Another Bullshit Night in Suck City by Nick Flynn

another bullshitI read Another Bullshit Night in Suck City for class, and I’m glad: glad I read it, and glad I had a class to guide me through it. I think I got more out of it this way. It would have been a little opaque to me on my own.

Nick Flynn’s father Jonathan was mostly absent in his son’s youth, although sort of a towering absence. Nick met the father he scarcely knew when Nick was working at a homeless shelter in Boston, where Jonathan became a client. This is Nick’s memoir of his father’s troubled, mysterious life and ugly effects on those around him – his wives and children – and Nick’s search for answers. (If this sounds familiar to you, you may have seen the movie made from this story, Being Flynn, which starred Robert De Niro but didn’t do terribly well.)

As illuminated by my professor, Another Bullshit Night in Suck City pulls heavily from the themes and style of absurdist theatre and theatre generally. Nearly every chapter involves some form of stage setting, awareness of audience, or other element of performance. King Lear and Beckett’s Endgame are particularly present. I know almost nothing about absurdist theatre, and would certainly have missed this subtext without help; and it really did help me to see some of what Flynn was up to.

It is an unusually, but very carefully composed book. Chapters vary in format. Some are written as short plays; some take different hermit crab forms. One of my favorites is a list of “thirteen random facts.” An illustration or two and one very important diagram come in. Despite the differences in form, there is a fairly straightforward narrative at work: the life of a father as seen (therefore, in pieces) by his son, and the life of the son, at first as it applies to the father’s story but in bursts beyond as well. This narrative is not strictly chronological, but any disjoints in its telling only reflect the way it was lived, the way information about Jonathan came to Nick, in dribs and drabs and jolts.

Readers new to the varied forms Flynn uses may find them a little distracting, but I don’t think they’ll pose a real challenge. The scrapbook-feel echoes the subject matter, echoes real life. And despite looking at a glance like it was thrown together – indeed, like real life – there is extraordinary artistry and intention at play here. Look for recurrent images throughout, like the donut, and the life raft, which sometimes takes the donut-echoing shape of a lifesaver. Look for theatricality, framed stages, costumes and sets. And the question of caring about appearances, or designing appearances.

Obviously, Nick Flynn tells painful and personal stories in this book, raising some of the classic questions of the memoir genre: how much to share, how much is too much, and what reader response is appropriate. Flynn struggles with these questions, especially in the final section called “aftermath (one year later): questions often asked, and some possible answers.” I was reminded of a Bernard Cooper essay I read – I forget its title, but it was in The Business of Memory, a collection edited by Charles Baxter. It dealt with Cooper’s surprise at reader reactions, and his inability to control what those readers take away from his work, and what they are curious about. It might seem like some of these issues are obvious ones, but there’s no accounting for people, always and in all directions, and the possibilities fascinate me.

I found this a brave, complex and moving book, and I recommend it. For a little taste, here is the obituary written for Jonathan Flynn, nearly ten years after the book’s publication. As Brevity notes, it is unattributed but presumably written by Nick.

I look forward to finding time for a reread, for further study.


Rating: 9 circles.

A Robot in the Garden by Deborah Install

This exceptionally charming novel addresses human relationships by way of a one-of-a-kind robot.

robot in the garden

Deborah Install’s first novel, A Robot in the Garden, is a delightful romp and an emotional journey, both hilarious and poignant.

Ben is idle, unemployed, still living in his childhood home in a small town in England, and grieving his parents’ death. He is a constant source of frustration to his wife, Amy. When a robot appears in their back garden, Amy is exasperated, as usual: she tells Ben to get rid of it. Ben is intrigued. The robot, Tang, is decrepit but apparently well-made, and has more personality than the androids the neighbors keep around to do laundry and house chores. Tang is also obstinate, willful and possibly broken beyond repair, but Ben suspects that there is something special about this creature. Together they undertake a riotous expedition, seeking a fix for Tang–and perhaps for Ben as well. On the way, the odd pair encounters bizarre situations, including android sex workers and a radioactive wiener dog, and make new friends. Mulish but endearing, Tang throws tantrums and wins Ben’s heart, and stirs him to reexamine his relationships with the people in his life.

