by May 10, 2013 at 2:00 pm 0

From Zak M. Salih Email him at zak[AT]

"Tenth of December"

Tenth of December by George Sounders. (Courtesy Ramdom House)

To be honest, the stories in George Saunders’ Tenth of December are probably a lot more sci-fi than they let on at first glance. Several of them seem to take place in near-distant futures where technology runs rampant, sapping our humanity, our free will and our ability to express genuine emotions.

In “Escape from Spiderhead,” a penal colony is home to bizarre scientific experiments in which, with the flip of a dial, a prisoner can spout poetry, feel intense sexual desire and even want to inflict harm on others.

In one of Saunders’ other haunting pieces, “The Semplica Girl Diaries,” we follow along in the diary of a middle-aged family man who engages in psychological class warfare with his more well-off neighbors.

But what’s more terrifying than the economic disparity the narrator feels: the world he lives in, one in which immigrants from third-world countries elect to become veritable lawn ornaments in an effort to earn and send money back to their families (an idea that’s echoed in another story, “Puppy,” where a child is literally chained outside to a tree).

Sounds farfetched? It is, but the strangeness is tempered by the normalcy with which these otherworldly situations are treated; just another facet of consumerist American society. In fact, it’s the class element to this collection (whose narrators who are all underdogs of a sort) that comes to mean more than the sci-fi aspects of Tenth of December.

And when both themes come together, as they do in “My Chivalric Fiasco” (where an actor at a Renaissance fair takes a drug that makes him think and act like the heroic knight he only pretends to be), the result is proof of how Saunders can make the fanciful believable and the outlandish all too human.

Come to Tenth of December for the flights of fancy and strange twists of fate. Stay for the frightening commentary on how we live and feel in an increasingly technological, fractured world.

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by April 5, 2013 at 2:00 pm 0

From Zak M. Salih Email him at zak[AT]

Joyce Carol Oates is one of those writers, like Stephen King, whose prolific nature is a literary feat in itself. And then to come in and turn around to readers each year massive, doorstop-sized tomes? It’s a mystery that’s just as beguiling as that coursing through early 1900s Princeton in Oates’s latest (yes, doorstop-sized) novel, “The Accursed.”


“The Accursed” by Joyce Carol Oates. (Courtesy HarperCollins Publishers)

Is this a masterpiece? No. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t one hell of a fun ride through Gothic territory that Oates has always been at home in.  In fact, this massive work is a veritable checklist of Gothic themes: old mansions people with haunting spirits, dense forests, psychological machinations, sexual repression, and more.

The titular cursed individuals are pretty much everyone in the novel (including real-life figures such as Upton Sinclair, Woodrow Wilson, and Jack London), but it’s several rich Princeton families who seem to bear the brunt of it. And it all springs with the wedding day of young Annabel Slade, during which she’s kidnapped (or does she willingly escape?) by a strange figure who may very well be the Devil; or at the very least, some lesser, equally hellish imp.

From there, the novel spirals out into several strands of hauntings and madness, as told through the words of a fictional historian who’s probably not the most reliable source (for example, one narrative strand is related from coded diary entries that only this historian could decipher).

So even as we’re reading about demonic liaisons, monstrous births, and ghostly sightings, we’re not exactly sure that what’s happening is truly happening. Or maybe a curse really does exist, brought upon by centuries of slavery and gender inequality (both issues, of course, run like an undercurrent throughout the novel).

Regardless, this uncertainty is what you keep the pages turning, and this pseudo-historical background lends an eerie feel to the proceedings (even if they’re responsible for numerous digressions that can bog one down at times). Just when you feel like things are slowing down, they pick back up again and another eerie layer is added to the story.

To put it quite simply, “The Accursed” is one of those doorstop-sized novels that, while  it certainly feels large, reads a lot quicker than one imagines it should.

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by March 19, 2013 at 11:00 am 0

From Zak M. Salih Email him at zak[AT]

Well, it seemed for a few days that spring was here. And even if there are still a couple more weeks of wintery winds to tolerate, there’s no denying the fact that spring’s arrival is inevitable. Which, if you’re a book nerd, also means it’s the perfect time of year for reading outdoors.

