Let me start by saying, as I often have to, that I am incapable of giving this book an unbiased reading. My wife wrote it. Now, you might be thinking...moreLet me start by saying, as I often have to, that I am incapable of giving this book an unbiased reading. My wife wrote it. Now, you might be thinking "Why did you give it only 4 stars, then?!" Good question. I have a few reasons. One, while I love this book, I think Edan has even better books to come, and when I give those 5 stars, I want people to know just how much I mean it. Second, I figure this gives all of my reviews instant credibility. If I give something 4 stars, it means just what it says it means under the stars -- "I loved it."
And I did love this book. The narrator, Joellyn, is a perfectly realized vision of a person in their late-20s or early-30s, a person who is simultaneously smart and lost. Or rather, smart and just starting to find their way. I floundered around for a while in my 20s, and I think this book, like few others I've read, nails that time in one's life. Joellyn has a career, presumably, and she lives alone in an apartment in the city, but she doesn't strike me as a real adult. She's not yet "grown up." And this, of course, is what makes her story so poignant.
I also love the character of Zachary Haas so much. He's just that perfect late-20s guy, right down to his sneakers and crappy free computer bag, and I really identified with him (which maybe says a little too much about me, sadly). I thought Joellyn and Zachary's romance was incredibly true to life. In fact, because so much of the story feels as if it came directly from my world, I think it's important to note how the author does a dazzling job of making the book succeed as more than a mere retelling of a failed relationship. The narrative tricks -- including using a kind of quasi direct address ("I can feel you getting excited about Zachary, and that excitement is dangerous, for this story doesn't end how you want it to.") -- and the book's rueful humor make this so much more than just another girl-meets-boy, girl-loses-boy story. It is recognizably our world, but the description of it -- the telling of the tale -- has so much more style than life does. I think this is the definition of great realist fiction.
It's that combination of humor and sorrow that I think will end up being Lepucki's trademark style, and it's that humor that sugar-coats what might otherwise be a quite sad story. That's as much as I can say without ruining the story for you. I will add that the 2nd edition of this book, the one that you're likely to find in a bookstore or online at this point, contains one of my favorite stories, "I am the Lion Now." It contains a baby possum (What is the term for a baby possum? A cub? A kid? A puppy?) and at one point, the narration enters the possum's thoughts. It also contains references to the Taliban. How it all connects? Well, read the story to find out.
[One last self-referential note: Others have wondered whether I am a sort of prototype for Zachary Haas. Let me end the speculation now -- I am not. It's true that I had poor personal style in my 20s, and it is also true that there was a time in my life, yes, when I enjoyed the occasional personal pizza. But never, never would I have been so blithely oblivious or confident enough on a first date as to order a salad with raw onions. I wish I had balls like that.](less)
I read this book so long ago (was it actually 2005...good lord) that I can't say much about it. I remember being pretty moved by it, and that it chang...moreI read this book so long ago (was it actually 2005...good lord) that I can't say much about it. I remember being pretty moved by it, and that it changed my mind about the Clinton presidency. Highly recommended for those interested in foreign relations, human history, and the immense suffering we seem determined to inflict on each other.(less)
The novelist John Gardner put forth the notion that fiction should "evoke a vivid and continuous dream." In other words, it should immerse the reader...moreThe novelist John Gardner put forth the notion that fiction should "evoke a vivid and continuous dream." In other words, it should immerse the reader in a world that feels alive, from the beginning of the book to the end. Creating this universe -- be it one that looks and feels like our own or a totally different time and place -- is the challenge of the novelist.
I thought about this notion of the vivid and continuous dream while reading Philip Caputo's Crossers. I'd never read Caputo, never even heard of him, actually, until a family friend recommended him to me and loaned me his copy of the book. "This guy, he knew what was going on down there before anybody," my friend said. The "down there" he was speaking of is the Mexican border, and in that sense, I think he was right.
The book follows Castle, a minor titan of Wall Street who loses his wife in the 9/11 terror attacks. Grief-stricken and broken, he decides to retire from his career in finance and retreat, literally, to the Arizona desert, taking up residence in an old cabin on the outskirts of his cousin's cattle ranch. There he discovers that the desert is a perilous place, overrun with undocumented immigrants making an often deadly dash across the arid landscape and lethal smugglers toting bales of marijuana on their backs. It's a world where minding your own business is a way of life, and riding into the wrong canyon can spell disaster.
Castle's attempts to seclude himself are thwarted first by a comely female rancher, Tessa, and then by the inescapable blight of the drug trade, which finds its way into the business of his cousin Blaine's cattle ranch. Weaving the stories of several characters -- Castle, Blaine, their grandfather Ben Erskine (The last of the great Western cowboys), a double-agent called, enigmatically, The Professor, and the ruthless and erratic druglord Yvonne Menendez -- Caputo creates a compelling portrait of life along the border.
