Category Archives: Review

Shani Boianjiu’s “The People of Forever Are Not Afraid”

Shani Boianjiu's "The People of Forever Are Not Afraid"It begins, it seems, at 23. You turn over to the back cover of the book you’re reading and find that the author is your age, or not much older. Sure, the world has its S.E. Hintons and similarly young literary prodigies, but at 23 we’re the adults who are steadily getting older than young Hollywood and creeping up towards writers who have had the time to gain buckets of talent. Sure enough, midway through Shani Boianjiu’s powerful debut novel, The People of Forever Are Not Afraid, I noticed in her bio that she was born in 1987, just two years before me. It is a hulking book, full of the full lives of three girls – Yael, Avishag, and Lea – as they complete their mandatory military service in Israel. Everything about it is full, their histories and their relationships and their voices. This book contains everything from the traditions of magic realism to war stories, as realized as the three lives within it.

But something else begins at 23, too. Now that the writers behind the strongest forces of literature are a part of my own generation, there is an added pressure to connect, to get it on a level that other readers might not. Yael, Avishag, and Lea are, after all, like young women anywhere: their time spent in the military is dotted with the same conversations that peppered by college years, and they braid one another’s hair and gossip about boys as if there weren’t missiles falling outside their base. There is an alienation and embarrassment in not accessing what they go through, because there’s no Palestine to my Israel, as it were; I have no ceaseless, unsubstantiated enemy, no patriotic duties to my country. And so on some level, seeing the three girls emerge from their years of lost innocence is like seeing what my life could have been through purely geographical coincidences.

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Ben Masters’s “Noughties”

Ben Masters's "Noughties"There’s nothing remarkable about Oxford student Eliot Lamb. And that’s good. We’re not dealing with anyone remarkable here, nor do we really want to; Ben Masters has written a book that shows us our post-college, pre-settled selves, whether we studied literary criticism or criticized the very idea of it. And while I didn’t personally have any of the dramatic experiences that bring Noughties to its climax, that university drama is simply a means to show us the ways in which our time at uni can help us grow, or not change us much at all – but especially how we prefer to think of ourselves significantly altered either way. Masters has, in this eccentric novel, expertly captured the desperation of assigning meaning to this Finality of Adolescence, as Eliot Lamb and his crew (Scott, Jack, Sanjay, Megan, Abi, and Ella) squirm at the thought of legitimate, unsheltered adulthood. The final evening they spend together at Oxford encapsulates the obligation to enjoy themselves far more than actually doing so, and the echoes of “let’s just have a good night, yeah?” are the book’s never-answered refrain.

Another unanswered refrain: the torrent of ignored phone calls and text messages Eliot keeps receiving from his ex-girlfriend Lucy, who can only have bad news if her contact is this insistent.

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Juan Pablo Villalobos’s “Down the Rabbit Hole”

Juan Pablo Villalobos's "Down the Rabbit Hole"Permit me to throw a bit of late-’90s Oscar trivia at you.  Remember Roberto Benigni, that kooky Academy Award winner who danced atop seatbacks halfway to the stage? Remember his winning film, Life is Beautiful, which portrayed a father and son at a concentration camp, the former constructing an elaborate “game” out of the Final Solution to alleviate any fears his young child may have?

Well, if I may, Down the Rabbit Hole is everything that the movie Life Is Beautiful never had the courage or simply never wanted to be. The quirky novella by Juan Pablo Villalobos (translated from the Spanish by Rosalind Harvey) places a child unwittingly in similar circumstances as the Benigni film does – seven-year-old Tochtli lives in the blood-money trappings of a palace with his Mexican drug lord father – but rather than stripping down to a simple tale about the leaps we take to protect our children, this book is about the insane measures we take to, for lack of a better term, enjoy them – the compulsion we have to raise them in camaraderie and with authority at once.  As “good parents,” we want our children to lead the lives that make them happy, but maybe a less acknowledged part of us wants even more to raise them as an affirmation of ourselves and our choices. Add to that, of course, the very concrete dangers of what would ever happen to Tochtli if he left the confines of his palace, and all the genuine pre-adolescent boredom that goes with it. And finally, add what is perhaps the most palpable emotion of a seven-year-old’s life: wanting. In this particular case, Tochtli seeks a new animal for his menagerie, namely the Liberian pygmy hippopotamus, and nothing short of exactly that will do.

