I love talking to writers. Learning about their inspirations, their histories … it’s all a delight.

I particularly enjoy speaking to writers about their debuts. Authors whose first books are about to be thrust into the spotlight. Their darlings – the surviving ones, at any rate – set loose into the world, no longer under the control of their creator.

And if that author is a Mainer, well … so much the better.

Morgan Talty, whose debut book “Night of the Living Rez” has just hit shelves, covers all those bases. Talty, a member of the Penobscot Nation, grew up in the area and lives here still. His memories and experiences from that time largely inform the (exceptional) stories that make up his newly published collection.

(Note: You can read my full review of "Night of the Living Rez" here.)

Mr. Talty was kind enough to speak to me recently about his new book. In a wide-ranging conversation, we discussed the book, his writing process and how these stories pull from both his lived experience and the depths of his imagination.

Published in Buzz

It’s a rare thing to be really and truly grabbed by a book. Sure, there are works that will hold your attention long enough to allow you to sink into them. And sometimes, that connection never bears out and you abandon ship. But for a book to seize you by the shirt, commanding and demanding your attention and refusing to let go from the word go, well … that doesn’t happen very often.

But it does happen. And when it does? Strap in, because you’re going on a journey.

Morgan Talty’s new book “Night of the Living Rez” (Tin House, $16.95) is going to take you on a trip, pulling you through a world with which you are likely unfamiliar, even as it exists alongside your own. This collection of a dozen stories is a reflection and exploration of Talty’s history and heritage as a member of the Penobscot Nation, bringing together moments of triumph and tragedy as it digs into the realities of what it means to be connected to one’s culture while also striving to live in the larger world.

Every one of these stories is effective on its own, brimming with a bifurcated and self-aware energy. But as they are consumed together, they feed on one another, spiraling upward on waves of simple joy and sadness and dark humor generated by the trials and tribulations of a singular young man. This is a book that is more than the sum of its parts, each tale a piece of the puzzle; it all comes together into a smart, thoughtful and utterly fascinating big picture.

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There’s no such thing as normal. All it takes is a little scratching at the veneer of the mundane to reveal the much stranger reality that surrounds us.

That effort to dig down into the bizarre – even when the bizarre isn’t buried all that deeply – can often result in marvelously strange stories. When weird fiction blurs those lines, giving the everyday that ever-so-slight tilt that sends it careening off into the shadows, it usually proves to be a rewarding reading experience.

And when the writer is also someone with a genuine gift for craft, well … that’s when you get something like Kate Folk’s “Out There” (Random House, $27).

This collection of 15 stories offers up precisely the sorts of funhouse reflections that you hope to find when digging into fiction that blends the literary and the speculative. Folk delves into the darkness that comes from our shared need for (and failure to find) connection. Perhaps we seek to connect with family or a lover. Perhaps we want to connect with an institution or an idea or maybe – simply – ourselves. Those quests can be bleak – particularly when they lead us down paths we aren’t prepared to traverse.

(Oh, and just for the record – all 15 of these stories are absolute bangers. Usually in these sorts of single-author story collections, you’ll find one or two that don’t resonate in quite the same way. Decidedly not the case here – “Out There” is top to bottom gold.)

Published in Style

I’m on record as being a big fan of collections of short fiction. As someone enamored of both beginnings and endings, there’s something wonderfully satisfying about picking up a book that has plenty of both.

Now, there are those who ride hard for anthologies. It’s a proclivity that I understand, to be sure, but don’t quite share. Don’t get me wrong – love a good anthology – but to me, the big winner is always going to be a collection of work by a singular author, even if that means that I’m taking a bit more of a gamble on an individual’s style and substance. But when that gamble pays off? Jackpot.

“Lesser Known Monsters of the 21st Century” (Tin House, $16.95) by Kim Fu offers the kind of payout you hope for when picking up a collection by an author with whom you are unfamiliar. So it is with me and Fu’s work – she’s written a couple of novels and this is her first published story collection, but I had never read her work before. Such is the joy of the book critic life – sometimes, you take a swing and see what happens.

