Michael Patrick Brady


Find Me | Laura van den Berg

February 17, 2015


My review of Find Me by Laura van den Berg appeared today in the Boston Globe.

Last year, when I was trying to psych myself up to write some fiction, I picked up a few lit mags from the Harvard Book Store. I was looking for inspiration–by which I mean I was hoping to find stories that were kind of lame and underwhelming, to make writing and getting a short story published seem like an attainable goal.

Unfortunately, the very first story I read was Laura van den Berg’s “Antarctica,” from Glimmer Train #88. (The story also appears in her collection The Isle of Youth.) It was way too good; so when I saw that she had a novel coming out this winter, I jumped at the chance to review it.

Find Me is a little bit of a bait-and-switch. Promoted as a story about a devastating pandemic, it is, in fact, a very subtle exploration of a troubled woman’s inner turmoil. Van den Berg spends the first third of the book setting up a rather scary and ominous scenario in a remote quarantine hospital, with hints of menace that echo the unease and mystery that made “Antarctica” so engaging. But despite what seems like a long buildup toward a conflict between the stir-crazy patients and the controlling staff, this story line peters out, and the protagonist, Joy Jones, slips away to take up the book’s real main thread: the search for her long lost biological mother.

I’ll admit, this development bummed me out. I’d gotten really invested in the detailed world of the hospital van den Berg had created, and to see it dismissed so quickly seemed like a real shame. And that disappointment made it hard for me to really latch on to Joy’s cross-country travels, or her time spent in the kooky “Mansion.” But after a few days away from the book, I began to appreciate the whole of the story, and the connections between the disparate sections started to become more apparent.

Basically, once I got over that Find Me wasn’t what I thought it should be, I was able to appreciate it for what it actually was.


Refund: Stories | Karen E. Bender

January 14, 2015

My review of Karen E. Bender’s short story collection, Refund ran today in the Boston Globe.

When I visited Milan and Venice last year, I noticed that both cities were rife with graffiti, most of it with a political bent. Milan’s graffiti was loopy, messy, and from what I could tell, it was mostly aimed at expressing displeasure with a planned high-speed train project in the region (“NO TAV“).

In Venice, I saw more stenciling than tagging, and the political objectives were broader and more philosophical.

One of the spraypainted stencils read: PRECARIETA’ = SCHIAVITU.

When I got home and looked it up, I discovered it translated to “Insecurity = Slavery,” with “insecurity” more specifically denoting temporary worker status. The premise of the slogan is that those who toil in temporary jobs, with no benefits and no job protections or security, are slaves, beholden to the whims of their employers, who can threaten them into compliance with the prospect of unemployment and certain ruin. These workers are known among economists as the precariat, which is a portmanteau of “precarious” and “proletariat.”


There’s nothing explicitly political about Refund (aside from the fact that it’s being published by Counterpoint). But it concerns characters who clearly fit into the “precariat” class, who struggle to understand their value as people in a world that measures everything in money.

Bender’s prose is light and unassuming. Prosaic. At first, I found myself bored by the simplicity, and bored by the rather mundane happenings that her stories detailed. But by the end, I realized that the things that seemed so boring about the stories were, in fact, deeply tragic. It’s just that we’ve become inured to the indignities that people have had to endure during the latest recession: the layoffs, the loss of benefits, the underwater mortgages, and the predatory scammers who seek to take advantage of those who are at the end of their rope. Refund reflects our struggling world back at us, and dares us to take a step back and really consider that things haven’t always been this way. And that maybe they don’t have to be.


Against the Country | Ben Metcalf

January 6, 2015

My review of Ben Metcalf’s Against the Country ran today in the Boston Globe.

In college, I once received a note from a professor: “Embrace the beauty of the simple sentence.” I laughed. I knew what he meant. I also had no intention of taking his note. I love rich, complex sentences that pack a lot of ideas into a single thought.

I like them in the literature I read, and, perhaps unwisely, I like to use them in the writing I do (though in recent years, I’ve tried to be more mindful of my professor’s words).

Ben Metcalf clearly loves thick, complex prose. And he’s pretty good at writing it, too. Looking back at his essays for Harpers, they’re full of the same kind of long, elaborate sentences and descriptions that make up the core of his first novel, Against the Country. But it’s one thing to make that style (and its accompanying cynical tone) work over the course of a 5,000 word essay. It’s quite another to keep it up for several hundred pages.

