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ZYZZYVA Book Reviews.

Between the Grotesque and the Real: ‘Her Body and Other Parties’ by Carmen Maria Machado

Her Body and Other PartiesHer Body and Other Parties (Graywolf; 241 pages) by Carmen Maria Machado, which was recently shortlisted for the National Book Award, lives up to the critical acclaim it has accrued. This collection of stories utilizes elements of gothic, speculative, and horror fiction to examine life in a female body and its relationship to sex, food, disease, and the supernatural.

Following horror tradition, objects carry great significance here. The first story, “The Husband Stitch,” was inspired by Alvin Schwartz’s children’s horror story “The Green Ribbon,” in which a woman relies on a green choker to keep her head attached to the rest of her body. Machado’s rendition follows this green-ribboned woman’s relationship with her husband, whose curious fingers constantly mess with the ribbon—trying to slip under it or untie it. The woman, dismayed by this invasion, asks him to let her have this one thing, this one secret. But he cannot.

Machado’s use of horror amplifies the bizarre pains, joys, and restrictions women face. In “Eight Bites,” a woman’s basement is haunted by her old body after she undergoes gastric bypass surgery. When the narrator confronts her former self, it is a soft, helpless ghoul: “It is just a body with nothing it needs: no stomach or bones or mouth. Just soft indents. I crouch down and stroke its shoulder, or what I think is its shoulder. It turns and looks at me. It has no eyes, but still, it looks at me. She looks at me. She is awful but honest. She is grotesque but she is real.”

“Real Women Have Bodies” is a speculative piece which imagines a world where, for no discernable reason, some women start “going incorporeal,” becoming more transparent and permeable until they are essentially nothing. Sex is an important component of this story, as the main characters struggle to hold onto their bodily joy while they still can. (“I come fast and hard,” the narrator says, “like a bottle breaking against a brick wall”). Some of the vanished women, entirely dematerialized, allow themselves to be sewn into the lining of prom dresses. In Machado’s work, emotions materialize and materials become embedded with emotions.

She also has a fascination with pandemics, which she explores in not just “Real Women Have Bodies” but elsewhere. “Inventory” recalls a modern viral plague through one woman’s detailed list of her sexual encounters. The threat of disease hangs heavy over these women as they try to live their lives with as much happiness (and as many orgasms) as they can get away with before being swallowed up by death or disappearance.

Many of Machado’s characters are haunted. “The Resident” tells the story of an artist in residency at a rural mansion who cannot shake off the abuse she experienced as an adolescent at the hands of her fellow Girl Scouts. In “Difficult at Parties,” a woman tries to get over a terrible sexual trauma by watching porn, and realizes she can hear the thoughts of the characters in the films. “Especially Heinous: 272 Views of Law & Order: SVU” takes the notion of a haunting to the next level: after watching Law & Order straight through with a high fever, Machado was inspired to synopsize an SVU from a parallel universe, where the same characters are plagued by doppelgangers and victims of “especially heinous” crimes, including ghost girls with bells for eyes. “She stands over Benson’s bed, the right bell tinkling faintly, and then the left, and then the right again,” Mochado writes. “This happens four nights in a row, at 2:07 am. Benson starts sleeping with a crucifix and pungent ropes of garlic, because she does not understand the difference between vampires and murdered teenagers. Not yet.”

By taking to its ultimate (and extreme) conclusion the significance of inhabiting a female body, Machado makes the supernatural and madness feel eerily familiar.

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A Teenage Ecosystem: ‘All the Dirty Parts’ by Daniel Handler

All the Dirty PartsWith his new novel, All the Dirty Parts (144 pages; Bloomsbury USA), Daniel Handler once again displays a preternatural understanding of teenagers (or an exceptionally detailed memory of his own youthful experience). Handler’s book is the first to make me remember what it was like to be seventeen years-old – in a good way – which is a testament to how honestly the book captures the frantic energy and sexual drive of that time, as well as the pain and confusion which can trail close behind. Handler, who appears in ZYZZYVA No. 76 and No. 100, and is already a legend under his pen name of Lemony Snicket, lends his biting and bittersweet wit to Cole, our sex-crazed narrator. Wisely, Handler leaves out the sort of romantic fluff many novels about teens cloak themselves in, and instead hones in on “the dirty parts.” All the Dirty Parts leaves behind the fantasies of “happily ever after,” in favor of the more immediate happy endings most teens think about.

Handler’s slender novel passes through a year in Cole’s life, although time moves in jumps and starts. We see Cole move through several short, sexually driven relationships before they cool off and he ultimately finds himself involved more deeply than anticipated with his best friend, Alec, and later Grisaille, a French foreign exchange student. Cole can be aggravating and unlikeable but if we were honest many of us would admit we weren’t all that likable as teens, either.

