Lake Success: Fiction in an Age Beyond Belief

Lake SuccessHow do you write fiction in an age that is beyond belief?

Gary Shteyngart demonstrates how in his funny new novel, Lake Success.

Shteyngart is a novelist of decline, previously aiming his lens at the former Soviet Union in Absurdistan. He writes of societies in collapse, his characters powerless to stop the farcical sweep of history.

The rot that began overseas has now come here, personified by Donald Trump, who loiters on the periphery of this book set in the summer of 2016. He’s the disaster that won’t happen, the New Yorkers in the book assure themselves. We, of course, know better.

Shteyngart doesn’t typically write about winners. But he does so in Lake Success, the book centered on a pair of the 1%, a hedge fund manager and his wife. Despite their astronomical wealth, and all the luxuries it can buy, they are desperately unhappy. Their son is autistic, a diagnosis that they refuse to admit to themselves or their families. All the money in the world can’t fix him, a situation that sends both of them spiraling out of control.

Barry breaks first, making a run for it, with his $2.4 billion hedge fund collapsing and the SEC on his trail. Throwing away his iPhone and going off the grid, he takes a nostalgic journey – on Greyhound – in search of an ex-girlfriend and the path not taken.

Shteyngart is a New York novelist. No one writes better of the delights and terrors of the city. There’s a great passage at the beginning of the book where Barry stumbles into the Port Authority Bus Terminal at 4 AM, drunk, bleeding and incoherent. To the cops stationed there, “he looked just like another New Yorker.”

The bulk of the novel is Barry traveling by bus across the country, meeting a very different world from his hedge fund manager associates. These chapters are not as strong as the New York sections, lacking the detail and emotional connection of his Gotham work. While there are funny vignettes of dead downtowns (Germans on a tour of “The Wire” locations in Baltimore), they seem rushed and superficial.

While Barry goes in search of his past, his wife Seema is left to clean up the mess. After engaging in an affair with poseur novelist, she’s forced to be truthful with her striving Indian family about her son’s condition. She also must confront the truth of her own life. Is she more than a rich man’s wife?

In Lake Success, Shteyngart writes about Trump without writing about Trump. Barry has benefited enormously from our leveraged economy, memorably described as a man who goes like a thief in the night, stealing a little bit from every house he visits. And, like Trump, he makes and loses immense sums, with little consequence to himself, but enormous consequences to the country as a whole.

Despite the topical theme, it’s not his best book about our times.

Super Sad True Love Story is a better novel. Without the burden of the present, Shteyngart creates a New York and a country gone mad, teetering on the edge of financial collapse, and the deluded, dream-like worlds of Americans who don’t realize that their world is about to end. Brilliant, hilarious and heart-breaking, it’s a love letter to a country that’s about to disappear.

Everything by Shteyngart is worth reading but if I was new to the author, I’d start with Super Sad True Love Story, his masterpiece.

The Library: A Catalogue of Wonders

The Library: A Catalogue of Wonders

I won’t link to the clickbait article (since removed) on how libraries should be replaced by Amazon. You’ve seen it or at least heard about the piece, published by Forbes, who will apparently post any piece of dreck that crosses their digital transom.

Twaddle, came the response from librarians on the Internet.

Among the many things that the author (an economist!) gets wrong is that libraries solely provide books. While they’re very good at that, today’s libraries supply a valuable “third space” to meet, learn and check your email without having to buy anything. This alone is an invaluable service to the community.

Libraries Under Threat

I’m fortunate to live in Washington, DC, which has a wonderful public library system. This wasn’t always the case (see the Marion Barry era) but today the nation’s capital is graced with beautifully renovated branches, like the West End Library. I love checking their online catalog at home, putting a hold on a book, and then picking it up.

If an entrepreneur pitched this concept to Silicon Valley (it’s Uber for books!) it would be worth a billion dollars. But, since libraries have been around since the dawn of civilization, we take them for granted.

Don’t.

Seminole County, FL, where I grew up, is considering outsourcing its library to the lowest bidder, a project that will make a contractor slightly richer and the community much poorer.

A Catalogue of Wonders

Instead, let us celebrate and appreciate libraries. A good place to start is The Library: A Catalogue of Wonders by Stuart Kells.

This book is less a history of libraries (though you’ll get that) and more of a wonderful collection of stories about bookish pursuits from a master storyteller. You’ll learn how books created the world, from Sumerians scribbling down accounts of grain surpluses to the sweeping tales of the Bible. Every great society has valued books and libraries, from the Romans who treasured (and stole) Greek manuscripts to hidden collections of books amassed by Elizabethans.

