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.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

4 Recent Reads: Memoir, Literary Fiction, German Translation, Mild Disappointment

Here's another round-up of a bunch of recent reads.

The Blew-Me-Away Memoir 

Educated, by Tara Westover — You may have just seen this terrific memoir on President Obama's summer reading list. And it deserves every accolade it gets. Just amazing — I read the last 200 pages of this in one breathless sitting. Westover grew up in rural Idaho to strict Mormon parents. As she grows up, her survivalist father becomes increasingly erratic, constantly working on his bomb shelter and making all his children, Tara included, help out in his junkyard, which is a literal deathtrap. Her mother, supposedly the "normal" one, believes in all kinds of "alternative medicines" and begins a business mixing oils and herbs. Westover never set foot in a classroom because her parents didn't want to submit her to the brainwashing of government public schools. But eventually she goes against their wishes, gets a good score on the ACT, and enrolls in Brigham Young University at age 17. To me, this was when the memoir really picks up steam, as she begins to learn both how little she knows of the world and also how crazy everything she'd thought she'd known really was. And still, she can't quit her family — even wondering if her memories are flawed. It's just a wonderfully, beautifully, massively intelligently written book, topped off by this quote near the end: “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.”

The Terrific Literary Fiction

A Terrible Country, by Keith Gessen — Putin's Russia may be a terrible country, but this is a terrific novel! It's 2008 (so well before any of the current Russian meddling conversation) and a mid-30s, failing academic named Andrei travels to Moscow to take care of his ailing grandmother. Andrei (like Gessen) was born in Moscow, but his parents emigrated to the U.S. when he was a young boy. Now, in post-Soviet Moscow, Andrei is flabbergasted by Russian culture — the head-scratching wealth mixed with the remnants of the communist era mixed with the culture of distrust. Coming from New York City, Andrei still marvels about how everything in Moscow is a hassle, how everything is just so much harder than it has to be, from finding a reasonably priced cup of coffee to making friends to play hockey with. But Andrei slowly begins to figure it out, and starts to embed himself in Russian culture, fall in love, and even take up a cause. But is it really a cause, or is it a way for Andrei to kickstart his failing academic career? How much loyalty does Andrei have to this new Russia and his family, as opposed to his "former" life in the U.S.? Gessen's writing is subtly funny and super smart. I didn't expect to like this as much as did — highly recommended!

The Profound, Heart-Breaking German Novel

Go, Went, Gone, by Jenny Erpenbeck — This understated, but glint-sharp novel is about the absurdity of government policy toward refugees. The story takes place in Berlin in the early 2010s. A retired classics professor named Richard stumbles upon some African refugees living outside in a plaza in Berlin. These people are basically just stuck — their freedom (and thus humanity) has been stripped from them. These aren't people who crossed borders illegally on purpose. Instead, for one reason or another, they found themselves caught up in the violence and unrest of the Arab Spring, and were shoved onto boats and set adrift. They are willing to work. They try to learn German. They want to be good citizens. But none these things are available to them because of the idiotic red tape of the EU migration policy. Richard finds himself empathizing more and more with the plight of these people, and as he learns more about how few options they have, giving up his own time and resources to help them out. Throughout the novel, Erpenbeck provides these short, profound set pieces about the limits of freedom, about the necessity of common sense and humanity, and many others. I loved this book. It helped me see things in a new way: The mark of any great novel.

The Book I Should've Loved...But Didn't

Ohio, by Stephen Markley — Markley's debut is set in a small town in Ohio in 2013. It's about a group of now-late-20s, former high school friends and enemies who have a complicated relationship with their hometown. I'm from a small town in Ohio. I have a complicated relationship with my hometown. I should've loved this. But I didn't. The main reason is that this nearly 500-page novel tries to be about 15 things at once. That in itself isn't a bad thing, but Ohio fails to live up to this prodigious ambition because only a few these themes are successful. Most feel superfluous or just tossed in, and winding up being distractions to what could've been an impressive character-driven novel with a cool structure. At once, Ohio is a commentary on the opioid crisis and small-town drug addiction. It's a sort of Hillbilly Elegy-esque explanation of the Trump voter, and their prejudices and politics (including what might drive someone to an extreme act of violence). It's a look at the devastating effects of the Great Recession in the Rust Belt. It's a novel about high school that too often strays into cliche — think a combination of Varsity Blues (oh yes, there are drunken football jocks) and Mean Girls (oh yes, there are plotting, vindictive high school girls). It's an Iraq war novel, a murder mystery, a bro comedy, and much more. Despite this identity crisis, I really enjoyed the structure: Starting after the funeral of a high school classmate who died in Iraq, the rest of the novel, is told in four sections from the perspectives of each of four characters who all knew each other from high school, and for different reasons are returning to their Ohio hometown on the same night in 2013. Their paths all cross, amidst backstories of their high school days and what they've been up to since. There are bar brawls and meth, war scenes and PTSD, broken hearts and even more broken people. It's a sprawling novel that almost worked, but didn't quite. Many readers have liked this more than me, so I may be in the minority. If you're on the fence here, give it a shot!

