Review: Shot-Blue by Jesse Ruddock

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Shot-Blue
by Jesse Ruddock
Published 2017 by Coach House Press
$19.99 paperback ISBN 978-1552453407

By Noah Sanders

Jesse Ruddock’s debut novel, Shot-Blue, feels like two novels loosely stitched together. They share a locale, and the author’s deep love of describing it, a handful of characters, and the lyrical strands of familial connection. These disparate chunks ostensibly live under the same narrative umbrella, but in both style and story they differ sharply to the detriment of the novel.

Both sections of the book take place on a smattering of islands on Prioleau Lake, a remote wilderness populated by a handful of weathered locals. The first section revolves around Rachel, a single mother and sometimes prostitute, and her son Tristan, an odd kid unhealthily tethered to his sole parental unit. They stumble around the islands, picking up odd jobs—Rachel sleeps with local boater named Keb for cash—just barely skirting by. The second section finds Tristan, now alone, half-feral and living alone on the island he once called home. When a group of developers arrive to turn the island into a tourist resort, Tristan is forced to work alongside a handful of mainland youth and in doing so, slowly emerge from his shell.

The first hundred or pages or so of Shot-Blue feel like an elegiac knot, a tightly woven mass of poetic landscape descriptions with a thin narrative threaded through the center. Ruddock’s writing ability is nothing to shake a tree limb at, and she paints the landscape of the isolated northern wilds as a character in itself. Rachel, and to some degree Tristan in the early goings, are ghosts of this forested, lakeside hinterland, damaged souls disappearing back into nature. As stunning as Ruddock’s descriptions are, their vague nature in the opening chunk make the characters slippery, the reader left to sort through the tangled knots of prose struggling for purchase.

This changes when Tristan is left on his own and his one time home is torn down to make room for a glaring tourist trap. Tristan is a child of the wilderness, and as it is razed to make room for what might be called civilization, he is grudgingly forced to succumb to this new world. With no parents, and nowhere to go, Tristan becomes a guide for the new resort. Without his mother to hang on to anymore, Tristan becomes wary friends with a roughshod waitress, Tomasin, who finds her own solace in his strange, quiet commune with the natural surroundings. Ruddock’s writing relaxes as she introduces more characters, and where the opening sections of the book feel almost like prose poetry, the second feels like an alternate universe camp story, with Tristan the nebbish dork who learns a few life lessons. There are jocks and cliques and the type of boozy games only dumb teenagers partake in, and at times it feels like pitch-black adaptation of Moonrise Kingdom or any other kids-at-camp flick. It is, of course, more than that; it is a story about reemerging from the grips of childhood, and the sense of loss that accompanies it, of discovering who you are and how you fit into the world. Each character, to varying degrees, discovers themselves on the tree-lined shores of Prioleau Lake, Tristan with the greatest intensity.

This is Ruddock’s first novel though, and you can feel it in how much she wants to do. She wants to write the lyrical environment novel as much as she wants to write the classic coming-of-age story. As beautifully as she’s able to write both, they feel disconnected, and the characters, and their individual storylines suffer because of it. Characters we were led to believe were important in the first half of the book, disappear without warning—Keb, so prominent early is barely a flicker in the later bits—and Ruddock fills their void with an overabundance of far less fleshed out new characters. She isn’t able to wrangle all of them, and as the book peters to an end, many of them are left stranded, without closure. As insular and claustrophobic as this book can feel, it doesn’t dampen the author’s ambitions. She may slip on the rocks of her own aspirations, but Ruddock is gifted stylist and with her skill, she can’t be faulted for reaching up towards the blanket of stars.

