A Few PW Reviews by Noah Sudarsky...

(reprinted with the gracious permission of Publisher's Weekly. All Rights Reserved)


Fiction and Graphic Novel Reviews:


 Miss Don’t Touch Me

Hubert and Kerascoët. NBM, $29.99 (192p) ISBN 978-1-56163-899-4

In this graphic novel from the team behind Beauty, to learn the truth about a notorious serial killer and the connection with her own sister’s violent demise, the enterprising but naïve Blanche decides to seek employment as a maid at the Pompadour, the most exclusive bordello in all of Paris. Instead she becomes its main attraction, a virgin-dominatrix who quickly earns a devoted following. On the way to uncovering the gruesome reality behind the notorious “butcher of the dances,” who has been terrorizing Paris, Blanche faces daunting odds and various attempts on both her life and her chastity. And when “Prince Charming” comes along, she is swept into a chaotic romance that seems to be the answer to all her dreams—but for the poor beleaguered Blanche nothing is ever quite what it seems. Set in the Paris of the 1930s, alternating between the glitzy and the very gritty, this dark and disturbing tale is both a fantastic noir and a tense exploration of various societal themes like class, inequality, political corruption, and most of all the staggering depravity of the elite. Inspired by racy classics like The Story of O, but somehow much more readable, this smart coming-of-age shocker is irresistible. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 10/31/2014 | Release date: 10/01/2014 

John Constantine, Hellblazer: Shoot

Dave Gibbons, Warren Ellis, Jamie Delano et al. DC/Vertigo, $14.99 (259p) ISBN 978-1-4012-4748-5

John Constantine is about to get his own TV series, and this compendium of iconic Hellblazer stories will serve as a good intro, paying proper blazing tribute to the demented mage’s dark humor and seditious sassy-ness. In one story, a documentary film crew hell-bent on uncovering the truth behind Constantine’s short-lived career as a lead singer for the punk band Mucus Membrane meets an awful fate. The tale gets top marks thanks to the kinetic gutter art of Sean Murphy and writer Jason Aaron’s savvy media circus insider narrative. While less overtly shocking, the other stories in this collection are equally captivating, tackling many of the socio-political themes that have become intrinsic to the long-running, regular series. The title story—long unpublished at DC because of squeamishness over the content—is about a mysterious spate of shootings by schoolkids, and, as in other Hellblazer adventures, the solution is far from obvious. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 03/14/2014 | Release date: 03/01/2014 |

The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression

Amity Shlaes, Chuck Dixon and Paul Rivoche. Harper Perennial, $19.99 (320p) ISBN 978-0-06-196764-1

Shlaes’s histories are beloved among Congressional budget hawks for suggesting that Calvin Coolidge was the last great thrifty president and that F.D.R. prolonged the Great Depression by ramping up federal spending. This adaptation of Schlaes’s history of the Depression by Dixon (Batman) and Rivoche (Mister X) represents her political views faithfully. Its hero and narrator is the practically forgotten Wendell Willkie, Roosevelt’s opponent in the critical election of 1940, but all the major social and political players of the time, from Andrew Mellon, Ayn Rand, and Father Divine to the Schechter brothers (kosher poultry kings who won a Supreme Court case against the constraining practices of F.D.R.’s National Recovery Administration), make appearances. The research-heavy narrative sometimes reads like an economics master class: competing government policies and business practices are discussed at length. The real hero is Rivoche, who manages to dramatize this polemic with stunningly realized b&w art and intuitive storytelling, which does not hesitate to open the tale into two-page spreads when necessary. The Keynes vs. Hayek debate may still be unresolved, but no one will argue that this is a beautiful use of comics to boil down a complex, abstract narrative. (June)

