The Nervous Breakdown’s Review Microbrew, Volume 8

 

The Gypsy Moth Summer by Julia Fierro

 

Powered by prose at once enchanting and colloquial, true, vividly-realized characters, and a literary voice that practically reverberates with authority, Fierro’s The Gypsy Moth Summer may not only be this year’s best second novel, but its best book period. Featuring a complex plot, a many-faceted story brimming with insights into people and families at all stages of the life cycle, zoology, myth, and allegory this is the rare beach read that doubles as a novel of ideas.

 

Behind the Moon by Madison Smartt Bell

 

An early personal favorite, Bell is one of those writers who defies categorization and at times even description, his work somehow managing to track the borderland between experimental mind games and the solid characterization and description of mainstream literary fiction. A synthesis of mind and heart told in a language that matches the subtle virtuosity we’ve come to associate with his work, Bell’s thirteenth novel, Behind the Moon, does nothing to diminish his legacy.

 

 

And Wind Will Wash Away by Jordan A. Rothacker


Part crime novel, part philosophical treatise, And Wind Will Wash Away is a book of difficult truths seemingly drawn from the ether. Rothacker is a deep thinker to be sure; but he never lets his intellectual musings steal too much light from the propulsive story of Detective Mike Wind. Waxing Nabokovian in its literary subversion of the detective genre, And Wind Will Wash Away is the sort of smart take on genre fans of slipstream will truly appreciate. Highly recommended.

 

Something is Rotten in Fettig by Jere Krakoff

 

The law receives justice of a literary sort in this satirical tale by attorney-novelist Krakoff. Unlike the typical, fat, legal thriller—a glossy fantasy of wealth and power filled with the noble and the devilish—Krakoff’s canvas is absurdist comedy, his goal edification rather than escapism. Something is Rotten in Fettig is a funny book, that’s the main thing; but behind the comedy, which ranges from dry to zany and even black, there’s an air of surrealism, a sense in which we see society devolving before our eyes.

 

Further Problems with Pleasure by Sandra Simonds

 

There is a measure of brilliance to this poetry, both in terms of language and thought; an intellectualization that, at times, doesn’t seem too concerned with the reader and whether they’re being left behind. That said, Simonds’s genius itself is undeniable and, I would guess, not terribly concerned with who or what it’s leaving behind. This is work that will most appeal to readers who like their poetry served with a heavy dose of politics, particularly those concerned with feminism’s remaining work and forceful critiques of capitalism.

 

Traveling with Ghosts by Shannon Leone Fowler

 

Traveling with Ghosts is Fowler’s soulful tale of her fiancé’s sudden death and her subsequent attempts to come to terms with the loss through travel and writing. In this, we see a disappeared relationship reconstructed and celebrated, Fowler coming to do the same with the life that remains to her. This is fine travel writing and in that sense it will appeal to those looking for a slice of the life unlived, but there’s also true poignancy and insight into self and relationships here and enough clever linguistic turns to satisfy the most literary of readers.

 

The Nervous Breakdown’s Review Microbrew, Volume 7

By Kurt Baumeister for The Nervous Breakdown

May 01, 2017

Fiction Reviews

 

The Yellow House by Chiwan Choi

 

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One part poetry, one part meditation on memory, Chiwan Choi’s third collection, The Yellow House, is a collage of captured instances, a tale of remembrances fragmented by time. A haunting, semi-hallucinatory trip through the immigrant’s perpetual no-man’s land—that zone between old home and new where people and places, love and death, happiness and sadness mingle—The Yellow House is about the struggle to belong, to reconcile the land of the past with that of the present. Seeing that reconciliation as a fundamentally impossible endeavor, the poet’s thoughts turn to forgetting one set of memories or the other, ultimately failing in this as anyone must.

Born as it is of a multitude of recollections, The Yellow House is not so cerebral as to be inaccessible. Far from it. This collection feels immediate, reads very much as the story of Choi’s life, often flirting with the mode of lyric memoir. There’s an acceptance of paradoxes here, the sort of contradictions that define everyone’s relationships with their parents. At once somehow god-like, everything to us, all parents ultimately fail us both while they are alive and in the fact that they do not live forever, leaving us assured only of our own mortality.

Choi’s parents figure prominently in these poems, many of the pieces referencing his father, more still his mother. His family having emigrated from Korea when he was very small, Choi seems constantly at cross purposes with himself, struggling to feel at home in the new land and the forgotten one, never completely achieving the sort of idyllic existence he longs for in either. There’s a glorification of both old and new homes here, and, thus, a devaluation of them as well. In this, Choi captures and rarefies the immigrant’s experience—the lure of the perfect future that never comes to pass, the love for a past made grander by the fact that it never was.

