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 quinceaƱera 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!