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A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman: Complete Short Stories

Margaret Drabble

(Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt; US: May 2011)

A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman: Complete Short Stories
Margaret Drabble

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At the conclusion of the story “A Voyage to Cythera” contained in this edition, the protagonist, Helen, has to walk “carefully, because her ankles were so brittle from the cold that she feared that if she stumbled, they would snap.” “Brittle” is a good description of these carefully worked and structured stories that follow the trajectory of Drabble’s career from the late ‘60s to the present. The title story, “A Day in the Life of a Smiling Woman”, blends satire with a bleak and compelling vision of a woman confronting bad news and facing the potentiality of illness and death. It’s an ironic vignette of self-discovery, disillusionment and commentary upon the hollowness of public profile. Not principally known as a short story writer, the award-winning author of such novels as The Sea Lady and The Witch of Exmoor experimented consistently with the form, testing out voices and characters. Many of the examples in this edition read as a sort of philosophic prose poetry. Whilst there might be an alienating effect from the class-conscious voices; mostly we are in the territory of the English middle and upper-middle classes, moderately wealthy and part of an identifiable social and professional ‘set’, there is nevertheless enough emotion and humanity for a wide readership. If not necessarily universal they are relevant and offer the opportunity to chart the progress of one of modern literature’s most significant writers. Gabrielle Malcom


 

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The Dewey Decimal System

Nathan Larson

(Akashic Books; US: Apr 2011)

The Dewey Decimal System
Nathan Larson


Larson does a tremendous job, working with the traditional in the milieu of the new-traditional private eye. In The Dewey Decimal System, we find the sorts of characters which are so enjoyable, it almost seems an insult to refer to them as “stock”: the harsh and vaguely untrustworthy patron, the villainous cad and his troop of muscle, and of course, the femme fatale. There is ample opportunity to explore themes of life and death, succor and destruction, with characters who are bitter, hardened, and almost always alcoholic. But what other barriers can we erect, what other internal challenges can we give these hard-boiled private dicks? As with his protagonist, Larson imbues his flawed characters with such personality and wit that the reader scarcely notices they come almost required with this sort of story. Private-eye fiction is being kept vital and relevant by many creative and intelligent authors. Larson’s book is proof positive that the private detective will remain a serious and seriously enjoyable literary archetype. Jimmy Callaway


 

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Erasure

Percival Everett

(Graywolf; US: Oct 2011)

Erasure
Percival Everett


Wow, this is a great book. Metatextual references abound: Everett’s protagonist shares a last name with Ralph Ellison, whose most famous novel, Invisible Man, stands as a classic of 20th century American literature (and whose title echoes Erasure‘s themes of non-being and invisibility, or more properly, visibility only under certain circumstances). Moreover, the primary plot thread in this multi-stranded but eminently readable story concerns Thelonius Ellison’s bad-tempered, tongue-in-cheek exploitation novel, Pafology. The book is included, in full, as a story-within-a-story that is simultaneously infuriated and infuriating, painfully funny and just plain painful. Everett is much more than just a bitter novelist with an ax to grind and a wicked sense of humor. He’s also a gifted writer capable of deftly delineating the troubled emotional ground of his protagonist. In the process, Everett’s on-target satire eviscerates everyone from Oprah to your English professor. David Maine


 

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How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe

Charles Yu

(Vintage; US: Jun 2011)

How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe
Charles Yu


In a genre of such competitive invention, to come up with something that has the originality and the imaginative and philosophical appeal of Yu’s How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is quite an achievement. The author, not unusually, is his own self-conscious creation as leading character and as well as a satisfying amount of generic playfulness using time travel and its associated puzzles, Yu includes an exposé of the immigrant experience in America as a framework for a touching father/son narrative. He shows the difficulty in seeking out individual and collective identity and the alienation factor that literally creates a trap for his mother. Using such diverse influences as Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy and Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, the resulting concoction is innovative but not so convoluted as to banish a broad appeal. There are satisfying little post-modern asides and an arrangement of the ‘Science Fictional Universe’ that cries out for more explorations in print and on screen. Gabrielle Malcom


 

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The Marriage Plot

Jeffrey Eugenides

(Farrar, Straus, and Giroux; US: Oct 2011)

