Thursday, October 7, 2021

I Love You But I've Chosen Darkness, by Claire Vaye Watkins: Awesome Autofiction

So I don't mind admitting my superficiality: I read Claire Vaye Watkins' new novel, I Love You But I've Chosen Darkness, based almost solely on its incredibly awesome title. Hey, there are a lot worse reasons to pick up a novel.

Here's how it started: 

Me, after about 10 pages: Ah, man is this gonna be just another one of these self-indulgent, self-important pieces of autofiction?

Here's how it's going: 

Me, halfway through, and riveted: Okay, yeah, it is, but it's also really good!

If you do some googling, you'll learn that the real-person writer Claire Vaye Watkins' father was one of Charles Manson's right-hand men. Which is crazy! This novel gives a long story about her/the narrator's parents, how they met, etc., right at the beginning. So right off the bad the autofiction/memoir line is a little blurred. In these autofiction novels that seem to be so trendy these days, you always wonder where the line between reality and fiction is, which I realize is not productive to your reading experience. But I can't help it. It sort of feels like you're being tricked a little, but not in a nefarious way. (Of course, to most writers, readers trying to figure out what's real and not is beside the point — and in fact, is probably supremely irritating to them.) 

Anyway, that line is further blurred because the rest of the novel is about a character named Claire Vaye Watkins (also a writer). The character Claire and her husband have just had a baby. And she has had enough — she feels trapped, confined, and felled by postpartum depression. 

When she travels to her hometown of Reno for an author event, she hangs out with some of her old friends, does mushrooms, and slowly realizes she can't go back to her former life. So now what? That's what the rest of the novel is — her just trying (or not really trying, just drifting) to figure out her life. 

All the while, she contemplates a series of letters her mother, who has since died of an opioid overdose, wrote to a cousin when her mother was a teenager in Las Vegas in the 1970s. These letters are give us breaks in the narrator's story. And part of the point is: The apple maybe hasn't fallen far from the tree.

Yes, so once you get past trying to figure out what's fiction and not, you'll find a really sharply written story about returning to your roots. When you start slowly deviating from who you think you are, how do you get back to who you want yourself to be? 

I enjoyed this — a lot more than I thought I might after the first few pages. It's an acutely observed, quickly paced, clever, often funny, often VERY raunchy, and really entertaining read. 

Tuesday, October 5, 2021

Crossroads, by Jonathan Franzen: Testing the Limits of the Family Bond

The Franzen returns! 

You know, for a writer who has such a reputation (warranted or not) for being an unpleasant curmudgeon, he sure understands and seems to like people. And he sure knows how to tell their stories in such a way that even a 600-page novel, like his new novel Crossroads, seems to just fly by.

A few months ago, I attended a Zoom interview with The Franzen, during which he mentioned he's of the (seemingly arbitrary) belief that writers only have six good novels in them, and then they should retire. He said when he started Crossroads, his sixth novel, he was sure it would be his last book — but then he got so into it and the lives of this family, 600 pages later, we have what is the first volume in a trilogy. 

Woo, and may I add, Hoo! 

I for one am delighted about this, because I loved/hated/was absolutely fascinated by this family. To back up a second, Crossroads tells the story of a family of six — the Hildebrandts — living in a suburb of Chicago in the early 1970s. These people are quirky but also about as normal and everyday as people get. The father is an assistant pastor at a local church, the mother is a stay-at-home mom, and the kids do kids-like things, fight with each other, go off to college, try drugs, sex, and rock and roll. 

As each character wrestles with their own problems (and their checkered pasts, in the parents' cases, especially in the case of mother Marion), things, as is the case with all families who are miserable in their own way, get broken. Each member of this family seems to be striving for his or her own individual definition of freedom (a common Franzen theme), both from the constraints of their family, but also, just to live their lives in the way they believe they're intended to. 

Franzen asks us to consider some pretty itchy questions in Crossroads. For one, when you are so mad at someone you love, how is it possible to repair the damage done by intentional cruelty? For another, how do you overcome the feeling that you may not even, much less love, the people in your own family anymore? 

The revolving character studies and how each of these characters relate to each other is interesting enough to keep us moving along quickly. But what Franzen's really got going on here is a novel about the extremely fine lines between ostensible opposites: love and hate, respect and contempt, faithfulness and infidelity, faith and doubt, empathy and intentional cruelty, and self-righteousness and altruism. 

I don't know if this is my favorite Franzen novel — but it's up there. And I can't wait for the next one!

Monday, October 4, 2021

The Dishwasher, by Stéphane Larue: Up All Night, Sleep All Day

I can't recall exactly how this small-press indie novel, The Dishwasher, by Stéphane Larue, first popped up on my reading radar — I just remember reading it's about a heavy metal fan working in a restaurant, all the while nursing a nasty gambling addiction. I was like, did this French-Canadian writer dude follow me around in 2001?

Okay, I exaggerate — while I am a huge metal fan (I have the Tshirt to prove it — see below!), and while I've worked some pretty menial catering and restaurant jobs to make ends meet during and after college, and while I do enjoy laying a few bucks here and there on sports, I never had near the problem this guy does with gambling. 

In fact, one of the reason I loved this book is that it's one of the more clear-eyed depictions of gambling addiction I've ever read. Of course, there's much literature about substance abuse and addiction, but gambling can destroy your life just as easily. And this novels pulls no punches in how it shows that.

The story is of a college kid in Montreal studying to be a graphic designer, illustrating album covers for metal bands, and working as a, you guessed it, dishwasher, in a high-end Italian restaurant. But he can't get out of his own way: His girlfriend has dumped him, his roommate has booted him out, and every time he seems to get a little bit ahead, he blows it on the ubiquitous video poker machines at the bars all over Montreal.

Another strength here is showing the crazy lives of people working long shifts and late nights in restaurants. Substance abuse and all-night partying are the norm, rather than the exception — you get off work and after being geared up for hours, you can't wind down easily. So you just go on these booze- and drug-filled benders until dawn, sleep until late afternoon, and then do it all again the next day. Our narrator here easily gets caught up in this cycle, and gets swept away by a colorful cast of characters who work with him in the kitchen.

