Tuesday, December 6, 2022

The New Dork Review of Books Top 10 of 2022

Mirroring Christmas creep, it feels like these "favorites of the year" lists are coming out earlier and earlier. I'm already like three weeks late and this is the earliest I've ever finished this post! 

Speaking of trends, exactly half of this year's list is made up of novels either set in Chicago, by Chicago writers, or both. It was a banner literary year in the City of Broad Shoulders...and beyond. So here's this year's list, my 10 favorite books (in no particular order) of what was an incredible reading year.

10. Mount Chicago, by Adam Levin -- This novel is soooo damn funny. And infuriating. That's sort of Levin's schtick. He's the DFWest DFW since DFW DFWed. This is my favorite thing Levin's written.

9. Last Summer On State Street, by Toya Wolfe -- A fierce, stunning novel about a young girl growing up in Chicago's Robert Taylor Homes. I loved this book for its bravery. 

8. Marrying the Ketchups, by Jennifer Close -- Just pure fun. This novel is about a dysfunctional family and their dysfunctional love lives set against the backdrop of the 2016 Cubs, the horrific election that year, and a suburban restaurant. 

7. The Nineties, by Chuck Klosterman -- Required 2022 reading for Gen X. Klosterman brilliantly gives the best decade ever a fresh of coat of paint with the advantage of hindsight. The book helps you see the everything from Nirvana to Biodome 2 with clear eyes. 

6. Sea of Tranquility, by Emily St. John Mandel -- Definitely my favorite novel of the year partially taking place on a moon colony in the 2200s. There is an enormous amount of plot -- and thought-provocation (Are we IN A SIMULATION?) -- in a slim novel. 

5. Cyclorama, by Adam Langer -- Another Chicago novel that explores whether people are basically good, the consequences of history repeating itself, and about choices made during our carefree youths potentially haunting our adulthood. Smart and immensely entertaining.

4. Olga Dies Dreaming, by Xochitl Gonzalez -- One of the first novels I read in 2022, I immediately knew this story about a Puerto Rican wedding planner in NYC would wind up on this list. What starts as a frothy novel about NYC's upper crust switches to very much a political novel about Puerto Rico. It's hard to believe this confident, accomplished novel is a debut!

3. Book of Extraordinary Tragedies, by Joe Meno -- Family will find a way, is what this terrific novel from one of my favorite writers is about. This is an odd takeaway, I realize, but I loved this book in part for how accurately Meno captures the gloom of Chicago winter in this novel. 

2. Groundskeeping, by Lee Cole -- This book wasn't written just for me, obviously. But it's one of those rare novels that felt like it was. A love story, campus novel, and examination of politics all in one. Wheelhouse. Book. Loved. It. 

1. Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, by Gabrielle Zevin -- This is this year's "Gee Greg, way to go out on a limb" pick. Yes, everyone loved this book, and everyone is right. 

Tuesday, October 18, 2022

Mount Chicago, by Adam Levin: One of the Funniest Novels I've Ever Read

I have some questions for you, Mr. Levin. You're a very good writer. You KNOW you're a very good writer. You're also a very self-aware writer. So when you're as good a writer as you are, and you fully understand what you're doing and its effect on your reader as well as you do, why do you insist on aggravating your reader just to the point where he wants to throw your novel across the goddamn room? Why? Why why why why why? 

Is it because it helps the other 90 percent of the novel, which is truly a marvel, stand out in even more stark relief? Is it because you're just a prankster? Do you just like keeping your readers on their toes, making sure they're paying attention? Or is it because you truly like to inflict a small measure of pain on people?

It doesn't matter. I'll still read every damn word you ever write if the remaining words you write in your career are even one-third as f#%king incredible as the good 90 percent of Mount Chicago

To my readers, most of whom I've probably already lost: Mount Chicago is one of the funniest novels I've ever read. That's the first time I've ever bolded a sentence in a review. Because that's really the one thing you need to know about this book. And when you consider it's sort of kind of tangentially about a massive tragedy that kills thousands of people, that's a pretty neat trick. And that's not the only trick. There's no line between author and novel here. As the kids say, so meta. Except maybe there is a line? Who knows? I'm not smart enough to try to figure that out. And I don't think Adam Levin wants you try. 

To describe it further, and I fully realize this is an absolutely ridiculous analogy, and I have no doubt Adam Levin would hate this, but this is my small measure of payback for making me read pages and pages about behavioral psychology and parrots and that really, really long duck (yes, duck) joke: Mount Chicago is what would happen if Kurt Vonnegut on speed, a baked and giggly Philip Roth (can you imagine?!), and David Foster Wallace on...well, no, just normal DFW...had a book baby. 

I can't find the passage or the interview now, and maybe I'm imagining this but, I think DFW said something really smart once about reader aggravation: That a good novel must have parts that aggravate the reader, but a good novelist knows just the right amount to antagonize his reader before he can pull back just in time, and entertain again. And so if you think about it, this novel's 575 pages, so 90 percent (again, my approximation for the non-purposefully-aggravating parts) of 575 is 517.5 INCREDIBLE pages. I like those odds. You probably skim over - whether on purpose or because you drift - 10 percent of every novel you read anyway, right?!

All right, so anyway: I loved this book. Absolutely loved it. You don't need to know what it's about, you can read that anywhere. But whatever you read that it's about, it's actually about Entourage (the HBO show) and metafiction and Chicago politics and psychology and cryptocurrency and other get-rich-quick-scams and the author's face and stand-up comedy and writing and depression and tragedy and love and coming-of-age and parrots. 


Thursday, October 13, 2022

Our Missing Hearts, by Celeste Ng: About An All-Too-Terrifyingly-Real Dystopian America

By the standard definition of dystopia -- an imagined state or society where there is great suffering or injustice -- Celeste Ng's new novel Our Missing Hearts is DEFINITELY set in a dystopian America. What's most terrifying -- and what makes this such an engaging read -- is that it's not at all hard to imagine this dystopian version of America becoming reality very soon. 

Ng's dystopian America, she tells us at the end, is based on real events -- violence against Asian Americans, freedoms curtailed in the name of "patriotism," even children being ripped away from their families. 

But there is cause for hope here: In this novel, librarians are heroes of the resistance. Stories and poetry and art still matter. And even as dire as things are, a small and dedicated group is still invested in fighting fascism, racism, and injustice. 

The story is about a 12-year-old boy named Bird. Bird's mother, a poet, has disappeared and Bird and his father, who works at a university library, have no clue what's happened to her. What we do know is that Bird's mother had published a poem that became, though it was not intended this way, a symbol of the resistance against a law known as PACT -- or Preserving American Cultures and Traditions. PACT was enacted after a years-long event known as the Crisis, which galvanized and basically codified burgeoning fascist, authoritarian, and horribly racist tendencies in America. Sound familiar? 

Bird begins finding some clues about his mother's whereabouts, and endeavors to find out what happened to her. And that's the meet of the novel: Will he find her? And will he discover why she disappeared?

I love Celeste Ng, and this is another terrific novel from her -- her first foray into what could be considered "speculative fiction." It's so beautifully written. And Ng truly understand compassion, family dynamics, loyalty, and heartbreak. She is absolutely a joy to read, even when this novel itself isn't exactly cheerful. 

Thursday, October 6, 2022

The Great Man Theory, by Teddy Wayne: Ignatius Reilly Lives!

