cae174c7a00a391e1cdf9b44eeb6d6db-w204@1xCostalegre by Courtney Maum |
Publishers Weekly

The year is 1937 and Leonora Calaway, a wealthy art collector, has gathered up the artists “the Führer decided were the most degenerate in Europe” and sailed to Costalegre in Mexico, where Surrealists and Dadaists, writers and painters, all live together to wait out the coming war. Continue reading…

masterful-returns-hero-2-830x625Upcoming Fiction from Great Writers | Read It Forward

Fiction, as an art form, requires an inordinate amount of time to perfect. Most novelists spend years crafting their books, and any reader with her salt can quite easily see why. No one, in other words, means to rush a novelist’s intricate work, yet the understandable gap between novels can seem interminable for us fans. The trick, I think, is to read as widely as possible, so that every month (or at least every year) promises new books from authors you like, thereby making the wait more tolerable for the ones by the writers you love. Continue reading…

31eba1e8a14d208b370b8ec9cba1b4cb-w204@1xNot a Clue by Chloé Delaume | Publishers Weekly

Delaume’s first novel to be translated into English is a sly and thorny work that loosely takes the form of a game of Clue, and even more loosely takes the form of a novel. The six murder suspects are psychiatric patients in Paris’s Saint-Anne’s Hospital, and each gets a few chapters providing their backgrounds, how they wound up institutionalized, and attributing to them a name from the board game. Continue reading…

7 Exciting Debut Novels Coming Out This Winter | Read It Forward

The reason debut novels are so exciting is because it’s the chance to witness potential greatness at its earliest stage—there are no previous novels to live up to, no signatures or habits to look out for, and no end to what we can imagine a new voice will do in the future. With each novel by a first-timer that you enjoy comes another career to follow, another sting in the dizzying yarn knot of your literary interests, and soon every month brings out a second, third, or fourth novel by someone who you’ve read since the beginning and whose development you’ve traced like a proud parent or a sports fan. Continue reading…

3c812d1d6454e6f356221bbc3ac0d3d3-w204@1xThe Old Drift by Namwali Serpell |
Publishers Weekly

Recalling the work of Toni Morrison and Gabriel García Márquez as a sometimes magical, sometimes horrifically real portrait of a place, Serpell’s novel goes into the future of the 2020s, when the various plot threads come together in a startling conclusion. Intricately imagined, brilliantly constructed, and staggering in its scope, this is an astonishing novel. Continue reading…

RIF-20-Works-of-Post-Trumpian-Fiction-1200x900-830x62521 Books Set in a Post-Trump World | Read It Forward

Whether we like it or not, this is the age of Trump. Maybe Trump’s actual presidency will last for four years (or maybe less, fingers crossed), or even eight, but the repercussions of his policies, his behavior, and the world’s reaction to him will be felt for much longer. Entire volumes could be written about the impact of Trump’s tweets alone. In less than two years of the Trump era, writers have engaged with our political landscape with renewed passion and indignation. Poets and short story writers have traced Trump’s disheartening influence, and even novelists—not always known to be the quickest to respond to topical politics, considering how long it takes to craft a novel—have already tackled, in various ways, our Trumpian climate.

Sometimes directly and sometimes less overtly, it’s impossible to deny the effect Trump’s election has had on literary art. Many have called this the “post-truth” era, but these 21 books show that great literature doesn’t lie like Trump lies—self-aggrandizing, fault-avoiding, and shortcut-chasing. Instead, literature invents in order to tell us hard-won and difficult truths. Deception conceals; literature reveals. Continue reading…

Bibliotekarien_konserverad_-_Skoklosters_slott_-_97136.tifOn Benno von Archimboldi | The Believer Logger

If Roberto Bolaño’s 2666 is a circular novel, then the figure of Benno von Archimboldi, along with the city of Santa Teresa, resides at its elusive center. He is the Nobel novelist par excellence, the prototypical long-obscure, sure-to-be-lately-recognized writer. For most of the novel, his existence remains peripheral and mysterious, and his entrance, in the book’s final section, does little to elucidate his enigmas. So how does one proceed into Archimboldi as a character in 2666? What is the best way to determine his metaphorical place in the novel? One way would be the way any writer would want to be investigated: through the work. Continue reading…

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Goodbye, Vitamin 
by Rachel Khong | The Columbus Dispatch

“Autobiographical” feels like the right description for Rachel Khong’s “Goodbye, Vitamin.” But because I don’t know whether her debut novel is based on her real life (and because it doesn’t matter if it is or not), I’ll say her novel feels “lived in.”

