03/26/14 4:00am
03/26/2014 4:00 AM |

Made to Break
By D. Foy
(Two Dollar Radio)

This brashly written debut concerns friends too old to still be friends, which is to say that it’s about partying: about youth and life, both destined to end even though the characters can’t see it or admit it, not even on the last page, not even after a death or with the hindsight of a future lived in seclusion and extinguished revelry. In bareknuckle prose, Brooklynite Foy tells the story of five not-that-young people, most of whom are old friends, now more like frenemies, on holiday in a Lake Tahoe cabin with both a horrible storm and a New Year approaching. At least one is recently out of the army—it’s the late 90s, post-Bosnia—and it’s like they’ve all brought a war home, considering their relationships with a contemptuous combativeness fueled by cases of booze and a few bags of junk food.

The one thing they don’t have is ice, which sends Dinky out with the narrator, Andrew Jackson. After their cubes-run ends in a car accident, AJ gets the injured Dinky back to their remote lodgings, but sheets of rain knock out the phone and make traveling impossible; while Dinky’s stranded in an upstairs bedroom, desperately needing medical attention, the rest of them have it out with themselves and each other, reliving their common experiences, arguing through the present, and trying to team up to get the hell out of there.

There are intimations of lives outside the friendship—one of them has gone corporate, others seem to be involved in the music industry—but none of that really matters. Foy focuses on insularity, how these people relate to each other, careers be damned, past the point at which they should be going through such self-destructive motions of adolescent carousal. But it’s a rut they can’t escape, their loneliness, bitterness and fear coming to a head during the rained-out getaway. They cling to past choices, behaviors and people, a lifetime of shared stories behind them (but not much in front of them), some of which are funny but also sad and mean. The desire to improve—“I wanted her to trust in the promise of the man I was trying to give her,” AJ says about the girl he’s trying to get with—proves impossible to realize, at least around these people. “I guess that’s the problem,” AJ says. “How much we need our memories, but hate ourselves for the needing and
having both?”

03/12/14 4:00am
03/12/2014 4:00 AM |

Edited by Chad Harbach

The titular binary of Harbach’s 2010 n+1 essay “MFA vs NYC” posited two paths to literary success: the MFA route, which starts with workshops full of aspiring writers run by larger-than-life instructors (who have fine-tuned craft into a science) and ends with those same once-aspiring writers eventually drilling the glories of craft into the next generation of MFA candidates; and the alternate path, upon which writers find themselves “condensed in New York” and involved with the publishing industry, wherein they not only learn about writing but also about the business of writing. Harbach acknowledged that these two overlap some, but he maintained that understanding the current economic and cultural literary landscape is best—or even only—understood through
this paradigm.

Despite the strength of the book’s title (because, you know, POW), Harbach’s essay, which kicks off this new anthology, is one of its weakest if only because of its flawed premise that there’s limited fluidity between the MFA and NYC camps. And if the whole book (if, indeed, all of American fiction) were divided so neatly, it would have been too on-the-nose. Instead, MFA vs NYC is split into sections like “The Teaching Game” and “Two Views on the Program Era,” within which were some of my favorite essays (those by Elif Batuman, Carla Blumenkranz and Keith Gessen), all of which demonstrate that the writers didn’t adhere too closely to the proscribed dichotomy (because they live outside it, as almost all writers do); instead, they used it as a starting point to write about their experiences of living as writers.

But who gets to be a writer? This question plagued me as I read, recognizing the experience of embarking on a career that makes no remunerative promises but that happens to be the thing you do well, and realizing that almost nobody—and certainly not any of the writers in the book—becomes a writer just because he or she earns an MFA or makes the right publishing connections. Someone gets to be a writer (as is apparent from the list of contributors to this book, more like a web of literary and personal connections than a simple catalog) is by writing well for other writers. This, and being a part of a larger community, is essential to an individual writer’s success—to making a living but also to that other indispensable part of being a writer: getting read. Writers become writers by writing things that other writers want to read. Then they get to write more, thus building a career based on their individual talents, yes, but also on the larger collective structure within which they work. As long as writers keep writing for each other, distinctions of pedigree will continue to fade and real talent will prevail—though there still won’t be much
money in it.

02/26/14 4:00am
02/26/2014 4:00 AM |

The Dismal Science
By Peter Mountford
(Tin House Books)

This novelist’s first book, A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism, zoomed in on a player in the economic crises of the aughts, an ambitious young hedge fund employee with dollar signs in his eyes who negotiated his way through the ethics of getting his. In his new novel, Mountford shifts the focus to a protagonist from the same social strata who’s playing the game in reverse: Vincenzo D’Orsi, an economist at the World Bank, throws his job security and financial future in jeopardy with a spontaneous decision seemingly rooted in principle.

