Cloud Cuckoo Land by Anthony Doerr |
The Georgia Review

Anthony Doerr is one of the most scientifically minded fiction writers working today. He’s a literary conservationist. In his vision, science is a matter of preservation and protection. Nature and technology, under science’s umbrella, are to be engaged with responsibly and in the interest of betterment, for they can be easily exploited by opposing forces. Science, in Doerr’s fiction, is a human ideal, matched only by art—which too can be safeguarded or destroyed via scientific means. His latest novel, Cloud Cuckoo Land, presents Doerr’s most directly articulated paean to science, art, and the human spirit, here represented by the greatest of humanity’s achievements—the book—and some of the best in human conservation—librarians. Cloud Cuckoo Land is also Doerr’s most ambitious work to date, which demonstrates just how much he cares about his subject. Continue reading…

End of the World House by Adrienne Celt | LA Times

Harold Ramis’ 1993 comedy Groundhog Day didn’t invent the time-loop narrative, but it established the popular template for such stories: The cause is never identified; the protagonist must make different choices (usually to become a better person) to stop the loop; there is almost always a period in which the characters exploit their position to their advantage; frequently, there’s a love story. Although these parameters are rarely broken, any story taking on the Groundhog Day concept should add something to the formula. The most successful versions pair the concept with something fresh, as in the sci-fi action film Edge of Tomorrow or the horror flick Happy Death Day. One popular additive in recent iterations such as Netflix’s Russian Dolls or Hulu’s Palm Springs is the inclusion of a second victim. Continue reading…

In Praise of Good Bookstores by Jeff Deutsch | Star Tribune

The Seminary Co-op Bookstore in Chicago is among the most venerated in the world, so it’s fitting that its director, Jeff Deutsch, has written a book attempting to define what makes a successful bookseller.

It’s a vital task, especially since, as Deutsch points out, “there is no good business model in the book industry” — at least, not the kind that aims to “support books whose publication is driven by cultural and literary value rather than media attention and rapid sales.” Books must exist, but their existence cannot be predicated on high profit margins. Continue reading…

The Nineties: A Book by Chuck Klosterman | Tasteful Rude

Chuck Klosterman’s tenure as pop culture’s critic par excellence began just as the 1990s came to a close; in fact, according to his newest book, The Nineties (Penguin Random House, 2022), it started four months before the decade officially concluded.

Klosterman’s debut, Fargo Rock City, a memoir of life as a heavy metal enthusiast in North Dakota, was released on May 22, 2001. By September 11, the ethos of the previous decade had come crashing down along with the Twin Towers. Nevertheless, Klosterman’s breakthrough book, the essay collection Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, was wholly mired in the 90s in both subject and approach. Topics included the television show Saved by the Bell, sex icon Pamela Anderson, the Left Behind novels, MTV’s The Real World, and other fin de siècle ephemera. With his second book, Klosterman encapsulated how 90s pop culture was interpreted while also expanding the list of once undeserving subjects now considered worthy of attention and scrutiny. Most significantly, though, was that Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs simultaneously heralded the critical approach of what followed: Klosterman’s brand of armchair pop philosophy prefigured the voices of the internet. Continue reading…

Something to Do with Paying Attention by David Foster Wallace | LA Times

In 1996, shortly after the publication of Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace took courses at Harvard University on accounting and federal tax law. He had an idea for a new novel: an exploration of boredom set in an IRS office, which to his credit does seem like the most boring place imaginable. Ever the overeager researcher, Wallace became as fluent in the tax code as any agent. By the time the resulting work was published in 2011, unfinished, under the title The Pale King, Wallace had been dead for three years. Continue reading…

How to Start Writing (and When to Stop): Advice for Authors by Wisława Szymborska | BOMB Magazine

The literary world brims with glib advice for aspiring writers. Look on Instagram or Twitter and you’ll find oodles of reassuring, platitudinous phrases about not giving up, trusting your instincts, or writing what you know. Visit a bookstore and open up, at random, one of a plethora of volumes promising to assist novice scribblers in their clumsy geneses. While most of it is well intentioned, you rarely come across anything of real value. Continue reading…

What’s in a Name?: A Review of Carrie Bennett’s Lost Letters and Other Animals, Nicholas Wong’s Besiege Me, and Mark Leidner’s Returning the Sword to the Stone | Salamander #53

