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.)


01/07/15 6:03pm
01/07/2015 6:03 PM |


Another year, another pile of reading to get through, amirite? Welcome to 2015, where there’s a big fresh helping of literary events for all you booky people to head to. This week’s line-up includes the launch of Electric Literature’s new online magazine for short, weird fiction, a benefit party for BOMB magazine, and the monthly return of our beloved Franklin Park Reading Series featuring National Book Award winner Phil Klay. Dig in!


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.


11/21/14 11:36pm
11/21/2014 11:36 PM |

Charles D’Ambrosio
Tin House BooksIn profiles of extraordinary athletes there is often a scene in which the athlete will recall the particulars of some long-ago play in detail so specific it’s as if he is narrating a replay. The purpose of such scenes, for the writer, is descriptive: This guy’s awareness is on the level of genius. He is playing a different game than everyone else.

There are few equivalencies between sports and writing except that both are creative endeavors, and every creative endeavor has its handful of practitioners who are playing a different game than their peers. This is the plane Charles D’Ambrosio occupies in the world of letters. His toolkit, finite and familiar, is the English language, the same one ticker-taping through your conscious mind and mine, but with it he constructs sentences, paragraphs, entire pages of such sustained insight and fluency that you can’t help but feel a little fraudulent as a fellow user of the same mother tongue.

Throughout the essays that comprise Loitering, his second such collection, D’Ambrosio roots around in our common cultural assumptions and unearths faulty logic, weaponized rhetoric, and a lack of sympathy. What we think we know—about whaling, haunted houses, orphans, suicide, and urban neighborhoods in decline, amongst other subjects—is riddled by these failures of understanding. The truth is always more complicated, once you take the time to look.

For example, in “Casting Stones,” D’Ambrosio writes about the trial of Mary Kay Letourneau, the public school teacher who fell in love with her 12-year-old student, and how “language was being leveraged” in the courtroom, the media, and in public opinion to nullify the only notion Letourneau ever offered by way of explanation: love. “This seemed a crude and retrogressive project,” D’Ambrosio writes, “since what really distinguishes us from apes is not the opposable thumb but the ability to hold in mind opposing ideas, a distinction we should probably try to preserve.” And in the title essay, a witness to a crime attempts to speak to some “big-deal” TV journalists about what he saw, but they ignore him because he doesn’t fit the narrative that is already going out on the airwaves, in a pantomime of truth-telling. The witness, drunk and disheveled, is caught in between the truth and truthiness, a place D’Ambrosio “recognize[s] as life itself.”

When D’Ambrosio fixes his eye on himself and his family, which is often, he unspools sentences of such rich introspection that you’ll read them and wonder how well you really know yourself. “Seattle, 1974” traces the writer’s youthful ambition and “hankering to expatriate” to a city with a richer culture than mid-70s Seattle. “Winning” is a rumination on change and loss, told through the story of an uncle’s bar in Chicago, the only remnant of which is a brick wall. And in “Whaling Out West,” D’Ambrosio camps out in the coastal woods with the plan to witness a Makah whale hunt but ends up writing about his family: “We’ve shot ourselves and jumped from bridges and lost our minds and aborted some of our babies and orphaned others and now reproducing and carrying on the family name is down to me, and the truth is soul-wise I’m likely a bigger monster than either of my broken brothers or my father.”

D’Ambrosio’s attention to language is exacting and phenomenological, such that his sentences reveal in their final, private selves truths that seem universal. Eleven of the 17 essays in Loitering also appeared in a limited-run 2005 collection called Orphans, which came and went in exactly the amount of time required to attract a cult following.

I think there’s a reason that essays are having a moment. “Essay” derives from the French infinitive essayer, which means “to try” or “to attempt.” Meanwhile, our cultural discourse veers from one stridently-argued conclusion to the next, an impoverished stream of takes and summations that leaves no room for ambivalence or nuance. The essay is the one forum in which we can find the contradictions, bewilderment, and uncertainty that are the dark matter of daily life. In a world where nothing ever adds up, inquiry and confession are better modes of discourse than the usual assaultive blunderbuss.

Because, as D’Ambrosio writes in this book’s preface: “We are more intimately bound to one another by our kindred doubts than our brave conclusions.”

11/05/14 4:00am
11/05/2014 4:00 AM |

Comedian Jenny Slate has been everywhere lately, from a role on The Kroll Show to a recurring character on Parks and Recreation to her turn as the leading lady in the reproductive rights-tinged rom-com Obvious Child, which won her a nomination for a Gotham award. But despite all those gigs, Slate and her filmmaker husband Dean Fleischer-Camp returned recently to one of their biggest recent successes, the adorable comic creation Marcel the Shell, writing a second children’s book based on the nervous critter called The Most Surprised I’ve Ever Been. Slate and Fleischer-Camp spoke to The L from their hotel room about the evolution of Marcel, reproductive rights, and leaving Brooklyn for Los Angeles.