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Rounding Up a Bunch of Recent Reads

Instead of several individual posts, each with its own long review, how about a single post with several short reviews? Is that something you might be interested in? Good, here you go.

Books I'd Whole-Heartedly Recommend

Lost Empress, by Sergio de la Pava — I loved (and was totally in awe of) de la Pava's first novel, A Naked Singularity. With this novel, he came as close to David Foster Wallace as any other writer I've read. His newest novel, and his first from a major publisher, doesn't quite rise to the same level — it's more like DFW-lite. But it's still incredibly smart, mostly entertaining, often laugh-out-loud funny, and is always the case of those writers influenced by DFW, sometimes annoying, infuriating, and just silly, too. And but so, Lost Empress is about a fierce, brilliant woman named Nina Gill who owns an arena league football team and attempts to elevate her team and the league while the NFL is on strike. But the story also includes a huge cast of characters who are all somehow related (in varying degrees of tangentiality) to the Paterson (N.J.) Pork, Nina Gill's team. De la Pava does for football here what Philip Roth did for baseball with The Great American Novel — slapstick sports comedy. But Lost Empress is also a story about how the "have-nots" of society are often overlooked by the "haves." Bring your patience, and read while you're in the right mood to handle this, and you'll definitely find some reward here.

The Comedown, by Rebekah Frumkin — In my mind, the only thing better than a story about one dysfunctional family is a story about TWO dysfunctional families. Two Cleveland families become inextricably intertwined over the course of nearly three decades, first as a result of a violent event one fateful evening and then by subsequently poor choices. Taking on race and addiction, family loyalty and love, Frumkin is an amazingly agile and talented writer. This novel is great, and I'm really excited to see what she does next!

Street of Thieves, by Mathias Enard — This French novel is a bit of a deep cut — recommended by a bookseller at 57th Street Books here in Chicago. But I loved it! It's a coming-of-age story about a Moroccan teenager named Lakhdar who has various adventures around the time of the Arab Spring and the riots against the government in Spain in 2011-2012. The theme of the novel is freedom — Lakhdar feels constantly imprisoned by his circumstances as a young Arab man. If you're looking to expand your reading horizons, I can't recommend this book more highly.

Two Terrific Running Books 

Let Your Mind Run, by Deena Kastor — I already wrote about this briefly in my Top 5 Favorites of 2018 So Far post, but as a few weeks have passed (and I'm now really in the teeth of training for the Chicago Marathon), this book continues to be an inspiration. I use a lot of what she wrote about in this book on each run to stay motivated and productive each time out. It really is one of the better running books I've ever read.

Reborn On The Run, by Catra Corbett — Corbett is a trail ultra-runner who is only the second woman to run 100 100-mile races. Also, she used to be a meth addict! And that's just scratching the surface. From bad relationships to the deaths of her parents, Corbett tells us how running has helped literally save her life. To her, running has become an obsession, but a healthy one. The difference between this obsession and her drug addiction is that she wakes up every morning wanting to lace 'em up. Whereas with an addiction, she did her drugs everyday, but it was joyless. She couldn't stop. This distinction (and the mental health benefits of running) is why there are so many former addicts become ultra-runners. It's a tight-knit, fun-to-read-about community. And Corbett's individual story is amazing! 

Books I Might Skip If I Were You

Less, by Andrew Sean Greer — Huh? This was the Pulitzer winner? It has its moments, and is charming from time to time, but this story of a failing writer who has a sort of mid-life crisis and decides to accept a bunch of invitations all around the world sort of just meanders somewhat pointlessly.

Something In The Water, by Catherine Steadman — Passably entertaining for a summer/beach/plane read, but wholly predictable. And wow, the protagonist and our narrator is a really, really stupid. I mean, so stupid it's throw-the-book-across-the-room frustrating. I yelled at her many times, "WHAT ARE YOU DOING?!" Anyway, so the deal is that a London couple finds a bag of money and diamonds in the water during their honeymoon in Bora Bora. They make a series of increasingly poor and idiotic decisions and of course they end up in serious trouble.

Tuesday, July 3, 2018

My 5 Favorite Books of 2018...So Far

Dear authors: More of the same for the rest in 2018, please. The first half sure has been phenomenal. Here's a list of my five favorites so far this year.

5. Florida, by Lauren Groff — A collection of short stories, sometimes linked, sometimes stand-alone, that easily cements Groff as one of my favorite, must-read writers. If you'd have told me I'd enjoy a collection of stories about motherhood and living in Florida as much as I did this one, I'd say you must live in Florida. But Groff is the rare writer whose care for her characters infuses her reader with that same care, no matter the subject.

4. An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones — What a profound, innovative take on marriage. Jones's novel never takes the easy way out — she makes some incredibly brave choices. That includes an ending that just left me floored. It's morally complex, it's beautifully rendered, it's just fantastic.

