Archive

Tag Archives: Newsweek / The Daily Beast

Every year feels like a ‘busy year,’ but this year felt like an especially busy ‘busy year.’ And although I read less this year than I did last year or the year before, I read more deliberately.  I took fewer reviewing assignments and read more for leisure.  I caught up on some 2013 titles I’d missed like The Unwinding, The Girls of Atomic City, and The Skies Belong to Us (all first-rate reads). And I made time to read about some of my own personal obsessions.  While training for the New York City Marathon I indulged in the distance-running cult-classic Once a Runner at the recommendation of my WNYC colleague Jim O’Grady. And after moving deeper into Western Queens, I geeked out on the history and flavor of my new neighborhood in Dan Karatzas’ highly informative Jackson Heights: A Garden in the City and Matthew Burgess’s vividly gritty Dogfight.

But old habits die hard and I read more than my share of new releases too– enough to report that 2014 had some standouts. Last year’s picks were mostly works of fiction (as has been the case in years past like 2011 and 2010), but this year my taste veered more towards non-fiction.  Still, what all of these books have in common is that they’re deep dives with compelling characters and stories.  In no particular order, here are my top ten books of 2014: 

Blood Will Out: The True Story of a Murder, a Mystery, and a Masquerade (Walter Kirn) The first time I heard Clark Rockefeller’s name was when I worked at CNN. He’d just kidnapped his daughter in connection with the messy divorce he was going through with his wife– a wealthy McKinsey executive with degrees from Stanford and Harvard– and I’d been assigned to work on a brief piece about the perplexing and abrupt unraveling of their life together.  But the story kept getting weirder.  Rockefeller, as it turned out, was actually a German-born conman whose real name was Christian Karl Gerhartsreite– a man eventually linked to the 1985 murder of his landlord’s son.  In this memoir of sorts, writer Walter Kirn (the screenwriter behind Up in the Air) retells the strange story of his own friendship with Rockefeller. On one level, Blood Will Out chronicles Rockefeller’s trial, but the court testimony is really just a backdrop for Kirn’s own meditations about what it means to be the kind of person capable of forming a 15-year friendship with a sociopath.  Kirn’s willingness to face his own flaws is a large part of what makes this book captivating. It also helps that Kirn has a dark sense of humor about all this.  By the end of the trial, he’s settled on a nickname for Rockefeller more fitting than any of the half-dozen aliases the conman picked for himself: “Hannibal Mitty.” The runner-up? “Gatsby the Ripper.” 

Unspeakable (Meghan Daum) Though Daum is a veteran essayist, my introduction to her came in a recent New Yorker essay she published called “Difference Maker.”  It’s about all the young people whose lives she’s tried to help through various volunteer stints– and about the ways her idealism has fallen short. It wasn’t just polished (in the way all New Yorker pieces are), it was downright piercing. And there was much more of her smart, smart writing in this collection. Daum is not afraid to venture deep into the dark places in her own mind and heart; still, these essays always seem to end on an optimistic note. It’s so subtle that you never feel as though she’s forcing things into some predetermined worldview– you just come away with the feeling that you’ve spent time with someone who has reckoned with her demons and weaknesses but still has a hopeful, open heart.

Sons of Wichita: How the Koch Brothers Became America’s Most Powerful and Private Dynasty (Daniel Schulman) It’s easy to see the Koch brothers as caricatures. But it’s not particularly useful to look at them that way– they are, after all, among the country’s wealthiest and most powerful men.  If you want to know how the Koch brothers became the Koch brothers– and how our country produced these men and what they believe they stand for– read Sons of Wichita. Schulman painstakingly takes the reader through their childhood, teasing out the way their father’s attempts to make his boys into tough, independent young men shaped a fierce rivalry between them, and how that rivalry shapes their pursuits to this day.

We are Not Ourselves (Matthew Thomas) This sprawling novel follows the lives of three generations of an Irish-American immigrant family settled in New York.  Eileen Tumulty doesn’t have an easy childhood in Woodside, Queens, but when she climbs her way up into the community of Jackson Heights with her marriage to Ed Leary, a quiet scientist, she feels confident that a better life is in reach.  It is– but tragedy lies ahead too.  Thomas plots the gradual shifts that take place both in the minds and hearts of his characters as well as on the streets of their neighborhood with patience and control.

Gottland: Mostly True Stories from Half of Czechoslovakia (Mariusz Szczygiel) Truth is stranger than fiction. Reporter Mariusz Szczygiel defty proves this in a series of short inquiries mapping the history of the Czech Republic. There is, for example the story of the Bata men, Tomáš and his half-brother Jan, who turned a smaller cobbler’s workshop in Zlín into a vast shoe empire built on idiosyncratic corporate maxims. Or the story of Kafka’s 80-some-year-old niece, Věra S., who, in her prime would loan out her name to colleagues not allowed to publish, but in her old age, is fiercely protective of her privacy. My own personal favorite tale in this volume was about the herculean erection and then subsequently equally herculean demolishment of a 100-foot-high statue of Stalin in Prague—a project no one, really, wants to remember at all.  After the statue—the largest ever monument to Stalin—is gone, “Not a single line about the monument’s destruction appears in the press.” Szczygiel depicts a country whose citizens display uncommon resourcefulness and resilience in the face of the absurd.

