Thursday, August 29, 2013

The Indie Bookstore Road Trip 2013

It's 350 miles to Des Moines, I got a full tank of gas, an iPhone full of bookish podcasts and audiobooks, it's dark (well, not really)...and I'm wearing sunglasses. Hit it!

Tomorrow, I'm leaving on a four-state, five-city Labor Day weekend roadtrip totally focused on books — otherwise known as the best reason to roadtrip ever. Woo, books! The plan is to stop at eight independent bookstores (and maybe one highly recommended Barnes and Noble in Kansas City) along the way.

Here's the planned route, starting out heading west from Chicago:

And here's the list of bookstores:
1. Prairie Lights Books, Iowa City, IA
2. Beaverdale Books, Des Moines, IA
3. The Raven Book Store, Lawrence, KS
4. The Dusty Bookshelf, Lawrence, KS
5. Rainy Day Books, Fairway, KS (Kansas City)
6. Main Street Books, St. Charles, MO (near St. Louis)
7. Subterranean Books, St. Louis
8. Left Bank Books, St. Louis

Is this trip just a tad dorky? Oh, yeah. Am I super excited about it? Yes. Yes, I am. It's something I've always wanted to do, and since the future spouse's mother and sister are in town this weekend to wedding-dress shop, I have a free pass for a Weekend of Dork. And this is the best possible way I can think to take advantage.

So I'll have a full report next week. Until then...onward!

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

& SONS: Famous Novelists Make The Worst Fathers

The opening scene of David Gilbert's fantastic new novel & Sons shows aging, reclusive novelist A.N. Dyer  forced to brave the outside world to deliver the eulogy at his life-long friend's funeral. But A.N. Dyer has barely slept the night before because he — a writer of some repute whose first novel, Ampersand, is now part of the canon — has stayed up all night searching for canned eulogies on the Internet. It's the first sign of many to follow of the sad state of Dyer's life — a revered writer plagiarizing his best friend's eulogy!

And from there, we follow Dyer's predictable and comic botch job of the eulogy, his sudden realization that his own days are numbered, and his attempt to reconcile with his two middle-aged sons, Richard and Jamie.

Oh, and there's the matter of A.N. Dyer's teenage son, Andy — whose birth, the result of an extramarital affair, ruined A.N. Dyer's marriage and estranged his other sons. Andy, attending Exeter Academy, as did his father and his older half-brothers, is, A.N. Dyer believes, his last chance to be a good father, as his other two sons, partially because he's always been a really crappy father, are kind of screwed up. And there's the small matter that they both hate him — partially because of Andy's existence. Richard has battled drug addiction his whole life, but has now settled down in California with a wife named Candy and two kids, and has spent 20 years not talking to his father. Jamie is a filmmaker, but he doesn't actually make films — he just shoots video — and kind of drifts around the world, surfacing in Brooklyn once in awhile.

There's a lot to this novel, both in terms of style and substance. There are long, delicious stream-of-consciousness passages. There are meditations on writing and fatherhood and life in New York and family dysfunction and tons of other things I love in novels. There is teenage angst, and a quest to get laid. There are Hollywood actors and drugs and sex. And there is the mother of all unexpected plot twists about halfway through the novel — which your willingness (or not) to accept this will dramatically influence how much you like this novel. I thought it was great, and I loved just about everything else about this book.

It's a novel that's in my absolute sweet spot of "novels I like" — it's a literary novel about writers and dysfunctional New York families. I think you'll like it, too, though. Highly recommended!

(Also, I don't know why, and probably there is no reason, but the three letters on the cover that are white, as opposed to the other yellow lettering, spell N-A-D. And I can't get past that, and because I'm 12, I giggle every time I pick up the book — because it reminds me of this. How about THAT for elevating the level of discourse for a literary novel?!)

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Night Film: Exploring the Dark Arts

Today is pub day for the most buzzed about novel of the summer: Marisha Pessl's Night Film. Will it live up to the hype?

I got a pre-pub ebook from the publisher, and spent the last two weeks with it, and I can faithfully report that it's got a good shot.

You'll hear frequently that Night Film is a "genre-bender" — and that's not wrong. It's a fast-paced mystery and a psychological thriller. It's an examination of the intersection of myth and fact, and art and real life. And it's a glimpse into the bowels of hell. DUM Dum dum... For me, this cross-genre-ness is a delight (Pessl is a supremely fun writer — profound and hip and funny and smart all at once), but to others, this might be confusing; especially if you have a preconceived notion that this is a Stephen King horror novel or a Michael Connelly thriller mystery or a Gillian Flynn head-messer-upper, etc. It's none of those, but a little bit of all of them, too.

