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John Venegas

John Venegas is a half-Mexican writer and editor, living in the San Fernando Valley, with a BA in creative writing from California State University at Northridge. He is the Lead Editor and Book Review Editor for Angel City Review and assistant editor for the #recurrent series at CCM. He sells pool supplies, works as a handyman, and tutors students to pay the bills. He likes long walks on the beach, going to the opera, and really stupid dad jokes.

Book Review

Here Lies Memory

by on September 13, 2016

memory-front-webHere Lies Memory, by Doug Rice

 

It doesn’t take long, when studying philosophy or the physical sciences, to be confronted with the subjectivity of reality.  We take in the world, the universe, through our senses and make of them what we will, not by choice, but because that is our only option.  We are compelled by and confined to our individual perspectives.  In reading Here Lies Memory by Doug Rice, I experienced an intense immersion within these very concepts.  This novel is a thought-piece on inconstancy of “fact”, a textual representation of the necessity and fallibility of sculpting an image of existence.

Every tactile element in Here Lies Memory resonates with the details of remembrance and perspective.  The story follows two families in Pittsburgh and how the members of these families try to make sense of their circumstances and environment.  The characters vary wildly in their origins and goals, at times seeming to exist purely to contradict one another.  There is rarely a moment where they openly agree with one another, and the questioning of each other’s intentions or recollections is constant.  Similarly, the city itself is an incredibly deep setting, presented almost exhaustive detail, crusted with grit and grime.  But the environment is never meant to disgust or repel.  Instead, it serves to make the city seem labyrinthine, with layer after layer, turn after turn, connection after connection.  It is the brain upon which the lives of the characters fire like the impulses of neurons – brief, bright, and intent on making a lasting impressing.

One of the simultaneously most frustrating and enjoyable parts of this novel is that you can never be entirely sure anything is really happening.  The depth of detail for the characters and the city disguise the decidedly surrealist nature of the text.  Sex workers, elderly men, mothers, and children will stop what they are doing and begin pontificating on the nature of life and the struggle of acquiring what you most desire in this world, without provocation or request.  That is by no means to say that such individuals are not capable of this type of conjecture, but it happens with such consistency that it reinforces the feeling of Pittsburgh as a whole, thinking entity, the pieces of which are locked in an existential conversation that they cannot escape from.  Moreover, as characters deal with the scars of trauma, ranging from the sudden and total disappearance of one’s child, to the horrors of the Vietnam War, to the living nightmare of incestuous rape, their recollections and reimaginings are constantly subjected to obscurity and confusion.  Again, the novel is rather clear in its implication that the traumatic events did in fact happen.  But as the characters try to process the sources of their anguish, they simultaneously fight for clarity and escape, to safeguard and abandon the memories of what happened.  It is a hauntingly effective and realistic depiction of the consequences of abuse.

With its multi-faceted characters, rich setting, and inconstancy of memory, Here Lies Memory only makes sense – and keeps everything in some kind of organization – through its skilled use of language.  The narrator of the novel has a cadence through which it delivers the text, and that cadence is reminiscent of mantra and epic poetry.  More specifically, it reminds me of stories that originated in oral traditions, prior to the advent or widespread use of writing, where the only way to preserve and share such tales was through memorization.  The dialogue of the characters does not abandon this pacing and tone either, further reinforcing the image of one mind in conversation with itself.  The text uses the words “remember” and “remembered” a total of one hundred and twenty seven times, as if it is trying to chant encouragement to itself or its readers or even its characters.  The whole of the novel feels as though the narrator is deeply driven to pass on the story and the stories contained within it, lest any of them or their protagonists suffer the second death of being forgotten.

Mr. Rice has accomplished something incredibly difficult and has done so with superlative skill.  He has made the surreal feel real, he has blurred the lines between the macrocosm and the microcosm, and he has somehow managed to contribute to the conversation of trauma and abuse in a manner that is not only unprecedented but which feels entirely necessary.  Here Lies Memory is a fantastic work that will require multiple reads to fully process and will never make you regret picking it up.

 

Here Lies Memory is available now through Black Scat Books.

Book Review

The Last Wolf & Herman

by on September 8, 2016

unnamedThe Last Wolf, by Laszlo Krasznahorkai

Herman, by Laszlo Krasznahorkai

At the outset of this review, I must admit to a bias: I am predisposed in favor of audacity and the blending of chaos and symmetry.  This is not a perspective that all potential readers will share with me and I can say, quite objectively, that the writing of Laszlo Krasznahorkai is not for all potential readers.  But for those of you that enjoy brilliant use of language, clever re-purposing of convention, and seamless immersion into vivid perspectives, I dare you to find better than The Last Wolf and Herman, two novellas written by Laszlo Krasznahorkai and translated by George Szirtes and John Batki, respectively.

