Friday, June 2, 2023

Best 3 Books of May (Plus 2 More)

We made it through May, and now it's summer! Everyone has different definitions of what a "summer read" is, but to me, a summer read is big and meaty, something I'm not going to finish in just a few sittings. I have a few of those lined up for the next few months (hello, Chuck Wendig and Haruki Murakami), but I started that trend off in May with the new novels by David James Duncan and Nathan Hill novels out later this summer (see below). May was also about a bunch of other shorter books, here are the best three.

1. Gone To The Wolves, by John Wray -- Let's rage! You may not know this about me, but I love metal -- and this novel about a group of teenagers in late 1980s Florida (the cradle of death metal!) is the novel I was born to read. Wray really knows what he's talking about here. And even if you're not into metal, there's lots here about friendship and loyalty to get you through. 

2. Nightcrawling, by Leila Mottley -- This is a difficult read, but an accomplished debut novel. It's about agency and autonomy -- when our backs are against the wall, what choices do we really have? And it's about corruption, evil cops, and the failures of the justice system. Yes, a lot of the headlines of about this novel involve the young age of the novelist -- which yes, it's pretty amazing to consider she wrote this at ages 17-18 -- but that also shouldn't distract from just how well done this book is.

3. Monsters: A Fan's Dilemma, by Claire Dederer -- This book is the most nuanced, intelligent, and well-thought-out treatment of the age-old and crucial question of how to (or whether to) separate art from artist -- or as Dederer writes it, what do we do with the art of monstrous men? Since I first wrote about this question 13 years ago, it's a question that's hounded me and I haven't found an answer. That's because there isn't one. Or at least there's not one that applies to every artist or every situation. In this book, Dederer gives you all the tools to be able to puzzle out a decision on your own. Really, that's what this comes down to -- you have to make your own decisions about what to do with the art of Roman Polanski, Ernest Hemingway, Woody Allen, Michael Jackson, Miles Davis, and many others. Does the "biographical stain" prevent you a) from continuing to enjoy the art, or b) from consuming the art at all?

Two HUGE Books To Look Forward To:

1. Sun House, by David James Duncan (out August 8) -- Duncan's The Brothers K, published in 1992, is one of my five favorite novels of all time. And he hasn't published a new novel since...until now (or, well, August). This book is, frankly, a lot -- and not just in terms of pages (just shy of 800). We have a bunch of characters searching for truth -- and though they don't know it most of the way through, they're searching for each other, as well. It's a novel about finding the people who are like you and holding onto them fiercely. It took me more than a month to read this, and while nothing will ever be The Brothers K, this is a solid follow-up. You just have to be in the right mood and well-caffeinated. 

2. Wellness, by Nathan Hill (out September 19) -- This is another gigantic (in terms of pages, themes, and probably reader excitement) forthcoming novel that will certainly be a big hit. You know Hill from 2016's mega-debut novel The Nix. He returns with this story of a marriage, and how everything isn't always as it seems. Hill has out Franzen'ed Franzen with this novel, and I think you're gonna love this book -- it may very well vaunt Hill into "household name" status.

Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Pineapple Street, by Jenny Jackson: Rich People -- They're Just Like Us

One of my favorite moves is if I'm crossing the street, and a rich person in a six-figure luxury SUV pulls up to the stop sign, I'll slow and meander and sometimes pretend like I dropped something and generally make it clear to them that THEY HAVE TO WAIT FOR ME. It's dumb, I know. But I amuse myself thinking how annoyed this rich person must be to have to wait an extra four seconds for a plebian to walk in front of them. (About half the time, they don't even notice because they're staring at their phone.)

Anyway, all that is to say I have tough time empathizing with rich people. But that's the task Jenny Jackson has set for her readers in her debut novel, Pineapple Street. She presents us with the Stockton family, an old-money group of Brooklynites who are facing down the modern world in which being a millionaire maybe isn't as cool as it used to be. 

The story's told from the alternating perspectives of members of the family. Darley is the oldest daughter, and married to Malcolm. Darley has disavowed her trust because her husband refused to sign a prenup. So she's married for love but still lives a comfortable life due to her husband's hard work and success. Youngest daughter Georgiana is 26 and works for a non-profit that helps bring healthcare to developing countries. Between tennis with her mother and partying in Red Hook, she doesn't have too many problems -- except for the ones she begins to create for herself. And only son Cord (their names! lol) is married to Sasha, a woman from a middle-class family in Rhode Island who has never really warmed to the Stockton's blue-bloodedness (and that feeling is reciprocal!). Cord and Sasha have moved into the family's mansion on Pineapple Street at the behest of their parents, and this is just the beginning of some of the family strife. 