The greatest strength of Mountford’s debut novel is its nuanced, often sympathetic approach to a six-figure-salary protagonist with a seemingly ruthless lust for wealth. He’s similarly even-handed with Vincenzo’s motives. While some of the crunchier people he runs across (a young anti-globalist protest leader, his Oberlin-alum daughter) wish to pin a medal of altruism on him, and a lesser writer might have made this a hero’s journey of a corporate bad guy turned good, Mountford fashions something truer. Vincenzo is more realistic and relatable than the mythic political hero others wish he were—or the more stock character we might have expected.

Mountford’s stories live—and thrive—in ethical gray areas. His characters constantly compromise some part of their lives to leave room for another: love for work, integrity for success, pragmatism for principled conviction. The Dismal Science forms new iterations of these conflicts; against the backdrop of the World Bank and its role in Latin America, the characters’ struggles are a metaphor for the larger moral minefield unfolding around them.

A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism filled in a gap in fiction by humanizing one of the ubiquitous Wall Street figures dominating headlines anonymously. With The Dismal Science, he goes deeper by presenting an even more introspective character whose high-profile political maneuvers come with a psychological backstory. Here’s hoping that Mountford will continue to offer up these imaginings of the inner lives of powerful men, which enrich the contemporary conversation.

02/12/14 4:00am
02/12/2014 4:00 AM |

Psychedelic Norway
By John Colburn
(Coffee House Press)

Read John Colburn’s poetry and feel him lay bandages upon the earth. In his latest collection, released late last year, Colburn builds a kaleidoscopic palace for the reader to navigate: fractured, crystalline, and trembling with light. Known as an anarchist poet, he seems comfortable with the mind’s lawlessness, yet that moniker is reductive and belies Colburn’s precision with language—at once associative, elegant, and echoed by the book’s
crisp type.

Still, wildness runs as current through Psychedelic Norway’s six sections, and at times this wildness is almost grimy. In the long poem sequence “preoccupation,” pigs exhibit shame and heads are determined by alcoholism and the speaker does not want “to act as mean as a human being.” Yet at other times Colburn’s wildness is synonymous with love—or at least delicate like clouds. In “prayer for dropouts,” the most relentlessly tender poem in the collection, the modal verb “may” introduces each stanza as a means of both benediction and entreaty: “may many versions of you carry your burden into many houses and may the burdens be released.” It’s the perfect grammar, allowing readers to exist simultaneously in the houses of love and longing—a separation Colburn eventually explodes, just as “grief-bearing flowers explode in their vases.”

Indeed, trying to gain a foothold in the crevasses of Colburn’s poetry is like trying to transcribe a jazz concert you heard at 2am. The point of this particular art is to receive its fullness, to feast at its rich table with your own hands, without a thought of knife and fork. There are so few spaces, literal or literary, in which we’re asked to abide with such corporeal uncertainty, the discomfort that arises in an opaque room. But Colburn invites you to sit down and remain in this shimmering territory, and in turn you’re rewarded with astonishing clarity and humor and, in the end, divinity. “This room is not the answer to the question, but the receptacle,” Colburn writes in the preface, a cycle of poems for Karel Husa’s string quartet. “The room holds the question, like the jar holds the water.” Psychedelic Norway holds countless questions and
limitless magic. As Colburn would say: feel closely,
and listen.

01/29/14 4:00am
01/29/2014 4:00 AM |

Collected Poems
By Denise Levertov
(New Directions)

With the release late last year of this massive volume, New Directions has given us the means to see Denise Levertov’s career whole—and a case for this proud, courageous, often combative woman to belong with Wallace Stevens and Elizabeth Bishop in the first rank of American poets. Indeed, seen in outline, Levertov’s career seems to encompass the whole grand, messy century: as a girl, she famously corresponded with T.S. Eliot, and some of her earliest poems were written in the hospitals of wartime Britain; half a century later she titled a poem “Silicon Valley.”

Her precocious early work aside, Levertov’s career truly began with her move to New York in 1948, which precipitated an astonishingly rapid assimilation of and mastery over various poetic forms. The volumes O Taste and See and The Sorrow Dance—my personal favorites of her long career—are the work of a poet operating at a ferocious early peak of ability and energy. Ardent, sensual, and crackling with intelligence, they marked their author as “a woman with that cold fire in her called poet,” moving to “the direct, intense / sound of direction,” drawn into the erotic circle of marriage but not afraid to “be / gaily alone.” With Relearning the Alphabet in 1970, Levertov began an intense lifelong engagement with the poetry of political protest, the usual limitations of which she transcended with brio. What gave even her most didactic statements their impact was her peerless ear for the music of language. She seemed incapable of writing a dull or obvious line, even “while the war drags on, always worse / and the soul dwindles sometimes to an ant / rapid upon a cracked surface” and her vision became both more radical and more despairing.

