Tuesday, December 12, 2023

Best 10 Books of 2023

Happy almost 2024, readers! I nearly set a new personal record for pages read in 2023 (book total will wind up somewhere in the mid-70s, which is the most in more than five years), which makes me feel really good. This year -- the year I started writing fiction again for the first time in a long time -- was in also was a terrific year for reading fiction. Having such a long list of books read in 2023 has also made it really tough to build this list. I've agonized! But here you go, my 10 favorite (plus three other sports books I loved) books of 2023:

10. Gone To The Wolves, by John Wray -- I can't understand why I haven't been able to talk many other readers into this book. (<Sarcasm font off>) Yes, it's about heavy metal. And yes, I loved it. But it's pretty niche. Still, if you want something completely different than anything you've ever read before, give this is a shot. 

9. Charm City Rocks, by Matthew Norman -- The charmingest of charming romcoms. Plus, it's about music! A wheelhousiest of wheelhouse books for me, and predictably, I freakin' loved it. 

8. Empty Theater, by Jac Jemc -- If you like your historical fiction zany and more than a bit off the wall, check out this novel of Mad King Ludwig II of Bavaria and his cousin Empress Sisi of Austria. And prepare to locate a new ass (because you'll laugh your current one right off). 

7. The Bee Sting, by Paul Murray -- This novel is this year's best dysfunctional family saga, and it's not close. This is one of three 600-page novels on the list this year, which if you know me at all, is about right. The lesson from this novel: Don't keep secrets. 

6. A Country You Can Leave, by Asale Angel-Ajani -- This is not only my favorite novel of the year that was recommended by someone else. It's also one of two books (I Could Live Here Forever is the other) for which I was an annoying book evangelist this year. If you like novels with fascinating characters doing unexpected things, this is for you. This book definitely DESERVES a wider readership.

5. Good Night, Irene, by Luis Alberto Urrea -- For pure storytelling, you won't do much better in 2023 books than this novel based on Urrea's mother's service during World War II. 

4. The Vaster Wilds, by Lauren Groff -- Still in awe of this book, and what Groff was able to do here. This is a short novel you'll want to make feel longer by taking it in slow sips, both to savor Groff's gorgeous language and also to wring every ounce of meaning out of the loaded story. 

3. I Could Live Here Forever, by Hannah Halperin -- There needs to be a support group for readers of this INCREDIBLE novel. It's truly devastating, as you'd expect a novel about all kinds of addiction to be. But if you can pull yourself together enough to finish it, it's maybe the best book I read this year. 

2. Wellness, by Nathan Hill -- A 600-page novel that felt a third as long. A story of marriage, yes, but also a story about why certainty (in religion, or politics, or health trends) prevents us from actually being open to and assessing new information and changing or updating our opinions. This makes this novel sound staid and boring. IT IS NOT. Even with digression aplenty, this is still a hugely entertaining read. 

1. The Deluge, by Stephen Markley -- I haven't ever gotten more mileage out of a joke in a year than this one: Reading a book about climate change on the beach is a little like reading a book about a plane crash on a flight. There, last time. But for real, this 900 page behemoth is the most fun reading experience I had this year. I was riveted, terrified, and immensely, immensely entertained. READ THIS! 

Choosing To Run, by Des Linden -- If you read only one sports book, let this be it. Des is as funny as she is inspiring. 

The Longest Race, by Kara Goucher -- A courageous memoir about sexual and emotional abuse...and running. Loved it! 

Why We Love Baseball, by Joe Posnanski -- I love baseball, and I didn't need this book to remind me why I love baseball, but it definitely reminded me why I love baseball. 

Thursday, November 30, 2023

Best Books I Read in November

You're probably already inundated with the best of the year book lists, but over here, we have just one more post to get through before we get to my favorite books of the year (next week). Here are the best books I read in November:

From Dust To Stardust, by Kathleen Rooney -- This is a dazzling Jazz Age tale about silent movie star Doreen O'Dare (based on real-life star Colleen Moore), her rise through the burgeoning movie industry, her fraught first marriage, and her construction of the magnificent Fairy Castle, a huge doll house now housed at the Chicago Museum of Science and Industry.

