Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Nothing To See Here: Flamingly Good

Nope, nothing to see here, just some 10-year-old kids on fire. No big deal! If the premise of spontaneously combusting children in Kevin Wilson's awesome new novel Nothing To See Here sounds crazy, that's because it is. But what if I told you that unexplained fire children is only one of several characteristics that make this one of the more fun reading experiences I've had this year? Would that sweeten the deal? Well, it's true!

What stands out here, and why I blazed through this novel in about two days, is how clever and how engrossingly written it is. I've heard it said that Wilson is a "writer's writer," which certainly jibes with how novelist Taffy Brodesser-Akner (whose novel Fleishman Is In Trouble is also terrific) describes Wilson in her glowing NY Times review. She says she loved this "perfect" novel so much it set her back "egregiously" in writing her own. That's about the highest praise you can give a fellow scribbler!

The story is about Lillian, a late-20s, down-on-her-luck woman, who takes a job as a nanny (governess?) for her friend Madison's step-children. Madison's husband is a rich and powerful U.S. Senator, who is about to be nominated for secretary of state. Madison and Lillian had been fast though unlikely friends at an exclusive high school, where Madison, as a privileged rich kid went as a matter of course, but where Lillian had to earn a scholarship. The two have remained pen pals of sorts after an unfortunate incident in which Lillian had to leave the school and go back with her "kind" at public school.

But now, Lillian, who works two jobs at grocery stores in rural Tennessee, and lives with her mother, jumps at the chance to do something different (also to reconnect with Madison), even if that something means taking on a challenge for which she is woefully ill prepared: Nannying spontaneously combusting children.

So what's Wilson up to here? Why flaming children? As Brodesser-Akner mentions in her review, it's clearly a metaphor for...something. She says she was having too much fun reading the novel to put much thought into it. My take is that the "children on fire" idea is just a way to present the children as a unique problem, and then show how rich, privileged people often just throw around money and influence to deal with their problems in ways we plebeians can't.

Privilege and wealth are certainly the undercurrent of this on-the-surface light and funny novel. Rich people have it so much easier: They have available solutions that aren't possible for everyone else, and often with methods that are less-than-ethical or scrupulous. If those problems are, say, children — specifically, children with a strange affliction that might prevent a powerful man from becoming even more powerful — well, then they're just like any other problem: They need to be dealt with. The kids' best interest is secondary to everything else. The fire thing is a good way to make this point less heavy than if the kids had a rare and very sad disease.

Anyway, so Lillian, whose charge is basically to keep the kids under lock and key, works to be the cool adult, trying to earn the kids' trust, all the while trying to minimize the effects of their affliction. They do a lot of swimming, and she reads to them, and they try to convince Carl, a buttoned-up fellow who runs the mansion, to take them on clandestine outings. But then, of course, things go awry, as they're wont to do in novels like this.

I was one of few readers, I think, who wasn't a huge fan of Wilson's previous novel, The Family Fang. And I hadn't really considered reading this new one until Wayne, the manager at RoscoeBooks, said it's the best thing he's read this year. I needed a little change of pace after 700+ pages of logging and labor organizing, and this was just thing. Really loved it!

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Deep River: Karl Marlantes' Deep Dive Into Labor, Logging

One of my favorite historical novelists, Leon Uris, died in 2003, and since he's been gone, I haven't really ever found a historical writer I like as much as I did Uris. His novel Trinity is actually one of my favorites of all time! But with Deep River, Karl Marlantes follows in Uris's footsteps by producing a compelling brick of a novel with unforgettable characters struggling uphill against injustice during a turbulent moment in time.

Marlantes, whose 2010 Vietnam War novel Matterhorn was a huge hit, grew up in the Pacific Northwest. Deep River, is basically telling the story of his family roots there. The novel is about Finnish immigrant loggers in the early 20th century, and one particularly tough woman named Aino who gives up nearly everything for the early awakenings of the labor movement.

Aino escapes Russian rule (though not completely unscathed) in Finland as a teenager, and joins her brothers Ilmari and Matti in Washington state near the Columbia River just after the turn of the century. Her brothers have already set up a home base as loggers and craftsmen, and Aino works to make herself useful while she gets her bearings in this strange new land of opportunity.

Aino is unquestionably the star of this show, as she immediately starts in, organizing the loggers to petition for better working conditions. The loggers work in a terribly dangerous environment, and they can't even get fresh straw to sleep on at night. Aino has successes and failures, both in labor organizing and love, as do her brothers. Marlantes covers about 30 years in their lives in the U.S. — there are births and deaths, tragedies and good times, love and loss. It's a family saga in every sense of the phrase.

I realize 700 pages on logging and labor is a little bit of a tough hang for a lot of readers, but I got really attached to these characters, Aino especially. And that's what kept me picking up this doorstop novel. Highly recommend if, like me, you're a fan of Leon Uris or his ilk.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Doxology: On Gen Xers, Millennials, Art, Music, and Politics

I've heard it said that Nell Zink is a bit of an acquired taste. Over the course of a late-blooming career spanning several novels, (she was "discovered" by The Franzen from a letter she wrote to him about birds) she has developed a rabid base of passionate fans. But there are also many detractors: She's been called too eccentric, too nontraditional, too weird.

To me, though, her books have always sounded fascinating, but I'd never read her until now. Her latest novel, Doxology is really strong, even if a bit different from your standard contemporary fiction fare, or even her own backlist. Ron Charles in the Washington Post  wrote that Doxology felt like Zink trying "to behave at the dinner table." If this is Zink behaving, I definitely can't wait to find out what she's like when she's not! 

She is, on a line-by-line dialogue basis, one of the funnier, more clever writers I've read in a long time. Her rapid-fire exchanges are Sorkin-esque, except if Sorkin had a demented, irreverent sense of humor. For example, early in the novel, Zink has two of her characters worrying about a possible pregnancy they may not be ready for. The woman concludes with "I should get a pregnancy test. Maybe it's just ovarian cancer." ... as if she's HOPING it's ovarian cancer instead of pregnancy. If you think that's funny, and I howled laughing when I read that, you'll probably love this book too. Every bit of dialogue is like this. You have to pay attention, or it'll zing right over your head.

Thematically, the novel is a really interesting look at art, music, politics, and the differences in how Gen X and Millennials seem to drift through and collide with the world. The first part is about Gen Xers Joe, Daniel, and Pam, who meet in the late 1980s in New York City because of a shared interest in music. They write 'zines, they play in bands, they meet up on Saturday nights to listen to records. It's not long before Daniel and Pam are dating (and Pam is pregnant). Joe — a prolific songwriter, but something of an odd fellow, who feels no shame, and doesn't seem to know when he annoys people — actually begins to garner some outside attention for his music. Daniel and Pam carefully manage Joe's careful ascension to fame, and helps him navigate the tricky music world.