What followed was almost inevitably a retrenchment of sorts, and the poems in The Freeing of the Dust and beyond reflect an uneasy peace: “I am tired of ‘the fine art of unhappiness,’” the poet concludes at the end of “The Wealth of the Destitute.” All of this came to a seemingly sudden pivot with Levertov’s conversion to Catholicism in 1984, a shocking turn in the life of a formerly avowed Jewish atheist and secular Communist. Levertov’s personal embrace of Christianity was characteristically astringent and complex, and if the religious poems of her last decade don’t always achieve the effortless incandescence of her earlier work, they’re nonetheless often grave and striking. “The holy vice / utters its woe and glory in myriad musics,” she wrote in “Immersion,” one of her last poems. Right to the end, the cold fire burned strong in her.

01/15/14 4:00am
01/15/2014 4:00 AM |

By Anne Marie Wirth Cauchon
(Two Dollar Radio)

The end of the world is nigh in the Missoula Mountains, whose forests are burning from dry fires headed nearer to civilization with every minute. Smoke billows past a “crystal clear river and mountains covered in dark pines.” Ash falls like snow. As the raging fires approach town, citizens are urged to evacuate, while partygoers raise hell in a gutted McMansion. The sordid details of what happens inside the late-teens/early-20s’ parties are supplanted by the observations of the oscillating narrators in Anne Marie Wirth Cauchon’s debut novel. Ever-brooding Ruth, who romanticizes Kafka, Plath and suicide, obsesses over her best friend, Bridget, a gorgeous outcast whose looks are often touched with reverence and remorse; James, a well-heeled drifter, desperately searches for his biological father, leading to a violent feud with local hobos. When James sets his sights on Ruth at a party—a tense mix of Fight Club and Eyes Wide Shut—romantic drama ensues.

But these parties come to an abrupt halt when a girl dies of mysterious causes beside an abandoned dead-eyed baby. What makes fiction more ominous than the tortured demise of children? Who can shake the image in The Road when the Boy notices “a charred human infant headless and gutted and blackening on the spit,” and who can forget the neglected Trainspotting baby? These kids will drive you to lock yourself in a closet and come out next year. Nothing’s baby is a martyr for the dreaded apocalypse, and Ruth’s neuroses are its nucleus. The novel offers glimpses into the wasteland of early adulthood, perpetuating the anxieties of narrators more conscious of cliques, mollies and selfies than the “wildfire smoke like incense spreading skyward.” Fire against angst is a vivid juxtaposition—and atmospheric, in the most literal sense. If a warehouse of Thomas Kinkade paintings caught on fire, there would be Nothing.

01/01/14 4:00am
01/01/2014 4:00 AM |

Hyperbole and a Half
By Allie Brosh

I don’t read a lot of books about depression; many unhelpfully limit the conversation. But Allie Brosh’s new book of graphic essays, subtitled Unfortunate Situations, Flawed Coping Mechanisms, Mayhem, and Other Things That Happened is a direct, searingly honest, yet hilarious take on depression that’s dark in the right places. It might not offer “it gets better” reassurances, but it offers empathy, compassion, and a sense of community, which are all more valuable. “Nobody can guarantee that it’s going to be okay,” Brosh writes in “Depression Part Two,” “but… the possibility exists that there’s a piece of corn on a floor somewhere that will make you just as confused about why you are laughing as you have ever been about why you are depressed… [Not] knowing feels strangely hope-like.”

Hyperbole and a Half started as a blog in 2009, when Brosh forfeited her dreams of becoming a scientist and started sharing her drawings on the Internet. The book collects some reader favorites and some brand new pieces like “Motivation,” an essay describing Brosh’s self-induced fearing and shaming to force her to get shit done. The ensuing shame circuit in which Brosh finds herself feels all too familiar, but the way in which she eventually takes ownership of her self-destruction is eye-opening. “I’m still hoping that perhaps someday I’ll learn how to use willpower like a real person, but until that very unlikely day, I will confidently battle toward adequacy, wielding my crude skill set of fear and shame.”

