BOOKS WE LOVE: In which we editors gush about some recent books that have knocked our respective socks off.
LOSING MY COOL: HOW A FATHER'S LOVE AND 15,000 BOOKS BEAT HIP-HOP CULTURE
by Thomas Chatterton Williams
Williams has struggled with race his whole life, being the second son of a biracial couple living in suburban New Jersey. LOSING MY COOL tells the story of his descent from an average middle-class upbringing in the mid-’80s into "a hip-hop culture predicated on street sensibilities, elaborate shape-concealing costumes, and esoteric 'hood vernacular." In prose both elegant and jolting, Williams takes you from dance clubs in the 'hood to the baguette that changed his life at a gourmet grocery, to Paris, where Williams reflects on the cultural stereotypes he subscribed to, and the racial lies told to him by "people you have known personally, people you have trusted, your friends and your neighbors, your older siblings and your classmates, your cousins and your lovers." LOSING MY COOL reads like the early diaries of a budding philosopher or sociologist, roles Williams is more than equipped to take on.
LINES WE LIKED: "It was so much easier to receive direction from 'above,' and where I was from, above was the street, and the direction came from the rappers and thugs and hoes who were the grand inquisitors of the Real."
HER FEARFUL SYMMETRY
by Audrey Niffenegger
Audrey Niffenegger’s paranormal novel, HER FEARFUL SYMMETRY, opens with twin sisters, Julia and Valentina, who move from Chicago to London after inheriting a flat from their deceased aunt. The sisters ascertain that their aunt still inhabits the flat—as a ghost. Outrageous, perhaps, but the story succeeds because Niffenegger doesn’t rely on supernatural effects. Rather, she develops eccentric and honest characters: an OCD Dutchman, a grief-wrought lover, and a slew of zany volunteers from London’s infamous Highgate Cemetery (where Niffenegger herself volunteered). Niffenegger is a quiet writer who crafts suspenseful, fluid moments. It is the novel’s sensitive portrayal of loneliness, insecurity, and desire—not ghosts—that render it haunting.
LINED WE LIKED: "As usual, he wasn't sure what was what, but at least he knew what he was having for dinner."
by Nic Brown
Brown's sophomore novel focuses on the crumbling life of a North Carolina tennis semi-pro, a doubles player named Slow Smith. Alternately haunted and helped by a band of wayward hometown friends, Slow finds himself existentially imperiled after suffering a car crash that leaves his wife in a coma. Brown's prose is helplessly direct to the point of painful humor. His characters are powerless and impulsive—their unchecked desires leave them wretchedly, even annoyingly unaccountable. Brown's book is about growing up, but its power lies in the description of long-term, hometown relationships and one's heart-rending duty to them.
LINES WE LIKED: "It was my handwriting. I stared at the letters and wondered what I would have been doing at home. I knew. I would have been doing nothing. I looked at myself in the mirror, haggard and nervous and thrilled. Manny was right. I felt alive, dangerous. Free. I had my name written on my penis, and it did feel good."
THE DARK END OF THE STREET
edited by Jonathan Santlofer and S.J. Rozan
Times may change, but human motives rarely do. THE DARK END OF THE STREET, a new crime-noir collection, demonstrates the perennial allure of stories about sex, violence, and murder. With sensual relish, Jonathan Lethem explores the hair-grooming fetish of a dapper criminal who skulks around beauty salons in pursuit of his next kill. Amy Hempel details a jealous wife's methodical disposal of her husband's mistress, whose irksome presence hardly ends in death. And Joyce Carol Oates brings us face to face with our own barbarism, describing how a random act of violence takes on a grisly life of its own through sensationalized retellings. The getaway car, the old bait and switch, the third man, the femme fatale: what lies at the dark end of the street is a predictable storyline. You know what's ahead, and yet you can't avert your eyes.