Against the Country is the story of an unnamed narrator’s difficult childhood in Goochland County, Virginia, a rural backwater depicted in the most hyperbolic manner imaginable, to better express the protagonist’s belief that it is hell on Earth. Metcalf’s prose is the star of the book. Far more so than the main character, who comes off as relentlessly grim and unlikeable, or the general thrust of the narrative, which is that rural communities are full of barely human idiots.

But after two-hundred pages or so, it becomes tiring to fight your way through his admittedly fascinating prose only to end up at some dismal dead end, rewarded only with another sullen conclusion that someone is a moron. At least in the beginning, the examination of Goochland’s strange folkways is interesting, in much the same way that gawking at a car crash has some macabre appeal. Once the book narrowed its focus, however, to the relationship between the narrator and his father, the stylized prose wasn’t enough to maintain my interest.

The book closes with a ponderous appendix that gives short biographies of all the dogs owned by the narrator’s family. I wasn’t sure if it was meant to be a parody of Faulkner’s appendix to The Sound and the Fury, but I figure it must be. It felt really superfluous, so I found myself reaching for some rationale for its inclusion. That’s the best I could come up with.


“Here, Hereafter” in Smokelong Quarterly

September 15, 2014

I’m excited to announce that Smokelong Quarterly has selected my (very) short story, “Here, Hereafter” for publication.

It’s something of a ghost story. Something like that. And it’s only 318 words, so it won’t take you long to read. After wrestling with a few seven-to-ten thousand word stories for the last several months, it was refreshing to do something so short, and I’m glad it struck a nerve with the editors at Smokelong.

As an added bonus, the story is accompanied by an excellent illustration by my very own sister, Laura Lee Brady.


No Future for You: Salvos from The Baffler

August 22, 2014


My review of No Future for You, the latest collection of essays from The Baffler ran today in the Boston Globe.

It’s nineteen essays of highly literate doom and gloom from some of the left’s heaviest hitters, like Rick Perlstein and Barbara Ehrenreich, representing the best of The Baffler‘s new era. Now, a lot of people were probably introduced to The Baffler via Steve Albini’s epic “The Problem With Music,” but the article that made me a believer was Joshua Glenn’s “I’d Like to Force the World to Sing,” a fanciful, paranoid examination of how OK Soda was a CIA plot to instill conservative values in ’90s youth.

In their impossible quest to conjure up a cadre of conservative youth who’d rebel against a Sixties they’d never known, [William] Kristol and Co., the theory maintains, conspired to dose Generation X with the concentrated essence of what they called “OK-ness.”

Now, as ridiculous as this may seem, I was actually somewhat receptive to this argument. In 1993, I was 10 years old and had just gone to my very first Red Sox game with my father. On the way home, we stopped in a convenience store. The old man behind the counter greeted us and mentioned in passing that he had recently received two new beverages from Coca Cola that were being tested in the Boston market: OK Soda and Fruitopia. He offered me one of each, for free. Only after reading the essay did I consider the sinister undertones of this “free” gift.

Frutopia was fine, but I really took to OK Soda (despite the playground rumor that it was simply a mixture of the runoff of every other Coca Cola drink). I was very taken with the can art, which I would later discover was designed by Ghost World‘s Daniel Clowes. The whole marketing campaign was expertly crafted to appeal to little kids like me, who had an interest in the underground but were far too young to participate or even know where to begin. Hidden in Glenn’s inventive theorizing is a thorough dismantling of that marketing campaign, a great example of how you can effectively merge creative non-fiction and serious criticism.

Now, there’s nothing nearly that entertaining in No Future for You. The tone and style of the contemporary Baffler is much harsher and more downcast. But, you know, so are the times we live in. And the criticism in the book, of our mercenary media, of the Silicon Valley charlatans, and other guardians of entrenched privilege, is as incisive as ever. You can’t blame the magazine for not having as much of a sense of humor about it anymore.


Reissue: Cover Commentary

May 20, 2014

I’ve taken my old article about the comment stickers from WZBC’s vinyl archive (originally published in Stylus Magazine) and given it the Medium treatment.

Hard to believe it’s over 10 years old. I’ve enhanced the article with the actual scans of the comment stickers described throughout, and added several bonus covers, including scans of the comments for Sonic Youth’s Bad Moon Rising and Daydream Nation.

Seemed like a nice way to breathe some new life into the piece and get familiar with the Medium platform.


