For this month’s book reviews, we’ve included a fun little contest in which two winners can receive a year’s subscription to the print edition of TLR. See the challenge at the end of the first review.
The Big Rewind
William Morrow Paperbacks 2016
I usually don’t care much for writers who drop song titles or band names into their work, as though by doing so they shirk the responsibility of making a connection with their readers, relying on someone else’s creation to do the work that is the writer’s: He spent his evenings listening to Bryan Adams. As if this tells me anything.
But in Libby Cudmore’s debut novel The Big Rewind it’s not a cheap trick at all. Her characters’ lives are framed by the music they love, defined by it, and over the course of the novel the artists and titles and lyrics become—as they have with many twenty-somethings since the 1920s—anthems of the begrudging transition from iconoclast to respectability, and in this book as integral to the development of the story as the plot.
Cudmore’s writing has the verve to carry it off. Like a good song, her prose creates a mood, and here it’s an airy, upbeat, one-day-at-a-time approach, despite the fact that the neighbor down the hall has been bludgeoned to death, and the protagonist, Jett Bennett (a nod to Joan Jett, no doubt), was the one to find the body and is tasked with solving the mystery. No depressing monologues, no system of a down in these pages. Even most of the chapter titles are lyrics from popular tunes.
The plot, to be honest, is secondary to the music, and to the fun of remembering the songs and the groups, most of which are from the ’90s and ’00s. Rewind is a beach read kind of book, but it’s best to read it at home, where the urge to unearth those old CDs and mix tapes, and have another listen for old times’ sake won’t be delayed.
You too will like it. And if you don’t, well, don’t ask for your nickel back.
Special music nerd challenge: How many of the band names I snuck into this review can you find? Tweet your answer to @TahomaReview. First two people to get then all right get a free year’s subscription to the print version of TLR. (The literal names—Bryan Adams, Joan Jett—don’t count.) – JP
Coulrophobia and Fata Morgana
Black Lawrence Press 2016
An excellent writer with an excellent imagination and a wide-ranging curiosity—a rare combination in literary fiction these days, so overwhelmed is the genre with tedious yarns of bourgeois angst, and solipsistic personal validation. Here are stories about a woman who becomes a kosher butcher in New York City, a desert-bound census taker, a pair of guards at the U.S.-Canadian border in Vermont, and a family dealing with coulrophobia (fear of clowns) when a mime rents an apartment from them, among others.
The best of these tales, such as “The Butcher’s Music,” engenders the possibility that Appel seeks to carry the mantle of the great Jewish writers like Malamud, Bellow and Roth. It is not just the detail of Jewish life, but the spirit of it in which several of his stories dwell. But then there are stories about cultures and lives in Iceland, Scandinavia, the American hinterlands… Appel is far from bound by cultural shackles; like the great writers of decades past, he is comfortable enough in his own existence to seek other places, other lives. His quest for knowledge as a writer mirrors his passion for real-life intellectual pursuits, which include physician, bioethicist and licensed NYC tour guide. And he has the empathy necessary to immerse himself in those other realities, and relate them accurately.
There’s a touch of nostalgia in these stories too: some take place in the past, some only seem to through their references to celebrities and shows of a generation or more ago. Perhaps that’s fitting as they reflect a fictional aesthetic that some might say no longer applies to our fractured, self-indulgent society. But maybe it’s time to revisit that judgment. As Appel so subtly points out, there is much to appreciate beyond the confines of the self.
Not a Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu
Shade Mountain Press, 2016
We tread on dangerous ground here. It’s one thing to publish positive book reviews, as our series “TLR Recommends” implies, but clearly another when a reviewer takes on the book of a friend and colleague, as I’m doing here. But as difficult as reviews are to come by for writers, I’m going ahead, and will be as unbiased as possible.
And it’s not even that simple. YiShun and I disagree about writing far more than we agree. She dismisses many of my literary heroes, so it was with more than a touch of trepidation that I approached her book.
Which meant a great sense of relief when I started reading. Not a Self-Help Book adopts an exhilarating, almost manic pace from the start and never lets up. Marty Wu sells magazine ads in New York City while she simultaneously dodges the advances of ex-boyfriend coworkers, dreams of breaking away to start her own costume studio, and battles her Taiwanese mother over what it means to be a woman in America—a mother, by the way, who says things like, “Get inside. You’re so ugly today I can’t stand to think the neighbors might see.” Phew! Let’s just say that with all this going on Marty occasionally has trouble focusing, but that’s part of the fun of this book—Lai intersperses the action with Marty’s frequent second-guessing, the things she wants to say when she’s under stress but keeps to herself in the interest of career, friendship, and sanity (like most of us).
Which leads to the theme underlying this story, and yet another dispute I have with YiShun. In discussing her book over drinks after AWP, she mentioned that she wrote it as entertainment, no message or truth intended. We reviewers, of course, know that there’s always something under the surface, whether intentional or not, and here it’s Lai’s deft treatment of what one might call the American cultural conundrum—how to find acceptance as an individual while remaining true to one’s origins. The pressure to silo oneself for the convenience of others’ belief or self interest assaults Marty from all sides, and provides the force that drives this book so engagingly forward. Lai subtly makes the case that it’s what we do with our lives that matters, not what we look like, or how our names sound, or what the crowd or the ancestors say we should think. Marty will always be Taiwanese-American, but it will be on her terms.
 Well, nobody ever volunteered to review mine.
 Actually, she was telling me what was wrong with my latest book idea, but I managed to cleverly segue the discussion over to hers.
 I know what that’s like.
Scrap Metal Sky
Shape and Nature Press
What would happen if a novelist pondered every sentence as though it lived in a poem, as though the weight of every word could alter the meaning of the entire book? The answer, I believe, is Scrap Metal Sky.
Brumett fills this slim volume with exquisite imagery, yet without pretentiousness. She employs a language of invention, in which nouns become verbs and verbs become crystals of meaning; a language of empathy and irony: “Life was oneness, just the two of them.” It’s a language that is more than good enough to carry what is, at heart, a sentimental premise: big bear of a man Lux, he of the face like a duffel bag, has lost his beloved wife, Calista, to a drug overdose. He lives in a junkyard and cares for daughter Sadie, a girl as fragile as a shorebird, but as tough as the scrap metal among which they dwell. But he’s not the most conscientious of dads, and risks losing the girl to authorities.
Cody County serves as home to a cast of characters as miserable as any one might find in literature: drunks and strippers and barmaids and criminals and more drunks, people who’ve lost spouses and children, who inhale hopelessness with every breath and grasp at depravity as though it were opportunity. It’s a place littered with nostalgia even while aware of its failures: “A town with paper snowflakes still taped to school walls. A predictable town, with lawn gnomes, pedophiles, leaf piles. Heartaches and door wreaths, toothaches and potlucks.” Its residents seem to understand that they’re the losers in life’s competition, but only because they care too much for someone else. For Lux (his name is Latin for light), it’s a realization that comes slowly, a dawn breaking through clouds of guilt, and forcing him to reconsider his decisions about Sadie.
Read this book for its language; you’ll wind up staying for the story as well.