fiction

You may have read about an imaginary Southern piece of turf where the past presses on the present with such force that characters find themselves transformed with the pressure of it, where the landscape comes alive, where human beings seem sometimes like gods and sometimes like devils, and the language of the story lights up your mind: William Faulkner's half-historical, half-fabulized Yoknapatawpha County, yes?

One of my earliest experiences of how astonishing a tool is Twitter came several years ago, when, seeing Californians tweeting about an earthquake, I texted my best friend in canyon country to ask if she'd felt the earthquake where she was. She said no — and then freaked out as the tremors reached her a few minutes later. The internet was literally faster than the quake.

In 'Subprimes,' Swiftian Satire Hits Close To Home

May 6, 2015

In his new novel, The Subprimes, Karl Taro Greenfeld charges in where most of us would fear to tread. Carol Burnett could have warned him. "It's almost impossible to be funnier than the people in Washington," she once said, but Greenfeld tries his darnedest. He wants to skewer a certain political mindset, and he goes at it with anger, wicked humor and verve.

Are some people "constitutionally unsuited" to marriage? That's the question the free-spirited narrator of Eliza Kennedy's saucy first novel, I Take You, keeps asking herself between drinks, seductions and a mess of complications during the frenetic week leading up to her Key West wedding.

It's a good thing we only had to wait six months for Early Warning, the second volume of Jane Smiley's ambitious Last Hundred Years trilogy. Why? Because we were eager to follow up on the members of the Iowa farm family she introduced in Some Luck — while we still remembered all of them.

"How are you meant to behave?" asks Jón Gnarr in his autobiographical novel The Indian. "What are these invisible rules that I don't know? What is 'normal'?" It's possible that Gnarr, the punk rocker turned comedian turned mayor of Reykjavík has never known what normal is, and thank goodness for that.

Rowan Van Zandt has never been alone. That's because he has lived his entire life in the company of his family: his mom, his dad, and his fraternal twin Faron. Where Faron is strong and impetuous, Rowan is bookish and quiet. The Van Zandts love each other, despite their differences, but they stick together for another reason: The America in which they live, many years in the future, is not an easy place to survive, especially if you're poor.

There's a telling moment in one of the stories in Luis Alberto Urrea's The Water Museum, when two high school friends are talking about their mutual love for Velvet Underground. "You like Berlin?" asks one of the boys. "Lou Reed's best album, dude!" A lot of Reed's fans (including this one) would agree, but it's a controversial record — it's certainly one of the most depressing rock albums in history, heavily suffused with references to suicide, violence and drug abuse.

A friend once told me the story of an enormous fish, Kun, that turns into an enormous bird, Peng, so huge that it must gain thousands of feet in elevation before it can fly — but once it does, it flies so far and so fast that it crosses oceans the way sparrows flit from branch to branch.

As one of the many kids who became fascinated by the science-trumps-magic movie The Flight of Dragons, you can imagine my delight when I realized it was based on a real book. Well, a composite of two books (as it turns, out the plot comes from somewhere else entirely), so I was startled to open Peter Dickinson's The Flight of Dragons and find no human quest at all. What I did find, however, suited me just as much: a natural history that sparked my imagination — not only about mythical beasts, but about the nature of scientific inquiry.

T.C. Boyle has been writing books for a long time. He's cranked out 15 novels since he got started in 1979, along with numerous short stories and collections of short stories and essays and whatever else writers write when they're worried about keeping the lights on or maintaining their brand.

A Ghostly Chorus Narrates 'The World Before Us'

Apr 1, 2015

A gaggle of querulous ghosts narrates the events in Aislinn Hunter's new novel The World Before Us. Hunter, a Canadian author of both fiction and poetry, brings a moody grace to these phantoms and to her telling of this rather quirky tale. The novel spans three time periods: The present, a generation earlier, and the late 19th century. The spirits present themselves as witnesses to each period, and they become characters as rich and personal as any blood-and-bones characters in the novel.

"On this side I have old age, and on this side I have death." — Alejandro Jodorowsky

First, a hard-boiled fact: No one alive today, anywhere, has been able to demonstrate the sheer possibilities of artistic invention — and in so many disciplines — as powerfully as Alejandro Jodorowsky. An accomplished mime, filmmaker, playwright, novelist, composer, actor, comics writer and spiritual guru, Jodorowsky — best known for surrealist films like The Holy Mountain — is an ambitious misfit whose culturally disruptive work has much to offer the world.

The Little Washer of Sorrows is not what it seems. At first glance, the debut collection of short stories by Canadian author Katherine Fawcett offers funny, sympathetic sketches of characters who might live next door to you: The homemaker who underutilizes her college degree; the aspiring heavy metal musician with delusions of stardom; the aging couple who can barely muster the passion to even bicker anymore.

'The Precious One' Has Love At Its Heart

Mar 30, 2015

Sometimes when I'm talking about romance novels, I try to explain that one of the main reasons I love a good love story — indeed, why many romance fans love them — is because they give us a sense of hope. If these characters can overcome obstacles, become better people, and prove that they deserve each other, then love prevails. Love can change the world.

Not YA, not New Adult, not anything of the sort, despite the fact that it is primarily about teenagers, their love lives and the sticky, weird and thrilling moment of leaving home and growing up, just a little, for the very first time.

