There is no better way to pass the coldest season of the year than by cozying up with a good book, and 2015 has started off with a bang. Here are our picks for this winter’s best literary offerings.
FSG, February 3
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Meet Kenya: acute observer, recurrent sleepwalker, a young woman who feels the shame of being alive. Growing up in West Philadelphia in the 1980s as the daughter of a man obsessed with Frank Lloyd Wright’s butler, Kenya straddles her father’s subversive world and the more stable life her mother desires. After the abrupt dissolution of her parents’ relationship, Kenya attends a mostly white girls’ prep school where she’s forced to learn how to navigate a world she doesn’t have the freedom to call her own.
As she grows, Kenya’s mother and father take turns rescuing their daughter and needing to be rescued by her. Her imprisoned father doesn’t send a single letter; instead he entrusts her with the beginning pages of his novel. Her mother becomes increasingly oblivious as Kenya dodges the lecherously cheerful eye of her stepfather. She falls for a young artist who is only interested in white girls, she takes a chance and befriends an estranged sister, and she learns the weight of a gun in her hand and the shock of pulling the trigger.
A cutting and contemplative coming-of-age story, Disgruntled deftly charts the lonely terrain of self-discovery and the impenetrable bonds that ever beckon us homeward.
Michael Earl Craig
Wave Books, April 2014
If you were among those persuaded by Thin Kimono (2010) that Michael Earl Craig was a poet to watch, you may consider your intuitions confirmed. Talkativeness dwells a little more deeply in the voice of that earlier volume, becoming more at home in it, but still capable of surprise.
Craig’s territory is contiguous to the domains of Ashbery, Tate, and Dean Young, but a little further off the interstate, a little lonelier. The natives are kindly but unlikely to offer help unless asked. For that matter, you might get further by simply paying closer attention.
The book’s epigraph, from Yamamoto Tsunetomo, states, “No matter how good what you are saying might be, it will dampen the conversation if it is irrelevant.” But—the following volume seems to ask—how confident can we be that any remark is irrelevant, when it may connect intimately to the topic at hand by unguessable, labyrinthine subterranean channels? How do we know that the apparently tangential is not, in fact, the royal highway to the real?Continue Reading
Dear Lil Wayne
Magic Helicopter Press, April 2014
Joe Wenderoth’s Letters to Wendy’s celebrated its tenth anniversary this year. Sad to say, the book has not aged as gracefully as I had hoped. Every time I bring out a few selections from Letters to Wendy’s, my Intro. to Lit. students alternately roll their eyes or stare blankly at the overhead projector. In all likelihood they are overwhelmed by poetry in general—especially absurdist prose poetry about fast food—and Wenderoth’s epistolary book is hyper-graphic, too. However, I’m also sure that many have never even seen a comment card before and thus fail to understand the overarching conceit of the project.
Perhaps Lauren Ireland’s epistolary poetry collection Dear Lil Wayne is the Letters to Wendy’s of this decade. Continue Reading
Days in the History of Silence
Other Press, August 2013
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I’m not very familiar with Norwegian literature, so I can’t comment on whether Merethe Lindstrom’s Days in the History of Silence follows the typical conventions of Norwegian novels. What I can say is that this award-winning work defies many of the conventions I tend to associate with novels written in English—foreshadowing, dialogue formatting, an eventual climax—and to surprisingly memorable effect.
The story is told by Eva, a relatively well-off, retired teacher who, faced with her aging husband’s complete silence, is compelled to dwell in memories of the other silences they’ve created in their lives. She remembers the son she had as a teenager and gave up for adoption; she remembers the fact that her husband, a Jew, survived WWII in hiding as a child; and she remembers the reason they fired Marija, their undocumented immigrant housekeeper and closest friend. These are all stories Eva and Simon never told anyone, not even their three daughters.
Ahsahta Press, September 2013
With the proliferation of graduate programs in creative writing, the day approaches when most poetry published in the United States will have been written by people with graduate degrees in writing poetry—a prospect that may launch a thousand jeremiads. But I will not complain, so long as the academicization of American poetry means we will be getting more books like Lucy Ives’s Orange Roses.