I love small-press books because in novels like this, some stuff slips through that probably would've been edited out in a novel published by a larger house. For example, here we have a whole chapter just of the narrator and his girlfriend going to a Static-X and Megadeth concert in the late 1999s. I guess for establishing the basis for his relationship, this chapter is important. But it could've been easily cut. I'm glad it didn't because of how much fun it is to read about a METAL CONCERT IN LITERATURE.  I was right there with him, moshing to Symphony of Destruction! 

Anyway, there are a few odd translation glitches and proofreading errors here, the latter which always bug me more than they should — another feature of small-press novels. But overall, this was a fantastic read — a story about people you don't often see in fiction, which I always love to read. 

Wednesday, September 29, 2021

A Calling for Charlie Barnes, by Joshua Ferris: Who Gets To Tell My Story?

"All this happened, more or less." -- Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five

If you've read Joshua Ferris before (Then We Came To The End, etc.), you know he loves toying with perspective and narration. And his novel, A Calling for Charlie Barnes, might be his greatest trick yet.

What we think we're reading is a "Man Called Ove"-esque story about an old guy named Charlie Barnes, who is just a little bit off. Charlie has had five wives, several kids, and even more failed attempts at getting rich quick. These schemes have included a toupee frisbee, a clown college, and his own investment firm. Now, at 68 years old, and apparently having just been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, he still hasn't found his calling. 

But after the initial shock of Charlie's diagnosis wears off, and we start to learn more about Charlie and his past and his family, we the reader begin to wonder about who is telling us this story. Is this narrator unreliable, or just lying to us, or both? Does it even matter, because as this narrator tells us "Like reliability exists anywhere anymore, like that's still a thing"?

So through the story of Charlie Barnes and his wives and kids and failures, Ferris gives us a comment on the nature of fiction, non-fiction, family history, legend, myth, and storytelling generally. "Facts are full of dreary compromises and dead ends. Stare at them long enough and you'll go insane."

This novel is infinitely quotable, and often laugh-out-loud funny. "What self-deceptions we require to get out of bed in the morning," as one of many examples. And the fact that it's a lot of fun to read is a good thing, because for a large part of this novel, you're pretty sure Ferris is playing a trick on you. You're just not quite sure what it is.

One of the important aspects of reading any novel, I think, is being able to trust the writer. Here, we don't trust the narrator one bit. Which is part of the point. However, if you trust Ferris to bring you home, and he absolutely does here, then you're in for a hugely rewarding, really eye-opening, really fun reading experience.

Wednesday, September 22, 2021

Bewilderment, by Richard Powers: A Lesson in Empathy

"In the face of the world's most basic brokenness, more empathy meant deeper suffering."

If you're like me, you'll likely have two main reactions to Richard Powers' new novel, Bewilderment. (Well three if you count HOLY SHIT THAT WAS GOOD.)

1. Sadness: The natural world is receding, and we don't seem to care.

2. Rage: The natural world is receding, and not only do we not seem to care, many on one side of the political spectrum are actively working to ensure it's a trend that continues. Science is the enemy. Individualism trumps the common good.

That is such as a sad, lazy, selfish way to live, and worse, to lead — and Powers captures the real consequences here perfectly.

But this isn't a political novel, even though "the President" (the previous one) butts in occasionally. Instead, at its root, this is a novel about empathy. Empathy leads to a respect for the natural world and other creatures (as well as fellow humans, of course). As many of us are losing our empathy, so too are we losing the power and ability to undo the damage we've already done.

Bewilderment is the story of a father, Theo, and his son, Robin. After the death of Theo's wife in a car accident, Robin begins exhibiting behavioral issues, and the always-recommended solution is to put him on drugs. This is anathema to Theo, who knows there is nothing wrong with his son — he's just experienced trauma. And that combined with his unusual but beautiful brain is what's causing him to act out. They come upon an experimental treatment called Decoded Neurofeedback that allows Robin to learn from the emotions and brain activity of others — basically learning empathy. And it works!

But then all goes awry. 

This novel, in addition to just wrecking me emotionally, is fascinating in how it treats the notion of science for science's sake, and the wonder of discovery. Theo is an astrobiologist, searching for life on other planets. His wife had been an animal rights activist, a calling which Robin adopts whole-heartedly. It's an interesting juxtaposition: Why do we continue to look up and out, when there's more than enough life to save here? Because we must. We must do both. And also, because as Theo tells Robin: "People, Robin. They're a questionable species."

A new Richard Powers novel is always an absolute must-read for me. The way he combines science and story...no one does that better than him. And he does it again here. I'm not sure this is in quite the same pantheon as his last novel The Overstory — one of my favorite novels of at least the last 10 years — but it's not too far off. Bewilderment is awe-inspiring.

Thursday, September 16, 2021

Beautiful World, Where Are You, by Sally Rooney: Thank You, Next

A modest proposal: Sally Rooney is to a certain sect of readers what David Foster Wallace and Jonathan Franzen are to middle-aged white dudes (like me). That's to say, Rooney fans are ride or die, and god help you if you sling a wayward negative comment her way. Sally Rooney is a saint!

Anyway, so I'm about to duck. Here comes a rare negative review at The New Dork Review of Books. And believe me, I fully understand the choppy waters I'm wading into here.

Sally Rooney's latest novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You, about four unlikeable navel-gazers, is...just, oh god, I don't know, unlikeable

So the novel is about the worries of youth. Four characters — two couples, basically – sit around and argue and complain and worry about each other and have sex and also try to puzzle out REALLY IMPORTANT THINGS. That's it. That's the story. My friend Matthew, who is a wunderkind with words, called this novel a "masterpiece in navel-gazing" and "akin to a ballad amidst bangers" (read his whole review for the context on that last bit, which is brilliant).

I felt like this entire novel was like sitting at a bar listening to the most unlikable people talk about things that don't matter. Nothing about this novel felt authentic — from what the characters say, to their long-winded emails to each other about climate change, existential dread, beauty, and art, to how they actually treat each other. Everything was just a bit off. 

Far be it from me to decry a novel because of unlikeable characters. Yes, these people are all intensely unlikeable. But that's only 5 percent of why this novel fell flat. Between bad dialogue, a lack of anything remotely interesting happening, and people that don't act, talk, or interact the way you'd expect normal people to, I couldn't wait for this to be over. 

