Daniel Johnson -- Confession: Young Adult Literature, until recently, was oft absent from my shelves, and is admittedly under-represented (read: nonexistent) in these staff picks here at Assignment. It’s a sensibility thing, both as individuals and as a publication, and I get it. However, on recommendation, perhaps on challenge, and also because I’m in the process of renovating and expanding my tastes, I read Jandy Nelson’s 2015 Printz Award-winning novel I’ll Give You the Sun, and I fucking adored it. Seldom have I held characters as dear as I did Noah and Jude, the book’s twin teenage Californian protagonists, who we follow through art school rejections, the separation of their parents, and the eventual death of their mother, all of which leads to a monstrous rift in their relationship. From the very first page, I cared so deeply for their bond, was so invested in its loss and redemption, in each sibling's tumultuous road to individuality and healing; I longed so fiercely to wedge myself between their bodies during what Noah calls “the smush,” a sedentary position in which each twin abuts the other “until we’re not only one age, but one complete and whole person.” How many people, I wondered, read this book and realized that to be one half of a smush is all they’ve ever wanted? Nelson gives us a story that seems, on the surface, elemental because of its elasticity: twins start together, twins grow apart, two arcs that begin as parallels before they bend and meander away from one another, until they eventually snap into symmetry anew. What sets it apart as outstanding, for one, is Nelson's Lerner-esque ability to drive the story almost entirely through the interior registers of her protagonists. And then there's her language, which processes as flashes of color more often than it does as formations of words. Here’s Noah, speaking of his sister: “Jude looks at me. Her eyes are the lightest glacier blue; I use mostly white when I draw them. Normally they make you feel floaty and think of puffy clouds and hear harps, but right now they look just plain scared.” Both twins are artists, and their voices, as here, seem somehow liberated from the representational deficiencies of quotidian language; thus, Nelson’s prose scraped feeling from me with terrifying page-to-page ease, some of which was so complex and overwhelming and new that I struggle to name it here. What I can articulate, and what you need to know, is that I’ll Give You the Sun understands the rhythms of relationships, like Noah and Jude's, that are galactic in importance: it will leave you assured that it’s okay—beautiful, even—if one person is the central star to your cosmos, just as long as you’re unafraid to be ripped from orbit every once in a while, to be forced to go rogue and experience the universe as a sovereign world. Nelson is offering a comfort, here, that when it comes to her characters, or any set of twins, siblings, any and all family—plainly, when it comes to those we love—an inexplicable gravity will always ferry us back to them.
Eric Beebe -- To say I’m a fan of Kurt Vonnegut would understate the eye rolls and sighs of many friends of mine every time I mention his work yet again. I turn into a kind of missionary for his work—ironically, considering many of his themes—every time I meet someone who hasn’t read it, and I make a point of tracking down the gems he produced which didn’t receive the same fanfare as Cat’s Cradle or Slaughterhouse-Five or maybe just fell out of the public eye. This search brought me to Slapstick, which Vonnegut claims in its prologue to be the closest thing he wrote to an autobiography. “It is about what life feels like to me,” he wrote, which may sound strange regarding a story of a malformed, incestuous pair of twins narrated by one who becomes the last president of the United States, but therein lies the joy of the book. The story is so blatantly absurd, with things like telepathic orgies and a campaign platform of grouping the nation into artificial families, that it stands as one of Vonnegut’s best efforts he makes across many of his books with regard to showing us just how ridiculous humans really are. This book is a must while seeking distraction from real-life absurdities like the rise of Trump and other pains of the impending election, but it also satirizes such events like only Vonnegut could. It’s a story of triumph and failure in simultaneity, as is often the only true case, told through a hyperbolic comedy of the journey there which makes us question, in the protagonist’s words, “And how did we then face the odds, / Of man’s rude slapstick, yes, and God’s?” If you want the answer, go read Slapstick.
Ted Flanagan -- If you make it to the surprising, soul-crushing denouement of The Painter of Battles, it will be as if Arturo Perez-Reverte has combined the blizzard-cold human condition of, say, Crime and Punishment, the tragedy of Anna Karenina, and the construction of the mirrored city of Macondo in One Hundred Years of Solitude, and condensed it into 211 pages without missing a chord of the originals’ beauty and cruelty. The protagonist, Andres Faulques, is a retired war photographer living in abandoned lighthouse on an unnamed stretch of Spanish coastline, and spends his days painting an epic mural along tower’s inner wall, bearing witness to the horrors his camera recorded. Into this solitude arrives a former Croatian soldier, Markovic, whose life was inadvertently ruined as the result of an otherwise inconsequential photo Faulques took of him while covering the brutal war arising from Yugoslavia’s death throes. The photo becomes a worldwide sensation, brings Faulques great fame and money, but also costs him the love of his life, who stepped on a mine near a muddy Balkan road two days later. The picture costs Markovic dearly, too, and he arrives at the tower to engage Faulques in a conversation, ask the photographer some questions, and then: “I’m going to kill you.” Throughout the characters’ extended daily conversations about art, love, death and war, Reverte’s writing is lyrical, philosophical, building to its surprisingly emotional climax slowly, one beautiful word upon another, in the way of all great literature.
