Author Archives: Joseph Barbato

The Best American Essays 2016

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On my twenty-seventh birthday, in a two-bedroom bungalow in New Jersey, my father murdered his live-in girlfriend, her fifteen-year-old daughter, then shot himself. I never sensed the shots.

-Lisa Nikolidakis, “Family Tradition,” in The Best American Essays 2016 edited by Jonathan Franzen

This Close to Happy & Much More

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Says Daphne Merkin (This Close to Happy): “I wanted to write a readable, hopefully not too depressing book about depression, and in that way make it a seductive book in spite of the subject. That was my hope. I think of writing as yet another way in which I threw my wits and my charm, ostensible charm, at this subject of depression. And writing not ingratiatingly but seductively, compellingly so that you’d want to read about it.”

Craziness is a bit of a leitmotif in Word by Word. The book…mixes memoiristic meditations on the lexicographic life along with a detailed description of the brain-twisting work of writing dictionaries.” Here’s an article about author Kory Stamper.

Says Catherine Burns (All These Wonders): “One of the fun things about a book like this is that people might buy it because they want to read John Turturro’s story or Louis C.K.’s story, but I hope that they’ll fall in love with someone that they haven’t heard from, too. I hope that readers will come into the book with an open heart, because they’re going to meet a lot of people they might not otherwise get a chance to.”

The landscape of Michigan speaks to me, and the humility and humor of the people here makes sense,” says Bonnie Jo Campbell (Mothers, Tell Your Daughters). “It just feels right to live here, in a place where I don’t dare put on airs. When I tell my family and local friends I’m a National Book Award finalist, they say, fine, sounds okay to us.”

Here’s Michael Tolkin’s NK3: “An original and absorbing novel — written in clear, rich prose — that imagines a post-apocalyptic Los Angeles where dystopia is fine-tuned to our present turmoil. His novel takes place in a near future where memories have been wiped out and basic technical skills are the best currency for survival. As Tolkin imagines it, the shattering of our mighty society comes not through nuclear winter, but through the whimper of a sudden viral attack from North Korea.”

 

The Art of Fiction

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People can be known to faint at the sight of something or upon hearing some news or the voice of someone thought to be long dead, but no one faints upon reading a book. Which is not to say books have no power; they have a different kind of power. You’re not seeing or hearing anything as you read, but you believe you are.

-James Salter, The Art of Fiction

Mister Monkey

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Who cares if it’s children’s theater? Margot is playing a criminal lawyer crusading for truth and justice! So would someone please tell me where, in what deranged fashion universe, a defense lawyer would appear before a judge in a rainbow Harpo Marx wig and an obscenely short, hobblingly tight, iridescent purple suit?

-Francine Prose, Mister Monkey: A Novel

Hank

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Of the thirty-three records that Hank Williams placed on Billboard country and western Top 10 charts during his short lifetime, only two made the mainstream pop chart, and even those had much to do with pop artists like Tony Bennett having their own hits with them first. Yet, more than sixty years after his premature death at age twenty-nine, no country artist living or dead can approach the familiarity the general public has with Hank Williams, whose sad, lonely songs are playing right this minute on some roadhouse jukebox.

-Mark Ribowsky, Hank: The Short Life and Long Country Road of Hank Williams

Deep Thinking

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The nineteenth-century African American folk legend of John Henry pits the “steel-driving man” in a race against a new invention, a steam-powered hammer, bashing a tunnel through a mountain of rock. It was my blessing and my curse to be the John Henry of chess and artificial intelligence, as chess computers went from laughably weak to nearly unbeatable during my twenty years as the world’s top chess player.

-Gary Kasparov, Deep Thinking: Where Machine Intelligence Ends and Human Creativity Begins

Super Sizing Urban America & More

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“[Chin Jou's] fascinating book, Supersizing Urban America: How Inner Cities Got Fast Food With Government Help, published in March…[enables] us to evaluate the prospect of bringing healthy food to neighborhoods that don’t have access to it.” Here’s a pieced on a troubling issue.

“If someone published an anthology called Hellscape: Thirty Writers on Why Penn Station Sucks, I would buy that thing in hardcover and pay list price for it. I would buy a whole carton and stand at Penn Station’s Amtrak gates, forcing them on beleaguered travelers. Because: everyone hates Penn Station—I’m talking about the New York one—but good writing on the hatred of Penn Station is hard to find.”

Forthcoming spring books! Note especially James Forman Jr.’s Locking Up Our Own, which explains why so many blacks wind up in prison.

“[Cottom worked as an enrollment officer at two different for-profit colleges, but quit because she felt uncomfortable selling students an education they couldn’t afford. Her new book, Lower Ed, argues that for-profit colleges exploit racial, gender and economic inequality.

The Rules Do Not Apply

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I wanted what we all want: everything. We want a mate who feels like family and a lover who is exotic, surprising. We want to be youthful adventurers and middle-aged mothers. We want intimacy and autonomy, safety and stimulation, reassurance and novelty, coziness and thrills. But we can’t have it all.

-Ariel Levy, The Rules Do Not Apply: A Memoir

Taduno’s Song

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The morning the letter arrived he was like a man in a shell, deaf to the voices in his head from a distant place, calling him, imploring him with old promises.

-Odafe Atogun, Taduno’s Song: A Novel

The White City

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It was the end of winter. Under the sky that had always been there, now dark, the house still looked almost new. It had a sort of shine to it and was surrounded by nothing but silence and snow.

-Karolina Ramquist, The White City: A Novel