Love and Money: Eugenides’s Fresh Complaints

Jeffrey Eugenides’s Fresh Complaint serves to fill that large, aching gap between his novels. Most of the stories in the collection were lifted from The New Yorker or plucked from literary journals, with publishing dates spanning anywhere from 1989 to 2017. It’s like a retrospective. Readers have the benefit of watching Eugenides develop as a writer while getting a sense of major themes that run throughout his work.

Eugenides fans will enjoy revisiting characters from his other works. Mitchell, from “The Marriage Plot” (2011), shows up in “Air Mail” to fight a bout of dysentery in the Gulf of Siam, and Dr. Luce, from “Middlesex” (2002), appears in the aptly named “The Oracular Vulva,” on a research mission in the jungle.

Both of these narratives focus on travel, a topic that has fascinated Eugenides throughout his career. After graduating his BA, Eugenides spent a year travelling across Europe and volunteering with mother Teresa in Calcutta. “I began trying to write about these events at the time I was experiencing them, way back in 1982,” Eugenides tells The New Yorker. “I tried again many times over the years”. No doubt, Fresh Complaint is part of Eugenides’s effort to explore the meaning of travel and what happens to an individual, spiritually and intellectually, when placed in alternate contexts and challenged by the unfamiliar and unforeseen

Mitchell and Dr. Luce aside, characters in this collection tend to face common dissatisfactions, i.e. money, love, friendship, aging, though their idiosyncratic behaviours and atypical life decisions transform familiar grievances over life’s greatest drags into fresh complaints.

The collection is filled with fathers who wish to do better by their families financially, but lack talent, luck, or the right combination of the two, to do so. In “Great Experiment,” Kendall, once praised as a gifted poet, enters middle age as an underpaid editor at a publishing house. In order to raise the funds to renovate his family home, he hatches a risky plan to evade taxes.

In “Early Music,” Rodney, father of two, also faces the disappointment of broken ambitions and tight finances. Rodney comes to terms with his lack of musical talent, while trying to stay true to his passion for music. He defends himself against debt collectors who threaten to claim his clavichord.

“Sometimes you thought you heard the music,” thinks Rodney, “especially when you were young, and then you spent the rest of your life trying to reproduce the sound”.

Rodney’s sense of longing prevails throughout the collection. Ideal beginnings are complicated and tarnished by time. Relationships break apart. Wives reject adulterous husbands. Friends turn away from friends. In the particularly memorable “Baster,” poor Wally, deeply in love with the glamorous Tomasina, must watch as she becomes pregnant with a donor’s sperm.

Reducing these stories to single sentence summaries makes them seem all doom and gloom, but if there is anything that unites these characters, it is their optimism in the face of life’s travails. In “Find the Bad Guy,” Charlie reflects on his broken marriage: “we found each other so long before we lost each other”.  The glass is always half full. Eudgenides’s characters maintain steadfast beliefs in their capacity to fix things.

Like all Eugenides books, Fresh Complaint is compulsively readable. Characters are equal parts misguided and insightful, determined by circumstance and self-determining. Collectively, they express the comedy that hums through life’s tragedies.

Top Five Young Adult Novels This Year

In the literary world, young adult novels are typically looked down on as being less high quality than fiction produced for adults, and not worthy of the same critical inspection and praise. I totally disagree. Not only is that assessment an insult to the authors of these books, it’s an insult to the readers. In any case, 2017 has been an excellent year for young adult novels. Here are my picks of the top five young adult novels released this year.

 

Turtles All the Way Down by John Green

John Green is widely known for his previous young adult novels along with his YouTube channel Vlogbrothers, co-hosted with his brother Hank Green, and dozens of other online projects. Unlike his previous works, however, this one feels more authentic and gripping, as Green reveals, via his narrator Aza Holmes, the terrifying prison of thoughts created by OCD and anxiety (which Green himself suffers from), and the realities of living with a mental illness.

 

The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas

It’s often assumed that teen literature can’t really discuss intense and/or controversial topics, or talk about them well. It’s also often assumed that debuting authors aren’t doing the best work out there. Angie Thomas proves both of those assumptions totally false in her stunning debut work. The novel revolves around its narrator, Starr, who navigates the worlds of her poor black neighborhood and her wealthy white prep school, and the fallout when her friend Khalil, unarmed, is shot by the police. Thomas dives right in to the subjects of police brutality, race, and class with nuance, thoughtfulness, and grace.