This is a sugary afternoon snack of a novel, not at all dissimilar from paging through US Weekly. Yes, rich people: They're just like us. Or so Jenny Jackson would like to have you believe. 

Whether or not you get along with this novel will depend on if you're convinced enough that this clan of rich people are truly different. Do they learn lessons that make you believe they'll truly do right? Does this crop of literary wealthy people who did nothing to earn their wealth, earn your literary sympathy? Do they do enough to try to be good people? 

I wasn't so sure. But I still enjoyed reading. It's quick and not super heady -- a great summer read. 

Tuesday, May 2, 2023

Best 3 Books of April

A chilly, rainy month is ideal reading weather, and that's definitely what we had for the most part here in Chicago. Cold, rainy weather is also ideal running weather (well, maybe not the rainy part) and so April was good for that too. As I gear up for another marathon this weekend (my 9th!), April provided two fantastic running books for motivation for getting through the tough April miles.

In addition to the two running books and the new Elizabeth McKenzie novel that's on this list below, I finished some Murakami stories I hadn't read before (Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman), I read Samantha Irby (Wow, No Thank You) for the first time, and I was nearly destroyed by a wonderful debut novel -- Hanna Halperin's I Could Live Here Forever (my review) -- about addiction that will surely wind up on my favorites of the year list. A good reading/running month, indeed. 

1. Choosing To Run, by Des Linden (with Bonnie D. Ford) -- Des is a personal hero of mine, as she is for just about every distance runner. I've gotten to meet her a few times, and she's as charming and hilarious, but also as pointed and direct about her strongly held and hard-won positions, in these pages as she is in person. 

Des IS the Boston Marathon, and the through-line for this memoir is her stunningly inspirational win at Boston 2018 in the absolute worst possible running conditions. I remember that April Monday morning like it was 10 minutes ago, scream-crying at my TV as Des cruised down Boylston, arms raised, soaked to the bone and nearly frozen solid. It was incredible. And so is this book. Boston is the angle, but she has plenty of time here to discuss her whole career, her advocacy for clean sport, her dogs and her bourbon, and so much more. 

2. The Longest Race, by Kara Goucher (with Mary Pilon) -- You know that Alberto Salazar, the disgraced leader of the Nike's vaunted Oregon Project, was dirty. But you didn't know HOW dirty and disgusting he is until Kara spills the tea in this shocking, infuriating, but ultimately inspirational, memoir. 

Even if you don't follow running, you've probably heard of Alberto Salazar. This book is Kara's account of her time with Salazar, and his junk science, odd methods, emotional and mental abuse, sexual harassment and abuse, and, of course, the doping. It was the doping scandal that made headlines and ultimately got Salazar (rightly!) banned, but when you see the whole picture -- including Nike's complicity -- it's just mind-boggling how this "project" was allowed to continue for so long. And how there haven't been further consequences. 

Kara's story makes you so mad that this could happen. But her bravery and courage are inspiring. And not for nothing this is also just an entertaining and motivating read. A good running memoir is one that makes you want to go out and pound out some miles. This one certainly accomplishes that. 

3. The Dog of the North, by Elizabeth McKenzie -- This was my first time reading McKenzie. She's great! In a word: Quirky. She's a little like Nell Zink, but maybe not quite that off-the-wall. 

This novel is about a woman named Penny who has seemingly hit rock bottom -- she's unemployed, her marriage is over, and she has to help her aging, perhaps senile grandmother get her affairs in order. This starts with Penny tricking her grandmother to leave her home so that she can remove a gun from her house. She meets her grandmother's accountant Burt, an overmatched but affable dude who lives in his office, drives a terrible van he calls The Dog of the North, and is dog-father to a Pomeranian named Kweecoats (a hilarious mispronunciation of Quixote).

Many years ago, Penny's parents mysteriously disappeared in Australia, and that hangs over her throughout the novel -- most especially when she travels to Australia with her grandfather to either try to find them, or at least make peace with the fact that they're gone.

