Review: Indictus by Natalie Eilbert

Indictus


Indictus
by Natalie Eilbert
Published 2018 by Noemi Press
$15.00 paperback ISBN 978-1934819715

By Luiza Flynn-Goodlett

[I hesitate to foreground myself but want to provide a brief disclaimer: As a reader and survivor of sexual violence, those two parts of myself rarely intersect, and when they do, it’s likely due to an author’s harmful blundering instead of their careful engagement. This book is one the few that does the hard work of dwelling in those dark, sticky places, and so, it isn’t something to approach casually or without forethought. I read it over several weeks, putting it down frequently to catch my breath. What Eilbert does in these pages is remarkable, and I wish there was a better word for it than brave, but I did feel her being brave on my behalf, excavating and confronting specific personal violence, and in so doing, showing readers that this confrontation is both possible and necessary. So, fellow survivors, approach this book with all possible care and gentleness toward yourself, but please, do approach—you need it.]

Indictus is breathless, urgent, and unmistakably contemporary. Although, it’s not so much “contemporary” as from the future its speaker calls into being, a time when all things that must be said can be, and we don’t stop others or ourselves from saying them. There’s such intimacy here—a girl telling you something terrible, so unbelievable that it can’t be spoken above a whisper. But, instead, imagine the girl screaming that terrible truth at the top of her lungs, in front of the whole school, and you’ll have a sense of the thrill and unease this book inspires.

The long poem “Man Hole” that comprises the first half of the book frames the speaker’s history of sexual violence, and that of the other women in her life, as a study of holes—what they are; what goes into them; what comes out. As the speaker observes, “True emptiness doesn’t exist on the planet—isn’t that something? Holes / are essayistic then,” and “The beauty of holes is that I cannot enter one without ceasing to / exist in the outside world.” This framing transforms the violence described and its consequences into something primal and mythic. But there are no ancient gods or fates here, just a cultural system of misogynistic oppression that robs sexually violent acts of their specific harm, making them appear to be without cause, and thus, inevitable: “no one speaks of girls’ bodies as anything but accident . . . The van doors slam, the men disappear,” and the gutting sentiment, “They called her fine.”

She also examines how women whose violations are deemed both nonexistent and inescapable continue to limp into the future: “To believe what was done to me is curable / assumes a shape. This assumes / what was done to me is truly done.” Sometimes moving forward involves the all-too-familiar state of repression: “Do I remember when he brought my face to his sheets and demanded / I smell what I made? I do not and I loved it. I pushed a disk over memory / so I could breathe freely over it.” (That made me gasp.) Other times, it’s merely a matter of survival: “Dumb little smart girl / walks with both hands against her thighs. Others cover their asses with books. / Women hurt themselves to turn their wars inward.”

Eilbert excels at representing the cyclical nature of trauma, how survivors live with the paradox of their experiences meaning both nothing and everything, how they’ve changed profoundly and yet outwardly remain the same person: “Years and years went by like this. My childhood was decent. / Years and years went by like this. My childhood was decent. / And yet.”

For me, being seen in lines like the following was like a gulp of air after drowning for decades: “I grew up disappearing into a body. Then several. I want to tell you what happened to me . . . But what should I say?” Beneath the final line of “Man Hole,” I scrawled: “I’m dead.” Looking back at it now, I think I meant that Eilbert took me to the very edge of what I could bear, shredded society’s understandings of sexual trauma and women’s bodies, and assembled something entirely new from the scraps. I wrote “dead,” when what I meant was “reborn.”

The book’s second half, comprises the sections “The Men Fall Away” and “Liquid Waste: A Postscript,” is by no means a reprieve from the intensity of “Man Hole”; however, in “The Men Fall Away,” Eilbert’s speaker turns inward, foregrounding her own emotional terrain instead of those who intruded upon it. In poems like “Genesis,” she reflects:

a man led a girl into a closet and bit down.
Her cat escaped his leg when he left. It isn’t
much of a story. It never became a story at all.