Thankfully, it does read quickly. Look, I know Rooney is an immensely talented writer. She does a lot with very few words, and that's impressive. I actually really enjoyed her last novel, Normal People, so I'm not just hatcheting here to be hateful or contrarian. I genuinely didn't like this book. I joked on Goodreads that this novel should be titled: Sex and Email: But Nothing Happens. But lots of people will like it, and I hope you're one of them.

Tuesday, September 14, 2021

Harlem Shuffle, by Colson Whitehead: A Triptych of Noir

Man, Colson Whitehead is cool. And his novel Harlem Shuffle (out today!) is cool, too. It's a return to fiction that must've been much more fun for him to write than his previous two hugely important, vital, Pulitzer-prize winning novels (The Underground Railroad and The Nickel Boys) about dead serious topics of racism, death, slavery, and injustice. 

Harlem Shuffle is like a triptych of noir — three different sections, each with the same characters (except for the ones that get rubbed out, naturally), involve three different schemes: a heist, sweet revenge, and then lastly, just sort of cleaning up loose ends. 

Our hero is Ray Carney, an ordinary furniture store owner in 1960s Harlem, who like just about everyone, has a few less-than-legal side hustles going on. As Ray strives to the straight and narrow, to move his family to a nicer apartment, to live the American dream, he keeps getting sidetracked. In each of the three "scenes," his connections to the seedy underside of Harlem (his cousin Freddie, his long-dead father who was about the life, Ray's own business associates) always seem to draw him back in. 

I read this in basically two sittings — not because it's laced with unputdownable suspense, exactly. I don't know, there's just something about the way Whitehead writes that's super engrossing. I don't go in for much crime fiction, but of course if Colson Whitehead is writing it, I'm in. This book probably won't change your life, but it's still a great read. What, you're not going read the new Colson Whitehead? Of course you are. I think you'll have fun with this one, too. 

Monday, September 13, 2021

Matrix, by Lauren Groff: Nuns Having Fun

Lauren Groff is nothing if not unpredictable. And brave. As I was reading her new novel, Matrix, a tale of 12th century nuns, I was trying to imagine the conversation she must've had with her publisher. 

LG: "So, it's about a nun..."

P: "Cool, cool. A superhero nun?"

LG: "Well, no. Her superpower is being a strong woman."

P: "Oh...um, okay that could work."

LG: "Also, she lived in the 12th century."

P: "Oh...um, well, we'll let marketing handle selling that."

I kid, I kid. Lauren Groff is talented enough to write about anything she damn well pleases. And I'll happily read any and every word she writes (literally...Groff is one of only a handful of writers for whom I've read everything she's published). And even though it took a minute to find my way into this one, once I did, I was thoroughly impressed, thoroughly entertained, and sufficiently wowed. Like the protagonist of this story, Groff herself is a wunderkind.

So Matrix is the story of Marie de France, a poet and abbess who lived in the 12th century. We know very little about Marie's real life, except what little of her poetry survives. And so here Groff has imagined her life. 

In Groff's telling, Marie is a fierce, powerful, inspired woman who turns her dire circumstances of being remanded to the abbey by the queen into becoming one of the most powerful women in England. This is a novel about the spark of creativity, about the limits of faith, about the power of passion, and about what constitutes inspiration.

As you'd expect, this is pretty different than Groff's last novel — Fates and Furies, a tale about a marriage coming unraveled, which I REALLY loved. I've seen several reviewers try to draw parallels between these two books — "Marie de France's relationship with God becomes unraveled like a bad marriage," etc. It doesn't really work. My advice is to not try to compare this to Groff's other work. This one's fine on its own. Again, it's a brave novel — one definitely worth taking a shot on! 

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

Damnation Spring, by Ash Davidson: A Truly Great American Novel

It's been a long time since I read anything as good as Ash Davidson's novel, Damnation Spring. This book wrecked me in ways I can't quite yet begin to understand. It is a quintessential American story, and a truly great American novel. It's my favorite book of 2021, and it's hard to imagine I'll read anything that'll affect me as much as this book did.

So Damnation Spring is set in a small logging town in northern California in 1977. It's the story of the Gundersen family: Rich, a 4th generation logger, his wife Colleen, and their young son, Chub. Life is not easy. Logging, already dangerous, is now a dying industry, as environmentalists and conservationists ("tree huggers" and hippies) are becoming increasingly fierce in their objections to destroying the redwoods. But, for a logger, what's the point of saving a tree? A tree exists to be cut down. A tree is just timber waiting to be turned into profit, say the logging company capitalists. Nature exists only to benefit humanity. 

But even more deeply, the conflict in this novel is about no less than survival: It's between those trying to "save the world," and those trying to save themselves. If Rich can't log anymore, how are he and the rest of the guys he works with supposed to make a living? Saving the trees will kill their community. Logging is all they know — it's the only way this small town can survive. 

So to save himself and his family, Rich takes one last shot: When a parcel of land near his home comes up for sale, he takes out a huge loan to buy it (without telling Colleen). His plan is to log it, quickly turn that timber into dollars, and then retire. The company he works for is logging an adjacent parcel, and will already be building the roads to allow him to get his timber out. So it's a perfect plan, assuming all goes well.

As you'd imagine, as is the case in good fiction, nothing goes well.

But the loggers vs. the tree huggers isn't the only environmental story here. Both the logging company as well as the government use a herbicide spray to keep down the weeds and make logging easier. Not coincidentally, the town suffers a rash of birth defects, miscarriages, and mysterious dead animals. The logging company tries to convince the town the herbicides are safe, as business always does. But most people, Colleen included, know that their drinking water is being polluted, and their health is being compromised. What will it take to convince others, including her own husband, that this is true? 

Rachel Carson's Silent Spring was published in 1962, warning of the dangers of unchecked use of chemical pesticides. When I read that book a few years ago, I was sort of shocked by how little we've learned since then. This novel certainly makes that point starkly, as well — about how chemicals have horrific unintended consequences. When we try to engineer nature for short-term benefit, the long-term detriments are devastating. 

