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Everyone Loves You Back By Louie Cronin, 253 pgs.

Here is the backstory, as I understand it, to this highly satisfying novel: Sean Carswell, co-founder of Razorcake and Gorsky Press, taught a college course focused on producing a novel. The class solicited and reviewed manuscripts, chose one, and saw it through the entire production process until publication. One of the manuscripts was submitted by Louie Cronin, who has worked for years on NPR’s beloved “Car Talk” radio show. This submission was ultimately selected because one student cajoled her classmates to give the manuscript a read, eventually winning over the entire class. This backstory is not important for appreciating the novel, but I think it is important for reasons I’ll get to.

Everyone Loves You Back follows Bob, a radio technician working the late night jazz show on a Boston radio station. There are also a number of charming and well-developed secondary characters, such as Riff, the hippie/jazz aficionado and radio host; Irene, a co-worker whose affections Bob tries to balance with his own desires for Leonie, a Harvard dance professor in his Cambridge neighborhood; plus, a rich collection of other quirky neighbors and co-workers that Bob has to navigate. There is also an army of aggressive squirrels, encouraged by one of Bob’s loopier neighbors, and various trees that figure into the novel’s narrative arc.

On one level, the novel is about transitions and the ways in which we all work to navigate changing terrains. The radio station is under new management and the jazz show is on the chopping block, so Bob and his co-workers (new and old) must work to juggle principles, paychecks, and priorities. Meanwhile, in his rapidly changing neighborhood, Bob lives in the house he grew up in, surrounded by Harvard professors and well-heeled upper-middle class eccentrics all trying to simultaneously preserve and promote what they think the neighborhood is and should be. The novel pivots between these two backdrops, combining subtle humor (the narrative thread about an elaborate health insurance scam is wonderful) and sharp insights.

On another level, the novel is about social class. Those transitions in the radio station and neighborhood are ultimately informed by class dynamics. This is most clearly illustrated in Bob’s dilemma between dating Irene or pursuing the more polished (read: bourgeois) Leonie, which would entail Bob’s moving up in the class hierarchy. For me, it is Cronin’s portrayal of these class tensions and disconnects that really animates the novel. Cronin clearly has her working class sympathies, but she is never heavy-handed in her descriptions nor does she fall back on simplistic narrative devices (e.g., “know your place” or “working stiff wins the princess”).

About halfway through the novel, I started feeling a sense of dread, anticipating all the clichéd ways in which things could go off the rails for Bob. But I realized that Cronin respects her readers, assuming them to be intelligent enough not to need tired plot twists nor spoon-feeding shallow social commentary. The prose bounces and flows with an elegant pleasure that is impressive for a first novel. Ultimately, the novel is highly satisfying even though there are few resolutions and numerous strings left untied. Because, you know, that is life: we are always in transition and we’re always navigating social class.

And here is the thing: I don’t believe this novel would have ever been published by a large or even medium-sized commercial press. No one dies, commits adultery, is raped, suffers a mental breakdown, uses magic, fights monsters, or any other device that publishing companies find marketable today. Writing this review underscored for me how uneventful the story arc seems at first pass, but damn it, this novel works incredibly well. It is one of those novels that will linger with you for a long time, that you’ll encourage your friends to read, that you’ll gift at the holidays. It needs reading to appreciate, and kudos to that one student in Carswell’s class who took the chance and championed this gem all the way through the production process. –Kevin Dunn (Gorsky Press, PO Box 12024, LA, CA, 90042)

Mother of All Questions, The By Rebecca Solnit, 176 pgs.

Amnesty International annually releases a report documenting human rights violations for that year. Though not annual, Rebecca Solnit’s books operate in roughly the same way for women’s rights.

The Mother of All Questions takes those violations and offenses that populate our social media, removes them from that bustle, and reminds us of them in an isolated setting, adding her always welcome insight—not that I always agree with her (she just had to go and bring up Hemingway).