There’s such canniness toward linear narrative and how trauma remakes the brain to subvert that narrative, as in this unbearable section from “In Truth I Wish Him Harm”:

Then the man removes her pants and tells her to watch the television.
It radiates blue light.
…………………………….
The girl develops a paralyzing fear of dark blue storm clouds.
She misses her bus.
Years later she will write with the deep worry it was only the color she saw.
No man.

There are numerous other standouts in “The Men Fall Away,” including “Testament with Water under the Bridge,” “Judges,” which contains the breathtaking line, “How I’ve gnawed the rims of cups. My desire to forget / left me a cast-iron mouth,” and “World’s Tiniest Violin,” with the line “my small wrists that are still so small,” the brutality of which I keep returning to. “Liquid Waste: A Postscript” also has many bright spots, such as, “To forgive, I poured milk in a saucer for a creature that never came.” There’s no clean resolution here, no tidy bow to tie it all up with, just a dogged keeping on.

This is a book that returns the reader’s gaze (whether they’ve suffered sexual violence, perpetrated it, or simply been forged by our misogynistic culture), so it can’t help but be a deeply personal book to encounter. As Eilbert’s speaker states in the final section, “I was born with black eyes / open, meaning I peeled back and stared through vaginal light.” Eilbert doesn’t spare herself or her readers, and I’m so grateful for that. Both timely and timeless, this howl of truth will echo for years to come.

Review: The Job of the Wasp by Colin Winnette

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The Job of the Wasp
by Colin Winnette
Published 2018 by Soft Skull Press
$16.95 paperback ISBN 978-1593766801

By Noah Sanders

Colin Winnette’s novel The Job of the Wasp is, to some degree a ghost story. It is also a locked-room murder mystery and a gothic horror story all entangled within the dimly lit hallways of a purgatory like orphanage. It’s narrator, an ill-fitted boy—lacking both a name and a past—arrives at his new home, seeking nothing but some form of acceptance, but instead is pulled into a madcap hall of mirrors where no one—the children or the ominously vague staff—are to be trusted. Yet all of this—the hunt for an elusive ghost, the murders (which there are many), the pounding storm and the dank, often dour atmosphere—are a mere smoke screen for a story about the elusive nature of acceptance, what we will do, what we might even give up to feel a part of something bigger. And though Winnette—an able veteran of literary genre writing—handles the snarl of spirits and death with aplomb, the reader’s urge to unravel the relatively superfluous “mystery” distracts from the pulsing heart at the novel’s core.

The orphanage in which Winnette thrusts his nameless narrator is a transitional place, where parentless children and troubled kids are sent to be bettered for reemergence into society. Through awkward conversation and the blandly dire monologues of an anxiety-ridden headmaster, our narrator learns that every so often, when the number of students exceeds the capacity of the space, people start dying. His appearance pushes the number into the red and quite quickly, murder is afoot. Accusations are thrown, but many believe it to be the work of a ghost amongst them, costumed as a student, but killing in secret. The narrator—cold and distant, his every conversation a tool to discover more—discovers a buried body and commits a murder of his own and then, his own life hanging in the grips, must do what he can to discover the culprit.

The Job of the Wasp reads fast and sometimes funny, but there is a sense of longing in the character of the narrator, a perpetual maladroit coming to reckon with his own need of fitting in. The other boys (or are they ghosts) shun him at first, turn against him later and finally turn towards a sort of youthful mob justice once they’ve narrowed their suspicions. “Young boys are barbarians,” the narrator says, and he is the outsider amongst them, navigating this suddenly dangerous world as well as the slings and arrows of teenagers confined to a small space. “Young boys are barbarians,” Winnette writes, and The Job of the Wasp portrays them as such, escalating from teasing to attempted murder at the merest suggestion.

Winnette’s narrator is a fascinating, almost otherworldly perspective on the unfolding events, trying as he might to find allies of any yolk, even as those he gets “close” to continue to turn up dead. If he is surrounded by the erratic energy of young men, he is entirely separate from it as well. If the ghost could be anyone, then our narrator could be as well, and Winnette doesn’t shy from portraying him as askew from the other orphans. At times the reader wonders, “Is this narrator even a child? Is he even human?” “This was the very essence of innocence: a willingness to believe,” the narrator speaks at one point describing his fellow students, his perspective so alien, so above the simpler minded objectives of those around him.

