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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.

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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

What does it mean to be a sports hero? There are so many different arenas in which athletes can excel and become part of the story of their sport, whether we’re talking about professional championships or individual records or Olympic glory or some combination therein. Athletic prowess has been turning ordinary men and women into legends for centuries.

But while some heroes become ensconced, forever part of the story of their sport, others fade into the margins of history. No matter how highly celebrated and decorated in their day, they don’t maintain their spot in the popular imagination. But those athletes and their feats still matter, even if they’ve been forgotten … and their stories still deserve to be told.

Kevin Martin’s “The Irish Whales: Olympians of Old New York” (Rowman & Littlefield, $32) relates the tale of one such group of forgotten heroes. These men, a collection of Irish immigrants to the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, were athletic sensations during that stretch. As a group, these men thoroughly dominated the world of field events through the early days of the modern Olympics, becoming sensations on both sides of the Atlantic and bringing great pride to both their native country and their adopted homeland.

Through a meticulously detailed and researched exploration of these men, a new appreciation can be gained for these athletic marvels who, despite global fame in their day, ultimately faded into relative obscurity. Their greatness is undeniable; this book proves a worthwhile introduction to that greatness.

Published in Sports

I dig unreliable narrators.

Few storytelling devices delight me as much – and none more so. That added layer of ambiguity, that feeling of being unable to fully trust the very person serving as the window into the narrative … it adds a dimension that I find irresistible.

Irresistible, I should say, if (and this is a BIG if) it is executed skillfully. Obviously, stories are better when they’re well-told, but a poorly-drawn unreliable narrator is as regrettable as a sharply-hewn one is wonderful. Good can be great, but bad can be truly abysmal – and the margin for error is razor-thin.

We get one of the good ones in Susanna Clarke’s new novel “Piranesi” (Bloomsbury, $27) – her first since 2004’s acclaimed “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.” The titular character more than rises to the occasion, sharing the story of the impossible place in which he lives in a manner that is both overtly and subtly untrustworthy. And when you put that in the sort of lush and vividly-realized fantastical setting that Clarke creates, well … you’ve got something pretty special.

Published in Style

I’m always glad to see a new Chuck Palahniuk book. While I recognize that not everyone is as engaged as I am by his brand of blunt-force transgression, it’s tough to deny that he inhabits an important space in the literary realm. His willingness to push deep-down unpleasantness to the surface, to follow trends and tendencies to their bleakest, darkest outcomes, isn’t something you often see on the bestseller lists.

His latest title is “The Invention of Sound” (Grand Central Publishing, $27). It’s a twisted two-hander of sorts, with two primary points of view. Each of these people is consumed by a dark obsession, though they pursue and embrace those obsessions in different ways.

On the one hand, a broken man fully consumed by a Quixotic quest to track down his daughter, holding out hope that he will find her despite the years that have passed and traveling some dark paths to get there. On the other, a notorious Hollywood Foley artist, one whose gifts for perfectly capturing the sounds of violence and pain leave her regarded with unease and suspicion. The two careen toward each other, with neither knowing the other or having any idea what havoc their unexpected collision might wreak.

Palahniuk has always been fascinated with what goes on in the shadows cast by polite society. “The Invention of Sound” delves into those shadows, crafting an ugly and compelling look at the horror and violence lurking beneath the veneer, illustrating the notion that we never really comprehend what people are capable of – even those we think we know.

Published in Buzz

Food as entertainment has become big business in the 21st century. Food-based television programming and celebrity chefs are major parts of the culinary landscape, with their importance spiraling upward as each enhances the other. Food TV makes more famous chefs and famous chefs make more TV.

One of the beneficiaries of this development is David Chang. Founder of the Momofuku restaurant empire and host of Netflix’s “Ugly Delicious,” he could be considered one of the poster children for this new chef culture … though it’s not necessarily a distinction that he ever really wanted.

In his new memoir “Eat a Peach” (Clarkson Potter, $28) – co-written with Gabe Ulla – Chang walks readers through his unusual and checkered journey to the top of his profession. From his early days in a strict and religious Korean-American family to his start in restaurant kitchens to the early uneasiness of his Momofuku endeavors to his ultimate ascendance to the upper echelons of the food world, we’re given insight into how he got to where he is.

But that’s just half the story. We also learn about a life lived in constant fear of failure. Chang is brutally honest and forthcoming about his up-and-down fight against depression and his ongoing struggles with anger management. It’s a success story that features plenty of misfires. The one constant throughout is a deep-seated and genuine love of cooking, both in terms of culinary exploration and cultural storytelling.

Published in Style
Friday, 04 September 2020 15:08

Missed connections – ‘Daddy’

Emma Cline can WRITE.

Anyone who read her debut, 2016’s excellent “The Girls,” knows all about Cline’s prose gifts. She has a compelling, captivating voice and a real knack for crafting engaging narratives. But while that novel is undeniably excellent, the earliest recognition of her talents came in connection with her short fiction.

Cline’s new book “Daddy” (Random House, $27) celebrates her aptitude for shorter work, 10 stories that delve beneath the surface of the American experience. Each tale is a snapshot of the shadows cast by the outsized and unbalanced power dynamics between friends and colleagues and family members. There’s a palpable hurt at the core of these stories, a recognition of the pain that is seemingly always a heartbeat away.

The people at the center of these stories are all struggling with the grim realities of their situations. Even when the veneer of respectability is still intact, there’s a fundamental and inescapable ugliness there. Sadness and anger are abundant – everyone strives for connection, they find themselves cast adrift, spiraling away from one another even as they yearn for proximity.

Published in Buzz
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