05/06/15 6:29am


Amelia Gray’s been holding court for a while as a ruler of weird fiction–her brand of methodical madness unlike anything else. Her first two collections AM/PM (2009) and Museum of the Weird (2010), as well as her novel Threats (2012), had readers second guessing the efficiency of their own imaginations. Containing things like talking armadillos and a man married to a paring knife, her stories are filled with a surreal, creepy innocence that never take themselves too seriously.

The stories in Gray’s latest collection Gutshot are a touch darker and sometimes even gory, but are equally playful and wondrous. Their lengths range, some are barely a page long, while others stretch up to 12 pages, yet even those remain swift to the eyes, and don’t feel that long either. I had a chance to hang with Amelia and ask her a few questions while she was in Brooklyn recently, making a rare appearance at the Franklin Park Reading series for a read of “House Heart,” which blew the venue to smithereens.


02/25/15 9:55am


Find Me
Laura Van Den Berg
Farrar, Straus & Giroux

The dangers of modern times have led to a wealth of novels which warn of an unhappy future. You have your classic dystopian novels like The Handmaid’s Tale, Lord of the Flies, or Ben Marcus’s The Flame Alphabet, which addresses being chipped apart slowly by the onrushing ever-tumbling surge of human language—the ruin and the salvation of us all. As times change, more and more books resemble premonitions of derangement.

01/28/15 2:00pm


Turtleface and Beyond
Arthur Bradford
Farrar, Straus & Giroux

How far would you go for a man who collapses at you from the side of the street? What if he’d been bitten by a poisonous snake and asked you to suck out the venom? What if you were late to a wedding horribly underdressed? Would you ask to borrow his tie? In fiction as in life, there will be no easy answers—but Arthur Bradford’s Turtleface and Beyond puts on a good show regardless. (more…)

12/03/14 7:10am


Preparation for the Next Life
Atticus Lish
Tyrant Books

Preparation for the Next Life is Atticus Lish’s testosterone-driven debut novel, but the ex-Marine is not new to the world of publishing. In a 1982 New York Times interview, Don Delillo praised his writing for its “simple exuberance.” Lish was only nine at the time; his father, Gordon (the editor best known as the prose crafter of Raymond Carver) was Delillo’s friend. Delillo’s novel The Names, came and went with mixed reviews, but the “simple exuberance” with which young Atticus’ work was described is undeniably present in its immersive, clean, straight-forward storytelling.

The story begins with Zou Lei, an illegal Chinese Muslim immigrant avoiding deportation while living in Chinatown. She teaches herself broken English on motel TVs, biding time with exercise while she saves money to buy a passable identity. We see her as a child in the Taklamakan desert where “everything smelled like leather, a sourness, a charcoal dust and manure.” And then back to present day hustle selling bootleg DVDs or working at various food courts in taped-up sneakers.

Then there’s Skinner, an Iraqi war vet who’s recent release from his second stop-loss tour has him floundering in his attempt to assimilate back into society. His severe PTSD and nightmares rife with burning-bodies don’t help. He mixes meds with booze to deal with a severe shrapnel injury and depression. He is perpetually incoherent, bed-ridden and paranoid.

Skinner finds Zou Lei when, randomly, he enters the shaky tenement where she resides; he strikes up a conversation, and there’s immediate chemistry. The overall athletic determination in Zou Lei’s daily routine adds a mild comic affect to the story. This is ultimately the connecting factor which bonds the couple. “She took a step forward with a bent knee and placed his large hand on her thigh. Man, he sighed. She let him slide his hand around her hip. Good? She asked. She flexed for him. Damn.”

What blooms as a mutual romance between Skinner and Zou Lei, quickly becomes a quest for individual survival among the decay of other desperate bodies. These people have seen it all, and rather than brace themselves for another inevitable wave of damage inflicted by world, they are armed and ready for battle as their “us versus them” attitudes cast shadows at bodegas and liquor stores alike.

It’s clear why Joy Williams praised Preparation for the Next Life as “powerfully realistic, with a solemn, muscular realism.” Lish’s prose is cold and unapologetic. His gut-curdling flashbacks are sometimes unsettling. His realism is the opposite of emotional luxury. But Lish’s honesty is what makes us aware of things we take for granted—whether it’s the security we are given as citizens or the warmth in our sanctuaries of creature comforts. And within this honesty, we also see that love is both challenging and essential—unexpected yet precise when the timing’s right.

