A great modern poet once wrote: "You can't always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you might find you get what you need." That's the theme of Cynthia D'Aprix Sweeney's terrific dysfunctional family story, The Nest. The questions of the novel: What happens when something you'd been counting on — in this case, a YUGE inheritance — is suddenly gone? How do you adjust? How do you extract the wrenches thrown in the works of your carefully laid plans?
What we have here is four New York City siblings, whose father died and left them all a trust. But the catch is that it could only be dispersed when the youngest sibling turns 40. The mother, Francie, a decidedly Lucille Bluth-like character, has resisted all requests from the four to borrow from The Nest...that is until only a few months before the money's about to be doled out, eldest son Leo wrecks his car with a 19-year-old-not-his-wife waitress, and some hush money is required.
So The Nest, a windfall all four siblings had counted on, is mostly gone. And though Leo, fresh from rehab, promises to pay them all back, they're all pretty skeptical he will. The story that unfolds is about how each sibling, to varying degrees of success, deals with the money being gone. They'd made plans. They'd kept certain financial indiscretions from their significant others. They'd lied.
This novel is just an absolute delight from cover to cover. It's funny, it's sad, it's chock full of social commentary and wickedly sharp observation. And these characters are so fully real — they're all empathetic, but the moment you start feeling badly for them, they do something that makes you just cringe.
I loved it! It's one my favorite novels of the year so far. Just so fun and scandalous — well worth the considerable hype!...more
Adam Haslett's new novel, Imagine Me Gone, is not a cheerful book. Far from it. But it is an incredibly well-written, sobering, and insightful look at how mental illness can turn a normal family to a dysfunctional one.
But this isn't your run-of-the-mill dysfunctional family story — it's more about the dysfunction itself, and how it affects each family member differently, both in terms of their relationships with each other, and also with others.
John, a Brit, and Margaret, an American, meet and fall in love in London in the 1960s. Despite John's warning signs — including a stay in a "facility" — Margaret decides to marry John anyway. She thinks she can change him or cure him or at least help him live with his mental illness, an affliction understood in far less detail then than now.
The story unfolds from there, as they have three children, Michael, Celia, and Alec, and move back and forth between a small town in Massachusetts and England. Michael, we soon learn, carries on his father's legacy (when Michael's a kid, there's a bunch of foreshadowing and hints about how Michael and his father are inextricably tied) — afflicted with acute anxiety. Michael is a fascinating character — he loves music, using it as a way to reconnect with the world that he has so much trouble with, and becomes an activist and crusader for black rights and reparations.
Michael is something of a tortured genius — the tools are there for success, but he can't seem to arrange them properly to use them to be successful. That's especially true as he grows increasingly dependent on an increasingly huge cocktail of medications.
One of the more fascinating themes of the novel is how mental illness skews empathy. Michael is certainly capable of empathy, but not necessarily for the people he should care for. And it's increasingly difficult for his family to understand this. His mother, for instance, who also sees him as her dead husband's proxy, enables him in the wrong ways, paying his bills and encouraging the worst of his bad habits, especially after his periodic unrequited-love-related breakdowns.
His siblings, meanwhile (each chapter is told from the point of view of a different character), go about their lives with Michael sort of in the background. But it's clear their father's mental illness has messed with their heads in different ways — Celia is a successful social worker, but doesn't let herself fully trust her long-term partner. Alec, young, gay, and urbane, newly ensconced in New York City as a journalist, moves from hookup to hookup without ever forming any connections at all.
