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Few writers are as fascinated by the intricacies of interconnectedness as David Mitchell. Fewer still have the literary skill to coherently translate those complexities to the page.

Yet the British author has built his entire oeuvre on doing just that. From his very first novel – 1999’s “Ghostwritten” – he has shown a propensity for creating layered stories featuring a multitude of perspectives from multiple points of view. And thanks to a wonderful narrative broadmindedness and wildly impressive attention to craft and detail, each of those meticulously-constructed books shares connections with all the other works in Mitchell’s canon, binding them all together in a sort of metanarrative – a David Mitchell Literary Universe (DMLU), if you will.

Mitchell’s ninth and newest book is “Utopia Avenue” (Random House, $30). It’s a story of the rise and fall of the titular band, an eclectic group of ahead-of-their-time musicians that fate (and an enterprising manager) brings together in London in the late 1960s. Through this idiosyncratic crew, Mitchell explores the peculiarities of fame and success during one of the weirdest, wildest times in the history of popular music.

It’s a sweeping psychedelic story, an alternate pop history that features a slew of famous and familiar names crossing the paths of our heroes in the course of their ascent. It’s a brightly colored and brutal fable that is equal parts celebration and warning regarding the raw power inherent to music. The pull of creative forces can sometimes be beyond our control, leaving the creator no choice but to hang on tight and hope for the best – a best that is far from guaranteed.

Published in Buzz

Something I’ve learned in a decade or so of book reviews: Even when you think you know, you don’t always know.

Take “Antkind” (Random House, $30), the debut novel from acclaimed screenwriter Charlie Kaufman, for example. As someone familiar with Kaufman’s body of work – his style, his sensibility, his thematic interests – I figured I had a pretty good grasp on what I was getting into when I picked up his first work of literary fiction.

Reader, I did not.

Kaufman’s creative output is fluid, an elaborate and evocative liquid that takes the shape of whatever container it is placed into. Movies have strict delineations – there are unavoidable limitations of time and technology – and hence Kaufman’s work in that sphere is likewise limited. But on the page, there are no such limit. In that regard, “Antkind” is Kaufman unleashed, his careening creative brilliance utterly unfettered.

It’s … a lot.

This book is a sprawling, recursive metanarrative, one unbound by literary convention. It is the story of what happens when mediocrity is confronted with genius and forced to reckon with what happens when singular brilliance proves ephemeral. It is about a man in whom self-regard and self-pity do constant battle, forced to come to terms with how little he understands. It is about what it means to be tangentially touched by greatness, only to have that greatness escape your grasp.

Published in Buzz
Tuesday, 26 May 2020 15:43

Hillary minus Bill equals ‘Rodham’

There are few literary questions I find more engaging than “What if?” I’ve always been drawn to narratives that offer a glimpse at an alternative version of our world, guessing at what might have been had something – anything, really – been different.

These questions tend to be more the purview of speculative fiction, but sometimes become devices used in the telling of altogether different kinds of stories.

That’s the category in which “Rodham” (Random House, $28), the latest from bestselling author Curtis Sittenfeld, falls, a book that asks and answers a singular question:

What if Hillary Rodham never married Bill Clinton?

From this fundamental premise, a complex and inventive narrative unfolds, spread over three time periods – the early ‘70s, the early ‘90s and the 2016 presidential campaign – following the career of Hillary Rodham as she works her way through the American political landscape of the last half-century. Sittenfeld offers a portrait of a political life unlived, one that paints an engaging and sometimes surprising picture of what might have been.

Published in Style
Tuesday, 22 January 2019 20:43

What dreams may come – ‘The Dreamers’

In a world where sleep may be never-ending, what manner of dreams may come?

That’s the foundational question posed by Karen Thompson Walker’s literary sci-fi novel “The Dreamers” (Random House, $27) … but it’s a question with many answers. Through an inexplicable epidemic, Walker offers up an illustration of how tenuous our grasp on a collective reality truly is. We all see the world differently whether we’re awake or asleep - and it doesn’t take much to make everything change.

