Review: Catalina by Liska Jacobs

Catalina


Catalina
by Liska Jacobs
Published 2017 by FSG Originals
$15.00 paperback ISBN 978-0374119751

By Noah Sanders

Expectation is what dooms Catalina for me as a reviewer. The book trumpets itself as an “LA Noir”—a seedy, white heat sort of genre that proclaims murder and sordidness in equal measures. And yes, Liska Jacob’s book is a tar-black tale of adulthood gone wrong, but it never reaches the fever pitch of what I, or any fan of the genre, would deem “noir.” Instead Catalina bends towards “emotional noir”—all the inner psychological weight and concurrent desperation, the shitty decision-making and save-your-own-ass motivation, without the violent climax. Liska Jacobs propels the reader forward with pithy descriptions and a main character with a set of morals burnt by rejection and rampant pill popping, upping the ante by surrounding her with a cast of supporting roles equally damaged by the inevitable emotional traumas of adulthood. Yet the build—and Jacobs has an enviable skill at creating dramatic tension—amounts to almost nothing, no big finale, no grisly death, just bad people doing bad things.

Elsa Fisher has been fired from her job at as an assistant to the Head Curator of New York’s MoMA. With an enormous severance package in tow, she abandons New York—with a stolen scarf and pharmacy’s worth of pills as her luggage—and returns to the setting of her youth, Los Angeles, for a reunion trip to Catalina Island with long abandoned old friends. Told from Fisher’s perspective, this is a story about being unable to come to grips with the average responsibilities of adulthood. Fisher is many things—a pill-popping alcoholic, a dark and selfish soul, and a woman who buries her pain in the arms of a rotating cast of men—but Jacobs writes her smart and aware of her own undoing. She’s the self-proclaimed black sheep of her friends having divorced Robby—a bitter UX designer jealous of his friend’s riches—and absconded to the coast. Her friends have followed a straighter line—seemingly normal relationships, the hopes of having children, high paying jobs—but Elsa’s inner turmoil seems to draw out their own inadequacies, their own substance abuse issues, their own chafing at the bit of getting older. As the group boards the boat of Tom—a middle aged millionaire who acts as a crystal ball for their own sad, rancorous futures—and heads for Catalina, the booze flows and the tenuous bonds of their lives unravel in tandem.

Elsa starts at the bottom. She’s stumbling through life after an ill-advised affair and her subsequent firing from a dream job, throwing down Vicodin and Xanax like their breath mints and washing them down with booze at all hours of the day. She’s an emotional wreck, but a manipulative one who uses her looks and intelligence to get by. Yet, with Elsa already playing tourist at rock bottom at the beginning of the book, Jacobs really has nowhere to take the character. She drinks and fucks and makes increasingly bad decisions while watching her friends do the same, revealing their true natures aren’t too far off from hers and that’s about all.

Jacobs is trying to make a few points in the book: the affects of life’s tiresome plod, the even shittier effects of the events that shape us, and how all of us, no matter how bright we shine, contain a darkness just waiting to claw its way out. But her characters are thin stereotypes—the predator-like rich guy, the frat-boy turned old and sour, the unhappy mom-to-be and the preening Los Angeles fitness buff—with only Elsa given more than a cursory glance into their motivations. Instead the characters quickly shrug off any defining descriptions and each one—sans Tom, who’s a prick from the get-go, the book’s sole, weak stab at an antagonist—slowly become slight, ill-defined versions of Elsa herself, consumed by the murkiness inside.

The writing in the book screams “noir” with compact, terse language filled with Elsa’s cynical descriptions of her touristy surroundings. “Moms in floral cover-ups watch children with sand toys, digging away,” Jacobs writes of a crowd of tourists on Catalina, “while dads mingle at the tiki bar, watching the many flat-screen TVs.” It isn’t bad writing and it serves the purpose of highlighting the distance Elsa has placed—with drugs and general malaise—between herself and the real world. Like the characters in the book though, it never changes. It’s crackling and weighed down by Elsa’s bleak worldview for the full length of the book and at some point it all just bleeds together into a whirlpool of drugs and poor decision-making.

In the end, Catalina is all forward momentum without any destination. Jacob’s writing—propulsive to say the least—baits the reader with the idea that “something” is going to happen. That these broken souls, scarred by money and life, will go to Catalina and the very worst of their darkest urges will materialize in the violence and death “noir” is famous for providing. Instead, the book floats along on mean-spirited characters sinking lower into themselves with no real climax ever dragging them to the surface. Even Elsa, the horrendous foundation of this collection of awfulness never learns anything about herself other than, “this is who I am and this who’ll I continue to be.” It’s the grimness of noir, without any of the reckoning. Catalina is a frothy tease, a whole lot of bad behavior without anything to be said about any of it.

Review: The River of Consciousness by Oliver Sacks

River of Consciousness Cover


The River of Consciousness
By Oliver Sacks
Published 2017 by Knopf Books
$27.00 hardcover ISBN 978-0385352567

By Wesley Cohen

In January 2015, neurologist and author Oliver Sacks was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer. Dr. Sacks had already written his memoir On the Move, which was published in April 2015. He shortly finished a book of essays about his thoughts on life and dying, Gratitude—this after twelve previous books on migraines, autism, ferns, phantom limbs, hallucinogens, and music, among other topics. In August 2015, Oliver Sacks passed away, and Gratitude was published posthumously the following November.

And yet, after collecting his life story and his thoughts on living, Sacks chose to write another book, published only now: The River of Consciousness. What subject was so important to Sacks that he couldn’t bear to leave this book unwritten?

As it turns out, everything. The River of Consciousness begins with an essay discussing Darwin’s botanical studies, before moving on to “Speed,” which borrows from H. G. Wells and William James to consider the perception of time in professional athletes, in people with post-encephalopathic catatonia, how time shifts under the influence of drugs, and even the experience of time for insects and plants. Sacks goes on to investigate the consciousness of earthworms and jellyfish, accidental plagiarism, hearing loss, and colorblindness.

Although Gratitude was meant to be Sacks’s final offering, his “posthumous gift” to readers, the dominant sense in The River of Consciousness is that of awe. Sacks approaches his various subjects with obsessive detail and nearly childlike curiosity, laying bare the wonder of each topic. Nothing is too distant, too old, or too small for Sacks’s careful attention. The descriptions here—of a young Oliver borrowing his cousin’s camera to photograph the “time-blurred wing beats” of a bee, of the communication habits of octopi and facial recognition in wasps—are specific and enchanting. Reading these pages feels like an antidote to cynicism and overwhelm, as long as the reader can look away from her Twitter feed long enough to settle in. Again and again, Sacks demonstrates our great fortune to be alive, to explore the natural world, to have sight and memory and health. Even when these fail, there is beauty and mystery to be found: in the book’s most personal essay, “A General Feeling of Disorder,” Sacks describes his brutal recovery from a procedure intended to extend his life by a few months, but also describes his joy when his exhaustion lifts, “a physical and creative energy and a euphoria almost akin to hypomania.”

The River of Consciousness also spends time with Sacks’s heroes, mainly Darwin, Freud, and William James. Readers learn of these famous scientists’ less-known pursuits: for Darwin, his decades of botanical study, for Freud, his research in neuroscience. Throughout his career, Sacks was beloved by his readers for his compassion and personality while writing on neurological research and the experiences of his own patients. Whatever the book, Sacks shows up in his own work as a full, complicated, real person, charming readers into following him through hospital wards and into jungles. Here, Darwin and Freud enjoy similar treatment, expanding from archetypes into men with struggles and obsessions and stories. Sacks references other scientists constantly, as well as writers and artists from Wagner to Rebecca Solnit. The bibliography for this book is nine pages long. If The River of Consciousness is to be taken as a message or a gift for Sacks’s readers, then it is an abundant and expansive one, as each essay contains numerous reading suggestions, a road map to future discovery. The world of science, Sacks shows, is not a stodgy institution but a network of hopeful and fallible actors.

Common themes from Sacks’s previous work run through The River of Consciousness: the perception of time, language, creativity, and imitation. But unlike his past books, which often take up a specific topic—say, the intersection of neuroscience and music in Musicophilia—and exhaustively present every side to the reader, these essays explore their subjects and then set them down. There is no one theme or argument in The River of Consciousness, although topics, examples, and quotes may show up in one essay to be repeated in a new context a hundred pages later. In this sense, The River of Consciousness reads as a brief catalogue of its author’s favorite people and ideas, the things Sacks wanted to touch upon a final time before leaving.

The River of Consciousness feels a bit like a goodbye to the world, with all its wonder and history and unanswered questions, and an inheritance for those of us who remain. Perhaps, after making a gift of his gratitude, Sacks wanted to give his readers the gift of his passion as well, to lay these essays out in front of us and say here are the things I loved, here are the things that enchanted me, and to leave them for us to admire, to wonder at, and perhaps to pick up and explore on our own, now that he is gone.

Review: Vacationland by John Hodgman

Vacationland


Vacationland
by John Hodgman
Published 2017 by Viking
$25.00 hardcover ISBN 978-0735224803

By Noah Sanders

John Hodgman has always seemed an artist overly consumed with his own fake identity. From his days as a PC to Justin Long’s Mac to his preening caricature on The Daily Show to his three books of fake facts, he’s played the part of an effete, impeccably dressed, highly opinionated nerd to the tee. It isn’t that Hodgman hasn’t nailed the character—one wouldn’t be judged for believing his on-screen persona to be his actual one—more that there has been a distancing lack of substance beneath the bespectacled facade of the character he’d created. Vacationland is a memoir of Hodgman’s past and present life in the overgrown backwaters of western Massachusetts and the windblown coastlines of rural Maine. In writing about his own life, Hodgman relinquishes the hold his self-created character had on him. His laconic musings on his life expose a truer, wiser, more poignant aspect to the author without sacrificing the wry, observational humor he has become so well known for. This is a book ably toeing the line of nerd-laced whimsy and the surprisingly sage wisdom of a mid-40s hipster, a book that hums with the melancholy rhythm of the inherent sadness to be had in the inevitable onset of age.