And because of the genre(s), reading The Job of the Wasp, becomes an exercise in trying to figure out what’s true and what’s not, who’s a ghost and who’s not, who at the very least can be trusted. Which is unfortunate, because the journey of the narrator, how his attempt to insinuate himself into an established group for survival blossoms into something bigger, is a smaller, more poignant story smothered beneath the, albeit pitch perfect, atmosphere and mystery Winnette has devised.

This becomes clearest in the end of the book, when questions are answered (kind of) and the villain of the piece (maybe) is finally revealed and the strange world Winnette has crafted becomes even stranger. Because even as Winnette unboxes the mystery, lays all his cards on the table, it is the small shift in the narrator’s mind set the reader is drawn towards. The answers Winnette gives will not satisfy those thirsty for a neatly tied up conclusion. They are vague and as mysterious as everything that’s led up to them, and though this is clearly the author’s intention, it only adds to the distracting nature of the book’s genre elements. Even as the narrator begins to understand his place in the school, and perhaps in the world, one’s mind is drawn away from the emotional revelations and towards deciphering the cryptic explanations being laid on the table. And though Winnette has done a fine job crafting his bizarre, haunting world, in doing so he’s pulled the focus on what really matters: the fascinating interior dissection of his narrator.

Review: The First Church of What’s Happening by Miah Jeffra

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The First Church of What’s Happening
by Miah Jeffra
Published 2017 by Nomadic Press
$10 paperback ISBN 978-0-9981348-9-5

By Noah Sanders

Miah Jeffra’s chapbook, The First Church of What’s Happening, is a deceptively slender volume of lyrical essays. The book, a collection of 10 short, lyrical pieces flits between both form and tone, with Jeffra peeling back the loose skin around his succinct, specific thoughts to expose the connections between what seems like nearly everything. With subject matter ranging from how to seduce a tech bro (“How To Seduce a Tech Bro in 13 Steps”) to Keith Haring (“Make Sure to See The Exit Door”) to an almost granular exploration of the memory of a rape (“Sunset, 1986”), there’s a lot to unpack in The First Church of What’s Happening. Jeffra, for the most part, is up to the task, managing a delicate balance of crass humor, poetic description, and academic insight (the author is a professor at Santa Clara) to untangle a dense knot of memory, perception, and life experience to great effect.

The essay “13 Ways To Seduce a Tech Bro” is, at a surface level, a satire of the emotional “how to” lists made popular by Cosmopolitan and other glossy lifestyle mags. And if you read it straight through, with your thinking hat laid neatly on a shelf, you would chuckle at the dismantling of the typical “tech bro” at his ” after-party bro jobs” or that the “white male donning Warby Parkers” is probably named “Bryan or Brad or Brent or Brock or Chett or Chip.” Jeffra is a skilled humorist and he will make you laugh, but you’ll do so with a lingering edge of discomfort as the author unravels his “tech bro” subject, exploring the politics of protest, gentrification, a boy named Chris Cortina (“His ass filled a pair of shorts like two planets.”) and much more before using the whole form to skewer the shallow representation of glossy mag, emotional “how-to” lists in general. And just when it feels like you’ve ingested too much, like Jeffra’s layers upon layers of meaning have filled you to the point of popping, he ties it all together—the tone, the style, the form—into a heart-breaking expression of universal human emotion.

When Jeffra turns inward and picks apart his own experience is when the book truly takes flight. “Sunset, 1986” recalls, in graphic detail, Jeffra’s rape in the woods around the Virginia home of his youth. The visual experience Jeffra is able to build on the page is both breathtaking and harrowing, each moment zoomed in on microscopically, immersing the reader in the brutality. “Dirt and grainy nature stuck wet inside my lips,” he writes, “and I could feel slobber move inside my mouth.” But as much as this is an essay about being raped, Jeffra uses the moment to investigate the permeance of memory, and how as a grown gay man and a writer, his recollection of the event has smeared, altered, and changed as he’s grappled with its implications. He intrudes upon his own memory like a director commenting on a film, peering at it from different points in time, dragging the reader into the hindsight, the emotional grappling he’s gained as the distance has grown. “And I wish I could admit that I only thought of this man’s pitiful, sorry boyness, awkward with the darkness of adulthood,” he writes, “or that I thought of my boyness, and became afraid then of what I would be, what all men become.” It is a harrowing piece of writing, and the very best in a collection full of strong pieces.

