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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.

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.

 

“To be without a feeling for art is no disgrace. A person can live in peace without reading [novels] or listening to [music]. But the misomusist does not live in peace. He feels humiliated by the existence of something that is beyond him, and he hates it. There is a popular misomusy… The fascists and Communist regimes made use of it… But there is an intellectual, sophisticated misomusy as well: it takes revenge on art by forcing it to a purpose beyond the aesthetic… The apocalypse of art: the misomusists will themselves take on the making of art; thus will their historic vengeance be done.”

–Milan Kundera, The Art of the Novel

 

“Misomusist: n. rare A person who hates learning (also, in recent use: art).”    

–Dictionary

 

With Kundera’s strong opinions and talent for rhetoric come a penchant for overstatement, even hyperbole; an inclination that causes him to contradict himself from time to time. This is the problem with broad pronouncements—statements of absolutes, even from a master like Kundera—there is almost always an exception to the rule, whatever the rule. In this instance, Kundera’s work, and its focus on the political, provides the exception.

Kundera’s concept of the novelist as someone who poses questions (rather than answering them) is a notion I return to often, and his idea on the misomusist’s hatred of learning and art seems linked to that, even though it might not initially appear so. When Kundera speaks of misomusy, he’s speaking metaphorically, not issuing a metal-clad prohibition against “any vestige of the political in art,” even though it sounds as though he’s suggesting just that—that if we want to save poor, little Art from the encroaching idiot hordes we’d better stuff it in a covered wagon and get the fuck out of Dodge.

If we peel back Kundera’s hyperbole, he’s speaking of a problem of degrees, the way too much focus on politics, religion, or commerce (as examples) might negatively impact art. Though Kundera almost certainly wouldn’t approve, you might even extend the point to include too much “artistry,” suggesting that if you are too concerned with pursuing beauty as you see it, whether out of some overly idiosyncratic aesthetic or a lack of more visceral narrative elements like plot and story, you could damage your own art, create something unrecognizable to anyone but yourself.

Set deep in literature’s make-up—perhaps essential enough even to qualify as its DNA—are the ideas of knowledge and progress as identifiable, worthy concepts. We read not only for aesthetics and entertainment, but to expand the scope of our worlds. We read to engage with other cultures and people, to live other lives. And, to some extent, what I want from a writer is their unvarnished perspective on the world. If that view is heavily informed by politics (whether they be governmental or those of race or gender), so be it.

Several of the books I’m covering this month could be considered political, though some are certainly more overt in their politics than others. As someone who writes about politics at times, who has his own strong opinions, I’d say the challenge is (as Kundera has suggested elsewhere) to avoid absolute certainty in your fiction, to maintain some level of impartiality, even though as human beings demanding perfect political neutrality of ourselves is a doomed proposition. Ultimately, you must do what makes sense to you, regardless of what the great Milan Kundera or little, old me say. The only test of success is the reader’s response, the impartial (though always partial) answer to the question, “Does it work?”


patricide-frontcover600I imagine that many things will be said about D. Foy’s highly anticipated novel, Patricide, over the next few months. There will be much hushed and head-shaking praise levied, not only at the arresting way in which it’s told but also about the subject matter—surviving an unsurvivable childhood.

And yet while this is very much the story of one man’s colossal, cyclonic attempt to remake himself from the shards of an annihilating boyhood, I think that it is much more than that. It seems to me that the true subject of this narrative, is the collision of dreams. The lengths to which parents and children break and remake each other and themselves on this contested terrain, this no man’s land of lovesick, homesick, heartsick dreams.

Whether we’re talking about simple book reviews, hardcore literary criticism, or even the deathsport-cum-puffery that goes with writing workshops, it’s easy to make literary opinions about yourself rather than the work at hand. There are a lot of different ways this can happen in reviewing. Some of the more common:

1.  The dispensation of ham-fisted writing truisms (show, don’t tell; adverbs must die; etc.)

2.  The shared personal anecdote, loosely related at best (My word-slinging panda Grimwald brings me a sonnet every night. But you didn’t. And that’s why this is the most horrible dreck I’ve ever read.); and

3.  Conscious mockery, the review designed (through wit, derision, and pithy prose) to show how much better you are than the foolish mortal whose book you’ve deigned to review. (There’s this guy on Goodreads…Actually, there are like three hundred of this guy on Goodreads, but you get the idea…)

I suppose I have a little luxury in the books I review. No one at TNB tells me what to cover, when to read them or where. I just do then say what I think. Simple, right? But not so, not really.

So many of the most famous examples of criticism come from hating a book or an author with a passion, from using that passion and what skill you may have to pen a take-down readers will remember. The goal is perhaps not always to make oneself sound good, but certainly, at the very least, to make the writer or work under discussion sound very bad.

