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 3

By Kurt Baumeister for The Nervous Breakdown

August 31, 2016

Fiction Reviews

 

Whether we’re talking about simple book reviews, hardcore literary criticism, or even the deathsport-cum-puffery that goes with writing workshops, it’s easy to make literary opinions about yourself rather than the work at hand. There are a lot of different ways this can happen in reviewing. Some of the more common:

1.  The dispensation of ham-fisted writing truisms (show, don’t tell; adverbs must die; etc.)

2.  The shared personal anecdote, loosely related at best (My word-slinging panda Grimwald brings me a sonnet every night. But youdidn’t. And that’s why this is the most horrible dreck I’ve ever read.); and

3.  Conscious mockery, the review designed (through wit, derision, and pithy prose) to show how much better you are than the foolish mortal whose book you’ve deigned to review. (There’s this guy on Goodreads…Actually, there are like three hundred of this guy on Goodreads, but you get the idea…)

I suppose I have a little luxury in the books I review. No one at TNB tells me what to cover, when to read them or where. I just do then say what I think. Simple, right? But not so, not really.

So many of the most famous examples of criticism come from hating a book or an author with a passion, from using that passion and what skill you may have to pen a take-down readers will remember. The goal is perhaps not always to make oneself sound good, but certainly, at the very least, to make the writer or work under discussion sound very bad.

For me, today, book reviewing has less to do with put-downs, more to do with empathy. As a critic, I think you need to be a bit of a chameleon, able to envision each book not just from your own perspective (the white tower of your five-star, ten-point, or four-heart rating scale) but from the standpoint of that book’s bestreader, the person the book is intended for even though neither they nor the author have any idea they exist. Rather than the infallibility we sometimes pretend to, book reviewing seems to me a matter of art and hope, maybe even something a little like a prayer. A wish, at least, that the books we’ve chosen will find their best readers, whoever and wherever they are.

 

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.

Reading Smyles it almost seems impossible that someone could pack this much goodness into one book. Never giving up intelligence for readability, or wit for cheap laughs, this is a slim volume I had to struggle to put down. Perhaps it’s the narrator’s youth, perhaps her emotional and intellectual honesty (cut as it is with humor); whatever the case, these pages race by, their words nonetheless filling your thoughts long after you’ve set aside Dating Tips for the Unemployed.

From summering in Greece to being busted flat in wintry Manhattan, Smyles somehow punctuates the troubles of youth with a philosophy that mixes sarcasm and nihilism but does it in a way that never gets too heavy. Constructed as an expression of polar opposites, Dating Tips for the Unemployed is an attempt to explore the world that is Iris Smyles and perhaps, in its finely chiseled structure, even an attempt to understand it. Whether this story amounts to fiction, nonfiction, or something in between ultimately doesn’t matter. The key point is engagement: the fact that you’re sure to be smitten as I was with the work of this wildly funny literary misanthrope.

 

United States of Japan by Peter Tieryas

 

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Peter Tieryas’s third book, United States of Japan (USJ) is an homage to the work of Philip K. Dick, a fact Tieryas freely admits. Primarily concerned with reimagining the core conceit of The Man in the High Castle—the Axis having emerged victorious in World War II, America has become a partitioned land, one divided between Japanese and Nazi rule—Tieryas has created a broader tribute to Dick by sprinkling elemnets of his most famous conceits throughout. 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.

In USJ, Tieryas brings us a broad temporal picture of what the post-American world might have looked like. Spanning the Pacific War’s end in 1948 through the 60’s and on to the late 80’s, USJ is the story of game developer and censor, Beniko “Ben” Ishimura, once a resident of an American concentration camp, now a captain in the Japanese army. Central to the book as a whole, and certainly to Ben’s character, is the issue of loyalty, not only to his divine emperor, but to the people around him and even the lost United States of America.

The book is driven primarily by Ben’s interactions with Tokko agent, Akiko Tsukino. Seemingly ruthless, intent on service to emperor and empire (and perhaps above all things her sense of personal honor) Akiko is sometimes foil, sometimes ally, always unpredictable. As Ben and she delve into the conspiracy surounding a treasonous underground game sweeping the USJ, the body count inexorably rises (a la many a first-person shooter); new revelations made not only concerning this conspiracy, but the world Tieryas has created.