Then, 9/11. And everything changes,. Not just because of the horrific terrorist attacks, but also because of a tragedy in the lives of this trio. From here, the novel shifts from a story about Joe, Pam, and Daniel to a story about Pam and Daniel's daughter, Flora, who is 9 years old at the time of the attacks. Growing up in the post-9/11 world, and shuttling between life in New York and her grandparents' in Washington, D.C., Flora develops an innate idealism and hopes to change the world. But as she makes her way, this idealism is constantly challenged by the amount of cynicism and corruption she seems to find. 

Flora is 24 as the 2016 election rolls around, and she begins working for the Green Party, and campaigning for Jill Stein (this, after a brief, unsuccessful stint at Sierra Club, where she realized how little difference she was making). She dates a much-older Democratic consultant who warns everyone, to deaf ears, about the real danger of Donald Trump. But working for Jill Stein again makes her confront her idealism: She believes in the Green Party, but of course, it's a third-party with no real chance to win. And so, as she realizes she may be siphoning off Hillary votes, and handing the election to Trump, she has some tough choices to make. Add to that some personal relationshiop drama, and you have a Zink-ian character nearing the end of her rope.

As you might expect, nothing wraps up cleanly. But the journey through these 400 messy, meandering pages is a blast. I thoroughly enjoyed this because of Zink's wicked sense of humor and the fact that her narrative just seems to go where it will. I mean, the plot is linear time-wise, but you sort of get the sense that Zink sits down to write and lets the plot run its course. There's no outlining here. I'm really glad I finally dove in with Zink, and this is highly recommended if you're up for a modern novel that takes on a lot of our current issues in an amusingly profane way.

Thursday, October 24, 2019

All This Could Be Yours: Toxic Masculinity, Toxic Relationships

My dad was about the nicest, most generous man you could ever meet. So, to me, reading about a guy like Victor Tuchman is rather eye-opening. Victor is the patriarch of the massively dysfunctional family inhabiting Jami Attenberg's fantastic new novel All This Could Be Yours. He is also about the most despicable character you can imagine. Thankfully, as we meet him at the beginning of the novel, he's on his deathbed in a New Orleans hospital, having suffered a heart attack.

But that leads his estranged daughter Alex, a Chicago lawyer, to begin to wonder why he was the way he was — a career criminal who beat and cheated on his wife and emotionally damaged his children. And beyond that, Alex wonders why her mother Barbra stayed with Victor all these years. So as Alex and Barbra pace outside his hospital room, as he is comatose, waiting to die, she grills her mother on their past, hoping to both learn about her evil father, but also to find any clues about her own troubles with relationships.

This is a novel about toxic masculinity, yes, which Victor encapsulates in its purest form. There really is no limit to his depravity. But it's also a novel about toxic relationships. Alex herself is divorced, and while her ex-husband is basically a good man, he has one fatal flaw: He just can't stay faithful. So, is he a good man? As well, Alex's brother Gary, who is holed up in an AirBnB in LA, and refuses to come to New Orleans to see off his father, has a HUGE relationship issue with his wife Twyla. We soon find out why, in one of the more shocking twists in any book I've read in awhile. Read this book alone to find out what that twist is! 

Attenberg introduces us to several minor characters along the way who all have some sort of relationship malfunctions, as well. Relationships are really tough, even when both parties are fully committed. But they're all but impossible when one isn't. And when they break, they have lasting, long-term consequences.

All this sounds as heavy as the sweltering New Orleans summer heat. But remember: This is Jami Attenberg. And she's really, really cool. So this is a pleasure to read at every turn. I don't know if this is my favorite Attenberg novel — that might still be The Middlesteins. But this is certainly in the top tier, and very highly recommended.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

The Water Dancer: The Unflinching Urgency of Past Horrors

When an intellectual giant like Ta-Nehisi Coates makes a first foray into fiction, you read it. You just do. And I did. The Water Dancer is a stunning novel — probably the smartest, best-written novel I've read this year. But it's heavy. Often dense. It's one of those novels I feel like I appreciated for its genius more than enjoyed as a pleasurable reading experience. But I'm infinitely glad I read this. This is a novel people will be talking about for a long time.

The novel is about the horrors of slavery, including possibly its greatest horror: The arbitrary separation of families. Our narrator — a slave named Hiram on a failing Virginia tobacco plantation — has been separated from his mother since he was a child. And despite his otherwise photographic memory, he can't remember anything about her. He does, however, know who his father is: The white man who owns the plantation, and hence, owns Hiram himself.

But his preternatural gift for memory isn't his only power. He can also "conduct." But neither he, nor we the reader, know what exactly that means or how he does it. Basically, as we see in the opening scene of the novel, there's a blue light, he blacks out, and then transports to a spot either miles or inches away from where he was before. In the opening scene, during the traumatic event when he wrecks the carriage carrying him and his half-brother, the plantation's heir, Maynard, he sees his mother dancing in the water. And so we suspect from the beginning that his ability to conduct is somehow tied to memory. This is vintage Coates: The power of memory is critical to righting past wrongs.

So Hiram grows up on the plantation, raised by a woman named Thena, whose own children had been sold away. As a young man, Hiram falls in love with a woman named Sophia. They decide to run. From there, the novel turns bildungsroman, chronicling Hiram's journey north and to several other places. He meets "Moses" — a fictional representation of Harriet Tubman, who may or may not hold the key to conduction. And he learns the ways of Coates's richly reimagined Underground Railroad.

Besides the evocative, lush writing here, the strength of this novel is how Coates relates the past to the present with unflinching urgency — a Coates signature, which you know if you've read his essays or his National Book Award-winning memoir, Between The World And Me. Honestly, though, again this 400-page novel can be a bit of a tough hang at times. During parts, I felt like I was doing homework, rather than reading for fun. But I do want to emphasize I whole-heartedly recommend this. It's a vitally important work.

Tuesday, September 24, 2019

The Dutch House: So Much Story, Such Good Writing

Everyone's done this: Walked into a room they haven't been in since childhood, and marveled at how small it seems now, compared with how big it seemed in their memory. This effect is the result of the haziness of nostalgia, how nostalgia sort of warps memories, and how much present circumstances influence the way we see the past. Ann Patchett has built her wonderful, propulsive new novel, The Dutch House, around this idea of the trickiness of memory.

The Dutch House is at once a 50-year family saga, and a sort of "dark fairy tale," complete with a modern-day evil stepmother. Siblings Maeve and Danny grow up in a fancy old house in the suburbs of Philadelphia in the mid-1950s (or so). Their mother leaves them at a young age, with no explanation. Danny doesn't remember her, but Maeve (seven years older than Danny) does, and this abandonment is a specter that haunts Maeve both physically and emotionally her whole life.