Though forces beyond her control keep trying to sink Penny, she's somehow able to keep her chin up and keep on keepin' on. This is a great novel about how to respond to adversity. And it's really, really funny. Definitely will be reading more McKenzie!

Tuesday, April 11, 2023

I Could Live Here Forever, by Hanna Halperin: The Many Faces of Addiction

Hanna Halperin's new novel I Could Live Here Forever is exactly as devastating as you'd expect any good novel about addiction to be. What makes this novel truly great, though, is how Halperin addresses different forms of addiction. Substance addiction, sure. But also emotional addiction, addiction to a certain feeling or a certain person that makes you feel that way. This feeling, this person can be just as toxic, just as dangerous as any drug. 

This book absolutely destroyed me. But I loved it an indecent amount -- it's so good. Soooo good.

Leah is a mid-20s woman working on her MFA  at the prestigious creative writing graduate program at the University of Wisconsin. On the first page of the novel, she meets Charlie -- a handsome, mysterious, affable fellow. She's smitten, he's smitten. They're smitten.

Charlie to his credit reveals very early in the relationship he's a recovering heroin addict. This of course gives Leah -- and her friends in her MFA cohort and her family, including her overprotective older brothers -- great pause. But she loves how he makes her feel -- like the most important, most beautiful, most loved person in the world. Ever since Leah's mother left when she was 13, Leah's developed some deep-seated psychological issues about being loved. So when Charlie DOES love her, she's addicted to how he makes her feel. Despite the red flags, of which they are an increasing number, despite the signs of relapse, and despite even breaking up with him a few times, their connection continues. But at what cost to each of them?

I absolutely loved this. I loved it for its fresh take and humanization of addiction -- this isn't Trainspotting, though, we're not watching needles go in arms -- and Charlie isn't your typical junkie. I also loved it for its "day-in-the-life" story of an MFA student.

Sure, there's a definite Sally Rooney vibe about this book, but if you're a Rooney skeptic, don't let that you stop you. Halperin, dare I say, is a more direct, easier-to-read writer than Rooney is. I actually read this 300-page novel in basically three sittings. And this will definitely be the 2023 novel I talk about way too much.

Friday, March 31, 2023

Best 3 Books of March

You know the meme: Being an adult is saying "next week things will slow down a little" over and over again until you die. That was March. That's to say, March was a blur. I traveled to Seattle for the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) conference, I watched a butt-ton of basketball, but I did manage to find a few moments here and there to read some books -- five books, total. Here are my favorite three.

3. The Wrong Way to Save Your Life, by Megan Stielstra -- If "memoir in essays" is a thing, that's what this is, and it's soooooooo good. You know that Cecily Strong character on Saturday Night Live, Girl You Wish You Hadn't Started a Conversation With at a Party? These essays are the EXACT OPPOSITE OF THAT. Reading Megan Stielstra is like sitting at a bar with a very cool new friend, and getting lost in her stories. 

2. Empty Theatre, by Jac Jemc -- This hilarious novel tells the intertwined stories of cousins King Ludwig II of Bavaria and Empress Elisabeth (Sisi) of Austria. Not at all your staid, stuffy historical fiction, this fantastic read is more like a satiric Victorian soap opera. It's light and funny, playful and provocative, and just a really fun rewarding reading experience. 

1. A Country You Can Leave, by Asale Angel-Ajani -- This book is about a 16-year-old Black, biracial girl named Lara and her fierce but deeply flawed Russian immigrant mother. The two live in a trailer park in California, and try to navigate the fraught divisions of culture, class, and race. Lara voice in this novel is completely engaging, and you feel for her immensely. It constantly seems like she's in a no-win situation, that forces beyond her control (whether privileged white people or violent men) will have an outsized impact on her life. It's not fair, of course it's not. And her mother, often drunk and spouting bullshit truisms at her, isn't much help to her.

Tuesday, February 28, 2023

Best 3 Books of February

It's been a slow reading month in terms of quantity, but not quality. I spent most of my month traversing the 900 pages of what will no-doubt be one of my favorite novels of the year, The Deluge, by Stephen Markley. 

It's a strange experience reading a novel about catastrophic climate change and sea level rise on a beach -- a little like reading a novel about a plane crash during a flight. But that's what I did -- I spent 9 days in Kauai reading and relaxing. And there were many mai tais. Many, many mai tais.

And but so, other than The Deluge, here are three other great books I read this month.