Also, Night Film is a story in which you as the reader get to take an active role — not in a "choose-your-own-adventure" sense, but more in the sense that you're practically a character in the novel. This will also, no doubt, appeal differently to different readers. You, the reader, have to decide how much you're going to trust Pessl, while fully understanding that she may be trying to misdirect or confuse you as well. You have to choose what to believe, right along with the characters. Is there a reasonable explanation for such-and-such plot twist, or is there something more sinister going on? To me, that was a delight — indeed, my favorite part of the novel. To other readers, that might be annoying.

But that'll all make more sense once you understand the plot. So, here: Scott McGrath, our first-person narrator, is a mid-40s investigative reporter in New York City. Five years ago, while investigating the reclusive, cult-hero horror film director Stanislas Cordova (think David Lynch crossed with Hitchcock), he'd been publicly disgraced and discredited when, based on details gleaned from an anonymous phone call, he went on a news show and called Cordova a pedophile and possibly a murderer.

Back to the present, Cordova's youngest daughter, the beautiful, troubled 24-year-old Ashley has committed suicide by jumping down an elevator shaft in an abandoned building in Queens. McGrath gets the itch for the story again, and along with two cohorts (a stoner named Hopper and 19-year-old girl named Nora), re-starts the investigation in earnest.

McGrath interviews various people (a man who helped Ashley escape a mental hospital, a freaked-out maid at the Waldorf Towers hotel, patrons of a secret sex club) who came into contact with Ashley during her mysterious last week of life. The story begins to get weird — did Ashley dabble in the occult? Does her father? — and are those connections to the dark arts the basis for Cordova's horror movies?

As McGrath investigates, he's forced to weigh his staunch skepticism as a grounded, rational journalist with the real possibility that there may be elements to Ashley's story that traverse the traditional. And you, the reader, are right there with him, performing a stress test on your own beliefs. Can black magic or curses or worse be really real? Or is Pessl just playing tricks on us? Is our (like the characters') ability to be solely rational slowly eroding? Again, this was my favorite aspect of this novel — trying to figure out how much I wanted to let myself believe.

Another of the novel's calling cards is its inclusion of "real" newspaper and magazine articles, websites, and other documents. This adds another layer of reality to the story — inasmuch as these elements are real to the fictional world of the novel. It's a great strategy because it leads to even greater contrast between the real world and the possibility of a shadowy, metaphysical, "beyond-the-five-senses" one.

There are, however, a few things that will drive you nuts about this novel — one, which you'll hear about frequently, I'm sure, is the ending. It's the WTFiest of all WTF endings. If you need your endings to tie a neat bow around your story, this'll drive you a bit bananas. Additionally, there is a subplot or two that seem superfluous to the environment of mystery Pessl painstakingly creates (which isn't a huge deal, but this IS a long book). And finally, it just seemed strange that the girl Nora — who only knew Ashley because Ashley checked her coat one night at the restaurant at which Nora was working — was so willing to help with the investigation, and that McGrath would let her.

Overall, though, I think most readers will allow themselves to get lost in this novel's 600+ pages, and really enjoy the reading experience. That was definitely the case for me. I didn't think the novel was nearly as frightening as some early readers have claimed, but it's still a bit unsettling in spots. You may, indeed, want to get your nightlight ready — this one will keep you up late.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Reading List for the Dog Days of Summer

(This post originally appeared on Book Riot.

Here we are, the dog days. Doesn’t August just seem interminable? If it were up to me, we’d all count to three, and skip ahead to September. Football! Pumpkin beer! Bonfires! But since we can’t do that, here are some suggestions to help you navigate the long, lazy days of summer’s swan song.

Sweet Summer Reads — Reinvigorate your love of summer with these summer love novels.
1. That Old Cape Magic, by Richard Russo — Two weddings, one potential divorce. Summer on the Cape.
2. Sag Harbor, by Colson Whitehead — Summer vacation, coming-of-age, first love.
3. Seating Arrangements, by Maggie Shipstead — A summer wedding. Rich people do rich people things. Hilarity ensues.

Get Back In The Swing — Your baseball squad out of the pennant race? Not to fear.
1. The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach — Right?!
2. The Natural, by Bernard Malamud — Dust off your yellowing copy, and watch Roy Hobbs wield his Wonderboy (not a euphemism). The quintessential baseball novel.
3. The Brothers K, by David James Duncan — One of my five favorite novels of all time, Duncan’s family saga has baseball at its (substantial) heart.

