Benjamin Nugent -- In his essay "Michael", John Jeremiah Sullivan points out that Michael Jackson’s best songs have the peculiar catchiness of schoolyard chants. You’ve got to be starting something, Hey girl with the high heels on, Billie Jean is not my lover, I’m bad, I’m bad, you know it, etc. One of the reasons I love Ottessa Moshfegh’s forthcoming collection, Homesick for Another World: Stories, out next January, is that she too is a master of the taunting cadence, only Moshfegh’s schoolyard abuts a high school or a liberal arts school: “The deluxe shopping center on Route 4, where the fattest people on earth could be found…”; “But having held my dick in her hand, she seemed to feel she’d earned the right to belittle me as much as possible”; “The shoulder pads nearly hit his ears, as he had basically no neck.” Lesser writers don’t trust the reader to engage with narrators who express contempt, so their narrators are artificially aw-shucks and nonjudgmental. But Moshfegh knows that people make fun of other people to shield themselves from their own self-loathing, fear and loneliness, and she knows how to twist a story at the end so that the mask of disgust falls away and we see the desolation that was always lurking behind.
Daniel Johnson -- Why is it that all the world has yet to acquire a copy of New American Stories (2015), the 750 page anthology edited by Ben Marcus, and gorge themselves on it? Contained therein are over twenty-five pieces of short fiction--including installments by Don DeLillo, Mary Gaitskill, Wells Tower, and Kelly Link--that matter now, not only because they're individually outstanding with regard to their contributions to the endurance of the short story form, but also because, collectively, they're a clip of what the American voice sounds like now. It's The Unprofessionals, but more sweeping in scope. And sure, I'm quite aware this is a terrifically cliché way to talk about any book. But what else is there to say about the most quintessential curation of contemporary stories available? Perhaps that Marcus's intro is knockout: "The potent story writers, to me, are the ones who deploy language as a kind of contraband, pumping it into us until we collapse on the floor, writhing, overwhelmed with feeling." Perhaps, too, that the book as a physical object is gorgeous (see left), and simply feels like something substantial when you hold it. It's got the weight and paper gradation of a Bible. Just saying.
John Vercher -- As a new(ish) father, I find that certain books, movies and the like affect me on an emotional level they wouldn’t have pre-rugrats. Marlin finally reunites with Nemo? My chin crinkles. “Cat’s in The Cradle” plays on the radio? The eyes start to burn a bit. And don’t even get me started on that scene from Interstellar when McConaughey watches the video messages from his children back on Earth. So it went for me with Celeste Ng’s 2014 debut novel Everything I Never Told You. Lydia Lee, the teenage daughter of James and Marilyn, is missing. Her fate is revealed to readers by the end of the first chapter: “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know it yet.” Despite the innards-twisting tension that Ng so deftly ratchets before divulging Lydia’s fate, it’s her family’s reactions to their loss and the memories conjured by it that deliver much of the novel’s emotional resonance. Ng writes with the painful beauty of a parent’s perspective as they bear witness to the cruelty of which children are capable. It’s stories like these that stop me cold, make me set the book down long enough to find my sons and hold them, with the hopes of protecting them from the world.
Sarah Eisner -- My mother often writes me lengthy emails about her childhood in Savannah, Georgia, and sometimes asks me questions about the way I remember mine in suburban California. I tend to respond like I’m less interested than I am, like I don’t know that I’m privileged to have a mom who wants to relive my life and share her own, like I don’t realize that someday I’ll wish I asked her everything I could. So when she mentioned that I should read The Rainbow Comes and Goes—a back and forth correspondence between Anderson Cooper and his mother, Gloria Vanderbilt—I told her it wasn’t my thing, thinking it was another lame celebrity memoir. It arrived on my doorstep on Mother’s Day anyway. I was surprised to find how deeply satisfied I was with the way Rainbow explores motherhood, ambition, identity, aging and grief, framed within a unique narrative of a very particular kind of American privilege and pain. The relationship between Anderson and Gloria illustrates the way families remember through parent and child, and inspired me to ask my mom a few more questions.
