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

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“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:

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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

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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:

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“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

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“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:

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“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:

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“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

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“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:

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“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

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“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:

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“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

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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:

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“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

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“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:

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“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

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“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:

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“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

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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.

The Nervous Breakdown’s Review Microbrew, Volume 5

By Kurt Baumeister for The Nervous Breakdown

December 21, 2016

Fiction Reviews

December, the end of the Julian calendar year. For critics, it’s time to get listy, to go all effusive, doe-eyed, and misty over what we’ve read during the prior three-hundred-and-something days. For authors, it’s time to hunker down in our metaphorical emotional foxholes, to employ one of four battle-proven strategies:

1.  Get depressed, drink heavily, get more depressed, and jag-cry. (You were left off the holy lists but can’t for the life of you figure out why.);

2.  Get pissed, drink heavily, scream, and stamp your feet. (You know exactly why you were left off the holy lists. A vast right-, left-, and middle-wing conspiracy against your genius, obvis.);

3.  Get deliriously happy, drink slightly less heavily, and do freestyle “ballet” moves in the living room (You made it for once!); or

4.  As in 3, but let it go to your head. And for God’s sake, make sure you slop that confidence all over Facebook before sobering up. Otherwise, you’ll never be able to remember.

I thought about doing some sort of list here—longest books of the year starring an author’s ego in a supporting role, best works of Middle High German-to-English translation my cat vomited on, worst sestina collections I feel uncomfortable criticizing. But for obvious reasons (see above), we’re going with the uzhe, a Microbrewed literary six-pack of new books.

P.S. I may still do a list. Or two. Or six. Stay tuned.

 

Loner by Teddy Wayne

 

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In Loner, Teddy Wayne sends the campus novel through the most misanthropic of literary sieves—the skulking, sulky voice of shy psychopath, David Federman, a narrator Lolita’s white, widowed male, Humbert Humbert, would certainly recognize as a kindred spirit. Intellectually gifted in the extreme, David has sailed through high school and landed as a freshman at Harvard where his narcissistic personality disorder soon finds its objet d’obsession in Manhattanite Veronica Morgan Wells.

Smooth, sophisticated, and strikingly beautiful Veronica is superficially nothing like David. They do, however, share one significant trait, a backwards, egocentric way of seeing the world. Perhaps most starkly characterized in David’s innate ability to reverse-engineer the English language (yourself becomes flesruoy; erotic record, citore drocer) and Veronica’s decision to use David’s psychoses as term-paper material, this shared, predatory worldview provides the novel’s thematic and dramatic centers.

Written as an extended missive to Veronica’s “you,” Loner’s tale of America’s sinister, present truths (out-of-control entitlement and a social-media-fed need for instant gratification) ostensibly focuses on the relationship between David and Veronica. In truth, this book is about only one person, and that’s David Federman.

The question of character likability is one readers, writers, and critics have wrestled with quite a bit recently. And, for those who demand characters be paragons of ethical, moral, or psychiatric virtue—the best friends we never had—this book isn’t for you. For me, aside from the fact that there is a gender disparity in many of these concerns—an exaggerated expectation that female writers will produce likable (particularly female) characters—they’re not something I particularly care about. The qualities I prize in a literary novel like Loner are voice, pacing, social criticism, and humor, regardless how dark. Quality prose doesn’t hurt either. Wayne delivers on all these counts, invoking, at his lyrical heights and depraved depths, the maestro of literary monsters himself, Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov.

Pull Me Under by Kelly Luce

 

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In her first novel, Kelly Luce (Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail) again delves into Japanese culture, the ways it mirrors and contrasts with that of America. Leveraging precise prose, a taste for darkness, and a trippy, slightly elliptical voice, Luce gives us the story of Rio Silvestri, the hafu (half-Japanese) daughter of a famed violinist, now estranged from her father and living in her mother’s native America.