07/02/14 4:00am

Crystal Eaters
by Shane Jones
Two Dollar Radio

To adapt to the reality of death, we are endlessly devising ways to deny or escape it. As children, we deny it with the help of parental reassurances and religious myths; later, we personify it by transforming it into an entity, whether sandman or demon. Or in Shane Jones’s case, a novel. His third novel, Crystal Eaters, demonstrates his natural aptitude as a nefelibata: one who lives in the cloud of their own imagination or dreams. He detoxifies the reality of death by taunting it, challenging it with visual daredevilry. In the impossible universe of Crystal Eaters, humans are at the mercy of their own tetragonal systems—stacks of crystals deplete in incidents of sickness or physical trauma, reinforcing the notion that one carries within the spores of one’s own demise. Every action, from falling off a bike to the common cold, can deplete a person’s crystal count. Aging is a terror in and of itself. A mirror for today’s obsessions, wrinkle creams and raw diets cannot prevent the the inevitable crystal depletion in Crystal Eaters. Only the rare black crystal can stall death with its distracting myth of immortality, but it also brings out a varicolored insanity in those who ingest it.

The novel’s central character is Remy, who suffers from a severe bouts of disassociation. Her family life is in critical condition. She mourns for her dying mother. Her father is emotionally withdrawn, expressing himself in outbursts of rage. Her brother, Pants McDonovan, an inmate at Ellsworth Correctional, holds court as the keeper of technicolor dreams. Remy, when not running through mines on all fours as a dog, or drawing crystals on her walls, must decipher reality and life from her own dreams and perceptions which hang on the dwindling crystal count in her body. Søren Kierkegaard said, “What if everything in the world were a misunderstanding, what if laughter were really tears?” Try not to laugh when you meet Jugba Marzan who “smells like hot dog water and mouth mints,” or Remy’s second dog, Dog Man, who calls her “the princess of castle puke” in an apocalyptic dream.

Reminiscent of Brautigan’s surreal masterpiece In Watermelon Sugar, with his iDEATH and tigers, where each day has a different sun with its gangs of colorfully nicknamed bandits, Crystal Eaters is also a dream within dreams, but of a sun set to “swallow the earth for reasons of expansion.” There is an inconspicuous beauty hidden in Jones’ world of burning buildings, painted murals of skeletons wrapped in roses, and “crab-walks away to the sound of ringing bells.” Line by line, it’s impossible to break away. Transcending conventions with singular brilliance, Crystal Eaters is the girl who runs topless through an aerobics class of sleepy geriatrics.

06/04/14 4:00am

Cutting Teeth
By Julia Fierro
(St. Martin’s Press)

To circumcise or not to circumcise? Breast or bottle? These are the hot topics discussed on the elitist playgrounds in this progressive debut. Women of an older generation bewildered by the pace of societal change, stay away! When a playgroup of thirtysomething New Yorkers decide to spend Labor Day weekend at a beach house with their toddlers in tow, situations get sticky, secrets are revealed, and tensions escalate. Sharing the realism of an Anne Tyler novel, Cutting Teeth showcases the dark sides of people living in a bubble of compliance—if you add black skinny jeans and homemade hummus. Animosity mounts and mixes. Aloe is applied generously. Repressed sexual angst sits thick on a slice of gluten-free pie. And couples who’ve gone way past the honeymoon phase must deal with the flaws of their friends and partners stuck in the insular confines of their shabby Long Island getaway.

The characters are well-drawn and abundant, each with their individual quirks, but they also share the paranoid stresses associated with parenting: Band-Aids on boo-boos, public breastfeeding, and blood-sucking ticks carrying Lime’s Disease. There’s OCD Nicole, the neurotic, apocalypse-obsessed weekend hostess, prone to cutting and sneaking weed; Allie and Susanna, artist moms to twins boys with another baby on the way; Leigh, the playgroup’s resident debutante, a “Grace Kelly-esque” blue-blood/mother of the developmentally delayed Chase; stay-at-home-dad Rip, the lone male in the group who “calls himself a feminist too often and with too much gusto”; and sultry, unpredictable Tiffany, the wild card, mother to a diva-in-training daughter. The fun is watching the interplay between a range of personalities as their various perspectives come forth in thought and dialogue. When potty training and the waiting lists of highly coveted pre-Ks are the only the common denominator within such limited living space, a clash of personalities is inevitable.