Review: Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders

 

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Lincoln In The Bardo
by George Saunders
Published 2017 by Random House
$28.00 hardcover ISBN 978-0812995343

By Noah Sanders

My first time reading Saunders—the opening short story “Victory Lap” from his outstanding short story collection The Tenth of November—its storytelling left me dazed, the literary equivalent of horse kick to the temple. “Victory Lap” doesn’t explicitly buck the standard structure of storytelling, it nudges it slightly off the beaten path, forcing the reader to assess and reassess exactly what they’re looking at. The characters in “Victory Lap” interact with the voices in their heads—of family, friends, an omniscient crowd of supporters—allowing the reader a chance to not only hear their inner monologue, but to be swept up into it like a riveting conversation. Saunders enjoys structural tinkering, and as almost all of Saunders award-winning oeuvre does, it usually works. With this in mind, the release of Saunders’ first ever full-length novel—Lincoln In The Bardo—brings with it a foot-thick crust of anticipation, even expectation, of how the novel will be dusted off in the hands of a master. As it turns out, Saunders’s choice in terms of upending the structure of the novel is his most ambitious one, and sadly, his least successful.

The story, set in the early 1860s in a decrepit cemetery—“the Bardo” (a Buddhist term for a purgatory of sorts)—finds then-President Abraham Lincoln mourning the death of his son Willie as The Civil War rages across the country. His ghost, tied to the earthly plane by his continued want of human existence, wanders The Bardo, accompanied and protected by a motley crew of other specters, each admonishing the true afterlife in hopes they’ll be granted return to their former existence.

Structurally, Lincoln In The Bardo is told in the form of a chorus. Every description, every transgression that litters the page, is done so through the direct utterance of a character or, at times, of a primary source. It reads, to simplify, like a play. Lincoln In The Bardo is, regardless of its period setting, a timeless ghost story that explores the ideas of collective grief, anger, and mourning and in this, the chorus structure befits it. We feel the pain of each individual ghost, but Saunders is able to pull the camera as far back as he chooses—in distance, time, or otherwise—to illuminate how their specific anguish ties into the greater pain a country devastated by war is afflicted with. Slavery and economic disparity and religion are all addressed, but instead of lengthy diatribes shoved down our throats, the splintered selection of first person narrators makes the reader feel a part of the continued experience of collective emotion, because, well, we are.

There is no doubt this is a George Saunders book. There’s an almost psychedelic humor that flows through it. Each ghost is afflicted physically based on what they continue to yearn for: so Hans Vollman—an unsatisfied lover—walks through purgatory with a constantly erect penis; Roger Bevin III, a paranoid, 18th Century gay man, has hundreds of eyes and ears, always on the lookout; angels seduce potential recruits with hazy visions of a heavenly plane suited for each. Though veiled in oddness, Saunders manages to imbue the characters—unsightly, mainly selfish ghouls at best—the setting, and the story with an underlying warmth. You like these ghastly spirits, you wish for them to somehow depart the grim middle-ground they’ve chained themselves to. As the book speeds towards an ending—a riveting, almost slapstick chase scene from stone tentacles—it morphs, revealing the humanist guts pulsing within. This is a gorgeous, inspirational book about how we must lean on each other to move forward from the horrors of life.

Unfortunately, to enjoy the characters and discover the beautiful, existence-affirming themes, you have to wade into the treacherous swamp of the book’s structure. Frankly, the chorus structure is distracting. The visual format of the book—speech, character name, page break, repeat—subjects the reader to page break after page break, with each break pulling you off the page and out of the story. It becomes particularly bad when Saunders uses reams of primary sources and essays alike to describe the setting and atmosphere of America as a whole. Saunders feels compelled to share the author and the full title of each piece, and flipping through these sections becomes more akin to reading the expanded bibliography of a piece of non-fiction. And to be frank, there doesn’t seem much reason to break the story into the chorus structure. Saunders, in pieces like “Victory Lap” has played with the idea of multiple, almost first-person-like viewpoints to much greater affect. The multiple voices creating an enjoyable cacophony unweighted by the boulder-like strain of format or structure. The most enjoyable moments in Lincoln In The Bardo fall during long monologues by singular characters, when the page breaks disappear, and you can lose yourself in the joy of simply reading; lose yourself in the illusion that what you’re reading is simply a novel.

