Category Archives: reviews

Castle by J Robert Lennon Review

Jeff Vandermeer
has a good review of Castle by J Robert Lennon in the Barnes & Noble Review:

Intense psychological profiles dominate the literature
of unease, sometimes known as "neo-gothic" and typified by such modern
masters as Brian Evenson. In these tales, the suggestion of something not quite right about
the narrator or the protagonist is followed by the dread that we will
learn unsettling information not only about the character but about
ourselves. In Castle, an often brilliant new novel by J. Robert Lennon, this classic paradigm is updated for a new century and a new context. Castle continues
Lennon's fascination with offbeat and alienated characters, explored in
a different voice and meter in his prior novel, the black comedy Mailman.

Gotta say, I know Barnes & Noble is a crass evil corporation and all, but the B&N Review is a pretty damn good source for reviews. Sure covers a lot better literature than the NY Times.

Pigeon Post by Dumitru Tsepeneag Review

Here's another one I'm hoping to read in the next couple months. Dumitru Tsepeneag's Pigeon Post sounds great:

The term "pigeon post" refers to the use of homing pigeons to deliver
messages. Perhaps the best known was the French Pigeon Post of the
Franco-Prussian War in the late nineteenth century, which allowed
messages to travel into Paris across Prussian lines, representing a
fluidity between an otherwise rigid divide of East and West. The
sometimes difficult task of crossing borders and disseminating
information informs the underlying tension of Romanian writer Dumitru
Tsepeneag's novel Pigeon Post, translated by Jane Kuntz.
Tsepeneag was forced into exile by Ceauşescu in 1975, living in France
until the Romanian Revolution of 1989, the same year as the first
publication of Pigeon Post. "I am a human by necessity, and a
Frenchman only by chance," Tsepeneag's narrator says, quoting
Montesquieu. Tsepeneag has written in both Romanian and his adopted
French; Pigeon Post, composed in the latter, examines a
narrator's attempt to combat writer's block by assembling a complex
pastiche of letters, observations, and found words—messages that expose
the alienation of a writer in exile. The writer's efforts to compose a
novel in turn become the plot of the novel itself.

For more on Tsepeneag, see our review of his first translated work, Vain Art of the Fugue. And Dalkey is publishing yet another Tsepeneag this fall. Excellent.

Contra American Rust

Over at Open Letters, Karen Vanuska takes issue with Philipp Meyer's Pulitzer-contender, American Rust:

But wanting magic to arise from those circumstances doesn’t make one bit of difference to the story found between the covers of American Rust.
This novel is in desperate need of an exceptional editor rather than a
myth. Amidst all that rust, there’s a good story, a few good
characters, and it’s the first book that I’ve read in a long while that
deserves to have American in its title; Meyer’s take on what
it means to be an average Joe-the-Plumber-American holds promise for
his literary future. But a lot of what’s good about American Rust
manages to get lost in a bog of unimaginative prose, stereotyped
characters and dead-ended subplots. The reader needs a Moses to guide
him through that wilderness.

The Wilderness by Samantha Harvey Review

A first novel by Samantha Harvey, The Wildnerness, sounds good. The B&N review:

A device literary novelists sometimes use to pleasing effect is to
unanchor certain images or thoughts so that they float free in the
text, recurring for reasons that remain partially obscure. What the
text loses in transparency is more than offset by what it gains in
enigmatic resonance, musicality, and the delayed gratification provided
to the reader by the eventual discovery of where these specially
polished bits of the mosaic belong. In her astonishingly accomplished
first novel, The Wilderness, Samantha Harvey has grounded
this literary game in realism: the man through whose mind we apprehend
the novel's world is succumbing to Alzheimer's disease.

Alas, no one knows better than publishers how hard it is to sell
literary fiction on its own merits these days, and the pre-publication
material for The Wilderness
seemed in part designed to attract readers looking to gain useful
insight into "a difficult and heartbreaking subject." Don't be put off
— this novel is not the medico-sociological tale that description
might imply. Harvey uses Alzheimer's entirely for artistic ends, both
as a focusing lens with which to explore the losses and confusions that
accumulate in any human life, and as a diffracting prism to create a
literary object of multiple mirrorings in different hues.