The Library: A Catalogue of Wonders is a world tour of libraries, both real and imagined, from the secret stacks of the Vatican to the biblioteca of Borges. Along the way, you’ll learn the scurrilous methods used by collectors to assemble their libraries and how collectors were deceived by unscrupulous booksellers. Henry Clay Folger bought a lot of dubious crap marked Shakespeare when bringing together the Folger Shakespeare Library.

Libraries made us. Without books, and the ability to transmit knowledge across time and space, we would not have civilization. Let’s celebrate our one of our oldest and most valuable inventions: the library.

 

When Conflict Comes Home: American War

American War

The problem with most dystopian fiction is that it’s too neat, taking place far enough in the future to feel exotic, but familiar enough so that we can picture ourselves in the action. Katniss Everdeen could be your teen neighbor, confronting tyranny the same way she protests changes in the school lunch menu.

In contrast, American War by Omar El Akkad feels too real. It’s an America just twenty years in the future, a day that most of us will live to see, depicting a world in which our decline has continued into catastrophe. A country split by red and blue has stumbled into a second Civil War.

The world intervenes in the conflict, like we intervened in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan. But this time it’s the Arab world rescuing the new one. The Red Crescent builds refugee camps. Food aid arrives on ships. And arms and advisers are sent to the Southern side to continue the war.

But in American War, we don’t learn this until later. Unlike other dystopian novels, we don’t know exactly what’s going on at the start of the novel. War comes to an isolated homestead in the American south. A family must decide whether to stay, fight or flee.

Omar El Akkad has reported from countries wrecked by American intervention. He takes their stories and places them here. His brilliant novel is about the collapse of our civilization, the desire for vengeance and how war has a logic of its own, imposing dreadful decisions upon even the most enlightened citizens.

American War shreds the neat formulas of dystopian fiction to show a future that is far too real for comfort. It also illuminates the deadly cost of our own overseas interventions by placing war in the United States. In this novel, we’re the refugees, the soldiers and the terrorists, all trying to find safety in a devastated land.

Horror on the Great Plains: The Hunger

Alma Katsu examines the dichotomy between the myth of Manifest Destiny and the grim reality of settlers trudging west in her new novel, The Hunger.

It’s a story you’ve heard before, of how the Donner Party turned to cannibalism to survive after getting stuck in the mountains on their journey west.

Katsu’s point in this gripping novel is that the evil began long before then. It was with the wagon train from the beginning, trapped in the dark hearts of the settlers, all of whom had good reasons to flee their lives back east. These are less brave pioneers than troubled souls seeking salvation in California. The Hunger tells us their stories, unwrapping them slowly, the true horror not revealed until the very end amid the squalor of a desperate camp in the Sierras.

Interestingly, the book overlaps with another I read this year – A Friend of Mr. Lincoln. The doomed Donner party originated in Springfield, with many of the principals familiar with the future president, though this is unmentioned in The Hunger. You could read the books back-to-back, the straight historical fiction of A Friend of Mr. Lincoln and then the horror of The Hunger, to see how different authors depict historical figures and events.

They’re both good reads, particularly if interested in American history, and the truth behind some of our most cherished myths.

My DC: Blossoms, books and gelato

Jefferson Memorial with cherry blossoms

A weekend of cherry blossoms, books and gelato taught me to love DC once again.

I’ve become inured to the sights and sounds of Washington, DC – the historic monuments, the thudding helicopters, the blue sparkle of the Potomac. I see and yet don’t see, because they’re so familiar. Playing tour guide for the weekend helped me rediscover the city.

The occasion was a college reunion. Because I was the only one who still lived in the city, I was appointed tour guide.

It’s hard work being tour guide! Much easier to be led by another, not knowing where you’re going to eat or what you’re going to do next, confident that the tour guide has those details figured out. Make it a large group – eight people – and make it the height of the spring tourist season, and you can understand why I was a bit anxious. Thankfully, it was an easy group that I knew from time spent together at American University.

The advantage of being tour guide is going to the places you like best. Here are my choices for 36 hours in Washington, DC.

Friday

The Darcy
My friends stayed at this boutique hotel by Hilton. Located near Logan Circle, it’s an ideal home base for visitors who want to explore the city. Even better when you get an upgrade to a top-floor suite!

Tidal Basin
If you come to DC, you’re going to walk. During cherry blossom season, it’s also the easiest way to get around (other than biking, of course). After checking-in at the Darcy, we walked down 16th St to see the cherry blossoms at the Tidal Basin, along with half a million of our friends, it seemed. The walk is about thirty minutes, and filled with interesting sights along the way, like the White House and Washington Monument.

