The subtitle is “A Book About a Film About a Journey to a Room.” It’s a rumination on Stalker, a weird old Russian sci-fi movie considered to be one of the best films of all time. So far this sounds utterly boring, but Dyer has a secret weapon: he’s unpredictable and his thought process is entirely unique. A really weird book is at least better than a bad book. The flap copy says, “the film is only the entry point for a radically original investigation of the enduring questions of life, faith, and how to live.” And James Wood, in the New Yorker, says Dyer “combines fiction, autobiography, travel writing, cultural criticism, literary theory, and a kind of comic English whining. The result ought to be a mutant mulch but is almost always a louche and canny delight.” Sounds like a dice-roll, but one with a good prize for a winner.
Englander has a world of talent, and his books are reliably very good, if perhaps not always phenomenal. The eight stories in Englander’s second collection explore themes as big in scope as the nature of evil and justice, and as personal as sexual longing and intimacy. One of these stories even apppears in the Best American Short Stories of 2011.
When the Booker prize shortlist was announced five months ago, several of the books weren’t yet available in America. Rather miraculously (if the incompetence of publishers can be considered a miracle), one of them still isn’t available, and it’s the one I wanted to read most (except for the one I’d already read). Half Blood Blues follows a black German trumpeteer who gets vanished by the Nazis during WWII. Fifty years later, his bandmates embark on a journey to find out exactly what happened to him, and who betrayed him.
In post-Civil War Boston, the fifteen-member inaugural class of the newly formed Massachusetts Institute of Technology is nearing graduation, when a series of mysterious explosions in Boston Harbor pits them against the more well-renowned (but less scientifically masterful) Harvard. That appears to actually be the premise of Matthew Pearl’s new thriller. It sounds pretty far-fetched for historical fiction, but Pearl comes highly recommended. I’m on the fence.
The synopsis of this detective novel starts out a little limp—a medical investigator sets out to see if a wealthy old man is mentally capable or not. Ho-hum. But then the old man seems tied to a series of child murders, and the plot promises a traveling freak show, a trip to the Amazon, and more. Again, an on-the-fencer.
I can’t imagine pitching this novel. In a remote Jewish village in Romania in 1939, people sense and fear the war coming for them. So, naturally, they “decide to reinvent the world: deny any relationship with the known and start over from scratch.” This imagining creates hope somehow, but as “the real world continues to unfold alongside the imagined one,” things get complicated. If I pick this one up, it’ll be to see how the hell Ausubel portrays a village consciously living in a parallel, fictional reality.
O’Nan’s 13th novel is a “bittersweet love story” about a couple that goes to Niagara Falls to save their finances (via roulette wheel) and their marriage. I’ve yet to try him, but O’Nan comes highly recommended, including kind words by Ed Champion, who doesn’t give As to every kid in the class.
I’ve read some great Dan Chaon stories and some quite boring ones. In this latest collection, “lost, fragile, searching characters wander between ordinary life and a psychological shadowland.”
Not looking forward to: The Mirage, by Matt Ruff (2/7)
Will an alternate-history 9/11 novel feel less exploitative and uncomfortable than a real-history one? In Ruff’s designed-to-provoke-controversy premise, Christian fundamentalists crashed hijacked planes into the World Trade Center in Baghdad on November 9th (11/9 … GET IT?!), and the United Arab States declare a War on Terror against America. But don’t worry! It’s all, as the title promises, a meaningless mirage.