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Laura van den Berg’s “There Will Be No More Good Nights Without Good Nights”

Laura van den Berg's "There Will Be No More Good Nights Without Good Nights"“There will be no more good nights without good nights.”

This titular phrase in Laura van den Berg’s brief and beautiful collection of short stories thoughtfully toes a line between prophecy and command, resolution and insistence. Balancing on that line, the book is laid bare: van den Berg’s pieces are always pushing on an elastic wall between observer and observed – flexible in distance but absolute in scope – and the characters all seem to beg, if not for that disconnect to be removed, then at least to find their place in it. There Will Be No More Good Nights Without Bad Nights has the lovely ability to leave you satisfied by its sadness; at least surrendering to it affords the most honest version of ourselves.

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Chad Simpson’s “Tell Everyone I Said Hi”

I used to mow lawns when I was a kid, for my grandparents and some of their neighbors. It wasn’t so bad—I had cash and smelled like grass, both of which I found masculinely intoxicating. But sometimes the oldies would bust my ass and kill my buzz. One guy in particular used to chew me out when I’d miss the smallest spot in his lawn, let me have it when I’d mow dewey grass and leave it sloppy.

I resented that, and would just do a worse job in turn: leave little isosceles patches at every pivot, not get too close to the trunk when rounding the trees, forget to sweep loose grass off the driveway.

And soon he stopped having me do the grass, and I felt like I won, somehow. Twenty fewer dollars in my pocket a week, but a sense of pride about the fact that I’d somehow stood up, let that too-serious old guy have it—however silently the message was delivered.

But I knew he had a lot of stuff going on: I heard he was a veteran (WWII) and his wife had just died. Long after he stopped having me, when I mowed my grandma’s lawn across the street, I’d see him sitting on his two front steps, grilling a steak on his Smokey, looking around, neither contemplative nor engaged nor even really there at all.

I haven’t thought about the mowing or that old man or that whole juvenile triumph in a while. But after reading Chad Simpson’s short story collection, Tell Everyone I Said Hi, I’m finding it difficult to think about anything else, to cover up the image of that man and that stoop and that Smokey, the understanding that he was profoundly sad and I was cruelly happy in the way that only adolescents can be.

Simpson’s eighteen stories masterfully capture similar contrasts, and captivate the reader with their compassion and cleverness. Continue reading

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Marco Roth’s “The Scientists: A Family Romance”

Marco Roth's "The Scientists: A Family Romance"For its first 50 pages, I often flipped back and forth from the synopsis of this book to the cover, then back to my current chapter. The need for a reminder was that pressing: yes, Marco Roth’s The Scientists: A Family Romance is indeed nonfiction, and it is a memoir, and this was author Roth’s childhood fairly recently, too. An early-90s shake-up of the Glass Family’s New York City, an only-child Tenenbaum recount, The Scientists presents an impressive retrospective on the death of Roth’s father, a victim of full-blown AIDS in the peak years of same, and every familial splintering that follows it – not least of all the quiet revelations that this father figure actually had plenty to hide, or plenty left for his surviving family to reassess.

It’s a strong debut from what is obviously a trained and critical mind (Much of the book takes place in Yale’s Comparative Literature department), but those analytical tendencies seem to border on the clinical – and permeate the book much more obviously – after the death of the father in the first third of the story. Thereafter, it seems like Roth’s trust in us as fellow critical thinkers waxes and wanes throughout, so when you aren’t being given a 15-page deconstruction of an obscure Russian novella, you’re being spoon-fed forced analogies between the Roths’ family life and the literary tradition. I suppose to FSG this meant The Scientists would appeal to a wider range of readers, an audience both cerebral and practical. But given that the swaths of literary theory are where Roth appears to be having the most fun, and connecting with his father at the deepest level, the remaining (and admittedly more readable) areas of the memoir seem injected solely for our benefit, and that gesture falls a little flat.

