Fiction Review: “All the Birds, Singing” by Evie Wyld

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Evie Wyld’s second novel, “All the Birds, Singing” throbs with an undercurrent of violence. The first sentence describes a dead sheep, “vapors rising from her like a steamed pudding.” The protagonist bears a horribly scarred back, and she’s deeply afraid. Jake Whyte, “arm in a sling, looking like a lesbian or a hippy or something,” is not an especially likable character. She’s gruff, aggressive, unfriendly and frightened, but she’s strong and resourceful, too. Wyld tells her story forward and backward. Every other chapter is told from the perspective of either the older Jake or the younger. The older lives in England, on her own sheep farm. Her story is told forward. The younger Jake’s story is told in reverse. She works as a shearer in Australia. The structure might sound confusing but it’s quite easy to follow, although I did get a bit confused when her Australian mates referred to her as a “good bloke.” Apparently it’s a high compliment, even for a woman.

Wyld was named one of Granta’s 20 top British novelists recently, belying an unexpected maturity to her work. Wyld’s chapter featured in Granta’s compilation was by far the standout of the collection. Like the novel, it left the reader with a ferocious ache to know the rest of the story usually reserved for “Homeland” or “Game of Thrones.” Read the rest of this entry »

Nonfiction Review: “Something Wrong with Her: A Real-Time Memoir” by Cris Mazza

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“Something Wrong with Her” is an arresting chronicle of the personal consequences of an artist’s sexual dysfunction, caused by a medical condition called a weak pelvic floor. The condition can be treated with physical therapy but in Mazza’s case it remained undiagnosed for decades, deepening the isolation of a gifted author trying to understand why she feels pain when others feel pleasure. That this happened during a sexual revolution of the 1970s and eighties only adds to her self-doubt.

Many narrative levels operate in the book. Striking journals of unhappy relations with men are grafted onto a memoir that is being critiqued by the author’s writing group. Arranged “like the barbs on an arrow” are quotes from Mazza’s numerous published stories and novels, her personal emails, dream logs and high-school yearbook inscriptions. The emails are with a tenor saxophonist friend addressed as “MarkR,” who has a lifelong crush on her. Both experience failed marriages while brooding on the past. Interspersed are useful mantras on creative writing, all this arranged as a jazz fake book, a loose-leaf that musicians used to carry to club dates and wedding gigs. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “Can’t and Won’t” by Lydia Davis

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Before starting “Can’t and Won’t,” I knew Lydia Davis as the translator of Proust’s “Swann’s Way,” the first of seven volumes of notoriously dense French modernism. My associating her with such long-windedness is of note because it points out one of the many oddities of Davis as a writer and thinker: she is, to many, best known for her “flash fiction,” stories that are sometimes as brief as a single sentence. Her output is diverse, ranging from startlingly short pieces to epic translations. Her new collection is a bold, brilliant showcase of her sundry talents, its contents a mesmerizing array of largely disconnected stories, letters and translations.

Cumulatively, these heterogeneous storytelling techniques create an atmosphere of disorientation and absurdity, while the shortest pieces, like commas in a long, nonsensical sentence, provide an essential rhythm and structure. They are reminiscent of Tweets or Facebook updates in their brevity and mundanity—qualities for which such writing is often denigrated. By creating tiny stories that stick with you, demand rereading, and appear amid more conventional pieces, however, Davis challenges widely-held beliefs regarding the content, length and purpose of “highbrow” fiction. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “Be Safe, I Love You” by Cara Hoffman

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When Lauren Clay returns from her tour of duty in Iraq, everything in her small town seems wrong. When she left, her father could barely care for himself or her kid brother—it’s the main reason she joined the army, so she could support them. When she returns, her father is capably leading the household, everyone is well, except for the dog, who died before her return. But the town looks wrong; every building looks like a façade, and her friends have changed or not changed in ways that don’t make sense. Also, she sees the dog. In “Be Safe, I Love You,” Cara Hoffman’s young soldier does a good job hiding her post-traumatic stress from her loved ones. All her life she’s been the responsible older sister; when she returns from war, her greatest priority is her brother. Without her pack, her gun, and her Kevlar vest, their small town feels as unsafe as a battleground to her.

Hoffman is no stranger to delving deep into the expectations of feminine behavior—her first book, “So Much Pretty,” is devastating and brilliant, a fury-driven story of violence against women. In “Be Safe, I Love You,” she continues to confront feminist issues like the role of the female soldier as well as more challenges of small American towns near army bases: low employment, few professional choices, religion, even a hierarchy of soldiers. Read the rest of this entry »

Nonfiction Review: “Blood Will Out” by Walter Kirn

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Some truths, if fictionalized, just wouldn’t be believable. Walter Kirn’s memoir “Blood Will Out” is of that ilk. Quirky characters abound, none quirkier than the book’s subject, Clark Rockefeller himself. But quirky oozes into sinister and downright evil quickly. Clark Rockefeller is no Rockefeller. He’s Christian Gerhartsreiter, German national and con man extraordinaire (but let’s call him Rockefeller; that’s what he likes to be called). Clark’s fairly unbelievable himself. His grandiose lies—he has the keys to Rockefeller Center, he owns a jet propulsion lab and is close personal friends with J.D Salinger—appear remotely possible to Kirn. The rich are different, they say. But when the effusive yet enigmatic gentleman kidnaps his own daughter, his cover is blown, and even more chillingly, he’s linked to an unsolved eighties murder.