You can tell a lot about a poet by how they use nouns. An abundance of common nouns or abstract nouns usually means the poetry aims at loftier, grander themes. There is an ethereal quality to words whose referents are generalized—like some Platonic ideal of “bird” or “love” or “fingers.” One gets a sense of being high above the subject, gazing down at a panorama so vast as to preclude the use of specific, proper nouns. Continue reading…

The Women I Love by Francesco Pacifico | L.A. Times

The protagonist of Francesco Pacifico’s The Women I Love is writing a novel, and he has this to say about his literary project: “I’m recalling this period in my life to see if I’m capable of describing the women I love or have loved without turning them into caricatures, into saviors or sirens, into wives, mothers, or whores. I’ve grown tired of the comedy of the clumsy man who always makes the wrong move.” Later, he wonders, “what’s left for a man to write when he’s writing about women?” Continue reading…

Maxwell’s Demon by Steven Hall | The Rumpus

Steven Hall’s first novel, The Raw Shark Texts, falls into a fuzzily defined genre known as slipstream. This term, coined by sci-fi author Bruce Sterling in 1989, never really caught on partly because its parameters are imprecise, but every few years a writer like Hall publishes a new book and the term rears its head again, like some kind of literary cicada. For Sterling, slipstream described what resulted when literary novelists appropriated sci-fi and fantasy tropes, including novels like Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Gunter Grass’s The Tin Drum, and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five. Sterling also included metafictional experiments like Philip Roth’s The Counterlife, and dark, Gothic tales like Ian McEwan’s The Comfort of Strangers, in which nothing fantastical occurs but an unsettling and off-kilter atmosphere dominates. These kinds of works have been described as postmodern (Pynchon, Barthelme), magical realist (Morrison), or hysterical realist (Rushdie, Pynchon again, Zadie Smith), but none of those terms quite contains them all. If we reached back further, we’ll stumble onto terms like historiographic metafiction and satire and modernist and picaresque. More recent writers like Helen Oyeyemi, Téa Obreht, Jonathan Safran Foer, Ali Smith, Karen Thompson Walker, and Marlon James would, presumably, also exist under this enormous umbrella. Employing one single term for these disparate styles and approaches seems like an overreach, but devising an endless list of terms seems just as ineffective. Slipstream may as well be what we call our bewilderment. Continue reading…

The King of Infinite Space by Lyndsay Faye | L.A. Times

Lyndsay Faye plays a kind of literary jazz. The author likes to riff on the standards, putting her own stamp on them as she jams. Her previous novels include inventive takes on Sherlock Holmes (“Dust and Shadow”) and “Jane Eyre” (“Jane Steele”). Her Timothy Wilde detective series and her novel “The Paragon Hotel” infuse a contemporary sensibility into gritty, evocative historical fiction. Continue reading…

What About the Baby? Some Thoughts on the Art of Fiction
by Alice McDermott | The Boston Globe

(My first review for The Boston Globe! New publications are always exciting, but this one’s particularly meaningful because I lived in Boston for many years and loved it there.)

In “Faith and Literature,” an essay from her first non-fiction collection “What About the Baby?”, the award-winning novelist Alice McDermott explains the origins of her fictional milieu: “I write about a culture I know fairly well in order to resist the siren song of research.” The culture she’s referring to is that of Irish Catholics, mostly in Brooklyn or Long Island, at various points in the twentieth century. McDermott, as one would deduce, was born in Brooklyn and educated in Long Island, the daughter of Irish Catholic parents—“a cradle Catholic,” as she describes herself. She regularly explores the way the past haunts the present, community mythology, alcoholism, and the life-altering effects of grief. Continue reading…

Long Division by Kiese Laymon | Tasteful Rude

The most interesting mystery novels don’t announce themselves as such. There is no murder to solve or culprit to apprehend. Rather, events which have no obvious explanation unfold and an air of ambiguity surrounds them. Kiese Laymon’s novel Long Division belongs to this category of mystery. It is a bold narrative which, for more than half of its pages, withholds the nature of its machinations until an ingenious turn connects what had seemed to be a succession of unrelated cyphers. Continue reading…

The Last Man Takes LSD by Mitchell Dean & Daniel Zamora | L.A. Times

In 1978 and 1979, the French philosopher Michel Foucault gave a series of lectures on neoliberalism, the set of economic doctrines focused on free market enterprise, limited government and individual autonomy. Foucault wasn’t interested in the nitty-gritty of actual governing. “I have not studied and do not want to study,” he announced in the first lecture, “the development of real governmental practice.” Rather, he was interested in “the art of government.”