Down to the dialogue, wardrobes, and hairstyles, Rooney really gets the Roaring 20s right here, and this is a joy to read. If you like Rooney's novel Lillian Boxfish Takes A Walk (which I did a lot!) or are just a fan of a good period piece, you'll love this too.

The Latecomer, by Jean Hanff Korelitz -- In some ways, this is a pretty standard dysfunctional family story (which is fine, I LOVE these stories) -- the family here, the Oppenheimers, is a rich New York brood doing rich New Yorker things, like buying art and managing a hedge fund. Also, the father is kind of a tool and has an affair, and this affects all the children.

But this terrific novel also strikes out on its own and breaks many of the conventions of the traditional dysfunctional family story. The bulk of the story is about the kids: A set of triplets who all hate each other. It is fascinating to watch their dynamic play out here as we switch between their perspectives. Two of the three are sympathetic, root-able-for characters, and the third, like his father, is a tool. But they're all interesting, and do lots of interesting things.

Then of course, as per the title, there's a new sibling. The Latecomer. And that's when things start to get REALLY dramatic.

This is a novel that starts slowly and builds over time (this novel's a SHINING EXAMPLE of why you don't DNF after 50 pages).😊

Again and Again, by Jonathan Evison -- I'll read ANYTHING Evison writes, but even so, I had to talk myself into this one. I've just never been a huge fan of reincarnation stories. Just not my thing -- I'm not sure exactly why. Maybe because as a literary device to move a plot, it seems a little too gimmicky. But this novel is far from a straight-forward reincarnation story, if there's such a thing. Evison's got plenty of surprises in store for us here.

This is a novel about finding connection, finding love, and why these are the only things that matter. Told with Evison's signature charm, you'll love these characters, and you'll love digging into their relationships to each other.

If you've read Evison before, you'll love this one too. If you haven't, this is a great place to start with him.

Birnam Wood, by Eleanor Catton -- A wholly unique thriller that makes the political personal and the personal political. It's a novel about the limits of a personal ethos: When are you willing to compromise what you believe to get what you want?

I'd read this novel was about a group of "guerilla gardeners," and that had kind of put me off it for a while. And while it is about that, it's not REALLY about that. Birnam Wood is a collective that plants gardens in public space and on unused private land (like that rich people have which they never use), and the story is about what happens when a billionaire, who unbeknownst to them is up to all kinds of other shady stuff, offers to sponsor their group.

Even with several digressions about politics or culture or any other direction to which Catton (who is a BRILLIANT writer) lets her mind wander, this truly reads like a thriller -- twisty and turny and shocking and really tough to put down, a book I was constantly thinking about when I wasn't reading.

Monday, November 20, 2023

Catching Up, Part 3: Best 4 Books I Read in October

October was a pretty eclectic reading month, which as you may have noticed, is par for the course for me. Here are the best four books I read last month (and woohoo, we're almost caught up!):

Bliss Montage, by Ling Ma -- The commonality to all these stories is something fantastical that winds up being a literal representation of a symbolic or metaphorical point Ma is making with the rest of the story. A secret passage way in a college office, 100 ex-boyfriends living in the same house, an invisibility drug, etc., etc. The effect of this is to create two planes of meaning in each story, the literal, and the literal but symbolic, which drives a point home doubly strong. Alienation, the need to escape, the ghost of our past, etc., etc.

I loved this! It was so much fun to engage with and think about these stories. Immensely readable and profoundly smart. One of the better collections I've read in a while.

Why We Love Baseball, by Joe Posnanski -- This book has been a terrific companion for the end of the season, playoffs, and the World Series. I laughed a lot, got choked up a few times, was awed, amazed, and surprised. Full of trivia, inside info, and stuff you'd just neve consider, this is an absolute must-read, baseball fans.