What distinguishes Cole’s story is Handler’s sparse description of the fragile and vicious ecosystem created by teens. They rarely see themselves as cruel, least of all when it comes to sex; they can, however, deeply feel the cruelty inflicted upon them. The power disparity that exists in their minds–the “me versus the world” mentality–comes through in Cole’s stream-of-consciousness narrative. We find ourselves on his side through several repulsive episodes, temporarily forgetting other characters’ feelings. This very narrowness of focus, the literal inability to see other points of view, constitutes the novel’s summation of what adolescence is. In other circumstances, this claustrophobia would be irritating; in a novel about a teenage boy’s sex life, one wonders how it could be written any other way.

Divided into sections of varying lengths representing Cole’s trains of thought, the novel gives us short passages acutely fixated on one messy emotion or moment that can accompany sex—rage, confusion, betrayal, even addiction—before halting and veering to the next. The absence of traditional chapters is refreshing, and contributes to the breathless, almost carnal anticipation of the next section. It might be possible to read All the Dirty Parts at a normal pace, but every part invites the reader to rush headlong until the last page, which stops us like a brick wall.

Form follows content, and Handler expertly wields both to produce an all-around startling work. The depth of emotion we experience through Cole’s eyes is matched perfectly by the sparseness of language. Handler’s diction is sometimes poetic, sometimes merely functional. In both cases, his wording seems entirely true to what a teen like Cole might think or say—a feat other novelists have struggled to match.

Readers may find the moments when they dislike Cole the most serve as a painful reminder of those moments as a teen that hurt the most: the girl who stole your boyfriend, the one that got away, perhaps the first time someone looked you up and down and then looked away–or the times you can recall doing something similar to someone else. The intense reality of All the Dirty Parts comes from its curious ability to draw out the memory of our teen selves—the awkwardness and the ecstasy alike.

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L.A. Story: ‘Cake Time’ by Siel Ju

Cake TimeIn 1985, Lorrie Moore announced her arrival on the literary scene with “How to be the Other Woman,” the provocative opening salvo that began her first story collection, Self-Help; she has since gone on to become one of the most revered voices in literary fiction. For writer Siel Ju (who appeared in ZYZZYVA No. 81) to start her novel-in-stories Cake Time (192 pages; Red Hen Press) with the similarly titled, and similarly told-in-second-person story “How Not to Have an Abortion” is a bold move, to say the least. Yet Siel Ju’s voice rings clear as her own, thanks in part to her specificity of detail (“The clinic accepts only money orders, so you stop at Bank of America for your eighty dollars, at Wells Fargo for his eighty dollars, then at Ralph’s, the busy one on Third and Vermont, to buy the money order”), and the uniqueness of her perspective—the story’s protagonist must contend with her stern Korean immigrant mother while trying to navigate the fast-paced, surface-obsessed landscape of ‘90s Los Angeles.

From there, Cake Time follows our unnamed narrator on her journey through young adulthood, relaying her various temp jobs and love affairs in a series of interconnected short stories. In the titular piece, the narrator and her college roommate Carrie persuade Carrie’s brother to drunkenly fornicate in front of them after a birthday party; in “Easy Target,” she hesitantly joins the dating website Match.com only to find herself paired with a callous womanizer who takes her to a swingers club. Yet most of the stories in Cake Time are hardly so risqué; instead, Ju focuses on the quiet disappointments and lingering sense of dissatisfaction that can follow us through our careers and relationships. She displays an uncanny knack for revealing the complex thought processes of her main character, depicting the way emotions often change from moment to moment when making love or peering into a partner’s eyes: “I got that tense, fraught feeling again, like I needed to act quickly, I needed to figure it out before I lost my chance for good…and for some reason that suddenly brought into focus the hilarious absurdity of our night, my life. For a second I had the urge to burst out laughing, though the feeling faded, and I didn’t.”

In this way, her novel-in-stories proves not unlike Mary Gaitskill early collections Bad Behavior or Because They Wanted To. Siel Ju is similarly candid and often unflattering in her portrayal of her female narrator’s psychology. Ju’s protagonist drifts from lover to lover—a sea of indistinguishably handsome young men with interchangeable, all-American-sounding names like Sam, Matt, Christian, and Jeff—without ever finding the elusive something she appears to be searching for. “‘Good luck,’ [Jeff] said. ‘With everything.’ I wished him the same. Then we let go, I gave him a little wave, and we went our separate ways, he to his car, I to mine.”

Through this tapestry of short stories, we watch as the narrator slowly ages before our eyes and characters reappear over the course of her life. In doing so, Ju displays how self-discovery is seldom about arriving at some grand epiphany, but rather interrogating how we feel in the moment. She expertly taps into the existential malaise of many thirty-something urban dwellers, who find themselves feeling strangely adrift despite their respectable careers and “fit, clean, and exact” apartments.