Embodied: An Intersectional Feminist Comics Poetry Anthology,
edited by Wendy and Tyler Chin-Tanner | Tasteful Rude

In 1976, five Black women sued General Motors because the company systemically prevented their advancement. The court, however, ruled in favor of GM because, as Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw put it, “General Motors did hire women—albeit white women—during the period that no Black women were hired [and thus] there was, in the court’s view, no sex discrimination that the seniority system could conceivably have perpetuated.” The court then recommended that the case be consolidated with another race discrimination lawsuit against GM. A person, in other words, could sue for race discrimination or sex discrimination, but not both, because claiming that there was a specific prejudice against Black women, in the court’s words, “clearly raises the prospect of opening the hackneyed Pandora’s box.”

Crenshaw uses this case—and others—in her seminal paper, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics,” published in University of Chicago Legal Forum in 1989. Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” because “dominant conceptions of discrimination condition us to think about subordination as disadvantage occurring along a single categorical axis.” A feminism that only addresses the experiences of white women is no true feminism, and an antiracist politic that only addresses Black men is similarly incomplete, as neither on their own addresses the experience and oppression of Black women. Though “intersectionality” has been expanded to include all manner of categorical intersections—including class, sexuality, gender identity, nationality, disability, and age—it began as a legal concept specifically referencing Black women. Continue reading…

Mona by Pola Oloixarac | Tasteful Rude

Pola Oloixarac’s Mona (translated from Spanish by Adam Morris) is a devastating and harrowing satire of the literary world, an alternately hilarious and piercing examination of the culture surrounding books. Mona Tarrile-Byrne is a young Peruvian novelist nominated for a prestigious literary award, the Basske-Wortz Prize. She spends a weekend in Sweden with the other nominees as readings, talks, and convivial commiseration lead up to the announcement of the winner. A multinational cadre of writers weave in and out of Mona’s Valium- and Ambien-tinted experience over the few days that Mona temporarily leaves behind her ordinary life. Continue reading…

The Dangers of Smoking in Bed by Mariana Enriquez | Tasteful Rude

Stepping into a Mariana Enriquez story, everything at first appears normal: people, furniture, lighting; it’s all there; nothing’s amiss. Yet an undeniable disquiet pervades. You don’t know why exactly, but you are certain something is wrong. Eventually and invariably, you discover that you are right. Though she has been publishing fiction and journalism for nearly thirty years in her native Argentina, so far only two books have been translated from their original Spanish into English: Things We Lost in the Fire and now The Dangers of Smoking in Bed. They are both story collections in which the oxymoronic phrase “magic realism” manifests to an extreme. They feature ghosts, witches, curses and cannibals while being equally rife with sexual violence, juntas, self-harm, and all manner of vividly rendered trauma. Continue reading…

HurricanecoverHurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor | On the Seawall

Hurricane Season begins,  appropriately, with boys. Here is the first line: “They reached the canal along the track leading up from the river, their slingshots drawn for battle and their eyes squinting, almost stitched together, in the midday glare.” These boys, mere children, are already immersed in a culture of violence, ready for some imaginary battle their world tells them to prepare for. None of them “would dare admit he was scared,” as the others, even if they were afraid, would make merciless fun of him. These boys are the ones who find the Witch’s body. Continue reading…

NORTON_BookShot_FOREIGN+BODIES+YK2Object Impermanence: On Kimiko Hahn’s Foreign Bodies | Vol. 1 Brooklyn

A caveat: Foreign Bodies is Kimiko Hahn’s tenth collection of poetry, but it’s the first and only one that I’ve read. By my own standards as a critic, this lack of familiarity with a writer’s work usually disqualifies me as a reviewer of one of their books. The only exception I make for this is when I read a book that is so fantastic and exhilarating and rich that I’m compelled to write less of a review and more of a celebration, a fan’s note, a paean to a particular book’s achievements. This is one of those cases. 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…

poetry-roundup-lede.w700.h467New Year, New Verse: 4 Great New Poetry Collections | Vulture

