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There are few authors out there who can match Jonathan Lethem when it comes to literary genre-bending. Just a handful are even close – and none are better. He has long been a proponent of embracing the possibilities inherent to genre exploration, leading to work that is insightful, engaging … and wildly entertaining.

His latest effort is “The Arrest” (Ecco, $27.99), a post-apocalyptic tale that offers a glimpse at one possible ending for civilization as we know it. Neither a utopia nor a dystopia, but something in between, Lethem’s landscape is one is thoughtful and laugh-out-loud funny. It’s a story of survival and isolation, a story about what it means to live in a society.

It’s a condemnation of overreliance on technology that also pokes fun at those who view tech as some shadowy all-encompassing bogeyman. By viewing the world through the lens shaped by the titular event, Lethem peels back the layers and gives us a glimpse of what we might try to put together if everything fell apart.

Published in Style

Sometimes, all it takes is a title.

I usually read and review 60 or so books over the course of a year. And I consider several times that many. A fair amount of the coverage is somewhat predetermined – if certain authors have new work coming or a new book is generating a lot of buzz, attention tends to be paid – but there is a degree of wiggle room, allowing me to occasionally take a chance. These chances don’t always pay off (though I should note that I rarely review the misfires), but when they do, they pay off big time.

With Julian Herbert’s “Bring Me the Head of Quentin Tarantino” (Graywolf Press, $15.99), I hit the jackpot.

This collection of short stories by the noted Mexican writer, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney, captured my attention with its title. Upon closer investigation, I discovered an assemblage of excellence, 10 short works that captivate and confound. These stories are surreal and absurd even as they uncover certain realities – harsh and otherwise – about the Mexican experience.

As I said, it was the title that caught my eye – no surprise, considering my affinity for the work of Mr. Tarantino – and the description was certainly intriguing, but I didn’t anticipate … this. It’s rare to encounter fiction that functions effectively both as commentary and as pure narrative, but these stories do just that. They are weird and visceral and deliberately difficult to define, but each of them has the power to work its way into your imagination. Funny and poignant, driven by moments of hilarity and sadness and fury, “Bring Me the Head of Quentin Tarantino” is an exceptional reading experience.

Published in Style

This multi-generationally beloved game show has been on the air since 1984 in its current incarnation and is viewed by many as the current gold standard in the genre.

What is “Jeopardy!”

For millions of people, “Jeopardy!” is a staple, a shared syndicated moment of intellectual rigor and high financial stakes. A combination of encyclopedic trivia knowledge, quick reaction time and the … courage … of a gambler. For 22ish minutes a day, five days a week – “Jeopardy!” is there.

Claire McNear has been writing about “Jeopardy!” for years. However, her new book “Answers in the Form of Questions: A Definitive History and Insider’s Guide to Jeopardy!” (Twelve Books, $28) delves far deeper than she ever has gone before. Through a wealth of interviews – including over 100 contestants – and significant behind-the-scenes access, McNear offers up a closer examination of the beloved game show than any we’ve seen before.

And count McNear among those who love the show. There’s simply no way that a charming, thoughtful paean such as this one could be composed by someone without a deep and abiding affection for the program. It is a love letter to one of the few remaining monocultural stalwarts, a show that appeals to viewers of all ages and backgrounds.

Published in Buzz
Wednesday, 28 October 2020 11:45

The fastest of them all – ‘Dalko’

Baseball is a sport of legends. The game’s devotion to and celebration of its long history means that titanic figures from the past remain important to the ongoing conversation. Men who haven’t played in a century or more are still vital parts of baseball’s narrative fabric.

And while the majority of those legends are recognized as titans of the game – accomplished hitters and pitchers, deft with the glove or on the basepaths – not all of baseball’s folk heroes show up in the major league record books. Indeed, there are players who, while never appearing in a big league box score, nevertheless became nigh-mythic figures.

Players like Steve Dalkowski.

The new book “Dalko” (Influence Publishers, $26.95) – co-authored by William A. Dembski, Alex Thomas and Brian Vikander – tells the story of Dalkowski, a career minor leaguer whose lightning bolt of an arm could never be properly be tamed. A figure whose career was wreathed in myth and whose subsequent life was one of struggle and strife, many claimed to have never seen his like before or since.

Published in Sports
Wednesday, 28 October 2020 11:40

Words like violence, break ‘The Silence’

When we’re talking about the best American writers of the past half-century, everyone’s going to have a different list, but there are certain names that will likely appear on most of them. One of those names is Don DeLillo, who has written some of the most impactful literature of his generation. Books like “White Noise,” “Underworld” and others are significant parts of the 20th century canon.

And he’s still going strong.

DeLillo’s latest novel – his 17th, but who’s counting? – is “The Silence” (Scribner, $22), a slim volume that takes a look at what it might mean for our precarious and codependent relationship to technology to be unceremoniously ripped away, leaving nothing but the quiet echo of our own thoughts. How has this proliferation of tech impacted our ability to engage with one another – and are we able to get back what was lost.

“The Silence” is a lightning-fast read – just 128 pages – but no less engaging for its brevity. It is thoughtful and thought-provoking, a quick-hit of a novel one assumes is intended to mirror the bite-sized rapid consumption encouraged by our current relationship to media both old and new.