3. Running While Black, by Alison Desir Mariella -- You may know Alison from her much-read and discussed essay in Outside published not long after Ahmaud Arbery's murder. This is basically a book-length expansion of that essay, exploring how and why the distance running community is too white, and how she is working to change that. As a white distance runner, this is an uncomfortable read, for sure. But a vital one. 

2. The Rabbit Hutch, by Tess Gunty -- Sad, and weird. Weird, and sad. But maybe outright brilliant? This story of a dying Indiana town won the National Book Award last year. There are some serious Winesberg, Ohio vibes here. But Gunty's prose and imagination are the stars of this show. What a talent! This is her debut novel, and like everyone else, I'm very excited to see what she does next.  

1. I'll Take Everything You Have, by James Klise -- Sorry, cheating a little here -- I read this back in December, but it comes out today, and if you're into great YA coming of age stories, this is it! 

ICYMI: Two Reviews Posted in Feb

1. The Deluge, by Stephen Markley -- Sure to be a favorite of 2023.

2. I Have Some Questions For You, by Rebecca Makkai -- Also, a leader in the clubhouse for a favorite of 2023 (though I read this last November).

Friday, February 24, 2023

The Deluge, by Stephen Markley: Truly, A Masterpiece

If you'd been feeling a little too optimistic about the state of things these days, let Stephen Markley's climate fiction (Cli-Fi, in the parlance of our times) The Deluge quickly (well, maybe not that quickly, it's 900 pages after all) disabuse you of that optimism. Yes, while The Deluge is anxiety-inducing, it's one of the best reading experiences I've had in a long time. It's nothing short of a masterpiece -- and I don't just mean that because it IS 900 pages. I would've gladly read 900 more. 

If I had infinite time, a plethora of patience, was a 98-fold better writer, and could trust myself not to descend into a pit of despair and rage, this is the novel I'd love to write.

The Deluge starts at present times and spends its considerable bulk moving 20 years into the future to examine the social, political, and cultural effects of the greatest threat humanity has even known: climate change.

Markley tells this story through the shifting perspectives of several different characters, though none is more fascinating than activist Kate Morris -- who is sort of a mix of Greta Thunberg and Megan Fox. Kate starts an organization called A Fierce Blue Fire, which I only mention that because I LOVE that name. But also, there's an enraged and un-PC scientist who is furious with everyone for not recognizing the severity of the threat, an eco-terrorist, an ad executive, a genius coder, an opioid addict living in rural Ohio, scores of politicians, rock stars, activists, and regular folks. 

The thrall of this novel is how real this invented future feels. From wacky religious politicians who somehow string a huge swath of followers along to industry interests continuing to maintain outsized influence on legislation to so many people just putting their heads in the sand and deciding climate change isn't even real, Markley is really adept at framing the problem. The problem itself is manmade, but the barriers to fixing the problem are self-inflicted as well.

And then there are the storms. Wild fires, hurricanes, earthquakes become more prevalent and destructive as the climate crisis worsens. Again, all this feels so real, I felt myself needing to google "Los Angeles fire of 2031" or "Hurricane Kate destruction," etc.

It's only February but I can confidently say this will be on my best of 2023 list. I loved this book. 

Tuesday, February 21, 2023

I Have Some Questions For You, by Rebecca Makkai: About The Murder Show

Few novels meet the current moment with the confidence and astuteness of Rebecca Makkai's new novel I Have Some Questions For You. This thrilling literary mystery centers on our disturbing obsession with crime (especially against women) as entertainment. Why are we so fascinated with violence? Does our fascination with violence interfere with real justice when a crime becomes part of the public consciousness?

Heady questions, for sure, and Makkai isn't done there. This novel also looks at the power (for both good and bad) of social media, how we remember the our individual histories, and what we can really do to right past wrongs. 

Yes, there's a lot going on here. But at 450 pages, there's plenty of room here to handle it all. The novel is about Bodie Kane, an early 40s podcaster and film professor who returns to her elite New England boarding school to teach a class. She becomes obsessed all over again with the murder -- a supposedly solved murder -- of one of her classmates when she was still in school back in the mid 1990s.

Even though the murderer was quickly apprehended, tried, and convicted, it's a case that has never really died. Internet sleuths have poured and re-poured over all evidence (real and imagined) and unleashed multiple theories ranging from crackpot conspiracy to "hmm, that may actually make some sense." As she returns to the haunts of her youth, Bodie begins to believe something may not quite be right about that supposedly open-and-shut case, as well. Was justice miscarried for reasons of convenience? Is there more to this story?

