Thursday, June 16, 2016

The Mirror Thief: Epically Mitchell-esque

I finished Martin Seay's epic, lengthy, intricately detailed, awe-inspiring debut novel The Mirror Thief about a month ago. And I still don't know exactly what to say about it, or to whom exactly to recommend it — other than readers who like good, challenging books (like David Mitchell writes, for instance).

But I got to see Martin Seay talk at Printer's Row Lit Fest this past weekend, and it helped crystallize some of my thoughts on the novel. He talked about how the novel had started as a writing prompt in an Experimental Fiction grad school class. The prompt was to write a story about someone telling a story about another story. And so The Mirror Thief is just that: It includes three distinct stories.

The first, which reads like a crime thriller, takes place in 2003 Las Vegas. An ex-Marine named Curtis tries to find a mysterious gambler named Stanley and runs across various shady characters throughout his odyssey through the absurd, unreality of Las Vegas. (He's staying at the Venetian, by the way. You'll see this as part of a pattern.)

The second story is in 1950s Venice Beach, California, and reads a little more like good old-fashioned literary fiction —  it's about 16-year-old Stanley hunting down the author of a book of poetry titled The Mirror Thief. There's some really cool stuff in this part of the story about readers' relationships with books, and subsequently, authors — who may or may not disappoint them if they meet in person (incidentally, Martin Seay decidedly DID NOT disappoint when I saw him in person. He says things like this: "When you spend all day hanging out with imaginary people, you can get a little weird.") 

Seay at Lit Fest
Finally, the third story whisks us back to 1592 Venice, Italy, where we delve into the "actual" story of the person chronicled in the book of poetry Stanley loves. His name is Crivano, and he's mixed up in a plot to kidnap mirror makers. At Lit Fest, Seay explained that Venice had nearly a monopoly on mirror-making, and if you had that skill, leaving Venice could get you killed. So smuggling mirror makers out of Venice was kind of a big deal. This section is intricately chronicled (almost to a fault) with historical detail and is really fascinating.

Whew! Got all that? The nested stories allow Seay to explore myriad themes from myriad angles. What is real? How do we know what is real? What is luck, and is it real? Is reality simply a reflection of what we hope/want it to be? Etc. 

Seay mentioned he spent five years writing this and seven finding a publisher — it's an amazing amount of time for such an amazing book to finally see the light of day. Thank goodness it did. This has been a novel slowly gaining word-of-mouth momentum — and truly, if you're a David Mitchell fan, you will like this, I think. 

(Totally random side note: Seay is married to novelist, poet, and essayist Kathleen Rooney, who penned one of my favorite novels of 2014, O, Democracy! The two make up quite the Chicago literary power couple!) 

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Lily And The Octopus: About a Fiercely Loved Dachshund

This is a tough one — how do I, in good conscience, recommend this novel, Lily and the Octopus, by Steven Rowley (out today!), which is about a dog with brain cancer? Especially considering that the dog is a dachshund. Especially considering my wife and I have two dachshunds. But I do — I recommend it wholeheartedly. Because as sad as it can be, it's also charming, and funny, and often surprisingly profound. It's a just good read that spans the emotional spectrum — and after all, that's what you want from fiction, isn't it? To feel?  I do, for sure.

Okay, so technically, telling you the dog has cancer is a bit of a spoiler — Lily is the dog, and the octopus is a metaphor for a brain tumor. But if you decide to read this, you learn this fact pretty quickly, and in my opinion, you deserve to know this going in. As well, if you've read anything about this book before diving in, you'll figure it out. And I'm sure glad I knew going in. The other piece of info worth knowing: This isn't complete fictional, which actually adds another layer of emotional depth to this story. The author Rowley also had a dachshund which also had brain cancer, and so this novel is part memoir, part catharsis.

So we go back and forth in time to when the narrator (a guy named Ted) adopted Lily, has relationship troubles with his boyfriend, suffers through Lily's back surgery (a common problem with the breed — luckily, neither of our dachshunds have had that issue yet), and tries to destroy the evil octopus that has perched itself on Lily's head.

The highlight of this novel is the narrator's voice — self-deprecating at times, defiant and fierce at times, vulnerable and sad at times, but always smart, interesting and fun to read. Of course, both Lily and the octopus talk, too. Talking animals are always a risky decision, but the whimsy with which this novel's written makes this feel perfectly apt — talking animals fit in fine.

One of the gauges, though it's almost a too-easy comparison, to whether or not you might like reading this is if you enjoyed Garth Stein's The Art of Racing in the Rain. I loved that novel, but like this one, it absolutely leveled me. I've had many conversations with dog lovers who could not read that one. So if that's you, this probably isn't the book for you, either. However, if you love dog books, and you love to put through an emotional wringer, this is DEFINITELY the book for you.

Yoshi and Baxter are new Steven Rowley fans

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

We're All Damaged: Dude Lit For Days

Lots of dude lit seems to start with misery — a cheating wife (This Is Where I Leave You), or a lost job (The Financial Lives of the Poets), or a mysterious medical issue (Everything Changes). We're All Damaged, Matthew Norman's new novel (after his fantastic debut, Domestic Violets), starts similarly — with a divorce.

Starting with sad is an easy narrative choice, after all, but a solid one for this genre. That's because it allows our dude narrator — in this case, an early 30s dude named Andy — to go through the rest of the novel in his self-deprecating, woe-is-me tone. And we can easily laugh at/with him, because a) he doesn't have any REAL problems (I mean, these narrators aren't exactly Nelson Mandela), and b) he's damn funny!

Like Judd in This Is Where I Leave You and Tom in Domestic Violets, Andy is your prototypical dude lit narrator: amusing, but sad. After his wife dumped him during a meal at Applebee's, he cuts tail from his hometown of Omaha, and runs to New York. But now, as the novel gets going, he has to return to Omaha because his grandfather isn't doing well.

There, he's surrounded by a goofy cast of characters, each of whom exasperates him more than the last. His d-bag older brother still picks on him. His dad shoots squirrels in the backyard (with paintballs). His mother is a rising star in the conservative talk radio circuit, and may soon get a call up to the "big leagues," Fox News. (Recently, she's been terrorized by The Glitter Mafia, a group of gay men who take exception to her narrow and outmoded views on marriage equality, and take it upon themselves to periodically bomb Andy's parents' home with Ken figures, glitter, and blow-up sex dolls.) And then there's Daisy, a mysterious, tattooed, and alluring woman, who, for reasons Andy can't fathom, befriends him and professes to help him get over his divorce.

So Andy spends two weeks hanging with Daisy, drinking lots, saying goodbye to his grandfather, being annoyed by his parents, dodging the Glitter Mafia, and plotting bodily harm against his ex-wife's new fiancee, a hunky ambulance driver. And that's the novel! Not to minimize it, but we're not exactly talking Pulitzer here. It is, however, a great, fun read — and despite the avalanche of self-deprecation and 90s references, it is a novel that has some heart, as Andy slowly begins to figure it all out.

I'd definitely recommend it — a great summer read for dudes at the beach, on the plane, or wherever you just need some goofiness for a few hours.