I have no idea if Teddy Wayne had Ignatius Reilly - the pugnacious protagonist of the classic novel A Confederacy of Dunces - in mind as he penned his character Paul in his new novel The Great Man Theory. But if he did, he nailed it! Paul is a middle-aged, divorced dad, Brooklyn writer living with his mother who is constantly upset with the state of the world and beyond befuddled that the world doesn't appreciate his brilliance. 

But here's the surprise: Paul is a little bit all of us. Paul is sure social media is destroying society. Paul has trouble understanding why his passion projects -- in his case, long-form articles about really obscure subjects published in academic journals -- aren't more widely read and respected. But mostly, Paul can't understand how so many people in this supposedly enlightened country can go along with the machinations of the orange fiend in the White House. (Yes, it's 2018 or so, and the Cheeto-faced Shitgibbon is at the height of his manipulative powers.)

And now, Paul discovers his own mother -- he had to move in with her after he was denied tenure and then got demoted from his university teaching job -- is a fan of Colin Mackey, the blustery anchor on a nightly news show bearing no accidental resemblance to Sean Hannity and Fox News.

But Paul has a plan to solve all these problems. He's currently working on a book titled The Luddite's Manifesto that will set the set the world straight and vault him to cultural prominence and wealth beyond his wildest dreams. 

It's pretty laughable of course, but let's let Paul/Ignatius have his dream because despite all this, we somehow manage to feel for Paul, a little bit. He is losing touch with his 11-year-old daughter who he only gets to see on weekend (part of the reason for this is that he constantly explains the world to her in the most condescending terms, and she recognizes his life as sad). But he really does love her and really strives to be a good parent.

Eventually, as is inevitable, Paul hits rock bottom and has a moment of clarity. What is he really doing to help the declining state of society? What can he do? Can he do more?

There are few "plot twists" in this novel that make you go "huh?" But on the whole, this is a really fun read. Paul is exasperating for sure! But do you root for him? Sometimes it's hard to tell if you should. Paul, in addition to standing in as a modern-day Ignatius Reilly, is also the guy in the classic Onion article, "Area Man Accepts Burden Of Being Only Person On Earth Who Understands How World Actually Works." 

Monday, September 19, 2022

Book of Extraordinary Tragedies, by Joe Meno: "Family will find a way"

Joe Meno is the best, and his new novel, Book of Extraordinary Tragedies, is another terrifically quintessential Chicago story from him. It's a novel about family and striving and choices, and whether or not anyone is able to escape their fate, their history, their family's past. 

Mitt Romney famously said that if someone really wants to go to college, all he has to do is "borrow money from his parents." For Aleks Fa, who wasn't born on third base thinking he hit a triple, that's not an option. Aleks, a 20-year-old southsider navigating life in a Polish neighborhood with an absent father and a sick mother, is the only thing keeping the rest of his family together - getting his three-year-old niece Jazzy to preschool, looking after his 13-year-old brother Daniel who is having some trouble, and taking his older sister, Isobel, a former music prodigy and math genius, to chemo. It's a lot. 

It's 2008 and the Great Recession is just starting. But to this family that barely scrapes by -- and only then by all helping each other -- the financial collapse barely registers. That's just how the world works, to them. People are poor. They struggle. Money is barely a real thing. So for a family like this, and an extremely likable and root-for-able character like Aleks, is there even a path out of poverty? What if hard work simply is never enough?

Meno gets this just right -- it's a story that feels real and immediate. And there are moments of pure levity -- especially in the relationships between Aleks and Isobel -- two siblings who spend as much time at each others throats as they do genuinely caring for each other.

I really loved this book. I love Meno's insightful writing and how he portrays Chicago. It really has that Chicago gritty feel. I've loved all his books, but this one is my favorite from him. 

Tuesday, September 13, 2022

Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, by Gabrielle Zevin: Friendship For the Win

Everyone is right. Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, and Tomorrow, by Gabrielle Zevin is truly extraordinary. It took me a bit to talk myself into reading this novel, because "two friends design video games" just didn't sound like something I'd be interested in. But I'm here to tell you, as someone who doesn't care a whit about video games, if that's also what holding you back from reading this: Give it a shot. Video games are basically the decorative curtains in this novel. And actually I learned a lot about how video games can be their own art form, which was immensely interesting.

Anyway, to bring this point home, and this isn't an original sentiment, but this novel is a lot like Michael Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay in the sense that the story transcends the subject. Like, I didn't care about comic books either, and LOVED that book. And I loved this book too.

Let me throw out another bit of comparison to help arrange this in your mind: This is like The Social Network crossed with Lauren Groff's novel Fates and Furies, only this story is about friendship, not marriage. But like that novel, the themes of creativity, collaboration, and trust are all over this book, too.

Briefest of plot summaries: Two friends, Sam and Sadie, who grew up loving video games, reconnect in college and start a company to make video games together. But as their success grows, their personal friendship becomes increasingly fraught. Will their partnership -- both business and as friends -- survive?

What stands out about this book, other than it being just a great feat of storytelling, is how immersive it is. It is one of those novels that as you read, you get lost, you barely know you're reading. Then it's three hours later. And your eyes hurt a little. 

It's not flawless, but my quibbles are minor -- and they don't take away from just how much fun I had with this, how affecting it is, and just what a great overall reading experience it is. Definitely a favorite of the year.

Thursday, August 25, 2022

Cyclorama, by Adam Langer: Is Understanding the Past Enough to Avoid Repeating It?

"In spite of everything I still believe people are really good at heart."
-- Anne Frank

Is this notion the naivete of youth, or a sentiment that bears out accurately?  As much as history has repeated itself in the last several years, it's often hard to believe that people are really good at heart. That question is the central through-line for Adam Langer's astonishingly agile and immensely entertaining new novel, Cyclorama.

The first half of this novel is about a group of high school kids in the early 1980s in Evanston, Illinois, putting on a play about Anne Frank. They are your typical high school kids. They party, they have crushes and rivalries, and they try to dodge skeevy adults, including their ultra-skeevy drama teacher. 

Then we switch to 34 years later, it's 2016, the Mango Mussolini has just been elected, and we catch up with all these characters again to see how so much of what they experienced in high school informed their adult lives. Some are famous, some have been beaten by life, and some, for better or worse, have simply wound up becoming who they were supposed to be.

This ingenious structure lets Langer explore the idea of history repeating itself, both for all these characters (how did the trauma some of them experience so long ago inform their modern lives? And why are these still important?) and also for the world at large. Langer draws parallels between Anne Frank in 1942 and immigrants in America in 2017 being hunted down and deported. Think just being aware of history means it can't repeat itself? Think again. 

But so are people basically good? This novel doesn't give easy answers. But what a fascinating, immensely entertaining, carefully constructed and executed, and inspiring read. This is near the top of my list of favorites of the year. HIGHLY recommended.

Thursday, August 4, 2022

My Top 10 Favorite Book Titles of the Last 20 Years

I've been reading Anthony Marra's terrific new novel, Mercury Pictures Presents, and in reading some of the reviews, I noticed most identify it as his second novel, and his first since 2013's A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. I guess that's technically accurate, but it I was sure there was a book in between. And there is! It's The Tsar of Love and Techno, which isn't technically a novel -- it's more a novel in stories. But more than remembering details about that book in particular, thinking about it again reminded me how much I love that title. 

And so that's a long walk to tell you how I then started thinking about some of my other favorite book titles. And since I haven't done much reviewin' lately, how about a post of some of my favorite book titles? This is not an exhaustive list by any means, just the best titles that came immediately to mind. What are your favorites?

