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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. 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

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.

Book Review

Crepuscule w/ Nellie

by on February 20, 2016

nellie-paddedCrepuscule w/ Nellie, by Joe Milazzo

 

Have you ever approached a task that you were unsure you could complete? Not because of time, but because of tools? When I was presented with Crepuscule w/ Nellie and read the first page, I immediately questioned the undertaking ahead of me. This book is both novel and poetry, and to the latter, I say that without the romantic connotation the phrase has developed in recent times. This book is poetry in the sense that every word has been meticulously chosen and arranged into painstakingly constructed sentences and paragraphs, and, as a result, reading the text is exclusively the province of the bold. You will, if you hope to make sense of what is in front of you, spend as many (if not more) hours unpacking significance and formulating your own interpretations as you did reading.

I point this out not to frighten (it should be noted that, if you are reading this, then unconventional reading probably doesn’t scare you anyway), but to entice. This work is a challenge worthy of any who prides themselves on reading, both demanding and rewarding in its experience. There is no apology for the style, nor toward those who would be intimidated. I can only describe that style in terms that make sense to me, because my cultural history is not yours and this book defies simple confinement – to me, this is Ulysses reborn, mutated by the whims of impressionist and experimental jazz and exposed under the harsh sun of the American south. I bring up Ulysses because the comparison works on levels beyond the most obvious, that of jumping between wildly different literary formats. Like Joyce’s legendary work, this is an epic that deals with gritty details of multiple, difficult lives. And yet, like the Odyssey that inspired Joyce’s tale, it deals with characters who are mythical and mortal.

Milazzo is acutely aware of the misconceptions and half-truths surrounding the life of Thelonious Monk, a man seen as an unappreciated genius savant by his celebrants and a drug-addicted adulterer by his detractors, and yet Milazzo makes no attempt to convey a sense of realism, or even of stable reality. Instead of historical fiction, he attempts to encapsulate the experience that is Monk’s existence, and, as is the case with a piece of music, or indeed any art, the value is deeply dependent on the reader. Much of the “story” is relayed through the imagined perspective of Monk’s wife, Nellie, and this is the closest thing resembling an anchor that the novel presents. Like we the reader, Nellie acts and reacts with the idea of Monk, at times caught up in the idea and at times acutely aware of the man.

At a time when our highest grossing movies are neatly trimmed escapist fantasies involving superhumans and when much of the American populace seeks another celebrity athlete upon which to pin their idolatry, I find this book particularly resonant. It is an examination of brilliance and humanity, an acknowledgement of the coexistence of what we label as flaws and beauty. Odysseus was an adulterer and a killer. Leopold Bloom was a meek cuckold. This rendition of Thelonious Monk is just a man, with all of the greatness that entails.

 

Crepuscule w/ Nellie is available now from Jaded Ibis Press

 

Joe Milazzo

Book Review

Digby’s Hollywood Story

by on January 17, 2016

Digsby

“Digby’s Hollywood Story”, by Thomas Fuchs

            In an age of literature written for television and movies, an age of sequels and reboots, and an age of selfies, one wonders at the cultural relevance of storytelling through the written word. No, I don’t think visual mediums will replace literature in the way that video cassettes, DVDs, and the Internet were supposed to ruin the cinematic experience. But after reading Thomas Fuchs’ “Digby’s Hollywood Story”, I can’t help but consider the significance of story itself.

This novella is a tease, the kind of tease that excites and frustrates, but which leaves you with a generous taste of profundity. The elements are all present for rich, melodramatic noir: a down to earth fella with a badge and a nose for trouble; mysterious dames that radiate seductive power and vulnerability; big money and big cover-ups; a sudden, suspicious event with dire potential consequences for our hero. But embedded in it all is a commentary so meta that it leaves your expectations in a chalk outline.

Fuchs has made a grandiose point about the stories we tell ourselves in a wonderfully subtle and ironic way. He handles his noir with care, knowing you’ve read The Maltese Falcon or The Killer Inside Me, luring you back into the genre with the light and shadowy hand of slow-burn tension. Then his twist emerges, and it is one that should have been painfully obvious, but its cleverness lies in the fact that the reader blinds himself or herself to the truth of the matter. The story knows you want to be deceived, that you want to be Digby, at the center of some grand illusion where only you can save the day and get the girl and mete out justice.

This novella is very much worth the read, whether you are a casual reader or someone with a personal library. The writing is, like Digby himself, straight-forward and direct. It delivers its atmosphere and tone with a minimum of fuss and it avoids the excesses that can plague so much of crime noir. Despite the short length, the story manages to take its time and develop its protagonist in a very compelling way, and it achieves this through not wasting time in anything that is not needed to move forward. Moreover, the commentary provides a layer of depth that is valuable to anyone with the creative impulse, especially where storytelling is concerned.

But, and consider this your fair warning, be prepared to consider this story’s implications for the culture we live in today. By the end of the read, you may very well be left wondering if you have been wasting time trying to get your life to fit a cliché narrative.

Digby’s Hollywood Story is now available through Roundfire Books

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