“Isla Vista.” Remember what that refers to? What if I add “UC Santa Barbara?” Starting to come back to you? Remember the hashtag that grew from that event? That’s one of the recent-past events that reading this book will more firmly affix to your memory.

The central essay is the almost fifty-page “A Short History of Silence,” about the different silences that our society demands of women, men, and children. She also writes about the year 2014, “a year of feminist insurrection against male violence.”

The above paragraphs may make it seem like The Mother of All Questions is a nutritionist-prescribed platter of raw vegetables, but really, it’s your favorite vegan meal. It’s the curried cauliflower soup I had at Ahimsa in Long Beach last weekend. –Jim Woster (Haymarket Books, haymarketbooks.org)

Painted Gun, The By Bradley Spinelli, 267 pgs.

The Painted Gun starts out as an overly traditional detective novel—an investigator on the skids sits smoking in his office in 1997 San Francisco, a client sends him an odd package, and he says, “It isn’t my birthday, and I don’t believe it’s the first of April,” and later he gets slapped around and the slapper says, “Don’t get smart with me. I don’t like smart guys,” and the investigator says, “What, they make you feel dumb?” and the slapper slaps him again.

The odd package is a portrait of the investigator that the investigator never sat for. The client wants him to find the artist. So is this a meta detective novel? Are we going to be examining the detective genre itself? Are the clichés there for a reason? Or is Spinelli amusing himself with what D.A. Powell calls “stinking dead usages of the past?”

The novel morphs into a conspiracy thriller. Fans of ‘70s films will perhaps recognize the root of the conspiracy from a movie whose title I’ll leave out, since I’m sure neither Spinelli nor his pre-publication readers have seen it (or read the book it was adapted from), and in Spinelli’s hands, the premise is arguably more plausible anyway (and if you don’t watch ‘70s films, it’s new to you).

And the mystery behind the portrait has a satisfying solution. But the novel’s early prose is an incongruous candy-floss foundation for what follows, including Latin American political history.

The book has a great minimalist moderne cover by Meghan Carey Kates. –Jim Woster (Akashic Books, akashicbooks.com)

Placement of Character By Bryan Polk, 318 pgs.

Bryan Polk’s second novel starts out promising and enjoyable. It’s the tale of a brother and sister, Mason and Eileen Jarman, who live in Denver. Both are in their mid-thirties and trying to figure out what they’re doing with their lives. It’s a struggle that many thirty-somethings face as their peers start pairing off and having children. This inability to find meaning while simultaneously flailing about in life is a subject in literature (both fiction and non-fiction) that has interested me since I read Douglas Copeland’s Generation X about fifteen years ago.

As the book progresses, it enters a more surreal turn as Mason finds employment in character placement. As the book states, it’s a vocation that provides “real life depictions of characters for fictional novels.” The idea behind character placement is that someone wanting to write a novel can’t come up with things in their own imagination and so pays people to act out what might happen minus a script. I had many questions about how realistic this would be (is it possible to have all the conversations recorded for the author? Wouldn’t that ruin the ability of the actors to fully embrace their characters?)

At some point a headless spirit of a Colorado miner and a taking dog named Herman enter Placement of Character and that’s when I realized the book was the equivalent of Kurt Vonnegut taking a bad left turn. Vonnegut was able to tear down the fourth wall and make surreal science fiction accessible and almost believable. Polk, on the other hand, starts with a relatable tale of figuring out what you should be doing with your life. From there he tries to solve the existential conundrum through the interaction of spirits and an ending that is so ham-fisted that he might as well have written, “GET IT?! Do you get it? See what I did there?”

