Wednesday, September 30, 2020

Apartment: The Dream of the 90s is Alive!

File this one under "wheelhouse novel" for me. Teddy Wayne's new novel, Apartment, is about two dudes who share an...wait for it... apartment in mid-1990s NYC. These two guys, who meet in their MFA program at Columbia, spend their time boozing, reading, and working on their novels. Fair warning: This is the white dudiest of white dude novels. So of course I loved it. But this is no dumbass Tucker Max book. It's a thoughtful examination of privilege, loneliness, and what it takes to be a good fiction writer.

The unnamed narrator is the guy who "owns" the prime Manhattan apartment — his great aunt's name is on the lease but she lives in Jersey, so let's him live there, not exactly on the up-and-up. Also, the narrator's father pays the rent and for his schooling, so he doesn't really have much to worry about. 

Billy arrives on the scene from the hinterlands...er, Illinois, but the Midwest might as well be Mars to these uppity NYC kids. Even so, he's immediately magnetic to all in his class, because of his good looks, his talent as a writer, and also as an "exotic" — a salt-of-the-earth midwestern bartender. Billy is the only in class to defend the narrator's mediocre story, so the narrator is drawn to him, makes friends with him, and seeing as how he's struggling to make it in NYC, invites him to move into the guest room in his free apartment. 

This has disaster written all over it. But it works for a while, and the good times roll. They drink. They find ladies. They drink more. They work on their stories. They send their stories to magazines. They watch Friends and Seinfeld. They do some drugs. And then...it all falls apart. And the narrator soon finds that his privilege is an illusion.

So there's two kinds of privilege here. There's the narrator's privilege of wealth, that as Rob Lowe's character says in Wayne's World, can get you far in America, almost to the top, but it can't get you everything. Indeed, it can't get you the privilege of talent. And that's what Billy has and the narrator doesn't, and no amount of wealth will get him that. 

This is a short book, but one I enjoyed immensely in the two sittings it took to read. It's rich in 90s pop culture references — sports, music, TV, etc. And it's just...cool...for lack of a better word. If you need a good few-hours distraction from the current state of things, this is it. 

Thursday, September 24, 2020

The Index of Self-Destructive Acts: Never Underestimate Your Ability to Screw Up

If you've read your Bill James, you'll know "the index of self-destructive acts" is a humorously titled baseball statistic referring to the number of ways a pitcher can screw up, independent of anyone else on the field — it includes, balks, hit by pitches, wild pitches, and others. 

In baseball, as in life, one should never underestimate one's ability to screw up. And that's what Christopher Beha's long but satisfying novel is about: How self-destructive acts, however innocuous, unintentional, or insignificant, can really put a damper on one's happiness, success, or ability to stay alive.

A huge cast of characters living out a seemingly endless number of plot strings and themes make this novel feel almost Tolstoyian. (This is only 520 pages, though.) And even though it takes place over the course of about six months in 2009, it feels completely in the now — examining many of the themes and ideas that define our modern lives. 

Sam Waxworth, if there's a main character, is it. He's a "data journalist" — a new thing in 2009, so think a slightly hipper version of Nate Silver — who correctly predicted the 2008 presidential election. As a result has been hired away from his Madison, Wis., home by a prestigious NYC magazine to write a blog based on math, data, and numbers science. He's also expected to write features, and his first big one is about the disgraced writer and baseball man Frank Doyle.

Frank has been a lifelong liberal and influential baseball writer, but he's recently been turned into a conservative hero because of his staunch support of the Iraq War — think a more boisterous, booze-soaked version of George Will. Even before the novel started, Frank had already delivered the first of many self-destructive acts — at the last game at Shea Stadium in 2008, after way too many beers, Frank joined the TV broadcasters for an inning of commentary, and wound up delivering an enormously offensive racist remark about Obama. This got him cancelled — he was fired from his column at a New York newspaper and basically became persona non grata in the upper-crust NYC circles to which he'd become accustomed.

So now, six months from the "Ballpark Incident," Waxworth's editors think it'd be interesting to check back on Doyle to see how he's handling his "demotion." Waxworth had been a Doyle fan, read all his baseball books, but in his piece, he plans to bury Doyle. This will not be a redemption story. 

So Waxworth and Doyle's careful dance, as well as each's own problems (Doyle, his booze; Waxworth, acclimating to NYC and being tempted to stray from his wife by, of all people, Doyle's daughter), are the framework of the plot of this novel. The rest is about the supporting cast, which is huge, Doyle's kids, Waxworth's wife, Doyle's wife, Doyle's kids' friends, a street preacher, and many more. In some way or another, they all seem to collide with each other, taking turns committing their own self-destructive acts. Eventually we fall into a rhythm with each chapter told through the eyes of a different one of these characters, often showing an event we've already seen, but from a new perspective. 

Needless to say, this novel is a lot. Though strongly plot-driven and at the mercy of the machinations of its characters, this is also a big, rich novel of contemporary ideas. What is more valuable: hard data, statistics, science or our gut feelings and what we fervently believe (even absent evidence)? But also, what role does art or poetry (or just artistry, like an objectively beautiful curve ball or left-handed swing) play in an increasingly empirical world? And perhaps most critically, what point do we choose self-preservation over loyalty and/or simply the right thing to do?

This novel was recently named to the National Book Award longlist, a bit of a surprise — it's a small press novel (Tin House!) with a meager readership so far (it only has 240 Goodreads ratings — but that'll certainly improve because of being named to the NBA longlist). I took a chance on it because I'll read just about any novel with a baseball angle. And while frankly baseball winds up playing only a small role in this huge novel, I still thoroughly enjoyed it. I'm going to miss these characters, even the ones who did terrible things to each other. 

Wednesday, September 16, 2020

A Traveler at the Gates of Wisdom: Stories are Universal

John Boyne is the consummate storyteller. His last two novels, The Heart's Invisible Furies and A Ladder to the Sky were both brilliant, engrossing reads. I loved 'em immensely. But with his new novel, A Traveler at the Gates of Wisdom, he pulls off quite the neat storytelling trick, even for him. 

Imagine a story told over 2,000 years, in about 50-year increments set in locations literally all over the world. But it's the story with the same characters. Only the times and places change. Confused? I was initially too. And a little skeptical.

But it works...mostly. The novel is essentially one guy's life story. The Character, as we'll call him, grows up, marries, has children, endures unimaginable tragedy, marries, suffers more heartbreak, sets out on a quest for vengeance, abandons said quest, reunites with this brother, continues quest, and so on and so on and so on. 

But again, the trick here is that each little segment of story — generally eight pages or so — is set in a new time and place around the world. Boyne spends a few paragraphs orienting you, and reminding you at what stage in the story The Character is in. And and then he just continues, whether he's in Eritrea in 340, China in 1191, or France in 1916.  

I know this sounds gimmicky, and I guess it is. And though it's not 100 percent successful — especially in the first half of the novel, things get a bit repetitive — it works more often than not. In the second half, as the times and places seem more familiar, the story really gains some momentum. It helps too that along the way, we get Bill-and-Ted-like cameos from famous historical figures who flit in and out of The Character's life — his sister marries Attila the Hun, he helps Shakespeare stage Julius Caesar, and there's many more. (Aside: If you're bad with remembering names — in novels or in real life — this is a perfect novel for you, because the characters' names change in each new chapter. It's obvious who each person is from the context, but so, and I can't emphasize this enough, you don't have to remember anyone's name!

This whole thing wouldn't have worked at all if the story he's telling was boring. But it sure is not. It's quite the swashbuckling yarn. This — let's go with the fancy term — bildungsroman has it all: Murder, betrayal, love and loss, a quest for vengeance, war and pestilence, and Donald Trump.  Wait, what was the last one?

Yes, so part of the point of this novel is to really examine the human condition: Have we learned anything in 2,000 years? Have we evolved to be more empathetic? More kind? More reasonable? Smarter? You'd think so, wouldn't you — but maybe not. 

Given how much I loved his last two books, a new John Boyne novel should've been an exciting event, and I should've rushed right out on pub day to buy the hardcover (or have read the ARC two months ago). But in reading about this one, it really did sound a little too strange. I knew I'd read it, but I wasn't stoked. And through the first half, I was like "Oh no, is this like a three-star Boyne novel? I'm so disillusioned!" But thankfully, and this is a lesson on why it's important to not give up on books (wink), the second half is so much more entertaining. I would've loved to have been a fly on the wall for conversations between Boyne and his editor about the "rules" for this novel and troubleshooting some of the problems that no doubt came up. What is the narrator allowed to know from his "previous lives"? What does he "remember"? Etc. Those had to be fascinating conversations. And so if you're in the mood for something different, give this one a try. 

