Exploring the art of prose


New books: week of April 16!

Here’s a quick look at some of the great books out this week. Happy pub day to all!


Julian Barnes, The Only Story

From Kirkus Reviews: “A May-September romance devolves into dysfunction and regret. Much like Barnes’ 2011 novel, The Sense of an Ending, this one involves a man looking back at a youthful error in judgment and considering its consequences. Paul, the narrator, recalls being 19 and falling for 48-year-old Susan, who’s in a loveless, sexless, and abusive marriage. Cocksure about their relationship in spite of others’ judgments—Paul’s parents and Susan’s husband are righteously indignant, and the duo are kicked out of the tennis club where they began their affair—Paul decides to move in with Susan to pursue “exactly the relationship of which my parents would most disapprove.”… Barnes also shifts the narrative voice across the novel to underscore Paul’s callowness: The novel opens in first person, turns to second as if to shift blame upon the reader, then closes in a bereft, distant third. Barnes’ characterizations of both Paul and Susan are detailed and robust, though given the narrative structure, Susan remains a bit of a cipher…A somber but well-conceived character study suffused with themes of loss and self-delusion.”

Read an interview with Barnes.
Listen to Barnes read an excerpt.


Alexander Chee, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel
Mariner/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

From Kirkus Reviews: “A precise and candid set of essays from the novelist Chee (English and Creative Writing/Dartmouth Coll.; The Queen of the Night, 2016, etc.) about life, writing, and how each sustains the other. This collection wasn’t planned as a conventional memoir. However, arranged to cover the author’s life from adolescence to the present day, it possesses a loose arc and consistent set of throughlines. One is Chee’s status as a gay Amerasian man, which has energized him as a pro–LGBT activist and liberated him as a person; the counterweights, though, are the friends lost to AIDS and the professional doors closed to him…What truly unifies these pieces, though, is the author’s consistent care with words and open-hearted tone; having been through emotional and artistic wars, he’s produced a guidebook to help others survive them too. Deserving of a place among other modern classic writers’ memoirs like Stephen King’s On Writing and Chee’s mentor Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life.”

Watch Chee interviewed at AWP by PBS.
Read an early essay from the book.


Négar Djavadi, Disoriental
Europa Editions

From Kirkus Reviews: “French-Iranian screenwriter Djavadi blends the fates of individuals and families with the history of modern Iran in this award-winning debut novel about exile, integration, and the human cost of political opposition. Narrated by Kimiâ Sadr, youngest daughter in a family of intellectuals and political dissidents, the narrative jumps from a contemporary fertility clinic in Paris to her childhood in Iran. “I’m the granddaughter of a woman born in a harem,” she explains, recounting the dramatic birth, during a windstorm, of blue-eyed Nour, who later bears six sons in an arranged marriage, reads Dostoevsky, eventually leaves her husband, and dies the day Kimiâ is born. History, both familial and national, swirls across every page. Djavadi works hard to keep the reader oriented within the welter of stories and characters: “Just be patient a little bit longer, dear Reader.” “Since we can, let’s jump on a literary magic carpet and zip through time and space.”…  It is through the tales of her family that the narrator survives. Of her forebears Kimiâ says, “After so much time and distance, it’s not their world that flows in my veins anymore, or their languages or traditions or beliefs, or even their fears, but their stories.” Authentic, ambitious, richly layered, and very readable.”


Rebekah Frumkin, The Comedown
Henry Holt

From Kirkus Reviews: “The death of a drug-addicted patriarch, and the stockpile of cash he’s rumored to have left behind, has a broad impact across multiple families. Frumkin’s ambitious, sensitive, and busy first novel centers on Leland Bloom-Mittwoch, who in 1999 flung himself from the roof of a Tampa hotel. He lived rough: He had a cocaine habit he routinely rationalized (he called it his “medicine”) and a family he often neglected. He also possessed a briefcase full of money that was previously in the hands of a drug dealer. Cue a hunt among family, friends, and enemies to locate it. But the luggage is a MacGuffin: The novel is less a mystery than a set of character studies that make up a cross-section of contemporary America, white and black, rich and poor, cis and trans… So the novel’s flaws are of the sort that afflict only writers who are swinging for the fences: complex plotting, research spilling off the pages like sap from a tree. A stronger novel would more efficiently connect its many threads (or dispense with a few), but from page to page, character to character, this is a powerful debut. Frumkin has talent to burn, and this very good novel suggests the potential for a truly great one.”

Read “The Abyss”