What you need for a perfect late evening at the park (before the sun sets, naturally) or for a lazy weekend afternoon outdoors (on a bench, on a blanket, at an outdoor bar table) is a slim book: something that’s easy to carry, easy to read (while still being classy) and easy for a dedicated reader to finish in a single sitting.

Of course, you could always stick with a tried and true classic such as Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea or Melville’s Bartelby the Scrivener. But if you’re in the need for some short reads (of the non-magazine variety) to make your spring adventures a little more literary, here are some maybe-not-so-familiar suggestions.


Flannery O’Connor.


Don DeLillo.

A Good Man is Hard to Find by Flannery O’Connor: One of the 20th Century’s best short story collections, O’Connor’s tales — filled with gangsters, hucksters, preachers and other social grotesqueries — are compulsively readable and masterpieces of the Southern Gothic tradition. Think you can’t read an entire book of short stories in a day? Think again.

The Body Artist, Cosmopolis or Point Omega by Don DeLillo: For those of you eager to chew on something dense, rich and excessively postmodern, you can’t go wrong with this highly respected America author’s recent novels, all of which dabble in unrealistic dialogue, minimalist writing and grand concepts about human civilization. Are there hidden layers to these books or is it just a bunch of hogwash? You be the judge.


Martin Amis.

Time’s Arrow by Martin Amis: It’s the relatively simple story of a Nazi doctor at a concentration camp who flees to America to start a new life as a doctor. Except he’s living it entirely in reverse. Amis’s ingenious short novel not only offers a new way to think about the mundane aspects of life — it also lends an even more surreal gravity to one of the most horrible moments of the 20th Century.

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by March 5, 2013 at 2:00 pm 0

From Zak M. Salih Email him at zak[AT]

"Books"Vampires in the Lemon Grove, the new short story collection from Karen Russell (whose novel Swamplandia! was a finalist for last year’s we-don’t-have-a-winner Pulitzer Prize for Literature), is handsomely written and compulsively readable. It’s one of those books you can’t put down until you find yourself turning the last pages of the final story.

A cornucopia of fantastic creatures, bizarre situations and mild horror, these are eight powerful tales of innocence lost; of what happens when the existential wool is pulled from off our eyes and we see our lives for what they really are. Vampires, horses, young boys – everyone’s rediscovering themselves here, and sometimes with unfavorable results.

There are few duds in this book. In fact, to call out some of the standout pieces would be to nearly describe every story. Even still, the impressive ones include the title story, about the marriage woes of aging vampires living in an Italian lemon grove; “Reeling for the Empire,” in which young Japanese girls, transformed into silkworms, struggle for their own unique labor rights; and “The Barn at the End of our Term,” a hilarious story in which dead presidents find themselves reincarnated as horses on a farm.

If you find yourself hooked after these stories and want to read further, you’ll also find magical massage therapists that help Iraq War vets through their trauma, a mysterious scarecrow that haunts a pack of New Jersey bullies, a Hitchcockian swarm of birds and more. Taken together, Vampires in the Lemon Grove is a wonderful trove of neo-Gothic tales that dials back the genre’s traditional doom and gloom in place of something strange, imaginative and wholly unique.

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by February 19, 2013 at 2:00 pm 0

From Zak M. Salih Email him at zak[AT]

"Building Stories"

Building Stories by Chris Ware.

Building Stories, the new graphic work by artist Chris Ware, is part puzzle, part graphic novel, part history of print, part domestic drama, part… well, pretty much part everything. Above all, it’s an important work that almost defies categorization — and a reading experience that demands your attention.

Contained in a giant box are more than a dozen fragments and pieces that make up a veritable history of the printed word: newspapers, booklets, posters, pamphlets, comic strips and even a game board. And they all revolve around the story of a nondescript, three-story apartment building outside Chicago and the lives of its residents.

Piece by piece, we come to know three of the building’s tenants. There’s the old landlady who spends her time haunted by the ghosts of her past. There’s the young couple on the middle floor whose daily lives are a mess of passive aggression.

There’s Branford, a bee from a nearby hive whose life serves as an apt commentary on his human counterparts. There’s the building itself, which conjures memories and insights in an archaic voice.

But at the heart of it all is the unnamed young woman on the third floor, an aspiring artist and part-time florist who spends her down time berating herself for her looks (including a missing leg) and feeling the kind of angst that all the building’s residents endure.