Thursday, August 27, 2020

Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey: Heroes, Animal and Man Alike

In her last novel Lillian Boxfish Takes A Walk, Kathleen Rooney got me to care deeply about an old woman wandering around New York City on New Year's Eve. I would not have thought it possible, but it worked! I loved that book — and am still a bit gobsmacked about the delta between my expectations going in and how much I liked it. 

With her new novel, Cher Ami and Major Whittlesey, she pulls off this trick again! I should know by now, fool me once, etc. I'll admit it: I picked up her new novel a bit skeptically. The novel intertwines the stories of a hero messenger pigeon and a hero soldier during a little-remembered episode of World War 1. The pigeon parts are, yes indeed, narrated by the pigeon. This has ALL kinds of disaster potential. But I'm here to tell you, it works. It really, actually works. 

So yes, Cher Ami is a pigeon — she's born in England, trained as a homing pigeon, and goes to war to help the Americans. Major Charles Whittlesey is the commander of what becomes known as the Lost Battalion — a battalion of American troops that advanced too far (they were too successful, actually) and got caught behind enemy lines. Cher Ami's and Major Whittlesey's paths cross during the course of the ramp-up to this battle and then the battle itself, both because Whittlesey is fascinated by the pigeon, but also because he harbors a bit of a crush on the pigeons' handler, a soldier named Cavanaugh. 

Cher Ami, for her part, winds up saving their lives. Despite being shot twice, and losing a leg and an eye, she's able to deliver a message to American troops to stop shelling. Their shells were landing on the Lost Battalion's position because the artillery folks didn't know they were so far ahead. 

Along the way, we get a fascinating biography of the contemplative, mercurial Whittlesey (like Cher Ami, who is in the Smithsonian currently, Major Whittlesey and his Lost Battalion are also real), including the mystery (that's not really a mystery) surrounding his death after the war. He's a warrior who often contemplates the insanity of war, specifically, and the peculiarities of humanity, generally. And he's a gay man frustrated he has to hide who he is, especially after he returns home as a war hero. 

Cher Ami is also very introspective — she (she is misidentified as a male, and therefore given a male name — a comment on how gender is a social construct, whether 1910s pigeon or contemporary human) wonders frequently about humans' relations to animals. Why do humans seem to put so much of their expertise in animal terms ("hawk eyes," "strong as a bull," "clever as a fox," etc.), yet see themselves as so superior to animals? All this is to say that the undercurrent of an entertaining, quickly paced novel is a staunchly anti-war, pro-animal philosophy that immensely enriches the reading experience. 

That aspect, along with these fascinating characters, and the elegance of Rooney's prose, make this an incredibly satisfying read. And again, surprising — though it shouldn't have been. I know people are going to hear "parts narrated by a messenger pigeon," and like me, be skeptical. Don't be. This is so good. 

Friday, August 21, 2020

The Motion of the Body Through Space: Troll-tastic Shriver Takes on Fitness

Professional provocateur Lionel Shriver has written a novel, The Motion of the Body Through Space (I'm purposefully not including a link, because no one should buy this book), positioned as a "send-up of today's cult of exercise." As a runner, I thought it’d be fun or at least amusing to read a novel satirizing the “cult of exercise.” Haha, you got me there, Shriver. Runners ARE a little weird. But there's nothing light-hearted, amusing, or even remotely clever about this. Instead, it's just mean-spirited, mocking, grouchy, and devoid of any parody value whatsoever. I haven't read Shriver before, but I guess that's at least partially her schtick

It's about a mid-sixties man named Remington who has been forced into retirement, and so takes up endurance sports, despite no experience. This new endeavor annoys his wife, Serenata, who used to run and bike, but can't anymore because of a bum knee. Serenata also happens to be one of the most insufferable people in any book I've read in a long time. (To give you an idea of how much I disliked her, at one point in the novel, she injures her knee riding her bike, and I was delighted that this fictional character is in intense pain.) 

Anyway, Serenata is upset at her husband for having a new ambition she doesn't deem worthy of him (she literally tells him that it's "unworthy of him" — what a snob!). She doesn't understand the point, and she frequently compares people who exercise, run marathons, and do triathlons to brainwashed members of a cult — and even, in one memorably horrendous paragraph, to Nazis. (Is this Serenata or Shriver making this claim? Does it matter? That’s not parody or satire. That’s just being an asshole.) 

What's sad is how ridiculous Shriver clearly thinks this new "fad" is, but then she couldn't come up with a more original story to make this point. Old man has late-life crisis, tries to develop fountain of youth. Good one, Shriver — wholly originally. Shriver even names Remington's comely, booby fitness trainer Bambi Buffer, for fuck’s sake! Bambi Buffer! 

It's Bambi who convinces Remington (of course, for her own personal gain in the form of a $1,200 per month fee) that the next natural step after he completes a marathon is to do a "MettleMan" triathlon, which only serves to annoy Serenata that much more. Of course, things don't go well for Remington, and the marriage moves to the brink.

Look, if you’re going to write satire, you owe your reader at least a passable understanding of what you’re satirizing. Amateur athletes do marathons, sure. But no seven-hour marathoner in his 60s is signing up for a full-distance IronMan triathlon, no matter how persuasive his devastatingly beautiful personal trainer is. It's patently ridiculous, to the point of being hilarious. So that's about the only shimmer of satire here. But because Shriver's so mean-spirited the rest of the time, you're not reading this as satire anymore. And beyond that detail, Shriver gets so much else wrong about these sports and the training and the culture she's trying to mock. It’s embarrassing. 

I only finished this because I was enjoying how much I hated it. If Shriver's goal here was to troll people who enjoy running, then kudos to you, Shriver. You done pissed me off good.

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Luster: A Brutal, Brilliant, Hilarious Debut about Race, Sex, and Manners

I'll read just about anything Zadie Smith calls "brutal and brilliant," which is how she blurbed Raven Leilani's debut novel, Luster. And she's certainly not wrong. 

It's brutal in its honesty — "unflinching," as the review cliché goes. The novel is about a young Black woman, trying to make her way through love, life, sex, career, and being Black in modern day New York. Sometimes, this narrator, Edie, seems totally overmatched by life, relationships (which she happens to be in with a much-older married man), and not being totally awkward all the time. Other times, however, she seems preternaturally self-aware and understands exactly why the forces seemingly beyond her control are...beyond her control.

And it's brilliant in that on a sentence-by-sentence, paragraph-by-paragraph basis, this is one the best written novels I've read this year. Leilani's prose is witty and wise, often laugh-out-loud funny, but also profoundly keen and perceptive. It's so much fun to read.

So yes, Edie, our 23-year-old narrator, embarks on an affair with a married middle-aged white guy named Eric. But it's cool — he's in an open marriage, and through a series of odd machinations (job loss, eviction, some light stalking), Edie actually winds up living at his house in the suburbs with his wife Rebecca, and their adopted Black daughter named Akila. It's not the most comfortable living situation, to say the least, but it gives Edie occasion to do what she once thought she was destined for: art. Against all odds, her new suburban home, albeit extremely temporary, inspires her to paint. 

Edie's interactions and relationships with both Rebecca and Akila are really fascinating and well-rendered. Rebecca oddly tolerates her and actually wants to help her, even though she's sleeping with her husband. With the pre-teen Akila, Edie subtly helps mentor her in the ways of Black womanhood. 

Of course, this arrangement can't last, but will it come crashing down in spectacular flames? You'll probably read this novel so quickly, the end will sneak up on you before you even know it.

Comparisons between Luster and another huge hit this year, Kiley Reid's Such A Fun Age, are inevitable. Both are about what it's like to be young and Black, and struggling against a stacked deck. Luster, however, is a bit edgier, a bit more...unconventional. They're both fantastic debut novels so far be it from me to say one is better than the other. I'd highly recommend both. And I'd highly recommend keeping a close eye on Leilani's career — if Luster is any indication, we can expect big things. 

Thursday, July 30, 2020

Deacon King Kong: Storytelling At Its Absolute Finest

Here we have storytelling at its absolute finest, funniest, sharpest, wittiest, and just downright most fun. James McBride's new novel Deacon King Kong is about a lot of things: Drug dealers, treasure hunts, race, ghosts, and some really mysterious cheese (known as the Jesus Cheese). But you never feel overwhelmed. Rather, you just feel incredibly entertained the whole way. 