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A.M. Homes’ “May We Be Forgiven”

A.M. Homes’ newest novel is the story of a family crisis and the rebuilding of a life. When Harry’s brother commits a tragic murder, Harry is left to care for his niece and nephew with the rudimentary skills of a man who never quite grew up. On surface, perhaps, Harry’s life appears successful, steadfast. But infidelity, the break-up of his marriage and the loss of his job all demonstrate how tenuous his grasp of reality was. Harry is a man living with his head down, watching his feet as he plods through life, who is suddenly forced to reexamine everything he has pegged his life on so far. Homes is an astute observer of the world we live in today. Harry’s self-discovery takes us through the strange and intimate world of sex in an isolated society, shows us what it means to be parents and children, and examines our place as Americans in the larger story of the world.  Continue reading

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Kevin Powers’s “The Yellow Birds”

America is often reminded by its elected leaders and government officials that War is Hell. This is not offered as a condemnation of the act, but as a valorized supporting argument: war’s totally bad but we do the totally bad thing because the alternative is way, way worse—trust us!—and it’s not like we want to do all the messy stuff that comes with war, we kinda have to, shrug. And it seems like every few weeks Americans are reminded—by way of violence on another continent or a report on our fleet of flying death robots—just how bad war is, while our leaders bluster about more more more war to the world.

It’s my generation’s great shame. As someone who studied history, I’m hesitant to cliche it up and say that history will not justify our carelessness and our cruelty and our killing—but what the hell, man, it’s true. We’re not coming out of this looking good.

In his gutpunch of a debut, The Yellow Birds, Kevin Powers doesn’t let your mind stray far from that shame for a moment. The story of two friends—Privates Bartle and Murphy—is not only a striking and seemingly flawless first novel but also a brutally and importantly honest account of America’s “shitty little war” in Iraq.  Continue reading

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Karen Elliott House’s “On Saudi Arabia: Its People, Past, Religion, Fault Lines — And Future”

Ed. Note: This is a guest review from Greg Noth. 

Karen Elliott House’s new book, On Saudi Arabia, is a good introduction to the many contradictions, problems, and issues that confront Saudi Arabia today. It is the result of thirty years of research from living in the oil producing capital of the world. House, a former editor and foreign correspondent for the Wall Street Journal, approaches her subject like one would expect a veteran journalist to—a method which has its strengths and weaknesses.

On the plus side, she uses fact after fact and interview after interview to support her case, and does a good job drawing reasonable conclusions from the information she has. On the slightly negative side, writing a book is not the same as writing a newspaper article: no one reads newspapers for pleasure. That’s not to say On Saudi Arabia reads just like a really long newspaper article, but the writing didn’t especially captivate me, and I think it has to do with the style of writing House built a successful career on.  Continue reading

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Junot Diaz’s “This Is How You Lose Her”

Junot Diaz's "This Is How You Lose Her"The art of cheating isn’t hard to master.

In fact, it’s not even hard to make that lie effortless, and make it something that sticks to you like roots. Infidelity, just like a past or a homeland, is who you are and where you’ve come from, more than a momentary mistake or lapse of judgment.  Junot Diaz’s new book, This Is How You Lose Her, a collection of stories about the life of Yunior and all the wronged women therein, points us toward the nastier idea that this inability to love exclusively is a matter of culture. Dominican men, the pages all seem to insist, are branded from day one.  They will lose and lose and lose their women as if by birthright, or maybe they won’t, but only because of what those women don’t know – and is that any worse, if the two really do love one another in some true, deep way? Maybe not.  But Diaz manages to keep the answer at arm’s length with a refrain echoed from beginning to end: the half-life of love is forever.

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