The unnamed narrator of The Year of the Comet is born the moment an earthquake strikes Moscow. “The earthquake was my first impression of being: the world was revealed to me as instability, shakiness, the wobbliness of foundations.” Therefore, he observes, “My feelings, my ability to feel, were fashioned by that underground blow. I had trouble understanding anything to do with stability, immutability, and firmness, even though I wanted those states I could not achieve; disharmony was closer and more understandable than harmony.”chop! chop! read more!
“A book becomes a living thing only when it interacts with a reader,” says writer Gil Coleman, the rogue central character of Claire Fuller’s Swimming Lessons. When he tells a bookshop assistant that “first editions don’t matter,” he seems to argue that access is more important than ownership, that a book’s content is more valuable than the object enclosing the text. But the impulse behind the sentiment is hardly democratic; his words cast light on his unequal marriage to Ingrid, a student he impregnates, derailing her education. Infamous for a single work (the lurid and presumably autobiographical A Man of Pleasure), Gil is oddly less interested in an author’s words than in “the handwritten marginalia and doodles that marked up the pages,” and “the forgotten ephemera used as bookmarks.” By the end of his life, his wife is gone and his library is full of “bits of paper with which he could piece together other people’s lives, other people who had read the same books he held and who had marked their place.” It’s also full of clues to solve a mystery at the center of this skillfully structured and satisfying novel: Where did Ingrid go, and why?chop! chop! read more!
In Patrick Dacey’s first story collection, We’ve Already Gone This Far, available now in hardback and due out from Picador in paperback June 27, we find out what happens when we yield to life’s despiritualized strangeness in the twenty-first century’s overweening atmosphere of hogwild commercialism and ideological rigidity. (His first novel, The Outer Cape (Henry Holt & Co), will debut in hardback on the same date.) Dacey seems to be an interesting character himself in this regard, a bespoke and downtrodden seeker of his own soul adrift in corporatized America. The descriptions he’s given in interviews of a difficult youth and family life, the bouts of poverty he endured as an adult, are evidence of a nature informed largely by pain and wonder. His father was a gambler who went broke repeatedly and thereafter took his son on long door-to-door sales trips. Later, Dacey raised his own son while living hand-to-mouth on hourly wages, after studying under George Saunders and Mary Gaitskill at the Syracuse MFA program. The agony of the peripatetic writer undergoing economic uncertainties comes through strongly in his work; Dacey’s writing often reflects the rawness of material poverty, a certain yearning for inner enrichment or a scatterbrained longing that is as essential to his stories’ characters as their spinal cord.chop! chop! read more!
Bae Suah’s newest English-translated work, A Greater Music, describes the Austrian composer Franz Schubert as “a short, fat, shy myopic.” As brutal as this description is of a man who unhappily died before his 32nd year, it seems altogether different in tone when used to describe Bae’s novel itself. Filled with observatory indifference and an almost disembodied airiness, the novel comes across particularly as commentary, and as particularly rebellious. But what’s striking about A Greater Music is that it treats the work of Schubert above the man, treats the novel above the social, giving grandeur to otherwise short, fat, shy myopics. They are breathing things that were trapped in frames ill-suited for their sublimity–short in length, fat with substance, shy about their revelations, and myopic in their attentions, they are beings greater than their comportment can present. Something so heavy has rarely looked so light.chop! chop! read more!
First published in South Korea in 2014, Han Kang’s new novel Human Acts is now available for the first time in the United States. American readers first encountered Kang in 2016, with the translation of her 2007 novel The Vegetarian. This strange, dark, poetic novel, about a woman who decides to stop eating meat after having a horrific nightmare, was met with great acclaim. Translated by Deborah Smith, The Vegetarian went on to win the 2016 Man Booker International Prize. While Human Acts is a rich, powerful novel in its own right, and should be read independently of The Vegetarian, it is often interesting to situate a novel against the writer’s other work.chop! chop! read more!
Marc Anthony Richardson is an artist from Philadelphia and this compact book, his first, which won the Ronald Sukenick Prize for Innovation Fiction, makes for a fine addition to the recent history of experimental prose by writers with ties to Philadelphia—from the late Fran Ross (whose 1974 novel, Oreo, was recently re-issued) to contemporaries like Samuel R. Delany, Sabrina Vourvoulias, Hilary Plum, Caren Beilin, and the West Philadelphia sci-fi collective Metropolarity.chop! chop! read more!
