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A Salve for Our Grief: ‘Lincoln in the Bardo’ by George Saunders

Lincoln in the BardoGeorge Saunders’s Lincoln in the Bardo (350 pages; Penguin Random House), recently released in paperback, continues to offer the salve we need. This exceptional novel, which went on to win the Man Booker Prize ––making Saunders the second American (in a row at that) to win the prize –– has the kind of sensibility necessary for national healing; as The Atlantic noted, “In a year in which writers and artists have wrestled with the question of how to tackle the increasing prominence of hate in the political sphere, the Man Booker judges seemed to respond to Saunders’s humanizing portrait of a leader felled by grief.”

 As always, Saunders’ work celebrates humanity where you least expect to find it. In his story collection Tenth of December he cheerfully examined the dark emotions driving middle-class Americans. And in Lincoln in the Bardo, which takes place during the first year of the Civil War and centers on the death of Abraham Lincoln’s eleven-year-old son, Willie, Saunders works tirelessly to understand the book’s multiple characters. Most of them are ghosts stuck in a graveyard, who are present on the night of Willie’s arrival in the cemetery. Throughout the novel, Saunders inserts excerpts from letters, newspapers, and some fictional archives that discuss the Lincoln family’s tragedy from afar. Each archival extract and fictional voice is broken up into small paragraphs, marked underneath by the speaker’s name, making the text read as a play.

“I didn’t just do it to be fancy,” Saunders told the New York Times after winning the Man Booker, “but because there was this emotional core I could feel, and that form was the only way I could get to it.” The archival excerpts also serve to break up the main narration, which is comprised of voices from the Bardo—a Tibetan space that exists between death and rebirth, where one’s fate is still undecided, similar to purgatory (although Saunders has argued that purgatory wasn’t quite right for the story; he imagined purgatory as too similar to waiting in line at DMV). The Bardo is populated by people whose bodies have died, but whose spirits are still tied to the living world. These lost souls find themselves unwilling to move on to the next world.

The souls residing in Willie’s cemetery occupy a place of denial; each one has a final memory that prevents them from accepting the truth of their own demise. They refer to their corpses as “sick-forms” and their coffins as “sick-boxes,” indicating they still think they’ll one day return to the world of the living and their loved ones. Each night, they wander the grounds of the graveyard, repeating the very same stories that keep them stuck in this liminal space. The ghosts in the Bardo can enter one another’s body, helping them access someone else’s memories, desires, and anxieties. In a discussion at San Francisco City Art and Lectures on the occasion of Lincoln in the Bardo’s paperback release, Saunders said that fiction has a similar kind of power: it has the ability to help us better understand the experiences and emotions of others, because it allows us to step into the position of someone whose experiences are far from our own. Saunders work provides a manual of sorts for national healing; it is through the practice of imagining oneself in the place of another that one can view others with compassion and ultimately move beyond differences.

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Faith in the Void: ‘Fire Sermon’ by Jamie Quatro

Fire SermonT.S. Eliot once stated, “The last thing I would wish for would be the existence of two literatures, one for Christian consumption and the other for the pagan world,” a status quo which has more or less come to pass. (It seems as though one could count on both hands the number of mainstream contemporary novels that grapple with the Christian faith.) As such, Jamie Quatro’s first novel, Fire Sermon (208 pages; Grove Press), which references the above T.S. Eliot quote, often registers as something different and exciting. Here is a smart novel for adults that deals honestly with the difficulty of nurturing faith in the midst of a world that frequently resists our attempts to prescribe it meaning –– a world full of complications such as infidelity, despair, and disease that undermine the tidy proverbs of a Sunday morning sermon.

On the surface, Fire Sermon’s narrator, Maggie, possesses the ideal life: a long-running marriage to her college sweetheart, Thomas, who provides her the room to cultivate her faith in God, even if he doesn’t share it; two beautiful children; and a cozy home with a dog and a yard in Nashville. Yet as the book opens, Maggie finds herself at something of an impasse. The stresses and strains of child rearing have left her feeling displaced in her own body and therefore disinterested in sex with her husband, while his lack of understanding in her beliefs continues to increase the emotional distance between them. This martial strife creates an opening for Maggie to begin a written correspondence with an acclaimed poet named James.

Through a series of intimate e-mails and handwritten letters, many of which appear throughout Fire Sermon, the two of them form an intellectual connection that soon grows into an undeniable attraction. After meeting at several lectures and conferences, Maggie and the poet (himself married with two children) finally consummate their relationship during a stay in downtown Chicago. This night sends Maggie spiraling into an existential crisis, as she wonders how God could condemn an act she views as an expression of true feeling between two people, married to other people though they may be; and she struggles to rectify the momentousness of her beliefs with the constant torment she experiences from attempting to live up to them:

“What if you woke up one day to discover the corpse of Christ had been identified definitively? Or that an irrefutable, airtight scientific study had been devised to disprove the existence of God, and the study had –– beyond any conceivable doubt –– proved he did not exist? What would you feel?

