Tuesday, December 21, 2021

Cloud Cuckoo Land, by Anthony Doerr: Stories Are Timeless

They used to say that when writers are out of ideas, they write about writers. These days, however, it seems like when writers are out of ideas (or just want to pander to readers) they write about books, or the power of storytelling, or the importance of literature, etc., etc. I'm mostly here for it. But it's not always completely successful.

To wit, I give you this lukewarm review of Anthony Doerr's much heralded new novel, Cloud Cuckoo Land. It's, you know, fine. But it's a long, needlessly complicated, questionably structured journey to arrive at the point: Stories are timeless.

So Cloud Cuckoo Land is three stories in one, and it's like Doerr put them all in a blender and then drizzled parts of each out onto the page. There's a story told from both sides of the siege of Constantinople in 1452. There's a modern-times story of a Korean War veteran directing a play in a library and an eco-terrorist who is planning to bomb the real estate company next door. And then there's the pre-teen girl hurtling through space on a space ship several centuries in the future, presumably escaping a destroyed Earth, and along with her shipmates, hoping to restart human civilization on a distant planet.

For the first half or so of the novel, I was enthralled, and the structure of skipping back and forth between these stories, seemed to work fine. But then I got tired of it because I couldn't figure out the why. Why was it necessary that each of these stories needed to keep interrupting the others. Each story builds drama, but then we're whisked off to the others. And once we start to see their central point of converge, frankly it's a bit of a letdown. The stories seem to collapse under their own weight of expectation. 

I started this book hoping for a David Mitchell-esque display of storytelling. And the premise and structure are certainly inventive and imaginative. I just wasn't sure Doerr landed it all successfully. I'm certainly in the minority in this somewhat tepid opinion, because this has landed on many "favorites of 2021" lists. But to me, it just didn't quite deliver on what it promised.

(Side note: This book is listed at 620+ pages. It's maaaaayyyybe 450. There are tons of chapter breaks and blanks pages. And this bugged me to no end, I'm not sure why. Like the publisher wanted to make the book feel more substantial than it is.)

Thursday, December 16, 2021

The New Dork Review's Top 10 Books of 2021

On the cusp of 2022, we're still feeling the effects of 2020. But in 2021, at least in terms of books, that was mainly a good thing. Because many 2020 releases were delayed due to the pandemic, 2021 was quite the embarrassment of riches for new novels. Every week, as we put out the new releases at RoscoeBooks, we were astounded at not just the number of new releases, but the number of big-name authors (especially this fall) who published books this year. It was truly an amazing book year. 

Even so, I actually read less this year than any in the last 10 or so (around 60 total books and about 23,000 pages). I'm not sure why, it just happened that way. But I still read a ton of amazing books. And actually posted here more than any year since 2015. So that's a plus!

And but so, here are my top 10 favorite books of the year. These are in no particular order, except for No. 1. Since I read it this summer, Damnation Spring has been my no-hesitation answer for favorite book of the year. And it still is.

10. Mary Jane, by Jessica Anya Blau — Rock stars: They're just like us. Only waaaaaay cooler. Of any novel I read this year, I think this one surprised me most for how much I loved it. Yes, the "Almost Famous" comparisons are apt, but that's only one of about 10 reasons this novel is fantastic. One of my favorite parts of this novel is the coming-of-age aspect: How Mary Jane reacts when she collides with new ideas and new ways of thinking.

9. Every Day Is A Gift, by Tammy Duckworth — If you thought a memoir about a woman losing her legs in a helicopter crash couldn't also be freakin' hilarious, well, then please meet Tammy Duckworth. I was a huge fan of hers before, but after reading this, I'm in total awe of her. Truly inspirational! And she'll be the first to tell you, she has a lot of work left to do.

8. Crying In H Mart, by Michelle Zauner — This is the second year in a row I've had a musician's memoir in my top 10 (last year was Mikel Jollet's Hollywood Park), and in both cases, the book itself was barely about music. Zauner writes about her often fraught relationship with her mother, her Korean heritage and her attempt to reconnect with it through food, and her grief from her mother's death. Her prose here is clear, precise, and powerful. I fancy myself pretty knowledgable about music, but I had never heard of Japanese Breakfast before reading this memoir. Do yourself a favor, and check out the band's most recent album, which is sort of a companion to this book — it's really great, and of course this book is, too.