The hero–or perhaps I should say anti-hero–of Dutch author Tommy Wieringa’s new novel, These Are the Names is a 53-year-old police chief named Pontus Beg. Beg lives in a fictional border town called Michailopol, a city ailing in post-Soviet corruption and aimless malaise. Beg has “set up his life as a barrier against pain and discomfort,” Wieringa writes. “Suppressing chaos: washing dishes, maintaining order. What did it matter that one day looked so much like the other that he could not recall a single one; he keeps to the middle equidistant from both bottom and top.”chop! chop! read more!
Detective Jonathan Wind is not a wisecracking, hardboiled investigator in the tradition of Philip Marlowe, or a hyper-observant sleuth like Sherlock Holmes. Rather, Wind uses his almost encyclopedic knowledge to investigate crimes for the Atlanta Police Department. When he’s not on a case, the protagonist of Jordan A. Rothacker’s And Wind Will Wash Away splits his time between Monica, his devout Catholic girlfriend, and his secret mistress, Flora, a goddess-worshipping sex worker.chop! chop! read more!
The Topless Widow of Herkimer Street, winner of the 2016 Howling Bird Press fiction prize, is an honest, funny, and sometimes un-apologetically dark collection of short stories.. Its author, Jacob M. Appel (Miracles and Conundrums of the Secondary Planets (2015), The Man Who Wouldn’t Stand Up (2012)) can easily be described as a modern renaissance man: in addition to his writing, he is also a bioethicist, attorney, and a physician. These professional fields come into play in many of the stories included in this collection, often to highlight or expose ethical conflicts his characters must face.chop! chop! read more!
The author of the novel, Alessandro Baricco, a popular Italian writer, director and performer, suggests that a world based around logic and sense ultimately will stifle us. It is in fact, what the narrator of the main story, the “author” (easy to conflate with Baricco, though we shouldn’t), desires to escape from. He does so by running to fantasy: a place gleefully empty of logic or sense. However this is not to suggest that it is a place of chaos or anarchy—in fact quite the opposite. Fantasy rather offers refuge from the chaos of everyday life through its own simple and overriding logic: repetition.chop! chop! read more!
Tanay is a young, closeted queer man trying to work through an internal rut by living for the company of and validation from others. As Tanay befriends an out-of-towner renting a room in his family’s home, he finds himself in awe of the Guest’s ability to thrive in solitude, to fully embrace his mood of the moment, to being in a class of “men who lived their own idiosyncrasies” (the house guest is unnamed in the novel, but for the sake of clarity in this review I call him the Guest). It’s enough to gradually wrestle Tanay out of his day-to-day haze, to make him “aware of the mediocrity, the ordinariness” of his “secure and comfortable life.” Anuj, Tanay’s fiercely independent younger sister, is also taken by the Guest’s charms, but to different effect. For Anuj, the Guest doesn’t so much unearth a hidden urge to be, he reflects and accepts with ease the off-center personhood that comes natural to her, a personality she’s often had to defend to claim as her own.chop! chop! read more!
Golden Delicious follows a fairly straight plot structure. (Thank God.) The novel’s a story of a family in Appleseed, Massachusetts, the kind of small town where apple-cheeked children frisk beside white picket fences, waving baseballs over the heads of leaping, barking terriers. It is, for lack of a better word, a wholesome place, a village that knows its own story too well to outgrow its roots. Here, history is literal. Sentences sprout from the soil, locals bear unusual names, and mothers practice their flight techniques. But under it, this is a simple story. The narrator, after his family takes to the four winds, sets out to save his town from hard times as its apple industry falters.chop! chop! read more!
Is there anything more disappointing than waking up in your mid-30s and wondering what the hell happened? Suddenly, you have a family, children, a mortgage, and a job that, despite your best efforts, is starting to define you. Your sensible car is in perfect order. You have a retirement account. Where’s the punk you used to be? What happened to all those bad decisions you made in your 20s?chop! chop! read more!
It wasn’t Michael Gerhard Martin’s stories in the collection Easiest If I Had a Gun that wooed me as much as it was his crisp, visceral writing. His narrative constructs are alluring and beg to be unpacked, analyzed, and savored. Without apparent ego or bias, he transcribes the thoughts, memories, and dialogue of his characters as they struggle to navigate the mundane obstacles associated with living as lower middle-class, white Americans. This theme—the white man’s struggle—is not new. Yet, Martin manages to bring to the subject a fresh voice and a macabre sense of social conscience.chop! chop! read more!
