This week saw the release of the first major, large-scale biography on one of pop music’s biggest and most guarded stars: Beyoncé. The product of hundreds of hours of interviews from dozens of sources, J. Randy Taraborrelli’s Becoming Beyoncé aims to be the definitive chronicle on the creation of an icon. It also suggests that virtually everything Beyoncé has told the public checks out. You won’t find any credence given to pregnancy conspiracy theories or Illuminati affiliations. Beyoncé is portrayed as someone who was deeply secretive from the time she was a child (as one of her elementary school classmates attests), and a shrewd business woman who severs ties not out of vindictiveness but for the sake of her career. If you go into the book thinking Beyoncé is perfect, you will find your suspicions confirmed.
Like real women, fictional women are often seen as wish-fulfillment. The “strength” that we look for in a female protagonist is often there for sentimental purposes, and rarely resembles the iron, irradiated accountability that matters in real life, a type of strength that’s like the desert—unsparing and mercurial. Blessedly, this is the milieu of Claire Vaye Watkins, born in Death Valley, daughter of Charles Manson’s chief lieutenant. Her heart-stopping 2012 collection Battleborn opens with a character named Razor Blade Baby, the product of a Family orgy, born when Manson sliced her out. Another story, “Man-O-War,” features a hermit scavenger picking up unused fireworks on the 5th of July and finding, instead, a pregnant teenager, bruised and half dead of heatstroke; what pair could possibly be more feeble, you think at the beginning, and then by the end, you wonder who could ever be so strong.
Upon the publication of Lawrence Otis Graham’s Our Kind of People in 1999, the New York Times asked, “Is There a Black Upper Class?” On the surface, it was a foolhardy question—of course there was, and is, a black upper class—but if you were to peel back its exterior, as Graham did in his book, underneath revealed a world of race leaders: men and women and children who were in a constant “state of self-enhancement.” Here was a place, a land, very few Americans knew about.
I blew through the last quarter of Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies in the wee hours, gasping. Surprise is rare in literary fiction, which is snobbish with its pleasures, generally picking meditation over movement; surprise is even rarer in novels that run on language as flush, wild and glinting as Groff’s. “Goodness, he would lick her crown to hallux,” thinks teenage Lotto, just before fucking his teenage crush (“hands blistered to blood,” Groff writes; “her eyes overflowed the liner”) in the actual middle of a house fire. Romance, to Lotto’s wife, is like “corn rammed down goose necks, this shit they’d swallowed since they were barely old enough to dress themselves in tulle.” The style is wrought heavily but carefully, and its force is like water—pulling you under, letting you float.
Ottessa Moshfegh is comfortable with discomfort—especially yours. After running laps around the competition on the short story circuit and catching praise from the likes of Rivka Galchen for her drunken sailor novella McGlue, she’s making her debut as a novelist with Eileen, out this week via Penguin.
The success of hip-hop has radically reshaped many American art forms. This is particularly true of poetry. Although the links are sometimes drawn too hastily between the two mediums—after all, hip-hop is at its heart a popular form of entertainment, where narrative style is just one dimension of its artistic importance—hip-hop has been drastically underrated, considering how radically it has influenced American poetics.
Leon Neyfakh is perhaps more like his mom than he’d care to admit. The Slate staff writer and sometimes music critic’s first book, The Next Next Level (released July 7) is a kind of conjoined twin profile-memoir, with the subject—a white rap-rocker from Milwaukee, renowned for his intense live shows, named Juiceboxxx—sharing as much of the word count as the author. The connection is natural. Neyfakh’s known Juice since they were teens, when he was booking the energetic, single-minded MC for a show in a church basement, and, later, sneaking Juice into his house, fearing that his parents wouldn’t approve of his friend.
Mat Johnson and I have been friends since we published our first books fifteen years ago. In that time we’ve spent an untold number of hours bullshitting about writing, parenting, and sundry nonsense. Mat’s new novel, Loving Day—which will be released by Spiegel & Grau on May 26—is the story of a mixed-race comic book artist who returns from Wales to his native Philadelphia to discover a daughter he never knew he’d fathered, a mixed-race cult that hopes to recruit him, and a pair of ghosts haunting his father’s home. Our conversation appears below.
