Monday, December 14, 2020

New Dork Review's Top 10 of 2020

So...that was an unusual year, right? Thankfully, there were still plenty of great books! 

Here are my 10 favorite of the year (in no particular order):  

10. The Cold Millions, by Jess Walter — Jess Walter really hits the mark here — fascinating characters, a well-told historical story with plenty of resonance to today, and just a lot of fun. There are gangsters and anarchists, labor warriors and dirty cops, bums and even dirtier rich guys...and a whole lot of anger, I couldn't turn these pages fast enough. 

9. Cher Ami and Major Wittlesey, by Kathleen Rooney — Yes, Cher Ami is a pigeon. And yes, she's one of the two alternating narrators. But it works! And this inventive, smart historical fiction about a little-known episode of World War I is all the better for it. Like Jess Walter, Rooney is such an adroit storyteller, she got me to care a lot about something about which I knew nothing before picking up this novel. And truly, pulling off a pigeon narrator — even though the human Major Wittlesey does his duty of narrating parts, as well — is a high risk, high reward prospect. Here, it worked, and the reward to readers is indeed very high. 

8. Red Pill, by Hari Kunzru — Pure and simple, Kunzru is a genius. I didn't review this one because I couldn't — it fully blew my mind too much to write coherently about it. But I still can't stop thinking about this novel, its construction, its ideas, its terrifying timeliness. The story is about a writer who goes to an artist retreat in Germany, and winds up basically losing his damn mind. But the how and why here are just so fascinating. This is the first novel I've read of what will sure be many that deals with the unique psychological and long-lasting issues of the Trump era. This novel also includes my favorite quote of the year (it's about the protagonist visiting a psychiatrist): "Their work was predicated on the assumption that the world is bearable, and anyone who finds it otherwise should be coaxed or medicated into acceptance. But what if it isn’t? What if the reasonable reaction is endless horrified screaming?" That's how 2020 felt, didn't it? That the only natural reaction is endless horrified screaming? 

7. Homeland Elegies, by Ayad Akhtar — Inventive, passionate, and heartbreaking. This novel that blends memoir and fiction in a way I’ve never read before is about the immigrant experience and how Trump and his cult have put a hard stop on the American dream for so many. It also presents a fascinating take on how Trump and Cult 45 could possibly have happened — a combination of American greed, anti-intellectualism, and truly a desire to stick it to big city liberals. And finally it’s about what it really means to be an American and how fraught being a Muslim American (or even just an American with a “Muslim name”) can be. I intensely loved this book. 

6. Utopia Avenue, by David Mitchell — Duh. Naturally a new Mitchell would be on my list. And this one, like all else of his brilliant oeuvre, is pure reading joy. Ostensibly about a 1960s folk band, really it's about music, art, and inspiration as only David Mitchell could portray them. It almost seems like a slight to call this more conventional, but don’t worry, he’s still got some Mitchell-ness waiting for you here (#horology). This might be my second favorite of Mitchell's novels, after The Bone Clocks. 

5. American Dirt, by Jeanine Cummins — Everyone who puts this novel on his/her year-end list would be wise to acknowledge two things: 1) There was considerable controversy in early 2020 about the authenticity and accuracy of this novel, and 2) Remember when that controversy was the biggest of big deals? And then the world went nuts, and a literary fiasco seemed like a tempest in a teapot. Anyway, controversy aside, I really loved this tale of a mother and her son's escape from Mexico. I thought it was riveting and heartfelt, and shined an important spotlight on the plight of the migrant. 

4. The Index of Self-Destructive Acts, by Christopher Beha — This long, immersive novel was a surprise inclusion on the National Book Award longlist this year. Because of that, and because it's partly about baseball, I gave it a shot. And I was immensely rewarded. In baseball, as in life, one should never underestimate one's ability to screw up. That's essentially what this novel's about. So if, like me, you like watching otherwise smart people do dumb things, this novel's for you too. It's early 2009, the excitement of Obama's election has warn off, and the grim reality of the financial crisis has set in. Set in New York City, this is the story of several characters whose lives intertwine and whose decisions (usually poor) affect each other, often in devastating ways. It's one of those terrific literary trainwrecks from which you can't look away. But I kept reading precisely because I was hoping any of them would be redeemable, that they'd learn lessons. Do they? You should check it out to find out. 