The Last Wolf is the sentence of a man who, through a case of mistaken identity, is invited to write the story of the last wolf of Extremadura, a region in Spain.  You read that line correctly.  This is the sentence of that man.  The entire work, spanning seventy pages, is written as a single, unbroken, grammatically correct sentence.  In creative writing classes and workshops, authors are perpetually warned against ridiculousness such as this.  They are told that readers do not want to devote the thought and energy required to follow, much less unpack, a work that so thoroughly contradicts traditional narrative structure.  To hell with that.  The Last Wolf is a work of true art, operating under its constraint with such a rigor and life that it seems hardly bound to any rules at all.  The contours of this sentence are shaped in such a way that an experienced reader and writer can actually see the craft as it unfolds, as if watching Krasznahorkai mold everything into its proper place.  And despite there being only one sentence, the narrative and the manner in which it is delivered never feels incomplete.  Pace changes, social commentary, and all of the necessary pieces of the plot’s mosaic are presented as if the story were a mystery, asking the reader to truly participate in the creation of this work.  In the moments where the text slows and looms toward a possible break in thought or an “appropriate” period, it suddenly rushes off again on a new train of ideas, bound in almost perpetual motion.  Which, incidentally, keeps the read from ever being boring.  Of course, the constraint is not merely there for its own sake – it helps to wonderfully encapsulate the perspective of the narrator, who is caught on some seemingly inevitable and relentless descent in perspective, lost in his own melancholy and frustration, so desperate to escape it that he seeks to live someone else’s lie.  He knows that his story, and his part of this story, must come to an end, and so he drags it out to such a length that you wonder if he might not have died after that first and only period.

By contrast, Herman is, on the surface, a more traditional pair of stories.  It consists of “The Game Warden” and “The Death of a Craft”, two short stories so wildly different that I would have believed anyone who had told me they were written by different authors.  It is as if Krasznahorkai, after writing The Last Wolf, then set out to show his grasp of familiar narrative, as if to retroactively justify his previous boldness.  And I can genuinely say I enjoyed these stories even more than the larger novella.  Both stories provide a wealth of commentary on human excess and existential motivation, but they approach the topics from entirely separate angles.  “The Game Warden” could almost be classified as a satirical take on the hero’s journey, if not for its profoundly serious conclusion.  A simple story about a hunter and groundskeeper, the titular Herman, trying to hold back the advance of nature quickly and systematically devolves into a visceral, brutal examination of human arrogance, self-righteousness, and willful ignorance.  “The Death of Craft” is one of the finest examples of atmospheric writing I have ever read, with the use of language and narrative tone so perfectly encapsulating a hedonistic mindset that I found myself feeling wanton and unclean as I read.  The story involves the same general setting and chronology of events as “The Game Warden”, but it does so through the eyes of a traveling group of sensationalist dilettantes, with perspectives about as far from Herman’s as it is possible to have.  Krasznahorkai’s chameleonic skill in writing such vastly different narrations is incredible, immersive, and engrossing.

Do yourself a favor and pick up these companion pieces.  They are not long, but they are so well written that they hold up and present fascinating value whether they are read in a quick sitting or whether they are deliberately unpacked and interpreted.  I could not be more impressed by my introduction to Mr. Krasznahorkai’s work, and I cannot wait to read more.

 

The Last Wolf and Herman are available for preorder now from New Directions.

Book Review

On The Edge

by on September 1, 2016

41p6CV9+ABL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_On the Edge, by Rafael Chirbes

Translated by Margaret Jull Costa

 

It is perhaps easier to see the beauty in art when that art deals with a subject that is, for lack of a better term, beautiful.  On the Edge, by Rafael Chirbes, does not deal in what most of us would consider beautiful.  But there is no denying the skill, emotive eloquence, and resonant power of this book.  It openly attacks youth-worshiping culture and sentimental idealism in a way that demands the reader listen, laying down the gauntlet after having slapped the face of naïve ignorance.  It manages to be both allegorical and extremely direct, doggedly rejecting subtlety but somehow rife with commentary and implications that take multiple reads to fully process.  This is the kind of book that, given its density and tone, you will want to reward yourself for having finished, and yet that same reward may very well be another crack at the text.

One of the best things about truly skilled authors is that, when they break “the rules” of writing, they do so in ruthlessly effective fashion, making their violations serve a purpose and enhance the atmosphere of the work.  Chirbes’ version of this is his mercilessly long paragraphs.  Whole sections of pages, whole pages, and even multiple pages can be taken up by the same interconnected, unbroken thought process.  Even to an experienced reader, this can be intimidating.  But the way to make this style work to the author’s advantage is to make excellent use of language and make the block feel authentic to the speaker.  Esteban, the novel’s protagonist, is bitter and desperate and intelligent and utterly lost.  His sentences are rarely complicated but they are delivered one after the other in otherwise unbroken litanies expressing his grievances and observations.  These paragraphs possess a deceptive and clever flow that both speed the process of reading them and immediately convey to the reader that Esteban has had enough time to carefully hone his thoughts in a highly organized and extensive essay on society.

Those thoughts are rarely unclear.  A reader can turn to any page of the text and pull something biting and poignant – “If money serves any purpose at all, it at least buys innocence for your descendants”.  But the lack of ambiguity is not a hindrance in the novel.  If anything, it assists the reader’s digestion.  The point is made, and the text moves on.  But that is not to say that there is not room for interpretation.  Moreover, while the novel gives us ample amounts of Esteban’s perspective, it doesn’t seem entirely settled on the idea that he is “right”.  For example, consider the following quote: “The easiest way to attract attention is to do extravagant, stupid things.  Standing out from the crowd because of your work is a lot harder.”  On the surface, the point is simple and particularly relevant in an age where Kim Kardashian and Farrah Abraham get more attention than most genuine, supremely talented artists.  But is this quote the resulting point of view of a bitter old man who watches as wealth and culture have left him behind?  Or is it the voice of someone who has suffered greatly from a system that extends far beyond his control?  An argument can be made for both, or neither.