Khong has crafted a believably human protagonist in Ruth, a 30-year-old woman who’s back in her childhood home to help take care of her father, who has Alzheimer’s. “Goodbye, Vitamin” follows Ruth’s adventures in her old stomping ground for one year, during which she also tends to her own problems, including a broken heart and a lack of purpose. Continue reading…

screen-shot-2016-10-28-at-9-59-15-amThe Difficult Second Album | Read It Forward

Okay, so now you’ve published your first novel! And, better still, it’s highly acclaimed! Your picture’s in The New York Times! You may have even won a prestigious award! All of your dreams have come true!

Now all you have to do is repeat the process all over again, except now the likeliness of duplicating the first book’s impact, receiving the same accolades, and winning more awards is basically a fraction of what it was your initial go around—which, even then was pretty remote—and if you understandably fail to achieve these things (again), you’ll disappoint people you’d never asked to esteem you so highly in the first place—and here you thought you’d made it and were finally free from the thankless work of obscurity, but these people, the very ones who lifted you from anonymity, now seem to be almost deliberately forcing back down into it. Continue reading…

screen-shot-2016-10-14-at-10-45-40-amAuspicious Beginnings: 7 Excellent Recent Debuts
Read It Forward

So the following debut novels are ones that over the last year or so have really stayed with me, moved me, compelled me, and in general felt especially deserving of acknowledgment and recognition. Some of these books have received some wide acclaim, some have benefited from major marketing pushes from their publishers, and some haven’t gotten the attention and the accolades they absolutely deserve. I truly hope all of these writers have long and flourishing careers in literature. Continue reading.

screen-shot-2016-10-08-at-12-16-59-pmRethinking the Novel | Read It Forward

It seems like an obvious question to answer: what, exactly, is a novel? Turns out the answer’s one of the slippery concepts that as soon as you try to define, you begin to qualify and edit and revise, and then qualify some more, until little by little, the number of amendments to the original statement are so great and their permissibility so near total that, hell, the damn definition itself could be considered a novel. How many pages or words differentiate a novel from a novella? What form must it take? Must it always have plot? Characters? And what of typography? Any rules on that front? Would a hand-written novel in a dollar-store journal of a friend of yours feel like a novel the same way a published novel by that same friend would? And I mean the word feel in a literal sense. How that journal simply didn’t have those features—of texture, mechanics, and design—that typically evoke the referent novel in a person’s mind but which actually have more to do with fiction’s commodification than with its aesthetics. A novel, then, is mostly a commercial distinction, as in, e.g., How do we sell this book? The answer to this, as everyone knows, is nevernuance. It’s short and sweet. It’s simplicity and catchiness, something a potential consumer can see, comprehend, and remember after a brief exposure. So something like “autofictional memoir blended with criticism and journalism”? Nobody’s gonna get that, let alone remember it. As these generic terms get stamped on books for better marketability, the divisions between the various categories get more and more distinct and less forgiving to cross, and like all fences they keep out just as much as they keep in, and soon the gaps have grown so vast that certain writers who seem able to nimbly and indiscriminately hop over them are viewed with as much perplexity as esteem. And so well if it’s not the page it’s printed on or its length, and if it’s not inherently plot-driven or character-filled, and if it’s the seeming pervasiveness of an understood definition is merely the result of repeated and successful branding on the part of publishers, then what the hell is it? A novel is a useful umbrella for the many torrents of fictional art. But when it rains it pours, and under harsh duress, the umbrella breaks like any of us. Read these.

screen-shot-2016-09-16-at-1-00-40-pmArk by Julian Tepper | New York Times Book Review

ABSOLUTELY THRILLED TO REVIEW FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW AGAIN!

In the early chapters of his second novel, “Ark,” Julian Tepper introduces three generations of the once-wealthy Arkin family through a series of phone calls that shift perspective from one speaker to another to another. It’s an efficient and notably cinematic technique: One may recall the introduction of the grown-up children in Wes Anderson’s film “The Royal Tenenbaums,” which also uses correspondence to usher each character onscreen. (This could explain why the book jacket explicitly aligns “Ark” with Anderson’s work.) But in a novel, cinematic methods and the omniscient narration necessary to pull them off can lead to little hiccups of confusion, as when we first meet Rebecca Arkin, the nearest thing the book has to a protagonist: “Rebecca was in the middle of lunch. The man keeping her company was Randy Nobel, her colleague at the firm.” If this were a movie, the audience, having seen “the man keeping her company,” would of course implicitly understand to whom the narrator is referring — but a novel has no such visual cue, so when “the man” is mentioned here, I went back just to make sure he hadn’t been brought up previously. Continue reading…