How has the way you think about the character of Marcel evolved since the first video?

Flesicher-Camp: I think his soul has deepened. The first video was a test drive of the character and it was mostly one-liners. Like, “Guess what I use for a hat? A lentil,” that sort of thing. The newest video only has one or two one-liners. And the dynamic between the narrator and Marcel has become a lot more defined. I think Marcel’s matured; he’s become more invested, it’s not just about how much he can entertain. He’s become more of a performer. He used to be a little camera shy.

Slate: We know the roles better now. A lot of our work together is based on us joking around and feeling like we’re playing a game together.

Marcel was born through a voice that Jenny did that Dean then created an object for. Were there other ideas before you settling on the shell?

Fleischer-Camp: There were, but they were just based on what I had around. One was a cotton ball. One was a spring or something. But when I stumbled on Marcel, he matched the voice. And he’s so handsome.

Does he come along with you on your book tour?

Slate: Oh, no. He’s so fragile we’re afraid he would break. He stays home, in a cleaned out hummus container in our linen cabinet.

The last time The L interviewed you, Jenny, it was all about your every day routine living in Brooklyn. Now that you live in LA, what do you and don’t you miss about living here?

Slate: We criticize ourselves for moving a little. The truth of it is that after a while it became impossible to find enough TV auditions in New York. It takes a long, long time to build a career with any momentum. I came to live in New York for college because it was a life goal to be on Saturday Night Live. When I was offered SNL, it was great, but afterwards, it wasn’t easy to find a job based on that. It’s sketch performance, not acting. So I started at zero, basically. The only other shows that I wanted to be on in New York were Bored to Death, which got cancelled, and Girls, which I did. There wasn’t really a reason workwise to stay. But we’ll come back one day for sure, live in some brownstone that needs a little love. What I miss is the community and the cross-pollination, because you feel like you’re all in this together. I miss that sense of being a New Yorker with someone else. I miss connecting with strangers in that way. I walked around a lot more, and when you’re actually on your feet moving, there are so many tiny ways to enjoy yourself.

Fleischer-Camp: I don’t miss the trash smells in summer. I don’t miss being stuck on the subway. I don’t miss the snow slush puddles that look like pavement. But I like that when we lived here, being in entertainment felt a little more special. At a party, when you said “I’m a director” people would be like “woah!” In LA, some model will just be like, “Oh, I’m also a director.”

Jenny, your last movie, Obvious Child had a lot to do with Brooklyn. I thought your character seemed like a really accurate representation of people I know here.

Slate: We tried really hard to make Donna look like people we would see. [Director and writer] Gillian Robespierre and I had a long frank conversation where I was like, “When Donna’s in her house, I don’t think she should be wearing bras.” I mean, I’m in a hotel room now and I’m not wearing a bra. We wanted that throwaway confidence to be there. It’s not a story about a perfect woman who’s having her first dilemma. It’s a person from our world dealing with our world.

You talked about that character being a platform for you to be an “accidental activist” for reproductive rights, too.

Slate: I try to step away from some of the feelings of shame I had, why didn’t I do this before. It’s easy to feel like your voice isn’t supposed to be a voice in the conversation. I’m not comfortable with confrontation or conflict. But it’s brought me so much joy to express my point of view, which isn’t fueled by aggression, but by optimism and hope and intelligence when it comes to our plan for how to co-exist and what it means to be a feminist. It seems like people who are non-experts are going out there and saying “Yeah, I’m the person who’s supposed to be asking for this, because I have a body,” that’s what we need. The more unique voices speaking, the more it will become normal to have a conversation.

So what’s next?

Slate: More Marcel for sure. What, we don’t exactly know yet. But hopefully we’ll be making Marcel things on our sixtieth anniversary.

Fleischer-Camp: Definitely, we’re going to keep expanding Marcel’s world. But I hope we have better plans for our sixtieth anniversary.

10/22/14 4:00am
10/22/2014 4:00 AM |

Two weeks ago, we published a literary map of Brooklyn for our sister publication Brooklyn Magazine, highlighting the books we felt best represented the neighborhoods in which they were set. Compiling the list of books for that map had us thinking about what it means for a story to not just be from a place, but also of it, and why it is that some places have an abundance of literary riches (we’re looking at you, American South), while others, well, don’t. And we had seen other maps pairing books with states, but those maps tend to signify the fame level of the books rather than their literary merit; they also tend to be dominated by white men. And Margaret Mitchell.