I Hate Everyone But You by Allison Raskin and Gaby Dunn

If you’re a fan of the hilarious YouTube comedy channel Just Between Us, then you’ll love this fun and charismatic novel from its two creators, Allison Raskin and Gaby Dunn. The story is told through a series of emails, text messages, and other communications between its two main characters, best friends Ava and Gen, as they begin their first year of college. Just as they do in their YouTube show, Raskin and Dunn tackle everything from coming out to mental health with boldness and humor in this awesome debut.

History is All You Left Me by Adam Silvera

When the protagonist of this story, Griffin, finds out his ex-boyfriend, Theo, has died, it sets off a terrifying spiral of downward thoughts, secrets, and obsessions. Author Adam Silvera adds this emotionally devastating tale to his other, critically acclaimed works including the New York Times bestseller More Happy Than Not. In this book, Silvera explores loss, grief, mental anguish, and how we learn to let go.

A List of Cages by Robin Roe

Another stunning debut novel, this one from Robin Roe, A List of Cages tells the story of high school senior Adam Blake, who finds himself reunited with his former foster brother, Julian. However, Julian is keeping a few secrets. As Adam struggles with ADHD and tries to navigate Julian’s issues, his desire to help Julian pushes up against the reality of both their situations. Roe gives us an amazing debut novel, and leaves us eager for her next work.

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Novel Ideas: Salman Rushdie’s The Golden House

Salman Rushdie —The Golden House. Jonathan Cape. September 2017

Salman Rushdie’s thirteenth novel, The Golden House, begins by introducing the Golden family to readers as a family of emperors. It quickly clarifies that the family’s patriarch, Nero Golden, “[isn’t] really a king”, and subsequently none of his three sons are in line for an actual throne. Nonetheless, on the night of President Obama’s inauguration, as the family moves into a secluded neighbourhood in New York’s Greenwich Village (from Mumbai, which remains a mystery for about the first 20 pages) their decadence, their wickedness, and their ultimate downfall — the latter taking place as Trump becomes victorious — is illuminated. After all, “a man who [takes] the name of the last of the Julio-Claudian monarchs of Rome…[is] publicly acknowledging his…forthcoming doom” while simultaneously “laughing in…[its] face.”

Our narrator is the family’s neighbour, René, a young aspiring filmmaker, attempting to create his cinematic masterpiece on the Golden family. Many comparisons have been drawn between Rushdie’s new novel and Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby: a narrator reports on the glimmering world of a mysterious man (in this case, a man and his sons), and inadvertently provides insights into his own character. Unlike Gatsby’s Nick Carraway, however, René clues his readers into this. The novel is written as a chronicle of René’s acquaintance with the Golden family, as well as the progresses made on his film. And so, the two merge at points, as René closes scenes with “Cut” or “Black out”, includes directions or set descriptions, sometimes even excerpts of his scripts, thus shifting the form of the novel. Through these points – through inevitably bringing his readers’ attention to his ongoing script and the fact that there are moments in which he embellishes, edits, and adjusts the Goldens’ narratives – René indicates his centrality in the novel and his influence over what is shared and how it is shared.

René’s political contemplations woven into the narrative, from his excitement at Obama’s triumph to his dread and anger at Trump’s, provide the most explicit insights into his character. René stands as one of many figures Trump supporters oppose: an elite liberal intellectual (as they would say) someone who cites Greek mythology and classic cinema, art history and literature, out of touch with most things beyond his fancy New York City bubble. Which is something he openly admits. Discourse following Trump’s election is concerned with (among others) how American went from President Obama to Trump — how it went from electing its first black President to electing a shamelessly bigoted racist. But “all the daily death of black America” and “the fury of white America at having to put up with a black man in a white house”,  “[the] discontent of a furiously divided country, everyone believing [themselves to be] right, their cause [to be] just” were bubbling up during Obama’s terms. They were pulled up to the surface and detonated when Trump entered the presidential race.

While the American political backdrop is written as René’s observations and examinations, the Indian political backdrop is intertwined closer to the plot line. The discrepancy is perhaps a result of the ways in which the respective characters, Nero Golden, his sons, and René, are affected by said political ongoings. René is a figure least affected in Trump’s America: a white, straight man from a wealthy family. So Trump’s reign, rooted in hatred towards immigrants, people of colour, the LGBTQ community, and women hardly weaves into his own narrative. And as such, the politics remains a form of contemplation. Nero Golden, on the other hand, profits off of political and economic fraudulence in India, hence his narrative’s connection to the larger Hindu-Muslim conflicts, as well as to the pervading corruption. It is, after all, Nero’s role in a Muslim terrorist attack in Mumbai that sparks his family’s move to America. Though initially I’d found Rushdie’s incorporation of Indian politics more engaging than that of American politics, revisiting the novel allowed for a new reading.

