Mini-reviews of some of the books I read during and after Clarion West, not including, for obvious reasons, the work of my instructors. Tommy Orange, Kaveh Akbar, Karin Tidbeck, JY Yang, Christopher Isherwood, and Sofia Samatar. Spoilers for the Orange.
Tommy Orange, There There (novel, 2018): There There is as canny and formally ambitious as the work of a writer five novels in; it’s astounding that it’s a debut. The book’s plot advances by slowly drawing together a series of character portraits like a cinched bag. By its climax, everyone is trapped inside—literally, at a powwow with a mass shooter; metaphorically, within one another’s lives. Short, lyrical nonfiction essays punctuate the novel, and they’re as good as (sometimes better) than the fiction.
Kaveh Akbar, Calling a Wolf a Wolf (poems, 2017): Akbar’s free verse is the purest strain of cannily self-destructive romanticism I’ve read in a while, and it’s done very seductively—so much so that its few brief, compromised glimpses away from the pull of the toxic sublime feel hackneyed, as I think Akbar intends them to be. I can’t trust this collection at all, but I enjoyed it very much.
Karin Tidbeck, Amatka (novel, 2012) and Jagannath (short stories, 2018): Tidbeck’s prose is precise and graceful, her premises so innovative and her plotting so tight that she earns her way out of necessitating full answers to the questions her works raise. I am often let down by weird fiction, as its amorphousness feels lazy rather than deliberate. Tidbeck’s is not. What she omits is as controlled as what she includes, at the level of plot as well as wording.
JY Yang, The Black Tides of Heaven (novella, 2017): A satisfying capsule-portrait of a world on the brink of political turmoil—but what I really loved were the relationships, romantic and otherwise, that were rooted in mutual respect while acknowledging profound (sometimes irresolvable) difference. Yang handles their characters with a moving emotional maturity, even when those characters are themselves very immature.
Christopher Isherwood, A Single Man (novel, 1964): I usually dislike books about university English professors (they hit too close to home). But this one broke my heart. What begins as an exacting portrait of loss—the lead, George, has just lost his partner Jim to a car crash—becomes an unflinching meditation on friendship, mentorship, desire, ageing, and death. Isherwood neither excuses nor apologizes for the extremes to which George is driven by grief. And while George’s sympathies are limited—he can be a petty old asshole—you never get the sense that Isherwood’s are.
Sofia Samatar, Monster Portraits (poems?, 2018): Monster Portraits is a series of flawlessly-controlled prose poems whose every word does triple work. The book captures the eerie feeling of elsewhere I associate with 19th/early 20th-century Faerie geographers like Mirrlees and Dunsany. But Samatar brings a critical edge to that feeling whose sharp blade folds seamlessly into her lyricism. Her elsewhere is compelling because it’s here, too.
Since I'm trying to prioritize fiction right now, I doubt I'll write very many long reviews in the coming months. These will have to do, inadequate as they are. There's always so much more to say, with good books.