Vacationland feels as if Hodgman is coming to grips with his own descent into middle age. The first half of the book focuses on Hodgman’s childhood in the small, ramshackle cabin in Western Massachusetts the author and his family inherited when his mother passed, up through his college and post-college existence. Each, slightly self-contained chapter finds Hodgman progressing the narrative of his own existence—an educated, slightly pretentious rule-following nerd turned, well, older, more famous slightly pretentious, rule-following nerd—while exploring the lessons learned in his younger life and how they have affected who he has become. In “Mongering” the author digs into his post-collegiate life working as a temp at a publishing company, tearing the covers off proofs of David Mamet’s Oleanna. Hodgman, as most college grads are, was rife with idealism as he stepped into the real world, stuffed with the belief that regardless of the mundane nature of his life, he was making progress. “As I stamped each page away,” he writes, “a growing sense ate at me that I was no longer becoming something, but ending up as something.” Mixed amongst the humorous asides, fictional conversations and blatant nerdery, Hodgman finds space to convey this sort of everyman wisdom without it ever feeling like he’s spewing platitudes. Instead the wiser, less humorous aspects of the book give the reader a foothold into a rounder, more real, more human version of the author hereto yet revealed.

The essay “Vacationland” finds Hodgman lowering all of his comedic defenses, brushing aside his forays into the nuts-and-bolts facts about boat-building and the history of Maine and discussing his mother’s death. The author’s cynicism never flags in the piece: “What more is there to say than it was traumatic a moment that breaks your life in half? That you never heal from it, and it blankets your life in sadness and fear forever? Not much, except for this little bit.” Hodgman’s mother passed from lung cancer at the age of 59 and “Vacationland” tracks the way her passing altered the course of his life. His descriptions of his last days with his mother are heart-breaking without being mawkish. “Slow death keeps you busy with chores and distractions” he writes of these final months. When she’s gone, he confesses, “There is no peace in dying, but there is peace when it’s done.” At the time of his mother’s passing, Hodgman was concluding his seventh year at a literary agency. His mother’s death pushed him to realize that his latent goals of being an author needed to come to the surface. “After a few weeks of caring for my mother at home,” he writes, “I noticed that none of my clients missed me. I was not essential to their lives at all.” As sad as the short piece is, it also shows what Hodgman is capable of when he abandons his comedic tendencies entirely. This is a heart-wrenching bit of writing, but one that glows with an inspiring warmth learned only from experiencing one of life’s great, inevitable sadnesses and the ability as a writer to pass that warmth forward.

Hodgman is a funny man, and this book is never lacking in humor. It is one of the book’s many charms that Hodgman is able to weave so effortlessly through the darker moments of his life while peppering them with his own gin-fueled adages and his particular brand of self-effacing humor. And it needs to be this way. From reading Vacationland, it’s evident that Hodgman is much more than the character he’s created, the character he’s hidden behind for so much of his professional life. Humor and book smarts are his natural impulses, but beneath this sheen of laughter and intelligence is a deep well of wit and emotion. A well Hodgman is able to tap, to distill into a book that offers advice and history, humor and sadness, poignancy and poise; a book that captures Hodgman in full.

Review: The Flowers In My Mothers’ Name by Philip Harris

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The Flowers In My Mothers’ Name
by Philip Harris
Published 2017 by Nomadic Press
$12.00 ISBN 978-0-9994471-0-9

By Noah Sanders

The Flowers in My Mothers’ Name—the new chapbook by Bay Area poet Philip Harris—is as much a collection of short poems as it a piece of portraiture. It feels as if Harris is writing himself into existence using the overlapping spillover of moments from his own life, his mother’s life, and her mother’s life before as his medium. The author—half-white, half-Mexican, and gay—uses singular moments of his life, and of those who came before, to showcase his own part in a complicated cultural upbringing and how it birthed the complex human he has become. Named Felipe Juan by his mother’s Mexican side of the family, Harris grows up straddling two different worlds, his footing never solid as he navigates the path forward. His coming to terms with own homosexuality further adds even more to his internal life experiences. As an adult, though, Harris is oftentimes seen as just being white and it isn’t that The Flowers in My Mothers’ Name seeks to refute that, but rather to plunge beneath the surface, exposing the intricacies of Harris himself and of the average human experience.

In the opening section, Harris’ mother asks him if he thinks Gloria Estefan is “cute,” probing her young son to see if he might be gay. Harris writes, “I don’t know yet about systemic racism, internalized homophobia, heteronormativity, internalized racism, oppression, gender politics.” He just wants to be a kid that fits in and to do so he tells his Mexican mother that, no, Estefan has that “ugly Mexican look.” It is a small, uneventful memory, but Harris wields it as a the harbinger for what will come. On the surface this is a simple moment but by pulling it gently apart Harris reveals the want and the need to assimilate ourselves into normative culture and the pain caused in doing so. There is no lack of small pains in the book; a woman at party tells Harris’ mother she’s lucky for marrying a white man, for “marrying up.” “Another offense to file away,” Harris writes, “Another memory to play over and again.” In his own life, Harris recalls the first time someone called him a fag, the loss of his virginity to two men in a public sauna, the dropping of his Mexican surname to appease a pregnancy magazine editor—the through line of pain spiraling from his mother all the way up the generational ladder.

There is a richness to The Flowers In My Mothers’ Name that belies its slim size. The author, in what has to amount to less than 10,000 words, spins not only his own story, but those of the individuals and the culture that formed him. This is Harris’ story, but the only way to tell it is to fill in the detail, to draw the portrait of where and who he came from. Harris writes with a wistful nostalgia at play—these are lyrical explorations of single moments that gently lift from the page—but Harris grounds his more poetic tendencies with the textured grit of reality, simple and small. A ventilator is “loud, breathing God’s wind into” the small lungs of his dying grandmother; he describes his great-uncle Papa Juan as a man who, “hugged hard, his gold jewelry catching the sun as he handed me a twenty dollar bill.” He describes the Mexican spirit La Llorona—a woman who steals children—as a “woman dressed in all white, her hair flowing in the absent winds of Southern California,” seen as he “looked at porn alone in the thin hours of the morning.” In doing so—colliding lyricism and reality—Harris deepens the picture of himself—a poet who grew up eating freshly slaughtered and grilled lamb in the suburbs of Los Angeles, a human being splayed out across a spectrum of varied experiences. The language, rough and delicate within the same sentence, enriches his personal narrative, becoming as much a part of his story as anything else.

In forming a picture of himself far beyond superficial descriptors, one of layered cultural narratives and generational tradition and trauma passed down through the family, Harris seems to be saying that the identities we push forward into public are never so simple. Instead, Harris, and all of us, are layer upon layer of experience, culture and connection pushed outwards through a specific perspective. Regardless of how he is seen, he’s much more than meets the eye. As Harris himself writes, that though his friends see his “passable” whiteness he wonders if they will ever know the person who “listens to mariachi music and cries, or feels at home in mini-mall salons with women speaking only Spanish, or hears his abuelita’s laugh in every crunch of a fried tortilla, or who used to bullied for being gay.” He wonders if they’ll ever know him.

Review: A Natural by Ross Raisin

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A Natural
by Ross Raisin
Published 2017 by Random House
$27.00 hardcover ISBN 978-0525508779

By Noah Sanders

It is understandable if a reader is apprehensive of picking up Ross Raisin’s newest novel, A Natural, because of its superficial description as a “sports book.” A Natural sells itself in its first hundred or so pages as a book that in near claustrophobic fashion, details the grinding routine and oppressive masculinity that define professional sports at the bottom of the barrel, specifically the low leagues of professional, English football. This is a world akin to politics, where every word spoke, every seat taken, every conversation kicked up places you in the hierarchy of your team, for better or worse. The more skilled you are, the better you’re loved, but emotional attachment is a flash in a pan, every friendship just injury away from dissolution. Raisin’s novel addresses these issues but his goal as the book stodgily sallies forward isn’t to pull the curtain back on modern, English football. The author picks apart the common perceptions of masculinity—both in sports and in everyday life—using the drab canvas of small town soccer as a launch pad.

Tom Pearman is a talented, 19-year old striker who’s lost out on a contract from his hometown Premiere Academy and drifted South, ending up as a wing for a low-league football outfit struggling to stay relevant. Pearman is skilled but as the book begins he struggles to find his footing or make friends within the tightly knit group of aspiring soccer professionals. He lingers at the edges of social gatherings, avoids his loving family, and on the field shies from using his prodigious talents. His introversion seems warranted. The world of professional soccer in Raisin’s hands is a plodding struggle, a grim injury-laden series of practices and games that brooks no concern for what the future might hold for an individual. The culture inherent in the sport is one of toxic masculinity where nothing is excepted but utmost effort and athleticism wrapped in the traditional stance of tough-guy posturing.

