Really good. A courageous and terrifically written novel. Like Jenny Offill's Department of Speculation meets Requiem For A Dream. Can't wait to see wReally good. A courageous and terrifically written novel. Like Jenny Offill's Department of Speculation meets Requiem For A Dream. Can't wait to see what this writer does next! ...more
Blake Crouch's trippy thriller, Dark Matter, has the feel of a late-night, stoned-to-the-gills dorm room conversation. But it's also a read that zooms at along at breathless, breakneck pace, partially owning to the fact that it has the feel of a thinly veiled movie script (short, sparse sentences, lots of chase scenes, exposition in dialogue, cliffhanger chapters, etc.). This can be annoying or exciting, depending on your personal reading preferences. In this case, I enjoyed it — the movie script aspect of the writing doesn't detract from the story itself, which is an inventive take on the fiction about science genre (which is different, barely, than science fiction, I think).
But before we get into "Dude, but what if there are infinite universes and therefore infinite burritos?"-type questions, and more thoughtful discussions about superposition (you know, Schröinger's cat) and theories of what dark matter might be, we meet our protagonist: A normal guy named Jason Dressen, who is an average upper middle-class Chicagoan. Jason is a physics professor at small-time Chicago college, happily married to a beautiful woman named Daniela, and the proud parent of a teenager named Charlie. Jason had given up his promising career as a research physicist in his late 20s to marry and have a child — a decision for which he's often questioned by his colleagues, but about which he has no regrets.
One night, Jason goes to have a drink with one of these former colleagues, who incidentally, has just won a major scientific prize Jason may have won if he'd stayed the research course. On the way home, Jason is kidnapped at gunpoint, shepherded to an abandoned power plant on Chicago's south side, and made to take a mysterious drug. He wakes up in a lab, not remembering much. But he's safe, and all the people around him — obviously scientists of some sort — are hailing him as some sort of scientific hero.
What the heck just happened? Naturally, he doesn't understand, and his first instinct is to run away as fast as he can. But then he's shown the research he abandoned 15 years prior — only now, that research has been followed through to completion, resulting in a device that allows humans to travel to multiple universes, which he has apparently just done!
Of course, this has all kinds of terrifying and fascinating and morally complex consequences. But at that point, the main consequences for Jason are terror and sadness that he seems to be now in a different world from his beloved wife and son. From there, the plot unfolds quickly across multiple version of Chicago (indeed, multiple universes), as tries to find his way back to them
You could read this in one sitting if you wanted to. It's a great thriller to wrap up your summer or take on a plane. Highly enjoyed it. ...more
A small charter plane full of rich people crashes just after takin goff from Martha's Vineyard. A middle-aged artist named Scott — a last-minute addition to the flight — survives, saves a 4-year-old boy who is the only other person who lived through the crash, and swims eight miles to safety with the boy on his back.
How did this happen? And, more importantly, why? Why did some survive and others didn't? What does it mean?
Amidst a plethora of red herrings and several digressions on life in this modern age, the media, and fate, these are the questions we wrestle with throughout Noah Hawley's big-hit summer novel, Before the Fall. It doesn't sound like the typical formula for a summer-read thriller, but it reads quite quickly, and it's a mystery that (hopefully) will keep you guessing until the end.
As we progress through Scott's post-crash life, we also get the backstories of the principle characters who died in the crash — a media mogul who started a Fox News-like organization, and his much-younger wife. Would someone want him dead? Then there's the billionaire hedge fund manager who learns right before the flight he'll be indicted for money laundering. Are his investors — including non-friendly nations like North Korea — trying to silence him? There are the pilots, including a drunken playboy who's waltzed through life on the strength of his Senator uncle's nepotism, an Isreali bodyguard, a beautiful flight attendant, and the mysterious painter, Scott. These stories are important as they offer clues (maybe?) to why the plane might've crashed. Plus, they're just fun to read.
It's a terrific set-up for a mystery, especially as an odious Bill O'Reilly-like character (named Bill Cunningham) on the Fox News-like station starts pulling conspiracy theories out of thin air, baselessly wondering if the hero Scott isn't all he seems to be. This guy is a pure and unadulterated asshole, especially as we learn some of the tricks he gets up to in order to get stories and fodder for his hate-filled spewings.