Bridj to Nowhere

April 11, 2014

“Data driven bus service set to roll out,” writes today’s Globe. “Venture aims to predict rider’s needs.”

The story goes on to describe Bridj, a new private bus service that will ferry riders around Boston from point A to point B with no stops in between, for roughly $5 to $8 a trip. Its founder, Matthew George, says that he “considers Bridj a ‘relief valve’ for the MBTA, not a competitor,” but if that’s true, then I don’t think he’s considered the potential effects his project will have on the transit system and the people of this city.

The initial Bridj routes are planned to run express between the Hynes Convention Center and Harvard Square (the route of the MBTA’s #1 bus), and Coolidge Corner to Harvard Square (MBTA #66) or Kendall Square (Green “C” Line to the #1 @ Hynes or the Red Line @ Park).

I don’t know, that pretty much sounds like direct competition to me.

Let’s be honest about what Bridj is. It’s not a way to make transportation easier for Boston’s commutters. It’s a way to let a certain class of commutter, the kind who attend Harvard, or live in Coolidge Corner and the Back Bay, or who work for a tech company in Kendall Square, to get where they need to go without having to mix with the proles who live at all the stops in between. Because unless you’re one of those people, you’re going to have to take the T to get to a Bridj hub anyway.

And with Bridj’s initial plan taking a fairly big chunk out of some of the MBTA’s prime routes, that’s going to hurt the MBTA’s bottom line. Which means increased fares and cuts in service. If the MBTA begins to falter, is Bridj going to start picking up the slack? What happens to the people who pick up the #66 bus in Lower Allston? Will we ever get a direct Bridj route from Fields Corner to Kenmore Square, which might actually cover ground the MBTA doesn’t?

Honestly, I find the blithe way that the “no stops along the way” strategy is described in the article disturbing. “With no stops along the way, travel times would be faster on Bridj than on the T,” said George.

Yes, but for whom?

I’m reminded of a line from a Nick Kristoff op-ed in the New York Times about the money people are willing to spend on individual disaster preparedness, when they’d balk at supporting broader solutions through their taxes:

That’s how things often work in America. Half-a-century of tax cuts focused on the wealthiest Americans leave us with third-rate public services, leading the wealthy to develop inefficient private workarounds.

And to me, that’s Bridj in a nutshell. It creates a two-tiered system of transit and serves only the affluent, with no concern for the cascading consequences that will affect the people left waiting for a bus that’s never going to come. Or that they can’t afford to board.

The MBTA isn’t perfect, but it works in aggregate. It works for as many people as it can, and there’s some give and take in that. Some things suffer: some days you might wait too long for a bus, or the train breaks down, or you are victim of one of those “switch problems” that seem to crop up at the most inconvenient times. The MBTA could easily do what Bridj does; it would just have to stop serving the vast majority of Bostonians. If that were the case, the rides would be smooth, the seats could be comfy, and Wi-Fi would be plentiful. But it wouldn’t be right. And it wouldn’t be good for Boston.


Bad Teeth | Dustin Long

March 25, 2014


My review of Dustin Long’s Bad Teeth ran today in the Boston Globe.

Long’s second novel falls squarely into postmodern novel territory, with a distinct Crying of Lot 49 vibe. It’s not nearly as detailed or deep as Pynchon, but what is? Bad Teeth looks to emulate the style, but doesn’t overreach, and the result is a really fun, wide-ranging story whose ultimate point is how pointless everything seems nowadays.

What I liked most about the book was how Long depicted the relationship his cast of millennial characters have with social media. They blog, they tweet, and they use Facebook, and they do so in a way that’s completely unobtrusive and germane to their lifestyle. I feel like references to youth culture often seem shoehorned into narratives, or are shown in an odd light, as if the writer doesn’t really have any first-hand experience with it. Like they are writing about young people based on how they’re portrayed in David Brooks columns. Long, however, seems to get it, and it’s really refreshing to read a story that feels like it’s set in the world as I know it.

One thing of note: about halfway through the book, it’s revealed that the narrative we’re reading isn’t being told from a third-person omniscient perspective. Instead, it’s being told by one of the characters within it. So the main character’s name, Judas, is thrown into a different light when you discover that the narrator is someone who was betrayed by the main character.

I’m not a huge fan of these metafictional touches. Nathaniel Rich’s Odds Against Tomorrow uses the exact same device (as does Roth’s American Pastoral, where the details of Swede Levov’s tragic life are entirely the creation of Nathan Zuckerman’s imagination). And I’m left wondering, does this approach add anything to these stories? In Roth’s case, maybe, but I think you could probably remove the unreliable narrators from all three books and just let the stories stand on their own with no ill effect. They might even be stronger for it.


