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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.