Kirn jumps around in time, interviewing friends of the murdered man, recounting his dinners with Clark, and attending Rockefeller’s trial, where the man acts as if Kirn didn’t even exist. This isn’t an investigation into psychopathy; it’s an appraisal of a relationship. Read the rest of this entry »

Nonfiction Review: “The Jesus Lizard Book” by The Jesus Lizard

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David Yow has finally managed to crowd surf his way to coffee tables everywhere. Here is a book whose unwieldy shape demands it be splayed across a flat surface, or pile-driven through it, in veneration of a band whose jump to a major record label actually saw them sell less albums. To the brave souls who bookended that legacy with an actual book, one is astonished by its physicality, somehow both ordinary and extreme.

This is the tale of the Jesus Lizard, just a regular rock group who managed to take the four-fold ingredients (bass, drums, guitar, vocals) endemic to the genre and exploit their banality with an alchemy that both alienates and entices. Removed from the sweaty setting of concert halls worldwide, split from the speakers that siren their songs, the reader is pushed to consider the band on abstract terms between bounties of anecdotal praise from music industry veterans of every stripe. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “Bark” by Lorrie Moore

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Lorrie Moore is widely regarded as one of our greatest living American writers, and for good reason. Her short stories are exquisite examples of the form, and her long-awaited collection “Bark” is no exception. The worst thing about it is, at 192 pages, it’s a bit on the short side. All of Moore’s stories move brilliantly between the individual and the universal. One way she does this is by referencing current events, like the day Michael Jackson died, or the night before the Abu Ghraib prison photos broke. LikeA Gate at the Stairs,” which is very much a post-9/11 novel, the characters in “Bark” continue to be worried by the war, both its effects and its non-effects on us. “Debarking” takes place in the GW Bush era. ‘“You’re supposed to give things up for Lent. Last year we gave up our faith and reason; this year we are giving up our democratic voice, our hope,’” says one character. In “Debarking,” Ira, a newly divorced dad, begins dating a woman and also, essentially, her son. Moore skewers indulgent modern parenting (“Oh, we couldn’t leave Bruno here alone. He’s only sixteen.”) and childhood education (Ira’s daughter studies the stock market while finger-knitting). Read the rest of this entry »

Nonfiction Review: “You Feel So Mortal” by Peggy Shinner

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Peggy Shinner’s new collection, “You Feel So Mortal,” is about the intersection of the body and identity, both crafted by ourselves and forced upon us. In an essay titled “Elective,” Shinner takes on the issue of Jewish identity through stereotype with the nose job she had at sixteen to make it “prettier, more proportional, more marriageable…more, but not too, Gentile.” She reflects that the procedure keeps a coworker from immediately recognizing her ancestry, but similar surgeries weren’t enough to save some Jews from the Holocaust. She writes, “the stakes are high when it comes to the body.”

Shinner jumps deftly between the personal and the academic. Multiple essays begin with personal experiences to introduce a researched topic. In “Leopold and Shinner,” she uses her discovery of a letter from a post-prison Nathan Leopold addressed to her mother as an opportunity to discuss the larger cultural phenomena of ordinary people writing to him in prison. She quotes from archived letters to him, cites the pseudoscientific reports that newspapers published to demonize him and Loeb, and even explicates the implications of the word “degenerate.” It risks coming off as miscellanea, but Shinner always returns to the personal. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “Bedrock Faith” by Eric Charles May

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Eric Charles May and James Baldwin share more than skin color and writing passion. They are masters of the complicated operas that unfold in a particular place, of the complexities and frailties of mankind. “Bedrock Faith” is May’s first novel, and since approaching Baldwin is no idle feat, one only hopes he’ll write more.

Parkland is a proud, entrenched African-American community on the far South Side of Chicago, just touching Blue Island. The characters we hear from have owned their homes for generations, pillars in their close-knit community. All of it goes to hell the day Stew Pot Reeves comes back from prison. He’s no average neighborhood terror; in his younger days he decapitated a cat and lit a garage on fire. But now, he’s a Christian—a very devout Christian who has lost none of his old fondness for meddling. In short order the neighborhood, already tense, nearly explodes into uproar. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “Wolf Doctors” by Russ Woods

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Silly, surreal and surprisingly sensitive, Russ Woods’ “Wolf Doctors” points the way toward a rare post-avant-garde accessibility. His associational mish-mashes (dogs, horses, hotels, factories, Netflix fees and human beings seem all interchangeable and spirit-laden in his world) usually avoid stepping over the line of gimmickry in this collection, leaving enough room for his tickling humanity to poke through. Woods’ persistent charm is poised to break even the most logical, most narrative-obsessed of readers—such that by the time you reach the home stretch of these chambers of play and oddity, a line like “Illinois was the best horse I ever had” lands with startling heartbreak. More genuine than Donald Barthelme—a sure influence on Woods and most releases from Chicago-based Artifice Books—”Wolf Doctors” capitalizes and builds upon paths of weirdness forged by its stylistic forebears. Read the rest of this entry »