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Book Review

Book Review

John Travolta Considers His Odds

by on July 26, 2016

img_9330-e1469550929673John Travolta Considers His Odds by Emily Hunt


Emily Hunt is a poet based in Los Angeles, and like many before her, has set her sights upon it–and its milieu–in her debut chapbook titled, John Travolta Considers His Odds. Hunt has put together a thoughtful collection that is often blackly humorous, satirical, naive, and sometimes all at once. There are pieces here that meditate upon the superficial beauty of the city–and its celebrities–to reveal places of sadness, insecurity, and despair. John Travolta Considers His Odds is a great and necessary indictment on the surface level beauty of celebrity, that ultimately asks us in the titular piece, have we refused to let our celebrities live?

The titular poem, “John Travolta Considers His Odds,” deconstructs–in a blackly humorous way–the vanity of the Hollywood actor, and in this case, John Travolta. The poem depicts Travolta in a state of unease and extreme vulnerability; gazing at his forehead that “blinds him in the mirror,” hairpieces that melt to mold his head, and wondering whether he will be buried in his famous Saturday Night Fever or Grease costumes. Hunt uses blunt and straightforward language, tinged with some subtle irony and humor, to relay the sadness and despondency that Travolta is feeling. At the end of the piece the mirror is turned on the reader, on the media, and on the culture of celebrity and declares that “we refused to let [Travolta] live.” The piece is an excellent reminder of the malignant influence of celebrity culture and mass media in Los Angeles.

“The Year The Cheerleaders Were Pretty” is not explicitly about Los Angeles, but implicitly feels like another indictment on idealized beauty, with a careful eye focused on the kind of beauty magnified in a place like Los Angeles. The piece is imbued with a certain gleeful optimism that is crushed fairly quickly: “it was the year before everyone started dying.” The poem paints an idealistic and almost naive sense of beauty. In this way it reminded me of a cheerleader squad that would be featured in a Todd Solondz (Welcome to the Dollhouse, Happiness) movie. Beauty that is so disproportionate and exaggerated that it becomes satire. In “The Year The Cheerleaders Were Pretty,” everything seems to be throbbing with idealized beauty. The cheerleaders’ hair is described as smelling like caramel ice cream, and the girls are “seventeen” and “attentive and perfect.” On the surface the piece seems to be refreshingly void of cynicism but there is a dark underbelly to the piece that transforms it into a vaguely unsettling and darkly comical read. Mixed in with the images of beauty are threatening scenes of the earth drying up, people dying, and of a dairy burning down. There is an almost apocalyptic undercurrent to the poem that works nicely to give off the faint scent of misanthropy.

“Good Enough” reflects back upon the naivete of school girls and school boys and the  pre-adolescent search for the “perfect lover.” The piece reads like a kind of alt-lit Men are from Mars / Women are from Venus in its cataloging of what boys look for in a girl and vice versa. The piece is ultimately a jarring indictment on the naivete of pre-pubescent love, and the male / female relationship dichotomy. “Good Enough” laments that boys “…didn’t lie in the dark staring into the vague shadows on the / ceiling, the shapes / of nighttime flickering, bending, twisting overhead / and wonder if that one was the one, perfect one. Or did they?” What we are left with is a feeling that one can only understand when coming to the adolescent realization that the “perfect lover” might not exist. The piece ends up cynically reclining to the idea of finding a lover as a search for someone that isn’t “perfect” but “good enough.”

The shortest piece in the chapbook, “Light,” perfectly crystallizes the overarching sentiments of the collection. It paints an image of a blond girl named Bailey that “barfs up glitter.” The piece seems to illustrate a cynical and ironic view of blond beauty. Unlike the cheerleaders in “The Year The Cheerleaders Were Pretty,” Bailey seems to radiate with a different kind of beauty, a “depressing luminescence.” This was another piece that brought me back to the work of filmmaker Todd Solondz in it’s introversion of what it means to be blond and sharp use of black humor to critique and deconstruct prototypical beauty.