We wanted to do better. We wanted to come up with a list that was more than just a general reflection of a place, but rather paid attention to the specifics, even at the risk of the exclusion of the whole. No one book, after all, can completely capture the spirit of something so unwieldy as a state. Few — if any — books can even completely capture the spirit of an individual. And yet there are those stories that so beautifully evoke a time and a place and a way of life that it becomes close to impossible to separate the literary perception of a place from its reality—one winds up informing the other.

So while some of these stories do indeed paint in rather broad strokes, others speak to singular experiences that still manage to be expansive in their reach. This is the writing we want to celebrate. Several of these books number among the usual suspects of lists of this kind, but many remain anything but widely known. Almost all are fiction and most are novels; some were written for children, but just about every genre is represented. All are literary in voice and spirit; every last one will let you understand a time and place in a more profound way than you maybe thought possible. And none of them are Gone with the Wind.

ALABAMA: To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee: 

“This time we aren’t fighting the Yankees, we’re fighting our friends. But remember this, no matter how bitter things get, they’re still our friends and this is still our home.”

ALASKA: Into the Wild, Jon Krakauer: 

“The very basic core of a man’s living spirit is his passion for adventure. The joy of life comes from our encounters with new experiences, and hence there is no greater joy than to have an endlessly changing horizon, for each day to have a new and different sun.”

ARIZONA: Blood Meridian, Cormac McCarthy: 

“The universe is no narrow thing and the order within it is not constrained by any latitude in its conception to repeat what exists in one part in any other part. Even in this world more things exist without our knowledge than with it and the order in creation which you see is that which you have put there, like a string in a maze, so that you shall not lose your way.”

ARKANSAS: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou: 

“If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat. It is an unnecessary insult.” 

CALIFORNIA (southern): The White Boy Shuffle, Paul Beatty: 

“I was the funny, cool black guy. In Santa Monica, like most predominantly white sanctuaries from urban blight, ‘cool black guy’ is a versatile identifier used to distinguish the harmless black male from the Caucasian juvenile while maintaining politically correct semiotics.”

CALIFORNIA (northern): Suicide Blonde, Darcey Steinke: 

“I wondered if it mattered whether you loved one person or another. Weren’t lovers interchangeable when you thought back about them? Maybe that was true in the future too.” 

COLORADO: Angle of Repose, Wallace Stegner:

“Home is a notion that only nations of the homeless fully appreciate and only the uprooted comprehend.” 

CONNECTICUT: Nine Stories, “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut,” J.D. Salinger: 

“‘That dopey maid,’ Eloise said without moving from the couch. ‘I dropped two brand-new cartons in front of her nose about an hour ago. She’ll be in, any minute, to ask me what to do with them. Where the hell was I?’”

DELAWARE: The Good Lord Bird, James McBride: 

“Some things in this world just ain’t meant to be, not in the times we want ‘em to, and the heart has to hold it in this world as a remembrance, a promise for the world that’s to come. There’s a prize at the end of all of it, but still, that’s a heavy load to bear.”

FLORIDA: Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston: 

“She was stretched on her back beneath the pear tree soaking in the alto chant of the visiting bees, the gold of the sun and the panting breath of the breeze when the inaudible voice of it all came to her. She saw a dust-bearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom; the thousand sister-calyxes arch to meet the love embrace and the ecstatic shiver of the tree from root to tiniest branch creaming in every blossom and frothing with delight.” 

GEORGIA: Cane, Jean Toomer: 

“Night winds in Georgia are vagrant poets, whispering.” 

HAWAII: The Descendants, Kaui Hart Hemmings: 

“I bet in big cities you can walk down the street scrowling and no one will ask you what’s wrong or encourage you to smile, but everyone here has the attitude that we’re lucky to live in Hawaii; paradise reigns supreme. I think paradise can go fuck itself.”

IDAHO: Train Dreams, Denis Johnson: 

“He liked the grand size of things in the woods, the feeling of being lost and far away, and the sense he had that with so many trees as wardens, no danger could find him.” 

ILLINOIS: Native Son, Richard Wright: 

“Goddamnit, look! We live here and they live there. We black and they white. They got things and we ain’t. They do things and we can’t. It’s just like livin’ in jail.”

INDIANA: The Stone Diaries, Carol Shields:

“It makes her shiver to think of it, how not one pair of eyes can see through the roof and walls of her house and regard her as she moves through her dreamlike days, bargaining from minute to minute with indolence, that tempter.”

IOWA: Gilead, Marilynne Robinson: 

“There are two occasions when the sacred beauty of Creation becomes dazzlingly apparent, and they occur together. One is when we feel our mortal insufficiency to the world, and the other is when we feel the world’s mortal insufficiency to us.” 

KANSAS: In Cold Blood, Truman Capote:

“Then starting home, he walked toward the trees, and under them, leaving behind him the big sky, the whisper of wind voices in the wind-bent wheat.”

