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The PEN/O.Henry Prize Stories 2011

Laura Furman, Editor

(Anchor Books/Random House; US: Apr 2011)

The PEN/O.Henry Prize Stories 2011
Laura Furman, Editor

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Where the novel has room to sprawl, the best short stories are lessons in the art of exquisite miniature, the world writ small yet exceeding its confines by enthralling, entertaining, even horrifying the reader. For example, in “How to Leave Hialeah”,  Jennine Capó Crucet delivers a devastatingly sarcastic indictment of university diversity programs and their effects on students far from home. The narrator, a young Cuban-American, works her way out of Miami’s lower classes into the rarified, freezing air of Northern university life, only to encounter racism, ignorance, and identity crisis. As her new intellectual life leaves her increasingly alienated from her family, the narrator offers an unsparing account of living between cultures. “How to Leave” also pulls off that most difficult of tricks: writing well in second person. This story should be required reading for all MFA students…and all university diversity coordinators. Indeed, there isn’t a weak story in the book, though inevitably readers will find some works more appealing than others. This is purely a matter of personal taste, and any lover of short fiction—any lover of good writing—is in for a treat, here. Diane Leach


 

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Power Ballads

Will Boast

(University of Iowa Press; US: Sep 2011)

Power Ballads
Will Boast


Some suggest that it’s impossible to fully capture the experience of music via the written word, and while such a task can go woefully wrong in the myriad minds and hands which attempt the task each day, there are those who take up the charge with elegance and intelligence. Boast happens to be one such writer. His debut collection is on par with another great work of fiction about the musical life, Rafi Zabor’s The Bear Comes Home. Boast captures the loneliness of the musical life with a realism that is sometimes sad, often funny, and never cliché. His prose calls to mind Tobias Wolff and Richard Ford but he’s never less than his own man, and his ability to place us in the sweaty bars of small town Wisconsin or the hipster studios contemporary San Francisco is never less than admirable. Power Ballads serves as a great reminder that the best fiction is often decidedly and unapologetically true. Jedd Beaudoin


 

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Ready Player One

Ernest Cline

(Harper Collins; US: Jun 2011)

State of Wonder
Ann Patchett


It’s difficult to categorize Cline’s debut, Ready Player One. It’s set in the future and has all of the trappings of a science-fiction novel, but it handily references ‘80s pop culture in all of its forms. It also features a teenaged protagonist, and reads a bit like a YA novel, but the appeal to current-day teens is probably limited, thanks to all of those ‘80s references. What Ready Player One is, though, is a rip-roaring, page-turning tome that is a love letter to geeks everywhere who played Dungeons & Dragons, watched WarGames repeatedly, and listened to Rush’s 2112 while growing up. Though the tale has the occasional lapse in character motivation, Ready Player One is simply a book you will not be able to put down, and is one of the most refreshing reads in recent memory—it unspools like a movie playing in your head. I was practically cheering when I reached the book’s end pages, and I can’t remember the last time I got behind a book in such an overwhelming way. For that, Ready Player One is a highly essential and gratifying read—especially so for those who came of age some 30 years ago. Zachary Houle


 

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Rules of Civility

Amor Towles

(Penguin; US: Jul 2011)

Rules of Civility
Amor Towles


You might not want to give a second glance to a novel whose main character is named Katey Kontent, and that would be understandable. There’s also the nostalgia factor: do we need another story set in glamorous late ‘30s New York amidst the pretty demimonde of jazz, nightclubs, and easy money? But give Amor Towles’s novel (amazingly, his first) a chance and you’ll see that while there’s plenty of glitter and gilt on the surface here, the substance runs deep. Katey is an immigrant’s daughter trying to find her way in the big city. Working her way up from the secretarial pool, her crackerjack smarts are clearly going to take her far, until a roadblock shows up in the form of Tinker Grey. He’s a handsome banker with all the requisite patrician airs but also an easy confidence that operates as something like catnip to Katey’s roommate Eve, who’s just as smart but more of an operator. The triangular relationship, with its surprising turns into tragedy and deeply-held secrets, wends its way through a novel that beautifully evokes both the glamor and deep-seated economic desperation of the city at the time. This is a novel where the heroine doesn’t just get to drink martinis in fab Village hotspots, but needs to figure out how she’s going to pay for them. Chris Barsanti


 

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Salvage the Bones

Jesmyn Ward

(Bloomsbury; US: Aug 2011)

Salvage the Bones
Jesmyn Ward


There’s a dragging pull to the beginning of Ward’s novel, which won the 2011 National Book Award for Fiction. The narrator is Esch, a dreamy and curiously passive teenage girl living in a hardscrabble Mississippi town on the Gulf Coast, and she is almost too busy chronicling the languid details of the passing days to notice the bigger picture. While she dreams of the heroines and tragedies of the mythology she loves to read, and relates her day-to-day life surrounded by her roustabout brothers and hard-drinking dad, not to mention the boys who circle like love-hungry predators. What Esch is missing is the long-term reality of what will happen once she becomes more obviously pregnant (her family doesn’t yet know, and the baby’s father already has a steady girlfriend). As the days tick down, everybody else is ignoring the larger issue at hand: Hurricane Katrina is churning north, and Esch’s father’s drunken commands to shore up the house for its approach are being mostly ignored. When the storm comes, it’s a slow-building but deafening explosion, like Ward’s prose. This is richly felt fiction, hopefully signifying more to come. Chris Barsanti


