Books & Fiction

The Art of the Personal Essay Is Still Alive and Well

Lee Polevoi

Is the personal essay “in eclipse” in today’s literary landscape? Jonathan Franzen, guest editor of The Best American Essays 2016, thinks so. As he notes in his introduction to the latest collection, most American publications have ceased publishing these “pure essays,” while smaller publications that still do so “have fewer readers than Adele has Twitter followers.” 

Literary Flashback: ‘20,000 Years in Sing Sing’ by Lewis Lawes

Adam Gravano

While many Americas can tell you the name of a famous criminal, and some may even mention a famous law officer or prosecutor of some renown, conspicuous by their absence from the public imagination in any positive light are the men and women whom we've charged with reforming the felon, the social workers and all too often the corrections officers. Due to this state of affairs, it seems unlikely the average American would be able to name more than the most local institution in America's penal archipelago. 

A Legendary Gunslinger Comes of Age in Ron Hansen’s ‘The Kid’

Lee Polevoi

The descriptions of gunplay remain as flamboyant and gut-wrenching as at the beginning of Hansen’s literary career. During a fierce exchange of gunfire, one of the Kid’s allies is shot in the chest and the “force of it slammed him into a fall from his horse, and he was as quiet on the earth as a heap of coats.” There are striking differences between The Kid and Hansen’s earlier westerns. In The Assassination of Jesse James, he dives deep into the souls of the famous protagonist and his acolyte (and later assassin). 

Circling the ‘Small Death’ of Alcoholism in A.A. Gill’s ‘Pour Me, a Life’

Lee Polevoi

In England, A.A. Gill has achieved a fair degree of notoriety as an outspoken restaurant and television critic. This notoriety apparently stems in part from his caustic and outspoken point of view, some of which bleeds into his memoir about life as a disappointed art student, habitué of down-at-the-heel environments like Soho at its seediest best in the late 1970s and as a far-from-ideal husband and lover. All of this is rendered with impressive honesty and in vivid language. 

Remembering Jack London

Hal Gordon

Given that he turned out so much in so little time, the quality of London’s work is uneven. He spread himself too thin and he knew it. One reason that he kept relentlessly grinding out one book after another was that because after the deprivations of his youth, he enjoyed living well. So he wrote to maintain his flashy lifestyle. His attempt to escape the treadmill he had constructed for himself only chained him to it the more securely. 

Fiction and Memory Blend Uneasily in John le Carré’s ‘Pigeon Tunnel’

Lee Polevoi

Before examining the virtues and shortcomings of The Pigeon Tunnel, it’s worth pointing out to readers who don’t already know it that le Carré is among the great writers of our time. Of his many novels, at least two (The Spy Who Came in from the Cold and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) will endure long after most contemporary fiction has scattered like sand on a windy day. And even now, in his 80s, le Carré still produces fiction of superb craftsmanship.

Remembering Charles Brockden Brown, the Father of American Fright

Adam Gravano

While his reputation has diminished, as the first American gothic novelist who wrote about American characters in American settings, he can be considered the father of the tradition. There's much to suggest that America's first professional author might also be one of the more interesting writers of his period, and, as such, has been unjustly relegated to a second tier: he was read on both sides of the Atlantic, with nods and recommendations from the likes of Nathaniel Hawthorne and John Keats; he was an early feminist; and his likely influence on the titanic name in 19th century American gothic tales, Edgar Allan Poe. 

Losing the Forest for the Trees in Annie Proulx’s ‘Barkskins’

Lee Polevoi

Well-known for her novel The Shipping News and her masterful short stories (including “Brokeback Mountain”), Proulx has, at age 80, taken a different tack, sailing into the headwinds of a 700-plus-page novel. Barkskins follows the exploits and adventures of multiple generations of the Sel and Duquet (later renamed “Duke”) families. It also charts the progressively more destructive actions taken by the logging and timber industries over the course of the following centuries.

Mark Haddon Displays Compelling Fiction in ‘The Pier Falls’

Lee Polevoi

It's difficult to recall encountering another work of short fiction as well-crafted and emotionally devastating as the title story in Mark Haddon's new collection, The Pier Falls. Read first for shock value (and it is shocking), the story demands an immediate second reading for its sheer mastery of detail and timing. “The Pier Falls”– spoiler alert in the title—recounts the spiraling escalation of events when a crowded pier in an English seaside resort town abruptly loses one key load-bearing rivet and then another, paving the way for catastrophe. 

‘Black Lotus’: One Woman’s Search for Racial Identity in a Racist World

Hope Wabuke

But for Abrams, born to a Chinese immigrant mother and a white American father, passing was a result not of choice but of ignorance. All her life she had been told that the reason her skin was darker than the rest of her family’s was that she was born in Hawaii. And then, when she was 14, the man she thought of as her father told Abrams that her actual biological father was black.

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