Fierro’s characters are intensely real, thoroughly developed. They come to life on the page. And unlike Anne Tyler, with her descriptions of insular Southern life, Fierro, who lives in Carroll Gardens and founded the Sackett Street Writers’ Workshop, writes for the urban Whole Foods crowd. Her writing is not only smart—it’s also sexy, and magnetic. Whether it’s “Measles in Park Slope” or “Mumps in Midwood,” Cutting Teeth offers a colorful timestamp of urban concerns. It’s about what we give up to build a family and how much we hold back. It exposes the vulnerability we risk in having children. Not all the insights are kind, but that’s what makes it believable.

01/15/14 4:00am

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.

10/09/13 4:00am

Dissident Gardens
By Jonathan Lethem

“Quit fucking black cops or get booted from the Communist party.” For anyone who appreciates a killer opening line, this prelude offers a glimpse of what’s to come in Brooklyn native Jonathan Lethem’s 10th novel. Best-known for his portraits of New York-based underdogs shaped by decades of familial shortcomings, Lethem has given us many captivating characters, most notably the Tourettic orphan/detective/car-service employee Lionel Essrog in Motherless Brooklyn and the pre-gentrification graffiti taggers Dylan and Mingus in The Fortress of Solitude. His latest is Rose Zimmer, the “Red Queen of Sunnyside,” around whom Dissident Gardens’ three generations of radicals orbit. After being expelled from the Party in 1955 for having an affair with a married black policeman, Rose becomes a controversial fixture in Queens, and the novel examines the shrapnel firings of her personality. Her unshakable influence on her family gets them all involved in decades of political movements: Rose’s own parlor Communism of the 30s, McCarthyism, Civil Rights, 70s communalism, and Occupy.

Her family members include her ideologically hardline ex-husband Albert; their hippie activist daughter Miriam; Miriam’s third-rate Irish folk singer husband, Tommy Gogan; their ill-fated son, Sergius; a numismatic who dreams of bringing a proletariat baseball team to Queens, Cousin Lenny; and the gay “three-hundred-pound African America neutron bomb” son of Rose’s longtime cop lover, Cicero, who becomes Rose’s surrogate son-in-law. Each of these characters are generously drawn within the non-linear narrative, and though the weight of a hyper-political family drama sounds heavy, Lethem’s characters’ wit keeps the book moving: “Rose’s Marxism quit at Marx. When Cicero’d one time popped a little Deleuze and Guattari on her ass, she balked.” (Plenty of cultural icons appear: Rothko, Kerouac, Archie Bunker—who makes a guest appearance in a fever dream—as well Tom Waits, “offering his artschool paraphrase of the lament of a hobo, larynx scarred by reflux—the exact vocal equivalent of blond dreadlocks.” Dissident Gardens catalogs the wonders of New York City past its romanticized artistic prime.)

Though you could criticize it as being too tightly packed, or (god forbid) over-ambitious, the novel reads like it was written to be the one that assures Lethem a position at the top of the list of our generation’s literary luminaries. His
protagonists are flawed, idealistic, and deeply tragic in their struggle to realize their utopian dreams. The New York “grass roots” populate his stories, which requires a writer with true insider knowledge of the city’s history and landscapes. You can debate where Dissident Gardens ranks with Motherless Brooklyn and The Fortress of Solitude, but it may be the book closest to Lethem’s heart. 

09/11/13 4:00am

Photo courtesy Grey’s Instagram

Born Marina Ann Hantzis in Sacramento, CA, Sasha Grey left porn four years ago at 21, explaining that after 271 films her “time as an adult film performer had expired.” She segued into mainstream film and TV, with top billing in Steven Soderbergh’s The Girlfriend Experience and a recurring role in the seventh season of Entourage. Now she transitions into novelist with The Juliette Society, a titillating book about a film student, Catherine, with an apathetic boyfriend who fails to accomodate her desires; she eventually enrolls in the title’s secret club, where members explore their darkest fantasies Eyes Wide Shut style.

How long did it take you to write The Juliette Society?
I wrote my initial proposal in May 2012, and from there I continued until March of this year. In October of last year I was also shooting a film with director Nacho Vigalondo, so that was my most challenging time. The most important part of the process was figuring out who Catherine was, and developing this fantasy dream-world in which she exists.

