“Trust” is the best word I can think of to describe the genius behind author Nell Zink’s work. She trusts herself as a writer: her prose is definite; her characters concrete; and her storylines carved without hesitation. She trusts her writing to be read, trusts her readers to grasp both the surface and those many layers below, or not. She trusts her readers to choose, see or don’t see the irony, the truth, the joke that is on you. These are the reasons I could not get enough of Doxology, Zink’s latest work shaking the world by its shoulders and asking it to face some facts. Centered on cultural touchstones of pre, during, and post September 11, 2001 NYC, a chosen family of white, middle class, highly intelligent people come together to make music, raise a young girl, and struggle to survive grief, loss, self-destruction, and self-definition in a recognizably fraught political climate. But those are the meagre descriptors, doing justice to everything covered in Doxology is the novel’s job. The gas pedal is fully depressed before Zink even allows you to buckle up. Trust her. She knows what she is doing.
In Madeline ffitch's absorbing, vibrant, and moving novel Stay and Fight, readers are introduced to central characters that by all terms of polite society should be considered outlaws, threatening the orderly and genteel structure of the 21st century's natural and human world: exactly the opposite is true. A sociological slam-dunk, ffitch illuminates with elegant simplicity in this story that love, education, survival, and respect in their purest altruistic forms are messy, misunderstood enterprises. Tidy, monotonous endeavors of classroom study and lawn care are exposed as developmental and ecological sterilization, not to mention the ever-present capitalism fueled resource mining of the land. It's land that is the punching bag here, and the pugilists are not the ones getting their hands dirty. How many people are trying to live conscientiously with each other, with the natural world they occupy, and what does it cost to maintain this rational intention labeled dangerous and radical? Ffitch has my gratitude for capturing this feeling and this fight (neither new to this millennium) so well in her writing, and for standing her ground and making her point.
This is my first exposure to Binnie Kirshenbaum and now I'm going to have to read everything she has written. Kirshenbaum writes with precision and depth, sharp wit and tender empathy, and out of nowhere in particular and every sentence/setting/moment emerges a colorful and tactile field of a story that is yours to experience. Rabbits for Food has Bunny, a clinically depressed fiction writer at its core and all the sadness that provokes and maintains her condition is crafted without pedantic pity or careless scoff.
Bunny, her friends and family, and hospital cohorts are wholly
presented without judgment and, therefore, accepted in their entirety. Layering emotional, relational, and sensorial explosions with the expended effort that is the daily maintenance of life, Kirshenbaum gives us this excellent novel, one that should not be missed.
Every moment in Stella Fortuna's life, her pre-life, and in between her deaths, is flawlessly constructed in this debut novel by Juliet Grames. Her writing brings all your senses to attention as you inhabit both Stella's idyllic Italian village upbringing, which is not without its terrors, and her stifling new world life in Hartford, which is not without its joys. I felt this story viscerally, and thought about Grames' brilliant character development long after I stepped away from the text. While she is forever seeking solitude, escape, command and control over her own being, Stella's familial tether is short and unyielding. And whether she likes it or not, Stella is the thriving root system of the Fortuna family tree; an intensely singular character readers will savor during each incarnation.
An atmospheric visit with Pico Iyer during one of his half-year-returns home to family and friends in Japan. His writing doesn't so much invite you in as much as it allows you to stroll and observe alongside him, an invisible confidant privy to his measured thoughts. While the visit encompasses both personal grief and ongoing struggles, neither his family's nor his privacy is jeopardized in sharing these events. Yet his shared experience is moving and feels very intimate. Read this whenever autumn feels like too many seasons away, or when you are in the midst of its magic and want to gather extra stores for later.
Isabella Hammad's characters are exquisite. Their relationships with one another, and within their own self-perceptions, are astute, fragile, and beautiful. Her writing effortlessly interweaves the complexities of culture and patriotism, love and communication from an Ottoman Palestinian's studies abroad in France during WW I into the base fabric of this novel. Tremors grow underneath the surface of the woven landscape, emerging and shaking Hammad's characters' inner and outer worlds into new versions of themselves. The Parisian offers an important reminder about “west” and “east,” interlopers, the dangers and lasting impact that comes from distilling cultural complexities into a tidy representation on paper.
“‘What sort of story? I don’t know what you mean?’
‘News story? Feature story? Community story? Sports story? Council story? Council grievance story? What sort of story?’
I consider this for a moment. Crime story. Missing Persons story. Family story. Brothers’ story. Tragic story. I press the green button.
‘Love story,’ I say. I cough. ‘It’s a love story.’”