Relief.”

Maggie’s interior life serves as the focus of much of the novel as she probes her convictions, revealing they may not be as ironclad as she would prefer to think. Her thoughts are laid bare through sessions with an unnamed Counselor (who may or may not be an imagined stand-in for God), as well as in letters –– largely unsent –– to James. Refreshingly, these interrogations of the self don’t shy away from tackling the contradictions of religion head-on; rather than reflect the shiny, copacetic surface of so-called megachurches (“Her parents’ church is an embarrassment to both of them: drums and electric guitars, flashing laser lights and images projected onto screens during the sermon…”), Maggie’s musings reaffirm the Kierkegaardian notion that maintaining one’s faith should be excruciating work. (“Job is bullshit,” Maggie declares, “Job lost everything”). In a journal entry, Maggie sums up these struggles to hold onto meaning by writing, “God of God, Light of Light, Very Void of Very Void,” a line that recalls Hemingway’s famous passage, “Our nada who art in nada, nada be thy name.”

This mention of the Void also precipitates Maggie’s philosophical ruminations on the similarities and differences between Christianity and Buddhism. In contrast to an eternity spent worshipping God with loved ones, the Buddhist afterlife proposes the annihilation of both suffering and the self –– an attractive proposition to a woman torn by her heart’s conflicting desires: “One ends in Nirvana, nonbeing…Extraction from the talons. What relief there would be in no longer to feel, again, your whiskers on my inner thigh.”

One could perhaps criticize Maggie for her somewhat solipsistic view of the world, but her character is discerning enough to call herself out and at least entertain the possibility that what she feels for her distant poet is not love, but merely the inevitable result of martial doldrums; that after years of monogamy, what she finds herself yearning for is not this man James but the idea of someone new. She pointedly asks herself if James is simply the next in “a litany of men I draw toward myself not out of loneliness or unhappiness, but out of one desire, to be fucked by someone besides my husband,” and comes to the conclusion that “…unless something is forbidden, I cannot want it with any intensity.”

These are provocative questions, and questions without easy answers, certainly not answers that could be doled out by a laser lightshow and projector screen on a Sunday morning. Their complexity rings true to the difficulties of maintaining any relationship over the span of a lifetime. To that end, Fire Sermon deserves to find an audience beyond only those who will see Maggie’s faith as a reflection of their own.

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This Shifting Web: ‘Stream System and ‘Border Districts’ by Gerald Murnane

Stream Systems“The writers of the present century have lost respect for the invisible,” says one of the narrators of Stream System: The Collected Short Fiction of Gerald Murnane (560 pages; FSG). “They have tried to describe what they had better have left unreported.” Perhaps we are fortunate, then, that Gerald Murnane has not lost this connection, for his writing is unlike anything being published today. It could be the way Murnane works his prose, filling it with repetitions and pulling out commas so the syntax shines like glass; or it could be something about all these nameless men and boys walking their small parts of Australia, dreaming about women and grass and clouds. In any respect, Murnane is one of the rare few actually working to alter the experience of reading fiction, and it is time his works are recognized more fully in this regard.

Despite an impressive body of work consisting of nine novels, three books of short fiction, one essay collection, and a memoir—as well as the highest praise from writers J. M. Coetzee, Teju Cole, Helen Garner, and Shirley Hazzard—Murnane’s books have mostly been confined to Australia and the United Kingdom. The release this spring in the United States of Stream System and Border Districts: A Fiction (144 pages; FSG) is therefore a major event in the publishing history of this writer and in contemporary literature. In Stream System we have the fullest collection of Murnane’s short fiction to date, giving us access to stories that were difficult or impossible to find before, and in the elegant Border Districts, which Murnane has called the last piece of fiction he will ever write, we have the vantage point to look over his ambitious life work.

Murnane’s fictions are composed like vast diagrams of far-away boxes connected by thin blue lines. For those unfamiliar with his writing, his subjects can be summed up fairly easily. In order of increasing abstraction they are: Catholicism, horse racing, women, fiction, landscape, light. The tone ranges from the reflective to the documentarian, with the extreme on one side resembling the best writing from Beckett and Conrad, and the other sounding a lot like that infamous 2012 report from the US Government Accountability Office about reports about reports that suggests the preparation of a further report about said report. In the harsh but necessary world of jacket copy blurbs it has become commonplace to call someone’s style “unique,” but Murnane really does seem to write differently from anyone else. The best comparison might be an artist like Glenn Gould: substitute features of the basin or plains for the arctic, and the opening line of Gould’s The Idea of North, “I’ve long been intrigued by that incredible tapestry of tundra and taiga which constitutes the Arctic and sub-Arctic of our country,” could easily be the start of a Murnane story.