The novel's about an old drunk named Sportcoat who lives in a housing project in Brooklyn. He spends most of his time drinking homemade booze (he's dubbed it King Kong) and palling around with his buddy Hot Sausage. The year is 1969, and the mob controls the projects, heroin is the new big thing, and mostly everyone distrusts anyone outside their own race. 

The novel kicks off with drunken Sportcoat trying to assassinate the projects' drug dealer in broad daylight. The dealer is a dude named Deems who was a promising baseball star that Sportcoat himself had coached and mentored, so no one has any idea why Sportcoat did it. And that includes Sportcoat himself, who, when the dust settles, actually has no memory of trying to shoot the kid. He denies he even did it — even though he's now in pretty grave danger of some serious retribution.

And it goes from there. Soon, an Italian mobster named Elefante (because of course he's named the Elephant) gets involved, and through a series of maneuverings, the story morphs into a sort of treasure hunt for a priceless statue. How is Sportcoat involved in this? He's mixed up in everything, often unwittingly. And he's often totally overmatched for the circumstances, yet somehow still bumbles along. (There are some HIGH comedy moments when the mobsters send a hit man to rub out Sportcoat...and these attempts always go awry.)  

Simply put, this is a rollicking, ebullient novel, but with a dead serious undercurrent of racism, race relations, and other issues of addiction and drug abuse. This is easily one of my favorite novels of the year. I loved it. In fact, I think I liked this one even better than McBride's The Good Lord Bird, which won him a National Book Award. 

Friday, June 19, 2020

Sharks In The Time Of Saviors: Collision of the Old and the New

Hawaiian novels by Hawaiian writers aren't exactly a dime a dozen, so I was super excited to read this debut, Sharks In The Time Of Saviors, by Kawai Strong Washburn. It's a fantastic family saga about Hawaiians caught between the old ways and the new, the eternal tension between tradition and modernity. It's also about the rivalries and jealousies between siblings — all fertile ground for literary fiction, for sure.
 
So what's the story? When Nainoa is a young boy, he falls over the side of a boat during a family vacation. He nearly drowns, but is miraculously rescued by a shark that cradles him in its jaws and delivers him safely back to the boat. Soon after, Nainoa discovers he has certain "healing" powers. His older brother Dean and younger sister Kaui become second-class citizens in the family as the parents dote upon the shy, reserved Nainoa. 

Kaui and Dean are both preternaturally talented too, but their talents are more "mundane" -- Dean is a superstar basketball player and gets a scholarship to a prestigious program in Spokane, Washington (it's Gonzaga, for anyone not up on college hoops and/or geography. Related side note: One of my only complaints about this novel is that Washburn gets a few things slightly wrong about college basketball, which, as a huge college basketball fan, was hard to abide. But back to the post.). Kaui is a brilliant student and gets a scholarship to study engineering at a university in San Diego. 

Nainoa, meanwhile, after going to Stanford, somehow flames out — he doesn't capitalize on his gifts. Or does he? We see him working as an EMT in Portland, Oregon, and still subtly and sort of secretly healing people in the back of the ambulance while they're transported to the hospital. That's until one really bad day when he's called to an accident, and a pregnant woman is near death, and he can't save her. This sends him into a downward spiral, and he winds up returning to Hawaii to try to get back in touch with his roots, the old ways, and the old gods. 

But then, Nainoa disappears while hiking on the Big Island. Dean and Kaui, deep into their own struggles with the modern world — Dean's been booted from his basketball team, and Kaui is harboring a huge unrequited crush on her female roommate — are summoned home to help find Nainoa.

The rest of the novel is about what happens after, as Dean and Kaui try to put their lives back together, to support each other, and to make begrudging amends with their parents, for whom they still harbor resentment for favoriting Nainoa over them. 

I loved this book -- Washburn is an immensely gifted writer, and beautifully seams a mix of Hawaiian tradition and the difficulties of making ends meet, the pressures of college, and much more. You may recall another terrific Hawaiian writer, Kaui Hart Hemmings, in her novel The Descendants (popularized by the George Clooney movie), dispensing with the notion that Hawaii is an unfettered paradise. This idea comes through in Washburn's novel as well, though in vastly different ways for the different characters — for the children, the modern world is what's difficult, and their Hawaiian home is the respite. The parents, though, are mostly happy, even in poverty...until they're not. And it's fascinating to see how all these characters strive to get back to their own individual notions of peace. This is a really terrific read — and I can't wait to see what Washburn does next! 

Thursday, June 11, 2020

The Glass Hotel: The Spaces Between

Emily St. John Mandel's novels are nothing if not prescient and timely. Her last novel, Station Eleven, one of my favorite novels of recent memory, is about life after a global pandemic. But more specifically, it's about how art makes us human.  

St. John Mandel's new novel titled The Glass Hotel is just as important for understanding our current moment. This story is about the spaces between — interstitial, liminal spaces — and how these spaces inform our human experiences. Now, as we're in a pandemic-created liminal space between the old normal and the new, this novel can offer important context. 

The story is about a woman named Vincent who works at a luxury hotel on a remote Canadian island. The hotel is owned by a rich guy named Jonathan Alkaitis, who uses the hotel to recruit investors for what we soon learn through jumps back and forth in time, is actually a Madoff-like Ponzi scheme. 

Frankly, though, summarizing this plot is difficult, because of the time- and geography-jumps — and really the plot isn't the point. I mean, it's not hard to follow, but other than saying "it's about a Ponzi scheme and a hotel," you'll benefit anyway from knowing less about the details.

So, about those spaces between: Just about every aspect of this novel deals with some sort of liminal space — a hotel, a Ponzi scheme, the shipping industry, and many more. But one of the more fascinating parts of this novel, as it was in Station Eleven, is looking at art and inspiration, and the difference between true creativity and "borrowing" or building on someone else's inspiration. This isn't the main point of this novel this time, but to me, it was the most interesting one. 

It's also fascinating how St. John Mandel ties all these disparate elements over time, geography, and ostensible subject matter (what would international shipping have to do with avant-garde art outside of this novel?) into a really sharp, cohesive whole. As the saying goes, in the hands of a lesser novelist, this could've been a beautiful mess. But it's not. It's short, sweet, smart, and really entertaining. Fans of Station Eleven will no doubt find plenty to like here. I sure did. 
 

Thursday, May 28, 2020

Bubblegum: Adam Levin's Back, Is He Still the "New DFW"?

Remember Adam Levin? Ten years ago, he published a thousand-page, post-modern novel called The Instructions that earned him the mantle of the "next David Foster Wallace." Well, 10 years later, he's back with another digressive, massive, frustrating, hugely entertaining novel titled Bubblegum. Not much has changed: He's still up to his DFW-esque-ness here, having as much fun toying with his reader as he is actually telling a story. And he even winks at all those idiots (like me) who think he is the next DFW by including a brief snippet with a DFW-like character.

And but so (sorry), Bubblegum is a huge goofy smart novel about an alternate reality that looks just like ours, except there's no Internet and people have these little robotic pets called Curios. Our narrator is a fellow named Belt Magnet, and he is in his late 30s and lives with his drunk father, who likes to berate him for being a loser. Belt published one little-read novel a decade before but hasn't done anything since, except collect social security checks. Though in Belt's defense, he does have some issues — not the least of which is that he talks to inanimate objects...and they talk back. 

So we set sail on 780 pages of Belt telling us about his life — how his former best friend is now a global superstar, how he spends most of his time with his own Curio named Blank, his only real friend, and how he is basically rudderless, smoking a lot and wondering where things went wrong. 

But that sort of belies what Levin is really up to here. So...what is he really up to? Frankly, I don't have the slightest damn idea, other than to point out that we humans are infinitely weird, often disappointing, but never not interesting. We become obsessed with things, and these obsessions taking over our entire culture...and often common sense dies a slow, sad death along the way.

A lot of this novel — including an interminable 100 pages in the middle that's a transcript of a movie made up of a number of clips all about Curios —is about "Curio culture." Belt participated in a sort of pet-therapy experiment when he was a kid to try to help him with his mental issues. He became one of the first Curio owners, before they exploded in popularity and are used for everything from a club drug (you boil their bones and extract their marrow and it gets ya high!) to entertainment. 

And again, to tell this story, we get numerous digressions and expositions and page-long jokes, etc. These are almost always entertaining...except when they're not. And that's really the rub: A lot of this is massively fun, super smart, and frankly, awe-inspiring. But when it's not, it's frustrating and annoying as hell. 

