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There are few authors out there who can match Jonathan Lethem when it comes to literary genre-bending. Just a handful are even close – and none are better. He has long been a proponent of embracing the possibilities inherent to genre exploration, leading to work that is insightful, engaging … and wildly entertaining.

His latest effort is “The Arrest” (Ecco, $27.99), a post-apocalyptic tale that offers a glimpse at one possible ending for civilization as we know it. Neither a utopia nor a dystopia, but something in between, Lethem’s landscape is one is thoughtful and laugh-out-loud funny. It’s a story of survival and isolation, a story about what it means to live in a society.

It’s a condemnation of overreliance on technology that also pokes fun at those who view tech as some shadowy all-encompassing bogeyman. By viewing the world through the lens shaped by the titular event, Lethem peels back the layers and gives us a glimpse of what we might try to put together if everything fell apart.

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Sometimes, all it takes is a title.

I usually read and review 60 or so books over the course of a year. And I consider several times that many. A fair amount of the coverage is somewhat predetermined – if certain authors have new work coming or a new book is generating a lot of buzz, attention tends to be paid – but there is a degree of wiggle room, allowing me to occasionally take a chance. These chances don’t always pay off (though I should note that I rarely review the misfires), but when they do, they pay off big time.

With Julian Herbert’s “Bring Me the Head of Quentin Tarantino” (Graywolf Press, $15.99), I hit the jackpot.

This collection of short stories by the noted Mexican writer, translated from the Spanish by Christina MacSweeney, captured my attention with its title. Upon closer investigation, I discovered an assemblage of excellence, 10 short works that captivate and confound. These stories are surreal and absurd even as they uncover certain realities – harsh and otherwise – about the Mexican experience.

As I said, it was the title that caught my eye – no surprise, considering my affinity for the work of Mr. Tarantino – and the description was certainly intriguing, but I didn’t anticipate … this. It’s rare to encounter fiction that functions effectively both as commentary and as pure narrative, but these stories do just that. They are weird and visceral and deliberately difficult to define, but each of them has the power to work its way into your imagination. Funny and poignant, driven by moments of hilarity and sadness and fury, “Bring Me the Head of Quentin Tarantino” is an exceptional reading experience.

Published in Style
Wednesday, 28 October 2020 11:40

Words like violence, break ‘The Silence’

When we’re talking about the best American writers of the past half-century, everyone’s going to have a different list, but there are certain names that will likely appear on most of them. One of those names is Don DeLillo, who has written some of the most impactful literature of his generation. Books like “White Noise,” “Underworld” and others are significant parts of the 20th century canon.

And he’s still going strong.

DeLillo’s latest novel – his 17th, but who’s counting? – is “The Silence” (Scribner, $22), a slim volume that takes a look at what it might mean for our precarious and codependent relationship to technology to be unceremoniously ripped away, leaving nothing but the quiet echo of our own thoughts. How has this proliferation of tech impacted our ability to engage with one another – and are we able to get back what was lost.

“The Silence” is a lightning-fast read – just 128 pages – but no less engaging for its brevity. It is thoughtful and thought-provoking, a quick-hit of a novel one assumes is intended to mirror the bite-sized rapid consumption encouraged by our current relationship to media both old and new.

Published in Style
Wednesday, 28 October 2020 11:39

The many faces of war – ‘Missionaries’

Ever since there has been warfare, there has been art about warfare. The visceral nature and high stakes of combat are fertile ground for creative expression, providing the backdrop for uncountable stories and images that attempt to convey the violent eternal present of war.

Most of the time, the art that comes from wars is born after the conflict concludes. However, that isn’t the case with the creations inspired by this country’s operations in Iraq and Afghanistan – those fights remain ongoing, but artists have nevertheless mined them for inspiration.

Author Phil Klay made a massive splash on the literary scene with his debut book “Redeployment” in 2014 – it won the National Book Award that year, as well as the National Book Critics Circle’s John Leonard Prize, awarded for a best first book in any genre (as a member in good standing of NBCC, I actually cast my vote for “Redeployment” to win the John Leonard).

Klay is back with his first novel. “Missionaries” (Penguin Press, $28) is a look at the global war machine, the world-spanning business of warfare writ large and small. Through interconnected perspectives and narrators, it’s a look at the many ways in which the horrors of war can impact those who participate – willingly or otherwise.

Spanning decades of time and thousands of miles, “Missionaries” is a tale of the damage war can do and the influence it can have on the choices that those involved ultimately make. It’s also about the high cost, in money and in blood, exacted by the act. And it’s a tacit admission that if you’re in it, you’re in it – all are complicit, regardless of what they might tell themselves.

Published in Buzz

One of the great things about having literary tastes that tend toward the omnivorous is that you never know when the mood to read something in particular will strike you. Sometimes, you want to read some high-minded lit fiction. Other times, you’re up for some lowbrow genre fare. Sometimes, it’s a biography or memoir; other times, a work of pop science or philosophy.

And sometimes, well … you just want to get weird.

When those times arrive, you could do worse than checking out the works of David Wong. His latest is the coarsely-named “Zoey Punches the Future in the Dick” (St. Martin’s Press, $27.99), the sequel to his delightfully profane and bizarre 2015 novel “Futuristic Violence and Fancy Suits.” This new book is a sharp and satiric continuation of that story, yet it also manages to largely stand on its own – a relative rarity for genre series.

It’s smart sci-fi that delights in playing dumb, hiding sophisticated ideas and themes behind bizarre set pieces and all manner of creative profanity. It’s also a rip-roarer of an adventure tale, packed with high-concept twists and turns. All in all, it’s a hell of a lot of fun.