The Marriage Plot
Jeffrey Eugenides


The Marriage Plot is set in and around 1982, a time of economic insecurity but before paralyzing international fear became commonplace. The terrible things that will happen are far in an unimaginable future, and these college students are remarkably if unwittingly fortunate in their naïveté: their primary worry is themselves, their lives, and what they’ll do with their futures. There are some very funny moments, manyset in academia. Early in the novel, Madeleine, a lover of Austen, Eliot, and Colette, finds herself hopelessly out of literature’s most fashionable loop: suddenly everyone, it seems, is reading Derrida’s Of Grammatology. Madeleine finds all she hold dear about literature, particularly the notion that a book be about something, turned on its head: “If Restoration was getting you down, if scanning Wordsworth was making you feel dowdy and ink-stained, there was another option. You could flee… the old New Criticism. You could defect to the new imperium of Derrida and Eco. You could sign up for Semiotics 211 and find out what everyone else was talking about.”Madeleine does sign up for Semiotics 211, and Eugenides’ sly remarks, issued from behind his well-meaning heroine’s uncomprehending, ultimately disgusted mien, are hilariously funny. Eugenides has clearly read (endured?) his Derrida and Baudrillard, making him the rare writer erudite enough to make fun of the Deconstructionists and get away with it. Semiotics 211, meanwhile, is every seminar English majors alternately squirmed through or, recalling their supercilious classroom remarks, squirm to recall. Diane Leach


 

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Noah’s Turn

Ken Finkleman

(Harper Perennial Canada; US: Aug 2011)

Noah’s Turn
Ken Finkleman


Over the years Canadian TV auteur Ken Finkleman, best known for The Newsroom, has moved back-and-forth between (widely acclaimed) satire and (generally unpopular) Fellinesque theatricality. His TV series are chapters in the odyssey of the loathsome George, a self-obsessed neurotic battling with a society determined to provoke all his worst instincts. It’s surprising, then, to find Finkleman’s first novel Noah’s Turn, operates in an different mode. Noah Douglas is a 41-year-old “fallen upper-class WASP” and a hack scriptwriter for a TV cop show. His career is nosediving parallel to the 2008 economic crisis. A brief spell as a TV blogger allows Noah to vent his rage against “the fascism of cultural mediocrity”; he’s eventually fired and told to “fuck off and die”. Noah’s fiercest envy and loathing are privately directed at his friend McEwan, a Toronto literary personality. Dependent on alcohol and stolen Percocets, Noah drifts into awkward sexual encounters while unsuccessfully pursuing one of McEwan’s creative writing students. His cynicism and self-loathing culminate in an act of brutal violence. This riff on Crime and Punishment from the characterless streets of contemporary Toronto is reminiscent of Philip Roth’s stark late-period novellas, although Roth has never focused on such a self-loathing protagonist.The novel’s greatest strength is the gesture-by-gesture dramatisation of the petty oneupmanship of social interaction. While Finkelman’s 2011 TV series Good Dog is a welcome return to the satirical mode of The Newsroom, Noah’s Turn suggests promising new areas for TV’s greatest cynic. Matthew Asprey


 

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Open City

Teju Cole

(Random House; US: Feb 2011)

Open City
Teju Cole


Cole’s Open City takes its meaning from a particular wartime terminology: an “open city” refers to a city that declares itself open in the advent of oncoming attack or capture, thus avoiding military siege, bombing, or attack. The open city, as it were, sets its capture in motion before any capture even takes place; one that invites a gentle occupation. It’s a defensive strategy, and a preventive one, but most importantly—it aims to be protective. The themes of self-protection and self-preservation are also the central concerns embedded in the life of the narrator of this outstanding book, Julius, a Nigerian-German psychiatrist who lives and works in New York. It’s an extended meditation on the soul that is trying to heal, as its narrator appears to try to dodge and evade some aspects of his life while keeping the reader interested with the articulated passions of a true intellectual polymath and engaged flaneur. It’s no surprise that Julius’s excavation of the self is an act of psychogeography, one where the cities’ anxieties, fears, and self-imposed borders are grafted onto the psyche—or is it the other way around? Subashini Navaratnam


 

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Parrot & Olivier in America: A Novel

Peter Carey

(Vintage; US: Jan 2011)

Parrot & Olivier in America: A Novel
Peter Carey


Carey’s style is perhaps best described as a literary Cirque de Soleil performance—wildly inventive arabesques of language and imagery that perfectly capture his heroes’ unsteady journey from icons of the Old World to aspirants in the New. This ‘improvisation’ on a post-revolutionary French noble thrown into close quarters with the American dream becomes an ideal starting-point for Carey’s imagination. The outlines of history are there for the enthusiast to enjoy—but the concept on its own is quixotic enough to ensure that knowledge of the source material isn’t a perquisite for reader enjoyment. His combination of sturdy plot machinery and constant originality in the telling results in a richly satisfying read in the grand old Dickensian manner, in which abstract ideals are made accessible by humanity’s consistent failure to live up to them. While Dickens was passionately invested in the ideas, Carey finds delight in the people. He passes no judgments, sets up no pedestals—merely allows his characters to become fully human. He is wise enough to understand that that one simple achievement springs every possibility of comedy, tragedy and everything in between, and skilled enough to make them dance before the reader with light and elegance. Kerrie Mills

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