Category Archives: Reviews

Two Recent Reviews.

This summer has brought a couple more book reviews o’ mine:

I have a couple short stories out for submission, and while they’ve received some really, really nice comments from a few editors—especially for the weird little tales they are, one set in a Mongol Kingdom and other in 1891 Vienna—so far neither has found a home yet.

New review of an old fave.

Slightly late to posting: my review of Javier Marías latest novel, Thus Bad Begins went live awhile back at Literal Magazine. I have written about Marías before, having reviewed his penultimate novel, The Infatuations, for The Millions.

Here’s how my review starts, picking up on a line I had mentioned in my review of The Infatuations:

Javier Marías doesn’t want to be “what they call a ‘real Spanish writer.’” These are authors who, Marîas says, prominently feature themes and motifs of classic Spain, including bullfighting and passionate women. While these tropes are certainly absent from his novels, which tend more to involve analytic and voluble narrators dissecting the vagaries of life, Marías is still obviously fascinated with the Spanish character, and with its gestalt, and perhaps that is in no clearer form than in his latest novel, Thus Bad Begins.

Review of “Fever Dream” at Literal Magazine.

My review of Samanta Schweblin’s skin-crawlingly creepy Fever Dream is now live at Literal Magazine. My review, in a snippet:

For Fever Dream is truly less a dream and more a nightmare, although the kind that—like the best of horror—you cannot help but wanting to see through.

In a happy coincidence, the book was named to the Man Booker International Prize shortlist.

The first in a series.

savetwilightMy review of Julio Cortázar’s Save Twilight: Poems (from City Lights Books) is up at Literal Magazine. It should be the first in a multiple reviews for Literal, where I have been given the opportunity to regularly write on Latin American and/or Spanish language literature.

If you know me, you know I’ve been a longtime fan of Latin American lit, from my days obsessing over One Hundred Years of Solitude in high school to discovering Dagoberto Gilb and Sandra Cisneros in college. As much as one can lump such disparate books together, there is something to these books that I respond to, that speaks to me in a louder voice than other novels and stories. More recently, many of the books I tackled for Necessary Fiction—including Álvaro Bisama and Eduardo Lalo—have been from the region, but I’ve also become deeply interested in the works of Spanish writer Javier Marías.

In fact, it’s to Marías that my next review turns: his brand-new Thus Bad Begins.

Review of “Bad Faith” by Theodore Wheeler.

badfaithMy review of Bad Faith by Ted Wheeler has gone live over at Necessary Fiction. A bit:

Most of the characters in Bad Faith aren’t nice, and Wheeler plumbs that not-niceness throughout. The Pythagoreans talked of good as definite and finite, and evil and indefinite and infinite. Niceness may make for a slogan, and a friendly face to provide directions, but it is often just a veneer.

Having followed Ted’s writing career from a distance for a while (as a fellow Nebraskan), it was fun to finally read some of his stories. It’s a great collection, and I’d heartily recommend it. Go buy it here.

Review of “Seeing Red” by Lina Meruane.

1bk_seeingred_49757628-190x300My review of the essential Seeing Red by Lina Meruane has been published over at the Colorado Review. An excerpt:

One evening in New York, Lina Meruane’s body “seize[s] up” and leaves her “paralyzed, [her] sweaty hands clutching at the air.” Just as she reaches to her purse to pick up an insulin shot, a “firecracker” goes off in her head: “That was the last thing I would see, that night, through the eye: a deep, black blood.” The stroke leaves her vision damaged, and the rest of Seeing Red, translated from the Spanish by Megan McDowell, concerns how Lina, a writer and doctoral student, copes with losing and trying to reclaim her sight. Every day threads of blood continue to cloud her vision. “Being like this, in a fog,” she says, “is like being asleep and awake at the same time.” In the aftermath, Lina is unable to put pen to paper.

I particularly liked that the CR stuck the review in both their fiction and nonfiction sections. Clever—and the exact right move for this book, which straddles the two categories.