Thai Tanic
Every Thai restaurant in DC must have a pun-based name. Popular among Logan Circle locals like me, Thai Tanic been serving interesting Thai dishes on 14th St for years. They were also very accommodating as our party grew from six to eight on a busy Friday night.

Gelato time

Dolcezza
How I love this place! The gelato is delicious. I almost always get a combo of dark chocolate and hazelnut. If you’re with me, this is a mandatory stop.

Saturday

American University
It wouldn’t be a college reunion without a trip to college. We went to AU in the pre-wonk era, which was far more fun, and considerably cheaper, than the serious world-changers of today. While the campus is nicer, with a brand new School of International Service, it’s not the same, probably due to the lack of alcohol.

Surfside
One of the challenges of leading a large group through DC is, “Where will we eat?” While they took my favorite burrito off the menu, Surfside in Glover Park was still a good choice. No one noticed a group of eight in this taco joint mobbed with soccer moms and kids from the field across the street.

Bob in Georgetown

Georgetown Waterfront Park
If you’re with me, you’re walking (or biking). Thankfully, my friends love to walk. After lunch, we walked down Wisconsin Avenue and 33rd Street to the Georgetown Waterfront Park, which has a great view of Rosslyn and the Key Bridge.

Dog Tag Bakery
Georgetown Cupcake is for tourists. Instead, visit this pleasant little shop near the C&O Canal that helps military veterans and families. The scones are great and they serve Compass Coffee.

Whole Foods P St
Finding a table for eight on a Saturday night in Logan Circle struck me as impossible. Instead, everyone got food and drink at Whole Foods and partied back in the suite at the Darcy Hotel. Sushi, cheese, fruit, beer, wine, chicken, chocolate rugelach – we ate well, without the hassle of going out.

Sunday

Lil B
This New Orleans-inspired coffee shop at the Darcy Hotel became the spot to meet every morning. While the beignets are more like fried dough than what you’d find in the Big Easy, they make good hangover food.

Dupont Circle Farmers Market
Why don’t I go here more often? This sprawling market has more than just produce. You can get pancakes, pizza and even a growler of beer from Right Proper.

Spanish Steps
One of those 0ff-the-beaten path places that I love, this miniature version of the Roman landmark is a spot I captured in an award-winning photo. It’s a lovely walk from Dupont Circle, as well, in which you pass art galleries and embassies. Makes a great spot for portraits.

Kramerbooks

Kramerbooks
Now, this is a required stop, at least if you’re with me. Washington loves its bookstores and Kramerbooks is the oldest and most famous. I have a connection to it too – I did a reading here. You’re sure to find something smart for the plane in this bookstore.

Of course, this is just a small sample of things to do in DC. But if I’m the tour guide, there’s going to be gelato, coffee and books. That’s my DC.

Little Free Library Find: Bel Canto

Bel Canto

What kind of books do people leave in the Little Free Library? Are they books they don’t like or books they want to share with others? Seeing a well-worn copy of Bel Canto in my local Little Free Library, I’m inclined to believe the latter.

This novel by Ann Patchett is a visualization of Stockholm Syndrome in an unnamed South American country. Appropriate for the geography, the tale is told as magic realism, with a narrator who dips into the story at key moments, sharing what the captors and hostages should know but don’t. Despite the close relationships between terrorists and victims, they are equally doomed as their dreamy jungle idyll is bound to end in tragedy.

Bel Canto is both too long and too short, as we discover the life stories of all the participants – the talented soprano, the Japanese businessman, the illiterate rebel. The plot inches ahead, with key events taking place off-stage that are hinted at but not described. And then the fantasy comes to an end, as all do, and we’re left with unanswered questions.

This is by design. As Ann Patchett says in The Getaway Car, her short book on writing:

What I like about the job of being a novelist, and at the same time what I find so exhausting about it, is that it’s the closest thing to being God you’re ever going to get. All the decisions are yours. You decide when the sun comes up. You decide who gets to fall in love and who gets hit by a car. You have to make all the trees and all the leaves and then sew the leaves onto the trees. You make the entire world.

Her world, and the world of Bel Canto, is a lot like ours. A little messy, a bit ominous and love the only consolation for an uncertain future.

Free Library Find: Dear Committee Members

Dear Committee Members
Dear Committee Members

I let books find me. One reason I never fully embraced the Kindle is that I don’t always know what I want to read. Sure, you can find anything in the world by typing  a few letters into an e-reader but that’s not the same as aimlessly browsing titles on a Sunday afternoon.

