Ian Schwartz

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In the pantheon of modern fiction, how important is Raymond Carver? Fellow writer Robert Pope once dubbed him the “salvation of American literature.” Charles McGrath, former editor of the New Yorker and the New York Times Book Review, called him the “bellwether for a whole generation.” And now Carol Sklenicka has written a wonderful biography of Carver that, at nearly 600 pages, is more than 10 times longer than anything Carver himself ever penned. Raymond Carver: A Writer’s Life is a dense plumbing of the often bizarre life of the man whose spare, grinding tales of the poor and working class made him the most celebrated short-story writer of our time. Sklenicka chronicles Carver’s life from his modest beginnings through his death in 1988 from lung cancer—a peripatetic whirlwind of alcohol, writing and keeping one step ahead of the debt collector.

While it sometimes feels that Sklenicka offers Carver a free pass on his alcoholism—among other causes, she cites family responsibilities, heredity and even the national zeitgeist as reasons for his drunkenness—her book is a lushly researched necessity for anyone who loves literature. The story of Carver also chronicles the end of an era—the last group of authors for whom Dionysian excess was as necessary as limpid prose.

The only thing Carver appeared to enjoy as much as writing was the company of writers. Sklenicka’s book is thick with insider conversations, parties and first-person observations of some of the best-known writers of the last half-century. Prominent are Carver’s second wife, poet Tess Gallagher, and dozens of authors he considered friends, including Richard Ford, Tobias Wolff and Jay McInerney.

A Writer’s Life is also the perfect holiday companion to the recently released Raymond Carver: Collected Stories. The collection includes Beginners, the original manuscript for What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. The manuscript version was nearly twice as long until pared liberally by editor Gordon Lish. Carver was so unhappy with the result he begged Lish to halt publication. Now here it is in its original form for all his fans to enjoy.  

In the pantheon of modern fiction, how important is Raymond Carver? Fellow writer Robert Pope once dubbed him the “salvation of American literature.” Charles McGrath, former editor of the New Yorker and the New York Times Book Review, called him the “bellwether for a whole generation.”

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What’s easier than writing a short story? Sit down on your lunch break, bang out a couple thousand words, maybe add a pinch of editing and there you are, four or five entertaining pages to wow friends, family and literary agents. After all, it’s not as if you’re writing a book. Practically anyone who has ever written a sentence knows they can write a short story—until they try.

With no space to waste and no space wasted, short stories may be the purest, most difficult form of fiction. Some of the greatest American writers—including Henry James, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Herman Melville—were, at one point or another, short story writers. With dozens of delicious stories that range from a teenager’s New York City to the Egyptian desert, from the gray Soviet Union to fraught Central Asia, these four collections—including three debuts—do what great tales should: Hook you fast and hold on tightly, all the way to the end. Some are traditional, some are experimental, and some break all the rules. The one thing these writers have in common is the talent to make it look easy enough for anyone to do it.

Until, of course, they try.

HEARTS ALONE
I’d say remember the name Danielle Lazarin, but if you read her first collection of short fiction, there’s no danger you’ll forget it. In Back Talk, her tales of the inner lives of girls and young women are nothing short of revelatory. Forget about what women want; as Lazarin illustrates in gorgeous, limpid paragraphs that will make you go back for more, the more appropriate question is, what don’t women want? Lazarin’s New York women are uninterested in being anyone’s accessory. They fight tooth and nail against love that requires attachment, as they assume it will merely devolve into the heartbreak that has marked their families.

In one story, a teenage girl tries to navigate the evolution of a lifelong friendship while exploring sex with the friend’s cousin. In another, the youngest of three siblings tries to simultaneously fit in and distance herself from her broken family, which is scattered over two continents. In the title story, a high school girl at a house party turns the tables on a boy who stands behind her, harassing her and whispering in her ear, only to later pay the inevitable social consequences of speaking up.

Back Talk is a pulsing, muscular heart of a collection that is as good as any I have read in years.

