Review: All The Fabulous Beasts by Priya Sharma

by Jordan Glynn

Sharma has saidin an interview with James Everingtonthat she “think[s] [she] write[s] speculative fiction because [she is], in truth, an escapist.” It was effortless to slip into a world of visceral horror and cruel intrigue. Secrets kept or unearthed play a significant role in the questions of identity, gender, and sexuality tackled within the collection.

In “Crow Palace,” a woman confronts both the memory of her mother and father, her quadriplegic twin, her clingy lover, and a murder of crows that live in the backyard. She wonders what it is to love and whether she truly loves her sister despite her faults or needs to love the man that loves her. The writing was visceral and images haunting. Sharma’s use of recurring photos helps keep the scenes fresh though the action takes place mainly in a single house.  

Sharma has said, in interviews, that place and setting are significant to her work. “Rag and Bone,” exemplifies this. Set in a steam-punk, dystopian, Liverpool in which the wealthiest of society consume the flesh of those poorer folk. The language and feel of the town are decidedly British yet doesn’t distract from the universal question of gender and the universal horror of cannibals.

The male gaze and questions of gender identity are tackled in “The Anatomist’s Mnemonic” in a singularly horrific manner that nevertheless delivers pointed social insight as well as an engrossingly chilling tale. The central character, a hand fetishist, and intense depictions of body horror appear to be stand-ins for the objectification of women in this fantastic and macabre story. It has left an indelible mark on my soul.

“Egg” raises questions of parenthood. Desperate for a child, a mother-to-be makes a deal with a hag and ruminates on how much a mother can sacrifice and still love her child. As she comes to terms with the bizarre, avian, nature of her daughter, the mother learns what the story suggests: that the answer to that question is everything.

The titular story, “Fabulous Beasts,” ends with the rapturous embrace of monstrosity. This chilling and disturbing story may certainly not be for all audiences but is more than worthy of the British Fiction Award it won as a standalone short story. Again set in Liverpool, the story is narrated in first-person by a girl named Lola and tackles questions of identity, sexuality, and love. “Fabulous Beasts” kept me up the night I read it and would recommend this piece, and the entire collection, to anyone remotely interested in horror or dark fiction.

Sharma’s stories, typically called Weird fiction, filled my thoughts with blood, venom, and bone.  I set this book down and picked it back up again. Priya Sharma is a writer to watch.

Jordan Glynn is a candidate in VCFA’s Writing & Publishing program. From South Carolina, his work has appeared in Florida State University’s Kudzu Review. He is an avid fan of scary stories and scarier movies.

A Review of The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives

by Dayton J Shafer

A collection of geographically diverse essays, The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives, works to illustrate how seemingly disparate refugee narratives can interlock the universality of homeland flight. With seventeen international writers reflecting on the refugee experience, the collection, edited by Viet Thang Nguyen, attempts to humanize the demonized, and give voice to individuals that have been deprived of an identity.

The opening essay, “Last, First, Middle” by Joseph Azam, is concurrently an homage to the unknown grandfather that named him, as well as a meditative reflection on a central theme that runs through the collection—homogenizing oneself into a suspicious culture: “My name was a product of my grandfather’s hopes and conviction; it was my inheritance…I would rid myself of the name Mohammad, which I could not fashion into anything that could pass.” Many of the finest essays, draw from this common thread of assimilation anxiety; passing, fitting in, while also blithely chipping away at your ancestry to take advantage of the opportunities and anonymity of the United States.

In Reyna Grande’s “The Parent Who Stays,” the author continue this thread of assimilation anxiety, while also discussing the trauma that is afflicted on young children whose lack of language to understand emotional complexity does not allow them to process what is happening to them: “These words weren’t part of my vocabulary, so I never used them—I described my feelings through stories…I was a victim of a consequence of migration that is often overlooked or given little importance—psychological violence of watching your family fall apart.”

Another standout essay is Joseph Kertes’ “Second Country.” A meditation on a mostly hidden, but common migrant experience— a hostile rejection of home; an anti-patriotism that develops when one’s own people and government are the cause of suffering, when flight was an escape from a homeland that demonized them: “The other memorable thing my father used to say, after years in Canada, was that ‘Europe is a failed experiment. It should be paved over and turned into a parking lot.’”

According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, internally displaced people or IDPs now form the majority of the more than 60 million people who have escaped global persecution since 2015. (IDPs are people that have been first forced from their homes, but not their country of origin; while refugees and asylum seekers are people who have been initially forced from their homes and countries.) Many of these IDPs are from countries with protracted civil wars, bigotry, gang violence, government corruption, or simply no economic opportunities. These factors leave people with little alternative but to become asylum seekers, usually in neighboring countries just as underfunded and that quickly strain under the financial and security pressures of hosting the refugees.

The refugee crisis of 2015 sparked a global debate about the social responsibility of displaced people. Under the Trump administration, the United States has cut accepted refugees from 110,000 to 45,000 per year. Global ring-wing political parties, from Orban’s Fidesz in Hungary to Bolsonaro’s Social Liberal Party in Brazil, have taken advantage of people’s fear, consolidating power with divisive and fear-driven rhetoric. What these seventeen essays do so well is deconstruct that manipulative language and illustrate with moments of reinvention and the reclamation of identity and power that the global refugee crisis is not one of border wars and xenophobia, but of liberalism in its truest form—egalitarianism in the face of tragedy. The belief that open-minded altruism will bring relief to those not only escaping to save their lives, but for a life outside of an indifferent and hostile homeland.

 

Dayton J Shafer has been involved with theatre for over fifteen years as a writer, director, and actor.  His original pieces have been performed in fringe festivals, barns, abandoned factories, converted laundromats, black boxes, and street  sides. His poetry and prose has appeared in The Mountain Ear, Split Lip, BULL, and Mock Turtle Zine.

Review: The Blurry Years by Eleanor Kriseman

by Sarah Leamy

Callie, our narrator, has a keen eye for observation and takes us into her childhood in a tourist-rich yet sleazy Florida, set vividly in the late-seventies and onwards. We begin with her as a six-year-old and end with her leaving on her own at eighteen. Her mother is a forgetful and irresponsible drunk, one who drags her young daughter from apartment to trailers to cars and homes with friends, all in an attempt to leave her own mistakes (and usually her choice of men) behind. This short novel is a coming-of-age story of a lonely child, trying to make sense of the world in ever-changing circumstances.

Kriseman captures the young Callie’s perspective and adolescent musings well, showing the compelling dynamic between mother and daughter through brief exchanges. For example, after moving her daughter once again into a stranger’s home, her mother sits on the bed one evening.

‘She climbed under the covers with me and hugged me close. “We’ve got each other, Cal,” she said. She traced my hairline with her finger. “I’ll never disappear like your grandma.”’

When Callie talks about listening to a couple of friends that they were staying with, I remembered that feeling myself, of not quite catching what was being said, even though I understood the words my mum and aunt were speaking. Callie describes that confusion, “like there was another layer to the conversation I couldn’t yet unlock, something that would come–when? When I was a little older? I wanted to know it now.”

And so it goes in The Blurry Years, constantly moving, full of confusions,  miscommunications, and ever hopeful expectations as we follow Callie for most of her childhood. She has to learn about puberty on her own and with friends, equally as lost. One day, a friend in the neighborhood asks, “Does this ever happen to you?” and Cal’s response was that “I wanted to cry with relief. Nobody had taught us anything about becoming women. We were figuring out on our own.”

She struggles with knowing how to relate to men and women. As Cal becomes a young woman, out on her own, she finds herself second-guessing interactions with others who seem interested in her. One day while waiting at an airport, she strikes up a conversation with the woman next to her.  “Barbara was flirting with me, I was pretty sure. It was an unsettling feeling. Foreign, but strangely familiar. And even more strange to find myself flirting back. Was I doing it out of habit, on autopilot? I was so out of touch that I didn’t even know the answer.”

The Blurry Years is a well-drawn story of growing up alone with a mother who is absent emotionally yet present physically. Callie is a vivid likeable child who we can’t help but root for as she struggles to understand the grown-up world she’s stuck in. I could empathize fully with her and wanted time to speed up so that she could head out into the world on her own terms and with a strong sense of self. She does. Thankfully. Hopefully.

The Blurry Years

By: Eleanor Kriseman

Fiction, 160 pages, $15.99

Two Dollar Radio (July 10, 2018)

Review: Sugar Land by Tammy Lynne Stoner

by Sarah Leamy

Sugar Land is the story of one hell of a character called Miss Dara. The novel, divided into three sections, is set  in 1920’s Texas, and spans Miss Dara’s whole life. We meet her as a 19-year-old when she falls for her best friend, Rhodie. The attraction is mutual and they spend a few weeks together in bliss before being caught by Rhodie’s mother. The local preacher is brought in to deal with the girls. Rhodie leaves town for college and Dara takes a job in the local prison, Sugar Land, as a cook. Once there, she becomes close to Lead Belly, the historically known blues singer. He is determined to get out legally, and does so by singing to the Warden and Governor who grant him a release. Lead Belly makes Dara promise to leave as well, to follow her own passions.

The second section, “Nana Dara,” is the shortest with only 44 pages, and is focused on her time after marrying her way out of prison. Her husband is the Warden, an easy-going man with two young children of his own. It’s a surprisingly happy marriage, despite him knowing she’s gay and missing her first love.

The last section, “Mrs. Dara,” the longest one, is also the funniest and most engaging. Mrs. Dara is a widower, full of herself with a wonderful inner logic and attitude to life. She’s grown into a mischievous character:

‘Now I was an older lady–a widower even–I felt somehow above the law. “I’m going to sneak in and take the pictures down.”

“This is criminal behavior we are discussing here.”

I tsked and pulled up the leg of my coveralls to scratch my knee.’

*

Stoner writes such great character descriptions that stay with you throughout the entire book. For example, Stoner opens Sugar Land with Dara describing herself:

“I wore a dress that made me look like a curvy brown sack and I couldn’t stop burping up the oatmeal I’d had for breakfast.”

The tone and voice of Dara’s character are given to us immediately so lightly and vividly, it’s great. Later on, Dara describes her husband, the Warden, as a “big-chested man with precisely trimmed sideburns.” Again, the description of when they’re first married, Dara says, “He held me all night long with his forearm as warm as butter on my belly.”

Stoner’s use of language is so precise and perfect for the time and era and for these specific characters. This skill shows up in the chapter titles too, such as “The Preacher said sit down, so I did,” “Pepto Dismal,” and “Hairnet.”

The simple sentences suit Dara, and her inner monologues catch her emotions in a few words.

When Dara receives a love letter from her girlfriend soon after taking the job in the prison, and still a teenager in love, “I didn’t care about making my bed. I didn’t care about pie.”

Later on, when Dara faces another painful moment with her step-children, she says, “A tumbleweed rolled across the empty space inside my chest.”

I’d expected more of a harsh tale about being gay in that time frame, given how the blurb on the back cover had mentioned how Dara discovered that life “outside isn’t all sweet tea and roses.” It was instead a light read, generously spirited, and satisfying in many ways. The friendships and relationships were done with such humor and witty observations that you couldn’t help but like them all—even the fussy daughter, Debbie, as well as the useless but well-meaning friend called Fiddler, who moves in to her trailer for a while. Dara describes him by the results of him helping out:

“By the end of the first year, I’d lost three clocks and two phones and had to have the oil seal on my truck redone, God bless him.”

There are great moments of slapstick done in a deadpan voice and this is what’s so magical about this book: Dara’s voice. You want to stick with her and hear what she gets up to. You’re never that surprised (in a good way), like when she breaks into her daughter’s place and utterly fails. “I was lying in the exact location the Rottweilers visited every evening to relieve themselves of what must be high fiber meals.”

Stoner has written a book that is heartfelt and tender. Her characters linger and are quite unforgettable. Sugar Land spans decades in a well-told, easy going manner and I finished the book with a satisfied smile.

 

Sugar Land

By: Tammy Lynne Stoner

Fiction, 344 pages, $16.95

Red Hen Press (October 28, 2018)

Review: The Binti Trilogy by Nnedi Okorafor

by Bianca Viñas

The Binti trilogy resides for me in that corner of the Appalachian Mountains I first picked it up: 14.5 acres of oak trees, milkweed, and a prolific flora only Nnedi Okorafor could bring back to memory with renewed magic and beauty. What I read in her novellas came alive in the landscape. Okarafor, the magnetic prose writer she is, made me adventurer and brave protagonist in my own right, and in my own little corner of the planet.

Binti

Okorafor’s first novella followed the daring journey of Binti, the female protagonist and daughter of a divination-device architect. Binti leaves her home planet and long lineage of tradition, disavowing desert Himba tradition, to become an intergalactic scholar and seeker of knowledge. With trepidation, I, too, travelled up a hill of dandelions to board Binti’s ship, gripping the novella as I placed my muddied boots on the frame of my log cabin. With each turn of the page, I moved with a character experiencing for the first time an array of alien species passing through security to a boarding bay. I gasped when I met creatures onboard, like the squid-like Meduse of a far-off ocean planet. After unspeakable disaster struck the ship and its passengers, I marvelled at the strength of Binti, the peace and understanding she found amongst horrifying conflict. The first novella ended with an astonishing lesson on forgiveness, something I never expected in light of such tragedy and loss, but treasured immeasurably on my journey with Binti.

Binti: Home

The second novella held fascination between my neighbors horse stable and the only ethernet cord available. Binti’s journey was coming to life again from the light of the e-reader, the magical biology, the intriguing cosmology of physics, the explorations in space that always promised more adventure… the magnetism of it all was growing.

Binti: Home tackled the issue of identity and how we, as humans, construct ourselves. What do we claim of our heritage, culture, family history and origins? Though the answer was not that simple for our protagonist when a possibility for genetics to expand to intergalactic species suddenly emerged Binti made a second journey through space to return home, and asked these questions of provenance and self, not only from the desert Himba where she was raised, but of the hidden ancestors she has yet to discover. Again, Okorafor not only asked for the attention of the reader in this exploration, but for the involvement in a discussion about diversity, culture constructs, and the number of identities we can truly accept. While crossing the moorlands of a mirrored galaxy, the end of the novella at hand, I found the answer was all.

Binti: The Night Masquerade

By the third novella in the series, I, once again, was sitting by a cabin fire, gripped with anticipation. The flicker of the flames on the logs were currant, a color I knew intimately in the otjize Binti wore on her body, a sign of her Himba heritage, and of the home that was now engulfed in fire. Would her family and culture survive? Would she persevere? Shivering, I marveled by the fireside at the thought of what it would mean if Binti and the Himba failed to prevail through war. Yet, with the the hum of the coffee machine in the cabin kitchen, I warmed and remembered the harmonizer, her father’s divination machine; I remembered the writhing of the okuoko curls on Binti’s head and the ring of the ancient edan held close to her. I then realized Okorafor’s series posed questions extending beyond the protagonist’s fate, as well as the science fiction framework. Okorafor was asking me to question my faith, my sense of identity and self, both separate and linked to my culture. Could Binti accept all her identities, all her experiences, even if it meant constant struggle and negotiation? Could she travel back into trauma, into memory, without shuddering with pain and fear? Could I, the reader, practice Binti’s courage in my own life?

*

After the the last page of the novella was read, I took a hike into the woods surrounding the cabin and found a shared resilience between Binti and the details of the surrounding landscape Okorafor had alighted for me: it was in the slope of the dandelions on the mountain, the way they rose towards the towering trees, and the smoke from the chimney that wafted into the air just behind. They all journeyed headlong towards space with determination, absolutely fearless, like Binti had… like I had with her. If there was an answer to any question about identity and forgiveness, it was a resounding and continuous yes. “Yes, I would journey forth.” “Yes, I would prevail.” “Yes, I would be a multiplicity of identities and cultures, always endeavoring to understand, forgive and mold.”

 

The Binti series is published by Tor.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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VCFA’s Hunger Mountain gives a special thanks to our local branch of Bear Pond Books for providing our book reviewing staff members with Advance Reader Copies of Pre-Released titles! Montpelier’s local branch of Bear Pond Books is located on 77 Main St, Montpelier, VT 05602. Bear Pond Books’ selection is also available online: http://www.bearpondbooks.com/.

 

Review: Fast into the Night by Debbie Clarke Moderow

by Sarah Leamy

Just what I needed. It was a snowy afternoon in Vermont and I was bored. I picked up Moderow’s Fast into the Night: A Woman, Her Dogs, and Their Journey North on the Iditarod Trail from the pile of books next to my bed. I started the memoir and then put it down. Why? I knew I wanted to settle into it, and have a chance to read a good chunk undisturbed.

Dogs walked and fed. Snacks on a plate. PJs on. Glass of Malbec. Back to the memoir.

And what an amazing memoir. What an amazing world she brought us into. Iditarod, the Alaskan landscape, the characters, the dogs, and her family’s support. Incredible. I pulled up the covers and kept reading.

Moderow is passionate and compassionate. Her focus was constantly on the comfort and health of her team of dogs. She was so in tune with the needs of their individual needs and personalities. She wouldn’t put them in danger just to finish Iditarod. That would have gone against her integrity and heart. You have to respect her for that. Her goal was simply–if it could be simple–to complete the course with happy and healthy dogs. She tried twice, once in 2003 and again two years later. She finished with a healthy team in 13 days, 19 hours, 10 minutes and 32 seconds.

Moderow captures her characters so well, the four and two legged ones, that we see her all the more clearly too. Moderow, even when struggling so intensely, carried on. This is bravery in action. She is such a role model for following your dreams without hurting others. Incredible, her internal and external journey.

Fast into the Night is written in the present tense, and takes us into the moment to moment challenges she faced as a rookie, including  preparation, dressing for such cold, as well as the colors and images of that first day: “Sixteen huskies donning crimson harnesses charge into the chute.”

The first chapters were so immersive. At the start of the race and the book, Moderow spent time with each of her dogs, one by one, walking along the team and so introducing us to all sixteen of the family. “Kanga is a serious brown girl with a tan trim. She knows more about Iditarod than I do. Juliet is my playful Tinker Bell. She’s the whimsical cheerleader, my tiny grey spitfire who runs up front with a light-hearted disposition.”

Her first few hours of the race set the pace for the next two weeks on the trail. “When the team scrambles up an icy bank and the sled ricochets around a tight, dark wooded corner, I exhale relief.”

Yes, so did I. Time for another glass of wine and a snack. The snow still fell outside my apartment in town. I had it easy. Moderow didn’t. She tells us how she had to “cover my nose with my neck gaiter, and my goggles fog up. To take them off would risk my eyes, so every few minutes I scrape ice from the lenses with the back of my arctic mittens.”

Details such as those kept me turning pages; her story just stunned me; and the level of cold and endurance was beyond impressive. “A granola bar – it’s frozen and the last thing I need is a broken tooth. So I stuff it into my armpit to thaw.”

As you do, nothing unusual, right? Sheesh. I read on, huddled in my little bed with my two well-fed Huskie mutts on the end of my bed. No, we’d not be trying this ourselves.

Iditarod is a challenge, obviously. There’s the physical conditions, but also there are the emotional hurdles she faced. There were times when she had to make potentially life-altering decisions when so completely drained and exhausted that clear thought was not easily grasped. What was best for each of her dogs? When should she ‘scratch’ even if the volunteers showed no compassion for her place and experience? I wanted her to make it. I knew she ultimately did from the blurb on the back, but I wanted to know how. How did she do it? What kept her going?

“I stand alongside my dogs and everything is quiet. It’s the profound stillness that arrives in a flash, when everything changes.”

You’ll have to read it yourselves if you want to find out how. Please do.

Fast into the Night: A Woman, Her Dogs, and Their Journey North on the Iditarod Trail

By: Debbie Clarke Moderow

Memoir, 288 pages, $16.95

Red Hen Press (June 2018)

 

Review: Everyone Wants To Be Ambassador To France by Bryan Hurt

by Sarah Leamy

Wonderfully absurd and weird stories fill this collection by Bryan Hurt. His characters range from astronaut-artists, a British aristocrat with his adopted girls, a goat and seagull questioning the afterlife on the edge of a cliff, and a run-down American writer panicking about the demands of his agents.

The opening lines are often so succinct and direct that Hurt pulls you in immediately: “Thomas Day was rich but very ugly.” Oh really? I wanted to know more. Would he be an interesting man to know? I kept reading.

The simplicity of language is compelling. The short stories are concise and precise with no wasted words. There is a great rhythm and Hurt comes across as a narrator to trust. We know where we are immediately upon starting a new story; he grounds us as readers, yet there are such great turns and unexpected digressions and drifts that demand you pay attention. 

Hurt plays with the form of these short stories, more so in the second half of the collection. “The Contract” follows a CEO’s own contract with life and relationships, and yes, form follows content. There are more pieces in the remainder of the book where form changes to suit each story. We see Hurt playing with experimental forms such as bullet-point lists and individually titled paragraphs.

Hurt’s titles are evocative, although mostly in hindsight. Only at the end of the story does the title’s significance really pop out, such as in the last story, “Good With Words.” Here is our struggling writer overcome with the demands of an agent hungry for more words. He turns to his toddler once back home. There he is reminded of the power of language. He asks his child, “Tell me something about love.” 

“Mama.”

That sweetly, simple response is all that’s needed for the narrator in this last story, and it’s a fine example of Hurt’s ease with using few words to embody heartwarming emotions. I walked away from  Everyone Wants to be Ambassador to France with a smile, a softening towards the world around me, and I look forward to more of his stories.

Everyone Wants To Be Ambassador To France: Stories

By: Bryan Hurt

Fiction, 160 pages, $15.95

Red Hen Press (June 26, 2018)

Book Blurb: Fragile Things

by Valentyn Smith

Neil Gaiman doesn’t know this but I’m devastated that the one time I lived as an NYC-expat was when he reigned as Neptunian king at this year’s Mermaid Parade. So, this summer, instead of reveling in my usual Coney Island haunts, I decided to grow a fishtail in my bathtub as I read the short fictions and wonders of Neil Gaiman’s Fragile Things, starting with “Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Secret House of the Night of Dread Desire.”

It’s been real tough for a salty chick to come by a laugh these days, so Gaiman’s satirical title promised me some fun. After first reading the graphic novel adaptation  of “Forbidden Brides,” illustrated by Shane Oakley, I then dove headfirst into Fragile Things for the original version, where I sought a tale of Gothic motifs featuring the forlorn creatures I’d hope to find at the old cemetery, manor ruins or writer’s desk.

As I read of strange fiends grappling with the art of mimesis, blood-bound ritual and breakfast toast, I loved how Gaiman’s writing offered more than just the levity of, say, seasonal escapism or parody. It offered coziness in a macabre world where shadows howl in the dark and night creepers crack jokes. Before I knew it… “somewhere in the night, someone was writing [a review for a Neil Gaiman story].”

“Forbidden Brides” spoke to the creative process, of how ghouls such as doubt and uncertainty make art as they roam with the writer’s pen onto the page, whether its contents have been summoned from the realm of fantasy, realism, horror, or the Coney Island boardwalk.

Although “Forbidden Brides” was a short piece that kept things odd and humorous, it reminded me that stories are vessels, transporting imaginations to worlds of the familiar (and unfamiliar) and transforming our understanding of those places, their ghosts, and ourselves.

Neil Gaiman’s fantastical tales set my mind abound with magic and terror, as I sunk into the clawfoot tub, book in scaled hand, and found myself at the Mermaid Parade in spirit.

Next up in the Fragile Things treasure trove is “Fifteen Painted Cards from a Vampire Tarot,” and you can bet Queen Amphitrite’s glittering seashell pasties that this short story’s title alone has already left mer-me shipwrecked, and feeling right at home.

 

Paperback (Harper, February 2010)

 

*This book blurb is part of our Summer Reading Recommendation series.

Review: Bigfoots in Paradise by Doug Lawson

by Sarah Leamy

Doug Lawson’s collection of short stories, Bigfoots in Paradise, is set in and around Santa Cruz, California, between Silicon Valley and the Pacific Ocean. There are eight stories, each about 20-30 pages, and many have been previously published in journals such as Gargoyle, Glimmer Train, and Mississippi Review, amongst others.

Doug Lawson writes with confidence, his prose is lyrical and poetic, and he comfortably blends dark comedy and empathic observations. Lawson pays attention to those details that sum up characters in only a sentence or two. A car belonging to the boss in “Catch The Air” has “empty Starbucks cups, a stained Stanford sweatshirt, a pair of heels, a familiar lace bra, a dismantled circuit board.” I can picture the character of Helen instantly. It’s also telling of the narrator as to what he notices within the chaos of her cluttered vehicle.

