Friday, May 7, 2021

Every Day Is A Gift, by Tammy Duckworth: What an Inspirational Story!

If you don't live in Illinois, you may not know a ton about Tammy Duckworth — Illinois' junior Senator. But she has an immensely fascinating, hugely inspiring story. The daughter of an American serviceman and a Chinese / Thai mother, she was born in Thailand, and grew up in Cambodia, Singapore, and nearly homeless and extremely poor in Honolulu. She joined the Army and trained to fly Black Hawks. In 2004, she lost both her legs and severely injured her arm when an RPG exploded in the cockpit of her Black Hawk as she was flying a mission in Iraq. She should've died, but thanks to the heroism and quick-thinking of her fellow soldiers, she was rushed back to the base in Baghdad and lived. 

After a long recovery, a losing Congressional campaign, and stints working for the Illinois and Obama Administration Bureau of Veteran's Affairs to improve conditions for wounded warriors like herself, she successfully won a seat in Congress (beating the crap out of right-wing misogynist and all-around terrible human Joe Walsh) in 2010. Then in 2016, she beat Republican Mark Kirk to win back Barack Obama's former Senate seat. She's the mother of two daughters, both born while Duckworth was in her late 40s, and she's the only woman ever to give birth as a sitting U.S. Senator. 

As inspiring a human as Tammy is, and how much I admire how hard she worked to overcome all the obstacles she did to be successful at every stage of her life, one of the things I like most about her is her sense of humor. It's really dark. But awesome. So awesome. An example: A joke from when she was running for Congress about how she and her husband still squabble — he chews gum with his mouth open and I leave my legs lying around the house. Or, how she and her Black Hawk crew mates played a game called "If you die, I get your stuff" before missions. Or how when, many years later, she was flown over the site of her attack, she joked "Are you sure this is the right place? I don't see my foot down there."

Political memoirs can be really hit or miss: Sometimes they're just thinly veiled campaign speeches. This one is not that. It's the actual story of her life, and what an exhilarating, uplifting story it is. This is easily a favorite book of the year — EXTREMELY highly recommended.

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Project Hail Mary, by Andy Weir: "The Tiebreaker" is a Win

When I first heard Andy Weir's third novel, Project Hail Mary, was imminent, I joked it should be subtitled "The Tiebreaker." The Martian was an unmitigated triumph — just for sheer reading fun, one of my favorite novels of the last decade or so. Weir's second novel, Artemis, was....um.....less successful. So which way would this one go?

It's a win! Project Hail Mary returns to the tried-and-true formula that made The Martian so much fun. Science dude is in deep doo-doo, cracks wise, solves science problems. And it works again! Here, our hero Ryland Grace is shot off into deep space to find a solution to a problem that literally threatens all of humanity. Like The Martian, problem after nearly disastrous problem pops up. And Grace, like Mark Watney, uses a massive resourcefulness and an almost preternatural command of science to solve them. Again, Weir takes us deeply into into the weeds with the science — get ready for more than your fair share of physics, chemistry, and astronomy. If you liked that about The Martian, you're going to love this, too. 

One issue with this novel though is that Grace is very much a G-rated, highly sanitized, and therefore MUCH less interesting, version of Mark Watney. Watney consistently cracked me up with his off-color and low-brow jokes (NASA: You're cleared to start drilling. Watney: That's what's she said). Grace, by contrast, is as milquetoast as a guy can be. He tries to be funny, but all his jokes are dad-tastic to the nth degree. I'd love to have a beer with Watney. Grace: Not so much. I mean, you still root for the guy, you're just not necessarily sure you'd want to hang out with him beyond the 500 pages of this novel. 

But I did enjoy this a lot — it's a book you'll speed through, you'll pump your fist, and maybe your faith in humanity's ability to solve huge problems will be slightly restored. That's something we need right now for sure!

Thursday, April 29, 2021

Godshot, by Chelsea Bieker: Just a Really Good Cult Novel

You know me, I love a good cult novel. And whoa boy, is Godshot, by Chelsea Bieker, a GOOD cult novel. But it's so much more, too. Taking place in a suburb of Fresno in California's drought-addled Central Valley in (I think?) about 2011, the story is about 14-year-old Lacey May, her mother Louise, and the bad-man preacher Vern who is hell bent on bringing rain, but only succeeds in destroying everyone's lives. 

Louise, who has ambitions of stardom, abandons her daughter and takes up with a man who tells her he'll make her famous — you know, the tale as old as time. But so Lacey May is left to live with her grandmother, and is stuck in the thrall of the two-bit preacher, Vern. Things go very badly for her from there. 

