Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Review of Books (short works)

Having a new baby around isn't particularly conducive to reading thick novels or delving into lengthy essays. Baby Nico adds to my life in untold ways, but long lazy days of reading simply ain't one of them.

These days, I'm reading almost exclusively short works - stories, magazine articles, poems and essays - that can be digested in a single setting. I have a half-dozen such books stashed around the house in various places. I haven't finished a single one of the books on this list, but whenever a spare moment arises, I jump in fresh.

The 16 stories in Michael Faber's collection Vanilla Bright Like Eminem move at a rapid speed as they open small and invariably shocking windows into the lives of their misfit characters, something like a Scottish version of the stories of Flannery O'Connor. Faber's command of the form is as prodigious as his imagination. Stories transform on a dime from fantastic to terrifying, and yet most of the characters come across as ordinary people who are poorly equipped to deal with their harrowing circumstances. Some of the stories are quite successful - For example, “A Hole With Two Ends” is a tale of two business people who have a sudden extraordinarily violent encounter in the Scottish Highlands - and some are less so, but as a whole the collection is compelling and powerful.

I'm a fan of Luc Sante, the cultural critic, historian, and prose craftsman who wrote Low Life, the exceedingly brilliant history of underclass New York City. His book of essays, Kill All Your Darlings, published in 2007, covers a wide range of topics - everything from the etymology of the word "dope" to the birth of the blues to a character analysis of Bob Dylan - but he still comes most alive when writing about New York. The wonderfully rich essays include reflections on the Lower East Side in the 1970's, a first hand account of the 1988 Tompkins Square Park riots, and — ever a connoisseur of con men — a pair of meditations on two quintessentially New York monsters: John Gotti and Rudolph Giuliani.

Anyone interested in the current state of publishing owes it to themselves to read McSweeney's Quarterly Concern on a regular basis. Despite the regular sound bites about the "death of publishing," the good people at McSweeney's prove over and over again that there are still a million new and creative ways to publish new and creative writing. As a case in point, I'm currently making my way through issue number 31 in which the editors asked a number of excellent contemporary writers (including Douglas Coupland, Joy Williams, Shelley Jackson and Will Sheff) to create new stories in genres long thought dead (including the Biji, the Nivola, the Graustarkian Romance, and the Socratic Dialogue.) Some experiments are more successful than others, but the entire magazine is entertaining, provocative, and beautifully presented. As always.

Roberto Bolaño's collection Nazi Literature in the Americas takes a huge cue from Borges by inventing a sort of encyclopedia of fictional right wing authors. However, very much unlike Borges, Bolaño's writers live in the real world rather than in the rarefied library. They have adventures, get arrested, meet historical figures, develop insane theories of politics, entertain rabid delusions, and occasionally even meet with terrific success. This is simultaneously a darkly comic celebration of the wilder horizons of writing, and a savage look at a persistent thread in American culture.

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