My two-bits on what I’ve read the last month-plus, in no particular order:
THERE IS NO YEAR, Blake Butler: Harper Perennial is putting out daring, fantastic fiction, and this first novel (Scorch Atlas is a novel in stories, I suppose, but let’s stick with the first novel thing here) from the talented Butler is no exception. Bleak and visionary, the avalanche of dark, surrealistic imagery doesn’t stop. And this book about a family moving into a house occupied by a copy-family goes onto to further flights of bizarre fancy from there. Clearly inspired by my favorite novel, HOUSE OF LEAVES (as Butler’s house is expansive, though in a more introverted way) it’s hard not to compare the two books. My only complaint–a small one–is that I was too often aware of HoL while reading. Regardless, recommended for readers of dark/weird.
CAPE COD NOIR, edited by David J. Ulin: Full disclosure, I have one story in this (“19 Snapshots of Dennisport”). I loved the variety of takes on what noir can be. Many of the tales dwell on class/cultural clashes with the summer help, year ’rounders, and well off tourists, with William Hastings’s “Ten Year Plan” as the perfect opener. I suspect noir purists may not like the genre bending/stretching of some of the stories, but I found it to be refreshing. Push them boundaries!
EMILY, ALONE, by Stewart O’Nan: O’Nan further cements his status as one of our greatest living novelists. The story follows widowed, 80 year-old Emily Maxwell (the matriarch of his earlier novel, WISH YOU WERE HERE) through a year in her life, living alone in Pittsburgh. So moving without being sentimental. I had the somewhat weird experience of split personality while reading this. For much of the book, I was so inside Emily’s head, but there were other times when I was one of her kids (wanting to argue with her about politics and such, like I’ve done so many times with my own family).The book is subtle and human and should be up for every award possible.
KNOCKEMSTIFF, Donald Ray Pollock: These are truly short stories of the down and out. Sick, funny, and really sad too. Almost hard to take all at once, but then again, that’s how I read them. Every story takes place in and around the crumbling Midwestern American town. Any writer interested on how to mine empathy from ugly, damaged (but in their own way, beautiful) characters should read this book. Looking forward to Pollock’s novel coming later this summer.
SWAMPLANDIA!, Karen Russell: This novel has garnered considerable buzz, and I’m happy to say the buzz is warranted. Swamplandia is an alligator-wrestling theme park run by the Bigtree family. Ava, the 13 year old daughter, tells most of the tale, as the park and her family disintegrates around her. The writing is simply stunning, and while the ending doesn’t quite work, Ava, the park, and her Bigtree family are unforgettable.
YOU THINK THAT’S BAD, Jim Shepard: Another amazing collection of shorts from the brilliant Shepard. The stories here are often set to meticulously detailed historical backdrops (as in the story about the origin of the first Godzilla movie, a Polish team’s winter climb of Everest, an Alpine researcher pining for his brother’s girlfriend, after the brother died in an avalanche he may or may not have caused). Shepard’s genius is in the details; how he gives enough to the reader–never overwhelms us with info–to breathe life into his amazing characters.
THE ENTERPRISE OF DEATH, Jesse Bullington: Another book, steeped in meticulous research, Jesse uses historical fact and his ravenous intelligence to bring to life his unique brand of magic and mayhem mixed with the harsh realities of a time gone by. Spanish-Inquisition/Renaissance Europe is the backdrop. The novel opens with a young African slave (Awa) is rescued (well, not really) by a necromancer, and forced to be his apprentice. Darkly funny, and often gruesome, Bullington’s story telling talent is all over every page.
THE MARBURY LENS, Andrew Smith: To be fair, I gave up after 40 pages, so I cannot speak much to the plot, or his world-building with Marbury. I gave up because the first 40 pages were unrelentingly homophobic, in my opinion. 16 year old Jack gets drunk and is kidnapped by a male doctor who ties him up and is about rape Jack, before Jack manages to escape. Despite the loving details of the near sexual assault played for chills, I kept reading. Then Jack’s friend calls him a “fag” a bunch of times, and the very next adult male encountered in this book–unbelievably and ridiculously–tries to molest Jack while sitting next him on the plane. Um, yeah. So I stopped reading. Horror and it’s unfortunate history of gay males being represented solely as predatory is alive and well here.