There has been an influx lately of really good environmental novels. This takes its place at the head of the class — it's a combination of two other books I loved, The Overstory, by Richard Powers and Deep River, by Karl Marlantes. But this novel is even better than the sum of those two parts. 

I loved the environmental message in this novel, but I equally loved these characters and their story — especially how Davidson renders moments of tenderness between them in what is a cruel and tough world. I rooted for all of them, even though it's hard to know who to root for in a novel about competing interests, when everyone's claim seems legit, even when it pits wife against husband.

What's more, this novel is just so immersive. I haven't FELT like I was in a novel — the rainy, dreary forest, the stink and suck of the mud, the comfort beside the fire — like I did in this one. There were times, as I read this on hot summer days, I'd look up and be surprised there wasn't snow on the ground and I wasn't surrounded by redwoods. 

If it's possible for a first novel (yes, miraculously, this is a debut!) to be a masterpiece, this is it. This a book, like all the best books do, that will stay with me for a long time. I cannot recommend a novel more highly. 

Thursday, August 5, 2021

Godspeed, by Nickolas Butler: Uncommon Affection for Character

At first blush, the plot of Nickolas Butler's new novel Godspeed may not sound like the stuff literary dreams are made of: Three dudes are hired by a rich lady to build a house on an impossibly tight deadline in the mountains of Wyoming. But in the hands of a storyteller as high caliber as Butler, it works!  

One reason it works is that there is a fair amount of mystery here: Why the tight deadline? Why that remote location? What's the deal with the woman Gretchen who hires them? Will they finish in time?

Secondly, these characters, as is often the case in Butler novels, are vastly underrepresented in fiction. So they're fascinating. Name another novel about construction workers. I'll wait. Sure, it's a risky choice. But because Butler is so good at writing characters, we're happily along for this ride to find out how it turns out for these fellas.

If you’re a Butler fan — and I’m huge one — you’ll immediately notice Godspeed is his first novel not set in Wisconsin. It's also his first novel that, if you're into genre-ing things, could be considered a mystery or a thriller.

Still, Godspeed is easily identifiable as a Butler novel for two reasons. First, even though his characters here are deeply flawed, he still displays an uncommon affection for them. That's a quality you don't find in too many writers, and it's one of the main reasons I love his books, this one included. Secondly, there's a tension here between the haves (Gretchen, and the rich tourists of Jackson Hole) and the have-nots (these three dudes). The three buddies who moved out to Wyoming from Utah and started a construction business recognize the risk of undertaking this project, sure. But they also see it as their golden ticket: Just a few months of hell and all our dreams can come true...assuming nothing goes wrong. And again, because we don't see these guys on the page too often, we're not really sure what exactly they're going to do. And that builds a massive amount of narrative tension and intrigue. 

But of course things go wrong. The question becomes, what are these guys really willing to do, what will they compromise, and will their friendship survive? Another Butler knack is for rendering male friendships — and he nails it again here with these three guys. The highs, the lows, the loyalty, the dick jokes.

If I still haven't convinced you to give this a try, hey, how about that cover art?! Pretty, pretty good. So but if you're a fan of the underdog, if you like seeing salt-of-the-earth people represented in fiction, and if you enjoy top-tier storytelling, this is a perfect novel for you. 

Wednesday, July 28, 2021

Razorblade Tears, by S.A. Cosby: Gritty, Grimy, Glorious

Razorblade Tears, by S.A. Cosby, is a gritty, grimy, glorious crime novel, with a side of social commentary, and with a pretty inventive premise: Two ex cons, one Black, one White, team up to avenge the murder of their sons...who happened to be married to each other. The sons were both estranged from their fathers because their dads were less-than-accepting of them being gay. 

So this starts out as a buddy drama, but decidedly without the buddy. These two guys, Ike and Buddy Lee, have to overcome their aversion to each other before they can make any meaningful progress in finding out who killed their sons. Buddy Lee is your typical Southern Virginia hard-drinking, trailer-living, good 'ole boy — a smart ass with some less than modern views on race relations. Ike has turned his life around after a long stint in prison, started a landscaping company, and is now living the straight and narrow...if nearly completely humorless.

The only thing these two tough guys really have in common, other than each doing jail time, is that neither of their sons much liked them. But they agree to team up to honor their memory as they start to realize that maybe them not accepting their sons as they were may have contributed to their deaths. 

As they get into their own investigation, they run afoul of a murderous motorcycle gang with pretty obvious connections to the murder. The cat and mouse game begins, and the key becomes a missing woman named Tangerine who holds not just the answer to who killed their sons, but also has a secret that could destroy many other lives.

This has everything you want in a crime novel: Breakneck pace, over-the-top violence, wise cracking ex-cons with hearts of golds, some obvious plot holes and convenient coincidences (what crime novel doesn't?!), a motorcycle gang, and so much more. I loved it. I don't dip into crime fiction too frequently, but this one landed just right.

Thursday, July 22, 2021

Crying In H Mart, by Michelle Zauner: A Sad, Sweet, Hip Memoir of Food, Identity, and Music

Memoirs are still all the rage these days, especially sad ones. And this one — Crying In H Mart, by Michelle Zauner — is especially sad. But it's also sweet and a little funny and pretty hip too. You may know Zauner as the frontwoman and songwriter behind the indie shoegaze band Japanese Breakfast. (If you don't, that's okay — I hadn't heard of her either, but I listened to a lot of Japanese Breakfast while reading this, and I love her!) 

This memoir is about Zauner's mother's sickness and death from cancer. But a major through-line is her connection to her Korean identity — her mother is Korean, her father American. (Here's a Daily Show interview that explains how she came up with Japanese Breakfast, despite being Korean.) Being half Korean was a liability in her mind as she grew up as a bit of a wild child in Eugene, Oregon, but a part of her she wishes she'd embraced more after her mother's death, especially given that her relationship with her mother wasn't always perfect.

Another thing I learned from this book right off the bat is that H Mart is a Korean grocery store. Food is one way Zauner learns to embrace her Korean heritage and remind herself of her mother. She writes about all the Korean food she loved growing up and begins learning to make her mother's dishes. This helps her appreciate food the way her mother did, and by extension, her identity. 