635975461622081858-1023457797_booksThe List of Books That Saved My Life | Read It Forward

So anyway, I moved to Las Vegas to go to school, which, I know, sounds ridiculous, but it’s true: I was to attend UNLV and live in a house my friend Greg’s father owned. Despite the promise of Twice the Jobs! ™, I couldn’t find any work. In Ohio, I’d had a job since high school, so suddenly, when living in a new city where I knew like three people and had no job, free time opened up before me like a vast desert after a long tunnel ride. A non-drinker and socially anxious to boot, I wound up reading a lot of books in those first months. I read The Great GatsbyAnna KareninaDublinersCandideNine StoriesFranny and Zooey, and A Confederacy of Dunces. I got super into theater, reading David Mamet, Samuel Beckett, Neil Labute, and Tom Stoppard. Contemporary literature, too: Dave Eggers, Chuck Klosterman, Saul Williams, Zadie Smith, David Sedaris, Tom Perrotta, Don Delillo, Nicholson Baker, and Nick Horby. I was too dumb and selfish and short-sighted to realize how white and male virtually all these authors were, but though I had been a reader since I could remember, I had never gobbled up books so voluminously. So impressed was I with my homogeneously hetero-normative erudition, in fact, I wanted to count them, to know exactlyhow many I’d read. So I made a list.

I felt small in Vegas, not merely in the sense of being one among so many, but also unequipped to strive for a life I wanted, because Vegas, being no-place, gave my existence there a purgatorial hum, and, being all-places, it never let me forget just how much was out there waiting to overtake me. When I finished itemizing the books I’d read and the total for the year came to 47 books, it was an act against that sense of smallness: I was preparing, to the extent that I could, for life, and I was learning, progressing, developing, and I needed something to reinforce my efforts, some suggestion of accomplishment to nudge me onwards. Continue reading…

PhillipRothFeatImageAll of Philip Roth’s Novels, Ranked | Read It Forward

Philip Roth is—or, since he’s not dead but retired, I should probably say was—the best American novelist of the 20th century. Between Goodbye, Columbus in 1959 and Nemesis in 2010, Roth published 27 novels and four books of nonfiction, and he won three PEN/Faulkner Awards, two National Book Awards, two National Book Critics Circle Awards, two WH Smith Literary Awards, a Pulitzer Prize, the Man Booker International Prize, the PEN/Nabokov Award, the Franz Kafka Award, the National Book Foundation Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, a Gold Medal in Fiction from the American Academy of Arts and Letters, and the 2010 National Humanities Medal given by Barack Obama in the East Room of the White House. Whew. In a 2006 New York Times Book Review poll of writers, critics, and editors regarding the “single best work of American fiction published in the past 25 years,” six of Roth’s novels made the cut, more than anyone else. Critic A.O. Scott noted, “If we had asked for the single best writer of fiction of the past 25 years, he would have won.” Continue reading…

literarysleepinessThe Unacknowledged Obstacle of Literary Sleepiness | Read It Forward

So I want to throw my two cents into this non-conversation and try to elucidate how sleepiness is a regular part of my reading (and thus professional) life, and see what that means, if anything. Of course it’s different for everyone, and I can imagine there are some readers for whom maintaining energy isn’t a problem at all. I’m only talking about my own experience—which from talking to numerous literary types seems at least relatable, if not universal—and I don’t presume to speak for anyone else other than myself.

Here’s the thing: reading and writing exhaust. They expend my intellect, deplete my creative capabilities, and tire my body. These are not, though, inherently bad things; in fact the only reason reading and writing have those effects is because they are both extraordinarily operative—it is difficult, then, to engage with them half-heartedly, because it’s basically the equivalent of not engaging at all. It would be like exercising without a rising heart rate: you may look like you’re doing the same thing as everyone else at Planet Fitness, but you aren’t getting any thinner or any healthier. Continue reading…

borrowing-900x675Against Borrowing Books | Read It Forward

There is a certain tyranny to borrowing books.