Though A Natural is ostensibly about soccer—and Raisin spends a lot of time describing pitches, matches, the sweaty muscles of young athletes, etc.—it’s more so a coming of age story about a shy introvert with a secret. Pearman’s struggles to “fit in” with his new teammates are heightened by the fact that he’s gay, a one-way ticket to being ousted by the world of professional sports. Pearman isn’t exactly interesting, but it doesn’t seem as if Raisin wants him to be. Instead he seems a product of the football atmosphere—any of his edges worn down to nothing and then buried under a game face and want of being the best. Underneath it though, Pearman’s an emotional mess—struggling to find footing in the inconsistent limbo football manages to push him into while hoping his innate sexual urges, lustily described by Raisin, can be contained, shoved down into the grey morass of his emotions his football life has created.  At 19, Pearman has only really done one thing—play football—and as he begins to mature emotionally, the push and pull of competitive sports doesn’t provide him with the answers to the big questions of his life anymore. When he starts a face with ruddy-faced Liam, the team’s groundskeeper, the urge to play professional ball and the urge to just be who he is collide, spinning him further into his own self. He’s different than the testosterone spewing football dudes he’s spent his entire life with—he’s gay, shy, halfway between traditional sporting masculinity and the emotional security he yearns for—but he’s unable to bring together the quickly dividing strands of his new life.

The book isn’t an easy one to just wander into. Raisin spends the first hundred or so pages flatly laying out the stakes of low-league professional soccer and the portrait he paints is a dreary, even boring one. The beginning of this book is a trudge through quicksand, with Pearman’s severe introversion allowing only a laser-focused view from the cheap seats. Yes, Raisin does spend too long setting the mood and the atmosphere, but when the story starts to pick up, when the secrets are revealed and the cogs of the narrative start turning, the reader, knowingly or not, is immersed in this stolid world. There’s a low-level thrill in seeing Pearman, and his team, succeed (and fail) and even more of a rush to see the main character start to shakily pull himself from his shell.

There’s a real fear as the book nosedives towards the reveal of Pearman’s sexuality and his relationship with Liam that Raisin might dip towards the soap-operatic, but the author never loosens his grip on the narrative. What could be portrayed in dramatic terms instead becomes a textured look at a redefinition of self in a world where redefinitions are rarely allowed. Raisin paints his world in drabs greys and greens and though Pearman’s stab at acceptance of his own sexual orientation flares brightly amidst the somber backdrop, the novel isn’t sidetracked by a need for a theatrical reveal. As the events of the book play out, Raisin keeps to blunt descriptions and a moment-by-moment feel that, though stripping the novel of any high highs or low lows, allows his characters to interact realistically with the events at hand. As the novel begin,s Pearman is a soccer player with a secret and as it lumbers toward a conclusion this doesn’t change—his own true self just becomes more acceptable. If the opening hundred pages seem aimed at the crushing mundanity of barely professional sports, it’s for a reason: Pearman’s self-discovery, his small growth as a human being feels enormous in the world it builds, the shadow it throws. If you’ve come to the book for the glitz and glamour of professional football, you’ll be disappointed. A Natural is a coming-of-age story that comes to fruition on the shadowy edge of a harsh sports culture and as that it succeeds.

Review: Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado

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Her Body and Other Parties
by Carmen Maria Machado
Published 2017 by Graywolf Press
$16.00 paperback ISBN 978-1555977887

By Wesley Cohen

From the start of her debut collection Her Body and Other Parties, Carmen Maria Machado demonstrates that she understands the power of stories, their place as both a tool and a weapon.

In the first story, “The Husband Stitch,” the narrator tells the reader about having sex with her boyfriend, “I have heard all of the stories about girls like me, and I am unafraid to make more of them.”

Later, in “The Resident,” a different storyteller is asked about the protagonist in her novel-in-progress, a thinly veiled autobiography: “Lydia filled my glass to the brim. ‘Do you ever worry,’ she asked me, ‘that you’re the madwoman in the attic?….And the mad lesbian, isn’t that a stereotype as well?’”

The women here consider their womanhood at arm’s length, weighing the appropriate archetypes—the slut, the aging mother, the mad lesbian—but they never fall comfortably inside a category. Like real women, they are self-aware, and acknowledge that how one’s story is framed is often just as important as what happens in it.

The stories, too, defy categorization. They take strange forms, they fade from reality to dream to myth, they twist in the reader’s hands and transform from one paragraph to the next.

Watching Machado work is an absolute delight. Story structures and techniques that might feel gimmicky or undeserved in different contexts land perfectly. Machado delivers surreal elements and plot twists with complete authority, and her characters feel so well drawn that it’s impossible to resist being pulled into their worlds headfirst.

Just as some of George Saunders’s stories in Tenth of December use futuristic and fantastical elements to riff on the more horrific facets of contemporary society, Machado borrows the language of fairy tales to illustrate the horrors of womanhood, with ghosts, doppelgangers, headless women, and girls gone invisible.  But these stories are slippery, and they use magic and horror to unexpected ends.

In “Eight Bites,” a faceless, body-shaped mass appears in a woman’s basement after she has gastric bypass surgery, a grotesque symbol of the weight she’s lost, but instead of angry, the form is mournful, even maternal. In “Real Women Have Bodies,” an epidemic of “fading” is turning young women into bodiless phantoms, and a simplistic metaphor for female silence or weight loss seems close at hand. But the story pivots and focuses instead on the narrator’s relationship with a woman who’s fading, her struggle to support her girlfriend as she vanishes. Even when roaming misty forests or possessed by ghosts, these characters feel deeply human, flawed, and self-aware, and their fears and desires are urgently real.

Machado plays with story form throughout the collection to great effect. In “Inventory,” the story is a list of the narrator’s every sexual experience; “The Husband Stitch” includes absurd stage directions for a reader to perform the story aloud: “Give a paring knife to the listeners and ask them to cut the tender flap of skin between your index finger and thumb. Afterward, thank them.”

Of these formal experiments, “Especially Heinous” is the most impressive. The sixty-page story, which originally appeared as a novella in The American Reader, comprises 272 entirely imaginary episode summaries for Law & Order SVU. Just pulling off this sort of structure is incredible, but Machado tells a story that wouldn’t work in any other format, layering rape on murder on abuse until the weight of all these crimes, and all these stories, presses on the reader with new power. That these summaries are also filled with fantasy, humor, absurdism, and even hope is a testament to Machado’s extreme skill.

This quality—that Machado muddies the horror and darkness of Her Body and Other Parties with moments of romance, eroticism, and hope—is another joy of the collection, and ultimately what keeps it from being a beautifully executed bummer. The narrator’s daydream of queer domestic bliss in “Mothers” is particularly stunning, a utopian vision rarely explored among the hypersexualized depictions of women-loving women in popular culture.

Her Body and Other Parties is a stunning debut that takes the fabulist short story to new heights. Feminist horror lovers and short story fanatics should run, not walk, to their local bookstore and bring these strange stories home.

Review: Catapult by Emily Fridlund

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Catapult
by Emily Fridlund
Published 2017 by Sarabande Books
$16.95 paperback ISBN 978-1946448057

By Noah Sanders

Emily Fridlund’s new book of short stories—Catapult—plays in the sandbox of transition. Her characters are mired in the midway point between what’s occurred and what happens next, attempting (and mostly failing) to try and suss out just how to take that next step. Sometimes it’s puberty, sometimes it’s the jagged end of a relationship that’s gone on just a few years too long, regardless, her characters swim in the cloudy waters between two points, reaching out for one shore, while the other slowly fades behind them.  

Fridlund writes about transitions—emotional, physical, even geographical—but more so about the state of transition. Her characters seem stuck, mired in the midst of a life change but unwilling or unable to seal the deal, to move forward. The story “Catapult” starts with this line from a 14-year old girl halfway between puberty and not, “That summer I was reading vampire books, so when Noah said no to sex, I let myself pretend that’s what he was.” The story, about that murky grey area between pure childhood and the onset of adolescence, follows its two leads over a summer spent between kid-like ambitions—time travel, building a raft—and unfulfilled sexual desire. Its main character, a girl who’s abandoned her friend group and escaped what may be a troubling family situation, is cresting into pubescence, but still clutching the simpler ideas of both childhood and faith. She and Noah, a devout Christian struggling with the concepts of science, lie in bed entirely naked, not touching, just talking, exploring ideas instead of their own physicality. It is a lovely, heart-breaking portrayal of that last moment when we mourn the childhood slipping through our grasp, but still yearn for whatever it is the future might hold.

Fridlund is particularly interested in the grey areas between moments. Her stories take place in borderlands between suburbs and the wild, and feature characters held back by their pasts but stumbling inevitably towards the future. In “One You Run From. The Other You Fight” a long-term couple—Nora and Sage—skeptical of the normalized structures of relationships (babies, marriage, etc.) skirt from one event to another, mocking the worlds they’ve avoided so far. The author adeptly portrays a relationship stretched too far, the passion long gone, but the fear of moving on, too much for either to participant to grasp. Only when they arrive at a party with no host in a strange hinterland somewhere between the boxy housing of suburban living and the wilderness that’s been beat back, are they able to see where they’ve come from and potentially where they are going. It is in these boondocks—emotional or otherwise—where the true face of Fridlund’s characters claw their way to the surface.

Each of Fridlund’s stories reads like a novel compressed and though it does work—both “Catapult” and “Lock Jaw” are stellar pieces—occasionally the author reaches for too much. It may be backstory or character motivation or just plot points scattered along the way, but there is an abundance in many stories that reads as clutter rather than atmosphere. Too many narrative threads, too many one-off plot additions shoot out into the darkness, never to be seen again.

Even when Fridlund’s stories overextend, her writing is always spot on. She describes a mosquito’s face as, “like an important utensil”; an elderly dog is “only slightly more animated than an eroded boulder.” Fridlund’s writing—deft and observant, pockmarked with little bursts of joyful description—will pull you forward, even if the outcome isn’t always as satisfying as it might be.

