Monday, August 3, 2015

Book Review: "Little Beasts" by Matthew McGevna

Tragic but more realistic than we'd like to acknowledge, Matthew McGevna's Little Beasts is tremendously affecting.

It's 1983. Eight-year-old friends James, Dallas, and Felix don't have much to do over the summer in their Long Island town of Turnbull, but that doesn't let that stop them. They spend their days roaming through the woods, watching the sheriff evict people from their homes (and then rummaging through the spoils), and avoiding the town's teenagers, many of whom are looking for mischief.

Fifteen-year-old David Westwood is an aspiring artist, intelligent and sensitive, seeking more out of life than he believes he is getting. He is obsessed with a fellow student, and more than happy to antagonize his classmates by making them think he's an Anti-American communist. But at the same time, he wants the acceptance of his peers, and the affection of the girl he loves, but circumstances—and his own behavior—stand in his way.

One afternoon, James, Dallas, and Felix come upon a fort being built by a group of kids, and they decide to take the wood and the tools back to their own neighborhood. This sets off a confrontation that will leave each boy reeling, physically and emotionally, and set them on a collision course with David and his friends. And after a party that David attends that night ends far more differently than he imagined, David's anxiety and anger ratchets up, and the next time the boys interact with David and his friends, it ends in disaster.

Little Beasts was based on a real-life incident, which adds an additional note of tragedy to the plot. This is a book about how one single moment can change so many people's lives, and how anger—even misplaced anger—can consume. It's also a powerful story about redemption, and how clinging fast to our beliefs without the thought of compromise doesn't always provide the results we expect.

Even though the book—and, in fact, the synopsis which accompanies it on most sites—divulges the key event in the book, you still cannot stop reading it, even though you know it will sadden and anger you. McGevna is tremendously talented, and created a vivid picture of place and time, populated by characters who are far more complex than you think they will be at first. I look forward to seeing what comes next for McGevna, because I was very impressed with his storytelling ability.

Saturday, August 1, 2015

Book Review: "Hotel Living" by Ioannis Pappos

Having spent the majority of my career working in the nonprofit field, it's hard for me to fathom the unbelievable excesses that those in the business world took advantage of in the mid-2000s, until the economy tanked. It sounds similar to the "greed is good" philosophy that pervaded the 1980s, and much as during that era, those who rose the highest often fell the hardest.

In Ioannis Pappos' Hotel Living, Stathis Rakis flees his seemingly ordinary life in a small Greek village to pursue college and a career in San Francisco, and then decides to attend a prestigious business school in Paris to obtain his MBA. It is there that he befriends a number of privileged expatriates from all over the world, whose lives of profligate spending and entitlement amaze him (while causing him some amount of envy), and he is a bit of a paradox to his friends. During graduate school, Stathis also falls—hard—for Eric, a liberal journalist with a strong social conscience despite his own privileged upbringing.

After graduation, Stathis takes a high-paying job as a management consultant, and finds himself spending the bulk of his time living in hotels, building relationships with the hotel staff, and moving from city to city as his job warrants it. When he isn't working, he's pining for Eric and trying to figure out where he fits in Eric's life, all the while both loving him madly and being angered by Eric's philosophy of the world. As their relationship waxes and wanes, Stathis fills his minimal amount of spare time uneasy in the social spotlight, trying to salve his emotional turmoil with copious amounts of drugs and alcohol. And his downward spiral is fueled by his heart, his greed, his ambition, and his conscience.

I found this book thanks to an ad on Goodreads (the cover blurb by Michael Cunningham caught my eye), and I found it tremendously well-written, part social commentary on this culture of excess and wanton lust and addiction, and part an emotional chronicle of a man who can't seem to overcome heartbreak, someone unable to return to the world he knows but not-quite-comfortable with the world he lives in. Ioannis is a fascinating, immensely flawed character, and his crises are painful to read about but compelling at the same time.

I could have done with a little more character building and interpersonal relationships in the book and less with the extensive details about the work that Stathis and his friends did, and at times the book introduced so many characters at once it was hard to discern who was whom, but Pappos created a fascinating look at a world that many got to experience, while not many came out unscathed. Stathis is a complex character I can't get out of my head, and I'd love to know if Pappos has given any thought to what came next for him.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Book Review: "The Last Pilot" by Benjamin Johncock

Full disclosure: I received an advance copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review. Many thanks to Picador for making it available!

In The Last Pilot, Benjamin Johncock brings a true-to-life, "you are there" feeling to the fictionalized story of Jim Harrison, a test pilot for the U.S. Air Force, who in the late 1940s and 1950s was one of the elite few attempting to break the sound barrier. It was a dangerous task, one that led to countless pilot deaths and injuries, but the risk was worth the potential reward.