It isn’t that Saunders has mistaken form over content, as that would imply that the book isn’t immaculately written—which it is. Rather, Saunders has managed to unintentionally obscure his own brilliant writing behind a smokescreen of structure. At his level, with his boundless talent, and with this his first published stab at longer work, the literary world would be remiss if he wasn’t pushing the boundaries of what writing can do. Perhaps next time, a bit more of a balance between pushing the form and telling a story can be struck.

Review: Sirens by Joshua Mohr

sirens



Sirens
by Josh Mohr
Published 2017 by Two Dollar Radio
$15.99 paperback ISBN 9781937512347

By Noah Sanders

Novelist, Josh Mohr’s Sirens, a scathing memoir of his battle with drug and alcohol addiction, begins with the author sober, in his late 30s, a successful writer and a seemingly happy, responsible adult able to take to care of his family. Lying in bed with his wife, Lelo, and his daughter, Ava, Mohr is afflicted with a stroke, a near-death experience which drags him down into the murky tunnels of his life. “I’m thirty-nine now,” Mohr writes, “wondering if a look backward can make sense of who I am, what I am.” In gritty, angular prose, Mohr digs deep into his days of bleeding out in hotel bathrooms, of rolling drunks for pocket change, of ketamine addiction and lost weekends, circling his past in hopes he’ll better understand who he is now, who he’ll be later. Sirens is a memoir stripped of any padding; it is an honest depiction, at times painfully so, of a man trying to assess if what he’s been can ever come to terms with what he struggles to be.

The book is about drug addiction because that’s the bloated river of memory and hurt Mohr has to wade through, but he’s too good of a writer to let it rest there. Mohr deals with his inability to equate his sober life with his history of addiction. To survive, to move forward even, Mohr has compartmentalized his life into a variety of identities – drunk, addict, father, husband—each separate from the next. He moves through life fractured, incomplete, the weight of his former mistakes always threatening to pull him back. For every moment of sobriety, of ‘normal’ adult life he’s fought to achieve—his novels, his family, his tenuous health—Mohr flays himself open, revealing how his worldview is still steeped in the context of addiction. A surgery to prevent future strokes becomes a potential for relapse; a book tour for his first novel becomes a road trip through a bourbon-scented minefield; the daily travails of adult life becomes reason enough to dip back into whatever drug he can get his hands on.

Sirens isn’t about marveling at how anyone could survive the abusive physical and mental paces Mohr has put himself through; it’s about Mohr’s accepting himself and of his myriad parts, good, bad or otherwise. Over the course of 208 pages, Mohr accepts the flaws and frailties of his humanity, recognizing the loose patchwork of influences and life experience that defines us as humans.

Mohr’s daughter Ava, his most adult responsibility, shakes him the hardest. He recounts a story of Ava, like kids do, slipping his grasp and pitching over the edge of a staircase. And even though she’s fine, and Mohr’s actions to protect her are heroic, it becomes an acknowledgement of his failure, of the inability of a man with his past to keep a living, breathing child unhurt. “It scares me so much,” Mohr writes, “that she relies on me to survive.” But, she does, and to be the father he wants to be, Mohr has to come to grips with all the disparate parts of who he is, —“dirty laundry leper,” “alcoholic car-jacker,” “the criminal” —to come to the realization that for his daughter to know him, she’ll have to know all of him. But Mohr will have to get there first.

The writer never closes the door on his daunting issues—addiction or otherwise—but instead lays them out on the page, plainly visible for all to see. The writing of his memoir becomes a part of his recovery, an acknowledgement, that these aren’t obstacles to surmount and forget, but active parts of who he is at all times, regardless of his station in life. Even if he wants to forget the person he was, Mohr knows, or ends knowing, that without his past, he’s a hollow shell, floating backwards towards his darkest impulses. Sirens is the written equivalent of Mohr roughly stitching together his past and present, in the hopes that the future, for himself and his family, will exist because of it. Or as Mohr writes, “We are never just one thing. I was never only the heart defect, only the author or the junkie, or husband or father or professor or drunk. I wear all of these like layers of skin.”

