A mix of great setups and occasionally frustrating misfires.

F*CKING ARGENTINA AND 10 MORE TALES OF EXASPERATION

A debut collection of short stories featuring characters with even shorter tempers.

Greenberg’s set of 11 tales starts with a dictionary definition of “exasperation,” and that “feeling of intense irritation or annoyance” radiates from each of these quick narratives. In the tradition of essayists such as David Sedaris and TV shows like HBO’s Curb Your Enthusiasm, Greenberg tells stories of highly neurotic antiheroes and their outsized responses to life’s little problems. In the opener, Mitchell Weinberger, a divorced father, suffers through small talk with overbearing parents at his child’s back-to-school gathering. In “Panic in Shubert Alley,” a nameless man runs around New York City’s Times Square theater district looking for his forgetful mother’s purse, and in “A Side of Exasperation on the NJ Turnpike,” a desperate dad finds himself trapped in a drive-thru while trying to order hamburgers. Greenberg consistently keeps to his theme, but in some works, he stretches into particularly imaginative displays of irritability, as when he constructs  an entire story out of text messages between a husband and wife, or personifies the entire nation of Argentina as a deadbeat friend. The author effectively marshals a wide array of annoyances, but a standout appears in “The Last Couples Dinner,” in which a woman faces off against an “X+1”—a man who feels compelled to one-up everything anyone else says. There are several mentions of the Covid-19 crisis over the course of the book, which cleverly link the tales to the collective exhaustion of the past year. Despite the stories’ extremely short lengths, Greenberg occasionally manages to kindle slow burns of awkward irritation, as in his reveal of a subway stench in “Malodor on the Number Five Express.” However, several jokes don’t quite connect, including a Billy Joel–based breakup that turns into a list of lyrics, and as the title implies, the author often relies too much on expletives to get laughs.

A mix of great setups and occasionally frustrating misfires.

Pub Date: Feb. 24, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-09-835799-3

Page Count: 108

Publisher: BookBaby

Review Posted Online: Jan. 21, 2021

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A whimsical fantasy about learning what’s important in life.

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THE MIDNIGHT LIBRARY

An unhappy woman who tries to commit suicide finds herself in a mysterious library that allows her to explore new lives.

How far would you go to address every regret you ever had? That’s the question at the heart of Haig’s latest novel, which imagines the plane between life and death as a vast library filled with books detailing every existence a person could have. Thrust into this mysterious way station is Nora Seed, a depressed and desperate woman estranged from her family and friends. Nora has just lost her job, and her cat is dead. Believing she has no reason to go on, she writes a farewell note and takes an overdose of antidepressants. But instead of waking up in heaven, hell, or eternal nothingness, she finds herself in a library filled with books that offer her a chance to experience an infinite number of new lives. Guided by Mrs. Elm, her former school librarian, she can pull a book from the shelf and enter a new existence—as a country pub owner with her ex-boyfriend, as a researcher on an Arctic island, as a rock star singing in stadiums full of screaming fans. But how will she know which life will make her happy? This book isn't heavy on hows; you won’t need an advanced degree in quantum physics or string theory to follow its simple yet fantastical logic. Predicting the path Nora will ultimately choose isn’t difficult, either. Haig treats the subject of suicide with a light touch, and the book’s playful tone will be welcome to readers who like their fantasies sweet if a little too forgettable.

A whimsical fantasy about learning what’s important in life.

Pub Date: Sept. 29, 2020

ISBN: 978-0-52-555947-4

Page Count: 336

Publisher: Viking

Review Posted Online: July 14, 2020

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1, 2020

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A welcome literary resurrection that deserves a place alongside Wright’s best-known work.

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THE MAN WHO LIVED UNDERGROUND

A falsely accused Black man goes into hiding in this masterful novella by Wright (1908-1960), finally published in full.

Written in 1941 and '42, between Wright’s classics Native Son and Black Boy, this short novel concerns Fred Daniels, a modest laborer who’s arrested by police officers and bullied into signing a false confession that he killed the residents of a house near where he was working. In a brief unsupervised moment, he escapes through a manhole and goes into hiding in a sewer. A series of allegorical, surrealistic set pieces ensues as Fred explores the nether reaches of a church, a real estate firm, and a jewelry store. Each stop is an opportunity for Wright to explore themes of hope, greed, and exploitation; the real estate firm, Wright notes, “collected hundreds of thousands of dollars in rent from poor colored folks.” But Fred’s deepening existential crisis and growing distance from society keep the scenes from feeling like potted commentaries. As he wallpapers his underground warren with cash, mocking and invalidating the currency, he registers a surrealistic but engrossing protest against divisive social norms. The novel, rejected by Wright’s publisher, has only appeared as a substantially truncated short story until now, without the opening setup and with a different ending. Wright's take on racial injustice seems to have unsettled his publisher: A note reveals that an editor found reading about Fred’s treatment by the police “unbearable.” That may explain why Wright, in an essay included here, says its focus on race is “rather muted,” emphasizing broader existential themes. Regardless, as an afterword by Wright’s grandson Malcolm attests, the story now serves as an allegory both of Wright (he moved to France, an “exile beyond the reach of Jim Crow and American bigotry”) and American life. Today, it resonates deeply as a story about race and the struggle to envision a different, better world.

A welcome literary resurrection that deserves a place alongside Wright’s best-known work.

Pub Date: April 20, 2021

ISBN: 978-1-59853-676-8

Page Count: 240

Publisher: Library of America

Review Posted Online: March 17, 2021

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 1, 2021

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