Serendipity is what’s missing from the e-ink experience, the happy accident of stumbling upon the right novel at the right time.

In Praise of Little Free Library

Little Free Libraries are ideal for us serendipitous book browsers. Located in every neighborhood in Washington, these little boxes offer literary surprises for readers.

“Take a book, leave a book” is the motto of this nonprofit organization that fosters reading across the nation. I like to drop copies of my book, The Swamp, into Little Free Libraries in DC.

And I almost always find something interesting to take home with me.

The nicest Little Free Library in Washington is located at the top of a hill in Kalorama. Just a block from witless Jared and Ivanka, this bookish outpost is in a park, and offers a sunny bench to read your discoveries as dogs bark and children play.

Dear Committee Members

Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher was a free library find, a book I pulled from the box like literary treasure.

The novel is a hilarious satire of academic life told through the endless letters of recommendation that Professor Jason Fitger is forced to write for students and colleagues. Each letter is inventive and unique; combined they tell a story of budget cuts, romantic humiliation and creative failure. Schumacher’s wry, ironic style reminded me of David Lodge, who satirized academic life in forgotten classics such as Small World.

Free is a powerful attractor, drawing you to things you might never consider. But the world is full of free things to read.

Selecting a book is an investment of time, not money.

You never know what you’ll find in the free library – biology textbooks, romance novels, books by unknown authors. Finding something worthwhile, like Dear Committee Members, feels like an achievement, not just because you discovered something great, but also for participating in the great reading experiment that is the Little Free Library.

Weekend Read: In the Midst of Winter

In the Midst of Winter
In the Midst of Winter

My reading is guided by serendipity. I let books like In the Midst of Winter find me. Reading should never be required but something you do because you enjoy it.

One night, going through Netflix, I found Allende, a portrayal of the last hours of the Chilean president, who was overthrown by a CIA-backed coup in 1973. The Spanish title for the film is even better: Allende en su laberinto or Allende in His Labyrinth. The movie is not magic realism, despite the title, but gritty realism, as Allende single-handedly defends his revolution against nearly every other institution of the state. His loss results in decades of dictatorship.

The movie left me curious about the thin country so when I saw In the Midst of Winter by Isabel Allende, I had to pick it up. This new novel by the niece of Salvador Allende concerns itself with social justice. Not what’s legal, but what’s right for vulnerable people such as refugees. As a child, Isabel Allende was driven from Chile following the overthrow of her uncle.

The novel starts with a car accident on a snowy day, an incident that upends the lives of everyone involved. Richard Bowmaster, a stuffy norteamericano academic, gets drawn into the lives of Evelyn Ortega, an illegal immigrant, and Lucia Maraz, a lusty 60-something Chilean. All three are haunted by painful tragedies, their lives shaped by the loss of loved ones. Drawn together in conspiracy, they grow closer as they share the stories of their lives.

The plot is a bit of a melodrama (a mysterious body in the trunk of the car), but, after reading of how much Richard, Evelyn and Lucia have suffered, you want a happy ending. You want them to discover an invincible summer in the midst of winter, to quote Camus.

How do you respond to tragedy, from the loss of family members to the inescapable indignities of growing old? What are our obligations, beyond the law, to refugees? How do you build a just society in an age of cruel states and dictatorships?

In the Midst of Winter offers the simplest of solutions – take care of your fellow humans – a revolutionary act to counteract a world steeped in tragedy.

Where Do Book Ideas Come From? The Story of The Swamp

Perfect headline/photo from the Express #snowquester

Where do book ideas come from?

In my novel The Swamp, a drone crashes into the White House, changing the course of history forever. Where did that come from? A bad weather forecast.

The Triggering Incident

On this day in 2013, Washington was supposed to get an epic snow storm. There was a run on milk and toilet paper. The federal government shut down. The local TV channels suspended programs and went to wall-to-wall coverage. Jim Cantore from the Weather Channel even flew in to witness the snowy carnage.

And it rained. I watched it all day, waiting for it to turn to snow, but the precipitation remained persistently non-frozen. It was the city that cried snow, to quote the Washington Post Express.

Around 4 PM, I gave up and went to happy hour, walking deserted downtown streets to be the only customer at a bar. The weatherman on TV said that there was a layer of hot air over the city; it was snowing in the suburbs.

Layer of hot air…. If you’re a writer, this is one of those amusing details that you file away.

