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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.

The Unknown University on Roberto Bolano “There is a time for reciting poems,” Roberto Bolaño wrote in The Savage Detectives, “and a time for fists.” And now, with the appearance of his collected poetry, The Unknown University, presented in a bilingual edition translated by Laura Healy and handsomely published by New Directions, we are getting to the end of the Bolaño canon (in fact, we may be at the end), with its short stories, brief novels, and the two long masterpieces, The Savage Detectives and 2666, as well as an enlightening volume of critical pieces, speeches and interviews entitled Between Parentheses. What remains to be written is a comprehensive biography of the man. And I suspect we will be no more the wiser. Though not as shadowy as, say, B. Traven, elusive author of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, who vanished into a fog of multiple identities, Bolaño’s life is in comparison a gumbo of tall tales, rumor, truth and consequence, some created by him (perhaps because we identify some of his characters—and voices—a little too closely with their creator), others encouraged by a public hungry for a romantic hero. Or, to borrow the title of a smaller collection of his poems, romantic dog.


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.

HeroinesIn the eighties, we began to see writers popularly crafting new prose types—namely the one we now call “Creative Nonfiction.” More specifically, we began to see quite a few women (though fewer men) embarking on what we’d recognize as personal and autobiographical criticism.

red moon betterI can’t think of another book that is more timely and relevant to the world we live in at this precise moment—the post-September 11th, post-Boston Marathon bombing landscape of heightened xenophobia and security—than Red Moon. Like Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk and Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, Red Moon speaks to us right out of the headlines, the perpetual CNN and Fox News scroll that is the absurdly real backdrop of our lives.

melancholia

After passion, what is left? A jewelry box, a locket, a silver button, the silences between these objects. Each of these items sings to one another and it is this chorus that unifies Kristina Marie Darling’s haunted and haunting collection, Melancholia (Ravenna Press). Containing definitions, prose poems, footnotes, and a noctuary (a night journal), the book seeks to define, contain, and understand the aftermath of a failed courtship. In the opening fragmentary epistle, Darling establishes this with a delicacy that is maintained throughout the procedures of definition that bind this book:

6a00d83451ce9f69e2017d42a16e57970c-250wiIs it self-indulgent to quote myself? Probably. But do I get credit for being self-aware enough to acknowledge that I recognize this? I pose these questions because my job today is to riff in a most biased fashion on Wheatyard, the debut novel by good friend Pete Anderson.

Which I will do now. Promise.

Debut novels are, by their nature, both self-indulgent and self-aware. Self-indulgent because who said that anyone has any right to assume anyone cares about anything writers have to say? And yet self-aware because without at least some level of self-awareness, all debut novels would tell the same story again and again–someone meets someone, someone leaves someone, someone’s family is fucked-up, someone finds redemption–but bring nothing new to the table. Or the Kindle if that’s your thing.

halfhappyShort stories can be as satisfying to read as longer fiction, but I usually prefer them one at a time. Collections, for me, can be difficult to get through. I have to really like a writer’s voice to stick with it through story after story where the characters, settings and themes will likely change but the voice, probably, will not. That consistency of voice – necessary, pleasurable in a novel—can be relentless in a collection.

James-Salter-All-That-Is-200x300Whether naturally born or G-force bred, fighter pilots embody a unique strain: their hell-bent defiance of physical laws kept in check by a meticulous respect for man-made machinery. After serving a dozen years in the Air Force – flying combat missions in the Korean War – James Salter applied that elevated mix of risk and control to definitive novels of erotic discovery and marital malaise. As the author now approaches ninety, his latest novel, All That Is, finds the former officer devoted to a trio of tasks: setting his affairs in order, offering loving remembrance, and demonstrating his intent to stand firm to the end.

imagesI can’t write this review without disclosing that After Visiting Friends is my story. Or so it felt, as I read. Like Hainey, I am a member of what he calls the DFC, the Dead Father’s Club. Hainey was six when his father died at age 36 in Chicago. I was seven when my father died at 32 in Detroit. A veil of silence hung over the details throughout Hainey’s childhood. And mine.

This is the second installation in a series of “reverse interviews,” wherein the author asks the questions about his own book, and one reader answers.

JENSEN BEACH: The other night my wife and I were reading before bed and she turned to me before she shut out her light and said it had been weird to read my book because she’d lived with the stories in it for so long and it felt strange to see them all mixed up like they were. At first I didn’t really understand what she meant. She told me there little bits in many of the stories that she recognized—things we’d experienced together, stories we’d been told by other people, things I’d said to our kids or to her—and that it had been interesting to see the ways I’d gone about taking that all apart and putting it back together again to fit the fictions in the book.