In “Jersey Devils,” Alpo is described with such vivid specifics: “With a string-haired, rounded head, arms the seem just a little too long, and small wrinkled hands clasping a shopping bag.” The image lingers as I read of their job visiting farms, which sounds innocuous enough, yet isn’t. These stories often take wonderful unexpected turns and I found myself reading one story after another, wanting more.

Opening lines bring you in fast: “Several weeks before he died, my father showed up for my wedding on time, riding a meticulously restored World War II army motorcycle with Jessica, his nurse, in the sidecar.” Don’t you want to know more about this dad? I did.

There are also moments of such tenderness that made me sit back and absorb them before moving along, especially at the end of “House on Bear Mountain.” There is an unexpected and funny turn when Claire stands up for herself and then ends with a gentle truth of how she “found her true voice.” You’ll have to find it for yourselves and read the story she tells her daughter about the dogs’ dinnertimes. 

Lawson knows the territory and it comes across, as I can picture the landscape and personalities. The environment is clearly described and the characters could only live there. It’s a unique world he’s created and shared here.

 

Bigfoots in Paradise

By: Doug Lawson

Fiction, 214 pages, $15.95

Red Hen Press (Exp. Pub Date: Oct. 16, 2018)

Book Blurb: Guardians Angels & Other Monsters

by Paul Daniel Ash

In Guardian Angels & Other Monsters, Daniel H. Wilson’s short story collection invites us to consider the question: How far would you go to provide for your children? “The Executor,” a noir-esque short story, reimagines a hypercapitalist future world in which the descendants of the galaxy’s richest man have fought centuries-long wars over their vast inheritance, and it is a fight people are still fighting.

Philip Drake is a widower, afflicted – like his daughter, Abigail – with “meta-Parkinson’s,” an illness that requires the use of a powered exo-skeleton. He can’t however, afford the exorbitant cost of a similar prosthesis for Abigail. Out of desperation, he conceives a plan: he will approach the Executor, the artificial intelligence who manages his ancestor’s estate, and ask for help. When the ancient AI refuses him, Drake must find a way to save his daughter’s life while being chased by assassins, police and the super-rich.

The action comes in quick, sharp strokes, like Zen calligraphy. Wilson creates a harsh, glittering world that seems at once alien and far, far too familiar. This is a crisp story that packs a lot into a few pages. “The Executor” reads with the grit of noir and the cut of sci fi, steeped in dystopia, wrapt in the ambiguity of mystery, and it leaves us asking ourselves: What am I willing to do for the people I love? And am I willing to risk it all for them?

Guardian Angels & Other Monsters was published by Vintage on March 6, 2018.

 

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VCFA’s Hunger Mountain gives a special thanks to our local branch of Bear Pond Books for providing our book reviewing staff members with Advance Reader Copies of Pre-Released titles! Montpelier’s local branch of Bear Pond Books is located on 77 Main St, Montpelier, VT 05602. Bear Pond Books’ selection is also available online: http://www.bearpondbooks.com/.

Review: The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner

by Blake Z. Rong

“The splendor of the world has been enriched by a new beauty: the beauty of speed,” shouted Filippo Tommaso Marinetti in Il Futuro in Fiamme, his Futurist Manifesto written in 1909. The opening scene of Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers evokes this bold declaration: a vision of a sleek Italian motorcycle, screaming across Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats. The hero, Reno—leather-clad and fearless—hits 130 miles per hour, her record-setting attempt.

The Flamethrowers is Kushner’s second novel, a National Book Award nominee, heaped with praise when it debuted in 2013. (“Scintillatingly alive,” wrote James Wood for The New Yorker.) From the ultimately doomed energy of the Futurism movement, the novel draws its energy, placing it sixty years later in the turbulence of the 1970s and across two continents. It co-opts Futurism’s nihilistic, misogynist attitude with a defiantly feminist slant.

The year is 1977. Twenty-something Reno rides her motorcycle from the Nevada city of her namesake to New York, seeking to expand her own art career. Like so many artists of her age, she’s operating under the belief that everyone, eventually, getspulled into the city’s orbit. Drifting from one Lower Manhattan neighborhood to another, she befriends a litany of eccentrics, documenting but never accentuating their peculiarities.

Reno meets and falls in love with Sandro Valera, a fellow artist, but also the heir to the fortune of Moto Valera. It is a massive Italian manufacturing conglomerate that not only manufactured Reno’s motorcycle but also harvests rubber in the Amazon with brutal efficiency, transforming the Valeras into a capitalist dynasty. (Sandro’s father, documented in various intervals, falls in with a crowd of budding futurists atop their primitive motorcycles, later killing Germans in World War I.) The company wants her to set a speed record, so the two journey to northern Italy. And much like Gianni Agnelli, who ruled over the automaker Fiat, the Valera family is glamorous, alluring, cloistered, intimidating, and ultimately disdainful of the American girl, who cannot begin to fathom such riches.

But violent political forces are lurking in plain sight, clashing with riot police and fascists alike, conducting kidnappings of capitalists, ready to smash Valera’s unfettered capitalism. Protesting the failed dreams of a mechanized future that has eluded the working class.

Marinetti saw this future reflected back at him from the snakelike chrome of exhaust pipes. Thanks to his breathless manifesto, Futurism seemed modern, fast-paced, exciting: race cars! Motorbikes! Going faster and faster, soaring higher on the new airplane, a revolution in technology, until the thrill of speed replaces the fear of death. The future was machinery and speed, impersonality reflected in mechanization, and shades of the Übermensch: man revolutionized, enhanced by technology and free will.

But it was also violence: patriotism by any means, nationalism formed along racial barriers, misogyny and anti-feminism and the glories of war, which Marinetti and his merry band of artists deemed “the only cure for the world.” Feminism was to be destroyed. The future was death by machinery, obliterating the old world: Marinetti’s “destructive gesture of the anarchists” would tear down libraries, museums, academia, what The New Yorker called “upheaval for upheaval’s sake.” In 1910, Marinetti littered Venice with leaflets calling for its “old, collapsing and lecherous palaces” to be torn down and fill the canals, claiming that this would allow the city to dominate the Adriatic Sea—a brash act of performance art reminiscent of the works that Reno encounters in New York.

When World War I erupted four years later, the Futurists got a chance to see this revolution unfold with deadly efficiency—for a few brief years, they seemed to get what they wanted.

Reno’s world is art and revolution, machinery and restlessness, and the always-implicit threat of violence. From a New York night with Saturday night specials drawn to a piazza of rioters, and atop a speeding motorcycle. Eventually, Reno escapes the trappings of luxury and finds herself among the proletariat, navigating both state-sponsored violence and female exploitation with a certain aloofness: what can she do, really? Later, Kushner details an artist named Ronnie, one of Reno’s lovers and simultaneously a source of comfort and rejection, staging an exhibition consisting of photographs of battered women, who he says beat themselves up, a preemptive strike against domestic violence.

So too Futurism attracted these young, restless men who didn’t know how to fit into this existing world, choosing instead to burn it all down—a philosophy that never dies.

What the Futurists were particularly good at, more than actually creating a coherent movement, was writing manifestos. Boy, did they write a lot of manifestos—about music, cinema, sex, noises, food production, and the hygienic benefits of a war. Kushner too declares her own bold truths, shouting brazen and stirring calls to arms, philosophical musings on the perception of emotion and the alienation. In long and sometimes plodding paragraphs, her characters issue forth twisting monologues that could never hold a real-world attention span; the aforementioned Ronnie spends seven pages detailing an around the world sailing experience he embarked on when he was 12, joining a strange older couple who may or may have not performed sexual favors. No matter. The novel’s overall tone relies more on artifice than plot, seemingly taking its time to get anywhere, really, its little manifestos far less impactful as Marinetti’s verbiage.

Futurism never caught hold, petering out with Marinetti’s death at the age of 67 in 1944. Aligned with Italy’s Fascist government, he tried to find a patron in Mussolini, but the dictator found himself bored with art, and propped up a diverse array of movements to keep them loyal to the regime. Futurism never found the success of movements like Dada or Bauhaus, never expanded its bleak philosophy, and rejected new forms of art like photography or film. Reflections on Futurism struggle to downplay the Fascist, misogynist tendencies, such as a 2014 exhibition at the Guggenheim, hand-picking its surviving art amongst the wreckage of attempted violence.

Instead, Kushner takes these elements of destruction and misogyny and co-opts them through her female protagonist.

In 1977, the city of New York fell into a blackout that would eventually last two long summer days. Riots and looting ensued. Escaping Italy, Reno makes it back to New York just in time to witness the arson and stolen televisions, wandering aimlessly and impersonally like De Niro’s character in Taxi Driver, minus his violence. From one dark hell of unrest to another, Kushner captures that kind of energy that we can barely fathom in a gentrified Manhattan—vivacious and sharp, as vivid and illuminating as an uncontrollable flame.

Hardcover $14.47

Paperback: 383 pages

Publisher: Scribner; Reprint edition (January 14, 2014)

ISBN-13: 978-1439142011

 

 

Book Review: Macbeth by Jo Nesbø

by Paul Daniel Ash

To mark the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, the Hogarth Shakespeare Project began inviting novelists in 2015 to reimagine the Bard’s canon in contemporary works of fiction. A number of writers were contacted, such as Howard Jacobson, Anne Tyler, Margaret Atwood, and Jo Nesbø, a Norwegian author primarily known for his Harry Hole series of hard-boiled crime novels. In an interview with the New York Times, Nesbø said that when he was given the opportunity, he told the publisher “if I can have Macbeth, then I’m in.”

Nesbø’s retelling of Macbeth is set in a gloomy, economically-depressed town somewhere in Margaret Thatcher’s UK: a dark, rainy place rife with crime and corruption. Following the death of a fabulously shady police commissioner named Kenneth (who has raised a huge statue of himself on the bridge into town) the visionary and idealistic Duncan comes into power, vowing to break the hold of the drug lord Hecate. Inspector Macbeth, a recovering addict, is the head of the police’s SWAT team. As the novel opens on a drug raid gone wrong we see our lead character in his larger-than-life, heroic, impetuous, conflicted glory. Macbeth is soon set on a collision course with Duncan, through the machinations of his lover “Lady,” who runs the Inverness Casino, and of Hecate, who sees Macbeth as a catspaw to finally cement his control of the town.

Perhaps knowing that readers would be hunting for the correspondences with Shakespeare, Nesbø lays out the characters and the scenario rather quickly in the beginning. Like many of his other novels, the opening chapters of Nesbø’s Macbeth are almost glacial in pace, and the author uses this time to introduce us to Duncan, Macbeth, his mentor Banquo, “Jack Duff,” the Norse Riders motorcycle gang, the trans sex worker Strega (“witch”) and her “weird sisters,” along with “Lady” and the rest.

Once the scene has been set, though, the action takes off and the world expands into gritty color and three-dimensionality. The elements of madness and the supernatural in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, which might have presented a challenge to an author trying to bring them into the modern day, are deftly handled by reframing them into the context of intoxication and addiction. As each character descends into their own struggle with the temptations of power and desire, secrecy and control, the allusions to Shakespeare fade into the new world of Nesbø’s retelling. Even though any reader familiar with the original play knows exactly what Macbeth’s fate will be, Nesbø’s story remains propulsive to the end. Additionally, the translation by Don Bartlett (who rendered the 3,600 pages of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s massive My Struggle series into English) is both lyrical and noir-esque.

The world-view and philosophy of William Shakespeare’s time are in many ways baked into the cultural consciousness of the English-speaking world, even in this post-postmodern era. There are echoes of the Elizabethan concept of fate in the way the media views drug abuse, for example, or the irredeemability of the criminal. As a result, it makes sense that “the Scottish play” can be such a natural palimpsest for a 21st century crime novel. Though times change, the human heart and mind remain what they were in centuries past, and perhaps have always been.

Macbeth was released in the US by Hogarth on April 10, 2018.

 

 

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VCFA’s Hunger Mountain gives a special thanks to our local branch of Bear Pond Books for providing our book reviewing staff members with Advance Reader Copies of Pre-Released titles! Montpelier’s local branch of Bear Pond Books is located on 77 Main St, Montpelier, VT 05602. Bear Pond Books’ selection is also available online: http://www.bearpondbooks.com/.

 

 

Book Blurb: TITLE 13

by Cameron Finch

Michael A. Ferro’s darkly comedic debut novel, TITLE 13, is the story of a missing government census document, a deep and complex relationship with home and family, a man losing himself to alcoholism, and the usual contenders: life, death, and love. It’s also the first documentation of the Midwest’s experience during The Great Recession that I have come across in a work of contemporary fiction. As a Midwesterner myself, I am grateful that Ferro has taken on the role of regional archivist and has used this story to showcase the rich history and culture of the “flyover states.” Told from the perspective of Heald Brown, a middle-aged man who finds himself in the midst of a classified investigation, the plot weaves together government secrets and pressing concerns with privacy and security with existential musings and soul-searching digressions. The book itself is almost 500 pages long, and yet I never felt that length thanks to the clear, fast-paced prose and the well-rounded characters. Heald himself is a deeply flawed protagonist; he’s obsessive, sarcastic, misunderstanding, emotional and is desperately trying to make sense of the chaotic world around him. This may be the exact reason he is just the person we want to follow through the streets of Chicago and Detroit as we teeter on the edge of another day in 2018. We realize that our concerns are Heald’s concerns, and Heald’s concerns are the world’s concerns. Michael A. Ferro’s grand first novel churns fiction with a striking realism, and in his doing so, Ferro has successfully brought the Midwest back onto the literary map.

 

TITLE 13 (Harvard Square Books, Feb. 1, 2018)

Book Blurb: The End We Start From

by Lindsay Gacad

Megan Hunter’s haunting debut novel, The End We Start From, explores a mother’s journey through London underwater. Immediately, the reader is gripped by Hunter’s visceral imagery, as she describes the protagonist, who is preparing to give birth as “a lumbering gorilla with a low-slung belly and suspicious eyes.” Through Hunter’s poetic prose and honest revelations, readers learn about this pregnant woman’s precarious predicament, as the British city she lives in becomes completely submerged in water. Similarly, Hunter’s writing style takes on an experimental and fluid form through its urgent and rhythmic sensibilities. For instance, we are introduced to “R” for example, “R has N’s watch, he tells me. He has it somewhere. He doesn’t put it on.” Hunter won’t use proper names like “Robert” or “Nathan” and the effect is chilling. For such a personal story, Hunter seems to shy away from intimacy with her readers, instead of zooming into the scenes that she has elaborately written. And yet, readers can look forward to a hopeful ending. After all of our heroine’s persistence, fraught with the trials of new motherhood and ardent survival, there is still hope. Hunter’s prose is well-suited for fans of post-apocalyptic fiction and believers of the magical.

 

The End We Start From was released by Atlantic Monthly Press on November 7th, 2017.

 

 

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VCFA’s Hunger Mountain gives a special thanks to our local branch of Bear Pond Books for providing our book reviewing staff members with Advance Reader Copies of Pre-Released titles! Montpelier’s local branch of Bear Pond Books is located on 77 Main St, Montpelier, VT 05602. Bear Pond Books’ selection is also available online: http://www.bearpondbooks.com/.

Review: Bang by Daniel Peña

by Mariah Hopkins

When the reader first meets Iván the hotel owner in Daniel Peña’s debut novel, Bang, he is ruminating on all the reasons why his mother seemed to never let him outside into the Mexican city of Matamoros as he was growing up. “At first it was sun-exposure (too much of it),” Iván thinks. “And as he grew into a teenager, it was the gang violence she saw on TV. And as he grew older still, it was the general violence of Matamoros, which could be escaped but couldn’t be denied…”. This closing thought, “could be escaped but couldn’t be denied”, sat with me for a long while after reading. It very much represents some of the novel’s philosophies, as well as my own personal feelings, about the ongoing drug war in Mexico.  

Bang is the story of two undocumented brothers, Cuauhtémoc and Uli, whose late-night ride in a crop duster turns sour when their engine gives out and they crash land on the Mexican side of the border. Having been brought to the U.S. as children and separated after the crash, Cuauhtémoc and Uli have no choice but to face the unfamiliar and violent world of border-Mexico alone. Each brother does what they must to survive. Cuauhtémoc becomes a smuggler for a drug cartel and Uli finds himself scavenging for copper wire in San Miguel, a city near-destroyed by the effects of the drug war. Both boys are struggling to make their way home to Texas, unaware that their mother has crossed the border to search for them.

It’s these three characters that Bang follows, their individual plot lines each telling a story of an ordinary person doing incredible, sometimes haunting, things to survive. Peña does not spare any details when it comes to the nefarious actions of the cartels, the army purportedly fighting them, the autodefensas (vigilante groups), and those who are affected by the world drug trafficking has created. When certain details in the novel struck me as too gruesome to be true, I would remember Peña’s thoroughly conducted research (done through the National Autonomous University of Mexico) and I’d find myself second-guessing what I considered to be the limits of war and survival. The fact that Bang made me walk in between “trust the author” and “take everything with a grain of salt” speaks to my knowledge of the drug war and why Iván’s line about the undeniability of violence struck me so much. I have been studying Mexican history for ten years, our southern neighbor is my greatest passion, but the violence occuring there because of the drug war was something I’d been ignoring. I’ve been waving my hand at family members who would worry about my traveling there, saying, “it’s just like it is here: if you’re not involved in it you’re safe.” In a way that was my means of escaping a truth I wished I could deny: drug trafficking is real and it is heartless. And seeing as how the Mexican Drug War is a “low intensity” war, ongoing since 2006, I imagine Bang capable of igniting that same realization in the hearts of others who might have decided it acceptable to ignore.

“Could be escaped but couldn’t be denied” is a looming stormcloud which hangs over the heads of Bang’s characters and slowly grows larger and larger as they become more entrenched in the lives they’ve crafted in Mexico. In Texas, Cuauhtémoc was trying to run from the memory of a freak accident that his cartel life asks him to repeat. He knows it would be easy to run away from the cartel in the plane the entrusted him with, but doing so would mean a lifetime on the run as well as putting his family in danger. Stuck in the decaying city of San Miguel, Uli could leave, but not without some deceit and cruelty on his part. And in the search for her sons, Araceli is pulled back into a country she abandoned some fifteen years ago. Faced with the violence of Matamoros, “home”, the thing the characters are all seeking to return to, becomes that escapable, undeniable thing for her.
Despite the brutality and bleak inescapability I have been stressing, Bang is an honest and sympathetic novel concerning a family that has been torn apart. There is not a moment as one reads where a character comes off as unsympathetic or they wish for some comeuppance to befall them for the lengths they have resorted in order to survive. Exciting and thoughtful, I can’t deny that Bang is the most intriguing novel I have read so far in 2018.

Bang by Daniel Peña was published January 30th, 2018 and is available from Arte Público Press.

Review: The Boyfriend Project by Carol Willette Bachofner

by Lauren Lang

Let’s Talk about Boyfriend(s)

School dance, prom, holding hands, kissing, dating, love, and boyfriends. Full of reminiscent nostalgia for the past, Bachofner explores young love in her latest poetry book, The Boyfriend Project (2017). The catchy title attracts instant attention, especially from girls of all ages, who love to reminisce about romantic relationships from their youths, especially the early stages of blossoming teenage romance. The puppy kind of love. 

Bachofner begins with wonder in the prologue, “Puppies and Stolen Things”:

“She wonders

about sweet boys from long ago.

On a list somewhere, or in an old diary,

. . . These boys are moments like sand

turned over and over

on the beach. Some are gone, some

misplaced.

. . . She spreads

photos of these boys on her coverlet:

Where are they?

Do they think of her?”

Like playing an old album on a record player, it’s pretty obvious what kind of music it’ll be playing to the rest of the album on the record once the tune comes tinkling out.

Then Bachofner takes the reader on a journey of love talk from the very beginning of her youth. She begins the journey, the first poem after the prologue with a sense of innocence, as if she begins writing in a blank page. On the first poem, “It’s so innocent, isn’t it?”, Bachofner shows innocence and shy desire for romance.

“The kind of love, that first

kiss or handholding

or a glance or two on the bus,

in the gym, at the ballfields.”

But soon after that, Bachofner erases this innocence as she transitions to transformation of boys entering puberty in “No Boyfriends in Junior High”, a bluntly honest poem.

“By the 8th grade, all the boys

had matured into jerks.

They swaggered, leaned together

outside Cox’s Store, made dirty jokes

about every girl who walked by.”

The poem’s unapologetic tone is from a teenage girl’s perspective who departed from her childhood, as Bachofner shows the acts the boys were trying to do to prove that they were big boys now:

“They’d taken up smoking, held cigs

Between thumbs and forefingers,

Smelled like sweat mixed with Old Spice

Boosted from their father’s dop kits.

Sure enough, as Bachofner goes on, she begins blooming the teenage romance in “There Was the Year”

of learning to kiss,

positioning noses, closed

eyes. Sneaking

a look to see if his eyes

were properly shut. Brown

eyes laughing, soft lips breaking

into laughter at my dare.”

Her poetic free verse flows freely as she replays all of her memories on many moments in that one poem. It’s like flipping through a photo album that consisted of many photos over a decade, captured many moments in many seasons. She followed the teenage romance throughout. Especially on a mini poetry series, “Boy Time, with music and prayers” that consists several small poems that are chained to one and another with the written time on the the titles: “10 p.m. School Dance”, “11 p.m. Perkins Cove”, “12 a.m. Nobble”, “1 a.m. Parked”, “2 a.m. Old and New”, “3.30 a.m. Dance”, “4 a.m. Prom”, and “5.30 a.m. Out”. Bachofner creates a sequence of several small scenes that captures a precise moment at a certain time. Which builds up to the climactic moment when she’s finally settling down.

Because it’s a nostalgic themed poetry, Bachofner spends some time on on relishes in memories of long-ago lovers and/or crushes she had romantic encounter with, as she writes the dedication after the title of the poem: “High School Sweetheart — for DW”, “Cliff Walk — for Roger”, “Five Hundred Pictures — jor JSW”, and “Locket — for J”. In those poems, where it’s sappy and cheeky, shows the ultimate puppy love in teenage romance.

“Five hundred pictures of you,

five hundred kisses haunting my lips,

five million drops of rain still falling.”

After a journey of several falling in love and old boyfriends, Bachofner ends the book with an epilogue, “Love Actually”. Which, she dedicated to one person consistently. The readers might assume, she finally met the love of her life, as her poems within the epilogue showed the growth and maturity that ended her boyfriend project.

The reminiscence of love in all of her poems uncovers so many nostalgic feelings about teenage romance; a never-ending subject that can easily become cheesy and cliché. However, Bachofner boldly writes it down on the page, and shares it. 

The Boyfriend Project

By Carol Willette Bachofner

76 pp. Heartsounds Press

Review: The Lying Game by Ruth Ware

by Kayleigh Marinelli

Let’s Play The Lying Game.

  • Tell a lie.

Everyone has told a white lie in their lives. I have never been one of those people.

Caution: Continue at your own risk for I fear I may be an unreliable narrator with a past I am trying to bury.

Once in a while these lies creep up and haunt you, pulling you back into a past that you were trying to leave behind. Ruth Ware explores the idea of lies and time in her new novel, The Lying Game. Three words: “I need you,” are enough to bring back together a group of four friends who have since let go of the secrets in their past while trying to move forward with their lives, but the disruption of a lie forces them back into the present.

  • Stick to your story.

I was first introduced to Ruth Ware when her ground-breaking New York Times bestseller, In a Dark, Dark Wood, took the shelves by storm. Much like Agatha Christie, Ware grips her readers within her talons of mystery. She is able to develop multiple cliff hangers throughout the story that urge the readers on through the pages. This novel was deliciously tempting, and I could not put it down. Since, I have read all of Ware’s novels, including 2016’s The Woman in Cabin 10. I was immediately drawn into her world of storytelling, centering on a murder unraveled in both the past and the present which creates a dark and foreboding atmosphere for the reader to live in. Ware uses a similar technique in her new novel. The story is split into five sections that highlight the rules of the lying game.

As the story progresses through the five sections, the reader is introduced more and more into the lives of the four, main women. Isa Wilde is the narrator of the story. A lawyer who has recently given birth to a baby girl with her boyfriend and has buried the past so deep that not even her partner knows the dark secrets that she has been hiding. The story flips between present time, where all the women are in their thirties and have not been together for a very long time, and the past, where they were just girls who were not aware of the consequences their bad decisions and seemingly innocent childhood antics carried.

