Squirrel Seeks Chipmunk: A Modest Bestiary and more...
A novel that first wallops you across the face before settling in your mind like an unshakable dream, Skippy Dies takes an astringently comic take on the sadness of youth and the disappointment of adulthood while not forgetting that there is something of the magical in the universe, even when seen at its most cold and atheistic. It has some other things to say as well, about the meretricious nature of the modern age and the comic possibilities that occur when white Irish teenagers become infatuated with hip-hop, not to mention the powerplays that unfold in the tightly-scrutinized universe of a school. To say what the novel is about is somewhat limiting, though. Murray’s writing is such that it can’t quite be bounded by description, it must simply be read. Chris Barsanti
In my 11 April 2010 review of Lionel Shriver’s So Much for That, I gave the book a “7” rating. In PopMatters parlance, “7” is damned good, “8” excellent. Since that reading, the book has resonated with me, and grown in stature. The book is exceptional, easily one of 2010’s best. Shriver is one of our finest writers, a woman whose trenchant voice improves with each novel. Shep Knacker and Jackson Burdina are trapped in terrible jobs but desperately need health insurance. Shep’s wife, Glynis, has cancer, while Jackson’s daughter, Flicka, has the rare Familial Dysautonomia. Both diseases are terminal. Shriver writes devastatingly about watching loved ones sicken and die while the medical/insurance complex, with its co-pays, off-formulary drugs, and out-of-pocket costs make getting even basic care nightmarishly difficult. Her characters are amazing inventions; Flicka is a smart, sassy, gleefully macabre teenager. Why bother with algebra homework when death is imminent? Glynis is a sharp, nasty presence whose illness is an excuse to behave abominably while Shep amiably runs himself into the ground. Anybody caring for an ailing loved one or suffering chronic illness will nod grimly at Shriver’s outraged novel, wishing So Much For That were truly only fiction. Diane Leach
David Sedaris isn’t exactly a cruel writer, but there’s something particularly evil-minded about his latest collection of short pieces in which bad things happen to good animals. Envisioned as a kind of comedic bestiary, this short, wince-inducing volume contains a number of stories well-known to the This American Life crowd—though it has to be said, that seeing him read them live is a different experience entirely (those familiar with the shudderingly horrific piece about the too-trusting lamb know what we mean). Interspersed with sharp but fanciful illustrations by Olivia creator Ian Falconer, the stories are mostly satiric sketches of foolhardy humans cast into animal form, living in a natural world with particularly anti-Disney red-in-tooth-and-claw tendencies. The title story in particular, where a naïve chipmunk falls for a mysterious, jazz-loving squirrel, much to the consternation of her family, is as funny and truthful as Sedaris’s autobiographical tales, but dashed with a more sour, knowing sadness.
This is the story of Toland Polk, a young man growing up during “Kennedytime” (that happy precipice upon which the US teetered between the end of the ‘50s and the whirlwind of assassinations and demonstrations of the ‘60s) in the American south, and his struggle coming to terms with his homosexuality. Toland is not the stock character of a bigot who sees the light, but neither is he an outspoken activist. His parents raised him to never call an African American “nigger”, but his father believes it’s been proven that “the negro brain” is inferior to a white man’s. These contradictions define much of Toland’s early childhood, including his relationship with the son of his family’s black handyman who Toland is allowed to play with but can’t bring into the house. These stories are told in one panel but they leap off the page in such a way that they feel like each fill their own book. The stories feel so real they seem to originate in the reader’s brain rather than the author’s imagination. Jeremy Estes
Gary Shteyngart’s third novel is a dense and thick read, making it seem much longer than the 331 pages it takes to unspool. That’s actually meant in a good way, as there’s much to admire about this near-futuristic update of Romeo and Juliet. Shteyngart paints a somewhat bleak portrait of, and yet conversely hilarious take on, where society is heading, a world where the US is seemingly embroiled in endless conflicts with developing world countries such as Venezuela, where the National Guard is camped out on every major street corner, where immortality can be obtained if you have the money for it and everyone is plugged into social networks via a portable handheld device that ranks one on a Hotness index. The true joy, however, is watching the mismatched two lovebirds navigate through this seemingly dystopian landscape, a world where true human emotion and love seems tenuous and halting at best. Super Sad True Love Story is, indeed, just that: a heartwrenching and heartbreaking look of two lives trying to connect across a generational and technological gap. It’s ambitious to mix pathos with humour, but Shteyngart deftly succeeds in creating a novel that you have to put down every 20 or 30 pages so your head doesn’t start to hurt through all of the important implications he’s making, or by the need to stifle a seemingly inappropriate chuckle. Zachary Houle