In this case, what happened was an engaging, thought-provoking collection of stories. A dozen works of speculative exploration that utilize and subvert genre tropes in equal measure. These are stories that venture into the shadows without fear and travel darkened pathways with resolute boldness. Smart and sharp, riddled with unsettling bleak humor and emotional impact, “Lesser Known Monsters” is a first-rate collection for any fan of speculative fiction.

Published in Style
Wednesday, 29 December 2021 13:03

‘Creative Types’ offers superb short fiction

All the best fiction is built around interesting ideas and/or individuals. It’s just the amount of time and space devoted to them that varies. While novels spend hundreds of pages delving into their core concepts and characters, short fiction tends to provide a much quicker hit.

And sometimes, the quicker hit is the one that hits hardest.

Tom Bissell’s new collection “Creative Types: And Other Stories” (Pantheon, $27) delivers a septet of such hits; we watch as people are forced to confront the realities around them on both micro and macro levels, leaving them to explore the impacts of actions on themselves and their larger worlds.

Whether we’re in the offices of a literary magazine or a Roman hotel room, discussing an interview with a masked vigilante or the aftermath of a PR misfire on the stage of “Saturday Night Live,” what Bissell does so wonderfully in “Creative Types” is illustrate just how much turmoil exists beneath the seeming placid surface attitudes of those who operate in a creative orbit.

Published in Buzz

First things first: I love short fiction. There’s something wonderful about reading exquisitely crafted pieces that are not one word longer than they need to be. Maybe it’s 5,000 words, maybe it’s 500 – whatever it takes to tell the tale.

And while short fiction operates in the context of all genres, I’d argue that no genre is better suited for it than speculative fiction; the idea-driven nature of it allows for significant flexibility regarding how the stories are designed to play out.

Now, I’m a fan of anthologies, to be sure – there’s a lot of fun to be had when the works of a score of disparate authors is collected under one figurative roof, after all – but there’s nothing quite like sitting down to read an assemblage of short works by a singe author. You get to see the writer’s stylistic quirks and ideological idiosyncrasies laid out over the course of 10 or 12 or 15 tales, a snapshot of their ethos along with their stylistic strengths.

And in that respect, “Even Greater Mistakes” (Tor, $27.99) by Charlie Jane Anders definitely delivers.

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One could argue that all literature has the writer opening themselves up to the reader. And that’s probably true as far as it goes. But very few writers can truly invite the reader in, laying bare everything and inviting our examination.

Haruki Murakami invites you in.

His latest is “First Person Singular” (Knopf, $28), a collection of eight stories that are all told – you guessed it – in the first person, tales of absurdity and magic and passion. Whether we’re getting accounts of talking monkeys or sweetly weird looks at first love or poems about baseball, it all springs from the same never-ending font of humanism, melancholic though it may sometimes be.

These are stories about being apart, being other. They’re stories offered up from the perspective of eight similar-but-different characters, only one of whom cops to the name that in truth they all fundamentally share – Haruki Murakami.

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The world of fiction will always have room for fairy tales.

The genre fluidity that comes with literary fiction leaves plenty of space for writers to explore the vast expanse of fantasy and morality that springs from the classic fairy tale. And so when we see modern authors adapting the ethos and entities of those long-told tales, it can be engaging in ways both intellectual and visceral.

That’s the energy that Veronica Schanoes brings to her new book “Burning Girls and Other Stories” (Tordotcom, $25.99). It’s a collection of 13 stories, a baker’s dozen of fairy tale-inspired works driven by the dual powers of the fantastic and the feminist. It incorporates tropes of the fairy tale realm into stories of women fighting back against a society that devalues and others them; there are elements of punk rock and Judaism and revolutionary leftist political thought as well.

These disparate elements could have resulted in stories that were uneven and muddled, stitched-together Frankenstein’s monsters of overstuffed pastiche. Instead, Schanoes wields her razor-sharp craft like a scalpel, carving every one of these pieces into something distinct and idiosyncratic and undeniably powerful. Intellectually challenging and emotionally intense, it’s a collection packed tight with highlights.

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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
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.

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