Ware’s story is shrouded in mystery and the plot reveals itself in a way that leaves the reader hanging onto the edges of their seats from each chapter to the next. Once you think you have the entire story figured out, Ware has one more trick up her sleeve to keep her audience’s pulse pounding and fingers ripping through the pages. One thing the reader has to keep in mind while obsessively continuing on through the novel: These women are notorious liars; Therefore, Isa could be an unreliable narrator. This adds another layer to the story when it comes to trust. How much of the story is actually true? Has Isa really grown past her old, lying ways enough for the reader to trust every word that she is saying? This asks the reader to play games with the text, or for the text to play mind games with the reader. The reader can decide for themselves whether or not these women are trustworthy, allowing for the mystery to seep deeper into the readers mind. The text itself is a physical version of the lying game these women played as children. Its reliability is haunting and secret enough to make the reader question everything.

The Lying Game is multifaceted in a way that does not simply focus on the shift of time. The novel also stresses the importance of friendship, partnership, love and loss, and growth into adulthood. Time plays out in all of these to show how each character has evolved over the years and how they have allowed their pasts to influence their present. Some characters strive to move as far away from the past as possible, while others are stuck living in the past no matter how hard they try to move away from it.

  • Never, ever get caught.

The question continuing to linger at the heart of the story is the mystery itself: Why are all of these friends being brought back together after all these years? The mystery increases in urgency as the book progresses toward its ending.

  • Never lie to each other.

The climax unfolds quickly at the end of the novel setting up a new future for the characters that their pasts did not initially allow. The ending of the novel is open ended, which leaves the reader hungering for more and wondering about all the lies that tore these women apart. There are many questions that remain unanswered by Ware, but this allows for the reader to meet her in a new space where they can decide for themselves how the lives of the women are going to progress after the truth has fallen into the hands of the authorities.

  • Know when to stop lying.

It seems that my lies have caught up to me in the present, and just like Isa Wilde I have something to confess: The Lying Game is haunting the shelves of your local bookstore waiting for you to crack open its spine, trace your fingers over the words of the mystery, and try to solve for yourself exactly what is hiding within the pages of Ruth Ware’s new suspenseful drama.

 

P.S. I fear I may have lied to you at the beginning of our time together, but in closing, I have learned my lesson and urge you to your nearest book store. After all, everyone has told a white lie in their lives.

 

Book Review: Tim Wirkus’ The Infinite Future

by Sarah Leamy

The Infinite Future likes to mix its genres, stories, and narrators. Released in January 2018 by Penguin Press, Tim Wirkus’ work is a novel that is broken into two sections. There is the search for an ancient manuscript, and the manuscript itself: Two tales live within this one book.

In the first story, Danny, a Mormon student and struggling writer, joins the obsessive librarian, Sergio, and a disgraced Mormon historian, Madge, in the search for a lost text—the novel’s second story. The second half of the book is pure science fiction, a very different literary experience compared to the first part of the novel, which takes on the form of the missing text these three characters have searched for throughout their travels in Utah, California and Brazil.

The Infinite Future is laden with stories told within stories and told by narrators who often switch-off within the chapters. Often, a new voice is simply introduced by a first line of the following storyteller’s montage, which then relays another incident to the listeners. As readers are told of one tale, another emerging tale soon blends into one after another, and so on. Throughout the novel, the overall tone of the first part of The Infinite Future varies from conversational to formal, often sounding quasi-academic and tinged with a regionalism derivative of Idaho and Utah.

Within these stories, and the tales within tales within them, the settings range from the tight knit world of Mormonism to the cities and landscapes of Brazil, both richly descriptive and inviting places while with Danny, Sergio and Madge’s continuing search for the lost text.

The second half of the book is quite different, in terms of style and tone; it is the discovered manuscript, which starts off with an entirely different narrator and begins with her saying “I was emptying rat traps in our convent’s dusty under croft.” This narrator is a nun, a sensible-sounding storyteller whose voice of reason informs readers of the novel’s world being under threat. The narrative style of the manuscript reverts to Wirkus’ stylistic telling of a story within a story. This technique seems to be an element that Wirkus is happiest working in, especially given his use of spinning all these tales within tales together. Readers will be left admiring Wirkus’ ability to keep track of the many details threading the novel’s manifold genres and voices.

Tim Wirkus’ The Infinite Future may be appreciated for its original use of weaving and enjoyed as a literary-journey suited best for those who love to sit back and be told of tales marauding within tales, from a safe distance.

*Advance Reader Copies were generously provided to Vermont College of Fine Arts  literary publication, Hunger Mountain, by Bear Pond Books.

Bear Pond Books, 77 Main St, Montpelier, VT 05602 

 http://www.bearpondbooks.com

Hardcover, 390 pages
Published January 16th 2018 by Penguin Press

Book Review: Dreadful Young Ladies and Other Stories by Kelly Barnhill

by Cameron Finch

Fusing fantasy, horror, gothic romance, and the supernatural, the stories of Minnesota-based Kelly Barnhill host a menagerie of undead magicians, poetic corpses, haunted witches, and evasive female pirates. These stories are not set in our modern time, and yet their landscapes feel strangely familiar, as if recalling and revamping fairy tales whispered to us long ago. The stories collected in Barnhill’s newest book, Dreadful Young Ladies and Other Stories, are at their best when the heartbreakingly bizarre is juxtaposed against quaint, domestic charm.

The name Kelly Barnhill may ring a bell due to her success in the children’s literature community last year. Her tenderly magical novel, The Girl Who Drank the Moon, won the 2017 Newbery Medal, and tells the story of a girl who is accidentally given magical powers as a baby and must wrangle her gift before others try to destroy her. Dreadful Young Ladies and Other Stories, published by Algonquin Books in February 2018 as a short story collection for “adult readers,” will surely appeal to young adult readers, too, or anyone who enjoys good old fantasy and magic in the same vein as Kelly Link and Neil Gaiman.

In the story, “Mrs. Sorensen and the Sasquatch,” the widow Mrs. Sorensen becomes the talk of the town when she shows up to church with an unexpected date, a Sasquatch. It is obscene, it is a scandal, and yet, Mrs. Sorensen has never looked happier in her life. You, the reader, are instantly pulled into the incredulous scene as an observer and you may even begin to doubt what you are reading! In fact, when I looked into her window the other day, I saw her around the dinner table with two dogs, one raccoon, one porcupine, one lynx, and one black bear? The priest will have a ball about that, won’t he? A bear drinking wine out of a goblet! How absurd!

Against the well-observed small town unraveling into gossip is set the depiction of a woman on the hunt for companionship and sexual pleasure. Despite its fantastical exaggerations, the aging woman’s desires and fears give weight and pathos to an otherwise quirky tale. Similarly, “The Dead Boy’s Last Poem,” the story of a girl, who obsesses to the point of starvation over poems bequeathed to her by a dead boy poet, is also a tender portrait of grief, passion and social-rule-bending.

The material is often morbid but the writing is always elegant, witty, and laced with sharp philosophical observations and sometimes startling descriptions. In “Dreadful Young Ladies,” a child riding down a slide grips the burlap sack beneath him “the way a skydiver hangs onto his defective parachute before his final bounce upon a pitiless ground.” In “Elegy for Gabrielle—Patron Saint of Healers, Whores, and Righteous Thieves,” the narrator, Gabrielle’s father, preaches truths: “To be human is to lie, after all. Our minds tell lies to our hearts and our hearts tell lies to our souls.” Confrontations with the lies we tell ourselves and the consequential results of our decisions are at the heart of many of the stories, and Barnhill has an acute eye and ear for the pleasures, pains, and confusions of being human, even in the most magical of settings.

The pièce de résistance, which takes up over one-third of the book’s real estate, is the novella “The Unlicensed Magician,” which won Barnhill the World Fantasy Award in 2016. The story introduces readers to the secret life of an invisible girl named Sparrow, who was once left for dead and can heal others’ pain in an instant. Previously sold separately as an individual story, the novella’s book jacket explains, “There were twenty magical children born that year. Nineteen, if you count the one that died. The Minister ordered that the nineteen children be shipped to the Tower to be worked and drained to nothing, and that the dead child be thrown on the rubbish heap, and never spoken of again. But the dead baby had other plans. When the half-drunk junk man witnesses the half-decayed corpse becoming a living, breathing, healthy baby, he knows at once that he must protect the child from the clutches of the Minister. Enlisting the help of the formidable egg woman and the sagacious constable, he manages to keep the existence of the child a secret. But children grow. And so does magic. And secrets long to be told.”

So goes the modern fairy tale, told in alternating chapters of a dystopian present day and a long- forgotten past of freedom and dreams. Through the unique characters’ heroism, heartbreak, and wit, Barnhill poetically reveals humanity’s hunger for language, for connection, for visibility, and for love.

In her acknowledgments, Barnhill says she finds it a miracle “that in this frenetic and bombastic and self-centered age, [there are] legions of people who can and do return to the quietness of the page.” Yet, she makes it so easy for readers to tumble headfirst into her stories, because she writes of worlds so unlike our own. There are no cell phones, traffic jams, or social media to distract her characters from living, from dying, from navigating the turbulent trials and tributaries of the places they call home. Perhaps it is this lack of distraction which enhances the magic Barnhill conjures within—the magic that happens when you are pulled into the present fully; when you are beckoned through portals and trapdoors; and flung to the far-reaching quietude of a hushed forest. Dreadful Young Ladies is where Barnhill’s stories wait to be discovered by you.

  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Algonquin Books (February 20, 2018)
  • ISBN-13: 978-1616207977
  • $18.99

 

 

* * *

VCFA’s Hunger Mountain gives a special thanks to our local branch of Bear Pond Books for providing our book reviewing staff members with Advance Reader Copies of Pre-Released titles! Montpelier’s local branch of Bear Pond Books is located on 77 Main St, Montpelier, VT 05602. Bear Pond Books’ selection is also available online: http://www.bearpondbooks.com/.

 

Book Review: Sunvault: Stories of Solarpunk and Eco-Speculation

by Paul Daniel Ash

The literary world has been applying the “-punk” suffix to science fiction sub-genres so frequently and for so long that it sometimes verges on self-parody. It all began with cyberpunk, a description of the 80s noir-esque SF of Bruce Sterling, Rudy Rucker, and of course William Gibson. This was soon followed by steampunk, a term which came to refer to both retrofuturistic SF and a fashion style that mashes up Victorian and post-industrial elements. In the wake of that has come biopunk, dieselpunk, nanopunk and a host of other -punks: tags for sub-genres and sub-sub-genres proliferating, spread by fans and book marketers but not always universally recognized throughout the industry.

The idea of solarpunk as a distinct genre has only emerged in the last few years. Mostly self-applied by writers of speculative eco-fiction, solarpunk has become as much a philosophical and esthetic stance as it is a term of critique. The proponents of solarpunk present to us a future that works, as much as it may still struggle with the consequences of climate change and rapacious capitalism. What, then, is there to distinguish it from techno-utopianism or post-hippie fantasies like Ernest Callenbach’s Ecotopia? “There’s an oppositional quality to solarpunk,” wrote Adam Flynn in 2014’s Solarpunk: Notes Toward a Manifesto. “But it’s an opposition that begins with infrastructure as a form of resistance.”

A new anthology, consisting of 19 short stories, ten poems and seven pieces of artwork, is the most recent vehicle to give voice to this nascent movement. Sunvault: Stories of Solarpunk and Eco-Speculation came together as the collaboration of Phoebe Wagner and Brontë Christopher Wieland, two MFA candidates in Creative Writing and Environment at Iowa State University. When they came to Iowa in 2015, as avid readers as well as writers of SF they both lamented the fact that “the environment was an antagonist” in that genre, “already destroyed to the point of no return, or simply not a consideration” (from the “Editors’ Note”). They saw in what was then a small Tumblr coterie the roots of a different kind of near-future SF. And given that near-future SF virtually always means dystopian SF these days, these writers were (to paraphrase William F. Buckley’s description of conservatives) standing athwart science fiction, yelling Stop, at a time when no one is inclined to do so, or to have much patience with those who so urge it. In 2015, there was as yet no anthology of solarpunk works in English. So, working in what little spare time was available to them as graduate students, Wagner and Wieland commissioned pieces that exemplified the qualities they were seeking, and reviewed over two hundred submissions from around the planet. They launched a successful Kickstarter to complete the project, which was published in August 2017.

The selection of short stories is as eclectic and diverse as the authors, drawing from multiple styles and languages. The masterful Daniel José Older, author of the Shadowshaper and Bone Street Rumba fantasy series, contributes “Dust,” a tale of uprising that plays with fluidity of gender and space-opera tropes to tell an ultimately hopeful story. “The Road to the Sea,” by the Israeli author and Campbell Award laureate Lavie Tidhar, is both elegiac and uplifting. “Boston Hearth Project” by T. X. Watson is an action-packed, propulsive story that imagines a near-future Occupy with augmented reality tech. Iona Sharma’s “Eight Cities” explores faith and consciousness against the backdrop of a Delhi inundated by rivers swollen as a result of a changing climate. And “Speechless Love” by Yilun Fan (translated from Mandarin by S. Qiouyi Lu) tells the story of a relationship between two “stratospherians” in a future where “atmosphere colonization replaced space colonization.”

The inclusion of poetry and visual art in the anthology emphasizes the vision of solarpunk as a movement rather than merely a literary genre. The language in the poems runs the gamut from the technospeak of “Strandbeest Dreams” by Lisa Bradley and José M. Jimenez, to the more traditional SF imagery in “light star sail bound“ by Joel Nathanael, to the flowing lyricism of “The Seven Species” by Aleksei Valentin. The artworks, like the poetry interspersed throughout the anthology, are intricately detailed and somewhat reminiscent of art nouveau: a movement not entirely dissimilar in its evocation of the natural world, its ease with the romantic, and its insistence on being of its historical moment.

In their Note, the anthology’s editors emphasize the importance they placed on including a diversity of voices. Solarpunk is very much a global movement: indeed, the first anthology of solarpunk fiction was published in Brazil in 2012 (with a Kickstarter currently underway to publish an English translation). The true genius of this work lies in its essence as a community project, as a labor of love by writers, artists and editors. It takes more than a buzzy label to make a movement, and the energy of these student-editors – coupled with the outpouring of interest and involvement across national boundaries – suggest that solarpunk may be finding resonance in this often-fearful age.

 

Publisher: Upper Rubber Boot Books (August 29, 2017)

ISBN 978-1937794750, 254 pages

$13.99

 

the princess saves herself in this one by Amanda Lovelace

by Lindsay Gacad

No matter how outdated or clichéd you think fairy tales have become, their appeal remains undeniable today. The whimsy and call for the suspension of belief, as applied to the mundane of our everyday, grasps at our hearts, evoking a sense of nostalgia and hope.

When I asked the employee at Phoenix Books in Burlington if he had any new poetry collection recommendations, he took me straight to Rupi Kaur. While I am familiar with Kaur’s work and love her poems, I knew I wanted something less popularized. princess was his second choice for me, asking if I already knew Lovelace. I lied and said I did. After seeing the directness of its title, the book’s cover gripped me: striking, black matte with pure white lowercase print, left-justified. As I began to quickly flip through its thick and creamy pages, I was thrust into an emotionally charged adventure that was impossible to turn away from. This is the first poem I landed on when I opened its wondrous pages: “maybe I find it so hard to believe in heaven, because I don’t know if there will be poetry there.”

I didn’t know who Amanda Lovelace was, didn’t know her book the princess saves herself in this one was the 2016 winner of the Goodreads Choice Awards for Best Poetry. I didn’t know about her former acclaim or that she’s found grassroots success through her Twitter (@ladybookmad). As a fellow writer and aspiring poet, this is a unique place to write a book review from, a place of minimal previous knowledge of the author, a place of instant admiration and wonder.

In a most modern and innovative way, Amanda Lovelace has used her poetry to take the reigns of one of my most favorite fairy tropes: the princess being saved from her demons. This collection is broken into four parts and presented to us as “the princess, the damsel, the queen, and you”. The first three chapters beautifully weave together the author’s story, exploring her relationships with men, family, friends, society, her body, her writing and herself. We as readers, as women, as humans, can relate to nearly all of the elements of her story.

In “the queen” Lovelace’s words conjure the hazy ups and down of romance and heart-break with poems like, “before he left, he wrapped my heart in layers of barbed wire to make sure that no one else could ever get in, but you were more than willing to bloody your hands for me.”

For her final chapter “you”, Lovelace addresses the reader directly in a poetic love letter, promising that our work in progress (our work, our writing, our selves) is “pending: your own happy ending. – you’ll get there.” It addresses themes of love, family, mourning and empowerment, while keeping the reader both engaged and included. It provides an uplifting template for the stages in our lives, and our faith in each other.

If you’re feeling bombarded by today’s news headlines and the angst of the world’s political unrest, my prescription as an untrained and unlicensed therapist is this poetic journey alongside Amanda Lovelace.

Believe in the fairy tale, her writing style begs of us; her syntax is revelatory, honest and endearing, her collection is a safe place. For the harder and more dreary days, Lovelace’s poetry will deliver on its promise, and remind me that the princess can always undoubtedly save herself.

On her website, Lovelace describes herself as growing up a word-devourer & avid fairy tale lover. She has her B.A. in English Literature with a minor in Sociology. the princess saves herself in this one is her debut poetry collection & the first book in the women are some kind of magic series. A lifelong poetess & storyteller, Lovelace currently lives in New Jersey with her husband, their moody cat.

The second book in the series, the witch doesn’t burn in this one, will be published in 2018.

Lovelace’s poems and their inventive forms make this collection a heartfelt exploration of love for oneself and others.

 

Andrews McNeel Publishing, 2017.

ISBN: 978-1-4494-8641-9, 199 pages,

$14.99

 

Review: A Woman is a Woman Until She is a Mother by Anna Prushinskaya

by Cameron Finch

At the Crossroads of Woman and Mother

A Review of A Woman is a Woman Until She is a Mother by Anna Prushinskaya

How are women’s stories told? Who hears these stories? How do the terms ‘mother’ and ‘woman’ relate and differentiate? Can they coexist? These are some of the questions Anna Prushinskaya tackles with lyrical honesty in A Woman is a Woman Until She is a Mother, her debut essay collection. Her book unpacks the complexities of motherhood itself, as well as the transitions of “woman” to “woman with child” and from “mother-to-be” to “mother.” Through a mixture of her own meditations and examples given by respected female writers and thinkers, Prushinskaya illustrates that “mothers” are women as diverse, as complicated, as unique, as flawed as any other group of humans, and deserve to be recognized for their commitment to take on the demands of maternal work on top of the demanding struggle of being a woman in today’s society.

Prushinskaya structures her book along a chronological timeline. Bookended with the inscriptions “Does it help to know this was written while I was pregnant?” and “Does it help to know that this was written after I became a mother?”, the essays document Prushinskaya’s growth into her own identity as a mother. We are privy to witness the fluctuation in emotions and confidence as that identity changes.

Throughout the eleven essays, she artfully weaves together a wide-range of seemingly disparate topics, including technology and online maternal support communities, home births versus hospital births (Prushinskaya herself works as a doula now), the wonder of forests, and her own family’s heritage and memories of the former Soviet Union.

The book begins, fittingly enough, with the grandest mother of them all: Mother Earth. “Love Letter to Woody Plants” at first makes us wonder if we’ve picked up the wrong book. We weren’t expecting a naturalist’s diary. Speaking about types of maple trees, she writes: “They have a thorny, suckering habit. They are part of one another.” She observes that “the forest changes…[it] is strange and lovely, a place to touch and explore…I am not particularly spiritual, but I quiet…My instinct is to not to trust [the forest].” Even as she speaks about nature and its changeable ways, a subtext of self-doubt and the physical metamorphosis of life forms introduces us into the major themes of the collection. We can’t help but regress into childlike wonder amongst the backdrop of such natural splendor.

Does it help to know that I am a woman and a writer? Does it help to know that I read this book and am not a mother?

“It is a strange thing to know someone based only on what they feel like from the inside,” Prushinskaya says in the collection’s titular essay. Speaking from the precipice of becoming a mother as a woman 37 weeks pregnant, her anxiety and doubt create tension as we wait, too, for her water to break. She balances the anticipation with a delightfully dark sense of humor: “I took a shower. The shower was hot, and I worried about whether I was scalding the baby…I felt a pop and a gush, the sort of thing that happens in the movies and is actually very uncommon. I spent my pregnancy pointing out instances of such unrealistic portrayals.” At the climactic moment of her baby’s birth, she turns her experience into something beautiful and metaphorical, something that only a master poet could put into words: “Motherhood is an encounter, a shadow in mirrors, a beast laying low in the grass in the field.”

The personal essays are lyrical in nature, which comes from Prushinskaya’s early roots in poetry. She has an intimate and down-to-earth voice, yet not so intimate as to confide everything to us. Her language is careful and controlled. There are moments in the essays where Prushinskaya hints to hardships in her past, such as an abusive relationship or a possible addiction. With no further elaborations, her narrative stays focused on the topic of motherhood; thus communicating that the hardships she’s overcome are part of who she is today, but are only sideline spectators to the story at hand.

Prushinskaya’s last essay, “One Mother’s Answers,” takes the hyper-experimental form of a one-sided abstracted conversation, in which we only hear the mother’s answers. We must fill in the blanks with our own questions. The author here begs us to remember that while some questions are universal, each person’s answer is distinct. The memory, the voice, the cadence, the preoccupations—all unique.

Throughout her essays, Prushinskaya both pushes back on the constructs pinned upon mothers (be selfless, be perfect, be gentle) while actively seeking to embrace the image of doing motherhood right. This ability to see her identity as a “both/and” instead of an “either/or” makes this collection highly evocative and admirably honest.

Does it help to know that I would like a family one day? That I want to continue to work and write. Does it help to know that I want to love a baby from my own body? That I’m scared, excited, curious, clueless.

Prushinskaya’s collection gives me permission, as a woman writer, to have all these emotions simultaneously.

It is true that this collection is firstly concerned with telling a woman’s story. In fact, the only men who appear (briefly) in the book are Prushinskaya’s husband, the “EMS guy,” and the author’s Russian grandfather. But Prushinskaya reminds us that “we are all a history of someone else’s limbs.” We are all born from mothers, no matter our gender. A mother is a mother even when you grow up. A mother’s story may even be a prehistory of you.

A Woman is a Woman Until She is a Mother is undoubtedly an important contribution to the world of women’s stories. From the book’s beginning to its end, Prushinskaya strives to showcase one writer’s definition of herself as a “woman.” Being a mother, for her, was a choice; a voluntary path she understands is not available to all women. She shows that there is no right way of being a mother, nor of being a woman, and ‘the right way’ to be that person can change daily. Perhaps there is no ‘right way.’

Review: Vacationland by John Hodgman

by Christa Guild

John Hodgman has made his living off of telling tales and giving people orders. His first three books, satirical almanacs, cover topics ranging from fake historical anecdotes to the validity of the upcoming Mayan apocalypse. I first came across Hodgman through his podcast, Judge John Hodgman, where he mediates everyday conflicts with a self-righteous demeanor and certain unfailing rules, like that everyone should learn to drive a car with a manual transmission and living together before marriage is not sinful but is a major financial liability.

John Hodgman presides, and so I wasn’t surprised when a chapter of his collection of essays, Vacationland: True Stories from Painful Beaches, began with a declaration: “I don’t like riding on city buses. Those things can go anywhere. There are no tracks, and their routes and stops are a collective fiction. What if something goes wrong?” (To be clear, I agree completely with Hodgman’s distaste for the bus. I once got on a bus thinking I’d end up at work and instead found myself being stared down by security inside a U.S. Naval Warfare Center). I expected that eccentric tone when I picked up Vacationland, knowing full well that Hodgman is a self-proclaimed narcissist. What I wasn’t anticipating was that the book would also be moving and filled with not just self-deprecation but intimate self-reflection.

Hodgman enters the page center stage with a promise: “I will be honest with you: there are no fun fake facts in this book. While I may evade particular details and change some names in order to protect the privacy of those who did not ask to know me, the rest is all the awful truth about my dumb thoughts and feelings. I am sorry for this. It is all I have left.” And indeed, Vacationland feels like a direct rebuke of the current political climate. No fake facts, no alternative truths, just the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth–it’s appropriate for a judge, even one of the internet variety.