10. Shotgun Lovesongs (Nickolas Butler) -- This title, which is so memorable, refers to a fictional album. I wish it were real. The novel itself is memorable for being incredible, as well.

9. Priestdaddy (Patricia Lockwood) -- With this title you start laughing before you even start reading the book. Then you start reading and laugh even more! 

8. Praying Drunk (Kyle Minor) -- See above.

7. The Noble Hustle: Poker, Beef Jerky, and Death (Colson Whitehead) -- I know nonfiction gets a little more leniency on title, but this one is still fantastic.  

6. Flimsy Little Plastic Miracles (Ron Currie Jr.) -- This one always makes me laugh because it's referring to nicotine patches. 

5. How I Learned to Hate In Ohio (David Stuart MacLean) -- Before I actually read this great coming-of-age novel, I kept reading the title as "How I Learned to Hate Ohio," which, having grown up in Ohio, was relevant to my interests. 

4. The Sugar Frosted Nutsack (Mark Leyner) -- Honestly, the best thing about this book is its title, which, if you're like me and are 12 years old, is still funny every time. When I reviewed this back in the day, having barely made it through this trainwreck, I opined that the book made me want to punch Leyner in his own sugar frosted nutsack.

3. A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again (David Foster Wallace) -- The title essay that launched a thousand copycats, this is one of the first DFW pieces I read. And I was hooked.

2. The Tsar of Love and Techno (Anthony Marra) -- The inspiration for this list, I'm not really sure what it is about this title that's so sticky. But it's really good.

1. I Love You But I've Chosen Darkness (Claire Vaye Watkins) -- Just brilliant. Also, the cover is very good. 

Hall of Shame Titles

This list starts and stops with one title: Where The Crawdads Sing (Delia Owens) -- Not a great novel either, or at least not worth its virality. But this title seems like a parody of a real title, like what would happen if The Simpsons were making fun of an early 2000s Oprah book club book.

Tuesday, July 12, 2022

Top 5 Favorite Books of 2022...So Far

We're well over halfway through the year now, so I'm just little late here on the "top 5 favorites of the year so far" post. But it was strategic! I didn't want my post to get lost in the shuffle of all the others. How's that for rationalization? 

The first half of 2022 was frankly a little light on big names and big fiction (with the exceptions of your Emily St. John Mandels and Jennifer Egans, etc.). Many reasons for that, I think — publishers moved a lot of their pandemic-delayed titles to the second half of 2021, which left the first few months of 2022 a little lighter than normal. And an embarrassment of riches in the second half of the year is a trend continuing this year as the latter months of 2022 are absolutely STACKED

Without further ado, here are my five favorite books of 2022 so far (in no particular order). 

5. Marrying The Ketchups, by Jennifer Close — Despite its somewhat odd (trying to be nice) title, I loved this family saga set in Chicago in the fall of 2016. Each of the three main characters here is a hot mess, in life and in love. Will they all pull it together, like the 2016 Cubs? 

4. The Nineties, by Chuck Klosterman — This cultural history is absolutely essential reading for people, like me, who grew up in the 1990s. Nirvana. Biodome. Bill Clinton. American Beauty. World Wide Web. You name it, it's probably here. And the book does a great job of framing the discussion to show you that your 90s nostalgia, while not exactly misplaced, may be a little rosier than warranted — or, at least, everything you thought you knew about the 1990s isn't quite right. 

3. Sea of Tranquility, by Emily St. John Mandel — The third novel in the Glass Hotel / Station Eleven universe is a whirlwind through centuries and different planes of reality. This much going on in a novel this slim would be an abject disaster in the hands of a less skillful novelist. But this works immensely well. Station Eleven is one of my favorite books of the last 10 years or so, and this one is almost as good. 

2. Olga Dies Dreaming, by Xóchitl González — This was the first 2022 novel I read this year, and boy, we were off to a good start! What you think might be a breezy piece of brain candy switches quickly to a dead-serious political novel about the plight of Puerto Ricans. Incredibly well-written. Nearly unputdownable.

1. Groundskeeping, by Lee Cole — A campus novel that's a love story and political, too. Wheelhouse. Probably my favorite of the year so far, not because I was surprised I liked it, but because I was surprised how accomplished it is for a debut. 

Tuesday, June 7, 2022

Either/Or, by Elif Batuman: Sex and Booze and Kierkegaard

It's rarely true, but in this case it is: The sequel is better than the original! In Elif Batuman's new novel Either/Or — a continuation of the story she started with 2017's The Idiot — Selin's story of life and love at Harvard marches on.

In The Idiot, during Selin's freshman year at Harvard, she discovered first love (but it's complicated) with a Hungarian dude named Ivan. In this novel, her sophomore year, Ivan is gone (though not forgotten) and she discovers the truths of college life: sex and booze and Kierkegaard!

Frankly, not much happens plot-wise in this book. Selin reads a lot and is often stopped cold by how what she reads (Pushkin, Henry James, even Soren himself) applies to her own life and what happened with Ivan a year ago. I joked with a friend that this novel reminded me of a much funnier, more erudite, and more astute version of me sitting in my dorm room in 1996 explaining to anyone who would listen why Smashing Pumpkins' song Mayonaise is about my life. 

Another improvement in this novel vs The Idiot is that Selin has developed a snarky, self-deprecating sense of humor. She's got a little bit of a Tiny Fey-ish thing going on here, and I loved it. Take, for instance, her thoughts on the 1980s show Voltron: 

"This reminded me of Voltron, a cartoon about five space pilots who were supposed to defend the universe. In every episode they got into a terrible predicament, where the one who was a girl was always about to have to become a sex slave and carry fruit on her head. At the last minute, they would remember to merge their five rockets, thereby forming Voltron: a gigantic unbeatable robot-man with rocket-arms and rocket-legs. It was unclear why they didn’t become Voltron earlier. ‘It’s probably because of their selfish American individualism,’ Sahin said.” 

"...carry fruit on her head..." That just slayed me!

So, if you enjoyed The Idiot, I think you'll love this too. This truly is a sequel — it picks up almost exactly where The Idiot left off as if there hasn't been a break of five years between novels at all. So it does help to have read the first one. And I'm hopeful there'll be more, because we leave off here on a little bit of a cliffhanger. But so, Either/Or was a lot of fun — extremely smart, really entertaining.  

Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Sleepwalk, by Dan Chaon: Dizzying Roadtrip Romp

If you've read Thomas Pynchon's novel Inherent Vice (or seen the equally confusing Joaquin Phoenix / Paul Thomas Anderson movie), you're in good shape to take on Dan Chaon's latest novel, Sleepwalk. But if you didn't, you should definitely check out this phenomenal book anyway. I'm a huge Chaon fan, and I think Sleepwalk is his best book yet.

Though Pynchon's novel is ostensibly a crime novel set in 1970s California, and Chaon's is a roadtrip romp set in a near-future America near collapse, the two are similar in their zany plots that zig when you expect them to zag. I mean that in the best possible way. In Sleepwalk, there are preternaturally smart chimps, violent right-wing militias, even a creepy cult. It's great! 

Though the plot is dizzying, dazzling, and constantly keeps you on your toes, the true highlight of this novel is its narrator, Billy. He's the best and most sympathetic antihero since Walter White. Billy is basically a cross-country errand boy, delivering human cargo for some shady enterprise we're not allowed to know much about. He and his trusty dog Flip (a pit bull he rescued from a dogfighting ring, so yeah, it's not hard to like this guy right off the bat) road trip around country in their camper to complete these nefarious tasks.