Special note should be given for one of the most powerful and difficult moments in the book, in which Esteban gives his elderly, disabled father a bath.  The experience is described in intimate, uncomfortable detail that would be familiar to any who have dealt with such a situation before.  This is the book’s crescendo, where the sum total of its philosophy and perspective can be found in a multi-layered event.  And while it is perhaps the most strenuous part of the book to read, it deserves the utmost care while reading.  The relationship between generations of families and of nations, the human needs for understanding and respect, and the visceral, grimy nature of the book’s perspective on the world are all addressed as part of an intense metaphor.  It many ways, it leaves the strongest and most lasting impression.

Mr. Chirbes has written many stellar novels, and this definitely deserves to be counted among them.  On The Edge presents a demanding critique of modern Western society, including culture and economics, in such a way that it avoids the common pitfalls of soapbox preaching and not trusting the reader to common to their own conclusions.  The book is not for those who do not value a challenge, but, in all honesty, why wouldn’t we?

 

On The Edge is available now through New Directions Publishing Company.

 

 

Book Review

Alien Weaving

by on August 25, 2016

alien-weaving-cover-350x450Alien Weaving, by Will Alexander

 

In the Allegory of the Cave, Plato writes about a man who has literally added an entire dimension to his thinking.  The man’s eyes are opened to the world’s depth and complexity in a way that nearly blinds him twice.  And when he tries to share his newfound knowledge with his friends, they reject him and it in favor of their comforting darkness.  I cannot help but think of the Allegory of the Cave when I read Alien Weaving, by Will Alexander.  The protagonist of the story, a woman named Kathrada, reads as if she is stepping into the glare of the sun, her skin and retinas searing but vehemently resisting destruction, as if through sheer determination she can transcend physical limitation.  She goes on a psychological and metaphysical journey that somehow encompasses the entire planet and yet never truly leaves the confines of her cacophonous mind.  The result of this transformative trial of endurance is that she becomes a prophet of perspective.

The first thing that takes hold of you as you read Alien Weaving is the language.  From the first paragraph, the complexity and the intricacy of the word choice and sentence structure are of paramount importance.  It could said that this is the case for any work of literature, regardless of quality, but the difference here is that Alexander is using every vocabulary tool the English language can provide to describe the sensations and thought processes that Kathrada experiences.  It transcends pretention through sublime specificity, and it makes no apology for its quest to find the place where language and reason meet.  In fact, the closest thing to an apology is a demand of the reader: “You must excuse the complexity of my aboriginal fulguration, of my feral-first seeing.”  And, indeed, you must, if you have any hope of traversing the text.  Make no mistake – this work is demanding, challenging, and complex.  It is not for casual reading, winding down, or clearing the mind.  Kathrada has had her mind opened to the hypercomplexity of the cosmos and its vast interconnectedness, and she has no reason to wait for those who lack curiosity.  The words pour from her like light that simply cannot be contained by her physical vessel.

But for all of her intellectual apotheosis, Kathrada is still remarkably human, and that fact keeps Alien Weaving accessible and relatable through the myriad vistas and experiences.  As so many revelations are, the concepts that she encounters and describes are alternately beautiful and horrifying.  The aloof distance in the tone (made ironic by the use of the 1st person) buffers tragedies in a fashion reminiscent of Vonnegut – “When I renounced the Christ child as phasma I was no longer spared by believers, I was plunged into thickets of anathema, and then labeled as protectress of infernos.”  The descriptive terms are vivid and poignant, but the many sentences like these are spoken of in remembrance, almost as if they had happened to someone else, a possibility that, given the transformation of the character, is philosophically justifiable.  This distance cracks more than once, however, giving the reader critical insights – “I am an exile because of this fierce resistance I carry about me.  I refuse to be a resident within the statutes of crime.”  Lines like this are delivered with sudden venom and a flavor of defensiveness as if, even post-evolution, she still feels an instinctive impulsive to guard and justify herself.  Moreover, the work’s repeated invocation of the concept of vertigo is very telling.  Kathrada is overtaken by it more than once.  As she slips in and out of the flow of time, across the wide expanses of nations, and between schools of thought, she seems to be able to sense the sheer distance she has traveled and can traveled.  She finds it nauseating as often as any other descriptor.  Whether her alchemical reshaping is, as of yet, incomplete, or she exists in some Christ-like duality of human and divine is left for the reader to decide.

Alien Weaving is an amazing text and something of a love letter to the act of writing.  When Kathrada opens the text by stating “I create.”, she means that on multiple levels.  She understands now that, as a writer dedicated to her craft and crafted by her experiences, she possesses the tools and capacity to shape reality itself.  Moreover, she understands the responsibility that comes with such power, but she does not let it burden her.  She weaves in spite of the wounds, allowing blood the mix into the tones, forsaking the pristine in favor of the real.  Mr. Alexander has presented a masterclass in the use of language and the interconnectedness of emotion, thought, and existence.  I would encourage anyone who dreams of being a writer to engage this text again and again, so that they might see what can be achieved through choice alone.

 

Alien Weaving is now available through Anonymous Energy.

Book Review

The Information Crusher

by on August 12, 2016

informationcrusherThe Information Crusher, by John Colasacco

 

Many of our stories follow a certain structure, one that feels as though it fits with causality, or rather what we wish causality meant.  But slipping out from underneath such a definition can lead to experiencing a profound freedom of perspective.  John Colasacco’s The Information Crusher is a case study in such an experience.  The text is presented not as a puzzle with pieces meant to be rearranged “correctly” by the reader, but as the fragments of a shard of four-dimensional reality, intentionally smashed and left to create patterns based on existential whim.  No judgment is forced on these patterns.  They are allowed to be the product of random chance or the careful machinations of fate; sometimes both.  The fragments have connective tissue that is readily apparent, but that tissue is not so binding as to prevent the reader from creating her or his own meaning.