Years later, their father remarries. But their stepmother Andrea is pure evil, and manipulates their father into including her on all his financial holdings, including the Dutch House, and his successful real estate business. It's not long before Andrea kicks teenaged Danny out of the house and essentially cuts him and Maeve off. So Danny has to move in with Maeve who has just graduated from college, and the two begin a long process of navigating life, as once-wealthy and now-on-their-own adults.

Everything that happens for the rest of the siblings' lives is a direct result of this childhood/young adult upheaval and how they remember things slightly differently. The two siblings maintain an incredibly close bond their entire lives, even as their lives branch — Maeve staying near home and Danny making a life for himself in New York City. And that's the meat of this novel — how do they overcome their pasts? And more specifically, how do their differing memories of the past inform their current and future relationship? Really fascinating questions.

Patchett is her usual captivating self in this novel. Her writing tugs you along in the way of all remarkably talented writers: You don't even realize you're reading. Ever since I read and loved State of Wonder, and then some of her backlist, Patchett is always a must-read for me, and this novel is absolutely one of her best. I loved it. There is so much story here.

Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Round-up of Latest Greatest Running Reads

It's freakin' Peak Week! Wait, what? Allow me to explain: When you're training for a marathon (joke: How do you tell someone is training for a marathon? Wait a second, they'll tell you), Peak Week is your highest volume mileage week, generally four weeks before the actual race. The idea is that then you spend the final three weeks "tapering" — that is, reducing your mileage, resting a bit more, and making sure you're in tip top condition on race day.

Still with me? Alright, so during this long four-month build-up to the Chicago Marathon (Oct. 13), I've been reading a ton of great running books to keep me motivated and inspired. And so what better time than Peak Week to share five I'd recommend that I read this summer.

5. Running Is My Therapy, by Scott Douglas — Look, there's obviously plenty of physical benefits to running. But what makes this book really interesting and totally unique is that it lays out the many mental health benefits to running, as well. It's incredibly convincing. Douglas, a long-time contributor to Runner's World magazine, cites dozens of studies and also his personal experience as evidence of the idea that running is a better (or at least as good as) a treatment for mental health issues as pharmaceuticals. And everything he says certainly jibes with my experience with running and dealing with bouts of anxiety and low-grade depression, as well. It's not just about the "runner's high" (though, when you catch one of those, it's pretty awesome), but rather about how running does things to your brain — both on a short- and long-term basis — that are identical to how many drugs treat mental health issues. No doctor, at least in U.S., would ever prescribe running by itself to treat mental health issues. But maybe they should, says Douglas.

4. Running To The Edge, by Matthew Futterman — This is a profile of legendary running coach Bob Larsen and an explanation of how he changed the philosophy of training and coaching running. The conventional wisdom had been that simply doing intervals was enough to get faster, but Larsen turned that on its head, realizing that threshold runs (or tempo runs, as we call them now) — basically running just to your threshold for a longer period of time (i.e, running to your edge) — is the key to better endurance, speed, and running economy. And wow, was it successful. Larson took a band of misfits from San Diego to the cross country national championship, before coaching at UCLA for decades with several national titles, and then transforming American professional running with champions and Olympians such as Meb Keflezighi and Deena Kastor.

3. Running Home, by Katie Arnold — Of any these books, this one would appeal most to non-runners who are simply interested in a well-written, smart memoir. It's actually a memoir about the challenges of life and dealing with grief...that happens to be written by someone who is also really good at running. That said, there's plenty of running here, too, especially in the latter half, as Arnold realizes just how good she actually is at this goofy ultra-marathoning sport.

2. The Rise of the Ultra Runners, by Adharanand Finn — This was an absolutely wild ride of a read! Finn, a British journalist and better-than-average marathoner, set out to find out what makes ultra-marathoners tick. And his method of research was partly to become an ultra-marathoner himself, with an ultimate goal of qualifying for the super-prestigious Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc 100-mile trail race in France. To do so, he has to accumulate a number of points by running other qualifying ultra-marathons, the process of which he chronicles in painstaking and fascinating detail. I have no idea how he did this — both the running and the remembering clearly enough to write about these races. By about mile 20 of any marathon, I'm reduced to "left, right, left, right, please don't die" but somehow at mile 80 or whatever at these races, Finn is still able to tell us what he's thinking, how he's feeling, what he's hallucinating (these parts are crazy!), and how he's able to overcome the ever-present desire to quit. This is definitely one of the better running books for its insight not just into Finn's running, but also interviews with dozens of big-name ultra-marathoners, like Jim Walmsley and Hillary Allen. Really loved this!

1. 26 Marathons, by Meb Keflezighi — Woohoo Meb! If you're a runner, chances are you're a pretty big Meb fan. I sure am! Nobody has been a more gracious, engaging, and inspiring champion of the sport of running than Meb. Sadly, Meb has retired from professional racing, but this book chronicles each of Meb's 26 professional marathons. He discusses how he prepared for each race, what he learned each time, bits about the cutthroat business of running and sponsorships, and what lessons we all can apply to our running. It's so good.

(Past great running reads, if you're new here: Let Your Mind Run, by Deena Kastor [maybe my all-time favorite running read], Eat and Run, by Scott Jurek, North by Scott Jurek, Born To Run, by Christopher McDougall [duh], The Long Run, by Catriona Menzies-Pike, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, by Haruki Murakami)

Any I'm missing that you've loved?

Thursday, September 12, 2019

Nights In White Castle: Rushin' Through The 1980s

If you enjoy Steve Rushin's particular brand of humor and wit in his articles in Sports Illustrated, there is a 100 percent chance you're going to love his new memoir, Nights In White Castle. I, for one, enjoyed it immensely! But in the interest of full disclosure, beyond the fact that I already love Rushin's stuff, this book held particular allure for me because Rushin is a Marquette alum (I am too!), and part of this memoir is devoted to his four years in college in Milwaukee.

But I loved the rest, too. This memoir is about 10 years of Rushin's teenage and young adult years. We start when he's 13 years old (this is a sequel of sorts to another memoir, Sting-Ray Afternoons, but you don't have to have read the first one), growing up in a rowdy house in suburban Minnesota with two older brothers, one younger one, and a younger sister. He's a bit of a nerd, despite starting for his high school's elite basketball team. He and his buddies always wrap up their weekend nights at White Castle, which Rushin loves, both for the terribly great food, but also for the cross-section of people he sees there. He and his buddies start a basketball tournament in Flip Saunders' back yard called the Saunders Hoops Invitational Tournament (SHIT, for short), and writing about this tournament is his first submission to Sports Illustrated, his dream job.

He matriculates to Marquette in the fall of 1984 and participates in such Marquette rituals as living in the hallowed freshman dorm McCormick Hall nicknamed "The Beer Can," watching (but not participating, at least that he would admit) in the Naked Beer Slide at the bar The Avalanche, and eating late-night Real Chili. Obviously, I loved these parts. The Avalanche closed during my first year at Marquette and I never had a chance to set foot inside (no fake ID for me). Side note: The Avalanche was also one of Chris Farley's favorites during his time at Marquette. It was sure fun to read about its golden age!