Yoram Kaniuk, an Israeli novelist who died in 2013, was the kind of man who tells jokes as he’s dying in the hospital, even when he has no voice, when there’s a respirator thrust through an incision in his chest. His humor is at times bitter, biting like Sholem Aleichem’s pogrom narratives, descending into sullen anti-prayers: “cancer, like Hitler…is a messenger of the Lord.” In this respect, Kaniuk’s Between Life and Death, published this year in English, probably most closely resembles Christopher Hitchens’ Mortality. A sense of the meaninglessness in so much of life, of banality in death, pervades both authors’ stories. Kaniuk rages and rejoices, but sometimes qualifies these outbursts by settling, like Hitchens, for a tone of ambivalent irony, communicated in prose thick with vibrant images and cumulative sentences.chop! chop! read more!
Had The Birds been written from the perspective of another character other than Mattis, a dim-witted near forty-year old, it probably would have had a different title—The Lumberjack, maybe, or some other word that references one of the major events in the novel. But that’s the point: the perspective, usually in third person but sometimes slipping into first person, is Mattis’ and thus the story is his. Although often the characters in a book share the same events, they do not share the same story; for that, as Norwegian author Tarjei Vesaas shows brilliantly in this moving novel, depends on the way we see things, on the importance we give to those events we share. For Mattis, the most important events in the novel concern the birds.chop! chop! read more!
Canek Sánchez Guevara’s 33 Revolutions is a prayer of a novel with a single liturgical refrain and a retort (of a kind) to the giddiness emitting from the American-Cuban travelsphere. Not since Reinaldo Arenas has a Cuban literary voice arrived on American shores with such beaten madness, and sense of personal desperation. Sánchez Guevara, who died last year at age 40, was the eldest grandson of revolutionary Ernesto “Che” Guevara. His mother, Hilda Guevara Gaesa, was Che’s oldest child; Hilda’s mother (also Hilda) introduced Che to the Castro brothers in the mid-1950s. (It’s worth remembering that the American literary public became enamored of Arenas after his death, too.)chop! chop! read more!
Madness is synonymous with insanity, but to be “mad” one doesn’t necessarily go crazy. One might be mad at society, a world of socially imposed rules that stifle the imagination or measure people according to economic usefulness. Rage against a world in which a multicultural, mostly impoverished majority are controlled by a corrupt, wealthy minority could be defined as a type of “madness.” In such a state, the individual’s warped mind drives him to fantastical plans for revenge, deep wells of anguish or panic, brothel-filled nights, petty crimes, thoughts of suicide, kidnapping, and imagined love affairs.chop! chop! read more!
The narrator and protagonist of The Invisibility Cloak—the first English translation of a novel by acclaimed Chinese writer Ge Fei—is not an inherently likeable person. Cui sees intellectuals as mainly full of nonsense. He is also quick to play the victim, blaming those around him for his misfortunes. But it would be difficult to read this novel without at times empathizing with the narrator. His wife left him, he’s living in his sister’s crummy apartment, and the only real solace he finds is in sitting in the dark, listening to Beethoven on CD.chop! chop! read more!
In Ninety-Nine Stories of God, Williams has pared away all but the essentials. These very short prose pieces are novels written in miniature, pocket epics and cryptic parables etched on the head of a pin. Most are not more than two pages, some are a single paragraph, and a few are just one or two sentences: simple, even stark, yet weighted. The sixty-first story, “Museum,” for example, is one rueful sentence: “We were not interested the way we thought we would be interested.”chop! chop! read more!
This edition of the 1965 novel Stoner arrived with a gold band around the front cover printed with exuberant blurbs that call it “as sweeping, intimate, and mysterious as life itself” and “the most beautiful book in the world.” Such loud praise seems almost at odds with a quiet, serious book; it’s the sort of praise that its hero, William Stoner, neither receives nor (for more than a fleeting moment) desires. Following Stoner from birth to death, the novel presents a seemingly unexceptional life as a subject worthy of the closest examination.chop! chop! read more!
Regarding the difficulty of starting a novel, Umberto Eco writes, in the appendices to The Name of the Rose, “…there is an Indian proverb that goes, ‘Sit on the bank of a river and wait; your enemy’s corpse will soon float by.’ And what if a corpse were to come down the stream–since this possibility is inherent in an intertextual area like a river?”
In On The Edge, Spanish novelist Rafael Chirbes, who died last year, activates this idea. His corpse appears in the first pages, in the mud of a lagoon bank, under the feet of a fisherman, in the mouth of a stray dog. The central character and narrator, Esteban, extrapolates from this opening scene, revealing a world of which decaying bodies are the natural product. His world is full of corpses, living and dead, full of ghosts from the past speaking over one another to fill the novel with noise.chop! chop! read more!