If that point sounds intellectually vague, it is because The Information Crusher is so open to personal interpretation that any attempt to rigidly define it is terribly vulnerable to counterattack by contradiction.  Is this book written in prose, poetry, or prose poetry?  Are there multiple perspectives in the novel or is it a singular mind smashed into tense and time fragments like the text itself?  Is the narrator only one of the characters or the author in some grandly mutated autobiography?  Does the narrator address the reader or one of the characters, or does the act of reading the text make require the reader to become a character in Colasacco’s story?  The real power of this book lies in, rather effortlessly, making the reader ask all of these questions while retaining both interest and intrigue.  The whole of The Information Crusher explores the fluidity of identity, be it with respect to sexuality, gender, childhood, parenthood, siblinghood, friendship, cosmology, or biology, and it consistently remarks on the inadequacy of outdated definitions – “In the middle of the night you were amazed your mother’s clothes would go onto you just as easily as your own”.  There is a story in the text, one of jealousy and consequence and need for acceptance, but discovering that story is akin to seeing the pieces of a former vase present in a mosaic.

There is a moment in the mosaic in which one of the primary characters falls off of a bridge that, for reasons made apparent through the novel, has a very direct metaphorical resonance.  It is not entirely clear whether or not the fall happens before or after the events that make the fall poignant, but that is part of the point.  The character injures his arm and says “But I wouldn’t admit to myself it was broken.  I could see and hear that it was broken, but I refused to accept it.  It felt like air blowing into a part of my armpit it had never touched before, nothing worse than that”.  In the interest of creating subjective meaning from a novel that embodies subjective perspective, I see that quote as a critical theme running through the text.  The character, a proxy for us, cannot accept that his body, his reality, his sense of self is broken.  He has been presented with the sharpness of circumstance, that existence is not the neatly structured arrangement he took for granted, and he refuses to accept it – until, of course, he later passes out from the pain and injury that he refuses to acknowledge.  This whole novel can be seen as a struggling and, at times, very brutal effort to escape from underneath a dominant ideology, as well as the violent, ignorant, and instinctive resistance against such movement.

This book deserves multiple reads from each of its readers, and readers of this book deserve to give themselves multiple angles from which it experience it.  Like a puzzle with disfigured pieces or an unfastened mosaic, The Information Crusher paints a new picture with each pass, many of which I doubt even Colasacco intended.  It is one of the most thoroughly engaging novels I have ever read, not because of immersion or agreeable tone, but because it has the frankness and trust in the intelligence of its readers required to make demands of them.  It challenges you, in what language it chooses to include and leave out, in how it presents itself as a beautifully and intentionally unfinished idea, and in what river bank it deposits you on at the end.

 

The Information Crusher is available now through Spuyten Duyvil.

Book Review

Baho!

by on August 9, 2016

9525a5_ab5c974884a648cb865219e102fe9de2Baho! by Roland Rugero

 

There is something enchanting about the dichotomy of simultaneous simplicity and complexity.  The intertwining of the two, I believe, creates some of the best writing ever made.  In a time when Hollywood and many publishing houses are on the perpetual search for the next apocalyptic franchise, the beauty of a focused, microcosmal narrative is too often overlooked and undervalued.  There is no shortage of such narrative or such beauty in Roland Rugero’s Baho!, a novel that, despite (or perhaps because of) its brevity, provides an enthralling and profound slice of life.

Baho! ends almost as quickly as it begins.  The novel is not even a full one-hundred pages and yet it tells a story that weaves across and around generations from Kanya, a village in Burundi.  Time is an ever malleable concept in the novel, with the story’s plot and narrative structure delivered out of chronological order.  The narrative jumps between perspectives and between present, past, and future tenses.  In the vein of proper poetry, words are never wasted on the page.  The word choice is never pretentious and the sentence structure is never boring, leading to that rarest of combinations – quick pacing and rich language worth unpacking.  All of these effects flow together to leave the reader feeling as if no time has passed at all, whether measuring the minutes spent reading or following the lives of the characters.  This is beautifully exemplified by the novel’s use of the Kirundi word “ejo”, which can be translated into English as either “yesterday” or “tomorrow”.  There is very little difference between the two in Baho!, lending the story a cyclical nature that is pregnant with commentary on human nature.

And if Baho! has a great deal to say about time and the repetition of events, then it has a veritable oration waiting for patriarchy.  All of the horrific events mentioned in the novel, ranging from war and murder to rape and domestic abuse, are laid at the feet of a deeply sexist system.  Feminine sexual “purity” is regarded as a matter of life, death, and eternal salvation for the village of Kanya.  When a suspected rapist is caught, the group of judges that have taken justice into their own hands cry out “Let’s go, men!  We must defend ourselves!”, as if masculine honor and pride are of higher priority than personage of the potential victim.  The female characters, especially the poignantly unnamed, one-eyed woman, provide ironic and unintentional commentary on the mixing of alcohol and perceived emasculation.  Sexist ideology is so ingrained that the one-eyed woman, herself an otherwise strong-willed character, recites a story for children that can only be seen as romantic through male-dominated lenses that treat women as wares.