Published in Style
Wednesday, 03 October 2018 12:50

Love hurts – ‘Heartbreaker’

Considering the wealth of recent works that marry genre conventions with literary fiction, you might think that there’s little left in the way of potential surprises. No matter how rich the vein might be – and it has proven to be rich indeed – you’d imagine that it would be difficult to mine something new and fresh from that lode.

And then you read something like Claudia Dey’s “Heartbreaker” (Random House, $26) and realize that there are creative powerhouses out there continuing to strike literary gold. It’s a novel about coming of age and motherhood and sexual politics wrapped in a sci-fi dressing of alternate history and cult dynamics. It is powerful and thought-provoking and unrelentingly weird – both in the tale and in the telling.

It shines.

Published in Style

What if you looked around one day and saw all the success in the world … only it wasn’t what you wanted?

That’s the central question being asked by Barry Cohen, the protagonist of Gary Shteyngart’s new novel “Lake Success” (Random House, $28). It’s a story of discontent among the one percent, a look-in on the lives of people whose problems are both wildly different and oddly similar to our own. It’s also a sharp and whip-smart deconstruction of the American Dream – one in which the dreamer discovers that maybe they didn’t want it to come true after all.

Published in Buzz
Tuesday, 10 April 2018 14:25

To the moon and back - ‘Rocket Men’

It’s remarkable to think that 50 years ago, we sent men to the moon with slide rules and punch-card computers. You’ve probably got something in your pocket right now exponentially more powerful than the combined computing power of NASA in the late 1960s.

But send them we did.

While history most clearly remembers Neil Armstrong’s first steps on the moon back in July of 1969, he and his crew were just the latest in a long line of astronauts who took many first steps of their own – steps that led to the planting of a flag somewhere not of the Earth.

Robert Kurson’s “Rocket Men: The Daring Odyssey of Apollo 8 and the Astronauts Who Made Man’s First Journey to the Moon” (Random House, $28) tells the story of one such step – the mission undertaken by Frank Borman, Jim Lovell and Bill Anders to become the first men ever to travel to the moon. From meticulous research and hours of interviews springs a lively narrative, one that brings the bravery and brainpower of all involved to vivid life.

Published in Tekk
Tuesday, 06 March 2018 16:28

The art of war - ‘Bring Out the Dog’

From every war comes art inspired by that war. The pressures and pains of conflict have proven fertile ground for creators since the days of ancient Greece and Homer’s “Iliad.” There’s loads of room for disparate feelings and emotions - hurt, heart, humor, hubris and much more – in tales from the battlefield.

America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are no different; some remarkable art has sprung from those fallow fields. Music, movies, literature – all have found ways to reflect the people, places and ideas of our country’s lengthy hitch in the Middle East.

With his debut collection “Bring Out the Dog” (Random House, $27), Will Mackin has produced something that holds up alongside the very best war literature of the 21st century. These remarkable stories – 11 in all – are inspired by Mackin’s time deployed with a special ops task force in both Iraq and Afghanistan. They began life as notes jotted down on torn-off flaps of cardboard boxes or even on his own forearm. From there, these thoughts and observations made their way into Mackin’s journals. And those journals served as the foundational material to build this book.

Published in Style

The best short fiction embraces the limitations of the form and turns them into foundational strengths. There’s a power in brevity that many writers can never fully harness, their work coming off as either overwritten or clumsily truncated.

But when someone displays a true mastery, literary brilliance often follows.

And so it is with “The Largesse of the Sea Maiden” (Random House, $27), a quintet of stories from the late Denis Johnson that explore the writer’s longstanding fascination with the freaks and fakes that exist on the fringes of society. Each one of these five tales can be held up as a masterpiece and a masterclass, powerfully evocative and poetically emotive even as the unsavory seediness and/or deliberate disconnect displayed by the characters bubbles and oozes to the surface.

Published in Buzz
Wednesday, 20 September 2017 11:53

American dreams – ‘The Golden House’

Rushdie’s latest novel a sharp and engaging epic

Published in Style
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