This week, Gawker Review of Books is running interviews with three authors from the world of speculative fiction, discussing their work and their place within the evolving genre. Our final interview is with Daniel José Older, author of the Bone Street Rumba urban fantasy series, which debuted in January with the release of Half-Resurrection Blues.
This week, Gawker Review of Books is running interviews with three authors from the world of speculative fiction, discussing their work and their place within the evolving genre. Today, we’re speaking with Ken Liu, Chinese-American author of the recently released and utterly incredible The Grace of Kings. A former lawyer and computer programmer, Liu is also well-known for translating Liu Cixin’s bold science-fiction novel, The Three-Body Problem, to the masses.
For a super-genre known for its imagination of radically different worlds and futurescapes, speculative fiction has always been considerably conservative. Spec-fic—an umbrella term encompassing science-fiction, fantasy, horror, alternate history, and some in-between works—has often contrasted fantastic worlds of elves, hobbits, clones, robots, or aliens with a singular binding truth: the genre has mostly exited through the eyes of white men.
This Must Be The Place, the new memoir by Sean H. Doyle—published May 1—features the most gratuitous drug use of any book I’ve ever read, and it’s packed with violence, grief, and generally horrible things. In fact, if you were to take out the drugs and the violence and the sadness, you’d really have nothing. But none of it reads in a way that’s designed to offend the reader. Instead, Doyle seems intent on making himself face his ugliest moments, his lowest points. A dog rubbing his own nose in the many messes he’s made on so many carpets.
In the final days of compact discs, I commandeered many a car stereo to put in Van Hunt’s self-titled debut album, breaking God’s most important commandment: Never touch a black man’s radio. “But you have to hear to the lyrics,” I would say. “He’s such a good writer.” Back in 2004, pop and R&B lyrics were endlessly frustrating to me, with their ooh-girl this and baby-please that. When I first heard Hunt’s song “Down Here in Hell (with You)” I thought, Wow, this has actual detail. On “Down Here...” and in many other songs, he showed a wide-ranging ability to express nuanced feelings: ennui, ambivalence, and schadenfreude, common emotions that most songwriters don’t, or can’t, touch.
“What people don’t understand about our lives,” begins author and poet Jason Reynolds, “is that the normalcy of the black person in this country is magic.” Last year, Reynolds released his debut novel, When I Was the Greatest—it follows the life of a young black male growing up in Bedford-Stuyvesant, Brooklyn—and its publication caused tremors in libraries and classrooms across the country. His recently released sophomore work, The Boy in the Black Suit, returns its gaze to Bed-Stuy and follows 17-year-old Matt, who is grappling with the loss of his mother as navigates his final year of high school.
In a new interview with Paradoxa, Pulitzer-winning author Junot Diaz speaks at length with Taryne Jade Taylor about the allure of genre fiction, colonialism disguised as sci-fi, and immigrating to the U.S. at an early age (he refers to it as “a profound fracture of my reality, a temporal and spatial anomaly”). During the interview, Diaz also said that his attempt to write his new novel—which was excerpted in a 2012 issue of The New Yorker—has “ground to a halt,” admitting, “I’m probably going to have to abandon it.”
“I wanted a picture of Jamaica that isn’t in books, and certainly not in novels.” Author Marlon James set out to depict a thoroughly vibrant portrait of the Jamaica he knew: one fissured by drug warfare and dirty politics, but a country plentiful in culture and history. The result was A Brief History of Seven Killings, an expansive and near-mythic survey of his homeland. It is, without question, one of 2014’s best books.
“Writing in general by black men from the south is very slim. To the degree that it exists—it’s women.” It’s a Thursday in early October and we’re at The Lamb’s Club in Midtown, a high-priced food depository where hundred-dollar business lunches have become daily rituals. Amid the clatter of silverware and conversation, New York Times columnist Charles Blow opens up about his new memoir, Fire Shut Up in My Bones—a stirring testimony of growing up in Louisiana and discovering what it means to be a man.
On September 16, John Darnielle—best known as the singer/guitarist and essential constituent of the band the Mountain Goats—released his debut novel, Wolf in White Van. A day later, the National Book Foundation announced it had been nominated to the long list for the 2014 National Book Award for fiction.