Poetry ought to be the preeminent form of this age — hell, every age. In a smattering of words, a poem can eulogize, satirize, criticize, proselytize. The greatest verse clues us into what Jane Hirshfield calls “poetry’s knowing,” its function of “clarification and magnification.” It’s the quintessential hybrid form: an amalgam of essay, lyric, story, polemic, and diary. Poets are penguins, to paraphrase E.E. Cummings. They use their wings to swim. 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…

97803165602211Big Bang by David Bowman | Publishers Weekly

“Where were you when you first heard President Kennedy had been shot?” asks Bowman (1957–2012) in the opening of his big, bold, and brilliant posthumous novel, and for the next 600 pages, he investigates what occurred in the years leading up to that monumental event in American history. Through the lives of such iconic figures as Norman Mailer, Elvis, William de Kooning, Marilyn Monroe, Dr. Spock, Ngô Dihn Diem, the Kennedys themselves, and dozens of others, Bowman conjures an enormous narrative out of the troubled years from 1950 to 1963. Continue reading…

51+SgqT67tL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_
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…

Habash_StephenFlorida_9781566894647-682x1024Stephen Florida by Gabe Habash | New York Times Book Review

“People are bad at giving up,” a man tells the title character late in “Stephen Florida,” Gabe Habash’s debut novel. “A lot of the time they don’t do it early enough.” He’s commenting on life in the oil fields of North Dakota, where Stephen is considering a job after college, but he might as well be describing Stephen’s current situation: He’s a wrestler at Oregsburg College in the late 1970s, and it’s his senior year, which means it’s his last chance to win a collegiate championship. Habash’s novel follows Stephen through his event-filled final season and traces his complex inner turmoil as he pursues his unbending ambition to dominate the competition. By the time the above statement is made to Stephen, he’s veered far away from mere determination and ended up near monomania, and his will to win has become enmeshed in bitter jealousy, calculated malice and philosophical scrutiny. The sport itself, in other words, is beside the point, as are the actual benefits of succeeding. Stephen’s drive has brought him to the brink, but is it too late for him to give up? Continue reading...

blind-spot
Blind Spot 
by Teju Cole | San Francisco Chronicle 

Teju Cole’s newest work, “Blind Spot,” a collection of the author’s photos with accompanying textual commentary, is an eclectically brilliant distillation of what photography can do, and why it remains an important art form. Known for his novels “Open City” and “Every Day Is for the Thief,” Cole also is the photography critic for New York Times Magazine, and a hell of a nonfiction writer to boot (his recent essay collection “Known and Strange Things” unambiguously demonstrates this). “Blind Spot” proves that Cole’s singular talents extend into picture-making, yes, but more than that, it shows what an extraordinarily gifted writer he is. Continue reading…

PrintAt Home in Ruins: Imagine Wanting Only This by Kristen Radtke | Fiction Advocate

Kristen Radtke’s meditative graphic memoir Imagine Wanting Only This ruminates on ruin and decay—of an abandoned city, of a genetically faulty heart, of love and relationships, and, in the long run, of all things. Through black-and-white images with stark juxtapositions, Radtke braids together the death of her favorite uncle, Dan, the end of her engagement to her college boyfriend, her travels to various ruins around the world, and her own struggle to find a home somewhere that isn’t in the process of deteriorating. Continue reading…

cover_audinThe Mathematics of History: On Michèle Audin’s One Hundred Twenty-One Days | Kenyon Review

In 1960, the writer Raymond Queneau and the engineer François Le Lionnais founded Ouvroir de littérature potentielle (“workshop of potential literature”), which came to be known by the shorthand Oulipo. It was a literary movement principally focused on restraints—e.g., member Georges Perec’s 1969 novel A Void is a lipogram, a work that deliberately excludes a letter or letters, in Perec’s case the letter “e.” Other members of the distinguished group—which also included many mathematicians and engineers—were Italo Calvino, Marcel Duchamp, and the cartoonist Étienne Lécroart. Thus it was not something one could simply join.