North of Boston | Elisabeth Elo

January 27, 2014

My review of North of Boston by Elisabeth Elo ran today in the Boston Globe.

I’ve never been a fan of James Bond movies. Apart from the cartoonish stories and retrograde sexism, I just never found James Bond very interesting as a character. He’s pure wish fulfillment, a man who’s handsome, with intellectual and physical faculties that allow him to surmount any obstacle, is permitted to bend and break the law at his own discretion in the service of his goals, and can have any woman he wants.

He’s entirely characterized by superficialities, and utterly lacking in depth. It’s like a maladjusted 11-year-old boy’s fantasy.

I’ve also never been a fan of genre fiction, which I find to be plagued by the kind of writing I describe above. To make a big overgeneralization, it always strikes me as shallow archetypes moving through fairly banal plot loaded with “surprise” twists you can see coming well in advance. So maybe I wasn’t the target audience for “North of Boston.” In fact, I definitely wasn’t. So if you know you enjoy genre fiction, or thrillers in general, take my criticism with a grain of salt.

The book’s protagonist, Pirio Kasparaov, is, like James Bond, great at everything. She’s attractive, well read, and fairly affluent, the beneficiary of her family’s successful perfume company, where she works as an executive. But she’s also a down-to-earth gal who hangs out with fisherman and other blue collar types at seedy dives, and volunteers to bait fishing traps on a boat in Boston Harbor for her friend’s ex husband because hey, why not? What perfume company executive doesn’t like to moonlight as a chum jockey?

But Pirio’s all-around excellence doesn’t stop there. Elo also gives her superpowers, such as the ability to identify minute traces of obscure scents, and an imperviousness to hypothermia; naturally, she encounters situations in which the only clue is a faint aroma of cologne and in which she must swim across a freezing, arctic bay.

“North of Boston” might not have been so frustrating if Pirio didn’t enter every life-threatening situation seeming to know that she wasn’t in any real danger. More than once, she finds herself in circumstances that would terrify or frighten a normal human, and she never seems to process how serious they are. As a reader, this confused me, until I realized that the situations actually weren’t very serious. Because Pirio’s specialness pretty much ensured that she’d have no trouble getting out of it, and made it impossible to generate any real tension.


Communion Town | Sam Thompson

December 17, 2013

My review of Sam Thompson’s Communion Town ran today in the Boston Globe.

Purportedly a novel, the book consists of 10 stories, each focused on a different protagonist, and all set in the same imaginary city. Though, the details and inner workings of the city are so slippery and malleable that it’s often difficult to see any cohesion from chapter to chapter.

Thompson is obviously a well-read writer, and Communion Town offers the highly literate reader a fun game of “spot the influence,” as it skips and jumps between genres, styles, and allusions. There are homages to Raymond Chandler and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and nods to Italo Calvino and China Miéville. Thompson tries his hand at serial-killer thrillers, romance, and surrealism. His strongest story is the one that seems most his own, “The Song of Serelight Fair.” In it, a down-on-his-luck songwriter strikes up a love affair with a well-to-do lady. The characters are brilliant, and the city begins to feel like a real, living, breathing place, albeit one with an air of mystery and magic about it. Thompson’s prose is smart and engaging, though he occasionally lets his words run away with his sentences.

Communion Town is evidence of deep talent, and when Thompson does finally write a novel and lets his own voice rise above the references, it’s sure to be worth reading.


My Favorite Books of 2013

December 14, 2013
The Color Master
Aimee Bender

“Like her previous collections, “The Girl in the Flammable Skirt” and “Willful Creatures,” “The Color Master” explores transgressions of custom, where characters — most often women — dare to step outside their expected roles, and transgressions of reality, where she employs subtle surrealism to create moments of vivid tension.”
Read my review at the Boston Globe

Joan Silber

““The paths of love,” writes Joan Silber, “are long and complicated.” In “Fools,” her latest collection of short fiction, Silber invites readers to meander along those paths, through six interconnected stories that span a century, as her characters search for personal peace in the midst of a turbulent world.”
Read my review at the Boston Globe

Odds Against Tomorrow
Nicholas Rich

“Rich is an imaginative storyteller himself, and his vivid vignettes are peppered with factoids that seem just true enough to be frightening. He shows a bit of prescience in his plotting, setting the climax of the book in New York City in the midst of Hurricane Tammy, whose devastating winds and floodwaters [resemble] Superstorm Sandy.”
Read my review at the Boston Globe


Double Down | Mark Halperin & John Heilemann

November 12, 2013

My review of Double Down: Game Change 2012 ran today in the Boston Globe.

