Review: The Lauras by Sara Taylor

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

By Noah Sanders

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: The Bear Who Broke the World by Justin McFarr

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

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

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

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

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

Review: The Dark Dark by Samantha Hunt

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The Dark Dark
by Samantha Hunt
Published 2017 by FSG Originals
$15.00 paperback ISBN 978-0374282134

By Noah Sanders

Samantha Hunt’s new collection of short stories, The Dark Dark, looks at the everyday struggles of life through a softly supernatural lens. Her characters, mainly women teetering on the edge between breakthrough and breakdown and their oftentimes oafish male counterparts, find solace and repulsion in their most primal urges, build sex robots to save the nation, and slip between the veil of animal and human. At the core though, Hunt writes about the unknown and its power over us. “The Dark Dark” of her title is a broad spectrum—the shadows at the end of a bed, the affairs of our spouses, the shallow, frightening expanses of our nightmares—and Hunt builds connections to the mundane in every inky, black corner. The very best of Hunt’s short stories use the vaguely magical as an entryway into an exploration of life’s major moments and themes, nearly all of the morbidly beautiful stories held within a flashlight illuminating its own unknown.

If we aren’t all a little scared of the dark, then we’re at least frightened by the unknown. Hunt understands this deeply. The stories in The Dark Dark plumb the depths of what “the unknown” is exactly, but also how the effects of peering into it (or not), affect us, good or bad. In “A Love Story” (the collection’s strongest piece) a woman, paralyzed by her own fears of the bad in the world that could happen, sends her husband to deal with a potential intruder. In the stillness of the night left in his departure, her mind expands, the possibilities of who she could be and who she is now, unfolding outwards. In “Love Machine” a loving relationship between two men never sees fruition, but its damning effect of what it could have been follows them through their lives. What could’ve been sits on one man’s shoulders like an immovable weight, the cost of lifting it immeasurably high.

In Hunt’s words, it isn’t what lies in the closet that’s important, it’s the attempt, or the lack thereof, to figure out just what it is that adds meaning to her character’s lives. Two strangers sleep together after one kills the other’s dog in “The Yellow,” opening a rift in time and space that somehow brings the dog back to life. Instead of finding joy in the reanimation of a beloved family pet, they decide to kill it again, the act peering behind the slim curtain of their lives too much. Even if you finally see the monster that lives under the bed, in Hunt’s world, the best option can be to stuff it back in, try to pretend that everything can, and will, revert back to normal.

Hunt’s writing manages to meld a soft, almost rural feel (her characters seem to always be returning to some Midwestern heartland) with an angular sense of the unnatural. Each story throbs with an existential dread you might find in a schlocky horror novel, but with Hunt’s skill as a writer, it adds a near constant rise to the hairs on the back of your neck. Without rhyme or reason, you worry, from the first page of each story, about where these characters are going to be taken, where they might eventually lead themselves. In “Wampum,” an older suitor’s advances towards a much younger woman are seen as “Either he’ll chop her up into body parts or he’ll drop her off at the house.” Hunt describes the half-consumed carcass of a fried chicken in “The Story Of” as “The hen had been split open down the middle, unzipped like a parka.” And though both stories are apart seemingly simple, human interactions—a man courts a teenager, a woman wants to get pregnant—Hunt’s prose keeps the reader on edge, forces you look over your shoulder, to keep an eye on the periphery.

Finding the balance between definitively supernatural, atmospherically haunting, and genuinely moving isn’t an easy task. The best stories—“A Love Story” amongst them—use the supernatural to propel themselves into new and unusual places, but are still rooted by the presence of simple, universal, human moments. Early on in the book—“All Hands” in particular—Hunt’s scale tips too steeply towards the odd and unknowable, the reader to left to muddle out just what the hell occurred.

In general though, Hunt confidently walks the line between off-kilter and human. The stories in The Dark Dark entertain with their clear-eyed peek into the strange presences looming just out of our sight, but its Hunt’s ability to use these to craft meaningful observations on the shared moments of human life that allows them to transcend. Though not every story shines as brightly as the next, each and every one of them peers into the dark, attempting to illuminate.

Review: A Twenty Minute Silence Followed By Applause by Shawn Wen

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A Twenty Minute Silence Followed By Applause
by Shawn Wen
Published 2017 by Sarabande Books
$15.95 paperback ISBN 978-1941411483

By Noah Sanders

In modern day America, mimes get a bad rap. Sure, there’s good reasons: the pasty-faced makeup selection, the perpetual confinement within invisible boxes, the invasive clown-like aspects of their entire schtick—all are, in this writer’s opinion, rankle-worthy qualities. Yet, as you will learn from Shawn Wen’s poetic collection of essays, A Twenty Minute Silence Followed By Applause, miming (or the miming of one, er, mime in particular) was, for a spell, a popular enough form of entertainment that it graced the couches of late night hosts and filled theaters with eager, anticipation-filled fans. Wen’s book focuses solely on Marcel Marceau, the most famed mime of the modern era, peeling back the layers of his life, exposing the demons that lived below his foppish effect, his near-total commitment to his work and the invisible box his life became because of it. Through the lens of his biography, the author sheds light not only on Marceau’s life and art, but also on the layered, complicated beauty of the craft itself.

A Twenty Minute Silence Followed By Applause (the name of a record the mime made entirely composed of a twenty minute silence and then applause) follows Marceau from his birth to the early days of training under Charles Dullin at the School of Dramatic Arts through his ascension to a household name in America and beyond and the three wives, miming school and a staggering collection of artifacts he left behind. It is Wen’s great ability in this slim volume that each facet of Marceau’s life she briefly touches on becomes an separate mirror, their combined reflections forming a detailed image of the man. To simplify, Marceau was an asshole. A man so consumed by devotion to his art, and to the mute qualities of that art, everything else—his family, his friends, the press, his own image—became fodder for his work, meat to be sacrificed to his artistic gods. A survivor and revolutionary participant in World War II, Marceau contained multitudes of emotion just beneath the surface. Miming became the outlet for those emotions. “He found no formula for the end of suffering,” Wen writes, “No formula to stir up empathy and understanding. Just a formula for one man.”

Through breathtaking descriptions of Marceau’s work as his most famed character—a Chaplin-like clown named Bip—Wen is able to showcase how Marceau used his art to explore his own inner suffering. If Marceau’s life off the stage was marred by a singular, self-obsessed dedication to being a mime (and portraying himself thusly), his ability to create imagined worlds out of, literally, nothing on stage, seemingly became his only way to outwardly express the range of emotions bubbling just beneath the surface. Wen, writing of Marceau’s daughter Camille, writes, “Her father was entirely inhabited by his art. Mime was his way of building the world as he wanted it to be.”

Marceau surrounded himself with artifacts collected on his travels and showcased at a property he owned in Berchères. The house is described by Marceau’s daughter as ‘a physical manifestation of [the world as he wanted it].’ Wen fills the second half of the book with detailed descriptions of Marceau’s collections—masks, icons, weapons, a catalogue of cultures from around the world—the artifacts reflective of the world Marceau tried to bring to the stage, the world he wished truly existed.

In parts of Silence, there’s a feeling that Wen is trying to refute the stereotypes now associated with mimes. Marceau was a true artist, his miming a layered, complex interaction between physical movement and emotional depth. Simple refutation isn’t Wen’s aim though, rather the author seeks to highlight the difficulty, dedication and mastery involved in miming at the highest form. Miming is, quite literally, the creation of characters, sets, and props out of nothing but a single person’s physical interaction with a crowd. Wen’s abilities as a writer are no joke, and she recreates the magic that occurs between mime and audience with eye-opening clarity. Silence does push back on our mime generalizations, but it also leaves the reader with a notion of its power in the right hands. If our respect for the craft has diluted, if not disappeared altogether, it says nothing about miming’s artistic value when performed by an actor of Marceau’s immense talent. It isn’t that miming is something to be ignored, even hated, but rather that the quality of miming has degraded. Or as Marceau himself once said, in response a reporter’s question about why Americans hate mimes, “Because most mimes are lousy.”

As striking as the writing and Wen’s observations in this book-length essay are, they are bolstered by the actual layout of each page. The author has chosen to place her words—scant as they may be—between stark, wide margins of white. It reminds one of words drifting on an all-white sea. The design becomes a visual representation of what miming, in the hands of a master like Marceau or Charlie Chaplin, could do: create worlds out of nothing. Wen’s book seeks to disabuse the notion that anything is created out of ‘nothing’ though. Instead, miming at this level, for Marcel Marceau at least, is the product of subsuming everything internally, sacrificing an external life in pursuit of artistic epiphany.

