Lisa Janicki -- Not surprisingly, there’s a theme of consumption in Stephanie Danler’s Sweetbitter, which takes place largely in an upscale NYC restaurant near Union Square. There’s the eating, obviously, and the drinking and the snorting coke, maybe just as obviously. But there’s also being swallowed up by a new place, its inhabitants, and its rhythms. Some days, the city where you live is on your side: you go from A to B in one continuous movement: you breeze through turnstiles and catch every train; it’s all green lights and walk signals. There’s a welcome loss of self in times like these. Through Tess, Sweetbitter’s narrator, we experience this through the eyes of a server: “Specks of dust taking off from bottles, shadows darting onto the floor, glasses listing over the edges of counters and caught just in time…The reflex was to see beyond my line of vision, to see around and behind myself. The breath between consciousness and action collapsed. No hesitations, no projections, no order. I became a verb.” That passage is immediately followed by the best description I’ve ever read of what it means to be in the weeds during your restaurant shift. And how once you’re there, suddenly wrecked and paralyzed by your own surroundings, you can’t get back to the other side, you can hardly remember it. Danler presents to us these varieties of consciousness, and how slipping back and forth between the two can happen in an instant and is seldom in our control.
Eric Beebe -- About every Memorial Day I dig through my stacks of old CDs (yes, some of us still have such things) for Lost Ground, an EP by the band Defeater. The band made a name for itself with, aside from its myriad of talent, a distinct narrative style to its lyrics. Frontman Derek Archambault has so far written the lyrics to each new installment of the band’s music as different characters’ perspectives in a story linking all of them together. In Lost Ground, we are reintroduced to a homeless WWII veteran who plays the role of singing sage to the protagonist of the band’s album Travels. But the EP starts from this man’s adolescence, with a song titled “The Red, White, and Blues” kicking off his story as he drinks himself into oblivion before shipping off to war. Through six tracks, the EP takes us along the timeline of this man’s life. In the end track, “Beggin’ in the Slums,” our hero—returned home as a veteran and forsaken by his countrymen—spends his days playing guitar to passing crowds for change, and he sees the young man from Travels, on the run, and recognizes a look in his eyes he once knew as his own. With admittance of the time he’s lost, that he’s amounted to all he will, he finds hope that this young man will do better, somehow for the both of them. Because they both know the same thing: people deserve better.
Nadia Owusu -- I should have found Sarah Gerard’s short but intense novel Binary Star to be disorienting. It is structured less like a novel than like a long prose poem. It’s about astrology and anorexia, capitalism and addiction, love and self-hate. It’s about all of these things at once, sometimes all at once in one sentence. Time is undefined. The past and the present collide without notice. Dialogue is unmarked and undifferentiated from thought. And yet, I was transfixed. The novel did not, despite its unconventional structure, feel confused. It was beautiful and raw and thoroughly original. Rather than being experimental for experimentation’s sake, one gets the sense that Gerard followed the architectural principal that form should follow function. Binary Star is about a woman and a world in chaos. The fact that the novel attempts to wrench the reader out of his or her literary comfort zone only serves to heighten the emotional power of the story.
John Vercher -- There’s nothing funny about Denis Johnson’s The Laughing Monsters. It is described as “a high-suspense tale of kaleidoscoping loyalties in the post 9-11 world”, but the end result is, almost impossibly, something far more complex. Johnson’s slim novel is told from the first-person perspective of Roland Nair, a government operative (for which government, we’re never quite sure) on assignment in Africa to track down his former colleague, Michael Adriko, an African native with whom Nair has had some dirty dealings. During their reunion, Michael introduces Nair to his fiancée, Davidia, whose lineage involves Michael’s military past. What follows is a tumultuous journey that leads Adriko and Nair on a path to capitalize on the fears of post-9-11 terrorism with an ill-conceived plot designed to separate bad people from their money. While Johnson adroitly manages the tension of the plot, it’s the machinations of Nair’s mind that cause the greatest discomfort. He is a misogynist, a racist, and while he proclaims a love for Michael, he’s simultaneously looking for a way to steal his fiancée from under his nose. It is in this aspect where Nair’s characterization is most captivating, as his desires for Davidia spiral into obsessiveness in a manner that makes you question his sanity, and perhaps the reality of his perceptions. He is the most unreliable of narrators from which you can’t turn away. And while I found it somewhat difficult, at times, to separate the prejudicial ideations of Nair from the possible perspective of the author (Johnson did in fact spend time as a journalist in Africa prior to writing Monsters), the sentence structure is in fine form and the dialogue is masterful.
Daniel Johnson -- It's no well-kept secret that I am a tragic Guster superfan. In truth, I'm a little unsure whether recommending this band is a moment I was made for, or (much more likely) one I should have actively avoided, as there's just no chance I'll be able to articulate what makes theirs such timeless, quintessential, unbiasedly exceptional music. Regardless, here we are--you, me, and Front Row Boston's recording of Guster's January 15, 2016 homecoming concert at Boston's House of Blues, released in May of this year. The video is just over an hour long, comprised of 14 songs from their Night One set (I was at Night Two), spliced with commentary from vocalists/guitarists/bassists/everything-elseists Ryan Miller and Adam Gardner on their band's twenty-five year career. They formed in 1991, right down the road from the House of Blues, at Tufts University, where three of its remaining original members attended undergrad. So what's it like when they come back to Boston, when they come home? "It's always sort of emotional when we come back and play the place where we started--I mean, it's crazy," says Ryan. Adds Adam: "You can feel it, when we play, you can feel it in the crowd, you can see when you're looking out there ... Boston is the place that built our career." Such is the electricity with which they play during this show: beneath their characteristic lightheartedness, there's a palpable wattage of gratitude, sincerity, nostalgic revelry. It's no clearer on display than during their opus from Keep It Together, "Come Downstairs and Say Hello." These guys are object lessons in the rare sort of artistic brotherhood that endures and evolves (for a quarter of a century!), and as a fan, seeing that sort of synergy between them, strong as ever so late in the game, is intoxicating: to witness this concert for the first time or the hundredth is to understand a little better what lasting relationships at their strangest, funkiest, and most harmonious should look like. This is why--as we were reminded during the TNT broadcast of this year's NCAA Championship Game--Guster is for L<3vers.
E.B. -- While City Lights’s translated collection of Pablo Neruda’s poems, The Essential Neruda, offers a grand overview of his work—his odes, his communist beliefs, his musings on Machu Picchu—it was his love poems that hooked me. Most notable to me was his poem “XII,” from his Cien sonetos de amor (100 Sonnets of Love). It’s impossible not to be enthralled by Neruda’s use of language, albeit translated, that touches upon senses that make reading his love poems feel nothing short of an aphrodisiac. Now, having tracked down and read Cien sonetos from cover to cover, I only find myself more impressed with it. Each poem is titled simply with the Roman numerals marking its place in a progression of Neruda’s musings. The emotions wax and wane, rise and fall, like the moon and waves he drew upon for symbolism. His use of natural imagery and picturesque landscapes blend with romantic sentimentality; whereas lesser writers would butcher such a mixture, this is Neruda’s chief triumph. He draws upon one image or another knowing full-well the associations they brought with them and carefully balanced these associations to create sex on paper. In a time when postmodern thought has cast more doubt than ever on what love is or even whether it exists, Neruda’s work calls out to demand its reality and prove that it’s something floating at will between our senses and psyche. It says we don’t need to know what love is or how it is, just to know it’s there and—most of all—feel it.