Rugero’s skill is doubly apparent in moments such as this because the reader is never instructed on how to think about the issue – he merely presents a sequence of events and allows them to speak for themselves.  All of the social commentary present in Baho! is expressed in this way.  The scars of war, the twisting of morality to justify fear and vengeance, and the very human need for scapegoats are all addressed as part of an interconnected landscape, not pleading to be the center of attention but also impossible to ignore.  This, in turn, plays perfectly alongside Rugero’s use of form and structure.  Just as is the case with his use of time, Rugero’s style alternates between all available to him, from Western hero’s journey to African oral tradition.  The novel tries on different presentations like a person tries on clothes, sampling the comedic, the absurd, the tragic, and even a pinch of deus ex machina which, rather than detract from the story, provides its own commentary on the nature of family and obligation.

I imagine that the comparisons this novel will draw are going to be multitudinous, but I am reminded most pleasantly of both Chinua Achebe and William Faulkner as I read it.  Baho! is a story of pride and masculinity run amok, of the aftermath of war and what it means to have definitions forced upon you by society.  It is a beautiful breath of perspective from the type of voice that we in “Western society” so rarely hear (oftentimes because we willfully ignore such voices).  And as the translator, Christopher Schaefer, so aptly points out, Baho! does not spend its time on the wider conflict between the Hutus and the Tutsis.  Rugero seems to understand that many of his potential readers have, rather shamefully, become desensitized to large-scale statistical depictions of the violence in the region.  So he has narrowed our focus down to a few people, a single village at the widest, and made us see the people as people, rather than numbers in a news report.  I highly recommend this novel, for the strength of its story, for the depth of its characters and commentary, and for the fact that you probably have read nothing it like it before.

 

Baho! is available now through Phoneme Media.

Book Review

Neon Green

by on July 28, 2016

51riiFrjYQL._SX321_BO1,204,203,200_Neon Green by Margaret Wappler

 

Most any reader can come up with a circumstance in which descriptions cannot do a novel justice.  When I was asked to review Margaret Wappler’s Neon Green, I was told it had aliens and environmentalists and cancer, and I took the book with one eyebrow raised.  Now, in all fairness, this book possesses all three of those things in ample supply.  But I have not regretted taking the book for an instant.  Neon Green is not science-fiction adventure, or science-fiction horror, or a morality tale on the treatment of the planet.  At its heart, the novel is a questioning of beliefs, of self-importance, and of our multitudinous blind spots.

The strength of this novel lies in its use of little absurdities to camouflage the poignant realism at its heart.  The presence and occasional perspective of the aliens are jarring interruptions to the mundane lives of the Allen family.  The agreement between the federal government and the aliens to allow visitation through sweepstakes is as ridiculous as it is random.  The suddenness of Cynthia’s cancer and its lack of concrete explanation seem to be products of an author trying to create conflict for her characters.  And yet none of these are true.  Despite their self-absorption, the Allen family is forced to come to terms with the notion that they are part of a larger universe, and a universe that is not going to behave in patterns that they would find acceptable.  Wappler sets the stage for some grand conspiracy reminiscent of that in “To Serve Man” by Damon Knight, but there is no forced payoff or glaringly obvious “aha!” moment.  Everything may happen for a reason, but that reason is beholden to no one’s ability to understand it.

The commentary provided in this denied resolution is brilliant and powerful.  It takes the Allens, especially Ernest, a long time to arrive at their understanding.  Aliens have been visiting for some time and yet Ernest’s primary focus is about his involvement in the local Earth Day celebration.  After Cynthia’s diagnosis, he becomes convinced that he is on the trail of, at best, a gross oversight, and, at worst, a terrible machination.  Through his example, the reader is driven to think beyond their figurative and literal spheres of influence, to question their sense of self importance.  Ernest’s quest to root out pretenders to the environmental cause and Gabe’s obsession with posers and quality musical tastes are biting critiques of what it means to be a “believer”, or an activist, or to have passions about a particular topic.  They force readers to ask themselves where true dedication ends and using a cause for status begins.

In order to accomplish something like this while avoiding heavy-handedness or soap-box preaching, an author has to carefully weave the messages into the story in such a way that the reader only realizes what they have seen well after actually reading it.  Wappler achieves this through fantastic control of language, scene, and pacing.  The book opens with description that is extremely vivid and pregnant with commentary, but delivered in a tone that suggests sterile observation and a heightened sense of being watched.  Then, without visible effort, it flows into an over-the-shoulder view of Ernest and his thought process, which describes the most mundane details with a nervous passion that are immediately telling about his character.  This flow happens with stellar ease throughout the book, and it allows Wappler to introduce things, like alien visitation sweepstakes, in a way that causes the reader to do a satisfying double take.  At the same time, Wappler breaks from several writing conventions to drive home the nature of the universe that she is describing.  White space breaks happen right in the middle of scenes, with no indication of time or perspective change, emphasizing the futility of trying to contain events into narrative cause and effect.  Ernest, the “hero” and protagonist, is continually denied an enemy that he can fight, or even an enemy that can regard him, and his attempts to create one only do him harm.

It is no easy feat to write something that is both simple in its delivery and yet vividly complex in its meaning, but Wappler has pulled it off.  And in that very act, there is yet more commentary.  The novel itself is an exercise in looking at the universe not from the perspective of a protagonist from some grand, carefully plotted story, but from the point of view of one piece of a larger cosmos.  It suggests that readers should take a moment, fight the instinct to take the familiar for granted, and appreciate the scale and depth of what lies around them.  And while the novel fully acknowledges the fear and strain of such a change in understanding, it also delivers a taste of the awe and majesty on the other side.

 

Neon Green is available now through Unnamed Press.

