Every month, the Writer’s Bone crew reviews or previews books we've read or want to read. This series may or may not also serve as a confessional for guilty pleasures and hipster novels only the brave would attempt. Feel free to share your own suggestions in the comments section or tweet us @WritersBone.
The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
Daniel Ford: Nguyen recently won the Pulitzer Prize for his debut novel, and for good reason. Set in the aftermath of the fall of Saigon and South Vietnam in 1975, The Sympathizer follows a double-agent refugee as he suffers through the death of close companions, shady political and military maneuverings, and his troubled family history. Since the novel also acts as a historical narrative of the end of the Vietnam War, one anticipates the violence, horror, and dysfunction; however, one might not expect the deep and dark humor Nguyen injects into his prose. The pages fly by without feeling weighted or overly somber. Horrible things befall our duplicitous hero, some as a direct result of his nefarious actions, but you can’t help rooting for him to walk away from his chosen path in one piece. The Sympathizer is a powerful mediation on brotherhood, the immigrant experience in the U.S., and, of course, war. And because his novel is so good, we won’t hold it against Nguyen that he beat out Writer’s Bone favorite David Joy for the 2016 Edgar Award for Best First Novel.
Dodgers by Bill Beverly
Sean Tuohy: Bill Beverly mixes the dark, urban violence of the inner city with the coming-of-age hopefulness and angst of The Catcher in the Rye. The book follows four teenage gangbangers from Los Angeles on a cross country journey to commit a murder. The novel is sparse and fast-paced, and moves from hardcore street crime to the lightheartedness of teenagers finding themselves in a wild world. One moment you’ll find tears welling in your eyes as you read a scene between a teenage boy and his mother, and, by the next chapter, you are gripping the book with growing tension. Dodgers can be picked up with ease, but can’t be put down lightly.
Everybody’s Fool by Richard Russo
Daniel: It’s hard for me to be objective about Richard Russo. I read Nobody’s Fool at an impressionable age as both a reader and a writer. I fell in love with the cantankerous Sully and his down-on-its-luck hometown. It’s always the first example I use when championing well-written character studies. I also have fond memories of bonding with my mother discussing the book (and the movie adaptation starring Paul Newman). I have obviously enjoyed the rest of Russo’s work—including the Pulitzer Prize-winning Empire Falls, Straight Man, and Bridge of Sighs—but there’s a bit of Nobody’s Fool’s DNA buried in my own that supersedes all the other novels.
As you might expect, I was thrilled when I learned that Russo’s recent novel Everybody’s Fool returns to Sully’s North Bath, New York. Ten years have gone by, and our favorite curmudgeon faces something that he can’t ignore or talk his way out of—a potentially life-threatening diagnosis. The early reviews of Everybody’s Fool have been fabulous, and from what I’ve read I can say that the praise is well deserved. Russo proves that when done right, returning to an age-old friend can be a blessing instead of a curse. The author’s prose and dialogue are as sharp and warm as ever, and his humor remains second to none.
I know I’m not going to be able to resist binge reading the rest of Everybody’s Fool, but I plan on savoring every page the best I can. I learned what kind of reader and writer I was while reading Nobody’s Fool. I think I’ll decide what kind of man I’ve become while reading Everybody’s Fool.
A Single Happened Thing by Daniel Paisner
Daniel: Daniel Paisner's novel is nostalgically charming for anyone who has loved the game of baseball. I can’t tell you how many times I consulted Baseball-Reference.com during the two days I devoured A Single Happened Thing. I came to love baseball during the 1990s, an admittedly wild time for the sport. You had superficially beefed up sluggers, colorfully awful expansion teams, and plenty of New York Yankees championships. Into this scrum, Paisner drops in “a Manhattan book publicist who believes he's been visited by the ghost of an old-time baseball player.”
Imagine if Ray Kinsella, the main character in Shoeless Joe (the inspiration for my favorite movie “Field of Dreams”), wasn’t just thought crazy by his neighbors, but by his loving wife. Would he have risked financial ruin and built the field if it were going to threaten his marriage? Paisner explores this possibility by making David Felb’s biggest critic and doubter his hardworking, and relentlessly lucid, wife. Felb isn’t entirely alone in his delusions though. His “tomboy-ish” daughter Iona inherited his hardball heart and has a chance encounter with the mysterious Fred “Sure Shot” Dunlap, which ensures she doesn’t drive her old man right to the asylum. Their relationship is the backbone of the novel and every scene with the pair should stir even the most cynical baseball critic.
One of my favorite quotes from the novel is: "It's difficult to hit as well...but we don't give up on the notion." The same can be said for writing, don’t you think?
We're All Damaged by Matthew Norman
Gary Almeter: This book is just great. You get to spend a couple weeks in the life of Andy Carter, a complicated young man who certainly doesn't have everything together, but someone who is funny (both intellectually witty and "fall down the stairs" funny), sensitive, and determined to be the most authentic Andy Carter possible. He's simultaneously iron-willed and compliant; irreverent and sensitive; insecure and self-indulgent.
Norman tells Andy's story with confidence, adding humor to the sad parts and profundity to the funny parts. He peppers every page with intriguing pop culture references. They paint a really vivid picture of Andy and his world and his state of mind. And sometimes they're just fun. And sometimes they serve as launch pads for some real insight (like what will archeologists think of our culture when they dig up an iPod with Wham!'s "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go" on it?). The narrative is propelled by Andy's eagerness to connect with his dying grandfather, as well as an imminent SCOTUS decision about gay marriage. Like the conundrum that is Andy, Norman makes death and equality fun topics too.
Through it all, Andy maintains an astounding sense of humor and is quick to make keen observations about the absurdities, and pain, of life in the 2010s. But it's not all absurd. There is a tenderness and genuineness to Andy that makes him, and us, grateful for the community around him.
Bucky F*cking Dent by David Duchovny
Adam Vitcavage: A lot of people might not know the dude who hunted down aliens on “The X-Files” and drank and fornicated his way through writer's block on “Californication” studied literature at both Princeton and Yale. David Duchovny actually has some other writing credits to his name, and his most recent book, Bucky F*cking Dent, is a can't miss. Duchovny says this isn't a baseball book, but a story about fathers and sons, as well as a romance set against the hardball backdrop. The titular Dent is a real-life hero or villain, depending on if you’re a Yankees or Red Sox fan, in a tiebreaker game to get into the playoffs in 1978 (Spoiler alert: Dent crushes a homer, and all the hearts in New England, over the Green Monster.) But again, this is about more than baseball. Duchovny's prose is nothing to scoff at. He brilliantly tells this story in an earnest way. Don't be surprised if you start seeing his name pop up more often in the literary world. There's no doubt that he has more fiction stored away, waiting to be read by the world.