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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Lisa Zeidner’s “Love Bomb”

Lisa Zeidner’s Love Bomb feels like wasted potential. Zeidner herself is a talented writer, and the conflict she’s chosen for her fifth novel—a scorned woman puts on a gas mask, grabs some guns, and decides to hold guests hostage at a wedding in Haddonfield, New Jersey—offers an opportunity for biting social commentary. But the story itself meanders, gets lost in saccharine chapter-length asides about the foundations of love, and loses all momentum before we get anywhere at all.

The hostage taker, or “HT,” has chosen the wedding of Tess Nathanson and Gabriel Billips, two well-meaning folks who met in Chad during a Doctors Without Borders mission and seem cheerful and fine. After the guests “crowded into the great room to await the bride,” the HT enters. Zeidner paints an eerie picture.  Continue reading

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Emma Straub’s “Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures”

Emma Straub's "Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures"It’s hard to write a review of Emma Straub’s Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures without just making that review a laundry list of things Straub did downright correctly. It’s hard, too, not to draw parallels between the well depicted and seemingly lost Golden Age glamor as seen in the previously reviewed Kino, as well as the tough stoicism of Norwegians that Karen Iversen’s Full Body Burden underlined so heavily in June. It’s so easy to tell what Straub excels at on the page, since what we’re reading is purely a chronology of someone whose very life (or the reinvention of it) wows us.  Taken together, Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures is a Golden Age–worthy story in itself, something straightforward and wrenching and remembered.

I will confess to bias in how I immediately latched on to the childhood of the girl that would become Laura Lamont – Elsa Emerson, the youngest of a family of sturdy blondes from Door County, Wisconsin. The we-don’t-talk-about-it Midwest, the keep-your-head-down nature of an unglamorous life – these are the benchmarks of an unlikely emigrant to Hollywood, but Laura-to-be is equipped with all the trappings of a star whom no one has to worry about becoming a diva. (Emma Straub, as far as I can tell, is “from New York” – but I sense a familiarity with my homeland that extends beyond simple research. Do I detect a Great Lakes upbringing?)

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D. T. Max’s “Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace”

It’s difficult to imagine a figure with a more awesomely passionate and thoughtful audience than David Foster Wallace. So the task of writing the first major biography of the late writer must involve not only the regular mining of primary sources but also grappling with a weighty paradox: the group best suited to buy and absorb and appreciate your work is also your adversary in that they know a ton, they care a lot, and they will hold you to a higher standard than your editor. But D. T. Max’s Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace is so captivating, well-researched, and straightforward that even the most frenzied Wallace fanatic should find little to quibble with.

Max’s method is simple: compile a lot of information about Wallace and arrange it in a way that tries to explain how he came to be who he was at each stage in his life: the pot-smoking tennis-playing adolescent; the anxious and competitive wastoid who managed to complete two undergraduate theses at Amherst College; the volatile writer who struggled with the combination of national critical success and realist professorial criticism at an MFA program in Tucson; the recovering addict who wrote Infinite Jest; the lothario who seized on young mothers; and the man who hanged himself at age 46.

Understanding the composite Wallace, DFW the person, doesn’t seem Max’s objective. He appears content offering the reader a better grasp of what led Wallace where in life and what formed his understanding of writing, drawing largely from Wallace’s friends and family, his letters, and, of course, his books.  Continue reading

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An Interview with D. T. Max

This Tuesday, Viking Press will release D. T. Max’s Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace. I first read Max in a college copyediting course, where his wonderful article on editorial boundaries and the relationship between Raymond Carver and Gordon Lish was assigned. Our professor talked fondly of the buzz created by the article, how it was all anyone talked about, how he and his friends wrestled with what the revelations about Lish’s heavy influence meant about Carver’s work.

When I found out Max was writing the first comprehensive biography of Wallace, I hoped he might help us at least know more Wallace’s life and work. And of course I had high hopes—Max’s heartbreaking New Yorker piece on Wallace’s final years augured well for a larger project.