Hawley (who is the creator of the TV show Fargo, and has worked in other TV capacities, in addition to publishing novels) is definitely a better-than-average thriller writer. I enjoyed the digressions and thought the novel in general was smarter than your average brain-candy plane/beach read. It's certainly not a Pulitzer-winner, but it's enjoyable — a perfect read for a long trip or a lazy summer afternoon. ...more
There's been no shortage of controversial, combative rhetoric about immigration in this election cycle, so much so that it's hard to separate the Internet meme from the facts. But if you want to find out just how badly our stupid immigration system is broken, check out Imbolo Mbue's terrific, morally complex, heartbreaking debut novel, Behold The Dreamers.
But this novel isn't just about how difficult it is for those who come to this country seeking opportunity, it's about how the American system as a whole has been rigged such that in many cases many people never really have a chance at all. Maybe it's a pessimistic view of the American dream, but imagine yourself in New York City in 2009, at the height of the financial meltdown, and it's not hard to see how pessimism could be pervasive.
The story is about a Cameroonian immigrant named Jende who comes to the U.S., drives a taxi, saves fiercely, and finally is able to bring his wife Neni and six-year-old son over to the U.S. For a minute, all is well — Jende gets a "high-paying" job as a chauffeur for a Lehman Brothers executive named Clark, Neni begins taking classes to become a pharmacist, and they're generally enamored of the Big City and the opportunities it affords.
But then it all goes wrong. For everyone. But what's fascinating about this novel is how Mbue turns expectation on its head. She shows us how crisis and pressure expose and exacerbate the flaws in even the best people...and even more so in the worst. You'd expect that you're rooting against the rich banker Clark and rooting for the hardworking immigrant Jende. But it's certainly not that simple.
Along with dysfunctional family stories, immigrant stories are one of my favorite subgenres of fiction — Americanah (one of my favorite books ever) to all of Jhumpa Lahiri's stories to The Newlyweds, The Sleepwalker's Guide To Dancing, and The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, among many others. And this novel takes its place firmly in that pantheon. It's such an assured, well-written debut — as smooth and readable as any veteran writer could produce. Highly recommended! ...more
When I got to talk briefly with Colson Whitehead while he signed my copy of The Underground Railroad at BEA this past May, I bragged to him that his book The Noble Hustle was my go-to hand-sell for dude customers at our bookstore (yeah, I'm so cool ). I asked him if he still played poker, and he said he doesn't much because he has a young daughter now. It was a breezy, quick conversation, and I was thrilled I didn't make a fool of myself in front of the famous author, as I usually do.
Now that I've read his sobering, brilliant, unflinching, utterly spectacular novel, I feel like a prime asshole — like given the subject matter of the book he was signing, I should've been a tad more somber, or respectful, or just less trying to impress him. Because clearly, the thing he was he was signing as I jabbered away about poker is the work of a genius.
Indeed, don't be surprised if The Underground Railroad winds up on many of the end-of-the-year literary prize shortlists, if not the least for sentences like this: "Then it comes, always – the overseer's cry, the call to work, the shadow of the master, the reminder that she is only a human being for tiny moments across the eternity of servitude." Or this: "The southern white man was spat from the loins of the devil and there was no way to forecast his next evil act."
Whitehead's sentences are magisterial, they absolutely just crackle. A blurb on the back from John Updike (presumably an older blurb, but relevant here for sure) tells us "Whitehead's writing does what writing should do; it refreshes our sense of the world." That's it, right there. On the nose.
In this novel, Whitehead has refreshed not just our sense of the world, but the world as it could have been to give us an alternate history in which the Underground Railroad is a real, physical railroad. (Why? It'll make sense when you read, but it's something you should discover on your own — it's pretty profound.) Some time in the early 19th century, a teenage slave named Cora escapes from a brutal Georgia plantation and travels on the railroad throughout the South. In each state she visits, Whitehead gives us a different alternate history, or different approach, to the "African problem." In South Carolina, for instance, blacks are relatively free, but are forced to be sterilized and terrifying medical experiments are performed on them. In North Carolina, blacks are outlawed, period. Georgia is pretty much the same as it actually was. Slaves are beaten, brutalized, raped, and basically treated like the human property they were considered to be. Just utterly devastating. Not easy to read.
All the while, a slave catcher named Ridgeway chases Cora from state to state. Cora's mother had also escaped, and Ridgeway had never been able to find her, to his eternal shame. It's not until near the end of the novel, in one of the many fascinating mini-profiles of characters Whitehead includes between each chapter, that we find out what actually happened with Cora's mother.