Throughout the various pieces of Building Stories, we follow this young woman as she recounts her father’s death from cancer, her past relationships with men, the death of her cat, and her eventual move out to the suburbs (right near a popular Frank Lloyd Wright building) with her husband and young daughter.

There’s no clear way to read this hybrid work; a recommendation is just opening the lid of the box and working your way down from the first small strip through the Little Golden Book-esque piece down to the newspaper at the bottom.

Reading Building Stories is as much a tactile experience as it is an emotional one. But despite the handsome illustrations, the resonant symmetry of the pieces, the sometimes-confusing transition between panels and spaces, this is above all an unforgettable work about the drama of everyday life, a testament to the spaces we live in — and the people whose lives we share those spaces with.

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by February 5, 2013 at 10:00 am 1 Comment

From Zak M. Salih Email him at zak[AT]

More than four years after his suicide, David Foster Wallace remains one of the more dominant landmarks in the literary landscape of the late 1990s and early 2000s. And even if you still haven’t gotten around to reading his magnum opus, Infinite Jest (or if your bookmark still remains sandwiched somewhere in the first 200 pages), you almost certainly know his name.

How did Wallace become such an icon for a generation of readers and writers? Some answers can be found in two recent books that, when read side by side, offer a clearer understanding of the author and his work.

One of the issues with Wallace’s fiction is its intensity of style. Manic, polysyllabic, dense, depressing, anxious – these are all sound words for what it’s like to immerse yourself in a Wallace short story or novel. These aren’t negatives, by the way; his work sees into the human experience in a way that’s remarkably insightful.

It’s like Virginia Woolf on acid. But it is all too easy to get lost in the maelstrom of the author’s mind; to start feeling a little manic and anxious yourself (take any story in his last collection, Oblivion, to see my point).

"books"His nonfiction, however, is much more accessible. The posthumous collection of essays, Both Flesh and Not, is a perfect example of Wallace’s ability to engage readers and open their eyes to new ways of seeing how we all live. Of course, being a posthumous collection, one can’t help but feel the editors were picking at the bottom of the barrel in some instances (did we need blurbs on his favorite overlooked novels or lengthy notes on often misused vocabulary?).

Even still, there are some brilliant pieces here, complete with their trademark footnotes that you should never skip. Even if you pick and choose your way through this collection (the recommended approach), be sure to read the title essay (on the god-like abilities of Roger Federer), “The (As It Were) Seminal Importance of Terminator 2” (about the then-dawning age of FX-heavy films), and “The Best of the Prose Poem” (a hilariously scathing takedown of a prose poem anthology).

"books"Of course, the life of the man behind the work makes for a heavier read. One of the first authorized Wallace biographies (and undoubtedly not the last), D.T. Max’s Every Love Story is a Ghost Story is a penetrating look at Wallace’s life and career. Working in collaboration with Wallace’s family and friends, and tapping into a host of letters with editors and writers (including frequent correspondence with Wallace’s idol, Don DeLillo), Max has written a detailed and well-researched investigation.

It’s inspiring to learn how Wallace developed his style and career, but it’s also quite painful to read about his addictive personality, his struggle with depression (which he eventually lost), and the ways in which he continually doubted his abilities. Be sure: this is not an uplifting and inspirational story; it’s a deep sea dive into a writer’s mind and a cautionary tale about what’s its truly like to live — and be trapped — inside your own head.

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by January 15, 2013 at 12:00 pm 0

From Zak M. Salih Email him at zak[AT]

Chances are if you’re a reader, the holidays have made you the proud owner of a bookstore gift card or excess gift cash just waiting to be spent on books. And you could just go out now and buy whatever’s currently on the shelves. Or you could take a look at some of the promising books slated for publication in the coming months.

There’s a lot, for sure. But these particular selections promise to be edgy, engaging, offbeat, insightful…you get the point. One unique and relatively short read for each month. That should be enough to make a few more months of cold seem like not such a bad idea at all.

Saudners_coverTenth of December

by George Saunders (out now):

There are two kinds of people in this world: those who love David Foster Wallace and those who don’t. Readers who belong to the former camp have probably heard of George Saunders, whose stories read like a calmer version of Wallace’s. This latest collection from Saunders features stories on everything from bizarre pharmacological experiments and child abduction to post-war trauma and the final moments of a cancer patient. Uplifting stuff, no doubt. But with Saunders at the wheel, they’re sure to make for fascinating journeys.