Book Review

Mighty Mighty

by on July 19, 2016

61F0kS8DGCLMighty Mighty, by Wally Rudolph

 

It is easy to point out that the stories we tell each other are, at least in part, signs of the times in which we live.  Our fears and dreams play out in fictions that we tell ourselves are not real but which rely on plausibility and relatability to drive their observations home.  But less common, and I think more poignant, are those stories that do not pass judgment on the scenarios they present.  Mighty Mighty is such a story.

Within the pages of Mighty Mighty, questions about class, race, justice, parenthood, siblinghood, friendship, sexuality, escapism, faith, honor, responsibility, and fate appear constantly and without reservation.  The text shows no fear or reluctance in showing the foul sides of its characters and of its setting.  The story presents itself in effective language that is meant to put the gravity of the circumstances in the most direct terms.  And amidst this stoic delivery,  achieves its most impressive feat: it never insists upon itself.  It is unfortunately common for stories like this to become preachy, existing as little more than soapboxes for their authors.  Mr. Rudolph lets his story tell itself, never asking us to cheer or deride his protagonists, never telling us how we should feel as events unfold.  The reader is presented with people that feel very real in their virtues and their flaws and then left to come to their own subjective conclusions.

Of all the stories I have reviewed, I find Mighty Mighty the most difficult to discuss without revealing too much information.  I specifically chose not to sample the most quote-worthy material for this review precisely because the language is used so efficiently that any quotes could be major spoilers.  This is an ensemble work, with a cast of characters that would easily be at home on The Wire or in a Dashiell Hammett novel, and they truly are the strength of the novel.  The manner in which their stories repeatedly interweave and jettison away from one another is completely engaging and keeps a pace that, when combined with the use of language, allows the reader to devour the story.  Any reader with a modicum of experience knows that the tales of the various characters presented are going to intersect on some level and at some point.  But the delivery of information, the sequencing of events, and how Mr. Rudolph subtly plays with time are handled so well that neither the ending nor the critical points along the way are revealed before their time.  People often complain about the lack of unique stories available to them, and to them I would hold up Mighty Mighty as a stellar example of how a story can be familiar and refreshing; of how a story you think you have heard before can be told in a thoroughly effective and engaging way.

I dare to say that most of us are at a crossroads with the social issues that Mighty Mighty presents: the supposed virtue or vice of the police, the moral standing of those who some call addicts and others call junkies, crime and culpability, etc.  This novel provides something all too precious at such crossroads: conjecture and discussion without the screaming and the shouting.  It is a thoughtful and evocative questioning of assumptions and beliefs that are overdue for such attention.  And that questioning is anything but rhetorical.

 

Mighty Mighty is available now through Soft Skull Press.

Book Review

Atta

by on July 17, 2016

attaAtta by Jarett Kobek

 

In the United States of America, it would seem that polarization is the order of the day. Beliefs that make it onto the Internet through social media are thoroughly scrutinized and judged against subjective standards of morality and political correctness. There is a growing and aggressive sense of an “if you are not with us, you are against us” attitude. So I found myself quite amazed after reading Atta, by Jarett Kobek. There are plenty of reasons to enjoy and laud this book – the strength of the language, the character development, and the atmospheric inversion, to name a few – but my mind keeps returning to a key part of this novel’s identity. It is an attempt to understand the perspective of “The Other”.

 

The title Atta is a reference to the protagonist of this story, Mohammed Mohammed el-Amir Awad el-Sayed Atta, an Egyptian man whose most famous exploit was being one of the men who hijacked American Airlines Flight 11 and steered it into the North Tower of the World Trade Center in 2001. This was a man that Americans have been taught to hate, and yet Mr. Kobek has taken a step that so few of us are willing to do – he tries to imagine what it must and may have been like to be Mohammed Atta. And the reader is, quite frankly, not given much choice in the matter. There is no indication of the protagonist’s identity at the start of the novel (unless one is familiar with Atta’s personal history), and the reader is immediately confronted with a first person perspective. That perspective returns routinely, forcing the reader to communicate directly with Atta, to hear his thoughts, and to witness the man’s hopes, dreams, and fears. Atta even directly addresses the reader, adding an immersive sense of disquiet as the tendrils of complicity crawl off the page. “Knowledge of life beyond your neighborhood and family haunts your soul, but you submit anew to the torments of youth.” If you are willing to read this book, you are forced to confront the notion of Mohammed Atta as a real person, rather reduce him to an inhuman idea.

 

This attempt to understand Atta, while vastly important, would likely fall flat on its face with improper delivery. And yet Mr. Kobek handles the endeavor with exquisite care. The precision of the language is impeccable. Descriptions are delivered in tight and efficient terms (“The alarm rings. No dreams.”) while the character’s inner monologue and personal reflections flow tangible life (“From perverse meditations within dark reaches of poverty, Disney imagines the world anew, an oubliette of under occupation by animals in imitation of human society”). It paints the portrait of an individual who swings pendulously between sensory blindness and vivid eloquence, and yet both feel entirely consistent given the convictions cemented into the character. Atta’s whole character arc is shaped (or perhaps plagued, depending on your point of view) by these convictions and the reader watches and listens as he embraces and struggles with them in equal measure. He wavers, as anyone would, even if that wavering only appears in some momentary mental flash. He completes his mission in a dark mirror of the traditional hero’s journey, sacrificing himself for what he believes to be a greater purpose. This familiar structure and intimate exploration of character then combine with a thorough attention to detail that reinforces the closeness of the reader’s perspective. You are left standing as witness to and part of a meeting of men who will commit an unbelievably heinous act of terrorism.