After college in Milwaukee, Rushin lands a job as a fact-checker at Sports Illustrated, and is quickly indoctrinated into the fast-paced world of New York City, consumer magazines, and sports scene of the late 1980s and early 1990s. It's quite the whirlwind! 

But so, this is book entertaining as hell, whether or not you're particularly interested in basketball, or Milwaukee, or the suburbs of Minnesota, or the 1980s, or magazine writing. Luckily for me, I'm interested in most of these things. And so I loved it.

Friday, September 6, 2019

Wanderers: It's the End of the World As We Know It

If there's a cooler, more fun, more terrifyingly accurate to our times, more immersive book out this year than Chuck Wendig's new novel Wanderers...well, there's not. This book is incredible — an 800 page novel that's at once a tribute to Stephen King's classic The Stand, but also wholly its own thing. While it is an end-of-the world novel, it feels fully possible, fully real. That's true because Wendig is terrific at conveying how messed up our current society is. The truth these days may be stranger than fiction, but Wendig is brilliant at fictionalizing the zeitgeist to match the craziness of the real world today.

The main question we start with is, given the fractured nature of our current moment, what would cause it to break? A mysterious affliction takes over a number of people, who basically begin sleepwalking in a pack — they don't react to any stimulus, don't have to stop for food or the bathroom, and are basically "locked in" to their sleepwalking. Constantly, they head west. A group of "shepherds" — family members of the ever-growing flock, including our protagonist Shana, whose sister, Nellie, is the first sleepwalker, follow the flock to protect them.

Meanwhile, it's an election year, and the culture wars are in full throat, as a Trump-like candidate named Creel attacks President Hunt, a decidedly Hillary Clinton-like figure, for being "weak" on the sleepwalkers. He stirs up his base by arguing the sleepwalkers should be wiped out because they represent a security risk, they're the tool of the devil, etc. Sound familiar? And the crazies fall in line, including a rural Indiana preacher named Matthew, who is sort of co-opted into a celebrity when he makes a particularly damning homily against the flock. One of his parishioners, a guy named Ozark, who is a gun-toting far-right-winger, and who will play a more prominent and nefarious role later in the novel, also brings Matthew into his fold.

So the sleepwalkers are the catalyst for an advanced stage of the culture wars. But the question really is: What's causing the sleepwalkers to sleepwalk? Is it a mysterious comet that passed over? Is it a disease? Are they actually demonic robots? No one knows, but it's up to a disgraced CDC scientist named Benjamin Hunt to find out. Through a mysterious woman named Sadie, he's introduced to an artificial intelligence, Black Swan. Sadie led the team that designed Black Swan to gather data from all over the world to predict disease outbreaks before they turn into epidemics.

But then, in addition to the sleepwalker syndrome, a mysterious fungal infection pops up, and begins to spread rapidly! This only adds fuel to the fire of a society that is already breaking down. How are the sleepwalkers related, if at all, to this new disease? Will Benjamin and Sadie be able to stop them in time?

That's really the bare bones of this plot. There is SO much more to this book, highlighted by Wendig's writing, which is so much to fun to read. If you don't already follow him on Twitter, do that now. This this book certainly reflects his Twitter persona, which is about as entertaining as it gets. But beyond that, there are lot of thorny questions here about religion and science, belief and facts, and about the increasingly contentious culture wars. Wendig isn't interested in answers about what'll bring us back together. Rather, he wants to stress test our already fragile culture. And here he has a few answer for what will finally break it.

I read the last 300 or so pages of this novel in two sittings. Could not put it down. I can't recommend it more highly — definitely a contender for my favorite book of this year.

Tuesday, July 30, 2019

Chances Are...: Russo Goes Literary Mystery!

Richard Russo is back! Woohoo! Chances Are... is his first stand-alone novel in 10 years, after the sequel Everybody's Fool in 2016, a short story collection, and some essays. The new novel is something wholly unique for Russo — a literary mystery! But it's also unmistakably him. His warm, inviting, dad-humor style is on full display here, even as he's building suspense.

The story is about three lifelong friends — Lincoln, Teddy, and Mickey — who gather at Lincoln's cottage on Martha's Vineyard for one last hurrah before he sells it. The three, now 66 years old, had a similar weekend 44 years earlier, in 1971, just after graduating college, only that time they had a fourth: A beautiful, enigmatic woman named Jacy, with whom they were all in love.

But then Jacy disappeared. And as the three friends gather again, they're each haunted in different ways by the mystery, never solved, of her disappearance. Lincoln starts poking around with the local police. Teddy revisits some spots on the island for nostalgia's sake. And Mickey, well, Mickey is just as enigmatic as Jacy was — a Harley-riding rock star, he is a bit different than his two buttoned-down buddies, Lincoln a successful real estate agent and Teddy, who's lived a quiet life as the head of small indie press.

As always, Russo's care for his characters is readily apparent. And that makes this a terrific read, as is the case with all his books. Frankly, this'll likely go down as a "minor novel" when we're all looking back at his distinguished career. He makes some odd choices in the last third as we hurdle toward the resolution of the mystery. Still, though, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this. He's always a must-read for me and this novel, while certainly a middle-tier book for him, is still a must-read if you're a Russo fan, too.

Wednesday, July 17, 2019

Fleishman Is In Trouble: A Tale of Divorce and Marriage

Just when you think everything that could possibly be done with the "traditional" marriage/divorce novel has been done, there's this: Journalist Taffy Brodesser-Akner's debut novel about a couple in New York City. It's a story that feels fresh and original, and it's utterly engrossing and often very, very funny.

Fleishman Is In Trouble is a novel primarily about marriage, yes. But it also takes on themes of ambition, modern parenting, gender roles both in marriage and the workplace, and life-long friendships and how they change. Is it fair or right that an ambitious woman who spends 80 hours a week at the office is often considered a poor parent? Is it fair or right that a man who handles the primary parenting responsibilities is considered to be lacking professional ambition? And when these questions create friction in a marriage, is it fair to even try to assign blame?

As the novel opens, Toby Fleishman, an early-40s successful NYC doctor and his wife Rachel, a VERY successful NYC talent agent are getting divorced. Their 15-year marriage has crumbled amidst pressures of jobs, kids, finances, and more, as marriages are wont to do. Rachel is a fiercely ambitious aspiring social climber, endeavoring to make nice with all the moneyed couples of New York. She works constantly, building from scratch her own talent agency after being passed over for a promotion (probably either because she was pregnant, or because she rejected the advances of her boss) at a former job. It's hard out there for a woman in the workplace!