3. Let Your Mind Run, by Deena Kastor — This isn't just one of the best running books I've read this year, it's one of the best books period. Kastor — an Olympic medalist in 2004 in the marathon, and the American record-holder in the marathon — chronicles how she's mastered both the mental and physical aspects of running in this deeply personal, passionate memoir. And it IS memoir — telling the stories of her earliest running life to college to turning pro and success as an Olympian and Chicago and London Marathon champion. It's a hugely inspiring read, and a must if you're a runner.

2. The House of Broken Angels, by Luis Alberto Urrea — This story of a family in San Diego that gathers for one last birthday party for their dying patriarch is just riveting. It's a novel that's brimming with life, colorful characters, and deep insight into we quirky humans.

1. The Overstory, by Richard Powers — Yes, it's a 500-page novel about trees. And yes, it's that friggin' phenomenal. I know, again, it's hard to believe a novel about trees could be so entertaining and memorable. But this one is. I intensely loved this book about humans and their place in nature. It really has forced me to examine the world around me with new perspective.

Thursday, June 21, 2018

Neverworld Wake: Testing The Boundaries of Friendship...and the World

Marisha Pessl's first foray into YA fiction yields an entertaining, inventive, fast-paced story about the limits of friendship, secrets, and how those friendships influence your world. Similar to her much ballyhooed debut novel, Special Topics in Calamity Physics, the plot for Neverworld Wake is about a group of private-school kids trying to parse a mysterious death. But there's quite a wrinkle this time.

Our narrator Beatrice's magnetic boyfriend Jim died a year ago under mysterious circumstances, and Beatrice is still devastated. Jim's death was ruled a suicide but no one really believed that. After a year away at college, Beatrice returns to her small Rhode Island hometown, and goes to meet her four former friends who she hasn't seen or talked to since Jim died. They go out drinking and seem to all get along again, ostensibly beginning to repair these friendships that Beatrice realizes she'd desperately missed.

But then, near tragedy! They narrowly miss getting in a spectacular car accident on the way home. Or do they? That night, a weird old guy named The Keeper shows up at the door, and tells them they're sort of maybe dead? Are they? What's happening? It turns out to be true! They find themselves trapped in a timeless limbo between life and death, re-living the same 11 hours over and over again. This so-called Neverworld Wake, they're informed, is an amalgamation of how each sees the world; each of them brings a unique influence to this new reality.

And so, imagine how much the limits of your friendships would be tested if you have to live the same day over and over again, with the same five people. They all deal in different ways, as Pessl slowly unveils to us the "rules" of this new world — the main one being that each night before the wake starts over, they're supposed to vote on which one of them (and it can only be one and the vote must be unanimous) will return to life in the real world. The rest will die.

Eventually, after 10 (or 10 million?) wakes, they come to the realization that continuing to investigate Jim's death must be the key to solving the Neverworld Wake (though it's never really clear why this is so — one my main quibbles with this novel I mostly enjoyed. There's more than a few plot holes and a bit of deus ex machine to boot. But I'm not trying to be a jerk about it).

But as they come closer to solving the mysteries of the wake — including how they've all personally influenced how the wake acts and its "rules" — they also come closer to solving Jim's death. Each carries with him or her a secret that is related.

So one of the main lessons of the story is that just like each of these characters' personalities and talents, their flaws and foibles, literally influences the Neverwold Wake, so also do these things influence how a friendship looks and reacts and survives in the real world. My favorite quote from the novel, that brings this point home really profoundly:
“We are all anthologies. We are each thousands of pages long, filled with fairy tales and poetry, mysteries and tragedy, forgotten stories in the back no one will ever read.” 
As with her first two novels, Pessl displays her supreme talent here — she's really just a magnificent craftswoman as a writer. I don't read much YA — and frankly, have no idea what makes a novel a YA novel; why was this YA, but Special Topics In Calamity Physics was not? — but I enjoyed this. It's a quick, engrossing read and despite its flaws, is really smart, as well.

Wednesday, June 13, 2018

Florida: Groff's Short Stories on Storms, Snakes, Motherhood, and Malaise

Good news, Lauren Groff fans: She is just as entertaining and smart a short story writer as she as a novelist. Not that I was worried. But her newest short story collection, Florida is terrific. Thematically linked by storms and snakes, motherhood, Mother Nature, and general malaise, these stories are elegant, emotionally resonant, and totally engrossing.

Five of these stories include the same character we know only as "the mother." The mother bears more than a passing literary resemblance to Groff herself — she lives in Florida, is a writer, is from upstate New York, and has two small boys. These five stories are all about how her interface with the world is different now that she's in charge of someone else's life. She's struggles to come to terms with what can be controlled and what can't. There are panthers and snakes, sinkholes and ever-worsening storms — all symbols for the perils of the world from which she tries to protect her sons. But the mother never seems quite comfortable with motherhood, marriage, or people in general. And that's what makes these stories so fascinating.

