When my wife and I moved from New York City to Los Angeles last August, I felt a tremendous sense of relief. Not because I was happy to leave New York or entirely confident that we’d made the right decision, but because I was just so glad not to have to think about it anymore. I had spent the previous year locked in an ongoing internal debate about the merits and drawbacks of living in New York, trying to decide which of our problems would be solved by leaving and which ones would follow us around wherever we went. We constantly discussed moving, and when we saw friends we talked about it with them, too. In the end, we spent so much time thinking about leaving that it seemed like the only way to get on with our lives was to just do it. Which we did.
Too often I read reviews that are concerned with nothing but the book in question, and there’s a hermetically sealed quality to such reviews, a narrowness of scope. I’ve come to believe that good reviewing requires engaging with the world outside of the individual book. At the very least, the book should be placed in the context of other books, but ideally—and I recognize that this is an entirely subjective opinion—I prefer reviews that go beyond talking about literature, so that the book under review is considered in the context of the surrounding world.
Our own Emily St. John Mandel guest judged Electric Literature’s Critical Hit Awards this month. She discussed what she looks for in a book review in an interview with Brian Hurley. The winners are Andrew Winer’s review of The Kraus Project by Jonathan Franzen, Rachel Monroe’s review of The Contested Murder of Latasha Harlins by Brenda Stevenson, and our own review of Karen Green’s Bough Down by Suzanne Scanlon.
The books I think of as being quiet, the ones I’ve been enjoying lately, have a distilled quality about them, an unshowy thoughtfulness and a sense of grace, of having been boiled down to the bare essentials.
Our own Emily St. John Mandel comes up with a list of “quiet” books.
But when I read her stories of drifting, of heartbreak and aftermath and travel and displacement, it seems to me that where is home? is the underlying question. For some of us, there’s no clear answer to that question. In our work, we can only continue to ask, and, in Rowe’s work, the asking is both graceful and profound.
Emily St. John Mandel, “The Asking is Both Graceful and Profound: On the Stories of Josephine Rowe”
It seems to me that few ideas are as freighted with ambivalence as the idea of home. I don’t mean ambivalence in the sense in which the word’s often misused, as a synonym for half-heartedness, but in the true sense of being pulled in two directions at once. Once you start looking for it in books, you see it everywhere. In Justin Torres’s We The Animals, home is violent and dangerous and a place to run away from, but home is also the protagonist’s brothers, from whom he’s inseparable. In Larry Watson’s Montana 1948, home is a place where it was possible for terrible things to happen and to be covered up; but when the protagonist’s wife suggests to the protagonist’s father, years later, that “[t]hat sure was the Wild West, wasn’t it?” the father flies into a rage and shouts at her not to blame Montana. Or the ache of immigration, documented in books like Colm Tóibín’s Brooklyn: home is here and also there, I belong here and also I don’t, home is this country and also that one and I am always somewhere in between.
Emily St. John Mandel, “Motherless Tacoma: On Eric Barnes’s Something Pretty, Something Beautiful”
And all this, all of these cheaply-made clothes at this unbearable human cost, for what? We might say that we can only afford to buy cheap clothing, and in some cases that’s true. There have been times when this has been true for me. On the other hand, according to the Environmental Protection Agency, the average American throws out sixty-eight pounds of clothing and other textiles every year. At some point along the way, we decided that clothes were meant to be more or less disposable.
Our own Emily St. John Mandel on “The Bulldozing Powers of Cheap”
Greyson Todd is the most fully-realized fictional character I’ve come across in a while. The terrible exuberance of his mania and the devastation of his depressive episodes are perfectly rendered. Garey doesn’t shy away from the depths of her character’s pain, but scenes that could easily become gratuitous in lesser hands are rendered with restraint and grace. She excels at leading us down the rabbit hole when Todd slips from logic into paranoia.
Emily St. John Mandel, “Shadows and Electricity: Juliann Garey’s Too Bright To Hear Too Loud To See.”
When I think of all the books I read and loved this year — and there have been so many — I think the one I found most striking was Patrick DeWitt’s The Sisters Brothers. It was the sheer originality of the thing, the absolutely unique style and voice. It might fairly be described as a western for people who think they don’t like westerns.
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