It isn’t that Jeffra ever overextends—his tangents are always interesting, his ability to wind them together strong—but on occasion they become too much to digest fully. As if Jeffra has so much he needs to say in such a short amount space, the essays become overindulgent, a table laden with themes, ideas and descriptions to the point of breaking. Some of this is in part the general concept of reading an essay collection: as soon as you’ve got your teeth fully sunk into one set of Jeffra’s ideas, you jump headlong into another and the effect can be dizzying for good and for bad.

As a whole though, The First Church of What’s Happening threads the needle of humor and pain, truth and perception, circling around and around its subjects before landing quietly on some gasp-worthy bit of thought and writing. And sometimes, sometimes Jeffra’s choice to describe shitting himself as dropping a “stink pickle in my drawers” will just make you laugh, and amongst everything else, it will, as I can only imagine Jeffra intended, it will feel like a breath of fresh air.

Review: Witch Wife by Kiki Petrosino

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Witch Wife
by Kiki Petrosino
Published 2017 by Sarabande Books
$16.95 hardcover ISBN 978-1946448033

By Luiza Flynn-Goodlett

Witch Wife gets power and momentum from a few sources, the most striking of which is repetition. Echoing (and even explicitly referencing) Anne Sexton, phrases (sometimes whole lines) reappear, and upon each usage, deepen, expand, and echo outwards, enlarging the space within each poem while drilling deeper toward its core. It’s more than form, though there’s plenty of that; these poems unfold like incantatory, irresistible spells.

Voice is another huge driver here, and the speaker is full of contradictions—prickly and tender, intelligent and childish, cruel and guileless—that keep the reader perpetually unsettled and engaged. The voice is also intimate, using short, simple words and a nursery-rhyme cadence that balances the poems’ lyric intensity as acid does salt, resulting in something more delicious than either element alone.

The book is split into four numbered sections, the poems in each loosely correlating to a phase in the speaker’s life. And the tension of domesticity (wife) vs. wildness (witch) is carried through each section, though it manifests in different ways. The first two sections take us through childhood, and subsequently, a young adulthood of travel, sexuality, and heartbreak. Especially in the first section, the speaker expresses a real disgust toward the physical self that’s recognizable to any woman/femme who’s grown up in this world where their body is considered an unfixable problem, and their desire a hushed mystery. It’s especially biting in poems like “Young” where the speaker refers to her “runny custard body / with its buried corkscrew of hate.”

Early in the book, the speaker also reflects on lineage and how she has been shaped by the women who came before her, as evidenced in “New South”:

I’m always marching
my hair cropped close
my mothers beside me
in robes & crowns so
I go back, go forth
light girl, light girl
crammed with light

The self is subsequently cast into the world, with all the complications that entails. There’s also a purposeful, sincere messiness that mimics the inevitable collisions between the speaker and others in poems like “Europe”: “My age / is a seed-pearl under my tongue. Was I wrong / to weep in my clothes on the street?” The contrast between the imagined and the real, the wildly lyrical and quotidian in these lines generates a deeply bewildered feeling that mimics the emotional terrain of young adulthood.

The book’s concerns then transition into those of adulthood, with the attendant realities of living as a black woman in America, as in “Letter to Monticello”: “Every month brought / me closer to Mars, a planet ruled by black women astronauts.” There’s also the splendid “Political Poem,” which uses Martin Luther King’s words as its refrain:

Now the moral
autobus kneels like a camel at the curb. It bends
& I climb into the sinking dark. I climb. It bends.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Let it curl up like the moral
fortune still inside the cookie, the moral
border dissolving in cold milk.

The cyclical emphasis placed on this quoted phrase reflects how civil rights struggles are ongoing, repetitive, and oftentimes frustrating, leaving each generation to go back over the same ground, using their limited energy bending the same arc.

