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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.

Published in Buzz

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.

Published in Buzz

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.

Published in Buzz

Nobody does novellas like Stephen King.

Sure, he’s a tremendous novelist and a great writer of short fiction, but more than perhaps any author of popular fiction in recent decades, he embraces the gray area between the two. And some of his most acclaimed work has sprung from that particular vein.

His latest book is “If It Bleeds” (Scribner, $30), the latest in his every decade-ish string of novella collections, book such as “Different Seasons,” “Four Past Midnight” and “Full Dark, No Stars.” It’s a quartet of stories that are a little too long to be labelled short, all of which are packed with that uniquely King combination of fear and empathy.

Published in Buzz

True literary excellence is rare. At any given time, there exists a relative handful of writers capable of creating legitimately exceptional prose. There are plenty of GOOD writers out there (though perhaps not as many as we might like), but scant few GREAT ones.

The truly excellent are the ones who are not only capable of crafting greatness, but are also willing to push boundaries – both the establishment’s and their own. These are the writers who, in continuing to challenge themselves, burst through the literary ionosphere and hurtle toward undiscovered realms.

Zadie Smith is one such writer.

Published in Buzz

There aren’t many writers out there who are as thoughtfully scary as Joe Hill.

Hill has long shown a particular knack for telling stories that are, at their hearts, about the fears that we evoke in one another. Sure, there are supernatural or paranormal elements to some of his tales, but in the end, the real fear – the real impact – comes from man’s connection to man … and what happens when that connection is stretched, twisted or severed entirely.

Hill’s latest book is “Full Throttle” (William Morrow, $27.99), a collection of 13 stories aimed at stoking the coals of that fear, seizing hold of your imagination and pulling it into the depths. There are heroes and villains (although sometimes it can be a little tricky to tell the difference). There is justice and vengeance (although again – sometimes they look awfully similar). There are strange fantastic realms and there are places that look just like home, weird beasts and regular folks.

Published in Buzz

Few writers today have been working the cultural criticism beat as long and as successfully as Chuck Klosterman. To many, his is THE voice when it comes to pop analysis and contextualization. But while his latest book might explore some of those same ideas, it does so through a different literary lens.

“Raised in Captivity: Fictional Nonfiction” (Penguin, $26) offers the same sort of quick-hit cleverness that permeates Klosterman’s nonfiction, but via a delivery medium of short fiction. Flash fiction, really – none of the 34 pieces that make up this collection is more than a handful of pages and some are considerably shorter.

The book’s subtitle is an accurate one – the tales contained within are brief, fictionalized explorations of the same ideas and hypotheticals that feature prominently in Klosterman’s nonfiction work. They are strange and offbeat, small and skewed glimpses of the zeitgeist through weird-colored glasses – think “Twilight Zone” or “Black Mirror,” only in a much bigger hurry. And while they vary in length, style and tone, all of them ring loudly with the author’s distinctive voice.

Published in Buzz
Tuesday, 25 June 2019 15:46

Summer reading: Short fiction edition

For some, selecting their summer reading is one of the most important decisions of the season. Choosing what we’re going to read at the beach, at camp or even just on the porch or in a backyard hammock is a significant key to maximizing our simple pleasures quotient.

And so, once again, here are The Maine Edge’s annual summer reading recommendations.

In past years, this story has focused on a variety of different reading options. One summer, the target was suitable book series. Another tackled Maine authors exclusively. Still another allowed me to offer up my own personal recommended reading list. And last year, it was a look back at some of the books you might have missed over the past five years.

In keeping with that commitment to mixing things up, this year’s summer reads story is all about short fiction. The following collections run the gamut in terms of genre and span the breadth of this century and half of the last. Some of the titles and authors will be familiar, while others may have slipped under your radar, but all are capable of fulfilling your summer reading needs.

Happy reading!

Published in Cover Story
Wednesday, 20 February 2019 14:04

‘Aerialists’ a literary high-wire act

There are a number of ways for an author to assemble a collection of short fiction. Some just repurpose whatever stories they’ve published in various literary magazines and other outlets and put them together. Others develop their stories around some sort of shared thematic or stylistic tendencies. Still others use go the “novel in stories” route, using their tales as chapters of a connected whole. And some follow more than one of these tenets.

Mark Mayer’s collection “Aerialists” (Bloomsbury, $26) falls into the latter category. This collection of nine stories draws from Mayer’s previous work – three of these stories have appeared elsewhere. His stories are rich in characterization, very internal and bleakly funny. And as his framing device – his connective tissue, as it were – he uses the notion of the circus.

Now, that’s not to say that these stories are all about the circus. In fact, none of them are. Their names are derived from circus figures, from the opening “Strongwoman” to the titular tale to the collection’s closer “The Ringmaster.” But while these names aren’t to be taken as literal representations of circus tradition, they are meant to evoke the unique feeling inspired by the circus, that mélange of joy and fear and unsettling otherness that you can’t get anywhere else.

Another common bond that these stories share – a very important one – is that they are excellent.

Published in Style
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