A RUSSIAN GREAT
Modern Russian literature generally falls into two categories: tales of Soviet life so heavy you can practically feel the yoke upon your shoulders, and more recently, tales that evoke the manic staccato of the diaspora. While both are prominent in Aetherial Worlds, Tatyana Tolstaya’s writing is so good that it cuts through the surface directly to the universal workings of the human heart.

In the sad and elegant “Smoke and Shadows,” a visiting Russian professor at a Midwestern school reluctantly falls in love with a married American counterpart. In another, an old woman going through long-neglected suitcases finds her father’s clothes, and she is able to remember him as the young man he once was and recall his promise to give her a hint about the afterlife.

The Leningrad-born author is descended from both Leo Tolstoy and Ivan Turgenev; her bloodlines practically drip ink. But Tolstaya labors under no ancestor’s shadow.

WAR TALES
Bring Out the Dog, a debut collection from Navy veteran Will Mackin, takes us into the world of modern war—and the soul of the modern soldier.

On a night raid in Afghanistan, a member of a special operations unit is accidentally shot by one of his own. Back home in North Carolina, a Navy pilot happens upon a meeting of the Man Will Never Fly Society, whose membership is made up of former fliers. In my favorite story, Navy SEALs lie in ambush, waiting for the signal to attack, as an enemy patrol files by.

Mackin’s stories are at times raw and can feel unfinished, but he’s clearly a writer with promise who knows his subject matter. He spent 23 years in the military, the last five as a member of a SEAL team. His writing life is almost as interesting: An English major in college who opted for the service, he later met Booker Prize-winning author George Saunders at a literary seminar in Russia. Saunders became his mentor, and his influence is apparent in Mackin’s marriage of the mundane and the absurd.

NEW POWERS
Anjali Sachdeva’s debut, All the Names They Used for God, is a wide-ranging collection of stories that are a blend of fact and fiction, seamlessly integrating magical realism and the firmly earthbound. Sachdeva’s fantastic world is one where angels visit a blind old man and help him write one of the greatest poems in history, and where an albino woman on the American frontier discovers a world under the earth that she prefers to the one above ground.

Sachdeva’s spare, unsentimental writing is never more artfully deployed than in the title story, an emotionally scorching tale of two African women’s kidnap and escape from a Boko Haram-type army. In captivity, the two women discover powers they never knew they could possess, but can their strength ever allow them to be the girls they once were?

Sachdeva’s eclectic stories span time and geography, packing a wallop even greater due to their diversity. It’s a strong collection from start to finish, with not a weak story in the bunch.

 

This article was originally published in the March 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

What’s easier than writing a short story? Sit down on your lunch break, bang out a couple thousand words, maybe add a pinch of editing and there you are, four or five entertaining pages to wow friends, family and literary agents. After all, it’s not as if you’re writing a book. Practically anyone who has ever written a sentence knows they can write a short story—until they try.

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The Irish have a reputation, deserved or not, for being storytellers, drinkers and fighters, not necessarily in that order. Eighty-four-year-old Maurice Hannigan, the gruff, unsparing narrator of Dublin-born writer Anne Griffin’s satisfying first novel, When All Is Said, is no exception. 

Without informing his son, Maurice has sold his home and farm, given away his dog and told everyone he is retiring to a nursing home. First, though, is a nightlong stop at the well-appointed bar of the Rainsford House Hotel, where Maurice will raise a glass five times to five different people, and remember, as he says, “All that I have been and all that I will never be again.”

Maurice’s full and prosperous life is now filled with ghosts: the older brother he watched waste away with tuberculosis; his daughter, Molly, a stillborn he held for just 15 minutes but has seen every day of his life; and his beloved wife, Sadie, who has been dead two years to the day he steps into the bar. His son, whom he loves with a fierceness more evident for his inability to express it, lives across the ocean in New Jersey and has a family of his own. 

