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Longreads Best of 2016: Under-Recognized Books

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We asked our contributors to tell us about a few books they felt deserved more recognition in 2016. Here they are.

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Christine Hyung-Oak Lee
A writer whose memoir, Tell Me Everything You Don’t Remember, is due from Ecco/Harper Collins in February.

Him, Me, Muhammad Ali (Randa Jarrar, Sarabande Books)

These are stories that don’t compromise—that stand their ground and say come here, because I won’t come to you. And that’s the most valuable thing to read—to go somewhere other than where you are. The characters are dark and twisty; she’s an Arab American Roald Dahl—the world they inhabit likewise whimsical yet treacherous. Her lively staccato use of language is the perfect foil to this darkness, keeping the reader suspended and engaged throughout. It never plods. Never holds your hand to the fire for longer than a few seconds at a time. The title story, “Him, Me, Muhammad Ali,” is one of the strongest in the collection, interweaving ancestry and tradition with contemporary conflict. There’s not a minaret in sight. Not even on the cover.

The story, “A Sailor,” dissects a marriage. A husband refuses to become angry with his wife for having had an affair. The following excerpt shows you what Jarrar’s writing is like. If you don’t like curse words, this isn’t for you. I like curse words done well. Jarrar does them well:

“She fucks a Sailor, a Turkish sailor, the summer she spends in Istanbul. When she comes home to Wisconsin, it takes her three days to come clean about it to her husband.

“He says this doesn’t bother him, and she tells him that it bothers her that it doesn’t bother him. He asks if she prefers him to be the kind of man who is bothered by fleeting moments, and she tells him that yes, she prefers that he be that kind of man. He tells her he thinks she married him because he is precisely the kind of man who doesn’t dwell on fleeting moments, because he is the kind of man who does not hold a grudge. She tells him that holding a grudge and working up some anger about one’s wife fucking a sailor is not the same thing. He agrees that holding a grudge isn’t the same as working up some anger about one’s wife fucking a sailor, but he adds, one’s wife, specifically his own, would never leave him for a sailor, and not a Turkish sailor. In fact, he says, she did not leave him for the Turkish sailor. She is here. So why should he be angry?”

Night Sky With Exit Wounds (Ocean Vuong, Copper Canyon Press)

Poetry is often under-recognized—and while Ocean Vuong’s has been recognized by Whiting, poetry needs every opportunity to be read. So I’m laying it down here. This is the one to read. Every poem beats with exigency and passion, and his work is complicated—spanning history and time and blood and heartbreak and hope. And yet there is meaningful silence in the words, too—gaps and pauses in the line breaks and spaces filled with guesses and anticipation and questioning. Vuong is a fan of Li-Young Lee and like Lee, Vuong investigates fathers, mothers, country, and historical pain. But it very well could be that he will make a mark bigger than Lee’s.

From Daily Bread:

“He’ll imagine the softness of bread
as he peels back the wool blanket, raises
her phantom limb to his lips as each kiss
dissolves down her air-light ankles.

& he will never see the pleasure

this brings to her face. Never

her face. Because in my hurry

to make her real, make her

here, I will forget to write

a bit of light into the room.

Because my hands were always brief

& dim as my father’s.

& it will start to rain. I won’t

even think to put a roof over the house—

her prosthetic leg on the nightstand,

the clack clack as it fills to the brim. Listen,

the year is gone. I know

nothing of my country. I write things

down. I build a life & tear it apart

& the sun keeps shining. Crescent

wave. Salt-spray. Tsunami. I have

enough ink to give you the sea

but not the ships, but it’s my book

& I’ll say anything just to stay inside

this skin. Sassafras. Douglas fir.

Sextant & compass…”


Ruth Curry
Co-publisher of Emily Books; writer, whose work has appeared in Buzzfeed, the Paris Review Daily, Nylon, Bookforum, and n+1; and author of the newsletter Coffee & TV.

Surveys (Natasha Stagg, Semiotexte)

If Marshall McLuhan rewrote “Cinderella,” the result might come out looking something like this novel, Stagg’s first. Colleen, an aimless 23 year old who works administering marketing surveys in an anodyne Arizona mall, lives a bleak and listless life, online when she’s not drinking or avoiding the advances of the peeping Tom in her shabby apartment complex. Then she meets Jim, a minor celebrity, “online, it doesn’t matter how…Describing it would be pointless and anyway, you can look it up.” Colleen and Jim fall in love and quickly, as a unit, become rich and very famous. The specifics aren’t clear, and they never need to be: Stagg lays out the truths and the falsehoods of the attention economy brilliantly without them. At the height of her fame, Colleen becomes obsessed with Lucinda, Jim’s ex, her obsession growing more desperate as Colleen’s notoriety inevitably wanes. “I curled around my computer, searching for all the things I’d seen a million times. The views were not growing as steadily, but they were growing, and would always grow, never diminish… I grabbed my phone and muscle memory led me to look up Lucinda’s Twitter. It looked as if all of it had been deleted. How stupid is she? I thought. You can’t really delete any of it.” Stagg’s dark wit, her accurate-to-the-millimeter rendering of the physical and psychological experience of consuming and being consumed by social media, and the emergence of Lucinda as someone whose power comes from her ability to be completely sustained by her own inner life — or at least, appear that way — makes Surveys really special.

