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Book Review

Book Review

Arcade

by on August 4, 2016

9781939419729Arcade by Drew Nellins Smith

 

It is difficult to try and explain what Drew Nellins Smith’s debut novel, Arcade, is about. At its most basic level, the novel follows the unnamed narrator who refers to himself as Sam as he tries to anatomize his almost-closeted gay persona and the role society expects him to play. Other times, the novel switches to Sam’s desperate attempts to get back together with an ex who has long moved on. Even then, that’s not what the novel is about. Smith’s novel emphasizes the space the arcade —a place where otherness and anonymity mingle in between racks of porn DVD’s and dim-lighted booths where men (and sometimes couples) see their sexual fantasies come to life— takes in Sam’s life.

Sam is lonely and fails to know what he wants many times. In particular, the short chapters in the novel reveal Sam’s inability to figure out what it is he wants to do with his life. In fact, the chapters devote a sufficient amount of time and space to describe Sam’s job, the new relationship his ex-lover has, the peepshow arcade, and the sexual escapades that occur within it. As for the sex in the novel, Smith captures both intimate sex and the wild, almost neurotic, and detached sex —sex Sam only sees but rarely participates in. Though I really liked how the sex is presented, it is not the only reason I enjoyed Arcade.

Astoundingly, I believe it is the novel’s refusal to be a coming out novel that made me want to keep reading. For a long time, the gay novel genre has revolved around portraying male homosexual behavior and stories about their acceptances or rejections. However, Sam never outright admits he is gay and it is only his actions that ultimately portray him as a gay man. Of the topic, Sam says “And the truth is I’m telling people that I’m not really gay or whatever, but that I’ve fallen in love with a guy.” When asked what is the distinction between being in love with a guy and being gay, Sam’s response is that he does not want to think of it and that he “doesn’t even care if [he’s] gay or whatever.” Smith’s rejection of the typical gay novel allows the reader to focus more on the space, literal and imagined, of what it means to be a gay man never truly participating in sexual acts but watching them.

Though some may shy away or be offended by the frankness in which Sam recounts his time at the arcade, it is this very honesty that kept luring me to turn the page. Smith does not hold back in his novel: he patiently and carefully walks us down the lobby, through the aisles, and into the booths to join Sam to question the space which has been provided. The reader faces the truth of a situation where men like Sam are forced into literal dark spaces in order to satisfy their sexual needs.

The reason novels like Smith’s are important to read, especially given the recent Orlando attacks, is because the reader is able to see others have the same issues. Sam is not the only man in the booths but there are times when he might as well be. Sometimes he feels connected to the other men at the arcade knowing that just like him, they are looking to satisfy and be satisfied. However, more often than not, Sam feels detached from the location and the people in it knowing that most of the men go back to their wives and families and jobs and pretend the arcade does not exist. Sam does not have that option since it seems he is always thinking about the arcade, the people in it, and how he feels about it every time he steps inside and feels the surveillance the store is subjected to.

Arcade is a short novel in which Smith’s prose is straightforward and captivating. The series of scenes which are introduced with each new chapter create a cohesive story about Sam figuratively and literally watching others engage in sexual acts within the arcade. The men thrive in knowing they are anonymous since outside of the arcade those same men live normal heterosexual lives. Perhaps the arcade can be best described by Sam:

“Of course I could tell which men were rich or poor or middle class, but it didn’t matter out there. After the three dollar threshold, we were all the same… I liked the idea that most of us never would have met or interacted if it hadn’t been for that place, divided as we were by our jobs and incomes.”

Arcade is available now through Unnamed Press.

Book Review

The Hermit

by on August 2, 2016

lucy-ivesThe Hermit by Lucy Ives

 

Solitude. The first thought that this concept strikes within me is one of solemn and despondent feelings. Of hopelessness, the sheer and unbearable weight of being alone in the world, existing in a place, real or metaphorical, where you are left to your own devices. However, within this place that real introspection can occur. Where one can begin to process life’s eventualities, the brief moments that make up the whole, and the successes and failures that makes life worthwhile. It is exactly these things that Lucy Ives is exploring in her recent poetry book “The Hermit”.

At first glance this book is quite sparse. Blank space is at a premium in this text with many sections encompassing only a paragraph, sentence, phrase or other musing. This is not to the books detriment though. The emptiness of it all forces one to be more tuned in to the feeling of isolation, but more so to the language that is being used here. Language that captures quite powerfully the feelings or ideas Ives had set out to explore. Words are examined with precision, ideas are tackled with ease, and the reader is forced to examine language in modes that may twist your mind theoretically. Ives use of language is at times quite lyrical, thoughtful, poetic, introspective, philosophical or all of these at once. Small moments in life, moments that may otherwise go unnoticed are given the chance to shine in the limelight of existence.

The book is hard to pin down because it is ultimately so many things at once. It is a book about process: the process of writing, writing poetry and prose, how art comes into that process, and all the things it can encompasses. But it is also a book about emotions, either miniscule in their initial impact or devastating in those moments of inception, that dig into you so deeply that they become a part of who you are. The idea of these moments and emotions cycle back and we are presented with how Ives takes these emotions and turns them into something beautiful. So we now cycle back to the idea of process, but not as course one takes in order to create, but as a means to make sense of the world, to heal, to cope with the weight of it all.

It is within this realm of process, that the book that Lucy Ives has written becomes something remarkable, personal, and quite human. Ives breaks down fragments of her existence into the pages of this book and lays them out bare. The reader is given a glimpse into a world that otherwise is sealed; and by the end of the book you may not understand a single thing, or you may now be privy to many things, however this exploration will no doubt open doors inside your own soul to allow the band of thoughts and memories, and emotions to play their song and hopefully make you dance, at least a little.

“What if a person will always be a few steps from life, whetever that is, and what if this person will feel dissatisfied, imperfect on account of this distance? What will we say to them? Do they become a character typical of their time? And, if such a person cannot become such a character, what is the use of them?”

The Hermit is available now through The Song Cave

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

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

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

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

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 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 (thepaperplanepilots.com). 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.

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