Reviewed on 06/06/2014 | Release date: 05/01/2014

Why Grizzly Bears Should Wear Underpants

The Oatmeal. Andrews McMeel, $16.99 trade paper (168p) ISBN 978-1-4494-2770-2

Divided between saucy, graphically gripping panels that subtly distill the profoundly silly aspects of daily life (e.g., time spent using Tupperware) and highly constructed, visually arresting narratives that focus on hot-button themes like relationships, high school, and dreams, this collection is a rewarding gem of politically incorrect edginess. Cartoonist Matt Inman, aka “the Oatmeal,” uses the deliberately crude MS Paint–inspired style of webcomics and pairs it with razor-wire insights about Apple, airline travel, cooking at home, and other facets of modern life. Inman brings a polished, witty and deeply pessimistic outlook to his comics. Whether he’s is a terminally wounded humanist or a hardcore nihilist, we may never know, but the utter relevance and poignancy of these often deceptively anecdotal funnies makes Inman a Gary Larsen for the iPad generation. (Oct.)

Reviewed on 10/25/2013 | Release date: 10/01/2013 

The Leaning Girl

François Schuiten, Benoît Peeters, and Marie-Françoise Plissart, trans. from the French by Stephen D. Smith. Alaxis Press (theobscurecities.com), $29.99 (160p) ISBN 978-1-62847-227-1

Before “dark energy” and “string theory” entered the popular lexicon, the Belgian graphic novel wunderkind team of Schuiten and Peeters imagined how invisible cosmological forces might exercise their perplexing pull on a few select mortals in this fabulously original and haunting story, translated from the French. Mary Von Rathen, a charming sprite who drives her mother crazy with her boundless energy and insatiable imagination, embarks on the Star Express, an amusement park attraction that leaves her leaning at a constant diagonal—unable to stand up straight. Somehow, this incredible premise leads to a perfectly logical denouement involving competing dimensional realities and invisible planets with powerful gravitational fields. In a subplot, after being lambasted by the ranking art critics of the day, painter Augustin Desombres seeks refuge in an abandoned manor house on a desolate plane. The paths of Mary and Augustin finally cross in a creative and sexual conflagration of quantum proportions. The sixth in the ongoing, futuristic Obscure Cities series, The Leaning Girl offers superbly intricate artwork, and the writing has a literary scope that extends well beyond science fiction and flirts with greatness. (Nov.)

 The Arctic Marauder

Jacques Tardi. Fantagraphics, $16.99 (64p) ISBN 978- 1-60699-435-2

Tardi is renowned in France for his cult graphic novel series featuring Adèle Blanc-Sec, a detective who could be the love child of Tintin and Vampirella. Less known, but even more highly regarded, is this earlier, phenomenal one-shot, a baroque masterpiece inspired by the aesthetic of 19th-century engraving and inhabited by both the spirit of scientific positivism and Jules Verne. Jérôme Plumier, an enterprising young medical student, embarks on an arctic crossing aboard a mail steamship in 1899, only to fall headlong into a deadly scheme which may be connected to his mad scientist uncle. All the boats venturing near a certain point in the Arctic are sunk with metronomic precision. The colossal scope and fiendish nature of the conspiracy Plumier unwittingly uncovers remains secret for much of the book, building the suspense to a point worthy of any great thriller. It's difficult to do justice to the artistic qualities of Tardi's stark, understated line drawings; whether he's depicting a motley crew of sailors, highly detailed industrial machinery, or an ice floe, the art is both technical and madly expressive. Precisely calibrated, perfectly laid out, and incredibly graphic, this is as good as adventure comics get. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 03/14/2011 

 Fatale: Book One (Death Chases Me)

Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips. Image (Diamond, dist.), $14.99 trade paper (144p) ISBN 978-1-60706-563-0