Both Ben and Tang are well-developed, imperfect but lovable characters, and Install has an expert ear for tone and mood. Her dialogue is masterful–Tang’s singular voice develops throughout the novel as he does, and the silliness of this eccentric story provides a refreshing counterpoint to sentimentality. A Robot in the Garden is zany and heartfelt, endlessly funny and often absurd, but speaks directly to the central challenges of the human experience.


This review originally ran as a *starred review* in the May 20, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 8 Premium seats.

The Song Poet: A Memoir of My Father by Kao Kalia Yang

In celebrating a father’s traditional Hmong song poetry, this memoir records the painful history of a loving family and a people.

song poet

In The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir, Kao Kalia Yang related her family’s immigrant experience. With The Song Poet: A Memoir of My Father, she focuses on the life and art of Bee Yang: “my father raps, jazzes, and sings the blues when he dwells in the landscape of tradition Hmong song poetry.” The storytelling and emotional communication of that art form was a defining element of Bee’s contribution to his family and his culture, from their home in Laos to a refugee camp in Thailand and, finally, in the United States. When his mother died, Bee stopped singing, and Yang considers the significance of that silence as well.

As its title suggests, The Song Poet is lyrical and beautifully composed, with themes of loss and love, realistic and raw, but enriched by gentle metaphor. It is divided into “Side A” and “Side B,” the first told in Bee’s first-person perspective and the second in Yang’s. These points of view offer immersion in a Hmong culture that values family, and shares a complex system of spiritual celebrations and a way of life centered on the day-to-day necessity of growing and harvesting food. War and violence drive the family to Minnesota, where Bee and his wife do hard, dangerous labor, and are poorly equipped culturally to battle racism and exploitation. But they retain their reverence of family and tradition. The Song Poet is a message of love and thanks to a father who sacrificed for his children’s future, and a memorial to his art.


This review originally ran in the May 17, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 8 flip-flops.

The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks by Terry Tempest Williams

In this phenomenal exploration of U.S. National Parks, Terry Tempest Williams turns her smart, poetic eye to place, history, ecology, the future and how we relate to one another.

hour of land

Celebrated conservationist Terry Tempest Williams (Refuge; When Women Were Birds) commemorates the centennial of the U.S. National Park Service with The Hour of Land: A Personal Topography of America’s National Parks. In 12 chapters, she explores 12 parks, their histories and futures. Ecology forms a natural overarching theme, but Williams’s topics are variously personal, global and political. The places she visits range from Alaska to Maine to south Texas, while her subjects span still broader ground: biodiversity and water shortages; suicide and hopelessness; continuing unrest in U.S. relations with Native Americans; climate change; political prisoners from around the globe; and the legacy of the Civil War. Her writing is poetic, passionate and unexpected.

In each chapter, Williams describes a visit to a specific national park, and then investigates the place and her experience there, sometimes directly through narrative storytelling and sometimes metaphorically. She begins with Grand Teton National Park, where her family has often returned over the decades and generations. The history of that park’s founding and the establishment of the Parks system melds with her family story: “Our national parks are memory palaces where our personal histories reside.” With her father, who spent his career laying pipe for industry and development, and a park superintendent, she tours Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota. Together they birdwatch and debate the balance between fossil fuel extraction and conservation. In Acadia National Park, Williams muses that parks may be “breathing spaces for a society that increasingly holds its breath.” She finds Gettysburg National Battlefield representative of sustained resentments, pain and violence, and at Effigy Mounds National Monument, she encounters cultural heritage and controversy. To escape the pain of Gettysburg and Effigy Mounds, she heads into the desert, to Big Bend National Park.

Gates of the Arctic National Park in Alaska offers escape from a personal tragedy; Gulf Islands National Seashore, in Florida and Mississippi, reveals that the consequences of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill remain, stinking and stinging. Williams visits the exhibit by artist Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz Island in Golden Gate National Recreation Area; the recently established Cesar E. Chavez National Monument; and, of course, her home landscape of Canyonlands National Park in Utah. In Glacier National Park, where the Tempest family tries to celebrate a birthday by retracing old steps, they are instead nearly killed by in a forest fire that sweeps over the chalet where they lodge. In these travels, Williams finds beauty and distress over the future, and opines, “We continue to evolve and transform who we are in relationship to where we are.”