Though it's almost too easy, comparisons to Donna Tartt's The Secret History are inevitable -- but that's a good thing, because this novel proudly stands on its shoulders as a terrific entry in the "slow-burn boarding school murder mystery" genre. Like good fiction should be, this novel is terrifically entertaining, but also may leave you with some uncomfortable questions for yourself.

(And now for some levity... As evidence that the "murder show" has -- or had, at the time of this skit in late 2021 -- reached the peak of the zeitgeist, here's Saturday Night Live's Murder Show song. This just absolutely slayed me. Pun intended and I'm not apologizing.)

Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Best 3 of January

I've been pretty erratic in the frequency of posts the last several years, and so I wanted to introduce a new feature here this year. The idea behind the "best 3 of (month)" is several-fold: First, it'll force me to post at least once a month, which is a sort of new year's resolution this year: to be more consistent with these ramblings I neglect for long periods of time, then miss, then start again. Secondly, I read more books than I'm able to give proper review treatment, but I want to tell you about them too -- so this monthly feature will round up a few books I may have discussed other places, but not here yet. Thirdly, it'll give this space that can get stale from time to time a little more variety in type of posts. Hopefully it'll be fun and useful and maybe cool and hopefully you'll like it. As always, thanks for reading.

In January, I read eight books. Here are the best three:

1. South to America, by Imani Perry: This won the 2022 National Book Award for Nonfiction, and I picked it up after seeing Perry's acceptance speech, which is absolutely chill-inducingly inspiring (I just watched it again, and got a little choked up again, too). This book, of course, is wonderful too -- something really unique, as it's part travelogue, part memoir, part cultural history, and part essay collection. The goal here is to show us that the South is not a monolith: The South, from Louisville to New Orleans to Miami, is diverse and vibrant and faces as many different problems as any other region in the country. I assumed I'd read this slowly, a chapter or two at a time, but Perry is such an engaging writer, I couldn't put it down. Very highly recommended!

2. Heat 2, by Michael Mann and Meg Gardiner: Pure book adrenaline, and the dudiest dude book to ever dude. This is both a prequel AND a sequel to Mann's 1995 movie about a group of bank robbers and the cop tracking them down. It probably should've been one or the other -- or two separate books. But it was a fun read anyway. It's over 500 pages and I read it in a weekend.

3. The Echo Chamber, by John Boyne: Boyne, quickly becoming one of my favorite writers, seemingly publishes with the frequency of Joyce Carol Oates on speed. I almost missed this, a novel he published late in 2021. (And he published All The Broken Places, which I haven't gotten to yet, last fall). But I'm glad I caught it. It's effing hilarious -- a skewering of our social media-addicted, influencer-addled culture. It's another long book, but a page-turner. Loved it.

January post review:

1. The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, by Shehan Karunatilaka

2. The Last Chairlift, by John Irving

3. Extended Stay, by Juan Martinez

Final note: You can always see a title by title breakdown of what I'm up to Goodreads, if you're so inclined. 

Wednesday, January 25, 2023

Extended Stay, by Juan Martinez: Horror Hotel

In Juan Martinez's debut novel, Extended Stay, an opening scene of unimaginable real-world horror leads into a screamingly terrifying novel of equally unimaginable supernatural horror. 

An old Vegas hotel, the Alicia, which makes the Overlook Hotel look about as scary as a Ritz-Carlton, is the site of this horror parable about the immigrant experience and immigrants' "function" in a exploitive capitalistic society.

"Because we were never people. We were fodder," ponders our protagonist Alvaro, a Columbian immigrant who comes to Vegas with his younger sister after witnessing the gruesome murder of the rest of his family.

Alvaro works in the kitchen at the Alicia, and quickly becomes a favorite of the hotel's manager, who offers to let him and his sister live at the Alicia for free. It's too good an opportunity to pass up -- free rent! -- even as Alvaro begins to notice some really strange things about the hotel. 

After Alvaro and Carmen move in, things get progressively weirder, and infinitely more terrifying. Time skips. Moldy walls bleed insects. People disappear. Corridors expand beyond all physical limits. And then...Alvaro finds something called the Nightmare Room. Terrifying. The Alicia is alive, and it wants something from Alvaro. But what? 

