01/14/15 1:55pm
01/14/2015 1:55 PM |


“Beauty can be tricked into being where it is not,” writes Sarah Gerard in her new novel Binary Star, an eerie, fevered account of anorexia and the life and death of stars from one of Brooklyn’s most exciting new voices. The L talked with Gerard about memoir, disease, and crowdfunding.


01/05/15 9:15am
01/05/2015 9:15 AM |


The Unspeakable
Meghan Daum


Is 21st century American culture wimpy? Our discourse is often paralyzed by a fear of offending, a fealty to “hearing both sides,” exhaustion and its discontents. We retreat into platitudinous sentimentality. Even those reckonings with loss, with unspeakable feelings, are often streamlined, made palatable for publication, or otherwise unprocessed. We turn away. Maybe we’ve seen too much, crossed some rubicon where even the worst shit seems surreal, as if war only existed on videotape, and heartbreak only on Medium dot com. (more…)

12/17/14 1:32pm
12/17/2014 1:32 PM |


1. Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill

In this beautiful, compact novel, Offill traces the rise, fall, and rise again of a marriage through fragments of glittering, exquisite prose. Offill touches on art, gender, unfulfilled expectations of adulthood, and the ongoing emotional consequences of miscommunication and infidelity. She writes sentences that will linger with you for weeks, like these, when the protagonist meets the man who will become her husband: “I bought a warmer coat with many ingenious pockets. You put your hands in all of them.”


12/17/14 1:27pm


New York 1, Tel Aviv 0
Farrar, Straus, and Giroux
Shelly Oria

Writing, perhaps more than any other art form, ought to be immune to the kind of binary thinking that labels the thoughts and actions of people as solely good or bad, black or white. And yet, far too often, characters are judged—by readers and critics—with a simplistic, rigid morality, something which seems better suited to the type of narrative more associated with the sloganeering in political campaigns than with a finely wrought work of literature. The whole idea that people and their actions even can be reduced to being right or wrong is a fantastically limiting way to view the world at large, of course, because by doing that we negate the complexities and nuance inherent to being human. And yet we do this all the time; we look for the good guy and the bad guy because it’s easy, and because there’s less of a challenge involved when we don’t have to think too hard about who we should root. Because reading—all art, really—is an escape; there’s a limit to how far most of us are willing to question ourselves and our popularly held opinions while on what amounts to a mental vacation.


12/11/14 9:57pm
12/11/2014 9:57 PM |


Welcome to our weekly round-up of the best literary events to check out. This week has a speed-illustrating contest, a lecture with the New Yorker cartoonists, a talk with A Brief History of Seven Killings author Marlon James, and more, oh so much more, dear reader.


12/03/14 7:10am
12/03/2014 7:10 AM |


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.

07/20/11 4:00am
07/20/2011 4:00 AM |

On Booze

F. Scott Fitzgerald

New Directions

A lifelong thirst for alcohol helped finish F. Scott Fitzgerald at 44. When he boasted in letters of being on the wagon, it only meant he was sticking to beer. His closeness to drink made him particularly eloquent on both its pleasures and ruinous potential. Alcoholics clownish, decorative and tragic glut his fiction, like Gatsby’s guests, Anthony Patch and Dick Diver on their downswings, “Crazy Sunday”’s Joel Coles, and sad old Pat Hobby with his pathetic sacks of empties. On booze—a slang term he rarely used, to the best of my knowledge—Malcolm Lowry is more harrowing, Patrick Hamilton more acute, and Bukowski funnier, but Fitzgerald was singularly artful at tying personal disasters like his own disease to larger shifts and failures in his country. Pity that the same spirits that helped color his fountain-dipping 1920s persona accelerated his Hollywood crack-up, when the natural facility had flown even though he was still producing excellent stories and the promising kernel of The Last Tycoon. New Directions here presents essays, scraps, and letters—no fiction—from both periods, and in between.

