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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.

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.

JP newMathematician, co-founder of OULIPO, author of the lyrics of “Si tu t’imagines” (a lovely song made famous back in the day by Juliet Greco: voilà:), formerly associated with André Breton and the Surrealists, reader, general secretary and eventual director of l’Encyclopédie de la Pléiade at the prestigious house of Gallimard, and all-around genius Raymond Queneau, published the first ninety-nine Exercices de Style in 1947, later augmented by twenty-five further exercises by Queneau himself. For this edition, les exercices have been expanded yet again with additions by Jesse Ball, Blake Butler, Amelia Gray, Shane Jones, Jonathan Lethem, Ben Marcus, Harry Mathews, Lynne Tillman, Frederic Tuten, and Enrique Vila-Matas.

In a small town it’s normal for everyone to get in your business—for the community to know about the women that run around, the men that abuse, the spoiled kids with their sense of entitlement, and the loners who belong to nobody. Set in Roma, Kentucky, The Next Time You See Me (Touchstone Books) by Holly Godard Jones is a literary thriller that links a variety of perspectives into a complicated web of deceit and lies that replace hope and peace with bittersweet longings for what might have been. But buried in there is a lesson about perseverance, a glimmer of optimism, and the eternal complications that are the duality of man. This is the mirror that Holly Goddard Jones holds up, as we bear witness to these defining moments of destruction, as well as revelation.

Salman Rushdie talks about a history professor at Oxford who told him, “You must never write history until you can hear the people speak.” That’s as true – if not more true – for fiction.  I abandoned a novel ms not too long ago because, though I could see the character the novel was to be about, and the place it was to be set, I never did hear her.  And the novel wasn’t write-able without the sound of her voice.

The sound of the characters’ speech should be inevitable: exactly right.  So should the setting, the created world of the fiction.  This doesn’t require pages of exposition – which is deadly.  It requires well chosen, specific details.  Mary Costello’s first short story collection, The China Factory, is full of these – the kind of details that illuminate place, character, relationship in a very few strokes.  Her writing is clean and spare and very good.

“A river bends because it has no choice. This is how it is for brothers at war.” –excerpt, J.A. Tyler’s Variations of a Brother War

Variations of a Brother War is a multifaceted tale about the irreparable damage battlefield atrocities have on two brothers who return to the home front only to find themselves warring over the same woman. Similar to the conflict outlined in Jim Harrison’s Legends of the Fall, J.A. Tyler has engineered a stunning formula for conflict, presenting the tragic breakdown of familial and romantic relationships amidst the raw chaos of war.

I’d been going to summer camps for eight weeks every year since I was the delicate age of seven, when most kids my age were either still being weaned or working at a blacking factory . That’s eight weeks without phone calls, emails, access to the not-yet-invented Internet—nothing but rusticity, pitchers full of what was called bug juice (Kool-Aid attracts insects, you see), and, for some, two months of homesickness. I wanted to be neither at home nor at camp. I was already looking ahead to growing up, when I could plan my own hours and days and not have to wake at some ungodly hour to the dismally upbeat Reveille.

Begin with the enforced intimacy of a place – preferably remote and rural. Add a handful of people who haven’t seen each other in a long time/don’t get along/have secrets. Toss in some bad weather. Stir.

It’s the set-up for a lot of novels, full of potential volatility, though it can feel tired, even dreary if not handled well.

In his new novel, The Red House, Mark Haddon, the author of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, handles it very well.

MASON

The prodigal son in O.H. Bennett’s third novel, Creatures Here Below, Mason is full grown, just this side of a man and no longer submitting to his mother’s swift backhand. Kills his nights at a small-time pool hall, throwing bones and trading blows with the sort of friends who double as enemies. Never knew his father, not until a juvenile who’s-your-Daddy-joke revealed the snickering punch line: Pops Pony Reed, a dick-swinging, whiskey-tongued Hoosier hustler. Dropped out of high school. No regular job. No money. No reason to believe any good can come of a bad hand. Until… his fingers find the feel of their first handgun.

“What is abuse? Someone with an upper hand taking advantage of it over a more vulnerable someone, usually exactly where there should have been intimacy, trust, love instead.” – Unnamed Narrator — Watch Doors as They Close

Spuyten Duyvil Novella Series recently unleashed an-anti love story called Watch Doors as They Close by Karen Lillis. Set in New York City, this novella is a common tale told in an uncommon fashion about an “ended before it began” relationship which was strained and then destroyed by the behavior patterns of a manic-depressive named Anselm.

Marc Schuster has and will continue to hold a high place on my shelf. His debut novel The Singular Exploits of Wonder Mom and Party Girl wowed me to such such an extent that it became a catalyst of inspiration for my own writing. His literary abilities are phenomenal. He follows the rules when it comes to scene setting and character introductions, but maintains narrative originality so his prose is never stiff or forced. His writing style is dark but down to earth, silly but practical, and smart and hilarious all at once. I’ve been holding my breath for his sophomore novel, The Grievers, released in May, 2012 through The Permanent Press, and I can say with definitive certainty that Schuster has written another boundary-leaping novel.

“I would like you to write a simple story just once more,” says the father. “…Just recognizable people and then write down what happened to them next.”

The old man is eighty-six, bedridden – beseeching! – but the daughter of Grace Paley’s “A Conversation with My Father” cannot honor this last request, cannot plot an unswerving line or knot every narrative thread: Everyone, real or invented, deserves the open destiny of life.

One thing I’ve observed from reading certain contemporary French writers is their penchant for bringing genre elements into what, for lack of a better term, one might call “literary fiction.” In the English-speaking publishing world (where I’m sure more than a few dog-loving editors buy hybrids known as “labradoodles” without complaining that the beast is neither one nor the other) it’s done with some trepidation, and published even less, as though writers and the people who advance them cold hard cash are frightened of having reviewers dither over how to classify the thing and end up ignoring it altogether. Which is generally how it turns out, anyhow.

Journalist, documentary filmmaker and chief editor of Le Temps modernes, the journal founded by Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, Claude Lanzmann is perhaps best known for the nine-and-a-half-hour Shoah, a milestone not only in documentary cinema but in Holocaust studies. And now we have his memoir, The Patagonian Hare, translated by Frank Wynne and handsomely published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

The plays of Mac Wellman. Pretentious nonsense? Or clever fun? Damned if I know. Over the years, I’d read nearly every play by the sexteguagenarian, Obie-award winning, Guggenheim fellowship recipient, thus developing an unhealthy obsession with bad pennies, cheese, crows, and engaging in analytical discussions about every Wellman-loving director from Jim Simpson to some undergrad. I thought, “Pshaw. I’ve got this.”  

I was determined to not be the ditzy, inarticulate actor who gushes “I love Mac Wellman” and then, when asked to support her view, dishes out a puzzled look. I had smart things to say about the kooky, yet philosophical writer. Still, I wasn’t going to drone on with doctoral gobbledygook about Brechtian storytelling, Beckettian landscapes, puppets, social metaphors, and references to Shakespeare, Greek tragedy, and meter.