Review: An Arrangement of Skin by Anna Journey

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An Arrangement of Skin
by Anna Journey
Published 2017 by Counterpoint Press
$25.00 hardcover ISBN 9781619028470

by Noah Sanders

The word “taxidermy” is one rife with images of dead, stuffed animals, moments frozen in time. When translated from Latin, it becomes “an arrangement of skin” the simple image of taxidermy now a messier, a gorier image of our human covering, rearranged, laid bare, revealing all that lies beneath. In the titular first essay of poet Anna Journey’s debut collection, An Arrangement of Skin, she writes of visiting famed Parisian taxidermy studio, Deyrolle. In describing the stuffed, dead animals she sees there, she writes, “I imagined each creature held a history inside it, the intricacies of a lived life, with its shifting landscapes and loves.”

 

Journey’s essays beautifully chart this idea: the stacking of histories that lay beneath our skin and the ability of art—poetry especially—to expose the layers and layers of experience, oftentimes morbid, that shapes them forward and back. The essays in An Arrangement of Skin cover a fascinating array of subjects—javelinas, wisteria, a tattoo artist named Captain Morgan—but the prevailing subject in every chapter is Journey herself, her history, her family, her friends and lovers. Each essay is a deep delve into her own past and those stories, those moments frozen in amber, that have piled atop each other to make her what she is today.

 

An Arrangement of Skin is bookended by essays on taxidermy—“Birds 101” and “Modifying The Badger,” Journey’s own taxidermy tutelage, used as thematic bookends. In “Birds 101” she remakes a simple starling, and her experience is one of merely capturing the moment, of using the gussying up of death to celebrate “the wonders, textures, and varieties of life.” The understanding Journey comes to is superficial in nature, a beginning, or as Journey writes of preparing the bird, “I opened it up and entered as if turning the first page of a story.”

 

“Modifying The Badger” finds Journey returning to the act of taxidermy, with the author and the reader now privy to her personal arrangement of skin. In recreating a boar raccoon, a more involved, laborious process, Journey discovers that capturing a moment is similar to the creation of poetry, or any art; she writes, “By conjuring a fantastic world in which this impossible form might exist… we’re offered a moment that testifies to the beauty, bittersweetness, and gravity of impermanence.” The dead animal is an object, as is a poem or a tattoo or a human being, and though we see these as singular caught images, they are merely a covering, a skin even, for the myriad experiences of life, contained within.

 

Journey is a stunning writer, clear and lyrical, her poetry background enabling descriptions of the most mundane experience to come tearing and frothing off the page. A starling’s skin is “wheat-colored chain mail for an airborne knight,” while wisteria is “flamboyant as a drag queen, wild as a psychedelic grapevine.” She crafts her own world so beautifully, with so much of her own history revealed that it is difficult not to tear through the essays like a pulpy thriller, always wanting to know what tidbit Journey will explore next.

 

Every essay focuses on an “object”—her cuckolded ex-boyfriend Carrick and his collection of stand-up basses or the story of Bluebeard—but the object that is best dissected, laid bare, is Journey herself. Her mother is the star of the essay, “The Guineveres,” a quirky, entirely morbid woman who uses dark stories to impress lessons upon her two daughters. But Journey pulls the curtain back, a taxidermist peeling back the skin, revealing the stories that shaped her mom: her years as a stage actor, a folk singer, a camp counselor, to name a few. In exploring her mother’s history, Journey is compelled to explore her grandfather’s history, the history of race relations in The South, the history and importance of folk music and field historians, The Lomaxes, and on and on. All of it now, her own shared history helping to shape the object that is the author. The book becomes an exploration of the idea of who she, the object explored, is, and how though she shapes our own stories just through thinking and living, in the end we are simply the continuation of every other story, great or small. If we are only able to remember in scenes, frozen moments, than Journey takes it upon herself to make us understand and appreciate the pulsing entrails of experience that beat below all of them.