Murnane does not write for an audience, that much is clear. His repetitive and sometimes off-putting style has borne its fair share of detractors. But unlike most writers in this line, Murnane also does not seem to be writing deliberately away from an audience, or in other words, being difficult for the sake of being difficult. It takes time to see this, but his writing truly does seem to reflect who he is as a person. (Character will out, as they say.) It exhibits humility, curiosity, and a careful, inward intelligence.

Continue reading

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Born Under a Bad Sign: ‘Black Sheep Boy’ by Martin Pousson

Black Sheep BoyAuthor and poet Martin Pousson’s Black Sheep Boy (182 pages; Rare Bird Books ), winner of the 2017 PEN Center USA Award for Fiction, and re-issued in paperback last month, is an unforgettable novel with prose that reads as both brutally honest and hypnotic. The story centers around our narrator, Boo, as he struggles with growing up gay in Acadiana, the bayou lands of Louisiana. Told over the course of sixteen linked stories, the book covers a wide span of time, from the “wild-hearted” boy’s birth to his freshman year of college, and centers around the qualities that make him the “black sheep” of the title.

Boo is unable to fit the masculine identity that his family, religion, and community demand of him. During childhood, his manner of movement and speech convinces his superstitious and abusive mother he is possessed by the devil: “Mama strapped down my restless hands with duct tape then ordered a doctor to fit braces on my twisting feet. By five, I’d learned sacrifice for the stutters when another doctor cut out a flap of flesh to correct my tangling speech. Mama showed me the horn-shaped piece to prove a point: the devil had me by the tongue.” His father, meanwhile, is mostly absent as he works from sunrise to sunset to meet his wife’s ever increasing demands for a piece of the good life she feels she deserves.

Boo is called Sissy, Queen, Fairy, and Jenny-Woman as he encounters drag-queens, priests, and neighborhood bullies. He has a variety of sexual encounters; some sweet and gentle, others haunting and traumatizing.

Pousson’s writing is melodic, with phrases that slope and sweep along the page. It is easy to get lost in the cadence and diction of his beautiful language. His phrasing is surreal and poetic; in one of the strongest stories, Boo remembers his grandfather—who by this time has lost all speech— and imagines him as a shapeshifting werewolf, proud of his grandson: “His eyes are black as bayous… From his neck, an endless chain of zigzag teeth swing like a second jaw. He moves without caution and knows no taboo. He’d frighten any tataille into the woods, chase any pack of animals into the dark. He’d terrify the words out of any boys mouth, chew the mask off any villains face. Yet his breath is perfume.”

At times the writing is so fantastical that it is difficult to find a more grounded, emotional connection to the storytelling, but that does not take away from the power of these stories. Pousson wastes no word. Black Sheep Boy represents an entertaining and dazzling read, and serves as a heartfelt ode to those the author addresses in his dedication: the “odd ducks, strange birds, and queer fish” among us.

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A Will to Live: ‘Hotel Silence’ by Audur Ava Olafsdóttir

Hotel SilenceIcelandic novelist, playwright, and poet Audur Ava Olafsdóttir offers a bizarrely lighthearted and humorous –– yet nonetheless moving –– portrayal of suicide and post-war life in her latest novel, Hotel Silence (214 pages; Grove Press; translated by Brian FitzGibbon).

After a painful divorce and the discovery that his daughter is not his biological child, the middle-aged narrator, Jonas, determines to commit suicide. His next-door neighbor, a man preoccupied with issues of gender inequality and female suffering, unquestioningly lends him a rifle. But once Jonas realizes his daughter would likely be the one to discover his lifeless body, he instead buys a one-way ticket to a foreign country where he can complete the task alone. He packs minimally: “I pack for a corpse,” he declares, only bringing a few items, including his old diaries and his tool kit (in case the room has something that needs fixing or he needs to screw in a hook from which to hang himself).

Jonas travels to an unnamed city in an unnamed country, one recently destroyed by a similarly unnamed war, to stay at Hotel Silence. He is one of three guests, which both his taxi driver and the hotel’s owners, a young brother and sister, note is the most business the place has received since the end of hostilities. In fact, they hope that Jonas’s trip will mark an economic turning point for the city.