David Moloney -- The birth of twin Appaloosa foals on a Western Indian Reservation could be an intense enough event to carry a story. But in his collection, Half an Inch of Water, Percival Everett isn’t content with easy narratives. Here, in “Finding Billy White Feather,” the elusive title character tacks a note on a rancher’s door, offering to sell both horses. Billy claims to be a Sioux, but is described by many in many different ways to Oliver (the rancher): “a tall, skinny white boy,” and, later, “Could be he’s fat,” by another. The note sends Oliver in search of White Feather, but each time he is thwarted. Like many of Everett’s stories, this one is shot out of a cannon, propelled forward without any backtracking or history, all the way to its bleak end—Oliver never does find White Feather, and the twin foals die. So it goes for the rest of the collection: Everett rarely leaves you fulfilled. But in each story, as with White Feather, there’s an intentional mysticism that surrounds the characters. In “A High Lake,” Norma Snow, an elderly horse owner who still rides every day, gets lost with her horse one morning. As she tries to find her way back, she enters a spirit-realm where her dead dog runs alongside her. Everett writes it as if this is a sure sign of Norma having perished on horseback in a meadow—a fitting end to a character who died doing what she loved—but somehow she finds her way home, to her fireplace, where she remains as the story ends. We’re left with the feeling that we were tricked: Did Norma go on that ride? Did she dream it? Again, unfulfilling. You’ll never know the answer, but you’ll be glad Everett showed you what that last journey would have been like.
John Vercher -- My father and I have never been close. There was a time though, however brief, during the mid-to-late eighties, when we connected for a few hours a week. Several days per week, we’d drive to the neighborhood gym. On those car rides, he’d tell me why my hair was different from other mixed kids and how I should assume all white people were racist until they proved themselves otherwise. Then we’d get to work on building our bodies. It wasn’t until I read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between The World And Me that I began to gain some perspective as to what was really going on in those car rides, in those subsequent gym sessions. Written as a letter to his fifteen-year-old son, Between is Coates’s declaration of the imperative need to preserve “the sanctity of the black body”, to protect it from the threat of systematic racism “that makes your body breakable.” Through Coates’s eloquent narrative and frank confrontation of an eminently necessary conversation, I gained some modicum of clarity about what was really happening in those car rides, in that gym. While my adolescent arms quaked under a weight I could barely lift, my father’s shoulders bowed, not from helping me lift the bar, but under a love he almost could not bear, trying to protect me from the world I’d inevitably come to know.
DJ -- This week, I'll be recording an episode with our friends over at The Critical Breakdown, which, for those of you who are unfamiliar, is a little movie-review podcast with a single hilarious (and existentially lofty) objective: "We review movies based on their Rotten Tomatoes score, starting at the very bottom with 0% and working our way towards 100%. We'll learn what makes a bad movie bad, if ratings are fair, and maybe even something about ourselves." Right now, they're at 8%, and after reading my piece on horror films here, they asked me to help review The Number 23, a pseudo-horror/conspiracy thriller/pulpy, oversexed detective noir flick in which Jim Carrey, as an animal control officer, tries (and so catastrophically fails) to defeat the 23 Enigma. Now see, I'm typically a JC-in-non-comedic-roles apologist, and I remember watching this film in 2007, when I was sixteen, alone in my basement with a take-out order of onion rings, and loving it. You'll have to listen in to hear what my opinion is nine years later (spoiler: the movie is egregious, really, just downright insulting). Scott & Max, TCB's hosts, are erudite and funny, and their rapport with one other is seamless. Perhaps most impressive about their approach is the tender seriousness with which they consider each movie; this is almost impossible not to appreciate, given the broken body of cinema they've handled thus far (Good Luck Chuck and Battlefield Earth, to name two). They've even got an official podcast poodle, Walter, who occasionally drops into the studio for some canine analysis. In other words, they quite organically inhabit the airwave space between smart and absurd; this is why I consider them legitimate and sincere critics, and why they're such good radio.