Food and Work, Love and Death: Daniel Orozco’s ‘Orientation and Other Stories’

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Back in the mid-‘90s, Story (the late and lamented journal dedicated to short fiction) published an arresting work by Daniel Orozco titled “The Bridge.” A young man joins the veteran crew responsible for maintaining the Golden Gate Bridge. The older guys, all of whom go by nicknames, decide to call the new guy Baby. As Orozco gracefully settles us into this unfamiliar world of risky if unglamorous work, something happens to Baby: “He spots the trouble right away, at the east end, just over his head – a section of hose hung up between the power line and the scaffold […]

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Stories of Sex and Intrigue: Robert Gottlieb’s ‘Lives and Letters’

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While a good number of undying cultural giants (Harry Houdini, Judy Garland, Charles Dickens) receive coverage in Lives and Letters (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 426 pages), Robert Gottlieb’s collection of biographical profiles largely takes up the lives of once household names and worldwide phenomena who, for one reason or another, failed to achieve lasting impact beyond their generation. Douglas Fairbanks, Minou Drouet, anyone? Indeed, many generations have passed since the heyday of most of Gottlieb’s subjects (the median cultural peak is somewhere around 1930, with Princess Diana and Scott Peterson being the only real “household names” of the 21st century). […]

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A Beautiful Excuse for Rumination: César Aira’s ‘The Seamstress and the Wind’

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César Aira’s The Seamstress and the Wind (New Directions; 144 pages), translated by Rosalie Knecht, is simultaneously minimalist and epic. Aira’s voice is clear, his characters are palpable, and his ideas — elucidations on literary theory, existential ruminations, and thought experiments — are evocative and infectious. The story, which concerns a seamstress and her husband who travel the Patagonia desert in pursuit of their accidentally kidnapped son, careens with each chapter at dizzying speed. Seamstress might be thought confusing and possibly incomplete, because the story’s inciting incident — the kidnapped child — goes completely unresolved, even forgotten by the seamstress […]

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How the Desert Got There: David Rains Wallace’s ‘Chuckwalla Land’

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David Rains Wallace admits that for years he never really noticed California’s dry, empty spaces. It wasn’t until 1983, when writing about a Central Valley riparian woodland on the Kern River, that his attitude shifted from indifference to curiosity. Prior to that, whenever the award-winning nature writer found himself crossing California’s deserts he dismissed what he saw as an enormous vacant lot rather than a living landscape. In Chuckwalla Land: The Riddle of the California Desert (280 pages; UC Press), he explains this transformation. Wallace’s revamped attitude toward the desert and its denizens took shape during a serendipitous side trip […]

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Ruins of the Real: Inger Christensen’s ‘Light,’ ‘Grass,’ and ‘Letter in April’

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Reading the late Inger Christensen’s poetry collections Light, Grass, and Letter In April (New Directions; 148 pages), as translated by Susanna Nied, is akin to stepping into a river of deceptive depth. The long-celebrated Danish poet doesn’t parade with fanfare the complexity of her work. (The first poem in Light is just six lines.) Yet progressing through these poems, a strong, invisible current pulls on the reader with gathering strength. With a plaintive tone easy to underestimate, Christensen allows her algorithmic language to work as a sort of vortex that warps one’s perception of reality. In Nied’s crystalline translation of […]

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Fever Dreams: Roberto Bolaño’s ‘Between Parentheses’

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It’s a little embarrassing to recognize, when reading Between Parentheses (New Directions; 352 pages) — a collection of Roberto Bolaño’s essays, speeches and newspaper columns, translated by Natasha Wimmer — not only how little one knows of Spanish-language literature, but how much more Bolaño knew of English-language and European literature. Yes, he was on intimate terms with Poe (who could be seen as Borges’ older brother from Baltimore — and Borges, writes Bolaño, “is or should be at the center of our canon”), but he could speak with equal authority on ancient Greek epic poetry, Provençal troubadours, and Snorri’s Edda. […]

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Seth Fried’s ‘The Great Frustration’: Alternate Realities and Bloody Allegories

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In Seth Fried’s The Great Frustration (Soft Skull Press; 192 pages), strangeness and morbidity are the rules, not the exceptions. Through a pastiche of bizarre worlds and landscapes separated by only one or two degrees from our own (which is, of course, already thoroughly frightening) Fried fashions telling scenarios and the nightmarish half-realities in which they occur. Deftly evoking a familiarity before diving into fantastical realms, the stories in this collection exhibit a surprising wealth of ideas belied by Fried’s spare prose. “Frost Mountain Picnic Massacre,” a paralyzing allegory of modern-day groupthink, brings into plain view the ubiquity of violence […]

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And You Shall Know Patrick deWitt’s Western by the Trail of Dead

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Early on in Patrick deWitt’s new novel, The Sisters Brothers (Ecco/HarperCollins; 328 pages), a grotesque old woman strings beads onto a piece of wire as the book’s titular brothers, Eli and Charlie Sisters, watch from across the room. Having taken refuge in her eerie cabin, they are repulsed by the “long gray hairs quivering from her chin” and the way her dented skull “caves in like an old piece of fruit.” When the brothers awake the next morning, the witch has left, but the beads have been fixed above the cabin door. Determining them to be an evil spell, Eli and […]

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Gladly Going Anywhere Crosley’s Witty Voice Wishes to Take Us

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In a recent interview with FiveBooks, Woody Allen lamented the current scarcity of outlets for comic writing in the grand tradition of James Thurber and Dorothy Parker. It’s an absence most readers may not usually feel until, that is, we run into a snort out-loud, serio-comic, utterly enthralling collection of essays by Sloane Crosley. At which point we have to ask, How have we managed without a weekly dose, and where can we find more? Crosley’s second book of essays, How Did You Get This Number (now available in paperback), picks up on some of the themes (life in Manhattan, […]

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Francine Prose and the Crushing, Comic Discontent of American Life

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As My New American Life (HarperCollins, 306 pages) opens, twenty-six-year-old Lula stares out the window of the suburban New Jersey home where she works as a nanny, waiting without much hope for something, anything, to happen. If life was simple and humans were well-engineered for happiness, Lula might well be content. Yet she’s miserable. It’s not only because Lula is far from her home in Albania and without friends or anybody who shares her history that’s she’s unhappy. In Francine Prose’s new novel, it’s because Lula has begun to experience a uniquely American mode of discontent. Lula has left her […]

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Into the Mainstream: An Essay From the American Book Review

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“We” — meaning Chicanos, Mexican Americans — “are constantly on the lookout for bits of recognition that tell us someone has noticed that we really do exist, not just as a backdrop for immigration policy discussion, or as another of the tourist attractions of the Southwest, but as an active part of American Culture.” In his introduction to the March/April American Book Review, guest editor Ricardo Gilb explains that this special issue focusing on “The Latino West” is “a celebration of Mexican American writing as it exists right now.” There are contributions here from Yxta Maya Murray, Michael Jaime-Becerra, Dagoberto […]

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Deb Olin Unferth’s ‘Revolution’ and the Costs of Memoir

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Save some long-mothballed, early twentieth-century avant-garde movements, memoir may be the only literary genre requiring a statement of principles. This applies to readers and writers alike. Do you expect a memoirist to show perfect recall, to reconstruct a past with vividly described environments, clear dialogue, and novelistic scenes? Or do you want a memoirist to admit the fallibility of her memory? Perhaps in an introductory preface, and to confess that some scenes, characters, and timelines may be elided, compressed, combined — i.e., do you mind if she makes things up, as long as it’s in the service of a good […]

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