At first glance it seems a thankless assignment: to write a new Raymond Chandler novel featuring his iconic detective Philip Marlowe. I suppose it would be like taking on a sequel to Kafka’s “Metamorphosis,” and then you think: what the hell can I do with Gregor Samsa now? Hasn’t he been through enough? I don’t know what Lawrence Osborne’s first thoughts were when the Chandler estate approached him with this opportunity, but, knowing something of his previous novels, I think he’s a most interesting choice for the exercise, and the resulting work makes him seem inevitable.

Prior to this, sequels—or, rather, more properly speaking, new novels featuring the setting and the character of Philip Marlowe—have, with the blessings of the estate, been undertaken by Robert B. Parker and John Banville (writing as his alter-detective-writing-ego Benjamin Black). Now British-born, Bangkok-based Lawrence Osborne has been anointed to tackle this job, but if you know any of Osborne’s novels, the whole idea of it is highly intriguing.

At first glance, Susan Tepper’s novella Monte Carlo Days & Nights seemed on the light side: an American man and woman, she on the north side of her twenties, an attractive Airline “stew,” he a fortyish executive for a music company, on a weeks’ vacation together in Monte Carlo, a place that has always seemed to me as comically ersatz and overblown as Fredonia – though I like Susan’s work, particularly her masterful short fiction.

For me the sense of lightness, however, was quickly dispelled by her control of her means, whatever else she might be up to. In this work she marries the intensity of focus, the crisp delineation and the vivid, but pruned imagery of short fiction, with the unfolding of a novelistic narrative and a long look at character, dovetailing the two in short bits that are somewhat complete in themselves but also serve as chapters in the longer narrative, which for the most part, plays out over their week in Monte Carlo.

“Her heart was not hardened but her skin was thick,” writes Jean-Patrick Manchette of the titular protagonist in his last, unfinished novel, Ivory Pearl, translated from the French by Donald Nicholson-Smith with a superb ear for Manchette’s incomparable voice that easily shifts between the grit of the hyperfactual—“…in his right hand he held a semiautomatic Sauer Model 38 chambered in .380 ACP and fitted with a silencer”—and the nimble ability to sketch with the sparest of words the heart of a character, laid out, in this case, in three easy steps: “She wanted to become a professional photographer. She dreamt of meeting Robert Capa. She had an alarming predilection for images of dead bodies.” Ivy is a survivor who at one point casually, almost happily, admits having conveniently lost her appendix when she “caught that Viet round in ‘52.” And like so many other of Manchette’s characters, she also knows her jazz. Everything helps when you’re on a mission.

 

The Gypsy Moth Summer by Julia Fierro

 

Powered by prose at once enchanting and colloquial, true, vividly-realized characters, and a literary voice that practically reverberates with authority, Fierro’s The Gypsy Moth Summer may not only be this year’s best second novel, but its best book period. Featuring a complex plot, a many-faceted story brimming with insights into people and families at all stages of the life cycle, zoology, myth, and allegory this is the rare beach read that doubles as a novel of ideas.

 

Lawrence Osborne’s characters tend to stumble into things: whether as a result of an accident, as in The Forgiven, or by winning big at the roulette table, as in Hunters in the Dark: as if they had stepped into the intersection of opportunity and desire, and what they heretofore envisaged only nebulously, something that couldn’t be put into words, now possessed a vocabulary and the will to act upon it.

“Country roads, take me home

To the place I belong

West Virginia, mountain momma

Take me home, country roads”

-John Denver, “Take Me Home, Country Roads”

 

If I were partial to the Denver School of Criticism, I might spend hours coming up with pithy sobriquets for Scott McClanahan. I’d call him the Chaucer of Coal Country, Mountain Bukowski, or some other such shite. I’d focus on the stereotyped version of West Virginia many of us carry in our heads, turn McClanahan’s story into a combo of The Outsiders sacking the Sam’s Club snack aisle and life in the U.S.S.R. circa 1983, a place that really wasn’t that bad compared to the coal-dusted, oxy-encrusted, Trumpist mayhem of today’s West Virginia.

 

“I Dug the Hole Already, joseph”

 

My beauty a shovel.

A spoon of aconite and arsenic.

In your mouth refusing food.

To beg instead a stylish garter drama.