Among the most powerful essays in Vacationland is “Rocks on Top of Other Rocks” where Hodgman and his best friend go swimming in a swimming hole that is semi-legal by the laws of the United States government and build cairns, which Hodgman fears is even less legal according to the cairn police. He battles his own reservations and confronts his instinctive desire to be a genius in everything—even if that thing is as simple as piling rocks on top of other rocks. And because Hodgman has promised to be truthful, he finally admits what we the audience have suspected: he and his friend have been high the whole time. This delayed glimpse of honesty is exactly what keeps us readers on our toes, certain that Hodgman won’t lie to us but also wary of what tricks he might pull on the next page. The essay is hilarious, sharp, and ultimately an indication of all the ways in which the book is successful: even through the littlest experiences, Hodgman is able to capture powerful insights.

But that’s how Vacationland functions—through a series of laughably innocuous moments like taking trash to the dump or visiting Perry’s Nut House, a little shop in Maine without a bathroom. Hodgman ruminates on the big questions and exposes his insecurities in the funniest way he can. Hodgman is one of those rare people that can make a truly smart joke out of basically anything, one of those people that all the rest of us want to sit and listen to for hours at a time, and in Vacationland he invites us in for tea – or for a scotch maybe.

Hodgman is first and foremost a comedian, and this book is first and foremost comedic; nevertheless, he is able to reflect on his past while also being forthright about his ridiculous privilege; the impetus for the book, he admits, is that he owns two summer homes and doesn’t know what to do about it. He takes the time to speak directly to the issues weighing on him – on all of us – without feeling the need to tackle it with humor. He states, “Yes, I shoplifted some off-brand beers and snuck into the London Zoo when I was in my twenties; but only now do I realize that I did so with full, if unconscious, confidence that I would not be executed in the street for doing these things.” These moments of solemnity are startling and powerful and likely give away a little more of John Hodgman than he would typically let us see.

John Hodgman’s Vacationland is a perfect example of the way white male voices can and should respond to modern day tumult, socially, politically, and personally. I very rarely put down a book and think, more boys should read this, but that is my hope for John Hodgman and his book about owning two summer homes. He writes about growing up, finding his place in the world, raising children, and losing family with a poignant voice and a large helping of clever comedy; the book doesn’t feel like an instruction manual on how you are meant to act, but something about Hodgman makes you want to follow in his footsteps. John Hodgman isn’t the voice of a generation, but he’s a beautiful example of how to take a step back and listen to those who are.

 

Vacationland (True Stories from painful beaches)

by John Hodgman

Penguin Random House, NY 2017

272 pages

 

My Darling Detective by Howard Norman

by Sarah Leamy

The novel opens with Jacob Rigolet, a young man who’s employed by a wealthy art collector, sitting at an auction in Halifax. The photograph by Robert Capa’s Death on a Leipzig Balcony is placed up for bidding, but before anyone can say anything, his mother, Nora, walks up the aisle and throws a bottle of ink across the famous image. Jacob had thought his mother, Nora, was “safely tucked away” at the Nova Scotia Rest Home. Jacob’s fiancé, Martha, is the lead investigator, the “interlocutrix,” and she discovers that Jacob’s father is not who he’d thought.

Norman plays lightly with classic film noir with a mix of romance and an old-fashioned crime story with snappy dialogue and a certain melancholy that we expect from him. The noir genre is suspense driven, and in My Darling Detective there is a subtle yet mounting sense of impending threat. The language remains simple as we’d expect from the film noir but is less lyrical than usual for Norman.

A cold case of two unsolved murders dating back to 1945 is lead by Detective Tides and Hogdon, archetypal and clichéd bad cop and good cop. Their working relationship and dialogue is another nod to the 1940s, with a back and forth of one liners, creating a lighter tone than we usually expect from Norman, but it was one that didn’t always work, The two detectives were too much of a stereotype for the novel’s realism yet they grew on me, and the image of one of the detectives singing and dancing during a tense interrogation sticks with me. These supposedly hard-boiled and cynical detectives ended up playing well in contrast to the gentle innocence of Jacob, a bookish and somewhat lost narrator: “Look Jake, sorry if my sense of irony might not be as refined as yours,” Detective Hogdon said.

Howard Norman brings his usual preoccupations of Nova Scotia, WWII, photographs and libraries but with a lighter touch this time, yet the overlying atmosphere is again melancholic. Whimsical and bizarre events such as two children born in the library are held in check with the emotionally raw and realistic letters from the trenches in 1945 Germany, from Nora’s husband, the man in Capa’s photograph, Bernard Rigolet.

Norman’s works are often rich with historical details that give a depth and weight to the narratives. They are rooted in reality such as here when we learn that the “Region of Delay” was “a term that applies to journeys, not always perilous ones, but journeys at seas.” Bernard Rigolet writes letters to his wife from the 1940s, describing the journey from Canada to Europe to fight in the WWII. One of the other soldiers, a Greek and philosophical man, warned them that they “have to have some perspective, some philosophy about what we’re entering into or else it’s all going to seem useless.” Yet war is hard to understand or rationalise and through Rigolet’s letters we witness his slow decline into violence and the inevitability of terror during combat.

Norman is a master of atmosphere and despite the levity of the parallel detective stories, My Darling Detective has these touches of such realism that we, the readers, leave with a stronger sense of the anti-Semitism of the era, the threat of violence, and the trauma of war on a personal level.

Norman’s signature setting of Nova Scotia is less well-described in this novel, without enough of the physical context; it’s as if Norman trusts us to have read his other novels and that we remember and can imagine Halifax fully. There are less sensory details than needed to bring the town and community alive.

Consistently, Norman brings to his novels the importance of books and art, of photographs, letters and libraries, and as usual he evokes those well. These themes offer a hope for humanity, implying that the arts are a sanctuary, an idea that resonates with me.

Jacob, the narrator, turns to the library as it’s familiar; he was born there, grew up there, and after his mother’s breakdown, he decides to become a librarian for mixed reasons. The Halifax Free library is his safe space during the investigations into who his biological father might be and the search into the murders of the cold case from all those years ago. Norman keeps us turning pages as we try to make sense of the various threads.

One of the images that linger with me is when Norman wrote that how feeling disjointed and unprepared can be “like when an orchestra is warming up. All those disparate sounds – oboe, violin, bassoon, French horn, tympani – you can’t imagine how it will all turn into something beautiful.”

My Darling Detective is very much the same for me: The layered plot, the clichéd touches of the ‘homage to noir’ and characters didn’t immediately grab me, persuade me to keep reading, yet I’m glad I did. The lasting impression is one of a cohesive novel, and the lives and deaths of the characters touched me. Jacob and Martha are such an odd detective and librarian couple in a world and culture unfamiliar to me except through Norman’s novels.

Where Norman will takes us next? Is this the start of a lighter body of work within the darker themes he often deals with?

Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017 243 pages. $26.

 

Blackbirds in September: Selected Shorter Poems of Jürgen Becker

by Ian Haight

Blackbirds in September: Selected Shorter Poems of Jürgen Becker.

Selected and Translated by Okla Elliott.

Black Lawrence Press, 2015

There was a person I sat with on grant review panels who would get in a huff over translated works that sat before him. Always there was something wrong with a translation, something missing from a poem that a translator did not get.  And so for five years, no awards were given for a certain translation contest he presided over. After a letter to the foundation sponsoring the contest, awards for translations were given for the contest’s many tiers of prizes, yielding a range of writing I hadn’t realized existed in Korean. Translation fidelity matters, but it is sometimes expressed by the mechanical cohesion of the translation, as well as unity of voice and vision.

This is not to say fidelity is less important than how well a translation works as a poem. It is to say that when reading a collection of translated poems, singular elements of an author’s style, voice, structural practices, and themes—in short, how well a poem is translated in addition to how well a collection of poetry functions mimetically—are easier to evaluate. Blackbirds in September, a collection of poems by German writer Jürgen Becker, selected and translated by Okla Elliott, is an accomplished work, rendering Becker’s voice and aesthetic vision into fluid English.

Blackbirds opens with “In the Wind” (“Im Wind”) from 1993’s Foxtrot in Erfurt Stadium (Foxtrott im Erfurter Stadion):

In the Wind

 

Blackbirds, then other voices. It doesn’t stop

when it snows, when with the snow

a newness comes that is entirely essential this morning. Or how

do you see it? I see the pear tree and how it

(the pear tree) reacts to the wind (to the

wind). This morning, yet again,

the decision fell. War between magpies and crows, only this war,

no trappings, only this clear understanding.

Yet another voice, the next commentator; it’s all about

(yet again) the whole. Are you standing

in the garden? Then you know, tsk tsk, the blackbird

warned above all else, you know, I’ll say it yet

again, in war, in the snow, in the wind.

 

Becker emphasizes the need for clarification in the language: “I see the pear tree and how it/(the pear tree)…”; “it” obviously refers to the pear tree, so clarifying the reference turns “it” into an empty semantic gesture. The “it” is forced into a kind of hollow representational repetition, unlike the recurrence of “to the wind,” which has a rhythmic value.

“Once Again” (“Nochmals”), like many of the poems in Blackbirds, enacts the mind’s search for meaning: “Too much already betrayed. Immediately and later/an eternal searching, and mostly/what’s found: the false.” What’s mostly found is the false, suggesting the potential for the discovery of truth.

In these selected poems, there is no clear indication of what that truth might be, but there is a proposal—made through opposition—of a way to peace in “Soliloquy” (“Selbstgespräch”):

                           …By the shore,

a man, soliloquizing

back and forth—that’s not how

peace is found.

 

Perhaps peace is found in the tranquil iteration of lulling syntax, as in the poem “Renaissance”:

                  Now observe the meadow, not

the photograph, the meadow.

 

The cat, no movement,

and no movement, the blackbird.

 

Rust-colored leaves below the fence.

 

Rust-colored leaves below the fence.

 

And twilight, and wild snow.

 

The quiet snow. In twilight,

the snow falls.

 

Though there is a peacefulness in this language, maybe earned through repetition of imagery, there is far less doubt in subjectivity, and so a primacy seems to be given to objective reality—an important move beyond the representational failings of language. Doubt exists, but its outcomes are clearer. “Tell Me How You’re Doing” (“Sag mir, wie es dir geht”) defines it this way:

Sometimes to smell the nearness of water, or to see

the green sky. But these are just words;

not things or experiences.

 

Finally, language comes to fulfill its practical use of portraying empirical reality and experience. The last poem in the collection, “The Year 1932” (“Jahrgang 1932”)—1932 being the year Becker was born—offers, without any skepticism or hesitation:

                                             …Buried

in the sand, my head, a tower of consciousness;

dig it out,

tracks leading to the Zeitgeist; later

delight, horror—

these are photos:

sea and sand return. Children, new

and blond, run and build in the muck.

 

I am grateful for Elliott’s choice in selecting this poem to end the collection, and for his skillful creation of these poems into English translation. Becker’s belief in reality, his faith in meaning, and his understanding that meaning can be communicated, has value, and originates in consciousness; are all affirmations of human life. These are ideas worthy of gratitude.

 

Portrait of the Alcoholic by Kaveh Akbar

by Genevieve N. Williams

Portrait of the Alcoholic – Kaveh Akbar

Sibling Rivalry Press

2017


Kaveh Akbar in Portrait of the Alcoholic writes with such spiritual risk and honesty that we as readers are brought into the liminal spaces of language, addiction, and displacement. Sobriety is maintained through community, and empathy is written into every poem of this collection. These poems explore relationships between addict and drink, between people, cultures, and languages. From the opening poem, “Some Boys Aren’t Born They Bubble,” we are pulled in by Akbar’s wild metaphors and similes: “sometimes one will disappear into himself / like a ram charging a mirror when this happens / they all feel it.” When I ordered my copy of Portrait of the Alcoholic, I’d recently been released from probation for a DUI, was working fewer and fewer hours at the bar where I’d worked for nine years, and was easing into the realization that I had an unhealthy relationship with alcohol. At weekly, court-mandated AA meetings, I listened to people’s stories and contributed my own. We felt collective pride when someone maintained sobriety and collective worry when another relapsed. This sense of community and shared recovery comes through Akbar’s opening poem and is maintained throughout this gorgeous collection.

Empathy is central to Portrait of the Alcoholic, as are moments of profound vulnerability. “When I wake, I ask God to slide into my head quickly before I do,” Akbar writes in the poem “Being in this World Makes Me Feel like a Time Traveler.” When the court mandated I attend AA meetings, I feared being inundated with religious dogma. That wasn’t my experience. Attending a small meditation group Saturday afternoons, I was grounded by our discussions and weekly repetition of the Serenity Prayer. We talked about spiritual fitness. We practiced mindfulness. The disease of alcoholism is tricky — Akbar beautifully articulates its complexities and the necessity of vulnerability in maintaining sobriety.

It’s not only alcoholism that these poems grapple with, it’s also immigration, language, memory, displacement, and the realities of a life lived in the margins and with resilience. These themes are woven together seamlessly in the poem “Do You Speak Persian?” Akbar writes,

I don’t remember how to say home

in my first language, or lonely, or light.

 

I remember only

delam barat tang shodeh, I miss you,

 

and shab bekheir, goodnight.

 

How is school going, Kaveh-joon?

Delam barat tang shodeh.

 

Are you still drinking?

Shab bekheir.

 

For so long every step I’ve taken

has been from one tongue to another.

From his childhood in Iran to his life in the United States, Akbar has carried not only memory but also the loss of memory, not only language but also the loss of language.

Language is also a means for resistance, for gaining control over craving. Step one of Alcoholics Anonymous is to admit we were powerless over alcohol, that our lives had become unmanageable. By naming a thing, by admitting to the disease of alcoholism, there’s some power regained in an otherwise powerless situation. Akbar’s tone is tender even as it’s regretful. “I am less horrible than I could be,” he writes in the poem “Calling a Wolf a Wolf (Inpatient),”

I’ve never set a house on fire             never thrown a first-born off a bridge             still my whole life I answered every cry for help with a pour             with a turning away             I’ve given this coldness many names             thinking if it had a name it would have a solution             thinking if I called a wolf a wolf I might dull its fangs

Vulnerability is in this honest examination of self, an attempt to gain control of craving in its naming.

In the poem “Portrait of the Alcoholic with Craving,” Akbar writes in stanzas that zigzag across the page,

 

I’ve lost the unspendable coin I wore around

my neck that protected me from you, leaving it

bodyhot in the sheets of a tiny bed in Vermont. If you

could be anything in the world

 

you would. Just last week they found the glass eye

of a saint buried in a mountain. I don’t remember

which saint or what mountain, only

how they said the eye felt warm

 

in their palms. Do you like

your new home, tucked

away between brainfolds? To hold you

always seemed as unlikely

 

            as catching the wind in an envelope. Now

you are loudest before bed, humming like a child

    put in a corner. I don’t mind

much; I have never been a strong sleeper, and often

 

the tune is halfway lovely. Besides, if I ask you to leave

you won’t.

The poem continues this mindful attention to addiction, and is true to the experience of recovery. The addiction doesn’t go away. Here, Akbar addresses alcoholism as though it was a person, and this heightens the intimacy between alcoholic and alcoholism. We readers feel the persistence of craving, as we experience it through Akbar’s rich language and sensory detail.

As someone who has struggled in my own relationship with alcohol and alcoholics, I related to Akbar’s beautiful articulation of desperation and need, and of recovery. The willingness in these poems to express a raw vulnerability and to name an experience we often keep secret is as healing as it is artistically rewarding. Kaveh Akbar’s Portrait of the Alcoholic is a collection that sings of experience, that evokes vulnerability, and that implicitly asks us as readers to look honestly at our lives.


Kaveh Akbar’s poems appear recently or soon in The New Yorker, Poetry, Tin House, PloughsharesFIELD, Georgia Review, PBS NewsHour, Harvard Review, American Poetry Review, Narrative, The Poetry Review, AGNI, New England Review, A Public Space, Prairie Schooner, Virginia Quarterly Review, Poetry International, Best New Poets 2016, Guernica, Boston Review, and elsewhere. His debut full-length collection, Calling a Wolf a Wolf, is forthcoming with Alice James Books in Fall 2017, and his chapbook, Portrait of the Alcoholic, is out with Sibling Rivalry Press. The recipient of a 2016 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Fellowship from the Poetry Foundation and the Lucille Medwick Memorial Award from the Poetry Society of America, Kaveh was born in Tehran, Iran, and currently lives and teaches in Florida. 

Kaveh founded and edits Divedapper, a home for dialogues with the most vital voices in contemporary poetry. Previously, he ran The Quirk, a for-charity print literary journal. He has also served as Poetry Editor for BOOTH and Book Reviews Editor for the Southeast Review. Along with Gabrielle Calvocoressi, francine j. harris, and Jonathan Farmer, he starred on All Up in Your Ears, a monthly poetry podcast.

The Catalog of Broken Things by Anatoly Molotkov

by Anthony DiMatteo

The Catalog of Broken Things – Anatoly Molotkov

Airlie Press

2016

Differences of character, author, and reader appear written in stone. However, Anatoly Molotkov’s mesmerizing first book of poems, The Catalog of Broken Things, reveals such borders are dotted lines. “You remember your own memories better than your past,” the speaker tells us near the end of the book, reminding us how our fictions penetrate our life stories. Even the position of speaker proves unstable in the book’s explorations, often switching places with the reader who typically constructs a speaking voice out of her own identity presumably outside a book. The Russian-born American Molotkov, who began writing English in 1993, challenges this external place of the reader in one of his “Melting Hourglass” poems:

    Dear Reader
I unwrap myself
like a delicate candy
but to whose tongue
does it belong?
is there anything left
after the wrapper?

This question doesn’t just recognize the ephemeral pleasures of poetry. It also inserts or “inflects” the poem into the reader’s own mental processes. As a founding editor of the Inflectionist Review, Molotkov uses the term “inflect” to describe his poetics. We inflect, or mirror a world, rather than reflect upon the world. The mental processes of making and matching are not fully distinguishable

The collection is a four-part collage: “The Catalog of Broken Things,” “The Protagonist’s True Story,” “The Melting Hourglass,” “Your Life As It Is.” The first and third sections feature short lines; the second and fourth present predominantly prose poems with stanzas of varying length. This sequencing of constriction and expansion simulates something like a now in, now out, flow of heart and mind.  In this flux, we struggle to discern the enormous shadow of the real from the tiny shadow of what we create, as in this passage from section one:

My daughter’s hands are made
of mirrors
reflecting only my own
face.
Is this how she thinks
of me, or I of her?

She is a shadow without offspring.

 

The second section offers a way of thinking about these existential problems the

speaker presents us with. Blocks of prose alternate with shorter, indented ones that begin with

the phrase “in the final experiment,” as in these lines: “In the final experiment, you are the

typist, / and I’m the letter I.” The point is that no final experiment puts to rest such matters of

who does what to whom. The collection induces and frustrates any settled image again and

again. The writing places a rug under us to reveal the lack of a floor, or, as Molotkov puts it on

the last page of his book, “You go outside, but the outside is gone.” His tactics bring to mind the

Russian critic Viktor Shklovsky’s idea of art as an “ostranenie,” or a “defamiliarization” that an

artist must put into play “to make one feel things, to make the stone stony.” Molotkov makes the

stone stony, revealing his poetry as both a sensation of the world and a world itself.

Riddles of estrangement and engagement begin with the first line of the collection: “I let

my dead mother in.” The dead but not at rest mother living inside the speaker, we are told,

“holds the map of broken things / for my catalog.” She is the missing conduit through which the

speaker has come to learn of life’s fundamental uncertainties:

She knows suns
and moons fail in the end. Boats
sink, rot. Marble
crumbles.  And now, I
know it, too.  I’m used to this
exit of others, this betrayal
of permanence.

The book offers a journey of disorder and disappearance. As in life, one must find a way. Conspicuously in search of some lasting order, no life or book can provide, Molotkov’s Catalog ends with the reappearance of a dead mother only this time – for the first time in the book– she is now, “your dead mother…surprised to see you.” The implication is that it doesn’t matter a bit to our imagined memories whether she is alive or dead, absent or present. We exist in a zone together, and no passport beyond being born needs be issued to enter into that still-life zone incapable of being walled off. Alternatively, we are all exiles from our mother’s body upon birth. Molotkov, a Russian immigrant to America whose own mother remained in Russia until her death, writes erasure and discovery into every line of his book.

A passport as both legal document and as poetic zone of rapture or transport is

active as a symbol from the first page.  The speaker has his dead mother come to life like a

puppet seeking refuge:

My mother brings a pillow full of
her own hair, soft like dawn.
She grew it all her life, and after.
She sleeps lighter with her head
on her own past.
The past, her only coin.

Her lips don’t move. She says,
Where is your passport?

The speaker in the last lines of section one answers her, “that thing you said was true. / I’ve applied for my passport.” This impending emigration from mother and homeland echoes the book’s first lines where the speaker let the mother in, an exile of death as well as the source of his life:

I let my dead mother in.
She’s lonely out there on her own.
Her ears are seashells
empty of sea.
She carries me among her bones
where her womb was.

These are harrowing lines whose scope widens in the course of the book to approach something like a vision of our shared humanity.

When it comes to having mothers dead or alive, our personal pronouns prove interchangeable. Molotkov’s shifting use of pronouns throughout the book – my mother, your mother, my wife, your wife, my husband, your husband – indicates how life stories readily exchange. Pronominal shifts suggest something like a verbal anamorphosis as in this passage from “The Melting Hourglass”:

            you watch me
through the lens of a telescope
my shining eyes magnified

you know me
you trust me
you run to me

there’s no one here

you stop
puzzled

inverted

Repeated allusions to chess in the final section, “Your Life as It Is,” symbolize our silly rule-bound expectations about mine and yours as well as the weird unpredictabilities of living our own life while playing at shared games. The king and the queen “take up residence off the board.” “The smoke from their barbecue causes you to tear up in fake grief.”  Such writing gently, comically, throws a stone into our hall of mirrors so easy to mistake for life. Molotkov’s humor prevents the iconoclastic voyage from going sour or dour as reader and writer face and become each other:

In the final experiment, you are the
protagonist, and I’m the author. You
resent the implications of this assignment.
You discard every copy of my account.
You pick up a pen and write.

From my own reading of this work, I can attest to its spillover force, its ability to reach beyond the page and inspire. Perhaps it will do for you what it has for me.  Or, in Molotkov’s encouraging words from “The Melting Hourglass”:

you said something distant
something I missed
as usual
from my perspective
you are far ahead
of me.

Dark Water: Melissa Febos’s Haunting New Memoir, Abandon Me

by Cameron Dezen Hammon

Abandon Me — Melissa Febos

Bloomsbury Publishing

February 28, 2017

The sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever.

— Jacques Yves Cousteau

The night I begin reading Abandon Me, Melissa Febos’s new collection of linked essays, I wake from a dream in which I am on a deep-sea dive gone awry. In my final moments, as my diving gear fails, I dictate an essay about drowning to an unknown presence, a presence which I can sense, but is powerless to save me. As I begin to hiccup the dark water, a voice reassures me that my dying will be quick, and I wake up before it is.

That dreams about water are really dreams about sex is a notion given by that old German master of dream semiotics, Sigmund Freud. I’d rather have dreamt of sex than death-by-drowning, frankly, but it’s no wonder I should have such a dream while reading Abandon Me. Febos’s narrator is in the midst of an explosive affair with a married woman who lives in the desert, far from her own coastal home. Early on, the pain of the distance between them reminds Febos of her childhood spent, in part, waiting for her sea captain father to return from months abroad. “When the Captain was home from sea, he woke from nightmares, screaming. When he was gone, my brother and I did. We counted time in waves… The Captain had met… storms [and] pirates. Didn’t real heroes eventually run out of happy endings?” More than twenty years later, Febos waits for her married lover, Amaia, as she “began the slow process of prying her life apart… I wanted to be strong for her but it was already hard to see a happy ending across all those miles. I waited, as I had waited all my childhood, though it never got easier.”

That Febos should love most fiercely those who were least available, invisible, or silenced by the distance of waves, geography, or prior commitments, makes sense. “How could you leave?” she writes, “I asked her again and again. There was no right answer. There was no way to prove that she would not leave again. She grew weary of trying.”

