The Nervous Breakdown’s Review Microbrew, Volume 6

By Kurt Baumeister

January 12, 2017


Mircobrew will return in its usual form in early February with 2017’s first batch of new books. For now, here are my ten favorites from 2016, in no particular order, along with a favorite chosen by each of the authors I selected.

I have to admit, looking at this list gives me a feeling of accomplishment. I read a lot of great books in 2016, many of which I wasn’t able to include in this top 10. More than that, I’m amazed at the variety of contemporary American fiction, a range I think is well represented in this list.

Though some people suggest American fiction is cookie-cutter–especially that produced by MFA programs–I just don’t see it. From the experimental to the starkly realistic, from ornate prose to the sparest of minimalism, from comedy to drama, this list is a representation of what I wanted to do with this column. I wanted Microbrew to demonstrate the incredible range of contemporary American literature, and I like to think the column and this list both serve that end.


United States of Japan by Peter Tieryas


“Still, to label USJ a PKD knock-off would be grossly unfair. Tieryas’s novel stands on its own as a fast-paced, whimsical, disturbing, reflective, and at times even poignant trip through a world very different from our own, one nonetheless similar enough to be terrifying in its implications.”

–The Nervous Breakdown’s Review Microbrew, Volume 3

Peter Tieryas on The Wall of Storms by Ken Liu:


The Wall of Storms by Ken Liu is one of the best books I’ve read, an epic fantasy that is as entertaining as it is enlightening, a perfect storm of literary awesomeness.”


A Tree or a Person or a Wall by Matt Bell


A Tree or a Person or a Wall is one of the best books I’ve read this year. From prose that is simultaneously elegant and muscular to its hybrid of mystery, wisdom, and earned emotion, from its notes of slipstream and fabulism to those of outright fable, this volume does indeed answer the literary question I posed earlier. This is a justified, even necessary collection…”

–My review for Electric Literature


Matt Bell on The Throwback Special by Chris Bachelder:


“And I’d love to add a book to the list: Chris Bachelder’s The Throwback Special was the funniest, saddest, wisest novel I read (and reread) this year.”


Dating Tips for the Unemployed by Iris Smyles


“Powered by failures real and imagined, copious amounts of pot and booze, the seemingly ever-present threat of masturbation, and topics way more outré than these, Dating Tips for the Unemployed is a charming (yes, charming!), bravura performance by a writer whose comic chops, literary inventiveness, and crisp prose produce the smoothest of literary smoothies, something like a cocktail of Dorothy Parker, James Joyce, and Philip Roth iced, sweetened, and blended.”

–The Nervous Breakdown’s Review Microbrew, Volume 3


Iris Smyles on The Confidence Game by Maria Konnikova:


“Maria Konnikova’s The Confidence Game, about the psychology of the con, is a fantastic book that is close to my heart. We fool others the same way we fool ourselves is the crux of it–a theme I’ve pursued in both my own books, Iris Has Free Time and its companion Dating Tips for the Unemployed.”


Welcome Thieves by Sean Beaudoin

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“From the beginning of Welcome Thieves, Sean Beaudoin’s first story collection, you realize you’re in rare literary territory, the text before you built not only on erudition and propulsive (at times near breathless) prose but drugs and crime, rock n’ roll and philosophy. Above all else, though, there’s humor. Beaudoin is, no question, one of the funniest, hippest writers out there.”

–The Nervous Breakdown’s Review Microbrew, Volume 2


Sean Beaudoin on Valiant Gentlemen: A Novel by Sabina Murray:


“My vote for best book of 2016 goes to Valiant Gentlemen: A Novel by Sabina Murray (Grove Press). Hooray for a return to the pleasure of straight storytelling, and ruminations on what it means to be human.”


The Unfinished World by Amber Sparks


“Amber Sparks is an artist of the impossible, a sort of science fictional sorceress who pursues her unique visions with the mind of a philosopher and the relentless determination of a (pleasantly) monomaniacal miniaturist. In a time in which many short story writers (both inside and outside MFA programs) are unrecognizable from each other, Sparks stands apart. Having published much of her early work online and in journals, she’s now beginning to find a larger audience with her second collection, The Unfinished World and Other Stories.”

–The Nervous Breakdown’s Review Microbrew, Volume 1


Amber Sparks on Insurrections by Rion Amilcar Scott:


“That’s a tough call. I’m going to say Rion Amilcar Scott’s Insurrections. I’ve been a fan of Rion’s for a while, and I waited a long time for this short story collection, all set in a fictional town in Maryland. It’s beautiful, honest, heartbreaking, funny as hell, and almost perfect.”