Brosh’s absurd, alien-like stand-in and its manic-depressive facial expressions aim to blow depression a little bit out of proportion, and, combined with her anecdotal prose, they curiously make portraits of crippling mental illness all the more real and piercing. The tonal balance between levity and gravity is clear in the interplay between text and image; both do equal storytelling duty. Drawings elegantly (and hilariously) paint the crushing pressure of pointlessness and apathy without crossing into sentimentality. This is the book’s biggest accomplishment; some essays, like “Lost in the Woods” and “This is Why I’ll Never Be an Adult,” both end with little to no catharsis for the reader. Some breakdowns stay forever.

But I laughed through the whole thing, even through some of the lukewarm pieces about her two dogs’ strange personalities. (Yes, you can most certainly have too many anecdotes about your pets in one volume!) Which is to say, I’m grateful for Allie Brosh. Hers is a welcome new voice in the conversation about depression. Measured and sober self-reflections don’t always have to be somber. You’ve still got to laugh, because “maybe everything isn’t hopeless bullshit.”

12/18/13 4:00am
12/18/2013 4:00 AM |

Photo via Washington Post

Adelle Waldman

The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., about the romantic life of a Prospect Heights novelist, would be a huge accomplishment for any author. That it was this Fort Greene writer’s debut novel makes it a monumental one! Every Brooklyn-based person involved in the book-industry, either directly or tangentially, seemed to be reading and fawning over this book this summer, including us.

12/18/13 4:00am

– – – – 15 – – – –
Pain, Parties, Work
By Elizabeth Widmer

By focusing solely on the month that Sylvia Plath spent as a collegiate guest editor at Mademoiselle in the summer of 1953, Widmer manages to shed new light on her overly scrutinized subject. The tangibles of that long-ago June—silk stockings, black pumps, crab cakes—reveal Plath as a sensual aesthete, capable of joy and buoyancy in addition to her great suffering.

– – – – 14 – – – –
By Alissa Nutting

Pro-tip: when reading this on the subway, put it away a stop or two before your own so you can compose yourself, as this super-steamy, unabashedly explicit story of a female middle school teacher preying on her male students is bound to get you worked up in outrage, arousal, or both.

– – – – 13 – – – –
Elect H. Mouse State Judge
By Nelly Reifler

This slim, strange novel tells the story of young mice kidnapped by Mattel dolls, with private detectives Barbie and Ken on the case. If it sounds like dumb pop-culture subversion, it’s not; instead, it’s as though the experience of being kidnapped as a child is so surreal that this is the only way accurately to capture it in literature. It’s weirdly moving.

– – – – 12 – – – –
Slaughterhouse Poems
By Dave Newman

Memory is elliptical and unreliable; even memoirs written in prose have an element of the poetic. This affecting collection of poems brings that out to the forefront with an elegiac look at an adolescence filled with nothing to do and nowhere to go.

– – – – 11 – – – –
Vampires in the Lemon Grove
By Karen Russell

Russell’s humanity is so in the forefront of this collection that it’s a little shocking to reflect on how out-there the premises of her short stories really are. A veteran’s apparently alive tattoo begets a haunting examination of PTSD, while enslaved human-silkworm hybrids engender a powerful story of endurance and defiance. Russell’s writing is so powerful, so effortlessly good, that she makes it seem easy. It ain’t.

– – – – 10 – – – –
The Good Lord Bird
By Jim McBride

Returning to the milieu of American slavery, McBride this time gets it right, with a darkly comic story of an escaped slave who would like to be free, yes, but is content to let others do the hard work while he tries to pick up girls. John Brown stands at the center of this daring novel, by turns intimidating, pathetic, fearsome and hilarious. He’s one of the year’s most memorable literary creations, and McBride places him in a world that is no less
fully realized.

12/04/13 4:00am
12/04/2013 4:00 AM |

The Isle of Youth
By Laura van den Berg
(FSG Originals)

“The day my husband left me, I followed a trio of acrobats around the city of Paris,” begins “Acrobat.” It’s the quintessential Laura van den Berg opening line: in this superb collection—as in her equally terrific debut, What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us—women are always being abandoned by or running away from men (lovers, husbands, fathers, brothers), and getting closer to realizing who they are, what they’re capable of, and what they want by way of this newfound absence. Hers are heroes in transition, divorced or orphaned, emotionally exhausted and often in temporary situations: short-term jobs, affairs with married or dying men. And they’re often doing something adventurous: in her first book, almost every story involved a sea monster; in this one, there are the cousins who start robbing banks when they ditch the family farm, or the sister who goes looking for answers about her dead brother in Antarctica. Van den Berg demonstrates such an effortless command of sentence structure, storytelling and subtle symbolism that she should soon join the ranks of the most celebrated practitioners of the form. This book and the one that preceded it are short fiction par excellence—masterpieces both.