Review: TENTH OF DECEMBER by George Saunders

9780812993806_custom-f9472c743ae546a0b19bf6a1c8ce3a89971d1a83-s6-c30Five years ago, George Saunders released his fourth book of short stories, Tenth of December, to wide acclaim. Lauded as a master of the short story form since his first story collection in 1996, Saunders joined a group of white, earnest (but ambitious), post-post-modern American writers who came of age with Generation X: Saunders, David Foster Wallace, Dave Eggers, Jonathan Franzen, Jeffrey Eugenides, and Michael Chabon. Saunders, more than his contemporaries, publishes in carefully measured bursts of stories. He is consistent, prolific, and widely read. He has a particular talent for voice and seems to be entirely self-aware when it comes to his limits and repeating themes. Tenth of December has stories written while Saunders was a MacArthur “Genius Grant” Fellow and a Guggenheim Fellow, was a finalist for the National Book Award finalist, and was a winner of the 2013 Story Prize. Based on contemporary reviews, Tenth of December appears to be the work of a writer giving everything he’s got, ascendant and at the top of his confidence, but a deeper critique reveals it as a work that lacks confidence, a series of well-executed moves with mixed results.

Saunders is a really good writer in a couple of ways. He constructs his stories really well. He plants details that later become important. And he is a master of free indirect discourse. By the time he gets to Tenth of December, his own style is well established, and he knows what to do and how to get where he wants to go. He can put the entire weight of a story on one person’s (or a couple people’s) point of view without losing any expository information.

However, Saunders is a writer who plays to his strengths: he can, at his best, fully inhabit a character’s voice, but this is also his weakness as he often relies on voice as a crutch to compensate for weaker narratives. He is a writer of good intentions with real optimism and hope for his writing and characters, but this feeling is often expressed in twee, syrupy emotions. At his best, Saunders controls his tempo, narrative, and, of course, voice with great skill, but at his worst he can feel hackneyed, overwrought and sentimental. The stories in Tenth of December often rely on simple diptych contrasts reminiscent of mid-career Melville stories like “The Two Temples,” and create a mood that can feel old-fashioned at times, wide-eyed and emotional, even as the settings can be thoroughly modern or dystopian.

The easy, contrasting effect of the diptych can be addicting. For a writer who feels stuck or uninspired, like Melville when his chanteys ran dry, they provide a quick fix, a surface appearance of having performed some great trick of writing. Saunders based all of Tenth of December on this one move. The cover features a contrasting, yin and yang-like set of black and white text, alluding both to the Saunders unsubtle literary jumping-off point and his Richard Gere-like intoxication with Eastern philosophy. Continue reading “Review: TENTH OF DECEMBER by George Saunders”


Dan Digest: MEDDLING KIDS Review

meddling kids cover

A gift to the former Saturday morning cartoon watcher turned novel lover, Meddling Kids plays upon the reader’s memories of their favorite teen sleuths as the book’s characters reminisce about their past cases and misadventures. Taking place primarily along the ZOINX river, Meddling Kids can read like both a catering to and manipulation of the reader’s own nostalgia, switching in tone between cartoonish teen sci-fi innocence to mature hopelessness in a moment.

Meddling Kids reunites a former teen detective agency, now in their mid-twenties, after years apart to reopen a case they had thought they had solved. Written by Spanish/Catalan writer and cartoonist Edgar Cantero, who won the Joan Crexells award for Dormir amb Winona Ryder in 2007, Meddling Kids is his second English novel after 2014’s Supernatural Enhancements, published by New York City-based Doubleday Publishing.

Cantero plays with genre and nostalgia as the dynamic of the protagonists (two men, two women, and a dog) and the title of the work allude to the Hanna Barbera cartoon “Scooby-Doo, Where Are You?. With a little sleuthing of one’s own, one can find more allusions to other children’s mysteries as Cantero self-consciously borrows from The Famous Five novel series  — by the author’s own admission — and others. The work uses the similarities and tropes from these works to inform the work and play with the reader’s expectations. Continue reading “Dan Digest: MEDDLING KIDS Review”


how toHow to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu is the rare book that is both kinds of science fiction. Traditionally, a sci-fi work either bases its conflict in technology and explores its potential problems and advantages, or it simply transplants a fantasy story into a futuristic world. The most talented science writers, like David Deutch, Brian Greene, and Stephen Hawking, frequently confront the problem that language lacks the vocabulary and nuance to describe scientific phenomena. How do you describe time’s movement beyond the metaphorical “flow” or define quantum entanglement as anything other than Einstein’s “spooky action?” Time, slippery as it is, requires real imagination to be precisely described. How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe is self-consciously rooted in a universe that is “wrapped” by science fiction, a place where Luke Skywalker and the Death Star are real and concurrent with “reality.” However, Yu also constructs his novel through a deep reading of physics, particularly theories of time travel and the multiverse, and the novel is explicitly about those things, but also narrated by a time machine repairman in “Minor Universe 31,” a sci-fi universe.

Charles Yu’s narrator, tellingly named “Charles Yu,” is not just the narrator but also a fellow reader, reading as he’s writing, traveling by his writing. The perspective of the narrator is the axis the book turns on, the place where the science and fiction, and the “fantasy” and “reality,” meet. The science of time travel becomes the act of writing, and is even formally theorized as a branch of science called “chronodiegetics,” whose foundational theory is, “Within a science fictional space, memory and regret are, when taken together, the set of necessary and sufficient elements required to produce a time machine.” The science of time conflates with narrative. Yu’s universe is traversable through time as easily as pages are written or read, and language becomes the mode of experiencing time rather than an abstract signifier of time. In other words, the book is a time machine.     Continue reading “Review: HOW TO LIVE SAFELY IN A SCIENCE FICTIONAL UNIVERSE by Charles Yu”

Review: SPQR by Mary Beard

9781846683800Mary Beard writes a “greatest hits” of Roman history. SPQR is simultaneously engaging for the lay reader and rigorous for the history scholar.