The minute Nicolas Lash encounters Jo, femme fatale extraordinaire with more dark secrets than Faust, things go from bad to worse in this captivating noir. Occult forces and gut-wrenching horror collide in 1950s San Francisco, as a corrupt cop and a smitten reporter go toe-to-toe over Jo, an ageless beauty with the looks of a Vargas girl and the heart of a rattle snake, who is desperate to escape the grasp of a satanic cult and their demonic, shape-shifting leader. Graced with a suspenseful plot that has more twists and turns than an alpine road, and deliberately understated artwork, Fatale boasts both intrigue and an atmosphere that feels as densely bleak as a San Francisco mist at the tip of Fisherman’s Wharf at dawn. Colorist Dave Stewart deserves special mention for his subtle, highly evocative use of neutral tones and earthy shades. This is a universe of darkness and gray shadows, and the palette perfectly fits the angst-ridden, desolate, catch-22 world of supernatural horror the protagonists must face-off against. Immortality may be a double-edged sword, but it’s one the intoxicating Jo wields with a boundless grace in this addictive page-turner. (July)

Reviewed on 07/27/2012 | Release date: 07/01/2012 

What the Hell are you Doing? The Essential David Shrigley

W.W. Northon & Company, $35 (Hardcover) 

David Shrigley’s “gallery-type” comic art (to quote Dave Eggers) is deceptively simple yet mind-blowing in its seditiousness and perspective-altering lexicography, foraying where many have ventured: Saul Steinberg, Raymond Pettibon, William Powhida, and Maira Kalman among them.  These artists all use text, not as a design element (as, say, Barbara Kruger or Robert Indiana), but, well, for the value of text itself.  Sometimes, the text integrates into a drawing or a photograph, sometimes not.  Shrigley takes the idea the furthest.  Whereas, say, writers like Joyce or Beckett attempted to reinvent language by twisting and torturing it, Shrigley uses language that is grammatically simple to puncture and in some ways reinvent the substrate of the linguistic process itself: i.e.: our deeply afflicted 21st Century hominid consciousness. Shrigley’s art proves that it isn’t language that determines consciousness (linguists call this the “Whorfian hypothesis”), but the other way around.  It’s impossible to leaf through this compilation and not emerge with the sense that some latent abscess—a festering intellectual and emotional block born of dread and some inherent sense of socially-derived nihilistic futility, has been at least partially lifted through a process akin to extreme mixed media homeopathy.  The variegated works showcased, from a Venn diagram presenting all the possible logical articulations of various behaviors (singing, dancing, stealing) to decapitated taxidermy (a cat, an ostrich), without omitting some activist land art (a “River for Sale” sign on a river) and, yes, dementedly funny sketches and panels drawn in Shrigley’s signature childlike style (for example a cloaked executioner on a boring bus ride), possess both an inherent Dadaistic quality and an obvious socio-political subtext.  Taken cumulatively, however, Shrigley’s comic illustrations and words have the effect of a miraculous mental booster drug, or perhaps it’s a cure for limited perception.    Oct 2011     



The Threads of the Heart 

Starred review

Carole Martinez, Author

 trans. from the French by Howard Curtis. Europa, $17 (416p) ISBN 978-1-60945-087-8

Spanning southern Spain to Algeria, this mythic family tale follows a roving band of women through the amazing story of magical seamstress Frasquita Carasco, who, among other miracles, uses her otherworldly powers to raise the dead. Thanks to a box containing arcane secrets passed down by her mother, Frasquita is capable of cryptic incantations that unleash primeval forces. Her daily life, however, is one of poverty and hardship. The family gambled away to a wealthy landowner by a reckless husband with a passion for cock fighting, Frasquita and her children eventually flee their miserable existence in a remote Spanish desert town, embarking on an odyssey across the mountains, where they take up with a band of revolutionaries. The multifaceted panoply of terrifying or inspiring characters who inhabit this harsh, mystical universe—from a crafty, pontificating pedophile who is also a skilled physician to a Catalan anarchist leader whose ravaged face Frasquita must reconstruct—are worthy of the very best of Márquez or even the darkest García Lorca. The author’s prose is perfectly calibrated, riffing seamlessly between the enchanting lyricism of Frasquita’s matrilineal clan and far more somber realities. Frasquita’s daughter, Angela, was born with chicken feathers and a voice that can stir clergymen into lustful passions or raise the downtrodden masses. Like the desert that occupies so much of Martinez’s mesmerizing narrative, the author’s prose is uncompromising, stark, and often brutal: “The people were roaring beneath the child’s voice, and the captain was asking his questions, and the guard was cutting Salvador’s face, gashing the cheeks, digging into the lines, attacking the muscle, widening the mouth, carving the features.” Recurring themes, like ostracism and social injustice—in short the intolerable atrocities perpetuated by human beings on their own kind—are deftly and fluently addressed throughout this sad and magnificent debut. Martinez has crafted a singular and engrossing masterpiece of magical realism that stretches even the virtually limitless boundaries of the genre. (Jan.)


