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This is a grey and difficult book. Set in a fictional town called Krafton, somewhere in what I imagine is Idaho or a nearby state, the eight linked stories that comprise Volt are deadpan in the face of death–accidental, in combat, murder, more murder–flood, fire, war, revenge, old age, tough decisions and huge mistakes. This litany of disturbing plot points recur in some combination, and occasionally all together, in each story. A great proportion of the deaths in the book involve children: as the victims, as unwitting co-conspirators, as future perpetrators. But while nearly everything that happens in these stories is awful, the prose is quietly next-to-perfect in its precision, specific voice, interesting syntax and subtlety.

The first story starts with a man accidentally plowing over his young son. Somewhere in the middle of that story, the same man ends up as an attraction in a freak show–an unexpected but, in the context of the story, believable turn of events. In another story, kids steal bowling balls from a ruined bowling alley and bowl them down a hill into a town, smashing windows and knocking up against statues as the town’s oblivious residents all watch one of their own compete in a pageant. A third story finds a mother and daughter picnicking in the center of a corn maze. These are particular, stunning images. Read the rest of this entry »

This isn’t the kind of book I’d usually read, let alone write about on this blog. Try This: Traveling the Globe Without Leaving the Table is by Danyelle Freeman, founder and editor of the site Restaurant Girl. It was a gift, and a thoughtful one–my boyfriend and I research restaurants obsessively and spend a good amount of our time and energy finding new spots to try, or new dishes to try at favorite spots, whether on vacation, in another borough or here in Queens. This quality is both why I liked the book and why I wish I could have liked it better.

Freeman breaks Try This down into a nice personal introduction, fourteen ethnically themed chapters, and a couple of interstitial sections of (totally expendable) restaurant-going advice. The reason I find it so hard to read non-literary books for fun (a “beach read”? never…) is that I truly don’t want to absorb lazy, repetitive, cliche or gimmicky writing. I can avoid seeing sentences like that, so I do. I was afraid that’s what I would find here, but aside from a scant handful of “life’s a feast, dig in” moments and the recurrence of a very particular image I didn’t love of “dragging triangles of pita bread through meze (or mezze),” I thought the writing was fine. It was just what was called for–chatty, good-humored without being funny, and descriptive yet not overly descriptive (no “mouthfeel,” “flavor profile,” “toothsome,” and all those other maligned food blogging words). Read the rest of this entry »

I struggle with knowing what to write about George Saunders’s newest story collection Tenth of December because, unlike many books I love, it has already been written about so much. Saunders was on NPR yesterday discussing it, he was nearly canonized by a notable publication because of it, there have been a few internet feuds about it (to weigh in–no, of course he doesn’t need to write a novel), etc. It certainly seems like the most talked about book of the year. The fact that a short story collection has received so much attention makes me really happy. Novels are fine, but you know where my heart is. And although I don’t know George Saunders personally (I’ll refrain from telling the story of our mini-conversation the one time we met–you’ve all heard it), I really think it couldn’t happen to a better more humble, brilliant, deserving person.

I forgive George Saunders a lot that I don’t really forgive anyone else (although Jennifer Egan gets away with some of the same moves now and then), the prime example being the constant use of made-up, weirdly capitalized brand names. Many of the stories in this collection are propelled by the administration of highly disturbing drugs like MiiVOX-MAX (this looks even worse on the page because the “MAX” is in a slightly smaller font that I can’t replicate here). Usually tricks like this pull me right out of the story and make me want to hurl the book across the room. I can’t say I liked all the made up words here, but I see that they’re necessary in stories I otherwise can really get behind.  Read the rest of this entry »

Not that I ever purport to be unbiased on this blog, but let me just say right now that Kristen Witucki, author of the new short book The Transcriber, is a good friend of mine. I’ve known her since college when we killed our quantitative requirement with Intro to Psychology together. We also volunteered at a group foster home together, driving about fifteen minutes and another world away from our school to the boys’ little shared rooms where we’d help them with homework and sit with them as they ate their nightly snack. The boys were rough but smart, heartbreaking and sweet and they loved Kristen. Because she is blind, she had some neat technology with her sometimes that I think she probably brought along to aid in the homework help aspect of the job, but found more use in the dazzle-them-with-gadgets-so-they-don’t-misbehave arena. Kristen was a year behind me at school so my last year, she was studying abroad. I didn’t see her again until my first day of graduate school when she wound up sitting two rows behind me at orientation and we discovered we were in the same MFA program. Recently she’s moved far, far away but for a while she just lived about an hour from me so we’d get together a few times a year and catch up and cuddle her mind-bogglingly adorable son. She also wrote this recent guest post for this blog!