A creature of the ‘burbs, Rio has a husband, a child, and a lurking past. In the wake of her mother’s suicide years earlier, Rio lashed out, killing another child. The impulses that drove her to this she attributes to a para-sentient blackness inside, a force she lives in fear of ever seeing again. Having spent her teen years in a Japanese asylum as a result of the murder, Rio has ample reason to fear what she’s capable of. Nonetheless, when her famous father dies (and leaves behind a missive she finds herself unable to read), Rio’s only choice seems to be a return to Japan.

Pull Me Under tells the story of Rio’s childhood and her relationship with her father, setting this against the backdrop of a seemingly chance encounter and the sidetrip it spawns. The people she meets on this trip and the very different translations they offer of her father’s letter will alter her understanding of her childhood and her relationship with the family she has waiting for her in America. The looming question for Rio is whether the darkness that pushed her to murder once will reemerge only to pull her under yet again.

 

Legend Volume 1: Defend the Grounds by Samuel Sattin and Chris Koehler

 

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Since the May 4 release of its first issue, the comic Legend has built a substantial following. With Chris Koehler’s art (noirish realism tinged with the primitive) and narrative from novelist/essayist Samuel Sattin (League of Somebodies, The Silent End), Legend presents a post-apocalyptic vision of humanity’s house pets struggling to survive a world once-humanized, now wild and growing wilder by the day.

To discuss the graphic novel born of the comic’s first six issues, Legend Volume 1: Defend the Grounds, in the company of classics like Animal Farm and Watership Down isn’t a stretch. Rather than pat jokes about dogs and cats, there’s true poignancy to the way Koehler’s images and Sattin’s prose work together. Legend’s characters, from the titular canine on down, are fully realized, lovingly rendered. Sattin explained why in a brief interview:

KB: “I think the ‘humanity’ you and Chris bring to the characters in Legend is one of its most powerful traits. So much so that I’m left wondering whether there are real-life analogs to any of them?”

SS: “There are. Elsa (the beagle) is based on my late beagle Dolly (who belonged to my mom before she passed away). Atticus is based on my cat, Inigo Montoya. Baghera is based on my cat, Leeloo. Herman and Legend have real-life counterparts, belonging to friends of mine.”

Whether a function of dramatic momentum, emotional heft, intellectual considerations, or a combination thereof, suspension of disbelief is, perhaps, the single most important element of successful fiction—especially fantastical, animal-centric fiction like Legend. These characters may not be human, but they become human to the extent they live on the page. Packing haunting artwork and true soul in a tale of survival and transcendence, Legend questions what humanity has given the world and juxtaposes this with the simple beauty of creatures we often see as less-than ourselves. Through it all, the title character, Legend, must rise to lead his pack in alliance with potentially untrustworthy cats and stranger creatures still; their opponent a murderous monster that has risen from humanity’s ashes, the creature known only as Endark.

 

We’re All Damaged by Matthew Norman

 

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In a year of charged political rhetoric, often contrasting monochromatic life in the Heartland with the diversity of the coasts, We’re All Damaged comes as a wry, literary statement on the magnitude and nuances of that divide. Pitch perfect in voice, funny enough to leave you snort-laughing in a Starbucks (Yes, it happened.), Norman’s second novel proves his successful debut, Domestic Violets, was no fluke. Yes, Matthew Norman is one of the funniest writers going, but there’s more here than just laughs. Norman gives his readers social commentary and surprisingly elegant story, wrapping it all in the voice of a character you can’t help rooting for, Andy Carter.

After an ugly divorce, once-steady thirtysomething Andy flees his hometown of Omaha, destination NYC. Once there, he works as a bartender, drinks heavily, and licks his wounds, the city’s scale affording him anonymity. But as Andy’s grandfather’s life nears its end, he’s forced to return to Omaha and the raft of problems he thought he’d escaped, everything from his ex-wife’s affair and his conservative, talk-show-hosting mom to his conventionally successful brother and the best friend whose wedding he wrecked. Soon, though, there’s one more complication; a tattooed amateur life coach named Daisy, a nod to The Great Gatsby in more ways than one.