Zauner is a tremendously gifted, extremely self-aware writer. Of course, it was fascinating to read about her evolution as a writer, artist, and musician. But her relationship with her mother and her evolving notion of her own identity are on center stage here — and these are what make this a really great read.

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Letting Go, by Philip Roth: A First Novel That'd Never Be Published Today

Shout out to the four people (and four may be overstating it) who will care about this review of a 630-page novel first published in 1962! 😂

I've read more Philip Roth than any other writer. So it was about time to read Letting Go, his first full-length novel (published in 1962, after his first actual published work, Goodbye, Columbus, a story collection and novella, published in 1959). All I could think all the way through these 630 pages is that, while I was mostly enjoying it, it sure didn't feel like a Philip Roth novel. Here, Roth characters spend a lot of time actually talking to each other (mostly arguing), and they do very little individual introspection. Odd, for Roth.

This story is basically about two couples living in mid-century Chicago. Narrators and perspectives shift to reveal each characters' skeletons in the closet, and why their current relationships are fraught. But what makes this a memorable, fascinating story is that all four of these characters are absolutely neurotic and medium-terrible people. They are unforgettable, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading about all their problems with each other.

So if you think of this as a first novel, and not Philip Roth's first novel, it's an amazingly accomplished feat. It's a first novel that would NEVER get published today — or would at least be edited down to about 250 pages. Even though this novel deals with semi-dramatic issues, like disowned families, adoption, abortion, infidelity, and more, not a whole lot really happens. How Roth manages to keep you coming back for 630 pages is pretty amazing. So even though this is generally considered a minor Roth work, even though it's his debut novel, you still do get a sense of the talent that is about to unleash some of the best American literature to come over the next 50 years. And that's why I read it. It took almost a month, but I'm glad I did. 


Thursday, July 1, 2021

My 5 Favorite Books of 2021...So Far

Happy July! We're over halfway through 2021 already. Here are my five favorite books of the year...so far. Click on each link for the full review. 

5. Mary Jane, by Jessica Anya Blau — I am probably not the ideal reader for a novel narrated by a 14-year-old girl in the 1970s, but I loved this book nonetheless. Yes, the "Almost Famous" comparisons are apt, but also the coming-of-age aspect of this summery novel makes this a huge win. 

4. Every Day Is A Gift, by Tammy Duckworth — Duckworth's riveting memoir is this year's most inspiring read so far. Plus, it's often very, very funny. 

3. All Together Now, by Matthew Norman — A novel about a guy dying of pancreatic cancer shouldn't be this much fun. But this novel is summery fun at its best. Still, Norman does a fantastic job of portraying the slings and arrows of friendship here, especially as people grow up and change. 

2. Klara And The Sun, by Kazuo Ishiguro — How much could you possibly care about a robot? How much could a robot teach us about caring for other people? A lot! This novel by Nobel winner Ishiguro tenderly and brilliantly shows us how to hope, love, and connect to others. 

1. The Night Always Comes, by Willy Vlautin — There are still a lot of great novels coming out in 2021 (hello, Franzen!), but it's going to take a herculean effort to knock this book off my "favorite of the year" pedestal. This book just blew me away. I honestly don't think I've ever read a such a short novel that affected me as much as this one did.

Thursday, June 24, 2021

Hamnet, by Maggie O'Farrell: Absolutely Top-Tier Literary Fiction

So yeah, everyone is right: Hamnet, by Maggie O'Farrell is an unbelievably powerful piece of art  — top-tier literary fiction. 

I was sitting outside on my balcony reading the end of this novel, and the sun had gone behind the building across the street, and the temperature was dropping quickly, and with about five pages to go, I realized I was shivering uncontrollably, and I wasn't sure if it was because I was cold or if it was because the ending of this novel is so affecting, so finely rendered, so dramatically powerful. Either way, I couldn't move until it was over. 

But the rest of the novel that leads to this ending is brilliant, as well. This, as it's subtitled, is a novel of the plague — but specifically, it's about Shakespeare (who is never named as Shakespeare) and his wife, Agnes (Anne?) and their twins, Hamnet and Judith, one of whom dies of the plague.

We get alternating stories about "the Latin tutor" and his courtship of Agnes, and then the real-time story after they're married and one of the twins is dying. I loved the universality of this story. Of course, the pandemic aspect is pretty relatable these days. But also, this is a novel about family, parenthood, love and loyalty, and the inspiration behind great art. Again, the last scene in this novel, as Agnes is watching the play inspired by her son, is mesmerizing. I was reading as if in a trance. 

I can't recommend this book more highly. 

Monday, June 21, 2021

All Together Now: Summery Fun with a Twist

Matthew Norman just keeps getting better. All Together Now, his fourth novel, is my favorite of his — and I've loved all of his other three. 

All Together Now is an endearing, funny, summery novel about a group of high school friends now in their mid-30s who assemble at a beach mansion for a reunion weekend. But there's a twist — one of them, a mysterious billionaire, is dying. Hilarity ensues? 

Well, yeah, believe it or not, it does. But also, plenty that's definitely not hilarious. Not counting the dude who's dying — that dude's problems are a whole different level of severe — each of the other three friends has his or her own issues: A failing marriage, a failed career, and just general failing. But there is nothing like old friends to get yourself back on the right track, is there? Norman excels here in rendering these relationships, lumps and all. 

So this novel ends up being a little bit Friends, a pinch of American Pie 2 (the one with the summer beach house and big party at the end), but mostly Norman's own unique thing. 

Fans of Nickolas Butler's Shotgun Lovesongs or Jonathan Tropper's This Is Where I Leave You or Meg Wolitzer's The Interestings will love this book. Need a beach read this summer? This is it.

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

Legends Of The North Cascades, by Jonathan Evison: On the Power of Human Connection

Jonathan Evison's latest novel, Legends Of The North Cascades, a multi-narrator story set in two time periods tens of thousands of years apart is certainly ambitious. But this great adventure story continues a common theme in Evison’s novels: Connection, belonging, finding a place in the world among other humans. He writes: "Our only buffer against the cold, cruel world was one another." This is hard to admit sometimes, especially because humans are consistently disappointing. But like it our not, as the pandemic has certainly shown, we are at heart social beings.