Hunt’s debut chapbook works well to deconstruct and satirize the very Hollywood notion of perfect lovers, perfect movie stars, perfect cheerleaders, and perfect blonds. She has succeeded in giving us a disturbed portrait of modern life, with a sympathetic eye, and devilish wit.


John Travolta Considers His Odds is available now from Whitehorse and Slaughter.


Book Review

Zero to Three

by on July 21, 2016

21922683Zero to Three by F. Douglas Brown


Zero to Three makes parenting, life, and death relevant to the reader’s life through words that bring the feeling of a moment in time in one’s life in which exists through the dichotomy of one word: fleeting. The words on the page leave a lasting impression, all the while touching upon parts of our lives that we remember as “passing us by so fast.” This book of poems begs us to ask questions such as at what moment are we alive, at what moment do we accept death, and how do we deal with bringing a child into a world where it is in our human fact to falter, to inflict emotional pain on others. This poetry invites us to relish in the beautiful and the ugly, because both foster growth. The words on the page go from “Zero to Three,” that is to say, they journey us through those formative years of life not often spoken of—and in brevity, they bleed on the page up until the “life” beyond ones own grave. They delight in new beginnings and try to capture the emotional enigma of endings, and sometimes vice versa.

In the opening poem “Zero,” the reader learns that a new life is soon to begin, but the speaker of the poem expresses the anxiety—the arithmetic process of coming to terms with the presence of Zero, the moment when life begins. “So soon, another body, her body will thump / My palm rolling/across her bare belly / after nine months, skin at its full potential.” While we often think of the number Zero as representing nothing, Zero is less than any whole number. Here we learn that we are wrong. Zero is everything—it is the instance of running to answer the phone, to know that your whole life is about to change in what feels like Zero seconds. In a space of nothingness, “all variables equals baby.” As the collection continues, it does not yearn to give us answers but rather is constantly nudging at us to remember about all of the mystery in the various stages of life, and touches upon the experience of learning from a new baby life. Similarly, like the son or the daughter in the poems of this collection we learn that we too are children, to our own experiences. In the book of poems, the child is who reminds the speaker of being inherently flawed, beautiful, and most importantly—human. Just as the reader learns every time the page is turned and the experience is felt.

In part II of this collection, a poem named “Finding Glee” focuses on how one can experience a kind of growth that goes beyond the physical growth of the body. Simultaneously, it speaks on the fleeting moment of realization that one has when thinking about our belonging in a world full of unpredictable chaos. Being young is not easy, and being grown up does not strip away the difficulties either. The author writes: “Finding glee in a world / That quickly turns cold in civil dispute / Seems nearly impossible…  By the time we get to “Finding Glee” we find ourselves once again, with the speaker of the poem, trying to find the beauty in the ugly. Other poems in this collection use different ways to rapture such moments. “Body Stubborn” includes lines from a song by hip hop trio A Tribe Called Quest, “Can I Kick It,” and is successful at not only celebrating pop culture, but using it in juxtaposition to show maturation in a fundamental period of human life through this bop style poem. Brown’s poems draw inspiration from other writers and styles in ways that we are reminded, in the same sense that T.S. Eliot once coined about the “past-ness of the past and the present.” Brown is paving the way equally elevating writers and musicians of the past and the speaker’s own life in the present moment in which we are reading about it. At the turn of every page, there is a spectrum of new ideas that are presented and we realize that word placement becomes extremely vital in this book of poems. It guides us, like a parent to their child—telling us when it is best to slow down or speed up, when to begin or end. On the surface, this feeling the reader experiences through language play seems a bit paradoxical to the questions that his poetry seeks to leave at mystery to the reader, but without resistance it reinforces a learning experience that is bigger than ourselves and the control we have on our own lives.