 

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The Silent Land

Graham Joysce

(Doubleday; US: Mar 2011)

The Silent Land
Graham Joysce


Originally released in Britain in late 2010, The Silent Land took a bit of time to make its way to American shores about a half a year later. Lauded by Stephen King in Entertainment Weekly, the book—by hard-to-categorize author Graham Joyce, who has been writing mostly pseudo-magic realist fiction for the past two decades—is a nail-biting Twilight Zone-esque thriller where a 30-something couple on a ski vacation in France survive a freak avalanche on the slopes, only to discover when they return back to town that everyone has literally vanished, and all roads leading out of the community actually lead back into it. I’ll be upfront: the ending is a bit lousy (it uses one of the oldest tricks in the book, a la The Sixth Sense, and astute readers will see it coming before they’ve gotten a quarter of the way through the short, 250-plus page novel), but there are enough twists, turns and surprises along the way to make this intriguing. The Silent Land is all about the journey, not the destination, and I actually thought about the novel well after I’d closed its covers for a final time to the point where I’ve now plunged into the robust Joyce back-catalogue with great aplomb. The Silent Land might be flawed, but there was no book quite like it in 2011, and the novel—rich with character detail, which is astounding considering only two people populate its vast majority—has quiet staying power, and it is a wild journey through a desolate, barren landscape. In the The Silent Land, Joyce does a lot with very little, and it was an engaging surprise that leaves you wanting more. Zachary Houle


 

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Spurious

Lars Iyer

(Melville House; US: Jan 2011)

Spurious
Lars Iyer


See if this interests you: a narrator who has the same name as the author travels with and is put down by another writer named W. That’s the whole story, except for occasional alternating chapters about how Lars’ home is slowly overcome by a mysterious fungus. It doesn’t seem appetizing but Iyers, a philosopher prof, makes it interesting and worthwhile by turning it into a sad, pathetic comedy. As Lars and W. jabber about literature and philosophy (natch), they also dig through self-loathing about how terrible and worthless they are. Over the span of some 190 pages, this gets pretty humorous to the point that they seem like desperate masochists for tolerating each other while W. keeps bringing out his sadist side by constantly attacking a defenseless Lars. Mostly, they’re disappointed that they’re failed writers and not great artists. Maybe they’re not, but Lars the real author entertains you enough to think that he’s a talent to watch. Jason Gross


 

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State of Wonder

Ann Patchett

(Harper Collins; US: Jun 2011)

State of Wonder
Ann Patchett


Minnesota native Marina Singh is flying deep into Brazil’s rainforest, to a nameless village on a tributary of the Rio Negro, a place so isolated few know of it. Even fewer are able to locate it. Marina herself has no idea where the Lakashi tribe make their home, and Dr. Annick Swenson, the researcher studying them, has no interest in offering directions. Fortunately, what Marina lacks in GPS, she has in determination, which she sorely needs if she is to locate her colleague, Dr. Anders Eckman. Marina, Swenson, and Eckman are medical researchers working for Vogel, an enormous pharmacological firm. For over two years, Swenson has refused to communicate with their supervisor, Mr. Fox, or by extension, with Vogel’s board of directors. The genial Eckman is asked to locate Swenson and extricate a progress report on her research. Eckman, an avid birder eager to visit an exotic locale, happily complies. In this tale, State of Wonder does what the best books do, taking up several threads and weaving them into a complex tapestry. Patchett touches on the ways Westerners infantilize “primitive” cultures, the financial and moral implications of medical, and the sometimes surprising pockets of courage we find at life’s critical junctures. Love, loss, and grief inform every page—Patchett’s writing has been indelibly impacted by the death of her dear friend, poet Lucy Grealey. Diane Leach


 

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Swamplandia!

Karen Russell

(Knopf; US: Feb 2011)

Swamplandia!
Karen Russell


As untrustworthy narrators go, the alligator-wrestling 12-year-old Ava Bigtree is one of modern fiction’s finest. While not a purposeful liar per se, she retains the dubious fact-from-fiction separating abilities of any child her age. This is a point that becomes more perplexing the deeper one plunges into the depths of Russell’s wonderfully overstuffed, scaldingly funny, and frightening debut novel. Ava is the kind of girl you want to believe, as her well-trained eye and generous heart make her the unwitting fulcrum of a quickly dissolving family. But somewhere between the ghosts and the bird man and the haunted canal-dredger and the murky, melted reality that frames her buckshot life, you can lose your bearings. As does she. Like most books of impressionable children who gild their surroundings in tattered magic before they’re brought into a knowledge of the wider, crushingly average and venal world, Russell’s is one of paradise lost. In Ava she has the sparkle-toned voice of a swamp spirit, a free-ranging and home-schooled kid whose fleeting awareness of mainland modernity makes it seem a strip-malled and subdivided Gehenna. Russell writes with scattered magic of a highly untrustworthy (and thusly utterly addictive) variety, one of swampy darkness and spell-tinged madness that creeps up on the frayed outlines of imminently foreclosed-on Florida. Chris Barsanti

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