Published in Buzz

When we think about the end of the world, we tend to think big. We think of the apocalypse on a global scale, and understandably so. However, while the end may be large, the way in which we experience might be anything but.

Rumaan Alam’s “Leave the World Behind” (Ecco, $27.99) offers a smaller, more intimate look at the end. Through the lens of two families – largely strangers to one another – the reader is offered a glimpse at the way in which our perceptions of the world are based on a shared reality … and what happens when that shared reality is shattered in ways we don’t and can’t possibly know.

It is a thoughtful and propulsive read, a story that draws you in and asks – nay, demands – to be compulsively consumed. This is not a book about the world bearing witness to its own end, but rather about what it means to not know, to not understand, even as our faith in our world’s permanence is irrevocably and rightly shaken apart.

Published in Style

I dig unreliable narrators.

Few storytelling devices delight me as much – and none more so. That added layer of ambiguity, that feeling of being unable to fully trust the very person serving as the window into the narrative … it adds a dimension that I find irresistible.

Irresistible, I should say, if (and this is a BIG if) it is executed skillfully. Obviously, stories are better when they’re well-told, but a poorly-drawn unreliable narrator is as regrettable as a sharply-hewn one is wonderful. Good can be great, but bad can be truly abysmal – and the margin for error is razor-thin.

We get one of the good ones in Susanna Clarke’s new novel “Piranesi” (Bloomsbury, $27) – her first since 2004’s acclaimed “Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell.” The titular character more than rises to the occasion, sharing the story of the impossible place in which he lives in a manner that is both overtly and subtly untrustworthy. And when you put that in the sort of lush and vividly-realized fantastical setting that Clarke creates, well … you’ve got something pretty special.

Published in Style

I’m always glad to see a new Chuck Palahniuk book. While I recognize that not everyone is as engaged as I am by his brand of blunt-force transgression, it’s tough to deny that he inhabits an important space in the literary realm. His willingness to push deep-down unpleasantness to the surface, to follow trends and tendencies to their bleakest, darkest outcomes, isn’t something you often see on the bestseller lists.

His latest title is “The Invention of Sound” (Grand Central Publishing, $27). It’s a twisted two-hander of sorts, with two primary points of view. Each of these people is consumed by a dark obsession, though they pursue and embrace those obsessions in different ways.

On the one hand, a broken man fully consumed by a Quixotic quest to track down his daughter, holding out hope that he will find her despite the years that have passed and traveling some dark paths to get there. On the other, a notorious Hollywood Foley artist, one whose gifts for perfectly capturing the sounds of violence and pain leave her regarded with unease and suspicion. The two careen toward each other, with neither knowing the other or having any idea what havoc their unexpected collision might wreak.

Palahniuk has always been fascinated with what goes on in the shadows cast by polite society. “The Invention of Sound” delves into those shadows, crafting an ugly and compelling look at the horror and violence lurking beneath the veneer, illustrating the notion that we never really comprehend what people are capable of – even those we think we know.

Published in Buzz
Friday, 04 September 2020 15:08

Missed connections – ‘Daddy’

Emma Cline can WRITE.

Anyone who read her debut, 2016’s excellent “The Girls,” knows all about Cline’s prose gifts. She has a compelling, captivating voice and a real knack for crafting engaging narratives. But while that novel is undeniably excellent, the earliest recognition of her talents came in connection with her short fiction.

Cline’s new book “Daddy” (Random House, $27) celebrates her aptitude for shorter work, 10 stories that delve beneath the surface of the American experience. Each tale is a snapshot of the shadows cast by the outsized and unbalanced power dynamics between friends and colleagues and family members. There’s a palpable hurt at the core of these stories, a recognition of the pain that is seemingly always a heartbeat away.

The people at the center of these stories are all struggling with the grim realities of their situations. Even when the veneer of respectability is still intact, there’s a fundamental and inescapable ugliness there. Sadness and anger are abundant – everyone strives for connection, they find themselves cast adrift, spiraling away from one another even as they yearn for proximity.

Published in Buzz

Everyone has gaps in their pop culture knowledge. There’s just too much content out there. Even someone like myself, a person professionally tasked with maintaining a thorough understanding of the zeitgeist, is bound to miss some things.

And those blank spots can occasionally lead to opportunity.

Take “Twilight,” for instance. Now, I have a general understanding of the overall mythos, as someone who was, you know, conscious during the mid-00s – the whole thing was inescapable – but I never read the books and I actually only saw the final two movies, based on the final book in the series (I was … let’s just say confused). So yes – a basic understanding without much knowledge of the specifics.

This confluence of circumstances means that I get to review Meyer’s return to the “Twilight” universe with eyes of unexpected freshness.

This new offering is titled “Midnight Sun” (Little, Brown and Company, $27.99); it’s a retelling of the events of the first “Twilight” book, only from a different perspective. Instead of the story unfolding from Bella’s point of view, we get to experience Edward’s interpretation of events. And boy oh boy are there some EVENTS.

Now, I can’t speak to the relative merits of this book as opposed to its predecessor – I don’t know how well Meyer has aligned this latest offering with the work that came 15 years before – but I can say that, while I might not have found “Midnight Sun” to be the most literarily brilliant work I’ve read, it certainly didn’t live up (down?) to the less-than-stellar stylistic reputation of the first four books. The writing isn’t spectacular, but neither is it spectacularly bad.

Published in Buzz
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