The best memoirs invite their readers into a conversation, ideally one readers are already having. When I picked up Abandon Me, I was asking myself: What is desire, and what is divine? What is romantic love, and what is holy love? And why does romantic love at its most obsessive often mimic spiritual transcendence? Why does it compel otherwise reasonable people to throw away all else for the cause of this love? Think of Romeo & Juliet. Or Tristan and Isolde. This is romance as religion. And though Febos claims in Chapter 1 that as a child she has “no god,” her obsession with Amaia, what Merriam-Webster defines as a persistent disturbing preoccupation, becomes its own kind of religion. A religion she practices with utter focus. “Nine months in love with this woman, I waited: at baggage claim in the airport, for her to call me back, to end her marriage, to promise me that she would be there. There was no distraction. I could not read. I could not write. I could not sleep. It was a despair so furious… [it] set fires… [It] was an animal.”

I was having this conversation about love with myself because two things were happening. I was writing a book about a time when I was losing my faith in the evangelical God of my youth, and also losing faith in romance. I was beginning to see the ways that I had confused divinity with desire. The ways I’d made love into a god, and God into a love. Love always required the pain of distance to really take root in me. The most significant romantic relationships of my life happened across many miles, painfully, through tears and promises. When I fell in love with Christianity, it was the same. I fell in love with what was invisible, but had been promised was on the way. In Ann Carson’s gorgeous translation of the archaic Greek poet Sappho, she describes romantic love as something which “… shook my / mind like a mountain wind falling on oak trees / you came and… cooled my mind that burned with longing.” My religious belief cooled my mind the way my long-distance lovers also did.

But like it did for me in love and in religion, distance got old for Febos’s narrator. Amaia lived near the Santa Fe desert — itself a mythic, geographical metaphor for the clash of divine and human — and in the book’s most lyrical scenes the distance between them is closed, and the affair is translated from the mind to the body. In “Leave Marks,” Febos writes, “We first made love in a hotel room in Santa Fe, where the five o’clock sun simmered on the horizon, grazing her shoulders with its fire as she knelt over my body.” What is it but worship when we kneel before a beloved like this? The answer comes quickly, not halfway through the first chapter. After Amaia received a troubling phone call, the narrator offers to read to her from Rilke’s The Book of Hours.

“The book of hours is a book of love poems to God, though Rilke was in love with a married woman when he wrote the them. So I think it must be a book about loving a woman. Maybe every desire is the desire to give ourselves away to some perfect keeper, to be known perfectly, as only a creator could know us…

She writes, “Maybe The Book of Hours,” — and I’d say also, perhaps, Abandon Me — “is about how love makes women into gods.”

But why would Febos, a tattooed, former heroin addict and sex worker (the subject of her first memoir, Whip Smart), lose herself so completely in this affair? She hasn’t had a drink in ten years, she tells us, but this love activates something familiar in her. “I had loved before, but I had never known this mechanical insistence of my own body. It was a physical reaction absent of sense or control…” Twelve-Step recovery programs require the addict to believe in a God of their own understanding. It may be the universe, it may be a higher power, but it must replace the god that was the addictive substance. It must be a god that won’t kill you. Love without sense or control, love made into a god, is no longer love. It’s a weapon wielded most painfully on the self, but perhaps it also has the potential to deliver healing.

“When I say that I lost myself in love, I don’t mean that my lover took something from me. I betrayed myself… I mean that there was already something missing and I poured her into its place… It is true that every love is an angel of the abyss. Every lover is a destroyer. I had to be destroyed to become something else. To become more myself. But this freedom? It is worth everything.”

I’ve heard it said that memoir asks not what happened, but rather, what the f*^%* happened, and throughout Abandon Me, Febos returns again and again, in lush prose, to this question. It isn’t the answer that’s most compelling (answers seldom are). Rather, it’s the invitation Abandon Me offers the reader: to board her own ship, to hold her breath, and to leap into a dark and lyrical sea.


Melissa Febos is the author of the critically acclaimed memoir, Whip Smart (St. Martin’s Press 2010) and the recent essay collection, Abandon Me (Bloomsbury 2017). Her work has been widely anthologized and appears in publications including Tin House, Granta, The Kenyon Review, Prairie Schooner, Glamour, Guernica, Post Road, Salon, The New York Times, and elsewhere. The recipient of an MFA from Sarah Lawrence College, she is currently Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Monmouth University and MFA faculty at the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA). She serves on the Board of Directors of VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, the PEN America Membership Committee, and co-curated the Manhattan reading and music series, Mixer, for nine years.

One Hundred Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses by Lucy Corin

by Amelia Marchetti

One Hundred Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses – Lucy Corin

McSweeney’s

October 2016

I was in my then-girlfriend’s apartment, skimming through New American Stories at the coffee table when I first read Lucy Corin’s work. My then-girlfriend joined me with a mug of tea and I couldn’t contain my glee. It was the story “Madmen,” and I was in love at the first line.

“The day I got my period, my mother and father took me to pick my madman.” See what it did? How quickly it established the connection between puberty and the fantastic while normalizing the weirdness with the casualness of ‘my madman’? I flipped to the back of the book to read the author’s bio and there, pressed between her name and accomplishments, was the title of Lucy Corin’s short story collection, One Hundred Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses.

I remember that moment, first reading Lucy Corin, each time I pick up this book. There are four short stories — “Eyes of Dogs,” “Madmen,” “Godzilla versus the Smog Monster,” and “One Hundred Apocalypses.” The apocalypses are significantly less literal than advertised, but the focus of these stories isn’t on the apocalypses themselves. The focus is on the characters living in them. By having this as the central idea of the book, Corin places very serious external conflicts next to personal, internal ones and gives them both equal, valid weight.

Corin accomplishes this with her exacting descriptions. She tells us precisely what the roads her characters travel on look like. She gives us inventories of actions and details next to short statements of a character’s thoughts:

“The dog had eyes as big as snow globes, sparkling and swimming with watery light, but the witch was right—the soldier had been through a lot, and very little fazed him.”

Some strange stories are brought to life because Corin’s writing doesn’t leave anything vague or allow confusion.

The opening story, “Eyes of Dogs,” is about a soldier coming back from war, with a paraphrased tale of Hans Christian Anderson’s “Tinderbox” as margin notes. These notes stand like fans on the sidelines, inciting curiosity as they tell the original tale more quickly than the soldier’s. Expectations are set up, only for them to crash when the soldier finds himself back in reality. None of the promises of Anderson’s original ending are there, just a soldier stuck in someone else’s apartment and the wondrous apocalypse was probably all in his head. But we aren’t quite sure. Did the soldier’s brain conjure up the fantastic dogs because of mental illness, or was the soldier duped by a witch? The answer isn’t important though. What’s important is how real and frantic his fear of his own perception of the world is, and how pitiable he has become.

“Madmen” and “Godzilla versus…” both explore the metaphoric apocalypse of puberty, where the characters’ lives have changed and they have to figure out how they fit into this new world. The narrator of “Madmen” must rush through hers as she tries to adopt her madman at the local asylum, all while competently narrating how this world works.

“’Let’s look at another,’ my mother said, and I knew that meant he would be fine for another girl, but not for us. I’d settled on picturing him on his stool by the window in our shed with his gloomy brow, in his thinking position. Where was I in this picture? Was I stirring his pot? Was I pulling up a stool of my own to sit beside him? Was he starting to cry? We stepped to the next cell.”

But no one can quite explain how she’s supposed to know which one is hers. She keeps trying to find ways to relate to this important addition to her life, but when she does, she’s shot down. So, she struggles, ultimately finding satisfaction, but only to appease the people around her.

Patrick in “Godzilla versus…” has a much easier time with puberty, a slow exploration on finding his emotional place in the world. Then the literal apocalypse happens, but it’s on the other side of the country.

“California is burning, the fire gobbling Eureka, all the marijuana up in smoke, people and animals are dying, the air is poisoned, the ocean is boiling, fishes making for Hawaii as fast as their flippers will carry them, rock tops exploding from sea cliffs like missiles, and he feels cozy, trying to figure out if maybe he’s attracted to Sara.”

He’s trying to come up with the same emotional response as his parents, but it’s so hard to imagine horrors that happen so far away. He can fixate instead on the things that do mean something to his immediate life, like the secrets lurking in his parents’ pasts, or what plans this girl he might like could have. The narrative doesn’t shame him for feeling this way; the questions about his life are just as important as the ones about the world.

The closing story, “One Hundred Apocalypses,” is a collection of one hundred apocalypse flash fiction pieces, though there is a range with how literal these apocalypses are. While there are some engaging ideas and forms, such as a piece that was just movie reviews, “One Hundred Apocalypses” became dense and hard to navigate. There are so many pieces so close together that it became hard to parse the individual stories. There is an attempt to separate the stories into four sections, with a brief description of their thematic connections as introductions, but the whole effect is a bit muddled and hard to distinguish.

The best part of the whole story though is that the apocalypses aren’t fire and brimstone each time—one hundred ways for the world to literally end would get exhausting. So, while there are apocalypses in the flash fiction pieces, the focus is on small moments. Some forty-year-olds in the apocalypse realize their elementary schools never contacted them about the time capsules they buried. A woman in the apocalypse, who could only eat bread, read menus about all the food at restaurants that she couldn’t have. The end of the world is just a setting, a launching point for stories about people with small lives and comparatively small problems.

But, while the title story is an interesting concept piece where I can find individual flash fiction pieces to enjoy, it is the “Other Apocalypses” that really stole my attention.

These are three stories that are deep; each delve into different aspects of the human condition and relationships, with conflicting emotions and opinions and characters that I could sink into. The stories they are living are moments of purgatory, the still transitionary moment where one state of living has ended, but the next stage of life has yet to begin. These characters are just trying to survive their lives and what has happened to them, and I can empathize with the conflicts they are facing and why their struggles matter. “One Hundred Apocalypses” isn’t as deeply involved with its characters, but it’s not supposed to be. It’s imaginative and playful, creating interesting ideas and forms so no two apocalypse fragments are the same. Undoubtedly, at least one of these stories and experiences will jump out and dig into the reader, lingering long after they have finished the book — so long as they aren’t distracted by the paperback cover only having 98 apocalypses.


Lucy Corin is the author of the short story collection The Entire Predicament and the novel Everyday Psychokillers: A History for Girls. She was an American Academy of the Arts and Letters Rome Prize winner and is a current NEA fellow in literature. She is at work on a novel, The Swank Hotel, from which an excerpt, “Frank Writes a Letter,” can be found in Hunger Mountain No. 21: Masked / Unmasked.

Invasive Species by Claire Caldwell

by Ariel Kusby

Invasive Species Claire Caldwell

Wolsak & Wynn

October 2014


Canadian poet Claire Caldwell’s debut poetry collection, Invasive Species, offers a unique perspective on climate change. Through juxtapositions between the natural world and human civilization, wildness and order, catastrophic climate change and everyday personal dramas, Caldwell questions our place on Planet Earth, and the roles we as humans are playing in our interactions with it. The poems acknowledge the absurdity and cruelty of how human beings treat our planet, but also recognize the weight of our individual experiences and emotions, the intimacies we usually focus on while ignoring our environment. Caldwell’s poems manage to explore substantial themes with an intimate gaze; the humor is simultaneously empathetic and darkly cynical. Take the title poem, which opens:

Once, we built towns on water park economies.
Slides reared up like dinosaurs, pale plastic beasts
engineered to outlast our kids.

And later:

We kept driving. Though moths
coated power lines like pipe cleaners,
we kissed freely. We were complicit.

Caldwell’s use of “we” suggests a collective responsibility. All humans forget the consequences of our actions on a global scale and choose instead to focus on family or love. While the speaker is understanding of these human desires, she highlights the individual’s personal accountability by admitting that she (like all of us) was “complicit” in some way.

Caldwell’s choice of animal imagery, such as “dinosaurs” and “moths [that] coated power lines like pipe cleaners,” suggest a kind of disturbed innocence, a perversion of childlike fun. A water park intended for child’s play morphs into a zoo of “pale plastic beasts,” an apt metaphor for the way we’ve changed our planet, not realizing it. The plastic that makes up the waterslides might be derived from the residue of the dinosaurs, petroleum. While the dinosaurs aren’t literally alive to harm us, Caldwell awakens them again as a means for the planet to take revenge on us.

That is, after all, what nature does in Invasive Species. While nuances in the human-earth relationship are delicately explored, it is eventually clear that the planet is stronger than human ego. In the masterfully biting section about Timothy Treadwell and Amie Huguenard’s fatal pursuit of the grizzly bear, Caldwell does not spare her opinion on humans whose hubris allows them to try to manipulate and conquer nature. For example, in the section Descent from the poem “Grizzly Woman,” the speaker examines the experiences of Treadwell’s girlfriend, Amie. The poem begins:

I arrive like a drug
plunged through a central line.
Amber, translucent. Flushed

into Kaflia a third season,
rust-flecked hills spread
like a girl’s legs.

The poem’s relationship to this event is complicated, and has much more compassion for Amie than for Tim. The words “plunged” and “flushed” imply a lack of choice, and yet she arrives in Kaflia with him, where she perhaps should not be.

The image of them entering the Alaskan wilderness like a girl’s spread legs has a violent connotation. The message here is clear: Timothy Treadwell’s grizzly bear obsession was an extreme example of the foolishness of imposing oneself onto the natural environment.

In a different section of “Grizzly Woman,” Obituary, Amie dares the reader:

Say we asked for it.

By employing a phrase highly associated with rape culture, the poem asks the reader who the actual victim was. Caldwell seems to suggest that while the bear may have killed Amie and Tim, it was in fact the victim.

By morphing the Alaskan hills into a human body, the poem also suggests that in order for us to feel like we truly understand nature and our relationship with it, we must humanize it. In an excerpt from “A Seamstress Considers The Fourth Dimension,” Caldwell continues along this vein:

I’d be a historian, chart progress
by the size of the moth holes.
I’d inspect settlements split
along fray lines, seaside towns
drowned in blue damask, reefy tapestries.

Here the speaker projects her idea of human progress upon the small marks made by a moth in fabric. She imposes a textile upon the sea, and tapestry upon ocean reefs.  Is this imposition a futile and silly pursuit? The poem suggests that it just might hinder true understanding of the natural world. It is, however, a way for humans to control nature. Take “Just Give Me One More Thing”:

Above the alley, we’d strung our laundry up
like prayer flags. I watched as the wind
nudged your jean shorts and my orange
halter. You fussed with a can of tuna.

It had been a good month, sandal weather,
and no one asked about your missing toe.
We never burned our English muffins.
We traded spots at the counter,
the sink, rarely touching.

The poem begins with an impression of domestic orderliness. There is a peace and neatness to the way the laundry has been displayed, nature (the wind) has only enough power for a weak “nudge,” and the biggest problem is opening a container of dead fish. There is also a sterile quality to the way they avoid touching, which suggests a kind of fakeness or formality, a forced interaction. Despite these efforts at order, they eventually prove futile when matched against the wilder forces of nature:

Still, the flies gathered. Bluebottles
slurring circles around the trash can.
I set vinegar traps and dreamt of buzzing.
You remembered your father, the smell
of him, how you couldn’t eat for weeks.

“It’s something we all have to face eventually,”
you said, as I bent to tie up the garbage.
Maggots sprayed across the kitchen like champagne.

The second half of the poem reveals the inevitability of nature triumphing, even if the overpowering forces are small insects. Death is just as much a part of nature as maggots are, which figure as his messengers. They remind the speakers of their mortality and powerlessness. While the message is bleak, there is a strange and grotesque beauty. During her attempt to be orderly, maggots spray “like champagne.” Thus, a celebration of death occurs, albeit a dark one.

Caldwell’s poems are skillful in their ability to investigate large topics like climate change in a relatable and interesting way. The poems are often full of dissonance and strange juxtapositions that reflect our relationships with the planet and each other. If you want to read poems that can gracefully bring together a medical student, a decomposing blue whale, an adult skull, and a Portuguese butcher (as in the collection’s final poem “Osteogenesis”), then you should read Invasive Species. Its wit and strangeness just might forever change the way you see whales, bears, and climate change.


Claire Caldwell is a poet and editor living in Toronto. She was the 2013 winner of the Malahat Review‘s Long Poem Prize, and her work has appeared in many magazines and journals, including Maisonneuve and Prism International. Claire holds an M.F.A. in Creative Writing from the University of Guelph.

Ruby Mountain by Ruth Nolan

by Cindy Lamothe

Ruby Mountain – Ruth Nolan

Finishing Line Press

October 21, 2016


Shouldn’t you have spared the pretty hills…

So describes the harsh beauty of the Mojave Desert in the epithet of Ruth Nolan’s sultry and haunting poetry collection Ruby Mountain – a portrait of devastating loss and healing found in Southern California’s natural landscape. The collection embodies the inherent chaos and lasting impacts of a lover’s suicide, paired with compelling ancestral history and environmental destruction. Nolan deftly extracts graphic pain into formal verse and free-flowing poems using potent images of burning hills, smoldering fires, and red-throated hummingbirds. Lines like “the agony of draught / the swagger of flash flood,” and “this desert is an ocean of longing for love,” offer glimpses of a varying despair countered with moments of grace.

Though regionally situated in Southern California, the poems speak to broader, universal experiences of suicide, loss, and love. Nolan begins by expressing these entwining realities in “Anniversary Five,” wherein the speaker addresses her deceased lover:

shouldn’t I yell at you, then cry
shouldn’t I slap you in the face
shouldn’t I push your car off a cliff
shouldn’t I hike in your memory
shouldn’t I look for your passport
shouldn’t I pretend you did it for love
shouldn’t I believe it was a mistake
shouldn’t I wonder why not
shouldn’t I wonder why
shouldn’t you have done it somewhere ugly

She reflects, “I thought our love was a thunderstorm, rain hitting the rake naked by the pool,” thereby questioning common perceptions of unconditional love. In “U-Haul Villanelle,” the speaker’s voice is sweet yet cautious, revealing an ongoing struggle for redemption, and an inner ambivalence between forgiveness and regret: “Dust so thick that I can barely breathe / These stories aren’t so easy to remove / I pack another box and look ahead.” Her mourning unravels these smaller acts of domesticity, alluding to the more quiet, pervasive nature of loss.

Also embedded within Ruby Mountain‘s rich tapestry are vestiges of another tragic love story. In “Last Manhunt,” Nolan’s speaker references Native American suffering in the same desert regions, bringing to light a history of marginalization and shaming. As such, the poet shows a deference to the land’s ancestral heritage, creating a divergent space where love and loss collide, and the past and present intersect meaningfully:

He wears his deerskin shirt,
immune to bullets,
immune to railroads
immune to the absence of rain,
immune to real and fool’s gold

The Mojave is an unapologetic protagonist containing both the debris of the past and psychic space for healing. “Ruby Mountain,” for example, is both meditative and bold, urging the reader to not look away: “They say now – that you never died / that you slipped away under cover of dark / leaving only bullet holes / sprayed across the Wonderland of Rocks.” Grief is carefully threaded throughout the book; the speaker’s lover is the air and sinewy presence of the Mojave – the moving breath of desert. In “Nodding Off,” there is a yearning in the poem that evokes both the mystic of the scenery, and the desolation of losing a loved one:

I see open space
where once there was a tree, views
of the little San Bernardino Mountains
a bit more breeze
and I want to photograph the absence,
frame it with memory, now I can see
familiar patterns of stars,
a better view of passing satellites.

Nolan’s soft, subtle expressions paint these invisible terrains with a quiet, haunting power. The speaker’s thirst for her previous life is a mirage that beckons us forward, using compressed imagery to recreate a treacherous internalized landscape. In these poems, the alienation of grief yields to the desert’s curative elements. “Nodding Off” holds a reverence for the ragged scenery. Here, we touch the scorched earth and taste the speaker’s restlessness.

it will give me hope, I hope
I hope I hope I hope
that things really are connected,
better this than the whip of thorny
cacti stinging me in the face
every time I stepped into the front yard,
the sad fact of a bird’s nest tossed
onto the ground by a blast of wind,
the hooks of religions that rope us in,
the dams that block us all,

tell me there is no obsessive
compulsive desert here,
just a smooth meditation
of people walking the same
pilgrimages

This last stanza conjures symbolic images that achieve a balance between the poet’s fragility and her unflinching self-awareness – similar to other poems in the collection, Nolan hones in on the shared experiences of those who have come before and those who will come after. We learn from Ruby Mountain that the trajectory of loss is a manifold path, touching upon the personal and becoming the ecology we inhabit. It’s a book that bears witness to the resiliency of human nature itself and our ability to survive even the darkest of nights. Within Ruby Mountain, we find a gritty reminder that devastation and beauty have long coexisted – creating canyons and valleys, and a home for the desolate in search of light. In “What Rises,” Nolan hints at redemption: “Deserts and mountains on loan / hammering the center of sunrise / into broken hearts.”


Ruth Nolan, a former wildland firefighter in the Western U.S., is a writer and professor based in Palm Springs, CA. She’s the author of the poetry book Ruby Mountain (Finishing Line Press 2016). Ruth’s writing has also been published in James Franco Review; Angels Flight LA/Literary West; Rattling Wall; KCET/Artbound Los Angeles; Lumen; Desert Oracle; Women’s Studies Quarterly; News from Native California; Sierra Club Desert Report, Lumen; The Desert Sun/USA Today and Inlandia Literary Journeys. She is the winner of a 2017 California Writers Residency award. Ruth holds her M.F.A. in Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts from the University of California, Riverside. She may be reached at ruthnolan13@gmail.com

5 Reasons to Recommend With Animal

by Amelia Marchetti

With Animal by Carol Guess and Kelly Magee

Black Lawrence Press

May 2015

The Premise

With Animal explores the extreme natures of parenthood. Parents are cruel because they are selfish, because they can’t understand; parents are kind because their child needs them, because they find ways to connect. This is a collection of stories about people who can get pregnant with animals — a premise that inspires curiosity — but the focus isn’t on the animals, it’s on the relationship between parent and child. Animal children require unusual care, like jellyfish babies needing the ocean shore, or an egg hatching into a flying cat and stealing energy from a parent. But sometimes these circumstances are impossible to handle. By using fantasy, these stories can explore how complicated and strange parenting can be.

The Range of Stories

There isn’t one way to be a parent or a child and With Animal doesn’t deliver only one. In “With Sheep,” a father tries to sell his lamb and the mother steals her away to hide together in a flock of real sheep. A father in “With Joey” knows his wife does not want to be pregnant so he carries their child. “With Fish” has a mother giving up her body so her children can live, to the horror of her girlfriend. With Animal isn’t trying to answer any questions about raising a child, but I can look at its stories and find connections with my own childhood and parents — I saw my raging sister in “With Dragon” and myself leaving home in “With Fox.”

The Story “With Dragon”

“With Dragon” is the opening story and, immediately, the book is starting with a mythical creature. Pregnant with a dragon, a mother goes to forums looking for advice, eats fire, fears her child, and fears for “With Dragon” works because of the tight, short scenes, the voice that is both loving and in denial, and the voyeuristic horror of watching someone you love commit patricide and burn the town down. And she still loves her child, still fears him leaving her. I feel for that woman. I read this story over and over to feel her love, her heartbreak. She gave birth to something terrible and she loves it as only a mother can; it hurts me to read her loneliness upon seeing her dragon child fly.

“I saw her start to leave me in the most human of ways.” —      “With Fox.”

I love this line because all the stories in this collection revolve around the complicated relationship between parent and child — how they stay together, how they push each other away, and, most importantly, how they leave. One son leaves for a family that will love him unconditionally, two sisters leave because they think it’s best for their mother, and one daughter leaves because she would be happier on her own. So much of this leaving is described as part of their nature, but this final line of “With Fox” is the first time that leaving isn’t just an animal trait. This line reminds us, not unkindly, that it is also a human one.

The Complexity of Animal vs. Human

Literature and movies like to pit humanity against nature — humanity doesn’t win that comparison. Pets are better than people. Nature is a pure, wild ideal that humanity ruins (Fern Gully) and animals are guardians and examples of that pure, wild ideal (The Chronicles of Narnia). With Animal takes this dynamic and plays.

“With Human” has a narrator who loved her perfect animal children, but her human child, in contrast, was harder to come to terms with — he was wild. No soft panda baby sleeping snugly to her breast, but something that would bite and hurt her. “With Unicorn” follows a child growing to resent how his mother treated him like a trophy. Animal children have human reactions along with their animal urges; humans have animal desires that turn them wild, as well as a selfish, desperate, loving human foundation.

There is no “animals are right, humans are monsters” philosophy in With Animal. There are cruel animals and there are humans that try to cherish their beautiful spider daughters. People and beasts are both capable of selfish indifference and deep empathy. With Animal reminds us of that while delving into the complicated relationship of parent and child.


