‘Barn 8’ by Deb Olin Unferth: A Comically Extreme Heist

by Zack Ravas

The premise of Deb Olin Unferth’s latest novel, Barn 8 (252 pages; Graywolf Press), involves the heist of a comically extreme number of chickens—yet to label the novel a mere comedy would be tantamount to calling Kurt Vonnegut a “humor writer.” Sure, the book is funny, quite funny, but it is much more. Unferth is tackling, with great wit and technical skill, topics as pressing as Big Agriculture, the humane treatment of animals, and the impossibility of maintaining ideological purity in any social movement. The reality is that Americans love eggs: free range or not, we will eat as many […]

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‘Suicide Woods’ by Benjamin Percy: A Horror that’s Close to Home

by Zack Ravas

Benjamin Percy is a writer who understands that, in the twenty-first century, the scariest thing to many readers is not the supernatural or threats from beyond the grave, but something altogether closer to home: real estate. His latest release, Suicide Woods (192 pages; Graywolf Press), collects a variety of stories culled from the last decade of Percy’s career. The book covers a number of subjects and genres, including the uncanny, from “The Dummy’s” tale of a wrestling practice dummy that may or may not be imbued with life, to the titular story’s account of a group of depressed individuals who […]

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‘Space Invaders’ by Nona Fernández: Mutations of Reality

by Lindsey Pannor

To replicate child-like bewilderment rather than to simply retell it is an enviable feat—one that Nona Fernández masters in Space Invaders (88 pages; Graywolf Press; translated by Natasha Wimmer). Bordering on autofiction, the short novel calls upon Fernández’s childhood in Chilé in the ’80s during the turmoil surrounding dictator Pinochet’s unseating, and looks at how those times pervade the lives of the fifth-graders who center the story, and manifest in unexpected and devastating ways. The young community faces police brutality and various other traumas, culminating in the disappearance of Estrella—a well-loved peer who vanishes without explanation. The story is primarily […]

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‘In the Dream House’ by Carmen Maria Machado: No Mere Confessional

by Sophia Stewart

Carmen Maria Machado’s new book, In the Dream House (264 pages; Graywolf Press), begins with a statement of intention. Machado, the author of the acclaimed story collection Her Body and Other Parties, tells us she has written a memoir to add her story of queer domestic violence to the catalog of contemporary literature: “I enter into the archive that domestic abuse between partners who share a gender identity is both possible and not uncommon,” she writes, “and that it can look something like this.” Depictions of intimate partner violence between women have been largely left out of our collective culture, […]

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‘Love and I’ by Fanny Howe: A Meander through a Singular Mind

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Fanny Howe prefers to be alone—perhaps that’s what makes her such a perceptive poet. In her latest collection, Love and I (80 pages; Graywolf Press), the fruits of Howe’s solitude are on full display. Howe is introspective, curious, and content when she is by herself. Many of the poems in Love and I celebrate the comforts of being alone: I’ll sit at the window Where it’s safe to say no. Won’t go out, won’t work For a living, will study the clouds Becoming snow. That’s not to say Howe doesn’t grapple with the aches of loneliness as well: “Someone help […]

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‘The Wind That Lays Waste’ by Selva Almada: A Long and Humid Afternoon

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A devoted man of God and his sullen teenage daughter are on the road to a church in a remote village when their car breaks down. They soon find themselves at the mercy of a grizzled mechanic who has sworn off religion and runs a garage alongside his wide-eyed son. Though the setting may be Argentina, the setup for Selva Almada’s latest novel, The Wind That Lays Waste (124 pages; Graywolf Press; translated by Chris Andrews), feels as though it could be plucked from the pages of revered Southern author Flannery O’Connor. But while Almada shares some of O’Connor’s subject […]

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‘Lanny’ by Max Porter: A Farewell to Childhood Innocence

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In came the sound of a song, warm on his creaturely breath, and he snuggled up against me, climbing up on my lap, wrapping himself up around my neck. So begins Lanny (216 pages; Graywolf Press), the latest novel by Max Porter, author of Grief Is the Thing with Feathers. Lanny takes place in a village outside of London, where there lives a being known as Dead Papa Toothwort—a formerly mythic figure among the townspeople, now reduced to a popular Halloween costume and a warning for schoolchildren. After napping for an indeterminate amount of time, Dead Papa Toothwort wakes at dusk […]

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‘Trump Sky Alpha’ by Mark Doten: President Troll

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For many Americans, the phrase “The Man with His Finger on the Button” has never registered as so ominous and disturbing as with a President as ill-tempered and braggadocios as Donald Trump in the White House. As Mark Doten’s latest novel, Trump Sky Alpha (288 pages; Graywolf Press), opens, those fears are realized when a crippling cyber-attack on America’s infrastructure prompts President Trump to unleash the country’s nuclear arsenal upon its perceived enemies. “The loss of life, it’s always tragic,” Trump intones from his massive zeppelin-like fortress, the titular Trump Sky Alpha. “But it’s been incredible. The results that we’ve […]

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The Pain Hard to Name: Q&A with ‘Swallowed by the Cold’ Author Jensen Beach

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The stories in Jensen Beach’s second story collection, Swallowed by the Cold (208 pages; Graywolf Press), demonstrate again and again that self-destruction doesn’t happen in a vacuum. In “Kino,” we meet a young man named Oskar who swears he intended to torch just his own boat, but who ended up setting fire to an entire marina. Oskar happens to work at what seems to be a gay brothel called Kino Club, which an uptight man named Martin frequents. The two encounter each other at a party where Martin’s wife, Louise, gets too drunk. Suffering under the weight of Martin’s self-denial, […]

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The Persistent Strangeness of the Ordinary: ‘See You in Paradise’ by J. Robert Lennon

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Compiled from fifteen years of work, the stories in J. Robert Lennon’s new book, See You in Paradise (Graywolf Press; 256 pages) dwell on quotidian fears and dissatisfaction and on the strange nature of contemporary American life in modern suburbia, which can be found here in run-down mountain communities, lakeside cabins, and college towns. In this collection, ordinary people find themselves straddling mundane reality and its bizarre or magical undercurrents. Drawing elements from science fiction, horror, and the surreal, several of Lennon’s stories manifest these undercurrents in more literal ways than others. But the disaffection of their characters, the often […]

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Living With Others and the Earth: ‘Ask Me: 100 Essential Poems of William Stafford’

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“Ask me whether / what I’ve done is my life,” writes William Stafford in the title poem of the recently released Ask Me: 100 Essential Poems (Graywolf Press; 128 pages). Published a century after his birth and twenty-one years after his death, the new collection includes 100 of Stafford’s “essential poems,” anthologized and introduced by his son, Kim. These poems repeatedly pose questions of individual and collective identity, challenging those false equivalences between our behaviors and our selves, and positing alternative relationships between the personal and political, the poetic and the vernacular. Ask Me suggests that Stafford’s life is larger […]

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A Cult Built Out of Anguish and Desolation: Fiona Maazel’s ‘Woke Up Lonely’

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Woke Up Lonely (Graywolf Press, 336 pages), the new novel from author Fiona Maazel (Last Last Chance), is an imaginative thriller about a cult leader and the ex-wife in charge of spying on him. By balancing humorous adventures with an indictment of our modern world, in which solitude reigns despite all the new methods of communication, Maazel delivers a wild read teeming with emotion. Thurlow Dan is the founder of the Helix, a cult based on the principle that lonely people need someone with whom they can share their feelings. At the start of the novel, the Helix has grown […]

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