Samuel Johnson’s Eternal Return by Martin Riker

Martin Riker’s debut novel Samuel Johnson’s Eternal Return (Coffee House Press, 2018) is a masterclass in writing compelling, well-crafted fiction. Riker’s precise and careful execution of a number of ambitious craft elements—including a structure inspired by a 19th-century novel (Robert Montgomery Bird’s Sheppard Lee, Written by Himself) and the main character inhabiting different bodies that all have distinctly written voices—is impressive. And as he pulls off feats of point of view and voice throughout this body-hopping journey, Riker never wavers from the emotionally affective core of the story: a man trying to get home to his son to say he loves him. —Carolina VonKampen

Comemadre by Roque Larraquy

Heather Cleary’s 2018 translation of Roque Larraquy’s Comemadre is equal parts horror and comedy. In a sanitarium in Buenos Aires, a group of early twentieth century doctors craft an experiment that will allow them a glimpse into the afterlife. They build a machine to decapitate terminally ill patients and wait to hear the patients’ final words before their brain completely expires. Given the absurd premise, the minimal, yet impressive, prose devotes little time to unnecessary specifics. The book is viewed through the perspective of Dr. Quintana, and though he is a key member of the team, his pursuit of the head nurse Menéndez commands most of his attention to detail. The novel’s second section takes place in 2009 and concerns an artist’s manipulation of the body for the purposes of art. Larraquy uses family lineage to give the sections some concrete connection point, but more interesting is their shared dispassionate view of the human body. Little of the comedy comes out of the medical ineptitude of generations past as one might expect. Instead the book shows how the fetishization of the body spans generations, and how any attempt to elevate the human form into the divine is futile. I guess the joke is that we will never stop trying. —Dusty Freund

On Boulevard’s 100th Issue

One hundred is a kind of magical number equally shunned and celebrated. It’s the number associated with extreme old age but also with total success.

Of course, I was idealistic and somewhat naive when I invited several literary New York friends to discuss my idea for a new magazine in the late summer of 1984. When we first began discussing what kind of literary magazine we wanted Boulevard to be, no one thought that we ever had it 100 percent right. Far from it. The meeting was full of a sound and fury, and no one was really sure what we wanted it to signify. Gradually some principles emerged….

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Hanif Abdurraqib

How Can Black People Write About Flowers at a Time Like This

free love til the check comes & me & mine reach in our fruitless pockets
for the wallets we know we left at the crib next to the framed black & whites
of our divorced or widowed parents. there were hand drawn daisies on the
de la
soul album cover once & now I stay on that hippie shit, arms open the
length of a day’s

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Craft Interview: Jane Smiley

Craft Interview: Jane Smiley

Interviewing Jane Smiley means, if you’re the person asking the questions, you’re going to have to pick and choose. Since her 1980 debut, Barn Blind, Smiley has published a book at least once every other year. Her oeuvre is nothing if not diverse: an Agatha Christie-like mystery, a college politics farce, an Icelandic saga, and a Pulitzer-Prize-winning reimagining of King Lear. Her writing has the unique position of appealing to both literary and commercial crowds. All together it can be a little difficult to know where to begin, what to cover.

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Chana Kim

Looking for the House

My mother walks in front of me under the blazing sun, and I follow her. We are already lost in this neighborhood. The house we are looking for was probably demolished a long time ago. She lived here, in this inexpensive part of Seoul, during the 1960s. Since then, the maze of this area has been straightened by the last twenty years of development. Two large apartment complexes now cut the flow of the sprawl on the north and east. But when Mom and her family moved into this district, the labyrinth of narrow alleys, more than six hundred years old, led the townspeople to their tiny tile-roofed homes, sharing walls. My mother was a college student then. As the passage grows steeper, she remembers that she had to climb a hill to come home after school.

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Weike Wang

Hair

Shampoo is not enough. There is always conditioner, toner, essence, oil, serum, balm, and after that, cream, wax, pomade, mousse, gel, shine drops, moisturizing mist. The difference between moisturizing mist and moisturizing spray is huge. To achieve rocker girl texture, use mist and then wax. To build height at our roots, use spray and then gel.

The first time we pick up the curling iron, we burn ourselves. A large red mark appears across our necks and, embarrassed, we say we ran neck first into a tree. Across the street where the school bus is supposed to pick us up, we spot another girl who has run into the same tree. We smile, wave.