 

 

The Gargoyle Hunters by John Freeman Gill

 


GillLongtime New York Times contributor John Freeman Gill’s first novel, The Gargoyle Hunters, falls in the category of the New York novel, the city on some level not just setting but character. In this instance, that character is portrayed largely through its buildings—the architecture that seems at once to be the city’s spine and muscle, skin and limbs; an unlikely web of iron and stone through which the narrator, Griffin, recalls his youth. This metaphor, and its juxtaposition of human and artificial, will become central to the book.

On the most basic level, Griffin’s thirteen-year old self seeks to connect with his divorcing parents, particularly his father who now interacts with Griffin, his mother, and sister as little more than a cranky landlord. The only way for Griffin to bridge the emotional distance seems his father’s work as an antique restorer and dealer, a profession which has become something like an obsession, a fixation on the glory of the city’s past.

In turns quirky and cunning, naïve and knowing, achingly sad and subtly comic Gill conjures visuals that will fill your mind and family drama that will haunt you, a combination that leaves you longing to experience Griffin’s lost New York. This is a mystery about the ways in which infatuation with artifice can become such an obsession that we stop caring about things like love and family, ways in which if we’re not careful, we can become more like the stone artifacts Griffin and his father hunt than human beings.

 

Sunshine State by Sarah Gerard

 

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Sunshine State, Gerard’s follow-up to her debut novel, Binary Star, is an impressive, albeit uneven collection of writing. Though the book initially purports to be nonfiction, there are enough cautions scattered throughout to make us question that status, perhaps most notably the beginning of the piece “Sunshine State,” where Gerard states, “Characters in the following story are presenting their own versions of events and do not necessarily reflect the truth, which we may never know.” While these recurring cautions may leave you to question the book’s relationship with the truth, they’re not enough to keep you from continuing a generally engaging collection.

Conscious as we are of Gerard’s talent and the resulting successes, it would be wrong to suggest this collection is without flaws. In addition to Sunshine State’s slipperiness in coming down on one side of the fiction/nonfiction divide, the final piece feels throwaway, disconnected from the rest of the book, its use of italicization drawing attention to what seemed to me a lack of real, fully-considered content. More even, the book’s dizzying reliance on footnotes was just too much for this sort of non-scholarly work.

All that said, in Sunshine State’s best work—the opening essay, “BFF”, the title piece, and its follow-on, “Rabbit”—Gerard effortlessly covers vast amounts of emotional and intellectual terrain, doing so in a voice that’s smart and powerful overall, streetwise when necessary. Truly, few writers can manage to be this profound without becoming self-conscious or this affective without becoming overwrought. To accomplish both, with this much style, is indeed rare. Perhaps it’s just that Gerard sets such a high standard with her hits, that her misses are made even more obvious.

 

Ill Will by Dan Chaon

 

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Dan Chaon’s latest novel isn’t a prototypical member of the “serial thriller” subgenre, a form made famous by Thomas Harris’s Hannibal Lecter books (and the critically acclaimed movies and television show they spawned). Far more adventurous in spirit, Ill Will combines elegant prose, manifold points of view, and contemporary family drama with the life-or-death tension, mystery, and suspense essential to serial thrillers. The result is a hybrid that succeeds not only as entertainment, but serious fiction.

Satanism and sexual abuse, an unexplained killing in the past and an active serial killer (or killers) in the present: All these elements are at play, making Ill Will’s ground situation textbook in its topicality. Once engaged, though, the story flows more loosely than genre conventions normally demand, its movements guided by the thoughts of its narrators, main character Dustin Tillman and the people whose lives orbit his own. A poor man’s version of the brilliant criminologist archetype, Tillman is an idiosyncratic middle class character with a dark past, a historic debt (or, perhaps, debts) for which payment seems about to come due.

Looking past Chaon’s brilliant sense of story and the narrative fragmentation he uses to bring it to fruition, the most important questions asked by this narrative are philosophical, born of its title. Is there a sense, perhaps even a force, of malice ordering our world, robbing us of agency?  Or do we reap the effects of our intentions, subconscious and inscrutable as they may be? These questions aren’t easy to answer nor are they mutually exclusive within the confines of the book, but they will determine whether readers see Ill Will as simply good or, in fact, transcendent. More than that, they will determine whether Chaon’s latest can reach beyond commercial and even mainstream literary success to contend for prizes with names such as Booker and Pulitzer.