Classics departments around the country are being shut down or folded into other departments. Perhaps, ironically, in a time where citizens require, more than ever, a sense of history, ancient history is being shoved aside. In what possible way could Cicero compete with pithy, 140-character long proclamations? Like a rock band in decline, Mary Beard, a Cambridge Classics scholar and noted New York Review of Books contributor, has released a greatest hits collection covering the “First Roman Millennium,” entitled SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome. As in popular music, this collection of the hits is lengthy and full of the familiar. However, unlike most greatest hits anthologies, SPQR is more than a simple rehash of the basics. Standing at one of the most famous and able Classicists of her generation, Beard achieves a rare feat, a history book that is able to appeal to the humiliores audience while pleasing academic honestiores (the two being the lower and higher classes, respectively, after the third century C.E. where Beard’s book ends). Continue reading “Review: SPQR by Mary Beard”

Review: THE NAMES by Don DeLillo

namesWhen The Names was first published in 1982, a Time magazine review referred to it as “[Don] DeLillo’s most accomplished novel.” Thirty-five years later, after career milestones like White Noise, Libra, and Underworld, calling The Names his most accomplished novel seems ludicrous — because it is — but DeLillo was on an upswing, building up to his better works. His development was not linear or exponential. If, like me, you consider Ratner’s Star (1976) to be one of his best, then you agree that DeLillo in the late 70s, through the early 80s, was in the wilderness, literally and figuratively, taking sporadic steps backwards and forwards. The Names represents a strange split in both directions, the loose blend of a reluctant thriller and a philosophy of language slog.

The Names is narrated by James Axton, an expatriate risk analyst, based out of Athens, Greece. He is separated from his wannabe archaeologist wife, Kathryn, but he visit’s her and their son, Tap, who live on another Greek island. In Athens, Axton is enmeshed in an expatriate group of friends in similar lines of work: banking, security, and (potentially) espionage. When a mentally challenged person is brutally murdered on Kathryn and Tap’s island, Axton begins to track a mysterious, violent language cult across the Near East.  Continue reading “Review: THE NAMES by Don DeLillo”


epinlifeairaA German painter’s life is changed forever when he attempts to cross the Argentinian cordillera. A biographical novella twists into a hallucinatory meditation on art.

César Aira has established a reputation as a prolific, peculiar writer, and that reputation has steadily grown over the last few years in the United States as his books have gradually been published in translation from the original Spanish. An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter  in particular has been cited as an example of his mastery over the novella form and representative of his style and interests. Presented as a straightforward and objective historical account, An Episode in the Life recounts the life of Johann Moritz Rugendas — the story of his artistic family, his own introduction to painting and Humboldt’s procedure, and the success of his first trip to South America — before detailing the story of Rugendas’s life-changing second trip to South America, where he attempts to cross Argentina from Chile to Buenos Aires. Rugendas, along with another German painter, Krause, means to artistically capture the landscape following Humboldt’s procedure, a naturalistic method of knowledge production based on visible physiognomic traits separate from the scientific Linnaean system of classification. But when Rugendas suffers an accident, the story turns into something different than what it appears.  Continue reading “Review: AN EPISODE IN THE LIFE OF A LANDSCAPE PAINTER by César Aira”

Review: SATANTANGO by Lászlo Krasznahorkai 

fullsizerender-5The townspeople of a collapsed farm estate wait for change when an old friend, a mysterious drifter who may be a conman, a spy, or the devil, returns to bring the town a suspicious opportunity. Dark humor in the face of decay and oppression characterizes this postmodern Hungarian classic.

Originally written and published in the waning years of Communist Eastern Europe, Krasznahorkai’s modern classic, Satantango, was translated into English in 2015 when it won the Man Booker International Prize 2015. Meticulously structured and plotted over twelve chapters in imitation of the steps of a tango, each chapter focuses on a different character or characters around “the estate” where the collapse of a collective farm has left an aimless group of peasant townspeople unable to leave their bleak situation. When the mysterious Irimiás and his assistant Petrina return to the town, they offer the townspeople hope for a new beginning. Despite the townspeople’s devotion to Irimiás, his true nature and intentions are questionable. The novel follows Irimiás and the townspeople as they argue, drink, dance, and try to better their lives in their forgotten town.

Krasznahorkai’s writing has always stood out stylistically to his contemporaries. Even though he has become the most famous Hungarian writer of his generation, his own maximalist style stood in contrast to the minimal, short sentences of his peers in Hungary. In America also, minimalist writing became trendy in the 1980s with writers like Raymond Carver, with more extreme results contemporary to Krasznahorkai in Kmart or Dirty Realist writers like Frederick Barthelme, who aspired to dry, minimal sentences with a focus on the mundane and de-enchanted Capitalist sprawl. Funny that Krasznahorkai also focuses on mundane social realism, from the ideological flip side of de-enchanted, failing Soviet Europe while his style stretches sentences to the point of exhausted enchantment.  Continue reading “Review: SATANTANGO by Lászlo Krasznahorkai “