“And then, one day,” the mathematician and writer Michèle Audin wrote recently, “the Oulipo becomes a reality for me: ‘it’ invites me to a meeting.” So Audin became one Oulipo’s few female members, and with the publication of One Hundred Twenty-One Days, she becomes only the second female member to publish a book in English (the first was Anne F. Garréta, author of Sphinx). She does not disappoint Oulipo’s legacy: One Hundred Twenty-One Days is a remarkable novel, a brilliant pastiche of varying styles and forms, elegantly crafted and intricately structured, but also one that never neglects the humane emotions and drama of which great novels are made. Continue reading…

9780307908797A Brief History of the Future: On James Gleick’s Time Travel: A History The Millions

This is my favorite epigraph attribution from all my published essays:

“Time exists in order that everything doesn’t happen all at once, and space exists so that it doesn’t all happen to you.”

Susan Sontag, quoting “an old riff I’ve always imagined to have been invented by some graduate student of philosophy,” but part of which (i.e., the first half) is often attributed to John Archibald Wheeler (who “admitted to having found it scrawled in a Texas men’s room”), Woody Allen, and Albert Einstein, but which actually appeared before all of these figures were supposed to have said or written it in a novel by Ray Cummings from 1922 called The Girl in the Golden Atom and is spoken by a character named Big Business Man, so I guess one can only really credit Sontag (or, I suppose, the “old riff” to which she refers) with the part about space (which, admittedly, is a totally brilliant and enriching addendum; really makes the phrase, don’t you think?), and if you think this quote attribution is convoluted and confusing well then hold onto your hats, there, buddy, because shit’s about to get real weird…Continue reading…

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…

book-tents-1The Best Books About Books, Part II | Literary Hub

Last summer, I wrote a piece about a number of books that were themselves about books, a category that happens to be my very favorite. Though I maybe should have anticipated it (it was, after all, a decidedly literary essay on a decidedly literary website), “The Best Books About Books” attracted a lot of attention—more so, I’m sure, because of the titles collected than for the quality of my writing. But nonetheless I was pleased to see those works receiving due promotion, which is mainly the only joy a critic experiences.

1567925480.01.LZZZZZZZWard Farnsworth Doesn’t Fuck Around | The Millions

Now, six years on, Ward Farnsworth has produced a sequel (a term associated more with Hollywood franchises than with manuals on literary technique). Farnsworth’s Classical English Metaphor duplicates its predecessor in approach and structure and voice and directness, and for all intents and purposes is just as fun and accessible, too. But Farnsworth’s latest subject, the metaphor, makes his follow-up better and more insightful than the first one, but also, in some ways, less useful, a fact that has less to do with Farnsworth’s skill and more to do with the metaphor’s nuanced utility. It is not that Farnsworth doesn’t do an excellent job illuminating the various ways we use language to compare things — sometimes the only means of apt description — or that his examples are less instructive or applicable. Rather, it is that the metaphor is simply employed far less often than the enormous toolbox of rhetoric, and, when it is used, its power stems less from its structure and more from the lucidity and the inventiveness and the clarity of the comparison. Metaphors have a quality of “wrongness,” as Walker Percy put it in 1975’s The Message in the Bottle (a book way too recent to have assumed Farnsworth has read it), and “that its beauty often seems proportionate to its wrongness or outlandishness.”

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102 Indispensable Works of Literary Criticism | Literary Hub

Anyway, so I spent my Superbowl Sunday organizing the most important section of any critic’s collection: literary criticism and biography. Not only is this my favorite shit to read, but I also refer to them so often that they’re also the most practically necessary. After I finished, I posted a photo of the beautifully and temporarily full shelves (I’ve already pulled like six books off that I’m using for current pieces) on Twitter, and someone asked me if I had any particular favorites. I wasn’t at home when I got the tweet, so to even consider responding at the time was unthinkable. I pondered for a few seconds  before immediately becoming overwhelmed. When I returned later and stared at the shelves, it occurred to me that I’ve been asked this question quite a few times. Perhaps this is because as a self-identifying literary critic there isn’t much else for people to ask me—this field doesn’t exactly make for the most riveting party talk. But whatever the reason, I thought I’d put together a list of the criticism that I most admire and to which I repeatedly refer. This is, of course, an extremely limited list, taken exclusively from books I own. Also for the sake of my sanity, I excluded all single-subject biographies and criticism on film or music; only fiction, poetry, and drama. Memoirs counted only if they directly involve other writers and/or the literary landscape of the era. It is in no way meant to be a list of the world’s indispensible literary criticism, only my own, and only so far.