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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.