Book Reviews · 06/02/2013

Summer Reviews Special: Recommendations from our reviewers

Welcome to summer. As I have done in years past when our reviewing year hits its mid-point, I have asked our reviewers to put together some summer reading recommendations for our readers. If there is one thing these past two and a half years as reviews editor have taught me, it’s that there are far too many great books being published every year than we could ever hope to review in the same time period. Especially as, I hope, we like to throw our net wide into the waters of contemporary fiction and review from a variety of stylistic, cultural and narrative traditions. So without further hoopla, please enjoy these book suggestions from some of the great readers and writers we are very fortunate to work with here at Necessary Fiction.

Kicking things off is NF Editor Steve Himmer with 3 suggestions:

Stephen Guppy, Like I Care from Tightrope Press

A fast moving (and fast reading!) romp of a novel, and it does a great job of keeping lots of balls in the air as it follows a large cast of connected characters of different ages over the course of a couple of days in (mostly) Vancouver. Some of the plotlines are more absurd and active than others, which was fun, but what really propels the novel is the overdriven language of technology, slang, abbreviation, and late (post?) postmodernity. It’s a cracklingly vivid portrait of an exaggerated time and place, of strained families and young people struggling to find a direction — familiar topics for literary fiction, then — and the anxieties about emerging technologies, the simulacrum of everyday life, etc. are pretty compelling and very much the kinds of things I like to consider in fiction. Like Joshua Mohr’s Fight Song, this is a smart, funny, and enjoyable depiction of the quotidian impacts of rapid technological change (that too-academic phrasing of mine probably makes it sound like far less fun than it is).

JM Ledgard, Submergence from Coffee House Press (for which the author recently shared his research notes with us)

Long after reading it, I still don’t know quite what to say about Submergence except that it’s phenomenal, one of the best novels I’ve read in a very long time. Its philosophical, provoking questions about how best to respond to the world in its complexities, whether by focusing inward or outward. And Ledgard, perhaps through his experience as a journalist, manages the tricky feat of making the terrorists who kidnap the protagonist (that’s no spoiler, it’s on the first page) into complex, almost empathizable beings without in any way simplifying or glorifying them. The interplay between the story of that kidnapping and a parallel story of deep ocean diving amidst microbial life is lyrical and brilliant, each thread giving the other new resonances like harp strings plucked in tandem, such as the way that each time I’d come to focus only on the kidnap victim — i.e., the most dramatic human-centric thread of the novel — I’d be reminded the vaster part of life on earth isn’t human, or even terrestrial, and that there are much longer timespans and stories in play. Ledgard has said he wanted this book to be “planetary writing,” and while I don’t think I can explain what that means I’m pretty sure I felt what it means while reading. I can’t recommend this novel highly enough (and, while I’m at it, Ledgard’s previous novel Giraffe is another fine read).

Brian Dillon, Sanctuary from Sternberg Press

A hard book to say anything articulate about without doing it a disservice, I fear. The story involves a woman traveling to the ruin of a Scottish seminary where her partner disappeared months earlier, not in hopes of finding him but to encounter the ruin herself. Intercut with the narrative are sections detailing the construction and decay of the seminary building itself, and what really makes Sanctuary brilliant is how well Dillon interweaves these threads. As easy as it would have been to either make the building and its decay serve as only a metaphor for the character’s internal states, or alternately to make the characters hollow puppets for the sake of describing the ruin, he deftly avoids both of those traps: the characters are full and complex, and the ruined seminary — especially its processes of collapse — are taken seriously in their own right. The whole slim book adds up to a surprisingly powerful exploration of how lives are enmeshed in material culture and the physical structures we occupy, not only when those buildings are whole but as their ruins remain a part of our world. And having said all that I still don’t feel I’ve done the book any justice so just go read it for yourself instead.

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Brian Seemann suggests Jared Yates Sexton’s An End to all Things from Atticus Books and Laura Kasischke’s If A Stranger Approaches You from Sarabande Books

Both are story collections. Sexton’s stories remind me of the best dirty realist material (Carver, Ford, etc) and update many of the familiar themes of that era for a new generation and time period. Kasischke’s collection has a wonderful feeling of unease throughout the entire book—the stories always seem to be one step away from chaos, and the tension created keeps the pages turning.