The Black Wave (Michelle Tea, Feminist Press)

The DMV is no longer issuing driver’s licenses and the names of the fish that have gone extinct are crossed out on the walls of sushi restaurants: this is how we know the apocalypse is coming to San Francisco in 1999. There’s the thick perma-smog and a vegetable shortage too, but it is the driver’s license issue that grabs our narrator Michelle’s attention in Black Wave, the latest book from Michelle Tea. She needs a driver’s license to drive her getaway van to Los Angeles and escape the codependent relationships, drugs, and squalor (captured in all their pre-gentrified post-nostalgized charm) of the Mission in the late 90s. When Michelle gets to Los Angeles Black Wave bifurcates: LA Michelle, now sober, is attempting to adapt her unruly, unpublished 500-pg memoir called Black Wave into a screenplay. She is struggling, with sobriety, with the ethics of writing about her life and her loved ones, haunted by her past and by people she has yet to meet (in memoir-land, at the computer where she works every day — yes, there’s an element of metafiction at work). But then the apocalypse comes to contemporary Los Angeles too, the actual irreversible accelerationist climate one we’ve all been in denial about since 1999, in a series of tsunamis that will take out the entire West Coast. The mass suicides begin in New York. Michelle’s brother calls in a panic, begging an incredulous Michelle to turn on the TV and see for herself: “Michelle knew once she turned on her television it would remain on for a very long time.”

While telling a literal apocalypse story, Tea also interrogates other life-ending moments with the warmth and humor she’s known for: sobriety, the loss of a love, the practice (metaphorical suicide, if not real relationship-cide) of narrating one’s life for an audience. But it is the ‘real’ apocalypse that allows ‘real’ Michelle to finally finish her memoir, on the last day of the world: “She could, after all, write only the stories she was meant to write. She could write nothing more than that, nothing more or less perfect. As it turned out, time could not be wasted.” Perhaps it’s too on-the-nose to recommend an apocalypse story right now, but not this one. Read more…

The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

Photo of Cody Spafford by: Geoffrey Smith

Below, our favorite stories of the week. Kindle users, you can also get them as a Readlist.

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God Save the Queen: Seven Stories about Elizabeth II

Image via NASA (public domain).

A couple of months ago I had a strange epiphany: the only thing currently keeping the world barely intact is a British nonagenarian who likes corgis.

The second half of the 20th century, the era in which we (kind of) still live, is in the process of vanishing, from Fidel Castro and the Voting Rights Act to Carrie Fisher and non-apocalyptic weather. Yet against all odds, the Queen — until not that long ago, the most boring member of a dysfunctional dynasty — has emerged as the embodiment of good sense and decency, an unflappable, gray-haired titan. Her very perseverance (she’s currently the world’s longest-serving head of state) proves: we’re not doomed. Yet.

Monarchies are ridiculous at best, vicious and blood-thirsty at worst. But after a year in which so many unthinkable things had come to pass, I find myself doing something previously unimaginable: rooting for Elizabeth II. She’s a mentsch. She survived 12 US presidents (chances of surviving #13: not amazing, but who knows? Windsors seem to hate dying). She’s found the precise balance between being real and unreal, flesh-and-blood and emblem. Here are a few great reads on the Queen.

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Riding the Rails: Celebrating Trains and Subway Commuter Life

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My other half Rebekah and I recently returned from Japan, and we’re in that rapture phase where you wish the things you loved overseas were also available in America. I already miss the 24-hour action of Japanese cities, their automated restaurants, the street-side vending machines — and public transportation.

In Japan, trains run on time. When the Shinkansen says it departs at 2:43, it departs at 2:43. It travels at 200 miles an hour, so good luck catching it. If a train is late, it’s likely because the world has ended. If the world hasn’t ended and it’s still late, the train company will print a note for passengers to give their employers, confirming the train was in fact behind schedule, because no one’s going to believe that’s why you were late for work.

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The Top 5 Longreads of the Week

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Below, our favorite stories of the week. Kindle users, you can also get them as a Readlist.

Sign up to receive this list free every Friday in your inbox.