The citizens of this place can use the change in fortune. They have lost their homes, have been maimed, and have witnessed families torn apart. Jonas’s pain is entirely unlike what these people have faced, but Jonas’s mother makes a Tolstoy-esque point: “All suffering is unique and different…and therefore it can’t be compared. Happiness, on the other hand, is similar.” In other words, suffering cannot be quantified or ranked, but perhaps it can be approached in similar ways.

While at Hotel Silence, Jonas spends time reading his journals, which are largely fixated on the books he’s read and his past relationships with women. In one entry he writes: “Thanks for life, mom. Why not Dad? I thank Mom for giving birth to me and girls for sleeping with me. I’m a man who expresses gratitude.” While this sentiment may sound egotistical, Jones proves earnest. He is a man who is happy to help women, who appreciates the presence of women and the act of being of service to them. His interest in women seems to offer a welcome distraction from painful self-reflection: “How did I become me?” he thinks at one point, indicating a desire to achieve insight and to understand his failure to do so. Yet it is precisely this interest that ultimately convinces Jonas to give life a second chance.

He begins by doing small things around the hotel: he fixes closet doors and clears the sand out of showerheads. He later moves on to larger projects, like helping to build a home for a group of women in town so they can rebuild their lives. He assists the hotel’s owners (the sister happens to be a single mother) piece together a mosaic of nude women. The mosaic, of course, will never return to its original state, will always reveal the scars of its devastation. But like Jonas and the inhabitants of this war-ravaged city, much of its original beauty can be restored –– and as Olafsdóttir shows in her winning novel, it is a task worth attempting.

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Fringes of Despair: ‘Love’ by Hanne Ørstavik

LoveThe boldly and rather ironically named Love (125 pages; Archipelago Books), written by Norwegian author Hanne Ørstavik, was originally published in her native country in 1997. Twenty years later, it has now been translated into English by Martin Aitken and is being released in the United States by Archipelago Books, perhaps in part due to the steady demand here for dark, noir-like literature out of Scandinavia.

Exploring many opposing themes, including hope, disappointment, longing, and unrequited love, the novella tells the story of Vibeke and her young son, Jon, who have recently moved to a secluded town in the northern reaches of Norway. The action of the story takes place over the course of just one day as mother and son go off on their separate journeys. Ørstavik invites the readers into her two characters’ innermost thoughts, seamlessly switching back and forth between their perspectives— often within the same paragraph. Their stories unfold breathlessly close together on the page, suggesting the strong link between mother and son that Vibeke’s actions betray.

It is the day before Jon’s ninth birthday and he spends the majority of it by himself. He takes Vibeke’s absence to mean she is busy planning a special celebration for him, but as readers we know this isn’t true; her designs are much more self-involved.

Though it’s easier to be angry with Vibeke rather than sympathetic, her deep loneliness and insecurities are apparent. Her character proves selfish and single-minded: she doesn’t think about what it takes to be a good mother, she wants to find a man. To that end, she cares about being beautiful; her needs come before Jon’s. In contrast, Jon constantly thinks of his mother. He wonders where she is, what she’s doing, and fantasizes about his birthday cake and the train set he hopes to receive.

As their nights progress, a creeping sense of tragedy brews within the story. Vibeke spends her evening bar-hopping with a man she met at a traveling carnival, while Jon bounces from stranger to stranger, accepting their offers to stay warm. Though Love is only one hundred and twenty-five pages, its careful craft and beautiful details make it worth savoring—right to its haunting but inevitable conclusion.

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A Migration of Spirits: ‘Freshwater’ by Akwaeke Emezi

FreshwaterAkwaeke Emezi is a Tamil and Igbo writer from Nigeria who has received recognition for her short stories and creative nonfiction, as well as her work as an experimental video artist. With Freshwater (229 pages; Grove Press), she marks her first novel, an ambitious and original one at that. The book follows Ada, a young girl growing up in Nigeria, as she is both plagued and protected by a host of spirits that cohabitate her body and share her thoughts. Through beautiful and haunting prose, and through the different voices residing in Ada, we get a glimpse into her mind, a metaphysical space of “ọgbanje” (an Igbo term for a spirit that brings misfortune to a family by inhabiting the body of a child). Although Ada has been chosen by the god Ala to share her physical vessel with the gbanje, Emezi’s representation of her fractured mind proves surprisingly universal.

Freshwater begins with a narrator called “We,” a group of spirits who first exist in Ada’s mother’s body. “We” describe themselves as “the hatchlings, godlings, ọgbanje,” and act with indifference to the needs and interests of humans. The day they come into complete being is the day of Ada’s birth, “the day we died and were born.” Ada’s conception is explained by her father’s request for a daughter, which the god Ala answered. In doing so, Ada’s father opened a gate to the spirit world, summoning these entities into his family’s lives. When their little girl arrives, the happy parents name her Ada, meaning, “God answered.” “We” regards Ada from an observational perspective, but “We” and Ada often share the same desires, such as the need for blood, which they satisfy through Ada’s self-cutting.