But then, Billy's checkered past catches up to him: He gets a call from a woman claiming to be named Cammie, and claiming to be his daughter. But whoa boy, it's just a bit more involved than that! The rest of the novel is about how Billy tries to track down Cammie, find out who she really is, and what she hopes to gain by contacting him. It's a scene, man. 

This is one my favorite books of the year so far -- it's sheer adrenaline and great fun. I mean, look at the Gillian Flynn blurb: "To say this is one of the best novels I've read in years is almost not enough." Anything I can tell you to talk you into reading this book pales in comparison to that. Give it a go!

Tuesday, May 17, 2022

Mid-May Reads Round-Up: Paperback Edition

I'm a little behind. Life has intervened...but in a good way. Long story short: I got a new job! Starting June 1st, I'll be doing marketing and communications for StoryStudio Chicago and its parent nonprofit, Stories Matter Foundation. I'm stoked! I actually took a short story class at StoryStudio about a decade ago, and I loved it! And since then, while always intending to go back for another, I'd always had them sort of in the back of mind as an organization that would be fun to work for. So now I couldn't be more happy to be joining them. Check them out -- they do wonderful work! 

Don't worry, though, I plan to continue The New Dork Review of Books, as long as I can find a few minutes here and there to tell you about books I love. And speaking of which, I read several really great books in the last few weeks. Oddly, and I didn't do this on purpose, maybe just the way my brain works when it's stressed, these are all paperbacks I'd had on my shelf for varying amounts of time.

1. The Five Wounds, by Kristin Valdez Quade: I haven't been able to stop thinking about this novel since I finished it several weeks ago. It's the story of three generations of the Padilla family, a small-town northern New Mexico group that is struggling with all the problems common to poor small town folks: drugs, lack of opportunity, teen pregnancy, crime, more. Told from the perspectives of grandmother, son, and granddaughter, Quade writes with incredible empathy and insight. You intensely feel for these people, especially during the times they're trying to do right by each other. It doesn't always go well, and there are tragedies and setbacks. But there is redemption, too. Even when people make poor decisions, even when they're at the worst, and EVEN when they're cruel to one another, we have to try to understand why...and still root for them. It's a slow-burn roller coaster (how's that for an oxymoron) and one of the best books I've read this year.  

2. Black Buck, by Mateo Askaripour: A workplace novel. A satire about silly tech-bro start-up culture in NYC. But most importantly, a dead-serious contemplation of racism both in the professional world, and also the world at-large. This strange but super smart novel veers off into all kinds of surprising directions (sometimes to a fault), but ultimately it's a really satisfying, entertaining read. Often laugh-out-loud funny ("After waking up with a headache bigger than Kanye's ego" " or "my throat was drier than a nun's vagina," eg) but you'll still come away with this with a better sense of how difficult it is to be Black in America.

3. The Idiot, by Elif Batuman: Plotless and meandering, but also witty, surprisingly funny, and uncommonly profound. Everyone read this book a few years ago, and there were many different reactions, from "most annoying narrator ever" to "wow, she is great!"  I thought I'd pick it up and give it a try because a sequel titled Either/Or is out May 24. I liked it more than I thought I would. The character is super relatable — I remember exactly what it was like to be a rudderless college student in the mid-1990s, tossed into the adult world, not quite equipped with the emotional maturity to handle adult situations. But you learn...slowly and with much pain.

4. The Shining Girls, by Lauren Beukes: In order to toss around review cliches like "compulsively readable," which this novel DEFINITELY is, I think there should be certain standards to define the term. If so, then here's my metric for compulsively readable: I read the last 200 pages of this book in basically one sitting. So yeah, this is good. This Chicago-set novel is one I've had on my shelves for years. For my money, Lauren Beukes is one of the more underrated thriller writers working today. I finally picked this up now because of the series on Apple+. And I'm very glad I did. What an amazingly original story - a time-traveling serial killer is hunted down by one of his victims who survived his attack. Loved it! 

Tuesday, April 26, 2022

Marrying the Ketchups, by Jennifer Close: Sweet Home, Chicago

If you are a Chicagoan, the fall of 2016 was the absolute epitome of the "best of times, the worst of times." The Cubs won their first World Series in 108 years...and then six days later, there was an election, and I don't remember the rest, but I think it was really bad.

These are the backdrop events for Jennifer Close's fantastic new novel, Marrying the Ketchups. Sullivan family patriarch Bud has dropped dead of a heart attack. In his wake, he's left an institution Oak Park restaurant and a devastated family. A life-long Cubs fan, poor Bud checked out just before that rainy November night in Cleveland when the Cubs lifted a century-old curse, and that fact alone is all the more devastating to his family.

The restaurant Bud started in the early 1970s is still the cornerstone of all the Sullivans' lives, even as their lives have diverged away from the friendly confines and outdated decor of Sullivan's. After Bud's death, the novel tells the story of the Sullivan family from the perspective of three characters. 

Gretchen is mid-30s, living in New York City and fronting a popular 90s cover band. When her boyfriend, also the band's guitarist, cheats on her, she dissolves the band and moves back to Chicago to live above the restaurant. Her older sister Jane lives a bougie Lake Forest life with her rich husband (who she suspects is cheating on her) and her two kids. And then Gretchen and Jane's cousin Teddy, the restaurant's floor manager, gets dumped by his boyfriend, only to begin an affair with him after he's engaged to another guy. So yeah, all their lives a little bit of a mess. But they take comfort in each other, in between shouting matches and disagreements. Just your normal family...

The meat of the novel is each of these characters evaluating their romantic relationships, their relationships to each other, and crucially, their relationship to the restaurant, the symbol of the ties that bind their family together. 

If you were a fan of Claire Lombardo's The Most Fun We Ever Had, you'll love this book. I absolutely did — a definite favorite of the year so far. 

Tuesday, April 5, 2022

Sea of Tranquility, by Emily St. John Mandel: Is This a Simulation?

Intricate, but accessible: That is how I think about Emily St. John Mandel's stories. Her new novel, Sea of Tranquility, is that and then some. In fact, it's freaking brilliant.

Sea of Tranquility is the third novel in the Station Eleven-The Glass House universe. I hesitate to say "trilogy," because god-willing, there'll be more. And besides, the stories themselves are only tangentially connected. That's to say, you don't need to have read the other two to enjoy Sea of Tranquility (though of course having done so will provide some important context and enrich your reading experience. This fantastic New Yorker piece profiling St. John Mandel tells you all you need to know about how the three novels are related).

Of the three, Sea of Tranquility is the most straight-up speculative fiction: The thrust of the plot of the novel is a character traveling back in time to try to figure whether there's a "glitch in the matrix." So the main question the novel asks is this: Are we living in a simulation? And if so, what would cause several different characters over the course of several centuries to experience the same anomalous event? 

Structure-wise, Mandel is up to her usual tricks — she jumps all over the place in time and geography to follow the stories of several fascinating characters: A British fellow traveling to Canada, an author (who very much resembles the author of this book) of a pandemic novel on a book tour, a NYC woman who had been friends with Vincent (from The Glass Hotel), and a down-on-his-luck time traveler who lives on the moon. But as always, despite the leaps, it's not hard to follow. This won't be the only time you'll hear this comparison, but there's definitely a Cloud Atlas vibe to this novel.

Mandel uses all these literary fireworks as her vehicle to ask a very simple question with a very difficult answer: What is real? If we're living in simulation, do we need the so-called red pill to awaken to what's real, or, does it matter — as a character comments, "a life lived in a simulation is still a life."

