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, 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!