After the death of his wife, Dave, a three-tours Iraq veteran, and his 7-year-old daughter Bella, go to live off the grid in the North Cascades mountains. Dave's had enough. Humans have nothing to offer him anymore. Even though you know this isn't going to work out, and is dangerous to the point of irresponsible, it's hard not to root for him, to nod along with his reasons. Sometimes we've all had more than our share of humans.

Meanwhile, Bella forms a sort of mythical connection to some people who lived on this land centuries before. Just like Dave and Bella, these early humans are just looking for their place in the world too. 

I loved this book, mainly for the character Bella. Writing children can't be easy, but Evison nails this, giving her only as much as she can handle. After all, "The sad reality of the world was that nobody was quite as resilient as a child, and nobody paid a higher price for it."

Thursday, June 3, 2021

Mary Jane, by Jessica Anya Blau: 'Almost Famous' in Book Form

Yes, there's definitely an "Almost Famous" feel to Mary Jane, Jessica Anya Blau's terrific 70s-set coming of age novel, right down to the sing-alongs with rock stars. Mary Jane, 14, living with her extremely traditional parents in a nice bedroom community in Baltimore, gets a job nannying for the five-year-old daughter of a couple nearby. But this couple has a secret: They're harboring a hugely famous actress and her hugely famous rock star husband, while the rock star is being treated for addiction. Mary Jane is star-struck at first, but soon gets over it: Celebrities are just like us, after all. Well, mostly. 

Throughout her summer, Mary Jane learns a lot about the world as it really is and people as they really are. But as importantly, she starts to learn about who she really is. 

We all have that moment (or hopefully many moments) when we are exposed to new ideas, and learn something (or many things) that completely contradicts everything we thought we knew...or what our parents had taught us. How we comprehend and deal with these new ideas plays an incredibly important role in who we become. Mary Jane has about one of these moments a day as she becomes more and more embedded in this bohemian household. 

If you remember what it was like to be an awkward teenager suddenly finding out that not everything is as it seems, this is a perfect novel for you. Also, if you love music, this is a perfect novel for you. This is smart and funny and hugely entertaining. A huge win!

Thursday, May 27, 2021

The Plot, by Jean Hanff Korelitz: Literary Thriller, Literally

Is there anything worse than being unoriginal? In art, as in life, being called "derivative" is a fate worse than death. But when art is based on life, where is the line between invention, inspiration, borrowing, and flat-out stealing? For an artist, is there any worse crime than stealing someone else's work?

That's what this intense literary thriller is about. And when I say The Plot is a "literary thriller," I mean that literally. The plot of this novel is about a plot of a novel. And there are plenty of little literary chestnuts here if you're paying careful attention -- from the current debate about appropriation to Oprah's Book Club and James Frey to little jokes about Dan Brown. In fact, given Dan Brown's history with, um, "borrowing" plot, I couldn't help but think our protagonist here, a once-struggling-then-wildly-successful writer named Jake, bares more than a passing literary resemblances to Brown.

Jake is a struggling writer who stumbles on a once in a lifetime opportunity for fame and fortune. But taking said opportunity might be a little less than ethical. Or is it? You can see where this is going, right? Will he take it? What will be the repercussions? And what twists and turns lie along the way? 

So this winds up being a carefully plotted thriller that, while not exactly original itself (John Boyne's A Ladder To The Sky was about nearly this same thing), does have a few surprises in store for us along the way. I was immensely entertained all the way through.

Friday, May 14, 2021

Early Morning Riser, by Katherine Heiny: Charming, Hilarious Tale of Midwestern Life

If Richard Russo and Sarah Silverman had a book baby, it might look something like Katherine Heiny's charming, hilarious tale of small town Midwestern life, Early Morning Riser

It's almost too easy (lazy?) to compare this novel to Sherwood Anderson's Winesburg, Ohio...but it definitely has that feel (there's even a character here named Willard!). A cast of goofy, quirky, sweet characters in the small town of Boyne City, Michigan, are all up in each other's business. They're mostly friendly, sometimes passive aggressive, but they always help each other, especially when tragedy strikes. 

Jane, our protagonist, moves to Boyne City as a young woman to teach second grade. She's really the only "normal" person in this tale. She meets Duncan — the town's manslut, who has slept with nearly every eligible woman in a three-county radius — and naturally begins dating him. She thinks he looks the Brawny Paper Towel Man, which is hilarious in itself — the small-town Midwestern ideal of masculinity. 

The novel is basically about Jane's life — her relationship with Duncan, her horrendous (though often laugh-out-loud funny) mother, and all the other people in this small town, including Jimmy, a developmentally disabled man who everyone in the town works together to take care of. Jimmy is the heart and soul of this novel. 

In total. this novel is about how we find happiness, no matter what hand we're dealt in life. Heiny writes, "Odd how rainbows could go on appearing when there was so much evil in the world..." But they do. And similarly, despite all odds, despite unspeakable tragedies, despite hurdles and heartbreak, we do figure out how to be happy. If we're lucky. 

In total, this is just a sweet, often laugh-out-loud story that just makes you feel glad to be a reader. Loved it!

Monday, May 10, 2021

The Night Always Comes, by Willy Vlautin: Spec-freakin'-tacular

Compact, pitch-perfect, and immensely powerful, The Night Always Comes, by Willy Vlautin, is a crushing look at the failing American dream and the widening divide between those who take (mostly mediocre men) and those who strive against a system stacked against them.

I know I'm in the minority in this, but I don't normally like short novels. I like to sit with a set of characters, with a setting, with a set of themes, etc., for a good long time. But in 200 pages, Vlautin manages to construct a novel that feels fully developed, fully realized (and all-too-real), and fully populated with an amazing cast, some of them good, most of them not, but all of them with a little bit of both.

He gives these people long nearly unbroken conversations with each other, and then frequently juxtaposes those lines of dialogue with long "soliloquies" where characters expound on everything from their relationships to each to other to their simmering rage about their dreams seemingly being out of reach. The effect is that you just feel amazing close to these people in such short amount of time. It almost feels like a play. This shouldn't work, but it does.