The final section of Zero to Three consists of all prose poems numbered 1-13. They are poems that deal with loss but consistently elevate our humanness and the circle of life. Probing the mind again, making way for questions that the reader is left to relish in, for themselves. Often times we are told that finding the answers to the questions we have about our lives are the beautiful moments, the moments where we discover ourselves, a beautiful clarity. Zero to Three permits us to embrace the questions as they are at face value, like a birth mark on our skin, because our insecurities are very much a part of what allows us to evolve. “No such thing as flesh dying—the body will be the body again and again.” Suffice to say, F. Douglas Brown is not done here—his many stylistically different poems that sting with personal memories and the dismantling tropes of being a human “end” on not a definitive stance, but a longing to continue learning to embrace and welcome the different rhythms during our lives as we move forward to the next destination—wherever that place may be next.


Zero to Three is available now through the University of Georgia 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


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

A Bestiary

by on July 13, 2016

9780996316743A Bestiary by Lily Hoang

Review by Katharine Coldiron

“A pack of dogs. A swarm of insects. A mischief of rats. / You desire the human equivalent.” So reads one of many fragments in Lily Hoang’s extraordinary new book, A Bestiary, released in April by Cleveland State University Poetry Center. The book won the press’s 2015 essay collection competition, and the confusion inherent in a poetry press’s holding an essay collection contest seems appropriate when considering A Bestiary, which straddles genre lines defiantly, proudly. The book is brief, only 150 pages, and its contents are also brief; its essays are composed sometimes of single sentences punctuated by section breaks. But every word is a shout. Every phrase echoes against multiple surfaces of meaning.

A Bestiary is nominally a memoir in fragments, but it is also an exploration of the power of fragmentation itself. Some of the essays utilize a braiding technique, switching from personal experience to fact to folktale and then wrapping those elements around each other in a swirl of shared meaning. But the threads are so narrow that the result more closely resembles a coat of many colors than a braid. It’s all of a piece, and enough to cover, usefully, rather than to hang motionless down one’s back.

Hoang clothes her personal tragedies in gorgeous language, and often in a blackly comic tone. “Every time we talk, Megan says something about how great my life is. / / As I flail.” She flails through death, illness, racism (and cultural invisibility), domestic violence, and the addictions of loved ones. Throughout, she maintains a clear, impatient intelligence, both inside her memories and in the precise endeavor of recording those memories. The bestiary, occupied mainly by rats but also inhabited by the animals of the Chinese zodiac and quite a few animals of the human variety, is organized according to a secret choreography of Hoang’s own. “I unstitch the real and out tumbles magic.” I closed the book with the sense that I’d read something much longer, much larger, than this slim, unassuming volume.

Like The Argonauts (as unclassifiable, and as finely wrought), A Bestiary seems to float in space, alone with itself, rather than finding a secure pigeonhole in the reader’s mental catalogue. I don’t mean there’s no reference to other work – indeed, the book is rife with allusions to fairy tales, contemporary culture, and commanding voices from prior centuries (Blake, Montaigne, Cicero). And there’s something of Lydia Davis in Hoang’s deft employment of fragmentation, though she feels more giving, less stark, than Davis. But A Bestiary uses almost nothing from the standard personal essay playbook, nor can Hoang be slotted in next to it’s-a-hard-knock-life memoirists such as Mary Karr. She builds on David Markson, quotes David Foster Wallace, and occasionally recalls David Shields, yet she is not clearly walking the path of any of these men. She is speaking her own language, one that’s prickly and splendid and hard to box into a single genre. Hoang creates her own zoo for words and memories, and all the reader can do is walk around in awe.

A Bestiary is available now through Cleveland State University Poetry Center and through Small Press Distribution.

Katharine Coldiron lives in California and blogs at The Fictator.

Book Review

I am a Season that Does Not Exist in The World

by on July 5, 2016

iamaseasoncoverI Am A Season That Does Not Exist In The World By Kim Kyung Ju





I Am A Season That Does Not Exist In The World is Korean poet Kim Kyung Ju’s first collection of poetry. Upon it’s original release in Korea in 2006 it sold over ten thousand copies and created a stir within the literary world. For years an English translation had been elusive. Now, nearly ten years have passed and we are graced with a wonderful English translation by Jake Levine that is devout to the original Korean. I Am A Season That Does Not Exist In The World is a tactile and carefully constructed meditation on the essence of life itself. Ju is a master at creating rich and unique images through his poetry and in this debut poetry collection Ju’s talents are on full display.