A Jury of Her Peers by Elaine Showalter

The Economist has a useful summary of Elaine Showalter's massive new overview of women authors in America, A Jury of Her Peers:

Ms Showalter does not attempt to unravel the intractable moral and
legal conundrums raised by this unsettling parable, but she uses it as
a metaphor to ask questions about literary judgment. Certainly, in the
early 20th century, when literature was being defined as an academic
subject, establishment male critics who wanted to make American
literature “more energetic and masculine” actively attempted to exclude
female writers from the canon. In the 1970s, when Ms Showalter herself
started writing about women’s literature, many critics thought they had
to counter this trend with feminist polemic. In this book, however, Ms
Showalter’s admirable aim is less pugnacious: to rescue forgotten works
for a general audience, but not to shirk from making judgments
(robustly dispensed, for example, towards the “unreadable,
self-indulgent and excruciatingly boring” Gertrude Stein). All the
writers discussed here are interesting from an historical viewpoint,
but only some reach the peaks of genius.

One perennial factor for women writers, according to Ms Showalter,
is “how they reconciled their public selves with their private lives”.
Unlike more abstract forms of criticism, which seem to place the work
of art in a vacuum, Ms Showalter’s is grounded in the lived lives of
her subjects, for whom she provides vibrant biographical sketches. This
serves to counter Romantic (and, some would say, ultimately male) myths
about the self-sufficiency of art, thus offering a subtle statement of
her own feminist aesthetic.

I suppose I can't knock Showalter's critique of Stein until I've read it, but I'm far from finding Three Lives unreadable or boring. Self-indulgent, yes, and thank God Stein indulged herself.

In the United States of Africa Review

Chad reviews a book whose premise is that Africa is as rich as the U.S., and the U.S. is as rich as Africa:

In the opening pages we’re introduced to Yacuba, a “flea-ridden Germanic or Alemanic carpenter” who has fled AIDS-ridden, poverty-stricken Europe in hopes of a better life in the much wealthier and cleaner United States of Africa. Through Yacuba we’re introduced to a world where Quebec is at war with the American Midwest, where the “white trash” of Europe speak an undecipherable “white pidgin dialect,” and where the African media fans the flames of intolerance:

Surely you are aware that our media have been digging up their most scornful, odious stereotypes again, which go back at least as far as Methusuleiman! Like, the new migrants propagate their soaring birth rate, their centuries-old soot, their lack of ambition, their ancestral machismo, their reactionary religions like Protestantism, Judaism, or Catholicism . . .

According to Chad, Abdourahman A. Waberi's 134-page In the United States of Africa makes that premise work. I'm intrigued to read it for myself.

Machine by Peter Adolphsen Review

Wow. Peter Adolphsen’s Machine sounds pretty incredible. From Three Percent’s review:

Although Danish author Peter Adolphsen has made a name for himself as a formalist for whom economy is a virtue (to date his five novels and short story collections are less than 300 pages combined), “as a reader,” one reviewer writes, “you feel you have covered a huge distance with him.” Drawing comparisons to Borges and Kafka, Adolphsen has written parables and parodies, “ultrashort biographies,” children’s books, and a collection called En Million Historier (A Million Stories), which allows the reader to construct, well, a million stories, from ten pages of interchangeable two-line segments. Machine, Adolphsen’s second novel to be translated into English, fits very well within this paradigm, spanning millions of years, several continents, the lives of three people, and one drop of gasoline within its brief 85 pages.

The book opens with the untimely death of a prehistoric horse. This end, however, is really the beginning: “Death exists, but only in a practical microscopic sense,” the quirky omniscient narrator intones. “Biologically, one cannot distinguish between life and death; the transition is a continuum.” And so, ever so slowly (over fifty-five million years), the heart of this horse is transformed into a drop of crude oil. Once refined, “our drop” is pumped into the engine of a Ford Pinto. It then combusts, becomes exhaust, and a few hours later, transforms one last time into a carcinogen. And that’s Machine in a nutshell.

