To those who have lived in the era that began with 9/11, it could be described as a constant state of war against an enemy, nebulous at best, called “Terror.” The longest sustained conflict the United States has been involved in, the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, have been wars largely invisible to the American people. There are televised reports, written articles, blogs and photo essays, but unless you’re a soldier or an immediate acquaintance of one, it exists solely in bits of information from 6,000 miles away. Documentaries and Hollywood dramatizations, too, have sought to capture the grit and soul of the wars, but can’t offer us the most important glimpse—confessional storytelling, rather than a cluster of absurd images from the front lines. Nothing brings the reality of war home like hearing it from the hearts and minds of those who experienced it.
“Fire and Forget” arrives at just the right time, when the last vestiges of conflict fall away. It’s a time when we confront, as a nation, what has been accomplished and at what cost. What this selection of stories shows isn’t contained to combat itself but to home life and life before deployment. There are soldiers, Marines, an army spouse, a Baghdad school teacher—editors Roy Scranton and Matt Gallagher have not only compiled an excellent diversity of experiences and vantage points into the war, but also a list of accomplished and gifted writers. Read the rest of this entry »
Readers who were astounded by Emma Donoghue’s ability in “Room” to so convincingly slip into the point-of-view of a five-year-old boy imprisoned in a single room will not be disappointed with “Astray.” In this intriguing collection of fourteen stories, Donoghue takes on a wide assortment of characters, including a slave, a prostitute, an animal trainer, gold prospectors, a pre-teen on a Southern plantation, and tells their stories in myriad forms. Spanning about 500 years and several countries (though primarily nineteenth-century U.S. and Canada), the stories shift eras and settings with such aplomb that I felt I was transported from one story to the next by a time machine.
Though fictional, each story has its genesis in an actual historical event—be they letters, newspaper accounts, legal records or other documents—that Donoghue credits in a brief explanation following each story. Although these historic origins give the collection a “ripped from the headlines” of yore feeling, it is Donoghue’s imagination that gives the stories their power. As she says in the afterward, “Sometimes it is easier to write a story if you start by knowing very little about the characters; just a spark to fall on the tinder.” Their sense of authenticity comes from her skill at knowing precisely what details to use from her research, and how to integrate those facts into the narratives without sounding forced. Read the rest of this entry »
Yunior is back, and he’s brought along his papi chulo brother Rafa and a string of exes stretching from New Jersey to Santo Domingo.
Sixteen years ago, Junot Diaz enchanted the literary world with his debut collection, “Drown,” and its narrator Yunior, the prototypical Dominican American male negotiating the no-man’s land between boyhood and adulthood, and between a lost homeland and the housing projects of Edison, New Jersey. Diaz has been working with Yunior ever since, as in his latest collection, “This is How You Lose Her.”
“It took me sixteen years to write,” Diaz admitted to students at Columbia College Chicago when he visited recently as part of a thirty-city whirlwind tour. “Any art worth its name requires you to be fundamentally lost for a very long time.”
That stretch between these two collections was anything but idle, and Yunior was not in hiding. Diaz’s Pulitzer-prize winning debut novel, “The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao,” published in 2007, featured Oscar, an overweight geek virgin hopelessly in love. Though he is the antithesis of Yunior, of the Dominican male archetype, guess who’s telling this heroic tale of love and heartbreak, of Oscar and the Dominican Republic? Yunior de Las Casas, the same Yunior from “Drown” and “This is How You Lose Her.” Read the rest of this entry »
Imagine the portrait one might glean of the United States if all one read was the literature of William Faulkner, John Updike and Jack Kerouac.
For a long while, this rough analogy is how the bulk of United States readers formed their impressions of Latin America. A few literary colossi have dominated the region’s dreamscape in translation: Carlos Fuentes, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Mario Vargas Llosa.
But Fuentes has died, Garcia Marquez is too ill to write and Vargas Llosa seems poised for his Nobel victory lap. Few believe these elders will monopolize the next decade.
A new generation of Latin American writers is emerging, with different styles and concerns. Many were born after dictators in their region fell, but before truth and reconciliation commissions began. They grew up with NAFTA, globalization and MTV. Read the rest of this entry »
Simultaneously published with her new novel “Inside,” Alix Ohlin’s “Signs and Wonders” is a short-story collection rich in piercing insights and slow-burning emotional truths. These are stories about the people you know—maybe the person you are—in recognizable conflicts and moments of grace. Ohlin’s gift is to take us beyond the familiar into a new territory of layered awareness; these characters never quite end up where you think they will, although their gains and losses along the way are entirely satisfying.
