough here. If you're one of like four people who read Karl Marlantes' long novel Deep River, that came out last year, this is a really good (though much more entertaining) companion piece to that novel, also about the birth of the labor movement in the Pacific Northwest. But Jess Walter really hits the mark here — fascinating characters, a well-told historical story with plenty of resonance to today, and just a lot of fun. This is a favorite of the year! 

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Transcendent Kingdom: Science vs. Religion, but Make It Entertaining as Hell

I expected Yaa Gyasi's sophomore novel Transcendent Kingdom to be heavy. It's about a Stanford neuroscientist named Gifty who grapples with many of life's most transcendent questions. It's certainly as thoughtful, intelligent, and measured as I was hoping — one of the more interesting examinations of science vs. religion I've ever read. And it is, indeed, heavy at times. But what I did not expect was it to be entertaining as hell. It's a plot- and character-driven family saga that just reads so smoothly and enjoyably, you actually forget you're even weighing these big ideas. 

At the start of the novel, Gifty is finishing up her doctorate at Stanford when her depressed mother comes to live with her. Her mother, who had lived by herself in Huntsville, Alabama, has been clinically depressed since Gifty's drug-addicted older brother died of a drug overdose several years before when he was in high school. Gifty's mother has even tried to kill herself once, resulting in teenage Gifty having to spend a summer with her Ghanian relatives. This trip included a meeting with her father, who abandoned his family in Alabama to move back to Ghana when Gifty was a child.

Now, Gifty has made it her life's work to try to understand these psychological illnesses, depression and addiction, that have so dominated her family. "Could (science) be used to identify the neural mechanisms involved in psychiatric illnesses where there are issues with reward seeking, like in depression, where there is too much restraint in seeking pleasure, or drug addiction, where there is not enough?"

Then, there's religion, too. Gifty's mother raised her to be religious, and throughout her childhood, she was devoted to being the best Christian she could — that is, until cracks started forming in her faith, as she was introduced to some of the cornerstone contradictions of evangelical Christianity. For instance, if the Bible is "God's word," and is to be interpreted literally, but it's been translated many times over, and therefore open human to interpretation, then...what gives?

Even at Harvard, though, Gifty clings to a somewhat modified version of her religion, despite derision from her friends and classmates. For her, personal belief becomes a long and winding road, especially as she considers, evaluates, and incorporates new information, new thoughts, new ideas, etc. She describes how fundamentalism inherently rejects change because learning new information requires you to reject what you thought you knew before. For instance, discovering that the world is round means you must reject the formerly held idea that the world is flat? And then when you begin incorporating new information, what other views do you start to reconsider? "If the earth is round, then is God real? Literalism is helpful in the fight against change," she says. 

So yes, science vs religion features prominently in this novel, as you'd expect in a novel about a scientist who grew up in a strictly religious household. The main question here is this: Does one preclude the other? Gifty concludes, "I used to see the world through a God lens, and when that lens clouded, I turned to science. Both became, for me, valuable ways of seeing, but ultimately, both have failed to fully satisfy their aim: to make clear, to make meaning."

Whether or not you agree with Gifty's conclusion, it's more the seeking that's important, isn't it? And that's partly what makes this novel fascinating, beyond the really entertaining plot about a family saga. You're not going to find a more astute writer than Gyasi. She just...gets it. I don't know how to explain it better than that. You're just constantly nodding your head as you read. "Yes, that is something I've always thought, but never been able to put into words as well as this" — that type of reading experience. There is certainly a lot here: It's a novel about the dangers of addiction and depression, the horrors of racism, the family ties that fray and break and can or can't be repaired, and just how we find our places in the world. 

You sometimes see writers who achieve as much success with a debut as Gyasi did with Homegoing to slump a little bit in their second book. That is definitely not the case here. This is one of the best books I've read this year.