So I could spend several more paragraphs telling you about some more of this plot but you'll probably decide to read this based on how willing you are to accept a certain degree of aggravation in your novels. If your answer to that is "zero aggravation," then this probably isn't the book for you. But if, like in some of DFW's work, you go into this knowing not every digression or two-page-long tangent will totally work, but many will, and the good outweighs the bad, then give Mr. Levin a try here. Hey, if nothing else, the cover is scratch-and-sniff, and literally smells like bubblegum. So that's fun! 


Tuesday, May 26, 2020

Hollywood Park: Abuse, Addiction, Stardom...Oh, and a Cult

In a scene midway through Hollywood Park, Mikel Jollett's incredible memoir, Mikel and his father are at the eponymous Hollywood Park horse racetrack. Mikel is 13 years old, has just been in a really bad accident, and has had some issues with acting out, drugs, and alcohol. His father, a former addict and drug dealer, who has gotten his life back together, quietly, in a moment of rare earnestness, tells Mikel, "Don't fuck it up. Don't do what I did. Do something better."

This sounds simple, and almost cliché, but it's so powerful given what's come before. It's one of my favorite moments in this memoir chock full of moments while reading I had to put the book down for a minute, just to make sure I absorbed. 

To put it bluntly: This book is so damn good — my favorite read of the year. It's as well-written, heart-wrenching, intelligent, and just downright entertaining as anything I've read in a long time. 

Mikel's childhood was, in a word, tough. Let's start with the cult: He and his older brother Tony are born into they Synanon cult, which began in the late 1950s as a sort of alternative drug rehabilitation organization. This is what drew Mikel's parents in the mid-1970s. But the mid-1970s were also when the organization morphed into something much more nefarious, as cults are wont to do. Mikel and his brother were separated from their parents and raised in an orphanage, until when Mikel was six years old, his mother decided to leave and broke them out. He didn't really know his mother at the time, or really even understand the concept of "parent."

From there, after witnessing a horrific incident of violence, his mother, brother, and him move to rainy, depressing Salem, Oregon, where they live in poverty. His mother's new partner Paul is a recovering alcoholic who has occasional relapses, disappearing for days at a time. They raise rabbits in their backyard as a source of food, and when young Mikel is forced to help slaughter them for their stew, it's just another in a long line of childhood traumas that inflict long-term psychologically damage. 

Meanwhile, Mikel's father is living in Los Angeles, and Mikel and Tony go visit him during the summers. There, they live it up — they idolize their father, a real man's man, who buys them dirt bikes, lets them eat whatever they want, and teaches them about life. Hollywood Park is not just the title of the memoir. For Mikel, it's also a symbol of his coming of age. It's where he learns his big life lessons from his dad, like the one in the scene above. And so that place becomes a symbol writ large of his father as well. 

As Mikel's eyes are more opened to the world, he begins to come to some realizations about his life with his mother and how she treats him and his brother. He doesn't, of course, understand subtle emotional abuse or mental illness as a child, but as he grows up, and later in life when he sees a therapist, his mother's constant guilt trips and neediness begin to make sense. As well, he's warned throughout his childhood that the disease of addiction runs in his family, and he should be vigilant. But he's not, and he's drinking and smoking and doing drugs as young as age 11, a path his older brother had blazed before him.  

But Mikel has a secret weapon. As he grows up, he becomes ever more introspective and self-aware -- and the book becomes more fascinating in how he addresses his past issues, his mother's emotional abuse, and his father's and brother's addictions. All these affect his adult life in numerous ways, from his relationships with women (which he knows are unhealthy) to his constant feelings of loneliness, self-loathing, and inadequacy — you know, the inspirations for a lot of really great songs. 

So then there is some stuff about rock and roll. I waited until now to mention this so as not to color your perception of this memoir if you didn't previously know who Mickel Jollett is. He's the frontman of the indie rock band the Airborne Toxic Event. In his pre-band 20s, he spent time as a rock journalist — even interviewing his idols David Bowie and Robert Smith. This helped set him on his own path to becoming a rock star (and yes, we finally learn about the real inspiration behind Sometime Around Midnight). 

But again, this book is not a "sex, drugs, and rock and roll" memoir. It's almost entirely about his childhood and teen years. This is going to sound strange, but the closest proxy I could think of to this book is Angela's Ashes — both are brilliantly sad memoirs with flashes of levity and an immense amount of underlying wisdom. I'd fully recommend this to anyone, even if you've never heard of, don't care about, or don't even like the Airborne Toxic Event. But keep the tissues nearby. 

(The Airborne Toxic Event released a companion album last week, also called Hollywood Park - their first in five years. It's also spectacular.)

Tuesday, May 5, 2020

Fast Girl: Olympic Runner Turned Vegas Call-Girl

This book is absolutely bonkers! It has everything: sports and sex, mental health issues and marital stress, and salacious details about the seedy underbelly of the seediest city in the US: Las Vegas. I'm late to this book (and apparently a lot of people know this story, so forgive my wide-eyed fascination) — it came out in 2015 — but I'm sure glad I found it now, because I was absolutely riveted. I could not put it down. It's such a fascinating, sad, infuriating, hopeful, but ultimately brave story.

Fast Girl (terrific title, too!) is Suzy Favor Hamilton's memoir about her success as a runner, her struggle with depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder, and her time as a high-priced Las Vegas escort. And again, regarding the latter, there is no skimping on details.

Favor Hamilton grew up in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, and went to the University of Wisconsin, a highly sought-after middle-distance runner. She was a superstar as Badger, shattering records, winning NCAA championships, and launching an extremely promising running career. But all the while, she suffered from a crushing anxiety, afraid she'd let down her family and friends if she failed. She also developed an eating disorder and suffered from body-image issues — she never felt like she "looked" like a runner, and even though she almost never lost, that affected her self-esteem, even as a top-tier athlete.

At Wisconsin, she also meets her husband, Mark Hamilton, who she marries soon after graduation. With her all-American good looks and bubbly personality, she earns several lucrative endorsements as a professional runner (probably most recognizably a famous 2000 Nike commercial), and makes the Olympics in 1992, 1996, and 2000. The mile race in 2000 in Sydney is sort of the turning point of her career. In her first two Olympics, she'd hadn't qualified for a final, but in 2000, she's the favorite in the mile. And in the final, she's leading a good part of the race, including around the last turn...but then she just collapses. Literally. A runner passes her, then another, and she just goes down. She admits for the first time in this book she wasn't injured. She did it on purpose because she realized she wouldn't win. You can watch the race here. It's so heart-breaking.

But that's only about the third-most shocking revelation in this memoir. After the Olympics, she returns to Wisconsin with her husband, hangs on for a few more years as a professional runner, but then retires. She and her husband have a child, start a real estate company, and settle into normal life.

But she hates it, this normal life, and she continues to struggle with what she thinks is depression, even threatening suicide more than once. Her life and her marriage are miserable and unravelling quickly, and something has to change. So for their 20th wedding anniversary, hoping to spice things up, she suggests a trip to Vegas, complete with skydiving...and wait for it...a threesome with a female escort!

It's amazing! The best experience of her life! And she realizes she needs more like that — she returns to Vegas several more times by herself, always with her husband's blessing, for weekend trysts. Soon, she realizes it'd be much better to actually get paid for sex, rather than paying for sex or picking up strangers at bars. So she hooks up with an escort service, learns her craft, and quickly rises to the second-most in-demand call-girl in Las Vegas.

All the while — and again, she's not hiding any of this from Mark, keeping him in the loop with his tacit approval — she and Mark's biggest fear is that someone will find out who she really is, and it'll blow up their quiet Wisconsin lives. She's living this double-life and mostly keeping her real life as a former pro runner, wife, mother, and motivational speaker separate from her life of thousand-dollar meals and gifts as a call girl. But, inevitably, it all comes crashing down in spectacular fashion.

Not long after she's outed, she's finally diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Her life as the call girl was her manic high, and her back-home life in Wisconsin was her depressed low. She is able to finally get treatment with therapy and pharmaceuticals, and though it wasn't easy, she's been able to maintain a modicum of health. These days, she is still doing motivational speaking gigs about mental health and living in California with her husband (who amazingly has stuck by her through all this).

