The Nerdy & Random Bookshelf: Vol. 2

The Nerdy & Random Bookshelf: Vol. 2

Leah Angstman Mar 30 · 5 min read

Editor Leah Angstman brings on the autumn edition of random reading with an advance-reader marathon.

[Originally published October 9, 2019 under a different account.]

I had the time of my life doing copyediting and book-culture writing with Pacific Standard, and then, well, this happened. And it happened suddenly. I had been given three ARCs with the full intention of including those books in PS’s fall roundup list, and between penning the contract one day and getting it back declined the next day, there was abruptly no more Pacific Standard. So I owe some love to three magnificent ARCs that should have (and would have) made the list had the literary landscape not gone bananas.

Image: Riverhead.

Fly Already by Etgar Keret

While rooted in the agonies of normalcy and everyday life, Keret always manages to find something fantastical, something breathing life in the shallows. There’s a touch of the surreal here, but it’s always hovering one step above solid ground. Keret is a master of writing characters who want and need and desire, characters who don’t know how to stop hurting but also don’t know how to stop moving forward, through it all. Many of his pieces, collected here in translation from the Hebrew by Sondra Silverston et al., are meta-level worlds that contain smaller worlds inside, and with his ease of manner, Keret brings you inside one, then inside another, then inside another. He talks to you like you are already involved in the story, a friend who already knows the characters, like every word is a continuation of a conversation you were previously having: “He has a lot of passion, that Todd, and a lot of energy,” he says, directing the description right to you, the reader, as if you were simply friends getting caught up after a brief time away. Keret lets you in on secrets, and the all-knowing narrator tells you of the future beyond the life of the story: “When he falls asleep again, he really will dream, but there won’t be any solution in his dream.”

The 23 stories fit together so perfectly, holding a fairytale-like quality in their directness and surreality, though very much staying on the ground, pulling some heavy lifting with themes of war, the Holocaust, suicide, divorce, and drug abuse. The tone is even, and the narration is close to the chest, often in first-person, but even Keret’s third-person is held very close; when you are finished with the collection, you’ll have a hard time distinguishing which ones were third- or first-person because they all feel so intimate. The magic of Keret is that he never keeps you at a distance; he is constantly inviting you in to layer after layer of his worlds. You’re not a stranger here.

Though most of the stories deal with stress and guilt, the unpleasantness of mundanity, the realities of small feelings within a larger universe, and the onus on the individual to have to fix his own troubles, what drives this collection is the endless feeling that there might be hope at the end, and one of us — reader or narrator, author or Todd — might eventually be able to find it.

Image: FSG Originals.

False Bingo by Jac Jemc

Jemc takes us on a full 180. Her stories are visceral and violent, no-holds-barred, gritty and hardcore. Her characters hurt fully with anger, and often direct that anger toward others, but always there is a twist, a turn, an edge to the normalcy of a situation that drives it into the surreal and sinister. It’s a dark, brutal collection that is not for little daisies, ye be warned.

Jemc is famous for direct, jarring, in-your-face boldness and unsettling character moralities, told with even more unsettling restraint and precision. There is so much satisfaction in the disturbance, in this undercurrent of otherworldly threat that brushes the surface of everyday life. The collection pulses with electricity, sometimes intermittent, sometimes a constant thrum, but always alive with the absurd, the uncanny, the disquieting, and the darkly humorous, and it shifts between the poignant and the horrifying. From a family slowly watching their dementia-stricken father unravel with a new home-shopping addiction to echoes of the Me Too movement to stolen identities to alternative realities revealing themselves, the thread of this collection is that one tiny misstep can undo everything, and the endings are not always resolved. There’s seldom a clear way out.

Jemc’s been compared to Shirley Jackson and Helen Oyeyemi, but the sadistic and grounded fables in this collection have raised Jemc into a place of her own.

Image: One World.

The Water Dancer by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Coates’ prose reads like a dreamworld, an endless poem of epic proportions that even sounds beautiful when it’s talking about some of the ugliest and most brutal events of our nation’s sad, uncomfortable past. These are the narratives we need in our time, to help future generations cope with the lasting horrific effects of human bondage and racism on a global scale, and Coates is the right medium to push the narrative through. He’s gentle and lyrical, even when he’s writing about such violence as a body or mind could not fully imagine.

Mixing magic with dark reality and a vocabulary that exists on a higher, ethereal plane, Coates tells of devastating loss, daring escapes, the need for family, and the constant fight for freedom through a disgrace that has become so unimaginable to us today that we distance ourselves from it, see it far away in black and white, tuck it quietly in the closet where we never bring it out with our best china. Coates makes us face it, shielding the unimaginable behind poetry that you can’t quit devouring, and restoring humanity to those who had every dignity stripped from them. A powerful, necessary read.