The Shadow of the Crescent Moon is American-educated Pakistani writer Fatima Bhutto's first novel, but she already has three books to her credit: One volume of poetry, another a memoir (Songs of Blood and Sword, a title that seems apt, since she's the granddaughter of the executed Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, niece of the assassinated Benazir Bhutto and daughter of the murdered Murtaza Bhutto), and a compilation of survivors' accounts of the 2005 Pakistan earthquake.

If, by some fluke of fate, you managed to dodge your Irish language requirement in high school, fail to visit rural western Ireland or even, heaven forbid, forget the great mass of Gaelic you surely had to have learned as a youngster, you'd be forgiven for not having heard of Máirtín Ó Cadhain. Sadder still, you're likely never to have read his best-known novel, The Dirty Dust. That is, I must admit: I hadn't.

'Mountaineer' Is A Must-Read Of Soviet Sci-Fi

Mar 19, 2015

During the Stalin years, there were tight restrictions on science fiction in the Soviet Union. Writers were pressured and boxed in, urged to stick to themes of adventure, space travel and the glowing prospect of Soviet scientific and technological achievements.

Carola Dibbell is a veteran music journalist, and it shows. In her debut novel The Only Ones — which may or may not be named after the cult '70s band — Dibbell writes rhythmically and lyrically about New York City's outer boroughs in the latter half of the 21st century, where life in American has been radically altered by waves of populace-decimating pandemics. The economy is a shambles. People subsist partly on a manufactured foodstuff called Process that's dropped into struggling neighborhoods. The streets of the city are hosed down regularly with industrial-strength antiseptic.

'Escape' Is A Searing Indictment Of Nation-Building

Mar 17, 2015

Very early on in Escape from Baghdad!, before we realize how many murderous forces and literary genres are about to crash into each other, two friends are holed up in a safehouse in the South Ghazaliya neighborhood. Saddam Hussein has just been deposed; outside, the Madhi Army has just finished another minor street battle with a rival militia, and our heroes Dagr and Kinza are in possession of a stash of black market weapons and a captive: one of Saddam's head torturers.

The Discreet Hero is set in two Peruvian cities, the provincial desert town of Piura and the metropolis of Lima, and tells of two aging businessmen, each of whom we meet on the verge of life-changing situations.

A transportation company owner from Piura, Felicito Yanaque, has spent most of his adult years in a bloodless marriage. He has two sons, a young mistress, and has recently become the apparent target of an extortion threat against his transit enterprise, a threat that, he vows heroically, to fight against, with or without the help of the police.

30 Seconds That Echo Through History In 'Epitaph'

Mar 7, 2015

Three pages, and really not even that.

Really, 46 lines. In a book of nearly 600 pages total. 46 lines to describe the action of 30 seconds — which would become 30 of the best-known seconds in American history. Which would, whether true or false, become one of this country's foundational myths: The gunfight at the O.K. Corral.

I recall with a certain fondness a summer evening long ago at the Bennington Summer Writing Workshops, when Montana resident Richard Ford opened a reading from the work of Montana writer William Kittredge by saying, "Well, it's Montana Night at the workshops, and it's just like Montana. Hours will go by, and all you will see are two people."

We start with a pyre: A young woman and three men are to burn, condemned as heretics. In vivid, often graphic prose, C.J. Sansom uses this horrific scene to set the stage for Lamentation, the sixth installment of his Matthew Shardlake mysteries, set in Tudor England. It's 1546; the dying King Henry VIII — having broken with Rome a decade before — is wavering on religious policy, and supporters of his previous reforms fear for their lives as the hunt for heretics intensifies.

Sartre famously wrote that hell is other people. For many fantasy writers, though, it's a bureaucracy. In fact, the whole hell-as-bureaucracy theme has become hackneyed over the years — as much of a cliché as, well, bureaucracies being hellish.

Here's only a partial list of great American writers whose names came to mind as I was reading T. Geronimo Johnson's new novel, Welcome to Braggsville: Tom Wolfe, Mark Twain, Toni Morrison, H.L. Mencken, Don DeLillo, David Foster Wallace, Norman Mailer and Ralph Ellison, Ralph Ellison, Ralph Ellison. Johnson's timely novel is a tipsy social satire about race and the oh-so-fragile ties that bind disparate parts of this country into an imperfect and restless union.

Stop me if you've heard this one before: There's this guy, a dude in a bathrobe and a tangled mess of a beard who refuses to go outside. His wife left him nearly two years ago for a man with Greek god's jawline and a glamor job. Shortly before that? The guy's mom died of a painful, debilitating form of cancer, not long after his burgeoning rock band became a moldering pile of rubble. Oh, and that refusal to leave his house? That's just his blooming anxiety — paranoia, even — about the vast and uncaring world around him.

Hilarious, right?

It's difficult to pin down the exact day when post-racial America was born. Maybe it was when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed into law, or when Thurgood Marshall was appointed the first African American member of the Supreme Court. Maybe it was when Barack Obama was elected president, or the first time a white person claimed to be "colorblind." It's honestly hard to tell, because as we keep seeing proved again and again, "post-racial America" is completely indistinguishable from what came before.

It's All Charm and Wolves In 'The Turnip Princess'

Feb 26, 2015

Long ago in far Bavaria, Franz Xaver von Schönwerth went hunting for fairy tales. However, the collection disappeared, and his work was thought lost forever. Then in 2009, cultural curator Erika Eichenseer discovered five hundred of them in what one assumes must have been the deepest, darkest, most perilous basement of a municipal archive, and all those stories came to life again.

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