By turns sad, despairing, and hopeful, even thrilled in the presence of natural beauty, The Hour of Land is emotive, intelligent and well traveled. It is only right that Williams should celebrate the Park Service’s centennial with such a remarkable collection of wisdom and scintillating lines.


This review originally ran in the May 13, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 long views.

Journey to Texas, 1833 by Detlef Dunt; trans. by Anders Saustrup, ed. by James C. Kearney & Geir Bentzen

Detlef Thomas Friedrich Jordt was born in the Holstein region of Germany in 1793, and in 1833 immigrated to Texas. He was motivated by a letter from an earlier immigrant, Friedrich Ernst. Although the two were not acquainted, the letter had circulated widely in the region, with an explicit message: that others should join Ernst in a land of promise and opportunity. Jordt’s own experience led him to publish in 1834 a book titled Reise nach Texas, under the pseudonym Detlef Dunt. The first English translation of this travelogue/travel guide was published in 2015 as Journey to Texas, 1833.

This is a varied and informative compilation, including not only Jordt’s original text but significant supplementary material. A translation of Reise nach Texas was found among the papers of the late Anders Saustrup, a recognized scholar of German immigration to Texas. James C. Kearney and Geir Bentzen then took on the project. Their introduction covers Jordt’s family history; the social, political and economic circumstances in Germany that pushed so many to emigrate; the significance of the Ernst letter; and commentary on Jordt’s writing. The translation of Reise nach Texas makes up a little more than half of the volume…

This is just a stub: my full review of Journey to Texas was published in the Spring 2016 issue of Concho River Review. You can subscribe or purchase a single issue by clicking that link.

I’d just like to add that this was an extra fun read for me personally, because I know quite well the area that’s covered in these pages. For many years my parents owned a ranch just a few miles from where Dunt/Jordt is believed to be buried. It felt a little like coming home.


Rating: 6 small towns I used to ride my bike through.

Maximum Shelf: Lily and the Octopus by Steven Rowley

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on May 9, 2016.


Steven Rowley’s first novel, Lily and the Octopus, is a startling, scintillating experience, both funny and emotionally wrenching: a story that shatters all expectations.

lily and the octopus

In the opening lines, narrator Ted Flask introduces his contented home life with his domestic partner, an aging dachshund named Lily. They live in Los Angeles, where Ted works from home, and they are comfortable in their routines: pizza on Sundays, Monopoly on Fridays, talking about cute boys on Thursdays. They have inside jokes, holiday traditions, and an idyllic story of love at first sight. Lily holds up her end of conversations, although as a dog she is of course distractible, and her memory can be short. Her voice is just as we expect a dog to sound. As a puppy (in flashbacks, as in the scene of their first meeting), her breathless enthusiasm comes out in all caps and exclamation points: “IT’S! A! GREAT! TIME! TO! BE! ALIVE!”

As the novel unfolds and Ted fills out as a character, though, it becomes clear that his life is not necessarily well-rounded. He has a therapist he dislikes; he finds her dim-witted, and in his head runs all her advice past his ideal, imaginary therapist. He has panic attacks. His career has stalled. A long-term relationship, ended 18 months ago, continues to haunt him; recent attempts at dating have gone poorly. Until Lily, he worried that he was unable to open up, unable to love. In Ted’s favor, he has a superlative human best friend named Trent, who always comes when called and brings Valium. And, crucially, Ted has Lily. She is the best thing in his disordered and inwardly-turned life.

Those first sentences introducing Lily also introduce the octopus. A new addition to their household, he has a death grip on Lily’s head, and he’s not going anywhere. Like Lily, the octopus talks. Ted wants him to leave, but the octopus will not let Lily go. She begins to have seizures. She weakens.

