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new england literary news | nina maclaughlin

Hometown tales, teenage kicks, renegade rockers, and lone wolves

Kate WiselPaulius Mausteikis

Boston calling

Boston native Kate Wisel’s sharp and propulsive collection of linked stories, “Driving in Cars with Homeless Men” (University of Pittsburgh), out this week, won the 2019 Drue Heinz Literature Prize, which honors books of short fiction and carries a purse of $15,000, selected by National Book Award-winner Min Jee Lee from over 530 entries. These fierce, fiery Boston-set stories are jagged but never jaded. On these familiar streets, a set of characters fling themselves towards and away from trouble: “We jumped, all four at once. In the patch of snow, an emergency of laughter, one hairline fracture.” Wisel’s characters possess a steely wisdom, the kind of smarts born out of bad nights and big hurts, a kind of knowing forged in pain and aimed, ultimately, toward generosity, humor, and love. Wisel writes with a poet’s attention to cadence and precision of description: “The Citgo sign sinks, then disappears completely as we go down through the snake-cage flicker of the underpass.” The city, and its people, live, breathe, and flame on the page.


Teen spirit

Each year, the National Poetry Series sponsors the publication of five books of poetry, and the chosen collections are selected by nationally recognized poets. The Boston-based Beacon Press is publishing one of the 2018 winners this week. Jon Sands’s “It’s Not Magic,” selected by Richard Blanco, moves with a vital, rebellious spirit, looking back at various teenage moments of connection and debauch, its lines hold a tenderness for the past, a curiosity about what came before, and an arresting version of optimism of what might happen next. “I have a spell of this,” he writes, “it’s called Time-Machine. / That’s Latin for I-wish-this-had-gone-differently.” Frenetic, fall-off-the-bench laughter at a Waffle House shifts quickly in the way nights could in the time before reaching a fuller-fledged adulthood: “I throw up in the bathroom before taking my / scattered, smothered, covered hash browns to go, stumble the / full five miles of moonlight back to my own bedroom, weeping / the entire way.” There’s big joy here, heart-clutch rememberings, as Sands asks the simple questions: “What’s an appropriate way / to transition from talking to kissing?”


Breakin’ the law...

Boston musician Jake Brennan combined his fascination with the grimmer, more violent, shadowier parts of music and history in his hugely popular true crime podcast “Disgraceland,” which tells the stories of rock stars behaving very, very badly. And here, “badly” doesn’t mean smashing up a hotel room or doing lines of coke in the bathroom. It means murder, rape, cannibalism, incest. He’s turned the podcast into a book and “Disgraceland: Musicians Getting Away with Murder and Behaving Very Badly” (Grand Central) is a “stylized interpretation” of some of the moments of “rock ’n’ roll animalism,” looking at Elvis, Gram Parsons, Lisa “Left Eye” Lopes, Sam Cooke, and Axl Rose, among others, “melding true crime and transgressive fiction and aligning the musicians, the music they made, and the crimes they committed with the mythology that surrounds them.” Brennan will discuss the book on Monday at 6 p.m. at the Coolidge Corner Theater in Brookline.

Coming Out

“Cross/Fire” by Staceyann Chin (Haymarket)

“The Promise” by Silvina Ocampo, translated from the Spanish by Suzanne Jill Levine and Jessica Powell (City Lights)

“The Nothing That Is: Essays on Art, Literature and Being” by Johanna Skibsrud (Book*hug)

Pick of the Week

Val Arroyo of the Brewster Book Store recommends “American Wolf” by Nate Blakeslee (Crown): “This offers insight into the often diverging perspectives of biologists, environmentalists, ranchers, hunters, and politicians surrounding the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone. The choice to tell this story as a kind of biography of the rise and reign of one wolf, an alpha-female known as O-Six, described as ‘the most famous wolf in the world’ and a ‘once in a generation hunter’ make this story come alive.”


Nina MacLaughlin is the author of “Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter.” She can be reached at nmaclaughlin@gmail.com.