Perfectly Broken by Robert Burke Warren


“Overall, Robert Burke Warren’s Perfectly Broken is an exceptional debut novel that points to greater things in its author’s future. Through its precise prose, the alchemical composition of its story, and the honest emotion that pervades its pages this book is a study in how to make realistic minimalism work, one that never puts the appearance of truth above the reality of it. One that never forgets fiction at its best is a little like magic.”

–My review at TNB


Robert Burke Warren on The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr:


“I am late to The Liars’ Club (published 1995), but it was pressed into my hand by a trusted friend who knew I was working on some memoir in which I was trying to portray in a loving light self-absorbed folks who make awful parenting choices. Mary Karr makes the trick of creating sympathetic-yet-deeply-flawed characters look easy. There is no plot, per se, yet the book has real velocity; you want to read another exquisitely described moment or emotion, you want to follow Karr through another emotional maze to see how she makes it through, as both character and author.”


The Red Car by Marcy Dermansky


The Red Car is an existential mystery, one that hinges on humor, voice, and the way these two narrative qualities can work together to create real suspense…Bottom line: this is a book you’ll breeze through and be happy you did, except perhaps in seeing Leah go. She’s a character who, despite her extreme anxiety and the resulting raft of suspect life choices, you can’t help but like.”

–The Nervous Breakdown’s Review Microbrew, Volume 4


Marcy Dermansky on Dear Fang With Love by Rufi Thorpe:


“I read a lot of the big books this year, so I feel sort of bad picking one. Here is a favorite book of 2016: Dear Fang With Love, by Rufi Thorpe. I am still a big lover of coming-of-age books and this strange novel is set in Lithuania. It has a complicated father/ daughter relationship, love and fighting, sex and group tours, memories of the Holocaust.”


Music for Wartime by Rebecca Makkai


“A literary symphony of history and fable, loss and remembrance, Music for Wartime echoes the work of magical realism’s Eastern European masters even as it creates a milieu all its own, one in which both the European and American experiences are featured, at times separately, at others in various levels of concert.”

–The Nervous Breakdown’s Review Microbrew, Volume 3


Rebecca Makkai on Man and Wife by Katie Chase:


“Katie Chase’s debut, the collection Man and Wife, is among the best collections I read this year. I’d been waiting for it ever since I read the wonderfully unsettling title story eight years ago.”


Intimations by Alexandra Kleeman


“Kleeman’s follow-up to You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine is an odd and wondrous creation—an experimental novella (or two) wrapped in a thematically-linked story collection (or two), Intimations is a literary pilgrimage through philosophy and language, realism and surrealism, loneliness and the limits of self-knowledge. At its core this is a book about life, the energy that creates and sustains it, disassembles, reconfigures, and even destroys it; from the sparest of molecules through the human and on to the intellectual limits of physics. But, in a way, it’s also a book about courage; the defiance it takes to live and thrive in a world none of us fully understand. Beyond physical or emotional strength, this is a book about artistic courage, the fact that Alexandra Kleeman the writer so clearly refuses to be anyone but herself.”

–The Nervous Breakdown’s Review Microbrew, Volume 5


Alexandra Kleeman on Memoirs of a Polar Bear by Yoko Tawada:


“My favorite book of the year may have been Yoko Tawada’s Memoirs of a Polar Bear—I’ve never before read a book that toed the line between fantasy and social commentary, human and hybrid, with so much grace.”


The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead


The Underground Railroad is the story of Cora and her dream of freedom, a foundational American aspiration that endures in spite of everything America herself does to undermine it. From the institutionalized barbarism of slave-catchers and regulators, overseers and masters, to the more subtle though no less daunting challenges posed by dissension among the oppressed and indifference among the free, this is one woman’s odyssey of hope and fear, the dangerous seduction of motion juxtaposed with the lure of stasis.”

–The Nervous Breakdown’s Review Microbrew, Volume 4


Unfortunately, I couldn’t get through to Colson Whitehead, which is no one’s fault but mine. I decided to put this list together very late in the year and, as a result, I was making requests of people over the holidays. I’m lucky—and grateful—that many of the writers I selected were able to come through on short notice.