I was totally floored by this book, especially Haslett's observation and intuition for describing relationships and motivation for action. Simply put, he gets humans — and is extraordinarily skilled at rendering how we think and feel, and making sentiment relatable and readable. Again, this is definitely an uncomfortable novel, but one well worth reading. ...more
This is a fun, fast globe-trotting thriller about a secret cabal called The Committee that is plotting to take control of all the world's personal datThis is a fun, fast globe-trotting thriller about a secret cabal called The Committee that is plotting to take control of all the world's personal data, and then sell it back to only those who can afford it. But this thriller, told from the perspectives of each of three main characters, is really good because it's the rare thriller that focuses more on its characters than it does its break-neck plot. The stories of a bad ass woman named Leila, who works for an NGO in Burma, a down-and-out trust fund hipster in Portland, Oregon, and a douchey, full-of-shit self-help author (who happens to be a drunk) all converge to create a fascinating contemporary (and cautionary) tale about privacy and the Internet. This is a great book for a plane trip or a sunny beach vacation — smarter than your average thriller, but still a quick, engrossing read....more
The trope of the troubled genius is a fairly common one, and it's what Ethan Canin is concerned with in his fascinating, immensely readable new novel A Doubter's Almanac. But what elevates this above the traditional "trouble genius" story is how Canin asks his readers to really parse their own feelings about how to react to a troubled genius, especially when that genius is, to put it bluntly, a spectacular asshole.
But what are the root causes of his assholery? Why does he behave the way he does, treating everyone around him as mere objects to serve his greater good? Does it matter? After all, if empathy is truly walking a mile in someone else's shoes, and seeing the world through their eyes, that must apply to someone who is gifted, but gauche, just as much as it does to someone who is troubled, but not gifted. Right? You may not completely agree as you find out just how horrible this guy is. You may not want to try to understand him, or much less, forgive him But it's an interesting exploration.
Our Philip Rothian protago-villain here is a mathematics genius named Milo Andret, who, as an undergraduate earns a modicum of fame by solving a nearly half-century-old topology problem. (One of the highlights of this novel is Canin's ability to convey just enough information to help his reader understand the basics, but without getting bogged down into byzantine details.) Milo parlays this success into a professorship at Princeton, and turns his attentions and considerable talents to another problem. But he soon gets bogged down with booze, affairs with married women (and one with a sweet but sad unmarried woman), and being generally quarrelsome and cantankerous (even though he's still in his mid-30s).
Milo, like many geniuses, is constantly disappointed with the world, generally, but also most other people specifically. He's like a cross between Ignatius Reilly from A Confederacy of Dunces and John Nash from A Beautiful Mind. For Milo, "There is no joy in God's creation," Milo's doctor explains to his son at one point. "No pleasure in sunlight or water. No pleasure in a good meal. There is no pleasure in the company of friends. There is nothing. Nothing that might assuage the maw." That sounds like a justification for everything bad Milo has done, and at some level, it is. So, do we buy it?
The second part of the novel switches gears to the perspective of Milo's son, filling in the blanks of Milo's time descending to rock bottom at Princeton and how he got to be an assistant professor at a small college in Ohio. Milo's son Hans is just as intriguing a character as Milo. Will the sins of the father be repeated by the son?
This big brick of novel (550 pages) absolutely flies by. Canin is just a great, smooth storyteller, in the vein of other great storytellers like John Irving and Richard Russo. And this is just a helluva great story — even if it makes you mad at times. Some of these characters are just much better people than I could be when presented with such an axe-wound-sized asshole as Milo. But overall, I loved it — it's highly recommended! ...more
Late in Marlon James's amazing Booker Prize-winning novel, A Brief History Of Seven Killings, a Jamaican character tells an American journalist,
"Jamaica can get shoot through your veins and become like every dark sweet thing that not good for you."
Not only is that sentence a near-perfect thematic description of this hard-to-put-down 700-page novel as a whole (the allusion to drugs is intentional, of course), but also it's exactly how I feel about the novel itself. This is a novel, and these are characters, that will stick with you for a long time. I don't know if it was "good" for me, per se, but I know I enjoyed the hell out of it.
The closest comparison I can think of to this novel of Jamaican gangsters, CIA agents, double-crossing drug dealers, and one enterprising Rolling Stone journalist is that it's a Jamaican version of the HBO show The Wire. This novel, like The Wire, turns stereotypes on their heads (gangsters that read Bertrand Russell, gay hit men, etc.) in a complex plot where everyone has an agenda and loyalty is a sliding scale. I loved The Wire, but I liked this even more — the characters here are even more complex, there's even more moral shading, and it's a plot with even more scope and reach than could ever be done in a TV show. We go from the mid-1970s Kingston, to the late 1970s Kingston, Montego Bay and Miami, to the crackhouses of mid-80s and early-90s New York City.
