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.