Hot Springs Drive, by Lindsay Hunter -- All hail Lindsay Hunter! Full review of this great book is here. 

The Other Americans, by Laila Lalami -- An astonishing work! Loved this a lot. Full review of this great book is here.

Friday, November 10, 2023

Catching Up, Part 2: Best Books I Read In September

Yes, I know it's not September. But here we are, still catching up on some great books I read during my late-summer hiatus. This week, we're knocking out September reads. Here are the three best books I read two months ago. 🤣

The Bee Sting, by Paul Murray -- This is an epic, absolutely heart-wrenching dysfunctional family saga. Murray gives us nearly 650 pages of story here that goes by in a flash -- I wish there'd been even more.

It may be true that all unhappy families are unhappy in different ways, but most unhappy families have at least one commonality: They keep secrets from each other. And the Barnes family sure does here. Some of these secrets are mundane, some are massive with the potential to crumble the foundation of a family that isn't exactly on solid ground in the first place.

The joy in reading this novel is how carefully Murray peels back the layers, revealing each new piece of information, each secret, each secret's effect on the others, at exactly the perfect time. This novel is a stand-out, also, because each of member of this family of four is interesting in their own way, and Murray gives each their proper place in propping up the narrative and the family -- and also potentially destroying the the narrative and the family.

This was an absolute wheelhouse book for me -- no chance I wasn't going to love it. And I did. Murray's best book since the spectacular Skippy Dies. 

They Can't Kills Us Until They Kill Us, by Hanif Abdurraqib -- I'd read a few of these essays in their original homes, but you don't get the full effect of Abdurraqib's MASSIVE talent until you read all of these pieces together. They're just a joy to read and he does the one thing that separates GREAT writers from good writers: He gets you to care about things you had no idea you could care about.

What I loved about this collection is the range -- mostly about music, but he talks authoritatively about everyone from The Wonder Years, to Fall Out Boy, to Nina Simone. He never takes the easy road or makes the easy joke or resorts to cliche. He treats each of his subjects as if it's the most important topic of all time. That's a gift -- and again, it makes him a joy to read. I loved this and can't wait to read more by him.

Swimming For Sunlight, by Allie Larkin -- I read Larkin's novel The People We Keep during the summer and absolutely loved it, and I found this in a used bookstore on a trip recently, and it's about (in part) a difficult rescue dog named Barkimedes. So, yeah. 

An absolute hall of fame first line "My husband brought a date to our divorce" leads into a funny, touching read about starting again, overcoming trauma and anxiety, and rebuilding a life. And why dogs are the best. Though sometimes people are okay too, if you let them be okay to you.

Monday, October 30, 2023

Hot Springs Drive, by Lindsay Hunter: The Real Housewives of Suburbia

Not long ago, my spouse and I went out for drinks with an acquaintance -- an extremely gossipy fellow who is plugged in to the neighborhood tea. Our neighborhood, Roscoe Village, on the north side of Chicago, is made up mostly of million-dollar homes inhabited by wealthy families. When we bought our modest condo here, our real estate agent called our neighborhood "the suburbs." The tagline on bridges and in the newsletter for our neighborhood is "the village within the city." That's all to say, it's a pretty pleasant place. 

Over drinks, our friend absolutely dished the dirt on "the real housewives of Roscoe Village." "You wouldn't believe the things I know," he told us, smirking. He named no names, but told tales of adultery, scandal, and much worse. Ensconced in our apparently naive and sheltered bubble, we were shocked at first. The next day, we couldn't help looking at the parents watching their kids in the park with a little more suspicion. But then as we thought more about it, none of this was that surprising, honestly. People with more money than good sense and who have experienced few consequences in their lives get up to a lot of "adventures." (I know that sounds judgmental.) It just hit differently that this wasn't some Netflix special or a romance novel. It was our neighbors! 

