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.