KENTUCKY: Beloved, Toni Morrison: 

“It never looked as terrible as it was and it made her wonder if hell was a pretty place too. Fire and brimstone all right, but hidden in lacy groves.” 

LOUISIANA: All the King’s Men, Robert Penn Warren: 

“The air so still it aches like the place where the tooth was on the morning after you’ve been to the dentist or aches like your heart in the bosom when you stand on the street corner waiting for the light to change and happen to recollect how things once were and how they might have been yet if what happened had not happened.”

MAINE: Carrie, Stephen King: 

“They had become a fixed star in the shifting firmament of the high school’s relationships, the acknowledged Romeo and Juliet. And she knew with sudden hatefulness that there was one couple like them in every white suburban high school in America.” 

MARYLAND: Jacob Have I Loved, Katherine Patterson: 

“All my dreams of leaving, but beneath them I was afraid to go. I had clung to them, to Rass, yes, even to my grandmother, afraid that if I loosened my fingers an iota, I would find myself once more cold and clean in a forgotten basket.”

MASSACHUSETTS: The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath: 

“I wanted to be where nobody I knew could ever come.” 

MICHIGAN: Split Images, Elmore Leonard: 

“Coming out of the City-County Building, walking east on Jefferson, they started over and spoke about the weather, looking off at the Ford Auditorium over on the riverfront, the fountain misting in Hart Plaza, Bryan saying it was a little too nice, it wasn’t like April, April in Detroit was miserable, wet and cold with dirty snow left over from the winter; Angela saying she lived in Arizona, Tuscon, and didn’t know much about weather, outside of weather in New York when you wanted a taxi; Bryan said he thought that should about do it for weather, though he could tell her how muggy it got in the summer if she wanted.” 

MINNESOTA: Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown, Maud Hart Lovelace: 

“Betsy was so full of joy that she had to be alone. She went upstairs to her bedroom and sat down on Uncle Keith’s trunk. Behind Tacy’s house the sun had set. A wind had sprung up and the trees, their color dimmed, moved under a brooding sky. All the stories she had told Tacy and Tib seemed to be dancing in those trees, along with all the stories she planned to write some day and all the stories she would read at the library. Good stories. Great stories. The classics. Not Rena’s novels.” 

MISSISSIPPI: Long Division, Kiese Laymon: 

“People always say change takes time. It’s true, but really it’s people who change people, and then those people have to decide if they really want to stay the new people that they’re changed into.”

MISSOURI: Stoner, John Williams: 

“There was a softness around him, and a languor crept upon his limbs. A sense of his own identity came upon him with a sudden force, and he felt the power of it. He was himself, and he knew what he had been.”

MONTANA: Legends of the Fall, Jim Harrison: 

“Nothing was like anything else, including himself, and everything was changing all of the time. He knew he couldn’t perceive the change because he was changing too, along with everything else.”

NEBRASKA: Eleanor & Park, Rainbow Rowell: 

“Ever since the first day they’d met, Eleanor was always seeing him in unexpected places. It was like their lives were overlapping lines, like they had their own gravity. Usually, that serendipity felt like the nicest thing the universe had ever done for her.”

NEVADA: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hunter S. Thompson: 

“Hallucinations are bad enough…Most acid fanciers can handle this sort of thing. But nobody can handle that other trip-the possibility that any freak with $1.98 can walk into the Circus-Circus and suddenly appear in the sky over downtown Las Vegas twelve times the size of God, howling anything that comes into his head. No, this is not a good town for psychedelic drugs.”

NEW HAMPSHIRE: A Prayer for Owen Meany, John Irving: 

“If you care about something you have to protect it; If you’re lucky enough to find a way of life you love, you have to find the courage to live it.”

NEW JERSEY: American Pastoral, Philip Roth: 

“Yes, alone we are, deeply alone, and always, in store for us, a layer of loneliness even deeper. There is nothing we can do to dispose of that. No, loneliness shouldn’t surprise us, as astonishing to experience as it may be. You can try yourself inside out, but all you are then is inside out and lonely instead of inside in and lonely.” 

NEW MEXICO: Leave Her to Heaven, Ben Ames Williams: 

“To be lonely is one thing; to be alone is another. There is no loneliness so acute as that of a man upon a pillory, facing ten thousand eyes; but to be alone is to be free, free from eyes and tongues that watch and question and condemn.”

NEW YORK STATE: Foxfire: Confessions of a Girl Gang, Joyce Carol Oates:

“Legs squinted up at the sky, the moon so bright you’d never think it could be merely rock like the earth’s common rock and lifeless, merely reflected light from an invisible sun and not a powerful living light of its own.” 

