Chuck Klosterman and more...
Thackery T. Lambshead’s Cabinet of Curiosities
US: Jul 2011
Ann VanderMeer, Jeff VanderMeer
Like a cabinet with lots of little drawers filled with clutter, this is a menagerie of fables, horror tales, hoaxes, art installations, drawings of strange mechanisms, fake sermons, forbidden catalog entries and fabulous architecture all swaddled in a meta-fiction. It’s the literary equivalent of the fabulous collection of Thackery T. Lambshead itself. The facts are these… and it’s important to remember that none of these are actual facts. Lambshead’s collection of powerful relics and sometimes diabolical clockworks became open to the world after his death in 2003. This collection includes descriptions of artifacts, reflections on their meaning, narratives constructed around them. This is metafiction at its best and a book likely to become a classic at the intersection of fantasy, horror, steampunk and magical realism. Its menagerie of fantasies, fables, hoaxes, horrors, drawings of strange mechanisms and clockworks, forbidden catalog listings—all swaddled in a metafiction—represents a kind of anti-Foucaultian statement about the relationship between systems of knowledge and systems of power. Every fantasy lover, and all you postmodernists out there, need to take a tour of the Cabinet. W. Scott Poole
This is one crime thriller for which the promotional quotes are not overblown. Several may even be understated. It’s a smashing piece of work featuring behavioral psychology in an entirely criminal context, leading to a climax that is utter joy for those readers who love a twist they didn’t see coming. In excruciating suspense it may be said to compare to the best moments in a James Bond movie (insofar as that may be a criterion for mystery readers). The gang that former CIA agent Carr is trying to run after inheriting the leadership position from Irish, dearly beloved, Declan, aka Deke, now suddenly dead, is comprised of individuals who have problems with authority as well as bonding. They come with attitudes and moments of explosive doubt and discontent that goes with the precarious territory. Thick as Thieves is a nail-biter, and highly original, superbly balanced mystery fiction. Jules Brenner
Tea Obreht is a novelist with more talent than is quite fair. At 26, this woman who was born in Belgrade but settled in the United States before the Balkans War broke out, could well have written the greatest novel of 2011. The setting of her whispering-in-the-dark story is unnamed but its fractious upheavals, scattered villages, and superstitious portents seem a dead ringer for Croatia. The protagonist is Natalia, a young doctor whose memory is overflowing with stories from her dead grandfather. His tales might be true, they might not be, but Obreht’s potent, magical-realist vision makes clear that such distinctions are not only impossible to determine in this dreamland she’s concocted but also fairly beside the point. A number of powerful stories weave in and out of the narrative, such as the title piece about a village where a deaf-mute woman living in a village of tight ties and never-forgotten suspicions, gains a new companion, a tiger who escaped from a nearby zoo after the Germans bombed. Most haunting are the stories from Natalia’s grandmother of the deathless man, who haunts this haunted land like a tragic specter, both warning of danger and also seeming to ensure that it will happen. Obreht is a strong and vivid new voice in fiction who doesn’t let the trappings of fantasy and fable obscure the essential humanity of her curious tale. Chris Barsanti
John le Carré
Of all the fictional characters that have stayed vivid in my mind, long past turning the last page or seeing the final credits, George Smiley is among the most vivid. But unlike some of the memorable characters that typically populate my imagination—willful people like Tony Soprano or Elizabeth Bennet, say—Smiley is not a person of decisive action. In some ways, he’s about as un-vivid as you can get. The story is one that at first seems quaintly outdated in the post-Cold War era: a high-ranking member of British intelligence has been feeding secrets to the Soviets, betraying his county, his friends and the cause of western democracy. The question is which of five possible suspects is the mole? Mild-mannered George Smiley is brought out of retirement in to find the answer. As it turns out, Le Carre’s mole is as much a double agent in bed as he is in espionage. Then again, what is espionage if not getting into bed with people—physically or ideologically—for purposes of betrayal? Amy DePaul
