Tag Archives: Hogarth

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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Vincent Lam’s “The Headmaster’s Wager”

Vincent Lam is a busy man. He is an emergency physician, which I can imagine leaves you little free time. Despite this, Lam is a writer. And I am told by many websites punctuated by a mysterious .ca suffix that he is a literary A-lister in his native Canada, due in large part to his award-winning 2006 debut short story collection Bloodletting and Miraculous Cures.

To that list of accomplishments he can add a novel, The Headmaster’s Wager, a long (so very, very long) tale of deceit, politics, and identity set in wartime Saigon. At the center of it all is Percival Chen (born Chen Pie Sou), a Chinese immigrant proud of his heritage and disdainful of his Vietnamese surroundings. Chen is the headmaster of a English academy in Saigon—useful to the Americans—and to his knowledge well-connected and shrewd enough to live a life beyond the privilege afforded to a regular school administrator.

But when the Vietnamese government mandates—by way of a rather intimidating letter delivered by government officials—that all schools must teach Vietnamese, including the English academy, the fallout tests both Chen’s contacts and his resolve. To make matters worse, Chen’s son, Dai Jai, made a powerful statement in school about the new policy (Dai Jai is eager to earn his father’s respect by way of casually dismissing Vietnamese culture and proclaiming the superiority of his own heritage, natch), and is soon smuggled to China (just in time for the Cultural Revolution!). Continue reading

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Jay Caspian Kang’s “The Dead Do Not Improve”

Squatting somewhere in this big old Internet of ours is something that John Warnerof The  Funny Man fame—once wrote or said or was quoted as saying about writing. I’m obviously paraphrasing here, but it was a philosophical thing about how he writes or how people should write. Basically, write about what you like and know, don’t be afraid of your writing overflowing with those things, as that’s what you know best, what will keep you interested or invested, etc. I’m sure I’m leaving some of the depth out of it—Googling write what you like John Warner is turning up like less than nothing—but I think I’ve captured the gist.

And I think that gist’s especially relevant to Jay Caspian Kang’s The Dead Do Not Improve, a sprawling, funny, enthralling, maddening, sloppy, universally readable mess of a debut novel that should and likely will be talked about a lot for the rest of 2012. Kang seems to follow Warner’s advice as far as content goes. The Dead Do Not Improve is stuffed with (what I have confirmed to be via his own biography and sportswriting and what I just assume to be) Kang’s general interests, which include hip-hop, film, advanced baseball statistics, Korean identity, hardcore pornography, and though I’m probably missing a few I’ll just wrap it up with the Internet as a broad thing. More than the plot or prose, Kang’s interests are what drive The Dead Do Not Improve, so whether or not you like the novel—and I do, albeit with some reservations—seems totally contingent on your interest in or knowledge of these things.

Our protagonist and sometime narrator Phillip Kim is an MFA-holding, unpublished, and generally unsavory young man in a half-gentrified area of San Francisco. When his neighbor Dolores—who Kim calls “baby molester” for reasons far less ghastly than you’d imagine but far too unimportant to really get into here—is killed by stray bullets, his world is shaken, and he soon finds himself caught in a struggle between Internet puritans and hardcore pornographers. Continue reading

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Our August Review Previewganza

Who likes August? For real. It’s hot all the time—so hot that cheese will melt in your fridge and your skin will stick to your subway seat. There are no paid holidays at any workplace in America. Severe thunderstorms go on vacation. The White Sox go into their annual tailspin. It’s a horrible time to be alive.

And by way of the Internet’s powers of inquisition, I found a handy-dandy guide to those awful thirty days, courtesy of that venerable American institution Holidayinsights.com. According to the good people at HI—especially my man “Dirty Dozen” Dave Poluyanskis in content creation, what up boyyyy!?—August is the following official (read: not official) months (listed in descending order of huh): National Catfish Month (delicious), National Eye Exam Month (I’ve had 20/20 my whole life; stop extorting me), National Golf Month (all right, whatever), National Picnic Month (sweaty potato salad), Peach Month (Earth’s worst fruit, but I can see it), Water Quality Month (WHERE IS THE CONCERN IN OCTOBER?!), Family Fun Month (…), Romance Awareness Month (cue twenty-four-hour loop of MTV’s “Undressed”), and my personal favorite: Admit You’re Happy Month (you love that sweater, faker).

So to keep you from participating in America’s annual mass suicide—the 2012 iteration being Friday August 24 at Danville’s David S. Palmer Arena—DBC’s going to roll out a whole bunch of reviews. Continue reading

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Five Debuts to Watch

In a way, 2011 was the year of the debut: Chad Harbach, Karen Russell, Teju Cole, and Téa Obreht enchanted with first-time efforts. Though 2012 hasn’t offered any debuts on the literary level of Open City, or any with the blistering industry-wide hype to match The Art of Fielding, the second-half of this year will feature many notable debuts that you’ll be hearing a lot about—some of which we’re lucky enough to review.

Here are five to watch.

Karen Thompson Walker’s The Age of Miracles (Random House, June 26)
The year’s representative from the Earth-Shattering Hype category might be this debut from Walker, a former editor at Simon & Schuster. The Age of Miracles has a bold premise: the earth has, inexplicably, started to slow. And all the while the eleven-year-old Julia must find a way to cope while being a person with those other problems—you know, the ones that don’t have an effect on the earth’s rotation, like losing friends or watching her family disintegrate. Early reviews have been stunningly positive, with Publisher’s Weekly calling it a “triumph of vision, language, and terrifying momentum.” Continue reading

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