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.