Anyhow, all this was in the back of my mind as I devoured Lindsay Hunter's spicy new novel, Hot Springs Drive, about an affair between two neighbors in a leafy suburb. The affair leads to a murder, but not of either of the two parties involved in the affair! (not a spoiler, we know about the murder in the first few pages)

So we spend the first half of the novel getting to know these characters -- two completely normal suburban families. The two mothers become fast friends as they join a weight-loss club, complain about their ineffectual husbands, and prop each other up. But that doesn't stop one of the women from sleeping with the other's husband. Which is what leads to the murder. 

Then in the second half, after the murderer is revealed, Hunter explores the effect of this trauma on the two families involved. How does each person process this trauma, and move on (or not)? How does it affect them long-term in future relationships?

Both of the men turn tail and run, and all but disappear from the story, which is fine. They're both standard-issue boring husband characters anyway (one is even a used car salesmen, almost putting too fine a point on it). The kids in both families scatter as well. While most of the characters are content to let the past stay the past, two of the characters, the daughter of the murdered woman and one of the sons next door, are as haunted by their deep first love as they are by the murder. Will a romance be rekindled?

If you've read Hunter before, you'll likely agree that this novel feels like a huge step forward for her -- a writer coming into her own. But if you haven't read Hunter before, this is a terrific introduction. It's a deceptively complex novel with a ton going on beneath the surface of the plot. There are hints of Oedipus, comments on our obsession with true crime, staunch feminism (it's Hunter published on Roxane Gay's new imprint, so this makes sense), motherhood, and the various ways we deal with trauma, both healthy and not. Hunter's writing here is sharp and sultry. This is a great read -- highly recommend this!

Friday, October 27, 2023

The Other Americans, by Laila Lalami: A Powerful Feat of Polyphony

"Perhaps memory is not merely preservation of a moment in the mind, but the process of repeatedly returning to it, carefully breaking it up in parts and assembling them again until we can make sense of what we remember."

Laila Lalami's 2019 novel The Other Americans has been on my radar for some time, but it wasn't until after I got to briefly chat with her and then introduce her (embarrassingly, I totally botched her name, but that's a story for another time) for a class she was teaching at StoryStudio earlier this year that I finally picked up her novel. And it wasn't until a recent conversation with a new friend -- the new friend who said it was the best book she'd read in a long time -- that I finally decided to read it.

I loved it. It's an amazing novel, for several reasons, not the least of which is that it's easy to tell how in the hands of any lesser a novelist, this would've been a mess. That's because Lalami writes from the point of view of at least 10 different characters. Even that isn't all that unusual. But what is unusual -- and even more unusual that it's done so well -- is that she writes all these characters in the first person. They all are unique and authentic, and this polyphony-in-narrative of a diverse set of voices and a diverse cast of characters makes this novel feel well-rounded and whole.

The story is about a Moroccan immigrant family living in a small town in the Mojave Desert near Palm Springs. At the beginning of the novel, the father is killed in a tragic hit-and-run accident outside of the diner he owns. Daughter Nora rushes home from Oakland to be with her family and begin trying to understand the senseless and seemingly randomness of this accident. But is it senseless? Is it random?

The novel unfolds in the aforementioned multiple voices -- Nora, Mora's mother, a police officer and Iraq veteran named Jeremy, the owner of the bowling alley next to the father's diner, and a Mexican immigrant who may have witnessed what happened, among several others. But it's not just a multi-narrator novel, it's also a multi-genre story. It is, at once: 
  • A mystery, then a MURDER mystery
  • A coming-of-age story about finding your path, finding your voice, making art
  • A story about sibling rivalry, parental expectations, and family dynamics
  • A love story
  • A war story
  • A comment on mediocre white men, racism, sexism, and violence
  • A story of an immigrant family colliding with American norms that make little sense to them.
Lalami pulls all this off in 300 pages. You often hear the term "tightly spun" bandied about fairly frequently, but I can tell you this novel is THE definition of a tightly spun narrative. 

