Coming Out of ‘Sleep’ and Back with ‘Rage’: Q&A with Adam Mansbach

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As a novelist, Adam Mansbach had been doing all right. His Angry Black White Boy (Broadway) was named a best book of 2005 by the San Francisco Chronicle, and The End of the Jews (Spiegel & Grau) won a 2008 California Book Award. And although Mansbach now considers it among the fond embarrassments of his youth, even his 2002 debut, Shackling Water (Anchor), was good enough for Library Journal to liken him to James Baldwin. So it seemed like the last thing Mansbach needed to do was swerve into new literary territory, particularly the limited realm of children’s books which […]

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Dignity at the Mercy of a Ruined Economy: Hans Keilson’s ‘Life Goes On’

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Originally published in 1933, Hans Keilson’s recently translated first novel, Life Goes On (Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 255 pages; translated by Damion Searls), is a gripping story of a family living in post-World War I Germany. Keilson’s autobiographical novel, which came out when he was only twenty-three, is a striking exploration of struggle, shame, and hope, and what it means to live. Life Goes On follows the lives of the Seldersens as they face the economic turbulence sweeping Germany. Herr Seldersen, a veteran of the Great War, runs a small shop with his wife. Even as they try to make […]

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Brazil’s Complex Past, Recounted from a Deathbed: Chico Buarque’s ‘Spilt Milk’

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Musician and author Chico Buarque came of age with the installment of a brutal military dictatorship in Brazil, one that was to last for more than twenty years until it toppled in 1985. A pioneer and experimenter within bossa nova, Buarque wrote subtle lyrics protesting the regime’s violent suppression of dissidents, songs that made it into his country’s popular consciousness. To this day Buarque is regarded in Brazil as a vital cultural stalwart, an artist who, since the early ‘60s, continues to examine his country and instill large social change. His most recent novel, Spilt Milk (Grove/Atlantic, 177 pages, translated […]

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An Alternative Universe, One Where Her Son Still Lives: J. Robert Lennon’s ‘Familiar’

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Somewhere on an Ohio interstate, where bored drivers can be counted on to whiz past the paranormal events happening in a middle-aged woman’s Honda, a crack in Elisa Brown’s windshield transports her from one brief, thirteen-page-long reality—of facts and blunt tragedy—to another. She finds her fingers gripping a different steering wheel, her toes jammed inside pumps instead of her usual sneakers, a husband who actually calls to see when she’ll arrive home, and, in place of her once bony frame, a plumper one that hasn’t suffered the death of her youngest son, Silas. J. Robert Lennon’s new novel, Familiar (Graywolf […]

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A Publishing World Gone Beastly: Howard Jacobson’s ‘Zoo Time’

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Guy Ableman fixates on Amazon.com the way that he fixates on the runaway success of “The Girl Who Ate Her Own Placenta,” or on his mother-in-law, or his wife, or monkeys – with a gleeful sort of disgust. The protagonist, if you can call him that, of Howard Jacobson’s new novel, Zoo Time (Bloomsbury, 376 pages), is nothing short of feral. “Feral!,” Guy exclaims upon described as such. “From the Latin for an unruly beast. Guy Feral. Feral Guy.” These, however, are feral times. The publishing industry has, in Guy’s view, dissolved and reconstituted itself into a gelatinous mass of […]

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A Program for Fulfillment: Scott Hutchins’s ‘A Working Theory of Love’

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Scott Hutchins’s first novel, A Working Theory of Love (The Penguin Press, 328 pages), is a refreshing exploration of how the many relationships every person has can shape who we are. It is a reflection on failure, fear, grief, hope, and, of course, love. Lovers, friends, family, coworkers, and even the city in which one lives: Hutchins demonstrates what these connections can mean in our search for fulfillment. Neill Bassett Jr., a San Franciscan divorcee, is trapped in “the doldrums of physical isolation,” stuck in a dull cycle of unsatisfying bachelor routines and a Silicon Valley job. He works at […]