Review: Hollow by Owen Egerton

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Hollow
by Owen Egerton
Published 2017 by Soft Skull Press
$26.00 hardcover ISBN 978-1619029408

By Noah Sanders

Even the most non-religious amongst us has somewhere along the line stumbled across the story of Job. A devout family man from the Old Testament, Job’s faith is, to put it gently, tested by the spiteful, sometimes petty hand of lightning-tossing God. His family is stripped from him, his health worn down to near-deathly capacity, his entire being—both physical and mental—crushed beneath the hand of an all-knowing, all-seeing deity just so God can see how far he can fall before he loses his faith. In Owen Egerton’s new book, Hollow, he revamps the story of Job into modern times to ask questions not only about the extent of our faith, but what it is we choose to believe in. This is a dark, gritty, and nearly depressing novel that finds a former religion professor repeatedly striking rock bottom, but Egerton is able, even in the deepest, darkest bowels to drag his main character through, to find a bleak, often laugh-out loud, streak of humor.

Oliver Bond has bottomed out. A former professor of religion in Austin, Texas, he has lost his young child, his wife, and the life he once knew. Bond, smug and intelligent in the appropriately obnoxious ways, finds himself living in a metal shack, unable to pay rent, trying to figure out just what he did to make everything go so very wrong. Lyle, his chain-smoking, drug-dealing, laxly criminal, compulsive liar of a ‘best friend’ turns him on to the idea of the Hollow Earth, an age-old conspiracy theory that posits a second world inside the one we know accessible by gaping holes in the North Pole. Searching for anything to help him find purchase, Bond, barely a believer, grasps the loose threads of Lyle’s crackpot theory. On the edges of his life are other, even more destitute characters—a dying man quietly smoking himself to death, a Russian prostitute and her abusive, dangerous pimp, and a former student still trolling the edges of danger and seduction. Bond searches for funds for a scam-feeling expedition to the Hollow Earth, and as he spins further and further out of control, Egerton weaves in the events that lead Bond so close to the edge. This is a book about a man trying to find his way back to the light, small and distant as it may be.

In Hollow, Egerton asks an age-old question: “If there is a God who delineates our path in life, why would that path ever lead into the darkness?” Bond has lost his child, and unable to cope with the loss of his wife, he now perches precariously on the edge of homelessness and trauma-induced mental illness. Bond is a former academic, a bright mind with an observant, spiritual bent, and through his purview, Egerton is able to chronicle the fall from grace, and the nail-wrenching struggle to pull oneself back up. Bond is, like Lyle’s beliefs of the insides of the Earth, hollow, gutted by the tragedies that have befallen him, attempting to fill the empty space inside with whatever he can. He wants to believe, in the idea of the Hollow Earth, in the frayed threads still connecting him to his ex-wife, in the friendship between him and the dying Martin, hell, in anything that might give him reason to believe what has befallen him has reason. It is a quietly beautiful rumination on what it means to have faith, and what we do when that rug is suddenly pulled out from underneath us.

Egerton is relentless in his abuse of Oliver Bond. If his past is riddled with hardship, his present life dips from pretty shitty to almost unbearably bleak. By the end of the book there has been murder, betrayal, a swing into mental breakdown and more; all of it an intricately wrought narrative that seeks to expose the very core of whom Bond is. Amazingly enough, as pitch black as this book gets, Egerton still finds humor in his characters. Almost entirely, these are characters as close to the bottom as possibly could be, but there’s a morbid sense of humor and of existence that threads through all of them. Lyle in particular is a one-liner machine, a knuckleheaded believer who, in trying to help Bond, pulls him further away from who he really is.

There’s a believable sweetness in Bond’s relationships with Lyle and Martin—his dying friend—and it stems from Egerton’s warm, evocative writing and his ability to take big philosophical ideas and imbue them with simple, yet revelatory statements. At one point Bond, as close to the end of his rope as possible describes his mental state: “The universe is not killing me. The universe is not saving me. The universe is just here.” As straightforward as the statement is, it illuminates the theme of the novel—Bond wants nothing more than to find a reason for why so much shit has been heaped upon him, but in the end, his fate (if such a thing even exists) is his own. And even if there’s nothing above, or nothing below to believe in, he can find a way back from the bottom, by the power of his own two hands.

Review: Chemistry by Weike Wang

 

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Chemistry
by Weike Wang
Published 2017 by Knopf
$24.95 hardcover ISBN 978-1524731748

By Noah Sanders

At face value, Weike Wang’s Chemistry could be very well one of “those books”—the quirky, style-over-substance variety that reads well, but evaporates like an errant sugar high moments after consumption. In the early goings, Wang’s narrator—a failed Chemistry PhD on the edge, and in the midst, of a mental breakdown—reads like the epitome of urban cuteness. A first-generation Chinese-immigrant, she approaches her world—Boston—and her small group of friends, with a worldview that’s almost perfectly off-center. Her pithy explanations of basic scientific theories become her primary way of understanding her interactions with her co-workers, students and friends. In the opening portions of the book, Chemistry rests neatly on the line between engaging beach-read and idiosyncratic character study. Wang’s clipped sentences are both engaging and often times amusing, drawing the reader in to what could be vacuous fun, but when she’s got you hooked, she springs the trap. Though framed in an enjoyable and easily digestible style, Chemistry is not only a fascinating character study, but also a deep dive into the legacies our families leave us and what it takes to come to grips with them.

As Chemistry starts, Wang’s nameless narrator’s life is, in her view, spinning out of control. She’s realized that the science experiment that will make or break her PhD candidacy is never going to come to fruition and her scientist boyfriend, Eric, has left her, and their dog, when she’s unable to commit to a married life together. Without the columns of science and Eric to support her, Wang’s narrator is forced to analyze her own existence—past, present and future. Wang bounces between the different time periods with ease, incorporating the narrator’s memories of her time with Eric along with her time in the lab and her childhood with two aloof and verbally abusive parents seamlessly. The book never breaks from its eccentric styles and the plot is never dragged down by weighty exposition. As the book gets closer and closer to the end, and as the narrator starts to pull apart her own life with the help of cuckolded best friend and a therapist, the reader is drawn closer and closer to the truth in ever-tightening spirals.

The reader experiences the small, but heart-breaking revelations about the narrator’s family and the long reach of her upbringing in what feels like real time. Like atoms ricocheting off into the great unknown, each small, peculiar moment—an interaction with a student, a walk with her dog, a bike ride in the frigid Boston winter—sends the narrator down into a previously unexplored universe of self, which in turn pulls her down into another, on and on, until the layers of discovery cross time and space.

This is a book at its big beating heart about family, and the way we are defined by our mundane histories, and the narrator’s act of exploration into her own past becomes centered on her mom and dad and their relationship with her and each other. When we first encounter her father and mother, they are typical pushy immigrant parents—her father a self-educated tyrant, her mother a dramatic primadonna prone to throwing things—but Wang dips back into their back stories as well, slowly stitching their past with the narrator’s past before showcasing the marks they intentionally and unintentionally left upon their daughter. The descriptions of the narrator’s interaction with her family are some of the most keenly observed in a book full of amazing observation, but Wang, a talent everyone should keep an eye on, through the eyes of her narrator, lets us see the arc of time, how one event or action or way of thinking continues on down the line, shaping the people we become.

What’s most impressive about Chemistry though is how it’s always an enjoyable, buoyant read. As dark as this book gets, Wang never the flighty and over-analytical way her narrator thinks and speaks. You can flip to any page in Chemistry and find not only a quotable line, but one that begs to be dissected further, all of them imbued with an off-kilter, often times hilarious, wisdom. “There is no such thing as a perfectly still molecule,” the narrator says, “Even in solids, the molecules keep moving.” Or, “I find it interesting how often beauty is shown to make objects around it feel worse.” The quickness of thought on display is marvelous, and it grabs the reader upfront and pulls them, with haste, into the life of this bizarre, fascinating, in the end, wonderful character.

Wang’s debut novel is a remarkable piece of fiction. It is the rare combination of original style and original thought that doesn’t get bogged down in either. The author is able to evade the pitfalls of quirkiness, instead using it to her advantage in crafting a character that exists on her own plane of uniqueness. If Wang stopped there, this would be still be a book to devour, but she doesn’t. The oddball stylings of her narrator become the fuel to power a book, and a character, that reflects soulfully on the triumphs and travesties of our childhoods. And in doing so, Wang has written one of the best books of the year so far.

