Full disclosure: Lawrence is my buddy from MFA school days--but even if he weren’t, I’d be wild about his debut book of smartypants essays with heart. Lawrence writes vividly about personal history, pets--including, um, improper acts with dogs--and Greek mythology, all with pathos and humor. This is the work of a brilliant mind, one that explores the world in surprising and inventive ways.
A man drives a sports car at full speed. With him, unwillingly, his daughter and his wife’s lover. This is the setting in which the man monologues, veering from anger to vulgarity to tenderness in his wild, claustrophobic, and erudite voice. Hawkes was an underrated master, and this is one of his best novels--even if does sound, according to Lydia, like a “dude book.”
Like many young writers, Allegra Hyde is restless. But unlike many young writers, Hyde seems totally uninterested in naval-gazing. In this debut collection, she moves from voice to voice, experience to experience—life on Mars, hippie colonies, veterans of war—with skill, quirk, and maturity. Sharp and curious, this is what a debut short story collection should be!
To state the obvious, I will never give birth—nor is fatherhood something I think much about. So why did THE ART OF WAITING leave me shaky, teary, happy? In this powerful book, Belle Boggs tells the story of her attempts to have a child—but this is no single-minded, sappy memoir. Instead, Boggs examines the notion of fertility from literary, linguistic, historical, and financial perspectives, ultimately birthing a book about the way we define the future—the way we make sense of our lives, however uncertainly, as we enter adulthood.
Implicit in every book about the Holocaust is the question: how do we make sense of evil? In MISCHLING, Affinity Konar's lyrical new novel, she answers this question by carrying the glimmering jewel of her language through all the ugliness. Focusing on twin sisters dealing with the horrors of Mengele's Zoo, where grotesque human experiments abound, Konar makes clear that even in the face of unspeakable evil, one can find hope in small moments of beauty.
The most heartbreaking novel about illness I've ever read. (Does that not make you want to read it?) Catharsis in despair. (Is that better?) If you've ever lost a loved one, you need to read this book. Powerful and optimistic.
Imagine the most shameful thing you've ever done. Now, imagine millions of strangers pointing their fingers at you, calling you names. The phenomenon of shaming--whether in pillories or on twitter--is what Ronson investigates in this marvelous book. A mix of history, interviews, and personal recollections, Ronson reveals the psychology behind our love of shaming others, and what it means about each of us.
Ander Monson knows how to mess with our idea of what the word “book” means. LETTER TO A FUTURE LOVER is a series of essays that analyze the notion of the library. As such, Monson printed a limited number of copies of his book in boxes, each page printed on a separate card in random order, with a place for borrowers' names and due dates to be stamped at the end. How’s that for “book?”
If that sounds too complicated, we’ve got bound versions of LETTER TO A FUTURE LOVER at Brazos, and there’s nothing like settling into Monson’s brainy, observant, sometimes hallucinatory voice. Example: “When we listen to laugh-track laughter we listen to the dead.” And: “You too, bleached- blond forty-something DWF reading DFW in a major Texas airport, with fake boobs and too-tight tank. What are your needs?” Monson meets mine.
If you don't know about THE ROOM, it's hard to explain. It's a movie--indeed, a very bad movie: that much is clear. But how to describe its hilarity, its surrealism, its almost hypnotic effect on me and millions of others? Yes, I've long been obsessed with Tommy Wiseau's debut feature film: the story of a love triangle between the strangely-accented Johnny, his beautiful future wife Lisa, and his best friend Mark. THE DISASTER ARTIST, written by co-star Greg Sestero, offers a behind-the-scenes look at the doomed/enchanted production. It's a surprisingly touching book about friendship and ambition, and it offers lots of great stories. For instance, did you know that Wiseau once wanted Johnny's car to fly? Director's cut, anyone?
Does your job hold you back? Oscar’s certainly does. Although he once dreamt of exploring the Arctic, he now works as a low-level functionary in the US government’s Bureau of Ice Prognostication, monitoring the tundra via web cam. But life contains surprises, and soon Oscar finds himself carried away on a mysterious adventure in the Arctic that’ll put into practice his lifetime of dreaming. An adventure story in the spirit of Douglas Adams, FRAM shows Steve Himmer’s mastery of the satirical and the bittersweet.
What would David Foster Wallace’s legacy have become if depression hadn’t taken him from the literary world in 2008? It’s one of those impossible questions, of course, but leafing through THE DAVID FOSTER WALLACE READER, you get a full sense of not only the magnitude of his absence, but also the breadth of work he left behind.
People often paint Wallace as a forbidding brainiac—crafter of footnotes and dense sentences—but this new compendium reminds you how limber he was, skilled with different forms and tones. Here, you’ll find the exuberant comedy of THE BROOM OF THE SYSTEM, the anger of BRIEF INTERVIEWS WITH HIDEOUS MEN, the sad humanity of OBLIVION. Then, of course, you’ll find the nonfiction: classic essays about state fairs and cruise ships, but also never-before-published syllabi from Wallace’s decades of teaching.