Russell_coverVampires in the Lemon Grove

by Karen Russell (February 12):

Fresh off her debut novel, Swamplandia! (one of three finalists for the 2012 Pulitzer Prize that failed to crown a winner), Karen Russell returns with her second collection of humid southern gothic tales that combine great storytelling with imaginative new takes on night-bumping things. Human silkworms, savaged scarecrows, magical tattoos, lovey-dovey bloodsuckers in the titular story’s lemon grove; Halloween’s coming pretty early this year.

Carson_coverRed Doc <

by Anne Carson (March 5):

If you haven’t read Autobiography of Red, the poet Anne Carson’s intriguing mythological reimagining of the classical Greek monster, Geryon (who in Carson’s modernization falls in tempestuous love with that other Greek hero, Hercules), then do it. It’s a fascinating work of poetry and a necessary read for this sequel work — an experimental piece that continues Geryon’s adventures.

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by December 18, 2012 at 3:00 pm 1,325 0

From Zak M. Salih Email him at zak[AT]


Books: Always a perfect gift. (Luis Gomez Photos)

Let’s face it: Unless you’re some kind of genius with a background in organizational change management, you’re probably still not finished with your holiday shopping. But that’s okay — because no gift is as easy to find during a last-minute rush and as thoughtful and personal as a book.

But why shop and buy books online when you can still enjoy the sensory experience of wandering through an actual bookstore, combing the shelves, flipping through pages, finding hidden treasures, supporting local businesses? What better way to keep the hope alive that there’s still a place in the world for three-dimensional marketplaces for words?

Whether you’re looking for a copy of the latest award-winning bestseller, a paperback from a scholarly small press or even a dusty antique, you’ve got some options in and around our neighborhood.

Kramerbooks and Afterwords Cafe

Dupont Circle’s iconic independent bookstore, in business since 1976, has pretty much any type of book you’re looking for. Check out the table of paperback fiction right as you walk in for popular gift ideas for almost any reader.

  • ADDRESS: 1517 Connecticut Avenue NW
  • HOURS: 7:30 am to 1:30 am, Monday to Friday/open 24 hours Saturday and Sunday.
  • PHONE: 202-387-1400

As the name suggests, they’re a specialist in vinyl records. But they’ve also got a snazzy collection of specialty books ranging from the alternative to the obscure in subjects including fiction, art, photography and (naturally) music.

ADDRESS: 1901 18th Street NW
HOURS: Noon to 7 pm, Monday to Saturday. Noon to 5 pm, Sunday.
PHONE: 202-986-2718

Busbboys and Poets 

It features a small bookshop that most of us wander through while waiting for our table. But take some time to actually shop and you’ll find great gift books on culture, politics, philosophy, activism and other topics that are good for the mind — and the world.

  • ADDRESS: 2021 14th Street NW
  • HOURS: 8:00 am to midnight, Monday to Thursday. 8 am to 2 am, Friday. 9 am to 2 am, Saturday. 9 am to midnight, Sunday.
  • PHONE: 202-387-7638


It’s a chain, yes. But if you’re on the hunt for something popular and you’re willing to shrug off the stigma of not shopping local, this bookstore is reliable for popular books that will probably satisfy someone with whose reading habits you’re unfamiliar.

  • ADDRESS: 11 Dupont Circle NW
  • HOURS: 9 am to 10 pm, Monday to Thursday. 8 am to midnight, Friday to Saturday. 9 am to 9 pm, Sunday.
  • PHONE: 202-319-1374

Second Story Books

Like any great used bookstore, this is the kind of place you should explore when you have no idea what to get someone (and, hopefully, nowhere to be in the next several hours). Chances are, as you comb through their packed shelves of used and rare books, you’ll find a treasure worth giving. And keeping.

