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The Powerful Illusions of Literature: ‘The Sky Over Lima’ by Juan Gómez Bárcena

The Sky Over LimaIn Lima, Peru, in 1904, two wealthy young men wrote a letter to the Spanish Nobel Laureate poet Juan Ramon Jimenez, entreating him to send them a copy of his new book of poems. The young men believed the poet would be more likely to write back if they pretended to be a beautiful young woman. To their surprise, their joke backfires in an explosion of emotional shrapnel.

Based on this true story, Spanish author Juan Gómez Bárcena makes his literary debut with The Sky Over Lima (translated by Andrea Rosenberg; 288 pages; Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), the charming retelling of a hoax that occurred a little over a hundred years ago. The novel’s satirical charm and witty re-creation of historical events take us into its embrace, but more than that, Barcena never allows us to forget that this story is, like our own lives, an artistic creation.

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Aftermath of Greek Crisis: ‘Something Will Happen, You’ll See’ by Christos Ikonomou

Something Will Happen, You'll SeeIn the aftermath of Greece’s 2010 debt crisis, amid the hardship in his country, Christos Ikonomou wrote Something Will Happen, You’ll See (Archipelago Books, 250 pages, translated by Karen Emmerich). A recipient of some of Greece’s highest literary honors, as well as praise from across Europe, Ikonomou’s collection of interconnected stories focuses on people with barely a hope for attaining something better than what they’ve been given: a son stays up all night to watch the streets so his neighbors can get some sleep; a group of elderly industrial workers, recently laid off, huddle around an oil-drum fire outside the gates of their old job; fathers are forced to ask—forced to lie to—their children for money; whole communities are broken up like concrete foundations in an earthquake.

“I don’t want to write just about Greeks and Greece,” said Ikonomou in an interview with Nasslit.com, “I am trying to look beyond the walls of language and my country, I’m trying to reach out to Americans, to whoever is interested in my story, and I’m trying to write about human beings, what it means to be human and what it means to try to be human in an inhumane environment.”

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Fake Autobiography, Genuine Examination: ‘Gone with the Mind’ by Mark Leyner

Gone with the MindIn an interview with The Paris Review, Mark Leyner, author of such postmodern classics as Et Tu, Babe?, said, “I think there has to be some kind of crisis before I really feel there’s a book I should write.” In his new book, the fictional autobiography Gone with the Mind (Little, Brown and Company, 250 pages), Leyner shows us that his biggest crisis is his own life.

Gone with the Mind is an existential, experimental autobiography that covers, with broad absurd strokes, the course of Leyner’s life up to the present. The story begins at a food court, somewhere between Sbarro and Panda Express, where Leyner and his mother, Muriel, are holding a reading for Gone with the Mind. The only attendees, besides Leyner’s mother, are some food court employees on break, who are referred to every now and then throughout the novel. We never make it to the reading, however. Instead, we are given a lengthy introduction by Leyner’s mother (in which she gives us the story of her difficult pregnancy and its culmination in Mark, showing us the sort of household Mark grew up in), followed by a lengthier speech by Leyner, then a Q&A session that has neither questions nor answers.

Leyner’s speech is a long, winding stream of consciousness that begins with how he had initially conceived of his autobiography as a first-person-shooter video game. His narrative weaves in and out of childhood stories and metaphysical treatises on subjects like religion and masturbation. He introduces us to his muse, the Imaginary Intern, who appeared to him on the tile of a bathroom floor and helped him to write this autobiography. Amid these ludicrous vignettes, he talks about the traumas in his life, like his battle with prostate cancer and his complicated relationship with his father.

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When the Only Escape Is Through Fantasy: ‘The Seven Madmen’ by Roberto Arlt

The Seven MadmenRoberto Arlt’s The Seven Madmen (New York Review Books, 272 pages; translated by Nick Caistor) is a thriller, a crime drama, a dystopian revolution novel, a metafictional meditation, a tragic romance, and a revenge tale all in one. Julio Cortazar, who provides the introduction in the New York Review Books edition, is correct in saying Arlt’s novel throws off any “literariness”—its schizophrenic characters and arrangement are too emotionally raw, too erratic in theme and direction for it to be a “traditional” novel, especially for when it was written in 1929. (Some of the novel’s formal choices, such as the use of footnotes, and the way its plotting creates a broken narrative wouldn’t be “literary” for decades.)

