Nemesis and more...
Joseph Epstein, one of the most admired essayists in American literature, turns his focus to storytelling, here. In these 14 stories, Epstein moves away from the expansive topics of his essays, and presents small-scale vignettes, most of them focusing on post-WWII Jewish life in Chicago. In story after story in this collection, he presents vivid characters, well-paced narratives, perky dialogue and solid plots. Epstein’s achievement is all the more impressive when one considers the constraints he imposes on himself in these stories. Many of his characters are in their 70s or 80s. They have often spent their lives in ho-hum pursuits—selling auto parts or plumbing fixtures—and now have few ambitions or unfulfilled dreams, if they ever did. But they do have regrets, memories and lingering relationships, and these present their own elements of drama and crisis. At an age when most pressing matters should be resolved, his characters still have the capacity to surprise themselves and others. Perhaps the same is true of Epstein, the longstanding master of the essay, who shows here his remarkable talent for fiction. Ted Gioia
Other classics writers fantasy writers like C.S. Lewis, Neil Gaiman, and J.K. Rowling have yanked this rabbit out of the hat, but Lev Grossman succeeds in creating a fully realized 21st century America and a new kind of portal into a dark and forbidding world of adventure. No train rides to Hogwarts or clothing storage opening out into Narnia here. Grossman pulls his protagonist into a much more forbidding place, a world of magic that is also a world of adolescent illusions, the rocky shoals of modern sexual relationships, and the frightening possibilities of vast power in the hands of the morally immature. Grossman has succeeded in doing for the world of Narnia and Hogwarts what Stephen Donaldson did with Middle Earth. The Magicians exposes the secret poisons of those too-beloved narratives, the dangers of being haunted by dreams of fantastic worlds. W. Scott Poole
Vietnam veteran Karl Marlantes started writing his grungy epic Matterhorn back in 1975, when the scars of his service as a Marine, not to mention the home-front stigma it engendered, were probably not quite healed. That raw, nerve-shredded intensity stutters all through this overwhelming novel, where violence and fear pulse like blood and tiny flickers of humanity flare all the brighter. Marlantes’ hero, a lowly second lieutenant named Mellas, shows up on a muddy, cruddy firebase near the DMZ hoping to win some honor and find out what he’s made of. From the minute his boots squelch into the mud, Mellas’s ideals and goals are knocked down one after the other. Mellas’s parsing the difficulties of inter-squad politics, racial enmity, paralyzing uncertainty, the eternal stupidity and venality of commanding officers, and the rushing bloody terror of close quarters combat is rendered by Marlantes with the poetic passion of fine literature and the exactitude of the greatest war reportage. Chris Barsanti
You can hear the echoes of Roth’s lengthier masterpieces here, particularly The Plot Against America, which shares the same setting—Newark, New Jersey during World War II—and sense of perpetual fear caused by lurking, unseen antagonists. While that 2004 novel dwelt on anti-Semitism and its effects on a family in a history drastically different from our own, Nemesis details an epidemic and nationwide panic closer to the history we know. In 1944, thousands died of polio in states like New York, North Carolina and Kentucky; Newark was not necessarily ground zero for the disease but, in the vein of the novel’s terrified awareness of chance, it easily could have been. Like the fictional Roth family in The Plot Against America,Nemesis’ Bucky Cantor (a name that alludes to the costumed sidekick of Captain America who appeared in the super-patriot’s 1941 debut as a teenage boy wonder fighting Nazis) sees danger at every turn of the corner in his once-safe neighborhood. The systems of belief in Nemesis, as in so many of Roth’s works, are very much like the surfaces upon which we gaze: the asphalt of a playground, a lake under moonlight, its diving board, the porch of a house earned by the goodness of a future father-in-law, the cold tile of a hospital floor. How can we be surprised when these turn out to be mirrors, when our case against God swells into the case against ourselves? Robert Loss
To review Elizabeth Hardwick transcends the presumptuous: you may as well announce your critical opinion of Shakespeare. This comparison may seem grandiose. In defense I offer Hardwick’s writing. Hardwick’s skill lays a strong foundation for the book’s theme: New York stories, dated from the ‘40s through the ‘90s. While times may have changed, Hardwick’s work remains surprisingly fresh. The people of her New York may have worn hats and gloves, and somehow survived sans texting or twittering, yet theirs are the same desires and shallow gestures found in today’s endless stream of New York novels. Selfish, self-serving, cheap, foolish, forever on the prowl for undeserved success—these are Hardwick’s New Yorkers. She spares them nothing, and in so doing, crafts a timeless collection of work. Shove your vampire books and summer beach romances aside and open these pages for a bracing dose of the real thing. Diane Leach