For me, today, book reviewing has less to do with put-downs, more to do with empathy. As a critic, I think you need to be a bit of a chameleon, able to envision each book not just from your own perspective (the white tower of your five-star, ten-point, or four-heart rating scale) but from the standpoint of that book’s best reader, the person the book is intended for even though neither they nor the author have any idea they exist. Rather than the infallibility we sometimes pretend to, book reviewing seems to me a matter of art and hope, maybe even something a little like a prayer. A wish, at least, that the books we’ve chosen will find their best readers, whoever and wherever they are.

In many ways, the greatest praise we can bestow on a piece of art is to say it inhabits its world so fully as to define it. Whether we’re talking about Flannery O’Connor or Jane Austen, Charles Dickens or Ernest Hemingway, the writers we come back to, the ones who maintain readership and critical attention, often capture their environments to such an extent that their claim on the territory comes to supplant the reality they once sought to depict.

What would 19th century England mean to us without David Copperfield and Oliver Twist? What would 20th century Paris be without The Sun Also Rises? Even though film’s more overt, incandescent iconography has overtaken the literary in the popular consciousness, one of the written word’s chief uses remains its role as historical document and anthropological source, a record of the things that animate geographies and eras, nations and civilizations. And let’s be clear: Even today, there would be no cinema without writing. Whether in the form of novels and stories that provide jumping-off points for screenwriting or the scripts themselves, the production of the images that become our shared memories could never happen without the written word.

The Nervous Breakdown’s inaugural Microbrew showcases the diversity of American letters. Realist and fabulist, lyrical and metafictional, novels and stories, novellas and poetry. Drawn from small and big presses alike, this is a group of writers engaged in the work of claiming their territory, defining their worlds with such linguistic precision and clarity of vision that those worlds, if we’re lucky, begin to feel like our own.

51h6MXJbAjL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_On its face, minimalism might seem like an ironic term for fiction—one more suited to architecture or interior design—but in describing the style of writing that still dominates many MFA programs, it’s entirely fitting. Featuring spare prose and terse descriptions of the everyday, this is the manner of literary writing most easily taught, most simply reduced to a matter of craft. Often purposefully lacking in plot and story—and stripped mercilessly of personality—minimalism in its most realistic form can become a study not in nonfiction but in a sort of antifiction, work that may qualify as literary in ambition, but not effect. Unable to animate the seemingly realistic world it has created, minimalism often fails the most basic of literary tests. Like a song sung to perfect pitch, but without passion, minimalistic fiction can want for soul. It can lack magic.

dear-petrov-cover-1I hesitate to call Susan Tepper’s dear Petrov (Pure Slush Books) a novel; if anything it reaches closest to that magical, ethereal and mysterious realm we call poetry, though I also hesitate to call the sixty-four connected, half-page pieces poems, for taken altogether, they construct a beautiful whole that can very well be a novel. And yet…I hesitate…yes, now I’m repeating, having thoroughly locked myself into a savagely incoherent loop. This is so mostly because this book defies a label, and any fool (like this one) who undertakes the futile task of reviewing Tepper’s offering will be left verbally challenged—doomed to spin his wheels in perpetuity, trapped in a circle of babbling nonsense as witnessed above. The closest we can come to pegging down dear Petrov is “a work of art.”

61OEvAy5j0L._SX373_BO1,204,203,200_One of my favorite lines in the thorough, inspiring, and often challenging new anthology Family Resemblance: An Anthology and Exploration of 8 Hybrid Literary Genres, appears not in any of the myriad prose poems or lyric essays or flash fiction included there, but in the preface. The sentence begins: “Jacqueline had been experiencing a…crisis of genre faith.” So much about this anthology – its writers, its editors, and presumably its target audience – is contained in that phrase, “a crisis of genre faith.” This is a book for those of us that pray at the altar of literature, and as such, both study its many holy tenets, and occasionally (or frequently) question their holiness, prompting us to seek new, expanded ways of renewing our commitment to The Word.

25387388A few years ago a psychologist friend asked me if I was a gambler. Back in my first two years of college in a small Midwestern town—an accidental choice, after all, at least for this East Coast kid—overcome with boredom though periodically buzzing with passels of first-rate psychedelics and crystal meth, I’d play weekend-long poker games, listening to stacks of variously-scratched Rolling Stones LPs in someone else’s dorm room, resulting in lost sleep and most of the cash in my pocket. Each deal on site  was going to be better than the last. Walk away when you’re down? What’s the point of that, eh? Shut up and deal. We do it over and over again, because luck is like some invisible force in the universe: sometimes it’s on your side, and sometimes it isn’t. If you back out, you’ll never know if the next hand’s going to be a royal straight flush. So you ante up and watch the cards sail towards you.