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.