Review: Dear Cyborgs by Eugene Lim

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Dear Cyborgs
by Eugene Lim
Published 2017 by FSG Originals
$14.00 paperback ISBN 978-0374537111

By Noah Sanders

If you’ve ever spent a single moment in a writing class, you’ll have probably heard the one platitude that seems to stretch throughout all: “Show, don’t tell.” It is, of course, the idea that in writing, you should trust your reader’s intelligence enough to just dump the guts of your book—its theme, its character development, its narrative arc—directly on to the page. Instead, authors, to varying degrees of success, bury their ledes in symbolism and plot and the interactions of their characters through dialogue in the hope that their readers will be experienced enough to find, or decipher, meaning within.

Dear Cyborgs, the experimental work of science fiction by Eugene Lim, holds to this maxim with a death-like grip. Lim’s short, sometimes satisfying, novel is a nesting doll of vignettes, both broadly science-fiction and emotionally intimate. There are definite themes to which Lim is addressing—art, revolution, the concept of invisibility—and in various forms they make themselves known, but the author’s means of delivering these themes is so abstract, reading Dear Cyborgs becomes a chore of literary detection. We, as readers, are tasked at so many times—with so many characters and plot points—to, well, figure out just who’s who and what’s what, that the themes Lim has artfully buried become overly difficult to identify.

To describe the plot of Dear Cyborgs—a scant 163 pages—isn’t an easy task. There are four main narrative lines as the book begins: two childhood friends lose contact, a group of four friends meet nightly to discuss the philosophical bends of their lives, a super spy meets the same villainous woman over and over again, and this same villainous woman abandons her family to try and find meaning in her own life. Dissecting the philosophical meanderings of any of the four main plot-lines (not to say the smaller, stories-within-stories that comprise each of them) is a task within itself. His quartet of artists-cum-philosophers are the most blatant in their philosophical noodling—their conversations act as reflections and prompt for the ideas in the more opaque sections—but even within them, Lim seems reticent to just lay out what he’s trying to say. One character, speaking of another character’s decision to use fast food chains as her place of meditation, speaks to the shortcomings of doing just that, nicely summing up a bigger idea in the book: that just existing within the corrupt means of society might not actually be that bad. “Maybe Muriel,” he says, “should use [these shortcomings] to proceed with her own desires—at least those desires that she can somehow maintain as her desires, as somehow independent and free and not deformed by these humiliations and degradations.” The response from the listeners is an awkward silence, as if the author himself, suddenly aware of laying his own cards out on the table, can’t fathom the possibility.

It becomes frustrating, because Lim has written a book rife with interesting ideas. Each of his plot-lines run, somewhat, parallel to each other, all of them asking a similar question: what do we sacrifice for our art, for our own form of revolution? And Lim, in his own cryptic way, answers these questions, but the work to dig out these answers, dust them off and put them on the shelf, is too much. It’s a book that demands a second read—even a reading guide, if one was available—but finding your way down its labyrinthine path once, may be enough.

The final chapter of the book is the decoder ring for everything that’s come before. It’s Lim’s attempt to throw back the curtain, and show just how the magic trick was pulled off. And yes, it does clarify, somewhat, that there was method to Lim’s madness, but it doesn’t make the process of getting to that point any more enjoyable. And perhaps, this is exactly what Lim hoped, that by challenging his readers up to the very end, that his ideas would transcend his plot. That in writing a book about art and revolution and their limitations, he would have to create his own work of art with its own limitations. Perhaps an ‘enjoyable read’ isn’t what Lim was reaching for, instead, maybe, he wanted to craft something that somehow, as it exists on the periphery of genre, felt familiar enough for readers to want to decode, even if failure was the inevitable outcome. Regardless of what he intended, the book loses itself in its vagueness, the occasional burst of understanding a life-preserver to cling to as the reader hurtles forward. Sometimes, just sometimes, a little bit of telling, just makes the show a little more bearable.

Review: Everywhere Home by Fenton Johnson

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Everywhere Home: A Life In Essays
by Fenton Johnson
Published 2017 by Sarabande Books
$15.95 paperback ISBN 978-1941411438

By Noah Sanders

You will, after reading Everywhere Home: A Life In Essays, want Fenton Johnson to be your life coach, your personal philosopher, your guide in navigating the shallow, treacherous waters of life. Johnson is, by trade, none of these things. He has, in his storied life, been a gay rights activist, a son of small-town, Catholic Kentucky, a survivor of AIDS, a mourning lover, a high school basketball player, and much, much more. Above all this though, Fenton Johnson has, for four decades and counting, been a writer of exceptional talent, and even more exceptional warmth. He is the kind of clear-eyed observer who is able to integrate his deep knowledge of faith and philosophy into his own perspective, his own experiences. The essays in Everywhere Home are a loosely chronological exploration of both Johnson’s journey from backwoods Kentucky to the Bay Area and beyond as well as his evolution as both a thinker and a writer. The subject matter can be disparate, but Johnson connects everything with his own hopeful worldview, a deceivingly simple one: the world is a hard and often cruel place, but in the lowest moments of our past and those we’ve yet to encounter, there is always love—clear and open-minded, big and small—to lead us forward.

The subjects in Everywhere Home range dramatically from Johnson’s upbringing in rural Kentucky to his breakdown of Oscar Wilde’s “De Profundis” to his exploration of a reintroduction of Pacifism in American politics, to name a few. With the author clearing the path amongst these varied topics, all of them become fascinating looks at our society as a whole, and at our roles as individuals within it. The book could be oversimplified into “past, present and future” but it is the intersection of these abstracts, where Johnson makes his most poignant points about love and faith. In “Safe(r) Sex” he becomes the erstwhile sex education teacher to his extended family, the recent heart-rending loss of his lover to AIDS helping to open a space where he can expand both his, and his family’s definition of love. “I had become for them,” Johnson writes, “a different kind of father: a comrade and repository of family history; a bridge between them and [their father].”

In “Power and Obedience: Restoring Pacifism to American Politics” Johnson uses three separate experiences—a tour of an abandoned nuclear silo, his decision to declare himself a conscientious objector, and his dissection of William James “The Moral Equivalent of War”—to argue that we can turn our innate lust for battle towards the real dangers that threaten our society. It is a prime example of what Johnson does best in Everywhere Home: he explains complicated philosophies elegantly, winding them into his own personal beliefs and experiences to help bolster and examine potential solutions. “What might we achieve,” he writes, discussing the brief amount of time it took America to concept and build out the Titan Missile program, “if our leaders motivated us not to destroy the Earth, but to heal it?”

Johnson lived as a gay man in San Francisco during the grim, early days of the AIDS crisis in America, and the pain and grief of that time is deeply etched into his writing. His exhuming of his own memories in “The Secret Decoder Ring Society” is as much a mournful remembrance of the loss felt by the gay community as it is Johnson’s coming to terms with the death of his lover, Larry Rose. And like in all his pieces in Everywhere Home, Johnson is able, like a thoughtful monk, to find both understanding and some amount of the positive in even the greatest depths of pain. “Love does not measure itself by clock and calendar,” he writes, “but is our entryway into the true world, shorn of the illusions of time and space.” The AIDS epidemic in America, horrible as it was, has allowed Johnson an avenue to look within himself, past the boundaries of his sexuality, to find his a spectrum of emotions, from anger to acceptance, and find hopeful meaning in it. “I did not choose to be gay,” he writes, “but I did choose to ally myself with those who find beauty in suffering – the wisest act of my life thus far.”

There is no limit, aside from page count, to Fenton Johnson’s reflection and insights into his own life. Any reader, regardless of sexuality, religious or political belief, will, if even the scantest amount of heart beats within their chest, put down Everywhere Home a little sadder, perhaps a little angrier, but full-up with the particular light of inspiration Johnson is able to pass forward. The author never settles for cliché or platitude, but instead grasps the full span of life’s emotional output—the good, the bad, and the utterly painful that he himself is a product of—and manages, beautifully, to derive hope.