Collecting Information

Ironically, I had recently started working in communications at the National Weather Service. A few months later, I had the chance to visit the Weather Forecast Office in Sterling, the office that had issued the bum forecast.

I didn’t ask them about that. Instead, I was shown how they used computer models and data displays to customize local forecasts. I was also shown a weather balloon, which carried a radiosonde designed to transmit atmospheric pressure, temperature, humidity and wind speed data.

“The Secret Service visited after we had balloon end up on the White House lawn,” a meteorologist told me. Another interesting detail, filed away.

At the same time, I was annoyed by the ever-increasing level of security theater in DC. Public spaces and parks have been stolen by the Secret Service and other agencies in the name of security. The perimeter around the White House expands ever outward, seizing Lafayette Park to the north and the Ellipse to the south, grand public spaces that are routinely closed off. This is done despite the Secret Service’s failure to prevent fence jumpers and other miscreants.

Then, in 2015, a man crashed a drone into the White House in what was described as a drunken lark. It made a mockery of security theater. How can you keep the President safe in the age of the drone? Another interesting detail.

If you’re a writer, you constantly collect information – even if you don’t realize it, filing away interesting stories and amusing incidents for future use.

Write What You Know

I had a recently finished writing a mystery novel, Murder on U Street. It’s a dark comedy in which I kill off hipsters.

For my next book, I wanted to write a satire with a political edge, like Scoop by Evelyn Waugh.

What could I write about? The image of the drone disappearing into the night stuck with me. It would be a great way to open a book.

Write what you know. What did I know? The National Weather Service had taught me about weather forecasting and government bureaucracy. I knew security theater, for I had seen places I loved locked away by fences. And I had heard enough anti-Washington sentiment to understand that a good chunk of this country wanted this city to disappear.

So, where do book ideas come from? Putting all of these thoughts together, I had my idea for The Swamp:

A meteorologist, humiliated by a bum forecast, puts a drone into the layer of hot air over DC to measure its strength. It crashes into the White House, triggering a security scare. The nation is outraged. How can we keep the President safe from drones? By moving him, and the rest of government, out of Washington.

Now, I just had to write it.

Hail Caesar! Three Books About Tyranny

On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the 20th Century

Three books about tyranny provide lessons for Americans about overcoming dark times.

Heavily marketed, The Storm Before the Storm is a book that I desperately wanted to like. This work of popular history about the end of the Roman Republic has so many parallels to our time – at least according to the sales copy – but the book itself is a tedious examination of the political issues before Rome became an empire. Praetors, consuls and legates come and go in a swirl of assemblies, riots and wars, a mix of similar-sounding names and titles adding to the confusion.

Rome wasn’t a democracy, but a republic, ruled by a narrow set of wealthy families jockeying for political power in a country grown wealthy from foreign conquest. The original 1%, they governed through a series of norms and traditions that became degraded with wealth and privilege. Citizenship was narrowly construed (even Italians outside Rome couldn’t be citizens) and the masses restless, seeking cheap grain for the cities and land for ex-soldiers. Failure to resolve these contradictions, and defend their sacred institutions, led to Caesar and the Roman Imperium.

Left unsatisfied by The Storm Before the Storm, when I saw Dictator sitting on a shelf at the beautiful new West End Library, I had to pick up another book about tyranny. This novel by Robert Harris, the last in a trilogy about ancient Rome, does a far better job at explaining Roman politics and the end of the Republic. His Cicero is a tragic, deeply flawed figure in a brutal age. The novel starts out beautifully, with Cicero on the run from his enemies, lucky to escape into exile. He’s lost everything. But, through his genius and dogged work, he regains his property, his stature and his reputation.

Caesar is a dangerous man who indulges Cicero – to a point. The orator, however, doesn’t know when to shut up, even after being warned by Caesar’s generals. Is this due to vanity or a genuine commitment to democratic institutions?

The most practical guide to our times is On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. Early in this spare tome, Timothy Snyder, who has written extensively about the Nazi regime, makes this observation:

The European history of the twentieth century shows us that societies can break, democracies can fall, ethics can collapse, and ordinary men can find themselves standing over death pits with guns in their hands.

Germany was a democracy, just like us, yet they fell into catastrophe. Why? It’s not just “good men doing nothing”, it’s the systematic corruption of an entire society – the media, courts, even truth itself. On Tyranny is a guide to defending democratic institutions, and this slim little book provides practical advice on how to do so, drawn from the dark history of central Europe.

Are we Rome? Are we Germany? The founders of this country studied history, and books about tyranny, so as not to repeat the errors of the past. We would do so too, if we are to prevent tyranny in our time.