Harrison and his wife Grace live in the middle of the Mojave Desert along with the other pilots risking their lives for this achievement. And if the worry over the potential harm that could come to Jim wasn't enough, the couple is struggling with fertility issues, although they want so desperately to have a baby. And when Grace miraculously becomes pregnant, Jim puts aside the chance to become one of the nation's first astronauts so he can help raise the couple's daughter, Florence.

When tragedy strikes, Jim must decide whether to pursue the opportunity to join the Space Race, or wallow in the sadness and guilt that threaten to envelop him. But although he has shown tremendous bravery and fortitude in the face of amazing risk and danger, he is utterly unprepared for how hiding his pain may come to haunt him, not to mention the effect a life in the public spotlight will have on his marriage.

Jim appears alongside such real-life astronauts as John Glenn, Neil Armstrong, Buzz Aldrin, Alan Shepard, Gus Grissom, Wally Schirra, Jim Lovell, Chuck Yeager, and Deke Slayton, but his inclusion in their story never seems false. This is a tremendously well-researched and interesting look at the U.S. in the midst of the Space Race, and how the astronauts dealt with all they faced. But beyond that, this is a book about how dangerous unacknowledged feelings of guilt can be, and the harm that comes from the things that remain unsaid. It's a powerful look at grief and loss, and the need to come to terms with one's feelings.

If you're interested in the early days of the Space Race and never tire of movies like The Right Stuff and Apollo 13, this might be a book for you. Johncock goes into immense detail to provide context, but even while he's immersing you in facts, he's also capturing emotions as accurately. Maybe it was all of the detail that numbed this book's appeal for me; while I thought it was well-written, it just didn't grab me as I had hoped it might, but I've seen many other 4- and 5-star reviews, so it might just be me.

Book Review: "Modern Romance" by Aziz Ansari

I'm a big Aziz Ansari fan, so when I saw that he had written a book giving his take on the good, the bad, and the ugly regarding romance in this day and age, I had to read it. But far from being just a repetitive set of riffs on dating, sexting, sex, breakups, etc., Ansari teamed up with a noted sociologist and other researchers, did a tremendous amount of work (including in-person and online focus groups all over the world), and provided a fairly comprehensive look at relationships, love, sex, and dating trends, complemented by his distinctive comedy style.

"In the history of our species, no group has ever had as many romantic options as we have now. So, in theory, this should be a great thing. More options is better, right? Well. It's not that easy."

Ansari takes a look at the way different generations approached dating and choosing the person with whom to settle down, as well as how the advent of computer dating, personal ads, dating apps (like Match.com and Tindr), texting, and sexting have impacted relationships. He looks at how the so-called "phone world" (where all of us are so ruled by communicating via our phones) affects infidelity, paranoia, and snooping. And he also looks at dating and the relationship between the sexes in different societies, such as Qatar, Japan, France, and Argentina.

While I didn't find most of what Ansari wrote about to be particularly shocking (except, perhaps, looking at certain statistics, like how many people in younger generations think it's okay to end a relationship via text or social media, yet don't want it done to them), but his spin on everything, punctuated by quotes from those who responded to focus groups or other inquiries conducted through the research for the book, is humorous, insightful, and in most cases, dead-on accurate.

This is an interesting book with flashes of humor, rather than a humorous book with flashes of information, as you might expect simply seeing Ansari's face on the cover. If you go into this book knowing that, and are interested in just how much the dating world has changed through the years, you'll be surprised, enlightened, occasionally appalled, and entertained.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Book Review: "Bull Mountain" by Brian Panowich

There's a sense of impending danger that pervades Bull Mountain, Brian Panowich's excellent debut novel, from nearly the very first sentence. And even though we've seen this tug-of-war between good and evil before, this battle between what is blood and what is law, Panowich's lyrical prose, ratcheted-up tension, and crackling action make this familiar story immensely compelling.

Bull Mountain in North Georgia has been home to the Burroughs clan for a number of generations. The Burroughs aren't what you'd call an upstanding family—years of running moonshine led down the dangerous path to production and sales of marijuana and crystal meth. Hal Burroughs, the oldest of three brothers, runs his kingdom with an iron hand, a violent temper, and an army of minions willing to kill or fight to defend the family's honor and all it holds dear. Mess with Hal Burroughs, you're more than likely to wind up buried in a hole somewhere.

"Up here it's something different. It's something deeper than bone. It's not something that they earned or had to fight to get. They were born into it, and the fight comes on real hard when someone threatens to take it away. It's an integral part of who they are—who we are."

Clayton Burroughs, Hal's youngest brother, followed a different path, one which led him to the post of sheriff in the town closest to Bull Mountain. He knows all too well what goes on up on that mountain, as he watched his father and brothers lash out at those who dared to challenge their domain or their livelihood. Clayton has let his brother be, even as lawmakers have tried unsuccessfully to bring Hal and his posse down. But when a straight-shooting ATF agent comes to Clayton with an offer to leave Hal alone as long as he agrees to turn over his more dangerous gun supplier, he sets a chain of events in motion that will rock Bull Mountain to its core.