by Marcel Beyer, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, $26 (352p)

Starred review

This mesmerizing foray into postwar Germany by one of the country’s most celebrated authors (Spies) is both a singularly researched work of historicized fiction with an ornithological bent and a post-modern exercise in which the narrator begins to question the very nature of memory. Falling under the harpy-like wing of the famed ornithologist Ludwig Kaltenburg as a young boy, Hermann Funk is randomly sought out by translator Katharina Fischer years after his mentor’s death.  Reviving old memories over the course of their conversations, Funk attempts to piece together the puzzle of Kaltenburg’s existence in East Germany, as well as a mysterious stretch of time during the war when the celebrated naturalist was a member of the Nazi party.  Modeled after the controversial ethologist Konrad Lorenz, godfather of modern behavioral science, the towering figure of Kaltenburg is only one compelling character in Beyer’s cast.  As Kaltenburg’s life intersects with those of other brilliant misfits, like the artist Martin Spengler and Funk’s own Proust-obsessed wife Klara, who retreats into complicated literary fabrications on any given social occasion, Beyer paints an engrossing and terrifying picture of Dresden during the war and later under the Soviet yoke.  However it is in the complex interpolation of daily memories—sometimes fused or distorted in a Proustian vein—with highly detailed ornithological observations peppered throughout that Beyer’s work achieves its exquisitely unique flavor.  April 2012    


All My Friends

by Marie NDiaye, trans. from the French by Jordan Stump. Two Lines (PGW, dist.), $14.95 trade paper (140p) ISBN 978-1-931883-23-8

Starred review. PW Pick.

 Inhabiting the tense, anxiety-riddled interstices where things fall apart, the five stories in this collection don't follow each other so much as collide like objects in a literary maelstrom, achieving a dizzying terminal velocity. NDiaye, who received France's most prestigious literary prize for Three Powerful Women and may be that nation's most startling new literary voice, brings to life an electrifying rogue's gallery of social outcasts, disgruntled wives, and loony strivers. Among them, an Internet-savvy farmer's wife who gives up her attractive son for some steady income, in "The Boys," as seen through the eyes of another child who craves nothing more than to be sold off himself; a penniless actress attempting to leave her abject, devoted husband, in "Brulard's Day," in a swanky alpine resort town; a collision of two old friend who once shared a passion for a popular singer in a decrepit suburb, in "The Death of Claude François." Stump's perfectly calibrated translation captures the rich timbre and fearsome bite of NDiaye's chiseled prose. Empathy may not be NDiaye's strong suit—she prefers a kind of lacerating sincerity—but that may be the price to pay for such lucid and affecting stories. (May)

Reviewed on: 03/18/2013
Release date: 05/01/2013


by Alan Grostephan. Northwestern Univ./TriQuarterly

$17.95 trade paper (224p) ISBN 978-0-8101-5230-4

Starred review

With unflinching brutality and rawness, this remarkably executed debut novel achieves a highly original, catchy prose—often mingling Spanish slang throughout its hardboiled, supercharged narrative. Thirteen-year-old Hernán lives in a small backwater town in the jungle but is forced to move to a slum outside Bogota with his family after his father, the riverboat driver Wilfredo, barely survives an attempted lynching by a vengeful posse made up of villagers who resent him for escorting murderous paramilitary rebels. As his family goes to pieces, Hernán falls in with the wrong crowd and gets la Coca, a neighborhood girl, pregnant. While studying for a university entrance exam, he is forced to resort to various indignities such as stealing a set of Encyclopedias from a local school and begging on buses. Despite the focus on Hernán, the novel follows each member of the displaced family and their variegated efforts to make do, and the multifaceted stories flow seamlessly, helped by the author’s evocative, layered prose. “They were drunk on no occasion, feeling vicious and hungry, like rats or water moccasins in the low light of the dangling bulb that had turned brown somehow, as if full of water and covering them in a sandy texture.” From the relentless sexual exploitation of female workers by an albino factory manager to the various backbreaking endeavors of Hernán’s father who wanders through the country dazed and confused in a kind of self-imposed exile taking on miserable jobs for no apparent reason, the author’s focus on the downtrodden feels uniquely visceral and real. (July)