Some of the best books I've read this year have been couple-years-old novels (hello, The People We Keep, by Allison Larkin), and this one joins them. Enjoyed this immensely. Read this!

Wednesday, October 25, 2023

Catching Up: Best Books I Read in August

Thank you to everyone who read, commented, messaged, texted, or sent good vibes in response to last week's post. You all are the best. I am encouraged and inspired anew! 

Here's the first in a series of posts to catch up on the "best of" months I missed when I was...I don't know, not writing. 

August reading included some pretty, pretty big names. In what has already been an incredible publishing year, late summer and fall have been a whole 'nother level of fantastic. I mean, holy sh!t, we got new novels from Ann Patchett, Zadie Smith, AND Lauren Groff within weeks of each other. These are charmed times, friends.

Here are the best FOUR books I read in August.

The Vaster Wilds, by Lauren Groff -- Lauren Groff is one of my personal writing heroes. She might be my FAVORITE writer -- but at least easily in the top five. I've read every published word she's written. And her newest novel is just a beautiful creation. Poetic, evocative, harrowing. It's a novel about paradoxes: We crave companionship, but most people are vastly disappointing at best and cravenly terrible at worst. We look for validation and hope from belief in god and the practice of religion, but both are riddled with hypocrisy, both in terms of the people who practice them and in a stringent morality that serves more to punish than provide comfort. I loved this book, even if I don't know how to recommend it, other than to say "It's Lauren Groff's new novel. It's very different than her other stuff. But you should still read it because she is amazing."

And now for the brag: I GOT TO MEET HER! These photos are from two events on back-to-back days -- the first was Writers on Writing at the Newberry Library in which she was in conversation with Rebecca Makkai. The second was a StoryStudio (my wonderful employer) event -- it was a tiny gathering of about 25 people during which she talked about her book and fielded questions. She's even more amazing in person than on the page. And that's saying a lot. 

Me, trying to hold it together, sitting next to a genius. 

Lauren Groff in conversation with Rebecca Makkai

The Fraud, by Zadie Smith -- Okay, deep breath -- back to the books. So in a lot of ways, The Fraud and The Vaster Wilds are terrific companions: historical fiction with clear and intended parallels with elements of today's culture/politics/etc. The Fraud, based on a true story, is a deliberately plotted story about a guy in 1870s London who gets a large swath of the public to go along with his delusions. The detail in this novel is exquisite, and almost even frustratingly precise at times. I definitely enjoyed this but you have to be in the right mood and fully caffeinated when you pick this up. When people ask me to describe it or wonder if they'll like it, I tell them this: "Zadie Smith is such a tremendous writer, this book almost feels like she set herself a HUGE challenge of writing an historical fiction because contemporary stories are just too easy for her." 

The People We Keep, by Allison Larkin -- I hope this book doesn't get lost so far down this post, because I loved this novel and INDECENT amount. One of my favorite writers, Matthew Norman, recommend this new-to-me writer on Instagram, and it took awhile to finally get to it, but as is the case 99 times out of 100, someone whose tastes match your own was right on the money. This is a coming of age story about finding (or lucking into) the people who'll stick with you through thick and thin (even when you do shitty things to them), but also having to learn the hard way that many, many, many people are not good. Ultimately, it's a novel about learning to identify the difference, trusting people, and letting yourself be vulnerable. It's also a story about the balance between independence and loneliness, of freedom and being unattached with needing connection and establishing yourself. And MUSIC. IT'S ABOUT MUSIC. Take a chance on this book, if Larkin is a new-to-you-writer, as well. She's REALLY amazing.

