07/16/15 11:56am
07/16/2015 11:56 AM |


Say what you will about the last dozen years, but don’t say there hasn’t been good stuff to read. Here are 12 books we think stand out from this time in Brooklyn’s history.



Fortress of Solitude
Jonathan Lethem (2003)
This semi-autobiographical novel takes readers on a deep dive into what it was like to grow up in the pre-gentrification Brooklyn of the early 70s. Oh, and there’s a magic ring.


What I Loved
Siri Hustvedt (2003)
Simultaneously managing to engage the themes of art, love, and neuroscience, Hustevdt composed one of the most compelling New York novels we’ve read.


The Namesake
Jhumpa Lahiri (2004)
Lahiri’s debut novel tracks the journey of a Bengali family who have come to America and try to build their lives, but maintain their identities, in this wholly foreign land.


The History of Love
Nicole Krauss (2005)
Krauss captured multiple narrative voices and wove together so many seemingly disparate storylines that this book risked feeling like more novelty than novel, but somehow it all works out in the end.


Then We Came to the End
Joshua Ferris (2007)
Though set in Chicago, any Brooklyn-based office drone can recognize him- or herself in this darkly funny cubicle-set debut novel.


Joseph O’Neill (2008)
This could fairly be called a “9/11 novel;” it could also fairly be called one of the most beautiful meditations on how a rapidly changing world is forever altering our conception of what our society is.


Sag Harbor
Colson Whitehead (2009)
Set in a predominantly African-American part of the Hamptons, Whitehead’s novel beautifully wrestles with issues of race, class, belonging, and life.


A Visit from the Goon Squad
Jennifer Egan (2010)
This novel, which reads as much like a collection of short stories, experiments with voice, theme, and medium (one chapter is done in PowerPoint), and is easily one of the most memorable books of the last twelve years.


Sunset Park
Paul Auster (2010)
Consummate Brooklyn author Auster tackles the the era of the Great Recession and gives us an at-times haunting look at how we struggle to recapture that which is fully gone.


The Residue Years
Mitchell S. Jackson (2013)
Jackson’s writing begs you to read at a fast pace, one that matches the harrowing nature of the narrative, which deals with the problems of a mother and son, as seen through the lens of addiction and poverty, race and redemption.


Nobody Is Ever Missing
Catherine Lacey (2014)
In her debut novel, Lacey covers themes of loss, forgiveness, love, and escape. And she does it in some of the most lyrical prose we’ve ever encountered.


Brown Girl Dreaming
Jacqueline Woodson (2014)
The beauty of this incredibly moving meditation on Woodson’s childhood in New York and South Carolina will stay with you long after you finish it; it will stay with, or, really, in you forever.

07/16/15 10:27am


Martian Dawn & Other Novels
Michael Friedman
(Little A)

A not-insignificant proportion of experimental fiction broadcasts itself by breaking boldly with mainstream literary forms in order to serve a recognizably literary function. You can usually identify these books at a glance, by their idiosyncratic typographies and/or self-reflexive narrators. The worst of them transpose formal pyrotechnics for humor and humanity. Michael Friedman’s Martian Dawn & Other Novels, though it’s about as weird a book as books come, does not make this mistake.

Martian Dawn & Other Novels is actually an omnibus edition of three novellas: Martian Dawn, published by Turtle Point Press in 2006; Are We Done Here?, completed in 2009; and On My Way to See You, in 2013. The latter two are published here for the first time. The subjects they tackle, collectively and individually, include: Hollywood stardom, planetary colonization, the film industry, love affairs, holograms, Amazonian missionaries, pop culture, casual Buddhism, psychotherapy, and the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado. On every page there is something funny, sad, weird, or some combination thereof, conjured by Friedman’s deadpan tone, pile-up of cliche and detail, and the placement of quotidian characters into absurd situations (or vice versa).