Published in Style
Wednesday, 28 October 2020 11:39

The many faces of war – ‘Missionaries’

Ever since there has been warfare, there has been art about warfare. The visceral nature and high stakes of combat are fertile ground for creative expression, providing the backdrop for uncountable stories and images that attempt to convey the violent eternal present of war.

Most of the time, the art that comes from wars is born after the conflict concludes. However, that isn’t the case with the creations inspired by this country’s operations in Iraq and Afghanistan – those fights remain ongoing, but artists have nevertheless mined them for inspiration.

Author Phil Klay made a massive splash on the literary scene with his debut book “Redeployment” in 2014 – it won the National Book Award that year, as well as the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Prize, awarded for a best first book in any genre (as a member in good standing of NBCC, I actually cast my vote for “Redeployment” to win the John Leonard).

Klay is back with his first novel. “Missionaries” (Penguin Press, $28) is a look at the global war machine, the world-spanning business of warfare writ large and small. Through interconnected perspectives and narrators, it’s a look at the many ways in which the horrors of war can impact those who participate – willingly or otherwise.

Spanning decades of time and thousands of miles, “Missionaries” is a tale of the damage war can do and the influence it can have on the choices that those involved ultimately make. It’s also about the high cost, in money and in blood, exacted by the act. And it’s a tacit admission that if you’re in it, you’re in it – all are complicit, regardless of what they might tell themselves.

Published in Buzz

One of the great things about having literary tastes that tend toward the omnivorous is that you never know when the mood to read something in particular will strike you. Sometimes, you want to read some high-minded lit fiction. Other times, you’re up for some lowbrow genre fare. Sometimes, it’s a biography or memoir; other times, a work of pop science or philosophy.

And sometimes, well … you just want to get weird.

When those times arrive, you could do worse than checking out the works of David Wong. His latest is the coarsely-named “Zoey Punches the Future in the Dick” (St. Martin’s Press, $27.99), the sequel to his delightfully profane and bizarre 2015 novel “Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits.” This new book is a sharp and satiric continuation of that story, yet it also manages to largely stand on its own – a relative rarity for genre series.

It’s smart sci-fi that delights in playing dumb, hiding sophisticated ideas and themes behind bizarre set pieces and all manner of creative profanity. It’s also a rip-roarer of an adventure tale, packed with high-concept twists and turns. All in all, it’s a hell of a lot of fun.

Published in Buzz

When we think about the end of the world, we tend to think big. We think of the apocalypse on a global scale, and understandably so. However, while the end may be large, the way in which we experience might be anything but.

Rumaan Alam’s “Leave the World Behind” (Ecco, $27.99) offers a smaller, more intimate look at the end. Through the lens of two families – largely strangers to one another – the reader is offered a glimpse at the way in which our perceptions of the world are based on a shared reality … and what happens when that shared reality is shattered in ways we don’t and can’t possibly know.

It is a thoughtful and propulsive read, a story that draws you in and asks – nay, demands – to be compulsively consumed. This is not a book about the world bearing witness to its own end, but rather about what it means to not know, to not understand, even as our faith in our world’s permanence is irrevocably and rightly shaken apart.

Published in Style

Quarterback is king in the NFL.

Strong quarterback play has always been an important part of success on the football field. But in today’s pass-prominent game, a high level of performance from the QB has become even more vital. One could make the argument – and plenty do – that the quarterback is the most important single player in professional team sports. You need a good one, if not a great one.

But how do you find one?

Brian Billick is a former NFL head coach with a Super Bowl ring and a current gig as an analyst for the NFL Network – certainly someone with some insight into the importance of having a great QB and what goes into developing such greatness. His new book – co-authored with James Dale – is “The Q Factor: The Elusive Search for the Next Great NFL Quarterback” (Twelve Books, $28), an in-depth exploration of what goes into finding and developing QB excellence.

Using the QB-heavy draft of 2018 as a jumping-off point – five passers were selected in the first round – Billick delves into the specifics of quarterback greatness and some of the tools evaluators can use to determine if the guy they see now can become what they need him to be later. With plenty of attention to detail and some great macro and micro perspectives, Billick deconstructs the path to greatness and how a little improvement in determining that path can go a long way.

Published in Sports

We’re living in the age of the superteam in the NBA. While the league has always been star-driven, the necessity of those stars has never been more apparent. If you want to win a ring, you NEED at least two top-tier superstars. These days, assembling those dynamic duos or titanic trios involves players actively recruiting one another, with stars seeking out paths to play with other stars that they like and/or admire.

It wasn’t always that way, though. Two decades ago, we watched the most talented pairing in the league rise to dizzying dynastic heights even as they were engaged in an ongoing and off-putting internal fight.

Jeff Pearlman’s “Three-Ring Circus: Kobe, Shaq, Phil, and the Crazy Years of the Lakers Dynasty” (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $30) dives deep into the eight-year stretch – from 1996-2004 – where two of the greatest basketball players of not just their generation but of all time team up to bring a string of titles to the Los Angeles Lakers even as their own interpersonal antipathy rages and boils beneath the surface. All while a renowned and legendary coach largely removes himself from the fray, content to let it work itself out.

It is a magnificently and meticulously detailed work, one featuring deep-dive interviews with all manner of people connected to that tumultuous time in the history of one of the NBA’s most storied franchises. It’s an unflinching and often unflattering portrait of the men who led L.A. to the top of the mountain; frankly, learning the extent of the chaos renders the championship victories all the more impressive.

Published in Sports
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