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urlSometimes I feel that the city is vanishing from fiction. The books I’ve been reading and reviewing lately have taken place in nowhere towns along highways; or they have taken place in transit, zigzagging from one locale to another, the author never settling in anywhere; or they have focused on interior landscapes, the ‘where’ of the characters’ lives less important than the ‘why.’

For this reason, I read Anthony De Sa’s Kicking the Sky with pleasure. The novel begins as a coming-of-age story, but from there it broadens out, poking around in the dark corners of a city in transition. Midway through my reading, I made a note that the book kept getting bigger as it moved forward, instead of narrowing its focus. I thought this was a flaw. But no—this turns out to be the book’s design.

51dKKLBZ1jLThe first time I was ever terrified by a story was during my sixth grade class’s reading of Lois Lowry’s Number the Stars, which we finished just before going to see a live production of The Diary of Anne Frank. Though Number the Stars is fiction, it’s an imaginative retelling of stories told to Lowry by her friend Annelise Platt, who herself was a child during the Nazis’ occupation of Denmark and who saw so many of the things that the book’s protagonist, Annemarie Johansen, had seen. The book captivated me then—it still captivates me, in its moments of rushed and slowed momentum, a drama that can’t be replicated by a horror movie. Because Annemarie had been about my age when I first read it, because I had not yet known about such a horror of history, Number the Stars quickly, effortlessly became my first favorite book.  And I’ve decided to revisit it here.

ows_138203116777579Like so many others, I read Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch in a single day, or nearly. For weeks I hadn’t been able to get past the first fifty pages, and nearly gave up on finishing it. Then I picked it up again and didn’t put it down until it was finished. It kept me up all night, and it made me babble about it to friends. I caught my breath at the unlikely perfection of single sentences; I cried on the subway at harrowing passages. In short, it evoked every reaction that a masterful novel is supposed to evoke.

Except that I hated it.

220px-FlowersForAlgernonIn my seventh-grade English class, we read Daniel Keyes’ novella Flowers for Algernon, the first-person narrative of a mentally challenged janitor, Charlie, who briefly becomes a genius after undergoing an experimental procedure. It was my introduction not only to an unreliable narrator but also to one whose unusual speech patterns and perspective on the world opened to me the possibilities of the “other” in literature—whether those others were disadvantaged, culturally different, sociopathic, or just plain crazy. It’s difficult enough for writers to get inside the heads of ordinary characters with ordinary problems; writing from the mindset of a person whom one might not even understand—say, a serial killer—or just not empathize with—a narcissist—can seem downright impossible. And when writers succeed, what does that say about the writer?

Lilianes-Balcony-206x300“But its language was not language at all,” Kelcey Parker writes. “Music, perhaps, chords of concrete, stone, glass; the melody: falling water.” How very apt. As I’ve been reading through Kelcey Parker’s Liliane’s Balcony I’ve had a confession on my mind: that I often read for language. I’m not a poet, and I’m not a novelist, but when I read in either genre what I’m looking for so often deals with language—the way words hit like a rock, or fall like water.

Unknown-1Ah, the English policeman. The copper. The bobby. Old Bill. The filth, in the well-worn terminology of the London underworld. Until around the mid-1960s the British cop had one very flat foot in the comedy division. They carried no lethal weapons, wore silly helmets, and, at least for those who patrolled the streets of Cambridge when I lived there in the seventies and eighties, made their rounds on bicycles and smiled at you as they drifted past, gunless and placid in the pale East Anglian afternoon, as in a scene from an Ealing comedy.

Bleeding Edge CoverEarly in Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge, protagonist Maxine Turnow enters into an internet space called DeepArcher.  It’s not exactly a web site, not exactly a video game, but it acts similarly to both.  It is, essentially, a safe space for coders to hide or share information.  Under the guise of avatars, users are able to wander through a variety of digital worlds and communicate with other avatars in attendance.  The pixelated landscape comes into focus slowly for Maxine.  She “recognizes from a thousand train and bus stations and airports… the smoothly cross-dawning image of an interior whose detail, for a moment breathtakingly, is far in advance of anything she’s seen.”  She intuits that the program is pushing her toward boarding a shuttle, but she hesitates, enjoying the complexity and effluvia of the station around her.  “‘It’s all right,’ dialogue boxes assure her, ‘it’s part of the experience, part of getting constructively lost.’”  Maxine drifts deeper into the experience, “after a while interested not so much in where she might get to than the texture of the search itself.”

