Category Archives: reviews

The Week In Reviews: Jay-Z at Carnegie Hall, the journalism of Charles Dickens, Edward St Aubyn’s prose, and more

A weekly appreciation for the art of the review.

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Reviewed: “Sister Stop Breathing” by Chiara Barzini

Review by Tobias Carroll

Sister Stop Breathing
by Chiara Barzini
Calimari Press; 92 p.

Chiara Barzini’s collection Sister Stop Breathing isn’t a lengthy collection, but its range of emotions and tones can be exhausting. Though these stories are, for the most part, brief, the shifts from realism to surrealism, from the American Southwest to urban Italy, can be dizzying. Like the collages that complement some of the stories, the full scope of the organization here can seem dense at first. What emerges is primarily rewarding, transporting the reader to a strange space between known qualities.

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Reviewed: “Vicky Swanky is a Beauty” by Diane Williams

Review by Jen Vafdis

Vicky Swanky is a Beauty
by Diane Williams
McSweeney’s; 124 p.

I’m about to invent a person who, while hypothetical, is not impossible: a person who has not read Diane Williams and may be put off reading Diane Williams by the following equivocations I’m about to make. This person is the kind of person who reads the following equivocations and thinks, This is not the book for me. A straw man, you say! Okay sure, but that straw man actually has flesh and blood sometimes. I am sometimes that straw man. The response of This is not the book for me is one I totally respect. However, having these equivocations does, from time to time, exhaust me, as charges against anything experimental or goofy or whimsical or uncanny can make the charger feel like she’s just no fun at all.

Diane Williams’ latest book, Vicky Swanky is a Beauty, includes an epigraph, and that epigraph is a quote from the same Diane Williams who authored the book. The epigraph is formatted much like a quote from, say, Nabokov at the beginning of a new novel about butterflies. This is audacious, ballsy, perhaps other words too. Take a deep breath.

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Reviewed: Hope: A Tragedy by Shalom Auslander

Reviewed by Joe Winkler

Hope: A Tragedy
by Shalom Auslander
Riverhead, 304 p.

I grew up with my own personal Holocaust Museum in my foyer. I knew the names of concentration camps the way some other children knew the names of baseball teams. Though just a third generation Holocaust Jew, my life feels suffused with its remembrance. Imagine then the effect on a second generation Holocaust Jew, or read Shalom Auslander’s hilarious, and ingenious new novel. Auslander, in this novel Hope: A Tragedy depicts Solomon Kugel struggle with a child allergic to the world, necessitating Kugel to add Zyrtec to his emergency kit in case of an impending Holocaust.  A wife who doesn’t understand why throwing Anne Frank out of their new house crosses some serious Jewish boundaries. And yes, the real Anne Frank lives in Kugel’s attic. To top it off, Kugel feels obligated to take care of his mother who is wrongfully convinced she and her family went through the Holocaust. Here Kugel remembers a touching display of motherly love from his childhood:

“What’s that? Kugel asked, pointing to the lampshade she had placed beside him on the bed. That, she said with a sigh. That’s your grandfather. Kugel held the lampshade in his hand and turned it over. This is Zeide? He asked. Mother nodded, composed herself. It says Made in Taiwan, Kugel said. Mother looked at him, disappointment and anger in her tearstained eyes. Well they’re not going to write Made in Buchenwald are they? She snapped. No, said Kugel.”

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Reviewed: Alex Gilvarry’s “From the Memiors of a Non-Enemy Combatant”

Review by Jon Reiss

From the Memiors of  a Non-Enemy Combatant
by Alex Gilvarry
(Viking, 320 p.)

From the Memiors of  a Non-Enemy Combatant is the story of Boyet (Boy for short) Hernandez, a Philippine-born aspiring designer who, having grown up in admiration of his fabric slinging uncle, lusts for a future as New York’s most desirable, heterosexual male clothing designer (of which there area bout 10.)  Living off a meager allowance from his parents, Boy is barely able to afford an apartment in Bushwick.   Meanwhile he yearns for success. To him, this means — among other things — an apartment on the illustrious streets of Williamsburg.  Stranded in Bushwick, far from the glamour of the fashion world, he comes into contact with a seemingly affable if not mercurial fabric salesman named Ahemd who commissions him to make a pair of suits, eventually offering to fund his entire debut clothing line.  Boy’s desire for success is so that he accepts Ahmed’s offer despite looming doubts and distrust of his methods.  As Boy’s dreams begin to come to fruition, the stage is set for his eventual downfall, one that results in him being stranded in a government facility for detainees far more remote than the Kosciuszko stop on the J train.  Writing this tale as a long form confession from the offshore facility nicknamed “No Man’s Land” Boy is forced to come to terms with the fact that the decisions made to bolster his (B)oy fashion label also resulted in the new, notorious label bestowed upon him by the media: “The Fashion Terrorist.”

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Reviewed: Tim Kinsella’s “The Karaoke Singer’s Guide to Self-Defense”

Review by Tobias Carroll

The Karaoke Singer’s Guide to Self-Defense
by Tim Kinsella
featherproof books; 370 p.

Titles can be misleading. Tim Kinsella’s debut novel comes with one that’s both hefty and esoteric on its cover: The Karaoke Singer’s Guide to Self-Defense. Given that Kinsella is also known for his role in numerous bands that juxtapose the cerebral, the experimental, and the visceral, one might expect something else here: a narrative deconstructing karaoke rituals, or some sort of surreal The Tooth of Crime-esque world in which singing “Wanted Dead or Alive” helps ward off attackers. In the end,The Karaoke Singer’s Guide to Self-Defense is much more of a work of realism (with one notable exception) than one might have expected. Its title wasn’t chosen for its cleverness or for some evocation of kitsch; instead, it’s a very literal reading of some of the primary settings and themes of the book to follow.

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Reviewed: Phill Brown’s “Are We Still Rolling?”

Review by R. Stephen Shodin

Are We Still Rolling?
by Phill Brown
Tape Op Books; 282 p.

The faders, dials, buttons, and cables of a mixing console can be nearly as impersonal and intimidating as the person sitting in front of them. This is not to say that all recording engineers are impersonal and/or intimidating, but part of their job requires that they maintain a certain distance from the material and the artists involved in producing the material in order to execute the required tasks for capturing sound. Phill Brown is one of those that dare to capture sound and has been doing so for the past forty years, working on such records as Pressure Drop by Robert Palmer, Burnin’ by Bob Marley and the Wailers, Talk Talk’s Spirit of Eden, and No Angel by Dido, just to name a few.

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