In "Flower Hunters," for instance, a story about the mother sitting on her porch reading an 18th century naturalist while her husband has taken her sons Trick-or-Treating, Groff writes that the mother "is frightened that there aren't many people on the earth she can stand." I loved this story for its intimate moments of self-reflection. "Stop waiting for someone to save you, humanity can't even save itself! she says aloud to the masses of princesses seething in her brain; but it is her black dog who blinks in agreement." That's Groff at her finest — a mix of humor and a somewhat despairing truth in the same sentence.

The six-non-mother stories are also equally intriguing, all in their own ways. There are two abandoned girls stranded on an island. There is a homeless college student. There's a woman visiting her rich best friend in France. And more...

There are general themes of abandonment, nagging sadness or malaise, and just general uneasiness with life throughout all these stories, but they're still engaging and often laugh-out-loud funny in spots. Groff is so adept at plumbing our quirks and stranger qualities, and rendering them sympathetically.

Groff is always a must-read for me. Indeed, my Lauren Groff fandom is well-documented. Groff could write about watching paint drying while doing income taxes, and I'd still be riveted. And I was here too. Highly recommended!

Thursday, June 7, 2018

The Overstory: What Is Our Place In This World?

Look, I realize talking you into a 500-page novel about trees could be a tough sell. But what if I told you that Richard Powers' new novel The Overstory could quite literally change your life. It's that powerful; as immense and magisterial as the trees it's about. If the measure of a good novel is one that gets you to see the world differently, or think more openly, then this is an absolute masterpiece. Powers writes: “The best arguments in the world won’t change a person’s mind. The only thing that can do that is a good story.”

And wow, is this a good story. Through the interconnected tales of nine characters, Powers asks us to really think about our place in the world. How should humans see where they belong in nature, much of which has obviously been here long before humans were? Indeed, near the end of the novel, Powers presents us with the famous thought experiment: If the time frame of the Earth's existence is thought of as a 24-hour day, humans in our current form have only arrived four seconds before midnight. Four seconds! 

And so thinking in those terms helps you frame the central question about our place in the world generally but living symbiotically with nature specifically. As Powers writes, "This is not our world with trees in it. It's a world of trees where humans have just arrived." I don't know about you, but I get chills when I think about that. If you've read the brilliant novel Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn, a an oft-cited, foundational piece of environmental literature, Powers' message here builds on an idea presented in that story as well: That we are made for nature, not nature for us.

But it should be made clear that this novel isn't just 500 pages of high-minded environmentalism. It's a fascinating story of people, each of whom is affected by trees in different ways. We spend the first 150 pages meeting each character, in a summary of how each got to the starting line of the story. And then the story starts — and what a story!

An artist and a college student who has a near-death experience find each other and their way into activism — spending several months living in a tree. A woman named Patricia spends her entire life studying trees, and is constantly amazed at how trees in a forest protect each other and can even communicate. She writes a hugely influential book title The Secret Forest that finds its way into the hands of all the other characters at some point. A computer programmer named Neelay falls out of a tree as a young boy, is paralyzed, and then spends his life building computer games in which players can inhabit a fully digital world. There's a psychologist who studies activists, a married couple, and a young Chinese-American woman who spends the novel shifting career paths several times.

All of these characters' intersect with each other at some point in the story, mimicking the idea that not only are we all connected in some way or another, but so is nature. But one of the more interesting character-driven aspects of the story is the role of activism. What causes a person to become an activist, to see what others don't or can't or refuse to? And further, what causes that activist to turn violent? At what point does a person talk himself into the ends justifying the means?

I intensely loved this book. And it's not just me — it has an average rating of 4.38 on Goodreads, which is nearly Harry Potter-level high. And Ron Charles, The Washington Post's book critic, says The Overstory "soars up through the canopy of American literature and remakes the landscape of environmental fiction," among many other very nice things. Every year or so, there's a novel for which I become a borderline-annoying book evangelist. This one is it. Read it!

(If you want to read a long exegesis of this novel, Nathaniel Rich, whose novel King Zeno I really enjoyed as well, wrote this piece in the most recent issue of The Atlantic. He's firm and fair and points out some of the flaws and potential logical shortcomings in Powers' argument. But my issue with Rich's piece is that I never got a sense of the simple question of whether or not he liked the novel.)

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Heart Spring Mountain: Rediscovering a Sense of Place and History

Robin MacArthur's slim, elegant short story collection published in 2016 — Half Wild — surprised me in how much I liked it. And she pulled off a similar trick with her debut novel, Heart Spring Mountain. The story of three generations of women isn't something I'd normally leap at. But I liked MacArthur's style enough in her short stories (and her environmentalism — check out this interview in the Chicago Review of Books) enough to give her debut novel a try.

I loved it.

Like the stories in Half Wild, the setting for this story is rural Vermont — specifically a hillside where this family has lived for 200 years.