The Malaise-Breakers — These novels may make you forget there even is an outside world.
1. Beat the Reaper, by Josh Bazell — A conclusion so shocking, you’ll want to start over right away, just to get there again.
2. The History of History, by Ida Hattemer-Higgins —  A little bit Murakami, a lot unconventional, brilliant fiction.
3. Kafka on the Shore, by Haruki Murakami — All Murakami, all mind-blowing fun. Cats!

Dog Books for the Dog Days — If you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.

1. The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein — Gitchya Kleenex ready.
2. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, by David Wroblewski — A retelling of Hamlet, but with many, many dogs. (Not as the main characters.)
3. Marley and Me, by John Grogan — Kleenex resupply, aisle 6!

Gear Up To Fall Back — Still not un-malaised? These novels will suit you up for fall.
1. The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, by David Mitchell — The only thing better than one autumn is 1,000 autumns.
2. The Cider House Rules, by John Irving — (In Homer Simpson voice) Mmmmmm. Cider. Aaaagggghhhhh.
3. House of Leaves, by Mark Danielewski — You’ll be frond of this novel. It’ll downright rake you in. (Sincerest apologies…)

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Son: Don't Mess With Texas

You hear multi-generational epic set in Texas, and your first thought is, "I liked this better the first time, when it was titled Texas." But Philipp Meyer's novel The Son is a masterful re-imagining of (update to?) the storytelling technique James Michener made famous: the family saga that tells the story of a place as much as it does that family. But in addition to Michener, The Son also seems to be heavily influenced by a much more literary figure, one Cormac McCarthy. That's because The Son is a both story of a people and its place (complete with oil, cattle, Comanches, and Mexicans), and also a literary historical fiction with all the requisite McCarthy violence, war, and everything else that makes Texas Texas.

Clocking in at just under 600 pages, you're going to want to clear your schedule for this one. It's the story of three characters; members of different generations of the same Texas family. Eli McCullough is the family patriarch — and his story begins in the 1850s when his family is murdered by a Comanche raiding party, and he's adopted by the tribe as a slave. He spends his formative teenage years with the tribe, learning their ways — an experience that informs the rest of his life, even after he rejoins Texas society, fights in the Civil War, and starts the McCullough family ranch.

Eli's son Peter's story begins in 1915, when some ne'er-do-well family members of the McCullough's long-time Mexican neighbors some cattle. So, much to Peter's chagrin, a hunting party is formed, which takes the law into its hands, killing the entire Mexican family. Peter, who admits (his story is told as a diary) that "There are those born to hunt and those born to be hunted. I have always known I was the latter."

But none of these characters is exactly representative of a typical Texan. They're all uncomfortable in their own times, and all seem to be trying to break the mold of what is expected of them. Eli is supposed to settle down and be a family man, but the wild streak he learned during his time as a Comanche won't allow him to do that. Peter is supposed to be the ruthless ranch owner, but he has the gall, instead, to be respectful of his neighbors rather than to constantly war with them. Naturally, this causes no small amount of conflict with his father. Peter explains: "There is nothing wrong with my father: he is the natural. The problem is those like myself, who hoped we might rise from our instinctive state. Who hoped to go beyond our nature." Peter hopes to be the better man and rise above the violence and war that is the order of the day.

And Jeannie, whose story traverses the last half of the 20th century, is supposed to be a demure Southern woman, but she actually takes the family ranch from post-war near-failure to a wildly successful oil empire, despite her supposed "limitations" as a woman in a man's world.

One of Meyer's great successes in this novel is that there are no "good guys" and "bad guys." Everything is relative based on whose story is being told at the time. And that's true as much for each character as it is for the three main groups — Mexicans, Indians, and whites — that shape the novel. When Eli is captured, his Comanche owner tells him:
"I am not even slightly crazy. The white people are crazy. They all want to be rich, same as we do, but they do not admit to themselves that you only get rich by taking things from other people. They think that if you do not see the people you are stealing from, or if you do not know them, or if they do not look like you, it is not really stealing."
But the Comanches and Mexicans are far from blameless. A Mexican ranch hand reflects on his situation, near the end of the novel:
"He was no better. His people had stolen land from the Indians, and yet he did not think of that even for an instant — he thought only of the Texans who had stolen it from his people. And the Indians from whom his people had stolen the land had themselves stolen it from other Indians."
Clearly, this isn't a novel that will appeal to all readers, but I loved it. I first read Michener's Texas about 10 years ago, and I remember struggling to get through all 1,200 pages. This is a worthy successor (companion?) to that novel — and much better in many ways, in my opinion. So, if you're in to the historical epic, this is definitely a novel worth checking out.