Polk writes well and understands how to make a story flow. His characters are interesting, albeit with some flaws (Mason seems to be a punk but is also very concerned with society’s opinion of him, which seems very antithetical to a punk ethos) and I would’ve been willing to follow them along a more realistic journey. That’s not to say I dislike this type of fiction—I can get down with Vonnegut and others like him who play with reality. However, I’m not sure I can follow along with a story where the evil intents of the spirit of a dead miner is thwarted by some punks who play They Might Be Giants and dance as “freaky” as they can. –Kurt Morris (Suspect Press, 1280 Sherman St., Denver, CO 80203)

Rooted By Idabell Allen, 320 pgs.

Think of this as a bit of Southern Gothic lit and a bit of Steel Magnolias if somehow a Stiv Bators analog was in the mix. Rooted takes place in the fictional town of Moonsock, Tenn. sometime in the late ‘70s. The sudden appearance of heretofore unknown grandson, junkie, and New York punker Slade sets off a chain of events, leading to upheaval of the carefully ordered façade that family Patriarch Grover McQuiston has built over time as one of the town’s most feared and respected citizens.

While Grover is the boss of the family, it is his wife Eleanor who is the soul of the McQuistons. Even with her family falling apart around her due to the erosions of time—such as death, tragedy, and estrangement—it is her unfailing belief in patient redemption which marks the solid foundation that centers the family, even after her death. Eleanor is willing to take anyone in need, from her ultra anxious and closed-off granddaughter Sarah Jane who was abandoned years before, to her instant acceptance of Slade who turns up at the family property by crashing a car into Grover’s prize cow Lucy at the end of a drug-fueled mad dash from New York City to claim an inheritance.

The novel shifts primarily between the viewpoints of Grover, Sarah Jane, and Slade. Each of these characters presents a different façade to the world. Grover is marked by a hard, demanding anti-sentimentality developed from years of trying to prove his worth as a respectable man. Slade is brash, crude, outspoken, and given to coping through addiction. Sarah Jane is painfully introspective and willfully sheltered to the point of near asceticism. Regardless of the surface differences, all three characters—and indeed almost all the extended members of the McQuiston family—are marked by two things: familial abandonment and long-term issues linked to secret traumas.

Allen steers the novel well in examining not just the corrosive aspects that mark the characters, but also redemption and hope. Her well-drawn depiction of the Mississippi River countryside of Moonsock conveys a sense of calmness that fortifies the characters through the peace they can experience in this natural Southern sanctuary. As best exemplified in Eleanor, there is also the strong thread permeating the novel of the power that familial connection has, even when frayed to near breaking points. While some of the family issues brought up in the novel seem like they probably can never be completely healed, it is worth the effort for the characters to push forward with forgiveness—if for no other reason than they recognize they are being dragged under by the weight of psychic burdens.

All in all, this novel is a well-structured read that rings true in its examination of the difficultly, tragedy, and sometimes tragi-comedy inherent in sorting out the complications of family. –Adrian Salas (Lowbrow Literary Press, 5050 Oakdale Rd., Westmoreland, TN, 37186, idabelallen.net)

CAKE & COMIX #2: SHORT STORIES, ?$, 4¼” x 5½”, 12 pgs.

I thought I hated poetry and then I read this. It’s a collection of vignettes and flickers of the past. Arranged from beauty to pain, contrasting and amazement with damage and hurt, this zine gives the reader snapshots of a life experienced. It’s as if I were flipping through Polaroids taken fleetingly in the moment, yet instead of reading the thousand words weighted in a photograph, I get a peek into the emotional state of the documentarian. Each passage, regardless of length, took me to a moment in time and shared the feelings and observations of the writer without a need for context or backstory. Were this two-dimensional graphic art, this zine would serve as an illustrator’s sketch book, yet the thoughts are expertly fleshed out. The author plays with their words like a child with its food and manages to turn the mundane into something appetizing. I find this work endlessly impressive, masterful, and brilliant. Creative writing at its best wonder. No piece is longer than a few hundred words, but it leaves me satiated each time. It feels like pillow talk with a partner you’re in love with who answers emotionally and honestly to the question, “What are you thinking?” Definitely worth seeking out. –Kayla Greet (Cake & Comics, mmmmatranga@gmail.com)

DIARO #5 / ROMANCERO HINCHADO #3, $?, 5½” x 8½”, 14 pgs.