Ada primarily shares her mind with “We” until she leaves Nigeria to attend university in Virginia. When Ada arrives, she is marked as prudish because of her disinterest in sex, telling her friends that she has made a vow of celibacy. But after her boyfriend sexually assaults her, a new ọgbanje appears—the licentious Asughara—whose purpose is to protect Ada by taking control of her whenever men are involved. Asughara adds an important depth to Emezi’s story, eliciting conflicting emotions. Ada and Asughara argue in the “marble room” of Ada’s mind and build a codependent relationship, leaving us to wonder if Asughara is protecting or harming Ada. Despite the uncertainty, one sighs with relief when Ada’s attempt to seek treatment from a therapist is thwarted because the therapist seems like an unwelcome third party who would create a wedge between Asughara and Ada. As “We” explains, the gods living in humans are inescapable; it is better to feed them than to ignore them.

Befitting a story about a fractured mind, the style of the novel is unconventional. Not only does Emezi write in multiple voices, but the story also progresses in a nonlinear fashion. Her writing compresses time and space—the past, future, and present moments in Ada’s life are ever-present, as are the places and people she visits. It begins with Ada’s birth, but once Ada reaches Virginia, the text moves back and forth in time, in ways that are often confusing. The organization of events is not without purpose, however. After the sexual assault, Asughara chronicles Ada’s adult life and often returns to the time before the assault and then far into the future. By doing this, Emezi reveals Ada and the gbanje in a way that resists an understanding of Ada as two separate selves: the Ada before the assault and Ada after. This pushes the young man who assaulted her out of the spotlight—we regard him as a negative influence in Ada’s life, but not as the key acting figure.

Ultimately, Emezi offers a perspective on mental illness that refuses categorization and diagnoses. Rather than characterizing Ada’s behaviors—her insatiable sexual appetite after being raped, her self-mutilation, alcoholism, and an eating disorder—as coping mechanisms or symptoms of mental illness, Emezi attributes them to conflicts between our spiritual and physical selves. She also refuses to portray the spirits that lead Ada to acts like self-harm as entirely malevolent. As she makes clear, Asughara and the other ọgbanje love Ada, and exist to protect her. (Often there’s the sense Ada should give herself up entirely to the ọgbanje, who, unlike Ada, cannot experience pain from the outside world.) With her brilliant novel, Emezi shows how the different aspects of our personality are often in conflict, and how that conflict can be inescapable.

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An Ideal Citizen: ‘The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea’ by Bandi

The AccusationThe cover of The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea (248 pages; Grove Press) boasts a brightly colored piece of North Korean propaganda featuring six luminous, smiling faces. The seven stories in the collection, however, offer something very different: heart-wrenching accounts of a brutal life inside the country’s borders.

The Accusation’s journey to publication is miraculous in itself. Its author, Bandi (a pseudonym meaning “firefly”), smuggled his manuscript out of the country with the help of a defecting family member. For more than four years, he secretly wrote the manuscript, entirely in pencil, and remains in North Korea where he serves as a member of the Chosun Writers League Central Committee, a state-funded writing organization. Bandi’s book represents the first published work to criticize the North Korean government written by someone still living in that country.

The stories in The Accusation center on the importance of one’s reputation in North Korea, and how quickly it can be ruined by rumors and accusations of one’s opposition to the government. In each story, the characters experience a longing to break free of the societal pressure that restricts their intimate relationships. “City of Specters” reveals the absurdity of how even the most minor acts of can earn someone the label of anti-revolutionary. In it, a mother who uses extra curtains to protect her sensitive child from seeing a poster of Karl Marx that frightens him is quickly marked as a threat; a civil servant explains to her how unique curtains could be seen as a signal to spies. And while the rigidity of the government’s demands is so bizarre as to be almost humorous, Bandi depicts how these demands place a barrier between people. One must choose between being a good citizen and being a good family member, and choosing the latter most often results in punishment.

In these stories we see the ways this fear makes North Korea into a country of trained actors; to simply survive, its citizens must repress their grief and anger, even in the face of lost loved ones, and produce exaggerated performances of mourning for the death of Kim Jong-il. The characters in this book smile through their physical and emotional pain, only calling on these hidden agonies when tears are necessary.