LINES WE LIKED: "I find myself most aware of the paradoxes of age and attraction—most pleasantly aware, I should say—when a hairdresser caresses my tipped-back skull in the shampooing or rinsing phases of a visit.... At the very apex I might feel the soft blurred pressure of a breast or the firmer nudge of a hip bone as the shampooist leans over me. Then a rolled towel is placed under my ears and along my neck, and I am escorted from foamy dreams into the more sustained if less fulsome encounter, that with the murmuring scissors."
RULES OF THE GAME: THE BEST SPORTSWRITING FROM HARPER'S MAGAZINE
edited by Matthew Stevenson and Michael Martin
(Franklin Square Press, 2010)
The latest anthology from HARPER'S MAGAZINE culls from a century of fine essays the shrewdest, most hilarious, and otherwise superlative sports writing. The pieces originally published in the '60s and '70s eerily portend the present-day sports world—but the pieces from the '30s do, as well. The selections range from a lament for the warm storytelling of Ring Lardner and Red Smith ("Find Me a Writer" by Wilfrid Sheed) to a vulnerable family memoir ("A Mickey Mantle Koan" by David James Duncan) to probing, hard-journo exposé ("Tennessee Lonesome End" by Peter Schrag). The collection—while a little baseball-heavy (how could it not be?)—pays homage to female athletes, middle-aged hockey players, the first African Americans integrated into all-white programs, with some George Plimpton thrown in for good measure. A wickedly funny companion for any summer spectator.
LINES WE LIKED: "Jogging to the huddle, [the Washington Redskins' aging quarterback Billy] Kilmer, smiling and slapping backs, took control with a few brisk words. His passes were short and wobbly, he was impossibly slow, and yet he kept finding his target. No big flourish, just a man ending his career with a few more snaps. 'He's fat,' said my father. 'And he can't run anymore, but he knows the game. He's like a brain out there on the field.'" (From "The Boys of Winter" by Rich Cohen)
by Daniel Woodrell
(Little, Brown and Company, 2007)
Daniel Woodrell’s eighth novel follows an Ozark mountain girl, Ree Dolly, as she hunts for her “crank-cooking” father before the law seizes the family’s house and land. The sole protector of two younger siblings and a mentally ill mother, Ree proves to have more sand than any man around. Silence floods the mountain town and Ree dares to meddle deeper into the grisly community. Woodrell’s language—both spare and lyrical—is orchestrated with suspense, plunging you straight into Ree’s unraveling situation. The new movie adaptation, starring Jennifer Lawrence and directed by Debra Granik, is equally tender, raw, and chilling.
LINES WE LIKED: “With her eyes closed she could call them near, see those olden Dolly kin who has so many bones that broke, broke and mended, broke and mended wrong, so they limped through life on the bad-mend bones for year upon year until falling dead in a single evening from something that sounded wet in the lungs.”
BEST OF LSU FICTION
edited by Nolde Alexius and Judy Kahn
(The Southern Review, 2010)
The Lousiana State University Creative Writing Department has hosted its share of stars as students and faculty—Walker Percy, Rebecca Walls, Andrei Codrescui, John Ed Bradley—all of whom appear in BEST OF LSU FICTION, but the real reward of this recent compilation is the thread spun from a community of writers, and stories woven from it.
The editors have chosen works that represent the juiciest parts of each author's writings, and laid them out in an almost genealogical order. The foreboding stranger that wanders up to the country house in "Blackberry Winter" by THE SOUTHERN REVIEW founder and Pulitzer Prize-winner Robert Penn Warren is carried through the estranged sons in Warren's student Peter Taylor's "The Gift of the Prodigal." The lonely quest for understanding in Percy's "Young Nuclear Scientist" (first published in The OA) is felt in the jilted woman in Valerie Martin's "Spats" in the way that the weight of the whole train is felt in each car.
A few names are curiously absent here—no Josh Russell stories, none of the dark ennui of Richard Collins's writing—but those are minor quibbles. There is plenty to enjoy and more to come from that little generational garden of literature hidden among the oaks.