Vale is a mid-20s woman who actually doesn't live in her childhood rural Vermont anymore. Instead, she has been living in New Orleans, bartending and stripping to make ends meet. And she's lost her sense of her roots, though she may not quite realize it. She had left Vermont after high school, and hasn't been back in the eight years since after a falling out with her drug-addicted mother, Bonnie.

As the novel begins, Bonnie disappears during Tropical Storm Irene. It's late August, 2011, and Vale returns to Vermont, reluctantly, to try to find her. While there, and living in a ratty old camper on the family's property, Vale begins to research her family history, piquing her curiosity more and more as she discovers more, and furthering her sense of who she is now and where she came from.

MacArthur writes in short chapters from the perspective of different characters at different times. Vale's grandmother Lena is a fascinating character — an eccentric, living by herself in a small cabin on the mountain, and owning a pet owl, as well as one big secret that will wind up having a profound affect on Vale.

Deb is Vale's aunt who lived on hippie commune for a while in the 1970s, married Vale's uncle Stephen, and now takes care of Vale's grant aunt and Lena's sister Hazel, whose health is failing. Hazel still lives in the house that was built more than 200 years ago. The relation between all the characters is a little confusing for a bit, but once you understand who everyone is and how they're related (I drew myself a little family tree), the story unfolds much more easily.

And again, as with MacArthur's short stories, the strength here is her description of place and her evocative, poetic writing. But her style can also be powerful, especially in Vale's case. She carries a depth of emotion that seethes beneath the surface. Something about MacArthur's writing, I just connect with; it's soothing, like the best stress reliever. So even though the pace is a bit deliberate, and not a tremendous amount actually happens, it's a novel I can't stop thinking about and can't recommend more highly if you're like me and love novels in which place is as much a character as the characters themselves.

Thursday, May 24, 2018

The Monk of Mokha: Yemen and Coffee and Inspiration

Dave Eggers is one of those rare writers who can make me care intensely about something I knew nothing about before. He did it most notably with his novel What Is The What, about the Lost Boys of the Sudanese Civil War. And here, in his latest narrative non-fiction The Monk of Mokha, he pulls off the trick again with Yemen, coffee, and an inspirational, enterprising young man named Mokhtar who wants to bring Yemeni coffee back to its former glory.

You may not be aware — I sure wasn't, and neither was Mokhtar, until his moment of inspiration — that coffee was "invented" in Yemen, by a dude who was dubbed the Monk of Mokha (Mokha is a port city on the Red Sea in Yemen). Even though people used coffee beans in Ethiopia as stimulants prior, this fella was the first person to brew coffee.

But so, our real-life hero Mokhtar, an American of Yemeni descent living in San Francisco, casts about for what to do with his life — he's sold cars, he's worked as a doorman at an expensive apartment building, he's been a teenage hooligan. One day, he notices a statue of a guy drinking coffee outside the apartment building, and has his flash of inspiration. He begins studying the history of coffee, learns how to be a Q-grader (assigning coffee a score based on taste), and travels to his ancestral homeland to try to import specialty Yemeni coffee back to the US.

But to build a viable coffee business, Mokhtar has an uphill battle on a number of fronts. Most Yemeni farmers have switched to growing qat (or khat), the stimulant leaf popular in Arab culture. The farmers that do grow coffee sell it in bulk as a commodity instead of as a specialty product. And these farmers use poor and antiquated methods for harvesting. And finally, oh yeah, there's a civil war happening!

Mokhtar persists. When some samples he brings back score very highly, he knows he has a business. He just has to convince the farmers to sell to him (though he doesn't yet have the capital), harvest, process, and store the beans, and then ship several tons of coffee out of a war torn country. No problem!

Eventually, the war becomes literally life threatening. So Mokhtar's last challenge is simply to escape Yemen with his life by any means necessary. If you'd sort of been just trudging through the book before, this is where the narrative really gains some speed. It's as fast-paced and pulse-pounding as an adventure novel. But again, it's real!

So even if you don't care a whit about Yemen or coffee, this is still a great read. (All most Americans seem to know about Yemen is what they learned from Friends.) You do have to keep reminding yourself at times that this is a true story — inasmuch as any narrative non-fiction this detailed can be true. But it's an inspiring story, to be sure. 

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Welcome To Lagos: Clobbered By Life, How To Be Good?

Chibundu Onuzo is a 27-year-old Nigerian writer who has already published two extremely well-received novels — her first titled The Spider King's Daughter when she was 21, and her second novel, Welcome to Lagos, which just came out in early May. Yes, she's a bit of a wunderkind, and so I've been excited to read her for that reason along. But also, because I've read every word another  famous Nigerian novelist, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, has written (Americanah is still one of my favorite novels of the last decade), I've become more and more fascinated by Nigeria and its notorious megacity, Lagos (population: 21 million!).

Welcome To Lagos absolutely fed that fascination. Onuzo's terrific, fast-paced story examines the good and the bad of Nigerian society through the eyes of several people who just get clobbered by life, and must swim back upstream to make their way in the world.