Praying Drunk (Kyle Minor) Repetition—of words, phrases, and entire thoughts—is what gives prayer its force, so it’s only fitting that in Praying Drunk, preacher-turned-novelist Kyle Minor uses repetition to deepen the power of his sad, soulful stories. Plot lines appear again and again, as do characters.   Part of the reason repetition is so effective in Praying Drunk is because the scenes, characters, and moments that flash past again and again are so searing in the first place. “Another suicide,” is the first sentence of Minor’s story “There is Nothing But Sadness.” But there’s really more than one suicide in that story, and by this point in the collection the reader has watched more than one of these characters die before in a previous story. Minor’s writing evokes the circling habits of memory itself—the mind’s inability to resist picking up the jagged fragments of a tragedy for inspection again and again. The lesson is clear: the habits the mind takes up long outlive memories of the experiences that built those habits in the first place. Better pray.

The True American: Murder and Mercy in Texas (Anand Girdhardas) Ten days after the 9/11 attacks, a Texas auto body repairman named Mark Stroman walked into a gas station just outside Dallas and shot the man behind the counter in the face, a Bangladeshi immigrant named Rais Bhuiyan. It wasn’t the first-time Stroman, an avowed “American terrorist,” targeted a brown-skinned gas station attendant. He had already killed Waqar Hasan, also a convenience-store worker. Eleven days later, he’d go on to shoot and kill another gas station owner, an Indian-American Hindu named Vasudev Patel. Of all the men Stroman targeted, only one, Rais Bhuiyan, would survived his attack. Searching for meaning in the aftermath of the assault, Bhuiyan found forgiveness for his attacker. Mark Stroman had been sentenced to death, but Bhuiyan began to campaign to save his life. New York Times Columnist Anand Giridharadas chronicles the entanglement of Bhuiyan and Stroman’s fates in “The True American: Murder and Mercy in Texas.”

The Fishing Fleet: Husband Hunting in the Raj (Anne de Courcy) At the height of the British Raj, some of the empire’s most eligible young men were stationed in India, where intellectually challenging work and good pay attracted Oxbridge’s finest. But strict British anti-miscegenation laws limited their opportunities for finding a spouse. Enter the Fishing Fleet– boatfuls of young women who came to India to seek their fortune, too. In her lively history, de Courcy focuses particularly on 20th-century husband hunters, those whose journey was part of “the last flowering of the British Raj” before India’s independence. Their colorful diary entries and letters provide a lens into the courtship rituals and, more broadly, extravagant existence and comically overwrought regal rituals of the ruling class.

On Such a Full Sea (Chang-rae Lee) This dystopian novel imagines a time in the future where problems like income inequality, climate change and food insecurity have deepened dramatically, changing the fabric of society entirely. In fiction-logic, it’s totally plausible; any way you look at it, it’s completely terrifying. Lee uses this setting as the backdrop for a classic tale of lovers torn apart. I was entirely enchanted by the dark spell this book casts.

 Without You There Is No Us (Suki Kim)  I booked an interview with Suki Kim for The Takeaway purely as an excuse to read her book.  I wasn’t disappointed on either count– the book, which details her time working as an instructor at university in Pyongyang run by Christian missionaries, is extraordinary; hearing her reflections on the process of writing the book was fascinating.  “Heart-breaking” is an adjective I could use to describe pretty much every book I’ve read about North Korea but it’s all the more applicable to Without You There Is No Us because Kim’s relationship with her material is so personal.  There’s her family’s own backstory– the uncles and cousins abducted into North Korea to be never heard from again.  And then there’s the bond she forms with her students, these bright, hopeful, and deeply misled young men whose lives are constrained beyond their comprehension.

Advertisements

ferrisHear me explain why the new Joshua Ferris novel, To Rise Again at a Decent Hour, made me floss— and why it’s already divided The Takeaway team.  If you haven’t read it, now’s the perfect time to pick it up– just in time for The Takeaway Book Club’s discussion in a few weeks.

It’s got baseball, dentistry, online trolls, a made-up religion, and a protagonist who associates oral hygiene with moral seriousness.  What more can you ask for in a summer read?

I “get” list fatigue—sometimes, around this time of year, lists feel too neat, too easy, too predictable.   This is especially true of lists of books.  As independent publishing house Two Dollar Radio tweeted, “There’s gotta be a better way than everyone circle-jerking over the same blasé dreck.  I mean.  It’s tedious.  And boring.”