I loved this book. Emily St. John Mandel's superpower is packing an enormous amount of plot and theme into a paucity of pages. Though this has all the elements of the best science fiction, you won't confuse this with Neal Stephenson or Philip K. Dick. St. John Mandel is a much more nimble, much less verbose writer. And her novels are the better for it. This is easily a favorite of the year so far. 

Tuesday, March 29, 2022

The Nineties, by Chuck Klosterman: A History of the Greatest Decade of All Time

Seminal Simpsons scene from Season 7, Episode 24, Homerpalooza, which aired May 19, 1996.

GenX Concertgoer 1: Oh here comes that cannonball guy. He's cool.

GenX Concertgoer 2: Are you being sarcastic, dude?

GenX Concertgoer 1: (startled, then saddened): I don't even know anymore. 

That's the nineties in a nutshell, isn't it? 

But what I love about Chuck Klosterman's new book, The Nineties, is that he reframes this decade in fascinating ways to show that everything you thought you knew about the 1990s might be wrong — even if you think you remember the decade vividly. He certainly doesn't argue that the nineties was the greatest decade of all time, but he doesn't not argue that either. 

I started high school in 1991 and finished college in 2000 (don't do that math lol), so yeah, the nineties were definitely my most formative years. I remember where I was the first time I heard Smells Like Teen Spirit. I saw Titanic in the theater. I borrowed a dubbed cassette of 2 Live Crew's As Nasty as They Wanna Be from a friend and listened to it secretly on my Walkman (sorry, mom, if you're reading this). I was amused by the unreality of The Real World. And for a brief time, I was just as perplexed by the Internet as everyone else. Oh yeah, and of course we had one of those silly see-through phones that's on the cover. (I even bought one as a gag gift for my wife on ebay a few years ago.)

Klosterman handles all these and so much more with the discerning eye of an historian, the coolness of a cultural critic, and the writerly chops of a top-tier essayist. He covers so much ground here, including Ross Perot, Biosphere 2, Friends and Seinfeld, Body Count, Napster, Bill Clinton, the 1994 MLB strike, Crystal Pepsi, Reality Bites, Alanis Morissette and Liz Phair, Pulp Fiction, Michael Jordan, cable news, Garth Brooks, and about a thousand other things. I was surprised at how comprehensive this feels. 

Even if you don't always agree with Klosterman's arguments, and there are definitely some not-universally-agreed-upon ideas here, it's still fun seeing him make his case. His main point here is that almost nothing about how we remember the 1990s is how it really was. Still, it's pretty easy to draw a straight line from much of what happened in the 1990s to how things are today, even if things today are very, very different.

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

Groundskeeping, by Lee Cole: Love Is a Smoke Made with The Fume of Sighs

Fair warning to take this absolutely glowing review with just the tiniest grain of salt. That's because Lee Cole's debut novel Groundskeeping is an absolute wheelhouse book for me, so there's almost no chance I wasn't going to love it. And love it, I did! 

It's a campus novel. It's a love story. It's an examination of class and politics. It's a look at how writers are inspired to write what they write. And it's all narrated by a guy from a small conservative rural town trying to punch his way up in the world. Yeah, there's a lot going on here, but it works. Cole is a deeply astute writer and all these ingredients of story combine to create a richly satisfying dish. 

The story is this: Owen is 28 and drifting. He lives in this rural Kentucky town with his grandfather and Uncle Cort and works as a groundskeeper at the local small college. Still with aspirations of being a writer after crashing and drifting a bit, the job allows him to take an English class, a first step to getting his life back on track. Then, he meets Alma, 26, an already medium-successful poet and novelist who is a writer-in-residence for the year at the college. Sparks fly! 

But Alma's background -- her parents emigrated from Bosnia to escape the war when she young, she's a Muslim though non-practicing, and she attended Princeton -- is very different from Owen's. Owen's parents, though he's mildly estranged from both (hence why he's living with his grandfather) are both divorced and remarried, both evangelical Christians, and very conservative. Alma's parents, immigrants, doctors, well-educated, are...not those things. They're two families, both alike in dignity, but both skeptical of their children's choice of partner.

The story is set in 2016 and all around Owen's and Alma's rural Kentucky town, Trump is ascendent. Though Owen and Alma are both appalled by this development, their different backgrounds create its own tension. Owen has a mild inferiority complex, always wondering if Alma looks down on him, and bristles when she ask him about things like his past drug use, etc. Even in (or especially in?) this day and age, can two people from such different origins make it work?  

As I read, I felt about this book about how I feel about all books I'm connecting with. I didn't want it to end. In fact. let's let Cole himself explain what this is like (in the context of Owen meeting Alma for the first time): 

“I felt the competing desires, as I often did when meeting someone new, to know everything at once and to save it all for later. It was like the feeling one has reading a good book, the sensation of being propelled toward the end and at the same time wishing to linger.”

That's not a particularly original sentiment, I realize. But just the way Cole writes these sentences illustrates that point so clearly and deftly. It's a good representation of his style, his perceptiveness, and why I loved reading this.  

This novel first arrived on my radar when I noticed blurbs from both Ann Patchett and Richard Russo, two of my all-time favorite writers. So naturally I was going to check it out. If you are one of the many people, like me, who was disappointed by the latest Sally Rooney novel, try this one instead. The feel is similar, but this is so much better. 

Friday, March 4, 2022

The Storyteller, by Dave Grohl: Genuine, Affable Man Loves Music

The Storyteller is an episodic memoir about Dave Grohl's life, his fascination with music, and his rise to become one of the more recognizable rock stars of all time. Yes, his time in Nirvana and his relationship with Kurt Cobain is in there, but it's not the focus. Rather, the focus is just how much Dave Grohl loves music. My favorite parts of the book are when he is assuring us how gobstopped he is to meet his musical idols, from Iggy Pop to Little Richard to AC/DC, even after he himself has achieved no small measure of fame. It's immensely relatable! 

Here's the thing about this book: If you didn’t know much at all about Dave Grohl, you’d probably read his book as, at best corny and at worst just god-awfully sappy. But instead, because it is Dave Grohl, and because we know music is quite literally his life and that he just seems like an affable, genuine dude, it's pretty easy to love this book. After all, it’s extremely difficult to be cynical about the writer of a book who himself seems to be the antithesis of cynical.

And the man sure can a tell a story! Grohl tells us he definitely wrote this book himself (no ghostwriter!). He explains that when everything shut down in March 2020, he nearly lost his mind because he missed the connections with people. And so he needed something to occupy his time while he couldn't play music. And I believe it! Some of the writing here is just so goofy and earnest, it couldn't have been written by anyone else but Grohl. Here, let me show you:

"I walk through this crazy life of a musician like a little boy in a museum surrounded by the exhibits I've spent a lifetime studying. And when I finally come face-to-face with someone who has inspired me along the way, I am thankful. I am grateful. And take none of it for granted. I am a firm believer in the shared humanity of music...I believe that people are inspired by people. That is why I feel the need to connect with my fans when they approach me. I'm a fan too."

I’ve seen Foo Fighters live twice, and both times they absolutely rocked the joint (the joint, in both cases, was the venerable Wrigley Field). One of those times was during the now-infamous “throne” tour in 2015 — Grohl was confined to a ridiculous throne he designed himself while on pain meds after he broke his leg falling off a stage in Sweden. Still rocked. He talks about this Wrigley show in the Conclusion of this book, and discusses how playing a show at a stadium across the street from where he saw his first ever show (Naked Raygun at Cubbie Bear in 1982) had brought his illustrious career full circle. 