That said, the first 300 pages take place over only two days in early December, 1976 in Kingston. We meet several characters — street kids, dons, enforcers, American journalists, CIA agents, Cuban "consultants," an upper class Jamaican woman, politicians, and even a ghost! The diverse characters, who take turns narrating their own stories in their own voices, are what makes this novel great. The distinction and variety of these voices (James writes his Jamaican characters in Jamaican "dialect," but it's not difficult to read, and you get used to it quickly) really draw you in, which is quite a feat. Sometimes, novels with lots of narrators keep you at arm's length, because you're more invested in some characters than others. Not so here — each of these is interesting for his/her own reasons, and I never started reading a section thinking "Ugh, can't wait to get through this guy's story to get back another."
And but so, the Kingston gangs have close ties to Jamaican politics (if you're going to read this, and I highly recommend you do, do some quick Wikipedia-ing on the Jamaica Labour Party and the People's National Party), and with an election coming up, and a concert (Smile Jamaica), the eyes of the world are on Kingston. The real fulcrum of the plot and what sets everything spinning is a real-life event — an attack on reggae legend Bob Marley at his Kingston home just days before the concert and weeks before the election. This scene and its immediate aftermath are depicted from several perspectives in about 50 I-forgot-to-breathe pages that are truly, unimaginably great. These pages are when I knew I loved this novel. From there, we go 1979 in Jamaica, then to New York and Miami as the gangs team up with the Columbian drug cartels and take over parts of New York. But the attack on Marley looms large through the rest of the novel, even after Marley's 1981 death, literally until the last page.
One word of warning: This book is intensely violent — so it's not for the faint of heart in that regard. And the plot is complex, but certainly not impenetrable. You just have to keep in mind characters' motivations, loyalties, and why you think they're doing what they're doing. Just trust James that things will make sense.
So it's certainly not a novel everyone will be interested in, or like...but I loved it! It just feels like something so cool and inventive and unlike anything I'd read before (which, amusingly, is in stark contrast to most people's impression of Man Booker winners). I'd been trying to talk myself into reading this since it first came out last year, and I'm super glad I did. So if you're on the fence too, just take the plunge. It's an immensely rewarding reading experience. ...more
This was a bit of a deep cut and a little outside my reading comfort zone, but I really liked it — Rothschild's debut novel (published Nov. 2015) is tThis was a bit of a deep cut and a little outside my reading comfort zone, but I really liked it — Rothschild's debut novel (published Nov. 2015) is the story of an über-valuable lost painting (said painting sometimes narrates its own story at times, which, you just kind of have to deal with) and how an early-30s London woman who has been jilted by her husband finds it in a junk shop, not realizing what she's purchased. Things go a little crazy from there. The novel's been billed as a sort of satire of the uppity art world, and it certainly is that — it's often really funny. But it also has elements of art-world thriller, as well as some serious meditations on the meaning and value of art and its ability to inspire. ...more
There's no pulling punches on this one: John Irving's new novel, Avenue of Mysteries, is bad. It's my least favorite of all the books of his I've read — which is 10 of his 14 novels. Yes, indeed, Avenue of Mysteries takes its place at the butt end.
It's a nearly focus-less, spaghetti-at-the-wall story, but with a totally cliché overarching theme of the intersection of dreams and memories. An aging writer named Juan Diego travels to the Philippines to honor a promise he made as a boy. During this trip, he periodically falls asleep and dreams of his childhood in Oaxaca, Mexico. His sister Lupe (the two kids are orphans) can read people's minds. They love dogs. Juan Diego is a good reader. They are devoted to Our Lady of Guadalupe. There are ghosts, demons, arguments over Catholicism, arguments over where writers get their ideas (autobiography vs imagination), there is deviant sex, there is a Jesuit-in-training who falls in love with a transvestite prostitute, there are circus performers and lions, the AIDS epidemic, Viagra, etc., etc., etc.