That’s definitely the feeling I had last year. Writing “best of” lists of my own favorite books of 2010 and 2011 had been a fun exercise, but when 2012 drew to a close, I didn’t bother to draw up a top ten. It felt like my reading for the year had been dominated by pretty-good-but-not-exactly-amazing books, and well, what’s the point in a list like that?

This December is another story altogether.  Looking back at 2013’s book releases, there are some real standouts—books I loved and savored and couldn’t stop talking about.  I’m happy for an excuse to sing their praises some more!  Without further ado, here are the ten best new books I read in 2013:

The Pomegranate Lady and her Sons (Goli Taraghi) Born in Tehran in 1939, Goli Taraghi was a teenager during Iran’s 1953 coup and a grown woman during the 1979 revolution. Both upheavals feature prominently in her writing, but the stories collected in The Pomegranate Lady and Her Sonsare hardly polemical. Political tumult instead merely provides the backdrop for the profound transformations—emotional, psychological, intellectual, and even supernatural—of her characters, young and old.

Equilateral (Ken Kalfus) It is the spring of 1894, and Professor Sanford Thayer is somewhere between Egypt and Libya, deep in the Bahr ar Rimal al ’Azim, the “Great Sand Sea.” He is directing a workforce of 900,000 men on the construction of a project Thayer is certain marks man’s greatest achievement: The creation of a dug-out equilateral triangle 306 miles long on each side. On June 17, when Thayer calculates the Earth will be closest to Mars, 22 million barrels of petroleum pooled into the three sides’ five-mile trenches will be set aflame, sending out a burning geometric greeting to Martian observers, a historic “petition for man’s membership in the fraternity of planetary civilizations.”  Thayer is a romantic—he has chosen the equilateral triangle for its poetic qualities (it is the “most visually satisfying, most inspiring” shape, he is convinced), but the logistics of the project are ugly and grueling. Kalfus has crafted a powerful, mesmerizing story about ambition—and its limitations.

The Watch Tower (Elizabeth Harrower) It’s hard to find a book like The Watch Tower these days. First published by Macmillan in 1966, Elizabeth Harrower’s fantastically incisive portrait of domestic cruelty follows the fates of two sisters, Laura and Clare, in 1940s Australia. For all the psychological torment Harrower subjects her protagonists to, Clare’s defiance brings a delectably feminist streak to The Watch Tower. Laura grew up reading books with “rainbow-colored” endings but Clare prefers books about distant lands and lives entirely unlike hers. They support her conviction that there is a way out of her domestic captivity, and arm her to act: “Nothing is this small,” she thinks. She is sure of it.

The Stories of Frederick Busch (edited by Elizabeth Strout)  I picked up this book having no idea what was in store; somehow, I’d never encountered Busch’s writing before.  I was completely floored.  These stories are masterful, compassionate, accessible, and exceedingly well-crafted.  Busch been has been pegged as a “writer’s writer,”—someone who “seemed to impress critics more than the mass audience,” as The New York Times put it.  This is a shame.  These stories are just plain good. (Side note: Busch’s son Benjamin Busch was one of the authors The Takeaway featured in the panels on love and death I produced in Miami last year.  Here him speaking about his father—and many other things—here.)

A Fort of Nine Towers (Qais Akbar Omar) In 1992, when the mujahedeen arrived in Kabul, young Qais Akbar Omar “expected to see heroes in uniforms and shiny boots.” Instead, the Holy Warriors had “beards, mustaches and smelly shoes that wrapped up stinky feet.” Mind-boggling yet matter-of-fact, A Fort of Nine Towers is the memoir of a childhood in ’90s Afghanistan—a riveting story of war as seen through a child’s eyes and summoned from an adult’s memory.

Lost Girls (Robert Kolker) On the morning of May 1, 2010, 24-year-old Shannan Gilbert went missing in the secluded community of Oak Beach, Long Island. By the time police found her remains (a year and a half later), the bodies of four other 20-something women—all Craigslist “escorts”—had also been discovered in the vicinity.  Serial killer stories are all kind of the same.  But the absence of an identifiable killer in this story puts the focus instead on the victims themselves. Maureen, Melissa, Shannan, Megan, and Amber all came from struggling middle- to lower-middle-class families in cities with few employment opportunities. They tried working at Applebee’s, doing secretarial work, selling pizzas, and telemarketing. None of these jobs paid the way selling sex did, though. Part of the tragedy of their stories is the extent to which prostitution appeared to be their best option.

Dissident Gardens (Jonathan Lethem) I stopped reading Jonathan Lethem for a few years because I knew that there was no way another book of his was going to make me feel the way Fortress of Solitude did.  But when I heard he was writing about my beloved Queens, I couldn’t help get a little bit excited.  In the end, Dissident Gardens was exactly the book I wanted to read:  An acerbicly funny, chaotic and somewhat depressing (but ultimately heartfelt) love letter to Queens.