Eric Beebe -- After far too long, I finally picked up Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City and got to making up for the lost time it spent buried in my reading list. It quickly shot into place among my favorite books. The novel gave me the feel of following thoughts rather than plot, but with no lack of an arc to show for it—just gems of true consciousness that seem universal to human experience: “No. Stop this. This is not your better self speaking. This is not how you feel.” The universality of the protagonist’s thoughts is one of the novel’s greatest triumphs; it’s only aided by the way McInerney's style allows us to feel we know the character so well. In a world where we’re constantly pummeled with the differences, assumptions, and enigma surrounding baby boomers, millennials, or whichever generation, it’s an extreme relief to read work which—touted as definitive of one age and place—feels purely, innately relatable in its humanity. Bright Lights, Big City isn’t just a coming-of-age novel, or a New York novel, or an eighties novel. It’s a story about the disillusionment and disappointments that can strike anyone, anywhere, at any time, and the fleeting efforts we make to cope. Rumor has it that The Paris Review’s sitting on a forthcoming interview with McInerney, and after this, I’ll be counting down days.
David Moloney -- Luke Mogelson’s first collection of stories, These Heroic, Happy Dead—a title borrowed from the E.E. Cummings poem, “next to of course god america I”—would have you know that when veterans return from war, there’s no glory awaiting them. Rather, what happens is a continuance of trouble and violence. What is especially empathetic about these stories is how Mogelson not only focuses on the veterans, but also the people close to them: mothers, neighbors, and co-workers. In “Visitors,” a mother, Jeanne, loses her son a second time when he returns from war and kills a man in a bar fight. Jeanne is in denial, as she believes her son merely “had to go away again.” But Mogelson doesn’t condemn his characters for feeling wronged. Instead, he allows them to act out their anger and anxiety---as in “Human Cry”---only to find them in a worse way. The protagonist in “Human Cry” explores his own involvement in a man’s death and how he subsequently dealt with it with a self-imposed isolation from the world. But the full extent of the isolation isn’t understood until Mogelson switches point of view in the final page, revealing the protagonist’s bizarre and embarrassing actions to the reader---he’s been living in the man’s home, the man he is responsible for killing. These Heroic, Happy Dead is a book of war stories---perpetual war---and the consequences of sending men to kill and then asking them to return to family, work and normalcy no different.
Nadia Owusu -- In Nuruddin Farah’s rich and lyrical novel Maps, a young boy by the name of Askar bears witness to the violent redrawing of Farah’s native Somalia and neighboring Ethiopia post-colonialism. At the same time, he must make decisions about who he wants to be and what he is willing to fight for. Although the political and geographical context of this novel is specific, there are many parallels between Askar’s wars (internal and external) and the wars that are currently being waged, from the Sudans to Syria. Examining themes like religion, class, and community, Maps reminds us that identities and borders (particularly, perhaps, in Africa) are fluid and rarely easily defined.
Ted Flanagan -- The recent paperback reissue of Richard Price’s The Whites drops the hardcover’s unfortunate author attribution of “Richard Price writing as Harry Brandt” in favor of simply his name, which any devotee of Price would have known by the end of paragraph one. Consider the opening lines: “ ... a quarter past one in the morning and there were still far more people piling into the bars than leaving them, everyone coming and going having to muscle their way through swaying clumps of half-hammered smokers standing directly outside the entrances. He hated the no smoking laws.” The book has all the Price-ian staples. Its protagonist, Billy Graves, is a conflicted veteran police detective, now working a kind of overnight bunco-cum-broken-windows squad in NYC, all the while stewing about a case from his past involving a triple-murder suspect Graves could never pin with the crime. And then there’s the mysterious stalker, intent on destroying the Graves family. The change on the paperback cover just goes to show that a Price novel, even one intentioned to be a simple whodunit penned under a pseudonym, will always be a Price novel. If there’s a writer living today with a better ear for honest, human dialogue, or a more pathological inability to see every character in anything but full 360-degree, four dimensional view, who illuminates the wider world around us by focusing on the narrow world within his characters, and turns up the heat slowly, so you don’t realize you’re in hot water until it’s too late, I don’t know who they are.