The story is composed of “The Confessions” of Remo Erdosain, a poverty-stricken, manic-depressive, and hopelessly self-reflective Argentinian. Arlt fronts as if his fiction is real, trying to convince us that he actually met this miserable man and interviewed him over ten days (so say the footnotes). Forged at a young age in humiliation from his father and in pain from destitution, Erdosain constructs an intricate escapism. His intense imagination and its resulting multitude of made-up scenes, stories, and fantasies plunge us deep into the mind of an anguished man.

And “anguish” is the word for it. Erdosain believes he and all his fellow unfortunates live in “The Anguish Zone,” an inescapable layer of existence that curbs their thoughts and actions into unavoidable feedback loops of habit and delusion, keeping them miserable. They live in fantasy instead of reality. Erdosain sees his life almost like a stage drama, one which reality continually crashes, spoiling his idealism.

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Tweeting Ourselves into Oblivion: ‘I Hate the Internet’ by Jarett Kobek

9780996421805_p0_v1_s192x300The last two years have witnessed several novels lamenting the changing cultural landscape of the Bay Area, setting their sights on the runaway capitalism of the tech industry. But few of these books have actually assimilated the language of tech into their critique. This is part of what makes Jarett Kobek’s novel I Hate the Internet (We Heard You Like Books, 288 pages) so potent.

I Hate the Internet is ostensibly the story of Adeline, a middle-aged comic book artist living in San Francisco circa 2013. When Adeline, who purposefully affects a Trans-Atlantic accent a la Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, delivers a guest lecture at a Bay Area art school, she has no idea that her off-the-cuff remarks will be recorded and uploaded to the web by a student, generating a firestorm of Internet outrage in the process. While Adeline’s story remains an anchor throughout the novel, her dilemma is not the main focus of the book. Instead, her story serves as a springboard for Kobek to examine the state of San Francisco in the 21st century.

The narrative transitions from subject to subject at the speed of a mouse-click; a reference to Adeline’s former boyfriend working at LucasArts leads to several digressive paragraphs in which Kobek offers his own explication of the Star Wars property and its billion-dollar acquisition by the Disney corporation in 2012. This technique occurs on nearly every page, creating the impression that the reader has disappeared down a rabbit hole of URLs, following link after link on Kobek’s version of Wikipedia. It also allows Kobek to tie together several disparate threads throughout the book, while maintaining his central thesis that comic book publishers like Marvel and DC Comics—whose artists, such as Jack Kirby, saw almost none of the dizzying profits made off their intellectual properties—were the forerunners of companies like Facebook and Instagram, which earn massive revenues based on the content its millions of users produce for free.

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The ‘Adverse Gift’ Leading to a Full Life: ‘The Child Poet’ by Homero Aridjis

Screen-shot-2015-09-10-at-4.12.48-PM-253x300Homero Aridjis is renowned for his poetry throughout Latin America, his work having received the praise of such titanic contemporaries as Octavio Paz, Juan Rulfo, and Luis Buñuel, But Aridjis is also known for being one of Latin America’s most distinguished and conscientious environmental activists. In 1985, he founded the Group of 100, gathering together artists and academics to promote environmental justice in Latin America and leading to such accomplishments as legal protection for migratory monarch butterfly communities, gray whale sanctuaries for gray whales, and a reduction in Mexico City’s air pollution. Aridjis served as Mexico’s ambassador to Netherlands, Switzerland, and UNESCO, and was president of countless worldwide organizations promoting sustainable living, cultural diversity, and human rights.

His newest book, The Child Poet (Archipelago books, 153 pages, translated by his daughter Chloe Aridjis), is a brief exploration of where it all began, including a retelling of the tragic event he calls his “second birth” that turned him into the amazingly accomplished man he is today.

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The Voice That Moves You: ‘The Art of Perspective’ by Christopher Castellani

9781555977269When readers think of Vladimir Nabokov’s classic novel Lolita, they’re arguably more likely to recall the silver-tongued wordplay of its narrator, Humbert Humbert, than they are of the machinations of the plot, the character’s verbal gymnastics intended to distract from the horrors of his crimes. As Humbert declares, “You can always count on a murderer for a fancy prose style.” One of William Faulkner’s most revered novels, Light in August, utilizes a complex, impressionistic style, even to the point of incorporating made up words like “sootbleakened” and “childtrebling,” to underscore the psychological complexity of its potentially unsympathetic lead, Joe Christmas. Tim O’Brien’s book The Things They Carried is a Vietnam account that constantly casts doubt on its own veracity, its narrator interrogating just what it means to tell a “true” war story.

