PEN World Voices Stand-Up Critics #4: Lev Grossman

By Jane Ciabattari

Between now and May 1, 2011, the PEN World Voices Festival presents a team of National Book Critics Circle Stand-Up Critics. These influential and celebrated American critics will appear before every Festival event with the intention to enhance Festival audience already-extensive list of must-reads. These six tireless servants of literature will rotate throughout the week to suggest individual lists of thirty meticulously tested titles. The Stand-up Critics will present  1) a contemporary novel 2) a translated book 3) a classic 4) a small/indie press title and 5) a surprise! For more information, see the PEN World Voices Festival website, See #5 here tomorrow.

Recommendations from Lev Grossman

Contemporary novel: The Financial Lives of the Poets, by Jess Walter (Harper). One of contemporary fiction's most criminally underrated writers, Walter is deceptively light on his feet, but when he lands his punches, they crush. This one's about a suburban journalist whose life falls apart during the recession. He tries dealing pot to fix things. Amazingly, that just makes them worse.

Translation: 2666, by Roberto Bolano, translated by Natasha Wimmer (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). This is the rare international sensation that is not overrated. A city-sized literary labyrinth encompassing a mysterious German novelist, a Mexican serial killer, love, hope, despair, and disappointment. It's like a Borges story that exploded. Maybe the one thing it doesn't contain is the number 2666.

Classic: Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh (Everyman’s Library). England's analog of The Great Gatsby, where instead of Daisy we have the charming, beautiful, alcoholic Sebastian, the doomed scion of a wealthy Catholic family, and instead of money we have God. For pure glitter and sadness, not to mention hilarious cruelty, nothing can touch it.

Small/indie press: Ventriloquism, by Catherynne Valente (PS Publishing). Don't pretend you've heard of her, because you haven't. But you will. Everybody who's serious about literary fantasy knows that Valente is the next big thing. These are her collected stories, which definitively prove that at 31 she can already do anything.

Surprise! The Great Outdoor Fight, by Chris Onstad (Dark Horse comics). Three days! Three acres! Three thousand men! Only one will win the Great Outdoor Fight! This is essentially a lavishly beautiful print-out of a series of comic strips originally published on the Web, and they are an example of why genius in any form is still genius.