Xhenet Aliu’s Domesticated Wild Things, and Other Stories
It’s no secret that Xhenet Aliu is my best friend and I won’t pretend to be impartial. What’s indisputable, though, is that Xhenet’s debut novel BRASS (Random House 2018) was sold by her agent at auction —editors were clamoring at a chance to publish that book!
In anticipation for BRASS, I’ve decided to revisit Xhenet’s deadpan, gut wrenching, I-can’t-believe-I-just-laughed-at-that story collection Domesticated Wild Things, which won The University of Nebraska Prairie Schooner Prize for Fiction. For a reason.
My favorite story has always been “You Say Tomato.” In Domesticated Wild Things, flawed characters make perfect stories and the portraits Xhenet paints are so devastatingly real that they inspire both empathy and discomfort. Xhenet’s fiction hits close to to the bone and makes me yearn for home but grateful that I never have to go back. Funny. Heartbreaking.
This week, we are reading Bluets, a long-form lyrical essay by 2016 MacArthur Fellow Maggie Nelson. Composed in numbered fragments, Nelson’s cross-genre consideration of love, introspection, and intimate struggle is sparked and threaded by the color blue. Nelson discusses her relationship to the form in an interview with continent.
“[Bluets] seems to me hyper-aware of the fragment as fetish, as catastrophe, as leftover, as sample or citation, as memory, and so on. Many of the anecdotes in the book (such as about the decay of blue objects I’ve collected, or my memory of a particularly acute shade of blue, or the recountings of dreams) perform these concepts quite directly.”
And they do. Through histories both global, personal, and surreal, Nelson demonstrates the multifaceted nature of fragmented prose. Bluets is poetry, as it is a criticism, as it is a collection of little meditations on “the robustness of being a female human” that coordinate a complete work, which is nothing short of stunning.
A few years ago, Lookout Books — along with Co-founder and Publisher Emily Smith and Editor Beth Staples—served as my biggest inspiration to go back into the book business as an agent. The Lookout team made my passion for publishing seem tangible again and their enthusiasm for important writing is contagious. What Lookout is doing, offering “a haven for books that matter” is abundantly clear with every title they publish and their most recent outing matters a lot!
We Show What We Have Learned transcends pen-to-paper storytelling as Clare Beam’s characters start inhabiting the reader’s mind and soul. I felt everyday choices being pulled into question while reading this book and kept longing to inhabit the fantastical worlds that Beam creates. Not since Kelly Link have I by been so moved, troubled, and delighted by short stories.
One of the best parts of my job is meeting writers and discovering stellar books that never made it on to my radar. There are so many fantastic novels in the world and I’m very grateful to the James River Writers Conference for connecting me with James Scott and his debut The Kept.
Before I was an agent, I was a reader, a connector (in the Malcolm Gladwell vernacular), and an author groupie. I can’t pass up the chance to read a novel from a writer I just met, especially when that writer is gracious and doing what he can for other writers trying to navigate their careers. I met James Scott at a conference in Richmond, VA last weekend and he gives a great panel, passes along a strong message of perseverance to young writers, and looks great in a blazer.
The Kept has already interfered with bedtime, keeping me up reading well past a decent hour. Told from the points of views of two mysterious characters, a burdened and distant mother and son, trying to forge their way after being thrown together by unspeakable tragedy. The Kept is the kind of dark and literary fiction that is at the top of my wish list as an agent, reminiscent of Daniel Woodrell, A.M. Homes, and Charles Portis. I can’t wait to pick it back up.
While writing a pitch for a fantastic memoir we are getting ready to submit to some lucky editors (It’s about a very special vintage British motorcycle!) we were lucky enough to rediscover Matthew Crawford’s inimitable Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work.
Crawford’s philosophies still ring true and reading this book felt a bit hypocritical after spending long days in an office, especially the chapter titled “The Contradictions of the Cubicle.” But it was a good reminder of what lies beyond the halogen lamps and the power we all might possess in the strength of our hands.
What are we crazy? Of course we are reading Nathan Hill’s phenomenal debut The Nix! Though in the interest of full disclosure, we finished it last weekend and are just now getting around to posting about it.
The Nix has everything: 1980s nostalgia; right-wing political parody; a painfully accurate satire of contemporary book publishing (that one hurt, Nathan!); unrequited love; Norwegian legends; a video game crusader; and a mother/son relationship that rivals any Oedipal quirkiness found on the page. More than this, The Nix is un-put-downable. We tried! It can’t be done. Nathan had us by the throat, page after page after fantastic frickin’ page. I am Samuel Andresen Anderson and I’ve been nixed!
Read this book. Read it now.
We are reading (and loving!) City of Rivers, the first poetry collection from Ahmed, who was born and raised in Dhaka, Bangladesh before he immigrated to the United States with his parents and brother in 2005. Ahmed graduated from Stanford University with degrees in creative writing and mechanical engineering, and his poetry is both technical and sparse. The collection is one sweeping, forward motion, much like the rivers that appear every few poems, and Ahmed winds them through his personal history. In the poem “Ashulia.” he writes of his father:
He told me he found God
On the corner of his cigarette.
Twenty years later, his body floated
Through all two-hundred-fourteen rivers of Bangladesh.
City of Rivers was the recipient of the 2013 Northern California Book Award in Poetry. It was published as part of McSweeney’s Poetry Series in 2012.
We thought we knew enough about what it takes to get ahead and be happy in life, but Angela Duckworth blows our preconceived notions about talent, success, and trudging a path of happy destiny out of the water with Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance. We are buying this book for our nieces, nephews, interns, the college graduates in our lives, and basically everyone we know. Read it … NOW.
Thanks again to our friend Beth Staples for recommending People Who Eat Darkness, a true crime investigation novel that belongs on the shelf with In Cold Blood and Executioner’s Song. We couldn’t put this one down! An investigation into a missing British woman who moved to Tokyo and worked as a hostess in the infamous Rappongi District becomes a study of Japanese culture, law enforcement, crime, and a compare/contrast of humanity across cultures.
How could we not read a book by Noah Hawley, creator of FX’s FARGO, the best of the best current television series. Before the Fall didn’t quite live up to our very high expectations, but it was super fun and a fast and satisfying read.
Memorial Day Weekend found me in the pages of this un-put-down-able crime/horror novel by Andrew Pyper. The Killing Circle borders on the addictive.
I had the pleasure of meeting Nick Cutter recently at a writing conference in Windsor, Ontario. His presentation — helping young writers draw out their inner horror personas — was so passionate, I just had to to read one of his books. I chose The Troop and it scared me senseless.
When David Sedaris visited Wilmington, NC in April he urged the audience to read Ghettoside by Jill Levoy. So I did. You should, too!
My friend Beth is part of an all female book club and they chose The Ghost Network as their May 2016 title. I liked the idea of reading something a good friend was reading so I downloaded this one from iBooks. It took me about ten pages to become absolutely hooked. I loved this book because it was just plain fun.