Books Received (August-September)

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Featuring: Ned Beauman, Peter V. Brett, C. Robert Cargill, Nelson DeMille, Ian Doescher, Piu Eatwell, Tom Fletcher, Vince Flynn, A.L. Gaylin, Matt Goldman, Beth Gutcheon, Joe Hill, Walter Isaacson, Holly Goddard Jones, John le Carré, Christine Mangan, Jillian Medoff, Claire Messud, Sam J. Miller, Kyle Mills, Thomas Pierce, Tom Rachman, Joshua Reynolds, Adam Roberts, Richard Russo, Lionel Shriver, Robin Sloan, Lisa Tuttle, Robert Webb, Nick Clark Windo, Anna Yen

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Quick Review: TRAJECTORY by Richard Russo (Knopf)

russor-trajectoryusA new anthology from the Pultizer Prize-winning author

Russo’s characters in these four expansive stories bear little similarity to the blue-collar citizens we’re familiar with from many of his novels. In “Horseman,” a professor confronts a young plagiarist as well as her own weaknesses as the Thanksgiving holiday looms closer and closer: “And after that, who knew?” In “Intervention,” a realtor facing an ominous medical prognosis finds himself in his father’s shadow while he presses forward – or not. In “Voice,” a semiretired academic is conned by his increasingly estranged brother into coming along on a group tour of the Venice Biennale, fleeing a mortifying incident with a traumatized student back in Massachusetts but encountering further complications in the maze of Venice. And in “Milton and Marcus,” a lapsed novelist struggles with his wife’s illness and tries to rekindle his screenwriting career, only to be stymied by the pratfalls of that trade when he’s called to an aging, iconic star’s mountaintop retreat in Wyoming.

I’m a relatively recent convert to Russo fandom. I read the author’s campus novel, Straight Man a few years ago, and started to collect all of his other novels. I finally got around to reading the Pulitzer-winning Empire Falls, which I very much admired. Ever since, I have been eager to read more of his work. Trajectory collects four of Russo’s shorter fictions, and offers an excellent entry point in to his fiction. I very much enjoyed this book. Continue reading

New Books (October-November)

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Featuring: Stefan Ahnhem, Ernesto Assante, Josiah Bancroft, Christopher Bollen, James Brogden, Adam Christopher, John Clarkson, Daniel Cole, E.L. Doctorow, Marc Elsberg, Carrie Fisher, Neil Gaiman, Laura Ann Gilman, Ryan Graudin, Adam Hamdy, Gregg Hurwitz, Dave Hutchinson, Gwyneth Jones, Caitlin R. Kiernan, Laura Lam, Michael Lewis, James Luceno, Josh Malerman, Seanan McGuire, Emma Newman, Chris Ould, James Patterson, Douglas Preston, Bryan Reesman, Matthew Reilly, J.P. Romney & Rebecca Romney, Richard Russo, Lento Salaperainen, Brett Savory, John Scalzi, Chris Smith, Jon Stewart, Hannah Tinti, Ian Tregillis, Thrity Umrigar, Matt Wallace, Weike Wang, Dan Wells, Ronald Wright

Above Artwork: Descender, Vol.02 (crop) by Dustin Nguyen (Image)

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New Books (Jan)

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A post-Christmas and New Year smorgasbord of awesome has come flooding in, these past couple of weeks. On top of that, there have been some I’ve bought myself (I got a lot of wonderful book vouchers and Amazon credit, this year…).