The story starts with a soldier named Chike, who is patrolling the Niger Delta, where oil companies have ravaged the area to drill, and insurgents constantly siphon off oil and sell it for their own gain. When Chike is ordered to set fire to a seemingly innocent village (that may or may not be "harboring" insurgents) he and another guy named Yemi desert the army. They make their way to Lagos, on the way picking up a band of refugees who are also on the lam from various other problems — a young woman named Isoken who was nearly raped by insurgents, but escaped and now wants to start over in Lagos; a young man named Fineboy who was part of the troop that tried to rape Isoken, but wasn't present at the time, and decided to desert after that incident; and another woman named Oma who is running from an abusive husband. These five people rely on and protect each other, like a family unit. Thrown together by circumstance, they trust each other almost immediately, and almost unconsciously begin functioning just like a family — splitting the chores, cleaning and cooking, and helping each other look for work. Chike even reads them Bible stories each night before bedtime.

Meanwhile, a newspaper owner from a background of privilege named Ahmed gets in hot water by publishing scathing reports of the corruption at the highest levels of Nigerian government. And a high-level education minister named Chief Sandayo absconds with $10 million that had been earmarked for Nigeria's desperate schools.

The stories of all these characters converge when Fineboy finds an abandoned apartment that used to belong to Chief Sandayo. When Sandayo arrives there with his ill-gotten money, they sort of kidnap him, call Ahmed to write the story, and then must decide what to do with this apparent windfall. Will they use it for good, or for their own gain? Welcome To Lagos is about what it means to be a good person amidst the easiest temptations to do bad; about what it means to be moral when everyone else seems to be immoral.

I loved this book — it's completely different than what I thought it'd be when I picked it up. It's fast-paced and high drama, while still pausing here and there to flesh out each of these characters enough to make them real and three-dimensional. Of course, Lagos is a character as well — Onuzo seems to really love her homeland, lumps and all, and that shines through clearly.

This is highly recommended for fans of Adichie, yes, but also fans of any well-written, morally complex, fast-paced story. Bravo, Onuzo!

Monday, April 16, 2018

Lawn Boy: The Struggle Is Real!

I love Jonathan Evison novels because they're about people vastly underrepresented in fiction — people who are able to keep a sense of humor and self-deprecation despite how much life can kick them while they're down. Evison (The Revised Fundamentals of CaregivingThis Is Your Life Harriet Chance, and more) is a charming, funny writer who really understands people of all walks of life. And that shines through in his empathy for his characters.

In his new novel, Lawn Boy, his protagonist is Michael Muñoz is a 22-year-old landscaper. Mike is stuck on the bottom run of society's ladder, but fighting hard to climb up. He lives with his mother and his older developmentally disabled brother — their father skedaddled when Mike was a kid. But not before truly traumatizing him by telling him he'd take him to Disneyland, driving him to a parking lot, and telling him "Hm, they must've moved it." So Mike is used to disappointment.

One of the things that immediately endears you to Mike is that he truly enjoys being a landscaper — he has a really talent for topiary. He takes pride in a profession society sort of deems a job for folks on the lower-tier. But that doesn't mean he doesn't have big dreams — for instance, he plans to write the Great American Landscaping Novel. If you need another reason to like Mike: He's also an avid reader, getting recommendations from his new friend Andrew, a librarian at his local branch. (Andrew steers him clear of "MFA fiction" — Evison, a proud graduate of the "school of life," delights in pointing out how "MFA fiction" is overwrought and boring.)

So spends his time Mike hanging out with his neanderthal buddy Nick who berates him for his crappy fantasy football team. Mike also harbors a crush on a cute waitress named Remy, which seems to go awry when his brother throws a salt shaker at her. The novel follows Mike as he lives the ups and downs of life in a society where he can't seem to catch a break...or can catch a break, but it always ends up being a mirage, or he's swept up in the whims and wheelings of other people. For instance, when Mike loses his landscaping job, a rich but shady dude named Chaz hires Mike to assemble bobbleheads at a factory, and grooms him to take over a new business — but Mike has no idea what it is or if it's even real. Then, he thinks he finally has a piece of good luck when he runs into a former grade school friend named Goble who's made it big selling real estate and hires Mike to landscape some big rich properties. But it soon becomes clear that Goble has had to sell his soul to sell real estate, and if Mike wants to hitch his wagon, he'll have to kill his conscience as well.

The difference between the haves and have nots, the privileged and not, is never more in stark contrast than Evison sets them in this novel. If you're a Mike Munoz — born without a silver spoon and unwilling to compromise your morals — is the willingness to work hard really enough to make it in this society that is so obviously stacked against you? Maybe, maybe not. But it's only when Mike begins to fully understand who and what he is and who and what he cares about that he starts to see the world more clearly.

