April 9, 2012

Distant Stations: On Steve Erickson’s These Dreams of You 1


A has-been LA novelist and current late nite radio host sits down with his newly adopted Ethiopian daughter to watch Obama win the presidency. He gets to thinking that at last the evaporated dream of the 60s – and the guiding dream of his life – has been fulfilled. The rest of the novel follows the myriad ways in which this turns out not to be the case.

April 6, 2012

Becoming James Brown: On RJ Smith’s The One 3


What Brown wanted to do was lay down a strutting, macho anthem marked by explosions of brass and a guitar that sounds like chrome wheels spinning. He hums a melody to the sax player and a bass line to the bassist. He thumps out a beat for the drummer. He watches a trumpet player struggle, fires him, then re-hires him moments later. And when the singer is ready, he screams out a set of lyrics scratched on a sheet of paper. The song is called “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.”

April 5, 2012

Mightier than the Sword: Shiva Rahbaran’s Iranian Writers Uncensored 1


What is clear from reading these interviews is that, while the 20th century has not be kind to Iran, it has been particularly difficult for Iranian poets, writers, and intellectuals looking to articulate the problems of their homeland.

March 30, 2012

Who We Are Now: On Ellen Ullman’s By Blood 5


Ullman has ushered in a fecund new phase of Holocaust fiction. It is not only necessary that we try to recapture the morally-starved world of the actual Holocaust, but that we take up the question of how much that bleak history should define our present-day lives.

March 29, 2012

The Zen of Joe Brainard: On The Collected Writings 1


I opened the book and found that to read Joe Brainard is to befriend him. The Collected Writings is like a manual for how to live more creatively. It bubbles over with deeply personal vision and a contagious passion for the smallest things in life — what Brainard calls “my faith that everything is interesting, sooner or later.”

March 27, 2012

Cool Story, Bro: The Provocations of John D’Agata 9


To say The Lifespan of a Fact is mostly boring is a bit like saying that a Molotov cocktail is mostly boring because it’s just a bottle of petrol with an old rag stuffed into it.

March 23, 2012

The Story of Us, A People in Exile: On The New American Haggadah 1


Contrasting voices bring out the multitudes of questions and quandaries inherent in the Passover story, and by secularizing the commentary, giving it over to political, liturgical, literary, and elementary analysis, they have made this into a vitally relevant piece of philosophical inquiry.

March 23, 2012

I Am Not A Character: On Thomas Mallon’s Watergate 4


One cannot read Watergate without thinking that, in key elements of structure and characterization, Mallon the partisan got the better of Mallon the novelist.

March 21, 2012

It’s All in Your Head: The Problems With Jonah Lehrer’s Imagine 53


As Lehrer writes, “Until we understand the set of mental events that give rise to new thoughts, we will never understand what makes us so special.” This claim raises the stakes for the book. The problem is, it’s probably just not true.

March 20, 2012

Nick Harkaway’s Angelmaker 1


Harkaway manages to write surrealist adventure novels that feel both urgent and relevant. His novels are fun to read without seeming particularly frivolous, and beneath all the derring-do and shenanigans, there’s a low thrum of anxiety: everything and everyone you love could disappear at any moment. There is nothing that you cannot lose.