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 »

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 »

Rewriting the Adolescent Narrative: Megan Milks on “Kill Marguerite”

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photo: Megan Milks

Photo: Megan Milks

By Anne Yoder

I first encountered Megan Milks’ work when we were both fledgling critics for PopMatters. Her writing stood out as intelligent, daring and quite promiscuous in its range of ideas. She went on to found the zine “Mildred Pierce” and contribute to the avant-lit blog Montevidayo. And I’m still reading her today.

Milks’ stories in her debut collection “Kill Marguerite” draw influence from cultures both high and low, from Homer and Joyce to video games and teen magazine columns. They never sit quietly, but rather unsettle convention and defy expectation. In fact, the moment you think you know what’s happening, the story opens into an unexpected black hole, thrusting you into a passage that devours and reconfigures expectations. 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 »

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 »

Fiction Review: “Bedrock Faith” by Eric Charles May

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RECOMMENDED BedrockFaith2-533x800

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: “Strange Bodies” by Marcel Theroux

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RECOMMENDED strangebodies

In the preface to Marcel Theroux’s highbrow thriller “Strange Bodies,” Nick Slopen stumbles onto the doorstep of an ex-lover, who’s profoundly confused, and for good reason: Nick died months ago, crushed beneath the wheels of a lorry. The man claiming to be him looks nothing like him, but something—the intensity of his gaze, his mannerisms, his knowledge of her old nickname—convinces her she must be mistaken. Nick leaves behind a revelatory document written during his confinement at the Maudsley psychiatric hospital, the reader is invited to read it. Naturally, we can’t resist.

Nick, a top scholar on the works of Samuel Johnson, has been summoned by music mogul Hunter Gould to authenticate a set of documents apparently written by Johnson himself. The letters turn out to be nothing more than convincing forgeries. When he tells Gould that the seller, Sinan Malevin, should be arrested for selling phony documents, Gould surprises him with a confession: he knows they’re forged. Sinan isn’t selling them; they simply wanted a professional’s opinion. Read the rest of this entry »

Our Minds Work Against Our Hearts: Rachel Louise Snyder on Writing Suburban Crime in “What We’ve Lost Is Nothing”

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Photo: Jocelyn Augustino

Photo: Jocelyn Augustino

By Ted Anton

In “What We’ve Lost Is Nothing,” former Oak Park resident manager and journalist Rachel Snyder tells the story of what happens when two high-school girls stay home to try ecstasy the same afternoon their street is rocked by a series of home invasions. The neighborhood suspicions threaten to rip apart Oak Park’s suburban veneer of race and class harmony. An assistant professor in creative writing at American University in Washington, Snyder has written for The New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine, and has appeared frequently on National Public Radio. She published the investigative “Fugitive Denim: A Moving Story of People and Pants in the Borderless World of Global Trade” in 2007. “What We’ve Lost Is Nothing” is her first novel.

So what was the inspiration for “What We’ve Lost Is Nothing?”
I was accompanying an American military MIA mission in Vietnam, writing for a magazine, and a friend there told me this story of these robberies all in one night that happened in Georgia. The story stuck with me. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “The Last Days of California” by Mary Miller

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RECOMMENDED lastdaysofcalifornia

There are plenty of apocalyptic young-adult fiction books these days, but Mary Miller’s debut novel, “The Last Days of California,” has a fresh approach to an end-of-days story. Jess and her family are driving from Alabama to California for what her father believes is Armageddon. Based on the prediction of a prophet from their unspecified church, Jess’ father envisions a scenario of bodies floating up into heaven, as in the “Left Behind” series of books. Fifteen-year-old Jess wavers in her belief as they travel across the country, not quite sure if she’s about to experience the rapture, or even whether she believes in God or the teachings of her church at all.

Sitting next to Jess in the backseat is her sister, Elise, newly pregnant. Although only a few years older than Jess, the world-weary Elise is cynical beyond her years and firm in the belief that the end is nowhere in sight. Her only fragility is her inability to acknowledge her pregnancy, aside from telling her sister and then seemingly forgetting about the topic entirely. Miller’s pacing of the novel is really important, considering what is practically the closed set of the family car and a few motel rooms. While she’s unfolding Jess’ relationship with her family and her evolving ideas about religion, she’s rather brilliantly tied the awakening of a young girl to a ticking clock in the background. Read the rest of this entry »

Fiction Review: “The Land Across” by Gene Wolfe

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RECOMMENDED thelandacross

Gene Wolfe’s “The Land Across” is a novel that’s terribly difficult to summarize. (The jacket copy tries valiantly but ultimately ends up only tangentially relating to the book’s actual arc.) It’s told to us by Grafton, a writer of travel books. Grafton has traveled to the book’s eponymous but unnamed nation to be the first to write a travel guide of the place, despite the nation’s dubious record of arresting travelers at the border. (It is telling of Grafton that when he mentions this he says, “It just made me more determined than ever.”) The moment that Grafton enters the nation, he is beaten by a trio of border guards, his passport is confiscated, he is detained for not having his passport, and is foisted into the custody of a man who the government isn’t fond of. Grafton’s immediate goal becomes getting his passport back so he can return home. Sounds straightforward so far, yes?

Grafton’s subsequent path isn’t. At one point in the novel, Grafton’s main concerns are having an affair with the wife of his jailer and searching for a lost treasure in a spooky house. At another point he is abducted by an order of religious fanatics in rebellion against the government to read their propaganda before landing himself in a prison of the JAKA, the nation’s secret police. Then, when his cellmate and fellow American Russ Rathaus escapes using a life-sized voodoo doll, he finds himself in the employ of his jailers. There are satanic cults, ghostly animated hands, and an obviously corrupt church.  To say the plot of “The Land Across” is complicated is an understatement. Read the rest of this entry »