It's an utter mess. And the worst part? You'd think with all these disparate elements, Irving could at least spin us a good yarn. But no. The story itself — about Juan Diego wondering around in the Philippines with two mysterious women with whom he periodically has sex and the bildungsroman-esque flashbacks/dreams to his childhood in Mexico — is, with a few exceptions here and there (the 75 or so pages about the circus were great!), totally snooze-inducing. It's long, it's often repetitive (he re-uses the same phrases, or tells us the same piece of information several times, often multiple times in the same chapter or on the same page, as if we've forgotten, and he's reminding us...or he just needed a bit of editing), and, at the end of the day, just not the same quality of story for which Irving is known.
So this makes four of Irving's last five novels that haven't even approached the level of his most famous and best works, like A Prayer for Owen Meany, which is still one of my Top Five favorite novels of all time. The Fourth Hand (2001) was okay, but just sort of odd, and a bit thin. Until I Find You (2005) was long and repetitive — my second least favorite of the 10 of Irving's novels I've read. Last Night In Twisted River (2009), however, was fantastic. I really loved it, and I thought this heralded a return to form for Irving. But then In One Person (2012) was decent, but uneven, and then with Avenue of Mysteries (2015), Irving just went off a cliff.
Is this it for him? It's definitely a conspicuous downwards trend. Indeed, I can't even say for sure that Irving, one of my erstwhile favorite writers, is a must-read for me anymore if he publishes anything new. All I do know is that reading this made me really sad, and if you're on the fence about reading it, my recommendation is to read something better. ...more
If you read Anthony Marra's much-acclaimed 2013 novel A Constellation of Vital Phenomena — a harrowing, beautiful, brilliant novel about the wars in Chechnya — then, like me, you've been waiting patiently for his next thing. Thankfully, the wait wasn't long. Here it is — a collection of interconnected stories (truthfully, this reads more like a novel than a short story collection) titled The Tsar of Love and Techno that is, in a word, phenomenal.
There are nine distinct stories, but characters recur, constantly building the overall story — similar to, say, Jennifer Egan's, A Visit From the Goon Squad. At the center is a minor work by a Russian painter — a landscape scene of a meadow outside of Grozny that carries significance in many different ways to many different characters over the course of the book. The stories range from the Siberian nickel-mining and former Gulag town of Kirovsk in both pre-WWII and present day, to the streets of St. Petersburg, and to Grozny, Chechnya at various times.
What's wonderful about this book is how tightly knit and neatly nested these stories are. A brief anecdote about one character in one story becomes the basis for another story later. This is a character-driven book, and these are wonderful people — a Russian movie star/beauty queen, a Russian oligarch billionaire, an "art-restorer" in the time of Stalin whose job is to touch up art to remove dissidents...and also to make Stalin look better, a Grozny bureaucrat and art lover, a Russian gangster and soldier-for-hire named Kolya (if there's a "main character," its him), a St. Petersburg scam-artist named Sergei, who gets a list of Americans to scam from Tom Hanks' Facebook fan page (because those people MUST be naïve...hilarious.) These wonderful characters flit in and out of each others' lives, constructing a cornerstone theme about how life imitates art imitates life until the two are nearly indistinguishable. Also, war is horrific.
If you've read Vital Phenomena, you know this: Marra is a supremely talented writer. Perhaps the one thing I loved most about this book is his ability to evoke such a range of emotions throughout this collection as a whole, but often on the same page. One of the stories — perhaps my favorite, titled "The Grozny Tourist Bureau," — is about a fellow who is put in charge of revamping Grozny's lagging tourism industry after the wars are over and Grozny is basically a pile of rubble. It's by turns hilarious and heart-breaking, and I loved it.
