A Legacy Lost and Recovered: ‘Memento Park’ by Mark Sarvas

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A decade after the publication of his first novel, Harry, Revised, Mark Sarvas returns with Memento Park (288 pages; FSG), the chronicle of one first-generation Hungarian American’s journey to retrieve a family painting believed to have been looted by the Nazis. The protagonist, Matt Santos, is an aspiring actor and current background extra living in L.A. at the tail-end of his thirties when he receives a strange call from the Australian Embassy concerning a painting from their database of unclaimed war paintings: the fictional “Budapest Street Scene” by tortured artist Erwin Kàlmàn. The piece belonged to Matt’s family in Hungary during the […]

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The Psychic Toll: ‘Moon Brow’ by Shahriar Mandanipour

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A quick summary of Moon Brow (464 pages; Restless Books; translated by Sara Khalili), Shahriar Mandanipour’s newest novel to be translated into English, reads like the stuff of fable. Our main character, Amir Yamini, returns from the Iran-Iraq War saddled with amnesia and bereft of his left arm. Ostracized from his family and community as a head case, crippled by shrapnel, he is repeatedly haunted by the image and piecemeal memories of a beloved. With the help of his sister, Reyhaneh, he searches Tehran for signs of his past, and potentially for the love he no longer recalls, save only in his […]

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Takeoffs and Landings: ‘Blue Self-Portrait’ by Noémi Lefebvre

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Air travel has long been depicted in fiction as a venue for potential transition and transformation (even if only metaphorical); we take off from one place and land in another, and there is no guarantee we will be the same person upon our arrival—no telling what chance encounter may occur on our flight or what dreamy epiphany those long hours might inspire. Blue Self–Portrait (143 pages; translated by Sophia Lewis; Transit Books), a 2009 first novel by French author Noémi Lefebvre, occupies this same liminal space; the entire book unfolds during a plane trip from Berlin to Paris, as our unnamed […]

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Catching Up with Good Things: ‘The Luck of Friendship—The Letters of Tennessee Willams and James Laughlin’

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“The past is never dead,’’ as Faulkner memorably put it. “It’s not even past.’’ But the mutability of literary fashion continues to be regrettable. A new collection, The Luck of Friendship—The Letters of Tennessee Willams and James Laughlin (392 pages; Norton), reminds us of the importance of respecting the Muse (regardless of reviews), the seeming bygone virtues of literary mentorship, and the need to cast aside judgement to make way for love. Tactfully edited by Peggy Fox and Thomas Keith, Laughlin’s longtime associates at New Directions, the avant-garde publishing house he founded, it presents a little-seen side of the playwright. […]

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A Culling of Foxes: ‘Happiness’ by Aminatta Forna

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In Happiness (368 pages; Atlantic Monthly Press), novelist and memoirist Aminatta Forna takes the reader into a caravan of events that starts in contemporary London, where Attila, a Ghanian psychologist whose field study specializes in war refugees, in between “going to see plays and eating in fine restaurants,” feels as if he’s living on “a stage set, whose denizens enacted their lives against its magnificent backdrop. A theatre of delights, where nothing surely could go wrong, and if it did, all would be put right by the end of the third act.” On Waterloo Bridge one day, he bumps into […]

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

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George 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 […]

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

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T.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 […]

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

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“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 […]

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The Symphony of Life: ‘Hybrid Creatures’ by Matthew Baker

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Matthew Baker’s characters nurture obsessions. In his story collection Hybrid Creatures (126 pages; Louisiana State University Press), each of his protagonists carries a passion for a particular field, whether it’s mathematics or music, to the point that their fixations bleed through into the text of their stories. The narrator of “Movements” is so buoyed by his love of the symphony he can’t wake up to a morning cityscape in Nashville without experiencing it in musical terms: “…a shopkeeper in cowboy boots heaved a security shutter up with a crash {piano}, somewhere a jackhammer was slugging {mezzo-forte} pavement, a sheet of […]

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Adrift and at Peace: ‘A Good Day for Seppuku’ by Kate Braverman

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Fiction writer and poet Kate Braverman began her acclaimed career with 1979’s Lithium for Medea, a bildungsroman about a young woman struggling with cocaine addiction and a trying relationship with her family. Since that time, Braverman has collected numerous accolades, including Best American Short Story and O. Henry awards, a Graywolf Press nonfiction prize, and being named a San Francisco Public Library Laureate. Four decades into her career, she shows no signs of slowing down her creative output, and returns with her latest story collection, A Good Day For Seppuku (192 pages; City Lights Books). Here Braverman depicts characters in […]

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

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Author 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 […]

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

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Icelandic 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 […]

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