For me, the reading of books—and not just books in the general sense but very specific ones—is a vital activity, one that, yes, stumbles and stutters and loses its way, but it is my progress nonetheless. Now, the choosing of my next read is, most of the time, a wonderfully open task, as I am able to pick from all the books I’ve yet to read, which is literally most books that have ever existed. Faced with such bewildering numbers and such endless choice, I rely wholly on my literary whim—that is, whichever author or genre or style or subject is doing it for me at that moment, that is what I ought to pursue, because the passion that results from inarticulate interest is how I will get through even the tiniest portion of literature’s outrageous multiplicity. Continue reading…

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14 Complex, Ambitious, and Experimental Novels by Women | Read It Forward

The authors of the following tomes seem less driven by the feat of epicness and more by its potential for infinite complexity. These women—some young and precocious, some experienced and wise—pursue their stories and ideas with all the same brilliance and playfulness and buoyancy and seriousness of the Joyce’s, the Pynchon’s, and the Wallace’s of the world. The only difference is these women rarely seem to shout about their accomplishments, and the world doesn’t present them as competitors in the big, ambitious novel game. But literature is not a game—or at least it isn’t one in the sense these men believe it to be. The art alone, independent of its relation to the gifts of its maker, is what is entered into the fray, and its value (the art’s) is where any sort of competition might play out—that is, through the experience of readers. A novel written with extra-textual goals (e.g., status, respect, fame) seems like a real waste of effort and time.

Screen Shot 2016-07-15 at 11.36.52 AMRemarkable Books Written by Teenagers |
Read It Forward

Nearly every season, the literary world is introduced to some wunderkind writer who, at some stupidly young age like 21 or 22, has crafted a debut novel (usually) that is wise way beyond its fresh-faced author’s years. The attention placed on their books has as much to do with the novelty of precocity as it does with the merit of the work, if only because most of us, having lived through our early 20s without producing a masterpiece, know how difficult such a feat is to accomplish. Moreover, many readers enter into the highly extolled books of the preternaturally gifted with dubiousness, almost a suspicion of such quickly realized talent, so that upon publication the impassioned responses are drastically polarized between those much impressed by the early effort and those for whom it is nothing more than crass publicity on the part of the publisher and less the insights of some twenty-something genius.

the-door_grandeThe Door by Magda Szabó | Northwest Review of Books
Emerence is a housekeeper for a writer named Magda, and the two women couldn’t be any more different. That sentence, in all its ordinariness, could legitimately stand as a plot description for Magda Szabó’s subtle and fascinating novel The Door. The events that take place are dramatic at times, to be sure, but they function more as isolated incidents rather than a narrative whole. Emerence is the through-line; she is the connective tissue that brings together the disparate parts to make a body. She is—like Gatsby, Ahab, or Daisy Miller—what I call a study character, an important figure that a narrator is unable to fully understand but who is also unalterably enmeshed in their psyche. Emerence, in all her extremely fine details, her many contra-dictions, her utter singularity as a character, is one of the most compelling people I’ve met in recent fiction. She is a classic; she is a magical, mysterious presence that makes The Door a masterpiece.

Screen Shot 2016-01-22 at 11.44.24 AMThis Should Be Written in the Present Tense by Helle Helle | New York Times Book Review

I’M IN THE FUCKING NEW YORK TIMES BOOK REVIEW!!! I CAN’T BELIEVE MY LIFE!!

“For the last 20 years, Helle Helle’s novels and short stories have made her a star in her native Denmark, where she regularly receives awards and acclaim. Denmark is also where, according to her biography, Helle “lives in a forest.” What a fittingly magical dwelling for Helle, who — judging from her first novel to be translated into English, “This Should Be ­Written in the Present Tense” — has enchanting gifts as a storyteller.” (More.)

1594206163.01.LZZZZZZZI Am Radar by Reif Larsen | The Millions
Reif Larsen’s first novel The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet was a frustrating narrative wrapped in a beautiful work of art. Parts worked wonderfully, but many sections dragged along, and the confounding and ill-fitting finale was rushed. But the imagination of the novel­­ is undeniable, as is the talent of its author, so it was with much interest that I embarked upon Larsen’s second effort, I Am Radar, a measurably better novel than T.S. Spivet, both for its leanness and its grandness. It’s an epic page-turner filled with small, tender moments of wonder.

spring15currentThe Most Dangerous Book | The Georgia Review, Spring ’15
In the latest issue of The Georgia Review, I review Kevin Birmingham’s The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses. Joyce’s dense and delectable novel is one of my very favorites, and Birmingham’s book does the story of its publication and censorship justice. The issue also features wonderful writers like Stephen Dunn and Scott Russell Sanders. Order a copy here!

How to Be Both by Ali Smith | The Rumpus83.Ali Smith-How to be both jacket
How To Be Both
is, after The Accidental, The First Person and Other Stories, There but for the, and Artful, Smith’s fifth masterpiece in a row. Her inimitable writing sneaks into you with its deceptive readability, but it’s her radiating intelligence that stays with you. Her mind works wonders on a theme, able to find lovely and profound connections in seemingly anything. She’s a passionately caring writer whose emotional generosity spills out into her pages, trickling out of her books like an overflowing champagne flute.