In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods (2)In Matt Bell’s debut novel, In the House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods (Soho Press), we are lured into familiar territory—the world of fables and tall tales, where our expectations of the surreal, the grotesque, and the magical are fulfilled in ever-expanding layers. But beyond the illusions, beyond the world building, darkness, and the unknown is an allegory—a harsh yet beautiful lesson on what it means to be a man, a father, and a husband; to be a woman, a mother, and a wife. Told in layers, fractured into sections, unfolding in a grand tapestry that weaves emotions and actions into a complex series of destinies and consequences, this novel is not an easy read. But the reward is dense prose, powerful psychoanalysis, and the unsettling feeling that our own actions today—many miles from the woods with its failing bear, and its lake with its undulating squid—might be bound by similar rules and outcomes.

Lindsay Hunter owes as much to Denis Johnson as she does to Mary Gaitskill. Her short stories, collected in Don’t Kiss Me (FSG Originals) do not hesitate to descend into the primal urges and dark, lusty behaviors that make us all animals at our core, but they also shine a light on the truth, a nugget of goodness at the center of what is quite often a lonely, depraved and tragic journey, one blanketed in a desire to be seen, to be loved—no matter who we are, or what we’ve done. Hunter’s characters work at diners and long to be included, they take care of their children while embracing their shortcomings, they chase boys into cornfields and kiss their best girlfriends, all the while longing to feel special and included.

My Education by Susan ChoiSusan Choi is known for novels centered around what’s been called “the American experience”: moments or events in contemporary history that are familiar to all. One of her previous books, A Person of  Interest, was about an Asian-born academic suspected of Unabomber-like activity; another, American Woman, was a fictionalized account of the Patty Hearst kidnapping. My Education, her latest novel, just out from Viking, is a departure in that it doesn’t have an event tie-in, unless it’s meant as a comment on a rampant and particularly contemporary sort of narcissism. Set at a Cornell-like upstate university, the education of the title is Regina Gottlieb’s, the book’s narrator, and refers less to an academic education than to one that is sexual and emotional.


15-views-v2-cover“As literary writers…we’re not supposed to just get the job done, we’re supposed to advance the conversation, and part of our challenge is to dig deeper and create something new, or at least approach an existing thing (such as setting) from a unique angle. Yes, our writing relies on social norms and cultural touchstones, but where genre writers tend to follow the old wrinkled tourist map, literary writers explore new territory.”

— Ryan Rivas

Happy Rock by Matthew SimmonsThe delicious economy of good short fiction can give you a character in two sentences, a world in a paragraph, or in five words deliver one exquisite detail that captures the gist of an entire story. In his new collection Happy Rock, Matthew Simmons gives us all of these, and over the course of fifteen stories set mostly in rural Michigan, a picture of an author whose loyalties are clearly located among the misfits and mistreated of the upper peninsula of the mainstream.

0513-red-moon-book-coverRed Moon is not merely about the werewolf, that familiar history and archetype—no, Red Moon (Grand Central) by Benjamin Percy is a brilliant blend of genre horror and literary poetics that reveals the creature in us all, and a debate about what it is to be human and where our priorities rest. Weaving a hypnotic tapestry of connected stories, Percy allows us to follow a cast of characters, good and bad, on an epic journey that distills the heart and soul of other classic post-apocalyptic tales such as The Stand, The Road, and Swan Song. Part of the new movement of genre-bending work that is dominating publishing today, Percy has written a novel that is approachable and yet layered, familiar and yet unique, ancient and achingly visionary.

Bobcat and Other StoriesThere is something deeply likeable and satisfying about the eight stories in Bobcat and Other Stories, the new collection by Rebecca Lee. Each one is a full landscape peopled by believable characters who stumble along in recognizable ways. Lee takes her time developing the stories and they deliver the more complete satisfactions of longer works. But it’s the writing itself that is the real standout here. Lee writes in a way that is profoundly clear one minute and deeply strange the next, meaning her observations and descriptions can be startlingly unexpected – and they are wonderful for that.

Little CatJesus, what have I got myself into? There was an immediate salacious thrill, sure, proposing to take on Tamara Faith Berger’s first two erotic novels, Lie With Me and The Way Of The Whore, recently coupled and reissued as Little Cat. But here in the put up or shut up, a dissonant panic pries the gap between want and fulfillment, want and the frank admission that if anyone wrote a better book in 2012 than Tamara Faith Berger’s Maidenhead I didn’t read it, want and the recognition that as scare-quote-reviewer I’m perpetually primed and flushed to shed light on a given object – though to objectify Little Cat, to suggest I’ve somehow gotten to the bottom of Lie With Me and The Way Of The Whore, to assume I’ve (if I may paraphrase Chris Kraus) solved the riddle by digging up the buried child, would be to announce that I haven’t understood a fucking thing.