Prussic acid gimlet.

Open veins bleed hell.

I’ll ring your bell, son.

I will ring your bell.

–Dena Rash Guzman, Joseph

 

The word “revelation” is a popular superlative in literary circles, popular to the point of overuse. It’s not the only one, of course. There’s an element of hyperbole to criticism, one born of multiple impulses: some noble; some less so. Does the critic desire so passionately to illuminate the art before him that he fails it and his audience, falls back on hyperbole because it conveys at least part of what he means to say? Or does he do it for himself, try to prove his own intellect by overstating the success (or failure) of another person’s art?

It’s hard to imagine anything more terrifying than writing historical fiction. The opportunity to get it wrong, whether the feeling of a place or a time or a person, seems like an insurmountable barrier, before the writing even begins. Creating historical fiction becomes more than simply writing, it becomes research: the reading of books and interviews, listening of transcripts, visiting the locations, trying as best you can to express even a micron of the magic in someone’s life in clumsy, fallible words. Not to mention the issue of the author’s own voice – have they been able to present an accurate depiction of the subject’s life, beyond their own stylistic prejudices? Or worse, has the author merely recited events without the kind of flavor or fervor necessary to engaging reading? It is truly a ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ situation, where the very best examples somehow manage to walk the edge of the knife, a strange feat of authorial alchemy that features all these seemingly-contradictory things in perfect balance. To achieve this remarkable result, it helps if the author and the subject share a kind of kinship, where personalities meet across backgrounds, discipline, and centuries to create something simultaneously unique and seamless.

Jack Driscoll is one of the most respected short story writers working today. He is not the most famous, but he is widely admired, especially among writers, as a craftsman whose work serves as a model for other writers to follow. The appeal is clear—his enormous compassion for his flawed characters; his gift for shining the spotlight on the kind of people and places that are so often overlooked both in literature and life; and his distinctive voice, which nimbly tightropes between high and low, vernacular and lyrical,  comic and wise. His characters say things like “Christ on a bike” and “piss in one hand and wish in another and see which one fills first.” But their insights and vocabulary can also fly to great heights. “The idea of a million pilgrims desperate to put a knee down in this nothing town suddenly adjacent to God and heaven confounds even the dreamer in me,” says one of the book’s precociously eloquent adolescents.

 

The Yellow House by Chiwan Choi

 

Choi

One part poetry, one part meditation on memory, Chiwan Choi’s third collection, The Yellow House, is a collage of captured instances, a tale of remembrances fragmented by time. A haunting, semi-hallucinatory trip through the immigrant’s perpetual no-man’s land—that zone between old home and new where people and places, love and death, happiness and sadness mingle—The Yellow House is about the struggle to belong, to reconcile the land of the past with that of the present. Seeing that reconciliation as a fundamentally impossible endeavor, the poet’s thoughts turn to forgetting one set of memories or the other, ultimately failing in this as anyone must.

Born as it is of a multitude of recollections, The Yellow House is not so cerebral as to be inaccessible. Far from it. This collection feels immediate, reads very much as the story of Choi’s life, often flirting with the mode of lyric memoir. There’s an acceptance of paradoxes here, the sort of contradictions that define everyone’s relationships with their parents. At once somehow god-like, everything to us, all parents ultimately fail us both while they are alive and in the fact that they do not live forever, leaving us assured only of our own mortality.

Choi’s parents figure prominently in these poems, many of the pieces referencing his father, more still his mother. His family having emigrated from Korea when he was very small, Choi seems constantly at cross purposes with himself, struggling to feel at home in the new land and the forgotten one, never completely achieving the sort of idyllic existence he longs for in either. There’s a glorification of both old and new homes here, and, thus, a devaluation of them as well. In this, Choi captures and rarefies the immigrant’s experience—the lure of the perfect future that never comes to pass, the love for a past made grander by the fact that it never was.

 

Mircobrew will return in its usual form in early February with 2017’s first batch of new books. For now, here are my ten favorites from 2016, in no particular order, along with a favorite chosen by each of the authors I selected.

I have to admit, looking at this list gives me a feeling of accomplishment. I read a lot of great books in 2016, many of which I wasn’t able to include in this top 10. More than that, I’m amazed at the variety of contemporary American fiction, a range I think is well represented in this list.