Norman’s topic is the everyman, the realities of chasing the sort of “successful” life that, in many ways, is still the American Dream. Though the economic scale isn’t so grand as that of Gatsby, Andy’s dreams and the pitfalls that come with them are still recognizable as foundational to our culture. As are the novel’s quintessentially American obsessions with identity and personal reinvention, considerations that require us to see We’re All Damaged very much as an ironic, postmodern counterpoint to Fitzgerald (by way of Vonnegut). This book’s success isn’t simply as comedy—or even cultural, literary, and political criticism—but in the surprising humanity of its ending, a quality that more than any other points to why we’ll be reading Matthew Norman for years to come.

Intimations: Stories by Alexandra Kleeman

 

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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.

As with two other literary collections I reviewed this year, Matt Bell’s A Tree or a Person or a Wall and The Unfinished World by Amber Sparks, the essential question with Intimations seems to me one of experimental necessity. Of course, there’s much to admire here—as there is in the books by Sparks and Bell—from formal inventiveness and eloquence to a gift for the poetry of observation, the way simple physical details can bloom into realizations far beyond the material. But is Kleeman’s display of formal genius just a clever out, a substitute for conventions of plot and story, dialogue and denouement, to name a few? Your answer to this question will determine your feelings on Intimations.

There’s isolation in this book, a great deal of it. Multiple stories are about the awkward self, the sort of person who rarely fits in, who even when they find connections seems fated to watch them disintegrate, a type Kleeman seems to know very well. There’s real sadness, here, too—a shocking amount of feeling given the level of intellectualization that goes into writing structurally-complex literary fiction—particularly in the middle section with its cycle of stories about a woman (or women) named Karen and in the pieces with animal motifs (“Lobster Dinner”, “I May Not Be the One You Want,”, “Jellyfish,” and “Rabbit Starvation”). This is fiction with a meditative quality, fiction that’s linked by its ideas, and in that it shares something with essay and memoir.

For me, Kleeman’s formal choices are not only justified but integral to her work, perhaps its most important element. Yes, language is our fundamental (albeit imperfect) mode of communication, but form can add to language, elevate it into something greater still. Perhaps the link is akin to that between algebra and geometry, that the geometry of form can expand the way we see the algebra of prose. This literary geometry is the way of Intimations, and if you can accept that, it may just change the way you see the world.

 

The Sellout by Paul Beatty

 

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In 2014, the Booker Prize (formerly a Commonwealth-only award) expanded its scope to include all books originally published in English. On the plus-side, this was a chance to increase the prize’s already-enviable stature by incorporating the world’s single largest English-language market, the US. Critics feared the Booker would lose its Commonwealth (read, British) flare, become just another accolade given by Americans to Americans.

In the two years since the rules change, the Booker has gone to a Jamaican residing in the U.S. (Marlon James for 2015’s A Brief History of Seven Killings), and an American this year, Paul Beatty, for The Sellout. Despite the obvious, superficial “Americanness” of its last two winners, the Booker can hardly be accused of becoming too American in any sort of significant way. Like A Brief History… before it, The Sellout eschews the middle class, middle-brow, Middle-American sensibilities the Booker’s critics feared it would fall prey to. Neither the faltering swan song of some wizened giant of American letters nor an over-hyped, faux-challenging Big Book of the Now, The Sellout is a blistering satire about race. And if we’re going to discuss race in the 21stcentury, America’s juxtaposition of Trumpist Nuremburg rallies and Black Lives Matter protests is as significant a place to do it as any.

A Supreme Court case; a crazed sociologist for a father, one whose memoir may mean financial salvation; a life spent in Dickens (paging Chuck?), an agrarian anomaly hidden amid urban Los Angeles; and to top it off there’s the way our narrator, Me, finds himself conspiring with former Little Rascal, Hominy Jenkins, to reinstitute slavery and segregation (in LA), the genesis for the court case around which the book centers. No one can deny the pieces are here for an epic satire about race in America. Aside from that most essential ingredient of literary fiction—this book is about something—Beatty marries his undeniable comic prowess with intelligence, realism, and restraint in voice and prose, creating a blend to make literary legends as aesthetically different as Richard Wright and Kurt Vonnegut (their ghosts, at least) nod and smile.