Middle Men (Jim Gavin) Crisscrossing along the highways of Southern California is a legion of men, mostly young, mostly lost. Middle Men, Jim Gavin’s soberly perceptive debut short-story collection, follows these men between jobs, relationships, and friends. There’s Berkeley dropout Bobby, skating from one mental breakdown to the next. There’s 23-year-old Brian, who spends all his money following a girlfriend 10 years his senior from Los Angeles to Bermuda. And there’s Adam, the Yale-educated game-show production assistant waiting to land his big break in stand-up comedy. In Adam’s case, “despite all evidence to the contrary some part of himself—the most vital and destructive part of himself—believed that eventually his talent would be recognized as something pure and triumphant and somehow he would be granted dispensation from the degrading realities that made everyone else around him seem so shameless and corrupt.” If the other men in this volume suspect this about themselves, too, they never hint at it.

She Matters (Susan Sonnenberg) Susan Sonnenberg collects female friends the way some people collect kitchenware; this unusual memoir is both a remembrance of vital friendships as well as a deeply absorbing portrait of the author herself. Most of Sonnenberg’s intense friendships end in misunderstanding and silence.  Sometimes, the culprit is simply life. Priorities shift, lines get crossed, circumstances and people change. But as Sonnenberg reveals more about her formative years, it becomes clear that she is the unwitting engineer of many of these interpersonal collapses. Still, there are beautiful moments documented here—shared artistic journeys with Mary, the painter; deep bonds of respect and trust with C., the acquaintance of youth turned midlife friend; moments of confidence with Marlene, her father’s ex-girlfriend.  The result is a deeply original ode to the friendship of women.

Back to Back (Julia Franck) The first hundred or so pages of this novel set in East Berlin were so brutally spirit-crushing that I tried to weasel out of the review I’d pitched in the first place.   I wrote to my editor to say that while engrossing, the storyline was too bleak and I wanted to drop the book.  “Sounds kind of amazing, to tell you the truth,” he replied.  And so I soldiered on.  What makes Back to Back difficult to read is the suffering of Thomas and Ella, the abused children who are its two main characters.  But Franck writes beautifully and knows exactly what she’s doing.  Thomas and Ella’s cold, party-driven mother, Käthe, is to blame for their neglect; Käthe’s behavior only reinforces Franck’s bigger point about what it’s like to live under an oppressive regime.  By the time I turn in my review, I hope to be able to better articulate exactly why Back to Back works, but trust me—it’s a tremendous book.

Honorable Mentions: Revenge (Yoko Agawa), In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods (Matt Bell), The Pink Hotel (Anna Stothard) and The Love Song of Jonny Valentine (Teddy Wayne).

pomHot Reads! I took a little break from reviewing in September/October to get married.  It was grand.  This is the first post-wedding set of reviews.

Goli Taraghi’s The Pomegranate Lady and Her Sons was the standout of this set:

Born in Tehran in 1939, Goli Taraghi was a teenager during Iran’s 1953 coup and a grown woman during the 1979 revolution. Both upheavals feature prominently in her writing, but the stories collected in The Pomegranate Lady and Her Sons are hardly polemical. Political tumult instead merely provides the backdrop of the transformations of her characters, young and old. The adolescent girls of “Flowers of Shiraz” can hardly comprehend the change underway in their country: In the run-up to Mossadeq’s ouster, they ride their bikes through the city, meeting for ice cream, flirting with boys, and racing through the hills, despite the protests on the streets. Mitra, Gol-Maryam and Parivash wear their political allegiances as lightly as their crushes. That’s not to say Taraghi isn’t interested in history’s course; she plays a long game in many of her stories, following the fates of characters across decades and continents. In “The Gentleman Thief,” a math teacher-turned-smalltime-burglar sneaks into the narrator’s house. “Excuse me,” he says. “With your permission I will take this bowl and clock and I will leave.” (Before escaping out the window, he asks for a glass of water, too.) Only many years later does his full story emerge, when the narrator returns from Paris to visit her ailing uncle. Much to her surprise, the former thief is now her uncle’s caretaker and loyal companion. A similarly complicated fate unfolds in “Amina’s Great Journey,” the tale of a big-eyed Bangladeshi maid named Amina who spends her days daydreaming of movie stars. The story charts Amina’s slow transformation from a gullible young girl who is complicit in her greedy husband’s abuse to a confident woman intent on educating her children. Taraghi carves out space for mysterious forces—powerful coincidences, supernatural spirits and uncontrollable compulsions—in her stories. But at the heart of these tales are just ordinary people, caught in strange times.

For the rest of the week’s reviews, head over to The Daily Beast.