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.