Toby, meanwhile, has taken on the primary parenting duties, even amidst his busy schedule as a doctor. Most women would be pleased as punch being married to a successful doctor, but not Rachel. She constantly chides the fact that Toby's ambition doesn't match her own. His meager $235,000 salary isn't enough to help them build the life they "deserve" amongst NYC's elite, she thinks. So she takes matters into her own hands, getting him a job offer at a pharmaceutical company for a million-plus per year. But he promptly turns it down and is even angry she thinks he'd take it, having to compromise every reason he became a doctor in the first place. This episode is one of the nails in the coffin for their marriage.

But then, back in the real-time of the story, Rachel just disappears! She drops off the kids one morning for Toby's weekend, and heads to a yoga retreat, but doesn't come back. And she doesn't answer her phone. And her assistant won't say where she is. This is inconvenient for Toby for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that it cramps his newfound style of dating and having sex with several women's thanks to the wonders of technology and his success with Tinder-like dating apps. And here we have another of the double-standards the novel takes some glee in pointing out: Is it fair that the nerdy, unsuccessful-with-women Toby has overcorrected to become a sort of playboy? Would society look down on a woman who does the same thing? And why does society look down on Rachel, who has also overcorrected from her childhood of being poor to want a lifestyle of excess and wealth?

All the while, the novel takes on an interesting trick of narration, which frankly, takes a minute to get used to, but ultimately works extremely well. The story is being told to us, almost as a long magazine profile, by Toby's college friend Libby who makes frequent appearances in the novel as well. Libby is a former magazine journalist who has quit her job to raise her kids. At one point, as Libby reflects on her on career, and how she was successful writing profiles of men for men's magazines (Brodesser-Akner also writes for GQ and ESPN Magazine), she discusses how she was able to finesse out these men's stories, but also tell her own between the lines. And that's what this whole novel feels like — it's Toby's story, but there is Libby constantly between the lines, relating her own challenges, and the challenges of many women, with gender issues in the workplace, and with parenting and marriage.

So as Toby continues to struggle with Rachel's disappearance, we are riveted to find out what happened to her — and of course we do, and when we do, her story just adds another layer of complexity to all these issues that aren't easy to parse in the first place.

This is such an engrossing story, and as smart and insightful as it is about so many contemporary issues, it's also very often laugh out loud funny. Brodesser-Akner loves making fun of the self-serious NYC moms who wear a never-ending supply of workout tank tops with flashy slogans like "Spiritual Gangster" and "Eat Sleep Spin Repeat" And she talks about Toby's online dating and sex life with unflinchingly hilarious insight. But read this both because it's funny, but also just a really great, incredibly well-written modern story. Very highly recommended!

Thursday, July 11, 2019

My 5 Favorite Books of 2019 ... So Far

It's been a great year in reading so far! Three of my top five favorite books of 2019 are actually non-fiction, which is fairly unusual for me. But in addition to the two fantastic novels that made the list, several other novels (Recursion, by Blake Crouch; Little Faith by Nickolas Butler) are just barely on the outside looking in. Here's my list of my top five favorites of 2019 so far:

5. 26 Marathons, by Meb Keflezighi — Meb! Meb! Meb! If you're a runner or follow sports at all, Meb is no-doubt pretty high on your list of favorite athletes. In this terrific book, the Boston and New York Marathon champion and Olympic medalist details each of his 26 professional marathons, explaining how each race is unique, and what he's learned from each one. You'd think this has the potential to be repetitive — but it's not at all. It reads more like a continuous memoir of Meb's professional running career (with plenty from his personal life thrown in too), rather than a race-by-race account. I may never run a 2:10 marathon (or even a 3:10), but Meb's advice is infinitely useful to every amateur runner and his stories are infinitely inspiring. Go Meb! (Side note: My wife and I met Meb at a running store event a few years ago — and I am happy to report that he is an absolutely delightful human. Which is so refreshing.)

4. Daisy Jones & The Six, by Taylor Jenkins Reid — If one of the reasons you read is to have fun, then you have to read this novel. I haven't had more fun with a book in a long time. Told in an oral history format (with a very Behind the Music vibe), the novel tells the story of the rise and fall of the eponymous 70s rock band, Daisy Jones & The Six. But this inventive book is deeper than just the sordid details of sex, drugs, and rock'n'roll. There's a lot here that's fascinating about the nature of inspiration, collaboration, and art.

3. Save Me The Plums, by Ruth Reichl — Part foodie memoir, part memoir of what it's like to run a high-level consumer magazine at the height of consumer magazines, I loved this book — my first time reading Reichl (who, as I learned during and after reading this, has a passionate following). It's a quick read, and really helped me appreciate both the foodie's passion for food, and also the writer's passion for the written word.

2. Falter, by Bill McKibben — Definitely the least cheery thing I've read this year so far, even so, McKibben is always a must-read for me. Here, he tackles climate change, artificial intelligence, and gene hacking to show that humanity may be in some pretty serious trouble. But McKibben is hopeful, too, and naturally offers solutions to our biggest problems. He's a really engaging writer, even when he's gloomy.

1. The Most Fun We Ever Had, by Claire Lombardo — This is the book of the summer so far — it's everywhere. We can't keep it in stock at RoscoeBooks, and 99.9 percent of people who have read it have loved it. Me included. Even with some stiff competition coming out later this year (new Ann Patchett, Colson Whitehead, Richard Russo, etc.), it'll be hard to beat this novel for my overall favorite of 2019.

Friday, June 28, 2019

The Most Fun We Ever Had: Love and Marriage, Love and Marriage

Claire Lombardo's tale of love and marriage and children, The Most Fun We Ever Had, is a stunningly confident, massively entertaining, insightful-beyond-measure novel. Multi-generational family sagas are all the rage these days, but rarely are they this good. And even more rarely are debut novels this assured. It's my favorite novel of the year so far, one I could not put down.

The story is about the marriage of Chicago suburbanites Marilyn and David, and their four daughters. After a random meeting in college when Marilyn mistakes David for her TA, and unloads on him about her class (a meet-cute, as the kids say), they fall in love and marry. They have, been all appearances, a perfect marriage. They rarely argue. They are attuned to each other's needs. They share responsibilities. And they often can't keep their hands off each other, to the eternal disgust of their daughters.

As their daughters grow up and reach adulthood, the perceived "perfectness" of Marilyn and David's marriage is actually a burden, not a boon. The near impossible standard to live up to puts a ridiculous amount of pressure on their daughters' own lives and relationships. And because the daughters don't want to disappoint their perfect parents, they often lie and keep fairly huge secrets. These make up the meat of the novel.

What's strongest about this story is Lombardo's talent for rendering character. The novel alternates between the points-of-view of the parents on a timeline that leads up to the present day, and then also each of the daughters' perspectives in the present day as they all have their various troubles navigating the world. What's so impressive is that it's never difficult to tell them apart. In the hands of a lesser writer, over the course of 500+ pages, these characters may start blending together. But that's decidedly not the case here. I loved the oldest daughter Wendy — she's got no filter, and takes pleasure in making life hell for her sisters and parents. The second daughter Violet is infinitely irritating, and you just sort of want bad things to happen to her. Third daughter, Liza, you just feel bad for. And youngest daughter, Gracie, you sort of feel about her the way her sisters do: That she's perpetually a child, even though her adult life is a bit of a mess too.

