A Year in Reading: Adam Levin

December 15, 2010 | 8 books mentioned 9 2 min read


covercoverLike any number of people who love fiction, I tend to re-read my favorite books. It is not, however, common for me to read the same book twice in one year, and yet this year I’ve read two books twice—Christian TeBordo’s The Awful Possibilities and Adam Novy’s The Avian Gospels. I want to say that these books remind a reader that his life is fleeting, that he’ll be separated from everything he loves pretty soon, that he’ll disappear forever and rot and be forgotten, but I worry that might sound like overstatement (if not—ick—oversharement), or, even worse, that it might lead you, the Millions visitor, fellow lover of fiction, to assume the books are unfun reads, when, in fact, they are playful and joy-bringing. What reminds you you’ll die is their in-your-face aliveness, their assured immortality.

Novy’s The Avian Gospels is a novel in two short volumes about a foreign boy in an unnamed city-state that borders Hungary and Oklahoma. The city-state is run by a despot, its local Gypsies invent first- and second-wave ska, the boy falls in love with the despot’s daughter, and when a plague of birds descends upon all of them, only the boy and his father (who are much at odds) can protect the city-state from total destruction, for the boy and his father can both control birds. Just to be clear: the foregoing two sentences contain no spoilers. All I’ve described is in play by page 20. Did I mention this novel’s really funny? It’s funny in the way Blood Meridian is funny, and American Tabloid, and In the Penal Colony.

The only kind of book that’s harder for me to describe than a good collection of short stories, is a great collection of short stories, and Christian TeBordo’s The Awful Possibilities is a great collection of short stories. As in Wallace’s Girl With Curious Hair, Salinger’s Nine Stories, and Hannah’s Airships, the subject matter in The Awful Possibilities varies widely, piece to piece. There’s the story about the girl who’s kidnapped by kidney thieves, the one about suburban hardcore rappers, the motivational-speaker-who-needs-a-new-wallet story, and the set of instructions for abusing your child that’s told by….See? It’s hard. I’m having a hard time. I’m doing TeBordo’s work very little justice—about as much justice as I’d be doing Mark Twain’s if, in summarizing Huckleberry Finn, I said no more than, “It’s a book about this kid.” I’m thinking that the only hope I have of even beginning to get across how stellar the experience of reading The Awful Possibilities is, is to give you the beginning of The Awful Possibilities, then get out of the way and say goodnight:

Imagine you’re planning your own school shooting. Imagine you have good reasons, and it’s none of that I-play-too-many-video-games-and-listen-to-Marilyn-Manson-because-no-one-likes-me bullshit. You’re in tenth grade and you do okay in classes and you’ve got plenty of friends for what it’s worth but it’s not worth much to you. You live in Brooklyn. Brooklyn, Iowa. There are no Jews in Brooklyn, Iowa. Keep that in mind.


More from a Year in Reading 2010

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

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is the author of the novel The Instructions. His collection of short stories, Hot Pink, will be published next fall by McSweeney’s. He lives in Chicago, where he teaches Creative Writing at the School of the Art Institute.


  1. Interesting reviews Mr. Levin. I just took a gander via Amazon’s LOOK INSIDE! and see that Mr. TeBordo’s book is in fact dedicated to you:

    “Several of these stories would not have been started, most would not have been finished, and almost none would have been published without the support and intervention of Adam Levin. Which isn’t to say these awful possibilities are his fault. Than you, Adam.”

    Would it not have been prudent to disclose in your review the fact that you were personally invested in seeing this book through and that your adulation isn’t completely without bias? As opposed to having found this book by word of mouth or via some other avenue, it seems that you in fact mentored its author in its very completion.

  2. Oh, lighten up, Brian. Mr. Levin’s “bias”, judging by what you quote from the dedication, may be nothing more than his belief that Mr. TeBordo is talented and/or has produced a worthy collection of short fiction–which is exactly what Mr. Levin has said in this short piece. I don’t think having Mr. Levin’s support (actuated, presumably, by his belief in the author or his fiction) acknowledged in the book is a “bias.”

  3. Is that to say, then, that any work an artist helps see to completion can’t be among her favorites? At the risk of going too far, is it possible for anyone in the writing/publishing industry (to say nothing of all readers, in general) to have an unbiased opinion of a work?

  4. I’m pretty well appalled that this thread thus far is two-thirds comprised of comments supporting nondisclosure of relevant interests. You really think it’s okay to use your slot in a year end feature to gin up sales for a book dedicated specifically to you, without so much as admitting to knowing the author?

  5. Perhaps the commenter who is not a close acquaintance of Brian is not thinking clearly about the issue. I’ll concede the point if Mr. Levin has a financial interest in the book’s success or if he is related to the author–or if Mr Levin’s motivation in recommending this author and book is that readers will see the dedication and conclude that Mr. Levin is a swell guy. I prefer to think better of Mr. Levin (perhaps I am naive). I think his motivation is pure–he believes the author and book have merit, hence his support of the author, recognized in the dedication and repeated in this recommendation.

  6. It would be funny if he *didn’t* believe in a book so fulsomely dedicated to him.

    He should have mentioned the link in his review, if only as the surest way of forestalling any queries of this kind. Not doing so opens him up to a spectrum of descriptions ranging from foolish to dishonest.

  7. Get over it and read both of these books. They are good. It seems like if Adam Levin had a book dedicated to him that he did not think was very good, he would not bring it to people’s attention in a list on the internet. Neither of these books is dedicated to me; yet, I would put them both on a year-end list as amazing books to read. Brian, either read the books based on the recommendation or don’t, but get over it.

  8. kind of sort of an interesting discussion- does the fact that Levin is thanked in The Awful Possibilities disqualify his recommendation of it? Of course not. But it might have been prudent to mention the acquaintance, if only to anticipate complaints.

    but what about the fact that The Avian Gospels, Levin’s other recommendation, is ALSO dedicated to him?

    I cannot overstate my respect for Levin, and how much I enjoyed The Instructions.
    But given the logrolling, it seems clear he would have done well to do what Tebordo does in his site, which is to title his year end picks “Best books by people I know” or something like that.


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