  • ADDRESS: 2000 P Street NW
  • HOURS: 10 am to 10 pm.
  • PHONE: 202-659-8884

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by December 4, 2012 at 11:00 am 1,754 0

From Zak M. Salih Email him at zak[AT]

"McEwan"If there’s a rule book for professional spies, one of the first rules has to be “never fall in love with your mark.” Seems fairly obvious, no? Unfortunately, it’s a rule that junior MI5 operative Serena Frome instantly breaks. And the hard lessons she learns make up the bulk of Sweet Tooth, Ian McEwan’s surprisingly hopeful new novel about cultural espionage in 1970s London, when the Cold War was in one of its many endless lulls.

Serena, a reluctant student of mathematics with a passion for books, enters the world of England’s famed spy organization with the help of a lover (who may or may not be a double agent — one of the many obligatory twists and turns in any spy novel). Once there, she’s assigned to a project code named “Sweet Tooth,” the goal of which is to fund the work of artists who will hopefully churn out pro-democracy, anti-communist work to capture the hearts and minds of the people.

Her mark: a budding writer named Tom Haley, who bears some fairly obvious autobiographical and literary connections with McEwan himself (including a penchant for morbid stories involving obsessive lovers and violent mannequin sex). There’s an instant connection, and in a matter of pages the two are sleeping together, Tom’s writing his first novel (which goes on to win a major literary award), and Serena’s feeling the guilt of stringing her lover along in the interest of national security.

The heart of Sweet Tooth, oddly enough, is the novel’s final chapter, which casts a blinding new light on everything we’ve read before. If you haven’t been paying attention to the novel’s subtle agenda, it hits you like a sucker punch. Whether or not you find the ending a cop-out, a tacky use of postmodern trickery or a brilliant example of narrative manipulation depends, in a sense, on whose reading habits you identify with: Serena’s love of straightforward novels about marriage or Tom’s devotion to darker, more manipulative tales.

What was originally a novel about spying eventually transforms into a novel about something equally secretive: the act of writing. McEwan pulled a similar stunt at the end of his masterful novel, Atonement; it worked better there. But while Sweet Tooth certainly has its share of deception and emotional manipulation, the novel is tenderer than anything McEwan’s written before.

In its own strange way, Sweet Tooth is the author’s first novel with a truly happy ending. And for that alone, it’s worth reading.

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by November 6, 2012 at 10:00 am 1,399 0

From Zak M. Salih Email him at zak[AT]

"Chabon"Some writers have a style so alive that they make writing seem like the easiest, most enjoyable profession in the world. It’s a false impression, to be sure; nevertheless, these authors help keep alive the idea that reading books remains a valuable (and vibrant) form of entertainment.

Michael Chabon–best known for his dazzling magnum opus about the golden age of comic books, “The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay”–definitely falls into this hallowed pantheon. His fiction, even when it’s not particularly memorable (case in point: the serialized novel “The Gentlemen of the Road”), bursts with a shameless joy of telling a good story.

Chabon’s latest novel, “Telegraph Avenue,” is both. It’s written with lengthy sentences packed with clauses and sub clauses — so yes, you actually have to pay attention while reading. But by giving yourself over to this (I shudder to use the description) “traditional” style of writing, you’ll come across breathtaking passages and pages that pulse with life.

Adapted from a failed plan for a Chabon-created television show, the novel concerns the possible last days of a used record store in Oakland, California in 2004. Brokeland Records, managed by longtime friends Archie Stallings and Nat Jaffe, is under threat of extinction due to the impending construction of a massive megastore spearheaded by a former NFL wunderkind named Gibson Goode (whom Chabon deliciously paints as a smooth-talking “villain” straight out of a Bond story, complete with his own zeppelin).

At the same time, their respective spouses, Gwen and Aviva, find their midwifery practice under attack after a troubled birth leads to the possibility of a lawsuit. The third pairing involves Nat’s gay son, Julie (from Julius) and his adventures in adolescence with Titus who, get this, is actually Archie’s long-lost son.

The drama comes from the way these characters collide with one another; a drama rooted in the dilemma of urban development, the comforting stasis of nostalgia, race relations between black and white, and the environs of Oakland and Berkeley. Chabon paints the area as a whirlwind of races, ethnicities, tastes and lifestyles–the American melting pot in action. Then there are the heavy pop cultural references; so heavy at times that they threaten to bury the story. “Telegraph Avenue” is a veritable grab bag of cultural homages, hat tips, high fives and winks to everything from 70s funk and blaxsploitation films to Bruce Lee, “Star Wars”, and Quentin Tarantino.