Broken into four sections, the pieces here hover close to the absurd and the surreal, but always center on the personal. Formally, Ju explores a fairly loose, prose poem-esque style. Some pieces feel like intimate vignettes; brief dreamlike glimpses into the subconscious. More traditional poetic forms are here as well, and Ju works hard to evoke memorable feelings out of each and every line. The myriad structural forms found in I Am A Season That Does Not Exist In The World could be symptomatic of Ju’s multimodal interests in art forms such as theater, musicals, and independent films. In this respect, this makes Ju a very exciting and quite modern poet.


In this collection Ju meditates on loneliness, childhood, and family life. He also places a strong emphasis on nostalgia and an existential kind of lament for things that have been lost. These feelings are underscored by a strong sense and stylistic leaning towards the absurd and surreal. The five part series of poems titled “The Room That Flies To Outer Space” are emblematic of the kind of vague surrealism found within Ju’s work. The language is lush and reminiscent of Italo Calvino, who gave nature and the world around us a very human and organic touch. In Ju’s poetry, nature itself is often anthropomorphized, and the effect is to give everything around us a wonderfully tactile feel. Inanimate objects and vague abstractions such as the night seem to breathe upon every line.


In one of the more enjoyable pieces from the collection, titled “Manhole,” Ju weaves existential anxiety through the focus of a distressed spider. The spider leaves it’s home to never find home again, and the first person narrator ends up questioning existence itself as he watches the wings of a moth being slowly eaten by the spider. There is an eloquent yearning and a strong sense of angst towards life found in Ju’s pieces that is perhaps best captured through the second to last line in “Manhole” :


My life drags as if order in the world never really existed. Save Me!


“Manhole” isn’t the only poem where an existential anxiety or fear is manifested through the vantage point of a spider or small creature. In “Hear The Mackerel Cry,” weeping Mackerel are cooked and eaten to act as a metaphor for a disconnection between mother and son. Furthermore the piece is another meditation on the absurd nature of life and Ju’s feelings of angst and ennui towards it:


When life shows me its tail, I cut the body off.


In “A Life Secluded,” Ju seems to be lamenting the passage of time and comes to the realization that time is something that doesn’t only belong to him, but also belongs to inorganic objects like his clothes. Again, Ju creates a sense of sadness around something as inanimate as a set of clothes, and makes us sympathize with them by giving them almost human desires. A desire to be touched and felt. The piece evokes a certain yearning for the clothes to feel connected to his body, to feel his body’s warmth “if just for a moment.”


In a world that has become increasingly devoid of and disinterested in close, human contact and communication, Ju has given us poetry that breathes, and feels incredibly alive. As disillusioned as some of these pieces are, perhaps through the tactile nature of the language we’ll start to feel a little less achingly alone and a little more connected to things.

I Am A Season That Does Not Exist In The World is available now through Black Ocean Press.

Book Review


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 Pulse Between Dimensions and the Desert

by on March 31, 2016

book coverThe Pulse Between Dimensions and the Desert by Rios De La Luz

review by Sara Khayat

The Pulse Between Dimensions and the Desert (102 pages) , Rios de la Luz’s debut collection of stories, is a vivid and honest book. Each story is rich with culture in the interspersing of Spanish in the dialogue, the narratives, and even the foods. The cadence of the narratives is quick and unforgettable. The book jumps from incredible surreal stories to hard-hitting goose-bump inducing truths. The narratives don’t limit themselves to one point of view. First, third, and second person narratives are all given the chance to seduce the reader into a world where time machines are built, “you meet your soul mate in a planetarium on mars,” and the “viejita who lives on the corner en la casa azul” tells the future.

Although I enjoyed each of the stories, I gravitated more toward the small (flash fiction) stories. The economy of language in each piece is refreshing, honest, and stimulating with lines like “I want to talk about my brown skin,” and “My curls are geometric half-moons with a hint of coconut.”

