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.