Let me illustrate by way of example: Martian Dawn concerns a Hollywood power couple, Richard and Julia, who are called back to work to reshoot the botched ending of a science-fiction film called Martian Dawn. The shoot takes place on Mars. Richard is a world-famous actor and a Buddhist dilettante, friendly with the Dalai Lama, who spends his free time following Rinpoche, his Tibetan dharma-to-the-stars, on the international lecture circuit. Until Richard met Julia, she was a hooker at the Baby Doll Lounge, “taking on all comers at $500 a pop.” Now she, too, is a world-famous actress, who spends her free time shopping on Rodeo Drive and reminiscing about her former lover/pimp, Angel. When the novel begins, she’s on location shooting Cat Fight at the OK Corral—“the story of supermodels on the loose in Manhattan.”

Attentive readers will recognize that Richard and Julia are based on Richard Gere and Julia Roberts, and the characters each plays in Pretty Woman. This becomes evident in the first chapter. From there, the cast expands to include a Weinstein-esque film producer and his psychotherapist, who’s in love with him; the sequestered inhabitants of a biosphere in Arizona; four cosmonauts orbiting and flirting in space; and a reporter for Whale Quarterly named Cap, who has strong feelings for the solitary blue whale in the biosphere. They eventually all meet up on Mars, which has been colonized. Would you even believe me if I wrote that it all comes together?

Are We Done Here? and On My Way to See You don’t adhere to common sense either. Are We Done Here? pogoes between the Manhattan demimonde, an Amazonian village, and the Betty Ford Clinic, while On My Way to See You is a murder mystery, set in France, concerning a vanished gay writer, his holographic doppelgänger, a drag queen in Nice, and an author named Ben Berkowitz who has a wife and children back in Williamsburg, several girlfriends/lovers on the side, and a list of unfortunate phobias that includes French furniture.

None of these characters is developed much beyond their signifiers. They’re mostly defined by comically outsized self-absorption, but this flimsiness keeps them pliable for Friedman’s screwball plots. He moves them around like board game characters. Their shallowness also makes them easily skewerable as avatars of various pompous delusions: Hollywood arrogance, spiritual empowerment, ego superiority. They speak in banalities and pronouncements that skew just off-course from the patter of recognizable human conversation. They find themselves adrift in situations that veer from real to surreal and back again. In Are We Done Here?, two characters confront their lovers about an affair:


“Don’t be coy,” Lisa insisted. “Let it all hang out. It’ll do you worlds of good. Don’t even think about denying it. How long?”

Thomas did his best to maintain some composure. “Uh…um…not long—”

“Two years,” Harper blurted out.

“Oh my God!” Lisa gasped.

Thomas’s jaw dropped, and he shot Harper a horrified look.

Lisa pulled a Luger out of her handbag.

“Is that a Luger? Amazing. Where did you find it?” Thomas asked.

“eBay. Now up against the wall, motherfuckers!” she shouted, waving the gun around.

“Give me the gun, Lisa,” David instructed.


Or take this exchange, from Martian Dawn, in which Svetlana, a sexy Russian cosmonaut and the author of From Borscht to Crepes Suzette, a cookbook, comes on to her American counterpart in space, a schlub named Walter:


“This is sex module. Do not try to fight it, Walter. Do not make me beg.”

“Phew! Is it hot in here, or is it just me?” Walter asked, pulling at his collar with his index finger.

“You are helpless to resist. You are in my power. You will do as I say,” she cooed.

“Point taken,” he murmured.


Afterward, Walter finds himself wondering:


What had just happened? Was he developing something more than just a passing interest in Svetlana? Were they going to do something—sometime soon? And how was her carbonara sauce?


Friedman, who is also a poet and a commercial law attorney in Denver, is that vanishingly rare combination of “weird and virtuosic,” to quote from Molly Young’s introduction to this volume. Like any good satirist, he distorts his characters in order to reveal something flawed and funny—and human—in them. He’s perverse and weird and yet his work is still inviting—though you can never be entirely sure that he’s not pulling a fast one on you. Phillip Pantuso

05/06/15 6:29am
05/06/2015 6:29 AM |


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.