NEW YORK CITY: Daddy Was a Number Runner, Louise Meriwether: 

“Lord, but that hallway was funky, all of those Harlem smells bumping together… The air outside wasn’t much better. It was a hot, stifling day, June 2, 1934. The curbs were lined with garbage cans overflowing into the gutters, and a droopy horse pulling a vegetable cart down the avenue had just deposited a steaming pile of manure in the middle of the street. The sudden heat had emptied the tenements. Kids too young for school played on the sidewalks while their mamas leaned out of their windows searching for a cool breeze or sat for a moment on the fire escape.”

NORTH CAROLINA: Look Homeward Angel, Thomas Wolfe: 

“The mountains were his masters. They rimmed in life. They were the cup of reality, beyond growth, beyond struggle…They were his absolute unity in the midst of eternal change.”

NORTH DAKOTA: The Round House, Louise Erdrich: 

“I stood there in the shadowed doorway thinking with my tears. Yes, tears can be thoughts, why not?” 

OHIO: The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison: 

“Beauty was not simply something to behold; it was something one could do.”

OKLAHOMA: The Outsiders, S.E. Hinton: 

“The dawn was coming then. All the lower valley was covered with mist, and sometimes little pieces of it broke off and floated away in small clouds. The sky was lighter in the east, and the horizon was a thin golden line. The clouds changed from gray to pink, and the mist was touched with gold. There was a silent moment when everything held its breath, and then the sun rose. It was beautiful.” 

OREGON: No One Belongs Here More Than You, Miranda July:

“Look at the sky: that is for you. Look at each person’s face as you pass on the street: those faces are for you. And the street itself, and the ground under the street and the ball of fire underneath the ground: all these things are for you. They are as much for you as they are for other people. Remember this when you wake up in the morning and think you have nothing. Stand up and face the east. Now praise the sky and praise the light within each person under the sky. It’s okay to be unsure. But praise, praise, praise.”

PENNSYLVANIA: The Mysteries of Pittsburgh, Michael Chabon: 

“I smoked and looked down at the bottom of Pittsburgh for a little while, watching the kids playing tiny baseball, the distant figures of dogs snatching at a little passing car, a miniature housewife on her back porch shaking out a snippet of red rug, and I made a sudden, frightened vow never to become that small, and to devote myself to getting bigger and bigger and bigger.”

RHODE ISLAND: The Witches of Eastwick, John Updike: 

“Some people find fall depressing, others hate spring. I’ve always been a spring person myself. All that growth, you can feel Nature groaning, the old bitch; she doesn’t want to do it, not again, no, anything but that, but she has to. It’s a fucking torture rack, all that budding and pushing, the sap up the tree trunks, the weeds and the insects getting set to fight it out once again, the seeds trying to remember how the hell the DNA is supposed to go, all that competition for a little bit of nitrogen; Christ, it’s cruel.”

SOUTH CAROLINA: Bastard Out of Carolina, Dorothy Allison: 

“Anney makes the best gravy in the county, the sweetest biscuits, and puts just enough vinegar in those greens. Glenn nodded, though the truth was he’d never had much of a taste for greens, and his well-educated mama had always told him that gravy was bad for the heart. So he was not ready for the moment when Mama pushed her short blond hair back and set that big plate of hot food down in front of his open hands. Glenn took a bite of gristly meat and gravy, and it melted between his teeth. The greens were salt sweet and fat rich. His tongue sang to his throat; his neck went loose, and his hair fell across his face. It was like sex, that food, too good to waste on the middle of the day and a roomful of men too tired to taste.” 

SOUTH DAKOTA: Little Town on the Prairie, Laura Ingalls Wilder: 

“There is no comfort anywhere for anyone who dreads to go home.” 

TEXAS: Lonesome Dove, Larry McMurtry:

“The eastern sky was red as coals in a forge, lighting up the flats along the river. Dew had wet the million needles of the chaparral, and when the rim of the sun edged over the horizon the chaparral seemed to be spotted with diamonds. A bush in the backyard was filled with little rainbows as the sun touched the dew… The sun spread reddish-gold light through the shining bushes, among which a few goats wandered, bleating. Even when the sun rose above the low bluffs to the south, a layer of light lingered for a bit at the level of the chaparral, as if independent of its source. The the sun lifted clear, like an immense coin. The dew quickly died, and the light that filled the bushes like red dirt dispersed, leaving clear, slightly bluish air.”

TENNESSEE: Child of God, Cormac McCarthy: 

“Each leaf that brushed his face deepened his sadness and dread. Each leaf he passed he’d never pass again. They rode over his face like veils, already some yellow, their veins like slender bones where the sun shone through them.”

UTAH: The Executioner’s Song, Norman Mailer: 

“The spark of humanity can maximize its essence by choosing an alternative that preserves the greatest dignity and some tranquility of mind.”