The story order and the level of detachment between each narrative are of particular interest. This book is structured in a way where each story can be read on its own, yet even with my A.D.D. mind, I still found myself reading the entire book cover to cover; I put the pieces together to see how the characters were related. There was enough of a balance and disassociation between narratives to make me still doubt their interconnectivity.

The narrators range from young children to grown adults. There isn’t one precise age group being developed. There is innocence in each narrative, as well as a corruption of innocence that lingers behind each story. There are grudges, there is anger, there is love.

Each female protagonist, young or mature, is extremely badass. From narrators that slice open their own hand to preserve a lie to knife-wielding investigations, each turn of the page presents a character that emits protective and curious personalities. The narrators and characters of these stories are ruthless, raw, and intrepid. It’s a bit odd how cold and mature the children are, as if the children know more than even the adults in the stories understand.

The topics covered in these stories that are refreshing to read. From the “pads like diapers [that] stuck to the bridge of my panties because I was petrified of tampons getting stuck inside,” to the “bush” that “overcame the tightness of my skirt and created a puffy cloud over my pubic mound,” taboo female topics that are almost always talked around are being forced into the light.

The most important subjects this book fearlessly tackles are queer discrimination, sexual abuse, physical abuse, as well as microaggressions. These four ideas are laid out in a painful manner for the reader to either identify with or acknowledge as existing.

Microaggressions are well illustrated in this book, from the tiring question “Where are you from?… No, where are you really from?” to comments by other characters about skin color, the sounds of native languages, and sexual abuse related to race.

Identity weaves its way through each narrative. In one story, the narrator states, “under the influence of mescaline you, looked into a mirror and saw accuracy in the depiction of your being.” And in the story “Rosario,” another mirror scene takes place: “at the age of fifteen, I used to look at myself in the mirror in strangely padded bras. I pretended that my skin was lighter. My hair was lighter. My eyes were lighter.” This commentary on identity is heartbreaking, and depicted in such a striking, open fashion.

Rios de la Luz has created enchanting worlds in such a small amount of space. After the end of this book, I wanted more. I was addicted to the language, the bravery, the depth of the characters as well as the worlds I emerged into. If you want to become immersed in culture, strong characters, and poetic language, then by all means, occupy your hands with this book.


The Pulse Between Dimensions and the Desert by Rios de la Luz was published by Ladybox Books, an imprint of Broken River Books. Ladybox Books “is […] a small press with an emphasis on featuring the work of badass authors who identify as women.” They have published four print books and frequently publish new works of art, poetry, and fiction on their Ellx blog.



Sara Khayat was born and raised in Los Angeles, California. She is editor-in-chief of Paper Plane Pilot Publishing ( She graduated from California State University, Northridge with a BA in English/Creative Writing and a minor in Psychology. Her mind is full of wildflowers, ladybugs and grey matters. Give her a shout and she’ll give you a whisper.

Book Review

The Women

by on March 30, 2016

The Women cover

The Women, by Ashley Farmer


Ashley Farmer’s The Women (Civil Coping Mechanisms 2016) is many things: the result of unpacking and repacking research, a careful methodical exposure of the subjugation of women, a call to action, and a book of poetry. Farmer takes fragments of information from the results she encountered as she searched women-related phrases and presents the reader with entries that do not regurgitate the research but collates and engages with the results.


In many ways, The Women is not just another collection pointing out the existence of a problem. Its poems warn us about the danger of treating women as subservient, but they are also calls to action, encouraging us to reexamine our perspectives on women and encouraging women to be proactive in defining their images for themselves. Though this collection is about women, it is not merely written for women. Farmer’s poems offer a how-to guide that moves away from “just another woman complaining” and suggests solutions through active “chopping up, stitching together, and writing through the texts.”

One of the major strengths of Farmer’s poems is the variation in style and structure since she presents fragments that we can then take and add our own personal experiences or observations. The book is divided into three sections where she plays with the notion of time by dealing with the past, the present, and the future. Each section elaborates on how women were seen, how they are seen now, and ends with an argument for how women should be seen. The idea of time is also emphasized with the different poem styles: prose poems, list poems, and narrative poems. The diverging styles offer us different ways of viewing and addressing the way in which women have been undermined and rendered powerless.