Featuring porticals (multipurpose personal devices with capabilities and applications far beyond those of today’s smartphones), mechas (giant battlebots capable of leveling cities), and computer games used as everything from a method of execution to active counter-intelligence—never mind robotic limbs (with firearm attachments), packs of genetically-engineered killer pomeranians, and murder clubs—Tieryas developes a world that is fascinating and engrossing. One that, in perhaps his greatest tribute to Philip K. Dick, you feel you haven’t fully explored even at the book’s end.

 

The Clever Dream of Man by Lynn Houston

 

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I review books of poetry for, I think, many of the reasons people continue to write them. Poetry is important and challenging, one of (if not) the most difficult forms of literary art. While bad poetry is fairly easy to produce, good poetry can take a long time to write, not so much in that one poem can consume days or weeks or months (though it can) but in that a poet can spend years getting to the point at which they’re actually writing quality poems (one of which may, in fact, take days or weeks or months of work). After many years spent thinking about poetry and several more seriously writing it, this is the stage of artistic maturity at which we find Lynn Houston. Houston’s time has been well spent, a fact demonstrated by the spare, immediate reflections contained in her first collection,The Clever Dream of Man.

Houston’s book is clearly a very personal one, focused on the development of self-knowledge, the search for love (not only erotic and romantic but love of self), and the competition between these various forms of love. Over the course of the collection, this competition plays out in the hearts and minds, bodies and souls of its characters, most centrally Houston’s poetic self. Whether basking in the reality of love, lamenting its loss, or dreaming the possibility of its transcendence, The Clever Dream of Man’sstrongest poems brim with an acceptance of the power of nature and wonder at the reality of life.

Wise enough to be daunted by the world, brave enough not to let that fear control her, Houston’s poetry often reads very close to prose, not because she lacks feeling for language but because the thoughts expressed are so precise. For me, the most memorable poems in this collection are the ones that combine heart with a tinge of irony, pieces like “I Believe in Floating Grandfathers”, “Tomcat in Love”, “Jackpot Modern”, “Dreamhouse”, “The Grave Tree” and “Reincarnation as Someone with a Love Life”. The Clever Dream of Man is a short collection, but also a strong one—a volume that will leave readers anxious to see Houston flesh out her poetic vision.

 

Movieola! by John Domini


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Reading John Domini’s work, whether it be fiction, nonfiction, or poetry, you get the feeling you’re in the presence of someone a little smarter than you, someone who understands life and literature a little bit better. Having sped through Domini’s latest, a collection of short fiction entitled Movieola!, I can add cinema to the list of Domini’s areas of expertise—and thank him for shedding new light (and a few welcome shadows) on a form I love.

Cast in the tradition of masters like Barth and Coover, the loosely linked cinematic tales contained in Movieola! showcase the development of the metafictional form, an overall arc that has classic experiments such as John Barth’s masterful short story collection, Lost in the Funhouse, at one end, the now-fairly-common, fully-integrated intrusive narrator at the other. Movieola! rests near the midpoint of this continuum, a point from which Domini is able to provide both sly critique and dramatic effect.

Its overall conceit a subversion of the usual novel to film progression, Movieola! is film become literature. Never what you expect, the book expands on its intellectual heft with titillation (“Blinded by Paparazzi” and “Wrap Rap Two-Step”) and prose that recalls Nabokov at his Americanized best, Domini’s words at times practically tap dancing and somersaulting across the page. Held together by the bonds of cinema, threads at once gossamer and steely, nuanced and blatant, Domini’s success is in mingling the inner workings of Hollywood with the craft of filmmaking, creating for us a parallel universe in which we experience cinema as art and industry, question and answer.

 

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.

Chicago’s Rebecca Makkai is an exceptional writer, one able to move seamlessly between not just cultures of Old World and New, but registers as diverse as faerie tale and contemporary comedy. Possibly the most stunning attribute of Makkai’s work, though, is its consistent humanity, the clarity with which she sees the hybrid of joy and sadness that is human life.