 

All Grown Up by Jami Attenberg

 

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Humor and intelligence, postmodern attitude and radical candor—these qualities live, each of them, in Jami Attenberg’s writing. In concert, they create a distinctively enchanting literary voice, one Attenberg uses to lure her reader in, to keep him believing in the potential of a tale that seems comprised of slices from a pretty ordinary life. The contents of All Grown Up are deceptive though, even a tad magical in their cumulative effect; which is to leave the reader feeling wiser, somehow more in tune with the world, able to laugh at all but the most profound sadnesses, just as Attenberg does.

Attenberg’s narrator is a semi-former artist named Andrea Bern. A New Yorker approaching middle age, Andrea looks back on the first half or so of her life, on her relationships with her parents, family, and friends. Anecdotes are the currency here, the chapters episodic, structurally reminiscent of short stories or even sitcoms. All Grown Up isn’t your average Thursday night in the drivel pen, though. Anything it gives up structurally is made up for with voice, insight, and a brilliant, darkly glittering conclusion that will leave most people near tears.

Cutting and witty in its observations, provocative in its tone, All Grown Up reads like a dream. The writing itself is succinct, eloquent but never ostentatious, never taking away from the power of its voice. This was the first book I read by Jami Attenberg, but it won’t be the last. A polished, gifted writer Attenberg combines comedy, pathos, and incredible voice to create a tonic for readers weary both of literary pretensions and vapid escapism. Too accomplished to be simply upmarket, too enjoyable to be just literary, All Grown Up is its own near-perfect hybrid.

 

The Summer She Was Under Water by Jen Michalski

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Michalski’s second novel is a crisply written, emotionally taut study of a family reunited at their lake cabin after many years apart. Children grown, parents dealing with late-life health issues, memories haunt the novel’s narrator, Sam, alternately flaring and smoldering like her parents’ ubiquitous cigarettes. From the beginning, a family history of addiction, abuse, and darker things still dominates the book, creating a depressed mood despite bright surroundings.

Arriving with her first, metaphorical novel in tow, both literally and figuratively—The Summer She Was Under Water alternates between Michalski’s narration of Sam’s lived reality and excerpts from Sam’s own novel—Sam hopes a reunion with her musician-junky brother will prompt a confrontation over the book’s contents, which include thinly veiled allusions to a sexual history they share.

The Summer She Was Under Water is a quick, dark book, one in which life offers many questions, few answers. Lurking always are Sam’s memories of her brother Steve, memories that have come to dominate every aspect of her life, from her work to her relationship with her boyfriend, Michael. Both in terms of prose and dialogue, Michalski’s writing is vivid and true to life, perfect for a world in which connections to other humans seem tenuous, always one wrong word or action from being cut, perhaps forever.

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.

The Nervous Breakdown’s Review Microbrew, Volume 4

 

“To be without a feeling for art is no disgrace. A person can live in peace without reading [novels] or listening to [music]. But the misomusist does not live in peace. He feels humiliated by the existence of something that is beyond him, and he hates it. There is a popular misomusy… The fascists and Communist regimes made use of it… But there is an intellectual, sophisticated misomusy as well: it takes revenge on art by forcing it to a purpose beyond the aesthetic… The apocalypse of art: the misomusists will themselves take on the making of art; thus will their historic vengeance be done.”

–Milan Kundera, The Art of the Novel

 

“Misomusist: n. rare A person who hates learning (also, in recent use: art).”    

–Dictionary

 

With Kundera’s strong opinions and talent for rhetoric come a penchant for overstatement, even hyperbole; an inclination that causes him to contradict himself from time to time. This is the problem with broad pronouncements—statements of absolutes, even from a master like Kundera—there is almost always an exception to the rule, whatever the rule. In this instance, Kundera’s work, and its focus on the political, provides the exception.

Kundera’s concept of the novelist as someone who poses questions (rather than answering them) is a notion I return to often, and his idea on the misomusist’s hatred of learning and art seems linked to that, even though it might not initially appear so. When Kundera speaks of misomusy, he’s speaking metaphorically, not issuing a metal-clad prohibition against “any vestige of the political in art,” even though it sounds as though he’s suggesting just that—that if we want to save poor, little Art from the encroaching idiot hordes we’d better stuff it in a covered wagon and get the fuck out of Dodge.

If we peel back Kundera’s hyperbole, he’s speaking of a problem of degrees, the way too much focus on politics, religion, or commerce (as examples) might negatively impact art. Though Kundera almost certainly wouldn’t approve, you might even extend the point to include too much “artistry,” suggesting that if you are too concerned with pursuing beauty as you see it, whether out of some overly idiosyncratic aesthetic or a lack of more visceral narrative elements like plot and story, you could damage your own art, create something unrecognizable to anyone but yourself.