The other strength of this book is its dialogue. It's rare that a writer is able to capture how people think, and then talk — often interrupting themselves mid-sentence. And, to further the point in the previous paragraph, each character has her own manner of speaking, which not an easy thing to pull off.

I would've loved to been a fly on the wall during the discussions between Lombardo and her editor about this novel's length. It's certainly not common for a debut writer to get 500+ pages for a family story. But Lombardo did, and I could've read 500 more pages about these people. They are fascinating, conniving, sharp-tongued, and hilarious.

This is my favorite novel of the year so far. It's so well-written, so insightful. And just so damn entertaining.

Side note: This is the 500th post on The New Dork Review of Books! I started this blog on Oct. 1, 2009, and 499 posts later, here we are. As always, thanks for reading!

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

Bill McKibben vs. Steven Pinker: Falter vs. Enlightenment Now

Are we hopelessly screwed? Or is everything totally fine, and in fact, getting better? Two recent books by two prominent thinkers argue for near opposite takes on the current state of the world. Both are fascinating in how they portray our biggest challenges and threats — climate change, war, artificial intelligence, poverty, inequality, and much more. And for me, reading these two books back-to-back — Falter, by Bill McKibben and Enlightment Now by Steven Pinker — was a lesson not in pessimism vs optimism, but rather, an example of how even incredibly smart people can see the world very differently.

Bill McKibben is an environmental activist and the founder of 350.org (and, full disclosure, a personal hero of mine). His new book Falter wonders if the "human game" is coming to an end. Naturally, McKibben, who has spent his life advocating for climate change action — he wrote one of the first books describing the climate change problem, The End of Nature, in 1989 — cites climate change as the biggest threat to humanity. But he also argues that new technologies, namely artificial intelligence and gene-editing, also threaten to either destroy humanity, or just as bad, change fundamentally what it means to be human.

"A writer doesn't owe a reader hope — the only obligation is honesty," McKibben writes in his prologue. But even while he's spelling out our potential doom, McKibben is always an inspiring and engaging writer. Regarding climate change, he lays out the latest evidence and science illustrating how and why we're in trouble. Then he spends a fair amount of time arguing for the reasons we haven't made nearly enough progress on solving this problem. He discusses Ayn Rand and how she's influenced right-wing politicians like Paul Ryan and kingmakers like the Koch brothers. If you subscribe to a philosophy that only your individual happiness matters (philosophically justified selfishness), it's no wonder ethics, morals, and even laws aren't able to force you to back down from your pursuit of that happiness (in this case, read as, wealth). McKibben lays out this case without a hint of the rage he must be feeling. But the readers sure inherits his anger.

McKibben continues with a discussion of the dangers and benefits of artificial intelligence and increased computing power, based on interviews with Ray Kurzweil, the famous futurist and Google's director of engineering. Kurzweil, who some see as a crackpot and other view as a genius, fervently believes that if he can just live until 2030, he can be immortal. That's because advances in computing power and the potential for uploading his brain digitally will allow his consciousness to continue after his body no longer functions. This sounds crazy on the surface, but Kurzweil makes a scarily convincing case. But is a computer consciousness really human? Of course not. But what might be a bigger problem is if artificial intelligence becomes intelligent enough that it doesn't need us inefficient humans anymore, and either makes us its slaves, or wipes us out all together. Is it likely? Not too much so. Is it possible? Yes. And is that terrifying? Absolutely.

Finally, McKibben takes on CRISPR and gene-editing. CRISPR is basically a method for copying and pasting strands of DNA, like in a Word doc. This means we can quite literally change the characteristics of a living thing. So now that it's possible to create "designer babies," should we? McKibben talks about the libertarian argument (again, going back to Rand) that the government should be removed from scientific progress generally, but this specifically. His argument — and I think it lands nicely — is that nothing reduces a human's liberty more than his parents deciding what characteristics he'll be born with before he's even born! As well, gene-editing and designer babies will lead to a massive increase in inequality as it will only be wealthy parents who can afford to pay for designer babies, which in turn will be born with an even larger silver spoon...and the cycle continues.

So while things may look bleak, McKibben offers a recipe for hope, as well — fixing climate change, for one, is an all-hands-on-deck prospect. But we've solved huge problems before and we can solve this one, too. As well, the current political climate won't last forever — these things are cyclical, and Trump and his acolytes represent more an overcorrection than a long-term trend.

Steven Pinker, a Harvard cognitive psychologist, thinks that not only are we fine, we're flourishing. His book, Enlightenment Now, shows how the principles of the Enlightenment, namely science, reason, and humanism, have lead to unprecedented human progress in areas as wide ranging as life expectancy to democracy to wealth. He spends most of the book describing in painstaking detail all these areas of progress, trotting out dozens of charts showing how, for example, fewer women die in childbirth now than in 1750. Not exactly a high bar against which to measure progress, is it? And while, yes, it's great that fewer people die of malaria now and our rivers no longer catch on fire because of pollution, the problem for me is that these macro-trends are somewhat cold and unfeeling. A throwaway line early in the book is telling: He admits that the reduction in the the worldwide poverty rate isn't a comfort to you if you're a person who is still extremely poor. Or a reduction in infant death doesn't help you if you died. Of course, these problems will never get to zero, but the fact that poverty, war, climate change, terrorism, disease, inequality, and so much else still exists to a horrifying degree is evidence that everything isn't all warm and fuzzy.

And but so, after explaining how much progress we've made, Pinker spends the last bit passionately re-defending the Enlightenment values. This to me was the most interesting and fun-to-read part of his long book. Pinker is at his best when showing how certain high-ranking politicians and their followers abandoning these Enlightenment values explain our current dilemmas. Every opinion carries equal weight, no matter how uninformed, for instance. Or, in the case of climate change, the issue is people believing the charismatic authority that it's a Chinese hoax. And then they make that "belief" a status of personal identity, even though science isn't a political issue (facts don't care whether or not you "believe" in them). And so no amount of evidence would permit them to change their minds because that would mean literally changing how they see themselves and how they want the world to see them. 

This won't come as much of a surprise, but I liked Pinker's book far less than McKibben's. Pinker is often callous, glib, condescending, and droolingly dull.  As well, Pinker seems to make the occasional mistake in logic, which is odd for an immensely well-respect cognitive psychologist. For instance, in his section on environmental progress, and how we should continue combatting climate change, he argues that climate change is a technological problem that should be solvable. Fine. But he also then says that solar and wind won't be enough by themselves to solve emissions reductions because the scale isn't available yet and the technology to store electricity isn't ready for prime time. First of all, neither of those are actually true. But secondly, if climate change is a technology problem, isn't it reasonable to assume storage will also improve and solve the problem, not to mention more efficient solar panels producing more electricity (solving his non-existent problem that there's not enough room for enough solar panels).