Given that Makkai was featured in Best American Short Stories four years running (2008-2011), and that the selected stories (“The Worst You Ever Feel,” “The Briefcase,” “Painted Ocean, Painted Ship,” and “Peter Torrelli, Falling Apart”) are all included here, you might expect Music for Wartime to feel a little like a greatest hits album, a collections of classics mixed with a few relatively weak, newer pieces, the whole fitted uneasily into a book.

This isn’t the case. Makkai’s newer material is every bit the equal of her BASS stories. More than that (or, perhaps, again, in concert with it) Music for Wartime does indeed feel musical (a la Kundera), a symphony of past and present, light and dark, tiny fables intermingled with the sort of longer stories we traditionally think of in connection with the short story form. Though this is neither a linked collection nor a novel-in-stories, somehow Music for Wartime feels incredibly cohesive, a piece of art beyond the sum of its parts. The obvious conclusion being that this alchemy is just another byproduct of Makkai’s immense talent.

 

Falter Kingdom by Michael J. Seidlinger

 

seidlingerAlready at the age of thirty, Michael J. Seidlinger is the author of nine literary novels, books he produces at what can seem to other writers (myself included) as a dizzying pace. With his latest,Falter Kingdom, Seidlinger slows down just long enough to give us a jaw dropping, cleverly paced tale of demonic possession and addiction, social media and fundamental truth.

Though Falter Kingdom (with its teenage protagonist) may qualify as YA in the strictest sense, the book’s subject matter should tip potential readers that this is no jaunt through Narnia or Wonderland. Evincing neither the British manners nor the broad, whimsical world building of old-school YA, Falter Kingdom is alternative YA, the sort parents might want to keep Suzy and Jimmy from reading, something young adults will find nonetheless. Instead of fantasy, Seidlinger gives his readers contemporary hyper-realism with one major change: Demonic possession is not just a possibility but a reality, one that dominates the book’s narrative arc and produces a truly terrifying climax.

Protagonist Hunter Warden is a high school senior struggling with the usual problems of the high school senior: popularity (or the lack thereof), romance (or the lack thereof), and moods dominated by anomie, confusion, and self-loathing. Hunter’s parents don’t have time for him, his girlfriend is clueless, and his friends all seem frenemies in disguise. Along comes a demon named H. and Hunter may have found his new best friend. That, or a fiend ready to possess and destroy him.

Falter Kingdom is a tale very much about our modern world, the ennui that goes with information overload and sensory excess, and the opportunities for sadness and addiction that seem to lurk in so many hidden corners. This is not a happy novel, but a smart, enthralling one, a book that’s sure to gain Seidlinger fans among teens and twenties, readers who will, no doubt, be following his work for years to come.

The Nervous Breakdown’s Review Microbrew, Volume 2

By Kurt Baumeister for The Nervous Breakdown

July 19, 2016

Uncategorized

Galley fever. That was the diagnosis Michael J. Seidlinger gave me a few months after I started reviewing books at Electric Literature. In all fairness to Seidlinger, it’s possible I’d just given him a list of four books I was going to review (that month? that week? that day?), two of which were (again, possibly) by Salman Rushdie and Milan Kundera. No pressure, no worries.

“Textbook case,” Seidlinger added. “Trust me, man. I’ve seen it before.”

Turned out Seidlinger was right. I did have a case of galley fever. And I still do. In fact, it’s starting to look like this galley fever thing is more or less permanent.

Galley fever: n. The pathological desire to review books. Said desire may conflict with eating, sleeping, and other activities once thought necessary. (In spite of common usage, has nothing to do with viruses, physical temperature, rowboats, or micro-kitchens.)

I started this column so I could put my fever to use; so I could cover more books in less time. It’s working, too. At least I think it is. But there are still issues, laws of time and space to be dealt with. By which I mean reading time and editorial space. The greater problem, to put it bluntly, is that there’s too damn much talent out there in the literary world.