“I thought about how nothing was fixed, that everything—songs, events—held only the meanings affixed to them,” the narrator muses after learning her closest friend will be leaving L.A. “I wondered if my mind had been perpetually stuck in one spot, dissolutely clinging to the uncertainty it was familiar with, adding that scrim to everything I saw. For a few seconds I saw myself as floating in a limpid, amniotic darkness that was comforting, but also keeping me in an ineffectual fetal state.”

For Siel Ju’s narrator, there are no easy answers or tidy morals to unpack after a relationship fizzles—that’s just life. Cake Time concludes abruptly, leaving us without a concrete sense of where her character might be headed, no promise of a “Season 2” in which her existential doubts will be banished and the right choices revealed. We know she will be okay, if only because we know, most likely, we will be okay. Though it begins in the Nineties, Cake Time is a great story collection for our present moment; an exploration of love, morality, and contentment that proves such concepts can be as murky and uncertain as a wisp of cigarette smoke outside a chic bar.

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Family in the Wild: ‘A Loving, Faithful Animal’ by Josephine Rowe

A Loving, Faithful AnimalAfter the recent death of a beloved family pet, I was looking forward to reading something sweet and poignant. A Loving, Faithful Animal (Catapult; 176 pages) by Josephine Rowe promptly disabused me of any such hope. The titular loving, faithful animal is ripped to shreds in the first few pages.

Rowe’s book, set in a small town in Australia, radiates with a sense of danger, but not in the expected ways; it’s not concerned with being wickedly subversive or delivering an emotional sucker-punch. It’s a family story, narrated in several parts by five family members. The premise is simple: an abusive father leaves his family, perhaps for good. The ecosystem of domestic abuse it reveals is not unfamiliar—Father is haunted by the Vietnam War (about 60,000 Australians served in that conflict), and beats his wife, who beats on her daughter Lani, who in turn manipulates and harasses her sister, Ru. The eccentric Uncle Tetch maintains a benovelent existence in the background, fixing bikes and radios and attempting to protect the women of the house from his brother. Ru, whose second-person narration bookends the novel, wonders about the universality of her family’s strife: Are all family scripts so interchangeable?

The sense of danger comes from the way Rowe, a former Stegner Fellow now living in Tasmania, weaves this family’s ecosystem into the wider southeast Australian wilderness, lending the story a feeling of urgency and rawness. Every time you settle into the familiar narrative of suburban linoleum depression, a spider the size of a hand crawls across the ceiling. In this book characters can’t go for a walk without crunching cicada husks beneath their shoes, pass a fence without seeing a strung-up fox (both a trophy and a warning), or hear gunshots without wondering if someone finally got the giant black cat that’s been stalking the area.

Rowe doesn’t use quotation marks, so dialogue blends into characters’ thoughts and descriptions of the environment. This stylistic choice, rather than muting the dialogue, turns the ambient volume up: the crunches, crackles, and gunshots. What people say and think in Rowe’s book is punctuated by the sharp sounds of the parched world around them, a world just waiting to burst into bushfire. Speech is similarly sharp: the family speaks in short phrases laden with Australian twang. Skinny as a whippet–you could put your hands like this around my waist–and just that fast. Tenderness emerges amid the harshness of their dialogue. The mother, cooing to a pair of angora rabbits as she tries to gently comb tangles and burrs out of their hair: I should just shave the two of you. I should knit jumpers out of you little dolts. That’d be something.

A Loving, Faithful Animal is the story of a family trying to rediscover their identity after the abusive presence they once molded themselves around has disappeared. Rowe depicts her characters searching in the wake of their former selves for the moments, objects, and places they can use to construct their new identities. Rowe’s way of emphasizing the landscape to express her characters’ inner worlds proves both contemplative and thrilling.

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Last Man in the West: ‘A Texas Trilogy’ by Larry McMurtry

A Texas TrilogyI once talked to Larry McMurtry on the telephone.

I was doing a piece for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, pegged to Terms of Endearment, on why his works were so compulsively suitable for adaptation to the big (and little) screen – this was after Hud and The Last Picture Show, but before Lonesome Dove or Brokeback Mountain.

I was getting nowhere trying to reach him, until a friend tipped me off that he was staying at the Beverly Wilshire with his son, on a stopover before a skiing trip.

When I got connected to McMurtry’s room, and explained what I was up to, he was a little surprised, and polite enough – but direct. “I don’t do interviews,” he said. “I just don’t see the point.”

It’s that kind of understated honesty that, after decamping from the desolate Archer City ranch he was brought up in, helped him survive the wilds of the Stanford writing program, where, as a Stegner Fellow, he hung out with Ken Kesey and other latter-day Merry Pranksters, but kept his hands on the wheel, like fellow classmate Robert Stone.