Two weeks after Trump’s victory last November, author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wrote the following in a New Yorker piece: “Now is the time to call things what they actually are, because language can illuminate truth as much as it can obfuscate it… Now is the time to talk about what we are actually talking about.”

Adichie’s call for action is simple: to name the problem honestly, to leave behind the seemingly optimistic words used to describe the critical, at times fatal, subjects — “alt-right” for “white supremacist”, “climate contrarian” for “climate change denier”, etc. She asks that we be clear about the severity of an issue by making our language as reflective of it as possible — only then can we begin to tackle it. In many ways, René’s contemplation — in addition to creating room for political reflection for readers — does what Adichie asks for: he is clear with the turmoil America faces. From “the frothing hatred of the homophobes” to “the blue collar anger of everyone who had been Fannie Mae’d and Freddie Mac’d by the housing calamity” to “the young men shot for walking in a stairwell while black”, René’s political observations and examinations face America’s grave, historically-rooted problems with honesty and sharpness. In other words, with a willingness to talk about what he’s actually talking about. And in that, Rushdie does what political fiction often aims to: he illuminates the injustices and the confusion, prompting readers to think critically about the political sphere in which they live.

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Ten Independent Publishing Houses To Check Out

Image by And Other Stories

On the lookout for some interesting reads? Well look no more! Below are ten of my favourite independent publishing houses who curate and publish some of the most daring and experimental works.

Archipelago Books

Seeking to fill a gap in the literary world, founder Jill Schoolman established the press in order to delve into literature outside the Anglosphere. With such a vast literary world beyond the “West”, Archipelago aims to illuminate, as Schoolman says, “other ways of seeing and being”. And it, in its ten years of translation and publication, has done so with the works of Scholastique Mukasonga, Marie Vieux-Chauvet, and Meng Hao-Jan.

And Other Stories

Focusing primarily on contemporary international fiction, And Other Stories is another publisher that values translated fiction. Its titles range from Deborah Levy’s Swimming Home – a novel that meditates on class and families – to SJ Naudé’s The Alphabet of Birds – a short story collection, translated from Afrikaans, that focuses on death, loss, and the subcultures of gay, expat, and artistic communities.

Sundress Publications

A non-profit, woman-run publication, Sundress is a publication group that includes Wicked Alice, Pretty Owl Poetry, and Rogue Agent. Alongside working with its member publications, Sundress publishes chapbooks and full-length books that often defy and challenge concepts of genre, as well as an anthology of the best online literary works.

Dancing Girl Press

Based in Chicago, Dancing Girl Press focuses on writings by women. Its chapbooks have intricately handmade designs and explore the relationship between the visual and the literary. Its titles include Anne Graue’s Fig Tree In Winter, Rebecca Valley’s The Bird Eaters, and Azia Archer’s Atoms and Evers.

Horse Less Press

Publishing chapbooks, pamphlets, and full-length books, as well as running an online literary journal, Horse Less Press focuses on imaginative and innovative poetry collections. My personal favourites include Nikki Wallschlaeger’s Houses and Sara Woods’ Sara or The Existence of Fire, both of which are moving and challenging with exquisitely written imageries.

Fitzcarraldo Editions

Publishing contemporary fiction and long-form essays, this London-based press focuses on works in translation as well as in the English language. Its titles include Alejandro Zamba’s My Documents to Ben Lerner’s The Hatred of Poetry. With each publication, Fitzcarraldo aims to introduce ambitious and innovative writing to the literary scene.

Pushkin Press

Established in 1997, Pushkin publishes everything from novels to children’s books, from classics to contemporary. The press is home to writers from around the world, including Antal Szerb, Gaito Gazdanov, and Edith Pearlman, and has easily become home to some of the most acclaimed and compelling writers.

Salt Publishing

Based in the UK, Salt works to discover and publish contemporary British literature. Publishing everything from fiction anthologies and novels to children’s poetry, Salt is best known for Alison Moore’s The Lighthouse, Luke Kennard’s The Harbour Beyond the Movie, and Wyl Menmuir’s The Many.