When you check out the latest novel by Michael Kleine, Kanley Stubrick, on Goodreads, you’ll find that an anonymous reader asked the author if “this book is going to house the Mystery of the 17 Pilot Fish play.” Kleine answered rather grandly, referring to this play set to be released at the end of August, and the rest of his oeuvre: “Kanley Stubrick and The Mystery of the Seventeen Pilot Fish are all part of the same universe, yes, but also, so is Mastodon Farm and Arafat Mountain. Everything–the characters, locales, events, situations, demises, dreams–everything is linked.” But Kleine doesn’t address by what means and to what end “everything is linked,” nor if this is a benefit to anyone involved. Kanley Stubrick doesn’t elaborate on it much. Rather, the experimental novel turns out to be a display of the picturesque absurdity of Samuel Beckett and David Lynch without the uncomfortable laughter; Klein borrows sitcom’s episodic format, lack of continuum, and commercial approachability for ends that forcefully lack those very same traits. Such is Kanley Stubrick’s impressive and precarious balance.chop! chop! read more!
A Meal in Winter by French author Hubert Mingarelli is a subtle book that quietly but methodically stalks the reader’s sympathies. It does so through a beautiful, spare prose style that begins with the first line: “They had rung the iron gong outside, and it was still echoing, at first for real in the courtyard, and then, for a longer time, inside our heads.” This is lovely writing (deftly rendered from the French by translator Sam Taylor, himself a novelist)—yet a bit ominous, like something that can’t be escaped. Later, setting the scene for the winter’s walk that takes up much of the first part of the narrative, he writes: “A pale sun hung in the sky, as distant and useless, it seemed to us, as a coin trapped under thick ice.” Trapped. What is trapped? Or who?chop! chop! read more!
Bright Magic—a powerful concoction of black humor, harsh beauty, and dark fabulism—marks Alfred Döblin’s first collection ever to be translated into English (here by Damion Searls, a master of his craft who’s also translated the works of Proust and Rilke). Döblin (1878–1957), now a classic of German literature, was a pioneer of expressionist writing as well as a respected neurologist and army doctor. His short stories show a tremendous bravery of form and a willingness to experiment with things that today would be called flash and micro fiction as early as the 1910s. He also demonstrates a deep desire to mirror the absurdity of all that surrounded him—the horror of world wars, the destructive power of ignorance—by wielding absurdity in his stories like a joke, a sword, a punishing assumption. In this collection, we see Döblin lift up fascinations with memory and things forgotten, with morality and violence, with descents into madness and those dizzying moments of painful, exquisite clarity.chop! chop! read more!
What is experienced and what is retained can be wildly disparate; a revolution is distilled to a single detail, as Nicola Gardini reveals in the lovely novel Lost Words. Gardini explores the cultural and political revolution of 1970s Italy through the eyes of a thirteen-year-old boy.
Chino—his given name is Luca—is a doorwoman’s son in a working-class apartment building on the unfashionable side of Milan. “The doorwoman was not to be away from her post or distracted for a single instant,” Gardini explains. “If something required her to be away from her post, like taking out the trash, then her son should fill in for her and guard the lobby and the front staircase.” The tenants of 15 Via Icaro make Luca’s mother miserable; with the mildest touch of bitterness, Luca watches their messy, entitled lives as they trail through the lobby. Like most details of childhood, they are simultaneously fascinating and utterly forgettable—as soon as Luca moves away, he will not think of them again. He is growing up, and Gardini describes his slow inheritance of other people’s nostalgia.chop! chop! read more!
The short flash pieces that comprise Sharon White’s Boiling Lake read like dispatches from a dreamscape—or perhaps a nightmarescape. Surreal, dark, and unmoored from time, these journal entries are well-crafted machines that merge fairytale, myth, and history into concise forms spanning no more than a page and a half. While some of these stories build narrative bridges—recurring characters include a girl nominated for sainthood and New World explorers reporting back to higher-ups—many exist as discrete moments, indulging in provocative imagery without the expectation of elaboration. There is skill in this work that allows one to dwell in the temporary, to savor the fleeting.chop! chop! read more!
“The linoleum swells with stories. As he plays, darkness rises from the floor and slowly claims the room.” With these unsettling, intriguing first lines, we enter the mind and story of Stub, a six-year-old who observes the broken, embittered adults in his world. Growing up, he’s learning, requires giving up not only childish things but childish wonder, too.