Another of the profiles is about a doctor in South Carolina (who treated Cora on her way through), who grave-robs for cadavers to learn more about the human body. He mentions the irony of only being able to learn about life after one is dead. And also, that it was easier to find black cadavers because their graves weren't as well guarded, and black bodies were just as useful to him as white. And, therefore: "In death the negro became a human being. Only then was he the white man's equal."
This is one of the best books of the year. I enjoyed the hell out of reading it, but it frequently had to be put aside for a minute, a deep breath required, before continuing. It's a truly great piece of fiction. ...more
Wow. The Nix, by Nathan Hill (out today!), is really spectacular — about as engaging, spell-bindingly readable, smart, and funny as fiction gets. This is the Franzen novel to read if you don't like Franzen the man — expansive, modern, political, and just immensely entertaining. There are shades of Don DeLillo, Donna Tartt (if you liked The Goldfinch, you'll LOVE this), and (I don't say this lightly) friggin' David Foster Wallace here (yes, there's a 12-page sentence, but even beyond that, Hill's astute observations of us in the modern world are incredibly DFW-esque).
It's a novel about what it means to engage with the world, to do your duty, even as the going gets tough. It's a novel about how personal politics aren't usually purely formed, similar to how some believe that by its very nature, altruism can't be perfectly unselfish (because there's always the good feeling for the doer of doing something good). And it's a novel about trust and loyalty, between friends, lovers, and parents and children.
We span 45 years here, from the violent protests at the Chicago Democratic National Convention in 1968 to the less violent but still powerful protests of Occupy Wall Street and the 2011 Republican National Convention in New York City.
The story is about a woman named Faye who was involved in the 1968 protests. After the protests and then a sad, quiet life with her husband Henry and son Samuel, she suddenly leaves them (Samuel is 11) and disappears.
Samuel, now in mid-30s, is a failing writer, and an-about-to-be-fired English professor at a small Chicago college. (Brief interlude: There is a section right at the front of this novel showing Samuel confronting a student who has been caught plagiarizing a paper. It is the best, funniest 20 pages I've read in a long time.)
In the first scene of the novel, Faye re-emerges — she throws rocks at a right-wing presidential candidate visiting Chicago — and Samuel, who is about to be sued for not delivering the novel for which he received a big advance, is convinced by his agent Guy Periwinkle to write what will no-doubt be a runaway bestseller about his mother. (Second quick interlude: The conversations between Samuel and Guy throughout the novel are another highlight. Really damn funny.)
Samuel, still angry with his mother, agrees. And we go from there — back to Faye's childhood in a small town in Iowa, forward to Samuel adulthood in Chicago and New York City, back to Samuel's childhood in the generic Chicago suburbs, to the Iraq war, seedy bars, Norway, and just about everywhere else in between.
As I said, this book is expansive. Allen Ginsberg is in this book. So is a dude named Pwnage who is the champion of a World of Warcraft-like game called Elfquest. There are ghost stories. Sexting. A love story. Some funny stuff about publishing. Bullies and sexual abuse. Politics. Radical hippies. Traitors. It's just AWESOME.
This is easily one of the best novels I've read this year. Despite how full it seems, it's also the shortest 600-page novel I've ever read. What I mean is that it felt like it could've been three times its size, and I would've happily kept reading. I spent about 3 hours on just the last 20 pages, reading one page at a time, because I didn't want it to end. This is a novel that, if you're thinking of picking it up (and by all means, do), I am immediately jealous that you get to read it for the first time. Enjoy! ...more
Aliens? Robots? Alien robots!? Overall, solid, but not spectacular. Great start but the interview format wears thin in the second half as the plot veeAliens? Robots? Alien robots!? Overall, solid, but not spectacular. Great start but the interview format wears thin in the second half as the plot veers unexpectedly. ...more
In Richard's Russo's new novel, Everybody's Fool, we get to return to the down-and-out town of North Bath, New York, and many of the colorful characters from Russo's 1993 novel, Nobody's Fool. I really loved Nobody's Fool (as well as the movie with Paul Newman as Sully — a vastly underrated film), and so getting to visit these characters again was such a treat, a terrific unexpected surprise.
Not only is it rare in fiction to be able to get to reunite with your "friends" from a previous novel, but also it's exceedingly rare that a sequel lives up to its original. This one does. (By the way, to answer a common question: Yes, I do recommend reading Nobody's Fool before this one. You wouldn't be lost in Everybody's Fool, but Russo constantly references events in Nobody's Fool, and so it's a much better reading experience having gone through those events with these characters already.)