I'm always a little skeptical when a writer publishes a collection of stories immediately after a hugely successful novel. But this isn't just a collection of previously published pieces. It's possible some of these were published elsewhere first (I don't want to find out, to be honest), but this book has such a deliberate, purposeful feel. It is easily one of my favorites of the year — extremely highly recommended. (By the way, its current Goodreads rating is 4.42, and it made it on NY Times list of 100 Notable Books, so it's not just me who thinks this books is terrific.) ...more
A pretty riveting history - I actually got goosebumps a few times. A great read to fill in the gaps of the basic facts you already know about the greaA pretty riveting history - I actually got goosebumps a few times. A great read to fill in the gaps of the basic facts you already know about the greatest invention of the 20th century. ...more
Purity is Jonathan Franzen's third "major" novel — it's his most structurally complex, robust (or verbose, depending on your POV), and smartest novel yet. It's not his best, nor is it my favorite of his, but it's still pretty awesome — as quick a read as a 550-page novel can be.
What's fun about this novel is its sheer volume of topic. Franzen utterly commands a reader's attention, as he's interesting on just about everything he writes about. Here, Franzen tackles the pressures of fame, parents and kids, socialism, relationships, sex, nuclear disarmament, Internet leaks, trust, journalism vs. new media, Oedipus, art, East Germany.
This is all included amidst a tightly spun, though geographically diverse (Oakland, Denver, Bolivia, East Berlin, New York City, etc.) plot about a 22-year-old woman named Purity, but who goes by Pip. As we first meet Pip, she's talking with her neurotic mother who lives by herself in a cabin in California. Pip, who is rather a hot mess herself, lives in a squat house in Oakland, harbors a secret crush for a married housemate, works as a telemarketer for an alternative energy company, and just wants to find her father, who she thinks can help her pay her crushing $130,000 student loan debt.
After we're introduced to Pip in the first 100 pages, we spend the next 100 pages with a man named Andreas Wolf, who comes of age during the early 1980s in East Berlin. Andreas (as we've learned in Pip's section) runs an organization called The Sunlight Project, a Wikileaks-like outfit that attempts to "cleanse with sunlight" by revealing secrets. Andreas's section basically describes how he got to be the way he is. From there, the less you know about the plot, the better and more fun your reading experience will be. Franzen masterfully connects these characters, many more, their secrets, and how many of their stories are surprisingly similar. Trust him: What may seem like coincidence initially obviously isn't. Franzen's too good to resort to coincidence.
One of my favorite things about this novel is its self-awareness. You'll no doubt see (have seen?) a ton of articles over the next few weeks that basically say the same thing: "Jonathan Franzen is perceived by many to be a jerk, but jerks can write good novels. And this is a good novel." I don't disagree with that, but Franzen seems to have occasional fun with his critics here, spending a few carefully chosen words on technology (including Twitter, which, as we know, Franzen despises), feminism (which he admires, but wonders if it's about women being equal, or women being better), and even the number of real-world "serious" novelists named Jonathan. All wonderful stuff.
Again, though, even though I really enjoyed this, it's probably my third favorite of his three major novels. At times, it felt bloated, like we went too far back into the history of some of the characters, only to make a minor point. At times, the mighty ego of the Franzen — I mean, you go into reading Franzen knowing will be on full display — got in the way of his story (most notably, during several pages rant comparing the East German Revolution with the Internet, a parallel, that, despite reading several times, I still don't understand completely).
What it comes down to though is that you're going to want to read this. It's a fascinating study of our time. And there truly aren't too many writers working today that are as entertaining to read as The Franzen is. ...more
Inventive and well-written. Really close to being really good. But too many distractions posing as literary flair. Spent nearly as much time annoyed aInventive and well-written. Really close to being really good. But too many distractions posing as literary flair. Spent nearly as much time annoyed as enthralled. ...more
If the measure of good (or even decent) literature is that which is capable of evoking emotion, well, Go Set A Watchman sure does that. You start with nervous anticipation, you laugh a bit, you're bored at times, you're wistful, you're infuriated, you're sad, you're challenged, you put it down when you're finished, almost with a sense of relief. I can't possibly review this book. No one really can because it's not a complete novel. But I am willing to try my hand at starting with the basics, and moving into some more complicated thoughts on the book. Here is my take on the six most common questions about Go Set A Watchman.