Finally, there’s the mind-boggling centerpiece of his career, INFINITE JEST, a novel of astonishing range and tonal complexity, of which THE DAVID FOSTER WALLACE READER presents excerpts. Have you read it already? Relive the experience with these selections. Haven’t tackled it yet? Let these snapshots of Wallace’s masterpiece act as a primer, and let this collection as a whole acquaint you—or reacquaint you—with the work of America’s most important contemporary author.
If critics only recently figured out what to do with Lydia Millet, go easy on them: it’s not like she made it easy. While some authors flog the same subject and style in book after book, Millet has made it her business to shape-shift since her 1996 debut. There’s the satirical GEORGE BUSH, DARK PRINCE OF LOVE; the atomic, DeLillo-esque sprawl of OH PURE AND RADIANT HEART; the trilogy of lonely, environmentally conscious Los Angeles novels, cresting with the magnificent MAGNIFICENCE. Hell, earlier this year, she even released her first YA novel (the terrific PILLS AND STARSHIPS).
All of her books are worth reading, but her new novel, MERMAIDS IN PARADISE, is the best of her career. In it, young newlyweds—emblems of American lives lived online—travel to an island resort for their honeymoon. There, they encounter the titular creatures: mermaids, far out in the ocean. It doesn’t take long for the mermaids to come under attack from bureaucratic resort officials that want to conquer the environment, turning every last natural resource into commerce. Working at this intersection of thematic seriousness and narrative lightheartedness, Millet winds up feeling mythical herself: the rare author who can issue dire warnings about American culture with a smile on her face.
If writing a good opening—a hook—ranks among the most difficult tasks an author has, consider the ease with which Celeste Ng appears to toss off these two sentences at the beginning of her debut novel, EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU: “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.” There’s loss; there’s tension between what’s known and unknown; there are questions, some dramatic (how did Lydia die?), others more banal (who are “they?”). Ng packs mystery into these two sentences with an effortlessness that seems unfair.
EVERYTHING I NEVER TOLD YOU is a tense domestic drama about Lydia’s surviving family, the Lees, whose mixed-race status makes them stand out in the 1960s and 70s. Ng uses Lydia’s death to explore headier ideas about race and gender, while familiar historical events—the launch of Gemini 9, the death of Elvis, the capture of David Berkowitz—rush past, barely noticed by the characters as they struggle with personal tragedy. Like all of us, the Lees swim in history, but what sense does any of it make when loss puts stones in our pockets and drags us under?
In Amy Rowland’s debut novel, Lena Respass works as a transcriptionist at an unnamed but powerful newspaper in Manhattan. A lonely young woman, she finds pleasure in small matters: the pigeon on her ledge at work, her strolls through Gramercy Park, or her childlike conversations with strangers. When one of those strangers, a blind court stenographer named Arlene, commits suicide by throwing herself to lions at the zoo, Lena vows to learn all she can about the dead woman, believing that Arlene should be memorialized in the newspaper—that, although Arlene wasn’t a president or a CEO, she must have lived a life worth transcribing. But Lena confronts a difficult truth: the news allows only those it deems important into the public record, excluding all the rest. Is this ethical? “Reporters aren’t moralists,” one journalist tells Lena. “We’re guardians.” Perhaps—but what happens when the guardians become corrupt and lose touch with what matters?
In an age of both expanding access to media and waning accountability for journalists, THE TRANSCRIPTIONIST is a timely novel. Rowland—a former transcriptionist herself—knows this world, and her questions resonate. After all, what are reporters? Moralists? Guardians? Lena proves an apt vehicle for Rowland’s inquiries into media ethics. Although the subject matter recalls serious, ethical fiction like Nathanael West’s MISS LONELYHEARTS, the innocent point of view is surprising: imagine NIGHT FILM starring HARRIET THE SPY. A heroine as guileless as one in a children’s story, Lena pursues the mystery of Arlene with wide-eyed charm, not understanding why the world can’t value everyone equally.
Steve Erickson is one of the most underrated authors in America. Praised in the early days of his career by Thomas Pynchon (and now by Jonathan Lethem), Erickson has since settled into semi-obscurity. A poetic prose stylist, Erickson writes elliptical novels whose plots seem to morph and then double back on themselves, often inviting historical figures, cinephilia, punk rock, pornography, and science fiction to the same party. Yet Erickson’s books tend to be slim (the longest is 329 pages); he lacks the big book behind which a generation of critics and readers can gather, and for this reason perhaps, his modest career can be difficult to see behind the skyscrapers of, say, Don DeLillo’s UNDERWORLD and David Foster Wallace’s INFINITE JEST.
Erickson’s works tend to blur together (in a good way), but the book of his that stands alone best might be ZEROVILLE, among the greatest film novels ever written. It tells the story of a man named Vikar, an antisocial film lover who arrives in Los Angeles one day and stumbles into the industry during an era of turmoil. Part of the fun of ZEROVILLE is figuring out the identities of the celebrities and filmmakers who wander through the novel’s many parties, and whom Erickson mentions only by first name (is that Marty Scorsese? John Milius? Margot Kidder?); in this sense, the novel becomes a trivia game for film buffs. But ZEROVILLE goes much deeper than that, ultimately asking the reader to consider just what is so transfixing, so eternal about the movies—about other people’s lives displayed at twenty-four frames per second. This is a must-read for film lovers.