The Russian Debutante’s Handbook by Gary Shteyngart

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The Russian Debutante’s Handbook is an ambitious, over-indulgent, clever, and repetitive debut novel. Brimming with style and energy, Shteyngart grabs you with his comedic rambunctiousness right from the beginning. He has a gift for crafting fascinatingly eccentric characters, and equally outrageous scenarios to throw them in. But as the plot hijinks are continually kicked into overdrive the book starts to feel like a mature pre-teen who wants to feel adult but still can’t quite control their desperate-for-attention manic energy. This is a greedy gripe at a writer trying to do too much and doing it well most of the time.

Vladimir Girshkin is twenty-five-years old. He is working a low-paying job helping Eastern European immigrants gain American citizenship. He cares about his job about as much as he cares about his roommate/girlfriend Challah who works as a dominatrix and with whom he has punctual weekly sex. His only friend is Baobab, an enthusiastic loser and professional scammer. Vladimir is contentedly wasting his life much to the dismay of his business magnate mother who refers to him as her “Little Failure” and to the affectionate disinterest of his lazily successful doctor father. But this happy malaise is disrupted when Vladimir begins an affair with Francesca, a graduate student from a wealthy intellectual family.

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Nazi Literature in the Americas by Roberto Bolaño

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Taking nearly a year to read a new Roberto Bolaño is an unforgivable sin. Bolaño is the kind of writer who, once discovered, should be returned to every six months at the least. The cause of this shameful delay on my part is because for the past year I have been intending on reading his 900-page posthumously published finale, 2666. The past couple years I have been working hard to get better at reading more 500-plus-page books, but I definitely haven’t reached the point where I can pick up an 900-pager without months of deliberation. Last year I read Edith Grossman’s translation of Don Quixote (it’s amazing, read it), clocking in at a satisfying 1,000 pages. By the end of this year, my goal is to finally read 2666.

Diversion aside, while I didn’t read Bolaño’s magnum opus, I did read a book that nonetheless reveals his genius. Nazi Literature in the Americas is structured as an encyclopedia of writers who were either born or based in Latin America and North America, and, as the title implies, whose work and private life were politically and/or morally dubious. But as a master craftsman, Bolaño takes this idea and explores it with eloquent subtlety.

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The Answers by Catherine Lacey

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A lesser writer would have taken the concept behind The Answers and used its strangeness as a vehicle for quirk and comedy. But in Catherine Lacey’s hands, the story is explored with complete seriousness and a mournful melancholy that manages to make even the most exaggerated moments deeply touching.

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V. by Thomas Pynchon

Thomas Pynchon’s debut novel V. was published when he was twenty-six. V. is sprawling, overwhelmingly complex, and clocks in at a nimble 547 pages. I turned twenty-six this year, and what life’s work can I place next to Pynchon’s at the same age? Well, I’ve written a handful of messy and pretentious short stories, and many messy and pretentious book and film reviews, and only the latter was published by anyone other than myself, albeit on tiny websites. But enough with the existential crisis this is causing me, writing about this book will be challenging enough.

At twenty-six, Pynchon had a comprehensive knowledge of a staggering amount of historical and technical information, which he expressed through V., with some of the novel’s most significant examples being: the British intellectual and political communities in Egypt at the end of 19th century, espionage in Florence circa 1899, German expatriates in 1920s South Africa, the Herero wars, Malta in the midst of the Suez Crisis and under German bombardment in World War II, and, lastly, the bohemian scene of 1950s New York City (although Pynchon did see this first-hand).

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The Curfew by Jesse Ball

It’s crazy to realize that I read Jesse Ball’s debut novel Samedi the Deafness a year ago. I remember reading it and being infected by his style. Finished it in three days (only that long because I read it during the work week), and on finishing it immediately wanted to go and write my own novel in the same style, and read the rest of his work one after the other.

Neither of those things happened. Not even slightly. I wrote no novels, and a year later I only just now read my second book by him – his third, The Curfew. Why did this happen? All I can say is that life never fails to get in the way of plans. Over the course of the year it took me to finally crack another book of his, Jesse Ball has been on my mind frequently. Originally I was going to read his second novel, The Way Through Doors, then I was going to jump ahead and read the book that seems to be considered his masterpiece, A Cure For Suicide. I even bought a copy of two Paris Review issues featuring short fiction of his, which reminds me that I did read his story “Archon LLC,” which I remember being short, fascinating, and very Kafkaesque. I didn’t ever read  “The Early Deaths of Lubeck, Brennan, Harp & Carr” and I have no clue why not.

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