Readers and writers: Three unusual novels

Three novels, including the big PEN award winner, are our good reads today.

“Sometimes Creek”: by Steve Fox (Cornerstone Press, $24.95 paperback).

AAnd it occurs to you that somehow this man can move the darkness. Like pushing a coin across the table with just your thoughts, he can grip the darkness between his fingertips… you’re convinced he got there by opening a crack in the darkness and coming out to join you in your mutual exile. Say hello and share a drink and I understand you. And that soon it will disappear back inside. You know that. — From “Sometimes Creek”

Award-winning author Steve Fox from Wisconsin offers 17 stories in his debut collection. Reading some of these Midwestern pieces is like looking into a cracked mirror—everything seems slightly off-center.

A 10-year-old kid who just threw a hockey game because he hates the kid who allegedly scored on him is visited by a dark-faced homeless man who offers the boy some wisdom. In another story, a man is followed by a swarm of bats, which he calls his little blind flying mice. Speaking of mice, a man at a party goes to the basement for beer and is confronted by a monster mouse that he talks to.
Another strange story is about a man who goes for a walk with his dog, thinking they are all dead, but keeps meeting living people. In a more tender story set in Spain, an American woman says she likes her boyfriend better “in Spanish,” until he leaves and realizes she only wants him. In the last piece, a man newly arrived in a neighborhood who makes a big deal out of Halloween is quieted by a woman who has no candy.

The only story that doesn’t seem to fit in this collection is about what happens to the body of a dog whose head has been thrown off. Most of the other stories are odd; this is unattractive.

Fox is the winner of the Rick Bass Montana Prize for Fiction, the Great Midwest Writing Contest, and a Midwestern Gothic Summer flash contest. His fiction has been published in national literary magazines

Book jacket for "Dr. No"“Dr. Not”: by Percival Everett (Graywolf Press, $16)

“‘You know,’ Trigo said, his puppy chin resting on the side of the tub. – Hegel turned it around. It doesn’t start with a thesis. It starts with the antithesis. Everyone always underestimates negation.

Why are you talking about Hegel? I asked.

– You do not see? he said.” – From “Dr. Not”

This banter between math teacher Wala Kitu and his one-legged dog sums up “Dr. No”, a romp inspired by the first James Bond film with a healthy dose of math and physics thinking. It ranges from women in Pussy Galore-inspired jumpsuits, including a robot, to little zingers like a general named Takitall.

Published by Minneapolis-based Graywolf Press, this inventive and quirky novel earlier this month won the $75,000 PEN/Jean Stein Book Award for originality, merit and impact. In his acceptance speech at the awards ceremony, the author thanked Fiona McCrae, his longtime editor and former Graywolf director/editor.

Wala Kitu, whose name means “nothing” in Tagalog and Swahili, is a black math teacher who specializes in studying nothing and doing nothing about it. This leads to much discussion about the nature of nothingness and what to do with it. Because if you’re not talking about nothing, then it’s something.

Kitu’s expertise draws him into the circle of millionaire John Sill, also Black, whose parents were killed by the police and seeks revenge, but in a cheerful way.

Sill wants to be a James Bond-style villain and pays Kitu $3 million to help him break into Fort Knox to find a shoebox with nothing in it. He also wants to use his space laser to destroy a small town in Massachusetts. But isn’t it already nothing?

Kitu is a 36-year-old bachelor who admits to being “on the spectrum”. He can’t drive, has never touched a woman and takes everything literally. He accepts Sill’s offer, concerned about his fellow astrophysicist Eigen Vector joining them. They live in luxury as they fly to Sill’s homes and learn about Bondish’s toys – helicopters, a submarine.

While this tongue-in-cheek novel can be read simply as fun, it helps to be a fan of the James Bond characters. And with all due respect to the PEN judges, some of the math and physics dialogue slows down the fun. But the trap that sends a guest falling into the shark tank is really cool. So is James Bond.

Book jacket for "The Favorite Daughters"“Favorite Daughters”: by Laurel Osterkamp (Black Rose Writing, $25)

“His blue eyes pierced me. “And yet you remained friends with her.” You became best friends with the girl who admitted to using you. Now you’re working for her mother, which means you’ve used the lie as a springboard for your entire adult life.’” — From “Favorite Daughters”

The tangled world of politics, friendship, and love take center stage in this award-winning novel by the Minneapolis writer about four friends who meet at Columbia University.

Aubrey Adam-Drake is as close to royalty as it gets in the U.S. Her father is a prince of Liechtenstein, her grandfather is a former U.S. president, and her mother is running for the Senate. The beautiful Marina Hunt, who had her own reality show, is the daughter of a high-powered lawyer who defended mob bosses and was the mayor of Atlantic City. The third in their trio is the rich Finn.

Marina and Aubrey befriend Elyse Gibbons, the daughter of a single mother who is way out of the league of the two superstars. But she’s a reporter for the school newspaper, so Marina and Aubrey draw her into their plot to expose a predatory teacher. The women remain friends as Elyse works as a community organizer in her hometown, Aubrey marries and has a child, and Marina marries Finn for political purposes, even though Marina is a lesbian and Finn loves Elyse.

Their friendships are tested when the two powerful Adam-Drake and Hunt families compete for the presidency, and Elyse is caught in the middle when she becomes the youngest woman ever elected to the US House of Representatives. With the help of Aubrey and Marina, she is able to get the ERA legislation passed in the last state that was needed to ratify it. But as the presidential campaigns of her friends’ families heat up, old secrets from college come to light. When Elyse considers running for governor, Aubrey warns her that powerful forces will bring her down. But she ignores them and becomes governor.

Despite their ups and downs since leaving college, Aubrey, Marina and Elyse never break their friendship.

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