Back in 2010, when Game Change came out, I had resolved to avoid the book mainly because I had no use for Mark Halperin. I knew him as the man behind “The Note,” a particularly noxious political roundup that pandered to the worst impulses of its audience of entrenched insiders. But when I finally caved and picked up the book, I was stunned by how engrossing it was. Halperin and Heilemann really captured what was great about the 2008 election, and their portrayals of the Obamas, the Clintons, and the Edwardses were riveting (not to mention their autopsy on the dysfunctional McCain/Palin campaign).

The book was great, maybe in spite of the authors, because the story was so great. You really couldn’t mess it up. As I mention in the review, Double Down suffers a bit because the characters just aren’t as interesting as they were in 2008. The Republican challengers, in addition to being terrible people, are terrible candidates. There’s not a likable, or even sympathetic, one in the bunch. Halperin and Heilemann try and fill the gaps by overwriting with overwrought similes and analogies, most of which are laughably distracting.

But there’s good gossip here. Much of it aimed at the thorns in Mitt Romney’s side, likely dealt out by Romney surrogates looking for revenge. Chris Christie, John Huntsman, and Newt Gingrich all get an extensive working over. So while it’s not the grand, transcendent story that Game Change was, Double Down still manages to offer a little entertainment for those who enjoy the behind-the-scenes insights Halperin and Heilemann are so adept at scrounging up.


The Color Master | Aimee Bender

August 20, 2013

My review of The Color Master by Aimee Bender ran today in the Boston Globe.

Bender’s offbeat stories reminded me somewhat of Ben Loory, another writer who bends genres and takes pleasure in blending the fantastic with the mundane. With Loory, the surreal and often weird flourishes are an end unto themselves, but Bender employs them with care and precision, usually to tease out some larger theme or introduce a new source of tension for her characters.

While the fairy-tale inspired elements are sure to garner the most attention, Bender’s quieter, less flashy stories like “Lemonade” are just as accomplished and engaging. Throughout The Color Master, Bender defies expectations, and her characters are always pitch perfect, whether they’re clueless teens walking around the mall or bold women struggling with their turbulent marriages to ogres. She’s an adventurous, daring writer, and the stories in this collection are full of enticing surprises.


The Illusion of Separateness | Simon Van Booy

July 9, 2013

My review of The Illusion of Separateness by Simon Van Booy ran today in the Boston Globe.

Van Booy’s book bears something of a resemblance to Joan Silber’s Fools, in that it’s a series of short vignettes featuring characters, across multiple generations, whose lives are all connected in some discreet way. But while Fools called itself a collection of short stories and came off more like a loose novel, Illusion purports to be a novel, but ultimately feels like a loose collection of short stories.

The connections between the characters in Fools were incidental and augmenting; in Illusion, they’re a focal point, and something of a drag on the story. Nevertheless, I really enjoyed this book. Though the plot is unfortunately thin, Van Booy’s writing is brilliant, and even if where he leads readers is something of a let down, following his wonderfully-crafted prose is still a pleasure.


Fools | Joan Silber

June 4, 2013


My review of Joan Silber’s Fools ran in today’s Boston Globe.

Pitched as a collection of short stories, the six, interconnected pieces in the book seem to constitute a loose novel, with a multi-generational assortment of characters whose lives span the better part of a century. There’s a group of Greenwich Village anarchists in the 1930s and ’40s; an entitled son bumming around Paris in the 1960s; a couple navigating the thorny intersections of love and faith in the 1970s up through the millennium; a lawyer looking for direction amid the intensity of the Occupy Wall Street demonstration; and a fundraiser squaring off against a canny potential philanthropist in the present.

Though the stories stand on their own, each contributes to a grander theme that encompasses the whole book, as Silber explores whether we can truly marry our ideals with our actions in the face of internal contradictions and external pressures.

Silber’s writing is rich and natural, and she instantly creates a rapport between the reader and narrator. It feels as if you’re engaged in a dialogue with another person, and this comfortable, flowing quality makes it easy to breeze through the book.