3. Deacon King Kong, by James McBride — I quick search reveals I only used the word "rollicking" one time on the blog this whole year (which is a damn shame — but 2020 didn't feel very rollicking did, it?), and it was in reference to this amazingly entertaining read. I mean, how could you not LOVE a novel with a character named Hot Sausage. Set in a Brooklyn housing project in the late 1960s, the sometimes goofiness here belies a series of serious themes of racism, injustice, and drug abuse. McBride is as good a pure storyteller as we have writing right now. 

2. Transcendent Kingdom, by Yaa Gyasi — Science vs. religion: The debate continues in this fantastic novel from Gyasi, who scored huge with her debut novel Homecoming. There is no sophomore slump here! You wouldn't expect a novel about such a heady subject to be so entertaining. And there's a lot going on in this novel: It's about the immigrant experience, substance abuse, family loyalty, and a lot more. But it all comes together deftly.   

1. Hollywood Park, by Mikel Jollett — This is the only non-fiction book on my list, and actually it's also the only book that IS in particular order — it's hands-down my favorite book of the year. I'm not ashamed to admit I shed a few tears reading this sad, very introspective memoir about Jollett growing up in California, being emotionally abused, struggling with substance abuse, and so much more. This is one of the more self-assured, self-aware, and well-written memoirs I've ever read. REALLY loved this book. (Oh, and the album of the same name is pretty good, too.) 

(Note: I haven't finished A Promised Land yet, but if I had before this post, it SURELY would've been on this list.)

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Afterland: A Mad Dash Through Men-Less America

Things are bad, but they could always be worse. Imagine if the coronavirus were massively more deadly than it already is...and only killed men. That's the premise of Lauren Beukes's terrific new thriller, Afterland. It's 2023, several years after a horrific global pandemic has killed off nearly all the men on the planet. Now, the women left are rebuilding society, and as you'd expect, doing a pretty stellar job. A select few men are immune and the governments of the world are banding together to try to figure out why. There is also a moratorium on new pregnancies until scientists can learn what caused the pandemic and develop a vaccine. 

So that's the world Beukes builds as she sets her story in motion. Cole and her pre-teen son Miles, who live in South Africa, are stuck in the U.S. They've been here since the pandemic began, and are desperately trying to get back home. (Cole's husband died from the virus earlier.) But they've been under government care (control?), so scientists can study Miles, one of the lucky males who is immune to the virus. 

Through a series of events, in which Cole's rebel sister Billie inserts herself into the story with not-the-best intentions, Cole and Miles bust out and begin a mad dash across the country to try to catch a boat back to South Africa. Along the way, and with Billie hot on their heels, we see America transformed. The new men-less country still the America we know, but there of course HUGE differences, as well — and Beukes is fascinating as she imagines how this world would be both the same and different without men. But there's plenty of action, too. Will Cole and Miles make it safely across the country? Will the be co-opted by a group of cultish religious weirdos who think saying "sorry" to God will bring back the men? And just what actually is Cole's sister up to, and will she be successful? 

I read this novel during election week to take my mind off...well, what might have been if things went worse than how they wound up. It was just the thing. Afterland definitely has some echoes of Chuck Wendig's fantastic novel, Wanderers — in terms of plot, how both writer imagines their alternate America, and also in terms of "cool" factor. If you've read Beukes before, you know what I mean — she is Her last novel Broken Monsters is one of my go-to recommendations for a scary crime novel. And Afterland is certainly a worthy successor. 