04/22/15 3:35pm
by |
04/22/2015 3:35 PM |


Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own
Kate Bolick
(Random House)

“Whom to marry, and when it will happen–these two questions define every woman’s existence, regardless of where she was raised or what religion she does and doesn’t practice.” Such is the wisdom—and unfortunate opening—of Spinster, a new memoir-ish book by Kate Bolick. Bolick, a 40-something editor for the Atlantic is a satisfied single—and don’t you forget it. (She loves being alone, okay?) But going solo wasn’t easy for her. Spinster, then, is a ledger of her struggle, or a map to Bolick’s own sovereign land. Spoiler alert: Bolick, through spinsterhood, makes a life of her own. And how!

Spinster is part-autobiography, part-manifesto, and a smattering of women’s history. We meet Bolick’s mélange of suitors: her college beau, the enterprising co-editor, the fling, et al. Eventually, Bolick jettisons the whole fleet for solitude, haters be damned. Along the way, she finds her idols: five women of the Edith Wharton variety, whom she calls her “awakeners.” (more…)

04/08/15 10:52am
04/08/2015 10:52 AM |


Night at the Fiestas
Kirstin Valdez Quade
(W. W. Norton)

We are comprised of our past. Attempting to stifle its inexorable intrusion in our present lives is an impossible feat, and yet we try time and time again. The past is ubiquitous and, mostly, unforgiving. The only way to control the power it has over our lives is to open our arms and accept it. In her haunting debut collection, Night at the Fiestas, Kirstin Valdez Quade explores these deep inner quarrels we endure, and the strength we must find in order to prevail, with beautiful stories full of grit, wisdom, and unadulterated chaos.

Immersed in the no-bullshit—but still devoutly religious—culture of a small town in northern New Mexico, Quade’s protagonists are as real as they get—flawed, vulnerable, desperate for love. But also, like most of us, they’re emboldened by their aspirations. In “The Five Wounds,” we are introduced to Amadeo Padilla, who believes that playing the role of Jesus in his town’s rendition of The Passion will redeem him of his old sinful ways and gain him the respect he desires. But when his estranged fourteen-year-old daughter shows up unannounced during Passion Week with a protruding pregnant belly, Amadeo learns it’s going to take more than a little blood to out-Christ his predecessor, who in 1962 “begged the hermanos to use nails.” In “The Guesthouse,” Jeff’s mourning comes to a jarring halt when he discovers his deadbeat father breeding a boa constrictor in his deceased grandmother’s guesthouse. As his father weasels his way out of yet another confrontation, Jeff is filled with a rage that will eventually lead to the release of a tank full of swarming, vengeful rodents. In “Ordinary Sins,” a young expectant mother struggles with the guilt cast upon her by her unwed pregnancy, but when implored to dispose of her priest’s stash of travel-sized vodka bottles, she finds herself oddly at ease. Quade’s stories are told with implacable wit, and the visceral empathy she feels for her characters illuminates every page. Whether fleeing the past or making amends with it, Quade’s vibrant cast of characters emerge from their heartaches and losses resilient and transformed. Reading this collection is like reading through a juicy diary or reliving an embarrassing moment—at times it hurts, at times it makes you laugh out loud, but ultimately, it resonates with you long after you expect to have forgotten it.