Ives’s poetry is aware of its own processes—as in “Early Poem,” which enumerates its one hundred sentences as they occur (“In the thirteenth sentence I realize I have chosen something”). It is also aware of its own awareness of its own processes, as when the eighty-third sentence forgets to count itself, prompting the admission, “sentence eighty-four contains the question, didn’t you already know that this would start to happen.” For some, this will seem like disappearing down the meta-poetic rabbit-hole. But the rabbit-hole, remember, is one of the ways to get to Wonderland.
This review was contributed by Roderick Vincent.
Cadmus Editions, April 2013
Wallis Wilde-Menozzi lived in the U.S. and England before moving to Italy in 1981. Perhaps it is this confluence of international perspectives that enlighten the philosophical elements latent in her writing. After publishing Mother Tongue, a memoir, the frequently published poet now explores truth-telling in the freer form of narrative, in her debut novel Toscanelli’s Ray.
The book is set in Florence, Italy. Florence itself is like a scarred face in the narrative, a maiden afraid to gaze into the mirror, and it is Wilde-Menozzi who drags her into the light to show her she is still beautiful. Yet the heart of any city is essentially its people, and the exploration into larger realities within both is a fascinating trail to understanding flickering motes of the human spirit.
Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge
Little, Brown and Co., August 2013
This review was contributed by John Francisconi.
The staff of The Paris Review recently took part in an AMA interview on Reddit, during which they were asked a question about flash fiction’s growing popularity. Here’s how they responded:
“Hate it.” —Clare [Fentress]
“Define ‘flash,’ define ‘growing,’ define ‘popularity.’” —Lorin [Stein]
“Love it.” —Justin [Alvarez]
Stein’s noncommittal commands nicely balance out the polarizing reactions that his staff members, and many readers, have to flash fiction. Yet despite the apparent ambivalence, The Paris Review published two very short stories by Peter Orner that appear in his latest collection, Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge.
This review was contributed by Maria Anderson.
Publishing Genius Press, May 2013
What happens when Fun is a rule? In Gabe Durham’s Fun Camp, all of the nostalgia-inducing elements are present: letters home, odd counselors, fun and unfun campers, campfires, and hikes that traditionally devolve into hidden woodsy hookups. There are Shame Parades, After-Dinner Digestion Dances, and games of Steal the Bacon. According to the counselors, “What the child really fears are his own boring impulses.” Fun Camp breaks these impulses.
Cracking campers’ hearts open to the credo of fun means enforcing a long list of rules. “Best to think of the ‘rules’ as opportunities,” a counselor says. These opportunities include no drug implements, “no unprescribed speed,” “no not singing,” “no unfun thoughts,” and “no holding back.” Counselors combine these rules with daily structured activities to make the campers stronger, and their greatest joy is when, “in a Come to Fun Camp moment such as this, the boring child expresses true contrition, and repeats with you the three tenets of surrender: I suck but I know it. I’m bland but I’m working on it. I am hated by those who will someday revere me, for as their self-awareness slackens, my power grows.”Continue Reading
The Declarable Future
University of Wisconsin Press, May 2013
When I teach poetry, I often turn to Jennifer Boyden‘s work for startling images, masterfully paced tension and complicated, big subjects rendered accessible. The Declarable Future—Boyden’s second book of poems—not only showcases this signature voice I’d expected from it, but it moreover succeeds as a holistic, cohesive project.
With its connected themes, recurring characters and a hint of narrative arc in each of its four sections, The Declarable Future offers a vivid and disquieting vision. Here Boyden launches an inquiry into nothing less complex than humanity’s future, both as a species and for individuals existing in social structures. In the hands of a less skilled poet, the result might have ended up didactic, abstract or even predictable—but Boyden pulls the reader in and keeps her engrossed with every surprising turn.
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, February 2013
In the wild, there are plants whose seeds lay dormant for long stretches of time, passive and unchanging, until scarified by a fire hot enough to breach their outer layers—and to ravage the landscape around them—so growth can begin. It’s a fascinating and ironic botanical evolution, and a potent metaphor that weaves gracefully through Fellow Mortals, a debut novel by Dennis Mahoney.
The narrative is set in motion when mailman Henry Cooper carelessly but accidentally ignites a blaze in the course of his delivery rounds, burning down or damaging several houses on a cul-de-sac. Even as he rushes into one burning house to rescue a woman trapped inside, a second woman burns to death in another.