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Paula McGrath recommends The Spinning Heart, by Donal Ryan from The Lilliput Press

A polyphonic debut novel telling the aftermath of the Celtic Tiger, both of which could have gone badly wrong, but Ryan’s book has heart and humour, and his impeccable ear elevates it to a fantastic read.

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Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner from Granta Books

Probably lots of reviews of this one. I loved it for the theories of art it tackles, and its humour.

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David Rose, who recently reviewed another Ellipsis Press title for us, The President in Her Towers, tells us:

I have just finished Eugene Lim’s novel Fog and Car, also from Ellipsis Press and was very impressed with it. Puzzled too, but in a pleasant way, prompting me to go back and reread, and savour again the quality of the writing.

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Thomas Michael Duncan suggests:

Troublers, by Rob Walsh from Caketrain. Walsh’s first book is a collection of sixteen peculiar short stories with fairy tale vibes. It’s fun, smart, and a touch weird.

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Michael Beeman recommends:

Love Among the Particles by Norman Lock from Bellevue Literary Press. These stories, many inspired by literary classics, are so thoroughly imagined they are less homages than reinventions. Watching Lock effortlessly leap between genres and styles, a reader can only shake her head. There is nothing this author can’t do on the page.

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Susan Jupp reminds us not to skip Granta 123: Best of Young British Novelists 4 ).

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Ethel Rohan has a suggestion I quite agree with:

I would like to recommend Mary Costello’s debut story collection, The China Factory, from Irish indie publisher, The Stinging Fly. The collection contains 12 stories that are great studies of human nature, exquisite prose, and moments both ordinary and pivotal. Stories that write the heart out of people, so we can all see.

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Peter Tieryas Liu has two titles he’d like to tell us about:

Jen Michalski: Could You Be With Her Now from Dzanc Books
Two novellas comprise Jen Michalski’s Could You Be With Her Now and both are haunting. “I Can Make It to California Before It’s Time for Dinner,” was the best novella I’ve read this year and scenes from it still linger in my mind.

Berit Ellingsen: Beneath the Liquid Skin from firthFORTH Books

Berit Ellingsen has one of the most distinctive voices in story-telling and her collection, Beneath the Liquid Skin, was incredible. I particularly enjoyed the story, “The Love Decay Has For the Living,” which is about someone who has fruits and fungi growing out of their body.

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Tara Cheesman tells us about a June book from New Directions

The book I’m looking forward to sharing with friends this summer is The Mehlis Report by Rabee Jaber. The novel takes place in the days preceding the release of the actual UN sponsored Mehlis Report regarding the assassination of Rafiq Hariri, as the entire city of Beirut impatiently await the committee’s findings. The hero of Jaber’s novel is Saman Yarid, a handsome middle-aged architect who remains in the city even when all of his family and friends have emigrated. The writing and the ideas in The Mehlis Report are beautiful. Jaber conveys the atmosphere of oppression that hangs over a city under siege, and which occurs when the paths of the living intersect with those of the dead.

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Shawn Syms has three excellent suggestions (and reminds us not to overlook some great Canadian publishers):

The Proper Word for Sin by Gary Fincke from West Virginia University Press
For the mostly male, mainly working-class protagonists who populate Gary Fincke’s short-fiction collection, coming of age means coming to terms with lives marked equally by hope and disappointment.

Canary by Nancy Jo Cullen from Biblioasis
This short-story collection balances a sensitive understanding of the perils and challenges women face with a sympathetic and affectionate take on flawed male characters; there’s not a weak story in the bunch.

In the Body by Allison Baggio from ECW Press
With careful, deliberate prose, Baggio’s short fiction explores uncommon and exceptional circumstances to seek broader truths about our relationships to the flesh that we inhabit.

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And finally, to wrap things up, let me point you toward some books that I think should be on everyone’s summer reading list:

Anatomy of a Night by Anna Kim from Frisch & Co.
Set in Greenland and dealing with the delicate subject of suicide (mass, unexplained suicide at that), this is perhaps one of the most complex books I’ve read in a long time. Kim hasn’t just written a story, she has “written” a portrait of an entire town and an investigation into the strange longing for death. This is a book to work slowly through, to think carefully about.

The Portable Museum: An Electronic Journal of Literature in Translation by Ox and Pigeon
An absolute delight to discover this new journal by newcomer press Ox and Pigeon. There are two issues currently available and more to come. Unusual, comic, thoughtful stories from international (for now, only Spanish-language) writers.