Reviewed on: 04/29/2013
Release date: 06/01/2013


Demolishing Nisard

by Eric Chevillard, Dalkey Archive Press $13.95 (144p)


This whimsical broadside directed against the 19th Century traditionalist litérateur Désiré Nisard by Eric Chevillard (The Crab Nebula) is the equivalent of a Gallic smack-down: a fun, highly staged, fantastical vaudeville act, complete with the requisite salvos directed at Nisard’s ancestry, birth, sexual proclivities, and of course his entire unfortunate literary legacy.  On one hand, Demolishing Nisard is nothing if not an earnest endeavor, as the erstwhile critic’s “disseminated ideas mingle with the air around us just as the atoms of his decomposed corpse mingled with the earth,” but this manifesto is both a cathartic rant and a tongue-in-cheek quest, as our all-consumed narrator sets out single-mindedly to unearth an elusive copy of Nisard’s “lascivious tale,” A Milkmaid Succumbs. “Nisard’s ribaldry bespeaks clearly enough the poverty of his imagination: his very libido inspires in him only the most pitifully banal sort of fantasy.” Aided by Jordan Stump’s truly vivacious translation, which captures equally both the verve and the tomfoolery of the original, this tragicomic manifesto reads like a good farce peppered with some heartfelt cultural criticism and a copious serving of existential angst. August 2011            


Drifting House

by Krys Lee, Viking, $25.95 (207p)

Starred review


 In this sublime debut collection spanning both Koreas and America, protagonists locked in by oppressive social forces struggle to break free in original ways, each unexpected denouement a minor miracle (The Goose Father) or a perfect tragedy (Drifting House), as the case may be. In A Small Sorrow, Seongwon, the wife of a famous painter, herself an artist, tracks down her husband’s latest lover (a character who later appears as a young girl in a subsequent story, Beautiful Women) to explore her own attraction and re-invent herself appropriately. Seeing Mina up close for the first time, Seongwon notes: “Her face, bright and alert, diminished the garden’s gingko trees and surrounding mountains into a mere landscape.” The author’s imaginative metaphors and easy rhythmic variances are unerring, carrying the reader effortlessly. In The Pastor’s Son, “New Mother,” the aging second wife of a widower, crushed by her clergyman husband’s abuse, “weaved out of the hall, her face volcanic with misery.” In The Goose Father, a poet-turned-accountant falls in love with a young thespian who believes a lame goose is his dead mother. After nearly kissing the boy’s tendered lips, Gilho slaps his protégé instead. “Wuseong staggered backward, his hand cupping his cheek. Gilho’s chest tightened like the beginning of a heart attack. A terrible loneliness spiked through him as he looked at the boy.” The limpid, naturalistic prose and the flawless internal logic of these poignant stories distinguish this chronicle of life-changing snippets, reminiscent of the best of Katherine Anne Porter and Carson McCullers. Feb 2012


True Things About Me

by Deborah Kay Davies, Faber and Faber, Inc.  $14 (224p)