On Booze reprints Fitzgerald’s masterful, personal New York portrait “My Lost City,”in which he remembers sharing conversation and cocktails at Princeton friend Edmund Wilson’s bachelor pad, his discovery of the city with wife Zelda, and his disillusion. The Crack-Up essays are frank and eloquent revelations from the author mourning his idealism. There are funny drunken letters to John Peale Bishop, and a grab bag of jottings from Fitzgerald’s notebooks including a recipe for “turkey with whiskey sauce”for a party of four (one gallon of whiskey followed the next day by the turkey) and a critical note-to-self (“Sending orchestra second-rate champagne—never, never do it again.”) The effects of alcohol are felt in so much Scott Fitzgerald writing that a comprehensive anthology of everything booze-related in the corpus would be unwieldy. Culled for slimmer pockets from New Directions’ prior edition of The Crack-Up, this medley is a gateway sip.

07/20/11 4:00am

Ladies and Gentlemen

Adam Ross


Adam Ross’ prose is best in small packages—in short stories, where he doesn’t have the space to stumble over convoluted framing devices. In his excellent but also disappointing debut novel, Mr. Peanut, an unsettling study of ladies and gentlemen struggling with marriages was undone by its pomo coda, in which a character named Mobius harasses a would-be novelist and uxoricide; a moving novel that had been about characters became a too-clever one about its own construction. Daniel Mendelsohn wrote in The New Yorker that it was “as if Ross, not trusting to the strength of his story, gussied it up with fashionable stylistic gimmicks.”

The short stories collected in Ladies and Gentlemen—less dazzling than Mr. Peanut, perhaps, but more impressive—are strong narratives unornamented by gimmick; still, certain pet motifs carry over, like Ross’ obsession with stories. To say that the author isn’t pretzeled by framing devices is not to say he employs none: many of the characters in these stories collect other people’s anecdotes—in fact, they seem to feed on them. A disturbing tale related over dinner in “In the Basement”brings a troubled couple closer. The Vanity Fair reporter in the title story is inspired to dig herself out of a rut by the cautionary tales she solicits from the man beside her on an airplane. Stories affect the ways we live; Ross illustrates how.

“We don’t invent [defining moments],”the narrator of “The Suicide Room”says. “They happen to us.”For these characters, they happen by the designs of an author who, despite a reputation for cruelty—see the book’s George Eliot epigraph—comes across as an eternal optimist, a believer in humanity and its potential for growth. Though this collection takes its name from the last of its seven stories, it might more aptly have taken it from the first, “Futures”: each concerns characters coming to grips with the uncertainty of what lies ahead, with the unhappy stations in life that result from a failure to act rather than be acted upon—characters who only react to life. (“It’s like your life’s a big spin of the wheel,”one character writes to another in “The Rest Of It.”
”It’s like you’ve chosen never to have a choice.”)

Ross’s anxious and melancholy characters don’t get off easy, but he does let most of them off, equipped with new wisdom and thus freed to improve their lot. A traumatic event inspires the main character of “The Suicide Room”to take stock of his life thereafter. “This isn’t to say I necessarily do the right thing,”he admits. “It just means that I can’t say I didn’t think about it.”Any cruelty Ross metes out makes its recipients better people—sager and stabler, able to accept the things they cannot change, the courage to change the things they can, and the wisdom to know the difference. “Love,”Ross writes in “Middleman,””lives in the future.”So too, we can imagine, do the happy endings, still unwritten.

07/06/11 4:00am
07/06/2011 4:00 AM |

After Midnight

By Irmgard Keun, Trans. Anthea Bell

Melville House

Melville House’s new Neversink Library is a winning idea for a collection: the DUMBO publisher is reprinting books which, it feels, should be integrated into contemporary literary discourse. However, the first book of the collection, Irmgard Keun’s After Midnight, is not the most persuasive case for forgotten literature.

The story is set in 1930s Frankfurt, as Nazi Germany moves slowly toward war. Irmgard Keun herself wrote under Nazi rule and at one point was arrested by the Gestapo. She escaped Germany in 1936, only to surreptitiously return after she faked her own death abroad. After Midnight was published in Amsterdam in 1937 while Keun was in exile.