It may come with a conclusion that feels rushed compared to the sprawl of the rest of the novel (numerous loose ends are simply tied up through dialogue) and a cringe-worthy cameo by then-senatorial candidate Barack Obama (a minor gripe, to be sure).

But one thing is for sure: “Telegraph Avenue” is damn fun to read.

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by October 23, 2012 at 2:00 pm 1,501 0

From Zak M. Salih Email him at zak[AT]


This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz.

The nine stories in Junot Diaz’s new collection, This Is How You Lose Her, are compulsively readable. Which is probably not surprising considering the main character in most of them is a compulsive cheater whose casual attitude toward sex with women is frequently at odds with those of his more monogamy-minded girlfriends.

“I’m not a bad guy,” Yunior, our Dominican Don Juan, intones in the opening lines of the first story. If the name sounds familiar, it’s because is it. Yunior was a character in Diaz’s first novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao–an equally fast-paced, pop-culture infused portrait of Dominican-American life that you should probably pick up now if you haven’t read it. In these stories, Yunior now takes center stage, recounting his adventures and misadventures in love (as well as his family life) and often employing the second-person perspective to literally put you in his shoes.

It’s this particular style, packed with Dominican slang and comic book references, that takes your standard boy-meets-girl-boy-loses-girl narrative and transforms it into something fresh. Stories like “The Sun, the Moon, the Stars” (in which Yunior uses a beach trip as a last-ditch effort to save a relationship), the brief “Alma” (named after the girl who dumps the cheating Yunior with a string of foul language), and “Miss Lora” (detailing Yunior’s fling with an older neighbor) are three powerful examples of Diaz’s masterful tone and dialogue at work.

But if you only had to pick two stories to read before flipping on to something else (the only drawback to short story collections being the ease with which they can be put aside–and sometimes forgotten), they should be “The Pura Principle” and the collection’s final story, “The Cheater’s Guide to Love.” In the former, the focus is on Yunior’s brother, Rafa, who’s dying of cancer and throwing himself into a quick marriage with a woman despised by his mother. The later is a year-by-year account of Yunior’s life after the most cataclysmic breakup in all of these stories. It’s a painful and honest account:

You stop sleeping, and some night when you’re drunk and alone you have a wacky impulse to open the window of your fifth-floor apartment and leap down to the street. If it wasn’t for a couple of things you probably would have done it, too. But (a) you ain’t the killing-yourself type; (b) your boy Elvis keeps a strong eye on you–he’s over all the time, stands by the window as if he knows what you’re thinking. And (c) you have this ridiculous hope that maybe one day she will forgive you.

She doesn’t.

Is there any hope for Yunior? How do compulsive cheaters find some sort of absolution? There are no solid answers here. Yunior may not be a villain — but he’s certainly got his fair share of troubles. And the record of his messy love life makes for some great reading.

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by October 9, 2012 at 11:00 am 1,536 0

From Zak M. Salih. Email him at zak[AT]

"Hitchens"In October 2010, Christopher Hitchens first became physically aware of the esophageal cancer from which he would die a little over a year later. Suffering from severe chest pains the morning before another day on the tour circuit for his memoir, Hitch-22, Hitchens was attended to by emergency paramedics. Writing about the episode in retrospect, he described the moment as “a very gentle and firm deportation, taking me from the country of the well across the stark frontier that marks off the land of malady.”

His time in this terrible terrain (“Tumortown” as he calls it) is captured in Mortality, the journalist and public intellectual’s posthumous collection of Vanity Fair pieces detailing his “year of living dyingly.” Here, we get Hitchens on everything from how to talk to cancer patients (he recounts a cringe-worthy conversation at a book signing between him and a “sympathizer”) and dealing with prayer and alternative medicine (both, unsurprisingly, he views as bunk) to enduring chemotherapy treatments and finding support in two of the things that matter to him most: friendships and literature.

These essays don’t shy away from the author’s emotional highs and lows (despite his clear headedness, Hitchens is forthcoming about suffering the same bouts of melancholy one would expect of anyone diagnosed with terminal cancer). Yet even as a premature death seems more and more likely, Hitchens never backs down from the hard opinions and sometimes unsavory views that made him beloved of his readers and feared by his critics. For example, he describes Randy Pausch’s “The Last Lecture” (an uplifting talk the dying professor gave about following your dreams that turned into a viral video) as “so sugary that you may need an insulin shot to withstand it.”