I like Foo Fighters' music well enough, but I would never try to make an argument that they're in the top-tier of rock bands. Still, they're just a really good time. And that's the draw to see them live — or, as my friends are probably tired of hearing me say, I wish I loved anything as much as Dave Grohl loves playing music.

I greatly, greatly enjoyed this book. I mean, there's no way I wouldn't. And it's not just me: Literally every reader I've talked to who's read this has loved it too. You will not be disappointed! Remember: It's times like these we learn to live again.  

Monday, February 28, 2022

The Ministry for the Future, by Kim Stanley Robinson: How to Save the World in 108 Chapters

Rare is the cli-fi novel that is hopeful. But Kim Stanley Robinson's novel The Ministry for the Future actually is. Which is ironic given that the novel begins with a heat wave in India that kills 20 million people in one fell swoop. (If you're unfamiliar, "cli-fi" is shorthand for climate fiction, a new-ish genre whose popularity is growing in direct proportion to the worsening climate crisis.)

Imagine if death on that scale happened in the real world. How would we react? Would we finally change? That's where we start in this novel about what it'll take to stop climate change and, essentially, continue living on this planet. 

Our main character, as much as there is one, is a woman named Mary who has been tapped to lead the newly developed Ministry for the Future, headquartered in Zurich, Switzerland. It's 20-30 years in the future (from our present day) and this organization has been created by the signees of the Paris Climate Agreement to literally save the world. One of the very few people who survived the Indian heat wave, an American named Frank who had been there working for a relief organization, then seeks out Mary and to tell her his story and advocate for fast and far-reaching change. The two form an unlikely bond. 

But this plot is almost secondary to Robinson taking us through a litany of vignettes all over the world describing how people are experiencing the climate crisis (climate refugees, animal extinction, a flood in Los Angeles, and so many more). These set pieces show us the magnitude of the problem and how difficult the Ministry for the Future's task is. But through a combination of changes to the global banking system, some creative geoengineering, reforestation and re-wilding natural habitats, and even some rather nefarious tactics it'd be easy to label as eco-terrorism, change begins to happen.  

Robinson spares no detail in the explanations of these solutions, and it's mostly pretty interesting. But there are times it's a little dry, frankly — Robinson takes us deep into the weeds of global finance and economic theory. Also, there are (to me) pretty interminable descriptions of hiking expeditions in the Alps. And some of the little sections, like two told from the points of view of a photon and History, just feel a little off. 

But overall, it's a sobering, but illuminating and hopeful, view of what will need to happen to ensure we actually do have a future. In the real world, will we have the resolve to make these changes before it's too late?

Thursday, February 17, 2022

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, by Haruki Murakami: The Tale of Toru

I'm a huge Haruki Murakami fan. I love Norwegian Wood. I REALLY love Kafka On The Shore. I love a lot of his short fiction too, and I annoyingly foist What I Talk About When I Talk About Running on all my running friends. 

And so when you tell people you're a huge Haruki Murakami fan, they're always like, "But bro, have you even read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle?" Until now, my answer was a sheepish no. But now I have! And I'm upset I put it off so long. It's freakin' brilliant.  

(Quick detour: Reading Murakami's opus gave me the occasion to revisit this post I wrote in 2011 about being a new Murakami fan. It cracked me up more than a little. I'm glad to see my stance on Amazon has remained consistent lo these 11 years. But my 11-years-ago self would be VERY disappointed in me if he knew it took me 11 years to finally get to Wind-Up Bird. Anyway, back to the post...)

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, if you're not familiar, is not about a bird (well, it's a little bit about a bird). But really, it's the story of a fellow named Toru Okada. (Toru is also the name of the narrator in Norwegian Wood, but that Toru is Toru Watanabe, so the Toru here is a different Toru. I think? But the fact that Murakami uses the same name is just another example of his unconventionality...or maybe it's a just an oversight? Or a coincidence? Or maybe it is the same person? Damn you, Murakami, for making me overthink everything! Or bless you, I'm not sure which.) 

So Toru is about as average as a guy can be. He's early 30s, a lawyer (though currently unemployed), married, and living a nice comfortable life. But then weird things start happening. People keep stopping by his house and telling him crazy stories —a guy tells him about his war experience in Manchuria, and a woman tells him about her experience as a prostitute.

And then his wife leaves him. And he spends some time in the bottom of a well contemplating life. And then his missing cat returns! And then things get even weirder. 

I mean, if you've read Murakami, you know that summarizing a plot is an exercise in futility. These novels have their own rules, their own logic, and occurrences and objects and dreams are symbols within metaphors wrapped in allusions. But then again, some things just are what they are (ie, sometimes the curtains were just f@$king blue, to recycle a meme I used writing about Kafka on the Shore.) 

Despite all that's going on here — fate vs. free will, the nature of reality, how we're connected to others, and so much more — this is a smooth, easy read. The No. 1 reason it took me so damn long to talk myself into reading this is that I had the (vastly mistaken) idea that Wind-Up Bird is difficult, a tough hang. It is not. It's a lot of fun. And I'd recommend it highly...whether or not you're an MFA bro. 

Thursday, February 10, 2022

The Night Watchman, by Louise Erdrich: Poetic and Powerful

When an author as beloved as Louise Erdrich finally wins a Pulitzer, you read the book. You just do. But honestly, I put it off for a long time, and approached reading The Night Watchman like homework — something I felt like I should do, rather than something I really wanted to do. 

Erdrich quickly changed my mind. I was surprised how drawn I became to this book after only a few pages. Poetic and powerful, this is a fictional account of Erdrich's grandfather who fought to prevent the "termination" of North Dakota's Turtle Mountain Chippewas in 1952-53. A bill in Congress by a racist Mormon Senator sought to relocate them from their reservation and "reintegrate" or "assimilate" them into American society. "This new bill is about the worst thing for Indians to come down the pike," Erdrich's grandfather wrote in a letter, reproduced in the novel.

The novel is also the story of Patrice, a young woman who works at a factory on the reservation. Her story is about colliding with a changing world, looking for better opportunities, but still being comfortable with her heritage. Early in the story, Patrice has to travel to the Twin Cities to search for her sister Vera, who has disappeared. It's the first time Patrice has ever travelled, and been in a city, and it's eye-opening to her, but not necessarily in a good way.

For historical fiction, this is a surprisingly fluid, fast read. And I learned much. Very glad I read it.

Impressive side note: Erdrich is one of a handful of writers (I think just Philip Roth and John Updike are the other two, but I can't find a good source to confirm this) to win the hat-trick of major literary awards: Pulitzer (for this novel), the National Book Critics Circle Award (for LaRose), and the National Book Award (for The Round House). If you've never read her, this might be a good introduction to her fiction.

Friday, February 4, 2022

The Every, by Dave Eggers: The Tyranny of Choice

It's surely admirable that Dave Eggers isn't allowing his new novel to be sold on "the jungle," as he winkingly refers to Amazon in The Every. But unfortunately, the novel itself isn't nearly as good as his intentions. The Every is a sequel to Eggers' 2013 novel, The Circle —it actually feels like the second in a trilogy and has some serious Empire Strikes Back vibes. Here, the bad guys in the form of the evil tech company are winning. 