At 81, and approaching the end of a distinguished literary career, amid (apparently premature) rumors of retirement, his early work is being celebrated with A Texas Trilogy (722 pages; Liveright), the re-issue of his first three novels, Horseman, Pass By; Leaving Cheyenne; and The Last Picture Show.

In a fresh introduction to the new volume, McMurtry humble brags Horseman, Pass By – the title came from Yeats, but was discarded by the filmmakers for the simpler sobriquet Hud – but allows it some credit for “occasionally pleasing lyricism.’’

Well, more than that.

 New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael famously dissed the movie (and the book) for its sanctimonious portrayal of Homer Bannon, the cattleman who unhappily agrees to let government regulators inspect his herd for mad cow disease – and allows them to be slaughtered once it is confirmed. As usual, Kael far preferred the antihero, Hud (as the movie billboard campaign memorably put it, Paul Newman is Hud), for his virility and lack of pretension, in comparison to Homer or Hud’s younger, more sensitive and idealistic half-brother, Lonnie.

But her real critique seemed to boil down to a less subtle form of social snobbery: at the end of the day, these people were…hicks.

It’s the kind of assault being leveled these days on “Trump country” – even as pictures flooded the news recently of burly boaters rescuing older hurricane refugees, many of them African-American, from roofs and car tops. This is not to discount the myriad ways in which our current President is awful – a gargoylish caricature of our worst collective prejudices – but an acknowledgement that there is a deeper reality than what we see on screens (let alone tweets). To be rooted in the country is advantageous, as well as alarming.

Ask Elvis.

Towards the end of Horseman, Lonnie articulates some of this as he tries to escape his troubles at a dance after a rodeo in which a friend was crushed by a bull:

“The band was playing one of those songs of Hank Williams’, the one about the wild side of life, and the music floated over the car tops and touched me…Only the tune of the song reached me, but the tune was enough. It fit the night and the country and the way I was feeling, and fit them better than anything I knew. What few stories the dancing people had to tell were already told in the worn-out words of songs like that one, and their kind of living, the few things they knew and lived to a fare-thee-well in the sad high tune. City people probably wouldn’t believe there were folks simple enough to live their lives out in sentiments like those – but they didn’t know.”

It is a complex fate being an American, indeed.

“This was the small-town West I and so many of my friends came out of – escaping from the swaggering small-town hotshots like Hud,’’ writes Kael, who was born in Petaluma. “But I didn’t remember any boys like Brandon DeWilde’s Lon: he wasn’t born in the West or in anyone’s imagination; that seventeen-year-old blank sheet of paper has been handed down from generations of lazy hack writers.’’

Although McMurtry admitted, with typical modesty, that the polarities between Homer and no-good Hud were overdrawn, clearly there must have been some sensitive souls on the range – how else to account for McMurtry’s own prodigious output, and his famously good ear for women characters? Maybe Kael was just looking for love in all the wrong places, as the song would have it.

Trust the tale, not the teller.

Even as a first effort, Horseman, Pass By, published in 1961 when the author was all of 25, stands up to re-reading. There’s a touch of Twain in Lon’s lonesome laments, and of Dreiser (and Tom Buchanan) in the depiction of Hud’s rough romancing.

McMurtry, who clearly knows his way around a High Concept pitch, describes his second novel, Leaving Cheyenne, as “the bittersweet story of a longtime love triangle among a rancher, his cowboy, and an appealing countrywoman who loves them both.’’

It was adapted into a ludicrous film, Lovin’ Molly, starring the amazingly miscast Anthony Perkins as one of the ranch hands and Beau Bridges, doing as best possible under the circumstances, as Johnny McCloud, his sidekick and romantic rival. But the book’s real achievement is McMurtry’s portrait of Molly. Part of his unending curiosity into the mysteries and unreachability of women in general, and the woman his protagonist is obsessed with in particular, it prefigured the development of more mature characters like Patsy Carpenter in Moving On, Emma Greenway-Horton and her mom, Aurora, in Terms of Endearment, and Jill Peel in Somebody’s Darling.

Molly Taylor, the liberated lady of the prairies, has her overly serious suitor, Gideon Fry’s number about the difference between wanting to be in in love, and the actual experience. As she tells him, “You’re always thinking about Johnny or Eddie or your ranch or your dad or what people will think, or what’s right and wrong, something like that…. Or else you just like to think about having me for a girl. That ain’t loving nobody much. I can tell you that.” Busted.

Huck Finn’s ghost pops up as Gid comes to grips with the fact, that, unlike Johnny, he can’t just walk away from his roots.

