Matthew Shaer

  • culture September 07, 2011

    Busy Monsters by William Giraldi

    Charles Homar, the hero of William Giraldi’s novel, is a middling memoirist of minor acclaim and a columnist for a popular glossy magazine called New Nation Weekly. Four times a month, this esteemed periodical pays Homar to recount, in majestically baroque language, the various travails that God hath inflicted upon Charles Homar, which include a perpetually dyspeptic father and a stubborn squirrel infestation in his suburban New England home. New Nation Weekly, of course, is a fiction, as is the conceit that any publication would employ Homar to fill its pages. He’s a dolt, this guy, self-centered

  • culture April 14, 2011

    The Long Goodbye: A Memoir by Meghan O’Rourke

    In a new memoir about her mother's death, poet and critic Meghan O'Rourke notes that public expressions of grief have become a "taboo." One, it turns out, that she swiftly breaks by bravely throwing open the windows on her own grief.

    Near the beginning of The Long Goodbye, her bracing and beautiful memoir of grief, Meghan O’Rourke offers the reader a simple disclaimer: She is one of the lucky ones. She had a good relationship with her mother, who died at the age of 55, of metastatic colorectal cancer. She had time to prepare for the inevitable—to acquaint herself with the billowing depression and “profound ennui” that consumes every survivor. She said her goodbyes, and said them again. She and her mother eventually discovered a “new intimacy”—a fresh “openness”—borne of their shared sense “that time was passing.” Her mother

  • culture October 28, 2010

    Foreign Bodies by Cynthia Ozick

    Cynthia Ozick produces a "photographic negative" of Henry James's The Ambassadors.

    Foreign Bodies, the sixth novel by Cynthia Ozick, is being billed by the publisher as a “photographic negative” of The Ambassadors—“the plot is the same, the meaning is reversed.” Hardy is the soul who scans that description and does not feel a tingling at the base of his spine! For The Ambassadors is not just any Henry James novel, but the work—a towering, virtuosic portrait of turn-of-the-century Europe—that James himself considered his most-accomplished. Is there not something audacious in the suggestion that it could now, even a hundred-plus years later, be re-envisioned? And yet Ozick has

  • Orion You Came and You Took All My Marbles

    The tone of Orion You Came and You Took All My Marbles, the debut novel by Kira Henehan, announces itself on the title page—sonorous but disjointed, maybe a little overstuffed. Henehan’s heroine is Finley, a seasoned detective with yellow eyes and red hair cut “as straight as the edge of a page.” Finley has been assigned by her boss, a tall man named Binelli, to find Uppal, an aging professor and part-time puppet master. (Like Cher and Snooki, most of Henehan’s characters have only one name.) The nature of the assignment is never quite clear—nothing in Orion is—but Finley accepts anyway, and

  • culture February 19, 2010

    The Silver Hearted by David McConnell

    The Silver Hearted arrives emblazoned with a jacket blurb by Edmund White, who compares the book favorably to Heart of Darkness. This is true in at least one way: both novels are about a man on a boat. In McConnell’s case, the boat is a “side-wheeler” called the Myrrha, which has been hired by the nameless narrator to help ferry valuable cargo down a nameless river through a nameless country at war. Danger abounds. Snipers line the riverbed; frenzied mobs surge through the streets; storms rip across the surrounding rain forest.

    “In the flash of satanic lightning you could glimpse the glassy

  • The Dream of Perpetual Motion

    Midway through Dexter Palmer’s gorgeously surreal first novel, the author himself makes a cameo appearance, clad in a frayed houndstooth suit and a pair of spectacles. The occasion is an art opening, but the metafictional Palmer has little interest in what’s hanging on the walls; he’d prefer to talk—at excruciating, circuitous length—about his own work. “I mean, Christ,” one onlooker laments, watching Palmer drive patrons en masse toward the exits. “Artists and writers—let them kill each other off in cage matches; let God sort it out.”

    Like almost everything in The Dream of Perpetual Motion,

  • culture October 26, 2009

    Knut Hamsun: Dreamer and Dissenter by Ingar Sletten Kolloen and The Dark Side of Literary Brilliance by Monika Zagar, from the Los Angeles Times

    In his prime, author Knut Hamsun wrote beautifully, poetically, and savagely. And yet the author, personally and politically, was a monster. He berated his friends and cheated on his wives; he could be horrible to his children. Famously, he was a fascist. Less famously, he was a career racist, who allied himself early with the Nazis.

  • culture September 28, 2009

    Risk by Colin Harrison

    A man dies under mysterious circumstances. A second man is called in to solve the mystery. But the second man fails to heed the implicit warnings left by the first man and soon tumbles into the rabbit hole. He is in grave danger. He solves the crime. Stasis is returned; life, of a sort, goes on. These are the old bones on which Colin Harrison fills out Risk, his marvelously compact seventh novel.

    And yet Harrison has only a passing interest in pulp protocol. He seems to use it because it is sturdy and compelling, the same reason Jim Thompson used noir and Paul Auster used the detective novel.

  • The Informers

    Juan Gabriel Vásquez’s masterful first novel, The Informers, published five years ago in Spanish and now available in a lyric translation by Anne McLean, comprises a dozen narrative strands—some laced, some tangled—that describe the same forgotten tragedy. Between 1941 and 1945, the Colombian government, under pressure from American leaders, interned and economically “blacklisted” hundreds of emigrant Germans suspected of having ties to the Axis cause. At the time, Nazi sympathizers lived throughout Colombia and elsewhere in South America, but many Jews and German nationals had fled persecution

  • culture August 14, 2009

    The Magicians by Lev Grossman

    Lev Grossman’s third novel, The Magicians, pulls liberally from a grab bag of very familiar fantasy tropes: the troubled boy–turned–master conjurer; the school of wizardry, hidden by spellcraft in plain sight; the sinister presence that haunts the students’ nightmares; even a sport played, tournament-style, exclusively by young mages. As the book opens, seventeen-year-old Quentin Coldwater is preparing to leave his bucolic Brooklyn, New York, neighborhood for the greener lawns of the Ivy League. He has a small circle of friends, kind but distant parents, and a GPA “higher than most people even

  • culture August 03, 2009

    Floodmarkers by Nic Brown

    Nic Brown’s Floodmarkers is set in 1989, but in its fractured portrait of small-town American life, it feels considerably older—a Winesburg, Ohio run through with Gen-X slang. Like Sherwood Anderson, Brown is essentially a still-life artist; he eschews plot for portraiture, the linear for the lateral. “His instinct was to present everything together, as in a dream,” Malcolm Cowley once wrote of Anderson. So, too, with Brown, whose first novel scatters brilliantly in a dozen directions at once, without advancing a single day.

    Floodmarkers is set in Lystra, a fictional North Carolina burg caught

  • culture June 05, 2009

    Love Will Tear Us Apart by Sarah Rainone

    The characters in Sarah Rainone’s debut novel, Love Will Tear Us Apart, are cast from familiar molds: the masochistic boor, the aspirant fashion designer, the would-be musician, and the gullible hippie. As the book opens, these four twenty-somethings (none particularly likable) are preparing to gather at a mansion in the fictional burg of Galestown, Rhode Island. The occasion is the marriage of two mutual friends, Dan and Lea, who met in high school in the early ’90s and have spent the years since college pursuing successful careers.

    Naturally, the wedding turns out to be less a celebration