Tag 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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In Chicago once more, the DBC team has many fall titles left to scale. Many of them will take us plain through to 2013. Here now are just a couple selections that we’ll be previewing shortly:

Both Flesh and Not: Essays by David Foster Wallace.

Little, Brown releases 15 never-before-anthologized essays by our most revered literary genius. The titular essay on Roger Federer is held up by fans alongside Infinite Jest as Wallace’s unparalleled masterpiece (something with which Kevin wholeheartedly agrees), and we’re particularly excited to read (and re-read) his dissection of Terminator 2, which we hope will cause the same unexpected stir of emotions that his 1996 essay on David Lynch and the film Lost Highway did. Though of course, because of whom we’re talking about, it will cause the unexpected either way.

 An End to All Things: Stories by Jared Yates Sexton.

It’s exciting when DBC’s Illinois-born-and-bred contingent can read a collection rooted entirely in the Midwest. Indiana, with its contrast between vast cornfields, a storied state university, and Gary’s industrial narrative, serves as a microcosm for America as a whole. These stories chronicle a town wracked with doubt as the collapsing economy closes in — written in presumed contrast to the book’s author, earner of an MFA who has the choice to be there or not be there. It’s a dangerous thing to trust just anyone with a Midwestern voice, so likely to accidentally condescend or misconstrue as they may be. But I trust Atticus Books, and doubt they’d put their faith in anything less than the real deal.

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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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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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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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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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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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Peter Heller’s “The Dog Stars”

Peter Heller's "The Dog Stars"Upon being recommended Peter Heller’s debut novel The Dog Stars – and I am about to strongly, strongly recommend it to you – you might first think that it’s merely an additional helping of a story you already know: a smoky, gutted post-apocalyptic Denver nine years after an unidentified flu wipes out the population, leaving only our pilot narrator Hig to describe the life he’s carved out for himself. The elements are all familiar ones to the current literary trends: unexplainable global disruptions à la The Age of Miracles, the decimation of populations à la Zone One, mysterious and beckoning radio signals à la The Flame Alphabet, and the general, morality-shattering desperation that The Hunger Games trilogy conveys. It’s all there, just as we want it to be, since these elements demonstrate what makes post-apocalypse stories such good reads: the reset button has been hit. We are reverted versions of ourselves. And if Peter Heller’s book stopped there, it’d still be a riveting read, albeit one whose blanks we already know how to fill.

But Heller doesn’t settle for a system of blanks, a pick-your-disaster type of read that lesser authors have rushed to capitalize on. In fact, the bleak and deserted backdrop surrounding Hig in The Dog Stars serves as just that, a backdrop, to allow for our pilot’s serious and uninterrupted inner monologue about what it is to lose someone. Or no, not so neatly: Hig is faced with losing not someone but everyone, and not just moving on but having nothing left in the world to move on to, no distraction from the painful parts of the world but to survive them. In this respect, his sole neighbor Bangley serves as a welcome distraction, and Heller is careful to balance Bangley’s cartoonish tough-guy-ness with a calculatingly distant approach to Hig – an approach that the reader almost reflexively shares, since the vernacular of Hig’s narration takes some time to pick apart:

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