Somebody's Fool, by Richard Russo -- And thus concludes the saga of Sully, for my money, one of the best characters in all of literature. Sully is long dead, sadly, in this third installment of the Sully Saga, but his shadow looms large over the characters and events of this novel. This story is mostly about his son Peter, former police chief Raymer, and Rub -- good 'ol Rub Squeers, Sully's trusty companion who has fallen on hard times. If you like Russo, you'll like this. You do probably have to have read the first two in this series -- Nobody's Fool and Everybody's Fool -- to not be totally lost. This one's a little more introspective than the first two. But you know me, I'd read and love Russo's grocery list. So I loved this too. 

Friday, October 20, 2023

I'm Back: Are You Still Reading?

Years ago, I got to attend an unofficial book blogging conference (we called it UnCon, because it was right before the Book Expo America Conference, but not actually part of it -- shout out, old Book Riot crew!). At one point, we went around the room and talked about our book blogging pet peeves. One person mentioned how so many bloggers would not post for a long time, then come back with an apology for being "gone" -- and then justify why they hadn't posted (it was always a variation on "life intervened"), as if all their readers had been waiting on pins and needles for the next post. She rightly pointed out, yeah, no one really noticed you were "gone." It's not like people had stopped reading books because you were suddenly not writing about them. Point taken. Messaged received.

So you may not have even noticed my last post was more than two months ago. You probably didn't. And that's totally fine. But I'll tell you why I'm back now (which is a MUCH more interesting story, I think, than why I've been away, which is basically because life intervened lol). 

I was at a wedding this past weekend, and my wife's aunt (Hi Aunt Ruth!) pulled me aside and told me she'd really gotten into reading this year, and that she'd recently read I Could Live Here Forever, by Hanna Halperin. She'd gotten that suggestion from me and she'd really loved that book. (It's one of my favorites of the year too!) We had a great conversation about the book, she told me again how much she loved reading now, and she wanted more book suggestions. I don't know if Halperin's terrific novel or my book ramblings here were a catalyst for her newfound reading love, but I like to think they played a small role. And if that were true for Aunt Ruth, maybe it's true for other people I don't know about. 

Here's another reason I'm writing here now, and am determined once again to be more consistent: I'm writing fiction again! I wrote one story this summer and am working on another now, and I freaking love it. But the fiction muscles are still atrophied and pretty raw. And these stories aren't good. Yet. But they can be. Or at least the next one might be. Or the next one after that. It doesn't matter if they're good. It doesn't matter if anyone ever reads them. Right now, it's just fun. And that more than anything else is encouraging. 

But so, if you're wondering what writing in this space has to do with writing fiction again, it's this: Writing is writing is writing. I've actually been keeping a journal since early summer too, and the more I've written there, the more I find it's easier to write when I sit down in front of a story. And so writing here, about books, about reading, about things like this, will definitely help writing everywhere else (again, whether or not anyone's reading, lol). That seems like common sense, maybe. But it's a lesson you seemingly have to re-learn over and over and over again.

One final thought: There's probably room for discussion here about how useful books blogs generally and THIS book blog specifically are in this day and age. I have no idea anymore how many people read The New Dork Review of Books, or how many of you are reading this actually on my website, got this in your inbox from Substack, came here via social media, or found this from other means. (Hey, if you wouldn't mind dropping a comment below and letting me know how you got here, I'd be most appreciative.) 

But I'm not doing this for numbers. There was a time I obsessively checked traffic. Don't care anymore. I just want to write -- about books, about reading, about anything that occurs to me. I hope if you're still reading to this point, you'll stay with me for a little longer. 

Tuesday, August 8, 2023

Sun House, by David James Duncan: Finding Your People, Finding Transcendence

Sun House (out today!) is David James Duncan's first novel in 31 years, since 1992's The Brothers K, one of favorite novels of all time. So it's a good thing that the next novel by a guy who publishes once every three decades is just shy of 800 pages. It's also a good thing that's it's amazing. 

