On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong. Penguin Press, $26.
Poet and author Ocean Vuong’s mother died Nov. 2 at age 51, after a long battle with cancer. I found out via Instagram, where Vuong posted a photo with a small caption: “(sic) you taught me that our pain is not our destiny — but our reason. you gave me all the reasons. thank you. i bow to you. i will see you again.”
Her death was felt around the world by readers of Vuong’s 2019 debut novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, which was written from the perspective of Little Dog, a queer Vietnamese man in his mid-twenties writing to his mother, who never learned to read in English. There’s an urgency in the prose that makes me wonder if Vuong knew his own mother would die so soon after publication.
Little Dog’s realizations about identity, homeland and sexuality hold the weight of symbolic confession when speaking to his mother. Reading them feels a little like trespassing — like you’ve stumbled upon this letter in a leather-bound notebook in a dusty attic. Little Dog addresses his mother with the intimacy of a private chat; by the end, it feels like you’ve been let in on a secret.
At first glance, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous appears to be a prose poem dressed up as a novel. But what Vuong actually wrote was a love letter — to the woman who gave him everything, when she had nothing. We thank her. — Donny Morrison
If, Then by Kate Hope Day. Random House, $26.
This debut novel by Kate Hope Day is centered in the Oregon we know, making the alternate reality and idea of counterfactuals hit home even harder for Pacific Northwest readers. As we meet the residents of Clearing, and those residents slowly get glimpses of this alternate reality, the narrative is at first hard to follow, but slowly people and relationships — real and alternate — are made clear.
Counterfactuals center on the tendency we have to create contrary possible alternatives to events that have already happened. Ginny, a surgeon; Mark her husband, a wildfire specialist; Cass, a philosophy student and young mother; and Samara, a young professional who misses her dead mother, are all neighbors in a quiet town, near a dormant volcano. But as their visions get more trouble and the volcano begins to rumble, the tension rises and the threads come together. — Camilla Mortensen
Evasion by Erica L Hernandez. Pony House Publishing $13.99
When local author Erica Hernandez dropped off her book for review, I was a bit skeptical — she described the book as a self-help guide hidden within a dystopian future novel.
Hernandez, a licensed clinical social worker, wants to help individuals discover their full potential and move past trauma, but realistically she knows that the average person may not be inclined to reach for a run-of-the-mill self-help book.
I devoured the book over a weekend, unable to set it down. I enthusiastically followed Eliana — the main protagonist — as she navigated a dangerous new world, working through her own grief, depression and anxieties.
The story avoids many common clichés typical of the genre, and manages to keep you connected intimately to the characters portrayed. It’s told in a way that you learn to cope right along with Eliana, with me often comparing to my own real world struggles. With the dystopian future novel genre becoming ever more crowded, Evasion stands out as a unique, well-written read.
Catch an author reading of Evasion at Tsunami Books at a launch party 4 pm Sunday, Dec. 15. — Elisha Young
One More River To Cross by Jane Kirkpatrick. Revell, $15.99.
I didn’t grow up playing Oregon Trail, so maybe it’s the disastrous trip over the Donner Pass I once had — involving being in car with a bad driver in the snow — that gave me a fascination for stories of the way west. One More River to Cross takes the historical tale of the Stephens-Murphy-Townsend Party as they leave Iowa on a journey to Sutter’s Fort.
A snowstorm forces the group to split in three directions, and Jane Kirkpatrick’s historical novel follows the travellers with their hopes, failures, dreams and loves on their journey. Strong women are the lead characters and make this bit of well-researched historical fiction a worthwhile read. — Camilla Mortensen
Serotonin: A Novel by Michel Houellebecq. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $27.
Kurt Vonnegut once confessed to getting a headache whenever he tried to write about the great French novelist Celine, and I’m finding the same thing happens whenever I attempt to write something about the great French novelist Michel Houellebecq, whose brand-new book, Serotonin, reads like a suicide note to Western Civilization itself. As a friend of mine recently texted regarding the book: “The kind of truth only a degenerate can tell us.” True, but not quite the whole of it, either. Houellebecq’s last book, 2016’s Submission, is a flat-out masterpiece — a blistering, hilarious takedown of European political malaise and existential ennui — and, honestly, I had a hard time imagining him topping it.
And, for the first half of Serotonin, I kept wondering if he could elevate himself: Here again is a Houellebecq staple, the sick man of Europe, a mid-level state bureaucrat whose romantic, sexual, political and professional exhaustion play out as a frenetic pursuit of dead fetishes and erotic consumerism. Rich but familiar territory for the author, whose finger on the pulse of modern bourgeois life is uniquely sensitive in registering the hummingbird’s rhythms of total nihilism, where oversexed and undersexed look like the same condition, and a descent into meaninglessness and boredom is indistinguishable from a life that looks relatively well lived.