Review: We Were Eight Years in Power by Ta-Nehisi Coates

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We Were Eight Years In Power
by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Published 2017 by One World
$28.00 hardcover ISBN 978-0525624516

By Noah Sanders

You may feel slightly irked that the newest release from massively popular intellectual and memoirist (and comic book writer) Ta-Nehisi Coates has a collection of his already published essays from The Atlantic. For a variety of reasons, you should not be. Even if We Were Eight Years In Power: An American Tragedy was just a re-purposed cash grab, a bound assemblage of Coates’ greatest hits from the distinguished magazine over the eight years of Barack Obama’s presidency, there would be cause for celebration. Coates is a rare intellectual who can, and will, take weighty issuesreparations, America’s historical dependence on slavery, the lesser aspects of Barack Obamaand translate them into palatable essays without losing the fire at his core. Agree or disagree with the points made within this collection, Coates is a writer, and thinker, of immense skill and intelligence. Following his train of thought as he reports, and opines, on the treatment of blacks in America since the time of Roanoke runs the gamut between utter disgust with the country we live in and slack-jawed marvel at Coates ability to make it, strange as it sounds, a pleasure to read.

What pushes We Were Eight Years In Power beyond a dry collection of essays though, is Coates himself. To commemorate the re-release of these pieces of writing, Coates has penned eight original pieces (one for each year) that chart the author’s growth as both a writer and human during the Obama presidency. The new pieces read like commentaries on not only the essay that follows, but Coates himself, his thoughts on writing, his expansion as a thinker, his grappling with newfound fame. They read like DVD commentaries if composed by a MacArthur Grant winning author. Coates, as is his way, doesn’t spare himself or his writing in any way. He tears himself asunder time and time again, exploring what went wrong in his essays, what he wished he’d hit upon, with the travails of youth prevented him from getting on the page.

In “Notes on Year One,” the thought piece before “This Is How We Lost The White Man” (Coates’ essay on Bill Cosby and Black Conservatism), he writes, “In every piece in this book there is a story I told and many more I left untold, for better or worse. In the case of Bill Cosby, especially, it was for worse. That was my shame. That was my failure.” In doing so, Coates places himself as an engaged participant and recorder of American history in the making. The reader watches America grow and contract as we watch Coates do just the same. The essays, impressive as they are, become almost sidebars for the journey of Coates himself, as both human and writer. The memoir pieces create a sinew previously unexplored, a second layer of personal connection to the author, that allows us to see the through-line of Coates’ thinking. It doesn’t seem that revolutionarycommenting on the pieces you’ve previously written in hindsightbut We Were Eight Years In Power speaks volumes for the inclusion of an author’s reflection on his work in collections such as these. As the reader ingests Coates’ critiques and contextual placements of his own work, the pieces seem to pull apart and reform, perceived entirely different in their new context.

There are two main sides of Coates as a writerthe memoirist and the intellectual. Where his essays can tend towards statistical interpretation and flat-out reportage, in his booksThe Beautiful Struggle and Between The World and MeCoates chooses emotion over cold, hard fact, leaving the statistics and statistical interpretations of his essay work on the shelf in favor of wrenching, poetic, emotional release. It’s clear that Coates’ longer pieces stem from the same throbbing intellect that his essays do, but in them, Coates isn’t held back by the restraints of reportage and the wider palette allows him to show how the world his essays paint was one he lived in, was one which personally affected him and his loved one. We Were Eight Years In Power allows the reader to digest the complex ideas of his more academic pursuits, but with Coates as a personal guide. If his books lead us through his life in the face of rampant racism, and if his essays lead us deep into the crevices of his enormous intellect, this book gives readers the best of both worlds.

Review: The Missing Girl by Jacqueline Doyle

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The Missing Girl
by Jacqueline Doyle
Published 2017 by Black Lawrence Press
$8.95 paperback ISBN 978-1-62557-983-6

By Wesley Cohen

In her interview for Speaking of Marvels, Jacqueline Doyle describes the fascination behind her new fiction chapbook The Missing Girl: “For a long while I was haunted by stories of abused or murdered or missing girls.”

The Missing Girl feels like the product of a haunting, an author’s obsession: the collection is claustrophobic in its focus on sexual violence against girls and women. The language is immediate, spare, and aggressive.

Plenty of authors share Doyle’s obsession—“Girl” books are having a heyday—and the fascination with missing girls has already been thoroughly probed. Nonetheless, The Missing Girl’s flashbulb stories feel fresh.

Perhaps it’s “My Blue Heaven” that takes the most novel approach to the oft-described murdered or missing girl. The story inscribes a narrative around Molly, a teenage girl murdered by her adult lover, by weaving together perspectives from her best friend Lizbeth, her male murderer Vern, his wife Edna, and the clerk of the motel where Vern has sex with Molly and then kills her.  Together the many tellings of Molly’s death show the way that this missing girl becomes a symbol, a story, an absence held up and examined from every angle, and shows how outside the archetypal pair of perpetrator and victim, man and girl, there are often other people standing, watching, complicit.

“Something Like That,” is another standout piece. Instead of a girl gone missing, here it is the men who are obscured, blending together as a young woman lists off the attacks and indignities of girlhood. The story has a terrific rhythm and momentum, gathering speed without paragraph breaks and with minimal punctuation:

They said I was lucky nothing really happened, not like the girl down the hall who dropped out. And I guess nothing really happened, at least not compared to high school, when I thought I was in love, at least he said he loved me, and then two of his friends showed up when we were making out in the back seat of his car, and they did things to me, and all three of them laughed and called me a slut. Everyone at school was calling me a slut that year.

Throughout, the stories pinball back and forth between the perspective of the victim and the perpetrator, the abused and the abuser. The effect is dizzying, “He said, she said” writ large.

But in a collection that sets out to explore the phenomenon of The Missing Girl, and is specifically dedicated to missing girls, it’s difficult to account for the stories that continue to erase their experiences and perspectives, as their bodies, uniformly blonde and pale, are disappeared from street corners and into strange cars and silent woods. While Doyle achieves a fascinating narrative effect from sharing victims’ perspectives alongside those of murderers, kidnappers, and rapists, showing these missing girls only through the eyes of their attackers, outlined by male memories and projections and desires, feels like yet another way these girls are made missing.

Through these stories run veins of obfuscation and disbelief, with victims and perpetrators alike lying about their stories, leaving out crucial details, or forgetting what has happened. Time and trauma wear down these narratives into collections of images, disconnected, whose contexts are unclear.

The chapbook’s final offering, “Nola,” is its most rewarding. Here, the narrator is a woman, not a girl, and she looks back on a crime she may have committed against another girl when she was still a child. Doyle doubles down on the uncertainty that makes her previous stories so unsettling, but allows her characters to break out of the adult-male-perpetrator/female-child-victim matrix, letting the crime—the protagonist tying up her friend Nola in the woods as part of a game and then leaving her there—take on more complexity, and letting the narrator exist as a more complete character. Unable to find proof of Nola’s disappearance online or figure out whether Nola ever made it back home, the narrator, now a grandmother, is haunted by apparitions of Nola on the street and dreams of her each night.

Like “Nola”’s narrator, readers of The Missing Girl can expect to find themselves haunted by these stories for days after they set the chapbook down.

Review: A Loving, Faithful Animal by Josephine Rowe

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A Loving, Faithful Animal
by Josephine Rowe
Published 2017 by Catapult
$16.95 paperback ISBN 978-1936787579

By Noah Sanders

Josephine Rowe’s outstanding debut novel, A Loving, Faithful Animal, follows a poor, Australian family marred by the pain inflicted on them by a now non-existent father figure. The father, Jack, is comparable to a natural disaster, a powerful hurricane perhaps, leveling everything in its path, before evaporating into nothing. There is a sense of aftermath to the book—the 160 mile winds have faded, the roofs have been torn off and now all that’s left is for those who’ve survived to survey the damage done, to reflect upon what happened and how they got there, and to try and figure out how to move on. Rowe places the story in the hands of the women left in Jack’s wake—the daughters, Ru and Lani, and their mother, his wife, Evelyn. There is a fluidity to the time, the reader stuck in the present with these damaged characters, but sent forward and back to see just how far the effects of their father extend into their lives; just how long it took for him to really jump into the deep end. It is a devastating piece of literature crafted by an exceptionally talented writer who tears the lives of her characters asunder and then charts their path back together.

The book starts after Jack has departed once again, this time for good, from his wife, two daughters, and brother, Les (Tetch). There is a sense of shock in the early chapters, each of them charting the effects of the departure through the eyes of another family member. They loll between locations and people, drinking and smoking, fucking and fighting, trying to find a foothold in the aftermath. Trying to see what the landscape looks like, now that they may have received the all-clear. Rowe buries a sense of happiness in her characters, pockmarked by the sadness of not only their father leaving, but of the scars—physical and mental—he’s left them with. As Evelyn says, “Jack’s voice there, in her head. He’s poisoned everything.”

There’s no love lost between the characters, at least on the surface. Jack’s abusive presence has forced them against each other, survivors in a jungle, survival instincts humming, everyone looking out for only themselves. Underneath it though—and Rowe exposes the deep darks and high highs that exist beneath her character’s tough, sunburnt skin—the family clings to whatever they still think is good in their lives. For Jack, it’s Belle—a family dog torn apart by a panther before the book starts, the catalyst for his departure—an animal loyal to him. “That was something,” he says, “To be someone’s best thing.” In his absence, the rest of the family struggles to define if anything is still their “best thing,” if their experience up to now hasn’t damaged them so greatly that there is nothing left to give. Some of them flee, some of them nest, all of them, slowly, start to heal. The author doesn’t allow her characters to be solely victims, she digs in deep into what drives Evelyn—born into wealth—to stay through the countless beatings, the destitution, the general downward arc of her life, and what her decision does to her and to her daughters.