Mari Santa Cruz and Ana Ortiz Valera are Latinx writers who help organize la Liga, a digital art zine of sorts, and this is their split zine. Cruz’s side features a series of prose poems printed over pictures of home, family photos, and line drawings. Valera’s romanceros, or folk ballads, are surrounded by collaged photo cutouts and address varied topics—the Virgin Mary, Valera as a young girl, and the United States. Mari Santa Cruz’s voice is driving. In Diaro, Cruz writes “TO UNDERSTAND MY MOTHER IS TO UNDERSTAND MYSELF. TO UNDERSTAND MY MOTHER’S BEHAVIOR INFORMED MY GRANDMOTHER’S ACTIONS IS TO UNDERSTAND MYSELF [AND] TO UNDERSTAND THE CONTEXT THAT GENERATED [THEM] MAKES ME […] HEAL, FORGIVE AND IMPROVE.” Conversely, Ana Ortiz Valera’s poems in Romancero Hinchado are a little more winding and textured: “Virgencita, tu alguna vez te perdiste?” begins one. “La mía no se perdio, a mi me la arrancaron. Ese dia que maldeci mis partes rosas; el dia que dejaron de sentirse honestas y se hicieron sal.”* The combined effect makes for a good poetry zine. Check out the digital component, la Liga, to see what else these writers are up to. *(My dumpy translation: “Virgencita, did you ever get lost? / I didn’t get lost, I got ripped off. / That day I cursed my pink parts; / The day they stopped feeling honest and made salt.”) –Jim Joyce (laligazine.com, anaortizvarela@gmail.com)

DITHERING DOODLES #42, 5 ½” x 8 ½”, copied, 31 pgs.

This is a zine full of artistic renderings of VHS covers. Some illustrations are from actual movies rescued from a long-closed video store and some are imagined. For fans of good and bad art, as in good drawings and schlock movies. –Craven Rock (premiumdeluxe@hotmail.com)

FLUKE #14, $6, 8 ½” x 11”, copied, 46 pgs.

Part two of the look back at Little Rock, Ark., punk history from the 1980s into the early 1990s. This issue is made up of show flyers, printed full page, featuring local and touring bands that played one location, 7th and Chester, which changed names over the years. Some of the bands that appear on the flyers are Fugazi, All, Holy Rollers, Flaming Lips, Green Day, Chino Horde, Trusty, and Econochrist. The intro includes a newspaper clipping of the audience at a Black Flag show (apparently, the famous “Peach” from the Rollins spoken word Big Ugly Mouth set in the photo). I’m always interested in the histories of local scenes, especially the scenes that were not as high profile as California or New York. I’m hoping Matt will uncover more Little Rock punk history in issues to come. I’m pretty sure there were bands happening prior to the era he covers. (Russell Love from NOTA was from there and Econochrist were from there before moving to the East Bay at the end of the 1980s, so there has to be more). –Matt Average (PO Box 1547, Phoenix, AZ 85001)

FLUORAZINE #1, free, 5½” x 8½”, copied, 24 pgs.

Zine done from someone incarcerated, which means resources were pretty limited. So you’ve got a lot of cut and past collage work and a few song lyrics, comics, and mini-essays all written in ballpoint pen. All told, it comes across as that very familiar first issue that many of us have put out in our experiments with zines. Like most first issues, it’s super thin on content, and I’d really urge the author to spend some time drumming up some solid stuff, be it art, essays, whatever. As someone in the prison system, he’s in a unique position to inform a ton of us about something that I’m personally pretty ignorant of, but would really be interested in learning more about. But hey, collages are cool, too. Here’s hoping he sticks with it. –Keith Rosson (Kristopher Storey, 26731-018 FMC, PO Box 14500, Lexington, KY 40512)