It's a few years in the future from the events of The Circle, and Eggers' Circle protagonist, Mae Holland, is now the CEO of the Every, which is a combination of the Circle and the newly acquired jungle. Our protagonist is a young woman from Idaho named Delaney, who together with her friend Wes, get jobs at The Every. But ever since Delaney recovered from a nasty screen addiction as a little girl, and "the jungle" destroyed her parents' grocery store, she's been hellbent on revenge against the evil tech company. 

Her plan is to destroy The Every from the inside out by introducing ridiculous idea after ridiculous idea until the public finally pushes back against the all-powerful tech company. Never mind that this premise, even for a satire, is patently silly, but my real beef is that the novel sort of just devolves into descriptions of these apps, and what happens when they're released into the wild. It just reads like a litany of bad ideas. For instance, Friendy is an app that allow you to gauge how good your friends really are by judging if they're being truthful to you in conversations, how much interaction you have with them, how emotionally fulfilling that interaction is, etc. Or OwnSelf, that tells you exactly when and for how long you should exercise, drink water, call you children, laugh, send out The Every's version of social media likes, and many more — basically controlling your entire life. And there are many, many more examples like this. 

Though it is a bit clumsy in its execution, and therefore doesn't quite work as satire, The Every is still an effective cautionary tale. Eggers hits on many of the same issues as in The Circle about the dangers of screen addiction, voluntarily relinquishing privacy, and choice. Of course, we all know that "slippery slope" is a logical fallacy. But slippery slope is also fertile ground for good satire. And though this isn't exactly good satire, the points are still well made. One of the main dangers introduced here is what happens when humans get lazy enough that they actually don't want choice. They want to be told want to do, have their lives planned out. The Every jumps on this notion and tries to pick the winners and losers. "Limitless choice is killing the world," one characters tells another.

The Every is also a novel about the dangers of group-think. Remember during 2016 how we just kept thinking the next horrific thing that presidential candidate said or did would be the one that finally caused his cult-like supporters to wise up and turn on him...but it never happened? That's what this novel is about too: Nothing is a bridge too far when it comes to group-think. 

On the plus side, I'll say this: Eggers is still very cool. There are several set pieces in this novel that had me howling — as on example, Delaney has to plan a "field trip" as a sort of welcome exercise. People keep asking the same questions over and over again, and are worried about the most ridiculous things. And then they all try to one-up each other in their outrage. It kind of reminded me of a neighborhood message board.

But these moments are too few, and The Every never really gains its footing like The Circle did, which felt clever and urgent. Often, The Every feels just ridiculous and too over-the-top. And it's also waaay too long. Eggers even makes a joke about how all novels should be fewer than 500 pages, and the absolutely limit of a reader's attention is 577, which is the exact folio count of The Every. But I'd humbly suggest The Every probably 177 pages too long. 

So even though I didn't think this was as successful as its predecessor, I'm hopeful for a satisfying Return-of-the-Jedi-esque conclusion to this trilogy. Eggers is still one of my favorites and I'll still read anything he writes. His heart is usually in the right place. And he usually and consistently makes me laugh, even if sometimes it's because it's ridiculous.

Wednesday, February 2, 2022

These Precious Days, by Ann Patchett: A Near-Perfect Essay Collection

Ann Patchett is one of my all-time favorite writers, mainly because she writes with amazing warmth. It's her superpower, and she brings it to bear clearly in her new essay collection, These Precious Days

Patchett explains in the introduction why she wrote essays during the pandemic, instead of fiction: Fear of death. She says while writing any novel, she considers what would happen to her fictional universe and all her beloved characters if she dies before it's finished. They would be wiped out too, and you get the sense she considers this the greater tragedy. And so she couldn't focus on writing fiction during the pandemic because "What was the point of starting if I wasn't going to be around to finish?" She mentions she wasn't more afraid of dying during the pandemic than any other time, but that during the writing all her novels, thoughts of death were nearly constant. 

But essays? "Death has no interest in essays," she says. And so we're all the luckier for it that she wrote these wonderful pieces during the pandemic. Each one is smart and funny and sincere and just generally a joy to read. There's not a dud in the bunch, a nearly impossible trick to pull off in an essay collection. Most essay collections are just that: a collection of disconnected pieces that appeared elsewhere and are published together to make a buck. But these feel intentional and thematically connected. Which, to use a tired cliche, means we get a book that is greater than the sum of its parts.

My favorite in the collection is an essay titled "There Are No Children Here." It's a series of 20-some vignettes all about Patchett's decision not to have children. I loved this piece for its gentle (and sometimes not-so-gentle) chiding of people who are always up in her business, asking her why, or suggesting she's missing something, or are in disbelief someone would consciously make that choice. She explains why she thinks people interpret her choice as a value judgment on theirs, as if both choices aren't equally valid. When someone knows you've purposely chosen not to have children, they sometimes see that as looking down your nose at their own decisions, because something that's not important to you is to them. Of course that's not the case (well, usually). Patchett writes that she thinks about this the same way as her choice not to eat meat or drink. When someone asks her if she minds if they order a cheeseburger, she says "Not unless you're going to make me eat it." Live and let live, basically.

The title essay These Precious Days is another highlight. It's about how she picked up Tom Hanks' story collection in the middle of the night, and through a series of very fortunate events, wound up with Hanks' personal assistant Sooki as her long-term houseguest during the pandemic. But Sooki became way more than just a houseguest, she became a dear friend. And they spent much of the early days of the pandemic together, as Sooki was undergoing cancer treatments in Nashville, and they are both just trying to figure out how to live in a new reality. 

Without exaggeration, I can faithfully say that this is one of the best essay collections I've ever read. Honestly. I loved this book a wholly indecent amount. Many of these essays are less than 10 pages, and I'd read one or two per day, always looking forward to taking a break from what I was doing and giving myself an Ann Patchett Essay Treat throughout the day. I can't recommend this more highly. 

Thursday, January 20, 2022

Olga Dies Dreaming, by Xóchitl González: An Incredibly Accomplished Debut

Olga Dies Dreaming, by Xóchitl González, is one of the best, most accomplished debut novels I've read in a long time. This book is just full of surprises, which is somewhat ironic given that it's about a wedding planner for the rich in NYC, to whom surprises are anathema. 

It's a novel that starts out like a frothy story about trying to fit in with NYC's upper crust. But as we learn more about Olga, her Congressman older brother Prieto, and their mother, the novels shifts in tone and takes on a much more political, and frankly, flat-out furious, tone. It becomes a novel about gentrification, class and race, the injustices wrought upon Puerto Rico (Olga and her brother are second-generation Puerto Ricans), neo-colonialism, corruption, and the failures of leadership. That's a pretty heavy shift from a light-hearted rom-com. But it truly works. And it's amazingly well done. 

Think about it in terms of napkins. The novel begins with Olga planning a wedding and explaining how every mother-of-the-bride has one detail Olga knows will be the bane of her existence during the wedding planning process. For this particular wedding, it's the napkins. But as you continue to progress through the book (and progress quickly, you will!), when you think about the napkins anecdote, it's a perfect symbol of the absurdity of what matters to the wealthy that doesn't really matter and at all, and it's a perfect juxtaposition to everything else in the novel that's so much more important. 

Here's a little on the plot: It's the summer of 2017, and we're all starting to figure out that the new "president" is going to be even worse than we could've possible imagined. But this is all in the background for the time being as Olga, born and raised in the Latinx-majority Sunset Park neighborhood of Brooklyn, hob-nobs with the rich and famous, sleeps with rich married men, appears on television shows to talk about weddings, and builds her wedding-planning brand. Her older brother Prieto is the Congressman for their district, and though the two siblings are close, we soon learn Prieto harbors some serious secrets. 