Review: Broken River by J. Robert Lennon

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Broken River
by J. Robert Lennon
Published 2017 by Graywolf Press
$16.00 paperback ISBN 978-1555977726

By Noah Sanders

Reading J. Robert Lennon’s Broken River can be difficult at times. Not because the book isn’t a remarkably enjoyable read, one that leaves you awake at 4:30 in the morning, bleary-eyed but unable to resist the urge to turn the next page, to find out what happens next. No, rather it is because of how imminently readable Lennon’s book is, that difficulty arises. As much as Broken River is, at its dark and rotten heart, a mystery and a thriller, Lennon is too good of a writer to allow it to be just that. Broken River is a story about the narratives of our lives, how they cross and tangle, how they grow from roots we’ll never see. It is a book about how when seen from above, our lives, as surprising as they may seem, are just momentary parts of a larger story, the same old shtick played out over and over. J. Robert Lennon has crafted a wonderful mystery, an at times pulse-pounding thriller populated by a nimbly realized family unit; so much so, that in the midst of frantic page-flipping, it becomes difficult to slow down long enough to truly appreciate the deeper themes at play.

Broken River begins like so many good thrillers do, with a small town, and a brutal rape and murder of a mother and father in the woods outside of the titular town. In Lennon’s telling though, the events are seen by a spectral Observer, a constant omniscient presence in the book, one that can see the overlaid threads of narrative that connect us all, knowingly or not. The Observer watches as the house declines over six years, before a new family renovates the decrepit mess and moves in. The family—Karl, Eleanor and their daughter Irina—have moved from the city to escape failed sculptor Karl’s inability to stave off his own promiscuity and through their own actions, and the slow, familiar bend of time, are brought face-to-face with dark stain of violence that still pollutes the house. To say more would be to deprive a reader of the sheer joy into following along as Lennon, pulls you, without seeming effort, down a dark, twisting and disturbing road to a brutal climax.

There are almost Stephen King like baddies in this book—physically disgusting personas who human or not, just barely clear the definition—and Lennon’s exploration of their motivations and fears is as thrilling as any of the more suspenseful scenes that pepper the book. It goes for Lennon’s approach to the whole genre of mystery/thriller: as much as his story is a darkened flesh pulled over their bones, he does so as a jumping off point into the notion of well-worn narratives, and how they cut through all our lives. He does this with the presence of The Observer, a ghostly, god-like figure, whose almost interstitial chapters give the author free reign to noodle around in a more metaphysical sandbox. Near the end of the book, in the voice of the Observer, Lennon writes, “The desire, in other words, for narrative has abandoned these people. They no longer wish to be governed by events, to set events into motion.” The Observer acts as the authorial voice, able to not only dictate events, but to shape them by its presence alone. The author himself becomes a part of the story, as he always was, but in the form of The Observer, Lennon is able to comment on both the power of narrative as fate and its almost redundant nature. The same things happen time and time again, and if we push in close enough, they’re populated by different characters, different locales, even different endings. But from the view of The Observer, the tale of Karl, Eleanor and Irina is just another thread in the big, ugly rug of life.

If the idea of mystery with this much existential thought at play turns a reader off, be assured, this is a book that hums along. Lennon’s characters scramble and claw off the page, and the story charges along at break-neck speed. The author loves to play with the tools of the mystery genre—he introduces a set of knives early in the book, knowing full well what it means to do so—and his more action-oriented scenes pulse with baseline terror and grit. Lennon is quite adept at slowly bleeding out the secrets at the heart of his story, pulling his readers along page-by-page, hoping for resolution. And resolution does come, though it may not fulfill every readers hopes. Lennon is using the tropes of genre to make some lofty points about story-telling in general, but if you happen to miss them while reveling in the sheer enjoyment of the story unfolding, no matter, it’s still a damn fine read.

Review: The Leavers by Lisa Ko

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The Leavers
by Lisa Ko
Published 2017 by Algonquin Books
$25.95 hardcover ISBN 978-1616206888

By Noah Sanders

Lisa Ko manages to weave in a healthy pile of themes into her debut novel, The Leavers. The book manages, with an enjoyable ease, to be an immigrant story, a mystery of sorts, a coming of age novel, a story about New York City, a sideways glance at the discovery of the American Dream and even, at times, a glance into the lowest rungs of the career of a fledgling musician. What draws together all of these seemingly disparate threads is a sense of regret. The characters in The Leavers have made awful choices in the name of survival, or had those choices forced upon them, and with each decision, burdened themselves with a longing that chains them in place, unable to move forward. Ko’s main characters—the orphan Deming Guo and his mother Peilan—yearn for something else, a life untethered by their pasts. As much as The Leavers is about unchaining ourselves from what came before, it is also about the freedom in recognizing how important the experiences of the past are in shaping who we are, or what we want to be.

Ko’s novel begins in New York City with a six-year old Chinese-American boy, Deming Guo, discovering that his mother has disappeared. She, Peilan (or Polly) Guo is an illegal immigrant who has given up her cherished freedom in the name of making a life for her and her son in the nail salons and shirt factories of the bustling city. When she vanishes without explanation, Deming is moved to a small college town upstate, where he is raised by two progressive professors, Kay and Peter Wilkerson. The book jumps forward and Deming has become Daniel Wilkerson, a talented musician and gambling addict, deep in debt, failing in school and still dealing with the fallout of his mother’s disappearance nearly two decades prior. Though the search for his mother is central axis which the entire book spins, the story flits and darts into the dark corners of a Daniel’s life, one spent with only fractured memories of the mother who he believes holds the keys to discovering he really is.

Deming Guo (née Daniel Wilkerson) is a character idling through life in neutral. His mother’s surprise departure years earlier, and the drastic shift at an early age from the big city to a small, quiet town, has left him fragmented, spinning in circles, unable to find his path in the present. Ko bounces back and forth between Deming’s present day search for Polly and the past where she escapes a small fishing village in China, to give birth to her son in New York City. Both of these characters are exceptionally rendered—Polly a cigarette smoking, spitfire who loves her son but is weighed down by the responsibility that holds her back is especially well conceived—with Ko excelling at sculpting them into living, breathing creations grappling with the multiple layers of identity that seem to define them.

If Polly is held in place in the past by her own sense of obligation to her child—and Ko’s microscopic peek into what, and who, it takes to raise a child as an illegal immigrant is both harrowing and heartfelt—then Deming stumbles under the heft of other’s expectations of him. His identities—Daniel Wilkerson, Deming Guo, Chinese-American orphan, pop-rock guitarist, gambling addict—blanket him, as do his attempts and failures to live up to each, but none ever define him. In response he pushes away from everything—his friends, his adopted family, his education and his life as a musician—stumbling over and over again in an attempt to delineate himself. While Deming searches for his identity and for Polly, she hides his existence from those who populate her new life. His past is a mystery, hers a secret—both rooting them into their current places.

Ko spins a good yarn and The Leavers is a literary page turner, the mystery of the why of Polly’s disappearance dragging you from one page to a next. And though Ko shines at creating realistic motivation for even the worst of her characters’ decisions, she tends to overstuff their stories. Deming’s musical career—and the long sections about his ability to see sound as color—is well composed (as is his gambling addiction, his 10,000 dollar debt, his relationship with his adopted parents, and so on and so forth) but there’s so much, and the story of Deming and Polly so interesting, everything else feels, on occasion like undercooked distractions.

In Ko’s telling of Deming and Polly’s separate stories, we see reflections of their desire to pull themselves out from under the weight of their own choices, to free themselves from what is expected of them. Only when they come together—and Ko navigates a twisty plot with aplomb to get them there—are they able to see the full spectrum of their lives, to shake the regret for the lives that came before. In doing so, both characters are unshackled, allowed the freedom to make progress, to attend to their futures, instead of wallow in the past.


Lisa Ko will be in conversation with local Bay Area author Donia Bijan on Monday, June 5th at Books, Inc. Alameda at 7pm. For more information on that event, please click here.

 

Review: Large Animals by Jess Arndt

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Large Animals
by Jess Arndt
Published 2017 by Catapult
$15.95 paperback ISBN 978-1936787487

By Noah Sanders

There is an abundant feeling of being lost in Jess Arndt’s debut short story collection, Large Animals. The characters in the diminutive volume float through various forms of limbo—emotional and physical to be sure, but also geographical. It doesn’t matter if Arndt’s mostly nameless narrators are roaming the streets of New York or festering in a shack in some hellish desert landscape, they drift from situation to situation, attempting to espouse meaning where none may exist. The stories collected in Large Animals are about characters in the midst of transition, in the long endless moment between Point A and Point B where the boundaries of our lives have broken down and possibilities seem—for better or worse—infinite. These are worlds where the normative rules of existence haven’t been broken, just temporarily sidestepped on the way to whatever might be next. The past has occurred, and the future is inevitably barreling toward these characters, but Arndt’s aim is the often times harsh grey space that lives between them. In Large Animals, Arndt explores what it means and what it looks like to be what we as conscience beings always are, in the process of change.