I don't much read horror -- I'm not particularly squeamish (but this truly isn't for the faint of heart), it's just not my first-choice of genre -- but I couldn't look away from this. If you're looking for something to disturb you out of your winter doldrums, this is it. 

A final fun note: I went to Juan's book launch party last night at Women & Children First here in Chicago. Here are a couple photos from a terrific event (Juan was in conversation with writer Lindsay Hunter).

Thursday, January 19, 2023

The Last Chairlift, by John Irving: A Test of Endurance

Last week, after nearly three months of reading John Irving's mammoth 900-page novel The Last Chairlift a few pages a day, I texted a friend: "I have 75 pages to go, and it feels like Mile 23 of a marathon. I'm going to make it, but it hurts!"

That's probably overly dramatic. There's plenty to like here. It's one of those novels you'll read five pages and wonder why you're reading this or ever liked John Irving or like reading at all, and then he'll drop some wisdom or a plot twist or a perfect sentence and you realize why you love all those things. 

The Last Chairlift covers 80 years in the life of one Adam Brewster, a New England writer who grows up with a lesbian mother, a trans stepfather, and is surrounded by a cast of characters that let's just say wouldn't exactly be welcomed at a Waffle House in a red state. They're a fascinating group, to say the least. 

In an interview with Seth Meyers not long after the book was published, Irving explained why it was important to make Adam, the straight, white male character, the outsider in this group of characters. "It was certainly my intention to make him the odd guy out, to make him the 'queer' member of the family -- queer in the sense of strange and not up to speed." I loved that! Good fiction turns norms on their head. 

As with many of Irving's novels, he repeats a single phrase over and over throughout a novel to really drive home a theme. Here, Adam, who is telling this story in the first-person, tells us often the best advice he ever received, and the best lesson he ever learned: "There's more than one way to love people." 

In total, the novel is a career retrospective for Irving, who has said this will be his last "long" novel. There's wrestling and uncomfortable situations with young men and much older women and progressive politics and lots of writers and yes, ghosts.

When I finished the book, I texted my friend again "FINISHED!" She asked if it was worth it, and I had to think about that a minute. Yes, it's definitely always worth it to finish a novel, I responded. This one tested me for sure. But ultimately, yes, it was worth it. It did hurt at times, but also like a marathon, I knew I was signing up for pain when I started this, and finishing it did feel like an accomplishment!

I've read nearly every word Irving has written, and I'd put this one in the bottom of the middle-third of his work. It's definitely better than Avenue of Mysteries and Until I Find You, but nowhere near Garp or Owen Meany. 

Tuesday, January 17, 2023

The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, by Shehan Karunatilaka: War, Humans Are Absurd

If you read only one Sri Lankan novel this year, let this be it. Here's a quick syllogism to summarize The Seven Moons of Maali Almeida, the 2022 Booker Prize winner: War is hell. Humans create war. Therefore, humans are hell. 

Maali Almeida, a Sri Lankan photographer who takes pictures of atrocities committed during the Sri Lankan civil war, wakes up dead. He doesn't know how or why he died, but he comes to understand he's stuck in the In Between, has seven moons to get his affairs back on Earth in order, and move to The Light. 

His affairs include some spicy photographs that expose some corruption on all sides of the horrific war. He's hidden the negatives and has to find a way to communicate to his former boyfriend DD and best friend Jaki so that they can publish the photos and expose the bad actors who are basically using the horrors of war for personal benefit. (I think -- frankly, this book was a little hard to follow at times, but that's the gist.)

But that short description belies the originality of this novel. Would you believe this novel's also hilarious? Maali is a goofy, irreverent knockabout, even in the afterlife. He spent most of his time alive fooling around with as many dudes as he could, drinking and gambling his meager earnings away, and generally not caring about much except his own self. 

Now that he's arrived in the afterlife, will he learn a lesson? Can he still do some good? 

This novel is an amazing feat of art -- the funniest war novel I've ever read since Catch-22. But it's also furious and profound about the absurdity of war and how terrible humans can be. "Do animals get an afterlife?" Karunatilaka writes. "Or is their punishment to be reborn as humans?" Near the end of the novel, title character Maali has a conversation with a leopard who wants to be human. The leopard says: "I can't understand why humans destroy when they can create. Such a waste."

Such a waste, indeed.