I'm being purposefully (and probably annoyingly) vague about the details of the plot. You can read more about that on Goodreads or where ever, but basically, a Portland woman named Lynette pulls out every stop she can imagine to scrape together the money for the down payment on a house. You immediately and unmitigatedly root for Lynette — even as you find out about some of her own past issues. She's as tough as they come, and the 36 hours chronicled in this novel really test her mettle.

This is a spectacular read, gritty and real. It's now the leader in the clubhouse for my favorite book of the year. 

Friday, May 7, 2021

Every Day Is A Gift, by Tammy Duckworth: What an Inspirational Story!

If you don't live in Illinois, you may not know a ton about Tammy Duckworth — Illinois' junior Senator. But she has an immensely fascinating, hugely inspiring story. The daughter of an American serviceman and a Chinese / Thai mother, she was born in Thailand, and grew up in Cambodia, Singapore, and nearly homeless and extremely poor in Honolulu. She joined the Army and trained to fly Black Hawks. In 2004, she lost both her legs and severely injured her arm when an RPG exploded in the cockpit of her Black Hawk as she was flying a mission in Iraq. She should've died, but thanks to the heroism and quick-thinking of her fellow soldiers, she was rushed back to the base in Baghdad and lived. 

After a long recovery, a losing Congressional campaign, and stints working for the Illinois and Obama Administration Bureau of Veteran's Affairs to improve conditions for wounded warriors like herself, she successfully won a seat in Congress (beating the crap out of right-wing misogynist and all-around terrible human Joe Walsh) in 2010. Then in 2016, she beat Republican Mark Kirk to win back Barack Obama's former Senate seat. She's the mother of two daughters, both born while Duckworth was in her late 40s, and she's the only woman ever to give birth as a sitting U.S. Senator. 

As inspiring a human as Tammy is, and how much I admire how hard she worked to overcome all the obstacles she did to be successful at every stage of her life, one of the things I like most about her is her sense of humor. It's really dark. But awesome. So awesome. An example: A joke from when she was running for Congress about how she and her husband still squabble — he chews gum with his mouth open and I leave my legs lying around the house. Or, how she and her Black Hawk crew mates played a game called "If you die, I get your stuff" before missions. Or how when, many years later, she was flown over the site of her attack, she joked "Are you sure this is the right place? I don't see my foot down there."

Political memoirs can be really hit or miss: Sometimes they're just thinly veiled campaign speeches. This one is not that. It's the actual story of her life, and what an exhilarating, uplifting story it is. This is easily a favorite book of the year — EXTREMELY highly recommended.

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Project Hail Mary, by Andy Weir: "The Tiebreaker" is a Win

When I first heard Andy Weir's third novel, Project Hail Mary, was imminent, I joked it should be subtitled "The Tiebreaker." The Martian was an unmitigated triumph — just for sheer reading fun, one of my favorite novels of the last decade or so. Weir's second novel, Artemis, was....um.....less successful. So which way would this one go?

It's a win! Project Hail Mary returns to the tried-and-true formula that made The Martian so much fun. Science dude is in deep doo-doo, cracks wise, solves science problems. And it works again! Here, our hero Ryland Grace is shot off into deep space to find a solution to a problem that literally threatens all of humanity. Like The Martian, problem after nearly disastrous problem pops up. And Grace, like Mark Watney, uses a massive resourcefulness and an almost preternatural command of science to solve them. Again, Weir takes us deeply into into the weeds with the science — get ready for more than your fair share of physics, chemistry, and astronomy. If you liked that about The Martian, you're going to love this, too. 

One issue with this novel though is that Grace is very much a G-rated, highly sanitized, and therefore MUCH less interesting, version of Mark Watney. Watney consistently cracked me up with his off-color and low-brow jokes (NASA: You're cleared to start drilling. Watney: That's what's she said). Grace, by contrast, is as milquetoast as a guy can be. He tries to be funny, but all his jokes are dad-tastic to the nth degree. I'd love to have a beer with Watney. Grace: Not so much. I mean, you still root for the guy, you're just not necessarily sure you'd want to hang out with him beyond the 500 pages of this novel. 

But I did enjoy this a lot — it's a book you'll speed through, you'll pump your fist, and maybe your faith in humanity's ability to solve huge problems will be slightly restored. That's something we need right now for sure!

Thursday, April 29, 2021

Godshot, by Chelsea Bieker: Just a Really Good Cult Novel

You know me, I love a good cult novel. And whoa boy, is Godshot, by Chelsea Bieker, a GOOD cult novel. But it's so much more, too. Taking place in a suburb of Fresno in California's drought-addled Central Valley in (I think?) about 2011, the story is about 14-year-old Lacey May, her mother Louise, and the bad-man preacher Vern who is hell bent on bringing rain, but only succeeds in destroying everyone's lives. 

Louise, who has ambitions of stardom, abandons her daughter and takes up with a man who tells her he'll make her famous — you know, the tale as old as time. But so Lacey May is left to live with her grandmother, and is stuck in the thrall of the two-bit preacher, Vern. Things go very badly for her from there. 

One of the main messages of the novel, which rings so incredibly true in this day and age, is how mediocre white men use whatever means necessary — religion, drugs and booze, promises of fame — to try to control women and keep them subservient. Indeed, is a cult-like religion really that different than the sex industry? They're both run by awful men who are addicted to their own fantasy of themselves and have mostly never drawn an honest breath in their lives. Lacey May imagines a meeting where these terrible men get together to compare notes: "Did they have a club where they traded these ideas with one another? I imagined a low-down shitty man meeting, all of them sitting in circle..." There are just way too many low-down shitty men out there, aren't there?

This is an immensely readable, quickly moving, "fiercely written" (as Entertainment Weekly said) coming-of-age-in-the-worst-possible-ways novel that's part John Steinbeck, part Mean Girls, and part Going Clear. I LOVED this book.

Monday, April 26, 2021

No Time Like The Future: Michael J. Fox Considers Mortality, Optimistically

My dad passed away three years ago from a variety afflictions — dude was on his sixth (!!!) cancer, the last one of which is what ultimately got him. But he also had rare skin disease, had recently broken his hip for the second time, and had battled Parkinson's disease for more than 30 years. My brothers and sisters and I joked (I guess somewhat morbidly) that it's a good thing he wasn't around for Covid, because even if he'd been locked in a hyperbaric chamber, he still somehow would've gotten it. 