Ted dreams of an octopusectomy. The vet offers chemotherapy, radiation and surgery, but is not optimistic about Lily’s chances. Ted tries to involve her in the decision-making, but Lily is a dog: her attention span is limited (oh look, red ball!) and, anyway, at 12-and-a-half human years, she has been feeling a little run-down. She rarely speaks in caps anymore. Ted was warned by a vet that, as Lily aged, she would begin to exhibit what he called Enclosed World Syndrome; that is, her perceived world and realm of interest would shrink. It is true, her walks have gotten shorter. Of course, Ted himself has the same malady. As the octopus’s tentacles tighten around Lily’s precious small head, Ted realizes he has a battle on his hands.

It is easy to fear that the market for books about beloved dogs may be flooded, but this one does something new. Lily and the Octopus is its own beast, and the reader is not the same person at the end as at the beginning. In many ways this is the story of Steven Rowley’s life in all its emotional truth, if not in specific, literal details. Ted and Lily’s Los Angeles is a thoroughly realistic setting, but a few elements–most obviously the talking octopus–offer boggling departures. By relying on metaphor, Rowley creates a fantasy world with touches of magical realism, somehow both more affecting and more comforting than reality.

Lily and the Octopus comes with the trappings of humor, canine antics, strong characters and profound emotions. Rowley, who is also a screenwriter, peppers the story with Cate Blanchett, Ryans Gosling and Reynolds, Bradleys Cooper and Milton. Equally prominent are the literary references: Kipling’s jungle, Auden’s “Funeral Blues,” and a reading list to prepare for an octopus hunt: Hemingway, Melville, Patrick O’Brian. The book opens in the spirit of a fun read, but the tone quickly deepens to a sadder and a more intense experience. Ted and Lily’s story centers around relationships: love and life partnership, the nature of commitment and of loss, and what it looks like to fight for one’s friends. As Ted battles the octopus and tries to shore up his darling, he ends up examining every aspect of his own life, his own shortcomings and the strengths he discovers in himself, almost by surprise. His journey, then, is not only about a man and his dog but about breaking out of life’s stalemates. This introspection and interior aspect to the novel is only one of the depths that make it both more than another story about a beloved dog, and more than a whimsical work of fantasy–although it is a superb example of both.

Lily and the Octopus is literary and raw, and relentlessly heartfelt. Questions of who and how we love are at its center and, vitally, the question of how we part. Imaginative, ever-astonishing, suspenseful and wise, Rowley’s surprising novel is thoroughly gut-wrenching, but well worth the pain. With a winning dog at its robust heart, no reader could ask for more.


Rating: 9 moments with the red ball.

Come back tomorrow for my interview with Rowley.

Detroit Hustle: A Memoir of Life, Love, and Home by Amy Haimerl

This memoir of home renovation in Detroit delves into much more, including the importance of place, the meaning of urban revival and the building of lives and loves.

detroit hustle

Journalist Amy Haimerl and her husband, Karl, loved their Red Hook neighborhood in Brooklyn, N.Y., but were facing rising costs and considering relocating. Friends and family were surprised by their choice of famously struggling Detroit, Mich., but they fell in love with a 1914 Georgian Revival (lacking heat, electricity, plumbing, windows and much more), and took the plunge. The house they named Matilda cost them $35,000 to purchase–and exponentially more in renovations.

Detroit Hustle is Haimerl’s memoir of rebuilding Matilda and building her marriage to Karl in parallel. But it is also a musing on what it means for a girl from a working-class family in rural Colorado to move through Mississippi and New York to arrive in the gritty and disparaged city of Detroit. Five weeks after they buy, Detroit declares bankruptcy. Amy covers the court proceedings for Crain’s Detroit Business while researching her new city and its history. Her study of the city yields complexities and contradictions, a portrait of proud residents and the difficulties of gentrification.

Haimerl is thoughtful and reflective about her relationship to place and to the intricacies of Detroit’s past and future; quirky, funny and loving about her marriage; and by turns vexed and inspired by the process of home renovation. Her vivid personality pairs well with the rich, colorful, troubled city she loves. Detroit Hustle is a remarkable memoir spanning home repair, political and culture geographies, and the choices we make for the people, places and things we love.


This review originally ran in the May 6, 2016 issue of Shelf Awareness for Readers. To subscribe, click here, and you’ll receive two issues per week of book reviews and other bookish news.


Rating: 8 dentils.
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