Witch Wife reveals growing anxiety around family and motherhood, which begins with “Little Gals,” (“One says You know / it’s past time you bred / & opens her mouth / full of egg teeth.”) and continues with “Vigil” (“I glimpse a momentary face, a tiny zero snugged within / my elbow’s dark”). We see a familiar tension of simultaneously wanting and not wanting children in poems like “Nursery”: “They had no faces yet. We spoke / into their quince-bud ears.” This is complicated by the external voices the speaker is exposed to in poems like “Prophecy”: “I can see you / at thirty weeks, your skin bright as automotive paint.” By the end of the book, a détente has been reached, as articulated in “Confession”: “Every month I decide not to try / is a lungful of gold I can keep for myself.” It’s not a harmonious resolution, but an awareness of how society places women in an impossible bind when it comes to choices around making (or not making) family.

Witch Wife asks, can one be both a witch and a wife? In other words, is it possible to preserve deep wildness, what in us is most inexplicable and essential, while choosing to inhabit the quotidian confines of domesticity? Petrosino doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, but she does ask unceasingly interesting questions. And, by giving attention to the questions that occupy her speaker, she elevates and illuminates them, holds them up to the light like precious stones and lets their facets cast an astonishing lyrical light.

2017 in Books: Year-End Roundup

Prose

 

I wish I had something more profound to say about 2017, about my first year as a book reviewer coming to a close, about the state of the world and the power of literature to expose it and to remind us that as dark as it seems there has to be a light on somewhere, but somehow, I don’t. It’s been a rough year, for all of us I imagine, and books have been my lifeline, the inflatable donut in the shitstorm of 2017, the one thing I knew I could always reach out to and find solace, or escape, or pure emotional release. Sometimes it was subject matter, sometimes it was just the sheer talent flitting off the page, but the books that got me this year approached the grim state of things from angles that surprised me, shocked me and somehow, in the thick of so much shit, gave me a little hope.

 

Best Books of 2017 (in no particular order):

 

Imagine Wanting Only This / Kristen Radtke (review)

Kristen Radtke’s debut graphic novel is a one-two punch, a beautifully drawn look at the past we try to hold on to and what it does to the futures we’re trying to find. It’s a beautifully drawn book, Radtke’s inky blacks and crystalline whites cutting into the detailed landscapes of ruin and forgetting she invokes.

 

A Loving, Faithful Animal / Josephine Rowe (review)

I keep telling people that A Loving, Faithful Animal is like Denis Johnson had a lovechild with Stephen King, and I mean it. Josephine Rowe’s tale of a very broken family trying to define themselves in the wake of the departure of their ultra-violent father reads almost like a horror novel, but with the propulsive thrust of Johnson’s shorter work. It’s a brutal book set in an impoverished wasteland, but Rowe manages to mine levity regardless. No debut this year stuck around longer in my mind.

 

Exit West / Mohsin Hamid514KmtX+MGL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_

If Exit West is indicative of Mohsin Hamid’s work (past, present and future) then he has all the makings of being a modern master of the form. Set in an unnamed refugee crisis in a near future, Hamid ties the lives of two refugees together, exploring the relationships we build in times of ultimate duress. There’s a sparse, lyrical tone to the novel and even though the subject matter is stark, Hamid manages to infuse it with humor, truth and loving warmth.Also, magic teleportation doors.

 

Chemistry / Weike Wang (review)

No book surprised me more than Weike Wang’s Chemistry, the story of an emotionally stunted former grad-student falling apart in slow-motion. Wang’s writing is bluntly descriptive, clipped in a way that pulls you forward, but once you’re locked in, she pulls back the curtain, revealing a dramatic heft just beneath the quirkiness.

 

Sirens / Joshua Mohr (review)

It’s reductive to call Joshua Mohr’s Sirens an addiction memoir. Yes, the crux of the book is Mohr’s battle with drugs and alcohol, but more so it’s about the author circling his past and his present to try and rewrite his future. It’s about Mohr discovering who he is without addiction to hide behind. There’s no padding in Sirens, this is Mohr at his most honest, and it’s a captivating ride.