Rowe is, and this can’t be said enough, a remarkable writer. Her prose is a mixture of Denis Johnson’s tough guy prattle and the deft, character painting of Stephen King. These are seriously fucked up people, and Rowe has no problem putting that on the page, of scraping away at their sorest spots to slowly expose them to her readers. What Rowe is able to pack into such a short book (162 pages) is incredible—she builds a broken down world filled with living, breathing humans in what some authors would call an opening act. Her writing is somehow both visceral and dreamlike, alive but floating in a state of sustained shock. “Then there’s only the three long strips of road, paddock, sky, waving like a tricolor flag,” Rowe writes, describing Ru’s bike ride into the desolate land around her house, “and it’s as though no time passes, like sleeping without dreams or dreaming awake, until the road runs out in crooked star pickets and snarls of wire.”

Each character gets a chapter—Ru, the youngest daughter, gets two—including Jack and this is the only bump in otherwise seamless book. By giving Jack a chapter—the destructive force at the center of the book—Rowe takes away some of the power of the characters left to figure everything out. Instead of a reflection of pain and abuse we get in early chapters with Ru and Evelyn, Jack’s harsh description of the war and of his romance with his future wife seems an intrusion. It pulls the focus on how to move forward and places it on why they need to, which in a book as harsh and merciless as A Loving, Faithful Animal can be, there’s absolutely no need. The character that’s formed through the eyes of those he’s damaged is much more powerful.

This is a small flaw though in an otherwise incredible piece of work. Rowe has managed to take one of the great tropes of literature—the shattered family—and inject it with a blast of edgy, searing emotional fire. If it was only her writing that was as good as it is—and it is phenomenal—this would be a book to devour in a sitting, every word slowly savored. But her skill at description and setting is merely the gift-wrapping for a book that quietly, yet savagely, paints a picture of what it’s like to survive, and what it takes to continue doing so.

Review: Five-Carat Soul by James McBride

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Five-Carat Soul
by James McBride
Published 2017 by Riverhead Books
$27.00 hardcover ISBN 978-0735216693

By Noah Sanders

In the Author’s Note for James McBride’s new collection of short stories, Five-Carat Soul, the author writes of the inspiration for the quintet of chapters that makes up the book’s closing story, “Mr. P & The Wind.” He writes of taking his nephews to a zoo in a “major American” city, and how the story was crafted with his “horrified” family in mind. After reading “Mr. P & The Wind”—and any number of the other stories in the book—one might assume that it was not only inspired by his nephews, but written with their fledgling age group in mind. There’s a simplistic blandness to “Mr. P & The Wind”; its fable-like tale of “thought speaking” zoo animals toes the line of superficial allegory (the zoo is like prison, the animals like prisoners) but never seems to want to draw any conclusions from said allegory. This is a problem that spans the entirety of the book. McBride—a National Book Award winning author—plays in the arena of weighty ideas, but for the most part the short stories contained within span a grim spectrum: the ideas spread too thin with too little focus, or beat into the reader’s brain with the subtlety of a jackhammer.

There is some surprise in reading a piece of Mr. McBride’s work—the author is a beloved literary staple and an award-winning one at that—and finding it so underwhelming. To be frank though: this is an underwhelming collection. It feels slapped together, an anthology of short pieces as written by an author uncomfortable in the medium, over an entire lifetime of writing. Five-Carat Soul doesn’t feel like a collection crafted to show off a writer’s particular skill, rather, it just seems to be the shorter work he had collecting dust in various cabinets, finally brought to light.

“The Fish Man Angel”—a story that could’ve been titled “How Mr. Lincoln Wrote The Emancipation Proclamation”—quite literally tells the story of a grieving Lincoln, hiding in a stable while his coachman Simmie, tells a story to his confused son. While Lincoln cowers, Simmie speaks of his wife and the “fish man angel” that helped her to get pregnant and how his final words to her, “here … thenceforward … forever-more … free” inspired the President to compose his most famous speech, just a few weeks later. Shrinking down the inspiration for the most famous of all of the most famous president’s speeches to a single moment of clarity isn’t outright a bad idea, but McBride draws such a linear connection between a sad Lincoln, a mean stablemaster and a cheery, if not bumbling, coachman, there’s a feeling that more is coming, that a greater idea will be touched upon. It never happens. It isn’t fair to judge an author on the expectations of its reader, but time and time again in Five-Carat Soul, the stories gleam with the dewy sheen of lofty ideas, but never dig deep enough to make them matter. Instead McBride seems content with writing folksy, under-developed yarns that aren’t hard to read, but come off as decently written throwaways.

“The Under Graham Railroad Box Car Set,” starts off brilliantly—a lonely toy collector finds the train set of his dreams—but after drawing the reader in, lays down an elementary thematic structure (we’re all different from who we purport ourselves to be) and then neatly ties the disparate narrative elements together. Nearly every piece feels this way. “The Moaning Bench” tells the tale of four people condemned to hell and the boxer who fights for their freedom. “The Christmas Dance” is a straightforward story about a promise made in war that McBride struggles to add tension and mystery to. There just isn’t much layering to any of the ideas inherent to this collection. They are exactly what they are on the page, and sadly, it just isn’t enough.

It’s not all bad. The four-part “The Five Carat Soul Bottom Bone Band” recounts the lives of four boys in a destitute neighborhood called The Bottoms. Mr. McBride nails the tone and the interactions of pubescent boys, adding a gritty warmth to the down-and-out world he creates. Here, the folksy tone of McBride’s writing succeeds—the nostalgia layered over his strong points about race, class and poverty adding a needed roundness to the work the rest of the collection lacks.

Mr. McBride is, from his critical reception and the awards he’s amassed, a talented novelist. A writer able to not only write a gripping piece of fiction, but to imbue it with a deeper, oft times darker subtext. Here though, in the realm of short stories—fickle beasts that they are—he feels out of his element, stripped of his humor and charm, struggling to invest his work with the wise, nostalgic elegance he’s so well known for.

Review: Dinner at the Center of the Earth by Nathan Englander

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Dinner At The Center of the Earth
by Nathan Englander
Published 2017 by Knopf
$25.95 hardcover ISBN 978-1524732738

By Noah Sanders

Near the end of Nathan Englander’s fantastic new novel, Dinner At The Center of The Earth, when the varied threads of his story are colliding, erupting and unraveling, the author writes, “The paths of life, they are infinitely weaving.” Dinner At The Center of the Earth is a story that ricochets through a decade of the historic, ongoing conflict between Israel and Palestine, but zooms down to a basic, near microscopic level in the context of history: the simple relationships between two people. Though set amongst a truly tragic scenario, the book can only be called historical fiction in the loosest terms. This is a story about the power of a relationship, the ripple effect that the connection between two people—real or imagined—can send sprawling into the world, forcing history’s hand as it does. Englander is able to show not only the shifting morals inherent to a conflict between two opposing forces through his small cast of characters, but to show, that under the umbrella of history, are the teeming masses of individuals, all of them seeking a way forward, whatever that may be.

By drawing the focus away from the major events of the Israeli/Palestine conflict Englander is making the point that as much as history is pushed along by major battles, assassinations, and moments that we can fill textbooks about, at its heart are small moments, minuscule events and the connections between two people. It is these events, buried beneath the slow spreading sand dunes of history, that fade from sight, but it is these experiences that drive, well, everything. Englander’s books focuses on a selection of characters whose lives, and actions, run parallel to the greater events of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians over the last decade. A former spy sits in a black site cell; a Palestinian businessman teaches a man to sail; a guard eats dinner with his mother; a woman watches the leader of Israel slip slowly into the grips of death—each of them has their beliefs, each of them has taken sides and their actions have effected the greater political picture in small, and enormous ways.

Though the cowl of history always rests on Englander’s characters, there are large stretches—Z (the spy) and his romancing of an Italian waitress, the relationship between Ruthi and her son (the unnamed security guard)—where the author allows history to take a back seat, and the pure connection between two people rises to the surface. The relationship between Farid (the Palestinian/German businessman) and Joshua (his billionaire sailing student) is based entirely on two men in need of companionship, men tossed about by war and economics who have, by chance, landed at a small boating club in Berlin. Nothing is ever as it seems in Dinner At The Center of The Earth, and Englander never makes it seem any different: these are spies and politicians and the assorted rabble that gets drawn to them.

But Englander’s great gift, and perhaps the great message of this book, is his ability to make you believe, against all better judgement, that these relationships are real. That the emotion simmering at the heart of each—love, loss, want, lust—isn’t the product of espionage, but the product of natural human need. That even though the reader knows, absolutely believes, these character will betray each other in the name of greater causes, Englander convinces that their emotional connections are real. In wanting these basic human emotional satisfactions, the characters of Dinner lose sight of the concrete objectives of spy-craft and politics, economics and reality. Human need as great and blinding, and often times the producer of terrible consequences. As Farid says to Joshua as their friendships comes to a spectacular, history-altering end, “I am calling so that you understand, what has already been put into motion did not have to happen. What already cannot be stopped was started because of this, because of you.”