Abandoned by his mother, neglected by his father, briefly cared for by Jenny (a sweet but “crazy, sort of” young woman just sprung from the local “madhouse”), the boy becomes a refugee on the college campus where his father works as a plumber. By nineteen, he’s left home for good and is raising himself there, eating food purloined from faculty houses and wearing “preppy discards” he finds in the student dorms. He spends his days roaming the library stacks and reading the works of the reclusive anthropologist Verner Vanderloon, a Werner Wolf-ish character who writes that mankind is divided into people “who know how to play, are full of mirth and fellow feeling, and the ones who are killjoys and combustible.” Play is a powerful form of magic, Vanderloon says, warning that its suppression leads to catastrophe.chop! chop! read more!
There’s something about summer heat that pounds the world into a flat, dusty slab. Your mouth dries out, and your brain loses its moisture and turns to lizardy thoughts instead. Compassion? It’s in short supply. “For now, these hot days, is the mad blood stirring,” Shakespeare said. Yuri Herrera’s short novel The Transmigration of Bodies is all blood and madness, a noir fantasy set against a hard-baked Mexican landscape.chop! chop! read more!
A Canadian in Paris who must always remind her French friends that she is not American. A young widow who remarries a Frenchman, whom she later divorces. A twenty-seven-year-old who is “about like [she] always [was], to tell . . . the truth. Reading instead of listening.” This is Shirley Perrigny, formerly Higgins (nee Norrington), and the protagonist of Mavis Gallant’s 1970 novel A Fairly Good Time. Gallant, just like Shirley, was a Canadian who made Paris her home. Perhaps known best for her acclaimed short stories, Gallant wrote two novels, A Fairly Good Time and Green Water, Green Sky. These two novels were re-published by the New York Review of Books in 2016, just two years since Gallant’s death at age 91.chop! chop! read more!
Daniel Saldaña París’s Among Strange Victims, translated by Christina MacSweeney, immediately pulls the reader into its universe. It does so with such thorough and seamless skill that the reader becomes a victim of this strange, off-kilter world. While it’s initially easy to get lost trying to find the meaning, or premise in general, of the series of peculiar events that passes throughout the novel, the ride is worth the suspension of belief. What starts with a proposal in the form of a note, at first presumably left by a snarky, administrative coworker, becomes the catalyst in the marriage of Rodrigo and Cecilia, and the kickstarter for the novel’s bizarre happenings, wherein a group of lonely and bored people seek answers for the inexplicable in the everyday.chop! chop! read more!
The Deathmask of El Gaucho functions cohesively for not only El Gaucho’s recurring appearances across the eight stories that shape the novella, but for the overriding themes introduced in this key story. Identity and the temporary nature of all things are at the heart of Mancilla’s work, and his fast-moving prose, suffused with wrestling lingo, such as suplexes and figure-four leg locks, bring the concepts to life in compulsively literary and subversive ways. El Gaucho is consumed with and by the identity he projects to the world. Mancilla uses Levesque and The Mask as a push-pull in the search for the wrestler’s true identity.chop! chop! read more!
Daniel Sada’s One Out of Two is beautiful and bizarre. The novel, translated by the prolific Spanish-to-English translator, Katherine Silver, follows the Gamal sisters, furiously hard-working and identical middle-aged twins who work as seamstresses in the small town of Ocampo, Mexico. A sign hanging in their shop reads: “WE ARE BUSY PROFESSIONALS. RESTRICT YOUR CONVERSATION TO THE BUSINESS AT HAND. PLEASE DO NOT DISTURB US FOR NO REASON. SINCERELY: THE GAMAL SISTERS.” These women have no patience for the dilly-dallying or the gossip of their fellow townspeople. Instead, they are content—at least initially—to focus almost entirely on their work, “without so much as a twinge of longing, confident that their daily and incessant toil will yield wonders, that good fortune is bound to result from great effort…”chop! chop! read more!
Though João Gilberto Noll has published nearly twenty books, Quiet Creature on the Corner is his first to be translated into English (by the talented Dr. Adam Morris). A five-time recipient of Brazil’s prestigious Prêmio Jabuti, Noll lives in Porto Alegre, which also happens to be the hometown of Quiet Creature’s narrator—an unemployed poet who finds himself in jail for raping his young neighbor, Mariana. But then, in a bizarre sequence of events, the poet is soon removed from jail and carted to the Almanova Clinic before then being moved yet again, this time to the mysterious household of Kurt, a German Brazilian, for whom the classic laws of life—time, money, aging, purpose, etc.—no longer seem to apply.chop! chop! read more!