Sanna, the novel’s teenage protagonist, feels merely like a vehicle. Her prescient glimpses into the unfolding Nazi system—the alarming socio-political phenomena, the fate awaiting “mixed-race” people (that is, people of Jewish heritage)—are reported with remarkable detachment, a delivery leaving the reader little emotional purchase.

Few of the satellite characters make a bid for the reader’s investment either. Sanna’s entourage is limited to caricatures: there’s her shrewish, dangerous aunt (a Nazi informant); her brother Algin (a despairing writer uncertain about acquiescing to German censorship regulations); Algin’s journalist friend Heini (a mouthpiece for political opinion). Heini is especially broad: his streams of criticism rant on for paragraphs, and though his speeches are moving, the reader can feel the artifice, the soapbox.

The scenes of community folly and fear exacerbated by the Nazi ascension are effective, however. The reader becomes a bystander to the buildup of paranoia, denunciation, compromise—and the pliability of human character when safety and survival are threatened. Keun is admirable for plainly relating this frantic reality. Nonetheless, a truly effective work would not just report these scenes, but more fully form the individuals 
who endured these trials.

07/06/11 4:00am
by |

Tyrant Memory

Horacio Castellanos Moya, Trans. Katherine Silver

New Directions

Set in the month after a botched 1944 coup in El Salvador, Tyrant Memory chronicles one family’s struggle to survive amid political upheaval—something with which the author is all too familiar. Horacio Castellanos Moya is an established novelist and journalist whose books, though readily available in other languages, have only been translated into English over the past few years, partly in thanks to the time he spent as writer-in-residence at the City of Asylum/Pittsburgh. He still lives in exile, a condition his characters often find themselves moving toward.

At Tyrant Memory‘s center is Haydée, who’s begun writing in a diary out of longing for conversation with her husband, Pericles, a journalist and former ambassador recently taken prisoner for criticizing “the Warlock,” the dictator Maximiliano Hernández Martínez. Her alcoholic son, Clemente, also finds himself in grave danger when he mistakenly announces the dictator’s death over the radio—an act that lands him on the not-even-close-to-dead dictator’s list of traitors to be executed.

Alternating sections of Haydée’s diary with chapters following Clemente and his cousin as they try to flee the country, Moya creates an interesting tension between fact and gossip. Haydée grows increasingly frustrated by this tension and the men largely responsible for it: “The men in this family are impossible: they joke about everything. Without any real information, we live off hearsay.” The novel itself is an exercise in this kind of storytelling, as the reader works to figure out which rumors are true. But unlike Haydée, we’re privy to Clemente’s sections, which are told in the present tense and in a very distant third person. These sections sometimes read more like a script than a novel, with Moya largely leaving out setting, action and internal monologue, and they feel fast-paced and comic.

As is probably the case with any diary ever written, Haydée’s journal is sometimes bogged down by details about phone calls made and neighbors entertained and pastries consumed. But her gradual struggle to accept herself as a politically engaged woman is more compelling than the antics of her coup-organizing son and nephew: they flounder around among mangroves waiting for rescue, while Haydée, no longer satisfied to sit around knitting sweaters for farm children while she waits for news of Pericles, finds herself organizing protests and pounding on the door of an ambassador’s home. It’s a fascinating, well-choreographed reversal of authority.

In Haydée, Moya creates a narrator who details the struggle to continue day-to-day life amid political upheaval and senseless terror. It’s a bit of a disappointment that she doesn’t appear in the book’s final section, which takes a large leap forward in time and shows Pericles and a peripheral character, now both in their seventies, in conversation. Eager to see what had become of the narrator who carried me through one of the worst times in her family’s life, I combed this section for news of Haydée in much the same way she scoured her community for news of her husband’s fate. Sadly, but perhaps fittingly, she exists only in this final chapter’s shadows, dealt with in just a few mentions by the voices of men who are largely absent in the novel, all while another woman—Haydée’s lifelong best friend—serves their lunch of ground beef and beans, 
”just like Old Man Pericles liked.”