Dinner At The Center of The Earth is a book full of betrayals, and paranoia, all of it derived from our most essential, most necessary aspect of being human: the relationship. This isn’t a dour book though, instead in the annals of history, Englander is able to show that amongst the horrific arc of time, relationships emerge, small and beautiful, even between two world powers whose knives have laid at each other’s throats for nearly a century. The titular “dinner” Englander invokes is one between a former Israeli spy and a Palestinian politician, in love separated by politics and war, hopeless symbols of the conflict. “Our issues,” the politician says, “They’re insurmountable, far beyond our hope.” Englander allows their narrative threads to touch once more though in the dust-soaked tunnels beneath Israel, bombs exploding above them, candles flickering. It is a small moment, as all of them in the book are, with enormous implications. As if Englander in dissecting the relationships at the heart of any conflict has found not only the cause, but the cure.

Review: Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo

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Stay With Me
by Ayobami Adebayo
Published 2017 by Knopf
$25.95 hardcover ISBN 978-0451494603

By Noah Sanders

At the heart of Ayobami Adebayo’s unsettling debut novel, Stay With Me, there is a common villain: men and the consequences of their prideful ways. This is a book about men being duplicitous with women at the very highest level in order to maintain the masculine identity bore into them, seemingly, from the moment they’re pushed into the world. It is a novel about lying to those you care about—your family, your friends, your wife—to ensure that you are always viewed as the highest order of man, that your self-proclaimed biggest weaknesses are never exposed. The novel, set in Nigeria in the politically fraught days of the early 90s, drops its main characters—strong-willed Yejide and her husband Akin—into the toxic cesspool that is the oftentimes conflicting needs of traditional Nigerian culture, strongly held religious beliefs, and the suffocating presence of a dysfunctional government. Adebayo’s characters are tossed about in the frothy mix of this noxious stew, their actions products of trying to find their own way through the demands pressed upon them by family, God, and country.

Yejide, unhappy product of the traditional polygamist belief system embedded in Nigerian culture, falls hard for Akin and decides to marry him if they live with one rule: no other wives. They will eschew the demands of family and friends and live with, and for, each other only. Yet, Yejide is seemingly barren, and without being able to provide Akin with a child and under the gun of parental pressure, the promise is broken, and Akin secretly marries, pushing Yejide to try and conceive any way possible in hopes of saving their marriage.

It is no spoiler to say that Yejide does conceive successfully (many times throughout the book) and that each child she brings into the world brings its own wash of all-consuming sadness. Yet, in the Nigerian culture of Stay With Me, children and the act of giving birth is not only a woman’s gift, but her duty, and though Yejide’s children, and their invoking of her own past, drive her to depression, near-madness and a clinical coldness, it is assumed by her and those around her, that she will have more. Tradition demands it.

Tradition—cultural and religious—encircle our main characters in Stay With Me, laying a path that leads them toward bad choices and broken relationships. Akin, dishonest to say the least, may truly love Yejide (and his actions, in a skewed, unhealthy way support this) but he has been inundated with the belief that he must be a man of certain type and to achieve that he must bury himself beneath an identity that isn’t his. His actions are driven by the suffocating aspects of the traditional role of men in Nigerian society. He is supposed to provide many women with many children and when he can’t, he passes the guilt of being unable to on to Yejide, regardless of its traumatic consequences. Yejide herself, truly the central character of Stay With Me, is traumatized by tradition as well. Her mother dies in childbirth, and she is stigmatized, nearly shunned by her family because of its implications. She accepts the blame for being unable to conceive, because tradition says it can only be her fault, and as much as she pushes back against the confinement of tradition, she’s born of it, so she accepts the fault. Tradition is a part of her, and her journey, beautifully human in the hands of Adebayo, to free herself from it is the driving force of the novel.

Adebayo uses gaps in her storytelling as a narrative tool, purposefully avoiding explaining certain situations so their eventual reveal will best buoy the growth of her characters. As the book progresses and its secrets are slowly teased out, the characters’ perception of each other and the reader’s perception of them is slowly shifted, until it feels as if everyone involved is looking at entirely different people. As well as it works in terms of the development of Akin and Yejide and the slow dissolution of their relationship, it leaves Adebayo with a lot of loose ends to tie up in a short period of time. This is a well-written debut, but the ending feels cluttered and rife with pages of exposition as the scandals behind Akin and Yejide’s relationship are explained and connected, the gaps filled in.

There is a profound sadness that runs through Stay With Me, a sense of loss and responsibilities thrust upon the novel’s characters, indicative of what might be seen as a depressing novel. Stay With Me is about broken people living in a system that perpetuates their inability to repair themselves, together or separate. These are human beings forced through the sieve of humanity—the very worst of it—and though it isn’t pretty, they come out whole, different but whole, on the other side. Ayobami Adebayo’s debut novel is a book that drags you down to some truly dark places, but in the end, she still manages to find a little light.

Review: Autumn by Karl Ove Knausgaard

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Autumn
by Karl Ove Knausgaard
Published 2017 by Penguin Press
$27.00 hardcover ISBN 978-0399563300

By Noah Sanders

“I want to show you our world as it is now,” Karl Ove Knausgaard writes to his unborn daughter in the opening chapter of his new book, Autumn. What follows is just that: short essay after short essay after short essay digging into the author’s ideas about very specific, very mundane objects and abstract concepts. He ponders piss, the labia, mouths, frames, chewing gum, lightning, August Sander, vomit, rubber boots, and much more. The essays, though ostensibly tied to the autumn season and aimed at creating a moment of reflection for the daughter he will soon welcome into the world, are more than anything just an opportunity for Knausgaard to wax philosophical (amongst other things) about his life, his past and the very world that we all live in.

Knausgaard is the internationally acclaimed author of the 7-book My Struggle series—a massive autobiographical undertaking—and is a master, quite possibly the master, of sussing deep, deep meaning from the most banal of things. If the sheer word count of My Struggle is too much to grasp, Autumn is like a condensed primer for Knausgaard’s particular style and way of thinking. Each piece—none longer than three pages—is Knausgaard’s almost stream of conscious mental noodling on a subject, any subject, of his choice. But, Knausgaard’s ability to derive complicated, yet clearly explored, interpretations is thrilling. The reader finds themselves devouring each short entry, trying to see where he’ll go, what tendrils of fascinating thought he’ll form on the subject of say, “Piss.”

In “Piss,” one of the books strongest pieces, he writes, “The little stench in one’s own piss stands in roughly the same relation to the great stench as the single cigarette does to death: it produces a faint titillation.” From there he connects the shame of pissing oneself to the last time—as a 15 year old at camp—that he himself pissed himself and how after he realized he wasn’t going to be caught, he thought, “oh God, how delicious it is to pee yourself.” Knausgaard toes the line of pretentiousness, but never stumbles over it. His pieces are the work of a big time thinker, but he isn’t trying to beat his readers over the head with how smart he is. There’s humor and poignancy strewn throughout, and they only serve to deepen the enjoyment of Knausgaard’s voice and style.

A reader can get lost amongst Knausgaard’s thoughts about such a wide spectrum of subject matter, but there are running themes—if not any kind of narrative. In “Frames” Knausgaard writes, “Identity is being one thing and not the other,” and this concept, of being something born out of comparison to whatever it is you are not, is sprinkled liberally throughout the book. “Lightning” is more memorable than the other components of a storm—wind, water, clouds—because it is framed against the familiar: “Contrary to lightning and thunder, which only occur now and then, during brief intervals which we are at once familiar with, and foreign to, just as we are at once familiar with and foreign to ourselves and the world we are a part of.”

Items only gaining import in context, plays nicely with Knausgaard’s theme of understanding huge concepts by focusing on singular parts. A human to Knausgaard, is too much to consume at once, so he focuses on a single body part, deriving their existence from the contextual clues. Which, though this may be grasping at straws, seems the point of the book: a sort of cliff notes of the entirety of the world for his daughter to be. In “Stubble Fields” he writes, “Since the main thing in the upbringing of children or in living with children is precisely to ensure that they get the feeling that the world is predictable, that it is graspable and at all times recognizable.” Which Autumn helps to do, it shows us the underlying meanings in simple things, making connections—heady but comfortable connections—between, well, everything. Knausgaard has created an abstract map of his own thoughts, and in doing so has crafted a sort of existential “how-to” for his soon to be born daughter.

This isn’t a book to read from start-to-finish, though the bite-size pieces make it somehow, strangely bingeable. Though themes do emerge as you plow through “Infants” and on to “Cars,” Knausgaard’s meandering thoughts can lose a bit of their luster if too much is consumed at once and not every piece is as strong as say, “Piss,” though all of them are at worst food for thought. Autumn is a book to digest slowly, over the course of a month or a year or even a season.

Review: Sour Heart by Jenny Zhang

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Sour Heart
by Jenny Zhang
Published 2017 by Lenny
$26.00 hardcover ISBN 978-0399589386

By Noah Sanders

The main characters of the loosely connected stories in Jenny Zhang’s debut short story collection, Sour Heart, are, each and all the young Chinese daughters of recent immigrants to New York City. They are all struggling, to various degrees, to make do in the new world they’ve arrived in. They do so without the presence, or influence of adults. Instead, these girls—nine and ten on average—have other kids in similar situations to depend on, to learn from about life lessons. From their parents they garner overbearing, co-dependent support, fear, and the trickle-down effects of the trauma of the past. From their peers they gain the basic foundations of life filtered through the skewed perspective of youth. In the grey area in between, Zhang manages to explore the struggles of young girls who are just grasping what struggle really is. She does so with a dark, biting humor that lays out the small tragedies and the even smaller triumphs that define the lives of these children.