So it’s alone Maurice sits, toasting and remembering. In a rough-hewn voice smoothed by whiskey and as mesmerizing as a coiled cobra, he spills out a life of joy and regrets, full of tender love and bitter, enduring hatred, by turns accepting his sins and mitigating them. As he toasts and talks, a mystery surfaces. Why, after all those close-mouthed decades, is Maurice finally opening up? Is he really going to a nursing home, a place he’s about as well-suited for as for a yurt? Or does he have another destination in mind? 

Griffin, the author of numerous short stories, is an exciting new voice in Irish literature. Her versatility makes When All Is Said a pleasure to read. Maurice’s story is told with wry humor and pathos that avoids sentimentality, giving us a clear-eyed look at a man fumbling with a question we all must eventually face: What do you do with your life when all you have left are memories and regrets?

Without informing his son, Maurice has sold his home and farm, given away his dog and told everyone he is retiring to a nursing home. First, though, is a nightlong stop at the well-appointed bar of the Rainsford House Hotel, where Maurice will raise a glass five times to five different people, and remember, as he says, “All that I have been and all that I will never be again.”

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The Russian émigré is not uncommon in modern fiction. Generally, said immigrant comes to the states and cultural misunderstandings abound—plus feelings of displacement, pathos, yada yada—until a reckoning in which America and the émigré come to terms with each other and are both better for it. But what do you get when more than two decades after arrival in America, the young immigrant has to go back? You get Keith Gessen’s sad, funny and altogether winning novel, A Terrible Country.

Thirty-three-year-old Andrei Kaplan is stuck in a rut. His life is small, his New York City sublet is smaller, and he was just dumped by his girlfriend at a Starbucks. So when Andrei’s shady older brother, an aspiring kleptocrat living in Moscow, asks Andrei to return to the land of his birth and take care of their ailing grandmother, he agrees.

But Andrei, who left Russia when he was 8, is surprised to find himself in Putin’s Russia, where espressos are outrageously priced, the KGB has merely changed initials, and everyone is grasping for riches with both hands.

So Andrei cares for his grandmother, plays pickup hockey games and teaches online courses while waiting to go back to the U.S. It’s a lonely, hermetic existence—his lone attempt to experience the Moscow nightlife ends with a pistol whipping—until he meets Yulia, who is attractive, mysterious and a communist. Drawn into Yulia’s world of clandestine meetings and anti-government protests, Andrei grows closer to both her and Russia, and decides he will stay in the country. But taking on Putin’s government becomes all too real, and Andrei discovers the hard way that his choices affect not just his life but also those of his new friends.

Gessen is the author of the novel All the Sad Young Literary Men and an editor of popular literary magazine n+1. Like his protagonist, he moved to the United States from Russia as a child. His first novel in 10 years is a compassionate, soulful read that avoids dourness by being surprisingly funny. A Terrible Country shows us that while you certainly can go home again, it often turns out to be a lousy idea.

 

This article was originally published in the July 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

What do you get when more than two decades after arrival in America, the young immigrant has to go back? You get Keith Gessen’s sad, funny and altogether winning novel, A Terrible Country.
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PEN/Hemingway Award-winning author Kevin Powers descends into the corrupt heart of the American South with his Civil War-era novel, A Shout in the Ruins, a lacerating and elegiac—if at times uneven—novel about the lasting effects of human bondage.

Powers, whose debut novel, The Yellow Birds, is among the best works of fiction to come out of America’s 21st-century wars, has penned a tragic tale of moral corruption set in Virginia. While chapters alternate between the final days of the antebellum South and the 1950s, at its heart the book is the story of the Beauvais Plantation, where Emily Reid, impoverished daughter of a crippled Confederate soldier, marries plantation owner Antony Levallois.

From the author of The Yellow Birds comes an elegiac tale of the American South.

Already at the plantation are slaves Nurse and Rawls, star-crossed lovers who are little more than toys for Levallois. The most interesting character in the book, Levallois is more animal than human in his needs and methods, yet his manipulation is sophisticated enough to hold the entire countryside under his thumb. But as the South falls to pieces, so does his control of the people around him, leading to revenge and murder.