VIRGINIA: The Confessions of Nat Turner, William Styron:

“Surely mankind has yet to be born. Surely this is true! For only something blind and uncomprehending could exist in such a mean conjunction with its own flesh, its own kind. How else account for such faltering, clumsy, hateful cruelty?… Yes, it could be that mankind has yet to be born.”

VERMONT: The Secret History, Donna Tartt: 

“White Sky. Trees fading at the skyline, the mountains gone… I never got used to the way the horizon there could just erase itself and leave you marooned, adrift, in an incomplete dreamscape that was like a sketch for the world you knew—the outline of a single tree standing in for a grove, lamp-posts and chimneys floating up out of context before the surrounding canvas was filled in-an amnesia-land, a kind of skewed Heaven where the old landmarks were recognizable but spaced too far apart, and disarranged, and made terrible by the emptiness around them.”

WYOMING: Close Range: Wyoming Stories “Brokeback Mountain,” E. Annie Proulx: 

“He pressed his face into the fabric and breathed in slowly through his mouth and nose, hoping for the faintest smoke and mountain sage and salty sweet stink of Jack but there was no real scent, only the memory of it, the imagined power of Brokeback Mountain of which nothing was left but what he held in his hands.”

WISCONSIN: The Art of Fielding, Chad Harbach: 

“Each of us, deep down, believes that the whole world issues from his own precious body, like images projected from a tiny slide onto an earth-sized screen. And then, deeper down, each of us knows he’s wrong.”

WASHINGTON: The Lone Ranger and Tonto Fistfight in Heaven, Sherman Alexie: 

“Seems like the cold would never go away and winter would be like the bottom of my feet but then it is gone in one night and in its place comes the sun so large and laughable.”

WASHINGTON DC: You Are One of Them, Elliot Holt: 

”It does no good to see everything as a struggle between opposing factions. Few things are that simple.”

WEST VIRGINIA: The Glass Castle, Jeanette Walls: 

“Those shining stars, he liked to point out, were one of the special treats for people like us who lived out in the wilderness. Rich city folks, he’d say, lived in fancy apartments, but their air was so polluted they couldn’t even see the stars. We’d have to be out of our minds to want to trade places with any of them.”

10/08/14 4:05am
10/08/2014 4:05 AM |

Not That Kind of Girl
Lena Dunham
Random House

Within one hour of receiving Lena Dunham’s debut book, Not That Kind of Girl, I’d had no fewer than five people come up to me as they saw me reading it on the subway platform, then on the subway, then standing in line waiting for coffee. Never has a book I’ve read received so much attention and garnered so many immediate, passionate responses:

“Is it amazing?”

“I hate that cover.”
“I love that cover.”
“Is it terrible?”
“I love her so much!”
“I can’t even explain why, but I just can’t stand looking at her.”
“Where did you get that? I NEED to get that!”

It’s been exhausting. Who else but Dunham can elicit such a wide range of emotions and so much controversy in Brooklyn today? Bring her name up to a group of 20-somethings and prepare to be swept up in a conversation debating the relative merits of her talent, the advantages her privileged upbringing afforded, if she deserved a $3.7 million book advance, and whether or not she’s that big word-of-the-moment: “relatable.” And while there is little doubt that the intensity of the debate surrounding Dunham is due in no small part to the fact that she’s a woman (see the debate surrounding comedian Aziz Ansari’s recent $3.5 million book advance—or don’t, because there wasn’t one), it’s also very specific to Dunham’s artistic voice, which is smart, funny, frank, eminently engaging, and broad enough that it could, in fact, be the voice of its generation. Or, you know, a voice of a generation.

But, you know, just like you’re all probably already tired of hearing that “voice of a generation” joke, the controversy surrounding Dunham creates another kind of fatigue, the kind where you’re just not sure you want to read another word about her—even if it’s by her. Or at least that’s how I felt when I first got this book. But I dove in like it was my job (it is my job) and then kept diving and diving. The things that you’d expect in a Dunham memoir are all there: laugh out loud punchlines (“Not to sound like a total hippie, but I cured my HPV with acupuncture”), extreme honestly about her body, cringe-worthy anecdotes from past relationships, and lessons she’s learned from being under the public’s watchful eye. But there’s also more—much more. Several of the essays—most notably one about her mother’s artwork and another about Dunham’s rape at the hands of mustachioed college Republican “Barry”—are beautifully written and demonstrate Dunham’s adeptness with handling profoundly emotional, frequently troubling subjects with virtuosic skill and candor. These essays resonate far more than the definitely funny, but ultimately feather-weight lists that are scattered throughout, and I finished the book wanting more—much more—of her longer essays.