Houellebecq’s narrator, who works for the French agricultural commission, relays his love life in rich detail, a narrative of erotic failure that spins back and forth through time, painting a biography that increasingly looks like a dead end. Couple this with his railing against the ravages of European globalist policies, which are increasingly destroying the local farmers who draw his admiration and political sympathies, and you begin to sense the kind of defeat that leads a man to extreme acts.
Then, about halfway through, the book explodes. Houellebecq’s faux-genteel voice, which barely masks a pervasive disgust for all modernity, lulls the reader into a series of terrible reckonings: romantic betrayal, a cowardly confrontation with pedophilia and one stunning act of political violence. It all creeps up on you. It’s rather devastating.
Let us, please, stop referring to novelist Houellebecq as “the bad boy of French literature” — a moniker that is frankly disingenuous when considering the enormous scope of his prophetic vision.
It’s more apt to call Houellebecq (pronounced well-beck) the most sophisticated and scouring satirist since Swift, and perhaps the most expansive and revolutionary modern writer since Henry Miller traipsed the Tropics. Like Miller, Houellebecq seems intent on the grandest of projects: exposing the deep, pervasive rot at the core of our Western culture, and doing so in a way that submerges you neck-deep in the repulsion. Serotonin is not for the faint of heart, but neither is this world. — Rick Levin
Dead Blow: A Horseshoer Mystery by Lisa Preston. Skyhorse, $25.99.
I grew up reading Dick Francis — and let’s face it, every other horse book I could lay my hands on, because, well, horses. But other people read jockey-turned-mystery-writer Francis because he managed to write about esoteric subjects like steeplechase racing while still making the reader part of the scene rather than an outsider. And he wrote damn good mysteries while doing it.
Lisa Preston introduces us to Rainy Dale, horseshoer (farrier for those in the know) and mystery solver. I often hesitate at jumping in on a series, but the fact that Dead Blow is the second book — the first is The Clincher — was no problem as Preston quickly gets readers up to speed on Rainy, her culinary-oriented partner Guy, her dog, horse and her truck named Ol’ Blue, and a host of other quirky people and animals in fictional Butte County — somewhere on Oregon’s east side. At first Rainy’s ranch-hand accent felt a little overdone but as I fell deeper and deeper into the mystery and into ranch-country Oregon, it felt right. Dead Blow is one of those mysteries where the characters are so fun that the plot is almost secondary. Rainy is gritty and funny, and as the amateur sleuth works her way through the latest murder mystery, she also works her way through the even more fraught worlds of love and friendship. — Camilla Mortensen
The Topeka School by Ben Lerner. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27.
I’m a huge Ben Lerner fan. The moment I finished reading his 2015 novel 10:04, I sat down and read it again. And then again. Then I did the same thing with his 2011 Leaving the Atocha Station. Even after that marathon I still wondered: What exactly is so compelling about his work? That’s a bit of a puzzler. 10:04 is a quasi-autobiographical postmodernist compelling mess of a narrative, told almost in real time, that is absolutely engaging from beginning to end. Much as the Norwegian sensation Karl Ove Knausgård has reinvigorated autobiography, Lerner — a 2015 MacArthur “genius” Fellow whose main literary output has been poetry — has recast the novel, freeing it from the confines of plot and basing it on sharp, dreamy introspection.
Naturally, then, I was thrilled when his third novel, The Topeka School, came out this fall.
Ah, the perils of high expectations. The book, autobiographical like his previous work, tells a coming-of-age story of Topeka native Adam Gordon, who is involved, as was Lerner, in high school debate. That nerdish world underpins the novel as obsessively as whaling minutia floats Moby Dick. But the story feels too conventional. It lacks the compelling strangeness and fluid time of his previous work. To be fair, I haven’t read this one three times. I’m not sure I feel the need to. — Bob Keefer
The Overstory by Richard Powers. Norton, $18.99.
When I first started at Eugene Weekly more than a decade ago, I was tasked with covering the sentencings of the Earth Liberation Front eco-saboteurs who lit fires across the West in passionate, if perhaps misguided, attempts to stop deforestation, climate change and other insults to the Earth. So I don’t know how I missed The Overstory’s 2018 debut, which has at its center some of those protests and the timber wars.
Then The Overstory won the Pulitzer Prize in fiction, and I noticed it.