One of the main messages of the novel, which rings so incredibly true in this day and age, is how mediocre white men use whatever means necessary — religion, drugs and booze, promises of fame — to try to control women and keep them subservient. Indeed, is a cult-like religion really that different than the sex industry? They're both run by awful men who are addicted to their own fantasy of themselves and have mostly never drawn an honest breath in their lives. Lacey May imagines a meeting where these terrible men get together to compare notes: "Did they have a club where they traded these ideas with one another? I imagined a low-down shitty man meeting, all of them sitting in circle..." There are just way too many low-down shitty men out there, aren't there?

This is an immensely readable, quickly moving, "fiercely written" (as Entertainment Weekly said) coming-of-age-in-the-worst-possible-ways novel that's part John Steinbeck, part Mean Girls, and part Going Clear. I LOVED this book.

Monday, April 26, 2021

No Time Like The Future: Michael J. Fox Considers Mortality, Optimistically

My dad passed away three years ago from a variety afflictions — dude was on his sixth (!!!) cancer, the last one of which is what ultimately got him. But he also had rare skin disease, had recently broken his hip for the second time, and had battled Parkinson's disease for more than 30 years. My brothers and sisters and I joked (I guess somewhat morbidly) that it's a good thing he wasn't around for Covid, because even if he'd been locked in a hyperbaric chamber, he still somehow would've gotten it. 

But like all his other health issues, he would've handled it like a champ! He was unfailingly optimistic, almost infuriatingly so. I'd always think "Dad, it's okay to be mad, or frustrated, or even just mildly irritated." But he never was. It was truly inspiring. 

Michael J. Fox is probably the most prominent advocate for Parkinson's patients, and this book, No Time Like The Future, is about a tough year (2018) for him and how he did his level best to remain optimistic amidst his worsening Parkinson's, and a number of other health calamities, including a fall that left him in a wheelchair for several months. 

The highlight of this book, other than its message about optimism, is Fox's total dad humor. He's self-deprecating and goofy — and actually reminded me a lot of how my dad was: Using silly humor to deflect. 

You certainly don't need to have Parkinson's or even know someone that has Parkinson's to enjoy and be inspired by this book. Even as he's jetting off to Bhutan to shoot a documentary, and meeting Keith Richards at a New Years Eve party, just reading about Fox's everyday struggles helps put things in perspective. The next time you have to do something that seems really difficult, or aren't motivated to, say (as is sometimes the case for me) go for that run, just imagine how difficult it is for Michael J. Fox and/or my dad just to get up in the morning and get out the door. Everyone's fighting a battle. Parkinson's disease is a particularly shitty one. So reading about how Fox remains optimistic, and remembering how my dad did too, is a much-needed dose of inspiration.

PS. April is Parkinson's Awareness Month — hence the timing for this post. My brother Geoff and I are running the Chicago Marathon in October and raising money for the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research. If you'd like to donate, you can do so here. Much appreciated! 

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Klara And The Sun: A Master Class in Empathy

When a living Nobel Prize in Literature winner publishes a new novel, you read it. You just do. Thankfully, this one is really, really good.

Klara And The Sun is an absolute master class in empathy. Kazuo Ishiguro's singular genius is making incredibly complex ideas seem deceptively simple and he does that here in this parable told from the perspective of an Artificial Friend — a robot — about how we hope, love, and connect to others. 

As always with Ishiguro, though the world seems just like ours, key details are different, and the novel has its own rules and logic. And you have to sort of learn as you go. And you do. 

Rich with symbolism, allusion, and poetry, this is just a stunning work of art. Easily a favorite of the year.

_________________________________________________________________________

Some New Dork Review Changes:

You may have noticed this is the first post in a little while (since February). I've been thinking about how to revamp The New Dork Review of Books to make it more relevant these days. I've been writing this thing for 11.5 years now, and it was getting stale. I thought briefly about shutting it down. But after a lot of soul searching, I decided, yes, I still want to do this, and also, I don't really want to change much! Good times. 

Okay, but for real, the biggest changes will be shorter, more frequent, and hopefully more interesting posts (see above as example) — no one likes the 800-word book review anymore. These posts will be more reactions to what I've read than actual reviews. I've been doing this on Instagram for a bit, and it's fun! So I'm going to work hard at being more concise (but also allow myself the freedom to do longer posts if the mood strikes).

Another change is that I've set up Substack for email subscriptions. That seems to be what the kids these days are using most frequently. If you already get each post via the old email system Feedburner, you don't have to do anything. The old system I used is still active, though it has moved into maintenance mode, so I don't know how much longer it will be active. So if you want to subscribe via Substack to make sure you continue to get posts in your inbox, or if you don't subscribe yet via email and want to, just toss in your email address in the little box in the sidebar or here.

One other minor change is that the affiliate links to books I've read now are all to Bookshop.org — that's been the case for about a year now, but figured I'd point that out. Bookshop donates part of its sales to independent bookstores, so you're doing a good thing if you buy books from there. You can also always buy books at RoscoeBooks, the store I work at, too — we ship anywhere in the U.S. 
Thanks, as always, for reading! Let me know if you have any suggestions for content you'd like to see.