“I didn’t mind the company; I didn’t mind the country, or even the cold weather,’’ McMurtry writes, of an interlude in which McCloud has talked Fry into taking off into the wilds. “I just minded feeling like I wasn’t where I belonged…I couldn’t get over thinking about Dad and Molly and the country and the ranch, the things I knew. The things that were mine. It wasn’t that I liked being in Archer Country so much – sometimes I hated it. But I was just tied up with it; whatever happened there was happening to me, even if I wasn’t there to see it. The country might not be very nice and the people might be ornery; but it was my country and my people, and no other country was; no other people, either. You do better staying with your own, even if it’s hard.”

Hard times are what define the fictional terrain of The Last Picture Show (1966), the coda of the “new” collection and the most formally accomplished of the trio. As in Peter Bogdanovich’s film adaptation, the sharp-eyed characterizations of small town football buddies Sonny Crawford and Duane Jackson, the town tease Lacy Farrow, her mutinously adulterous mom Lois, and Sam the Lion, the local pool hall proprietor, are precisely etched, as is the subplot involving Sonny’s callous affair with Ruth Popper, the wife of the (closeted) high school football coach.

As the saga draws to an end, the Thalia picture show closes, with a whimper, not a bang – showing an Audie Murphy vehicle called The Kid From Texas in lieu of a John Ford classic. It’s second-rate, but the novel is not.

“While writing these three novels, it was clear to me that I was witnessing the dying of a way of life, too – the rural, pastoral way of life,” McMurtry writes. “And in many of the books that I’ve produced, it has taken thousands of words to attend to the passing of the cowboy as well: the myth of my country, and of my people, too.”

This was country he would not return to until the publication, thousands of words later, of Lonesome Dove. Intended as an anti-Western, it of course had the opposite effect, bringing the author his first Pulitzer and a massive audience for the mini-series that was based on it.

The irony was not lost on McMurtry, a writer so keenly aware of regional marginalization that he used to wear a sweatshirt with the logo: “Minor regional novelist.’’ (His bemused account, in Literary Life, of his tenure as president of PEN America, and failed attempts to broaden its scope beyond Manhattan, is instructive.)

His portraits of contemporary life have been no less telling. The next re-release of his work, one hopes, will be the “Houston trilogy’’ – Moving On, All My Friends Are Going To Be Strangers, and Terms of Endearment – which deal with clearly autobiographical material, especially in Strangers, the tale of Danny Deck, a young Texas novelist whose success brings unexpected, and unwelcome, consequences. And Somebody’s Darling, a picaresque tale of the adventures of rising director Jill Peel, sardonic screenwriter Joe Percy, and Owen Oarson, a Texas stud along for the unlikely ride, is as good a Hollywood novel as I’ve read.

McMurtry is always accessible and humane as the latest trilogy reminds us. Although a former Stegner Fellow, his voice is never as portentous as that of the late Western writer, and less apocalyptic than his classmate Kesey.

“What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours, and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it,’’ J.D. Salinger famously wrote (and lived to regret).

But I don’t mind that my talk with Larry McMurtry was so brief. It left him more time to keep writing. The conversation continued.

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Everything All the Time: ‘Life in Code: A Personal History of Technology’ by Ellen Ullman

Life in CodeEssays about the perils of the Internet are common, as are the many books hawking cynicism about the “Information Age,” the “iGeneration,” or start-up culture. But Ellen Ullman’s Life in Code: A Personal History of Technology (303 pages; MCD/FSG), stands above the pseudo–science crowd; she draws us into the world of computer programming from the inside, showing us what she’s learned since the beginning of the Internet. The memoir, comprised of some of Ullman’s previous essays as well as several new ones, is arranged somewhat chronologically (from 1992 to January 2017) and thematically as Ullman describes what her title suggests: a lifetime spent in code.

Her perspective is hard-won and enduringly timely. Everything in the book, from her account from decades past of being the only woman on teams of male computer engineers to discussions then of AI advances, could have been published in the Atlantic during the last month. This underscores how little tech culture has changed since Ullman began programming in 1978. However, one would be wrong to assume Life in Code is a stuffy play-by-play of Javascript bugs, Microsoft takeovers, and Silicon Valley unicorn start-ups—though each does have their role. In an irony that is not at all lost on Ullman, it becomes clearer with every page her book is about people—their missed connections, flaws, and rare triumphs—more so than the technologies those very people seem to prefer inhabiting over their own lives.

Ullman’s book upends our expectations. Her writing seamlessly merges with her subject matter, shifting from scientific investigation and programming primer to philosophical inquiry and journalistic account—and circling back again. And because she cannot account for things she did not see, hear, or discuss with someone, the book is welcomingly personal like a diary. But it is a history as well. A longtime San Franciscan, she records the city’s meteoric rise with a sense of horror as Silicon Valley eats it alive. And she recounts the various concerns presented by evolving computer engineering as they happened at the time. (For anybody too young to remember, her account of the Y2K bug provides not only a newspaper-like synopsis of why it was such a concern, but presents us with the real people who were, and weren’t, worried about catastrophe at the time.) With all this comes the hope of presenting a grander truth that supersedes the merely anecdotal. In this, Ullman succeeds.