This unabashedly predictable tale of abuse by Deborah Kay Davies (Things you Think I Don’t Know) leaves no flagstone unturned, but positively sings with the most delectable and, yes, catchy prose—whimsical, witty, and sizzling.  During one of her frequent moments of downtime, the nameless woman who gets bowled over by a nameless man in a nameless bureaucracy (and pays the price) describes her efforts cooking chicken from the disembodied perspective which is most frequently hers: “Oh Delia, I told her, of course. We don’t want them to frigging steam, after all. This is about caramelisation. La, la, and thrice la, she sang, swooping and banking up by the fluorescent light strip. It verily is.” Referring to her flighty self in the third person or as a wholly separate protagonist and engaging in brilliant mirror-image monologues gives this book an Alice in Wonderland feel, though of course in this case Alice is being copiously served; taken to the cleaners, persistently humiliated and then some.  Nose-diving too easily into the role of victim at the expert hands of the irresistible and exploitative “Mr Blond” seems an excusable device in the case of this doleful exposé, which functions almost equally as a romantic pot-boiler for the masochistically inclined, if only because the ensuing description of a woman coming apart at the seams and then crying for more is quite unmatched. “I longed to see him. When I woke up in the morning the longing woke up too, like a strange creature on my bed.  The feeling moved up from inside my pelvis and settled in my throat.” Ouch.   July 2011


Northwest Corner

by John Burnham Schwartz, Random House, $26 (304p)


The hallowed literary tradition which consists in rendering the middle-class American male as a teetering edifice on the verge of moral meltdown, yet struggling to reconstruct, has found its latest, and arguably most adept contemporary practitioner with John Burnham Schwartz (Reservation Road).  Like Johnny Hake and Harry Angstrom before him, Dwight Arno is a man who has done wrong.  An athletic tax lawyer disbarred in his own state of Connecticut after a hit and run accident which kills a boy, he does not expect a chance at redemption, but it arrives in the form of his son, Sam, who makes a mad dash across the country and shows up at his estranged father’s front door after getting in a vicious bar fight that puts a stop to his dreams of baseball stardom.  Pontificating discourses and folksy aphoristic language masquerading as stream-of-consciousness mar the narrative at times, injecting a sanctimonious streak, but this is really the author’s only flaw.  Schwartz is exceptional at describing the chemistry of desire, building emotional tension, and making all his characters resonate much more like flesh and blood relatives than fictional constructs. As a pure-bred prose stylist, Schwartz is practically peerless in the contemporary literary landscape.  Imaginative and taut, his writing is seamless and seemingly infinitely inspired. JBS is a force to be reckoned with. July 2011  




by Jenny Erpenbeck, New Directions $14.95 (192p)


In this highly original and evocative novel of place, Jenny Erpenbeck (The Book of Words) sets out to chart the history of a property in the Brandenburg hills through snippets—temporarily  opened windows offering a brief, imperfect glimpse of complete strangers—which then shut with a harsh, unrelenting finality.  There is Doris, a Jewish girl murdered after being freighted to the Warsaw ghetto during the Holocaut, a disillusioned communist activist who leaves Nazi Germany and then returns following WW2, an architect who collaborated with Albert Speers on the Germania Project, two hard-partying structural engineering students who try to escape to the West, and so on.  Amidst all these protagonists, there is the recurring figure of “The Gardener," who silently and stoically goes about the bucolic business of maintaining the grounds and the property with unwavering application.  How all these lives actually mesh, beyond their shared connection to the political upheavals that marked 20th Century Germany, is never obvious.  The author’s elliptical style, rife with naturalistic descriptions of the landscape and geology around this Bavarian redoubt, is better at delving into bodily processes than describing the emotional life of her characters, but it brilliantly renders her basic point—that people are part of the same continuum as the trees and glaciers that come and go over eons, and that “eternal life already exists during a human lifetime.”     Sep 2010





by John Reimringer, Milkweed Editions, $25 (432p)



