Browsing Articles Written by

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

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

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“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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