1. What is Go Set A Watchman? — It's an unedited manuscript that tells a story taking placing 20 years after the events of To Kill A Mockingbird. It seems what happened was Lee submitted this novel and was told to focus on flashbacks to Scout's childhood instead. So Go Set A Watchman is essentially a first draft of To Kill A Mockingbird. We can tell this is true in several places. For instance, in Go Set A Watchman, in a brief gloss-over paragraph of the trial central to To Kill A Mockingbird, Lee tells us Atticus got Tom Robinson acquitted. Obviously, she changed her mind as she wrote what eventually became To Kill A Mockingbird.
2. What isn't Go Set A Watchman? — Despite some of the marketing and media hype, it's NOT a sequel to To Kill A Mockingbird. A sequel implies intent that a novel be written to build on the events of a previous novel. That's not what happened here. It was not intended to be a sequel, and it's not.
3. Should Go Set A Watchman have been published? — I have no idea. I'm glad it was, but we'll never actually know for sure what Lee's desires were regarding this "suddenly found" manuscript. As Jeff of Book Riot writes in this fantastic post when Go Set A Watchman was first announced, the tack to take is just to be comfortable reading knowing we won't have definitive answers. The nearest reading experience I can point to to this is David Foster Wallace's posthumous manuscript, The Pale King. Did he want that published? We'll never know. But we're happy it exists, and sad that it could've been so much better.
4. Will reading Go Set A Watchman ruin To Kill A Mockingbird? — No. No it unequivocally will not. You've probably seen all the Very Important Think Pieces, even from respected media outlets like NPR, making the case that the Big Reveal — Atticus is an old grouchy racist now — somehow kills the moral Atticus who is the paragon of empathy and ethics in To Kill A Mockingbird. That's wrong-headed and simple-minded. This isn't a case of Schrodinger's Atticus — you don't kill one Atticus by reading about the other Atticus. Both Atticuses (Atticki?) actually can exist simultaneously and in perpetuity. Remember, Lee went back to the drawing board on Atticus, so keep both Atticuses in your head — it's not cognitive dissonance. I realize it's tempting to let GSAW Atticus redefine TKAM Atticus — especially as Scout delivers lines like "You who called me Scout are dead in your grave," which is absolutely heartbreaking — but don't. I strongly believe it's not the right way to read this book.
5. Is Go Set A Watchman any damn good?— I don't think this is quite the right question, but it's the most common one. To try to answer: It's pretty solid for a first draft. The too-easy comment I've heard frequently is that this could've been a masterpiece if it had been edited like a "normal" novel. But of course, it did become a masterpiece with an editor! That's what To Kill A Mockingbird is. As it stands, there are some major issues with Go Set A Watchman, just from continuity and "logic of storytelling" standpoint — we're missing some things (possibly things pulled out to form the framework of To Kill A Mockingbird?). And the last 100 pages...well, they're just not good storytelling. Scout has three separate conversations with three characters, Atticus as the denouement, to try to find out why Atticus is racist. While these conversations are philosophically and politically complex (go brush up on the 10th Amendment and Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka), they don't just don't quite rise to the level of literature. They range from confusing to eye-crossingly dull to infuriating.
6. Did you like Go Set A Watchman? —To sum, yes, I liked it, but with reservations — and to be clear, this is a much different question than No. 5. My favorite parts of this novel are three flashback scenes to Scout's childhood and teenage years. All read exactly as if they're torn from To Kill A Mockingbird — they're all really funny, and in at least one case, show us the affable Atticus of To Kill A Mockingbird. I can't emphasize enough how much I loved these scenes. The closest comparison I can come up with here, which certainly pales in comparison with this reading experience, is the Curb Your Enthusiasm's Seinfeld reunion episodes — there are extended parts of those where the cast dropped right back into Seinfeld mode. In these three scenes, we're right back to To Kill A Mockingbird, and they're just so great as standalone set pieces. In total, it was a mostly positive reading experience, and I'll certainly recommend it to anyone who is on the fence. I'm very glad I read it. Finally, my thoughts on it mirror the fantastic point made by Book Rioter manager editor Amanda when she appeared on CNN International to discuss the book — when the Go Set A Watchman frenzy has died down, it'll wind up as simply a footnote in literary history. To Kill A Mockingbird is now and always will be unassailable. ...more