I read this in just a few sittings — it's a book I couldn't stop thinking about when I wasn't reading, and never wanted to stop reading when I was. Frankly, the writing here isn't terrific, but it wasn't bad enough to distract me from how amazing this story is. If you already know her story, but haven't read this book, you have to. It's amazing. I picked this up because I was desperate for a running book, and it is that partially, but I was just floored to learn how much more there is here. Amazing.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

In The Land Of Men: Dating David Foster Wallace During the Golden Age of Magazines

Adrienne Miller had the toughest easiest dream job ever: She was the fiction editor for Esquire in the late 1990s, which I don't know about you, but I think that sounds awesome. The late 1990s were the last gasp of the golden age of print magazines, but also the last hold out for the 'ol boys club that was the magazine industry. And nowhere exemplified that more than Esquire, the long-time publisher of dudes like Norman Mailer and John Updike, not exactly known for their progressive stances on women.

In the Land of Men is Miller's memoir of her time first at GQ, then at Esquire. It's really two books in one — the first half is about her career in the magazine field, and it's fascinating. But then the bomb: She meets, forms a friendship, and then begins dating the one and only, the mercurial, the brilliant David Foster Wallace. 

Miller discusses the first time she met DFW, at the launch party for Infinite Jest, which, just reading that bit made quake with jealousy. But then, seemingly overwhelmed by all the attention, he sort of snubs her and her boss, and she thinks he's kind of a jerk. But soon, she and DFW begin working together on a story, and he calls her (he doesn't do email) all the time, even during non-work hours. Their conversations quickly crossover from the practicalities of editing his story to the more personal.

He's living in Bloomington, Illinois, at the time, but comes to NYC periodically for publishing things, and they make a "date" for the next time he's there. They're supposed to play tennis, but the courts are booked solid, so they just walk and talk and have a picnic. He's supposed to go to a dinner that night, and asks her to come with him back to his hotel room to hang out while he gets ready. Then, one of my absolute favorite details of the whole book: He's showering and leaves the door half open, which she thinks is odd. But then she writes that he tells her later he did that because he was hoping she'd join him in the shower. Ah, the male mind: Infinitely optimistic, against all reason. 

So their relationship continues, long-distance and once-in-awhile-in-person. She likes him, despite his insecurity and his penchant for being distant and emotionally detached (and sometimes even cruel). He genuinely respects her as a reader and editor — which she doesn't get quite often as a young woman in a male-dominated field. (There is a lot in this memoir about the horrendous sexism she had to deal with. It's really saddening.) But because she's unwilling to move to Bloomington and he's unwilling to move to New York City, their relationship begins fading, and then bombs out in dramatic fashion.

When this book first crossed my radar (it came out earlier this year), and I realized it's a memoir about magazine editing, with new details about David Foster Wallace, my first thought was "Wow! This might be the perfect book for me." I wouldn't say it was a perfect reading experience — Miller is a good writer, but man, there are a lot of darlings here that should've been murdered (what's the saying about how editors never follow their own advice when they're writing themselves). But I thoroughly enjoyed this book. Though you take most of the insight into DFW with a grain of salt, it's still a fascinating new angle.

Tuesday, April 28, 2020

Your House Will Pay: Race and Justice in Modern Los Angeles

The overwhelming sentiment regarding Steph Cha's fantastic literary thriller Your House Will Pay about race and justice in modern Los Angeles is "Why isn't this novel a HUGE hit?!" That's what two booksellers I work with have said, and it's the reason I picked it up....and they're right! This novel should be a smash, and maybe it still will be, but it's definitely flying under the radar right now.

Though it has only 2,600 ratings on Goodreads (that's a tiny number for a book with as much pre-pub buzz as this one had), it still has an impressive 4.1 average rating. It also recently won the Los Angeles Times 2020 Book Prize for best Thriller. Hopefully that's a sign that this book is starting to gain momentum. (It was published in October, 2019.)

With commentary on police violence, racism, Black Lives Matter, viral videos, and more, it's a novel of our times, for sure. But it's based on an actual crime that happened in 1991 — except, to tell you what that is gives away a major plot point you should read to discover yourself.

The first scene in the novel, though, is a riot due to a Los Angeles movie theater showing New Jack City denying entry to some African Americans who had already bought tickets. This, which mirrors real-life violence around the movie's opening, was only a few days after the widely viewed Rodney King beating, so tensions were already high.

Then, we fast-forward to modern Los Angeles, and the story of two families, one Korean, one African American. Grace Park is 27, a pharmacist at her family's store, and still living at home. Grace is fairly sheltered, so when the big reveal of the novel happens, she's not really equipped to deal with everything that happens as a result.

Shawn, however, present as a 12-year-old kid at the opening 1991 riot scene, is picking up his cousin Ray from jail — Ray's just finished a 10-year stint. Shawn is a former gangster himself, but has gotten his life together, and now lives with his girlfriend and her young daughter. Shawn has helped raise Ray's two kids while he was in jail, as well.

The fates of these two families will soon collide in the present, just as they did in the past. The collision, then as now, is because of an act of violence. And Cha deals skillfully with all the moral complexity presented in the conflict between these two families.

Despite covering 28 years, this is a taut, tense thriller. There is certainly a lot going on here, but Cha deftly handles these several threads of story, weaving them into a ball seething with racial tension, family strife, and so much more. Highly recommended!

Thursday, April 23, 2020

Ducks, Newburyport: The Most Unique Novel I've Ever Read

Well, this sure was a doozy -- though of course that was fully expected. I picked up Ducks, Newburyport, by Lucy Ellmann, a thousand-plus-page, dense-as-hell, stream-of-consciousness experimental novel, with full knowledge of what I was in for. Still, 50 pages in, my only thought was "Wow, is she really going to keep this up for another 950 pages?" And she did! But once I found my footing, I thoroughly enjoyed every word. It's the most unique thing I've ever read, and every ounce of effort I put into this book was rewarded.

See, books teach you how to read them. And for this book, learning how to read it early on is crucial. Soon, once you find your rhythm, and realize each "the fact that" is the start of a new "sentence," your mind starts conflating that phrase with a break, and pretty soon, you just blur right past it and read like normal. Also, for me, it was important to take this book in slow gulps, only a few pages at a time. I just did my best to concentrate and not space out, and when I found myself starting to space out, that's when I knew it was time to put it down for the day. You have to be in the right mind to read this book. I did best when I was well caffeinated. All this is basically why it took me more than two months to read. But also one of the reasons I enjoyed it, and now miss my daily 20 pages or so.

So what is this thing, exactly? Essentially, it's a thousand pages of musings and word associations narrated by an Ohio housewife who is busy baking pies. She offers thoughts on pollution in rivers, Trump's narcissism, her kids, her mother's illness, her own illness, Ohio history, her childhood, her husband who is an engineer for bridges, and about a million other things. Along the way, periodically, micro-stories emerge — she gets stranded with a flat tire on a very cold day, there's a MAGA guy named Ronny who delivers her chicken feed who constantly makes her nervous, her oldest daughter briefly runs away from home. And there are many more. And about every 100 pages or so, there's a short snippet of story about a mountain lion roaming around Ohio — this story eventually intersects with the main story, too.

So why read this wall of words? Why "torture" myself? The hipster in me would say I've always enjoyed difficult, against-the-grain novels — it gives you a sense of accomplishment (and superiority?), etc. But I wanted to read this because it was just so different. Many reviewers have pointed out that it's a near-perfect finger-on-the-pulse-of-our-modern-times. And that's certainly true, too.

If you're up for a challenge, give it a try. But understand you're going to need some patience. This won't be a book you fly through in a week. Just relax and enjoy it for what it is.

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

Last Couple Standing: How (Not) To Save a Marriage?

All your friends are getting divorced. You want to prevent a similar fate from befalling your own marriage. So what do you do? Naturally, you start sleeping with other people! Makes perfect sense! You want to "inoculate" your marriage against infidelity, so you go ahead and preemptively inject it with the cheating "vaccine."  (I may be watching waaaaay too much CNN these days.)

Committing adultery to save a marriage may sound crazy, but it sure makes for a great novel. Matthew Norman's fantastic new literary rom-com, Last Couple Standing, is about Jessica and Mitch, an early-40s suburban Baltimore couple with two kids — as average as average can be. But they're reeling from the fact that their three best-couple-friends (best-friend-couples?), with whom they've been close since college, have all recently split. So Jessica and Mitch take a serious look at their own ostensibly happy marriage to try to head off divorce at the pass.

What they decide is that wanting to have sex with other people, but not being able to, but then doing it anyway, is what breaks a marriage. So they come up with an agreement with some very specific rules that will allow them to pursue objects of their individual affections without blowing up their happy marriage.