The world of Sour Heart is not an especially pleasant one. Zhang’s New York is a desperately impoverished world. Families dig in dumpsters, apartments collapse, broken cars are pushed into rivers—it is a grim world, one where parents must sacrifice “everything” to make it suitable for those they’ve brought into it. And to do so, they must work two or three or more jobs to put measly scraps on the table. Sour Heart exists in the absent space between their children and them. Zhang’s cadre of young girls are given lives but lives but without standard forms of parental guidance. In “We Love You Crispina” the parents are loving to the point of including their daughter in the petty crimes they commit just to survive. In “Our Mothers Before Them” the parents are drunk and needy, demanding and damaged. These kids are told to “succeed,” as if the unknown outcome of their lives gives sound reason for their parents to flee China. They are asked do so without support, without parents, without anything but their youthful peers to give them meaning.

The parents in Sour Heart, though chronically absent, still pass along their influence. The traumas of growing up, and escaping Communist China, come through as, sometimes, nostalgic memories, but are racked with half-remembered pain and suffering. All of this gets, consciously or not, passed down to the next generations. “I was her receptacle,” the narrator of “Our Mothers Before Them” says of her mother, “and I permitted her to speak endlessly.” There is much talk of “sacrifice” in Sour Heart, and Zhang never allows for it to feel particularly selfless, or beneficial. It is instead, a necessity for survival, no matter the cost.

There is a pervasive, suitably childlike grossness in Sour Heart. Zhang’s characters rarely have set a toe into their teen years, and the curiosity, humor, and enjoyment found in the exploration of body fluids and body parts hasn’t dimmed a bit. There is more than enough descriptions of pooping, farting, and pissing as well as detailed descriptions of the smell of vaginas. The main character of “The Empty The Empty The Empty” spends an afternoon allowing her friend to examine her vagina. She describes the smell as a combination between her sandals and “these fried anchovies my parents ate.”

Zhang is a skilled portrayer of the kid’s point of view and the grossness, though often times overused, isn’t used in vain. The casual obsession with sexuality clashes with their maturity-lacking descriptions because these are little girls being pushed into adulthood without any real guidance. This becomes most apparent in “The Empty The Empty The Empty,” the collection’s best story, the narrator so convinced of her own perfection, so desperate for confirmation, that she allows herself, and her strange young friend Frangie, to be pulled into a particularly sad sexual scenario, authored by a girl just a tad older, a tad more experienced. As a storm crashes outside their small apartment empty of parental guidance, the narrator’s age and inexperience rears its head. She offers whispered promises of Cheez Doodles and shopping trips as she assists in the forced deflowering of Frangie.

It is difficult at times to call the ‘stories’ in Sour Heart ‘short.’ For the most part, these are borderline novellas, long, dense pieces of first-person narration. As good as Zhang is at capturing the voice of a child, it oftentimes feels like the same child, with a slightly different experience but a similar voice. The characters bleed together, and by the end of the book it’s a blur of petulance and fart descriptions. The length can work to her advantage; in “The Empty The Empty The Empty,” the page count gives Zhang time to build up our perception of the narrator, making her eventual turn all the more painful to experience. Mostly, the length of each story feels excessive and exuding of an atmosphere that becomes stale over the course of the book.

There is a sense in the length and the blurring of characters over time, that maybe we’re being asked to see the immigrant experience depicted here as a collective one. That each of these girls, different as they are, are living in the same world, dealing with the same issues, struggling just to survive. It’s a strong point Zhang’s writing often times highlights, but too often, it’s buried beneath the weight of so much.

Review: The Misfortune of Marion Palm by Emily Culliton

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The Misfortune of Marion Palm
by Emily Culliton
Published 2017 by Knopf
$25.95 hardcover ISBN 978-1524731908

By Noah Sanders

The opening line of Emily Culliton’s excellent debut novel, The Misfortune of Marion Palm, is a deceptively simple set-up for the rest of the book: “Marion Palm is on the lam.” The book does revolve around the disappearance of its titular main character, but it is equally concerned with the effects—both good and bad—of her vanishing on those around her. Marion Palm, as the book begins, has stolen $40,000 from her employer—an upscale private school her daughters attend—left these same daughters in a CVS, and has taken off for good, leaving her ineffectual husband, Nathan, to sort it all out. This isn’t a book about a grand escape, though. Marion doesn’t roam far and her goals are neither specific nor especially ambitious. She runs because she needs to escape the person she’s become—a mother, a part-time employee at a prep school, a wife. She runs to shed the disguises she’s worn for so long, to rediscover who she once was. Culliton, a writer to keep an eye on, allows Marion’s disappearance to be a catalyst for the entire Palm Family—Nathan and the two daughters, Jane and Ginny. This a story about the people we become, the complex identities we don and what occurs when those identities are removed, voluntarily or not.

“She’s been disguising herself for years,” Culliton writes early on when Marion decides to chop and dye her limp, brown hair, “and this is another round.” Marion is the type of character restricted by her lack of ambition, her lack of knowing just what it is she wants to do. The author paints her as a sponge of sorts, a generally inoffensive person who’s overly helpful, who allows others to spill their hopes and dreams and fears and insecurities, but never exposes her own. Over the course of The Misfortune of Marion Palm—a title that seems more and more relevant the deeper you get into the book—we see the choices, or the lack thereof, that have made Marion’s life. When Marion and Nathan, a clueless trust-fund kid, have sex for the first time, Culliton writes, “In a rush he enters her, and it’s the first she’s had sex without a condom, and the feeling breaks her apart. Nathan’s selfishness courses through her, but she feels entirely required.” Marion, up to her escape, exists only to please others, a job she is quite good at. But the identity, a helpful mother and wife, grows heavier and heavier, her only alleviation the small control she feels when she embezzles. Which she does, a lot.

Even Marion’s escape is small and compartmentalized. She thinks about leaving New York City, but gets worried at the train station and instead books a cheap flop near the park. She dyes her hair and sleeps for long periods: “Marion feels as if she is repairing herself. She administers carefully to her own needs.” It’s hard to say Marion is on the run, because her escape is pockmarked by inertia. She never leaves New York City; she doesn’t even leave Brooklyn. Her escape is an interior one. She sheds the skin of everything she’s done to become the person she always was underneath. If “it’s most likely two children, Nathan, and a decade [that] have altered Marion on a molecular level,” then her familial flight is in pursuit of the whomever she was to begin.

Her disappearance has a similar effect on those she’s left behind. Nathan, a philandering poet with almost no idea how to exist on his own, is suddenly forced into the role of a single father. So consumed by his maintaining his own imagined identities—great dad, great husband, great writer—he never even searches for his missing wife. He simply expects her to come home. It’s a part of the identities they’ve created: Marion the responsible one on whom everyone can depend, Nathan, not so much. In Marion’s absence, he suddenly realizes “he has been making himself up for years” and that the person he’s made himself up to be isn’t that great of a person. His response though, is to barricade himself inside his house, turn even more inwards, to start a blog that paints his life in the rosiest of situations (missing wife or not).

This is an assured debut. Culliton slowly expands from the first page, gaining weight and credibility as the book, and the “search” for Marion, continues. There are a bundle of narrative threads in the piece, but Culliton doesn’t get lost, each character—socialites of varying ethnic backgrounds, a vengeful school board, a detective searching for a missing boy—getting just the right amount of space, until she’s able to, with clear, concise, often beautiful writing, bring their lives back together again. She manages to do so with surprise and humor, and the sort of assured narrative choices writers far more experienced struggle to bring to the page.

Culliton doesn’t give her characters easy outs in The Misfortune of Marion Palm. To rediscover themselves, both Marion and Nathan willingly take on new identities, effectively switching out their old, used up lives for less worn ones. It seems that perhaps we are, from our birth onwards, nothing more than what others believe us to be, our true selves always being minimized, until there’s nothing left. Or until you decide to take it back, to run like Marion Palm. But even then, you’re only running from the identity you were to the identity you’ll become next.

Review: Beast by Paul Kingsnorth

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Beast
by Paul Kingsnorth
Published 2017 by Graywolf Press
$16.00 paperback ISBN 978-1555977795

By Noah Sanders

The story of Paul Kingsnorth’s Beast is a simple one: a man, mythically alone on the moors of England, descends into madness. Beast, the second novel in Kingsnorth’s thematically connected trilogy (The Wake, set 1,000 years in past, the first book in the series) places us into the mind and shoes of recent hermit, Edward Buckmaster. We know almost nothing about Buckmaster. He has departed a life where he was, “an item, an object, a collection of gears, a library of facts compiled by others,” and with it, his wife and children. He has come to the moors to build a new home, a place where he can “wait for the presence,” a place where he hopes an ascetic lifestyle will lead to new revelations. An event happens early in the book—Kingsnorth leaves the specificity of events to reader—and Buckmaster, up to this point a stereotypical, sort of raving hermit, finds himself wounded, unaware of his past (near or far), entirely alone and obsessed with finding the “beast” of the title, which he believes stalks him. As his obsession grows, so does his madness, and we the reader, locked up in his frame of mind, are dragged along with him. There is the sinister paranoia of a madman at work in Beast, a wary paranoia that infuses every moment, every tiny detail, leaving the reader on edge, waiting for Buckmaster to find the Beast, or the Beast to find him. A clear cut conclusion is not Kingsnorth’s aim though, instead, the true enjoyment in the book the author’s beat-by-beat recollection of Buckmaster’s slow, steady, extremely intense decline into another state of being.