Have you read Fifty Shades of Grey?
I did, but not the trilogy. It definitely gave me the courage to say to myself that, yes, this is something I can do. For years now, I’ve had female fans ask me to tackle erotic fiction, and with the sudden boom, and uncanny use of the name “Grey,” it was time!

Catherine’s boyfriend, a staffer in a senator’s campaign office, is uninterested in sex, which is a catalyst for her sexual explorations. Did you create him as a foil?
Everyone in the book is based on types and not just one individual, but I really needed a reason for Catherine to take the risks she takes other than her own pleasure. I didn’t want her to become a vile character that readers would dislike, so their relationship became a very important way to ensure that.

You incorporate character analyses from classic films like Vertigo and Citizen Kane, and mention others like Contempt and 400 Blows. Do you think modern cinema’s in decline? Are there exceptions?
Haha, of course. Modern art is in decline, whether we’re talking cinema, music, etc. Everything is packaged by selling the 10 best women, and 10 best men. Even in the contemporary fine-art world. There are exceptions, and there always will be, but let’s not just think it’s purely the system/business’ fault. It’s the audience who wants the same easily digestible, repetitive entertainment.

Steven Soderbergh said something very poignant in a speech he gave recently. “I think that what people go to the movies for has changed since 9/11. I still think the country is in some form of PTSD about that event, and that we haven’t really healed in any sort of complete way, and that people are, as a result, looking more toward escapist entertainment. And look, I get it. There’s a very good argument to be made that only somebody who has it really good would want to make a movie that makes you feel really bad. People are working longer hours for less money these days, and maybe when they get in a movie, they want a break. I get it.”

France is a great example; they are also suffering from big-budget box office failures, because they are only trying to repeat or plug in the same top tier, highest paid stars. The exceptions will always be there, and I think Jeff Nichols is a great example of that. Mud, for instance, is one of the best films I’ve seen this year.

07/31/13 4:00am


If you’ve ever read a Harlequin romance novel and found yourself knee-deep in a story about a sheik and an American cowgirl, you surely realized that even when you fast forward to “the good bits,” most of it’s softcore, revolving around a love that can pick you up with well-oiled biceps and throw you onto a cloud of raptured bliss. These tales are candy-coated cupcakes compared to those of the lascivious Celeste Price. The hero of this debut novel, with her 26-year-old trophy-wife looks, has cravings for young flesh that’re relentless, predatory and wholly without remorse. As readers, we’re insiders on a thrilling trip steered by her insatiable vagina.

We meet Celeste as she’s pleasuring herself beside her sleeping husband, and you immediately wonder if the dust-jacket flaps on a book can double as blinders to keep over-the-shoulder readers away. Celeste is really in touch with what turns her on, namely the gangly limbs of boys too young to grow beards but almost old enough for learner’s permits. She’s a teacher for a reason, and now she’s ready for her first day at school in Florida, “finally set up with a job that would allow me to go back to eighth grade permanently.”

Soon Celeste focuses on Jack Patrick, a quiet jock whose 14-year-old body has her in a persistent lustful frenzy. He “surely smelled upon me the dank catalyst of experience that could take him from theory to practice.” She spies on him outside his home, in her car with an electric device humming loud enough to make the Energizer Bunny blush. She stalks him in the lunchroom, unbuttons buttons before walking past him, and taunts him enough to evoke thoughts of Sting’s legendary anthem of classroom boners: “Don’t stand so close to me!”

Nutting has called Tampa a reimagining of Lolita based on a schoolteacher ex-classmate of hers who had an affair with a 14-year-old. Like Nabokov’s book, Nutting’s is persistently funny, especially the hulk of problems that is Celeste’s coworker Janet. But does Nutting get away with it? In Lolita, Humbert’s depictions of desire involved much less detail of sex acts than post-coital reverence, but Humbert was a professor, not a junior-high school teacher. Celeste has her own language, and she likes to give details.

Nutting’s first book was the 2011 Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls, an uncannily original collection of stories opening with “Dinner,” about a pot of people being boiled alive for deranged foodies. (Another story, “Ant Colony,” follows a vain model who volunteers to let a dentist drill holes in her bones to harbor an ant colony.) These stories address the dark mutations of human desire in their sweet and uniquely original melodramas—and they happen to be very accessible. Tampa is the same. Whether with curiosity, amazement, or disgust, it’s a book people will be talking about.