In “Beside Myself” Arndt writes, “Recently I’d been gripped with a phobia about places. It seemed to me that places were inevitably marked by their future potential.” The fear of what comes next or what happens when someone actually arrives wherever they’re supposed to be, weighs heavily on Large Animals. The collection is replete with characters who aimlessly wander and find solace in skidding to a halt just on the edge of actual arrival. The final destination in Large Animals isn’t an achievement, it’s a burden, a far heavier one than the continued pursuit of a hazily defined existence. More than this, Arndt seems to be saying that there is no actual demarcation of moving from one phase to the next, but rather we exist in a state of perpetual transition. Our arbitrary wants and needs propel us forward, but we do so as a chaotic jumble of thoughts and emotions hog-tied together into a constantly shifting bundle we loosely refer to as our identity.

And there is an urge to categorize the stories in Large Animals as primarily about gender transition, but a reader would be amiss to limit their scope. These are stories about characters who may identify as transgender, but Arndt allows them to be vessels for questions about the general act of navigating the multiple identities contained within. Many of the stories in this slender debut feature characters grappling with another entity—subconscious or otherwise—living beneath their skin. In “Together”, her narrator grapples with both a Mexican-born parasite and her own relationship and identity ennui; in “Jeff,” the narrator fantasizes about abusing a thick-necked, sexually aggressive bro she fears she might be. “Jeff” is the crown jewel in this outstanding debut, an unsettlingly funny tale in which Lily Tomlin mistakenly refers to the narrator as Jeff, hurling them into an identity crisis. The brief story captures both the anxieties of transition—physical, yes, but life’s as well—and how they bleed into our relationships, our friendships, the very core of who we are.

There are times in Large Animals where the writing veers towards the experimental, the overly surreal, and the sense of being lost overwhelms. Arndt’s writing is the compass that guides though, the angular prose darkly humorous and disquieting but still steeped in a warm bath of humanity. We stumble along with these characters, grasping for their coattails, their sense of being lost mirroring our own. Arndt is a cartographer of the steadily changing landscapes of existence. Her stories don’t map with the intention of revealing a destination, but rather at illuminating the nebulous territory that precedes it.

Review: Sunshine State by Sarah Gerard

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Sunshine State
by Sarah Gerard
Published 2017 by Harper Perennial
$15.99 hardcover ISBN 978-0062434876

By Noah Sanders

The Florida of Sarah Gerard’s Sunshine State isn’t the one the West Coasters and Northerners of the world have much experience with. Oversaturated with media consumption, the Florida most people know is a kooky mélange of sunshine, citrus, oddball characters, alligators, swamps, a dash of Cubanos, a coastal manse here and there, and a slew of political scandals that we’ve all spent a few hours shaking our heads at. These exist in Sunshine State, atmospherically lingering on the periphery, but Gerard isn’t looking to further our stereotypes about the most southeastern of American states. The essays in her debut collection are small stories of Floridians in urban settings, seeking happiness, understanding even in the often times poisonous embrace of large-scale religion, business, drugs, and family. Gerard explores the bigger pictures inherent in the state, but does so through the lens of the individual, a motley community seeking to pull themselves from the gutters and achieve some semblance of happiness, of the American Dream. But, as Gerard asks of herself and her subjects, at what cost, and what sacrifice does our happiness come?

There’s always a bigger force pulling at the subjects of Gerard’s essays. In “Mother-Father God,” it’s Christian Science and the allure of its cheerful, supposed negativity-free community to Gerard’s own family. In “The Mayor of Williams Park,” it’s a homeless man-turned-charismatic preacher, who fights for improving the lives of those who live on the street, while battling his own dark demons. “Records” focuses on Gerard’s senior year in high school, where EDM, drugs, and sex create a dangerous umbrella the author narrowly escapes from underneath.

It’s the essay “Going Diamond” that hits the nail on the head the hardest. Gerard’s essay about her mom and dad’s brief, but deep involvement, with Amway, the international pyramid scheme owned by the multi-billionaire Devos Family. Amway presents a condensed, accessible version of the American dream to the Gerard family, one steeped in an overarching belief in America’s true god: Capitalism. To join the club of Amway, one must aspire to buy up and sell down, to achieve their wants and needs on the shoulders of those below, from the hand-me-downs of those above. Amway, often believed, rightly so, to be a large-scale pyramid scheme, offers the potential of monetary success—with all the gleaming trappings—with nothing more than your money and time as the entry fee. “In order for our dreams to feel real,” Gerard writes, “we had to construct them from material things.” The paper-thin life security Amway offers the Gerard family, and millions of others the world over, does not come without cost as the deeper they trod, the less of a family they become. It is America, and the false hope of the American Dream, laid bare: anyone can be a success, as long as you sacrifice yourself and your own ideals to achieve it. This is Gerard’s Sunshine State, a place where sad-eyed outcasts found solace in joining—a church, a social group, a noxious business—but lose themselves in the process.

Gerard is best known for her novels, and in Sunshine State, the strongest pieces are those that allow her to deep dive into lyrical descriptions. “Records” and “BFF” thrum with personal revelations, each carved from Gerard’s own painful experiences. Pulling from her own emotional center, these essays allow her a greater ability to paint scenes and characters through a more enjoyable, if potentially less factual sense. The more journalistic offerings of “Mother-Father God” or “The Mayor of Williams Park” never stumble, but drag slightly when Gerard is explaining, or dissecting the ins-and-outs of the Florida political machine or the history of Christian Science. Only “Sunshine State” —the strange, morbid tale of a bird sanctuary gone awry—combines Gerard’s knack for character description and pained confession with straight forward fact; her descriptions of the eccentric, obsessive Ralph Heath and his family and staff, deftly captures not only the living history of The Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary, but its squandered aspirations.

Florida, to many (this writer included), is a swampy mirage that dangles off a far coast. Its utterance invokes humidity and tropical drinks, elderly Jewish couples and dense swampland. In Sunshine State, this vision isn’t proven incorrect, just superficial, a thin mirage those who’ve called themselves residents, have concocted. Instead, Gerard shows us that though our stereotypes may sometimes ring true, bubbling beneath them is a population of people simply yearning for happiness, whatever it might take to achieve it. In this, Gerard shows that below the assumed eccentricities, Florida is just another place where the American Dream has failed.

Review: Imagine Wanting Only This by Kristen Radtke

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Imagine Wanting Only This
by Kristen Radtke
Published 2017 by Pantheon
$29.95 hardcover ISBN 978-1101870839

By Noah Sanders

When we look at physical ruins—an abandoned city, a former military barrack, Cambodia’s killing fields—there is the illusion of permanence. The idea that these destitute structures announce not only the end of a place and all the humanity inherent to that place, but also a capturing of a moment. As if the vine-covered concrete, the broken windows and human detritus contained within them are vessels for the eternal imprint of whatever sliver of life once dwelled there. In Imagine Wanting Only This, Kristen Radtke’s debut graphic memoir, the author’s own obsession with physical ruins leads her down an internal rabbit hole, where the truth of the matter rears its ugly head: there is no such thing as a captured moment. Instead, everything changes, everything disappears, and all that can be hoped for is a fleeting glimpse out the rearview mirror and the hope that the image that lingers does so forever.

In the wake of the death of her favorite Uncle Dan from a genetic heart condition, Radtke, a struggling artist in Chicago, becomes unmoored, in need of escape. The event shatters the illusion for Radtke that things exist forever, Dan’s existence suddenly only accessible through photos, recollections and her own memories. “I’d been consumed by the question of how something that is,” she writes, “can become, very suddenly, something that isn’t.” The author abandons her live-in boyfriend, Andrew, and departs for Italy, a country where the ruins of ancient civilization, the memories of what came before, are kept behind velvet ropes. Where society once ran rampant, now stand empty stones, facades that give hint to what once existed there, but are now nothing more than decaying destinations for emotional tourism.

The idea of disintegration and decay permeates much of the book. The first apartment Radtke shares with Andrew, her boyfriend-turned-fiance-turned-spurned-lover, has floorboards that disintegrate into lairs of silverfish; a mold problem that in a series of 8 panels slowly subsumes the bucolic routine of their life together. Radtke is a talented illustrator, and the panels are nearly identical, snapshots of key moments in the fledgling relationship—a new kitten, sharing a bed, paying bills. A hint of mold in one corner ends up filling the walls, Andrew and Radtke trapped within it. These moments, small as they may be, like all others, degrade, rot, and eventually fall away altogether. They are, to hit the obvious point, emotional ruins, snapshots of our inner self, worn down by the forward progress of being alive. This isn’t a bad thing, it seems that Radtke is saying, but instead the natural way of living: we grow out of the dust of what came before, and something else will grow out of the dust that we become.