McKibben actually calls out Pinker a few times. For example, McKibben explains, that in November 2017, 15,000 scientists issued a "stark warning to humanity." And "just like Pinker, they had charts..." Amusing. But McKibben's book certainly shouldn't be confused with a response to Pinker's. It's decidedly its own argument. If you're going to read one, read McKibben. Just because we've made progress doesn't mean we don't still have massive problems, as Pinker would have you believe. When I used to smoke, and people asked me how I can logically justify smoking knowing it was terrible for my health, my standard answer would be "By the time I get cancer, there will be a cure." Can you imagine? What a jerk I was. But that's the tone of Pinker's entire book. Problems aren't that bad because something'll come up. McKibben is much more clear-eyed (not to mention engaging as a writer!) about our issues.

Tuesday, June 11, 2019

Recursion, by Blake Crouch: Is Time an Illusion?

With apologies to Matthew McConaughey, time may not be a flat circle after all. Rather, time may be an illusion. That's because consciousness is actually memory. And memory is reality. Wait, what? If your head is spinning, you're in the perfect spot to tackle Black Crouch's mind-blowing new thriller, Recursion

Yes, much like his last novel Dark Matter, which explored the notion of multiple universes, his newest thriller provides a different but similarly cerebral thought experiment: What if we can "live" in several timelines — or versions of our lives — simultaneously? I know it sounds confusing, but in the hands of a writer as talented and smart as Crouch, and within the framework of his ingenuous, turbo-speed plot, it really does all make sense.

The story starts with an NYPD detective named Barry, who tries to stop a woman with "False Memory Syndrome" from jumping off a Manhattan skyscraper. This leads him to begin investigating what FMS really is. Meanwhile, 10 years prior, a researcher named Helena is working on a project to digitally map memories. Her goal is to help people with Alzheimer's like her mother retain their precious memories. But her research is co-opted by a mysterious billionaire named Marcus Slade — think Elon Musk crossed with Dr. Evil. And what they actually discover is a way to re-plant consciousness inside a digitally mapped memory so that basically you're traveling back in time to relive your life over again at the start of that memory.

What could possibly go wrong?

And as importantly, what happens when your second (or third or infinity) timeline catches up to the present again? That's the stuff good thrillers are made of — and this is a very, very good thriller. The plot shifts several times in surprising ways, exploring the unintended consequences of this idea that memories can literally be lived in. What are the effects on other people? How does this version of time travel deal with the "grandmother/father paradox" (if your grandmother dies in the past, then how are you even born)? And what the hell is False Memory Syndrome anyway?

Like Dark Matter, this novel feels more like fiction about science than science-fiction. It's a subtle difference, I realize, but this novel feels so terrifyingly realistic — especially as you read more about how the exponential increase in computing power and AI means that it might be possible by like 2030 to literally map and store a brain, or part of a brain, or a memory, digitally. Yikes. Again, what could go wrong? But I'm glad we're just reading about this in fiction now — and super entertaining fiction, at that. If you enjoyed Dark Matter, or novels like Dexter Palmer's Version Control (one of my favorite novels of the last decade), you'll definitely enjoy this one too.

Friday, June 7, 2019

Memoir-palooza: 3 Terrific Recent Personal Stories

When I was a dumb young (young dumb?) book blogger, I wrote an awful post about the difference between autobiography and memoir.  You know how you often look back at stuff you wrote awhile ago and cringe really, really hard. That's that. Anyway, I just mention that because, for whatever reason, maybe mid-life self-reflection or maybe because they seem to be the genre du jour and there are a lot more really good ones published these days, I've read a ton of awesome memoirs lately. I never used to be a big fan, but the more I read (Educated! Becoming!), the more I love them. Here's a rundown of three recent ones I really enjoyed.

Born A Crime, by Trevor Noah — A memoir that alternates between serious-as-a-heart-attack and shoot-Coke-out-of-your-nose-hilarious (which I did reading this on a flight), this book is always immensely entertaining. It combines a chronicle of Noah's South African childhood, mixed with his commentary about the absurdity, stupidity, and cruelty of apartheid. There is religion and mysticism, terrifying mini-buses (I dare you to read the first chapter and NOT continue with this book, as he tells a story about having to jump out of a moving minibus with a particularly scary driver), a fiercely strong mother, a burgeoning comedy and DJing career, and so much more. I still watch The Daily Show most nights, so it's a little embarrassing it took me until now to read this. But I loved it!

Save Me The Plums, by Ruth Reichl — Reichl, a beloved food writer and frequent memoirist, chronicles her nearly 10 years as the editor of Gourmet magazine before its untimely demise in 2009. While most readers will probably pick this up to read Reichl on food, I read this for a different reason: I wanted to get the inside scoop on the magazine business. And that's fascinating — how Reichl, who was a restaurant critic prior to landing the editorship of Gourmet, didn't know about adjacencies or the "tee-oh-cee" (TOC - table of contents) or any other cornerstones of the nerdy world of magazine editing. But she learned quickly and had massive success changing the magazine from a stuffy pub for high-fallutin' richie-riches to a magazine for everyone. It began running articles about things like whether it's moral to eat lobsters if they feel pain. (There's an entire chapter dedicated to David Foster Wallace and his "Consider the Lobster" essay, which is another reason I read and loved this book!) So yeah, I loved reading about the day-to-day of running a hugely popular consumer magazine — dealing with publisher (is it the editor's job to go on sales calls or not?), the accountants, the art directors, and everyone else that makes a magazine successful (or not). But I also gained a whole new appreciation for food culture. I am far from a foodie, but the way Reichl writes about food is so personal and intimate, you can't help but taste, smell and, savor it along with her. I really loved this book — a favorite of the year so far.

All That You Leave Behind, by Erin Lee Carter — If you've seen the terrific 2011 documentary Page One: Inside The New York Times, or if you're a long-time Times reader, you probably know David Carr, the irascible, fascinating journalist who built a huge social media following in the early years of Twitter. His daughter, now a successful documentarian, has written this intimate memoir about Carr, who died in the Times newsroom in 2015, mentoring her as she strives to make her way in New York media herself.