Another storyline follows nonagenarian George Seldom as he tries to investigate his murky origins. Aided by a diner waitress, he makes his way to a dimly recalled childhood home, where he comes face to face with memory and grief.

While the story grows confusing at times, the only discordant notes are a couple of narratives that focus on fringe characters who appear to exist only to move the story along. Still, the author’s writing possesses the same intimate, lyrical power as his haunting debut, which was written after his experience serving in Iraq with the U.S. Army. This time, the Richmond, Virginia, native gets closer to home.

This is a fine, relevant novel from a notable author.

 

This article was originally published in the May 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

PEN/Hemingway Award-winning author Kevin Powers descends into the corrupt heart of the American South with his Civil War-era novel, A Shout in the Ruins, a lacerating and elegiac—if at times uneven—novel about the lasting effects of human bondage.

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Our past is who we are, even when it’s forgotten.

In Gateway to the Moon, award-winning novelist Mary Morris draws a map straight from the terror of the Spanish Inquisition to stagnant lives in a dirt-poor New Mexico village, half a millennium later.

In 1492, Luis de Torre flees Spain to avoid torture and imprisonment at the hands of fanatical priests. Abandoning his family, he signs on as the personal interpreter of Christopher Columbus, who is sailing west in search of another route to the riches of the Indies. The mission fails, but Luis becomes the first of his bloodline to set foot in the New World. The book follows Luis’ descendants over the centuries as oppression propels them out of Spain, through Mexico and finally north to the remote town of Entrada de la Luna.

Five hundred years after Luis’ journey, the mostly Spanish-Catholic down-and-out town is unremarkable, yet it has its quirks. Why do the families light candles on Friday night? Why doesn’t anyone eat pork? Fifteen-year-old Miguel Torres, who shares a trailer with his mother, just knows that’s the way it’s always been. Miguel, a juvenile-detention alum, likes to spend his nights on a hill at the old cemetery, staring up at the sky through a homemade telescope. Miguel has little interest in the earthbound, and it’s no wonder. His mother is an exhausted woman, old before her time, and his father is an alcoholic who spray-paints pictures on cars for money. Miguel dreams of two things: discovering new moons and escaping his dying village. His hero is his Aunt Elena, a talented dancer who fled the desert for New York when she was 17.

But Aunt Elena harbors a dark, violent secret. And when tragic circumstances force her to return, both her past and that of the town’s is laid bare, and lives—especially Miguel’s—will never be the same.

Morris writes with a relaxed eloquence, shifting easily through characters. Gateway to the Moon is an entertaining, thoughtful read that raises a relevant question: Appearances aside, just how different are we?

In Gateway to the Moon, award-winning novelist Mary Morris draws a map straight from the terror of the Spanish Inquisition to stagnant lives in a dirt-poor New Mexico village, half a millennium later.

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Award-winning writer Chris Offutt is the author of the New York Times notable book The Good Brother (1997), as well as several excellent story collections and memoirs. His bleak, savage depictions of rural down-and-outers combine the literary style of James Dickey with the noir chops of Daniel Woodrell. He owns a well-deserved reputation as a writer’s writer. Fresh off his 2016 memoir, My Father, the Pornographer, Offutt returns with his second novel, his first in over two decades. While Country Dark, a tale of family loyalty and violence in the hills of Kentucky, does not measure up to those past efforts, it’s still a slick bit of backwoods devilry.

The book spans around 20 years in the life of Tucker, a Korean War veteran, and his wife, Rhonda. Sliced into four sections and arranged chronologically, it opens in 1954 as 17-year-old Tucker walks the last 100 miles home after his discharge from the army. In the course of a day or two, Tucker confiscates a salesman’s pistol, saves 14-year-old Rhonda from rape—which, coming at the hands of her brutal uncle, means Offutt isn’t exactly slaying a hillbilly stereotype—and proposes marriage.