Everybody's Fool takes place about 10 years after the events of Nobody's Fool — so we're in about the mid-1990s now. The novel begins with a meditation on death, and then we see Douglas Raymer (last seen in Nobody's Fool getting socked in the face by Sully, and accidentally discharging his police revolver), who is now the police chief, attending the funeral of his nemesis, Judge Flatt.
Raymer (who was played by Philip Seymour Hoffman in the movie...sad trombone) is a bit of a nincompoop, but we immediately feel bad for him, as we learn that his wife, to whom he was hopelessly devoted, had been cheating on him, and then died in a freak accident — she fell down the stairs and he found at the bottom. Raymer's really the central figure in this story, as he has to deal with an escaped cobra, a hot shot young office from the rival town, and several other indignities that seemingly are only put in his path to make his life difficult. There's some silliness with Raymer — he develops a sort of voice-in-his-head alter ego at one point, which is a little...goofy. But just go with it. I mean, it's Richard Russo!
While a lot of the story is Raymer's, Sully, Carl Roebuck (the shady contractor played by Bruce Willis in the movie), and Rub all feature prominently as well, and they're all up to their old tricks. Rub wishes he could spend more time with his friend Sully, who he worships. Carl may or may not be bankrupt, and is now living in the upper floor apartment where Sully used to live (a metaphor if there ever was one). And Sully, well, he's still exactly the same — pushing everyone's buttons, being generally cantankerous, and basically holding the town together by a thread. What's changed, though, is that Sully's been diagnosed with a heart condition and may only have a couple years left — a fact which he's keeping secret from everyone. Even so, Sully is just as great here as he was in Nobody's Fool — one of favorite characters in all of literature.
Like Nobody's Fool (and many of other Russo's novels) the highlight of this novel is Russo's keen eye for small town life, "politics," and dialogue. Whether on a bar stool or a middle-of-the-night "grave robbing" expedition, Russo just gets people. And much of this is as funny as it is in insightful. As with many Russo novels, this also has its own inside jokes and repeated references. You feel like you're in on the jokes with them. I love this about how Russo tells a story — the reader feels included.
If you're a Russo fan, this is a must read — as Janet Maslin said in the NY TImes, "a delightful return to form." I couldn't have been more delighted myself to read this. Russo's one of my favorites, and this is vintage. Loved it....more
Lots of dude lit seems to start with misery — a cheating wife (This Is Where I Leave You), or a lost job (The Financial Lives of the Poets), or a mysterious medical issue (Everything Changes). We're All Damaged, Matthew Norman's new novel (after his fantastic debut, Domestic Violets), starts similarly — with a divorce.
Starting with sad is an easy narrative choice, after all, but a solid one for this genre. That's because it allows our dude narrator — in this case, an early 30s dude named Andy — to go through the rest of the novel in his self-deprecating, woe-is-me tone. And we can easily laugh at/with him, because a) he doesn't have any REAL problems (I mean, these narrators aren't exactly Nelson Mandela), and b) he's damn funny!
Like Judd in This Is Where I Leave You and Tom in Domestic Violets, Andy is your prototypical dude lit narrator: amusing, but sad. After his wife dumped him during a meal at Applebee's, he cuts tail from his hometown of Omaha, and runs to New York. But now, as the novel gets going, he has to return to Omaha because his grandfather isn't doing well.
There, he's surrounded by a goofy cast of characters, each of whom exasperates him more than the last. His d-bag older brother still picks on him. His dad shoots squirrels in the backyard (with paintballs). His mother is a rising star in the conservative talk radio circuit, and may soon get a call up to the "big leagues," Fox News. (Recently, she's been terrorized by The Glitter Mafia, a group of gay men who take exception to her narrow and outmoded views on marriage equality, and take it upon themselves to periodically bomb Andy's parents' home with Ken figures, glitter, and blow-up sex dolls.) And then there's Daisy, a mysterious, tattooed, and alluring woman, who, for reasons Andy can't fathom, befriends him and professes to help him get over his divorce.
So Andy spends two weeks hanging with Daisy, drinking lots, saying goodbye to his grandfather, being annoyed by his parents, dodging the Glitter Mafia, and plotting bodily harm against his ex-wife's new fiancee, a hunky ambulance driver. And that's the novel! Not to minimize it, but we're not exactly talking Pulitzer here. It is, however, a great, fun read — and despite the avalanche of self-deprecation and 90s references, it is a novel that has some heart, as Andy slowly begins to figure it all out.