7. Bewilderment, by Richard Powers — This novel has more than a little in common with No. 1 on my list, and continues a recent trend in publishing, which I am completely here for: Novels with a decidedly environmentalist bent. This story of a father and his son also has a lot in common with No. 2 on my list below: It's a lesson in empathy. Both of these qualities add up to a richly rewarding reading experience, which, if you've read Powers before, you know is par for the course with him. 

6. All Together Now, by Matthew Norman — This quintessential summer novel doubles as a near-perfect "old friends reunion" novel. Matthew Norman is a must-read for me whenever he publishes, and thankfully, he writes quickly. This, his fourth novel, is my favorite of his. Jonathan Tropper, my erstwhile favorite "dude lit" writer, hasn't published anything in 10 years (he's busy writing TV), so I'm thankful Norman has stepped in to fill the void. But with this novel, Norman definitely moves beyond the traditional dude lit. This one's got all kind of heart, and more than a few twists and turns.

5. The Love Songs of W.E.B Dubois, by Honoree Fanonne Jeffers — Full disclosure, I'm not yet finished with this 800-page novel. But I'm close enough to the end that I can confidently add it to this list. This is an epic story of a Black girl's coming of age in modern times, and also the fraught history of her family. Populated with several vivid and fascinating characters, this is a brick of a novel that's actually difficult to put down. 

4. The Night Always Comes, by Willy Vlautin — Something this short shouldn't be this powerful. It's almost too cliche to describe novels about poverty and drugs as "gritty," but this novel absolutely is. And it has such an air of authenticity. Just blew me away. 

3. Crossroads, by Jonathan Franzen — Of course, The Franzen would make the list. But I'm not just fan-boying by myself over here. Many readers I've talked to have lauded this book as a huge step forward for an already incredibly accomplished novelist. And as the first in a trilogy, it's exciting to be able to look forward to seeing these characters again down the road.

2. Klara and the Sun, by Kazuo Ishiguro — What a gift for readers that a current Nobel laureate is still publishing terrific novels. We have so much to learn from Ishiguro's books, and as with all Ishiguro's stories, he uses parable to make complex ideas simpler, but incredibly profound. Here, a robot teaches us a master class in empathy. 

1. Damnation Spring, by Ash Davidson —Damn. Damn. Damn. This is sooooo freakin' good. I loved every second I spent with this book, even with some pretty harrowing plot twists. I cared about these characters so much. It's a truly great American novel. 

Thursday, December 2, 2021

Abundance, by Jakob Guanzon: Devastating Depiction of American Poverty

I remember reading an article awhile back in which people who had grown up poor discussed things that, to them, made other people seem rich. One that was really eye-opening to me is that "rich" people don't know exactly how much money they have at any given time. Jakob Guanzon's devastating novel, Abundance, really hammers that point home, as he each chapter in this novel is literally titled with the precise amount of money our protagonist Henry has.

But as jolting as that idea is to explain the difference between the haves and have-nots, Guanzon provides one that's even more profound. As Henry is working a difficult job at a rich person's house, Henry's coworker disdainfully says: "Imagine having enough money to trust people." That line, too, just blew my mind. Imagine. 

So this is a novel about the failing American dream, poverty and lost dignity, about drug addiction, and about compounding bad circumstances with even worse decisions.

The story here is about a young man named Henry, whose parents have died, left him with a mountain of debt, and he has no real opportunities to make his life better. He's spent time in a drug rehab facility as a teenager, where he meets Michelle, the eventual mother of his child, Junior. Henry and Michelle reconnect after rehab and fall in love. But struggle. And Henry gets mixed up in a drug scheme with a shady guy named Al, which eventually results in jail time. When he gets out, nothing is the same. His son doesn't recognize him and his wife hates him. 

This is all told in flashback chapters. In real-time, Michelle has left, and Henry and Junior are living in his truck. But today, it's Junior's birthday and Henry has a few bucks in his pocket which he's going to use to splurge on a hotel room for the night. And he has a scheduled job interview the next day. Things might be looking up. But will Henry finally be able to pull it together? Will he be able to regain his dignity and the respect of his son? 

Henry is certainly not the heart-of-gold, pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps protagonist you want him to be (he's certainly not Chris in The Pursuit of Happyness). But you still root for him, if for no other reason than how badly you feel for his young son. None of this is Junior's fault, and yet he's expected to maintain his stiff upper lip, live in a truck, go to school, and hope everything will eventually be okay. 

I loved this novel, even with an ending that didn't quite land right. Still, the writing here is true and clever and authentic. What a book. I'm glad the NBA longlist rescued this book from relative obscurity. Every American should read this novel.