A Book of Uncommon Prayer

Reading Log favorite Matthew Vollmer edited this particular anthology, an artifact that began as a personal writing project and expanded to include the work of many writers. Everything in here is a variant of a prayer, specifically, an uncommon one, a prayer for people watching airline safety demonstrations, for people seeing their new home in the harsh light of objectivity, for people who bought Brazilian waxes on Groupon. Some of these prayers are very funny, some of them reveal an upsetting reality, some of them are simply thoughtful or meditative.

As will be the case with any anthology, some of these pieces didn’t do much for me, but the vast majority ranged between decent and excellent. Verbalizations are often an indicator of how deeply I am engaging with a book, and there were both audible laughings and muttered “fucks”. There were at least a dozen or so prayers in here that really stuck -not a bad ratio at all.

The rather novel conceit of this collection seems to have forced writers to either adapt existing work or to stretch themselves into a slightly different form, and with generally excellent results. I would recommend reading this collection over a week or two at minimum, rather than blasting through. The format holds up best when you aren’t subjecting it to a binge.
Recommendation: Buy it, read it. Very solid and diverse collection that does something different without trying too desperately to be different.



Next Door Lived a Girl

First off, this is an extremely graphic book. There is sexual abuse and violence directed at children, and it is dark and extremely graphic. If you are sensitive to that kind of thing, you should probably take a pass on this book. Even if you are not, you will probably need to sit with your thoughts for a minute, or spend some time watching kitten videos on the internet, or whatever your personal response to distressing literary stimulus is.

Next Door Lived a Girl follows a few months in the life of Moritz, a pre-adolescent boy in a rural German town. The narrative is dominated by the intersection of sex and violence. Moritz is the target of sometimes humiliating sexual advances by older women, including his sister and his mother. His play with his fellow 6th-grade friends is often sexual, as is their rivalry with another gang of slightly older boys. And when the violence kicks up, it too is highly sexualized, either inherently or as an expression of sexual domination. The fact that these are all children at the center of the action, and the discovery of a feral and mentally disabled girl the boy’s age, make all this far more disturbing.

Stefan Kiesbye’s prose is recognizably German -terse and bleak descriptions that remind me of the sentences of Herta Muller, albeit far less figurative. The writing is brutally direct, brutally literal, giving the reader no comfort in the ambiguity of poetic expression. When something horrible is happening, there is no doubt as to the specificity of it. The sentences are short and expository, almost a linguistic revolt against the expansive compounding of the German language, and the close third-person narration provides free indirect characterization of Moritz that reminds you, again and again, that these are children doing these things, having these things done to them.

Recommendation: Read it, but, you, know. Trigger warning. This is very good, but this is some pretty dark shit.

Relatability, Misery Porn, and Denis Johnson’s “The Laughing Monsters”


Denis Johnson’s latest novel is dark. This is not uncharted territory for the man, but the bleakness here is obliterating. There is a detached and passive depression in the narration, the first-person perspective of an utterly unsympathetic intelligence operative (Roland Nair) who has come back to Africa for selfish reasons that seem rather nebulous -possibly even to the narrator himself. As events unfold in front of him, his perspective casts everything in a dull gray haze, a distant and removed malaise that evokes both a miserable sense of place and Nair’s own clear depression. The secondary characters are vivid and compelling, clearly existing in a space apart from our narrator, motives as incorporeal and obscured as his own, at least to him.

None of this is a complaint. I loved this book, as I have loved almost everything Johnson has written. As I have said, I’m less than patient with our current pop-literary obsession with relatability. If the only characters people want to read are reflections of themselves, one of the most compelling arguments for the existence of literature itself is defeated. A protagonist who is “good” in the sense of being an interesting and engaging character is often not morally good. These places where characters breaks from societal norms and conventions within their own minds create some of the most vivid and powerful experiences in fiction. When these breaks are exacerbated by some kind of internal mental division, (Hamlet’s uncertainty, Humbert Humbert’s delusions, or Nair’s passive depression) this dramatic importance is given complexity and nuance.

The flip side of the hyper-relatable equation is the descent into a wallowing in abject misery. I’m reminded of Herta Mueller’s, “Nadirs” a wonderfully written book that is just overwhelmingly and unredeemably black (in the most spiritual sense of the world). Without something else in the mix, this kind of bleakness can dissolve into simple misery porn, an unabashed writhing in the most comically unhappy nonsense a reader can imagine. “Nadirs” redeems itself through its captivating, almost prose-poem lyricism. “The Laughing Monsters” redeems itself with a slickly paced narrative every bit the equal of the best spy/military novels (Johnson is ever the literary chameleon) and an unforgettable handful of beatifully broken people, behaving badly.

Sam Lipsyte’s “The Ask” and the problem with ironic distance

Sam Lipsyte’s novel The Ask is very funny. It’s also sufficiently dark and morbid. And it lacks something that I can’t seem to define, so I don’t think it’s really fair for me to bitch about it, on account of that inability to articulate fault, but I’m not going to let that stop me.