 

Universal Harvester / John Darnelle9780374282103

It makes me angry that John Darnelle – lead singer of The Mountain Goats – is as good at writing books as he at writing songs. A kid finds a weird VHS tape at the small town video store he’s wasting his life away in and slowly pulled down into the darkness of what he sees. Darnelle has a singular voice – somehow warm and vibrantly creepy at the same time – and even in the most harmless of moments, tension crackles in the background.

 

Honorable Mentions:

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An Arrangement of Skin / Anna Journey (review)
Killers of the Flower Moon / David Grann
The Flowers In My Mother’s Name / Philip Harris (review)
Borne / Jeff Vandermeer
They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us / Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib
The Book of Resting Places / Thomas Mira y Lopez (review)
The Misfortune of Marion Palm / Emily Culliton (review)
The Animators / Kayla Rae Whitaker
A Twenty Minute Silence Followed By Applause / Shawn Wen (review)

 

 

by Noah Sanders


 

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2017 was a shining year for essay collections and short stories by women. Too Fat, Too Slutty, Too Loud by Anne Helen Petersen takes a magnifying glass to the way female celebrities are criticized and punished for crossing over invisible boundaries of behavior. In The Mother of All Questions Rebecca Solnit continues her patient, meticulous exploration of the way that gender shapes and limits women’s lives.

Carmen Maria Machado’s stunning fiction collection Her Body and Other Parties (review) uses fairy tale and horror influences to outline the experience of being a woman today with terror, tenderness, and humor. Wait Till You See Me Dance by Deb Olin Unferth is filled with short, sharp stories, brutal and funny; check out “Voltaire Night” at the Paris Review for a taste. At the end of 2017, Kristen Roupenian’s short story “Cat Person,” describing a female college student’s awkward sexual encounter with an older man, generated a huge conversation about the short story as as form and won Roupenian a seven-figure book deal.

41pBtH0x6GL._SX349_BO1,204,203,200_Reading these nonfiction collections, I stopped frequently when Petersen or Solnit crystallized some aspect of my experience that had never been described to me or named. Women who read these essays will find themselves setting their books down for a moment and wondering at seeing the secret rules and pressures of their lives suddenly made explicit on the page.

Machado, Unferth, and Roupenian’s short stories feel insistent, uncomfortable, and difficult to pin down. In a conversation with a friend about Her Body and Other Parties, we both acknowledged that there were several stories in the collection that we were unable to summarize, as they ended with no clear sense of what was metaphor and what truth, of which events were delusion and which were real. Wait Till You See9781555977689 Me Dance has stories which I adored and which I can’t stop thinking about, months later, and that I nearly wish I could un-read, so bleak are their declarations about human nature. The experience of reading these books, and the universal female cringe response to “Cat Person,” feels a lot like reading the news in this moment when we are reckoning with the horrifying ubiquity of sexual harassment and assault. In these stories the truth is tricky, and slippery, and often unbearably ugly, but we cannot look away. 

In the news, and in their writings, women used 2017 to capture with greater honesty the shape of our world. Hopefully in 2018 the world will continue to learn how to listen.

by Wesley Cohen


Poetry

 

9781555977856This was such a remarkable year for poetry that it’s hard to mention only five books, but the most stunning book of the year was Danez Smith’s second collection, Don’t Call Us Dead (Graywolf Press). Smith, as Orpheus, travels through various underworlds of poverty, disease, and state-sanctioned murder to enact lush, lyric resurrection. Lessons on Expulsion, by Erika L. Sánchez (Graywolf Press), is another bright spot, a vivid, muscular work that blooms wildly over borders of nation, family, and womanhood, illuminating shifting territories of danger and desire. In Calling a Wolf a Wolf by Kaveh Akbar (Alice James Books), Electric-Arches-051117-for-thumbnailaddiction’s voracious appetites are redirected outward to exalt the sensual and spiritual realms with the gift of obsessive, loving attention. Natalie Shapero’s Hard Child (Graywolf Press) is by turns a gutting and hilarious look at motherhood and how the journey through that terrain reshapes the self. Finally, Electric Arches by Eve Ewing (Haymarket Books) is a fitting book to end this list on, as it conjures the future most clearly. Through a hybrid of poetry, prose, and visual art, Ewing’s generous eye enriches all it settles on, surreally enlarging the possibilities of blackness, girlhood, and the city in strangeness and beauty.