This is indeed a love story. For the author Trent Dalton, who drew heavily on his own life for Boy Swallows Universe, the love in this story is given to family, to fate, to time. It’s the 1980’s in suburban Brisbane and teenage protagonist Eli Bell is surrounded by unusual circumstances that could otherwise derail the wide-eyed longing of a dreamer to love his life: his mother and her boyfriend are drug dealers; his babysitter and best friend is a 70 year old ex-convict; his father is an alcoholic, a recluse, and a stranger; and his older brother and greatest ally chooses to be non-verbal. But Eli Bell’s will to survive with his soaring love intact means none of that is going to ruin his universe.
Opting for the audiobook version of Boy Swallows Universe means that you are treating yourself to that sharp and sunny Australian accent, and a phenomenal performance by Australian tv and voice actor Stig Wemyss.
If you have ever been fortunate enough to see Louise Bourgeois’ work in person, I imagine you have fallen under her spell. Writer, gallerist, and Bourgeois’ friend, Jean Frémon has been entranced and more, and he has painted her portrait in a new novella, Now, Now, Louison, translated by poet Cole Swensen. I have just gotten access to an advanced copy, and am excited to begin. From the publisher:
“This brilliant portrait of the renowned artist Louise Bourgeois (1911–2010) shows a woman who was devoted to her art and whose life was also that of her century. The art world’s grande dame and its shameless old lady, spinning personal history into works of profound strangeness, speaks with her characteristic insolence and wit, through a most discreet, masterful writer. From her childhood in France to her exile and adult life in America, to her death, this phosphorescent novella describes Bourgeois’s inner life as only one artist regarding another can.”
For a non-writer I put together words all the time for texts, emails, references, applications, book recommendations; communications on the written level about anything and everything, and I know they fall short in many ways. My final proofread of any composition, however short or long, involves side-glancing at the thing and offering a silent apology to all my language instructors before releasing it. Random House’s copy chief Benjamin Dreyer is in the business of righting textual wrongs and has some wise words for writers of every shape and form. Dreyer’s English has me laughing out loud and quietly thinking there is hope for me yet! Dreyer is the voice of authority here, and the only one who can challenge you to eliminate useless intensifiers or present his case against contractions in formal writing with The Flannery O’Conner Flowchart. Whether you are looking for instruction for or alliance with your writing endeavors, this is the book for you. Available as an audiobook expertly read by the author on Libro.fm.
I never know how it happens with Tessa Hadley's novels, but I find I'm 30 pages into the text after what feels like mere moments of initial reading. And in that time so much has happened with her characters, their complexities somehow emerging out of everyday events. Whether they are routine or extraordinary, as in Late in the Day, Hadley's characters are engrossing, provocative and her story-lines so well executed you have no choice but to be invested. Open, and just start reading!
Idra Novey sets her stage in a familiar-enough time and place. But as the story unfolds in Those Who Knew, that time shifts past and present, and that sense of place is increasingly askew, disarming. A quietly powerful novel told through alternating perspectives of an activist, a survivor, an outsider, a politician, a playwright, the Odyssey's First Editions Club selection for December 2018 is both commentary and question about a vicious circle needing to be broken. *Signed copies available.
I hear of a new Ottolenghi cookbook and I'm in awe; how can there be more recipes? I give in to the allure of the new Ottolenghi cookbook and I wonder why I wondered or resisted. As with all his cookbooks, I open to a random page and let fate choose for me. A ground lamb stuffed flatbread assembled here with tortillas, garnished with bright and pungent sumac and cheddar! That will do. Until I make my way through: Brunch; Raw Veg; Cooked Veg; Rice, grains, and pulses; Noodles and Pasta; Meat; Seafood; Dessert. Until I make my way through, simply Ottolenghi.
Connecting the dots on your mural of life? Wondering the why of the who and the how of the where? You must be a Murakami reader. And if you find yourself in the oil and water situation of driving a lot and needing Killing Commendatore in your daydream mix, do not hesitate to press play on Kirby Heyborne's narrated audiobook version. As far as Heyborne goes you had me at David Mitchell, hit his repertoire is so vast you know him from somewhere else. Another time perhaps? Another art form, another story? Isn't that possible, Haruki Murakami?
That damp chill in the air means only one thing: you need Ren Behan's cabbage parcels with barley and mushroom sauce to warm your bones. Oh no, wait. You should have started with a bowl of curative sour cucumber soup made from your own fermented dill pickles. Delicious. Something sweet to follow? I recommend the spiced honey vodka, but if fruits are your thing there are other infusions to chose from. Yes, there are dumplings. And, yes: there is honey and rye loaf. Interlink prints on luscious paper that shows off the dimensionality of each traditional Polish dish Behan has made her own and chosen to share with you.