404 Ink

Established by freelancers Laura Jones and Heather McDaid, 404 Ink entered the literary world just last year. Known mostly for its publication of Nasty Women – a collection of essays, interviews, and writings that discuss the lives of women in this politically chaotic and deeply disparate world – 404 Ink aims to bring to light innovative and trailblazing writings.

Portobello Books

We have Portobello Books to thank for 2016’s Man Booker International Prize winning novel The Vegetarian. First established in 2005, Portobello is known for its fiction in translation, working with writers from all six continents. Portobello also has a non-fiction strand, publishing investigative journalism, travel writing, memoir, and reportage. Having received some of the most impressive literary awards, the press is renowned for the originality and individuality it brings to the publishing scene.

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Novella’s Fall Book Preview

Novella’s given you, our faithful readers, a preview of upcoming movies and TV shows coming this fall. Now it’s time to shine our spotlight on books!

Jesmyn Ward’s Sing, Unburied, Sing (pub date: Sept. 5th)

Tracing the past and the present of Mississippi, Ward’s upcoming novel follows a family – Jojo, his younger sister Kayla, and their mother Leonie – as they move toward the state penitentiary after hearing about the release of the children’s white father from prison. Exploring the love and limitations of family in the face of racism and poverty, Sing, Unburied, Sing parallels the likes of Toni Morrison.

Celeste Ng’s Little Fires Everywhere (pub date: Sept. 12th) 

Set in an idyllic Cleveland suburb, Ng’s latest novel centers on two mothers and their children: Elena Richardson, who parallels the suburb’s composed order, and Mia Warren, who resists the said order. Soon a divisive custody battle — a result of the Richardson’s family friends’ endeavor to adopt a Chinese-American baby — creates animosity between the two women. Described as witty and wise, Little Fires Everywhere traces the nature of secrets, art, and, above all, motherhood.

Sam Sax’s Madness (pub date: September 12th)

Sax’s debut poetry collection challenges notions of masculinity, sanity, heterosexuality, and normality. Writing about sex, hysteria and lobotomy, and his own experiences with mental health, Sax uses peculiarities in of the language to parallel and contemplate the peculiarities of the human mind.

Danez Smith’s Don’t Call Us Dead (pub date: Sept 5th)

Smith’s second poetry collection, like his previous work, discusses race, sexuality, power, and politics. It begins with imagining an afterlife for black men shot by the police and traces desire and mortality in relation to the body. A poet and an activist, Smith’s work has been celebrated for its innovative and political voice.

Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach (pub date: October 3rd)

Set in Brooklyn in the 1930’s, Pulitzer-winner Egan’s novel follows an 11-year-old Anna Kerrigan, her father, and a nightclub owner named Dexter Styles, whom Anna learns is critical to her family’s existence. Eight years later, America is in the Second World War and Anna’s father is missing. A chance meeting with Dexter, however, helps Anna trace the complexities and, ultimately, the truth of her father’s disappearance. Egan’s first historical fiction, Manhattan Beach explores the oppositions within and dualities of human existence.

Jermey Dauber’s Jewish Comedy: A Serious History (pub date: Oct. 31st)

Divided into what Dauber refers to as the seven strands of Jewish comedy, the book delves into the ways in which Jewish comedy has approached persecution and diaspora. Examining comedic archetypes along with major Jewish comedians (Philip Roth, Sarah Silverman, Jon Stewart), Dauber’s work has been described as funny and crucial scholarship of Jewish history.

Han Kang’s The White Book (pub date: Nov. 2nd) 

The White Book, described as “the most autobiographical and the most experimental to date” by Portobello Books, is Korean writer Han Kang’s third publication in English. Starting with a list of white things the author saw in Warsaw (where she completed her writer’s residency), the book centers on Kang’s older sister, who’d died two hours after birth. Paralleling and intertwining imagery of the city and a new life cut short, Kang creates a genre-defying piece of literature, reflecting on life and death and survival.

Hallie Lieberman’s Buzz: The Stimulating History of the Sex Toy (pub date: Nov. 7th) 

Lieberman writes about the history of vibrators, tracing the changes in the ways in which it has been used and perceived. Starting with the lubricant in Ancient Greece all the way up to vibrators in present day, Lieberman discusses sex toys within the context of various attitudes towards sexuality, feminism, and LGBT issues, presenting sex toys in a new, less clandestine light.

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