by Luiza Flynn-Goodlett

Review: Ultraluminous by Katherine Faw

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Ultraluminous
by Katherine Faw
Published 2017 by MCD
$25.00 hardcover ISBN 978-0374279660

By Noah Sanders

There is a drum-like rhythm to Katherine Faw’s cold-hearted thriller, Ultraluminous, a repetitive pounding of stick to skin that builds bit by bit in speed and fervor, the tension drawing tighter and tighter until it implodes upon itself. In breathless, staccato paragraphs, Faw draws the world of K.—a high-end sex worker recently returned to New York from the Middle East—and her interactions with a quartet of ultra-rich clients. The reader is given little about K. aside from her profession and the robotic way she interacts with the world and the men she sleeps with. She is a jumble of broken glass insides held just barely in place by the strange, almost inhuman repetition of her life. The book is purposefully repetitive, similar scenes of sex and drug use played over and over again, a pattern of self-abuse subtly altered over the course of the book as K. slowly comes apart at the seams. Yet, Faw isn’t content to merely pull her character apart in glorious slow-motion, instead she injects a wavering line of mystery into the proceedings, a looming series of questions regarding K.’s past and what her ultimate goal, if any, actually is. The mystery does add a sense of urgency, but in the end, as the story jumps the tracks and everything gets suddenly bigger and brighter, the simple beauty of K.’s sluggish unwinding is lost in all the clamor.

K. is more than a creature of habit, she is a woman made real by simple, mundane order. She fucks a different man each week for money, she eats cheap Duane Reade sushi, she snorts a certain number of bags of heroin, and in the cracks between she attempts to exist as a real person. She is obsessed with patterns—in dancing, on her nails, in the men she sleeps with—because containing herself within a tightly structured way of living allows her some conceit that she actually exists. If K. performs these tasks she’s given herself—eat, drink, fuck, sleep—then she has choices, and if she choices she’s still alive. “In my life, I have choices,” K. says, “Everything is going fine.”

This is a book rife with intense sexual experience, but Faw doesn’t ever sugar-coat it, doesn’t add even a lick of romance to the proceedings. Sex for K. is a way of giving up her control, of becoming a reflection of whomever she’s sleeping with at the time, throwing her own will out the window and fully giving herself up. None of her lovers have names, merely descriptions, as if giving them human attributes would reflect back on her, forcing her to engage in the emotional side of her being. She sets rules for each of her lovers, routines and patterns that dictate the sex they have, but as K. begins to fall apart, the rules breakdown and the sexual episodes become stranger, more violent. K. is defined by her routines—sexual or otherwise—and in the moments where she interacts outside of either element of her life, Faw writes as if K. is an alien, and the small details of life are strange, potentially wonderful moments held under glass. “I eat a plain slice on a bench beside two white-haired women who are bitching about their mailman, who steals packages,” K. says, “and I almost start crying.”

Faw’s ability to use repetition as a tool is beautiful thing to withhold. Though Ultraluminous hums along with a speed-addled sort of energy, faster and faster as the reader becomes attuned to the rhythm of K.’s world, Faw uses the pace, and her blunt style of writing to create a false sense of, albeit bizarre, security. K.’s patterns become ingrained in the reading experience and as Faw slowly subverts—slight breaks here, small tweaks there—the comfort starts to fray, and though it always seemed inevitable, the dissolution of the narrator’s life, her routine, becomes apparent in the most nerve-pounding of fashions. A sick sense of enjoyment is derived from not only experiencing the ordered chaos of K.’s life, but watching it fall apart. “There is no grand pattern,” K. realizes late in the book, “Only the small, negotiable, meaningless patterns I have created that have not kept me safe.”