Hitchens was someone for whom writing was, as he himself puts it, not just a living but a life itself. And more than anything else, it’s Hitchens’ voice that makes even the darkest of this collection’s essays worth reading and — perhaps surprising to some — actually inspiring in a way that feels genuine. There’s no softening or sugar coating of the fear of death here. It’s just treated as something that happens. As Hitchens writes at one point, “I don’t have a body, I am a body.”

But he’s also his words as well. And those words, as captured in Mortality (to say nothing of his tract on atheism, god is not Great, or his massive collection of essays, Arguably), are definitely ones worth reading and pondering.

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by September 25, 2012 at 4:30 pm 1,474 0

From Zak M. Salih Email him at zak[AT]

Almost as an afterthought to the 2012 Olympic Games in London come two new novels by a pair of prominent British writers committed to revealing the messy modern city hidden behind postcard images of the Thames, Tower Bridge, and Big Ben.

Zadie Smith’s NW

"London"The more optimistic of these two fictional exposés belongs to Zadie Smith. NW (named for the geographical section of London where the novel is set) gives us a picture of a down-and-out London neighborhood through the eyes of two childhood friends: Leah Hanwell and Keisha Blake.

The former, a Caucasian of Irish descent married to a devoted French Algerian hairdresser, spends her days in existential stasis working a menial community job and bumming pot off her neighbor. The latter, a black Caribbean who changes her name midway through the novel to Natalie, has pulled herself up through the educational system to become a lawyer and achieve the veritable “perfect life” of which her best friend is so envious.

In short, we have a story of the Haves and the Have Nots, each of whom thinks the other is living the more fulfilled (read: less boring) life. It’s a simple story told in a complicated manner: fragmented chapters, stream of consciousness prose and chat room slang. There’s a lengthy episode devoted to Felix, a Jamaican man from a troubled background whose attempt to change his life is shattered by a late-night confrontation; there’s also the occasional appearance by Leah’s childhood crush, Nathan Bogle, a drug addict and symbol of the bottom rung of the socio-cultural ladder.

As chaotic as the storytelling can get at times (after all, one reader’s experimental prose is another reader’s head-scratching mess), the beating heart of NW is the complicated friendship between these two women; the middle section of the novel, told in the aforementioned fragments, is a masterful, impressionist rendering of the two women’s lives from childhood up through college and on to adulthood and all its attendant problems. And the novel’s deft dialogue and its sharp eye for the cultural mélange of modern life, hallmarks of Smith’s prose, are frequently on display here.

One only wishes that, for all its engagement, NW left us with something a little more spectacular or memorable. Instead, Smith’s vision of London as a beautiful, complex mess of ethnicities and intentions — while certainly worth looking it — doesn’t leave us shaken or challenged. Instead, it just feels like any other day in a 21st-Century city.

Martin Amis’ Lionel Asbo: State of England

The dog-kicking, stomach-stabbing reprobates who flit in and out of NW take center stage in Martin AmisLionel Asbo: State of England, the story of one cultural degenerate’s rise to the top of the social heap. And subsequent fall back to the bottom.

"London"Taking his surname from the legal acronym for Anti-Social Behaviour Order, Lionel is a larger-than-life sociopath who spends his days and nights training his attack dogs (by feeding them beer and Tabasco sauce), reading the sleazy rag of a local newspaper, getting in bar fights, stealing property, and possibly even committing murder. He spends so much time in jail that it’s just a diversion for him. It’s during one of these excursions in the British penal system that he winds up winning almost 140 million pounds in the lottery.

What happens then? Lionel skyrockets to fame. He moves out of his tenement tower (where he lives with his ward and nephew, Desmond Pepperdine), lives the high life along with other wasted celebrities (one exceptional episode involves Lionel struggling his way through a fancy lobster dinner), and falls in “love” with the performance artist and poet “Threnody.” Meanwhile, his nephew slowly emerges from under his uncle’s monstrous shadow and builds a career as a journalist and a life with his wife, Dawn, and their infant daughter, Cilla.