Proust creates a time and place that is both familiar and palpable. Saer does nothing of the sort: a fictional village with a dramatized horizon overcast with pervasive isolation. And yet, it’s an equally genuine exploration of the difficulties of talking about the past, “where no one ever goes” (an obviously ironic claim for a memoir). “The past is a foreign country,” in the famous opening sentence of L. P. Hartley’s The Go-Betweens, “they do things differently there.” The Clouds, beautifully, warns us there might not be a “there” to turn back to at all. For Saer, who stayed in Paris until his death, this certainly was the case.chop! chop! read more!
Viola Di Grado, an exciting new Italian literary voice, begins her novel Hollow Heart with this sentence: In 2011, the world ended: I killed myself.
In fact, the book is narrated by a dead woman, Dorotea, who describes exactly how she killed herself and why (she drowned herself in the bathtub after a romantic breakup). Then Dorotea, a grad student living in Catania, Sicily, draws the reader into life after life with a dark, daring approach that attests to Di Grado’s penchant for innovation and invention.chop! chop! read more!
There are (supposedly) only two types of narratives. The first is the story of a person going on a journey. The second, a kind of inverse of the first, is the story of a stranger who comes to town. Whether or not you subscribe to this idea of only two narrative types (I, personally, do not), the journey narrative is one of the oldest and most human stories in all of literature. And because “the journey” is such a familiar kind of story, those novels, stories, or memoirs that take that motif and spin it in new and interesting directions also dramatically reshape the parameters and expectations of literature.chop! chop! read more!
Elliott Chaze’s novel Black Wings Has My Angel explores a brilliant but fatal partnership between two criminals bent on committing the perfect heist. “Tim Sunblade”—not his real name—escapes prison with nothing but his wits and a foolproof plan for a high-end robbery. His first week back in civilian life, he hires Virginia, a “ten-dollar tramp” who is not only more than what he paid for, but more than he bargained for. “What I wanted was a big stupid commercial blob of a woman; not a slender poised thing with skin the color of pearls melted in honey.” It isn’t exactly love at first sight, but Tim finds Virginia absolutely irresistible.chop! chop! read more!
Don’t Think, Burgin’s newest collection of short stories (and his nineteenth book), is one of his very best. The author’s straightforward and suspense-driven storytelling voice is as compelling as ever, the stories somewhat spooky and darkly comic. They give you the willies and keep you coming back for more. But Burgin, in this latest collection, demonstrates a new empathy for his characters. This notable evolution gives the characters softer landings and a fuller resonance in the reader’s imagination.chop! chop! read more!
The magic of discovery presses against the melancholy of the ruins. We are like a pair of naturalists who’ve discovered a lost link in the evolutionary chain, a last survivor of a species thought extinct. Evolutionary biologist Edward O. Wilson, in his new book, Half-Earth, calls this the “Lord God moment.” We find a wooden trunk with “A.H. Whetstone” and her address thick-inked by a nineteenth century hand, a plastic portable church organ keyboard in the springhouse, a carpet of rust growing on a Zenith turntable tangled in the weeds outside. Water rushes through the handsome stone channel of the spring. The farmers must have dammed the creek to build the channel. When it was finished, they let the water loose, yet no longer wild. Now, it escapes unseen into the valley.chop! chop! read more!
Bestiality, child abuse, love, depression, heartbreak: these are among the many subjects brought to life in Naja Marie Aidt’s story collection, Baboon. Aidt, born in Greenland, a resident of Brooklyn, writes in the intersection, the most dangerous part of the street. Her stories stand boldly in the overlap of the ordinary and the absurd, between the wondrous and the vile. Brave and masterful, it’s no wonder Aidt has won both the Pen Literary Award and the Nordic Council Literature Prize.chop! chop! read more!
In one devastating visual from the 2011 British television miniseries The Promise, a veteran of the Israeli armed forces shows the unaware protagonist the tragedy of the border between Israel and Palestine. As the series progresses—switching between the present time and that time which the protagonist’s grandfather spent in Post-WWII Israel as a British peacekeeper—the pathos of this divide becomes mired in historical and social realities beyond obvious resolution. This quagmire of a divided land is a familiar theme for our time. Ukrainian physicist-cum-entrepreneur-cum-author Alexei Nikitin’s novel YT specifically reminds us of the case of his country, whose Maidan revolution in 2014 tried to answer encroaching Russian imperialism. Nikitin’s novel is set both in 1984’s Soviet-dominated Kiev and the democratic Kiev of 2004, its miasma of paranoia accompanying everything Soviet and everything political markedly similar to the Israel-Palestine of The Promise. In everything, a line.chop! chop! read more!