Culled from emails, gchats, and texts between the two, the memoir is a touching look at their immensely close relationship and how great of a mentor he was for her, even when he'd fly off the handle in one of his signature fits of rage. But Erin also has her own demons, struggling with a sense of adequacy and with bouts of alcoholism. The book reads part like an intimate biography of David Carr and part Girls-esque coming-of-age in Brooklyn. The latter gives this more than the occasional feel of self-absorption (Lena Dunham herself even makes an appearance or two!), but overall I really enjoyed this. It's a well-written, brave memoir.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Little Faith: Nickolas Butler on Midwestern Family and Faith

Nickolas Butler is one of my favorite writers because of how his novels and stories address universal themes of both life in literature, but with a decidedly Midwestern bent. His debut novel Shotgun Lovesongs, one of my favorite books of the last 10 years, is about friendship and loyalty (and music!) in a small Midwestern town. His underrated short story collection Beneath the Bonfire is about Midwestern friendships and relationships. And The Hearts of Men is about what it means not just to be a good man and father, but what it means to simply be a good person — again, with characters so heart-achingly Midwestern, you can't help but love them even as they do terrible things.

Now, Butler is back with another terrific novel, Little Faith, about two big literary themes: Faith and family. And as is the case in his previous work, Butler creates a story illustrating how these two themes are cornerstones of Midwestern life. Specifically, this story is about how interconnected faith and family are, what happens why then run afoul of each other, and the consequences of losing first one and then the other.

Lyle is a non-grumpy old man — a semi-retired Wisconsinite, married to a woman named Peg. Their adopted daughter Shiloh and her six-year-old son Isaac come to live with them after Shiloh has been out and about, sowing her wild oats. Lyle is complete taken with his grandson, spending every possible moment with him. The opening scene of the novel is the two playing hide-and-seek in a graveyard — a wonderful metaphor for the big questions that follow about faith and religion, fate vs free will, and the meaning of life.

For Lyle, faith is simply a matter of inertia. He's long since lost any real belief in a god as a result of a tragedy with his and Peg's first child many years ago. Butler touches on big theological questions like "Why would a benevolent god let bad things happen to good people?" but doesn't dwell on them. He understands this is well-trod ground, and simply has Lyle consider these questions, sometimes talk about them with his buddies (one of whom is a Lutheran pastor), and then move on.

Lyle still goes to church every Sunday, but it's more out of habit than anything else. Shiloh, however, is a newly born-again Christian. And she soon lands herself in the thrall (both spiritually and personally) of a charismatic preacher of a new fundamentalist church. (I hesitate to call it a "cult," though it is definitely cult-like.) Eventually, she moves in with this preacher, leaving Peg and Lyle and taking Isaac with her. This is devastating for Lyle, but even more devastating is that Shiloh begins withholding access to her son. She makes Lyle admit he's lost his faith, and therefore thinks he's a bad influence on her son.

This conflict between faith and family comes to a head when Isaac gets sick, and Lyle begins to suspect Shiloh and her preacher boyfriend aren't getting him the care he needs, choosing to try to "faith heal" him instead. This brings up several more thorny questions regarding freedom of religion vs. the welfare of a child. Will Lyle and Peg bring Shiloh to her senses before something really tragic happens with Isaac?

This novel takes place over the course of one year, a quintessentially Midwestern cycle. Butler is absolutely in his element writing about seasons and landscapes — his descriptions of the apple orchard Lyle works in part time are some of my favorite passages in this novel. And overall, Butler is such a natural, easy storyteller. This novel, like his others, is composed in Butler's signature warm, inviting, downright comforting style. It's just a pleasure to read. And so if you enjoyed Butler's other work, or are a fan of writers like Richard Russo, Leif Enger, or Kent Haruf, you'll love this novel too.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

3 Terrific Recent Reads

I've been all over the place lately, which is how I like it! From a comic Australian novel to a memoir to a small press Chicago novel, here's a rundown of three of really good books I've read in the last few weeks/months.

Becoming, by Michelle Obama

Why I Picked It Up: Duh.

Why You Should: You haven't already? C'mon, get with it! But seriously, this is an absolutely tremendous read: A deeply human story, a story about success amidst myriad challenges, and a story about how and why things have devolved into how they are now. I really, really loved this, as has every reader who has traversed these pages. I'm not ashamed to admit I got choked up approximately 78 times reading this.

If you're still on the fence, I can also tell you Michelle Obama is a hugely engaging writer — though that shouldn't be surprising. What is surprsing, though, is that, while oftentimes, the early parts of memoirs devolve into an episodic "then 'this' happened, then 'this' happened" chronicle of events, that definitely does not happen here. The first section (Becoming Me) about her south side childhood, her relationship with her parents and her relatives, her dad's failing health, and learning about what race means, and what it means to be black in America, is absolutely fascinating.

The second and third sections (Becoming Us, Becoming More) are about her early career as a lawyer in Chicago, meeting Barack, and building their family. And then, the White House: What a fascinating story of those eight years. It was so much fun to relive them through her eyes.

But it's not all roses: One of the more devastating recurring themes of this book — in a book FULL of devastating parts (given the current state of things) — is the vitriol and rancor people spat at the Obamas, how everything either of them said was willfully and purposefully misinterpreted and used hatefully, and how there was never any interest across the aisle on working together. It was all about hoping they failed. But truly, there is always hope, and so if you need some inspiration in these dark times, this is heartily recommended!

A Fraction of the Whole, by Steve Toltz

Why I Picked It Up: I was browsing at Unabridged Bookstore here in Chicago a few months ago, and this was on the remainder table. A blurb on the cover compares it to the A Confederacy of Dunces. Sold.

Why You Should: Because smart, often dense novels of ideas shouldn't be this freakin' hilarious. But this one is, and I enjoyed every bit of these 500 pages. The plot is propulsive, the writing is witty, and these are characters you won't soon forget. It's the story of an Australian kid, his dad, his famous criminal uncle, and their many misadventures. Toltz covers lots of ground here both plot- and idea-wise: What is God? What is our obligation to society? What is fate? Etc...

It's a novel you get totally lost in — one of those books that's so engrossing, you look up and can't believe three hours has passed. For me, it was fun to take a chance on a novel and writer I'd never heard of before, though this was shortlisted for the Man Booker prize back in 2008.

Recommend for fans of, yes, A Confederacy of Dunces, but also Ned Beauman, Tom McCarthy, and hell, even the Russians like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky.

North and Central, by Bob Hartley

Why I Picked It Up: I found this terrific novel at a recent indie book fair held at a bar in my neighborhood, at which the publisher, Tortoise Books, was exhibiting. Also, I'm a sucker for books about bars.

Why You Should: Because you like your books as booze-soaked as you imagine all writers are. A stereotype, I know. But this gritty, slim noir is about a bar owner on the west side of Chicago in the late 1970s. Andy has a "if you can't beat 'em, join 'em" mentality about Chicago's corruption and mob scene, and together with his buddy, a dirty cop, hatch various schemes from the bar to take on the mob themselves and get their own little piece. I loved this book for the characters, the seminal events in Chicago history that touch these characters' meager existences (like John Wayne Gacy's arrest and the blizzard of '79), and the pared-down, in-the-trenches-of-life style of writing. This is a one- to two-sitting read, but it's phenomenal — another book I'm super glad I took a chance on.