Though some people suggest American fiction is cookie-cutter–especially that produced by MFA programs–I just don’t see it. From the experimental to the starkly realistic, from ornate prose to the sparest of minimalism, from comedy to drama, this list is a representation of what I wanted to do with this column. I wanted Microbrew to demonstrate the incredible range of contemporary American literature, and I like to think the column and this list both serve that end.

novi_sadFor many years, there’s been a handful of books that, at least for me, exemplify what post-apocalyptic fiction should be and what it can achieve in terms of serving as mirrors for human nature when faced with Armageddon: Earth Abides by George R. Stewart, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, Swan Song by Robert R. McCammon, Blindness by José Saramago, and Alas Babylon by Pat Frank. Now Jeff Jackson, author of the dark, critically acclaimed Mira Corpora, has joined this elite group with Novi Sad, a depressive, gloomy narrative that is as profound and smart as any of the aforementioned classics but somehow manages to deliver the same punch in less than 100 pages.

December, the end of the Julian calendar year. For critics, it’s time to get listy, to go all effusive, doe-eyed, and misty over what we’ve read during the prior three-hundred-and-something days. For authors, it’s time to hunker down in our metaphorical emotional foxholes, to employ one of four battle-proven strategies:

1.  Get depressed, drink heavily, get more depressed, and jag-cry. (You were left off the holy lists but can’t for the life of you figure out why.);

2.  Get pissed, drink heavily, scream, and stamp your feet. (You know exactly why you were left off the holy lists. A vast right-, left-, and middle-wing conspiracy against your genius, obvis.);

3.  Get deliriously happy, drink slightly less heavily, and do freestyle “ballet” moves in the living room (You made it for once!); or

4.  As in 3, but let it go to your head. And for God’s sake, make sure you slop that confidence all over Facebook before sobering up. Otherwise, you’ll never be able to remember.

I thought about doing some sort of list here—longest books of the year starring an author’s ego in a supporting role, best works of Middle High German-to-English translation my cat vomited on, worst sestina collections I feel uncomfortable criticizing. But for obvious reasons (see above), we’re going with the uzhe, a Microbrewed literary six-pack of new books.

P.S. I may still do a list. Or two. Or six. Stay tuned.

51943ghzzil-_sx317_bo1204203200_One of Hollywood’s favorite genres is the contained thriller: its budget probably won’t involve an enactment of World War III, a city-destroying earthquake, or a meteor headed towards Baltimore, all relying on too much CGI, which gets expensive fast. But this: a bus is going to blow up if it drops below a certain speed; a man is stuck in a phone booth and if he hangs up on the caller he will be shot dead; a young woman is stuck in an underground shelter with a possibly insane John Goodman. And don’t forget Alien: within the confines of the spaceship Nostromo, in a place where no one can hear you scream, a killer is on the loose, having evolved from a small and slithery reptilian piece of belly-bursting nasty into a very large slithery reptilian thing with chrome teeth and battery acid for blood. But in Hamlet we’re in a world that isn’t so different. After all, As Hamlet himself says, “Denmark’s a prison.”

Hamlet was written somewhere around 1601, and is the longest of Shakespeare’s plays. It takes place within the walls of Elsinore Castle, an isolated, wind-swept fortress, modelled on Kronborg Castle on the isle of Zealand, across the strait from the Swedish town of Helsingborg. Outside it’s cold and damp, and in the play we only leave the castle proper to visit the royal graveyard, hardly a place to warm the heart.

61iva2-e5vl-_sx327_bo1204203200_Wendy C. Ortiz could be called a bruja in the sense that she is a conjurer, a master of creating an illusion of reality and interchanging it with fiction where she sees fit. Having written the memoir Excavation in 2014 and her self-described “prose poem-ish” memoir Hollywood Notebook in 2015, there hardly seems like a better choice than her to create a “dreamoir”, an elegant pastiche of the reality of a life lived and the unreality created within the subconscious. Bruja, which has just been released on October 31st from Civil Coping Mechanisms, is exactly that, in an ambitious and beautiful form. Ortiz chronicles a period of her life through the uncanniness of her dreams, which blends together fantastical elements and people from her waking life. The result is a strangely relatable magical realism, charting the highs and lows of her day-to-day living through the frustrating ambiguity of dreams.