The Surrendered and more...
This is a haunting, somber, yet sometimes beautiful book, and it’s not always easy to read. The acts of violence are plentiful and realistic. Yet this is what a story about war should do. All too often, in both film and literature, war is somehow glamorized or turned into entertainment. Or perhaps even worse, the violence and brutality is forgotten because of a flashy victory scene or because the characters manage to survive and thrive in their postwar worlds, easily putting the past behind them. This book does none of these things, and it doesn’t soften at the end, as so many works tend to do. The despair is unrelenting from page one until the book closes. Catherine Ramsdell
The Sylvia Chronicles: 30 Years of Graphic Misbehavior from Reagan to Obama
(The New Press)
Arranged by presidential administration, The Sylvia Chronicles is a portal in time to some of the most controversial and the most absurd moments in American political and social history. Remember when John Ashcroft had coverings placed on the semi-nude statues in the Justice Department? How about when the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution calling on wives to “graciously submit to their husbands?” Part of what gives these short strips their real heft is the unvarnished moral fervor that explode out of the humor. The jokes come sharply barbed, and Hollander has poison under her tongue when she skewers the powerful. She takes a few cheap, but legitimate, shots at Reagan and Bush the second’s intelligence. She also comes loaded for bear when she goes after morally corrupt frauds like former Bush Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton. Her humor sometimes feels like the Hebrew prophets reincarnated as borsht belt comedians, embittered comedy made transcendent by a thirst for social justice. W. Scott Poole
This is an astonishing work by an extraordinarily accomplished writer. Don’t be intimidated by the apparently arcane subject matter—the Dutch East India Company’s attempt, circa 1799, to engage in trade with a xenophobic and cloistered Japan. The novel is a triumphant example of the storyteller’s ability to create an accessible world and put the reader squarely in the middle of it. Much of this world consists of the Dutch-built Dejima, an artificial island a hundred yards long in which sailors and company representatives are housed. It’s as much a prison as a warehouse, and staffed with a variety of characters whom the reader gets to know as the story progresses, among them the titular de Zoet. Having given de Zoet and the others the depressingly believable worldview of 18th century Dutch imperialists, the author then settles them into the world of Dejima, which is in turn subsumed by the equally foreign and inscrutable world of a Japanese monastary, which is again only one aspect of the larger society. All these layers are reflected through the consciousness of men and women both Dutch and Japanese. The book is a constantly shifting virtuoso act of fully realized points of view. Besides all that, it’s got plot to spare. David Maine
Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad might now be somewhat infamous for having a chapter narrated by a young character in the not-too-distant future through a PowerPoint deck. That’s just but one of many examples of the narrative loopy-ness to be found in this novel. Basically, each chapter is told from the point-of-view of a different character, and at a different point in time ranging from the early ‘70s to the 2020s, hopping from the San Francisco punk scene to the office of a New York music executive to a safari trip to Africa and all points in between. What you get, thus, is a series of interlocking short stories that transcend time and space, making this book something of a complex puzzle, and a richly deserving read. Egan seemingly ties everything together in a dazzling display of penmanship, and the best advice I could give readers is to approach this book cold, with as little advance notice about it as possible, and just surrender to the undertow of Egan’s powerful, savvy writing style. A Visit From the Goon Squad is a rare pleasure: a novel that has touches of the familiar, but also constantly startles and surprises as you go along. Zachary Houle
The nature of the American comic strip changed radically over the last 50 years. At mid-century, kids waited with bated breath for the daily comic page so they could read their favorite strips. Rather than the comic animals and domestic comedies of today’s Sunday funnies, they thrilled to the ongoing adventures of Superman or Terry and the Pirates. Today, only Dick Tracy has survived the transformation of sequential art in American newspapers. DC fully captured the spirit of mid-century strips in their 2009 Wednesday Comics series, now published in beautiful oversized format. If you missed the weekly iterations of this series, this new collection will introduce you to some of the best comic art done in the last year. W. Scott Poole
New Yorker editor Ben Greenman had a bit of a stellar year by unleashing not one but two short story collections on the world in 2010: this book and a mash-up of the works of Russian writer Anton Chekov with the lives of present-day celebrities inserted into them naturally called Celebrity Chekov. However, What He’s Poised to Do was the more satisfying of the duo, mostly because it didn’t seem as gimmicky, though Greenman definitely had a card or two up his sleeve here. The conceit is that each of these 14 stories usually come in the form of a letter, and detail the looming chasm of relationships between men and women. While with any short story collection there are bound to be a couple of misfires, overall, What He’s Poised to Do is a smart, funny and perceptive look at human relations over a series of different time periods and even space itself—as one of the stories is set on the Moon. Coming across as a less weird and less bitter Jonathan Lethem, Greenman establishes himself here as an important new voice in American letters, and leaves one hoping that he’s poised to write if not more short stories, then a novel as his next feat. Zachary Houle
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