I think it has something to do with the ironic distance that the narrating protagonist, Milo Burke, puts between himself and his entire world. It’s a jaded cynicism that also keeps the reader at a distance from every moment of any kind of emotional heft. I’m not attacking Lipsyte’s ability to produce a powerful cringe of recognition in one of the comically unflattering iterations of Milo’s thoughts or deeds -there’s a gut-level connection borne of empathy and mutual embarrassment. This isn’t the exaggerated cringe humor of the office, but a painfully honest exhibition of the postmodern male’s most unflattering aspects. It’s a shame the extent to which these revelations descend into bathos.

I would absolutely be lying if I were to claim that I hadn’t enjoyed the damn book. But there’s some profound lack of satisfaction in the reading. I can’t fault the prose, and I can’t fault anything craft-related in the novel itself. Maybe the whole thing is just to self-aware. Maybe Milo knows his audience too well, and tells them what he knows they don’t want to hear -which is, of course, what they actually want to hear.

Recommendation: This is another tricky one. Give it a read if you get the chance, but don’t rush to put it at the top of your to-read pile, I guess.

The Ask
by Sam Lipsyte

Reading Log: ‘Barrelhouse 13: Comedy’ or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Ephemeral

I have a hard time with pop culture. Specifically, I have a hard time with intellectually rigorous examination of pop culture, because it always seems like too much thought is being given to far too weak a nexus. Shit starts to feel over-examined and nothing interesting comes of it. This complaint is at least partially horseshit, though, because some of the things I love most are deconstructions of pop culture (Watchmen, all my standup comic memoirs, all my rock-nerd books). Point is, I’m really sensitive about this kind of shit, and Barrelhouse asks everyone they interview what their favorite Patrick Swayze movie is.

My pretentious nervousness was clearly misplaced. Barrelhouse killed it. All the stories in here were great. The poetry was fantastic. It was a unique issue with a single editor, (not their usual editorial format) but from what I can gather by reading their website and the work published their, Issue 13 is nothing unusual. Great stuff.

I often find myself railing against pop culture artifacts within my own writing. I find them ephemeral and distracting, staking a story to a particular time and place without reason. This is probably borne out of the terribly narcissistic assumption that people will be reading my shit in 90 years and I don’t want to seem anachronistic, but… damn. Maybe it’s OK to mention a band name or the internet every now and then.

Recommendation: Buy it. From Barrelhouse. Support indie lit mags! Or we’ll get you when you fall asleep.


Reading Log: Herta Müller’s ‘Nadirs’ and the Value of Juxtaposition in Bleakness

This is a very well-written book. In a series of short stories that bookend a much longer novella, the author presents her oppressive life as a young girl in a German-speaking Polish town.  Müller evokes an undeniable sense of place ( and it’s not a nice place). The bleakness throughout -but especially in the title piece, Nadirs- gets overwhelming very quickly. I’m all for some powerful darkness, (witness my readings over the last year or so) but Müller’s work hear dips dangerously into the territory of misery-porn.

This kind of self-aggrandizing wallowing would be utterly damning if the prose itself weren’t redeeming -which it is. It’s not a book to read straight through, in spite of it’s short length. The misery, although powerfully denoted, is weakened to a great extent by its lack of juxtaposition. Everything is dying animals and rolls of sallow skin over fat. Without anything interesting to set them off, major sections of this book are set in a lifeless gray-scale, painfully flat.

Not that Müller never breaks out of the monochromatic- there are passages in here that are absolutely hilarious (I don’t really buy the idea that German humor is underdeveloped -if anything, it’s more understated). There are glimmers of light, but the reader does well to remember the title of the work. Niederungen can be translated most literally as “lowlands”, but the use of plural form of the superlative “nadir” communicates a much more deliberate intensity. Translation is not something that someone of my limited linguistic skills can even really comprehend, but -near as I can figure- that’s a damn good title.

Recommendation: While I won’t recommend it unreservedly, it’s still a very good read. It’s failings might keep it from transcendence, but the arrangement of words on the page is still an excellent arrangement of words on the page. Push through the titular story.

by Herta Muller

Reading Log: Sonny Liston was a Friend of Mine


Well, now I’m all out of Thom Jones books. Sonny Liston was a Friend of Mine is the last of Jones’s three published works. He’s got a couple loose stories floating around that I intend to track down, but as far as traditionally published books go, I am now a Thom Jones completist, which makes me more than a little sad.

Sonny Liston is certainly on par with his debut, The Pugilist at Rest. Oddly, the titular story Sonny Liston was a Friend of Mine is far and away the weakest and most disappointing story in the lot, falling back on heavily-treed banalities in spite of it’s sporadic brilliance. The collection improves mightily right after, return to familiar Jones characters from The Pugilist. We’re back in the world of Vietnam, boxing and frontal lobe epilepsy, sometimes with new characters, sometimes with old. The stories are sometimes hilarious but never stray far from brutality.

Jones’s three story collections are a vast trilogy of short fiction, each sharing characters and themes while still retaining a smaller, individual vision. I plan on rereading all three books and diagraming out the interconnecting stories, drawing solid lines that connect the disparate narratives sharing characters, dotted ones for those connections that; however likely, remain uncertain due to the unreliability of a narrator or the form of that particular narrative. Read these books. The “traditional” form of the short story gets short shrift, but the kind of interweaving storytelling Jones accomplishes in these three books would be impossible in any other medium.

Recommendation: Buy them all, read in the order of publication.

Cold snap :stories
by Thom Jones