Most if not all of these stories encompass family relationships in all sorts of constellations: mothers and children; ex-wives and ex-girlfriends; stepdaughters and given-up-for-adoption brothers. A high-school music teacher concocts a pregnancy scheme as she breaks the heart of her infertile husband. An organizational consultant falls in love with an old friend from college, while recommending that his job be eliminated. Read the rest of this entry »
Reading a posthumous collection is usually like sipping broth from a simmering stock: flavorful and evocative, but lacking the richness, texture and depth that would turn it into a full meal. “The Secret of Evil,” a collection of short works found on Roberto Bolaño’s computer after his death, is more like an exquisite demi-glace: hearty and nuanced, a distillation of flavor that becomes the main feature of the meal.
“The Secret of Evil” is pure Bolaño: nail-biting, gut-churning suspense, wily first-person narration, twisted motivations and strange, emotionally charged relationships. Read the rest of this entry »
“A black man moved into a white neighborhood.”
“Three people are waiting at an intercom.”
These aren’t jokes but the opening lines of three stories in Etgar Keret’s latest collection, “Suddenly, A Knock on the Door.” Though there is humor and brevity—there are thirty-four stories in the 188-page book—Keret takes an absurd idea or clever observation and strings it into a web of humanity, however dark or bizarre. The black man referenced above, from “Pick a Color,” gets beaten by a white mob, then marries a white woman, then heeds a yellow preacher, who introduces him to a silver God, who, like the man, has been disabled by mankind. The man feels that “suffering just like a god made him feel blessed.” Keret explores in four pages what many authors grapple with in a career. Read the rest of this entry »
Adam Levin/Photo: Renee Feldman
By Eric Lutz
Adam Levin’s debut novel, “The Instructions,” aimed high: Over a thousand pages, with missives on religion, war, identity and Philip Roth. It was an outstanding hunk of fiction, and elicited from critics all the superlatives (and expletives) you might expect a work of such length and power to receive. If there was anything bothersome about the novel, though, it was the slight—yet frequent—sense that Levin hadn’t quite divorced himself from the writers to which he’s been compared and clearly admires.
In his excellent new collection of short stories, “Hot Pink,” Levin hurdles over that problem. While proudly displaying his literary lineage, Levin–who teaches at the School of the Art Institute–also wades out into fresh waters, offering up absurdity, farce and near-academic dissection in an eclectic array of voices, all at once recognizable and entirely unique. Read the rest of this entry »
“This Will Be Difficult to Explain” is a collection of loosely related short stories by Johanna Skibsrud. Her pitch-perfect writing style compensates for any confusion about the direction or relation of the stories, but what emerges by the end is a carefully crafted exploration of memory. The stories vacillate between young women out of their element in foreign locales and second languages and a rural America populated with pickup trucks and loaded guns. In one story, a youngster is taken on a dubious trip through the woods to shoot a neighbor’s escaped bull; in another, an ingenue misunderstands her elderly French companion’s tale of woe, laughing inappropriately at her son’s suicide. Memory, the common theme of Skibsrud’s stories, is nostalgic or painful—some events are too difficult to process faithfully. The titular story, for example, centers around a drunken man who horrifies his family with a rambling, untrustworthy episode from his childhood during the war. Read the rest of this entry »
With a title like “A Vacation on the Island of Ex-Boyfriends,” Stacy Bierlein’s short story collection comes off as a fizzy beach read. And on the surface, the stories seem to be just that—stories tied together by sex, relationships and travel. But there is more in this collection—loss, in its various stages and breeds, the value of good, strong friendship and an underlying, impermeable anxiety of growing older and lonelier. For all the men they sleep with and the countries they travel, the women in these stories are all in search of something, be that compassion, intimacy or a place to belong.
In “Linguistics,” a young woman travels to Prague to mourn her father’s death alone, and instead falls in love with a Croatian man who helps her heal—despite the fact that they can hardly share a conversation. In “Men’s Furnishings,” Cheryl resents her husband’s over-indulgent shopping sprees and suspects he’s into recreational drug use in the months following the birth of their first child. And “Two Girls” is about two women enjoying nearly-perfect lives–successful careers, happy marriages, passionate affairs—who then witness an unspeakable crime that sends them reeling. Read the rest of this entry »