If Faw was willing to simply chronicle K.’s attempts at holding herself together, this could be a gritty classic, a pitch black character study of a woman clawing at the walls in an attempt to stop her own decline. Faw’s unyielding writing style, her tight rein over the book’s pace is breathtaking, and K. is a fascinating character, but Faw stumbles when she starts trying to answer the questions of why and what comes next. The end of the book, twenty pages of violent reckoning, blows up the pattern, but it feels unnecessary, a garish extroverted end to a book that reads best when it resides solely in the mind of its engrossing protagonist.

Review: The Book of Resting Places by Thomas Mira y Lopez

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The Book of Resting Places
by Thomas Mira y Lopez
Published 2017 by Counterpoint
$26.00 hardcover ISBN 978-1619021235

By Noah Sanders

It is a true pleasure to engage with a book like Thomas Mira y Lopez’s The Book of Resting Places, a collection of essays that chronicles—in the wake of his father’s passing—his obsession with where our dead are laid to rest. Where so much writing on death piles on saccharine platitudes, Mira y Lopez’s writing is fueled by both sadness and a sly, caustic anger burning just beneath the surface. Coupled with his keen eye for observation and a fascinating breadth of subject matter, The Book of Resting Places becomes a refreshingly honest and critical look at death, grieving, and how burial becomes a our means to remembering, and forgetting, those we’ve lost.

The impetus for Mira y Lopez’s deep exploration of how we bury our dead and what exactly it means is the death of his father from a series of strokes in 2006. The opening essay, “Memory, Memorial” sets the tone for the entirety of the book. Mira y Lopez visits his mother in the rural Pennsylvania home she now lives alone in with only her poodle for company. They visit his “dad’s tree”—an Ohio buckeye planted by his parents when they purchased the home, now repurposed as a memorial to his deceased father. The simple ritual—walking to the tree, admiring the tree, mourning his father—one Mira y Lopez in his cynical way immediately admits to caring little for. The tree has become a symbol of the healthy man his father was in life, not the shriveled husk he became as death inched closer and closer. In enshrining his memory within the healthy tree, Mira y Lopez believes his mother is choosing to “remember him as she prefers: as strong and healthy instead of decaying.”

The Book of Resting Places is about death but approached from the angle of how we, the grieving survivors, use burial as a means to memorialize, to remember, to forget those we’ve lost. The author explores catacombs in Rome, an unearthed cemetery in Tucson, a death artifact collector’s store in the desert—each subject a catalyst for Mira y Lopez to intertwine his knowledge of classic literature, history and the sharp pangs of his own grief into keen, if not occasionally abrasive interpretations of what it means to be “put to rest.” In “The Eternal Comeback” Mira y Lopez and a friend visit Alcor, a cryogenics storage vault in Scottsdale, AZ. The author never dabbles in the platitudes so often associated with death, and though an essay on cryogenics could quickly devolve into “how weird is this shit” (and the essay certainly entertains the notion) Mira y Lopez puts his hangups on the shelf and writes a stunning piece on what it means to accept, even want the possibility of living forever. “To delay the acceptance of what’s lost harms the lives that survive that loss,” he writes, “Death remains one of the words I can think of for which the adjective universal actually holds. How lonely would it be to want to exist outside of that?”

Mira y Lopez’s honesty about death, about his own failures as a son, as a man struggling to remember his father for who he was and not what he became physically allows it to transcend so much of the cotton-candy fluff that gets written about dying. His father’s death has left him angry, cynical even, with himself and his actions in the months that preceded his passing. The Book of Resting Places is the author’s attempt to grapple with his own regrets and his own sadness. As with death, there’s no sunshine-y ending to these essays, rather just the grim realization that no matter how many trees, or catacombs or frozen bodies with throw out in the hope that our loved ones will exist, somehow, after they’ve passed, in the end, all we’re left with is scant, almost arbitrary memories. “I have learned the hard way,” he writes, “that when someone you love dies, the real shame is that your memory of them dies as well.” We bury, cremate, build memorials for the dead because we want to keep them in our minds in a certain way. Death is hard on the living, and though Mira y Lopez might be too cynical, too educated to buy into the human need to immortalize some aspects of our loved ones, he comes to a simple understanding of just why we do: “When it comes down to it, you do what you do to survive.”

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

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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.