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FICTION

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The Angel Esmeralda: Nine Stories
Don DeLillo
Scribner; 213 pp.

Whether Don DeLillo's work resembles the world, or the world just resembles Don DeLillo, his first collection of short stories after 15 novels feels like nine tiny pockets of reality. The first story, written in 1979, is reminiscent of Hemingway, albeit with a slight postmodern twist: A couple is trapped on an island, perpetually stuck on the standby list as every flight leaves without them. Each story that follows seems to contain a setting that is its own kind of island—a small college town, a space craft, a minimum security prison, a ghetto, even a man's own mind. As the book spans DeLillo's writing from 1979 to 2011, the characters seem to become more introspective and philosophical. The strangest story in the collection, "Hammer and Sickle," deals with the recent financial collapse, evoking the surreal feel of the ongoing crisis. Two children, acting as anchors on a cable news program, announce the financial ills of Greece and speculate on the future of Dubai as they are watched by their father and other white-collar criminals, all guilty of various financial schemes, in a minimum security prison. DeLillo's tiny reporters play with the rhythm and sound of the language: "Deutsche Bank." "Down." "London—the FTSE One Hundred Index." "Down." "Amsterdam—ING Group." "Down." "The Hang Seng in Hong Kong." "Crude Oil. Islamic bonds." "Down, down, down." The children speak terms they don't understand, in a song-like rhythm, to an audience that can't do anything, while the world burns. The collection doubles as both a great introduction to one of America's most influential contemporary writers and a long-awaited treat for his many fans. —Jaimee Hills

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11/22/1963
Stephen King
Scribner; 849 pp.

Like his last novel, 2009's ecologically minded Under the Dome, King's latest is something of a departure from the horror genre that made him famous. Although blood, guts and the usual bodily effluvia do make prominent appearances within the novel's 850 pages, for the most part King is again trying his hand at science fiction—and as a consequence the horror in 11/22/1963 is less corporeal than philosophical, even cosmic.

The sci-fi premise that drives the book is simple: crawl deep enough into the back storeroom of Al's Diner in Lisbon Falls, Maine, and you'll come out in an empty field in September 1958. Stay as long as you like—1958 may smell worse than the present, but it tastes much, much better—and no matter how long you were gone, when you come back to 2011 it'll be just two minutes after you left.

As the suggestive title makes clear, King's hero quickly decides to use this oddly specific wormhole to change history for the better. The Kennedy assassination is a "watershed event," a crisis point that a well-prepared time traveler could singlehandedly prevent. All he'll have to do is wait five years in the past, confirm Oswald acted alone and murder him before he can do the job. Unfortunately, it turns out the past doesn't want to be changed—it fights back.

Fifty years after the Kennedy assassination, and 40 years into King's literary career, Stephen King is still the absolute best at what he does—and 11/22/1963 ranks among the best-paced and best-plotted of his books as it barrels toward its inevitable November climax. No one writes a potboiler like King: I essentially read the book nonstop from start to finish, stopping halfway through only to buy a second copy for my dad. For history nerds and sci-fi geeks, this gift can't miss. —Gerry Canavan

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I Want My Hat Back
Jon Klassen
Candlewick Press, 40pp.

There is a bizarre alchemy to this first writing-illustrating effort from children's book author Jon Klassen. The story is blindingly simple: A wide-eyed, seemingly mouthless bear has lost his hat and politely asks other wide-eyed, seemingly mouthless animals if they have seen it, only to get a series of negative responses ... particularly from a very surly rabbit, who is wearing a hat himself. Eventually the bear has an epiphany that leads to a hilarious albeit dark ending. There is nothing more to the book than these simple drawings and prose, but Klassen brings a sense of deadpan comic timing to the proceedings that will make both children and the adults reading the story to them laugh out loud. Who knows, for some young readers it might be their first exposure to the concepts of dark humor and dramatic irony. And the appeal to older readers is clear; this has apparently started an Internet meme of artists drawing various fictional characters without their hats going "I Want My Hat Back." We don't quite understand this either. Sometimes a bear looking for a hat is just a bear looking for a hat. —Zack Smith

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Lost Memory of Skin
Russell Banks
HarperCollins; 416 pp.