All of these works prove why who is telling a story is often just as crucial as the story itself, if not more so. As novelist Christopher Castellani states, “There is no more important decision the writer makes than who tells the story.” Castellani is the author of The Art of Perspective: Who Tells the Story (160 pages), the latest in a collection of books about the craft of writing published by Graywolf Press. While the series may be of most interest to writers, Castellani discusses fiction in such an accessible and engaging manner that the book should prove compelling to anyone who is curious about why some of their favorite novels work the way they do.

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Accept the Flaws to Get to Beauty: ‘Syllabus of Errors’ by Troy Jollimore

9780691167688_p0_v1_s192x300Whenever I open a new book of poems, I am torn by twin currents of hope and dread; hope that there may be something fresh, meaningful, transcendental inside, and dread that it will be more pretentious nouveau pointlessness. Is that too strong a characterization? Not if poetry is the cornerstone of your (with a nod to Forrest Gander) faithful existence.

As C.K. Williams said in “Whacked,” good poems should whack you and “bad poems can hurt you…you know you are, wasting time, if you’re not being whacked.” So it was with deep pleasure that I slowly read through Troy Jollimore’s new book, Syllabus of Errors (112 pages; Princeton University Press). I was thoroughly whacked by these poems, and as Jollimore studied with Williams in the hazy past, I think he’d be proud. From the first lyric, “On Birdsong,” one is captivated by Jollimore’s unapologetic embrace of complex thought, of humor, doubt and praise. Often, the poems move from logic through the fantastic to the affirmative. The poem “On the Origin of Things” starts:

Everyone knows that the moon started out
as a renegade fragment of the sun, a solar
flare that fled that hellish furnace
and congealed into a flat frozen pond suspended
between the planets. But did you know
that anger began as music, played
too often and too loudly by drunken musicians
at weddings and garden parties? Or that turtles
evolved from knuckles, ice from tears, and darkness
from misunderstanding?

After a few more elegant twirls, the poem becomes a love song:

…and that my longing
for you has never taken me far
from that original desire, to inscribe
a comet’s orbit around the walls
of our city, to gently stroke the surface of the stars.

Many poetic and philosophic references infuse these poems. Jollimore’s first book, Tom Thomson in Purgatory, which won the 2006 National Book Critics Circle Award, was at least in part an homage to John Berryman. The series of forty-two linked sonnets shows us a sad, slightly comic everyman, an update to Berryman’s Henry. In his second book, At Lake Scugog (an unfortunate title for an excellent book), Jollimore’s Tom romped though part of the book, but Jollimore also played with other forms—pantuom, terza rima, and rhyme, in general.

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Queen of the Liminal: ‘Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine’ by Diane Williams

unnamedDiane Williams has remained on the edge of American experimental short fiction for the last twenty years. Known for her compact, oblique stories and her extraordinary use of non sequiturs, Williams has written seven books of stories and was an editor at StoryQuarterly before starting the NOON literary annual. She has been lauded by authors Jonathan Franzen, Sam Lipsyte, and Lydia Davis. And her latest book of remarkably potent short fiction, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine (136 pages; McSweeney’s), not only keeps her on the forefront of the form, but also redefines its parameters.

In an interview with HTMLGiant.com, Williams said: “The sentence cannot be overemphasized…neither can a fragment of a sentence or any syllable of a word. The writer either exploits the language for maximum effects or she does not.” For the forty stories in Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, Fine, this sentiment holds true: Williams renders every single word like a prism of implication, and she stretches the space between sentences as wide as chapter breaks, while the sentences themselves somehow read like stand-alone stories. The density of her writing warrants a closer reading than most fiction because it also reads like superb poetry, just casual and fluid and lilting between verse and improvised speech.

Above all, this collection expresses a viciously recursive self-awareness through its narrators and characters (including Williams herself, who shows up by name in at least four of these stories) who attempt to fulfill the stories they tell themselves.

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Legendary Frontier Days Told for These Times: ‘Paul Bunyan’ by Larry Beckett

51MF2m8+EVL._SX341_BO1,204,203,200_Poet and songwriter Larry Beckett has been embarked on a quixotic project, retelling the legend of the famed, semi-fictional logger Paul Bunyan (not to mention his “blue-eyed ox,’’ Babe) in ways that capture the barbaric yawp of olden times in a voice that speaks to our current culture, and implicitly, paralysis of spirit.