Throughout Imagine Wanting Only This, Radtke seeks meaning in physical ruin. She wants the relics of the past to contain the proof that emotion, memory, life itself are immutable. That we can at any time return to previous experiences, previous lives even, and in retrospect they’ll remain the same. The author seems to want to push back on the tenuousness of life, by chaining herself to the facade of permanence. Quickly, conflict arises; Radtke’s search for answers in the past unhinges her from her presence. She becomes emotionally ethereal, slipping away from the foundations of her own life. Radtke’s delicate art buoys the sense of perpetual limbo, her images often skewing into the surreal, her grasp on the form helping to better invoke her quiet loneliness.

Near the end of the book, Radtke visits a resident of Gilman, Colorado—a town entirely abandoned when a silver mine poisoned its water supply. Lois, the first survivor, describes the time there as “the happiest in her life” but when the water is found to be poisoned, she picks up and leaves, her life moving onwards to whatever comes next, happy or sad. It rattles Radtke, “I wanted her to say that they’d lost something irreclaimable, as if it’d show me that maybe someday I could claim anything with as much ferocity.” Permanence is a facade—concrete, skin or otherwise—Lois seems to say, happy as we are, things won’t always be the same. “When one mine closed,” Lois tells Radtke, “we went to another. There will always be new places to dig.” In this, Radtke finds if not an answer, a sense of temporary meaning: her obsession with connecting with the past, is robbing her of a meaningful present. “The floors will rot, the carpet will be torn,” she writes, “and someday there will be nothing left that you have touched.” Eventually everything about us will be gone, it’s inevitable, and dragging our heels as the future pulls us forward, will leave us nowhere but lost in the past.

Review: The Night We Set the Dead Kid on Fire by Ephraim Scott Sommers

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The Night We Set The Dead Kid on Fire
by Ephraim Scott Sommers
Published 2017 by Tebot Bach
$16.00 paperback ISBN 978-1939678348

By Noah Sanders

There’s a moment when you’re hungover—head pounding, mouth dry, your stomach twisting—where inevitably you find yourself staring, slack-jawed, at some unimportant item—a zipper, a book you’ve owned but never read, a line on your palm. You will look at this object and, your brain a sodden mess, you will find meaning, memories, perhaps even revelations, in a thing that previously held nothing. The poetry in Ephraim Scott Sommers’ The Night We Set The Dead Kid On Fire feels akin to this experience. His poems, almost in their entirety, paint exploits pulled from his own life in his hometown of Atascadero and beyond. Almost all of them are fraught with violence and booze, pedophilia and broken relationships; the release valve of choice nearly always booze or drugs. Sommers’ work is rooted in the momentary. The best of the poems in the collection use a singular event as ground zero for both a claustrophobic stroll down the alleys of memory, and a drunken lurch into the consequences. Sommers takes his individual experiences and turns hangover’s hindsight upon them, each rusted, damaged object, an entry point to his own life’s expansive ripple.

There is no doubt about Sommers’ ability as a storyteller. The richest of his pieces in The Night We Set The Dead Kid On Fire are nearly prose poetry, densely massed thickets of visceral description tightly wrapped around an oft times brutal memory.
In “Trina and I at the End of the Earth,” one of many poems about a particularly toxic relationship:

“How you smear out/lit matchsticks on your chin, how you pinch/a dip in your lip and spit on the walls with your shark’s mouth”

“Cryin’ Bryan” wraps itself around the memory of fight in a decrepit yard. As important as the act of the titular Bryan catching one upside the head is, Sommers contains the altercation to a few ferocious lines; the meat of the poem instead the build of the narrator’s recollection and the short, sharp prediction of how it all might end. A memory isn’t the end-all in Sommers’ writing, it’s the starting point, the catalyst for reflection and introspection, sad and harsh as it may be.

This is a dark collection, a sometimes trying parade of not only painful, morbid images, but of what lead to them, and what spun out from them. There are moments of hope buried within—a grave digger in “Shovel Psalm” finds a glimmer of joy in the simple task of tilling the earth—but for the most part, Sommers seems to be expounding on how, if we let it, our pasts trap us in a holding loop. In “Mass Shooting In Kalamazoo” Sommers writes,

“The world’s/engine has stalled, and this is a moment.
Let me stay inside it.”

We spin outwards from a trying event, only to canter back to try and find where it started; we grasp blindly in hopes we’ll find some future meaning. The circle expands and contracts, but we always rotate around our memories. On and on, until somehow, maybe, we move past it.

A hangover eventually passes, the object we thought said so much, recedes back to where it once lived in our minds. In this, The Night We Set The Dead Kid On Fire, and the consequences of a hard night of boozing differ. In Sommers’ writing, what you do clings, pulling you down, and only of your own struggle, your own volition, can you pull yourself back up.

Review: American War by Omar El Akkad

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American War
by Omar El Akkad
Published 2017 by Knopf
$26.95 hardcover ISBN 978-0451493583

By Noah Sanders

If there was a time to write a novel about a dystopian future, now, if ever, seems the time. The American President is a former reality celebrity; the natural world, poisoned by its invaders, revolts against us; the Middle East has become a dusty hotbed of dictators and religious-zealots-turned-murderers; technology has eliminated privacy while pushing us further apart then ever before. The alternate futures of past science fiction seem always on the verge of becoming reality. A dystopian future no longer seems so far away. Former journalist Omar El Akkad’s debut novel, American War, is a book about what comes next, pulled from the hottest topics of our current geopolitical climate. It is a powerful feat of world-building, a beautifully written, if not wholly mind-blowing vision of a near-future that in El Akkad’s skilled hands pulses with unnerving potential.

The year is 2074. The world is succumbing to the effects of climate change; Florida has been flooded out of existence and the grand Mississippi River has become a sea. America is once again in the grips of a brutal Civil War, this time over the usage of fossil fuels. The South has become an impoverished wasteland, dotted with refugee camps, patrolled by revolutionary militiamen and supported by aide-boats from a distant, Middle Eastern empire. The Chestnuts are a poor, if not happy, family of Louisianans, knocked askew by a war that draws closer and closer to their riverside home each day. After the death of their father in a politically-charged bombing, the three Chestnut children and their mother relocate to Patience, Mississippi, a refugee’s tent city the average reader will most likely recognize from a CNN broadcast about Afghanistan. Within the walls of the camp, Sarat Chestnut—the family’s youngest—starts on a path of radicalized revolution that will pull her, and her family, through the fires of war, none reaching the other side unscathed.

El Akkad’s vision of future America is a grim one, because it predicts a shift in power, where the current geopolitical rules have been flipped, and a weakened USA has become fodder for a new reign of colonialism. Mexico has charged across the border, segmenting the country further, while a burgeoning Middle Eastern empire slowly invades through intermediaries and insidious care packages. The author spent years prior to this as a journalist embedded in the Middle East and the Black Lives Matter movement. This, combined with El Akkad’s gift of description, allows for the author to pepper his bleak, and often gruesome view of the future with moments of truly stunning imagery. American War, both because of its incredibly timely subject matter and the deep layering of the world Akkad has conceived, feels possible, as if our missteps in the real world could, potentially inevitably lead to a world very similar to the one described within.

American War casts a wide net in terms of what the author is trying to say, and though el-Akkad has said in interviews that he wasn’t trying to take sides, but rather discuss the universal appeal, and fallout, of revenge—at times the book’s inability to stand tall behind a specific idea becomes distracting. As Sarat, under the tutelage of the mysterious Albert Gaines, grows more and more radical, her viewpoints about the use of violence and death grow darker and darker. There’s times when El Akkad strays away from making a specific point, leaving a grey area of thought that, though intentional, seems unfocused. In a book as well-conceived and detailed as American War, even the slightest lack of clarity cracks the illusion El Akkad has so artfully pieced together.