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Read more…

Jenny Diski: 1947-2016

Photo: Suki Dhanda

Jenny Diski wrote 11 novels and seven non-fiction books. She wrote 150 articles and 65 blog posts for the London Review of Books. She wrote about drugs, sex, and rock-n-roll; she also wrote about animals and train travel. She wrote historical fiction and memoir, and essays about literature and fashion. She wrote about her family, her loves, and in the last two years since her cancer diagnosis, she wrote about the life she lived. She wrote herself until the very end.

Jenny Diski died this morning at the age of 68. Here are nine stories celebrating Diski and her work.

1. Jenny Diski’s End Notes (Giles Harvey, New York Times Magazine, June 2015)

Last July, when the English writer Jenny Diski was told she had inoperable lung cancer and, at best, another three years to live, she responded to the news characteristically — that is, in wry poor taste. “So,” she said, turning to her husband, the poet and academic Ian Patterson, “we’d better get cooking the meth.” The Poet — as Diski always refers to Patterson, with tender-ironic reserve, in her personal essays — was just about able to keep up his end of the morbid repartee that is the currency of their marriage: “This time we quit while the going’s good.” The oncologist and the nurse, apparently not watchers of “Breaking Bad,” looked on blankly.

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Drawing Parallels Between Elon Musk and the Wright Brothers

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

There are a number of suggestive parallels between [Elon] Musk and the Wrights, beyond the obvious ones to do with an interest in flight. The [Wright brothers’ father] had very high standards and set no limits on the intellectual curiosity he encouraged in his children; Musk’s father had the same standards and the same insistence on no limits, but was (is) a tortured and difficult presence, ‘good at making life miserable’, in Musk’s words: ‘He can take any situation no matter how good it is and make it bad.’ The Wrights were poorish, the Musks affluentish, but both grew up with an emphasis on learning things first-hand. ‘It is remarkable how many different things you can get to explode,’ Musk says about his childhood experiments. ‘I’m lucky I have all my fingers.’ One very odd thing is a parallel to do with bullies: Musk was set on and beaten half to death by a gang of thugs at his school in Johannesburg; Wilbur Wright was attacked so badly at the age of 18 – beaten with a hockey stick – that he took years to recover from his injuries and missed a college education as a result. His assailant, Oliver Crook Haugh, went on to become a notorious serial killer. Something about these very bright young men set off the bullies’ hatred for difference.

John Lanchester, reviewing recent biographies of Elon Musk and the Wright brothers for the London Review of Books.  

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Angela Carter on Myth and Deception in Hollywood

Photo via Doc Searls, Flickr

Angela Carter’s short story “The Merchant of Shadows” first appeared in The London Review of Books in 1989. Set in Hollywood, the narrator is a young, male student conducting research on a famed but mysterious director. The story bends and twists, ricocheting between dark comedy, deep camp, and Carter’s signature surreal, Gothic sensibility. Carter was an ardent fan of the movies, and “The Merchant of Shadows” is rich with cinematic conceits and allusions. (It also contains some searching, if subtle, feminist critique: another Carter hallmark.) I love it for these reasons, and for its lush, playful prose, its gentle damning of the narrator, and the overall self-awareness and exuberance that Carter brought to her work:

Aliens were somewhat on my mind, however, perhaps because I was somewhat alienated myself, in LA, but also due to the obsession of my roommate. While I researched my thesis, I was rooming back there in the city in an apartment over a New Age bookshop-cum-healthfood restaurant with a science fiction freak I’d met at a much earlier stage of studenthood during the chance intimacy of the mutual runs in Barcelona. Now he and I subsisted on brown rice courtesy of the Japanese waitress from downstairs, with whom we were both on ahem intimate terms, and he was always talking about aliens. He thought most of the people you met on the streets were aliens cunningly simulating human beings. He thought the Venusians were behind it. He said he had tested Hiroko’s reality quotient sufficiently and she was clear but I guessed from his look he wasn’t too sure about me. That shared diarrhoea in the Plaza Real was proving a shaky bond. I stayed out of the place as much as possible. I kept my head down at school all day and tried to manifest humanity as well as I knew how whenever I came home for a snack, a shower and, if I got the chance, one of Hiroko’s courteous if curiously impersonal embraces. Now my host showed signs of moving into leather. It might soon be time to move.

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Jenny Diski Remembers Doris Lessing: Why Can’t People Be Sensible?

Photo by nican45 (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Peter Lessing died in his flat, of a heart attack, in the early hours of 13 October 2013, aged 66. His mother, Doris Lessing, died four weeks later, on 17 November 2013, aged 94, in the adjoining house. An interconnecting door had been cut into the shared wall and was always left open. This very nearly tells the story of their lives as mother and son, in the sense that we know our planet is part of our universe, but there remain gaping holes of incomprehension that no one is going to be able to fill no matter how much detail their story is told in.

At London Review of Books, Jenny Diski reflects on Doris Lessing’s hierarchy of writing, life, and motherhood.

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