Recent Reading.

As I’ve been mostly working on fiction lately, I’ve not been as active in my book reviewing. But I’ve still been reading—of course—so I thought I might make it a regular part of this blog to round-up some of the better books I’ve come across.

The bulk of my reading lately has been as a committee member of One Book One Lincoln, the great reading program from the Lincoln City Libraries. Bound by secrecy (!), I can’t reveal the committee’s selections—other than to say we’ve picked three great books, at least one of which I’m sure you probably haven’t read.

luciaberlinThe best of the fiction that I’ve read lately is Lucia Berlin’s A Manual For Cleaning Women, a rich collection of brutal stories, marked by the isolation and estrangement of their narrators, often shades of Berlin herself. Highlights include “Mourning,” “Todo Luna, Todo Año” and the title story; and “Emergency Room Notebook,” a melange of macabre hospital tales, which also serves as a sort of companion piece to the title story. I’ve heard Berlin described by that distinct moniker “writer’s writer,” and perhaps it fits in the same way it does for James Salter—Berlin’s stories aren’t often conventional, and can shatter you with the beauty of their sentences. (The quality of being a “writer’s writer” seems to be the keen ability to make writers jealous.)

Despite loving the Berlin stories, I generally prefer novels. The recent novels I’ve read, coincidentally, have all been by younger authors: The Turner House (Angela Flournoy), The Story of My Teeth (Valeria Luiselli), The Unknowns (Gabriel Roth) and Delicious Foods (James Hannaham) have found their way to my nightstand. The similarities end there, though—all are strikingly different books. Luiselli’s is the most experimental and probably my favorite of the bunch, but I’m a sucker for Latin American novels. All are recommended.

Confections, Cosmetics and Entertainments: On John Warner’s “A Tough Day for the Army.”

toughdayThat master of the short story, Anton Chekhov, once noted that a writer was not “a confectioner, a cosmetic dealer, or an entertainer,” but rather, Chekhov said, the writer was somebody who had “a contract with his conscience and his sense of duty.” One wonders perhaps what Chekhov would have made of a writer who at once wanted to sell you cosmetics, but also undermined the idea of wearing make-up at all. Although John Warner’s short story collection, A Tough Day for the Army, is brimming with metaphorical confections and cosmetics and entertainments, never, either, is he without a strong obligation to write his conscience.

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Of the books I read that were published in 2015, these are my favorites.

This has become a yearly tradition—joining the chorus of book lists to toss in my thoughts on the great books published this past year that I was able to read this past year. In 2014 I enjoyed Amy Bloom’s Lucky Us, among others, and the year before it was The Infatuations by Javier Marías that topped my list. For more explanation about the long title, see this post.

This year, I reviewed ten books, including two really great ones (1 and 3), which are highlighted below.

  1. Fates and Furies, Lauren Groff. Most of my thoughts about this great marriage novel of our time I put into my review. In short: sentence-by-sentence it was the best new fiction of 2015 I read. It’s not perfect, but I didn’t read anything better in 2015.
  2. God Help the Child, Toni Morrison. I swallowed Morrison’s latest in two sittings, maybe. Examining the way children can be abused, this book broadens a bit of the thematic scope after A Mercy and Home, and instead takes place in the present day. Although it hasn’t seemed to generate the same attention her last two books did, reading it made me fall in love with T-Mo all over again.
  3. Missoula, Jon Krakauer. Easily the best new nonfiction book I read in 2015, although The English and Their History and Sapiens, which are both currently on my nightstand, have been compelling so far. Krakauer wrote an advocacy book here, and even if you don’t agree completely with his perspective or his portrayals, it is difficult to argue with his facts and the call to take campus rape—and rape prosecution in general—much more seriously.

Books that weren’t published in 2015, but which I loved: How to Be Both, Ali Smith; Being Mortal, Atul Gawande; Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel; My Struggle, Vol. 2: A Man in Love, Karl Ove Knausgaard. (These four would probably be tied for my overall 2015 favorites.)