Monsters: The 1985 Chicago Bears and the Wild Heart of Football by Rich Cohen
I'm often asked why I don't recommend sports books. I actually read quite a few of them; it's just rare I find one I like. Generally speaking, a lot of sports books are too obsessive — letting nerdy details get in the way of telling a meaningful story — or not obsessive enough — trivializing an athlete, team, or entire sport.
This year has actually seen a handful of great books about the NFL. League of Denial, the book companion to the PBS Frontline documentary of the same name, is a serious look at the dangers of concussions in the NFL; Nate Jackson’s memoir, Slow Getting Up, is a tragicomic reflection on his six-year career as a largely invisible tight end for the Broncos. For all the attention these two books have gotten, Rich Cohen's Monsters should be a part of that conversation.
At the airport the other week, I met someone wearing Google Glass. Or more accurately, he introduced himself so he could tell me all about his tech-y eyewear. He was a well-meaning (though somewhat smug) software developer, and I nodded politely as he detailed all of Glass's features: It could take photos and video with the command of his voice, even check Twitter or Facebook while we were talking. The interaction was off-putting, even as he described each of Glass's features with the genuine, nerdy enthusiasm of a Comic-Con attendee.
Dave Eggers's new novel, The Circle, pulls a similar trick throughout its 500-page lampoon of Google. Like his novel last year, the excellent A Hologram for the King (which I recommended), Eggers is less interested in realism and more interested in writing a modern fairy tales. The Circle, which resembles a more self-righteous vision of Google, is interested in connecting everything in people's lives. The company is run by the Three Wisemen, and newbie employee Mae is quickly assimilated into the company's juvenile playground culture.
I recently watched a great documentary called Project Nim, about an Upper West Side family of academic hippies who adopt a chimpanzee in the early '70s. Their goal is to condition the young ape to communicate with humans by raising him as a normal human child. The controversial experiment ended when Nim attacked one of his caretakers, the chimp portrayed as a tragic victim caught between two worlds. Colin McAdam's third book is based heavily on the real-life Project Nim, novelized to push the philosophical lessons of Nim in a way only fiction can do. In A Beautiful Truth, a Vermont couple named Walt and Judy decide to adopt a young chimpanzee after Judy is unable to conceive a child. Young Looee arrives in a crate from Sierra Leone, and the two — in Nim-ian fashion — raise him as the son they never had.
Structurally, the story splits its time between the perspective of Walt and Judy (and later, other humans), and the chimps in a Floridian research institute, where Looee ends up after his violent episode. One might expect the chimp point of view to be distracting, but it speaks to McAdam's talents that they become the most compelling parts of A Beautiful Truth. Looee's chapters — short but lyrical — are often the most affecting.
Ashley, the 24-year-old daughter of cult horror director Stanislas Cordova, is found dead in a warehouse in Manhattan. (I don't know my cult horror directors very well, but I kept imagining Dario and Asia Argento.) When the police rule the death a suicide, investigative journalist Scott McGrath takes it upon himself to prove that there were sinister forces surrounding Ashley's passing. The catch is that McGrath was famously disgraced after losing a million-dollar slander lawsuit against the Cordova family. McGrath has a chip on his shoulder, and a mystery to solve.
What follows is a twisty literary thriller that sinks into the underworld of obsessive Cordova fans. The director has always been a recluse (albeit for one Rolling Stone interview), and most of his films are impossible to track down. Even the actors in Cordova's disturbing pictures are unwilling to talk about the director. As McGrath discovers, many of Cordova's secrets can be uncovered on the Blackboards, a hyper-secret message board for Cordova fanatics, which touts "that to be terrified, to be scared out of your skin, was the beginning of freedom, of opening your eyes to what was graphic and dark and gorgeous about life, thereby conquering the monsters of your mind."
The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., by Adelle Waldman
I’ll describe this book and you’ll think, A book about Brooklyn hipsters. Fucking Brooklyn hipsters. And you'd be right. That’s entirely the point of The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.
Adelle Waldman has set out to answer an age-old question: Why are men jerks, and why do women date jerks? To find the answer, you’ll have to endure the book’s titular hero. He’s the tortured-artist type of jerk and also the object of envy for every elitist literary snob: intelligent, tall, good with women, and just sold his first book for six figures. Before we go down the road of arguing about the importance of character "likability," let me assure you that Waldman writes him with such humor and self-awareness that his non-problems become almost endearing.