Carol Guess is the author of fourteen books of poetry and prose, including Tinderbox Lawn, Darling Endangered, and Doll Studies: Forensics. In 2014 she was awarded the Philolexian Award for Distinguished Literary Achievement. A frequent collaborator, her co-authored collections include How to Feel Confident with Your Special Talents (with Daniela Olszewska) and X Marks the Dress (with Kristina Marie Darling). She teaches in the MFA program at Western Washington University, and blogs here: www.carolguess.blogspot.com

Kelly Magee is the author of Body Language, winner of the Katherine Anne Porter Prize for Short Fiction, as well as the collaborative poetry collections The Reckless Remainder and History of My Locked Wrist. She teaches in the undergraduate and MFA programs at Western Washington University.

 

I Liked You Better Before I Knew You So Well by James Allen Hall

by Daniel Cretaro

I Liked You Better Before I Knew You So Well – James Allen Hall

Cleveland State University Poetry Center

April 1, 2017

 

I Liked You Better Before I Knew You So Well by James Allen Hall is a collection of moving personal essays on subjects ranging from his brother’s addiction to Hall’s first experience at a gay club, and is shot through with love, tenderness, beauty, and humor. The prose is rich, but also enlivened by dry humor and a lack of self-pity—a mastery of tone that defies easy description. Single, straightforward phrases often hold as much weight as more heartbreaking, lyrical passages. Because Hall withholds judgment—he loves these people, after all—the essays transcend simple sentimentality. Indeed, some of Hall’s subject matter is so heartbreaking that he should be commended for his bravery: a mother’s attempts at suicide, the death of a grandmother, an addicted brother.

In, “In Lieu of Drugs,” an essay about addiction, Hall places a poem in the middle of the action:

   //     I read   /    my student’s essays again   /   and again, thankful / for the white spaces    /    margins

This lyrical interlude brings the reader closer to the emotional core of the essay and heightens the tension. The reader is eager to know more; the white spaces invoke the anxiety that Hall writes about.

The first three essays in the collection, “My Frist Time,” “The Ends of Terror,” and “Prophecy” contend with the narrator’s experiences coming to terms with his homosexuality.

The first essay, “My First Time,” begins:

He wasn’t painfully ugly. Sure, he had the normal pockets of acne, but they didn’t usurp his heart-shaped face. Rather, they flushed along his cheeks and hid near his earlobes, like little angry villages unable to mount an insurrection.

This sounds like the opening to a story about an unlikely first love, but that isn’t what happens. Instead, the essay is about the cruelty of children, an interesting shift. The essay at first suggests that the “boy” will turn out to be “Jamie,” the narrator’s teenage crush. The narrator never names this “boy,” but instead the “boy” names the narrator a name that: “I had called myself that name for as many days as I had known Jamie […] I had watched myself say it, falling to the cold tile of the bathroom floor, hugging my knees to my chest, waiting for something to happen,” which zeroes in on the narrator’s identity conflict.

“The Ends of Terror,” in part, describes the narrator’s first experience in a gay club. “This is the gay Shangri-La I’ve been pining for? The reality doesn’t match the brochure,” Hall writes. The feeling of being out of place, a place where the narrator will be surrounded by people that are just like him, reinforces the identity issues that Hall writes about in the previous essay and that he will write about in the next.

With “Prophecy,” Hall uses hair as a lens to continue his meditations about identity. It opens with the narrator burning his hair on a dare. It is set in a college dorm room with three other men. There is another mention of a “Jamie,” but it is unclear if it is the same one that was in “My First Time.” “[Jamie is] the one who has kidded me into doing this, into making my hair an effigy. ‘Dude,’ he said, grinning at me the way boys do when they want to dare you, ‘your hair is so gay.’” Throughout the rest of the essay, the use of hair is a reflection of homosexuality. Whether it’s when the grandmother takes the narrator and his brother for their first haircuts because a friend of hers thought they were girls; or at the end, when in a motel room another man shaves the narrator’s hair off, suggesting that the narrator has taken control of his hair, and will no longer let people dare him or force him to cut it—a final gesture of self-acceptance.

A similarly stunning moment occurs in “Suicide Memorabilia”, during which the narrator describes watching his mother hold a gun to her chest: “The gun makes an outline like a crooked, accusatory finger in the sweatshirt.” This is a beautiful and brave moment in the book. The language is lyrical, but also loving and devoid of judgment.  Hall was able to write about such a dark moment without being cynical.

I Liked You Better Before I Knew You So Well is one of those books that doesn’t come around often. It is the rare book that possesses three key qualities: language, love, and candor. This is one of those books. This is what happens when you care about the people you are writing about, know your way onto a page, and have a story that must get out.


James Allen Hall is also the author of a book of poems, Now You’re the Enemy, which won awards from the Texas Institute of Letter, the Lambda Literary Foundation, and the Fellowship of Southern Writers. He teaches at Washington College on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

How to Write a Book Review: A Meta-review of TransAtlantic

by Phillip Garcia

It’s only fitting that for our issue on firsts I’m writing my first book review, and it’s on Colum McCann’s TransAtlantic, a book that (among other things) tells the story of the first nonstop transatlantic flight.

Like a lot of people approaching their first book review, I have no idea what I’m doing. So, for my sake, and for the sake of other would-be reviewers, I decided that, in addition to my review, I would compile a guide on writing book reviews. Never mind that I’ve never done this before; the fact that I’m on the Internet gives me the authority to tell you how to do things.

Step 1: Pick a book.

You wrote a pretty good essay about Ethan Frome in high school, right? Honestly, you could probably re-use that, and no one would notice (I mean, who actually reads book reviews?). But writing a book review is also a good excuse for you to read a new book, so try to pick something by an author who is still alive.

Also try to pick someone more famous than you. Colum McCann is more famous than you. His book, TransAtlantic came out last year. It’s perfect.

But can you really criticize Colum McCann? The guy is a Guggenheim fellow. He won the National Book Award. You, on the other hand, have never won anything (except, of course, the third place ribbon in the 7th grade science fair). Who are you to take on Colum McCann?

That’s the beautiful thing about book reviews, though. McCann, with all his notoriety, now must answer to you, the lowly reader. You are the little guy, the everyman. You are a force for democracy in literature.

McCann is Goliath. But don’t let that stop you. Take your flag and plant it firmly at the top of Mt. McCann, look to the heavens, and shout for the world to hear: “This book was all right I guess!”

Step 2: Get the book.

Most publishers will send you free advance reader copies if you ask. Requesting a review copy will make you feel important. You’re a book reviewer, a taste-maker, a connoisseur of culture. You stand above the general reading public and dictate down to them what they should love or hate.

This feeling will be diminished only slightly by the fact that Random House will never actually send you the review copy, and you won’t receive the book until months later, when your editor picks it up and mails it to you.

Step 3. Read the book.

First, find a comfortable spot to sit.

No, the armchair won’t do—the back is too stiff, and it’s covered in dog fur. The couch is better. You can stretch across it, underneath the window. Don’t turn on the overhead light. Just let the natural sunlight break through the trees and spill across the page. Remember to take your shoes off: don’t drag dirt on the couch.

Set your phone on the coffee table. Some people will tell you turn off the phone, and with good reason. It’ll be tempting to check email, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or the dozen other sites you frequent, but think how satisfying it’ll be to respond to every message with, “I’m sorry. I can’t be bothered right now. I’m reading Colum McCann’s new book so that I can review it for Hunger Mountain.”

Okay. To work.

It begins with a one-page section set in 2012. What’s this about? Gulls dropping shells on a house? Is this some kind of metaphor? Wait. “Squadrons of blue and grey”? Hopefully the Civil War won’t make an appearance in this book, or else that might seem like a ham-fisted reference.

Now: The first line of Book I, “It was a modified bomber,” is a beautiful and subtle way to set up a theme about forging peace out of war, and it raises Alcock’s and Brown’s transatlantic flight from interesting story to potent metaphor that will preside over the entire novel (why did McCann waste time with that first seagull image?). The next two chapters, covering Frederick Douglass’ trip to Ireland and Sen. George Mitchell’s roles in the Good Friday Accords, are also engaging.

At the same time, these chapters feel like a missed opportunity—McCann is well known for his gift of taking historic moments and illuminating them, making popular figures into living, breathing beings. Here, however, it feels like McCann might be shoving too much into one spot, and so much potential gets reduced to summary.

Now the historic triad is over, and it isn’t clear where exactly McCann is headed. Page count-wise, you’re nearly half-way through, but what is the joining thread of this book? What is this book really about? Is it a book of juxtapositions? Is McCann performing some kind of literary jazz?

But you trust him. You take his hand. You keep reading.

In Book II, he throws you through time again. You end up reliving all three historical events from Book I, but instead of watching through the eyes of historical figures, you’re now working through the history of a fictional family living through these times. Lily Duggan, the matriarch, has a poignant section (there’s the Civil War, just as the seagulls promised), but after this, the historical events feel a bit like cameos.

You’ve made it to Book III now, and you want desperately to love this book. You hope that Book III will tie it all together and blow you away. But at this point, the novel changes to first person, and McCann insists that the storyline is circular:

“The tunnels of our lives connect, coming to daylight at the oddest moments, and then plunge us into the dark again.  We return to the lives of those who have gone before us, a perplexing Mobius strip until we come home, eventually, to ourselves.”

The book isn’t a Mobius strip; instead, it’s a series of separate strands. The connections McCann promises never really come to fruition.

McCann is undeniably a great writer, and the idea driving TransAtlantic is powerful. While there is much to love in this book, it feels as though the concept is what you like best about it.

Step 4. Write your review.

What would happen if you gave a lukewarm review to Colum McCann? He could excommunicate you from all of literature. He could make Steve Almond break your writing hand. You could end up blacklisted from the New Yorker.

To be fair, though, there’s a good chance that the New Yorker isn’t going to publish you anyway, and your novel is just scraps gathering dust while you spend all your time and energy writing things like book reviews and mediocre tweets.

In the end, you have to be honest. You liked the book, you didn’t love it. That’s the way it goes sometimes. You’ll continue to read McCann’s books, to think about how he does what he does best, what you can learn from his storytelling triumphs and missteps.

It turns out you like book reviews. You like to engage on this level with the literature of today. This is your first book review, and hopefully not your last.

Sideways Review: Misuse of Muggle Artifacts

by Sarah Seltzer and Sarah Braud

A book Review in Letters:

Sarah Seltzer and Sarah Braud on The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling

Dear Sarah,

I wish we were sending this by Owl instead of email. Oh, well, let’s be prosaic and leave wizardry behind.

A nickname for this new novel, which involves a contested seat for the town of Pagford’s Parish Council after a beloved local figure dies, is “Mugglemarch.” That is an enticement to me, since I’m one of those nerds who has read “Middlemarch” multiple times. So when the initial bad reviews came in, I was indignant. Snobs! I said.

But it took me days (and days) to read the first half, and I began to suspect the reviews had a point. Everyone in Pagford just schemed and moaned about each other. Then things picked up: I spent only a few hours reading the rest, as those complaints took the form of unexpected action—with dire consequences. In some ways, the pacing was not unlike a Harry Potter book with the chess pieces being put in place painstakingly and then poof! moved very rapidly. This formula works for fantasy novels, less so for the tough-minded realism she’s going for here.

How goes your reading? Did you get to the dirty parts yet?

 

Dear Sarah,

Dirty parts? Okay, okay. I’ll keep reading. Turning the page has become painful.

The problem is crowd control. For a small town, we sure meet a lot of people in the first few chapters. I can’t keep them straight. I keep having to stop and reread for clarity. Do I know this character already? What side of the aisle is she on? That said, I am enjoying her characters’ inner lives immensely. Everyone seems ridiculously British and tragically flawed.

Like this:

Samantha sometimes found Miles absurd and, increasingly, dull. Every now and then, though, she enjoyed his pomposity in precisely the same spirit as she liked, on formal occasions, to wear a hat.

or  (okay, if this is the dirty part, you tricked me):

He took a long time to climax, his horror at what he had started constantly threatening to deflate his erection. Even this worked against him: she seemed to take his unusual stamina as a display of virtuosity.

Rowling handled the multitudes in the HP books fairly deftly, though she did have seven books to do it in.

I haven’t decided if the political back-and-forth is supposed to be a metaphor for the Palestinian Peace Process or the US election. What do you think about the politics in this book? Is the struggle between the two elements in the Parish council over whether to finance a nearby housing project and methadone clinic a simple bleeding hearts versus blue-bloods story?

Please tell me there is redemption in this story, or I just spent all day making a family tree of Pagford for nothing.

 

Dear Sarah,

I thought the politics of the novel were a little too pat, yes…
–The Fields (the name of the housing project) vs. Old Pagford.
–Team “help the poor” vs. team “fuck the poor.”

But as a sort of playing field for her characters, the political struggle worked. The aspect of the novel that engaged my imagination most was its bitter and vicious send-up of the way people talk about politics, their petty selfishness.

My friend Lauren recently wrote a piece about a group of wealthy people up in arms about a pay-what-you-can Panera Bread franchise in their neighborhood; they don’t want the poor clientele coming around. The “not in my backyard” behavior of the snobs of Pagford may seem absurd, but it’s all too real.

As for the question of redemption, I don’t think a novel needs it, and I loved the dark ending of The Hunger Games. (Perhaps that’s the atheist Jew in me?) But I also don’t like tragic endings that exist merely for the sake of being tragic—they have to be a satisfying and logical conclusion to the characters’ flaws and actions. I believe the profile of Rowling in The New Yorker called this particular ending Hardy-esque. That alone convinced my husband not to read this novel, and I’m not sure I blamed him.

I do adore the idea of Rowling writing in this fabulous British tradition of painting the portrait of a community à la George Eliot or Elizabeth Gaskell. But this was a mixed attempt. I’d really like to see Jo Rowling try again: another grown-up novel that feels lighter, fleeter, funnier, even if that fleetness is in service of affirming an authorial vision that is dark overall. I respect darkness. Just not plodding darkness.

How much better would The Casual Vacancy have been if Rowling had an aggressive editor?

 

Dear Sarah,

What would have happened if she’d had a more aggressive editor? Great question! I had the feeling throughout that she’d sent a chapter at a time for approval, each one to a different editor.

The families of Pagford were vividly rendered, even if some were caricatures. Think Harry Potter’s Dudley Dursley. No one in The Casual Vacancy was as evil as Dolores Umbridge. Certainly a few Cornelius Fudges live in Pagford. I’m utterly enamored with several of her characters. Krystal Weedon, the wayward daughter of a heroin addict who ends up the heroine of the novel, will stay with me for quite awhile.

Rowling’s introduction to these wonderful characters roared to life, sputtered, and stalled out for 300 pages. Did I mention I had to make a family tree just to keep all the characters, including nicknames, straight? But—and it’s a big but—by page 400, the story climaxed into a spectacular crash.

The conclusion held all the weight of the novel. I was slayed. I bawled my way through the last few chapters. What I thought was a formulaic story about politics ended up, for me, being a polemic against politics, or at least the motives behind politics: Whatever side you take, what matters is being a good neighbor. The Christian reader inside me was satisfied: The redemption came in the form of the overall theme. The Casual Vacancy is a modern-day story of the Good Samaritan. And, in our case, I am forced to ask: Who is our neighbor?

Overall, however, I do think we agree, Sarah. The Casual Vacancy might be something of a misstep for JK Rowling…

 

Dear Sarah,

… but we don’t want her to give up on writing for grown-up muggles. I know we’ll both be keeping the faith ‘til the next installment of her prose.

Sarah

~

The Casual Vacancy
J.K. Rowling
Little, Brown Book Group (2012)

the-casual-vacancy-book-cover

Sideways Review: Safe as Houses

by Erika Anderson

From Reading to Wonder: 

Erika Anderson on Safe as Houses by Marie-Helene Bertino

 

~6th in a series

When I tell people I’m a writer, they ask what I’m reading. This is smart. It’s smart because more often than not, we’re in a bar, and I’m not sure if I want to talk about my writing at top volume while “Somebody That I Used to Know” wails in the background. Every time I try to explain what I write and for whom in short bark-like shouts, I find myself on an existential quest. This is not how I want to spend my Friday nights.

What I’m reading is Marie-Helene Bertino’s Safe as Houses, her debut collection and the winner of the Iowa Short Fiction Award. I’m into atheist, hard-drinking, chain-smoking Ruby, the protagonist of “Carry Me Home, Sisters of Saint Joseph.” The sisters want Ruby, the new groundskeeper, to talk to the tomato plants and make them grow:

Sister Charlene leads [the Sunday school class] out of the courtyard and Sister Helena has business in the kitchen, so I am left alone with the tomatoes. I feel nervous, like a newcomer at a party, trying to smalltalk with a person I’ve just met. I say, “How you bitches doin’?”

Everyone always laughs. They don’t giggle or smile. Short of throwing their heads back, or actually rolling around on the floor, their faces are soft and happy and everything is right.

I’ve seen Bertino read twice now, once at WORD in Brooklyn’s Greenpoint, where Bertino stood in front of the podium, saying, “I promise there will be no audience participation.” She read from “Sometimes You Break Their Hearts, Sometimes They Break Yours,” narrated by an alien who faxes her observations about human beings to her home planet.

Human beings, I fax, fetishize no organ more than the heart. When they like someone they say, There’s a girl after my own heart. They will stand or sit very close to the person they love with their heart. When they are sad they say, My heart is broken. They will tell large groups of people things they don’t believe. But the heart is just a muscle with an important job. Just an area in the body.

What is it about the heart? Did Hallmark put us up to this? Could we just as easily be talking about the liver? Does grief cause us to delude ourselves, to say I’ll never find someone else like him? It does. Yet in the moment that delusion feels true, it feels necessary.

Both the alien and Ruby introduce themselves and their stories with what I like to think of as a statement of purpose. Prior to moving in with the Sisters of Saint Joseph, Ruby proclaims:

I am quitting a boy like people quit smoking. I am not quitting smoking. The pamphlet insists: Each time you crave a cigarette, eat an apple or start a hobby! Each time I think about Clive, I smoke a cigarette. If I have already smoked a cigarette, I eat an apple. If I have already eaten an apple, I start a hobby. I smoke two packs a day. I pogo-stick, butterfly-collect, macramé, decoupage. I eat nothing but apples. I sit in my kitchen, a hundred of them arranged on the table. If I can eat this pyramid of apples, I will be over Clive.

Ruby’s plan leads me to wonder what simple equations I have relied on. If I like you, then you will like me back. If you like me back, then you will call me. If you call me, then we will go out. If we go out, then we will fall in love. Always in, never out.

Ruby’s plan also leads me to wonder what I have reached for in desperation. The wrong boy at the right time, his eyes saying everything he would not? The last piece of pink frosted sheet cake, the sides drying and crusty after sitting out all afternoon? Shots of I-don’t-even-know-what with bartenders at the end of the night?

Toward the end of “Carry Me Home, Sisters of Saint Joseph,” Ruby contemplates the children in the Sunday school:

These kids will grow up. Some of the boys will never feel tall enough. Some of the girls will look great in pictures but in real life will be dull and forgettable, the girls on the bench at the mall you ask to move so you can throw out your soda. Some of them will never be able to find their keys. Some will triumph. One day a person they love will say I do not love you. One day every one of them will die. Today is not that day.

For the first time I wonder if this place that hurts might not be the heart but something else altogether, or perhaps nothing at all. I wonder if there’s no special meaning to the one who has left us, or to the one we have left. I wonder when I’ll know what kind of writer I am, or if it doesn’t matter anymore. I wonder when I might describe my writing in staccato bursts over the latest break-up anthem without feeling the need to prove anything.

~

Safe as Houses
Mary-Helene Bertino
University of Iowa Press
2012

safe as houses

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Sideways Review: Rhoda, A Life in Stories by Ellen Gilchrist

by Natalie Serber

Rhoda Rapport:

Natalie Serber on Ellen Gilchrist’s Rhoda, A Life in Stories

 

When I first fell in love with Rhoda K. Manning, I was in my early twenties and making a lot of bad decisions—failing classes at my community college; drinking Moscow Mules; dating waiters, surfers, a lawyer who sat next to me on a cross-country flight—and then beating myself up about my behavior. My life was chaotic and charged. In Rhoda K. Manning I found a kindred spirit who could blow it big time. She was fast, smart, took up all the air in the room, and would never take no for an answer. She had brothers to compete with and a rich daddy who always had her back. She was thrilling and brave and alive, even at eight years old in “The Tree Fort.”

In five years darker blood would pour out from in between my legs and all things would be changed. For now, I was pure energy, clear light, morally neutral, soft and violent and almost perfect. I had two good eyes and two good ears and two arms and two legs. If bugs got inside of me, my blood boiled and ate them up. If I cut myself, my blood rushed in and sewed me back together. If a tooth fell out, another one came in. The sunlight fell between the branches of the trees. It was Saturday. I had nothing to do and nowhere to go and I didn’t have to do a thing I didn’t want to do and it would be a long time before things darkened and turned to night.

I wanted her power, her confidence. At the very least I wanted to stop the self-flagellation, to own my choices in the way Rhoda did. In one story, “Music,” her father takes Rhoda to the hill towns of Kentucky, to show her his mines, to introduce her to the people he claims are the “salt of the earth.” His goal is to take her down a peg, to “make her stop smoking and acting like a movie star.” Of course his plans go awry, and Rhoda ends up seizing the day, commandeering a car and running off with a pool hall boy whom she has just met. A boy who takes her into the forest and makes love to her. At this point in the story, Ellen Gilchrist switches point of view; she brings us into the mind of the boy.

He was tired of her talking then and reached for her and pulled her into his arms, paying no attention to her small resistances, until finally she was stretched out under him on the earth and he moved the dress from her breasts and held them in his hands. He could smell the wild smell of her craziness and after a while he took the dress off and the soft white cotton underpants and touched her over and over again….

Here was every possible tree, hickory and white oak and redwood and sumac and maple, all in thick foliage now, and he made love to her with great tenderness, forgetting he had set out to fuck the boss’s daughter, and he kept on making love to her.

I had to put the book down. I loved Gilchrist’s language, her deep ties to the natural world, the things her characters said, the mistakes they made with abandon and without judgment. Gilchrist moved from one person’s thought to another’s as if she were the boss of the universe. You see, not only did Rhoda K. Manning reveal my passions and desires, my yearnings and missteps, she reveled in them. Gilchrist made them glorious. I adored Ellen and Rhoda.

Around this time in my life I began to harbor serious yearnings to be a writer. I wanted to create characters and move them about in a world of my imagining. I wanted to make discoveries and to touch readers in the way Gilchrist’s work touched me, by making me feel less alone. That Gilchrist published her first collection at the age of forty-six also warmed my heart; it was liberating to know that one could grow-up, live, raise a family, and then step fully into a career.

And so, twenty years later, it was with delight and worry that I picked up her collection, Rhoda, A Life in Stories. I was concerned that the stories wouldn’t speak to me in the same way they had so long ago. Now my children are grown, and when I read of young Rhoda’s wildness, it is with joy, yes, but also with the trepidation of a parent, worrying over my children’s mistakes and bad choices. The stories from her middle life—the ones I read with the cool head of a cultural anthropologist when I was in my twenties—I now steamed through, nodding all the way. In the story, “Going to Join the Poets,” Rhoda is pursuing her MFA in Arkansas. She is still impulsive, self-centered, and generous, but with new glimmers of insight. She is less heat and movement and more restless contemplation. At a surprising moment in the story, agile Gilchrist does a high-wire trick with time, flashing the narrative forward, giving the narrator a moment of retrospective wisdom, keying us in to the Rhoda still to come.

At that time Rhoda always kept her word. Any promise, even if she made it when she was drunk, was treated as a sacred bond. She had not learned yet how to stop people from manipulating her, had not learned how to say, I reserve the right to change my mind. I will take back promises you curry from me in moments of weakness. She was many years away from that sort of wisdom.

Self-knowledge is cumulative. As her life unfolds, Rhoda becomes a creature of the mind, less of the body, and she remains fascinating. In the long story, “Mexico,” we find Rhoda has become a poet. Drawn to the brutality and grace of a bullfight, to the blood and death and capes and swords, she grasps at the theatre of it. She wants to sleep with the bullfighter but ultimately acquiesces and allows her brother to talk her out of pursuing the toreador.

‘It’s about death,’ Rhoda said. ‘I can’t stand to do nothing constantly but displacement activities, amusements, ways to pass the time, until we get into the ground to stay. What’s happening to us? We are getting so old. We haven’t got enough sense to be alive and it’s almost over. We’ll be crippling around with a pacemaker soon. We’ll be completely dried out and ruined and I’ve never slept with a bullfighter in my life and I’ve always wanted to.’