To say that Beast is told through the first-person narrative is truthful, but underwhelming in capturing what Kingsnorth does here. Edward Buckmaster is, aside from a few memories, a few more hallucinations and the Beast itself, the only character in the book. The reader spends the entirety of the novel locked in the mind of a man who has chosen extreme solitude and is now paying for that choice. Buckmaster’s obsession with finding the Beast becomes a compulsion-driven search through abandoned towns and the eerie, cloud-covered natural world he’s found himself in. Time and time again, Kingsnorth alludes to the true beast at hand, Buckmaster himself, his old life and family abandoned for a hermit’s existence. “I crawled into the house like a dog,” he says, or “I shuffled like a broken creature,” the primal descriptions casting the narrator as the real darkness at the heart of the book. Though short in page count, Buckmaster’s downward spiral is dense and taxing, rife with wild leaps of emotion Kingsnorth is laudably able to pass directly on to the reader.

Kingsnorth, who’s The Wake was lauded for its use of an invented pseudo-language, clearly enjoys playing with the standard form of the written word. The writing is sparse and impressionistic, the emotional swings of Buckmaster broadcast through his sudden lack of punctuation, his occasional stutter-step in thinking. Words are repeated, topics are leapt between, the thin line between Buckmaster’s reality and a series of visions that grow more frequent and more strange as the book progresses more and more blurred. Kingsnorth’s writing captures all of it, brands it into the reader’s brain, and then leaves them wallowing in it. “there is nothing to eat here” Buckmaster thinks “and i cannot eat anyway until i have looked into its eyes it would bring me terrible bad luck to eat before i have looked into its eyes it would be an indulgence it would take me away.”

As Buckmaster waits—for the Beast, for a “presence,” for the meaning of his life to appear—the reader waits as well. We live in the moment with Buckmaster even as his brain roils in dreams and hallucinatory episodes, even as he rants about man’s damage to the Earth, the mundane taxation of modern society. We wait, fists clenched, teeth gritted, for the secret of the Beast and the world in which the Beast lives to come to light, for Buckmaster to meet his demise, for the squinting horror looming just on the periphery to finally make itself known. But we wait in vain. Kingsnorth isn’t interested in drawing conclusions. Like Buckmaster we can wait forever for a meaning to arrive, but it’s in the journey, the waiting itself, microscopic and tinged with mania, where the true meaning lies.

Review: The Lauras by Sara Taylor

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The Lauras
by Sara Taylor
Published 2017 by Hogarth
$26.00 hardcover ISBN 978-0451496850

By Noah Sanders

No matter the literary accolades thrust upon Sara Taylor and her second novel The Lauras, know one thing: The Lauras, at its heart is a classic adventure novel. A story of two anti-heroes, on the run from lawmen and lovers alike, in search of the buried treasures of the past. Hell, there’s even a treasure map, speckled with x’s that most certainly mark a spot or two. There’s monsters to be fought, secrets to be revealed, and in the end, the gleaning of knowledge about one’s self and one’s familial past is worth far more than its weight in gold.

Woken in the middle of the night and thrust into a car by her roguish mother, the narrator of The Lauras—Alex—unwillingly hits the road. One moment a nerdy, outcasted teenager, the next the sidekick and navigator on her mother’s continent-spanning journey through her past. Armed with only a well-worn, well-annotated map, her mother’s ingenuity, and, well, a gun, the pair careen across the United States of America seeking to rectify past sins and tie off the loose ends of a life lived on the run. Each stop is an opportunity for the author to reveal another facet of Alex’s mom’s childhood in foster and group homes, to the reader and to Alex herself. Houses burn, children are kidnapped, guns are pulled—every pit stop presents a new obstacle, mental or physical in which our heroes must surpass. Every break in the road another nugget of the past is revealed. The Lauras is a slow saunter down memory lane, each step forward another step further into the past.

Taylor layers the stories of each sojourn along the road with Alex’s mom’s own recollections of the past, of her interactions with a series of women loosely referred to as “The Lauras,” of her life before being defined as a mother and a wife. The character of the mother is an absolute joy to take in. She’s familiar—you’ve seen her on cracked sidewalks outside of grocery stores, huffing down cigarettes in the humid swamp of a Southern afternoon—but Taylor doesn’t allow her to be a stereotype. The hard shell and predatory sense of being a loner she wears like body armor is softened by her own memories, the stories of her past she passes along to Alex. “I didn’t realize my mother was a person until I was thirteen years old,” Alex says. By the end of the novel, as richly conceived as she is, she might as well walk right off the page. Alex’s discovery of who she is can be likened to realizing that your mother used to be a storied bank robber—Jesse James or Billy the Kid. And when Jesse James is on the road, well, she likes to spin a yarn.

Taylor manages, with writing razor sharp but infused with a soft, colloquial warmth, to add a sense a vulnerability to the character of the mother. She’s tough as nails, but light as air, liable to drift away if she’s not tethered down. Alex is her only root, and the madcap dash across America is not only her way to make good on a few promises, pay off a few debts, but to pass along the family tradition: adventure. “I wonder if that’s how all the great explorers felt,” Alex says on one long stretch of driving, “hungry and sick and just hoping that they could find some land so that they could get that boiling-hot-fit-your-whole-body-in-at-once-bath they’d been madly wanting.” Because as much as she learns about her mother on their trip, it is the love of the road, the quest, the sheer, simple act of setting out for a destination, map in hand that becomes the great lesson passed along.

The Lauras is best when it’s moving, the interaction between Alex and the mother on their long hours with four wheels on asphalt comfortable and well wrought. Small stops along the way can be wonderful—a moment in Minnesota with the gun and a tattoo shop owner is particularly amazing—but when the duo touches down, Taylor lets the story get loose and it loses focus and steam. There’s a lengthy thread about Alex’s gender and sexuality—kept vague throughout—that runs the course of the book that seems to have great meaning for the author, but she never commits, at least on the page, to why it’s important to the story. One could find meaning in Alex’s genderless life—perhaps when you hit the road, your nothing but a traveler, gender and sex left at the first off-ramp—but Taylor never puts it on the page and it seems too big an aspect of the story to be left to a reader’s imagination. It is instead a rare slow-down in book that could only be described as a cracking yarn.

Aside from its flaws, minor and based in ambition they may be, The Lauras is a fantastic read. Taylor’s way with words and characters and setting revels in the folksy clichés we associate with the South, but her writing never lets them feel forced or lacking depth. “She’d not written the book on how to disappear forever and never be found,” Alex says about her mother at one point, “but she’d read it plenty of times.” It seems Sara Taylor has as well.

Review: The Bear Who Broke the World by Justin McFarr

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The Bear Who Broke the World
by Justin McFarr
Published 2017 by Wheeler Street Press
ISBN 978-0997613148

Memories of childhood often evoke the notion of simpler times, this idea that our lives were much less complicated when we were young. The problem is, our lives weren’t any less complicated then, than they are now. Our memories of childhood only seem simpler because they no longer exist—they’re essentially figments of our imagination, shaded by the setbacks we’ve faced during the years spent trying to understand adulthood. The retrospective nature of looking back, this grappling with the intangibility of memory, is the center of gravity in Justin McFarr’s debut novel, The Bear Who Broke the World. The reader is always reminded how strange childhood is, how unsettling the world of adults can be when seen through the eyes of someone gaining a true awareness of the ways things really are.

The novel takes us through the summer vacation of Daedalus Stephen O’Neill, the ten year-old narrator who wants nothing more than to create the kind of memories he can look upon with starry-eyed nostalgia. “My first memory from the summer of 1976,” he says in the novel’s very first line, “should have been the sound of a school bell ringing like freedom or the sun on my face as I jumped onto my dirt bike.” Alas, that’s not in the cards for Stephen (as he understandably refers to himself). His mother, Rose, works long hours to support him and his brother Demian; his father had abandoned them when Demian was a toddler, running off to New York in order to become a poet. The other adult in their house is Rose’s boyfriend Ken, an overeducated Berkeley grad who’d rather spend his days smoking grass, listening to records, and debating American foreign policy than looking for a job—or after two young boys. Stephen resents Rose, as she seemingly loves Ken more than she cares for her sons, and much of the novel revolves around how the ways the boys try to escape their home-lives, while Stephen tries to understand the root of his mother’s neglect.

Because of the themes of love and abandonment, there are many heartbreakingly sad moments in The Bear Who Broke the World, but McFarr softens much of the tragedy through his loving depiction of Bicentennial-era Berkeley, Oakland, and Fremont. Landmarks like the UC Theater, Moe’s Books, and the Claremont Hotel remind us this is an East Bay story, while details such as Wacky Packages, Claremont/Cockrum-era X-Men comics, and the “Proud to Be” PSA’s that used to run on KTVU place us in a world that no longer exists. Stephen’s world is a sad one, but it’s one rendered with careful precision and populated by a compelling cast, such as Seneca Reed, the object of Stephen’s affections, his one chance at the eventful summer every young boy craves. There’s Stephen’s friend Trevor, and Trevor’s brother Art, the burgeoning punk rocker who helps Stephen find an outlet for his adolescent rage. And then there’s the local drug dealer Kirby Johnson, a mysterious figure who haunts the neighborhood like an inversion of Boo Radley and punctures Stephen’s child-like notions of justice.

This book’s one, true strength is McFarr’s clarity of vision. Because The Bear Who Broke the World is a mostly plotless novel with a lot of side characters and digressions, McFarr firmly places the reader in Stephen’s interiority. Stephen is a sufficiently reliable narrator who exemplifies the horror of a childhood in which adults leave children to fend for themselves. We are taken through every painstaking moment of a young boy’s summer vacation, while he unpacks everything that happens to him, painting a very honest portrait of childhood. In short, the reader is in very capable hands. This is a book that not only knows what it wants to be, but what it should be.