These little moments of catharsis and lessons learned in Evison's novels are one of my favorite parts of his writing, as well. He makes you feel good about his characters — that they've learned lessons and have found how to be happy. And that in turn makes you happy as well. Evison doesn't always get it his dialogue exactly right and you may sort of scratch your head about a strand of plot here and there, but for the most part, Lawn Boy, like the rest of Evison's work, is a great example of a story that deals with a tough issue but when it's overcome, your faith in humanity is restored for having read about it.

Thursday, April 5, 2018

Madness Is Better Than Defeat: Mayhem in the Jungle

Ned Beauman writes some of the zaniest, funniest novels I've ever read, and his newest — Madness Is Better Than Defeat — might be his zaniest, funniest, and best yet. It's the story of a temple in Honduras, and CIA agents, and shadowy secret organizations, and drugs, and Hollywood, and newspapers in the golden age of journalism, and ex-Nazis, and titans of industry, and the nature of memory, and so so so much more. I loved it, despite its un-summarize-able plot. I mean, you don't read a Ned Beauman novel and expect a straight line. Indeed, the opening scene of this novel takes place in an underground speakeasy where people are betting on a guy wrestling an octopus underwater — which (and of course Beauman knows what he's doing here) is a beautifully apt metaphor for this novel. Just when a tentacle of plot starts to make sense, another one appears to smack it down.

Beauman novels have a plot logic all their own — you just have to accept that not everything is going to make complete sense. Things just happen, sometimes loosed of logic (though they usually wind up making sense later on...but sometimes not). Beauman his own unique way of tying his twisted plot together — and believe me, there are a ton of strings to bind.

And so, the basic premise in this novel is two competing expeditions embark into the jungles of Honduras in 1938 to find an old Indian temple. A CIA agent who is telling this story 20-plus years later becomes enmeshed in these expeditions for wacky reasons. We first see him looking through a CIA warehouse in the late 1950s looking for evidence he thinks will clear him of some crime, though we don't know what that is or what he's looking for, or even how the hell he's involved with the temple expeditions. But it all becomes slowly clear-ish.

Scared off? Don't be — just be fairly warned. I fully admit Beauman is a bit of an acquired taste. I made the mistake of recommending two of his other novels, Glow and The Teleportation Accident, both of which I really loved, to just about everyone I knew. Then I was disappointed when many of those people that read them wondered if I'd lost my damn mind.

This, like his previous work, is an incredibly funny, clever novel — I just love his writing. He has no qualms about spending a page-long digression just to set up a one-line joke. He has no problem breaking the fourth wall, and then having his characters joking about breaking the fourth wall — meta on top of meta! And his wandering eye catches everything. It's easy to compare him to Pynchon for his non-sensical plots and general goofiness, but I also like to think of him as similar to David Foster Wallace in how he observes and then relates the world he's created, and also how he mixes the low- and high-brow. It took me more than three weeks to read this because I really wanted to take it slow and digest as much of this as I could. It's a spectacularly inventive book, and I highly recommend it...if you're brave.

Thursday, March 8, 2018

King Zeno: What A Time To Be Alive In New Orleans

In 1918 New Orleans, a serial killer gruesomely hacked his victims to death with an axe he often stole from the victims themselves. The so-called Axeman of New Orleans was never apprehended. Meanwhile, construction was just beginning on a massive canal connecting Lake Pontchartrain and the Mississippi River, bisecting New Orleans's Ninth Ward. A Spanish Flu outbreak in the city killed several thousand residents. A new form of music called jas (or jazz, as it's known now) floated through the air. And rumblings from Washington about efforts to enact Prohibition threatened to prevent the good times from rolling. (The Volstead Act passed the next year, in October 1919.)

What a time to be alive! If you like your historical fiction with a healthy dose of real-life, then Nathaniel Rich's new novel King Zeno is just the book for you.

Rich's novel takes advantages of this rich confluence of historical events in a city known for its richness of culture and tells the stories of three characters whose lives all intersect and influence each other. A poor black jazz musician named Isadore Zeno works on the canal and tries to provide for his family. The rich widow of a gangster attempts to go straight, making the canal project her last dirty deal. And a New Orleans detective and World War I veteran is tangled up trying to solve the horrific axe murders while dealing with his own demons.

These characters are as well-drawn and fully realized as the historical detail itself. One of the craziest, best parts of the novel involves the character Zeno, and is based on a real event. To try to jumpstart his failing jazz career, he writes a letter to the newspaper purporting to be the Axeman, and threatens to kill more people unless all the rich white people in the Garden District hire a jazz band for a party on a Tuesday night. Unbelievably (except that, again, this really happened!), the newspaper prints the letter and there's a big citywide party.

I loved this book, not the least because I love New Orleans. But Rich is a magnificently talented writer, clever an super fun to read. And he tells this story at a near breakneck pace. There's sex, and booze, and rock'n'rollish (JAZZ!). Highly recommended!