Caputo's knowledge of the Arizona-Sonora desert, the ins-and-outs of the drug trade along its border, and the incredible details of ranch life and the lifestyle of the working cowboys or vaqueros, as they are called throughout, is beyond impressive. Following the rich cast of characters -- the thoughtful widower Castle, the man of intrigue "The Professor," the hothead Blaine -- was a delight. To be pulled along, through the dream -- or more accurately, the nightmare -- of this book, as it slowly unfolded was a pleasure.
If I have a criticism of the book, it's that Caputo's authority is so great when he's operating in an area of expertise, such as cattle ranching, that when he ventures out of what he seems to know, he sometimes strikes a false note. One such example is a description of the crowd at an alt-country show on a college campus. He describes the students as wearing the sweatshirts of the university they attend. This detail -- minor, to be sure -- struck me as incredibly false. At times, the book's one true villain, Yvonne Menendez, felt a little too broadly drawn, that she drifted into caricature. Caputo does a great job of making most of the characters morally ambiguous, and while he does his best to show Yvonne's motives, deeply rooted in history as they are, it came up just short of the kind of nuanced detail that I would wanted. In short, I was hoping for "The Wire" of the Mexican drug trade, and it didn't quite hit that lofty mark.
And in a book of such impeccable detail -- the descriptions of the mesas and canyons of the desert, of the birds and beasts who inhabit it are so obviously from life -- that these brief moments of unreality had the jarring effect of breaking the dream of the narrative, of ripping me out of the world and making me think about the author. And that was a shame.
Thankfully, those sour notes were few and far between, and the plot is so compelling and so well-paced, that I can recommend this book without reservation. To live there, in the foothills of the Huachuca Mountains, for a few weeks, was a true pleasure, and a terrific way to begin the year as a reader. (less)
Have to pause this one, as Google books is being kind of jenky and not letting me come back to the same place in the text. Which, surprise surprise, m...moreHave to pause this one, as Google books is being kind of jenky and not letting me come back to the same place in the text. Which, surprise surprise, makes it kind of hard to read. Too bad, too, as I was enjoying it.(less)
Some time ago, somebody caused a ruckus on the internet by asserting that, generally speaking, women aren't funny. That this actually caused a controv...moreSome time ago, somebody caused a ruckus on the internet by asserting that, generally speaking, women aren't funny. That this actually caused a controversy of sorts is ridiculous to me. Of course women are funny. Anybody who disagrees hasn't read Julie Klam, Julie Klausner, Sarah Vowell...And they clearly haven't read Rachel Shukert.
This book, following the young Shukert on various European excursions and adventures, is as funny and knowing as any book I've read this. After college, Shukert gets a job as a sort of glorified extra in an experimental play. When the play ends its run in New York, the terrifying and maniacal director takes the show on a brief European tour, from Vienna to Zurich. Shukert has the usual European experiences -- having sex with an older man with an uncircumcised penis, being not-so-silently judged by the snooty Austrian hotel clerk, eating scalding sausages in the company of skinheads -- and some not so usual ones.
At the end of her tour, with few job prospects on the horizon, Shukert takes advantage of a bureaucratic error to stay in Europe indefinitely. She moves to Amsterdam to live with some friends. And that's where the book really gets good. Dental emergencies lead to near-sexual assaults, stolen bicycles bring about horrible karmic payback. Etc, etc.
Not only is this a hilarious and fast read, I really feel like it speaks to issues of class in America in some very subtle ways. With a certain retrospective gaze, Shukert notes that "finding oneself" is a luxury of a certain class of person, that she is privileged to get to traipse about Europe, even when that traipsing is unpleasant or downright horrible. And Shukert's Jewishness lends another layer to the text, positioning her as something of an "other" even in her ancestral homeland of Omaha, Nebraska.
But what I'll remember about this book is not Shukert's ethnicity, but rather how damn funny it is. Sometimes you just need a good laugh, and Shukert, it seems, is willing to be both laughed at and laughed with. She's a good sport, and in that sense, I think Everything is Going to Be Great fits nicely into the genre of "loser fic," even if it isn't fiction (Hopefully Rachel knows I mean this as a complement!).
If the entire book had been the first and the last sections, this would've been 5-stars, hands down. Unfortunately, while I appreciate why the middle...moreIf the entire book had been the first and the last sections, this would've been 5-stars, hands down. Unfortunately, while I appreciate why the middle book needed to be there (and I find myself lingering, in thought, over that section more than any other), I just couldn't stand that gruesome ugly desert of death. I don't think this book is quite a masterpiece -- too messy, too all over the place. But it has its masterful moments. Eventually, I will get to Savage Detectives.(less)
What to say about this book? It's one of the five best books I've ever read, and I think I've only met one person who considers it anything less than...moreWhat to say about this book? It's one of the five best books I've ever read, and I think I've only met one person who considers it anything less than one of the best books of the 20th Century. Is that enough to recommend it to you?
I also wrote about this book for The Millions last year. Everything I said then still stands. I can't wait to re-read this.(less)