Although I have never personally met Miriam Graham, I learned everything about her that I could possibly wish in what is her debut (and hopefully only) novel, Fortune’s Fate, forthcoming this August from Unreal Imprints.
As a veteran reviewer, I no longer assess a book by its contents. (All of the best authors are dead, except for TuPac.) Instead, I take a long, hard look at the author’s bio. The bio is the hardest thing to write—harder than a 100,000 word novel—and reveals more than most writers intend. Graham congratulates herself on her participation in several mid-tier workshops (tuition, not merit-based), name-drops a few nobodies, and dribbles out some gratitude for the emotional support provided by her eight Persian cats. None of this is important or interesting. The photo, however, says it all. Graham’s deep-set, cowardly eyes told me at once that I was in for a massively disappointing read, and that I should probably contact my therapist because Graham looks a lot like my mother and I was feeling very triggered.chop! chop! read more!
Rachel May’s The Benedictines opens like a film. There’s are white-capped mountains and rolling hills, narrowing into focus on a Benedictine school campus where our narrator, Annie James, teaches writing. It’s on this campus where we tour her emotional landscape, as she struggles to understand her relationships with others, as well as her own religious faith, within the structure of Benedictine life.
Told through a series of vignettes, we puzzle together Annie’s life at the school, where she sits at a remove from those around her. We slowly learn about her students, her “Devout Roommate,” some of her suitors, the monks, and the staff. May intersperses excerpted chapters from The Rule of Saint Benedict, faculty handbooks, memos and emails from the school, and the haunting story of Mr. Souci, who died, mysteriously, three years prior. We stand at a distance from Annie, watching the lives around her evolve, as she tries to find her place among them.chop! chop! read more!
Little can mirror the hyper-exaggerated, hypersexual imagination of Jonathan Barrow’s On the Run with Mary—an engaging picaresque with perversely comic undertones. To be sure, this rendition of the 20th century is definitely not for the faint of heart and far from your run-of-the-mill coming-of-age story.
Don’t expect any topic to be off-limits as you join a young, jaded schoolboy as he flees from an elitist English boarding school to brave the streets of 1960s London. Befriending a talking 34-year-old dachshund named Mary, the narrator navigates a luckless, schizophrenic world of substance abuse, evil headmasters, bodily excrement, and sexual licentiousness. Dead rats are crowded on quickly passing trains, terriers commit suicide by jumping off the Waterloo Bridge, and entire busloads of strangers defecate on each other. Taxi drivers are paid in sexual favors, priests are burned alive in crematoriums, and schoolchildren swim in sewers with frogmen. Time and time again, the narrator is sexually abused by his superiors as he runs from the large metal “hook” of his eccentric former headmaster. Barrow discards logic and common sense, subverting normalcy with a sense of paranoia and morbidity that is only occasionally punctuated by small snippets of unreciprocated kindness.
Virility—that most male of virtues—is the heart of American war literature; Stephen Crane’s Henry Fleming learns patriotism in the face of bullets, Kurt Vonnegut’s Billy Pilgrim explores his sexual energy amidst the Dresden Bombing, and Tim O’Brien’s Jimmy Cross is both distracted and driven by his hometown romance. There isn’t much virility in Maroun, the twitchy and vaguely traumatized narrator of Rabee Jabar’s Confessions, however. That’s probably attributable to the hydra that was Lebanon’s Civil War, around which the novel circles. And circles. And circles. And while the spiral, as it too often does, must end somewhere, you can be sure it ends prematurely. Nonetheless, this baroque mania is Confessions most powerful trait, transforming a straightforward family drama into the search for First Causes that war induces in us.chop! chop! read more!
A MAN LIES DREAMING
by Lavie Tidhar
Melville House, 294 pages
reviewed by Kylie Lee Baker
When a novel opens the gates of Auschwitz, we expect to be moved by a tale we’ve heard a hundred times before; we expect to see Eli Wiesel searching for his father’s emaciated body in the snow; we wait for Oskar Schindler to brush snow from his car and then realize that it is not snow but the ashes of burned bodies; above all, we anticipate a tale that unites us in our hatred of Nazi Germany and makes us weep for the injustices inflicted on the Jewish people. A Man Lies Dreaming is none of these things, and never brings us down the path we expect.