Thursday, January 11, 2018

The Changeling (Review): A Genre-Defying Modern Fairy Tale

There are novels that defy easy categorization...and then there's The Changeling, by Victor Lavalle. This novel is nuts, in the best possible way. It's basically a modern fairy tale about how our parents either mess us up or send us out adequately prepared to deal with the world. That's a massive oversimplification for this massively entertaining novel, but it's the gist.

It starts mundanely enough — with a boy meets girl story. Apollo Kagwa, New Yorker, meets, falls in love with, and marries, a librarian named Emma. Soon, they have a child — delivered on a subway train during a power outage (a near-mythological birth!)— they name Brian, after Apollo's father. This is odd, though, because Apollo's father abandoned he and his mother when Apollo was four. But he left behind a children's picture book he used to read to Apollo depicting a fairy tale where a child is stolen by a goblin. This is foreshadowing at its finest.

Emma and Apollo begin having marital problems which culminate in....boy, you just have to read this to find out what happens. Suffice it to say, their baby disappears, and Apollo spends the rest of the novel — an odyssey through New York City, to a mysterious island inhabited by women and finally to the only forest in New York City, a park in Queens — trying to find his child and his wife.

This novel is so cleverly written, incorporating tropes from myths (I mean, dude's name is Apollo, for one), to fairy tales (bread crumbs, evil parents, etc.), to even Biblical themes (which of course, depending on your own beliefs, may actually just be myth as well). But this is novel thoroughly modern — there's bits here cautioning about privacy issues with social media, specifically, and the potential dangers of technology, generally. These parts are a nice juxtaposition with Apollo's profession of used book dealer. Indeed, it's through his job — selling a first-edition, signed To Kill A Mockingbird — that he meets the mysterious William, who becomes a major part of what happens.

As things get weirder and Apollo is less and less sure about everything he thought he knew about reality, the novel gets increasingly violent as well. Apollo is sort of tested to the lengths of his own humanity. What will he be willing to do to save his child?

I loved this book - it's really unlike anything I've ever read. It didn't garner too much attention when it was published last June, but it's showed up on several "Underrated Books of the Year" lists, including this one from Bookstr. If you want to read something wholly unique, check out this terrific book!

Monday, January 8, 2018

The End Of The World Running Club (Review): There Is No Finish Line

There are lots of reason to take up running. To lose weight. To feel better, etc. I started running a couple years ago because I desperately needed to do something to stem the tide of quickly approaching middle age. But if you're Ed Hill of Scotland, you start running because if you ever want to see your family again, you have 500 miles to cover and only three weeks to do it... (Cue dramatic movie trailer music...) And oh yeah, it's the apocalypse!

That's the juicy setup for Adrian J. Walker's novel The End of the World Running Club, a story of Ed's fight for survival traversing the British Isle after civilization has been basically destroyed by a massive meteor shower.

Ed's kind of schmuck, frankly. He's a bad father, a worse husband, and is nursing a worsening drinking problem. So, to him, an apocalypse might not be the worst thing in the world. He's just about had enough anyway:
"The truth is I was tired of it all. I was tired of the clamor and the din of the world that made less sense by the day and a life that had me just where it wanted. The truth is that the end of the world, for me at least, came as a relief."
That's not a super cheery sentiment (though I did kind of laugh when I read those lines — it's not too much of a stretch these days to root for the end of the world, or at least a huge change to how things are now, right?), and it doesn't exactly put you in Ed's corner. He's not your traditional hero of the apocalypse, that's for sure.

But so, a series of events result in Ed being separated from his family, and we learn that evacuation boats are leaving from the southern tip of England with his family on Christmas day — 21 days hence.

So Ed starts running. He's not sure why. It's not a conscious decision. And he's never done it before. He just needs to run. With a crew of four others, Ed begins making his way south through a devastated post-apocalyptic landscape.

The thing I enjoyed most about this novel (and why I picked it up in the first place) is Ed's thoughts on running. Before the meteors hit, and life was normal, Ed had admitted he'd been lazy — that his kids had been a valid justification in his mind not to have the time or energy to work out. And not only that, but he'd also hated runners because he thought they were just showing off, rubbing it in his face with their long strides as he stood outside a pub smoking a cigarette. They are fit and in shape and he's a fat dumb drunk. I loved that part — I had similar thoughts about runners (usually while standing outside a bar smoking a cigarette, often while day-drinking) before I started running. And even post-apocalypse, when Ed starts running, he still hates it, it's still draining. It takes a while for him to break through the proverbial wall and embrace running.

Even if you're not a runner and could care less about running, there's still plenty here to keep you interested. It's also a novel about how people — both good and evil — deal with the apocalypse, and how it makes them more good or more evil. Ed and his crew encounter several other survivors, both friends and foes, as they traverse the country. Some help, some don't. And Walker's pace is breakneck, things move along rather quickly.

So this was a fun read — it freshens up the post-apocalyptic thriller genre just a bit. There's plenty that's familiar, but turning this into kind of a running novel was a neat take.