Set deep in literature’s make-up—perhaps essential enough even to qualify as its DNA—are the ideas of knowledge and progress as identifiable, worthy concepts. We read not only for aesthetics and entertainment, but to expand the scope of our worlds. We read to engage with other cultures and people, to live other lives. And, to some extent, what I want from a writer is their unvarnished perspective on the world. If that view is heavily informed by politics (whether they be governmental or those of race or gender), so be it.

Several of the books I’m covering this month could be considered political, though some are certainly more overt in their politics than others. As someone who writes about politics at times, who has his own strong opinions, I’d say the challenge is (as Kundera has suggested elsewhere) to avoid absolute certainty in your fiction, to maintain some level of impartiality, even though as human beings demanding perfect political neutrality of ourselves is a doomed proposition. Ultimately, you must do what makes sense to you, regardless of what the great Milan Kundera or little, old me say. The only test of success is the reader’s response, the impartial (though always partial) answer to the question, “Does it work?”

 Cruel Beautiful World by Caroline Leavitt

 

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In her eleventh novel, Cruel Beautiful World, Leavitt takes on the Sixties, blending heart, mystery, and the politics of an era in a slow-burner about a girl who disappears with her high school English teacher, leaving behind the two women who have raised her, setting in motion a search that will have profound consequences for all three women.

The story centers on sixteen-year old Lucy, a beautiful misfit who feels abandoned by her older sister, Charlotte, and ambivalent towards her guardian, Iris. In her teenage ennui, confusion, and naivete she sets off for rural Pennsylvania with William. But William isn’t what he appears and as their relationship becomes more secretive, less what she’d dreamed, Lucy realizes her young life has spun out of control. Her last chance to save herself seems contacting Charlotte several states away and hoping she can arrive in time to help Lucy escape William’s controlling presence.

Cruel Beautiful World is about America in 1969, a time in which the nation was forced to come to terms with the dark impulses lurking beneath its apparent innocence. With the Vietnam War and the Manson Family looming as sinister signposts, Leavitt gives us these two sisters, Lucy and Charlotte, as proxies for what America had and might become. But she gives us much more than the political and sociological. This is a compelling, deeply felt novel that ends far from where it began, one that showcases the elegance of Leavitt’s prose, the propulsive force of her narrative, and most of all her deft, soulful chronicling of the human spirit.

 

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

 

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Recently short-listed for the National Book Award for Fiction, 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.

Whitehead’s genius here is in creating a tale of real historical, sociological, and political import that never descends into polemic. Rather, The Underground Railroad moves like its namesake and more than that the cause of racial justice in America—at times hurtling towards apparent success, at others stopped cold, perhaps forever. There’s no denying the strength of character escaping slavery demands of Cora (and must have demanded of everyone subjected to it). But Whitehead takes us deep into all of the people who orbit Cora, exposing the secret costs slavery exacted of them and America as a whole. Costs America pays to this day.

In The Underground Railroad, there are no pointless “villains.” Characters that might, in a different writer’s hands, so easily become two-dimensional are given their dues. From rich whites bred to and utterly corrupted by their “mastery,” to the economically disadvantaged slave catchers that draw identity from hunting and tormenting other human beings, to the current and former slaves convinced out of fear, selfishness, or any number of other motivations to betray the people they might so easily have become there are no antagonists stripped of their humanity.

Through this vast cast of characters, Cora must make her way, trusting only in her overwhelming desire to be free. Trusting in a destination she can never be sure of, a destination (in a dramatic masterstroke) readers can never be sure of until the book’s final pages.

 

There Should be Flowers by Joshua Jennifer Espinosa

 

31434719This poetry collection turns on the physical and, even more so, the emotional challenges of being transsexual in post-post-modern America. The canvas it presents is one dominated by reds, blacks, and grays and there’s no easy way around that; not that Espinosa is looking for one. If this collection has one overarching theme it’s that the way forward almost always comes through pain. And a great deal of it. The corollary to this is that the author, one who has experienced so much pain, must fight to move beyond that pain; the fear that if she doesn’t, no one else will help her.

The world Espinosa describes is familiar of course, the challenges of fitting in and finding oneself easily relatable when we strip away the overwhelming issues of physical transformation. The freedom that goes with accepting who we are, the challenges of convincing the rest of society to treat us with respect and, more than that, to treat us not as they see us but as we see ourselves—these are the obstacles There Should Be Flowers confronts.