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Eye Level by Jenny Xie

Jenny Xie’s Eye Level has a narrative string that weaves around each poem. Delivering a keen observation or grand truth, her language is florid and beautiful, plucked carefully and crafted with a gentle hand. There’s a delicate balance between ancient wisdom and modern commonplace that binds ceaselessly together. Intensely introspective and refined, Eye Level examines our world through both a critical and appreciative lens, nestling itself into consciousness even after the completion of the book. –Meghan Dairaghi

Cosmos A Personal Voyage by Carl Sagan Ann Druyan Steven Soter and Me by Connie Mae Oliver

Connie Mae Oliver’s book of anti-war poems, Cosmos A Personal Voyage by Carl Sagan Ann Druyan Steven Soter and Me (The Operating System, 2017), contains lyric silences that are, in Louise Glück’s phrase, “dense with argument,” though Oliver’s real touchstones are Susan Howe and Claudia Rankine. The poet’s first collection moves among sequences and vantage points, cycles of self-erasures, poems of repeated lines, and cosmic lists. Astronomy pioneer Johannes Kepler makes multiple appearances as a simultaneously ethereal and earthly man with “only two friends: his cigarettes and the sun.” Haunting just under the book’s slanted vantage and shifting locus is the uncertainty principle: how we can never measure particles, or particulars, in terms of both position and momentum at the same time. This collection embraces the necessary management of both the flawed position we are in, and the direction we are going. —Ryan Smith

A Hunger by Lucie Brock-Broido

A Hunger (Knopf, 1988), the first collection by Lucie Brock-Broido, who passed away March 6, begins with a promise of resurrection and ends with the image of “the one light left on the small far hill / where someone must be living still”—with the conviction that life will go on. We never know the difference between resurrection and continuity or how much we want either, which was always the secret premise of Brock-Broido, in all the elusive speediness of her lyricism. “In thrice ten thousand seasons, I will come back to this world / In a white cotton dress” was—is—the book’s first declaration and whether this means we will be redeemed or haunted is undecided. A Hunger’s last affirmation is that “After life there must be life.” In the outpouring of love and mourning for Brock-Broido, who was one of her generation’s best poets as well as a teacher to scores of the current generation, the affirmation goes on haunting.—Ryan Smith

Such Small Hands by Andrés Barba

In Such Small Hands by Andrés Barba (Portobello Books, 2017) a young girl, Marina, is sent to an orphanage after her parents die in a car crash that she survives. We learn in alternating perspectives of narration that both Marina and the orphaned girls love each other but can’t communicate it; their actions come out wrong and disconnected. Barba captures this strangeness of childhood with a dark mood that permeates the prose, which is brimming with repetition, abstractions, and vivid similes such as: “Like a glass, her face filled up with humiliation.” This story is chilling—it haunts you long after you’ve put down the 97-page novel. —Carolina VonKampen

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos by Dominic Smith

In a novel about an art forgery and the various forgeries, or reincarnations, of three people linked by one paining across more than three centuries, Smith's Last Painting (Sarah Crichton Books, 2016) offers a master class in the use of painterly detail to build a canvas of prose images. Sentences like this one abound: “The girl had been lavished with very fine brushwork, the hem of her dress frayed by a hundred filaments of paint, each one half the width of a human hair.” Couple that sort of close attention to painting and jazz clubs and and human behavior with a meticulously constructed plot and the near-universal praise for this novel is no surprise. —Laura Moretz

Deep in the Shadows: Undercover in the Ruthless World of Human Smuggling by Hipólito Acosta

Deep in the Shadows (Arte Público Press, 2017) is Hipólito Acosta’s unflinching account of his time as an undercover INS agent tasked with apprehending those who smuggle undocumented immigrants across our borders. The memoir covers the major busts of Acosta’s law-enforcement career. Over three decades, Acosta adopts various criminal identities to enter the dens of human traffickers, counterfeiters, drug dealers, and corrupt agents. This is a fascinating look at a hidden world. —René Martínez

Black Hearts: One Platoon’s Descent Into Madness in Iraq’s Triangle of Death by Jim Frederick

This novelesque work of nonfiction (Broadway Books, 2011) is the book Capote night well have written had he been embedded with a platoon of US troops guarding a highway in the desert south of Baghdad in the early days of the occupation. At the center of the book is a war crime more horrendous than what happened in Capote’s Holcombe but, like Truman, Frederick eschews the question who done it for the much harder to resolve what makes people capable of such things? He deftly chronicles how daily suicide missions shatter psyches and how being ordered to clear IEDs by way of walking on top of them quickly erodes a soldier’s sense of purpose. Jim Frederick takes no liberties whatsoever by putting “descent into madness” in his subtitle. This is not for the faint of heart, but a sobering look at how otherwise good kids lose their souls at the edge of empire. —Ryan Krull

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan

Jennifer Egan’s latest novel features spunky, relentlessly modern WWII diver Anna Kerrigan and the intertwining of her life and family with local gangster Dexter Styles. Although Manhattan Beach (Scribner, 2017) undeniably contains the gratifying reading experience of an ambitiously researched and detailed big book, I found the real pleasure to be in parsing its deliberate, artificially constructed parallels—an Egan-istic trademark that will appeal to fans of Goon Squad. There’s interlinking arrangement of plot and theme, and character flux: for example, noticeable slip between the two fathers and their relationships with their daughters; symbolic barefoot beach walks; and a puzzling self-destructive morality shared among the main characters. If you enjoy detailed historical novels or more experimental fare, pick up Manhattan Beach regardless. —Jessica Rogen