Category Archives: review

From the Beginning

The American People

Larry Kramer’s The American People: Volume 1: Search for My Heart has drawn as much praise as it has criticism.

It is the first in a planned trilogy by the iconic American author and activist. Some critics claim the book is sure to become a new “American classic.” Others wonder whether the novel’s gargantuan size and impenetrable prose merit its phenomenal praise. Publisher’s Weekly called the book “consistently frustrating” as Kramer’s sprawling and incendiary story is weighed down by verbose backstories and a litany of characters who come and go. In The New Yorker, David Leavitt said we must “celebrate… the nerve” of The American People whether or not we value the stylistic and literary merit of the entire volume.

One thing everyone can agree on is that AIDS activist Larry Kramer has spent a lifetime using his voice loudly and unapologetically.

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Love the Player, Love the Game

Baldur's Gate Matt Bell

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Matt Bell’s newest book, Baldur’s Gate II: Shadows of Amn is at once a memoir, a lecture on storycraft, an apology, and a love letter to the classic Dungeons & Dragons video game. It comes to us from Boss Fight Books, which specializes in “great books about classic video games.” So if the names Imoen, Jaheria, Aerie, Viconia, Korgan Bloodaxe, Minsc and Boo the miniature giant space hamster mean anything to you, you’ve come to the right place.

We are said to be living in the new golden age of literary science fiction. Video games are supposed to be fine art now. Dungeon masters are our new literary celebrities. These days, you can go to any MFA program in the country and hear people drop references to Ursula LeGuin, Margaret Atwood and even Robert fucking Jordan. So why do I still feel a twinge of embarrassment at the mention of D&D?

The question of shame lies at the heart of this book. Bell chronicles not only his most recent playthrough of the game—a task that takes him 100+ hours and gives the book its structure—but also the shame he remembers of being a D&D kid:

When I was growing up, almost everything I loved was deeply uncool and embarrassing, and so I learned, year by year, to hide more of that part of me away. To pretend I was not into fantasy and science fiction and Dungeons & Dragons. To never talk about computer games in class or on the school bus.

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Sixteen Writers on the State of My Uterus

Selfish Shallow and Self-Absorbed

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I began to seriously question whether or not I want to have kids one Wednesday at 9 p.m. while having my hair checked for lice. I was sitting in a black swivel chair, wearing a leopard-print hairdresser cape, as an older woman meticulously worked through my scalp with mint-scented conditioner, baking soda, and a fine-tooth comb.

For the past six months, since completing my MFA, I have been working as a nanny for a five-year-old girl to support my writing habit. The reason babysitters get paid as much as they do is because taking care of kids is hard. While my hours don’t come close to those of an actual parent, this sort of babysitting––working one-on-one with the same child, five days a week, for months––is much different than rolling in on Friday night, making popcorn, throwing on a movie, and then reading for three hours while the kids sleep. Instead, you get the whole range: highs, lows, joys, frustrations, emotional drain, and exposure to lice. Call it Parenting Lite. I’ve spent much time thinking about how, if writing while babysitting is challenging, could I ever be a writer and also an actual parent?

Meghan Daum has edited a collection of essays that addresses this topic: Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids. Everyone is supposed to want to have kids. If people choose not to have kids, they often feel compelled to come up with an excuse: they can’t afford it, they had a messed up childhood, they don’t like kids, or they aren’t able to have children. “When people ask why I don’t have kids,” writes Elliott Holt, “I sometimes say, ‘I’m forty; that ship has sailed.’ Or I say, ‘I’m focused on producing books, not children.’ Or, ‘I can’t afford to have a child on my own.’ That’s all true, it’s just not the full story.”

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They’ll Get Theirs

Go To Hells

Dante’s Inferno was written in the 14th century.

“Since then,” as the authors of Go To Hells kindly remind us, “there have been no new updates.” To our understanding of the geography of hell, that is.

When you put it like that, this book seems incredibly necessary.

Internet Trolls, ATM Lurkers, Reply All-ers, Cable Company Executives—none of these people existed in Dante’s day. Where in hell are we supposed to put them? Kali V. Roy and Jesse Riggle made it their mission to find out. In light verse accompanied by grimly comical illustrations, the creators of Go To Hells expand the layout of the fiery pit, and even tidy the place up a bit.

Roommates who eat all your soup? They’ll spend eternity eating Irish Spring soap. People who recount their boring dreams? They’ll have to listen to Ben Stein read Ayn Rand’s books aloud—forever. “Baby Puppeteers” whose idea of humor is making a baby wave her arms? They’ll have Satan’s hand up their ass as his own private marionette. Continue reading

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Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper

Etta and Otto and Russell and James

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Sometimes I just want to start walking. To pick a direction and continue until there isn’t land to walk on anymore. I’ve had this itch in the soles of my feet for a long time and am usually able to ignore it but sometimes it flares. When I hear of a friend completing the 800-kilometer Camino de Santiago across Spain, for example, or of coworkers cycling across Cuba on their vacation, I can feel it in my feet. And I’m not the only one. Just last year the idea of a woman walking was narrative enough to drive Reese Witherspoon in Wild and Mia Wasikowska in Tracks. You don’t really have to be escaping anything to justify picking up and leaving your life. You might just be the type of woman who is always looking to go.

