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Faces to Watch in 2012: Books

Novelist Shalom Auslander, author Amelia Gray and Literary Death Match host Todd Zuniga.

January 01, 2012
(Frank Vogt / Penguin )

Shalom Auslander

NOVELIST

Only Shalom Auslander would call a novel "Hope: A Tragedy." But then, what else would you expect from an author whose last book, a memoir, was titled "Foreskin's Lament"? There, he recalled his Orthodox Jewish upbringing, detailing his sense of God as not consoling but malevolent, a cosmic bully. Here, he shifts to a fictional filter, writing about a man named Solomon Kugel who moves his family to a quiet New York town, only to find history lying in wait to ambush him.

For Auslander, part of the point is humor — just look at that name, Solomon Kugel, half biblical wisdom, half noodle pudding. But equally important is his sense of outrage, all the more profound for having no way to be reconciled. In a universe where reality itself conspires against us, he suggests, the biggest delusion is that of hope. "Pessimists … don't start wars," Solomon's analyst tells him early in the novel. "… Hitler was the most unabashed doe-eyed optimist of the last hundred years. That's why he was the biggest monster. Have you ever heard of anything as outrageously hopeful as the Final Solution? Not just that there could be a solution — to anything, mind you, while we have yet to cure the common cold — but a final one, no less! Full of hope, the Fuhrer was."

— David L. Ulin

Amelia Gray

AUTHOR

"I will staple my address to your winter coat!" young writer Amelia Gray shouts cheerfully. "I will compensate your friends for the information they share with me regarding your whereabouts!" She's making these unsettling promises from the back of a moped careening through Hollywood. In the online video, it's clear she's reading from "Threats," her first novel. It's coming out in March from Farrar, Straus and Giroux, one of the gold standards of literary publishers.

Gray is a standout in the crowded field of ambitious young writers with edgy tastes. Her studies were away from publishing-centric New York — she got her undergraduate degree in English literature at Arizona State University and an MFA from Texas State University — which has given her room to develop a unique voice. She's published two collections of short fiction, one with the avant-garde press FC2 and the other with upstart Chicago publisher Featherproof. Now she's poised to move into the literary mainstream with "Threats," a surreal whodunit that includes a missing wife and a trail of mysterious, anonymous threats haunting the husband who's left behind.

In the fall, Gray left Austin, Texas, for Los Angeles. Her fearless writing has come to town. .

— Carolyn Kellogg

Todd Zuniga

LITERARY HOST WITH THE MOST

In three dozen cities in 10 countries, Todd Zuniga has taken the stage to host Literary Death Match, a combination of comedy, audience participation and high literature that makes for one of the most entertaining reading series ever. In 2012, he's making Los Angeles its home base.

At LDM, four writers compete in two rounds before an onstage panel of judges with comedy and writing chops, including Jill Soloway, Chuck Palahniuk and Michael Showalter. When he founded the series five years ago, Zuniga, who was tired of sitting through boring readings, was hoping for something that was part "Def Poetry Jam," part "American Idol." The lively competition highlights local talent in places as far-flung as China and Scotland, Ireland and Lithuania.

It's all glued together by Zuniga, whose onstage persona is the unlikely combination of Vegas showman and book geek, ready with both vaudevillian jokes and quips about Faulkner. He draws in audience members, not the typical bookish crowd, making sure their votes help determine the competition's winner.

"It's like confusing them into being excited about reading," Zuniga says. "At the end of the night, they feel great about the world and blame it on literature."

— Carolyn Kellogg

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