But like all his other health issues, he would've handled it like a champ! He was unfailingly optimistic, almost infuriatingly so. I'd always think "Dad, it's okay to be mad, or frustrated, or even just mildly irritated." But he never was. It was truly inspiring. 

Michael J. Fox is probably the most prominent advocate for Parkinson's patients, and this book, No Time Like The Future, is about a tough year (2018) for him and how he did his level best to remain optimistic amidst his worsening Parkinson's, and a number of other health calamities, including a fall that left him in a wheelchair for several months. 

The highlight of this book, other than its message about optimism, is Fox's total dad humor. He's self-deprecating and goofy — and actually reminded me a lot of how my dad was: Using silly humor to deflect. 

You certainly don't need to have Parkinson's or even know someone that has Parkinson's to enjoy and be inspired by this book. Even as he's jetting off to Bhutan to shoot a documentary, and meeting Keith Richards at a New Years Eve party, just reading about Fox's everyday struggles helps put things in perspective. The next time you have to do something that seems really difficult, or aren't motivated to, say (as is sometimes the case for me) go for that run, just imagine how difficult it is for Michael J. Fox and/or my dad just to get up in the morning and get out the door. Everyone's fighting a battle. Parkinson's disease is a particularly shitty one. So reading about how Fox remains optimistic, and remembering how my dad did too, is a much-needed dose of inspiration.

PS. April is Parkinson's Awareness Month — hence the timing for this post. My brother Geoff and I are running the Chicago Marathon in October and raising money for the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Research. If you'd like to donate, you can do so here. Much appreciated! 

Thursday, April 22, 2021

Klara And The Sun: A Master Class in Empathy

When a living Nobel Prize in Literature winner publishes a new novel, you read it. You just do. Thankfully, this one is really, really good.

Klara And The Sun is an absolute master class in empathy. Kazuo Ishiguro's singular genius is making incredibly complex ideas seem deceptively simple and he does that here in this parable told from the perspective of an Artificial Friend — a robot — about how we hope, love, and connect to others. 

As always with Ishiguro, though the world seems just like ours, key details are different, and the novel has its own rules and logic. And you have to sort of learn as you go. And you do. 

Rich with symbolism, allusion, and poetry, this is just a stunning work of art. Easily a favorite of the year.

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Some New Dork Review Changes:

You may have noticed this is the first post in a little while (since February). I've been thinking about how to revamp The New Dork Review of Books to make it more relevant these days. I've been writing this thing for 11.5 years now, and it was getting stale. I thought briefly about shutting it down. But after a lot of soul searching, I decided, yes, I still want to do this, and also, I don't really want to change much! Good times. 

Okay, but for real, the biggest changes will be shorter, more frequent, and hopefully more interesting posts (see above as example) — no one likes the 800-word book review anymore. These posts will be more reactions to what I've read than actual reviews. I've been doing this on Instagram for a bit, and it's fun! So I'm going to work hard at being more concise (but also allow myself the freedom to do longer posts if the mood strikes).

Another change is that I've set up Substack for email subscriptions. That seems to be what the kids these days are using most frequently. If you already get each post via the old email system Feedburner, you don't have to do anything. The old system I used is still active, though it has moved into maintenance mode, so I don't know how much longer it will be active. So if you want to subscribe via Substack to make sure you continue to get posts in your inbox, or if you don't subscribe yet via email and want to, just toss in your email address in the little box in the sidebar or here.

One other minor change is that the affiliate links to books I've read now are all to Bookshop.org — that's been the case for about a year now, but figured I'd point that out. Bookshop donates part of its sales to independent bookstores, so you're doing a good thing if you buy books from there. You can also always buy books at RoscoeBooks, the store I work at, too — we ship anywhere in the U.S. 
Thanks, as always, for reading! Let me know if you have any suggestions for content you'd like to see. 

Friday, February 12, 2021

How I Learned To Hate In Ohio: Teenagers Growing Up Quickly

How I Learned To Hate In Ohio, David Stuart MacLean's terrific debut novel, is one of the most authentic accounts I've ever read of growing up in a small town. Having grown up in a small town in rural Ohio, I know a bit about this. And real recognize real. 

Baruch — but he goes by Barry, because it's less pretentious and less likely to earn him an ass-whoopin' as he's beginning high school — is your average, ordinary, everyday, bookish 14-year-old. He's gawky and awkward, like many small town 14-year-old boys, and he has trouble talking to girls and spends his free time reading dead white guy books. His father, who named him after Baruch Spinoza, is a philosophy professor at the small college in town and his mother is an executive for Marriott, traveling the world to scout locations for new hotels. It's the mid-80s, they're comfortable, everything seems completely fine. 

But then a new kid comes to town. Gurbaksh Singh is the first Sikh kid anyone in this small town has ever met. But he's a charismatic kid — he goes by Gary for similar reasons Baruch goes by Barry — and that helps him avoid the worst of what the standard high school cruelty you'd expect for him. Barry and Gary soon strike up an unlikely friendship, as do Mr. Singh and Barry's father. Then Barry's mother comes home from a long work trip, and things get weird. Barry and Gary are forced to grow up pretty quickly and tangle with some adult issues. These, especially racism, are issues they're not yet properly equipped emotionally or maturity-wise to handle.

Even so, and while Barry and Gary's collision with adulthood only gets more intense as the novel goes on, this is often a very, very funny novel. Yes, small town life is patently absurd, and MacLean captures this with expert comedy chops. As you'd expect with any novel about high school, there are bullies and girls, bad lunches and worse teachers, and immature jokes and horrific nicknames. (Barry's nickname, which literally everyone calls him, is Yo-Yo F@g, after a seemingly innocuous incident with a yo-yo in grade school. And while we're here, if very politically incorrect terms are a trigger, you may want to skip this novel — there are kind of a lot.) 

I picked this up solely for its title, which I'd misread the first time as "How I Learned To Hate Ohio." :) Either way, though, it's still a fantastic read. It's short and powerful (and powerfully funny), and I really loved it.