The stories she weaves throughout are not only interesting in themselves, but offer endless insights, as Ullman bends language to make her point. (I doubt there has ever been a better description of a co-working space in San Francisco than as a “warren” of start-ups.) Given her memoir is centered on the Internet and on programming, there’s a bit of unavoidable nomenclature and jargon to hurdle. But Ullman guides the average person through the vocabulary of this willfully closeted arena with grace and finesse. In doing so, she also forces us to acknowledge how little we know about the technologies we’ve allowed to shape our lives.

Above all, what is so marvelous about the book is its intimate tone. Whether Ullman seems worried, resolute, optimistic, or in doubt, the reader always has the impression of sitting down to coffee in her living room as she tells a story. She cares about her reader, and wants to offer us an important look into the techies’ ivory tower, to see what the world looks like from the Googleplex. To the final page, Life in Code depicts its world of sushiritos and nap corners as a perfectly wound dark comedy. There’s a transfixing, laughable absurdity to it all–but there’s always a disconcerting reality lurking not far behind, one that blinks and blinks like a green power light, always on.

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Piercing the Darkness: ‘The Age of Perpetual Light’ by Josh Weil

The Age of Perpetual LightJosh Weil’s first collection of stories, The Age of Perpetual Light (272 pages; Grove Press), spans the course of history to examine the miseries and ambitions of humanity, tracing the mysteries of light and darkness that have long confounded and mesmerized us. Beginning with the tale of a Jewish Russian soldier, who deserts to America where he peddles Edison Lamps and falls broodingly in love with an Amish woman, Weil’s themes reveal themselves. We see the invention of electricity and man’s emerging dominance over light as a magnificent, almost magical trick. But at the same time, as the collection’s stories about the excesses of ambition show, that desire to dominate the dark ultimately raises the question of at what point does our appetite for knowledge and control begin to control us? What happens when the metamorphic light becomes too bright to turn down – when we begin to miss the darkness but have no way of bringing it back?

The eight stories in Weil’s collection—narratives ranging from the struggles of parenting an autistic child to a woman’s tenacious passion for flight, as well as the strife that follows a pair of Serbian immigrants (a young boy and his abusive mother)—were written over the course of a decade. The intonations in each story, by consequence, vary drastically—from lyrical? to almost dystopian. But they all share revelations into the heartbreak and inspiring moments that shape the human spirit.

The collection closes by returning us to the story of the lonely Edison Light peddler. We revisit him at an earlier time in his life, when he is about to embark for America and flee the police who have discovered his desertion. Writing a letter home, Shimel—who has adopted a false identity to protect himself from anti-Semitism—describes his fear of losing himself and those he loves, and his conviction to carry on regardless:

“And here he comes again: the lamplighter, crossing from one side of the street to the other, unlatching the panes, reaching up, snuffing the flames. Watching him it seems as if he might have just kept walking. Followed the night around the globe, lighting lanterns until the dark crossed into day and, coming upon the flames already lit, he flipped his pole to its snuffing end, simply kept on. Maybe, some night in another city in another country I will see him coming down another street. I will call him over. I will ask him to bring a message back to you. ‘Tell them,’ I will say, ‘hello from here.’”

Weil beautifully illustrates the conviction that as we all bear witness to the continual rising and extinguishing of its power, the “light,” and our moth-like attraction to it, can keep us bound both to its elemental force and to each other.

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The Loves We Leave Behind: ‘Pages for Her’ by Sylvia Brownrigg

Pages for Her by Sylvia BrownriggIt’s not easy to write a love story devoid of the usual clichés such as the “meet cute” or unrealistically idealized physical descriptions, but author Sylvia Brownrigg does just that in her new novel, Pages for Her (373 pages; Counterpoint). The book is a sequel to 2001’s critically acclaimed Pages for You, in which the young and timid Flannery Jensen falls for her confident and much older professor, Anne Arden. Told in three parts, Pages for Her offers readers the chance to return to Flannery and Anne’s ardent, but lost, connection twenty years after their separation. While the time jump provides an eloquent exploration of memory, nostalgia, and individual growth for both Flannery and Anne, it is also filled with a lengthy recounting of mundane, everyday details which delays the reunion of these two characters. The languid pacing, which contains a myriad of tender and painful moments, deepens the bond between the reader and the characters, but somewhat diminishes interest in the central love story since the only trace of their romance resides in Anne and Flannery’s memory.

Instead, the strongest and most poignant parts of Pages for Her have less to do with plot and more the intimate relationships these women have apart from each other. It is a poetic and in-depth look at the self – as individual, writer, mother, wife, daughter, and lover. Flannery’s transition into motherhood becomes one of the most important aspects of Pages for Her; Brownrigg portrays her sometimes-limiting yet always unconditional love for her child, a love Flannery finds deep and life-altering.