Sun House is a throwback novel to a time when old white men published long, complicated novels about American life. Think Don DeLillo's Underworld or Philip Roth's American Pastoral or even John Steinbeck's East of Eden. It's also a novel of ideas that is often less driven by plot and more propelled by long passages of introspection and characters' interior truth-seeking. 

The search for truth, for transcendence, for what happens when we pass from this life, but also finding meaning while we're here in what is an increasingly corrupt and cynical world, are the cornerstones of this story. One reviewer described this novel as an "openhearted epic about everything."  

They're not wrong, because it's also a story about friendship and love, and finding those in the world who will build you up instead of tear you down. Cling to these people with every ounce of spiritual and physical strength you own, the novel urges. That is, find the people who make you happy and latch onto them like there's no tomorrow. Because, really, there's not. 

Essentially the plot of the novel is thus: Several characters take different paths to finding meaning, and each other, and try to establish a rural Montana utopia. There's a beautiful, brilliant Sanskrit student, a Shakespearean actor and his dog, an ex-Jesuit priest and his street-preacher brother, and many more. 

If you've read this far, you've hopefully come to the conclusion that this is not a beach read. It demands (and deserves!) fully caffeinated attention, not just to fully comprehend but also to make the most of. I spent more than a month with this novel, reading and rereading passages, puzzling out each characters' motivations, wants, and paths to their own versions of peace. Sometimes I got frustrated. Sometimes, like when Duncan is writing some of the best dialogue I've ever read, I was delighted. Overall, I was just awed. It's worth the effort, for sure. After all, it's an achievement 31 years in the making! 

Tuesday, August 1, 2023

Best 3 Books of July

I feel like I'm constantly behind, but even more so this summer. As a reader who wants to stay as current as I can with new releases, the sheer volume of incredible books coming out this fall is causing me anxiety! (But not real anxiety. Readerly anxiety. Which is different.)  Yes, there are so many amazing books on the horizon this fall, and I'm slowly starting to dig in -- the first of which wound up on July's best 3 (Ann Patchett's new novel). 

(Side note: I just started the new Lauren Groff, The Vaster Wilds, that's out in September, and oh my goodness. I'm only 70 pages in, but they're 70 of the best pages I've read this year.)

Here's the list of the best three of July:

Good Night, Irene, by Luis Alberto Urrea: If you read only one WWII novel this year, let this be it. Urrea is a consummate storyteller, and this novel inspired by his mother's service in the Red Cross, truly is the story he's been preparing his whole life to tell. It shows! 

The Celebrants, by Steven Rowley: Though the overarching conceit here isn't original -- the blurb copy even calls it a Big Chill for our times (though I'd suggest Matthew Norman's All Together Now is a better example) -- Rowley definitely makes this his own. The schtick here is that college friends gather for funerals, but the twist is that they person they're celebrating is still alive. The idea, and it's a good one, is to say everything you ever wanted to say to this person while they're still alive, to let them know what they mean to you while they can still take it to heart. This novel is sweet and funny and just downright charming. I even cried a little. It's a just a terrific way to spend a few summer afternoon hours.

Tom Lake, by Ann Patchett: Ann Patchett's writing is a warm blanket on a cold winter day. It's soothing. It's comforting. It makes everything okay. Some writers, for whatever reason (probably because they're very, very good) you just connect with. Patchett is one of those writers for me. So when Ann Patchett tells a story about a story being told, you know it's going to be good. And it is. Very good.

Thursday, July 13, 2023

Best Books of 2023 (so far)

Yep, I'm a couple weeks late on getting this done at the year's halfway point -- the main reason for that is because I wanted to finish reading one of the books that I was pretty sure would wind up on this list (Good Night, Irene). And it did. Wow.

It's been a real good six months of reading, and the next six months promises to be just as great. (I'm about to dive into the first of my three most anticipated books of the fall -- new novels by Zadie Smith, Lauren Groff, and Ann Patchett!) But so here, are my favorite books of 2023...so far.

