Monday, February 5, 2024

Martyr! by Kaveh Akbar: IMMENSE. BRILLIANT.

Does this ever happen to you? You're connecting to a piece of art on a very deep level, and suddenly, totally independent of the content of that art, you start getting choked up. Like you feel so overwhelmed and awed by what this piece of art is doing that it literally causes you to get emotional. 

It's sounds dramatic, I know. But it does occasionally happen to me. And it happened to me reading this novel. 

It's that good. There's not much of a plot, per se. It's about one Iranian American dude's search for meaning. You'll have to trust me it's not boring. Not even a little bit boring. I honestly didn't know you could do with words what Kaveh Akbar does with words here. 

Rather than a regular review, here are 10 thoughts on this truly one-of-a-kind work:

1. This is a novel not about the meaning of life, but the meaning of death. Our protagonist Cyrus's mother died in the Iran Air Flight 655 disaster (the US mistook the commercial flight for a war jet and shot it down) in July 1988. Cyrus was a baby when this happened, and doesn't remember his mother, but this has always haunted him. When someone dies before their time, what does it mean? Is the way they died meaningful? Why? How? Cyrus, depressed, a recovering addict, and just floating through his 20s in a small college town in Indiana, wonders if he "martyrs" himself (commits suicide), would anything about his death be meaningful since his life to this point has been so devoid of meaning? Is that the only thing stopping him from doing it?

2. This is a novel both about the inadequacy and also the power of language. This argument throughout the novel is one of its strengths. Regarding the former, one character says: “A photograph can say ‘This is what it was.’ Language can only say ‘This is what it was like.’” But regarding the latter, another character says, “An alphabet, like a life, is a finite set of shapes. With it, one can produce almost anything.” I'd submit that this novel itself is a testament to the power of language. It's one of the more profound and beautifully written pieces of fiction I've read in a long time!

3. This is a novel about addiction. Cyrus is a recovering addict, and now that he's mostly kicked his habit in his late 20s, he's lost his way again. At least booze and drugs gave him direction. Now he's trying to fill that void by writing poetry. And failing. 

4. This is a novel about ass-backward American values. We don't value art anymore. We should.

5. This is a master class in craft from a structure standpoint. What we think are flashbacks or background info slowly start to gain momentum and then absolutely EXPLODES into the real-time action as crucial facets of the story. To say more would be to spoil. Just trust me -- and trust the writer. He knows what he's doing. 

6. Cyrus's uncle Arash has a most unusual role in the Iranian military. During the Iraq-Iran war, he dresses in a dark cloak, holds a flash light to his face, and rides around a battlefield where men are slowly dying. The idea is they seem him as an angel, and they're convinced, then, to be "martyred" honorably, rather than committing suicide. This detail is not just significant to the story, it's one of those things you read in a novel that just blows your mind. This blew my mind. 

7. Some of my favorite -- and the funniest -- parts of this novel are conversations Akbar gives us between, say, Lisa Simpson and Cyrus's mother, or Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Cyrus's younger brother Beethoven (who doesn't actually exist, neither in the real world or the fictional world of the novel). They're dreams Cyrus has, which would normally be kind of annoying. These are not only immensely entertaining set pieces, they also further the themes of the novel. That's to say, they do have a purpose.  

8. The blurbs! I basically picked this up because of the blurbs. Lauren Groff, Tommy Orange, Leslie Jamison, JOHN GREEN, and Mary Karr. You get a collection of writers this varied to all offer immense praise on a book, you read that book. 

9. One of the reasons I almost DIDN'T pick this up is because I HATE the cover. It's cartoonish, almost like a Monty Python sketch as cover art. There are definitely funny parts to this novel, but this cover design belies the novel's profundity. I hope they'll go back to the drawing board for the paperback.

10. Two more fantastic quotes: “At the intersection of Iranian-ness and Midwestern-ness was pathological politeness, an immobilizing compulsivity to avoid causing distress to anyone." AND “She was Christian but American Christian, the kind that believed Jesus had just needed a bigger gun.”

Summary: READ THIS. I read the last 200 pages of this novel in one day. I'm going to have to go back reread it to let it sink in more. But on first reading, just WOW. It's February 5, and I already have my favorite novel of 2024. 

Friday, January 5, 2024

Best Books I Read in December

It's only the first week in January and I'm already behind. I suspect I'm not the only one who feels this way. December is so busy for three weeks, then nothing -- except good cheer and reading and cheese. Then back to the grind. But so, I read a ton of books in December* -- here are the best five:

Trees, by Percival Everett -- Are novels about racism, lynching, and mass killings supposed this to be funny?  I'd never read Percival Everett before and a bookseller friend (Javier at Exile in Bookville, if you know him) recently told me how big a fan he is, so I sheepishly asked him for a good starting point, and this novel -- which is marvelous! -- is what he gave me.  If you're up for the snappiest, wittiest dialogue, a lively irreverence, and a foundation of sad truth, this is a read for you

Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott -- Goal for 2024: Read many, many more craft of writing books. So I started in December with one of the "cornerstones of the genre." Really good, really inspiring. 

The Covenant of Water, by Abraham Verghese -- I wasn't as breathlessly impressed with this long, epic novel as most readers, but it sure has its moments. And some fantastic twists and turns. If you liked Cutting For Stone, you'll enjoy this too. 

Terrace Story, by Hilary Leichter -- Thanks to my friend Brooke for making me read this BONKERS story about ... I'm still not entirely sure, except that it's about a married couple and their mysterious friend and a terrace that magically appears outside their apartment. You just have to read it. It's a small (less than 200 pages) but mighty novel that explores the amorphous nature of space, time, reality...and marital fidelity. 

A Little Devil In America, by Hanif Abdurraqib -- This man can write an essay. 

*Note: With a strong finish in December, my 2023 ended up as my best reading year ever, page-wise: Total of 27,880 pages (and 77 total books). It's not a competition, I know.