Think about that Seinfeld episode where Jerry and Elaine come up with rules to sleep with each other, but remain friends. This is a little like that. But then cue Costanza, as the voice of reason: "Where are you living? Are you here? Are you on this planet? It's impossible. It can't be done. Thousands of years people have been trying to have their cake and eat it too. So all of a sudden the two of you are going to come along and do it. Where do you get the ego? No one can do it. It can't be done."

So, yep, naturally things go a bit awry. The couple consummate their new agreement to varying degrees of success...and failure...and hilarity. As jealousy and bad feelings begin to emerge, the question becomes: Will this treatment be successful? Or will the attempt at prevention accelerate the disease?

This is a really funny novel — a hip, hilarious tale of contemporary marriage; another terrific entry into the "dude lit with heart" genre. And, for what it's worth, the last scene of this novel is one of the funniest I've read in a long time.

One of things I appreciated most about this novel is that it departs from the standard "sad, self-deprecating guy" as the narrator that seems to be the storytelling mode for a majority of dude lit. Don't get me wrong, I like that, too, but it was nice to see a different approach here. If you've read and enjoyed writers like Jonathan Tropper, Nick Hornby, or Norman's first two novels, Domestic Violets and We're All Damaged, you will love this too.

Thursday, March 26, 2020

5 Comfort Reads in the Time of Coronavirus

Crazy times, friends. Crazy times. Thankfully, we have books. The other day, I found myself just spacing out staring at my shelves for a good several minutes. It was really calming. As is reading itself. Whether you're reading to escape from the awful hellscape of the outside world or just to fill a few idle hours, reading is surely one of the best ways to cope with this horrific crisis. Here are a few suggestions for novels that may help you do that:



5. This Is Where I Leave You, by Jonathan Tropper — Yes, staying home sucks. However, this novel is about how funny it can be to be stuck with your family.

4. Gilead, by Marilynn Robinson — Quiet, poetic, and peaceful. I can't think of a more soothing novel to read (or reread, as I just may do now) than this slim, beautifully written series of musings about life and death, connection, family, what makes a good person, and so much more. It's "remarkable to consider" how comforting this novel could be these days.

3. The Brothers K, by David James Duncan — Today's supposed to be Opening Day for baseball, and I already miss baseball just about as much as any part of normal, non-virus life. So if you miss baseball too, why not check out not just one of my favorite all-time baseball novels, but one of favorite novels of all time, period. This long family saga is so engrossing you won't even realize you're reading for long swaths of time. (Also, if you want some suggestions for some more baseball novels, here's a Book Riot post I did a few years ago. And more recently, Emily Nemens' The Cactus League is great.)

2. The Luminaries, by Eleanor Catton — Okay, hear me out on this one. You need to be distracted, possibly for a long time. You need to focus your brain on something besides what's going on beyond your front door. This book is 850 pages, requires a vast amount of mental energy, and really is pretty spellbinding in how the plot unfolds. So, it's a perfect quarantine comfort read! And it's rewarding, for sure — though, like any difficult novel, you get out of it what you put into it. (If you want some help, I wrote a summary of each chapter as I was reading to keep track of this knotted plot. Enjoy!)

1. Wanderers, by Chuck Wendig —You want a pandemic story? THIS is the pandemic story to read. Everything is wretched right now, but boy, it could be so much worse.


Thursday, March 5, 2020

Doctor Zhivago and The Secrets We Kept: A Spy Story about a "Love" Story

Doctor Zhivago is considered by many to be the greatest love story of the 20th century. But is it? IS IT REALLY? I plowed through this 700-page beast over the course of about a month (it's THE definition of a winter read), and was actually a little surprised at how unimpressive the love story really is. And on the whole, I wasn't a fan of the novel itself either. It's confusing, the whole plot relies on some outrageous coincidences, and it's way way way way too long. I know, I know: Steer clear of Russian literature if you want brevity. But I normally like these crazy-long Russian books (mostly — see, War and Peace). Really, they're more fun to write about than they are to read.


But so, the reason I read Zhivago, beyond just the goal of reading more classics and more novels in translation this year, is because I wanted to know why it was so controversial...and also I was really intrigued by Lara Prescott's novel, The Secrets We Kept. Her novel is the story of how Zhivago came to be published after it was banned in the Soviet Union. It's also the story of how Zhivago's author, Boris Pasternak, was threatened with...well, all the things Soviets who ran afoul of the State in the 1950s were threatened with.

But why was Zhivago so controversial in Soviet Russia? Apparently, simply because it pointed out how everything wasn't perfect. Zhivago struggles to find food, protect his family, and condemns the October Revolution, much to the chagrin of the State, in which no one could possibly be struggling to the degree he is. For me, the doomed love of Yuri and Lara was waaaay less interesting than learning more about World War I, the Russian Revolution, shady lawyers, and double-agent revolutionaries who give up and blow their brains out. So there definitely was some intrigue in Zhivago, and those parts I really enjoyed.

Similarly, I enjoyed much of Prescott's novel, but on the whole, I thought it suffered from some of the same issues as Zhivago: Prescott just bit off more than she could chew here. The Secrets We Kept tells the story of secretaries in the CIA typing pool, spies, Pasternak's mistress (the inspiration for Lara), and much more. Each section is told from one of these perspectives and Prescott has to do some literary acrobatics to keep this going in a way that makes sense. The novel may have been much more successful with a different structure or type of narrator.

So while each of these reads were just lukewarm for me, the experience of reading them together was actually terrific — the whole experience being greater than the sum of its parts.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Apeirogon: A Countably Infinite Number of Sides to Every Story

Colum McCann's new novel Apeirogon is certainly ambitious. It's a novel told in 1,001 sections, each sometimes a few pages, sometimes a single sentence. In total, it's a novel about mathematics, music, silence, water, borders, birds, violence, grief, peace, and about a hundred other things.

But to back up and clear up the first question: An apeirogon is a shape with a "countably infinite number of sides" — essentially what appears to be a circle. (If "countably infinite" sounds like an oxymoron to you too, well, you also must've missed that day in advanced geometry.)

But beyond the literary calculus, there is also a pretty fascinating story here: It's about an Israeli man named Rami and a Palestinian man named Bassam who both have lost daughters to violence. These men are real people, as McCann tells us in his author's note. He further explains that Rami and Bassam have allowed him "to shape and reshape their words and worlds," which of course is necessary for a novel, but also a little unsettling as that's then always in the back of our minds: "What here is real?"

For that reason, for me, the best part of this nearly 500 page novel is the 30 page section right in the middle when McCann lets Rami and Bassam tell their stories in their own words. These two parts, one for each man, presumably resemble the lectures these men are traveling around the world to give, to show how peace and friendship can evolve from even the worst circumstances. They're riveting. And heart-breaking. But ultimately hopeful.

So, what is McCann really up to here? Why go to these lengths to craft such a structure around the tragic stories of these two men? Wouldn't something simpler resonate better? My take is that what he's trying to do is create an apeirogon of words, to show the "countably infinite" sides and influences and provocations to every story. And as is often the case in novels such as these, he's also trying to show how all these parts are connected. What matters is how each part is connected to others and how each part contributes to the whole. Stories don't have convenient beginnings and endings or parts that conveniently fit together in a linear timeline.

All this literary flair may or may not work for you. For me, it didn't, exactly. So much of this feels superfluous. What's more, it's a novel that's so self-assured it also suffers from a problem of pride: Yes, it's really, really proud of itself. So while I completely respect the craft and talent here, I'd put this novel in the same category as George Saunders's Lincoln In The Bardo and Ta-Nehisi Coates's The Water Dancer: A novel you appreciate more than you actually enjoy reading.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

Long Bright River: Gritty, Gutty Crime Thriller

Liz Moore's new gritty crime novel Long Bright River includes two mysteries for the price of one. First, someone is killing young, heroin-addicted women and leaving their bodies on train tracks. Secondly, Philadelphia police office Mickey, a life-long resident of Philly's hard-scrabble Kensington neighborhood, can't find her younger sister, Kacey, who also happens to be a young, heroin-addicted woman. Are the two mysteries related? Mickey, and we the reader, are terrified they might be.

Moore propels us along at breakneck speed as we alternate between past and present to look for clues to both mysteries. In real-time, Mickey is a cop and single mother trying to raise a young son. She tangles with her supervisor, who she suspects may be corrupt, and harbors a burgeoning crush on her former partner who is laid up with an injury. Mickey is an utterly fascinating character — slightly neurotic but with a tough-as-hell, me-against-the-world attitude. You can't help but root for her.