Success and Its Trappings, a review of Matt Bell’s latest

A comprehensive look and establishment of Matt Bell’s dynamic, literary range

By Kurt Baumeister (for Electric Literature, October 10, 2016)

Weighing in at a hefty four hundred pages, Matt Bell’s latest story collection, A Tree or a Person or a Wall (Soho), comes in the wake of his critically-acclaimed novels (also from Soho), In the House upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods (2013) and Scrapper (2015). An early-career retrospective of sorts, much of the material contained in A Tree or a Person or a Wall originated in Bell’s Indie-published volumes, 2010’s How They Were Found and 2012’s Cataclysm Baby. There’s new work here, seven stories worth of it — the title piece, “Doll Parts,” “The Migration,” “The Stations,” “Inheritance,” “For You We Are Holding,” and “A Long Walk with Only Chalk to Mark the Way” — but, to a great extent, this volume revisits Bell’s earliest material. In the process, A Tree or a Person or a Wall can’t help but provoke questions about artistic development and the interplay between commerce and creativity. The basic issue: Does Bell’s early work stand comparison to what he’s producing now; or, does this collection represent an attempt to leverage old material in light of recent success?

“Bell is a literary experimentalist who never lets his experiments overtake his fiction’s need for dramatic effect.”

We deal with related concerns all the time in the literary world, and by “we” I don’t just mean book critics. Readers, writers, and critics, no one in America is immune to the impact of literature’s commercialization, a necessary consequence if writers are to make any sort of living from their work. Still, the profit motive can, and often does, go too far. Whether we’re talking about the Lee family’s cash grab, Go Set a Watchman (a supposed sequel that wound up being an early draft of To Kill a Mockingbird), or any number of other examples (John Kennedy Toole comes to mind with his posthumous masterpiece A Confederacy of Dunces followed some years later by his only other book, a truly terrible novella he’d written as a teenager, The Neon Bible), attempts to fleece consumers are common in America, certainly not just in literature.

But I think most writers with literary ambitions would like to believe they’re offering the best work they can, that they’re providing fair artistic value to their readers, not simply trying to cash in. (And here, in fairness to the authors mentioned above, they didn’t have much say in the suspect publications, owing to advanced age for Lee, suicide for Toole). Beyond that, successful writers like Bell must wonder whether their early work was the equal of whatever garnered them their “break,” if all they were missing was a little timing or luck to have had that break years before.

Even if we set aside thoughts of success and its trappings — considerations such as units sold, prize nominations, and general notoriety — the author’s hope has to be that he really was good enough once upon a time, even as he toiled in what might have been relative (or even true) obscurity. For that author, there’s got to be some vindication in seeing work he believed in finally reach a broader audience. If we’re honest with ourselves as writers, readers, and critics, though, the question we come back to, the only question that really matters, is whether this newfound attention is justified, whether it is deserved. When it comes to A Tree or a Person or a Wall, the only answer I can give is a resounding, “Yes.”

A talented, at times even daring, stylist Bell is a literary experimentalist who never lets his experiments overtake his fiction’s need for dramatic effect, that necessary quality of making the reader want to read. This is something many literary writers forget or even disdain: the fact that it’s their responsibility to attract readers and keep them interested, not the other way around. And it’s a lesson Bell seems to have learned from an early age. Fearless in terms of the subject matter he’s willing to write about and perhaps ever more so in the unexpected, sometimes extremely dark angles he takes in fleshing out his stories, Bell has the goods, no question.

Whether we’re considering the earlier work like “The Cartographer,” “The Collectors,” and the epic cli-fi novella “Cataclysm Baby” (vast in scope; beautiful and haunting, disturbing and thought provoking in execution) or the more recent standouts like “The Stations,” “The Migration,” and the collection’s final piece, the heartbreaking ode to the victims death leaves among the living, “A Long Walk with Only Chalk to Mark the Way,” overall, A Tree or a Person or a Wall more than lives up to the hype generated by Bell’s successful novels.

“A Tree or a Person or a Wall is, as a whole, a substantial piece of art.”

More than a basic chronology designed to consume space at the expense of quality, A Tree or a Person or a Wall is, as a whole, a substantial piece of art. Bell has taken the time to really piece this material together, to develop an overall seven-part structure that feels at once like an early-career retrospective and a unified piece of work. These are not linked stories per se (or, not overtly so), but in their overwhelming attention to humanity’s self-destructive love affairs with itself and its world and a human experience that is a constant quest for understanding, a quest that seems to succeed and fail simultaneously, again and again, this is a text that asks to be reread.

A Tree or a Person or a Wall is one of the best books I’ve read this year. From prose that is simultaneously elegant and muscular to its hybrid of mystery, wisdom, and earned emotion, from its notes of slipstream and fabulism to those of outright fable, this volume does indeed answer the literary question I posed earlier. This is a justified, even necessary collection, one we should be grateful to Soho for bringing out. Only in his mid-thirties, Matt Bell is a great short story writer, and has been now for many years. The lingering question is just how good Bell can become, whether we will look back on this volume and see it as a prelude to greater things still. Only time will tell.