Thursday, July 19, 2018

A letter to Rebecca Makkai, about The Great Believers

Dear Rebecca Makkai,

The Great Believers is your fourth book, but somehow it's the first one I read. I found this fact to be particularly confounding considering your debut novel, The Borrower, is about a librarian taking a road trip. That premise is completely perfect for me, a librarian who loves road trips and all kinds of travel (well, except camping and exploring nature, but I digress.) But, somehow, it's languished on my TBR like so many other wonderful books.

I'm so glad I picked up The Great Believers. The premise is ambitious: "In 1985, Yale Tishman, the development director for an art gallery in Chicago, is about to pull off an amazing coup, bringing in an extraordinary collection of 1920s paintings as a gift to the gallery. Yet as his career begins to flourish, the carnage of the AIDS epidemic grows around him. Soon the only person he has left is Fiona, his friend Nico's little sister.

Thirty years later, Fiona is in Paris tracking down her estranged daughter who disappeared into a cult. While staying with an old friend, a famous photographer who documented the Chicago crisis, she finds herself finally grappling with the devastating ways AIDS affected her life and her relationship with her daughter. The two intertwining stories take us through the heartbreak of the eighties and the chaos of the modern world, as both Yale and Fiona struggle to find goodness in the midst of disaster."

I'm not sure where my fascination of the AIDS crisis stems from. Part of it, I imagine, is my age. I was born in 1980, so I came of age and awareness on the tail end of it. As an adult, I've found myself drawn to the stories, both fiction and nonfiction, about the AIDS crisis and the gay revolution. Despite that, reading The Great Believers made me realize how many of those stories are centered in New York, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. It was refreshing to see this time explored in Chicago.

I'm particularly glad I read this book in 2018, a year where things too often feel hopeless. Yale and his friends are prescient reminders of both how far we've come and how far we still have to go. They reminded me that a lot changes in thirty years: "It’s always a matter, isn’t it, of waiting for the world to come unraveled? When things hold together, it’s always only temporary.” As I read, I was grateful this novel had two storylines, both because it helped break up the hardest times in 1985, but also because they were both so good. I never preferred one storyline to the other, which is a remarkable feat of storytelling and pacing on your part.

One of the highest compliments I can give a book is telling you it made me ugly cry more than once. The Great Believers broke my hearts with its beauty, tragedy, and humanity.


Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Length: 431 pages
Publication date:  June 19, 2018
Source: publisher

My favorite passage:  “If we could just be on earth at the same place and same time as everyone we loved, if we could be born together and die together, it would be so simple. And it’s not. But listen: You two are on the planet at the same time. You’re in the same place now. That’s a miracle. I just want to say that.”

Want to read for yourself? Buy The Great Believers from Amazon (Kindle edition.)

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Saturday, July 7, 2018

On making lists, reading long lists, and creating a new reading challenge for myself

I like making lists, which, at least among my bookternet communities of readers, writers and librarians, is not at all unusual. Lately, however, I've realized that I don't enjoy crossing things off lists as much as others seems to. It seems, odd, right? Isn't the point of lists to finish them? Either I truly don't enjoy reaching goals or I have become a realist. Here's my secret: I don't think I've ever actually finished reading an entire list of books I've made. I am one book away from finishing the 2012 Orange Prize (now Women's Prize) longlist (including the short list and winner.) But I'm also working on reading every book ever longlisted, shortlisted, and winners. (And by working, I mean I have many lists, one listing the ones I most want to read, one listing them in order from shortest to longest--achieve more faster!, one listing winners, one listing the one I most want to read for each year of the Prize, etc.) I've similarly attempted to read all the books for most major awards. It's not possible, unless, of course you enjoy crossing things off of lists more than making new ones. Or if you read more than I do. Or if you can manage to not get distracted by the next book award list or galley of your favorite author or decide what you really need in that moment is a good mystery or memoir or graphic novel or classic.

The 2018 Center for Fiction First Novel Prize long list

All of this is to say: I'm going to attempt to read this year's First Novel Prize long list, which is hilarious and also exciting, even if I don't actually read them all. I will read more than I would have if I didn't just make a checklist in Google Keep. You might ask why I would attempt such a thing when I have a terrible track record. There are two reasons. First, my reading has been floundering. I am in need of a list to guide at least some of my reading. I don't want to pick from the thousands of books I want to read; I want to pick one from a specific list. Second, this particular longlist features 26 books, and I want to read all of them. Not just the ones by women (who, incidentally, comprise a majority of the list). All 26 of them. None of them are chunksters (those always derail my best intentions.) They're diverse and exciting. And as much as I love picking out my own books to read, I also like it when other people give me a list and tell me to read them all. What I love most about reading book award long lists, however, are the conversations. I like to pretend I'm judging along with the judges. Which novels would I put on the short list in September? Why? Which would I pick to win? Inevitably, it will never be the one to actually win because I have my own taste in what makes a book the best of the bunch.

I hope to read all 26 titles before the shortlist is announced in September. I also realize there is very little chance of that actually happening. So I also hope to read all 26 titles by the end of 2018. And I hope to read one by the end of the weekend. As always, you can follow my progress on my First Novel Prize page.

Now tell me: have you read any of these titles? What should I push to the top of my list?

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