What I found to be more compelling about her entries are the ones that almost read like a list. The repetition of key phrases like “women are” or “women fall” reminded me, as a woman, of many instances where I have heard those same phrases being directed at myself or at others. Though the book is not extremely long or difficult to comprehend, there were times where I had to step away from it because of the reminded that, even in the twenty-first century, women are still subjected to oppression by both men and women. I see rejection of women online and in person and it saddens me how we often fail to see it. Farmer’s poems shed a light to the areas of subjugation women face —areas that might go unnoticed and as a result get perpetrated over and over again. One of the two epigraphs in the collection illustrates how we sometimes fail to recognize these small instances:

Q: “Why has society always been hard on women?”

A: “Society hasn’t always been hard on women. Hope I helped!”

—Exchange between strangers, Yahoo! Answers


No, it didn’t help. The individual who answered the question chose to ignore a question that could have had many answers. Though answering a Yahoo! question will not solve the ongoing problem of women being perceived as unassertive, unable to think for themselves, and dependent, providing a proper answer is one step in the right direction. At least, I think, Farmer would agree.


The Women is available now through Civil Coping Mechanisms

Book Review

The Sky Isn’t Blue

by on March 15, 2016


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

The Strangest

by on January 26, 2016

Strangest coverThe Strangest by Michael J. Seidlinger

The Strangest is a clever 21st century reimagining of the existentialist classic, The Stranger by Albert Camus. Michael J. Seidlinger (most recently the author of The Face of Any Other) has taken the difficult task of entering into a dialogue with a text that is regarded as a masterpiece of the 20th century, and surprisingly, has breathed new life into it. The novel follows the same narrative arc that the classic follows and the themes of existentialism and “outsiderness” roam aplenty here as well. Where The Strangest differs from The Stranger, however, is where it actually shines. Neither homage, pastiche, or simple parody, the novel paints a remarkable depiction of the way we communicate and function within society today and our culture’s over reliance on social media to fit in.

The novel follows the anti-social and despairingly ineffectual Zachary Weinham who works at a retail store and carries on a vague, mostly ambiguous, relationship with a girl named Veronica. Instead of playing an active role in society, Zachary spends most of his time obsessing over a social media presence he has created for himself by the name of “Meurks” (an obvious nod to Meursault from The Stranger). Through Meurks he records nearly every social situation he encounters in his day via a social media post. Zachary is more interested in the comments and likes he receives as Meurks than the actual interactions he has with characters like Veronica, his work colleagues, or the shady Rios. The notion of people connecting more with their digital selves than their actual selves is where Seidlinger really captures the current social media milieu brilliantly. By creating a digital “alter ego” it also adds a feeling of dynamism to a character that for all intents and purposes is lethargic and apathetic. As the novel carries along (albeit slowly and in a daze the first 50 pages or so) a series of events and odd friendships lead Zachary to commit murder and must suffer the consequences. Sound familiar? Sure.

Given that the novel follows the same emotional beats and a similar narrative arc as the work it is in conversation with, it is told with enough stylistic flair and filled with a contemporary idiosyncratic anxiety that keeps it feeling fresh. Seidlinger employs the same short, staccato like sentences that are prevalent in The Stranger but formally Seidlinger gives us brief little vignettes, which are set into the chapters of the novel. Sometimes the vignettes are 100 words long. Sometimes they are 500. The vignettes are emblematic of a kind of piecing together of “truth” that Zachary goes through in the novel. Sometimes painfully insightful – sometimes rambling and inconsequential – the vignettes are a nice stylistic touch that let us into the fractured and socially disconnected mind of our modern day Meursault.

Much like Seidlinger’s millennial contemporary Tao Lin, he shows us that despite all the opportunities social media gives us to connect, sometimes we are left feeling alienated, hollow and utterly disconnected from society. The Strangest successfully taps into the disorienting “otherness” that was so compelling in The Stranger and creates a harrowing vision of 21st century life. If Seidlinger is onto anything at all here, we’re all fucked.


The Strangest is available now from OR Books.

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