The year 2011 had its share of Shakespearean moments. On the pleasing end was Daniel Sullivan’s surprisingly deft production of All’s Well That Ends Well in New York’s Central Park. Somewhere in the lower depths was Roland Emmerich’s hysterical yet tiresome flick Anonymous, which trotted out all the usual ‘Did Shakespeare write Shakespeare’ conspiracy theories and wasted some delightfully campy acting by Rhys Ifans and Vanessa Redgrave. The real stunner, though, was Phillips’s tragically ignored novel about a conflicted man trying to decipher whether or not his father (a fantastically deceitful con man) truly owns a copy of a previously undiscovered Shakespeare play about King Arthur. The man and his sister (both raised on the plays of the Bard, and lies) are then pushed by their father into trying to publish this (possibly) long-lost masterpiece. Phillips’s talent is on display on every page here, flicking from minutely observed familial tragicomedy to larger questions of authorship and literary intent. As a kicker, Phillips ends his theatrical concoction with one final con: the entire text of “Shakespeare’s” The Tragedy of Arthur. If there’s any justice, a future season will see it being performed under the stars in Central Park. Chris Barsanti
While The Visible Man is only noted essayist Chuck Klosterman’s sophomore novel, it’s a mind-bending doozy. The compelling story is told from the perspective of a female therapist who is suddenly left with a male client who is able to render himself invisible thanks to the use of a special suit and aerosol spray. The Visible Man has a very early Jonathan Lethem feel to it, just without the pretension, and the entire short novel is told from the notes of the therapist, leaving the reader to constantly question the subjectivity of the storyteller. With this novel, Klosterman makes the unbelievable believable, and acutely examines the isolation and loneliness of the average individual by being able to peer into ordinary lives without actually being seen. While The Visible Man might be profound, read it because it is A) funny as hell and B) drops all sorts of pop culture bon-bons throughout the narrative. The Visible Man clearly was one of the strangest novels to come out in 2011, but it has an impact that lingers and will leave you wondering if the life you live is being fulfilled to its highest potential. Zachary Houle
Brown’s The Weird Sisters is a delightful and fascinating book about, obviously, sisters. It’s about their interactions and their relationships, with each other, with their parents, with the world and with themselves. It’s also a book about books, and the sisters’ relationships with books. The three Andreas sisters were brought up in a small college town by their Shakespearean professor father and a somewhat disconnected mother. Each girl was named for one of the bard’s heroines—Rosalind (Rose), Bianca (Bean), and Cordelia (Cordy) — and each has spent her life in the shadow cast by the perceived expectations of her namesake. “What’s in a name?”, indeed. The sisters each have their own voice in the story, but they also have a collective voice, to narrate, comment, fill in and foresee, much like Macbeth’s three witches, the weyward or wyrd sisters. It’s brilliant, witty and wonderful, both as a storytelling device and as a character. The collective sisters get to voice all of the best humorous asides and snarky comments (on a rejected suitor: “Despite his money and looks, he was not a reader and that is the sort of nonsense up with which we will not put”). Brown weaves each voice, each character, each thread of plot, into the whole like the fates, upon whom her sisters draw. This is a magnificent tapestry of a tale, replete with a rich love of language, that beautifully illustrates the pull of family and the ties that bind us together even when we are about to unravel. Christel Loar
Holman’s Witches on the Road Tonight dazzles even as it terrifies. It’s a book that sneaks up on you, frightening you while causing you to reflect on the nature of fear itself. Rumors about witchcraft had always swirled around Eddie Alley’s mother in the Appalachian Virginia of the ‘40s. A chance meeting with two strangers introduces Eddie to Frankenstein’s monster and to the possibilities of a new life, leading him to eventually become the horror host “Captain Casket” on a late night TV show in Manhattan. But the mysterious pull of the past holds him, and his daughter Wallis, in its claws and wont let him go. You better pack some breadcrumbs. Holman’s beautifully realized work will draw you imperceptibly into the darkest part of the forest. W. Scott Poole
Slice-of-life stories about families are a dime a dozen in literary fiction. (See Jonathan Franzen’s oeuvre.) However, Thompson’s The Year We Left Home is a remarkable gem of a novel, charting the growth of an Iowa small-town family from the early ‘70s up to almost the present day. The book blazes a path through the Vietnam War era, the farming crisis of the ‘80s, and the dot-com burst of the early ‘00s, and it does it with pathos, tragedy and a much needed pinch of humour. Thompson creates flawed characters that are startlingly real, and you really get a feel for American life as depicted across three decades of time. The language is refreshingly plain, and there isn’t an ounce of pretension throughout the 325 pages. On that note, The Year We Left Home is quite compact, and doesn’t sprawl out like many books of this kind of ilk. When you finish this touching novel about growing up and growing old, and its rendering of family responsibility (or lack thereof), you’ll be left wondering what on earth winds up happening to all of the characters that populate it, and its cliff-hanger feel leaves you hungry for a very non-literary sequel. Zachary Houle
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