The Weight, by Jeff Boyd -- I love it when a book you pick up on a whim based on jacket copy or blurbs turns out to be this good. Boyd's debut is the Black hipster musician novel you didn't know you needed...but definitely do. 

Choosing To Run, by Des Linden -- Chances are, if you're a runner, you've read this book. And chances are just as good you loved it. I sure did. Des is in inspiration. And she's funny as hell, too. 

Gone To The Wolves, by John Wray -- The novel I was born to read. Devil horns up! 

The Longest Race, by Kara Goucher -- Man, eff Nike. Goucher lays bare not just how poorly the company treated her, but also how they turned a blind eye to former coach Alberto Salazar, and his doping, emotional abuse, and quack training practices. But not only did Nike turn a blind eye, they actually defended him until the evidence was so overwhelming they couldn't deny it anymore. Kudos to Goucher for writing this brave book.

I Could Live Here Forever, by Hanna Halperin -- A novel about addiction, relationships, and the creative spark, this is as devastating as it is engrossing. A masterful debut!

A Country You Can Leave, by Asale Angel-Ajani -- Voice, voice, and more voice. I love a novel with a good voice. And voice is certainly the hallmark of this novel about a girl and her, um, unusual mother living in a trailer park in California. 

The Deluge, by Stephen Markley -- A masterpiece of speculative fiction that feels all too real -- examining the people and politics of climate change, and extending 30 years into the future. I read this book on vacation in Kauai, and now have overused the following comment when recommending it: Reading a novel about climate change on the beach is like reading a novel about a plane crash on a flight. Still, though, if you're up for a long book about not-exactly-cheery subjects, this is your jam.

Good Night, Irene, by Luis Alberto Urrea -- One of the more satisfying, enjoyable reading experiences I've had in a long time, Urrea is a consummate storyteller. If you read one World War II novel this year, make this it. 

Friday, June 30, 2023

Best 3 Books of June

As is my usual MO, I was all over the place in June reading. From a 600-page boarding school novel (Foster Dade Explores The Cosmos) to a novel set in 1990 Dubai (Hope You Are Satisfied) to Lorrie Moore's new and very strange novella (I Am Homeless If This Is Not My Home). 

My best three are just as eclectic. Here are my favorite three books I read in June.

1. Charm City Rocks, by Matthew Norman: From following Norman on IG, I know he's a huge fan of Richard Russo. In this novel, he's borrowed a page from Russo's book: An exceptional devotion and care for his characters. Any writer that does this well is one I'll read no matter what -- and Norman does it well here, and then some. Yes, of course, at its root, this novel is a just-on-the-safe-side-of-saccharine romcom. One of the blurbs compares it to if Emily Henry and Daisy Jones and the Six had a book baby, and that's right on the nose. But it's sweet and it's funny and the characters are those things too, and I loved it.

2. Braiding Sweetgrass, by Robin Wall Kimmerer: I feel like I'm the last person to read this book, and I'm glad I finally did. This book makes the crucial point in new and really creative ways: We are made for the Earth, not the Earth for us. We have no more right to plants and animals than any other plant or animal. And we've gotten so far from that idea with our consumerism and consumption, that it'll be nearly impossible to get back to this piece of Indigenous wisdom. Humans are only exceptional in that they have more ability to destroy and not replace than other species. And boy have we showed our exceptionalism in that respect. We must return to reciprocity in all things. We must treat the Earth as a gift, not a resource. And we must restore what we've already destroyed.

3. Maddalena and the Dark, by Julia Fine: If Mean Girls were a fairy tale, and even darker, and set in 18th century Venice at a music school for girls, and was just as vicious, you'd have this marvelously original story. Jealousy and its close cousin envy are the stars of this show of two girls, one an orphan, one from an upper class family, and their "friendship." This burns slowly for a bit as you find your footing and get acclimated, but then it picks up quickly and explodes to the finish. A truly original novel and a really satisfying read.

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.