Leap ahead a decade: Tucker is running moonshine and scrambling to take care of his wife and five kids. Four of the children have such serious intellectual disabilities that state workers decide to institutionalize them. This doesn’t sit well with Tucker, a man fiercely protective of his family, and the threat touches off a violent chain of events that will alter the lives of everyone involved forever.

Tense and atmospheric, Country Dark is firmly rooted in time and place, with the verisimilitude expected from a writer who has made the shadowy hills of Kentucky his own.

 

This article was originally published in the April 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Tense and atmospheric, Country Dark is firmly rooted in time and place, with the verisimilitude expected from a writer who has made the shadowy hills of Kentucky his own.

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Despite weighing in at little more than 200 pages, Sigrid Nunez’s new novel sure is heavy.

Brilliant but informal, sad yet laugh-out-loud funny, The Friend is a digressive bumblebee of a novel that alights on aging, death, the waning power of literature and the strength of friendship. It’s a book of fragments that questions what it means to be human.

When a middle-aged New York City writing professor—unnamed, as are all human characters in the book—loses her longtime mentor and friend to suicide, she floats through her days in a bubble of stunned grief. Then her friend’s latest wife—now widow—known as “number three,” asks the narrator to take Apollo, her husband’s massive, aged Great Dane.

Even though her apartment building does not allow dogs (and it would be impossible to hide one that’s large enough for children to ride on), she agrees. Apollo is also grieving, spending his days waiting forlornly at the door and his nights howling out his anguish. Slowly, their uneasy coexistence becomes an intense, exclusive partnership that alarms the narrator’s friends. “Oh,” says a woman she meets at a party, “you’re the one who’s in love with a dog.” Her friends worry she will be homeless—booted from her rent-controlled apartment, a very real possibility the narrator ignores. But woman and dog have an inner journey to make, swimming upstream against their grief and puzzlement in an attempt to understand why their friend abandoned them.

Nunez’s seventh novel is small yet rich. Replete with limpid asides on writing, writers and what it means to be a person of words in an increasingly emoji world, The Friend will appeal in particular to fans of postmodern authors such as David Markson. Talented as she is, Nunez should be better known among readers. If you’re already a fan, this beautiful, spare work will not disappoint. If you aren’t, this relevant novel is the perfect introduction.

 

This article was originally published in the February 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Brilliant but informal, sad yet laugh-out-loud funny, The Friend is a digressive bumblebee of a novel that alights on aging, death, the waning power of literature and the strength of friendship. It’s a book of fragments that questions what it means to be human.

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Part thriller, part romance, part coming-of-age fantasy, The Philosopher’s Flight by debut novelist Tom Miller has already set a high bar for any book vying to be the most entertaining novel of 2018.

In this alternate history, the United States has just entered World War I, and the science behind unaided human flight, known as empirical philosophy, is as controversial as ever. Much of that fuss comes from the fact that, with rare exceptions, only women can fly. Anti-philosophy activists, known as Trenchers, are gaining traction, and extremists on both sides have participated in riots, attacks and even assassinations.

Into this whirlwind leaps Robert Weekes, an 18-year-old Montanan who lives with his mother, the legendary Major Emmeline Weekes, philosopher, war hero and vigilante. Robert, one of the few men capable of flight, dreams of following in his mother’s footsteps and joining the U.S. Sigilry Corps Rescue and Evacuation Service, an elite, women-only group of philosophers who swoop onto battlefields under heavy fire to fly the dead and wounded to safety.

When a daring rescue after a deadly Trencher attack makes him a minor hero, Robert wins a scholarship to Radcliffe College, an all-women’s school, to study empirical philosophy. After a chilly welcome, Robert pushes his flying to new—and reckless—levels to win the respect of the Radcliffe women. He improves so rapidly that his absurd dream of Rescue and Evac is within grasp, especially after a sparkling performance at the General’s Cup, the annual flying competition showcasing the best of the college philosophers.