In this potent debut about a wayward yet devout young priest who struggles to reconcile his faith with the pervasive longings of the flesh, John Reimringer has crafted a suspenseful, illuminating and highly readable saga.  James Dressler, a Catholic working-class kid from Saint Paul with a brutish, roughneck father who is fond of igniting barroom brawls and a mother who’s a “piece of work,” sees the holy Roman Church as both his salvation and his moral compass. Following his ordination, James gets assigned to Pretty Prairie Parish, next to his friend and fellow priest Mick, a cynical, ambitious skirt-chaser. James joins an old boy’s club, a poker group run by fellow priests, and the internecine conflicts and accommodations within the clergy are artfully depicted, as are James’ efforts to square his earthly cravings with his priestly station—he’s basically a regular guy who loves sports, drinking, and yearns for female companionship. Soon enough, James ends up in trouble with the Chancery, and goes back to Saint Paul to reassess his life, where an old flame awaits. Reimringer excels, most notably, at revealing how the sensual delectations of Catholic ritual and the forbidden delights of the flesh are really part of the same continuum—sin and repentance feeding inexorably off each other.      Sep 10



The Bigness of the World


by Lori Ostlund, The University of Georgia Press, $24.95 (214p)


Starred review



This remarkable debut collection by veteran short-story writer Lori Ostlund deftly navigates the shoals of decaying relationships in which the protagonists generally escape to faraway lands in order to find themselves, or, at the very least, their elusive partners.  The quest is always fruitless, and the intricate dance of emotions along with the self-conscious analysis which occasionally saddles these lovers is  ever so pitilessly rendered.  Fate, for a globe-trotting teacher-entrepreneur, takes the form of an untimely bird dropping.  In Bed Death, it is a Malay waitress who casually takes a sip of orange juice from the narrator’s glass.  Ostlund’s artful prose is both playful and casually illuminating, evocative and unsentimental.  When Felicity, a cat judge, returns from Japan mysteriously bald, her girlfriend remarks: “the chilly desert air seemed to startle her as though, in that moment, she realized that there was a price to be paid for having no hair, and while I still said nothing, I was happy to see her suffer just a bit.” Ostlund’s protagonists do share a pervasive, somewhat anachronistic tendency to militate for good English usage, but even those repeated grammatical forays are never forced; rather the habit informs the action in unexpected ways.    Like Paul Bowles, who uses exotic locales to map an intimate archipelago of desperation and loss, Ostlund’s territories, and her (usually same-sex) couples are universal, as are the decomposing relationships she describes slipping inexorably into an abyss of failed expectations.  A relentless disenchantment inhabits all these stories, even the ones focused on childhood, but it is only the disenchantment of the uncompromising romantic who must compose with the evaporative nature of love, which despite all remains a sustaining force, a crumbling but resilient barrier against the subsuming steamroller of convention.  Oct 15, 2009

The End (one of my favorite novels of the last decade)

by Salvatore Scibona,  Graywolf Press

Starred review

The Italian immigrants in this exceptional debut collide and collapse in a polyphonic narrative that is part novel, part epic prose poem spanning the first half of the 20th century. Costanza Marini, a Cleveland widow who performs abortions of such a high grade that clinicians come take stock of her methods, has decided, among other aspirations, to save Lina, her young seamstress protégée and heiress, from spinsterhood. Intersecting sporadically with the machinations of Mrs. Marini during the sweltering feast of the Assumption is Rocco, the baker of the Italian community of Elephant Park, who is poised to leave his parochial Midwestern enclave for the first time to seek out his lost family. In doing so, he must face America and eventually ends up adrift near the Canadian border while looking for “the New Jersey.” Rocco, whose fate, regrettably, is never explicated, inhabits (and narrates) the novel’s radiant beginning and is emblematic of both Scibona’s calibrated precision and the story’s potent humanity. This ravenous prose offers its share of challenges, but Scibona’s portrayal of the lost world of Elephant Park is a literary tour de force. (May 08) 





