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Book Notes From The Underground: June 2014


Having trouble finding something to read on the beach this summer?  You don’t want something too fluffy but reading a dense tome requires too much concentration when you’re dealing with sand, rising tides and runaway beach umbrellas.  How about a book that is challenging—but also fun to read?  A book that when you carry it to your blanket someone will notice the title and think “She must be part of the “smart set!”  Well, here are ten new works of fiction that will give you hours of reading pleasure while at the same time impress people with your sophisticated literary taste.


The Stories of Jane Gardam  by Jane Gardam
Jane Gardam writes exactly the kind of books I like to read on the beach—ones that are full of delicious banter, understated humor, uncomplicated storylines and pristine writing.  That description fits this compendium of 28 stories gathered from six earlier collections. Whether writing  ghost stories (“A Spot of Gothic”), fairy tales (“The Pangs of Love”), or even “Austenalia” (“The Sidmouth Letters”), Gardam's versatility and mastery of her craft are always on display. If you are not yet familiar with this underappreciated British writer, you are in for a real treat.



Eyrie by Tim Winton
We are introduced to Thomas Keely on the wrong end of a drug-fueled bender.  A one-time environmental activist, Keely has fallen spectacularly: divorced, publicly humiliated and unemployed.  He would seem to be the last person to be able to help childhood friend Gemma and her preternatural grandson Kai (who is given to apocalyptic visions) from Kai’s meth-head father.  Can Keely save Kai?  More importantly, can Kai save Keely?  Twice shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Australian author Tim Winton is not that well known by American readers.  Hopefully, this exquisitely written book will help rectify that.



Adam by Ariel Schrag
Schrag, the author of autobiographical graphic literature, has written a modern-day comedy of sexual mistaken identity, placing her protagonist, Adam Freedman—a horny teenager who just wants to meet the right girl—right smack in the middle of the LGBT community in Brooklyn.  It’s the summer of 2006, and Adam is sent to stay with his closeted sister Casey.  One night, he meets (and falls for) Gillian, a beautiful redheaded lesbian who believes Adam is a trans boy, and a rocky romance ensues.  Think Shakespeare, with Brooklyn replacing the Forest of Arden, and the LGBT scene standing in for the French aristocracy.



The Antiquarian by Gustavo Faveron Patriau
In this absorbing metamystery (Peruvian Patriau is a Roberto Bolaño scholar, so natch…) renowned psycholinguist Gustavo is contacted by his friend Daniel, who is confined to a psychiatric hospital for stabbing his lover Juliana to death.  When they meet, Daniel, an antiquarian bookseller, regales Gustavo with gruesome fables and parables from the books he sold.  Soon these stories intermingle with the plot of the main story and Gustavo begins to feel like a “fictional detective” who is being manipulated “by an army of hooded puppeters.”  Patriau has written a pitch-black literary thriller that locates the thin line that separates love and horror.



Waiting for the Electricity by Christina Nichol
In Nichol’s biting satire of cultural differences, Slims Achmed Makashvili is a maritime lawyer in post-Soviet Georgia who, not having received his salary in months and tired of the rampant corruption in his town, applies for a grant for small-business opportunities sponsored by Hillary Clinton’s State Department.  He wins a six-week internship in San Francisco and Slims concocts a shaky business plan to import Georgian sheep to the U.S.   Of course all does not go well for Slims in America, but plenty of comic adventures (and misadventures) pave the way to his final inglorious end.



Black Vodka: Ten Stories by Deborah Levy
These spare short stories take place across the European landscape and feature characters who are either mentally, physically or situationally challenged.  In “Stardust Nation,” an ad executive, suffering a mental breakdown, tries to cope by appropriating his boss’s traumatic childhood memories.  In the title story, a hump-backed man meets an attractive archaeologist, who becomes scientifically—not romantically—interested in him.  These unnerving, offbeat stories are dark, but occasionally Levy lets a small light of hope shine through.



The Silent History by Eli Horowitz, Matthew Derby & Kevin Moffett
Set in the years 2011-2044, this collaborative effort began as iPhone app in 2012.  Surprisingly, the experiment holds up in its transformation to the printed page.  In the future, children have no language—they can neither create nor comprehend it.  The text is composed of testimonials from parents, teachers, doctors, politicians and frauds.  Paced like a thriller, the three authors leave the readers with much to ponder regarding the role of language and communication both within the family and in society. 



Song of the Shank by Jeffery Renard Allen
Loosely based on the life of Thomas Greene Wiggins (“Blind Tom”), a 19th-century slave and musical prodigy, Allen’s novel -set during the Civil War and its immediate aftermath—deftly explores race relations, the exploitation of savants, and the strife of war.  This is a challenging, fiercely inventive book that is worth the effort.




The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez
After their daughter Maribel suffers a near-fatal accident, the Riveras leave their home in Mexico so that she can receive better care in the United States.   They settle in a Delaware neighborhood filled with other “unknown Americans”—Latino families from all parts of Central and South America.  One of these families, the Toros, is from Panama.  When their teenage son Mayor becomes interested in Maribel, both sets of parents object and sparks start to fly.  Henriquez succeeds in painting a nuanced world of people trying to—if not thrive—at least live with some semblance of grace.



Ecstatic Cahoots: Fifty Short Stories by Stuart Dybek
This collection of micro-stories (ranging in length from two lines to thirteen pages) explores the need for trust and the desire for ecstatic transcendence.  Whether they are slice-of-life character sketches, fables, realistic or fantastical, the stories convey Dybek’s ironical humor and bottomless compassion for people who are always trying to maintain a state of being (in a phrase borrowed from F. Scott Fitzgerald) in “ecstatic cahoots.”   Eleven years after his last work of fiction (I Sailed with Magellan), multiple award-winning author Dybek’s return is warmly welcomed.


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