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Shuggie Bain: Harrowing, Unflinching Novel about Poverty and Alcoholism

If you're feeling a little bit better these days, Douglas Stuart's harrowing, heartrending debut novel Shuggie Bain can fix that right up for you. Shortlisted for both the Booker Prize and the National Book Award (ed. update: And WINNER of the Booker Prize) — a rare feat for any novel, much less a debut — Stuart's autofiction (that's autobiographical fiction) is an absolutely smashing (in every sense of that word) story about a young boy growing up in 1980s Glasgow, Scotland.

Life is hard. Poverty is crushing. But Shuggie's loyalty to his alcoholic mother is unwavering. Agnes is a fierce, beautiful, confident woman who chews up and spits out most men. But when her second husband dumps her and her three kids (Shuggie is the youngest) in public housing near a defunct coal mine, and then leaves for good, she spirals out of control and takes to the drink to ease the pain. 

So Shuggie has to figure out the world mostly on his own — he's constantly picked on at school for being a "poof." He urgently wishes for a regular life — that he could be a "normal" boy (he doesn't understand his sexuality, or why he's "different" from other boys). But he does know one thing: Life would be so much better if his mother would put down the bottle and be a mother to him. There are flashes of this — even a year-long "bout" of sobriety — but it never sticks. And it's utterly heartbreaking to read. 

This novel, with its intricate time-and-place detail and deep emotional resonance, does what all good fiction should do — walks you a mile in the shoes of these characters, and makes you feel what they're feeling, understand what they understand, and rationalize what they're rationalizing. But no matter how empathetic you are or how much you try to intellectually acknowledge alcoholism, it's still nearly impossible to understand. That's true whether you're a character in this novel who wants to date and reform Agnes, or Agnes's older children who decide they've had enough and leave her alone with Shuggie, or a reader yelling at Agnes to just. stop. drinking. 

Everyone loves an underdog story, and both Shuggie the character, and the novel he lives in, are the epitome of underdog stories. Though this novel is set in Scotland, not Ireland, I couldn't help but think how much this novel resembles Frank McCourt's memoir Angela's Ashes. And one of the things I loved about Angela's Ashes is the occasional flashes of levity amidst all the despair. In life as in fiction, even the darkest moments are seeded with humor. And that's the case in Shuggie Bain, too. I loved this book.

Tuesday, October 27, 2020

The Cold Millions: Jess Walter is Back, and Really Freakin' Good!

Jess Walter is one of a very few "phone book" writers to me — by that I mean, he could write the phone book and I'd still read him. So a new Jess Walter book is an EVENT. It's been a long wait since his last novel — Beautiful Ruins was 2012! So yeah, The Cold Millions hitting shelves (today!) is a big deal. 

And even more exciting than all that: It's really freakin' good! There are gangsters and anarchists, labor warriors and dirty cops, and a whole lot of anger. In a lot ways, though these events took place more than a century ago, this novel seems like a distant mirror to our current unsettling times.

The story, which takes place in 1909, is about two brothers, Gig, 23, and Rye, 16, "tramping" around the Pacific Northwest, looking for work, and getting swept up in the contentious labor fights of the day. Gig supports the Wobblies — the shorthand name for the members of the new "labor union for all," the Industrial Workers of the World. And Rye is sort of along for the ride. Things go south quickly when they're both arrested as part of a labor rally. Rye has to spend several days in a crowded, disgusting holding cell, not knowing the fate of his older brother. 

Enter Elizabeth Gurley Flynn — 19 years old, beautiful, and an absolute force of nature in the labor movement (and a real person — she cofounded the ACLU!). Flynn takes up the brothers' cause and after Rye is sprung from jail, gets him to travel around the west with her, telling his story of injustice, and fundraising for the Wobblies. Meanwhile, a rich industrialist whose interests (that of becoming MORE wealthy, at the expense of "the cold millions," the labor that makes him rich) are put at risk by the labor unions pulls some strings in the background to try to destroy the movement. Chaos further ensues when an anarchist with allegiance to neither side enters the fray. His only goal is to wreak havoc...and havoc is indeed wrought. 