The final piece in the collection, titled “The Red Mushroom,” suggests the author’s self-contempt and dissatisfaction with his career. Bandi writes about a reporter who is commonly referred to as the “bullshit reporter” since his work only praises the government or spins stories to the point of fabrication. This is, of course, due to the severe limitations put on North Korean journalists. Like his protagonist, Bandi is a state-sanctioned writer who must acquiesce to political restraints on his writing. The story raises the question of what it means to be an artist of any kind in Bandi’s country or in any other totalitarian state. While the cast of The Accusation would likely argue that it means one must be a liar, Bandi’s work speaks to our irrepressible need for self-expression and drive to create art. His writing and characters prove magnetic; they are anything but the one-dimensional characters of North Korean propaganda.

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Future Shock: ‘The Transition’ by Luke Kennard

The TransitionWith frequent moments of insightful social commentary, Luke Kennard’s first novel, The Transition (328 pages; FSG), takes us to an exaggerated version of our current society—a dystopian world of recognizable stress.

Karl and Genevieve are both university-educated and hold decent jobs. Genevieve works as a teacher, and Karl has a dubious career as a fake product reviewer and ghostwriter for lazy college students who can afford his services. In the first few pages of the novel, we learn things have gotten to the point where the “average age of leaving the parental home drifted into the early forties.” At the same time, things such as male contraceptive implants, self-driving taxi cabs, and self-refilling refrigerators are common. Without the help of their parents to fall back on, Karl and Genevieve struggle and flail. In their early thirties, they still can’t afford to live alone — instead they rent a room in a shared house; having children remains out of the question. As rents keeps rising, Karl (secretly) opens up more credit accounts to pay for groceries, car repairs, and vacations they can’t afford. Whenever Karl complains about their lot in life, Genevieve reminds him that they are still wealthier and better off than ninety-seven percent of the world’s population.

To pay off some of his debt, Karl becomes involved in credit fraud and is ultimately caught. He is given an offer: go to jail for fifteen months, or participate in a pilot scheme called the Transition. After choosing the latter, he and Genevieve spend six months living with older mentors who guide them through concepts like employment, finances, relationships, and more. In other words: Adulting 101. The goal of the program is that by the end of their sentence, the couple will have paid off their debts and have enough money saved for a down payment on a house.

This too-good-to-be-true “Get Out of Jail Free Card” soon becomes a burden to Karl. He continues to land himself in trouble, and his relationship with Genevieve grows increasingly strained. Karl’s developing suspicion of the ill intentions of The Transition becomes the novel’s central conflict. Though Kennard expertly introduces new conflicts and builds suspense, there’s no dramatic conclusion to his story. In fact, the novel is consistently anticlimactic; just when you think there will be an aha! moment, Kennard adds another layer of complication and ambiguity. (Are the villains really villains or simply people looking out for themselves?) And each character is flawed in their unique ways.

The Transition is not as easily definable as a typical dystopian novel. Kennard writes cleverly about an unlivable economic climate, sprinkling instances of lovely nuance and truthful observation throughout. The novel never preaches or patronizes the reader. Instead, The Transition serves as a funny, fresh, and all too likely depiction of the future.

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Truth in a Glass: ‘The Wine Lover’s Daughter’ by Anne Fadiman

The Wine Lover's DaughterIn The Wine Lover’s Daughter: A Memoir (272 pages; FSG), Anne Fadiman, the author of Ex Libris, At Large and Small: Familiar Essays, and, most notably, her prize winning work of nonfiction, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, writes about her famous father, Clifton, or Kip, Fadiman. She centers her memoir, her first book in ten years, around her father’s love of wine, a love affair that begins on his first trip to Paris with an inexpensive bottle of white Graves.

Although Kip Fadiman’s love of wine was sincere—he found pleasure in the taste and complexities of wine, as well as an appreciation for its ability to enhance conversation—his daughter reveals that his interest was also tied to a desire to be as far removed as possible from his Jewish immigrant background. A self-described “meatball,” Kip Fadiman was born in 1904 to lower-middle class Eastern European immigrants in Brooklyn. Embarrassed by his parents and pedigree, he took great strides to “de-meatball” himself by reading through the Western canon, learning to speak impeccable English from his older brother (which later helped with his career as a radio host), putting himself through Columbia University, and, eventually, by becoming a leading wine connoisseur. Although he saw enormous success as a radio host for NBC’s Information Please, was editor-in-chief of Simon & Schuster before the age of 30, worked as a book critic for The New Yorker for ten years, and co-wrote the unofficial Bible of wine, The Joy of Wine, he always feared he would someday be exposed as a fraud or counterfeit.