The gentle exchanges between Flannery and her daughter Willa serve in stark contrast to Anne, who has proven unwavering in her decision to remain childless and lost Jasper, her partner of twenty-years, as a result. Anne and Jasper’s relationship is just unconventional enough to keep the reader’s attention, with their fresh take on monogamy being perhaps the most interesting part of Anne’s story. We feel Flannery’s marital and creative frustrations, we feel her primal instincts as a mother and the zealous love that accompanies it. We also feel Anne’s quiet but piercing grief over releasing the man she loves to a life she cannot agree to, and we feel her slow return to a lover she has long cherished but could never pursue due to her bond with Jasper.

These relationships comprise the backbone of Pages for Her, depicting the intricate, complicated, and beautiful moments that lead Flannery and Anne back to a relationship they both knew was unfinished. As in our own lives, no matter how many years (or pages) it takes, “[w]hen two people came together who were meant to, the night and the meeting were elemental, and the trappings ceased to exist. All that mattered were the bodies. And the selves.”

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In a Lonely Place, a Teen Boy Searches for Solace: ‘Montpelier Parade’ by Karl Geary

Montpelier ParadeKarl Geary’s first novel, Montpelier Parade (217 pages; Catapult), presents us with the fraught experience of first love, told in beautifully doleful prose that sometimes exhibits Salinger-esque sparseness. Referring to his protagonist, Sonny, as “you,” Geary draws the reader into a hypnotic and haunting intimacy. The directness of the second-person point of view demands both Sonny and the reader are left weary by the cloudy Dublin skies and by the “howl of feeling.” It’s a delicate work that treats its subject with great sensitivity, ensuring we experience that same tenderness of feeling that Sonny does, and hear the words on the page like the brutally honest voice of a friend.

Sonny is a pitiful Irish teenager growing up on the decaying outskirts of Dublin. He longs to escape from the drab confines of his father’s expectations, his mother’s depression, and the mindlessness of his TV-consumed brothers. More than any of this, he longs to feel a sense of belonging and the soft embrace of a devoted lover. He is so alone he seems afraid of being noticed. A quiet and keen observer, Sonny breaks the reader’s heart in the most banal of ways. The moments of tragedy in Sonny’s life are delivered in the same quietly devastating manner as his mundane experience: the novel begins with the accidental death of a drunken man leaving the butcher shop at which Sonny works and ends with the suicide of a character he literally worships, yet Sonny reacts as though these events are no more momentous than the stale loaf that rests forgotten on his kitchen counter. All too accustomed to pain from every direction in his life, Sonny appears to regard suffering as both inevitable and unavoidable. All the while, his hunger for love proves so fundamental one wishes to somehow feed him. For Vera, the older woman who becomes both his secret lover and the hope he is terrified to possess, continues to deny Sonny––for she, too, is frightened by her own desperate need.

And so Sonny is left in that space between longing and pursuit, kept company by a slight boredom, the hum of the refrigerator, and the rustling of spiders. When he’s not in the shed fixing his bike with stolen parts or working at the butcher’s shop, he’s usually with his friend Sharon at the Cats’ Den. Sharon, the girl whose punches “hurt and were lovely and a comfort” and who’s been everybody’s girlfriend, shares her cigarettes with Sonny and follows him to the museum even when he’s thinking of Vera. It is Sharon who reminds him of the world he is expected to belong to, the everyday world his mother inhabits. Walking arm and arm with Vera, at one point, Sonny sees his mother struggling with the pull of “four or more plastic bags…like demanding toddlers,” but he never breaks his stride. He only turns to look back once she becomes a shadow, and is ashamed by his betrayal of the woman who raised him and never hugged him back. By the time Sonny’s two worlds collide––the world he lustfully imagines and the one that comprises his waking life––Montpelier Parade leaves us as it leaves Sonny, pondering how life can be both empty and full at once.

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Shadows That Take the Shape of Men: ‘Entropy in Bloom’ by Jeremy Robert Johnson

Entropy in Bloom by Jeremy Robert JohnsonIt’s the rare writer who is able to straddle the line between literary and horror fiction. For every author like H.P. Lovecraft and Shirley Jackson who has since been adopted into the canon, there are countless others who remain on the outskirts of the literary scene. Of course, working in the fringes of any genre allows one to take creative risks and make provocative choices. Readers who find themselves drawn to the new story collection Entropy in Bloom (252 pages; Night Shade Books) by Portland writer Jeremy Robert Johnson will likely believe that the author has indeed gotten away with something.