I loved this book! It's pure reading fun — you can't turn the pages fastest enough here. If you're one of like four people who read Karl Marlantes' long novel Deep River, that came out last year, this is a really good (though much more entertaining) companion piece to that novel, also about the birth of the labor movement in the Pacific Northwest. But Jess Walter really hits the mark here — fascinating characters, a well-told historical story with plenty of resonance to today, and just a lot of fun. This is a favorite of the year! 

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

Transcendent Kingdom: Science vs. Religion, but Make It Entertaining as Hell

I expected Yaa Gyasi's sophomore novel Transcendent Kingdom to be heavy. It's about a Stanford neuroscientist named Gifty who grapples with many of life's most transcendent questions. It's certainly as thoughtful, intelligent, and measured as I was hoping — one of the more interesting examinations of science vs. religion I've ever read. And it is, indeed, heavy at times. But what I did not expect was it to be entertaining as hell. It's a plot- and character-driven family saga that just reads so smoothly and enjoyably, you actually forget you're even weighing these big ideas. 

At the start of the novel, Gifty is finishing up her doctorate at Stanford when her depressed mother comes to live with her. Her mother, who had lived by herself in Huntsville, Alabama, has been clinically depressed since Gifty's drug-addicted older brother died of a drug overdose several years before when he was in high school. Gifty's mother has even tried to kill herself once, resulting in teenage Gifty having to spend a summer with her Ghanian relatives. This trip included a meeting with her father, who abandoned his family in Alabama to move back to Ghana when Gifty was a child.

Now, Gifty has made it her life's work to try to understand these psychological illnesses, depression and addiction, that have so dominated her family. "Could (science) be used to identify the neural mechanisms involved in psychiatric illnesses where there are issues with reward seeking, like in depression, where there is too much restraint in seeking pleasure, or drug addiction, where there is not enough?"

Then, there's religion, too. Gifty's mother raised her to be religious, and throughout her childhood, she was devoted to being the best Christian she could — that is, until cracks started forming in her faith, as she was introduced to some of the cornerstone contradictions of evangelical Christianity. For instance, if the Bible is "God's word," and is to be interpreted literally, but it's been translated many times over, and therefore open human to interpretation, then...what gives?

Even at Harvard, though, Gifty clings to a somewhat modified version of her religion, despite derision from her friends and classmates. For her, personal belief becomes a long and winding road, especially as she considers, evaluates, and incorporates new information, new thoughts, new ideas, etc. She describes how fundamentalism inherently rejects change because learning new information requires you to reject what you thought you knew before. For instance, discovering that the world is round means you must reject the formerly held idea that the world is flat? And then when you begin incorporating new information, what other views do you start to reconsider? "If the earth is round, then is God real? Literalism is helpful in the fight against change," she says. 

So yes, science vs religion features prominently in this novel, as you'd expect in a novel about a scientist who grew up in a strictly religious household. The main question here is this: Does one preclude the other? Gifty concludes, "I used to see the world through a God lens, and when that lens clouded, I turned to science. Both became, for me, valuable ways of seeing, but ultimately, both have failed to fully satisfy their aim: to make clear, to make meaning."

Whether or not you agree with Gifty's conclusion, it's more the seeking that's important, isn't it? And that's partly what makes this novel fascinating, beyond the really entertaining plot about a family saga. You're not going to find a more astute writer than Gyasi. She just...gets it. I don't know how to explain it better than that. You're just constantly nodding your head as you read. "Yes, that is something I've always thought, but never been able to put into words as well as this" — that type of reading experience. There is certainly a lot here: It's a novel about the dangers of addiction and depression, the horrors of racism, the family ties that fray and break and can or can't be repaired, and just how we find our places in the world. 

You sometimes see writers who achieve as much success with a debut as Gyasi did with Homegoing to slump a little bit in their second book. That is definitely not the case here. This is one of the best books I've read this year. 

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, 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 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 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.