Featuring: Tim Akers, Robert Jackson Bennett, Rob Boffard, Terry Brooks, Lindsey Davis, Liz de Jager, Christopher Farnsworth, Matt Gallagher, Carol Goodman, Thomas Christopher Greene, Louisa Hall, Glen Erik Hamilton, Joanne Harris, Kristopher Jansma, Richard Kadrey, Mike Lawson, Tim Lebbon, Patrick Lee, Jill Lepore, Sean McFate & Bret Witter, China Miéville, Megan Miranda, Simon Morden, Anthony O’Neill, Adam O’Fallon Price, Camille Perri, Heidi Pitlor, Matthew Quirk, Richard Russo, Lawrence M. Schoen, A.F.E. Smith, Christopher Sorrentino, Gav Thorpe, Lavie Tidhar, Glen Weldon, Jonathan Wood Continue reading

“Nate in Venice” by Richard Russo (Kindle Single)

RussoR-NateInVeniceA short story from Pulitzer-prize winning author of Empire Falls

After a tragic incident with a student, Nate, a professor at a small New England college, retires from teaching and from life. He ends his self-imposed exile with a tour-group trip to Venice in the company of his overbearing, mostly estranged brother. Nate is unsure he’s equipped for the challenges of human contact, especially the fraternal kind. He tries to play along, keep up, mixing his antidepressants with expensive Chianti, but while navigating the labyrinthine streets of the ancient, sinking city, the past greets him around every corner, even in his dreams: There’s the stricken face of the young woman whose life he may have ruined, and there’s Julian, the older brother who has always derided and discounted him. Is Nate sunk? Is the trip, the chance to fall in love — in fact, his whole existence — merely water under the ponte?

This is only the second thing by Russo that I’ve read. I recently also read (and thoroughly enjoyed) Straight Man, which I hope to review at some point in the near future. I have also acquired his Pulitzer-prize-winning Empire Falls, which is very high on my TBR mountain. When this popped up on Amazon UK’s Kindle Singles page, I thought it would be a great, quick read to fill in a gap between full-length novels. I was not wrong.

The story follows Nate, who has come on this trip with his estranged brother. He is getting on in years, and has fled a strange event related to a student back home. As he tries to figure out why his brother is giving him such a hard time, while also considering his fellow travellers, we get to know what happened to him back home. As it turns out, it’s probably not what you were thinking. I thought it was a real good change from the norm, too. Interesting characters, a quick, engaging plot. What more can one want from a short story? This is, overall, a really well-written bit of fiction, very much focused on the characters.

What drew me to the story was not just because I enjoyed Russo’s novel – although, they do share some elements. I am really drawn to fiction set in or connected with universities. In this case, the protagonist is a professor, and as such the story contains some interesting (and familiar to me) commentary on universities and teaching. For no other reason than they interested me, and because I’ve experienced similar things as both a student and teaching assistant, here are a couple of examples.

First up, that somewhat depressing moment of marking the first round of essays for a class:

“… that first batch of essays was depressingly dismal. Their authors were not stupid — the lively classroom discussions had proved that much — but the writing they produced was breathtakingly incoherent. All their academic lives, they’d been cutting and pasting from the Internet — a phrase here, a sentence there—creating a pastiche of observations linked by little more than general subject matter. Individual sentences, lifted from their original context and plopped down in a foreign one, varied wildly in tone and style. Given a list of transitional phrases — but, rather, on the other hand, while, hence — the essay’s alleged authors would’ve been helpless to choose the one that correctly expressed the relationship between juxtaposed assertions, had such a relationship by chance occurred. Whole paragraphs were maddeningly free of both mistakes and meaning.”

The awkwardness of essay hand-back sessions, when hitherto spoon-fed and pampered students, not as brilliant as their parents have no doubt always told them, realise that completing the assignment is not enough to get an A…

“Handing back student essays, especially the first batch, was invariably an unpleasant duty, marking as it did the end of the academic honeymoon. Here they’d all been getting along so well, pretending to be the best of friends, and now this. A grade. Having briefly imagined that this class would be different, they now understood it wasn’t. Betrayed again.”

And the frustrating reality of students not realising that clarity is oh-so-very-important.

“… students, even the English majors, were content for their meaning to loiter in the shadows of their murky prose, as if clarity were a shared responsibility between writer and reader. His prose workshops flew in the face of their unshakable conviction that the essays they turned in were a private matter between them and him, sort of like therapy or confession.”

Anyway, back to the review. This is a short, well-written and well-constructed short story. Nate in Venice is a great introduction to Russo’s writing and style, and was a very enjoyable read. Very much recommended.