‘Stop and get her a margarita,’ Dudley said.

Rhoda will not go gently into that good night. She complains about the flesh of her legs. “I just fucking hate growing old.” Later in the same story, her brother takes her to a ranch where, in cages and behind flimsy fences, there are lions, tigers, panthers. They have little to no interest in the humans, and yet Rhoda can feel the pent-up rage, the same rage she acted upon in her youth and the same pulsing anger she contained in middle life. The agitation and energy of the cats upset and frighten Rhoda. She tries to flee but stumbles and breaks her ankle. We can’t escape the loss of our power, our youth, and our beauty. We can only grumble, drink margaritas and hobble along, as Rhoda does, in her cast. She says at the close of the story, “Every now and then someone grows up, she decided. I’ve heard about it. Why not, or else, whatever.”

Why not, or else, whatever.

~

Natalie Serber is the author of the story collection, Shout Her Lovely Name (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012). She is the recipient of the Tobias Wolff Award, H.E. Francis Award, John Steinbeck Award, and a finalist mention for the Annie Dillard Creative Nonfiction Award. Natalie always seeks rapport with characters—fictional and real. To that end, she is currently working on a novel.

Rhoda, A Life in Stories
Ellen Gilchrist
Back Bay Books
1995

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Read Natalie’s story, “Shout Her Lovely Name” on Hunger Mountain.

Read A Sideways Review of “Shout Her Lovely Name”

Visit with Natalie

Sideways Review: The Center of the Labyrinth by Linda Goldstein

by Penny Blubaugh

Penny Blubaugh on Lisa Goldstein’s Walking the Labyrinth

Lately I’ve been seeing my writing life as a labyrinth. The twists and turns it takes are even more dramatic than I expected, and believe me, I did expect drama. But more and more often, the dark parts of my particular labyrinth have been harder to illuminate, and the bright spots have been harder to find.

Walking the Labyrinth by Lisa Goldstein is one of those novels that I reread every now and again. I don’t know what calls me to it or why I decide to revisit it when I do, but I do know what I love when I get there.

I love the names of the characters. Neesa. Callan. Thorne. Fentrice. Corrig. Perfect for a traveling troupe of magicians.

I love that their last name is Allalie, which breaks down into all a lie.

I love Callan’s question for everyone in almost every situation: “What have you learned?”

I love that everything, absolutely everything, is based on illusion and trickery. That no one knows where illusion stops and reality starts.

I love that heroine Molly says, “I learned that illusion is a way to truth.”

The labyrinth in the book is underground and a place so full of confusion and razzle-dazzle, dark and light, blood and gaiety, that no one, least of all Molly, can ever guess what will be found around the next corner. Like all labyrinths, it paints you in. It grabs you. It holds you fast. And you may never escape once you’ve entered. The longer you travel the maze, the more it seems to grow.

I have two books to my credit. Two published books, that is. I won’t talk about the other ones, the ones that are written but that lie on their backs in the lost-book box with nowhere to go. They’re in their own labyrinths, and none of us, not me or the books, know when—or even if—they’ll find the passageway that leads to the reward at the center.

The book that I recently finished has been rejected, and rejected again. It hesitates and stumbles as it tries to negotiate the maze of the publishing world. It keeps getting pushed back, back into scary passageways it thought it had left behind. It isn’t sure which corner to turn. Rewrite? Revise? Give up?

I look carefully at the new books coming out. Some of these books are Allalies—illusions that exist just long enough to fool, to cast a spell before they disappear into stage smoke. I also see, like light when I turn the right corner of the labyrinth, a brilliance so bright it practically blinds. These are the books with lyrical writing, multi-faceted characters, stories so original they take my breath away.

These lights make me examine my own writing with a magnifying glass, make me look at ways to improve. They show me that the group of writers I want to follow through the labyrinth are the ones who write to make a work shine, to make it sing, to make it something I would read again and again. I want to be behind these writers who will help me craft books that someone will love the way I love Lisa Goldstein’s. But even though I’m following them, I keep losing them; I keep walking around the wrong corner. Or maybe I’ve picked the right corner but just don’t know it yet. Illusion. It’s a complicated maze to walk some days, but it’s all I’ve got.

Callan Allalie would say, “What have you learned?”

I would say I’ve learned, and am still learning, about the dark paths in my own labyrinth. But I’m learning about the bright ones, too.

A quote from Mae West hangs on my Pinterest board. It reads, “I never said it was going to be easy. I said it was going to be worth it.” If I do find the center of my labyrinth, I think that quote will be hanging there, painted in bold colors on a weathered board, swinging from the ceiling on silver chains.

~

WalkingWalking the Labyrinth
Lisa Goldstein
Tor Books
1998

 

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Sideways Review: tiny beautiful things by Cheryl Strayed

by Erika Anderson

From Reading to Human:

Erika Anderson on tiny beautiful things by Cheryl Strayed

On a sunburny afternoon in Prospect Park, I drank apple-ginger soda and talked about death with a man who boxed, followed the zodiac, and read palms. He sang a line from Sade’s song “Maureen” about losing her best friend, “You’ll never meet my new friends.” I told him that a good friend of mine had died of breast cancer. He must not have heard me.

“Breast cancer, wow. But it’s in remission?”
“No, she’s dead,” I said.

We looked at each other for a moment—a long moment, or a short moment that felt long, perhaps because it was utterly absent of intrigue, perhaps because he got it wrong, perhaps because my friend Julia was dead and now he knew. The boxer’s apparently airy way of life—full of astrology and symbolism—both interested and concerned me. It also reminded me of Julia. Julia had told me that she would rather die young than allow a scalpel to slice into her chest. So she died young.

Warning him that I might cry, I read to the boxer/astrologer/palm reader from “Dear Sugar,” the advice column Cheryl Strayed writes for The Rumpus, something she did anonymously until February. The first time I read column #78, “The Obliterated Place,” written by a father whose twenty-two-year-old son was killed by a drunk driver, I did so with my feet on the couch, my knees bent, my chest curled over my laptop, the hood of my sweatshirt pulled over my head. I wailed.

The father, who called himself Living Dead Dad, couldn’t manage a letter, so he wrote a list. He said he was tormented by how he had reacted when his son told him he was gay. “[B]ut how can you not like girls?” he’d said. After the accident the Living Dead Dad can’t bear seeing his son’s former boyfriend with a new man. He asked Strayed, “How do I become human again?”

Strayed told him:

The obliterated place is equal parts destruction and creation. The obliterated place is pitch black and bright light. It is water and parched earth. It is mud and it is manna. The real work of grief is making a home there.

Strayed was twenty-two when her mother—who had left an abusive husband, raised her three children, and attended college in her forties—died from cancer.

It has been healing to me to accept in a very simple way that my mother’s life was forty-five years long, that there was nothing beyond that. There was only my expectation that there would be—my mother at eighty-nine, my mother at sixty-three, my mother at forty-six. Those things don’t exist. They never did.

To discourage the father from imagining what his son’s life would look like were he alive today, Sugar said, “Think: My son’s life was twenty-two years long. Breathe in. Think: My son’s life was twenty-two years long. Breathe out.”

She continued:

My grief is tremendous but my love is bigger. So is yours. You’re not grieving your son’s death because his death was ugly and unfair. You’re grieving it because you loved him truly.

When I read Strayed’s letter aloud in the park, I realized why the death of my friend Julia had hit me like a wall: I loved her truly. A few months after she had discovered the tumor, we sat cross-legged on her living room floor. She looked at me and said, “I think you and I have been sitting like this for centuries.” I nodded my head and cried. When I came home from the park, I borrowed Strayed’s words and repeated them like a mantra: Julia’s life was thirty-three years long.

Strayed also told Living Dead Dad:

Your son hasn’t yet taught you everything he has to teach you. He taught you how to love like you’ve never loved before. He taught you how to suffer like you’ve never suffered before. Perhaps the next thing he has to teach you is acceptance. And the thing after that, forgiveness.

In August, I went to Barnes & Noble in Union Square for a reading of tiny beautiful things, a collection of Dear Sugar pieces. Initially, her words felt rehearsed and corporate, though Strayed broke through the fourth wall with her charm and honesty. When I walked up to her afterward, Strayed said, “I know you. Why do I know you?”

I mentioned the reading she gave in March, when I nestled myself into the crowd at Housing Works for the launch of her memoir, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. With a live band and a slew of her writer friends reading Dear Sugar excerpts prior to Strayed reading from Wild, it was a raucous celebration. As she did for everyone else who stood in line, she had signed my book, “With wild best wishes on the journey.”

At Barnes & Noble, I had a moment to tell Strayed about my friend Julia. She held my hand and said, “I’m sorry.” In my copy of tiny beautiful things she wrote, “Take the balloon,” which I knew from “Dear Sugar” was a reference to a day in her twenties when she was coming off heroin and a young girl handed her a balloon she didn’t know how to accept.

While no child offered me a balloon in my twenties, what I hear in this directive is “rise.” When I saw Julia a month before she died, she gave me a favorite dress of hers—black cotton interspersed with bands of crochet. Maybe it’s time to wear it again.

~

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tiny beautiful things
Cheryl Strayed
Vintage
2012

tiny beautifukl things cover

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Sideways Review: We Are Not Alone

by John Proctor

John Proctor
on
selected essays
from
The Best American Essays 2002
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~9th in a series

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Most of us living in New York City on 9/11 were not in the World Trade Center, many of us nowhere even near it. I was working in market research on 25th Street and was supposed to start teaching night classes to new immigrants that evening. I left work after the second tower fell and walked all the way back to my apartment in Sunset Park, Brooklyn—through roadblocks and makeshift water stations, past bars full to capacity, then home over the Manhattan Bridge. I didn’t leave my apartment for three days.

Each of us felt a sense of dread as pervasive as the smell that anyone who was in New York then can remember—a vague admixture of sheetrock, petroleum, and barbecue that few can describe but still, twelve years later, comes back to me vividly at random moments when some element of that smell enters my olfactory glands and sends me into a panic attack. But that dread—at what had happened and what might follow—was commingled with a vague hope that lingered, a hope stirred not by what had happened to our city but how the nine million treated each other in its wake.

I have to admit, in my own backwards journey through The Best American Essays series, I approached the 2002 volume (essays written in 2001) with some trepidation, as if I were drawing near some looming chasm between pre- and post-9/11 nonfiction writing. I actually looked forward to being done with it and enjoying a more innocent brand of writing on the other side.

One of the contributors to this volume, Adam Mayblum, is not an essayist. He isn’t even a writer, at least not professionally. His essay “The Price We Pay” recounts, in a linear narrative, his life from the time a plane crashed into 1 World Trade Center while he was on the Eighty-Seventh Floor working as managing director of a private investment firm until shortly after he escaped. The last paragraph of the essay, however, offers a remarkably insightful, harrowing, hopeful summation:

If you want to kill us, leave us alone because we will do it ourselves. If you want to make us stronger, attack and we unite. This is the ultimate failure of terrorism against the United States and the ultimate price we pay to be free, to decide where we want to work, what we want to eat, and when and where we want to go on vacation. The very moment the first plane was hijacked, democracy won.

Mayblum’s account, in the months after its writing, was featured on NPR, paraphrased in emails, and recounted on television the world over, so much that many people started to wonder if it wasn’t faked. (Snopes.com has since verified its accuracy.) I think Mayblum’s essay affected so many people so deeply because there were nine million stories like his.

Word on the Street,” co-written by Richard Price and his daughter Anne Hudson-Price, documents, in a series of short vignettes, the immediate aftermath of 9/11 through third-person renderings that are intensely personal, yet epic in scope. The cabby pieces, with titles like “Cabby No. 2, Sept. 19,” work off each other in a cascade of interactions between the fares, all white New Yorkers, and the cabbies, all Arabic New Yorkers. The “Kids” pieces, with titles like “Kids No. 3, Oct. 9,” narrate interactions between a father, presumably Price, and his two daughters, revealing the daughters as just as mature and capable in the midst of the horrors of this aftermath as their father. At one point the older daughter writes him a letter, saying:

Dad, it’s like these days, there are adults, and there are children. Only two camps now, no intermediate zone for teenagers like myself. If you possess the information, if you understand what’s going on in the world, you’re an adult, no matter what your biological age; all others are children … the gut instinct of kids my age to go to their parents and demand comfort, answers, or whatever doesn’t work now, because we are aware that we know just as much about the world as you do…. And along with the scariness that comes with being a member of this new group of adults without any actual adult experience is the sadness that we bear for the years we had to surrender in order to accept this mutual burden with you.

I now have two daughters myself, one three years old and the other three months old. When I read this letter from a teenage daughter to her father, my immediate response was, This is it. This is the chasm. I was reading a lot of Jung and Blake in August of 2001, thinking about personal mythology and the collective unconscious, and the signs and symbols that fit within them. The child, in most cultures, symbolizes innocence, and the passage from childhood to adulthood is a passage from innocence to experience. The daughter in “Word on the Street” is the voice of a child who sees the collective innocence of an entire city’s children—and adults—replaced by the knowledge, the “information” in her words, of the horrific, destructive force lurking behind their civilization’s cardboard façade, and the mutual sadness that knowledge engenders.

Rudolph Chelminski’s “Turning Point” has, in the years since its publication, rightly become considered one of the great New York City essays. In a remarkable sleight of hand reflective of its subject, the piece narrates a famous feat that occurred right after the towers were erected, providing an elegiac bookend to the towers’ demise.

When I see two oranges I juggle, and when I see two towers I walk.

These words belong to Phillippe Petit, who gained instant notoriety in 1974 for tightroping between the World Trade Center towers and who experienced a renaissance after the towers fell in 2001 due to this piece and the ensuing documentary on Petit—a fascinating man who seems possessed in equal parts by genius, orneriness, and insanity. Chelminski also brings the reader up to date with Petit, revealing his longstanding occupancy at NYC’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine on 112th and Amsterdam, where Petit is Artist-in-Residence (or resident Quasimodo), wire-walking over the building to raise money for the cathedral’s building fund.

Another piece, Amy Kolen’s “Fire,” documents New York City’s other major occurrence of people jumping en masse from a burning building—the Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911. Kolen’s grandmother was a secretary for the Triangle Shirtwaist Company when the horrific factory fire occurred; she barely escaped, mostly because she was a cousin of the owner who worked administration rather than in the sweatshop that was locked from the outside, trapping hundreds of female garment workers.

The crux of the essay is Kolen’s struggle between loyalty to her grandmother, who wrote extensive, loving letters to Kolen throughout her granddaughter’s life, and a search for the truth of the event:

I’m uneasy taking sides—management against workers—but everything I’ve read and heard makes me embrace, instead, the workers, the survivors from the eighth and ninth floors, whose words … are testimony to a reality different from the one Grandma experienced.

Kolen wonders what people were thinking, questions her own motivations, and asks how she can simultaneously love and betray her grandmother by writing this essay. She ends it with a brief, intensely personal rendering of herself when she was seven years old in Queens with her grandmother, trying to light a leaf on fire with a magnifying glass. This little scene, giving us a very human glimpse of her grandmother, reads as an act of forgiveness.

Sebastian Junger’s journalistic essay “The Lion in Winter” isn’t technically about 9/11, but, perhaps more than any other essay in this volume, it is. The lion of the title is Ahmad Shah Massoud, the Afghan guerilla leader who went from fighting Soviet invaders in the Seventies and Eighties to fighting the Taliban in the years immediately before 9/11.

Junger continually alternates the zoom on his camera out to the historical development of the Taliban and in to Massoud’s role as an elder Afghan warlord. In some of the most fiercely and elegantly rendered scenes I’ve read in quite some time, Junger also reveals his own trip with Massoud’s army, from the foxholes where Junger fears for his own life while shells crack all around him to a gorgeous, humane moment alone with Massoud, Massoud’s doctor, and the photographer who accompanied Junger, when Massoud reveals his post-war wish:

[A] room for my children, a room for me and my wife, and a big library for all my books. I’ve put them in boxes, hoping one day I’ll be able to put them on the shelves and I’ll be able to read them. But the house is still unfinished, and the books are still in their boxes. I don’t know when I’ll be able to read my books.

In what many U.S. counterterrorism officials cite as the moment they suspected something was horribly amiss, Massoud was killed on September 9, 2001 by two al-Qaeda suicide bombers posing as journalists.

The specter of death extended its hand to the Guest Editor of The Best American Essays 2002. Robert Atwan, in his annual foreword, had the unenviable dual task of eulogizing Stephen Jay Gould, who died of cancer unexpectedly just months before the volume’s publication, and addressing the horrific and permanent change in the landscape of not just literature but the world. He performed both with grace and dignity, noting that Gould “promised to finish the introduction before undergoing the [cancer] surgery. And he did.” Atwan then wrote about the essay post-September 11, 2001:

The essay always seems to revitalize in times of war and conflict—and it’s usually with the return of peace and prosperity that fiction and poetry renew their literary stature…. Perhaps in times of conflict and crisis people want to be in the presence of less mediated voices—we need more debate and directives, we desire more public discourse.

I think many writers—and readers—of fiction and poetry would disagree with this assertion. I remember, in December 2001, the collective national obsession that accompanied the movie trilogy adaptation of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. The journey of Frodo, Aragorn, and the rest of the fellowship provided both a mythological framework through which to contextualize our collective national tragedy and an alternate universe in which the fate of the entire world could be reversed by throwing an old ring into a volcano.

But I also remember that the days, months, and years after 9/11 were the first time I formed concrete opinions about the world outside my own little life, the first time I realized my life was simultaneously a self-enclosed story and a small part of a much larger public discourse. In short, this was the first time I took the nonfiction world around me as seriously as I took the stories and verse I’d been ingesting since I was a toddler.

Now, twelve years later, I feel a creeping uneasiness as I realize that not only the Guest Editor, but many of the writers in this volume—and indeed many of their subjects—are now dead. David Halberstam’s and Christopher Hitchens’ pieces, “Who We Are” and “For Patriot Dreams” respectively, are included in the volume. Both of them quote the same poem by dead American poet W.H. Auden, “September 1, 1939.” On April 23, 2007, Halberstam was killed in a traffic accident while researching a book, and Hitchens died at the end of last year after a well-documented bout of lung cancer.

Who We Are,” written shortly after 9/11, is, as the title implies, an examination of what it means to be an American, specifically what it means to be in a democratic republic that’s threatened. Halberstam is fundamentally hopeful, stating, “One of the advantages of being older and having some degree of historical knowledge is the faith in the free society that eventually comes with it,” but he also warns, “We have been quite differently conditioned than our parents and grandparents were in what to expect out of life. This is a much more self-absorbed society, one that demands ever-quicker results; it is accustomed to being secure—and entertained.”

With the benefit of the ensuing years I unfortunately don’t share Halberstam’s sense of hope: we are more self-absorbed than ever, with more and more media to use as myopic mirrors; our private sector has become, if possible, even more indifferent to its social responsibilities; and the government, despite our electing a President who is a direct opposite of the last one, seems just as incapable of acting as a moral compass for our people.

Whereas Halberstam only gives the Auden poem a passing mention, Hitchens, in “For Patriot Dreams,” makes it a central text for understanding 9/11:

Into this neutral air
Where blind skyscrapers use
Their full height to proclaim
The strength of Collective Man,
Each language pours its vain
Competitive excuse…

Hitchens, like Halberstam and most of us in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the towers, was feeling patriotic, even as an Englishman in New York, though he makes sure to define his terms:

[The U.S. is] the only place in history where patriotism can be divorced from its evil twins of chauvinism and xenophobia. Patriotism is not local; it’s universal.

Most of those terms unfortunately went out the window during the five or so years after 9/11, as Hitchens’ patriotism ironically morphed into an anti-Muslim stance that bordered on both chauvinism and xenophobia, until he softened his stance after having himself waterboarded in an experiment in immersive journalism (he lasted seventeen seconds).

Perhaps, finally, I’m not only examining the question of post-9/11 writing, but also of post-9/11 reading. One essay in this collection that seems especially resonant post-9/11, perhaps in ways it hadn’t intended, is Mario Vargas Llosa’s “Why Literature?” which seems to have been written as a philosophical response to 9/11. I want to quote about three quarters of it—there’s so much in it for a reader and writer to embrace and love—but I’ll limit myself to the following:

Literature says nothing to those human beings who are satisfied with their lot, who are content with life as they now live it. Literature is the food of the rebellious spirit, the promulgator of nonconformities, the refuge for those who have too much or too little in life. One seeks sanctuary in literature so as not to be unhappy and so as not to be incomplete … to divest ourselves of the wrongs and the impositions of this unjust life, a life that forces us always to be the same person when we wish to be many different people, so as to satisfy the many desires that possess us. Literature pacifies this vital dissatisfaction only momentarily—but in this miraculous instant, in this provisional suspension of life, literary illusion lifts and transports us outside of history, and we become citizens of a timeless land, and in this way immortal.

While reading and rereading this essay, itself a work of nonfiction, I found myself thinking about fiction, and poetry, and other forms of writing that seek not merely to portray the world but to transform it into art. I thought about The Lord of the Rings, and Blake and Jung, and the stories each of the nine million had to tell. I thought about Massoud’s boxed-up library and Petit hanging by a wire between the towers of the yearling World Trade Center.

Perhaps, and I don’t think I’m disagreeing with Robert Atwan’s assertion in his foreword, in a modern time of mediated crisis what people need most is the child-like illusion—some would call it hope—that it all means something, that everything will be alright, and that we are not alone in a world that seems less safe now than it did earlier, when we were children.

 

More of John’s Hunger Mountain BAE reviews

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The Best American Essays 2002
Stephen Jay Gould, Editor
Robert Atwan, Series Editor
Houghton Mifflin
 
2002
 
 
 

Sideways Review: Shout Her Lovely Name by Natalie Serber

by Cynthia Newberry Martin

Stories Speaking to Stories:

Cynthia Newberry Martin on Natalie Serber’s Shout Her Lovely Name

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Here’s a confession: For many months now, I haven’t wanted to read story collections. Each time I paused in front of my waiting-to-be-read stacks, the story collections would jump up and down, screaming it was their turn, while the novels did nothing but lie there. And yet, a novel I chose. I agreed to write this review before my unprecedented anti-story syndrome became obvious to me. But a commitment is a commitment.

Uh-oh, you might be thinking, and I was too. But about halfway through Natalie Serber’s Shout Her Lovely Name, I had that comfortable feeling of having returned home after a long absence. These stories reminded me of others. But which others?

First the basics. Shout Her Lovely Name, a debut collection of eleven stories (including the title story originally published here at Hunger Mountain), is organized as follows:

•    1 story about an unnamed mother and daughter
•    3 stories about Ruby
•    1 story about Shelby, Walter, and their baby Ezekiel
•    5 stories about Ruby’s daughter, Nora
•    1 story about Cassie, Ben, and their children—Ethan and Edith

I have to tell you, I fell into the lives of these characters fast and hungry—the same way I fall into a novel. Not that these stories read like micro-novels in the way that Alice Munro stories often cover wide expanses of time. Instead, from the opening sentences of a story, I felt as immersed in the life of a character as if someone had torn out eighteen pages from the middle of a novel and passed them over to me. As if the beginning and end of the story were elsewhere.

Let’s take a look at some of these in medias res openings, all from the first or only story about a character:

“Ruby Jewel”
When she stepped off the train, her father honked from the Dodge, three sharp blasts, like elbow jabs to her ribs. His thick arm dangled out the window, the sleeve rolled up, exposing sunburned skin.

“This Is So Not Me”
I was climbing the stairs to Walter’s brownstone, Ezekiel swaddled up tight like they showed me three times before I left the maternity ward. You know, how they’re supposed to feel better if their arms and legs are wadded in close like the Baby Jesus lying in the manger. Seems it would make me want to scream, but whatever.

“Developmental Blah Blah”
Mini cupcakes—iced, sprinkled, and dressed in ruffled paper wrappers—lined the pastry case like a jolly marching band. Cassie leaned forward to peer in at all the tiny perfection. “I don’t know…He’s going to be fifty.”

Now let’s take a look at some of the endings, all from the last or only story about a character, and all of which, it seems to me, could also work as beginnings:

“Free to a Good Home”
She and Nora didn’t have a TV so they never saw Marco’s commercial. He didn’t come to see them either, in their new apartment. Ruby knew he’d returned to Florida. He must have set all the furniture back on the sidewalk. The sofa, the spool; she couldn’t imagine anyone wanting to live with that junk.

