Paris in the Present Tense

Mark Helprin
Overlook Press / 2017
  • ISBN: 978-1468314762
400 Pages

It has been awhile since a novel has changed the way I think about the novel. But Paris in the Present Tense is a lyrical novel that has empowered my faith in the contemporary novel. Let's face it, it has been awhile since A Winter's Tale, when we first fell into the world of Helprin's prose and imagination, and while this book isn't as mystical, it is formidable in his prose and his storytelling.


Meagan Cass
University of North Texas Press / 2017
Katherine Anne Porter Prize in Short Fiction
ISBN 978-1574416947 / Paper / 192 Pages

ActivAmerica is a collection of short stories drawn from America's obsession with fitness, sports, and how we re-envision ourselves through sports. If this doesn't sound like your cup of tea, you are probably wrong. This book is a dynamic, funny, ironic, brilliant, and often biting commentary on how we live our lives through the perception of sports. This collection tackles more than just the concept of sports but reframes the American dream in tangents and connections that often feels at once hilarious and so ironic 

The Mezzogiorno Social Club

Ercole Gaudioso
Guernica Editions / 2017
ISBN 978-1-77183-165-9 
Paperback/ 290 Pages

It should be said, right off the bat that this is a story of cops and mobsters. Crafted with characters that wear the dust and the crime on their clothes, The Mezzogiorno Social Club is a sweeping novel that carries the weight of tradition, generations, and a code of living divided by a thin line between crime and the cops who keep the peace. 

The Old Man and the Sand Eel

Will Millard 
Penguin Books / 2018
336 Pages

Fishing in simplest terms is an obsession. It is a complicated and often fluid set of skills that depend on season, weather, location, bait, technique and hundreds of other possibilities. Then there is the adrenaline rush of hooking into a fish and the battle that ensues. It is all here in Will Millard's The Old Man and the Sand Eel. Yet, this book is about something more complicated and visionary. It is about what drives and shapes this obsession to fish. And while his adventures hooking fish are exciting to follow, there is more to this book than a guided tour.

Black Obelisk - Classic (1923)

Erich Maria Remarque
Ballantine Books (1998)
448p. / Paperback
ISBN 0449912442

This classic by the author of All Quiet on the Western Front follows the post-World War I life of a returning soldier, poet, and monument seller who sees his country on the edge of change. And while inflation and a country slipping into uncertainty, it is the writing of the local people, the conversations, and the disconnect of modernism that creates this often beautiful, sad, and complex novel.

When you think of modernism in literature, it comes with a sense of change and disconnection. Think of books like Kafka's The Metamorphosis, T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land, Virginia Woolf's stream of consciousness writing, and the social and political uncertainty that came with devastating war, an economic depression. It is from these roots that this book carries the ideas of war and loss into a life still waiting to happen.

At times, The Black Obelisk is very pertinent and funny. At times, it feels like an old song that makes you feel sad. While managing the office at the tombstone office, this twenty-something veteran soldier also makes some extra money playing the organ at the chapel in the insane asylum. There he has fallen for one of the patients, a woman that he can't define in conventional terms. This shifting and the changing relationship is often delicate and beautiful while being frustrating and desperate all at the same time. This story thread is one of the most striking modernist ideas, showing the uncertainty of the times.

This book has been criticized for not having a defined plot, but this isn't a story of what happened next, but a story of immersion. Through this sense of moving around his social circles, we see the emergence of nationalism (that would eventually draw in Hitler), we see an economic system on the brink of failure. And men who continue to game the system and try to get out ahead. 

There is no better novel that fits the ideals of modernism than The Black Obelisk, giving the reader a sense of desperation, beauty, and humor in the face of a crushing history that we all know well. Read this book and then share with someone who likes reading novels. They will also fall headlong into this town, and fall into the desperation that life is merely what we make it, even when it changes before it turns into something tangible. Remarque writes, "But probably that's the way of the world -when we finally learned something we're too old to apply it - and so it goes, wave after wave, generation after generation. No one learns anything at all from anyone else." 

Body Politic

Rich Murphy 
Prolific Press Inc. / 2016 
ISBN: 978-1632750846

Language and politics have a symbiotic relationship in strange and creative ways. George Orwell knew this when he wrote about the language of politics and what that language does for our society. In Orwell's Politics and the English Language, he spoke about dead metaphors, pretentious diction, and meaningless words. The obfuscation of the real meaning and intention of politic actions are deliberately intertwined in language meant to confuse or misdirect. There was a time when I thought George W. Bush had an issue with language, and then came the Trump leadership with Tweets and strange jargon that means nothing from the leadership. Orwell mentions in his treatise that meaningless words are confusing and dangerous and "words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows the hearer to think it means something quite different." And he goes on to give the example of, "Marshal Petain was true patriot." Sounds like rhetoric I heard last month.

A Field Guide to Murder & Fly Fishing

Tim Weed
Green Writers Press. 2017. 
978-0-9974528-7-7 ($24.95) 

Diving into this collection of short stories by writer and travel expert Tim Weed, you might want to pack your bags and roam the continent in search of great harrowing adventures. And in some ways, this collection delivers on that. But embedded in these narratives, is a deeper longing, a desperate, and sometimes frustrating relationship, between his protagonist’s fraught desires, fears, and dreams. The depth of emotions reveal subtle, dynamic, and often stunning revelations.  

In stories like “Tower Eight,” “Mouth of the Tropics,” “Diamondback Mountain,” and “Keepers,” Weed moves the physical world to the forefront where nature, mountains, fish, weather conditions, and the reality of nature itself become antagonistic. These stories echo the Hemingway tradition of fronting raw power and natural uncertainty as a means to test a character's fate. This can end in a lesson learned or life lost. But his complexity is not limited to this “surviving nature” theme.

Chasing Coyotes: Accounts of Urban Crises

Debora Martin 
Atlas Publishing / 2017
ISBN / Kindle Verison / 190 Pages

Chasing Coyotes is based on Debora Martin interaction with coyotes over the course of the last ten years. Her experience interacting with this canine is relevant as urban edges have encroached into more and more habitat. 


Octavia Butler 
Damian Duffy (illustrator)
Abrams ComicArts (1/17) 
pp. 248

Creating a graphic novel experience is often a balance between images (graphic) and the novel (the story) and how they work together. Adapted to the graphic novel by John Jennings (illustrator) and Damien Duffy (editor), this complex piece of speculative history is constantly serving uncertainty and twists on every page. The story takes a writer from the 1970's who is inexplicably pulled back in time to save a child. The white child named Rufus is somehow connected to her. When she returns to the 1970's she realizes that she has only been gone a short time. As she continues to be pulled back to Rufus and his life, she realizes that she is being drawn back to a southern plantation where slaves are used to managing the house and tend the crops. Dana (and eventually her husband Kevin, a white man) must find their way in this oppressive and complicated past. 
© Book Reviews / Ron Samul
Maira Gall