Lionel Asbo is a Martin Amis novel, so over-the-top events (including a sub-plot involving Desmond’s incestuous relationship with his grandmother) and bold characterizations are par for the course. It’s a fun and amusing read, even though its views on celebrity culture and the media’s obsession with fame and crime aren’t anything new. Perhaps what’s most surprising is that, despise the forcefulness of the novel’s subtitle, it’s a bit wrong. The media’s rabid obsession with deviant behavior and Warhol’s proverbial 15 minutes of fame–these aren’t just England’s problems. They’re the modern West’s problems.

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by August 28, 2012 at 2:00 pm 1,276 0

From Zak M. Salih Email him at zak[AT]

Fall seems to be the Oscar season of literature: a season packed with books by big-name authors commonly associated with the best that modern writing has to offer. And 2012 is no different. There’s a lot to choose from, folks. And this is only a small sampling of what’ll be hitting bookshelves in September, October, and November.

Whatever you hope to read, plan accordingly, fellow bookworms. It’s going to be a busy season.


“NW” by Zadie Smith (September 4)
Smith’s first novel in years is another multifaceted and multicultural look at contemporary London – this time through the eyes of four residents of an urban corner of the city.

“Telegraph Avenue” by Michael Chabon (September 11)
Chabon foregoes comic book heroes for a more down-to-earth look at the struggles of a fictional used record story in the author’s stomping grounds of Berkeley and Oakland, CA.

“This is How You Lose Her” by Junot Diaz (September 11)
The second short story collection by the author of “The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao” promises touching and haunting stories about the problems of love and romance.

“Joseph Anton: A Memoir” by Salman Rushdie (September 18)
This highly anticipated memoir covers the popular author’s years in hiding during the infamous Iranian fatwa on his life between 1989 and 1999 (the title comes from one of the author’s aliases). (Cover Courtesy of Random House, Inc.)

“The Casual Vacancy” by J.K. Rowling (September 27)
J.K. Rowling’s first post-Harry Potter novel focuses on one of the least magical subjects of all: political battles between the citizens of a small English town.


“The Twelve” by Justin Cronin (October 16)
The second in a trilogy set in a post-apocalyptic world overrun by bloodsucking monsters, “The Twelve” finds a band of survivors tracking down twelve specific “virals” whose death could save humanity. (Cover Courtesy of Random House, Inc.)

“Waiting for the Barbarians: Essays from the Classics to Pop Culture” by Daniel Mendelsohn (October 16)
This latest collection of essays by classicist and cultural critic Daniel Mendelsohn features insightful commentary on Greek poetry, Broadway musicals, blockbuster films, and even “Mad Men.”

“The Fifty Year Sword” by Mark Z. Danielewski (October 16)
Expect postmodern wizardry, typographical experimentation, and head-scratching befuddlement from Danielewki’s horror story about a woman’s 50th birthday party.

“Back to Blood” by Tom Wolfe (October 23)
Having eviscerated college culture in “I Am Charlotte Simmons,” new journalist and social novelist Tom Wolfe is back with an equally expansive investigation of life at all levels of Miami society.


“Both Flesh and Not: Essays” by David Foster Wallace (November 6)
This posthumous collection brings us the novelist and essayist’s hyperanalytical thoughts on everything from “Terminator 2: Judgment Day” to tennis phenom Roger Federer.

“Dear Life” by Alice Munro (November 13)
A new collection of Alice Munro’s short stories – always quiet, meditative, and heartfelt, and restorative – may be just the thing to curl up to as the weather gets chillier.

“Sweet Tooth” by Ian McEwan (November 13)
McEwan’s latest novel is a Cold War thriller set in 1970s England that blends the holy trinity of an interesting read: sex, espionage–and literature. (Cover Courtesy of Random House, Inc.)

“Woes of the True Policeman” by Roberto Bolaño (November 13)
The posthumous publications by the Chilean writer keep on coming; this one follows the wanderings of an academic from Bolaño’s grand epic, “2666” in a remote border town.

Still not sure which books are worth investing your hard-earned time and money? Look for reviews of many of them in the coming weeks. Any other books coming out in the next few months you think your fellow Borderstan neighbors should read? Let us know in the comments section below.

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