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!