As stark as American War gets, its characters and its storyline tread a well-worn path. Detailed and rife with elegant, at times lyrical imagery, the book still revels in the common tropes of Young Adult dystopian fiction. Though the book is always engaging and at best a thought-provoking road-map to a future America, it provides both in the recognizable and comfortably safe sandbox of genre fiction. There are no weapons-laden cornucopias or garish baddies, but to say that most readers have gotten lost in the story of a young girl who comes to lead, or in this case define a revolution, is an understatement. Likewise, El Akkad’s characters—Sarat’s sister Dana or her childhood friend Marcus—can feel a bit two-dimensional, well-conceived voice boxes for various political philosophies, but mouthpieces nonetheless. Simplified versions of deeper political thoughts, better suited for a younger audience.

Credit El Akkad’s abilities, that for the most part, American War is a gripping, terrifying peek into a future seemingly forecast on the front page of the daily news. It is rich, realistic world El Akkad has created, and though it sometimes slips into well-worn patterns, it is never less than riveting. American War is a book that will inspire thought, that does turn our current geopolitical situation on its head, allowing an opportunity at a viewpoint from the other side Americans are rarely given. More importantly the world El Akkad has created feels not real, but feels scarily possible, the true mark of great dystopian fiction.

Review: Sorry To Disrupt The Peace by Patty Yumi Cottrell

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Sorry To Disrupt The Peace
by Patty Yumi Cottrell
Published 2017 by McSweeney’s
$24.00 hardcover ISBN 978-1944211301

By Noah Sanders

The cover of the hardback edition of Patty Yumi Cottrell’s debut novel, Sorry To Disrupt The Peace, features a black and white waterfall serenely pouring down a rocky face. Removing the cover exposes the shockingly lime-green exterior of the book itself. Embossed across its textured cover is the standard disclaimer that this is a “work of fiction” and the characters within are “products of the author’s imagination.” It’s an apt metaphor for the book’s narrator, Helen Moran, a 32-year old woman, burying her questionable sanity beneath a combination of denial and coping methods. Sorry To Disrupt The Peace starts with Helen discovering that her adopted brother, Max, has killed himself. The news sends Helen back to her adopted home, Milwaukee, an unwanted private investigator seeking to learn the truth behind her brother’s death. Helen’s search is a slow, nauseating spiral of discovery, her erratic hunt for clues about her brother’s reasoning pushing her, and the reader, closer and closer to an understanding of herself. Cottrell places the reader within the mind of Helen, an unaware first-person narrator, and hidden behind the wall of her delusions, the book becomes a strange, sometimes comic journey, into the dark, weirdness of her self.

Helen Moran is an unaware narrator along the lines of John Kennedy Toole’s Ignatius J. Reilly or Hal in the opening chapter of David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest. The world she describes is akin to the hall of mirrors in a dusty funhouse—everything’s there, but how it looks is just a bit off. It’s a difficult trick to pull off, and Cottrell handles it ably. The closer Helen gets to Max’s reasoning behind his suicide—mentally and geographically—the crazier she acts out. Cottrell writes Helen as a tireless self-promoter, imbued with false confidence, plodding forward without rhyme or reason, smashing through anything that lands in her path. In her mind, nothing is wrong with her, everything she does is right, everything else is a lightly veiled attack against her. It’s difficult to like Helen—she spends a good deal of the book throwing up or pooping, hallucinates an Eastern European man, and is friendly only when it suits her—but like a good detective novel, we’re pulled along by the promise of the author throwing the curtain off the central mystery of Max’s death. In a way, this is a mystery novel: the reader wants to know why Max died, but as Helen’s investigation stumbles forward, it becomes clear that the true conundrum is Helen herself. “Behind every suicide is a door,” Cottrell writes. “If you open the door you might find things you wish you never knew.” There’s a comic ineptitude to Helen’s investigation. Even when “clues” are screaming up at her, she turns her head. She won’t go into Max’s room, and her only witnesses are a couple of Max’s old friends, most of whom have no interest in talking to her. Instead Helen spends her time lolling about the house, taking short walks, generally just thinking about Max and his role in her life, and hers in his. But, her poor investigatory skills are simply a smokescreen—some part of Helen seems to know that by searching out the answers behind Max’s death, she’s really digging into herself. Sorry To Disrupt The Peace is a detective novel turned inwards, the elusive suspect lingering in the shadows, Helen Moran herself.

There’s a general sense of unease to the book. Cottrell plays off the standard views of affluent suburbia—Helen’s parents are bland, sweater wearing knick-knack collectors—the author painting Milwaukee in the hues of Midwestern nostalgia as filtered through Helen’s tilted worldview. Everything feels slightly askew, everything feels vaguely sinister. It makes the setting and the characters outside of Helen hard to pin down, superficial in a purposeful way, the reader subject only to Helen’s far-reaching whims.

As much as Sorry To Disrupt The Peace subverts the tropes of detective novels, don’t expect any easy answers. This is Helen’s book, for good or for bad, and though her search for answers may show us what’s behind the waterfall, the resolution isn’t tied up in a neat little bow. The answers Helen seeks aren’t easy ones—why do people kill themselves? —and the book dwindles to a stop, with little sense of closure. But this isn’t a whodunit, it’s a story about a damaged woman trying to find herself. Loose ends are par for the course. Or, as Helen says, “The problem with an investigation is people will continue to investigate until they have found something, anything and only then, when they have found something, will they close the investigation.”

Review: One Of The Boys by Daniel Magariel

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One Of The Boys
by Daniel Magariel
Published 2017 by Scribner
$22.00 hardcover ISBN 978-1501156168

By Noah Sanders

In Daniel Magariel’s debut novel, One of the Boys, childhood is a bootcamp. The soldiers: two unnamed boys whisked away from their mother to New Mexico by their abusive, drug-addicted father. The steel-fisted drill sergeant, the father, imposes a strict set of rules and punishments, effectively drafting his own children into a malignant fraternal order of three. What’s sold to the kids as an adventure to start a life anew in a foreign land, quickly devolves into a somber fight for survival, as the father’s drug use and physical attacks escalate. Child abuse is a well-worn subject in literature, but Magariel manages, with brevity and stark beauty, to highlight anew the tenuous wants and needs that hold a family group together, no matter how broken. One of the Boys is, at its pitch-black core, a book about the power of parental love; of what it gives, what we’ll do to possess it, and the startling effects it has when it is turned against us.

There are no punches pulled in Magariel’s book. This is a story that starts dark and quickly slides into claustrophobic horror, punctuated by belt-whippings and the chemical reek of crack smoke. Our unnamed narrator, a middle school kid, and his high-schooler brother, have voluntarily lied to the authorities about their mother’s alleged pedophilia, and now live in a musty apartment complex in New Mexico with their sad, monster of a father. To start, both kids alternatively love and fear their father, and Magariel excels at showcasing the reasons behind both emotions. The father has painted their exodus from Kansas as a game, a mission in a war against their mother, with those who follow along allowed the greatest reward: to be “one of the boys,” This is childhood as gang initiation, the father extorting loyalty through intense physical abuse coupled with manipulation of the kids against each other. Magariel understands the supposed trust a child needs from their parent, and the father figure in One of the Boys uses it as a weapon, aimed at culling any sort of revolution.

The author furthers the fraternal feeling of the relationship between the two boys and their father. A rough-hewn form of hazing and ritual is constructed by the father, its intent to break them down, to sickly bond the two kids to each other and, most importantly, to their father. Things go poorly for the kids—the father wades deeper into drugs, his absence, and the onset of growing up, allowing the kids the freedom of mind to contemplate escape. Magariel creates a fascinating dichotomy: as the father falls apart, the kids must weigh their bettered chances at freedom against their inherent familial need to take care of him. The big decisions become theirs, the responsibilities of an adult, suddenly thrust into their hands. This is a book about family, though, and the author doesn’t allow the reader to forget, good or bad, our parents pass a little something along to all of us. As the father begins to suspect an escape, the narrator turns the manipulative tricks taught to him against his teacher, his father, exploiting his weaknesses to better their chances at freedom.

As bleak as the book gets, Magariel doesn’t let it slip into abject horror, allowing the boys some sense of levity, even during the worst of times. The narrator and his older brother form a bond under the dictator-like rulings of their father, manipulation or not. When the situation grows the most unbearable, the two turn towards each other, the author allowing a single scene of undiluted, child-like joy, and together, for each other, they’ll try and find a way out. The epilogue of the book pulls the reader back to the car ride on the way to New Mexico. In context, the scene seems bucolic, a family road trip to a new place full of inside jokes and good-hearted teasing. The boys are excited, ready for an adventure with dear old dad, the future, horrible as it will be, still full of possibility. “We are kids again,” Magariel writes, “just like he promised.” No matter how badly that promise will be broken, for a moment, Magariel shows us just how badly these characters, and in turn the readers, want to trust their parents, how much they want them, no matter the cost, to help shepherd them down the paths of their lives.