I'd definitely recommend it — a great summer read for dudes at the beach, on the plane, or wherever you just need some goofiness for a few hours. ...more
Brian Doyle's novel, Chicago, is a brave book. It's a passionate, wistful love letter to a revered city...that includes a friggin' talking dog. It's hard to imagine Bellow or Cisneros, Roth or Wright, making that choice. But of course dog-as-character is a metaphor — for the diversity of the city itself, and eventually, for the attachment our narrator feels to it. And your ability to enjoy this novel will hinge almost solely on whether or not you can get past the fact that there's an anthropomorphized animal in an otherwise realistic novel. I was warned ahead of time, which helped, and so I ended up really enjoying this. So consider this your warning as well.
But let's back up a second: Chicago is about a young man, our first-person narrator, who moves to the city in the late 1970s (the specific year isn't important, because Doyle sort of combines events of several late-1970s years into one — the White Sox 1977 season, the Blizzard of 1979, Jane Byrne's election, etc.) to take a job as a journalist for a Catholic magazine in the Loop. He spends his free time exploring Chicago's neighborhoods with the dog Edward, who knows everyone and everything about Chicago.
Frankly, it's a story that's a bit short on story: Our new Chicagoan makes friends, plays basketball with gang members, hangs in blues clubs (like Kingston Mines), goes to White Sox games, helps his landlady out of a jam, plays matchmaker, and falls in love himself. But mostly, he spends a lot of time hanging out, philosophizing, and being shown the sites and the people with Edward, the stamp-collecting, Abraham Lincoln-obsessed talking dog.
As is the case with Edward the dog, whether you like this novel will depend on your reaction to several pages-long "thought bubbles" from the narrator himself, as well as soliloquies by various characters the narrator meets and befriends: The building manager of his Lakeview apartment building, who is Edward's owner, but in stark contrast to Edward, barely leaves the apartment, the mailman, a bus driver, etc. Sometimes, these are so eloquent they give you chills (a particularly beautiful one about the blues, for instance), as the narrator tries to identify the soul of Chicago; what makes Chicago the most American of American cities. Sometimes, however, these feel a bit overwritten or just seem like odd tangents that don't add much to the overall piece. But the latter are definitely fewer and farther between than the former.
So, if you're a Chicagoan, and you're attached to your city, as I am, this is highly recommended. It's certainly not Augie March, my personal favorite classic Chicago novel, but it's a solid addition to the overall Chicago canon. ...more
This is a tough one — how do I, in good conscience, recommend this novel, Lily and the Octopus, by Steven Rowley (out today!), which is about a dog with brain cancer? Especially considering that the dog is a dachshund. Especially considering my wife and I have two dachshunds. But I do — I recommend it wholeheartedly. Because as sad as it can be, it's also charming, and funny, and often surprisingly profound. It's a just good read that spans the emotional spectrum — and after all, that's what you want from fiction, isn't it? To feel? I do, for sure.
Okay, so technically, telling you the dog has cancer is a bit of a spoiler — Lily is the dog, and the octopus is a metaphor for a brain tumor. But if you decide to read this, you learn this fact pretty quickly, and in my opinion, you deserve to know this going in. As well, if you've read anything about this book before diving in, you'll figure it out. And I'm sure glad I knew going in. The other piece of info worth knowing: This isn't complete fictional, which actually adds another layer of emotional depth to this story. The author Rowley also had a dachshund which also had brain cancer, and so this novel is part memoir, part catharsis.
So we go back and forth in time to when the narrator (a guy named Ted) adopted Lily, has relationship troubles with his boyfriend, suffers through Lily's back surgery (a common problem with the breed — luckily, neither of our dachshunds have had that issue yet), and tries to destroy the evil octopus that has perched itself on Lily's head.
The highlight of this novel is the narrator's voice — self-deprecating at times, defiant and fierce at times, vulnerable and sad at times, but always smart, interesting and fun to read. Of course, both Lily and the octopus talk, too. Talking animals are always a risky decision, but the whimsy with which this novel's written makes this feel perfectly apt — talking animals fit in fine.
One of the gauges, though it's almost a too-easy comparison, to whether or not you might like reading this is if you enjoyed Garth Stein's The Art of Racing in the Rain. I loved that novel, but like this one, it absolutely leveled me. I've had many conversations with dog lovers who could not read that one. So if that's you, this probably isn't the book for you, either. However, if you love dog books, and you love to put through an emotional wringer, this is DEFINITELY the book for you. ...more