Reader’s Notebook, 5/21/19

Oh snap, somehow I’ve gone over a month without an RN entry. I’ll blow through my last four books to get caught up.


The Sisters Brothers – Patrick DeWitt
This is a tremendous and lovely tale of two West Coast gunmen – brothers Charlie and Eli Sisters – who prowl Oregon and California for a regional crime boss during the early days of the Gold Rush. Charles is the head of the crew, the tougher, meaner, and more manipulative brother. Our narrator, Eli, on the other hand, is thoughtful, regretful of his career, and really just wants to find a nice lady who will love his ugly ass. He also wishes Charlie didn’t know how to push his buttons so well when he has thoughts of defying him.

The Sisters brothers are sent on a mission to find a man who is in possession of a great discovery for finding gold that their patron wants. When they eventually track down their target, leaving a trail of bodies along the way, they both realize that the man hasn’t done anything wrong other than be smart enough to discover a chemical reaction before anyone else did. Eli’s more sensitive side wins the day and they decide to ignore their assignment and join forces with their target. Only to learn that the “discovery” – a concoction that when poured into rivers clearly shows the location of gold – is deadly toxic.

The book is funny, touching, and filled with the spirit of the Coen brothers.


The Feral Detective – Jonathan Lethem
Lethem has written some of my favorite novels of the past 25 years, most notably The Fortress of Solitude. His latest effort was greeted as an important book for the Trump era. For the first time ever, I was disappointed by his work.

Following Trump’s election, Phoebe Siegler quits her job as a fact checker at The New York Times as a form of protest. Just before inauguration day, she travels to California to help search for the daughter of her best friend, a college-aged girl who disappeared from her Oregon dorm room without a trace in the fall. Siegler meets Charlie Heist, a highly recommended but rather bizarre detective, who she has been told may have a lead.

Heist leads her into a hidden world in the desert where two off-the-grid movements are locked in a continuous battle with each other. Or something like that. Honestly, I had a ton of trouble sticking with Lethem’s story. I understand these two groups were supposed to be allegories for our current political climate. Maybe. But they weren’t all that interesting to me. And the story seemed clunky and confusing.

I wonder if Lethem was trying too hard. And perhaps critics who have given the book good reviews were trying too hard to support something that is anti-Trump. I hope the next important book of the era is better.


A Gentleman’s Game – Tom Coyne
I’ve become a fan of Coyne for his work on The Golfer’s Journal podcast, and read his A Course Called Ireland book last fall. My plan for this summer is to read through his other golf books, and I figured I would start with his first, this novel about a boy with a gift for the game coming of age.

I had heard Coyne talk about this book before, and his admissions that he tried to throw in everything he learned while getting his MFA. That’s an apt description of how it reads. There’s a nice core story about the golfing prodigy, his efforts to connect with his distant father, how he tries to bridge the gap between being the son of a country club member and his job as a caddy, and some higher level generational and socio-economic conflicts. But sometimes Coyne tries too hard, or the connections he seeks just aren’t there. It’s good to know his writing gets better.


An Absolutely Remarkable Thing – Hank Green
Can the younger brother of John Green be as talented as the author of The Fault in Our Stars? Based on one book, I’ll say he absolutely can be.

This is one of my favorite books I’ve read so far this year.

It reads as the memoir of April May, a 23-year-old in New York with an art degree who is working at a soulless start up to try to afford living in Manhattan. Late one night – or actually early one morning – her subway card doesn’t work and she’s forced to walk back to her office. That’s when she discovers an absolutely remarkable thing: a huge, Transformer-like statue stationed in front of a Chipotle. In very New York fashion, everyone else on the street seems to be ignoring it. She calls a friend who is skilled at video, they record something quickly, and post it to YouTube. Next thing you know, April is a world-wide phenomenon.

Green takes the story in two directions from here. First, there is the unraveling of the main plot. Where is the robot, which April calls Carl, from? And why did 63 others suddenly appear around the world? Why don’t they move or make noise? Why can’t they be moved, no matter how much force is applied to them? Why do people all around the world seem to be having the same, deeply complex dream? If the Carls are from another planet, what is their intent?

Second is a bigger social critique of our addiction to, and reliance on, social media, how we’ve devalued the traditional news media and turned it into a circus of people shouting at each other, how we are programmed to take the word of people we are physically attracted to, and how arguments that have nothing to do with politics are often used to divide people into the same camps that we argue about politics in. Green began writing this book long before Trump but I think he makes some of the arguments Jonathan Lethem wanted to make about our times far better than Lethem did.

The book is at turns hilarious, chilling, maddening, cute, sobering, and inspiring. Although not slotted into YA lit like his brother’s works, Hank Green certainly has some elements of that genre in his writing. Although the book ends with a rather huge cliffhanger that sets up a sequel, I’m almost disappointed this won’t be a stand-alone work. I like the questions it leaves unresolved. And while this may be unfair to Green, I don’t know if he can pull off the second half of this sci-fi mystery as well as he did the first.