by Christopher Rush, Overlook



Part literary genesis, part historical thriller, the latest from Rush (A Twelvemonth and a Day, etc.) is an ambitious fresco brimming with bawdy luridness and graphic violence.  Rush channels the first-person voice of the world's greatest writer, as a bedridden Will Shakespeare dictates his actual will to a gluttonous lawyer, recounting barbarous Renaissance times—from the plague-ridden streets of “sweltering Stratford” to gory slaughterhouse days before landing his first job at the Rose Theatre, through to the “Bloody Mary burnings” and tortures of the Counter-Reformation (“Ignore the nipples crisped and torn off with white-hot pincers.  Ignore the tender tongue, sensitive as a snail, quivering in the vice, while long needles go savagely to work”). Rush doesn’t hesitate to tackle contentious areas of the Bard's enigmatic life, including his unrelenting anticlericalism, the connection to assassinated rival Christopher Marlowe, and the reasons for a master dramatist's turn to sonneteering. Rush singes the senses with descriptions of burning heretics, treacherously butchered bovines (“murder most foul”) and detailed descriptions of intimate body parts. More Rabelaisian in some of its ribald descriptions than Shakespearian (who tended to write less literally, in a somewhat more allegorical vein), the novel occasionally becomes decidedly didactic in parts, as when Will dissects his own Twelth Night.  Nevertheless, this voracious soliloquy isn’t merely a highly researched feat of scholarly imagination, it is fairly bursting with life.  (Sep 08)

Non-Fiction Reviews: 


The Fate of Africa: A History of Fifty Years of Independence

by Martin Meredith.  Public Affairs 

Publishers Weekly

(starred review)

The value of Meredith's towering history of modern Africa rests not so much in its incisive analysis, or its original insights; it is the sheer readability of the project, combined with a notable lack of pedantry, that makes it one of the decade's most important works on Africa. Spanning the entire continent, and covering the major upheavals more or less chronologically—from the promising era of independence to the most recent spate of infamies (Rwanda, Darfur, Zimbabwe, Liberia, Sierra Leone)—Meredith (In the Name of Apartheid) brings us on a journey that is as illuminating as it is grueling. The best chapters, not surprisingly, deal with the countries that Meredith knows intimately: South Africa and Zimbabwe; he is less convincing when discussing the francophone West African states. Nowhere is Meredith more effective than when he gives free rein to his biographer's instincts, carefully building up the heroic foundations of national monuments like Nasser, Nkrumah, and Haile Selassie—only to thoroughly demolish those selfsame mythical edifices in later chapters. In an early chapter dealing with Biafra and the Nigerian civil war, Meredith paints a truly horrifying picture, where opportunities are invariably squandered, and ethnically motivated killings and predatory opportunism combine to create an infernal downward spiral of suffering and mayhem (which Western intervention only serves to aggravate). His point is simply that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely—which is why the rare exceptions to that rule (Senghor and Mandela chief among them) are all the more remarkable. Whether or not his pessimism about the continent's future is fully warranted, Meredith's history provides a gripping digest of the endemic woes confronting the cradle of humanity. (July)


The Disposable American: Layoffs and Their Consequences

by Louis Uchitelle. Knopf

Publishers Weekly

Devoting a book to the necessity of preserving jobs might just be an exercise in futility in this age of deregulation and outsourcing, but veteran New York Times business reporter Uchitelle manages to make the case that corporate responsibility should entail more than good accounting and that six (going on seven) successive administrations have failed miserably in protecting the American people from greedy executives, manipulative pension fund managers, leveraged buyouts and plain old bad business practices. In the process, he says, we've gone from a world where job security, benevolent interventionism and management/worker loyalty were taken for granted to a dysfunctional, narcissistic and callous incarnation of pre-Keynesian capitalism. The resulting "anxious class" now suffers from a host of frightening ills: downward mobility, loss of self-esteem, transgenerational trauma and income volatility, to name a few. Uchitelle animates his arguments through careful reporting on the plight of laid-off Stanley Works toolmakers and United Airlines mechanics. Descriptions of their difficulties are touching and even tragic; they are also, alas, laborious and repetitive. And Uchitelle's solutions are not entirely convincing: neither forcing companies to abide by a "just cause" clause when they fire someone, for instance, nor doubling the minimum wage are likely to increase employment. Yet Uchitelle's basic argument—that no American government has taken significant steps to curb "the unwinding of social value" caused by corporate greed— is all too accurate. (March 2007) 


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