A stifling study in alienation, Banks' latest delves deeply into two people who are completely isolated for very different reasons. The Kid, a convicted sex offender who spent most of his adolescence awash in Internet porn and, despite his conviction, has never had sex of any kind, lives under a bridge in a South Florida city. The Professor, a compulsive eater and liar, is an accomplished academic who takes a seemingly professional interest in the Kid's circumstances. Neither man can come close to achieving any meaningful contact with another human, and if that sounds like an unpleasant read, well, it is and it isn't. Whenever despair and emotional claustrophobia threaten to overwhelm the plot, Banks gently draws the reader back in with treatises on South Florida swampland, the impossible situation faced by sex offenders required to stay a certain distance from schools and parks and daycare centers in cities where that can't be done, and the relative rarity of self-awareness. —Forrest Norman

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420 Characters
Lou Beach
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 170 pp.

If I told you a fledgling writer had published his first book of poetry, you might not even finish this sentence. If I told you surrealist illustrator Lou Beach had ripped the best of his made-up status updates from Facebook (back when those updates were limited to 420 characters), it would no doubt pique your interest. Add in a sampling of Beach's Magritte-inspired collages, and you'll find yourself in a full-court press with literati like NPR over how fast you should rush out and pick up this book.

Beach, whose illustrations appear in Wired and The New Yorker, is best known for his album covers dating back to the '70s. His surrealist constructs for Weather Report and Brian Eno made you feel high even if you didn't smoke dope. For 420 Characters, Beach turned to prose, meticulously crafting fictional vignettes with the same attention he brings to his collages. Some are surreal or noir—all melting eyeball and smoking gun—but many are poignant slice of life, full of bittersweet observation. They are not always successful but never not interesting.

With only one entry per page, the collection comes off as featherweight at first, and you could easily plow through the entries in short order. This would be unsatisfying though, as each tale seems designed to be read in isolation. Indeed, Beach's stories are not as effective together as, I imagine, they would be popping in at random on your Facebook feed, a chocolate-covered non sequitur each afternoon.

Clearly 420 Characters is a gift book, one you purchase for that hard-to-buy-for creative type on your holiday list. Just be sure to pick up a copy soon enough to read it yourself before you wrap it. —JP Trostle


POETRY

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The Great Enigma
Tomas Tranströmer; trans. Robin Fulton
New Directions; 262 pp.

The new collected poems for the 2011 winner of the Nobel Prize in literature include 13 previous collections and a prose memoir—more than 50 years of work, which is a lot to fit into 262 pages. Primarily a nature poet, Tranströmer is at times minimalist, at times epic, writing both haiku and book-long poems. His impressive metaphors are loaded into every page, drawing the reader into fantastical descriptions of reality. But his surreal imagery describes very real things; in fact the Nobel selection committee singled out precisely this feature of Tranströmer's work, saying his "condensed, translucent images" give us "fresh access to reality." In the poem "From the Island, 1860," the evocative line "Her tears froze into a pair of glasses" describes an obvious impossibility—but also a metaphor for tear-blurred vision, or the pall of sadness in one's view. The poem "Homeward" has a similar moment when "A telephone call ran out in the night and glittered over the countryside." There is whimsy in his metaphors even when he discusses a darker political subject, as in the poem "National Insecurity," which begins: "The Undersecretary leans forward and draws an X/ and her eardrops dangle like swords of Damocles." The breadth of this lifelong work can go from an imagined gondola ride between Franz Liszt and Wagner (father and son-in-law) to the simplicity of "Winter's Gaze," in which he describes what happens when "A sudden chill, from a great distance, meets me./ The moment blackens/ and remains like an axe-cut in a tree trunk." —Jaimee Hills

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Head Off & Split
Nikky Finney
TriQuarterly; 80 pp.

"We begin with history: the slave codes of South Carolina." That's how Nikki Finney opened her acceptance speech for the National Book Award for poetry last month—a text itself more intense, relevant to everyday life, and, well, poetic than most poems you've ever read. Finney's fourth book, Head Off & Split, sustains that incantatory intensity through conversations with African-American figures such as Rosa Parks and Condi Rice. Her voice is particularly affecting when she uses it to directly address crucial events in black history. In "Left," Finney uses the children's choosing-sides rhyme "Eenee Menee Mainee Mo" as a disembodied refrain throughout a description of a woman abandoned on the roof of a house flooded by Hurricane Katrina. With persistently refocusing line breaks, the poem indicts the helicopter pilot who shoots footage of—but doesn't help—the woman, who holds up a misspelled sign for help. The helicopter "catches all of this on patriotic tape, / but does not land, and does not drop dictionary, / or ladder." Finney zooms in breathtakingly close to everything she considers and, holding your head steady in gentle but vise-strong hands, never lets you look away. —Chris Vitiello

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