03/25/15 7:37am
03/25/2015 7:37 AM |


Hall of Small Mammals: Stories
Thomas Pierce
(Riverhead Books)

The characters in Thomas Pierce’s Hall of Small Mammals are bone collectors, particle physicists, hot air balloonists, TV show hosts, comedians, mothers and fathers, husbands and wives, believers and apostates, and would-be initiates of a cultish scouting society called the Grasshoppers. Across a dozen short stories, their concerns orbit a resurrected clone of a long-extinct dwarf woolly mammoth species, a visit to the zoo to witness a rare monkey species, an unidentifiable infectious disease, and a theoretical subatomic particle called the daisy, amongst other things. Their worlds are recognizable yet strange, imaginariums of the possible that feel like extensions of the probable, existing in “a universe a few inches to the left of this one, perhaps,” as Pierce himself has said. (more…)

03/11/15 6:49am
03/11/2015 6:49 AM |


The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty
Amanda Filipacchi
W.W. Norton & Company

Beauty is inescapable, perhaps now more than ever. To a certain degree, of course, it’s true that beauty—physical beauty—has always been omnipresent, if not tyrannical; there have long been muses, models, and manifold examples of women whose beauty has the power to do everything from stop traffic to launch a thousand ships. And yet today, the insistence of beauty’s importance is particularly relentless, due in no small part to the preponderance of social media and selfies; it has become impossible to get away from the carefully curated images that people present of themselves, images chosen to showcase beauty and hide imperfections. Even though an argument could be made that beauty has a more expansive meaning now, as we live in a time where ad campaigns are centered around the premise of promoting “real beauty” and a more diverse (though far from societally representative) array of body, hair, and skin-types are represented in mass media, the reality is that the importance of beauty is at least as powerful as it has ever been.

And so into this cultural climate comes The Unfortunate Importance of Beauty, Amanda Filipacchi’s darkly funny, surreal novel about a group of New York friends, all of whom are struggling in one way or another with the the role beauty plays in their lives. The story centers around two dichotomous characters, Barb and Lily, and the way in which their beauty—or lack of it—profoundly affects their ability to find love and happiness. Simply put, Barb is beautiful, and Lily is ugly. Lily’s extreme ugliness, which the reader is assured can not be fixed by surgery or makeup (something about her eyes being too close together), is matched only by Barb’s extreme beauty (you know the drill: aqua-colored eyes, silky blonde hair, etc.), and it is made clear from the start that each woman’s genetic fate has sharply colored her life.

In Lily’s case, her ugliness has led to a life devoid of romantic affection; despite being an inordinately talented musician (she composes music that can turn literally any object—even junk mail—into something powerfully desirable), Lily cannot capture the attention of the one man she loves—a caddish, mediocre violinist named Strad (yes, after Stradivarius). For Barb, her beauty has proven more of a curse than a blessing: Her best friend, a man named Gabriel, killed himself by jumping out of his apartment window in an effort to die at her feet, rather than live with his unrequited love for Barb. After this happened, Barb costumed herself in a disguise comprising a fat suit; frizzy, gray wig; glasses and muddy brown contact lenses; and false, crooked teeth. Barb finds her beauty and its effects too much to bear, while Lily isn’t sure she can bear life itself because of her absence of beauty.

The novel has a very all-or-nothing approach to beauty—few of the other characters are given much of a physical depiction at all—but this extreme version of life in modern New York (complete with a murder mystery, masked lovers, an obscenity-spewing doorman, and a dinner party from hell) never really loses the weight of its message: Even if we can recognize the unfortunate importance of beauty in our lives, it doesn’t mean we need to accept it without a fight. Filipacchi’s novel is not a treatise against beauty, instead it attempts to hold up a mirror—fractured though it already may be—to our society to show more clearly what the costs of our glorification of beauty just might be.

02/25/15 9:55am
02/25/2015 9:55 AM |


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
01/28/2015 2:00 PM |


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…)

01/27/15 6:37pm
01/27/2015 6:37 PM |
by flickr user SPDP

Happy late January, book-lovers. After you dig yourself out from underneath that snow, you might want an excuse to leave the house and hob-nob with some literary types. This week has all kind of interesting events, from a discussion about the rise of the antihero with The New Yorker‘s Emily Nussbaum and New York Magazine‘s Adam Sternbergh to a live discussion of finances and freelance writing to a party in honor of the NYRB Classics release of Argentine poet Silvina Ocampo’s work. Dig out and then dig in, that’s our motto. (Or well, it is now.)