And now I’m so excited to get to write a blog post about her book! The Transcriber is a novella in length and scope and is on an imprint that publishes books for young adult new readers. Kristen’s style seems like a great fit for drawing folks into a book who may not have a lot of experience with reading. She writes clear, straightforward sentences that are simple to understand yet filled with meaning. The tone of this book is conversational yet brisk. The reader has the sense that the narrator is speaking directly to him/her, and is doing so with honesty. Because the narrator is a child, though, the reader is able to understand aspects of the story he does not, which adds depth and poignancy.

The first section of the book is a rant by the narrator, Louis, regarding the BLIND CHILD AREA signs in front of his house. Read the rest of this entry »

Leah Umansky is one of those New York writers that everyone knows, and for good reason. She hosts a reading series called COUPLET, she reads often at other writers’ series and–most of all–she actually attends other peoples’ readings. I feel terrible about how little I show up at literary events (or any events) that don’t directly involve me or a good friend; I used to be so much better but now I suck. Leah does not! After a reading at Poets House hosted by the literary journal I co-edit, she waltzed up, introduced herself, wrote up the event on BOMBlog and has since become a contributor to the journal, with a poem about silicone breasts on the run in Coney Island that we are all obsessed with (read it here). She is an advocate of writers both contemporary and classic. Her love of the Brontes is so well-documented that I had to send her a Facebook message when I finally got around to reading Wuthering Heights a few months ago (I did not tell her, though, that I didn’t like it…). This is all to say that when she announced that her first book of poetry Domestic Uncertainties was going to be published, half of the writers in New York probably were thinking that it couldn’t happen to a better person. (To that end, check out this really neat comic-strip review of the book from The Rumpus.)

The book, predictably, is fantastic. It is often referred to as being about a divorce, although what seems more accurate is that it is about a woman dealing with a divorce–the person rather than the situation is at the center of the book. Poems appropriate lines from Virginia Woolf, Proust, Anais Nin and more without ever veering into pretension or obscurity. In the poem “Trans Relation,” she references the Get, a folded Jewish divorce document, explaining in the book’s notes what it is. The context adds to the meaning, but reading the poem without knowing, as I did the first time, doesn’t make it any less powerful: When I said, I love you, folded in that love, in a small, / parchmented tuft, was my ability to unlove. Like my ability / to unclean this for you, uncover this for you, unlight this for / you. Read the smoke signs. Decipher soot.

The passage above shows Leah’s ability with repetition and with directives. The last lines there–the last lines of the poem–remind me of a poem by Margaret Atwood I used to be obsessed with, “Helen of Troy Does Countertop Dancing”This is a torch song / Touch me and you’ll burn. While the speaker of “The Art of Unloving” is not the daughter of a god turned exotic dancer like Atwood’s, both twist mythology or religion for their own purposes, ignite them at the end and order the man or men they’re speaking to deal with the fall-out.

Here is another example of a poem ending with a command, from “Story”: It was all appositives. / You never loved. / Say it for me. / Say it. What I really love here is how each line ends with a period. If there were commas instead, or no punctuation at all, one might imagine the speaker pleading, melting down. But, instead, each line is strong and the reader is forced to pause after each one. For me, I imagined the person being spoken to standing speechless after each period, the speaker not giving up.

Readers of this blog will know that I’ve never written about a book of poetry before. It’s not that I don’t read poetry on a regular basis, but when I do, it is usually in journals; I am a casual rather than committed consumer of poetry. I’ll say though, that even if you are like me, this book is worth a purchase. Support a great writer, get a great book–win/win.