According to the epigraph, idiopathy is a “disease or condition which arises spontaneously or for which the cause is unknown.” For the three central characters of the book, the conditions could be loneliness, uncertainty, or love. But the more literal connection in Sam Byers’s debut novel is a bizarre epidemic affecting the country’s cattle — a comic thread of widespread misperception that sets the stage for Idiopathy.
After Katherine’s ex-boyfriend Daniel enters a new, pedestrian relationship, Katherine becomes embittered and starts on a tear of meaningless affairs. The two are forced to reconnect when an old friend, Nathan, returns from rehab and suggests a reunion. Things go poorly. Katherine swears a lot. Everyone is unhappy, and no one can understand why.
The Time cover story about millennial narcissism is just the latest in a long and overwritten narrative about this generation’s solipsism. But these lengthy articles can never get past the idea that Facebook and cell phone selfies are the problem. With Idiopathy, Byers is satirizing something deeper: the idea that we are all possessed by our desire to be happy, that maybe it is that desire and self-doubt that keeps us so unhappy.
I recently watched the first season of Justified, and the pilot episode ends with U.S. Marshall Raylan Givens asking his ex-wife if he's an angry man. She turns to Raylan and says that he's the angriest man she has ever known. I kept thinking about this line throughout The Woman Upstairs, which opens with 42-year-old third-grade teacher Nora Eldridge asking, "How angry am I? You don't want to know." As it turns out, hell hath no fury like a schoolteacher. Nora is ready for a change, and she's determined to take what she wants. But it's what she wants that’s questionable.
Nora develops an infatuation with a bullied student, Reza, and his mother Sirena, an aspiring artist. What begins as friendship turns into an obsession. "Don't all women feel the same? The only difference is how much we know we feel it, how in touch we are with our fury." Nora is very much in touch with her fury and out of touch with everything else. She's disgusted by everything around her, yet constantly making excuses for herself. The lack of self-awareness becomes the magnet that pulls the reader along as Nora attempts to insert herself in Reza and Sirena's life.
Ursula Todd has many pasts and many futures. Every time she dies, Ursula starts back at the beginning of her life, able to proceed differently the next time (think Groundhog Day meets The Butterfly Effect). Atkinson doesn't spend much time dwelling on the whys of the cosmic trappings of her novel and neither does Ursula, who is barely aware that this is happening to her, except through a sense of chilling déjà vu that causes her to avoid repeating the same tragedies. Accept the metaphysics as a given, because Atkinson isn’t interested in explaining them. Instead, she wants to explore the bigger questions surrounding Ursula's many lives: How does one life affect others? What is the value of a life when you have many of them?
These themes are explored on different scales, and Life After Life leaps back and forth in time, and between alternate histories. It can be a little disorienting at first, but Atkinson gives us just enough to go on that the narrative threads can be followed. We see how Ursula's actions affect her own life and the lives of her friends and family. Toward the end of Life After Life, Kate Atkinson writes, "Sometimes it was harder to change the past than the future."
Wave opens immediately as the tsunami hits on Boxing Day in 2004. Sonali Deraniyagala is with her family, vacationing in Yala, a park on the southeastern coast of Sri Lanka. From their hotel room, Deraniyagala can see the wave approaching, and, from a distant, it seems like nothing. “It didn’t seem that remarkable. Or alarming,” she writes. “It was only the white curl of a big wave.”
Moments later, after a failed escape in the back of a jeep, Deraniyagala loses everything — her parents, her husband, her two sons — in the sudden and brutal force of the tsunami. It is with the same unforgiving ferocity that Wave becomes a brave and shattering memoir of survival.
A friend recently told me that I didn't recommend enough novels in this column, which I thought was a little crazy, because the majority of my suggestions skew heavily toward fiction. "No," he said, "I want to read a NOVEL." I told him saying "novel" more loudly didn't really clarify his point.
But after thinking about it, I believe what he was looking for was a novel in the classic sense — something lengthy and ambitious, something that attempts to be A Great Work of American Fiction. So to anyone who feels the same way, I wholeheartedly recommend Stuart Nadler's sweeping, decade-spanning debut novel, Wise Men. It's the sort of patiently paced story you can settle into, steeped in rich characters and historical context.