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A Paperboy Finding His Way Out of Bleakness: Per Petterson’s ‘It’s Fine By Me’

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The Norway of Per Petterson’s newly translated 1992 novel, It’s Fine By Me (Graywolf; 199 pages; translated by Don Bartlett), will be familiar to readers of his 2007 bestseller, Out Stealing Horses. It is a country marked by pervasive solitude and backbreaking work, by deeply buried familial troubles and the quiet, occasional help of strangers. In 1970s Oslo, young paperboy Audun Sletten prides himself on his checked pants and ubiquitous sunglasses. The latter provides him distance from the surrounding bleakness: alcoholism runs rampant (most notably evident in Audun’s absent father), and death seems close (his younger brother, we learn, fatally […]

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Beauty Amid a Community’s Pain: Susan Straight’s ‘Between Heaven and Here’

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Between Heaven and Here (McSweeney’s, 232 pages), the capstone of novelist Susan Straight’s Rio Seco trilogy, is set in Sarrat, a Southern California community as economically bone-dry as the creek separating it from Rio Seco. It is in Sarrat where a band of Louisianan refugees, their banter laced with Creole and their memories peppered with sugarcane, sharecropping, and floods, has taken root. And it is in Sarrat, with its fruit pickers and prostitutes, where one of that Creole community’s most beautiful members, Glorette Picard, is murdered. Straight has created a portrait of a city immediately familiar to anyone versed in […]

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An Iraq Vet and the Weight of War: Kevin Powers’s ‘The Yellow Birds’

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Those of us who have not experienced the pains of war can never claim to understand them, but Kevin Powers’s first novel, The Yellow Birds (Little, Brown; 240 pages), gives its readers a poignant glimpse. Powers, a poet and a veteran, takes us in medias res to Al Tafar, Iraq, and into the life of then-twenty-one-year-old Private John Bartle. Matching the novel’s form with its chaotic content, Powers takes us in and out of scenes from Bartle’s life between 2004 and 2009, spanning the before, during, and after of this one soldier’s war experience. Powers’s weaving of these moments masterfully […]

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Struggling to Survive, Not to Please: Thomas Cobb’s ‘With Blood in Their Eyes’

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In his latest book, With Blood in Their Eyes (University of Arizona Press, 210 pages), novelist Thomas Cobb’s roster of main characters is small: brothers John and Tom Power, hired man Tom Sisson, and the two festering eyeballs of the title. Framing a real-life 1918 Arizona standoff between the Powers and the law within a much larger exploration of Southwestern societal change, Cobb (whose novel Crazy Heart was turned into a critically acclaimed movie starring Jeff Bridges) crafts a breathless escape story and stops just short of the historical record’s unhappy ending. Years before the shootout that would leave them […]

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Finding the Sacred in Life on the Calle: ‘Girlchild’ by Tupelo Hassman

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The first thing to be understood about Tupelo Hassman’s debut novel, Girlchild, is that the young protagonist, Rory Dawn Hendrix, is alone. This is not only evidenced in her isolation: living in Reno’s Calle de las Flores trailer park, her general lack of school friends, or the way her poverty is treated coolly by government officials. Rory Dawn’s aloneness comes off in her fearless narration, the way she wanders off unaided into unknown places, to be followed by the adventurous reader. Rory approaches everything familiar with caution. The Calle is her home, but it doesn’t offer the comfort or the […]

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An Emphatic Vision That Sees Beyond the Stars: Louis B. Jones’ ‘Radiance’

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“This was a city of the world, a profound city, an endless city,” reflects Mark Perdue, the narrator and protagonist of Louis B. Jones’ latest novel, Radiance (Counterpoint; 240 pages), as he contemplates the unfamiliar surroundings of Los Angeles. The departure from Jones’ home turf of Terra Linda and Berkeley — ground zero for his previous novel, Particles and Luck, also featuring Perdue, and his alarmingly excellent first novel, Ordinary Money — is salutary, and disturbing, for the author and his invented worlds. In the new book, Perdue, a physics prof at UC Berkeley with a fading career that may be […]

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