Review: The Vine That Ate The South by J.D. Wilkes

 

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The Vine That Ate The South
by J.D. Wilkes
Published 2017 by Two Dollar Radio
$11.99 paperback ISBN 978-1-937512-55-2

By Noah Sanders

The American road trip is a staple of fantasy literature. The journey between two points on a map, fertile ground for colorful characters to suss out their differences, revelations to be had, and unwitting heroes to face off against a bevy of a ghoulish horrors. The broad expanse of the open spaces between cities is an easy target for an author to aim their thoughts and opinions of the US of A. Musician-turned-novelist J.D. Wilkes’ Southern-fried debut novel, The Vine That Ate The South, a rip-roaring exploration of the power of legend and folklore, fits the bill nicely, if not a bit sloppily. The book finds a nameless, fatherless man-child obsessed with the legends of the South, and his green-toothed, Native American guide, Carver Canute, following the railroad spikes of the abandoned L&N line on a cornbread quest to discover the mythical Kudzu House of legend. The two men’s journey pulls them through the deep, dark of the South, where the titular Kudzu consumes all, women ride Great Danes for sport, albino spirit panthers stalk their prey, and shit-throwing demon men might just be hiding in the trees.

The Vine That Ate The South is, at its best, a page-turning delight, rife with Southern folklore. The ne’er-do-well duo at its heart, legend-seeking miscreants, on a mission to discover their homelands beating heart, and the secrets of their own familial history along the way. The narrator and his salty companion—a veritable encyclopedia of tall tales—are outsiders, pushed away from their past and the present by the onset of modernity. The unnamed narrator seeks more than just the discovery of the truth behind a campfire story, his quest is to become a legend in his own right; to become a part of the criss-crossing grid of myth that flows underneath the rag-tag, poverty-stricken climes of the rural South. In plotting their journey, Wilkes explores the battle between the old gods of story and legend and the all-consuming malaise brought about by technology-obsessed, preservative pounding, present day America. “Trite but true,” the narrator tells the reader, “technology has ostensibly solved most of our problems yet created entirely new ones to take their place.”

Wilkes’s portrayal of the South is chock full of toothless hillbillies, skin-and-bone meth heads and gun-toting isolationists, but the author’s love for his place of birth is clear. His prose is loving and familiar, honest in its depiction, but lacking in judgment or cynicism. These are people and places that Wilkes knows, and his writing makes even shit-tossing loonies seem like beloved, if not avoided, parts of an extended Southern family.

The heart of the novel is the legend of the Kudzu House—a place so consumed by the vine, that its owner’s skeletons still hang above it—and the power of legend itself. Folklore and myth leap off of nearly every page, but Wilkes never reveals if he truly believes any of them, including the Kudzu House, actually exist. Our characters spit stories back and forth, but never come to face-to-face (without the effects of mind-altering substances coursing through their veins) with any of the legends they’re looking for. Instead, Wilkes uses legends and folklore like religion: it doesn’t matter if you’ve ever seen its magic in action, giving yourself over to the belief in it, is just as powerful, just as potent a way of revealing our inner truths.

Wilkes has a lot to say in the short expanse of The Vine That Ate The South about the power of folklore, religion, technology, the relationship between the North and the South and on and on, and with every page seeming to feature an aside to some homespun tale, not everything gets enough room to breath. With Wilkes at the wheel of this rollicking road trip though, it’s easy to ignore the lingering flaws of the book. The deeper the characters push towards their destination, the weirder the book becomes, culminating in a hallucinatory final 60 pages involving talking skeletons, a river witch, the aforementioned albino ghost panther and a possibly possessed, shit-hurling hillbilly. The Vine That Ate The South isn’t—like the gap-toothed, Confederate flag waving South it holds so dear—perfect, but it’s always a good time, occasionally one brimming over with a clapboard type of rustic insight. It’s a Homeric odyssey soaked in chewing tobacco, dropped in a pocket pint of moonshine, and best consumed in one long delirious pull.

Review: Animals Strike Curious Poses by Elena Passarello

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Animals Strike Curious Poses
by Elena Passarello
Published 2017 by Sarabande Books
$19.95 hardcover ISBN 978-1941411391

By Noah Sanders

Animals Strike Curious Poses—the second essay collection by Whiting Award winning author Elena Passarello—is about, well, animals. Elephants, bears, the woolly mammoth, and more – each “immortalized by humans.” It is more than this though: this is a book about how our interactions with animals, have altered and invariably improved, our perceptions, our imaginations and our abilities to fathom the world. Passarello artfully explores how humans defined themselves through the wild spirits of animals, and how, over time, we redefined the relationship until the “animal life” became, “so dependent on humans that it [was] no longer viable alone.” Animals Strike Curious Poses is a quirky, adventurously penned book struck through with a dark idea: for all that animals have given us, we’ve given them the shit side of the stick in return.

Passarello’s essays sprint across the human timeline, touching down every few thousand years to relate another tale of how animal existence opened yet another door for human understanding. In, 39,000BP, the woolly mammoth Yuka kicks off the author’s far-reaching survey of man and natures neurological and artistic connection. “Before it became anything else,” the author writes, “the human brain was first an almanac of living shapes changing in the passing light.” We, as cavemen, recorded the beauty and ferocity of the natural world only in our grey matter the weight of all that retained knowledge eventually needing release, expression even. Leading to a caveman further up the timeline, charcoal in hand, drawing a mammoth in motion on a cave wall. Yuka becomes an impetus for art, for the very act of human creation.

Our entanglement with animals became more complicated as we ourselves grew more complicated. Vogel Starr, the beloved pet starling of a young Amadeus Mozart, inhaled his compositions and spat them back out through the garbled filter of a bird’s indecipherable mind. The strange squawks and croaks it instinctively produced pushing the composer past the boundaries of 18th century composition. Animals, knowingly or not, in art, science and beyond, have imprinted themselves across the human conscious. About Arabella, a spider who accompanied NASA’s 1973 Skylab III crew into space, Passarello writes, “The distance from a spider to the end of her six-inch silk tether is a man drifting on a sixty-foot umbilical. A man tumbling from end to end of a space station is a spider free-falling down a four-foot web.”

The latter half of Animals Strike Curious Poses strikes a darker tone, as modern humans find ourselves no longer content with capturing animals on cave walls, instead we capture, and contain the animals themselves. “Jumbo III” recounts the decades of man’s fascination with elephants, and their exploitation as circus acts. The elephant represents the wildness of exotic lands, but when, inevitably, the wildest amongst them turned against us, our only response was to showcase our control over their mortality. As the author jumps closer to the present, man needs more than even control over the physical beings of the animal world, we make them talk, we animate them, we shape them to our own whims. Near the end of the book, Passarello writes of her own interaction, and the guilt in her own enjoyment of a goat altered at birth so it could be shown as a unicorn. She writes, “I didn’t grasp, or refused to consider, what kind of subjection was possible— the various ways humans open up and alter other creatures.”

Passarello toys with the essay form to best represent each animal in its most prominent era, to which she succeeds to varying degrees. Her fantastic piece on Darwin’s development of the Theory of Evolution is told through the eyes of a 175-year old lovesick turtle. But, her essay “Jeoffry,” a confounding take on English poet Christopher Smart’s Jubilate Agno, seems so amused by its own playful form, that the intent and meaning of the piece is lost. Passarello is best when she’s working loosely within the traditional essay form; her eccentric writing and fiction-like tellings of each animal’s existence livening up what could be dry facts, emboldening the philosophical themes that underlie her writing.

“Once, and for a very long time,” Passarello writes, “[animals] surrounded people and culture in a close circle that connected to both the everyday and the spiritual.” Times have changed though, as Passarello tells us, and our cultural reflections of animals are relegated to “neutered pets, as kept zoo creatures, or as ‘commercial diffusions of animal imagery.’” “Cecil,” the final essay in the book, is a barely a page long, a transcription of an interview between Dr. Walter Palmer, the dentist who killed the famed African lion Cecil, and The Associated Press. He says, “Obviously, if I’d have known this lion had a name I wouldn’t have taken it.” We created art because the wild nature of animals inspired us, and now, tens of thousands of years later, we’ve hidden that wildness behind cute names and stuffed representations. So much so that without the stamp of human nomenclature, animals have become nothing more than an acceptable trophy to hang on our walls.