 

The real strength of Atta lies in its consistency in the face of its own audacity. Much of the book is fictional, and yet none of it feels implausible. Its protagonist is terrifying, and made moreso by his very Human convictions and motivations. Atta does not balk when confronted with the scope of what it is trying to do. And I do not think we as readers and potential readers should either. I suspect that this book has had or will have accusations of cultural appropriation levied against it, but I think such claims are missing the point. This is an attempt to understand and to see someone with whom we might disagree with wholeheartedly as a person with agency and culpability. That reason alone makes Atta worth the read, and the quality of the writing will keep you from regretting it.

 

Atta is available through Semiotext

Book Review

Gaijin

by on June 30, 2016

gaijin-cover_Gaijin, by Jordan Okumura

 

There is no one way to process grief. We’ve all heard of Kubler-Ross’ five stages, but the process is as personal and unique as the people dealing with it. There is, I think, a strong temptation in many of us to look away when another experiences trauma, be it out of fear or guilt. But in Jordan Okumura’s Gaijin, we have an opportunity to witness something as beautiful as it is painful and transformative as it is deconstructive. The book is an exploration of the intimacy of grief and a documentation of one particular battle with it. Like its protagonist, the book continually undertakes an identity crisis. There are repeated attempts at following a traditional story structure, all of which wade back into a river of sensory and emotional information. This is not a flaw. Rather, it is a profound envelopment in a very human thought process, a process in the midst of resolving trauma. The language and tone alternate between overflowing consciousness and sudden focus, dancing as an intelligent, stimulated mind is want to do. Despite its inherent whimsy, the flow of the text is never stuttering or devoid of gravitas. As a reader, you can focus on fragmented concepts or grand revelations and neither will leave you wanting.

 

Fathers. Reaped from the ash of untended graves. I sit close to the edge of the uneven grass. With the wind spitting such heavy gusts, I cannot open my eyes to see that this grass has grown over all of the names.

 

The intensity of the revelations is matched by the scale of the reflections. Gaijin is caught between endless pairings – childhood and “maturity”, “male” and “female”, light and dark, realism and surrealism – and it makes no apologies. Of course, it is easy to avoid needing apologies when the language is of such quality that the author has ensnared the reader regardless.

 

They wanted to tear away at our beginnings, the way the sky tears apart cloud cover over the ocean. The need to dissipate more than reveal, to make room for memory.

 

This process of experience is not delivered to the reader in what one might consider to be “real” time. Jumps are made at random (again, as the mind is inclined to do), and this has two major effects: first, it shows that Okumura trusts her readers to comprehend a non-traditional narrative and to bear witness to the events as described, and second, it allows Okumura to show that neither the grief nor the trauma exist in isolation. Systems of oppression, be they sexist, racist, or classist, constantly make their presences felt, interfering with emotional grounding and trying to enforce alien perspective on a protagonist born of multiple worlds. There is a latent acceptance of the idea that the world turns regardless of your need to take a breath. Interestingly, Gaijin doesn’t use this notion to cynically suggest that such a breath is unimportant. Rather, there is a hint that the difficulty of the breath makes it all the more valuable.

I am reminded of caterpillars as I reflect on Okumura’s work. There is a constant sensation of layers in the words, some solid and some transparent, simultaneously oppressive and peeling. The protagonist is burrowing her way out, through walls that the world has wrapped around her, and through some walls she has helped construct. But of critical importance here is the avoidance of another cliché, in the idea that the emerging lifeform is the goal, some beautiful endpoint that needs to be arrived at or else the process was a waste of time. The caterpillar was and is beautiful. The transformative process of the grief was and is beautiful, every bit as much as whatever awaits on the other side. To render something terrible into something beautiful through language, without sacrificing any of the subject’s gravitas, is, I think, a goal every writer should strive to achieve. I believe Jordan has achieved that in Gaijin. And whether or not you have yet to discover tragedy, reading this will help you to understand the uniqueness of the experience and our relationships to it.

 

Gaijin by Jordan Okumura is now available through ccm

Book Review

Love, or The Witches of Windward Circle

by on April 15, 2016

witchesLove, or The Witches of Windward Circle by Carlos Allende

It is difficult to fault someone for seeing the world as an absurd, capricious place. Many of us are brought up under or around strict systems of moral and metaphysical guidance, be they organized religions or any other form of spiritual belief. And yet so many of the rules and concepts involving ethical balance are flawed or incomplete. Many of us are taught the wonders and virtues of science, only to come to realize that each question answered raises several more, like some eternal hydra. Laws are absolute, except for the moments when they aren’t. Answers and sense, ultimately, seem only temporary.

Love, or The Witches of Wayward Circle, by Carlos Allende, is, to me, a ridiculous and amazing response to the questions of fate and balance in the world. At its most basic, the story revolves around two protagonists relentlessly and desperately pursuing love and confronting the obstacles that arise as their individual stories intertwine. But the complex dualities in this book are too numerous to count: upper and lower social and economic classes, faith and skepticism, creativity and hedonism, heterosexual and homosexual, white and brown; the list goes on and on, to the point that the amount of politically charged and emotionally divisive topics touched upon by this work is stunning, brilliant, and unwieldy. This is a story about addiction, about romance, about bias and bigotry, about hypocrisy, about love, and about justice. But Love also accomplishes that most difficult of tasks when tackling these issues: it always refrains from devolving into preachy diatribe.