One of the pleasures of reading any collection that culls together stories produced over a span of time is witnessing a writer’s preoccupations and obsessions emerge on the page. With stories written between 2004 and 2011, Entropy in Bloom reads like a tableau of Johnson’s pet themes. Despite their Lovecraftian titles, stories such as “When Susurrus Stirs” and “Cathedral Mother” explore Johnson’s fascination with the way microscopic entities like parasites and tapeworms can alter human physiology for their own purposes. The idea of an invisible passenger in our bodies (“…I imagine the fibers of my spinal cord stretching out towards him like feelers”) has long been a potent theme in the genre, particularly in the body mutations conjured by filmmaker David Cronenberg, but in these tales Johnson tends to go for the gross-out rather than generate the lingering psychological effect of the best literary horror.

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When Home Isn’t Quite Home: ‘What It Done to Us’ by Essy Stone

What It Done to UsIn her first collection of poetry, What It Done to Us (66 pages; Lost Horse Press), Essy Stone writes about an early life spent immersed in a Southern culture she deems toxic, where oppression and tradition are rooted in the collective mentality, often at the expense of women and minorities. She describes a landscape that is as suffocating as it is unsettling, where mountains have “heavy hands” and the valleys lie “cursed by generations of sunburned famers.” Her poems address the unstated yet generally understood rule that if you are born in the South you are somehow fated to stay there, to follow in the footsteps of the generations that came before. Although much of her work focuses on how she fought against this expectation, she does not shy away from speaking frankly about her painful past, or the physical and emotional toll it takes to depart from the world one was raised in.

What It Done to Us reads as a memoir in verse, ordered chronologically from her troubled childhood and teenage years to her adulthood. From her earliest days, we sense she already possessed the rebellious spirit that would serve her well when she made the harrowing but necessary decision to leave the constraints of her hometown. She describes herself as a “teenage delinquent with eyes like black heaps/of coal that no great prophet could lift from their depths,” here also touching on her various confrontations with the “Devil,” a reappearing presence throughout the collection that alternates between being an external force she is helpless against and an undeniable part of herself.

What stands out in the book is the camaraderie between Stone and the other women who reside in her town; she observes their navigation of Southern life with both skepticism and sympathy. These women steel themselves against their various struggles and tragedies, acting tough rather then demure as they “growl through lipsticked teeth at the unseen hand that holds us here./Raise our chins to meet its invisible fist.” While Stone doesn’t minimize their strength of character, she criticizes the way they appear to have surrendered to the unfairness of their situation. Despite its occasionally defeatist language, there is still an undercurrent of resistance running throughout What It Done to Us, with lines such as “We never relax, our muscles ready, tensed/against this dense pressure waiting to erupt from within” and “you spend evenings/at the dam, praying for it to break. Something must burst,/must loose, must free itself & carry you.” The tension between Stone’s desire to follow her path and the pressure to abandon it nears its breaking point as she grows closer to realizing her escape.

What It Done to Us is a sharp and honest reflection of the East Tennessee town she was raised in, of her wounds manifested in the ongoing inner-conflict between guilt and religion, family and self-preservation, and of the pain of one’s memories and the desire to be rid of them. Stone eventually leads us to understand how an environment so shocking, so disturbing can maintain such a powerful hold on those who call it home.

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Door of the Soul: ‘The Accomplished Guest’ by Ann Beattie

Ann Beattie’s career began, auspiciously, 40 years ago with the joint publication of her first novel, Chilly Scenes of Winter, and Distortions, a short story collection. It was an almost unheard of debut for a writer whose career had previously consisted The Accomplished Guestlargely of short stories in The New Yorker and a few other publications.

But she immediately captured critical attention with her pitch-perfect depiction of the lives of her contemporaries, shellshocked by political changes, struggling with the problems of dysfunctional relationships and trying to find a way to make sense of the senseless.

It didn’t hurt that she was also hip, strewing pop and drug culture references through her work like bread crumbs leading to an imaginary cottage. The startling directness and present-tense presence of her voice did not escape the attention of her peers, either.

“You figured out how to write an entirely different kind of story,’’ John Updike told her, at their first meeting.

Well, maybe.

Although Beattie’s formidable formal innovations are remarkable, it’s no disservice to her work, which now encompasses 19 books, to say she is working in the same arena as such contemporaries as Alice Munro, and predecessors from Mavis Gallant to Chekhov, or Maupassant.

She may not be squarely in their fictional lane – her style is uniquely her own – but they populate the same neighborhood of experience, and no doubt would find a way to successfully communicate over the garden fence. There has recently been an outpouring of work from Beattie, including the publication last year of The State We’re In: Maine Stories. (She and her husband, the painter Lincoln Perry, divide their time between Maine and Key West). Her newest, just-released collection, The Accomplished Guest (288 pages; Scribner), is stunningly successful – reading it is like being hit by successive waves of emotion recalled – not so much in tranquility as in the vertiginous heat of a summer afternoon. The title pays homage to Emily Dickinson’s poem, which she chooses as an epigraph:

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