I am torn on this sweeping novel. It bored me, then I loved it, then it annoyed me, and so on. The first half had so many stories and threads for each of its nine main characters I found myself wondering where the story actually was. Then the tale began to come together, sucking me into the characters’ diverse lives. Finally, as I read, I kept hearing the voices of, and picturing the faces of, those whose exploits the books are based on. “Would he really think that?” I wondered.
It is, of course, my own mistake to overlap fiction with real life. And as a writing teacher once said to me, “Isn’t it wonderful to arouse strong emotions in people?” And that, in the end, is the strength of The Overstory. — Camilla Mortensen
The Dutch House by Ann Patchett. HarperCollins, $27.99.
I read Ann Patchett for many reasons. One of the most driving is the way she can craft a character. The details, yes, the personhood, sure: You can relate, and attach or detach quite readily. So reading The Dutch House, I was not at all surprised that among all the beautiful characters inside, one of the most complex and relatable was, in fact, a house. Page after page, following the storyline of this family in flux, my mind forever wandered back to the house. Beautifully layered, however, are the other characters and their lives, journeys and routine visits to the Dutch House. — Sarah Decker
All for Nothing by Walter Kempowski. New York Review Books, $16.95.
God bless New York Review Books, an imprint that continues to release forgotten or criminally ignored novels that should, thanks to their efforts, now rank indubitably among the great classics of modern literature. One of NYRB’s latest releases, All for Nothing by the late German novelist Walter Kempowski, is a sweeping epic set in East Prussian in 1945, as the doomed Nazi regime faces an impending onslaught by Russian’s Red Army. With an ironic detachment that belies the deepest moral concern, Kempowski depicts in heartbreaking detail the desperate, denial-riddled interior lives of a handful of German citizens living in a manor house, as they fail to come to terms with the catastrophe that is about to overwhelm them.
Faced on the one hand with loyalty to the Nazi party — a loyalty that is by turns false, defiant, faltering or fierce (starting to sound familiar?) — and on the other with the suspicion that their lives are about to fall apart, these average citizens capitulate, cower, whisper, flee or descend into delusion and fantasy as their existence literally unravels in real time. As the end draws near, a line of refugees miles long begins to file past the manor, a swarm of humanity that descends into a hellish chaos; then comes the tanks, and the executions, almost sublimely arbitrary in their occurrence. Kempowski’s ecclesiastical genius resides is in showing these lives as they are, without judgment and in the full grip of a mortal terror that seeks relief in the false tug of nostalgia and sentimentality; his omniscient eye captures each character’s humanity pinned and wriggling on the wall of a terrible fate, and the end result is an almost cosmic vision of the monumental tide of history as it washes us away.
This is a shattering novel, at once tough and tender, and it speaks with almost unbearable immediacy to the emotional and political vibrations of our world right now. — Rick Levin
Whiskey When We’re Dry by John Larison. Random House, $16.
Jessilyn Harney, aka Jess, rides her beloved mare, Ingrid, west in search of her brother, Noah. Once her revered older brother, Noah is now the leader of an infamous Wild Bunch of outlaws, with his face and exploits adorning wanted posters in sheriffs’ offices
Larison weaves together the evils of racism, a nod at the existence of gay cowboys and the sheer power of storytelling through 17-year old Harney’s narrative voice, blurring gender lines in this evocative portrayal of a young woman who poses as a boy gunfighter.
As her adventures continue, and Jess slides further and further into her male persona, the reader slides with her, until inevitably both are reminded of the restrictions and dangers faced by women in the West — and some that are still faced today. Jess deals with men that are more powerful than she is — not just in stature, but in their role in the world.
Larison takes on traditional Western literary motifs — gunfights, whore houses, fine horses, frontier justice and more — and makes them modern while maintaining the 1800s-era feel of Jess’s quest. — Camilla Mortensen
City of Girls by Elizabeth Gilbert. Bloomsbury Publishing, $26.38.
In its most basic sense, this is a story about a young girl arriving in New York during a most magical time in the 1940s. She’s young, seeking a life apart from the traditional expectations placed on her by her straight-laced parents and a rather dull society. Forgoing formal education and the push to marry, she immerses herself in a life quite nontraditional. But through this, the real essence of this beautiful story pushes forth — because, at its core, this is a tale about the things most important to existence, then and now. This is a story about family being the people you choose, not necessarily the people who share your blood. It is a story about the unwavering strength of female friendship. And, perhaps most important, it is a story about forgiveness: both for those around you and also for yourself, and perhaps specifically your younger self. — Sarah Decker