In addition to the latest from one of my writing heroes, Don Delillo, this month’s Microbrew features National Book Award-nominee and literary triple-threat (poetry, fiction, nonfiction), Kim Addonizio, Shawn Vestal, Lori Ostlund, Zoe Zolbrod, and Sean Beaudoin. Obviously, our line-up’s pretty heavy. And that’s a good thing. It’s just that there’s so much more out there. So many books that deserve coverage, so little time. So, get out there and review a book or two. But don’t forget to buy these…

 

Zero K by Don DeLillo

 

26154389Don Delillo is a writer who’s always seemed intensely concerned with symbolism; but in a strange, quasi-adversarial way. I’ve read The Names and White Noise a few times each (in addition to several of his other novels), wound up convinced that there is potent symbolism in his work but that its end result, the solution of the equation (So much of Delillo feels mathematical, doesn’t it?), is a zero, an intentional nod to nihilism. Which, if you think about it, is a fairly bracing postmodern trick.
For me, Delillo’s strengths as a writer are this philosophy (the fact that it so underpins his authorial view of the world), his writing voice which manages to be undeniably wise yet still conveys awe at the complexities of reality, and the line-to-line beauty of his prose. Though these qualities are all on display in Zero K, I’d be lying if I said this book measures up to his masterpieces. Rather than a shot at Zero K, I see this more as indicative of a problem common to living legends.

With so much received acclaim and so many conceded masterpieces, chances are that Delillo’s best work is behind him. And, however you dice up his career, Delillo’s been in that situation well over a decade, perhaps much, much longer. I remember when Underworld came out—Finally, the long Delillo novel we’d been waiting for(!)—when it failed to win the National Book Award (Cold Mountain did.). I suppose at that point, we all expected more of the same—Underworld 2, Son of Underworld(?)—but that’s proven to be wishful thinking. In all fairness, how many masterpieces can one writer be expected to come up with?

For fans, or those fascinated by the concept and societal implications of cryogenesis, Zero K is still a solid choice, repaying the reader’s investment with nuggets like this, “In the end I followed the course that suited me. Cross-stream pricing consultant. Implementation analyst—clustered and nonclustered environments. These jobs were swallowed up by the words that described them.”

Zero K is another graceful trip through Don Delillo’s post-postmodern reality, one in which symbols—and that greatest symbol of all, language—fail in their ascendancy, leave us ultimately confounded by the reality those symbols sought to define. For people looking to study Delillo’s best work, I’d recommend The Names, White Noise, Underworld, and his underrated debut, Americana.

 

The Telling by Zoe Zolbrod

 

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The experiences forgotten, locked in our minds. The weight of what we owe those who come after us. More than that, the weight of what we owe the world and ourselves. These are the considerations at the heart of Zoe Zolbrod’s second book, the memoir, The Telling.

A return home with a new baby, her first, leads Zolbrod to the realization the cousin who lived with her family (and sexually abused her as a five-year old) has been charged with multiple counts of pedophilia. Fraught with emotion and filled with energy over the new life in her arms, there is the crushing reminder someone in Zolbrod’s family is capable of such crimes and the torrent of memories attached to their precursors, the experiences of a small girl, silent to the world until now.

If you’re looking for narrative that manages to seem somehow lush and controlled simultaneously—jagged with feeling and revelation yet told in a voice that compel your attention, forces you to engage not only with the world in the pages before you, but the reality all around, this is a book for you. Reading a fine memoir like Zoe Zolbrod’s, The Telling, reminds us of the debt we owe our best memoirists. It reminds us of the trials they endure and the monsters they slay not only for themselves but for their readers as well.

 

Mortal Trash by Kim Addonizio

 

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It may seem a gaudy move, but Kim Addonizio’s release of a memoir and poetry collection within mere days of each other isn’t that surprising. In fact, when you consider the awards Addonizio’s won, the variety of different forms she’s worked in, and her longevity as an artist, this release two-fer feels practically de rigueur, just another milestone in a brilliant career.

Though this review primarily concerns Mortal Trash, Addonizio’s latest poetry collection, I should say that I found the portion I read of her memoir, Bukowski in a Sundress, to be highly enjoyable. A compelling, crisply written book, Bukowski in a Sundress is bound to sell more than a few copies. And in its accessibility it provides an interesting counterpoint to the poems of Mortal Trash, poems that sometimes share this accessibility, sometimes seem to purposefully reject it.

The strongest poems in Mortal Trash are the ones that are the most concrete, the most steeped in reality. And there are plenty of them. “Lives of the Poets”, “Ways To Go”, “Review of Possible Signs and Symptoms”, and “Florida” are filled with nifty linguistic twists, provocative imagery, and cunning observation. Another high point is Addonizio’s sonnet sequence, which is brimming with trashy beauty and startling wisdom. As for the other extreme, the re-castings contained in the section entitled, “Over the Bright and Darkened Lands”, I find the experiment impressive but can’t say I felt the same level of connection I had with other parts of the book. On balance, Mortal Trash is a laudable collection of poems, the best of which can only enhance Kim Addonizio’s legacy.

