Sam Pulsipher has many problems. Not only did he burn down Emily Dickinson’s home, but he also killed two people. And while he’s married and started to raise a family, the son of the victims begins to make life difficult for him. And then other writers’ homes start to go up in flames. Sam’s fictional memoir, which slavishly obeys the clichés of the genre, is one of the funniest books of this fall. Brock Clarke’s An Arsonist’s Guide to Writers’ Homes in New England unsparingly anatomizes our penchant for narrating our lives—our bizarre insistence that our life doesn’t count until it fits a prepackaged set of cultural conventions. The book is a literary funhouse, and its best trick is how readily Clarke makes us believe in the gag. Sam is such an engaging bumbler that one’s heart goes out to him, one wants to believe in his story, even at those moments when it’s absolutely clear that we’re being had.
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Nigerian-born novelist and poet Chris Abani understands the power of stories. My Luck, Abani’s protagonist in Song for Night, is a 15-year-old boy soldier who has been trained as a sapper. He roams ahead of his comrades, scouting for mines and disabling them, part of a team of children who perform this vital function. Early on in their training, their commanding officer ordered that they have their vocal cords severed so that if one accidentally tripped a mine, “we wouldn’t scare each other with our death screams.” The novella involves a journey beginning immediately after the explosion of a mine that has knocked My Luck out. When he wakes, the other members of his unit are gone. He goes to look for them, wandering through dangerous areas that may or may not be enemy territory. Much of the book reads like a dream. In fact, the novella is as much a prose poem as it is fiction. Abani’s gorgeous, elliptical sentences twine around each other like a profusion of vines tangled together in the tropical landscape. Song for Night is a compelling story of a young man’s search for self-comprehension in the midst of war.
Fans of satirical news will find nothing to be disappointed with in this hilarious collection of stories and images from The Onion news source. Originally published in 1999, the editors define political issues as only The Onion can. Presenting the best fake news stories from the twentieth century, read headlines like “Death-by-Corset Rates Stabilize at One-in-Six” and “Congress Reduces Work Week to 135 Hours”. Always relevant, always thought-provoking, this book makes a great gift to open again and again.
First Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America, now this. In The Yiddish Policeman’s Union, Michael Chabon finally unleashes the genre storyspinner who has been lurking inside him all these years. In the past, Chabon has used his love of genre as inspiration for well-crafted literary fiction, whether it was H. P. Lovecraft (Wonder Boys) or Golden Era comics (The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay). But this is the first time—excepting his so-so Sherlock Holmes pastiche The Final Solution or that comic serial he’s been writing for the New York Times—that he’s really just dove right in and told an entire novel, one worthy of ranking with his best, from a perspective that might not be so welcome on the genteel fiction pages of The New Yorker.
McEwan’s On Chesil Beach, a crisp and pocket-sized novel that takes place—with the exception of a number of flashbacks—over the course of a single summer night in 1962, is as tautly constructed as anything he has written, though sprawling in imagination. It’s emblematic of a generation, a semi-scornful elegy for a repressed age, sarcastic about mores and unrelentingly honest about psychological and sexual intimacy. It’s a big book in a little space.
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