His future becomes less certain when he meets and falls for Danielle Hardin, a bitter war veteran disillusioned by her service at Gallipoli. When the outspoken philosopher takes on the Trenchers, she and Robert draw the attention of a fanatical anti-philosophy group, with deadly consequences.

The wild and soaring The Philosopher’s Flight is as fun a read as you’ll come across. Miller appears to have left room for more at the story’s end; let’s hope this is the start of a new series.

 

This article was originally published in the February 2018 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Part thriller, part romance, part coming-of-age fantasy, The Philosopher’s Flight by debut novelist Tom Miller has already set a high bar for any book vying to be the most entertaining novel of 2018.

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It’s a struggle to remain the heroes of our own stories. What we know in our hearts, that we are Jason Bourne or Katniss Everdeen, clashes daily with reality, where we coax kids out of the minivan each morning and lug individually bagged, nut-free snacks to a wearying number of Little League games.

But even those of us bogged down in the quotidian have stories. And luckily, we have Tom Perrotta to tell them.

Mrs. Fletcher, the acclaimed author’s first novel since 2011, is a smart, grown-up look at what happens when growing older doesn’t turn out as expected.

Eve Fletcher is alone. Forty-six, abandoned by her husband for a younger woman and left with an empty nest by her college-bound son, Brendan (whom she dearly loves but finds hard to like), Eve fears the days ahead. Her only consolations are small but not insignificant: She doesn’t hate her job and she still looks good in jeans.

Eve is, in fact, a MILF (if you don’t know the term, go stream American Pie). She knows this because a late-night text from an unknown number informs her, “U R my MILF!” The text sends Eve on a journey of discovery, both amusing and so cringe-worthy that you’ll want to read with your fingers covering your face.

Eve’s struggles are matched by those of her son. Brendan is a “bro,” a frat-hungry jock who is unable to rein in his sense of entitlement, even in the progressive world of college. When he’s called out for the boorish, misogynistic behavior that worked like a charm in high school, he is forced to confront the type of person he wants to be.

Perrotta makes a sharp, satirical return to the class of people he skewered in Little Children (2004). A suburban anthropologist in the tradition of John Updike, he is so spot on about people who live “comfortably” that reading him makes you deliciously uncomfortable.

 

This article was originally published in the August 2017 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

Mrs. Fletcher, the acclaimed author’s first novel since 2011, is a smart, grown-up look at what happens when growing older doesn’t turn out as expected.

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Reed Karaim’s second novel, The Winter in Anna, is a memorable story of a young man whose life is irrevocably altered by a woman with a tragic past.

Purposeless and confused after his father’s stroke, 20-year-old Eric Valery abandons college for a weekly newspaper in tiny Shannon, North Dakota, “where the Midwest becomes the West.” When the news editor makes one mistake too many, a reluctant Eric is given control of the paper. He inherits a staff of three, including Anna, a beautiful reporter about 10 years older and a hundred years wiser than Eric. Anna is as scarred by the world as Eric is unmarked. Yet over the course of a year, they become friends and confidants—there is a tangible “will they or won’t they” vibe—as Eric tries to make sense of his father’s collapse and the guilt he feels. Much more slowly, Anna reveals herself, and in fits and starts we learn about her horrible marriage and the unbearable burden she carries. 

It’s a foregone conclusion that things won’t end well. Narrated by a much older Eric, the novel opens with Anna committing suicide by guzzling a quart of bleach in an anonymous Midwestern motel. 

The Winter in Anna is both thoughtful and introspective, in the tradition of Pat Conroy and Ward Just, whose own coming-of-age tale, An Unfinished Season, comes to mind while reading this one. Karaim, a freelance writer and author of the well-received political novel If Men Were Angels, doesn’t break new ground, but each of his words is impactful and chosen with care. He possesses the subtle, significant ability to build tension slowly and evenly, urging you to devour this smallish novel in one gulp.

 

This article was originally published in the January 2017 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook

Reed Karaim’s second novel, The Winter in Anna, is a memorable story of a young man whose life is irrevocably altered by a woman with a tragic past.

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