Max was kind enough to speak with me about the book’s reception, the DFW backlash, and where The Pale King fits in Wallace’s oeuvre. Special thanks to Viking’s Shannon Twomey for arranging the interview.  Continue reading

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Geoffrey Nunberg’s “Ascent of the A-Word: Assholism, the First Sixty Years”

Intersections of the American public and its academy are too rare. This is for myriad reasons. College is expensive and exclusive. The individual research of professors—especially in the humanities—is too obscure to have much traction with the small share of Americans who actually read books. And perceptions of the ivory tower/elitism owe a good deal to that expense and exclusion and obscurity.

Geoffrey Nunberg isn’t exactly a household name—no academic is. But Nunberg is known, his writings on language appearing in The New York Times and other publications, his voice heard often on NPR’s Fresh Air. Of course, The Times and public radio have very specific audiences. But with that proviso in mind, it’s clear that Nunberg’s been able to branch out of academia more than his fellow linguists.

Enter Ascent of the A-Word: Assholism, the First Sixty Years, Nunberg’s charming and comprehensive study of the history, usage, and culture of the word asshole. If ever there were a word to unite Americans—academics, steelworkers, etc.—in 2012, it’d be asshole, for its common usage and what it evokes: our worries about our declining civility. But Nunberg’s work isn’t meant to sound the alarm about anonymous people being dicks in line at Cosi or pregnant women being forced to stand on public transportation. Rather, he’s more interested in its origins, rise, and definition.  Continue reading

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Steven Gillis’s “The Law of Strings and Other Stories”

Steven Gillis's "The Law of Strings"It’s hard to admit to yourself that you’ve just read something you utterly don’t understand. With something like a physics textbook, or even a philosophical essay, the incomprehension with which you absorb the material seems more acceptable than when dealing with something like prose fiction, where the assumption (i.e., the cultural pressure) is that you can power your way through it with at least some vague interpretation. Pick a lens and go! seems to be the band-aid solution. Visual media are the same way: I sure as hell needed to consult Wikipedia to make sure I understood the intricacies of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, but I still understood the nuances of camera work, music, characterization. Sometimes that’s sufficient, and “counts” as having grasped the art you’ve consumed.

But sometimes you are just all out of band-aids, and that’s how I felt when reading Steven Gillis’ short story collection, The Law of Strings. The first story came to its final page to my surprise, as I literally hadn’t assumed I had gotten to the meat of the story yet, or any of the action. Gillis will do that, and seemingly by design: I was consistently thrown off in just the same way by every story to follow. Author Michael Griffith blurbs that Gillis “[explores] the intersections between quantum physics and everyday ethics, between cosmic law and domestic habit,” and that’s the most beautiful and true description I could’ve hoped for. But does recognizing those intersections in Gillis’s stories mean that I have sufficiently grasped each one? Is it enough to walk away from it recognizing beauty, while still being frustrated by the impotence of stories seemingly without endings?

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Jonathan Tropper’s “One Last Thing Before I Go”

There is a moment repeated for effect in One Last Thing Before I Go that underscores everything wrong with Jonathan Tropper’s sixth novel. Here’s how it goes: our protagonist Silver, “forty-four years old…out of shape, and depressed,” does something not totally vile, but objectionable enough to create conflict. Maybe he bucks social norm or speaks his mind when inappropriate. Each time, whatever person present, such an action provokes the following statement: Jesus, Silver, you are an asshole. This happens over and over and over and over again.

But in most situations, calling someone an asshole doesn’t resolve a conflict. It may provoke introspection or further conversation. Like, you’re being an asshole, and you’re affecting people in ways X, Y, and Z. In One Last Thing Before I Go, however, it’s said with an undercurrent of begrudging kindness, and seems to move the story along.

Not that the accusation is untrue. Drew Silver—always referred to as just Silver, by his father, daughter, ex-wife, everyone really—is most definitely an asshole. I just don’t think assholes deserve three hundred pages devoted to their epic journey from asshole to bigger asshole to biggest asshole to mild asshole. Continue reading

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