Which isn’t to say that there aren’t some problems with the book. There are things I wished Dunham had explored more, namely, the unique position of privilege from which she comes. (This doesn’t, by the way, just mean money; it also means family stability and love, an artistic background, and being in possession of a fierce, uncompromising intelligence.) She touches on this in a few parts of the book, but backs away quickly, perhaps out of the fear of being unrelatable? Who knows. That, I think, is a shame, because I am not looking to relate to Dunham; I don’t want her voice to justify my world, thereby circumscribing it. Rather I think she has a unique ability to broaden the world with her voice, she just needs to go a little further to do it. If Dunham does this, then I think her writing could make even her harshest critic admit that she is definitely a—if not the—voice of her generation.

09/24/14 4:00am
09/24/2014 4:00 AM |

“I don’t think there’s ever been a time when it didn’t feel like the world was coming to an end.”

This is Emily St. John Mandel, the gifted writer of The Lola Quartet whose latest novel, Station Eleven, was published Sept. 9. I had asked to meet with her because of how deeply the book affected me, first with its depiction of the world coming to an end, and then with the beauty with which the embers of that world struggle to endure. I was hoping she could explain the source of her optimism.

I had already been feeling vaguely apocalyptic when I happened upon the book, the byproduct of news headlines and general New York City living, a sense given dimension by what I began to think of as Mandel’s minutia of the end of the world. Station Eleven begins with a devastating global virus that spares only a fraction of those who encounter it, and I cannot tell you how unsettled I was by her step-by-step depiction of this event. Characters are “crushed by a sudden certainty that this was it, that this illness… was going to be the divide between a before and an after.” Such divides in the real world seem apt to appear any day now, and while Mandel is probably right that such apocalyptic pessimism is nothing new, the echo chambers of 24-hour media and social networks have a way of amplifying these fears.

Twitter, obviously, goes fucking nuts with the in-book virus, and it isn’t long before the site crashes, followed by the rest of the Internet and global communication. Batteries die and cannot be recharged. Food vanishes from shelves. A girl runs out of antidepressants and breaks down in the face of the pain she knows is coming. There’s an immediacy here that’s elided by most end-of-days works, which open post-apocalypse and skip the messiness of the collapse.

So the book did not improve my mood, and as I revisit those passages for the purpose of this essay I find it’s easier for my pessimism to run wild amid such center-cannot-hold headlines as Ferguson, ISIS, Putin, melting ice caps and, what do you know, a goddamn Ebola outbreak. But the point of the book is not that its harrowing central event occurs, but how humanity reacts to it. “I wanted to write a love letter to the modern world,” Mandel told me.

It’s no spoiler to reveal that the book takes place both pre- and post-virus, after society has stabilized and young people have only vague recollections of what TV screens looked like when they weren’t broken. (In one poignant moment, a man connects a generator to a computer just so he can see the familiar “network connectivity problems” page again.) This is part of Mandel’s love letter, honoring the everyday magic of smartphones and credit cards, but it goes deeper than that, becoming less about civilization’s achievements than its spirit. (The book has superficial commonalities with The Lola Quartet, between its non-chronological timeline and sympathy for its multiple narrators, but Station Eleven is where Mandel’s gifts fully flower. She writes with the confidence of someone who does the crossword in ink.)

After the virus, a theater troupe travels the country staging Shakespeare; we’re told such productions appeared early on after the collapse, and that audiences find solace in his poetry. I found this supremely moving, as I did when last year’s Mr. Burns also considered art’s place after a massive catastrophe. In that case it was pop art (The Simpsons), but no matter, there’s something beautiful in the idea that its art of any kind is needed for people to feel human.

Apocalypse stories are cyclical in popularity and we’re seeing an influx now, suggesting I’m not the only one feeling society is exhausted. This summer already saw the release of Edan Lepucki’s California and The Leftovers on HBO, which play on the same fears. But while they bemoan the things lost in their various cataclysms, they don’t honor the fact they once existed. They looked at the things that were ruined, not the things that survived. None of them are love letters.

Several times throughout Station Eleven I thought of William Faulkner’s Nobel Prize acceptance speech, which also reads like a love letter to the modern world and a tribute to the lasting power of art.

“I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail,” Faulkner said. It is the writer’s “privilege said to help man endure by lifting his heart, by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past. The poet’s voice need not merely be the record of man, it can be one of the props, the pillars to help him endure and prevail.”

Optimism is obviously not enough to offset the very real problems in the world. But Station Eleven feels like the kind of art people will return to in trying times, to feel propped up in its perspective, some kind of small light in the darkness.

09/10/14 4:00am
09/10/2014 4:00 AM |

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage
By Haruki Murakami
Alfred A. Knopf

It’s hard to imagine a more acute teenage pain than being told your longtime group of friends has decided, suddenly and without reason, that you are no longer needed. This is where Haruki Murakami’s deeply empathetic new novel begins, and it’s such a quiet and resonant scenario that the book seems destined to become a deep-cut favorite. Murakami is one of the most beloved modern writers, and here he explores loneliness with as much insight as anyone since Vonnegut.