Bypassing empty debates about the pros and cons of “American exceptionalism,” Beckett flat out launches into the introduction of this hero of a thousand faces:

Out of the wild North woods, in the thick of the timber
And through the twirling of the winter of the blue snow,
Within an inch of sunup, with the dream shift ending,
A man mountain, all hustle, all muscle and bull bones,
An easy winner, full of swagger, a walking earthquake,
A skyscraper, looking over the tallest American tree,
A smart apple, a wonder inventor, the sun’s historian,
A cock-a-doodle hero, a hobo, loud, shrewd, brawling,
Rowdy, brash as the earth, stomping, big-hearted, raw,
Paul Bunyan lumbered and belly-laughed at the stars.

Admirers of, say, John Ashbery, may stop here, but the rest of us can stick around for the ride of Beckett’s Paul Bunyan (96 pages; Smokestack Press), a roiling picaresque, described by the publisher as a “modern epic in ‘longwinded’ blank verse.”

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A ‘Dirty Old Man’s’ Defiant Stories: ‘The Bell Tolls for No One’ by Charles Bukowski

The Bell Tolls for No OneEarly on in the Charles Bukowski compilation The Bell Tolls For No One, a narrator named Bukowski pulls his car over to the side of the road to stop and marvel at a hideous-looking farm animal. “When one ugly admires another,” he muses, “there is a transgression of sorts, a touching and exchanging of souls, if you will.” It could be said that much of Charles Bukowski’s writing is devoted to this moment when two imperfect forces collide – whether it’s drunken lovers helping each other endure a cold night or a downtrodden man recognizing a kindred spirit in the gnarled face of a hog. Bukowski’s work recognizes humanity’s myriad imperfections. (“Human relationships don’t work,” one of his protagonists flat-out states in a story titled “An Affair of Little Importance.”) And yet in his broken-down characters’ heartbreaking attempts to find solace in a world “half…run on hatred, the other half on fear,” there is a sly triumph, if only in their refusal to give up and drop dead.

Since 2008, City Lights Books has been compiling the uncollected and unpublished works of Charles Bukowski in a series of volumes. The latest is The Bell Tolls For No One and draws the vast majority of its material from a series of short pieces Bukowski wrote, called “Notes of a Dirty Old Man,” which were serialized in publications such as NOLA Express and the L.A. Free Press from 1967 to 1976. Unsurprisingly, the collection is something of a grab bag; the stories are eclectic, with several pieces that read almost like speculative fiction. As always, Bukowski remains incendiary: one of the stand-out stories is a post-apocalyptic fever dream that details what might have happened if the notoriously pro-segregationist candidate George Wallace had become president (policies include a curfew for African-Americans and slating 85 percent of library books for destruction).

In more than one piece, Bukowski’s hardboiled detective-style narration reveals his love of vintage noir writers such as Mickey Spillane: “Jane was a natural, and she had delicious legs…and a face of powdered pain. And she knew me. She taught me more than the philosophy books of the ages.” Elsewhere, Bukowski spins a violent Western yarn in which he subverts the classic trope of the stranger who drifts into town, complete with poker-faced one-liners that wouldn’t be out of place in a Clint Eastwood movie: “If God created you, He was sure as hell in need of better instruction.”

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The ‘Swamp-Rat Rimbaud’: ‘What About This: Collected Poems of Frank Stanford’

What About ThisWhat About This, the title of the massive new edition of the Collected Poems of Frank Stanford (747 pages, Copperhead Press) announces, a cover picture of the late poet (dubbed the “swamp-rat Rimbaud’’ by Lorenzo Thomas) glaring at you.

Well, what about it?

First things first: If the romantic ideal of the poet is to live fast, love hard, and leave a good-looking corpse, Stanford did all of the above, and then some.

It’s impossible to ignore the biography. Born August 1, 1948, in Richton, Mississippi, Stanford shot himself, after reportedly being confronted about multiple infidelities by his wife, Ginny, and his girlfriend, C.D. Wright, who were both in his Fayetteville, Arkansas, house at the time—June 3, 1978, a couple of months shy of his 30th birthday.

That’s about the only thing you could say was shy about Stanford.

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