Since he never got over feeling like an intruder to WASP culture, he worked to scrub himself of any Jewish identity, Fadiman writes, and was confounded to find later generations attempting to reclaim their Jewish roots. As she points out, wine fit in perfectly with his lifelong career of divorcing himself of his lineage – wine was civilized, civilizing, and decisively not Jewish. While her father’s embarrassment over his Jewish identity is at times troubling for a contemporary reader and for Fadiman herself, she reminds us, “I don’t have a clue what they were up against and never will.” Instead of attributing his attitude to denial and snobbery, she ascribes it to the culture that her father grew up in. This is the same culture that shaped his alma mater’s decision to pass on hiring him as a professor, claiming they had already reached their quota for Jewish professors in the department (which was at one)—a moment that made him perceive his incredibly successful professional life as a failure.

Fadiman’s writing remains polished, humorous, and approachable in The Wine Lover’s Daughter. Her love of language always shines through—in Ex Libris she discusses the Fadiman family’s joy for polysyllabic words and her father’s children’s book about a worm with an appetite for words like “zymurgy”—but her work never indulges itself to the point of requiring its readers to keep a dictionary at hand. The magnificence of her work is in her empathy for her subjects and her unwavering rationality. She never acquiesces to a reader’s impulse for her to judge her subjects or make a definitive statement that would ultimately prove reductive.

After years of trying to enjoy wine, the author finally confronts the fact that she will never love wine the way her father did. When she reaches this conclusion, she goes on a trek to find some biological reason for her distaste. At first, this chapter seems like a distraction, one that detracts from the otherwise magnificent account of the father and his relationship with his daughter. Yet, by the end, one is reminded of Fadiman’s skill as a writer. What made her book The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down such a great success was her refusal to succumb to easy answers. She wrote with empathy for both the Western doctors and the Hmong families as they struggled over the (eventually) failed medical treatment of a young Lao girl in Merced, California. Here, she again refuses to see the world in simple terms. The answer is not found in her and her father’s different biological reactions to wine, but in their rich, yet dissimilar histories. She recognizes that her father’s love of wine could not be separated from the romance of his first experience with the white Graves and his longing to reinvent himself.

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Violence and Consequences on the Fringes of Society: ‘In the Cage’ by Kevin Hardcastle

In the CageWith In the Cage (309 pages; Biblioasis), Kevin Hardcastle drops the rural noir genre into the ring of literary fiction. Hardcastle, winner of the Trillium Book Award and ReLit Award for Short Fiction, has created a novel where crime fiction and the literary tradition occupy the same space. In the Cage tells the story of conflicted characters with complex relationships navigating violence and its consequences against the morally gray backdrop of remote Saskatchewan.

Daniel is a caring but stoic husband and father whose mixed martial arts career ended twelve years earlier with a detached retina. He and his wife now live in near-poverty with their daughter. Unable to find steady work, Daniel moonlights as hired muscle for a local gangster. When a money collection gig turns more brutal than delivering one-two punches, Daniel grapples with the true cost of the path he’s chosen to provide for his family. Returning to the gym gives him distance and sanctuary from his problems, but his time spent training is overshadowed by the presence of a chilling, pale-eyed villain whose sadism intimidates even the most hardened criminals.

What’s perhaps most notable about In the Cage is its unflinching look at the destructiveness of violence. Hardcastle’s descriptions are clinical yet shocking. A shotgun blast erupts and “One part of the man flew skewered with rib-bone.” Punches flatten noses. A throat is slashed and “it seemed like all he had in him had exited the body through that cut.” Hardcastle’s descriptions are free of gusto and provide just enough detail for them to act like a chokehold on the reader.

The author is clearly knowledgeable in the area of mixed martial arts. During Daniel’s training and fight scenes, the various punches, kicks, and submission holds are elaborated on with enough sensory detail that even readers unfamiliar with blood sport will be able to feel them. These sequences serve double duty, providing just as much insight into the characters as into their fighting ability. Daniel’s interior and the expression of his will are narrated with deceivingly simple, Hemingway-esque prose. “Blood and sweat sprayed the canvas and their feet atop it,” for example, or when Daniel kicks a heavy bag in his basement, Hardcastle describes the sound like “a nail being hammered into the hollows of the place.”

The remote Canadian setting evokes the hardships of rural, working-class life. Daniel and his family live in a perpetually cold, blue-collar necropolis of rust and poverty. His worksite is, “Acre upon acre of frozen ground with muddied swaths in the white.” And in my favorite line of the novel, we read, “There he thumped the gas pedal and the tires threw broken chips of brittle tarmac as he went townward through cold and lightless country.” With passages such as these, one not only feels the mood of desolation but also a hushed metaphysical horror akin to Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.

Apart from the carnage, In the Cage is also a touching, multi-generational reflection on family values. Some of the best scenes feature Daniel’s elderly neighbors, Murray and Ella. Their kindness and moral expectations serve as prescient warnings to Daniel in a place where poor choices are paid for dearly. Even so, readers are likely to sense Daniel won’t heed his neighbors’ warnings, and that the novel’s bloody denouement will not end with a knockout.