And there's one more twist before things really start to heat up: Their mother, a political radical and advocate for Puerto Rican independence, had left the family when they were kids. Not long after, their father falls apart, becomes addicted to drugs, and dies of AIDS. Their mother has been in contact with them throughout their lives through a series of letters. Somehow, she always knows what's going on in their lives: And she's very disappointed in Olga's career choice. 

So late in that summer of 2017, Hurricane Irma hits in the Caribbean, knocking out power to most of Puerto Rico. But if you remember, this was just the dress rehearsal for Hurricane Maria, which hit two weeks later, and absolutely devastated the island. The island got almost no help from the federal government to prepare or in the immediate aftermath. It was in many ways worse than Hurricane Katrina. (You may remember that video of the "president" chucking rolls of paper tolls into a crowd of people, people who had no food or clean water.)

Hurricane Maria becomes the fulcrum point for the novel. It's also a major turning point for both Prieto and Olga. Everything changes for them. For the better? Worse? What lessons do these characters learn? What happens with their mother?

I read this novel — it's just shy of 400 pages — in three days. I could not put it down. It's absolutely riveting, incredibly well-written, smart, and at times really funny. It's one of those novels that comes along only a couple times a year that really reminds me how much I love reading. I can't recommend it more highly.

Monday, January 17, 2022

The Revisionaries, by A.J. Moxon: The Author Is God

This freakin' beautiful mess of a novel is likely what would happen if David Foster Wallace, Thomas Pynchon, and Tom Robbins got together and tested the limits of how much a reader can stand before giving up and throwing the novel against the wall. But then Kurt Vonnegut showed up halfway through and goes, "But my dudes, we have to make it entertaining as well." And so they did.

I think I understood about two-thirds of what A.J. Moxon is up to here in his long, post-modern, super-meta novel, The Revisionaries. And I consider that a win. It's certainly a novel you need to read more than once, which is a tough ask at 600 pages. But also, in the moment, you're so dazzled by Moxon's language and sentences, you almost don't notice, that a) you're aggravated, because b) you only have a passing sense of what is happening and why. That's especially true in the last 100 pages or so as it's supposed to all be coming together, but it's told in a fractured, multi-perspective way that frankly drove me nuts.

So what's going on here? This is a novel about God, but it's sure not religious. It's a novel about the role of fiction, the author's authority, the reader's power, and where all those might intersect...but sometimes don't? That's my best guess anyway. 

The plot, which is important, but so zany it's almost beside the point here, is about a bearded acrobat woman, a preacher who performs a miracle in a place called Loony Island (so named because of it being home to an insane asylum) and builds a new church, a kid who flickers in and out of existence, a cult of weirdos dressed up as cardinals, and a guy who discovers a magical fountain and uses it to erase people's memories and recreate them as he sees fit.

Are you with me? IT'S SO WEIRD! But in a strangely good way. 

Again, I can't claim to fully understand this, but part of the point is how the author is God, but the reader still has veto power, even over God, because of how s/he interprets, understands, derives meaning from, feels about, etc., the text. And this is because each reader brings to bear a unique experience, education, philosophy on life, philosophy on reading books, politics, mood, etc. on every book s/he reads. I think?

Would I recommend that you read this? Yes, but with a bunch of caveats. If you like to be challenged, if you are okay with not completely understanding why or how or even what is going on all the time, and if you like something that's truly creative, inventive, and probably unlike anything else you've really ever read before, pick this novel up. Moxon is smart enough (you should absolutely follow him on Twitter, by the way — that is one of main reasons I bought this novel and read it), that someday soon, he's going to publish a novel that absolutely dazzles us. I can't wait for that, but I'm glad I read this one now.

Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Small World, by Jonathan Evison: Striving Together for the American Dream

Jonathan Evison's new novel Small World is, no exaggeration, his masterpiece. He had mentioned on Facebook a few years ago that he felt like this is the novel he was born to write. And he wasn't wrong. 

Small World is a huge, ambitious, but incredibly immersive Great American novel about how we're all connected in striving for the Great American Dream. A huge cast of diverse characters both in the present and in the 19th century populate this novel with interconnected stories about how beating injustice and flourishing in this Great American Experiment is at its essence a team sport. 

So as a train speeds through a snowy night in Oregon, several passengers on this train are connected in ways they couldn't possibly know. A mom trying to give her basketball prodigy son a leg up. A woman escaping her abusive boyfriend. A family making a huge change in their lives. And the train engineer, on his last run before retirement. We get the stories of each of these people, but as importantly, we get the story of the 19th century ancestors of each of these people. An enslaved person who escapes in Illinois. Irish immigrant twins who try to make their ways in Chicago and then the sprawling West. A Chinese immigrant who pans for gold in California. And a Native American girl who yearns for open spaces and freedom. 

It's a lot, for sure. But Evison nails it! You never feel overwhelmed or have trouble keeping these characters straight. Without question, this structure was risky: There are literally eight different strands of story (and really nine, because we get both of the Irish twins' stories), and so this could've easily gone sideways. 

But I couldn't wait to get back to each story. Would the Irish twins find each other after they're separated? Would the basketball superstar get his time to shine? Would the woman escaping her a-hole boyfriend truly escape? How are all these people connected, both in the past and the present? But most importantly, how would all of these characters be able to overcome injustice, inequity, and a deck stacked against them to strive toward their American dream? 

To be honest, I'm just about done with long novels of interconnected stories (thanks a lot, Cloud Cuckoo Land). Everyone's doing it now and it's getting a little tiresome. But I'm glad I got this one in under the bell before I got tired of these, because this one is a paragon of the genre. If you've been a New Dork Review reader for any amount of time, you know I'm huge Evison fan. I've read everything he's written, and I can happily report this novel represents a major step forward for him as a writer. I've really enjoyed all his novels, but this is my favorite since The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving, which is still my favorite of his. But this is now a very close second. Highly, highly recommend. 

Thursday, January 6, 2022

The Love Songs of W.E.B. DuBois, by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers: The Power of History

Ron Charles, the esteemed book critic for the Washington Post and one of my all-time favorite book reviewers, is almost solely responsible for talking me into picking up this 800-page novel. 

Charles wrote: "Whatever must be said to get you to heft this daunting debut novel by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, I’ll say, because The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois is the kind of book that comes around only once a decade. Yes, at roughly 800 pages, it is, indeed, a mountain to climb, but the journey is engrossing, and the view from the summit will transform your understanding of America."

So heft, I did, not without some trepidation, frankly. But now, I owe Mr. Charles a beer. Because it was just as engrossing and transformative as he said. I actually included it on my top 10 of 2021 before I'd even finished it. 

The story itself is two-fold. It's a coming of age story of Ailey, a young Black girl growing up in "the City" (presumably NYC?), and visiting relatives during summers in rural Georgia. It's also the story of Ailey's ancestors, enslaved people on a Georgia plantation. So yes, it's a multi-generational family saga, but told as two separate narratives. Both stories are fascinating, and there are a TON of characters. You're warned of this with the extensive family tree Jeffers includes at the beginning. 

As good as this is, it's not an easy read from a content standpoint. Serious trigger warnings here for sexual abuse, pedophilia, and drug addiction. 

But it really is as engrossing as Charles says — it's an epic story of America, injustice, racism, the power of knowing and understanding unvarnished history, and the strength of family.