—Alex V. Cook
BRAINS: A ZOMBIE MEMOIR
by Robin Becker
In a time when vampire pop-fiction dominates, Robin Becker braves another kind of monster story. It’s smart. It’s decidedly unsexy. Instead of shimmering, Zombie Jack Barnes’s skin rots like an old banana. He’s not a gentleman, either: “I lunged at my wife and my wife was lunch. Heavens, she was tasty.” Intelligent, absurd, hilarious, and irreverent, BRAINS offers perspective on the tragicomedy that is existence—human and zombie.
LINES WE LIKED:
“‘You need an Altoid,’ she said.
‘They’re curiously strong,’ I said, ‘and I’m decaying.’”
by Beth Bachmann
(University of Pittsburgh Press, 2009)
Inspired by the murder of her sister, Beth Bachmann's TEMPER is a thorough and vivid emotional narrative, taking the reader to an unsettling depth of personal tragedy at breakneck speed. Some of the more evocative poems burn with obsession in "peak bloom, a brood of blue before firebrand"; some smolder unpredictably, longing "to ask you to offer me your open throat"; while others moderate unbridled passion with the cold, ashen indifference of a medical examiner—"It's impossible to define force, but it's not hard to figure/the size of an arrow in a diagram of the free body./Blunt. Entry." Each of the book's three sections is singed with the fury of heartbreak unhealed. Exhausted, Bachmann laments in the closing lines,
I flick a feather into the water. No stones.
Only the one in my pocket, heavy as a tongue."
THE GHOST OF MILAGRO CREEK
by Melanie Sumner
THE GHOST OF MILAGRO CREEK (Sumner’s third novel) is set in a New Mexican landscape, where Indian legend and Spanglish mesh to tell the story of Mister, who lusts after the same red-headed gringa as his rowdy best friend. The narrative shifts perspectives to illuminate the thoughts of: a self-righteous preacher, shamans, witches, cops, and whiskey-drenched mothers, outliers who form a cast of soulful and broken characters. Sumner’s prose hums with ancestral myths to craft a tale less about Mister and more about the wrecked history of his entire community.
LINES WE LIKED: “ ‘A man tells this story one way,’ I said, ‘and a women another way.’”
ALTHOUGH OF COURSE YOU END UP BECOMING YOURSELF: A ROAD TRIP WITH DAVID FOSTER WALLACE
by David Lipsky
When INFINITE JEST hit the literary scene in 1996, no one could predict the publicity whirlwind it would create, least of all the author himself, David Foster Wallace. Sent by ROLLING STONE to interview Wallace, David Lipsky recorded, over the course of the last five days of Wallace's INFINITE JEST book tour, their conversations and the details are achingly and beautifully human. Lipsky's portrayal of Wallace makes you feel like an emotional voyeur, peering into the soul of a person uncomfortable with having a soul to peer into. Self-conscious and cautious, uncomfortable with the fame INFINITE JEST had brought him, Wallace seems to squirm in a world too small to contain him and his genius. He is terrified of becoming a playboy or pawn to publishers, a prima donna to fans, and a phony to himself. It becomes painful to read, knowing his end (he killed himself last year), hearing him rhapsodize on his desire to be married, be a father, be successful, and continue to write for "forty more years."
LINES WE LIKED: "'If you can think of times in your life that you've treated people with extraordinary decency and love, and pure uninterested concern, just because they were valuable as human beings. The ability to do that with ourselves. To treat ourselves the way we would treat a really good, precious friend. Or a tiny child of ours that we absolutely loved more than life itself. And I think it's probably possible to achieve that. I think part of the job we're here for is to learn how to do it. I know that sounds a little pious.'" (David Foster Wallace)
Photograph of THE BEST OF LSU FICTION by Alex V. Cook.
Click here to Editors' Picks from June 2010.