This is a raw, jarring volume, a collection made up of blunt statements, largely devoid of innuendo. Civility here has been stripped away by the challenges of life, challenges far beyond what most of us can imagine. This is a deeply personal collection; one with the capacity to bring us all closer to seeing the spirits not just of transsexuals but of so many who struggle with their bodies.  In perhaps the greatest praise I can give, There Should Be Flowers is a book that will transform the way you see transsexuality.

 

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. The car itself is the book’s symbolic centerpiece, part of an inheritance a New York writer (thirtysomething Leah) must travel to San Francisco to claim. The inheritance comes from Leah’s former boss, a sort of big sister/mother figure from whom Leah had become estranged.

The story’s real center is Leah herself. In addition to her inheritance and the funeral for her friend Judy, Leah has just finished a draft of her first novel, and been assaulted (choked) by her husband, fellow writer and self-absorbed semi-lunatic Hans.  It’s obvious early on that Leah’s life is set to change drastically, if not completely implode.

Benevolently haunted by the voice of Judy, a friend willing to give her advice on everything from the spiritual to the mundane, Leah sets off on a Californian fortnight of drinking, light drug use, reunions with old friends, and random hook-ups. All the while, Leah makes you care about her as she blends her trip into the adult world with deeper, lingering needs of her childhood and young adulthood, goals as simple as wanting people to like her.

Told in a quirky, matter-of-fact voice, there is, nonetheless, an ironic thread of magical realism woven into this story, from the random way the plot comes together to the book’s key conflict, the way Leah makes peace with her own needs and the fate of her marriage. These magical elements aren’t significant enough to leave you doubting Leah as a narrator, but they do open the text up to additional interpretations, from the feminist to the psychoanalytical.

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 Shooting by James Boice

 

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Fragmented in structure and varied in tone—as though a metaphorical representation of America’s fractious gun debate; or, worse still, that of a society ripped apart by the physical, psychological, and political effects of gun violence—The Shooting is a book that insists you care for its characters despite the obvious nature of its politics. And, let’s be clear, this is by far the most overtly political book I’m covering in a column dominated by political books.

Though in some ways as close to nonfiction as fiction can come, this is no simple sermon on gun control. Somewhere between a novel and a linked collection, framed with a sort of beguilingly poetic architecture formalists will appreciate, The Shooting is a drama about a poor, young, black child in the wrong place (with the wrong rich, troubled, gun-obsessed, white man) at the wrong time. In a sense, it’s like Boice is bringing the news to us. Rather than the clipped, colorized two-dimensionality of television or the Internet’s whirling game show of half-lies, this is the news we need to understand our world, a rich, parallel reality rendered with nuanced backstories.

In these pages, you can almost hear the tears of children like Trayvon Martin, the screams of parents mourning massacres from Connecticut to California. But rather than an indictment of all guns everywhere, this is a portrait of the many costs that come with our love of guns, the way a broken system can so easily result in mistakes that seem insignificant if you are untouched by them, but truly do have the capacity to shatter lives. Readers of The Shooting will feel their hearts fill with empathy for everyone from shooters and activists to victims and families. This is an inventive, pointed, at times even majestic book, one that showcases James Boice’s considerable literary gifts.

The Virginity of Famous Men by Christine Sneed

 

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In a short fiction scene currently smitten with flash, Christine Sneed’s The Virginity of Famous Men is something of an outlier. A collection of longer stories cast in the classic, American tradition, this is a carefully balanced, fully realized set of several-thousand-word pieces, any number of which you might come across in The New Yorker, Ploughshares, or some year’s edition of Best American Short Stories.

Filled with interesting content about the film business (at various points from the industry’s chilly periphery to its steamy superstar center), smart humor, and realistic characters, these stories are light on experimentation, though Sneed does make a few interesting formal choices. In addition to an entire story constructed as a curriculum vitae(“The New, All-True CV”), Sneed uses one recurring device I enjoyed quite a bit, “the time-stop ending.” A story with a “time-stop ending” concludes unexpectedly, avoiding the usual, extended denouement. The reader is left to construct the ending herself, suggesting there are, in fact, no easy, moral answers to Sneed’s stories, that reality could work out any number of ways.

The Virginity of Famous Men is about patriarchy, the pitfalls and pratfalls of a societal structure that leaves older, successful men as its silent beneficiaries, women and (to a lesser extent) younger men as its victims. But this isn’t a political book. This is about real people, living real lives, many struggling with romantic relationships or the lack thereof. In The Virginity of Famous Men, Sneed gives readers a heady display of literary talent—skill broad enough to pull off drama and comedy in equal turns, deep enough to do so with seemingly effortless style and grace.