Under the Influence #13

written by Kurt Baumeister August 12, 2019

Intro

Wherein Robert Burke Warren praises the magical minimalism of Alice Munro; Gregory Spatz reflects on the wild life–and still wilder work–of James Agee; Matthew Specktor muses on the wacky, baffling genius of Wallace Stevens; Nina Buckless discusses what she learned from Tolkien about gaining the reader’s trust; and Kurt Baumeister returns to the topic of literary courage, this time focussing on the iconic Vladimir Nabokov…


J.R.R. Tolkien

by Nina Buckless



I was searching for the keys and tools with which to build a fictional world, a world that, no matter how alien, gains the reader’s trust, actualizes her desires. In Tolkien’s collected essays, The Monsters and the Critics, I found the perspective I was seeking.

Tolkien reminded me that the fantastic can create treasure boxes, forming a bond of trust between reader and writer, that can later be opened; that language, whether real or invented, can invite the reader into trusted foreign spaces and open new worlds that welcome the human heart, for as Tolkien says, “Fantasy is a natural human activity,” and, to go further, “Fantasy is a human right.”

Nina Buckless is a fiction writer and poet. Poetry or prose have appeared in Santa Monica Review, Tin House, Unsaid, Georgetown Review, Absent, Burrow Press Review, Midwestern Gothic, Big Muddy Review, Turkish Literature and Art, Pangolin Review and Fiction Writers Review. Her short story “Deer” was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She is a graduate of the Helen Zell Writers Program and the recipient of a Zell Fellowship. Nina was granted a Civitas Fellowship and taught poetry with InsideOut Detroit in Detroit Public Schools. She received two scholarships to attend The Community of Writers Workshop in California. Nina is a veteran of Jim Krusoe’s creative writing workshop in Los Angeles, California. Currently, she is working on a novel.


Wallace Stevens

by Matthew Specktor

I first read Wallace Stevens when I was an undergraduate. The titles alone (“Someone Puts a Pineapple Together;” “Palace of the Babies”) summoned me, with their daffy undercurrents and disharmonious suggestions. The poems themselves, for a moment, baffled me, until I understood their fragrant invocations and tendency to freestyle on the edge of nonsense (“Cheiftain of Iffucan of Azcan in caftan…”) to be renderings of perception, rather than of reality. He was the writer who taught me–even ahead of Henry James–that writing is a stage for consciousness, rather than a place to represent the drab actual.

Matthew Specktor is the author of the novels American Dream Machine and That Summertime Sound, as well as a nonfiction book of film criticism. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Harper’s, The Paris Review, The Believer, and many other periodicals and anthologies. He is a founding editor of The Los Angeles Review of Books.


James Agee

By Gregory Spatz

Poet, journalist, film-critic, novelist, script-writer James Agee died in the back of a taxi cab in 1955, age 46. I first encountered his final novel, A Death in the Family, in ninth grade. I’ve re-read it countless times since. My hunch is it took Agee his entire life to learn to restrain his notoriously “poetic” style so he could write straight into the most devastating event of his life—the death of his father when he was six years old.

Most of his life, Agee drank heavily, wasted time on work that didn’t matter to him, and sabotaged his writing in every way. He didn’t live to see ADITF published (final edits were done by a lifelong friend). But there’s a quality to ADITF that could only come from Agee’s having stored it so long, working and not working on it. It is raw, unfinished. But perfectly so—perfectly imperfect.

Gregory Spatz is the author of What Could Be Saved, Inukshuk, Fiddler’s Dream, No One but Us, Half as Happy, Wonderful Tricks. His stories have appeared The New Yorker, Glimmer Train Stories, Shenandoah, Epoch, Kenyon Review, and New England Review. Recipient of numerous awards and fellowships, Spatz teaches at Eastern Washington University in Spokane. Spatz plays the fiddle in the twice Juno-nominated bluegrass band John Reischman and the Jaybirds.


Alice Munro

by Robert Burke Warren

Alice Munro’s prose reminds me of certain humbly constructed, yet oddly incantatory folk and country songs, and quite a few Leonard Cohen songs, gems that deliver a wallop with short lines, unfussy words, rudimentary melodies. Minus the melodic aspect (although her prose is indeed musical), Munro does that, too. You step back and say, “How did she conjure that image? That feeling? That intensity? And reveal the exquisite beauty of that supposedly mundane bit of life? With just those words?” It’s inspiring to know it can be done, albeit also maddening in the best way.

Robert Burke Warren is a writer, performer, and musician. His work appears in Salon, AARP, The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, Texas Music, Brooklyn Parent, Woodstock Times, Paste, The Rumpus, The Bitter Southerner, Chronogram, and the Da Capo anthology The Show I‘ll Never Forget. His debut novel, Perfectly Broken, is in paperback. His songwriting appears on albums by Rosanne Cash, RuPaul, and rockabilly queen Wanda Jackson. In the mid 90s, he portrayed Buddy Holly in the West End musical Buddy: the Buddy Holly Story. Prior to that he traveled the world as a rock & roll bass player.


Vladimir Nabokov

by Kurt Baumeister

The fact that a writer could be so audacious as to write Lolita’s prose in his third language–the opening paragraph of which still stands as my model for the poetic in English fiction–is chastening enough. But to follow that with the literary gymnastics of something like Pale Fire, a “centaur-work” as Updike called it, is almost incomprehensible. Taken as a piece, these books reveal a literary intellect with few modern equals and a literary fearlessness that is, in some ways, more admirable because of his success. Nabokov wrote what he wanted, whether that meant a book he knew would be banned based on subject matter (Lolita) or one far enough outside the mainstream that his literary reputation (and perhaps that of his sanity) might be damaged, the poetry and imagined literary criticism hybrid, Pale Fire.

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.