The title character of Colorless (it feels wrong to refer to this embodiment of passiveness as a “hero”) is deliberately named, with Tsukuru translating as “builder”—his father didn’t think the infant son merited the more ambitious “creator”—and as a Tazaki he is the only character whose surname doesn’t reference a color. The name is a double-barreled literary device, in other words, but no less effective for being obvious. Tsukuru sees himself as colorless, adding nothing to the world. He, simply and poignantly, “has nowhere to go,” and it’s a considerable achievement that Murakami is able to render such a meek and acted-upon character so compellingly.

Murakami’s most frustrating habit, introducing compelling ideas that don’t pay off, continues here, and while one can find thematic parallels in the underexplored insinuation that dream events have waking-life repercussions, digressions involving “death tokens,” or a pair of Lynchian severed fingers, never amount to more than admittedly effective atmosphere.

Still, while the high-concept elements feel like a riff on familiar themes, the emotions at the core glow. “One heart is not connected to another through harmony alone,” he writes. “They are, instead, linked deeply through their wounds… There is no silence without a cry of grief, no forgiveness without bloodshed, no acceptance without a passage through acute loss. That is what lies at the root of true harmony.”

Looking superficially, Colorless feels like a step back after the mammoth 1Q84, but this is not a minor work. To the people it will speak to, the voice will be clear, loud, and true.

08/27/14 4:00am
08/27/2014 4:00 AM |

As the driving force behind The Mountain Goats, singer-songwriter John Darnielle has enraptured audiences for the past two decades with lyrical portraits that border on sung short stories. In his second novel, Wolf In White Van—his first, Master of Reality, was a consideration of the Black Sabbath album from the perspective of a teenager in a mental institution—Darnielle expands the reach of his imaginative process to the tale of Sean Phillips, a man badly disfigured in a mysterious accident, who spends his time leading players through a labyrinthine play-by-mail game called Trace Italian.

Through shifts in chronological perspective, Darnielle slowly winds the reader back to the point of Phillips’ life-changing accident, exploring, along the way, the intricate fantasy life that Phillips developed and maintained in order to survive. We spoke with him about the creation of Wolf In White Van and the difference between novel writing and songwriting.

Did the process for Wolf start in songwriting?
No, Sean didn’t start out as a song character. I had finished writing Master of Reality and enjoyed learning to follow a narrative where it goes, seeing how writing a longer story is part performance and part… collage? Ship-in-a-bottle building? Anyway, it’s different. So I just started writing something one day, and it turned into a scene near the end of the book—where Sean and his friends are hanging out, being young and Californian and bored—and I just built around that.

Where did Sean come from?
The image I had of young Sean before the accident comes from people I knew in high school. Just sort of a vision of a kid in a puffy jacket and jeans who has some dark dreams inside him. These were guys I didn’t know well, so I used to wonder about their lives, what they were like, whether their days were like mine.

How was the writing process different from songwriting?
I write songs really fast and I feel like song is its own space. I write songs in single incantatory bursts; half the time I’m writing out loud with the guitar and then pausing to scribble down what I said when I was playing the chords. Books are just different. I’ve also been writing prose longer than I’ve been writing songs; it was my first passion. I wrote my first short story when I was seven.

How did you design Trace Italian?
I had to check whether there really were play-by-mail games—of course there were, though the email I sent to one company that’s supposedly still running bounced, which I’m bummed about. I framed the basic movement you see, and I thought a lot about the set-up. The point of the Trace is that it only exists in descriptions. We don’t see any maps, it’s just a way of thinking about an actually existing part of the world, and eventually of thinking about the whole world.

Do you have a soundtrack for the book?
I feel like Steve Roach albums would read pretty well for a lot of Sean’s more immersed musings. I have some pretty specific southern California radio sounds for the scene in the parking lot—classic rock stations blaring from the windows of Camaros. And, like, instrumental guitar stuff like the Robin Trower album Sean listens to in the last chapter, or this old Steve Hunter album Swept Away, or the last two Jeff Loomis albums, that endless-day southern California feel. But there ought also to be something like Klaus Schulze, something electronic with movement. I think splitting the distance between outer-space organic synth sounds and shuffling instrumental electric-guitar stuff would set the scene best.

You have a knack for accessing the imaginary worlds that teenagers shelter in. How do you do it?
I still get transported by imaginary worlds, though I do hear a lot of people saying that as they grow older they don’t connect as deeply with the stuff they’re into. I think staying curious is the only thing—never being satisfied with the stuff you already know you like, always finding new stuff to get into. Then you’re always young with respect to the stuff you’re reading, listening to, watching, doing.