This is Lavie Tidhar’s third novel, published in Europe in 2014 and now released in America, winner of the 2015 Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize, A Guardian Best Science Fiction Book of the Year, a Scotland Herald Best Crime Novel of the Year and a British Fantasy Award nominee. A Man Lies Dreaming follows Wolf, a private detective who flees from a concentration camp in Communist Germany and works in 1930s London among Nazis and fascists. He is hired to find a wealthy Jewish woman’s missing sister and investigate the murders of various prostitutes. As the murders keep occurring outside his office and all signs point towards Wolf, he confronts the possibility that someone is trying to frame him. Meanwhile, a seemingly unrelated man named Shomer lies dreaming in a concentration camp.chop! chop! read more!
A School for Fools does not immediately strike a modern reader as new or groundbreaking; its central premise is that the narrator, a male youth attending a school for the insane, is unreliable, territory well-tread by canonized authors and Intro-to-Fiction students alike. Perhaps the original novel by Sasha Sokolov preceded (or at least coincided with the origin of) the pervasive cliché of the asylum story, having first been published in 1976, but a reader of this new translation by Alexander Boguslawski can hardly be blamed for her skepticism after glancing at the book’s back-cover blurb. As the asylum motif becomes apparent in the text (the speaker and his alter ego discuss appointments with Dr. Zause, interrupt each other, etc.), trepidation is unavoidable.chop! chop! read more!
From Rachel Cantor, the lauded author of the 2014 novel A Highly Unlikely Scenario, comes a novel of New Life, a journey of personal resurrection, Good on Paper. Much of the novel is a meditation on fidelity, in relationships and in translations, and it brings to the page some of the most interesting personalities and family dynamics so far this year in literature.
The characters and their relationships make this story of literary delight: Shira, the protagonist, a translator and single mother; Ahmad, her gay best friend and co-parent; Andi, her young and sharp daughter; Romei, the illustrious, Nobel prizing-winning poet, both on the phone and the page; Benny, the owner of the neighborhood bookstore People of the Book, publisher of the local literary magazine Gilgul, part-time love interest of Shira, and the very person to connect Shira and Romei. Good on Paper serves as a reminder of the power of connections, between both people and words.
A PhD dropout and SuperTemps veteran, Shira spends much of her time contemplating the impending Y2K (the novel is set in the late nineties) and the nature of love in its various forms, when she receives a mysterious telegram. The note is from the famous poet Romei, who requests that Shira translate his most recent work. She’s shocked, and even believes it’s a joke at first, courtesy of Benny, but quickly realizes the good fortune of the situation, and accepts the offer.chop! chop! read more!
Like the best coming-of-age stories, Christopher Kloeble’s Almost Everything Very Fast addresses universal concerns by asking personal questions. Nineteen-year-old Albert, raised in an orphanage, wants to know why he was given up by his anonymous mother and the father he knows: Frederick Arkadiusz Driajes, a grown man with a childlike mind. Albert has gotten nowhere by following the “Hansel and Gretel crumbs” he’s found in Fred’s attic: a photo of Fred with a red-haired woman, a few auburn hairs plucked from a comb. When Fred’s terminal illness imposes an urgent deadline, Albert visits him in Königsdorf one last time—but his “infinite questions” lead to still more questions: What is love? In what ways do family ties bind us? Is nurturing natural? Do parents cause their children more harm than good?
In Segendorf, Fred’s ancestral village, to love is to discard. For nearly 400 years, residents have been compelled to hurl their Most Beloved Possessions off the rocky bluff of the highest hill at the annual Sacrificial Festival. During one such celebration in 1912, incestuous (and murderous) twins Jasfe and Josfer Habom conceive a son, Julius, whose birth brings shame but also relief: the baby is not a “Klöble”—the local term for the “clumsy, stupid fellows” who “test a parent’s love.” Unknotted from their lineage—their mother died in childbirth and Josfer kills their disapproving father—they are scorned by hypocritical neighbors in a village where inbreeding is a cultural norm.
Their second child, Anni, orphans herself and her brother by burning down the family’s home with their beloved parents inside. Julius takes off with Wickenhäuser, the town mortician, who offers the boy as a companion to his war-widowed mother Else (Julius’s “first love”), to pay for freedom from filial responsibility. Back home, Anni wastes away until she marries Arkadiusz Driajes and gives birth to the Klöble-esque Fred, rekindling her brother’s covetous love. Meanwhile, Julius impregnates a woman he doesn’t love—the devoted Mina, who gives birth to Ludwig, who will one day marry Klondi, who loves the idea of motherhood but can’t stand the scent of her actual daughter, Marina.chop! chop! read more!