Genre fiction is often criticized for its recurring tropes and boilerplate plots, but Kevin Hardcastle’s novel proves otherwise. In the Cage is both fresh and haunting. It is a novel of grace and brutality, and the balance between them.

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Writing History: ‘We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy’ by Ta-Nehisi Coates

We Were Eight Years in PowerTa-Nehisi Coates will be the first to tell you that his road to becoming a celebrated essayist, author, and staff writer at The Atlantic began with failure. Failure to keep a job. Failure to graduate college. Failure to write exactly what he felt needed to be said. So begins his recent essay collection, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy (Random House, 367), which, contrary to Coates’ inauspicious start, cements his reputation as a gifted, iconoclastic writer and serves as required reading for anyone concerned about how, and when, black lives have (not) mattered in American history. The book is separated into eight parts, one for every year of Barack Obama’s presidency. Each section contains a present-day self-reflection and a look at the goings-on of that particular year, followed by an original essay by Coates previously published in The Atlantic.

The collection, in an attempt to quickly capitalize on Coates’s spotlight, could have been a lazy mix of vague recollection of events and re-presentation of previous work. Not so. These prior essays are so richly written they reward a second (and third, and fourth) read. His arguments–on mass incarceration, studying the Civil War, etc.– have not lost their initial force, and in fact have been invigorated by the current political maelstrom we find ourselves in. Additionally, the commentaries preceding each essay are remarkable essays in themselves. Coates uses them to re-evaluate the successes and failures of his work, to add cultural and personal context to each piece, and to reflect meaningfully on the directions he and his country have gone. There is no fluff or languorous storytelling here. The chance to publicly, rigorously question and explain one’s previous work is a gift few writers are ever granted, and Coates does not waste the opportunity.

The highlight of the collection is the essay that first brought Coates to national prominence: “The Case for Reparations,” a feature article published in The Atlantic in June 2014. While none of the other essays are weak links in any sense of the term, “Reparations” can and should always stand above the rest, for its taboo subject matter and sheer moral certainty if nothing else. The idea of the US government paying reparations to black citizens for slavery is “a wildly impractical solution” to some, as Coates admits he once believed, if not an absolutely laughable one to others. Coates is a patient writer, a rarity in the twenty-four hour news cycle of hot takes, and the persuasiveness of his arguments is burnished as a result. He never bows to lowered expectations when he finds the fire in his argument, nor sacrifices seeing the forest for finding each tree. The rise and flow of each essay isn’t truncated to serve the smaller anecdotes that form the emotional core of his book, but works with them to create a genuine portrait of black lives in America.

We Were Eight Years in Power also demonstrates how incredibly well researched his work is. Somehow, Coates tells readers, white and black, facts we didn’t know (for example, that black families making six figures often live in neighborhoods where white family incomes are near the poverty line) and re-frames facts we did know (such as the tenuous class mobility of black families) creating arguments that are both unsurprising and shocking. We have always known that racism affects homeownership, but many of us have overlooked the participation of the U.S. government and viciousness of white property owners in creating that reality. Coates will not let us look away any longer.

He writes philosophically and thinks historically, without obscuring our current moment in time. When he writes, “The need for purpose and community, for mission, is human…It is that search [for meaning] that bedeviled the eight years of power,” Coates sees what many do not—that though we have only our own eyes and ears to experience the world with, our personal developments are part of the history we come from. Coates life growing up black in Baltimore is his own. No one else can account for what he did and saw. However, those experiences are not divorced from what happened in New England colonies in the 17th century, or at Gettysburg in 1863, or in the streets of contemporary Compton. Coates weaves all these threads together as though they were never separated at all, never sacrificing each component’s singular character.

Reading and re-reading Ta-Nehisi Coates is a special experience. Writers frequently pride themselves on making the act of choosing each word seem effortless, invisible. Yet Coates chooses to keep the curtain up, all too frequently reminding his readers that he still feels like an imposter–a black Howard University dropout working at The Atlantic?–and that he has been making it up as he goes for a very long time. All work worth doing is done painstakingly, but Coates’ honesty about the difficulties of thinking and writing intellectually is startling. His forthrightness actually makes the book more difficult to criticize, since he admits his own mistakes so plainly it leaves very few for the rest of us to find. This collection is a worthwhile read for its breadth, academic rigor, and shattering prose, but it deserves special attention for its self-portrait of a black writer finding his way. Every American should read this because Coates so effectively challenges our mythologies and assumptions with real data and human stories. But every writer should read it because nowhere else will a writer ever be so brutally forthright about the (political) struggle of writing itself.

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