My favorite Kurt Vonnegut novel is Timequake, in which a cosmic ripple forces everyone on Earth to relive the past decade of their lives but are unable to change any of their actions. It's part Vonnegut autobiography, part exploration of determinism: People re-experience their greatest mistakes and the death of loved ones. The Reenactments puts memoirist Nick Flynn in a similar position.
Flynn has penned two books, one about his alcoholic father (Another Bullshit Night in Suck City) and one about his mother's suicide (The Ticking Is the Bomb), which in 2012 were combined into a single film adaptation called Being Flynn. The Reenactments collects Nick Flynn's experience penning the script and working on set. This isn't a Hollywood behind-the-scenes sort of affair as much as it is a tale of Flynn coming to terms with seeing the hardest moments of his life staged and filmed. Flynn plays with a lot of ideas here: conflicts of self, consciousness, and memory are evoked through his interactions with the film's director, Paul Weitz, and the actors in the film. There's a great scene where Robert De Niro, who plays Flynn's father, meets Flynn's real-life alcoholic father in Boston, as well as some sticky interactions with Paul Dano, who plays Flynn himself. (Dano is equally poetic: In an e-mail to Flynn, he asks "Where are your scars?")
For our final Books of the Month feature of 2012, we'll be spotlighting some notable releases we may have missed this year.
Threats, by Amelia Gray
Threats bears a lot of similarities to Gillian Flynn’s surprise blockbuster thriller Gone Girl (which I’d also recommended — and am about to spoil, slightly). Both are about husbands trying to understand how their wives died. The central question in Gone Girl is whether she’s really dead; in Threats, though, it's about how sane one can stay when coping with grief. After his wife Franny dies, David begins to find bizarre notes hidden around his home. For example:
YOUR FATE IS SEALED WITH GLUE I HAVE BOILED IN A VAT. I SLOPPED IT ON AN ENVELOPE AND MAILED IT TO YOUR MOTHER’S WOMB.
Threats is a gritty psychological mess where hallucinations bleed into reality. The stream-of-consciousness prose can be inaccessible and dense in places, but Threats is a novel meant more to be experienced than fully understood. It’s less of a page-turner than Gone Girl, but for the patient reader, Gray’s debut novel is full of literary trickery, grotesque images, and an unsettling sense of humor and horror.
Espionage, betrayal, scandal — only Ian McEwan could put these things in a novel and make them kind of slow. But Sweet Tooth, the author’s 14th book, is a pensive, literary spy novel. I should clarify: It features spies talking about literature during the Cold War.
“Sweet Tooth” is the code name for an MI5 outfit with the goal of funding artists all over the world whose political opinions fall in line with those of the British government. Serena Frome is a spunky recent Cambridge grad whose presence at the agency can best be described as “disruptive” when she falls for Sweet Tooth–endowed author Tom Healey. She’s in love with Tom’s fiction, and since her identity is undercover, Tom is unknowingly in love with Serena’s fiction as well.
After 30 years of marriage, Richard Middlestein leaves his wife Edie, a lawyer whose lifelong love of food has slowly but surely pushed her weight above 350 pounds. This is the setup for The Middlesteins, an honest, hilarious portrait of a fractured Jewish family in the Midwest. Throughout September, I'd recommended the book to friends as a funnier, shorter Jonathan Franzen novel. I said this to three or four people before someone pointed out that the cover has a blurb by Franzen on it. (It does not say "a funnier, shorter version of my work.")
In college, I had a creative writing professor who claimed Junot Díaz had read 100 short-story collections before he penned a single word of his first book of stories, Drown. That professor (or maybe it was a friend of hers) later met Díaz and asked him if that was true. It turned out to be false. He had actually read 400 books of short stories.
Junot Díaz became a literary icon when he authored the universally revered The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. This might be a crude parallel, but much in the way Louis C.K. is a comic’s comic, Díaz is a fiction writer’s writer. He’s gifted, well read, and eschews pressures to be commercially successful. A great way to not sell so many books: follow up a Pulitzer Prize–winning novel with a collection of linked short stories about, of all things, a boy falling in love. (From an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Díaz says, “I know for a fact that — it’s just the way our biases work now in the industry of literature, but certainly a short story collection does not receive the same kind of attention as a novel.”)