The past sections tell us about Mickey's and Kacey's childhood. She and Kacey were extremely close as they grew up, raised by their grandmother after their mother died from a drug overdose and their dad bailed on them. But then their paths diverged dramatically. Mickey (her given name is Michaela) is a bookish introvert most of her teenage years, while her younger sister acts out and gets into drugs and other illicit behavior at a pretty young age.

So that's the origin story for Kacey's battle with drug addiction. As she navigates her teen years, she has good periods, but mostly bad. And for the last several years, as the past sections catch up to the present, it's been one particularly bad stretch. The two sisters are not even in communication any more. But Mickey's duties as a police officer had allowed her to keep an on eye on Kacey, seeing her and her fellow "street walkers" out and about...until now. She's just vanished, and Mickey worries every time a call comes in about another overdose or another found body, she'll arrive to find that it's Kacey.

Moore expertly places us onto the drug-addled Philly streets, into flop houses and "abandos" where heroin addiction is a matter of course, just the reality of life. For that reason, this isn't always an easy read. But it's one that moves along extremely quickly — and there are a lot of surprises, secrets revealed, and twists and turns along the way.

I don't read much crime fiction, but I picked this one up because I'd heard it has a decidedly more literary bent, and because it's one of the early hits of 2020. Outside of a few minor plot holes and coincidences that sort of stretch believability, I really enjoyed this. I read about three-quarters of it on two plane rides — and it was absolutely perfect as plane-read. I looked up bleary-eyedly to be surprised to discover we were landing. Three hours had flown by in what felt like 30 seconds.

Friday, February 7, 2020

Everywhere You Don't Belong: Coming of Age in Sweet Home Chicago

My experience growing up was quite literally the exact opposite of that of the character Claude in Gabriel Bump's funny, sharp, and tragic debut novel, Everywhere You Don't Belong. I grew up in a pleasant small town in Ohio with a supportive family and no real problems. Still, I moved to a big city the first chance I got. Conversely, Claude's parents abandon him when he's young and he's raised by his grandmother in the at-times rough South Shore neighborhood of Chicago. He moves to a small college town (Columbia, Missouri) the first chance he gets. (Bump also grew up in South Shore, a neighborhood probably most famous as Michelle Obama's home, as well.)

So it's a tribute to Bump (and maybe more than a little presumptuous on my part to say) how relatable Claude felt. He's an introvert. He's awkward around girls specifically, but people generally. He likes to read. And he wants to be a journalist. Everywhere You Don't Belong is the story of Claude's coming-of-age as a boy and teenager in South Shore, surviving a horrific race riot after the police kill a black man, crushing on his long-time family friend Janice who is beautiful but gets in some trouble, and finally realizing he needs to leave Chicago and matriculates to the University of Missouri.

Bump packs a lot into this deceptively simple, fast-paced story. It's about racism. There's a bit of an unconventional first-love story. There is a careful consideration of mental health in the African American community. There are jocks and nerds. An old possibly alcoholic gay man named Paul who keeps hilariously trying to avenge perceived slights. Drugs. Gangs. More.

But possibly the biggest strength of this slim but powerful novel is its voice. It's alternately funny and dead serious, but with a subtlety that really requires you to pay attention to catch both the profundity, and also the humor. Here's an exchange between teenaged Claude and his crush Janice that illustrates this:

"Your grandma came to my house yesterday," Janice said.
"She's going around the neighborhood," I said.
"She's a little wild," Janice said.

"I'm sorry," I said. "She's worried about the future."
"I like it," Janice said. "She screamed a little."
"I'm sorry," I said again.
"They want to organize a march," Janice said.
"I'm sorry," I said.
"They want to take back the streets," Janice said.

There's so much to unpack here — it's funny, it's sad, it's a little cringe-worthy. Poor Claude is so awkward! But this is representative of many of the quick-fire snippets of dialogue throughout the novel I really loved.

Bump is getting the "arrival of a brilliant young talent" blurb treatment, a sentiment which is somewhat overused, but in this case perfectly apt. This is one Chicago writer for whom I can't wait to see what's next. I pealed through this book so quickly, I'm desperate for more of this voice! This book is highly recommended both as a terrific reading experience, and also to get in on the ground floor of a writer from whom you'll no doubt be hearing lots more.

Tuesday, February 4, 2020

The Cactus League: A Great American Novel About Baseball, But Also Life

If you're like me, and you believe baseball to be a near-perfect metaphor for life, then you'll love Emily Nemens' new novel, The Cactus League. Baseball, as does life, has its own rhythm and flow: time moves at its own pace. That's why a workday seems interminable, but your week of vacation seems to fly by in a blink. Similarly, when a setup man can't find the strike zone in the bottom of the 8th inning, you feel like time is crawling. But a a three-run, bottom-of the ninth rally zooms by like lightning. Time flies when you're having fun, they say. And time certainly flew as I read this terrific novel.

Nemens's novel is a series of character-driven vignettes, all intersecting and centering on a star left-fielder named Jason Goodyear who is careening towards rock bottom. The structure makes the novel feel like a mashup of Winesburg, Ohio and Philip Roth's goofy baseball book, The Great American Novel. I mean that as a high compliment.

Goodyear is personable and focused, but has developed a nasty gambling addiction. His wife has left him and he's living in a shed at the new spring training home of his team, the Los Angeles Lions. Each chapter gives us a new character who has some sort of relationship with Jason — a minor league hitting coach, his shady agent (who is right out of central casting for "shady agent," and was one of my favorite characters), a pitcher coming off Tommy John surgery, the African American (possibly gay) part owner of the team, the players' wives, and a "cleat chaser" named Tami who enjoys a memorable evening with Jason at Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin School (which I learned about for the first time, but then learned is closing almost simultaneously).

Portraying such a large swath of humanity gives Nemens the opportunity to illustrate another way baseball is a metaphor for life: The eternal struggle between the haves and the have-nots. It's heartbreaking to see the kid with the bum elbow do whatever he can for one more summer of glory in the sun. It's awful to see a drug-addicted mother, who works at the baseball stadium surrounded by millions of dollars, mistreat her young son. And it's wistful to watch the aging organist for whom technology has all but rendered obsolete cross paths with the up-and-coming bonus baby (even as he's struggling, too).

My favorite part of this novel, however, is just the baseball. Nemens REALLY knows baseball. She gets this right. It's almost entirely real, accurate, and authentic — which is almost never the case in baseball novels. As well, while the Lions are of course fictional, Nemens name drops plenty of real major leaguers, past and present. Pete Rose is referenced several times (a must for a novel in which the main character has a gambling addiction, because "Charlie Hustle knows plenty about Rule 21."). The agent has a dog named Kirby Puckett, which is both hilarious, and maybe slightly disrespectful (Kirby Puckett was the agent's first client, and so that's his way of honoring him.) And Jason Goodyear is the first player to have a shoe named after him since Ken Griffey, Jr.

I blew through this book in just a couple sittings. A few minor complaints aside, it's a terrific read — the best baseball novel I've read since The Art of Fielding. It was a perfect way to tide myself over until the actual Cactus League kicks off in a few weeks.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020

The Education of an Idealist: The Fascinating Life of Samantha Power

Samantha Power is a pretty impressive human. She's an immigrant, a journalist, a Pulitzer-winning writer for a book on genocide, and a diplomat who reached the pinnacle of her profession as President Obama's ambassador to the United Nations. It's not a surprise, then, that a life this fascinating translates to an equally fascinating memoir. The Education of An Idealist is Power's chronicle of her life (so far...she's only 49 years old!), and it's as inspiring as it is engaging.

Power, born in Ireland, emigrated to the US when she was nine, partly to escape her alcoholic father. But this wasn't an Angela's Ashes-like story — her father was never abusive, and in fact, she has fond memories of being plopped down in the pub to read for hours while her father drank and held court. But her mother, had had enough, began a relationship with another man, and went with him to Pittsburgh.

Power worked hard, went to Yale, and began working for an NGO after college. Horrified by the atrocities of the wars in the former Yugoslavia republic, she forged a letter from a magazine editor to gain press credentials, and went to Bosnia to cover the genocide occurring there.