This book is not a criticism, but an observation. It neither condones nor condemns the lives, thoughts, and actions of its multitudinous cast. The book’s point is not to create a new existential explanation or set of morals for the reader. Rather, it looks on with an amused astonishment as proposed answers fail again and again. The key to all of this is the story’s combination of the supernatural and the utterly mundane. Whether witnessing a truly Satanic festival or listening to the inner monologue of the vapid, the reader is confronted with complete and total ridiculousness. Almost none of the characters presented are, in their individual totals, likeable. Some are far more sympathetic than others, but time and time again they are driven by wanton selfishness and absurdly distorted self-importance. The story is rife with grotesqueries, from the tonguing of demonic anuses to the relentless, oblivious self-entitlement of shallow people. Magic and curses and angels and God and Satan are all present, but their effects and appearances are whimsical and replete with unintended consequences. Traditional love narratives arise over and over, only to be mercilessly beaten into plotlines that cannot decide whether to tease or climax, then forget to care. It all congeals into a consistently amusing and engaging romp where everything makes a maddening, smirking sense.

About the only thing that provides balance to the story is the fact that, with so many characters trying to manipulate fate into manifesting their dreams, a strange, disappointed equilibrium is inevitable. I can think of only one character who most would agree “deserves” a happy ending after her part in the story, and even she does not truly get it. The world portrayed in Love achieves a wide-perspective and deceptive harmony, thanks to the countless little imbalances on either side of the scale. It is perhaps best summed up later in the book, when one of the pullers of strings says “Karma is the consolation of the coward. To expect that someone will be punished by fate is ludicrous. I believe in human justice. I believe it is the human instinct to reward kindness and to punish evil. It is a trait that has helped man to survive as a species. Don’t get caught, I say. If you do, lie. And if you get caught in your lies, play dumb. It works! Now, will you send me a check, my friend?” Even here, a nugget of potential wisdom is tarnished by an unpaid bill.

I highly recommend this book. It is funny, it is fun, and it will have you smiling with every clever trope twist and defied expectation. You will find yourself fascinated about the fates of some truly deplorable people. Most of all, you will have never been more satisfied to be left without answers.

 

Love, or The Witches of Windward Circle is available now from Rarebird Books

Book Review

The Sky Isn’t Blue

by on March 15, 2016

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The Sky Isn’t Blue, by Janice Lee

 

Bear with me for a moment.

Have you ever been in group therapy? Group therapy has a stigma, partially deserved and largely undeserved, for being this boring, sad assemblage of people half-whispering self-help mantras or trying to find their collective “happy places”. But do you know what the real purpose of group therapy is? Empathy. In moments of depression and confusion, it is almost impossible not to feel an intense abandonment and persecution, as if the insanity of the world has turned its whimsical focus on you and you alone. Group therapy is meant to reveal to the individual seeking help that they are much more than just an individual; to lift the veil blocking out light and sound and connection with other people, many of whom are experiencing eerily similar pain and perceived isolation.

 

Why do I bring this up? Because Janice Lee’s The Sky Isn’t Blue is a beautiful exercise in empathy born of shared experience. Typically authors are discouraged from being brave with their work, especially now when most of us are expected to churn out models from and for the assembly line. But this book tries to be so many things at once that it is a miracle it isn’t crushed under the weight of its ambition or the sheer number of concepts it brings to the table. Here are just a few:

 

This book is confessional. The language alternates between hesitant and reserved and vomitous and unfiltered. It speaks with the voice of one who has a great deal of difficulty divulging the personal information at hand, and with the voice of one who holds her hand over flame anyway, expelling the admissions out some deep seeded need. “Tide Pools & Rain”, for example, is, to me, a beautiful treatise of guilt and the acceptance of emotional vulnerability.

 

This book is metaphysical. Is the book made of essays? Poems? Short stories? Yes to all, and no to all. The speaker(s) sits in a perpetual stillness between violently contrasting dichotomies: pain and pleasure; hope and memory; elation and grief; suffocation and isolation; empirical observation and sublime hallucination. And yet neither the stillness nor the boundaries between the dichotomies are impermeable, to the speaker’s wonder and terror. “Mornings in Bed” encapsulates this succinctly, taking one of the simplest throwaway moments of your day and using it to highlight the madness of opposing forces.

 

This book is explanatory. The text is inevitably drawn back to a state of defending poetry, defending poets, and defending expression. The work needs you to understand what it means to write, to write poetry, what poetry is, and what an author is. Or, perhaps, the work is going to do everything it can with the English language to try and explain it to you. And the way the work goes about this is not using textbook definitions or even elaborate rules; the book does its absolute damndest to induce sensory experiences. You can be told fire is hot, but it does not prepare you for touching flame. “The Salton Sea” is as much argumentative as it is a compilation of memory, switching back and forth between poignant citations and symbolic recollection.

 

I would hope that any potential reader could see the empathetic value in such a work. Lee is expressing a great deal of what it is to live as a writer, and not the cliché stereotypes of the mopey half-bum or the misunderstood genius. She explores what it can be like for someone whose mind has intimately experienced the existential crises that can arise from confronting the nature of the world around you. She explores the frustration and maniacal joy of trying to express transcendence with mortal language. But critically, she seems to never ask for sympathy. This is not a social media post begging for attention or meaningless platitudes. It is an intimate look into a mind “touched” by some Hegelian sense of spirit and possessed by a need to make a proper record of what it sees.

 

If it isn’t clear by now, I highly recommend this book. It is easy to read and yet wonderfully complex, giving you ample reason to pick it up again and again.

 

The Sky Isn’t Blue is available now through Civil Coping Mechanisms.

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