Emma Hooper speaks to this desire in her debut novel Etta and Otto and Russell and James. Etta is a woman of 82 living on the Saskatchewan prairie who begins to walk toward the ocean. She has never been to the water and though the Pacific is closer, she goes east. She leaves a note for her husband Otto, promising she’ll try to remember to come back. Etta is accompanied only by a coyote whom she meets along the way and names James. Complicating it all is Etta and Otto’s neighbour and lifelong friend Russell, who decides that if Otto won’t go after Etta, then he will. As Etta walks, Hooper reveals the origins Etta and Otto and Russell’s connections with one another. We learn how the three came together and what they lost along the way.

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The Race Pervert

The Sellout

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Near the beginning of Jurassic Park, the scientist played by Laura Dern plunges her arms into a gigantic pile of triceratops shit. When I first saw this, I had a gut reaction: “Ew, no! Don’t touch that! It’s shit!” But as the scene goes on, Laura Dern makes it clear that her character is a professional. She studies shit for a living. This is her milieu. We viewers are—like the triceratops shit itself—in good hands.

The Sellout is a novel about racism. Huge, steaming, stinking piles of racism. Racism so ugly and insidious that you want to shiver and walk away. But as readers we are in good hands, because Paul Beatty is a professional—knowledgeable, passionate, and easygoing. Characters in Beatty’s novel call his protagonist a “race reactionary” and a “race pervert.” But you and I might call Beatty the world’s foremost connoisseur of racism.

The Sellout has a plot, which I will describe for you because plots are an important way to begin a conversation about a story, but honestly, the plot of The Sellout is a shambles. It’s a wreck. Scan any page of The Sellout and, if you’re lucky, you might find a couple of paragraphs with topic sentences that mention the overall plot. Everything else will be the kind of extended, wisecracking riff that has characterized Beatty’s fiction ever since his first foray into prose (he started out as a slam poetry champion) with The White Boy Shuffle. But with The Sellout, surely, Beatty’s style of back-talking his own story has found its apotheosis—if this novel were any more digressive it would crumble like the clumps of lint in your dryer.

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A New Heart

In the Heart of the Heart of the Country

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NYRB Classics has just released a new edition of William H. Gass’s In the Heart of the Heart of the Country. Gass, one of the greatest prose writers of the past century, only has one short story collection, this one, which was originally published in 1968.

Of the five stories, written over the course of a decade or more, three—“Mrs. Mean”, “The Pederson Kid”, and the title story—are among the best you will ever have the chance to read. Masterpieces of language and introspection, the stories have a unique cadence and complete aesthetic that, once you pick it up, carries you, like Beckett, like Faulkner, like Shakespeare (the Murderers’ Row of language lovers), through its idiosyncratic passages to the end.

Gass is, hands down, the greatest living essayist in the English language. He writes essays like poets write poems: not a word out of place, not a phrase unpolished, still thematically taut and as swift and adhering to the logic of argument as any. Continue reading

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Benny & Jenny

Book of Ages

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Jane Franklin raised twelve children, as well as several grandchildren and great-grandchildren, in colonial America. She lived in poverty for most of her life, stitching bonnets and managing a boarding house to make ends meet. Her brother Benjamin was one of the most successful men of his generation, a printer, postmaster, essayist, inventor, newspaper publisher, writer of Poor Richard’s Almanac, the most famous scientist on the planet, signer of the Declaration of Independence, representative in France during the Revolutionary War, and a participant in the creation of the Constitution of the United States, among many other things. Although their two lives diverged dramatically, they each remained one of the other’s closest friends, or as Jill Lepore puts it in Book of Ages: The Life and Opinions of Jane Franklin, “He loved no one longer. She loved no one better.”

By the time I first learned that this book was being written I was already a big fan of Lepore’s (see, for example, her work in the New Yorker), and also already something of a Ben Franklin obsessive. It is a pleasure to report that Book of Ages is a strange and remarkable accomplishment. In less than 270 pages, Book of Ages does quadruple duty. (1) It tells the tale of Jane Franklin, her experiences through the American Revolution, and the views that she developed through her difficult, often tragic life. (2) It explores how Benjamin Franklin’s work was influenced by his lifelong relationship with his sister. (3) Even more, Book of Ages ends up being about the colonial world inhabited by people like Jane Franklin, common folk neither rich, nor famous, nor advantaged, nor fortunate. (4) More still, it is a book about history writing itself. Given how little remains of Jane Franklin’s correspondence, it is fascinating to watch Lepore weave together what does exist into a full narrative.

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