While there are a few surprises to be had in this book, for the most part, you know what is going to happen, but the story is so well-told, you don't care. Panowich paints evocative lyrical pictures of place and time, creates characters that are fascinating despite their familiarity, and keeps the action and suspense going, until you're on the same runaway train that Clayton, Hal, and others are on. There's one plot twist that seems far too obvious, and it disappointed me a little bit, but beyond that, while the battle of lawful versus lawless is clear, what isn't necessarily clear is where the lines are drawn, making the book even more interesting and enjoyable.

I can't wait to see what is next in Brian Panowich's career, because it's definitely started with a bang. The Burroughs clan is a family you don't want to mess with, but you won't be able to get enough of them either.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Book Review: "Fortune Smiles" by Adam Johnson

Full disclosure: I received an advance copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an unbiased review. Many thanks to Random House for making it available!

Adam Johnson is a tremendously talented writer, with a unique and creative voice. Interestingly enough, while I couldn't get into his Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Orphan Master's Son, I enjoyed his previous short story collection, Emporium, so I had high hopes for his newest collection, Fortune Smiles. And I'm pleased to say that Johnson didn't disappoint me—nearly all of the six stories in this collection were powerful, a few were very moving, and at least one was a bit disturbing.

In my favorite story in the collection, "Interesting Facts," a terminally ill woman grows increasingly angrier about the thought of her husband and family moving on after her death. A programmer tries to deal with his wife's mysterious illness in "Nirvana" by speaking with a simulation he created of the recently assassinated president. In "Hurricanes Anonymous," a UPS driver searches for the mother of his young son, whom she abandoned to his care, while dealing with other emotional challenges as well as life in Louisiana following Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. The warden of a notorious Stasi prison in East Germany is the protagonist of "George Orwell Was a Friend of Mine," and he has some trouble reconciling his memories of his job with those who try and tell the prison's story. And "Dark Meadow" chronicles the struggles of a IT repairman who also happens to have a bit of a child pornography addiction, although he doesn't see it that way. (Interestingly enough, Johnson revisits North Korea, the setting for The Orphan Master's Son, in the title story of this collection, and I found it to be the weakest.)

While Johnson's storytelling ability is outstanding, I feel his greatest strength comes from the characters he has created. These stories are longer than your average short stories and some pack more of a punch, but the characters have stuck in my head the most. The stories are at times quirky, but they're tremendously compelling and get under your skin, which for the most part is a good thing. If you're a short story fan, or a fan of Johnson's, definitely give this one a read.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Book Review: "A Little Life" by Hanya Yanagihara

I'll cut to the chase on this one fairly quickly: Hanya Yanagihara's A Little Life is nothing short of an utter masterpiece. This book is one of the most dazzlingly brilliant, emotionally moving books I've ever read, and it will be a long time before I can get these characters and their story out of my head. And truth be told, as painful as this book was in places, I don't know if I want to be rid of these characters anytime soon.

"It is always easier to believe what you already think than to try to change your mind."

A Little Life spans several decades in the lives of four college friends—Willem, who becomes an actor; Malcolm, an architect; JB, an artist; and Jude, who becomes a lawyer. Each has their own emotional triggers and their challenges, both professionally and personally. While the book focuses on each of the four, it is enigmatic, troubled Jude who serves as the book's anchor and its soul.

I went into this book knowing very little about the plot, mainly what I've outlined above, and I honestly am thankful for it. This is such a powerful book, and as issues were confronted, joyous moments celebrated, and troubling moments lamented over and deeply felt, not knowing what to expect made the impact of the story even more resonant for me.

Yanagihara is a writer of exquisite beauty and she has created fascinating characters; none more so than Jude and Willem. Jude is truly unlike any character I think I've ever come across (and I read a ton of books). Never has a character moved me so, upset me so, and made me feel so powerfully. This is a story that finds wonder in the mundane but also dwells on truly troubling issues as well. Obviously, it is a book about the power of friendship and love—platonic, romantic, filial—but it is also a story of the fragility of emotions, the fears we must confront, and the devastating effects a lack of self-worth can have.

This is a difficult and painful book to read in many places, but even as it tore my heart and made me cry (more than a few times), I couldn't get enough of it. It's amazing that a book of 700-plus pages can feel at once both so weighty and so light, but that is a testament to Yanagihara's talent. I find it hard to believe I will find a better book this year, and I think this may very well be among the top three books I've read in the last several years.

I try not to hype books, nor do I try to give into hype. But read this. In the end, this is a book that needs to be read, with characters who need to be experienced and felt. Just wow.