She came back, went to Harvard Law school, and began writing a book, A Problem From Hell, about the history of genocide, which won the Pulitzer in 2003. In 2005, she met then-Senator Barack Obama, and joined his staff as a foreign policy advisor. But she was immediately turned off by the "politics of politics" — that even in a progressive senator's office, there was still largely an "old boy's club" atmosphere, and she still suffered people talking behind her back, diminishing her contributions and expertise because of her gender.

Still, when Obama won the presidency in 2008, she joins his administration, first working in the national security council, then as the UN Ambassador. She deals with crises as wide-ranging and potentially devastating as Ebola to the Syrian leader using chemical weapons on his own people.

One thing that really struck me and has stuck with about this terrific memoir is learning how deliberative monumental decisions really are. When Obama was trying to determine whether to order airstrikes agains Assad, Power and the rest of his team, often with vastly differing views, and often with heated arguments, took painstaking measure to consider every angle — legal, humanitarian, political, etc. — of the impacts of this decision. That level of consideration and mental effort (and acuity) into decisions certainly doesn't seem to be the case anymore, and that's tragic.

The story ends, as all these Obama administration memoirs do, on an impossibly sad note. Power and her colleagues must leave government and make way for the new administration, knowing full well these people are about to undo all the progress they'd made. But reading Power's story is truly inspiring. As you'd expect from a Pulitzer-winner, she's a gifted writer, and this alternately reads like a thriller, a detailed policy paper, and a "how the sausage is made" look at government. It's a long book — one of the longer memoirs I've ever read, at over 500 pages — but worth every word. Highly recommended!

Tuesday, January 21, 2020

American Dirt: The Plight of the Migrant

A roiling, contentious debate is swirling around Jeanine Cummins' new novel, American Dirt, about a group of migrants struggling to make it to the U.S.

On one hand, a majority of readers, me included, have loved it. It's a spectacular read — as pulse-pounding, affecting, devastating, and simply unputdownable as anything I've read in awhile. At least two readers I've talked to have said, pausing to point out they're not exaggerating, that it's one of the best books they've ever read. It has a preposterously high rating on Goodreads, and it is certainly poised to be a huge bestseller. So yes, the consensus so far is that this is a fantastic novel.

On the other hand, a small but growing cadre of readers, led mainly by critics and other writers, are denouncing it, often ferociously and scathingly, for two main reasons.

The first and most important reason is that the book is inauthentic, and therefore fatally flawed, say these critics. They claim that Cummins, who is white, has mis-rendered Mexican and migrant culture. They have called the novel everything from "non-mexican crap" to accusing it of cultural appropriation. One writer even said the intent of the novel is "to make white people feel good for having read it."

Regarding the charge of inaccuracy in how it portrays Mexican culture and language, I'm certainly not qualified to comment. Lauren Groff also makes this point in her review of the novel. But it's massively important to understand that if Mexican and Latinx people feel they've been rendered wrongly, they absolutely deserve to have their voices heard and considered when readers are determining whether to read this novel.

Regarding the intent of the novel making white people feel good, well, that and sentiments like it, are just obviously not true. I know what this writer meant, approximately, and I'm sure she is exaggerating a bit out of frustration, but comments like that aren't helpful to the discussion. While I  enjoyed reading the novel, I certainly didn't "feel good" for having read it. I felt awful. Embarrassed. Despaired. How is it possible that I live in a country that treats people this way? What can I do to help? (On her website, Cummins includes a list of charities and organizations to which you can donate to help migrants, if you so choose. Please do, if you can.)

Cummins actually makes clear her intent in an author note at the end. She says her goal is to give voice to migrants, to remind us that "these people are people" rather than a "helpless, impoverished, faceless brown mass." The psychology theory of the "identifiable victim effect" tells us that when we view individual people and their trauma, we're more likely to be willing to help, than if we just hear about nameless, faceless "masses" in news stories. I think this book does give migrants a face, even if the identifiable victims here are fictional. So shouldn't there be value in that? Shouldn't we allow the good in place of the perfect?

The second and probably less important reason the novel is drawing some ire is that it's just not a well-written book, and therefore doesn't deserve it's soon-to-be popularity. This was essentially the argument in this review by critic Parul Sehgal in the NY Times. Speaking of intentions, Sehgal contends the novel has good ones ("the motives may be unimpeachable"), but that doesn't save it from Cummins' poor execution. "The real failures of the book, however, have little to do with the writer’s identity and everything to do with her abilities as a novelist." Ouch! Reasonable minds can disagree here, but this charge is again coming mostly from critics and other writers. You know how people often call an author "a writer's writer" as a way of complimenting her/him for, I don't know, doing things with prose we plebeian readers couldn't possibly understand? Cummins is accused here of the opposite. This happened when The Goldfinch blew up, too — there was a vocal minority who claimed it was complete crap. Personally, I was enjoying American Dirt way too much to stop and parse the effectiveness and beauty of every metaphor.

But so, that's a very long introduction to the novel itself. What actually is this book? American Dirt is about the journey of a Mexican woman named Lydia, and her 8-year-old son, Luca, from Acapulco to el norte. In the heart-stopping opening scene, Lydia and Luca flee their home after 16 members of their family are murdered by a drug cartel during a quinceañera party. They escape by hiding in the bathtub and then going on the lam, first to Mexico City and then, when they realize they have no other options that don't put them in danger, as migrants. Along the way, they meet a cast of characters, some become friends and companions, like the teenage sisters Soledad and Rebeca, who are escaping their own hell in Honduras. But some are pure evil. Lydia never knows who'll help — and some people do at their own risk, allowing her to hide in their sheds or giving her money and food — and who'll try to kidnap or kill them, or worse.

American Dirt is a thriller with the heart of literary fiction...or maybe vice versa. It's a mesmerizing, propulsive read from which I simply couldn't look away. Cummins is a master here at building and releasing tension. Even Sehgal begrudgingly admits the novel is pretty good as a thriller, even as she can't resist another quick shot at Cummins: "The tortured sentences aside, 'American Dirt' is enviably easy to read." She's right, I flew through this, and maybe that's why I didn't notice her so-called tortured sentences. I was riveted, horrified, saddened, but I couldn't stop reading. I loved it.

Tuesday, January 7, 2020

Such A Fun Age: Class, Race, and Privilege

Novels about class and race shouldn't be allowed to be as cool and readable as Kiley Reid's debut, Such A Fun Age. But wow, this one sure is! It will certainly be the first big hit of 2020. This is truly a novel of our times, and the way it handles the subtlety and nuance of the conversations around race and privilege is really fantastic.

Just to start: Imagine being presumptuous enough to think nothing of calling your part-time day babysitter at 10:45 pm on a Saturday to come pick up your three-year-old kid so you can deal with a very minor crisis. That's how Alix Chamberlain, an early 30s wealthy white Philadelphian kicks off the novel. Her call is to Emira Tucker, a mid-20s black woman who is at a birthday party, but answers the summons because she needs the money.

But then things get even worse. Emira takes three-year-old Briar to a grocery store down the street to kill time. A woman at this upscale store thinks something is awry — why would a black woman in party attire be at this store on a Saturday night with a young white girl? So she gets security involved, you know, just to make sure everything's on the level. This is a pretty familiar scene in this day and age of BBQ Becky and Permit Patty and other white women calling the cops on black people simply for committing the offense of "living while black."

So that's the setup for what happens over the course of the next 300 pages. Alix, whose actual name is Alex, but changed the spelling to seem more sophisticated but also maybe to help hide herself from an embarrassing incident from her past, is your typical "Karen" — a vastly self-centered, though sometimes well-meaning, early 30s rich woman who doesn't really understand the world beyond her nose. An avowed do-gooder who has developed a sort of (possibly BS) women's empowerment blog and brand, Alix is mortified about what happened to Emira. Somehow Alix sees it as her own fault, and attempts to atone for this by insinuating herself into Emira's life with an unearned over-familiarity that makes Emira uncomfortable.

Then, Emira begin dating a man who was there the night of the grocery story incident. This fella has a connection to Alix's past. And when we learn the full details, Alix begins a slow unraveling. And it's a fascinating train wreck to watch, though Emira become the collateral damage.

The differences between Alix and Emira are what make this novel powerful and fascinating. One huge example of this is Alix's entitlement and absolute certainty of her place in the world vs. Emira's struggle to find her way. Another is the way Reid portrays Alix's and Emira's groups of friends. Both lean on their friends for advice and support, but often in vastly different ways and with hugely different results.

You really would expect a novel about such heavy topics to itself be heavy. But that is absolutely not the case. This reads quickly and smoothly, and really is a lot of fun. Very highly recommended!