 

Daredevils by Shawn Vestal

 

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A long-time columnist and reporter in Spokane, Washington, Shawn Vestal has (mostly, over the last few years) begun to make a name for himself as an author of fiction, first with his Pen Bingham Prize winner, the story collection Godforsaken Idaho, now with his debut novel, the Mormon coming-of-age/road novel (words I thought could never possibly go together), Daredevils.

The focal point of Vestal’s story is Loretta, a rebellious teenager from a fundamentalist Mormon family. As a proposed curative for her bad behavior, Loretta is married off as second sister-wife to fellow fundamentalist, Dean Harder (a name worthy, indeed, of masters like Hawthorne and Dickens).

Soon, Dean moves his entire clan, including Loretta, to his family’s land in Idaho, far from her parents’ home. Once in Idaho, Loretta finds common ground with Dean’s teen nephew Jason; that common ground being escape from the oppression of family and religion, escape to an outside world that may seem freer than it is.

Daredevils is a trip through time and space, a portrait of a mid-century America (the 1950’s through the 1970’s) that’s breathtaking in scope. But perhaps the most winning part of the book is the way this lost history comes to feel at once familiar and deeply engrossing. From Tolkien to Zeppelin to narration from Jason’s hero, Evel Knievel, pop culture references abound, presenting a counterpoint to the constrictive fundamentalism at the story’s core. This is the good and bad of our American mythology—even more so that of the American West—a land where freedom and madness seem so often to run hand in hand.

 

After the Parade by Lori Ostlund

 

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An object lesson in how to make ordinary life matter to a reader, Lori Ostlund’s first novel, After the Parade, is a symphony of realism, one that turns in movements dramatic and comic, touching and wistful.

Constructed as a vast network of flashbacks, the novel opens with forty-one-year-old ESL teacher Aaron Englund’s departure from New Mexico and the home he has shared with his partner, Walter. Though Aaron’s nominal destination is San Francisco, even before he arrives, we realize his understanding of himself is tenuous, evolving, that this understanding is his real destination.

As Aaron begins his new life, Ostlund flashes back to all that has come before, no event more significant than the day Aaron’s father, a policeman, fell from a parade float and died, leaving Aaron and his mother all alone. In coming to terms with the events of his deep past, Aaron begins to grapple with and understand his recent past with Walter, to lay claim to a better present and future.

One of the most honest, insightful writers you’ll find, there’s never a false sentence in Ostlund’s work, never a reliance on tricks or tropes. Ostlund imbues her characters, especially Aaron, with humanity, humor, and grace, showing us how people really live and grow, day-to-day and year-to-year.

 

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.

Plumbing the quest for sensory experience at the heart of youth, Beaudoin’s style recalls T.C. Boyle’s, a flash of formal experimentalism (Coover? Celine?) thrown in to keep the reader off-kilter. The mix is a highly enjoyable, stone-cold literary endeavor that manages to succeed on a commercial level as well. These aren’t “New Yorker stories” per se—you’re not going to find some middle-aged dentist bitching about his Mercedes in Beaudoin’s pages—but they’re so polished you can’t help but see the potential for them to reach (and please) a mass audience.

From Beaudoin’s fearless use (and purposeful misuse) of pop culture, particularly the fight game in “And Now Let’s Have Some Fun”, to the macabre, apocalyptic satire of “Base Omega Has Twelve Dictates”, his spin on a sort of creation myth in the title story, “Welcome Thieves”, and the failed Americana at the heart of the entire collection, perhaps most notably in “The Rescues”, these stories succeed without exception.

On the off chance that Beaudoin’s six previous books and his massive output of quality nonfiction (Salon, The Nervous Breakdown, The Weeklings) hadn’t confirmed his talent, Welcome Thieves is sure to. Sure, likewise, to prove attempts at comparison must in the end fall short. There’s just no other writer quite like Sean Beaudoin. Read him and be glad you did.