Add yet another book to the list.

Yalo by Elias Khoury Review

We’ve just published my review of Yalo by Elias Khoury at The Quarterly Conversation.

Elias Khoury has been called Beirut’s answer to Joan Didion or Orhan Pamuk: the one contemporary author who has made that place his own. His novel Gate of the Sun is widely regarded as one of the major works of Arabic literature of the late 20th century.

Yalo, which is on the Best Translated Book Award shortlist, has been praised as a distillation of Gate of the Sun. It’s a quasi-first-person, highly unreliable account of the life of a man currently being tortured and interrogated by the Lebanese police.

This is one of my favorite works of the BTB shortlist, and it’s left me thirsty for more Khoury. Have a look at my review of Yalo at The Quarterly Conversation.

Milk, Sulphate, and, Alby Starvation Review

Milk, Sulphate, and Alby Starvation, by Martin Millar, has to be one of the stranger books that’s come out of the U.K. in a while. And I mean that in a good way.

Alby Starvation, the titular character of Martin Millar’s debut novel (originally published in 1987), is a speed dealer in Brixton who likes reggae and comic books. Sadly, but to the benefit of the reader, his physical and mental state are deteriorating at a rapid pace. He has no job. It appears as if he’s dying, with a face "that looks a hundred years old." On top of all this, it seems that the Milk Marketing Board has put out a contract on his life. Starvation believes his one chance at survival is to sell his comics so that he can buy a gun to defend himself.

Supported by this demented premise, Milk, Sulphate, and Alby Starvation hits the ground running and barely lets up through the course of its 169 pages. The protagonist is an amusing hybrid of Dostoevsky’s Underground Man and the crazed anti-hero from Hunger (can Starvation’s name be a play on Knut Hamsun’s novel?) if they both watched too many episodes of the ’80s BBC comedy The Young Ones.

The Vagrants by Yiyun Li Review

Saw this review of The Vagrants, a first novel by a Yiyun Li, Chinese-American author who received much favorable attention for her first short story collection. The Guardian:

Yiyun Li’s 2005 story collection A Thousand Years of Good Prayers
which won four prizes, including the Guardian First Book award – was
admired for taking a calm, Chekhovian look at a changing China and the
lives of Chinese emigrants. It was also an impressive feat of
cross-cultural adaptation, addressing Chinese experience in American
English using mostly European literary models. Born in Beijing in 1972,
Li moved to the US aged 24 to do medical research at the University of
Iowa. She started writing stories after mastering English, finding the
distancing effect of another language helpful, and studied at Iowa’s
Writers’ Workshop before launching her fast-tracked career. Like Jhumpa
, who writes in an equally poised way about the children of
Indian immigrants to the US, she is an admirer of the Irish writer
William Trevor, and her stories have a similar subtlety and restraint;
the fact that China is so hot right now is only an incidental part of
her appeal. . . .

The novel is built around a political act: the execution of a young
woman named Gu Shan for allegedly making counter-revolutionary jottings
while serving a 10-year term for criticising the government. But Li’s
characters, with a few exceptions, are marginal people with little
access to officialdom. The execution and its consequences are largely
seen from their perspective – that of people for whom the state is
something to be placated rather than discussed – and the novel
concentrates on the unexpected ways in which the political and the
personal intersect. . . .


The Surrender is Veronica Scott Esposito’s “collection of facts” concerning how she embraced her true gender.


Two long essays of 10,000 words each on sex in—and out of—literature . . .

The first essay dives in to Nicholson Baker’s “sex trilogy,” explaining just what Baker is up to here and why these books ultimately fail to be as sexy as Baker might wish.

From there the book moves on to the second essay, which explains just why Spaniard Javier Marías does right what Baker does wrong . . .


5 essays. 2 interviews.

All in all, over 25,000 words of Latin American literary goodness.

3 never-before-published essays, including “The Digression”—a 4,000-word piece on the most important digression in César Aira’s career.

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