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Susan Sontag, Wayne Koestenbaum tells us, "ate the world." If anybody’s appetite could rival hers its Koestenbaum’s. Here is a writer who scrutinizes every subject--Andy Warhol and Debbie Harry, opera and poetry, his own sexuality--with restless curiosity and creativity. The title piece--a hilarious, devastating account of surviving the AIDS crisis—is easily one of the best essays I’ve read in a long time.
Tinti (editor-in-chief of the amazing One Story magazine) earned plenty of comparisons to Robert Louis Stevenson for this let-me-just-read-a-few-pages-oh-my-god-how-is-it-already-2-am debut novel, a loving homage to 19th-century adventure stories. Not only does she keep her plot rolling along with expert pacing, but Tinti renders her cast of misfits—assassins, grave robbers, one-handed orphans—so compassionately that I was heartbroken to watch them go.
Whenever I thought "Oh, I know where this is going," Dan Chaon's interwoven narratives--a man searching for his missing twin; a recent high-school grad fleeing home with her history teacher; a young man faking his own death-- took me to far stranger, scarier, and sadder places. Few writers are as gleefully creepy (just try sleeping after you read this novel's first two pages); fewer still are as sympathetic to the often flawed, misguided ways we try to reinvent ourselves.
For a fellow “sprocket fiend”—someone who loves not only movies but the movies (the popcorn, the kitsch, the dark)—there is no better company than Patton Oswalt. I expected to love this book for his encyclopedic film knowledge and grim wit, but what I appreciated most was the self-deprecating, self-forgiving way Oswalt writes about overcoming the bitterness and laziness of his 20s to become a (relatively) confident artist and (relatively) happier person.
Is there anything Siri Hustvedt can't do? One minute she's effortlessly breaking down German philosophy, the next she's effortlessly breaking your heart. A fixture on tons of 2014 best-of lists yet somehow still overlooked, her latest novel uses diary entries, interviews, and other texts to tell the story of Harriet Burden--a frustrated artist who enlists three men to present her work as their own--and the people who pity, dismiss, defend, and love her. Think the formal playfulness of Nabokov crossed with the blood-boiling rage of Lauren Groff's Fates and Furies, all with a swagger and sensitivity only Hustvedt can pull off.
Klosterfans rejoice! Here is the book Gen X’s philosopher king has been building toward, one that combines his love of hypotheticals, his contrarianism, and his unparalleled pop-culture analysis to tackle the question that has nagged him throughout his career: why do we perceive the world the way we do? What about the possibility “that we are unable to isolate or imagine something fundamental about the construction of reality, and that the eventual realization of whatever that fundamental thing is will necessitate a rewrite of everything else?” As in: What if we don’t actually understand gravity? What if America’s commitment to democracy winds up being its downfall? What if Roseanne comes to be seen as “the most accidentally realistic TV show there ever was?” In trying (and, by his own admittance, likely failing) to predict what will matter to people in the future, Klosterman reminded me that empathy, even more than accuracy or insight, inspires the best criticism.
The final narrator in Rebecca Schiff’s The Bed Moved claims to “only know about parent death and sluttiness.” Yes, these stories (23 in just 139 pages!) cover plenty of death and sex, but Schiff’s women know about far more. Whether they’re obsessing over cancer blogs or visiting nude hot springs with their broke pot-dealer boyfriends, her characters wind up confronting the awkwardness of adolescence, the limits of empathy, the heartbreak of wanting too much or wanting too little. Lest this sound super heavy, please know that Schiff, nearly line by line, manages to be screamingly, jaw-droppingly, enviously HILARIOUS, a dream blend of Lorrie Moore and Amy Hempel that I’ll be gratefully reading for years to come.
“I’m trying to speak cinema in a language all its own.”
The lively, moving conversations collected here, which span the auteur’s fifty-year career, chronicle the ways Bresson forged that language: by rejecting conventional narrative; by only hiring non-professional actors; by focusing not on images, but on the “relationships between images.” From these interviews emerges a man dedicated (for better or worse) to the restrictions and convictions he felt he needed to make something truthful. At a moment when the best visual storytelling has migrated from film to television (a trend Bresson predicted almost sixty years ago!), it is heartening to spend time with someone who believed, even during filmmaking's artistic peak, that there was still so much left to discover: “The cinema is immense," Bresson reminds us. "We haven’t done a thing.”
“The meaning of the city,” Gornick writes early in this sharp, sensitive memoir, “was that it made…loneliness bearable.” She more than proves her point with these snapshots of friendships personal and historical, (brief) romance, and the emotional sustenance that comes from inhabiting the streets of New York City, of interacting with everyone from homeless people and grocers to actors and strangers on the bus. Hilarious and heartbreaking, often in the same breath, these pages kept me welcome company over the two late nights I spent turning them a touch slower than usual, in the hope they might last just a little bit longer.
Satanic cults and Ouija boards, unsolved murders and serial killers: Ill Will has all the horror hallmarks that Dan Chaon fans have come to expect. But beneath these masterfully handled tropes is a gorgeous meditation on questions that have longed obsessed this author: Can we ever truly recover from loss? Can we ever truly be present? Can we ever truly know ourselves? In lieu of answers, Ill Will reminds us that, as one character puts it, “we were only peeping through a keyhole of our lives, and the majority of the truth, the reality of what happened to us, was hidden.” Bleak? Sure. But I take an eerie sense of solace in this, for good or