“Rate My Life”
In the parking lot seagulls scavenged near a tipped trash can, stabbing at foil wrappers that glinted in the streetlight. Tonight Nora would eat tacos for her dinner and sleep beneath Aaron’s orange blanket. She shivered, knowing it would be cold. Tomorrow she and Aaron would say goodbye. Nora would bomb her final. Tomorrow she would call Ruby and listen as her mother described the amazing friends she’d met at camp. Tomorrow when she finally saw Thad, she would be unforgivable.

“Developmental Blah Blah”
Cassie’s hand covered her mouth. Her ribs could barely contain the huge beating within. Her daughter caught her eye and for a moment the tightrope appeared, the two women stepping onto it, knowing everything about each other. Cassie’s swelling heart split wide and Edith mouthed something: I love you or fuck you, or both. All Cassie knew for certain was that Edith was everything.

On my shelves I have more books by Ellen Gilchrist than by any other author—twenty-three total (collections, novels, memoir; some of which I have both in hardback and paperback). After I finished Serber’s debut, I reread Gilchrist’s first book of fiction, In the Land of Dreamy Dreams (published in 1981) where we meet Rhoda and Nora Jane (career-long Gilchrist characters), among others.

Margaret Donovan Bauer, the author of The Fiction of Ellen Gilchrist, writes:

Gilchrist’s point of uniqueness is that all of her work is interrelated to the extent that her whole body of work—that which she has already published and probably that which she will publish—is part of an organic story cycle, a story cycle that continues to evolve as each new book appears, comparable to the roman-fleuve. It is a story cycle in the full sense of the word: there are no definite endings to the individual books and, distinguishing her work from the roman-fleuve, there is no clear beginning to the cycle.

In addition to the open beginnings and endings, both Gilchrist and Serber write with a slow richness to their prose—in the same way that maple syrup finds its way from the middle of a stack of pancakes to the plate. Both writers avoid concision in favor of an abundance of life details. Sentences that open out and meander. Lots of voice. And these two share a practical tone. But Serber’s tone two-steps forward, while Gilchrist’s cuts sharp. Serber’s characters seem to have all the time in the world, while Gilchrist’s seem impatient, often making spur-of-the-moment decisions. Serber’s fiction focuses on mothers and children, while Gilchrist’s fiction focuses on women.

The writer Yiyun Li, whose stories often speak to those of William Trevor, said in an interview, “I believe a writer writes to talk to his/her masters and literary heroes…. [A] story can talk to another story in many ways—a line, a character, a few details, or sometimes it is the mood of the story, the pacing and the music of the story….” Natalie Serber’s stories speak to those of Ellen Gilchrist while at the same time being one hundred percent Natalie Serber stories. How exciting it is to anticipate the possibility of more stories about Ruby, Nora (a Gilchrist character name), Shelby (another Gilchrist character name), and Cassie—characters who from these beginnings have so much behind them and from these endings, so much ahead of them.

For those of you who love stories, you’re in for a treat. And for those of you who suffer (whether long-term or momentarily) from the anti-story syndrome—here’s the cure: Shout Her Lovely Name.

~

 

Shout Her Lovely Name
Natalie Serber
Houghton Mifflin
2012

Natalie Book Cover

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Sideways Review: Please Eat the Pastrami

by Claire Guyton

on “A Bridge Under Water”

by Tom Bissell

The Best American Short Stories 2011

~3rd in a series

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I dated a man in college who could not bear to leave food on a plate, his or anyone else’s. He would dispatch his food with good speed, then pick at the borders of my meal while I ate. Before my fork hit the table he’d drag my leftovers to his side and tuck in. To my shock, the first time we went out with friends he did the same thing to everyone else. What does this behavior say about him? Compulsive eater, yes, obviously. But also, pretty aggressive, right? And confrontational—if he doesn’t expect you to hold onto your own food, he’ll assume your opinions are easily slapped from your grasp as well. Selfish. Probably doesn’t respect boundaries. If on our first date I’d focused less on how everything I ate was going to affect my breath, and more on the way this guy behaved when he ate, I could have saved us both so much time, so much heartache.

I’ve got a long list of such eating-makes-the-man examples. My father refuses to taste food—any food prepared anywhere by anyone—before he coats it with salt and pepper, my mother has never left a dinner table without a new food stain, when in public I am incapable of delivering lettuce to my mouth without painting a cheek with salad dressing. Respectively: control issues, perpetual distraction, social anxiety. I could go on but I should save these details about me, my family, and people I have known for my fiction. Because readers can learn an awful lot about a character by watching her eat.

Yet. How many stories can you think of—quick, right now!—reveal personality by showing how a character eats?

From the opening paragraphs of Tom Bissell’s “A Bridge Under Water,” the third story in 2011’s Best American Short Stories:

“So,” he said, after having vacuumed up a plate of penne all’arrabiata, drunk in three swallows a glass of Nero D’Avola, and single-handedly consumed half a basket of breadsticks, “Do you want to hit another church or see the Borghese Gallery?”

She had plunged her fork exactly ten times into her strawberry risotto and taken two birdfeeder sips from the glass of Gewürztraminer that her waiter (a genius, clearly) had recommended pairing with it. She glanced up and smiled at him (more or less) genuinely. The man put away everything from foie gras to a Wendy’s single with the joyless efficiency of a twelve-year-old. He never appeared to taste anything. The plate now before him looked licked clean. When he return-serve smiled, she tried not to notice his red-pepper-and-wine-stained teeth or the breadcrumbs distributed throughout his short beard. …

We learn a great deal about both characters from these lines but my main takeaway is that the woman values sophistication, restraint, and neatness, and she feels anger toward this man, even contempt. Because the narrator speaks for the woman, we see the man’s behavior only through her biased reporting—is he a fast eater or is she an extraordinarily slow one?—but probably we can trust that he has eaten his entire meal and a lot of the breadsticks, likely his teeth are spackled with lunch and his beard is a little crumby. So we know that he is not particularly concerned about being tidy and he’s not the most mindful of eaters. Is he unaware of her anger? We don’t know yet. What does he feel about her? We’ll have to wait for that, too. But already—we have not yet finished the second paragraph—we have tension and conflict and a fair amount of personality, mostly showcased by the way in which these two people eat.

For some time now my favorite scenes in television and film have been eating scenes. I think I first became interested in these scenes when I noticed the myriad ways that two actresses who play sisters in my favorite television series—I own and regularly watch the DVDs—contrive to limit their consumption to about a teaspoon of food whenever they have to eat on camera. When the women chat over two gigantic muffins, they both keep swirling an index finger around the top of the muffin, then licking the fingertip. Once she withdraws the finger from her mouth, each woman muffles her words a touch, as though the crumb she just deposited has morphed into a genuine mouthful and she is actually eating. In another scene, the sisters are enjoying deli sandwiches on a couch. One dangles a slice of pastrami over her mouth, then a pickle—but when she moves the food away to speak, it’s whole.

I never would have deconstructed the sleights of hand these women use without the benefit of repeat viewing. But once I noticed their tricks I was disappointed. So much of the energy of their performance was aimed at convincing the viewer they were eating. Actors, do you know how to ensure the viewer believes you’re eating? You eat. They could have devoted the energy spent on feigned eating to how the characters eat, adding layers and details to our understanding of these women, raising a good performance to sublime.

Since noticing the feigned eating, I’ve paid close attention to how other actors eat. This is what I’ve noticed: actors who commit to actual eating—and it is a significant commitment, because who knows how many times he has to bite off half that candy bar or she has to cram those french fries—say far more about their characters than one can convey by licking a finger or kissing a pickle. When Andre Brauer cradles his hamburger with loving hands in Men of a Certain Age and takes a huge mouthful—stopping the flow of talk only for a fraction of a second, then talking around the food—he’s just used one bite and one line to deliver a multi-layered performance. This is what I see: He is very comfortable with his two friends or he wouldn’t eat with his mouth full. He is so impatient for the joy of eating that he can’t stop, put the hamburger down, argue a point. And trust me, I know, he holds that sandwich like a man who loves to eat—supporting the bun from end to end, promising an equal share of each element with every bite. This man is very attached to his hamburger. You might say that hamburger is the fourth friend at the table.

Feigned eating versus eating. Good versus sublime. In a good version of Bissell’s scene, we would be told that the man’s plate was clean, that he was still eating breadsticks, that he had a few crumbs in his beard. We would know that the woman was working her slow way through a plate of risotto, that she sips her drink. But Bissell doesn’t settle for good. The man, reports our narrator, has vacuumed his meal, the woman has taken birdfeeder sips. We know she has kept track of how many bites she has eaten in the time it took him to finish his meal. When he smiles she considers it a return of serve and it’s ruined anyway by the clotted teeth. This kind of detail—this level of commitment to the scene—is what I loved first about this story, and, in the end, also what I love best.

You’ll have to finish that second paragraph to begin to understand what’s at stake for these characters. On page two the stakes go even higher—keep reading to discover exactly what those lunch table observations are hinting at, to learn the source of all that tension. You’ll be carried far from the petty concerns of what to order and when to wipe your mouth, and you won’t be disappointed by the journey or its finale. But for now, before moving away from these words, savor those sentences I quoted just one more time. Land on each word, spend a little time with each line. You know, the way you might tear apart a buttered muffin and watch the steam rise from the moist crumb before you allow yourself that first, lingering taste. Or how you let the mustard dot your lips, forgotten napkin by your elbow, while you sink your teeth into a mouthful of pastrami.  

Sideways Review: Her Last Costume< br/>
by Claire Guyton

On My Life as Laura: How I Searched for Laura Ingalls Wilder and Found Myself

by Kelly Kathleen Ferguson

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“[T]he instant I decided to retrace the pioneer journey of Laura Ingalls Wilder, I knew I would wear a Laura dress.”
………—from the opening of My Life as Laura

Ever since I’ve known her, my friend Kelly has been a seeker. When she wasn’t actively seeking, she wandered. And—again, at least since I’ve known her—she’s done all that seeking and wandering in costume. So it was no surprise to me that she donned a prairie dress for her trip through Laura Ingalls Wilder’s landscape.

Yes, I’m reviewing the work of a friend. I can’t be objective about My Life as Laura, a road trip-memoir that charts the insights a woman can glean when armed with a reliable car, a flouncey skirt and straggling bonnet, and too many dinners at the Dairy Queen. But at HungerMountain we publish only Reviews Gone Sideways. My “sideways” challenge: to do a review of Kelly’s book that only a friend could write.

***

Excepting a brief flirtation with miniskirts in college and a year-long attachment to a lipstick the color and gleam of red tin foil in my early twenties, I have always put myself together more or less in the mode of a distracted, middle-aged mother. You can rightly assume that with my denim, thick soles, unpainted nails, very small (but coordinated!) earrings, and drugstore sun glasses, I’m saying, “Honestly, it’s just best for everyone involved if you keep your eyes to yourself.”

When you cloak yourself in swaths of pastel cotton and an attitude of extreme emotional reserve, it’s easy to avoid meeting people. On the other hand, when you decide that you are called to write sentences that will never fully live if you are the only one who sees them, you have to learn how to be a joiner. When I joined the North Carolina Writers Network seven or eight years ago, then registered for one of its writing workshops, I was destined to rub my swaddled elbows with people who—cringe—do not aspire to disappear.

I clocked the bleached ponytail, the fake fur collar on the short jacket, the tight, pink, glitter-speckled tee-shirt—yegads, a bare midriff!—then looked down at my crisp story, freshly printed and paperclipped and just as tidy as my new sweater-set. DISmissed.

Of course that was Kelly, the version of her I now call “Rockband Kelly.” By the time that workshop ended, she and I had discovered in each other a partner in literary crime and forged a lasting friendship. My new friend wore tight jeans and high-heeled boots and tended to those dark roots while churning out pages of fresh, vibrant, funny fiction and essays I was always honored and excited to read. I am delighted to say that her memoir is evidence that she’s only getting better. But don’t take my, her friend’s, word. Take her words. Here’s Kelly detailing the childhood origins of her life-long obsession with Laura Ingalls Wilder and her books:

Plant, milk, bake, sew, churn—Laura always got the job done. I puttered my Big Wheel around the cul-de-sac, a life devoid of action verbs. Clearly, I was living in the wrong century, with the wrong family. Our pantry was stuffed with a cornucopia of Fudge Deelites, Little Debbie Swiss Cakes, Nutter Butters and Chips Ahoy, but I read with fascination about Laura’s Ma who brought out a tiny bag of sugar for company, carefully doling out the granules. Not to be outdone, I rationed my M&M’s, denying myself the green ones for minutes at a time.

And,

I best helped my family by leaving them alone and reading in my room, so that’s what I did. I splayed my body like a starfish on the pink frilly bedspread surrounded by white princess furniture. There, as Laura, I relived my past life as Pa’s right-hand girl. We forged bullets to protect the home and provide meat for the family. We built a door on the log cabin in the Indian Territory. We made hay while the Dakota sun shone. Pa said time and again how he didn’t know what he’d do without his Half-Pint. Without me, everyone would have died, their bones picked over by wolves and turned to dust on the high prairie.

Kelly was an annoying kid in everyone’s way, but Kelly as Laura mattered.

Over the first couple years of our friendship in North Carolina, Rockband Kelly morphed into Yoga Kelly, showing up in cafes and our post-workshop writing group in soft, moveable fabric and flip flops as often as she sported the older, hard-edged look, and I’m certain the ponytail—now less sleek—got a couple of shades darker. Over salad with goat cheese and sugared pecans she talked less about writing disappointments and man woes and more about the need to come unstuck. Her wish to just MOVE. Follow her calling. And next thing I knew, she was doing just that, in a flurry of courage that astounded me. “Once decided, I decided to be decided, before I talked myself out of risking as I had so many times before. Like a kid rechecking a Christmas list for Santa, I would get out my map and contemplate this previously unconsidered, enormous state near Canada.”

By the time we both left North Carolina, only a few weeks apart—she to Montana to start an MFA, me to Maine as a trailing spouse and then to my own MFA program—I’d confided countless times how much I admired her toughness and self-reliance. Each time I said that (or wrote it in one of my runway-length, agony-e-mails) she expressed disbelief that I could see her as the smart, independent… insistent woman she obviously was (is). As she puts it in her book, of this time in her life:

Back in my [undergraduate] philosophy days, I studied Heraclites, the ancient Greek who made the claim that no man steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man. For years I had stood in the same river thinking I could defeat change, but what I discovered is that even if you stay put, the river changes around you. Years elapse and there you are, waterlogged and shivering, wondering where the party went. It seemed everyone I knew had passed me by. Maybe they moved to Seattle, San Francisco or New York. Maybe they were married with children. Maybe they established meaningful careers. I wasn’t jealous of anyone in particular, but I was very jealous of everyone in general.

Yes, Kelly was great, Kelly was funny. She would reassure me whenever I wondered why on earth I was even trying this damn writing thing. Better, sometimes she could distract me from myself by sharing her own soul searches and fears, in reply to which I would fire off an obscenity-laden pick-me-up that would cheer us both. But even as I enjoyed our long-distance, virtual swapping of intimacies, I didn’t fully grasp, then, why Kelly was so great, why I found her so funny. Why was she able to bring me out of a dark mood with such ease? Understandable, this incomprehension, because I had to see a third Kelly incarnation to fully grasp what was happening to my friend and to fully appreciate why I admired her so much.

We met up at the 2008 AWP conference in New York, both full of new literary smarts, still swapping our writerly dreams, now over Times Square cart food and then a cutesie lunch at MOMA. My e-mail-agony-pal, still intense, hilarious, restless. Still being called. My Kelly, yet when I first saw her in the lobby of the conference hotel I didn’t recognize her. I’d just figured out who she was as she flung her wild west arms around my LL Bean wool. A vision in… suede! Her newly pale face (I guess she always had a tan when we lived in the south?) was now framed by long, deeply auburn hair. Lovely as always, of course. Just now more… planted. Ethereal, wispy, Yoga Kelly—by now, that’s how I thought of her—had given way to an almost strutting Cowgirl Kelly in a fringed coat I think Charles Bronson wore in a handful of 70’s movies. I didn’t misread her new confidence:

Montana fulfilled my starry-eyed expectations. A river ran through it, rugged and improbable as any dream. I belted whisky with grizzled men in outpost watering holes. There were osprey and moose. I gripped tin cups of coffee and shouted, “Yar!” at the snowy peaks. I even met my cowboy in the form of an information technology whisperer/poet. We forged a romance, our bodies pressed against a keno machine at the Silver Dollar Bar.

Home, pondering, swapping e-mails again, I got it. I hadn’t been drawn to Rockband Kelly despite that bared midriff and hot pink lipstick and rhinestone belt—once I’d heard her speak, and read even a paragraph of her work, the high heels and hairspray and fake fur were very much a part of her charm. Yoga Kelly showed far more skin than I would ever dream of baring in public and the restless power Cowgirl Kelly wore with her suede took up the space of four women. I knew her to be a deeply sensitive, sometimes easily wounded woman with a heart the size of a refrigerator. I knew well that she was often full of the same fears I lived with myself. Hell, sometimes I was the one talking her down. And yet… for her? Invisibility is not an option.

My Life as Laura tells the story of a woman who is willing to craft herself as carefully and transparently as she crafts her sentences. Sure, wearing that prairie dress was frightening because it was pure costume and bound to draw attention that might be tough to bear. When the woman who sold her the dress asked if she wanted to dress like Laura the girl or Laura the adult, the question made Kelly realize that “[A] thirty-eight-year-old woman dressing like a little pioneer girl was odd. And not odd in a quirky, adorable way, but odd in a Whatever Happened to Baby Jane way.” She treats us to a detailed, very funny report of the anxiety she felt before her first public debut as Laura Kelly, tightly zipped in the floor-length period dress she’d bought for the trip:

Once fastened, the tightness produced a little roll of fat (O! Vanity!) and squeezed my breasts (O! Ashley!) up over the top of the scoop neck in a distinctly un-Victorian manner. I braided my hair into pigtails and checked out the final effect—the original St. Pauli Girl prairie hooker. I was appropriately dressed to stand on the corner of a log cabin and greet visitors—“Hey, John, you like to party?”

Her resistance to the dress lasts in earnest for only a couple of hours, wiled away in a hotel room, where, after gnawing a stale bagel and proving that the faucets were in good working order and the ice bucket did indeed hold ice, she plucks up her courage to emerge properly clad for her journey. Despite the much-appreciated detail of her struggle, it’s clear she stared down the fear with relative ease. Of course she did. She’s been staring down that fear for at least seven years.

Kelly’s Laura road trip was a conscious task of self-discovery for her—and now for us—by way of a critical review of America’s Manifest Destiny, meditations on pop culture, wry and insightful social commentary, and a crash course on what makes the story of the Ingalls Wilder clan relevant now. But why the costume? I dare to say that another way to read the trip is this: an excuse for one grand romp in an outfit that just doesn’t have a modern equivalent—a two-week intensive in identity-construction worth a few years on another coast, say, clad in an all-leather ensemble, or leopard print, or a trench coat and wise-guy shades.

My Kelly doesn’t have the arrogance of a strutter but she’s got the moves. And always—depending on what she’s learning about herself in that moment—the outfit. I can be so brave only on the page.

***

I last saw Kelly in the summer of 2008. She was padding around a tiny New Orleans apartment in bare feet, a fluttery floral print dress, and long, wavy hair the shade of chocolate: Southern Belle Kelly. When I asked her a few months ago to contribute to Hunger Mountain’s Another Loose Sally, I eagerly awaited her author photo. She lives in Athens, Ohio, now, finishing up a PhD in creative nonfiction. I was certain Southern Belle Kelly would be no more and I was right. What a pleasure to open the photo of my pretty, big-eyed friend, and see a chic dark bob, a simple and flattering black outfit, the confident smile of darkened lips. Author Kelly.

~

 

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Sideways Review: One Perfect Sentence

by Claire Guyton

by Claire Guyton

When friends recommend movies I shush them. Because no one—least of all me—can recommend a movie without launching into what it is, exactly, that makes the movie worth seeing. And I don’t want to know! I don’t! I want to discover the movie’s gifts for myself, second-to-second, as I watch. “It’s about a woman who—” Shush! “And there’s this scene when she—”     Shush I said! Same for books. I never read book jackets because I want to discover a story, a novel, a memoir just as the author wants me to receive it—word-by-carefully-selected-word.

Now that you know that about me, you’ll understand why I’m finding it so hard to write this review. Because to tell you what I love about this story I have to exalt—oh, dear—the story’s final line.

Whenever a reviewer savors a magnificent sentence from the text in question, said reviewer is supposed to share the quote. But in this case, dear reader, to explain why I believe “Housewifely Arts” by Megan Mayhew Bergman is worthy of the label “best of 2011,” I would have to bonk you over the head with its ending. I would have to write, in earnest, those awful words: “Spoiler Alert.” And I just can’t do it.

Well… wait. Just wait a minute.

Actually, I think I could. I just looked at the sentence again and I’m realizing that quoting it probably wouldn’t spoil the story for you at all. Because context-free, the line is a very nice line indeed, but it doesn’t, as a small collection of words alone, do anything much. If I were to right now type out that last line, it would, I know, fall lightly on the page—unobtrusive, entirely harmless, taking only the space allotted. With the tap of each fingertip I could push the words and spaces and punctuation gently into place… affecting exactly no one and no thing. Which, now that I think about it, is the real reason I can’t quote it. If I extract that line from its rightful place I’ll rob it of its power. I won’t do it.

But oh that last sentence! That one small string of words carries the entire accumulated weight of the story, and I would so dearly love to examine how each word shoulders its share of the burden. Maybe it wouldn’t do any harm if I… probably you don’t care…? No.

There’s no hope for it—I can’t quote the most quotable sentence of this story. So I’ll rely on another tool of the reviewer: comparisons. Let’s talk about endings.

If you haven’t read Chekhov’s “Gusev,” find it NOW and feast on one of the best endings of all time: two paragraphs of splendor. “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline” and “Pastoralia,” my two favorite George Saunders tales, pound you with abject hopelessness—delicious in its purity—in their final lines. I had to re-read several times the last paragraph of Joyce Carol Oates’s “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” before I could admit that, yes, that was the ending, and that awful hole in my stomach was blasted by a short story. In “Bullet in the Brain”—Tobias Wolff’s few pages of genius—behold a final paragraph that captures the weight of a life. And go ahead, read again Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried,” meditate on those last few sentences—talk about a hole in my stomach. All to say… we are no strangers to the magnificent ending, you and I. Every wonderful story has one. But also to say: note the plural that lurks in every reference I just made.

Two paragraphs, final lines, last/final paragraph, those last sentences—in mentioning the ending to each of a handful of my favorite stories, I refer to more than one sentence because it takes more than a sentence to deliver an ending to a short story. Even with a very short fiction, one can’t wrap it up properly—deliver the required emotional punch, stamp the character as transformed or revealed, provide (or brazenly deny) closure, justify every word that has come before—in a single sentence. Except here. In “Housewifely Arts.” With the sentence I can’t quote.

And now let’s talk beginnings. Here’s a quote I can, in good conscience, share:

I am my own housewife, my own breadwinner. I make lunches and change light bulbs. I kiss bruises and kill copperheads from the backyard creek with a steel hoe. I change sheets and the oil in my car. I can make a pie crust and exterminate humpback crickets in the crawlspace with a homemade glue board, though not at the same time. I like to compliment myself on these things, because there’s no one else around to do it.

There’s your proof that Bergman can write. But know: if you receive this story as I did, your gratification will be delayed.

I was never bored. But neither was I wowed, really, as I paged through this story, after that first paragraph. This is very nice sentence-level writing, I thought, as expected. These characters are different enough to be interesting, sure. But as I read on, the story began to drift away. I felt I’d been promised a stand-off early on that doesn’t develop when the characters meet. The story began to feel a little long. The climax was… underwhelming. I’d hoped for a bit more noise for so much space, some heat. Mind you, all along I found the story perfectly competent, entirely pleasant, well-constructed, nicely paced. And so much competence without any risk or disruption was maybe a problem, I thought, as I read the last (very short) page, basically unmoved but comfortable enough, feeling reasonably entertained. Then I hit that last sentence. And that’s when every word of the story was justified and I was grateful for this book and all the people responsible for giving this story space and light.

I gave you the first paragraph, but that’s it, no more previews. I’ve been shushed. Go read “Housewifely Arts” just as Megan Mayhew Bergman wants you to receive it—word-by-carefully-selected-word—and marvel at how one final sentence can transform a story from admirably competent to sublime.

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