 

An Arrangement of Skin contains a bigger idea though, about just how poetry or writing or words, hell, creation itself allows us to not only retain our memories, but to explore them, to find meaning in them, to dig deeper and deeper, no bottom ever in sight. This brilliant collection, shows us how the object, and the artistic interpretation laid across this object allows it, and the dangling strands of story and narrative that make it up, to stretch across time, generations, and family; to become something bigger—a single sliver of the greater public consciousness.

Review: Human Acts by Han Kang

han kang


Humans Acts
by Han King
Published 2017 by Hogarth
$22.00 hardcover ISBN 978-1101906729

By Noah Sanders

Reading Han Kang’s book, Human Acts, would be a difficult task regardless of the current American political climate. Human Acts follows a cast of loosely connected characters as their lives ripple forward and backwards from the brutal 1980, 10-day suppression of student protestors by the South Korean government now referred to as the Gwangju Uprising. It pokes and prods at the vile actions of a government lorded over by a ruthless dictator, showing the short and long effects of tragedy—on the individual and the community, the past, the present, and the future. The title, Human Acts, certainly refers to the barbarous actions we are, in Kang’s purview, all capable of, but also of the humane deeds, small or large, that allow us to overcome.

In 1980, in city of Gwangju, students of Jeonnam University gathered to peacefully protest the political ascension of soon-to-be South Korean President Chun Doo-hwan. Government troops, under Doo-hwan’s orders, entered Gwangju and shot, killed, and beat the gathered students. What followed was a ten-day battle in the streets of the city, ending ten days later with an estimated 606 civilians dead. This is not a beat-by-beat record of the event; instead Kang focuses on the death of a fervent middle-schooler, Dong-ho, and its effect on those who knew him, even briefly, over the course of the next four decades. In doing so, Kang allows the reader to understand the motivations behind the protests, and the revolt that followed, through the eyes of the individual, using Dong-Ho as an avatar to put us directly in the grit and grime of the conflict. And as devastating as Dong-Ho’s experience is—Kang has no issue using her vast writing skills to describe the gore of armed conflict—he’s just an entry point to a discussion of the larger grief that flowed outward from the event.

Each chapter is told through the viewpoint of a character somehow connected to Dong-Ho and the Gwangju Uprising: a censored editor in the mid-1980s; the trapped soul of Dong-Ho’s friend; an imprisoned protestor; even Han Kang herself. Though the opening chapter introduces Dong-Ho, and momentarily, each successive character, their individual chapters are presented chronologically, allowing Kang the opportunity to showcase the long reach of the Gwangju Uprising’s horrifying effects. The editor, Eun-Sook still lives on the precipice of her nightmares, reality just as dark; Dong-ho’s mother chases his specter through a crowded marketplace, still searching for his soul.

Human Acts is, primarily, about how a single tragic event creates a before and after, a memory of the “times that were” and everything else beyond that. For Kang’s characters, the Gwanju Uprising not only redefined their futures, but also recreated their pasts. As the characters move further and further away from the event—some finding healing in time, others not—the moments prior to the event take on greater meaning, an almost rosy-hued nostalgia that only adds to the characters’ ongoing misery. Eun-sook, the editor, sees a play so heavily censored that the characters remain silent, merely mouthing the words. “After you died I could not hold a funeral,” a character in the play says, “And so my life became a funeral.” The past creates the future, the future reshapes the past, and in the greying limbo between them both are where the characters of Human Acts live.

Kang, here translated by Deborah Smith, is a gifted writer (The Vegetarian won the Man Booker Prize in 2016) whose prose ably toes the line between lyrical poignancy and brutal realism. And though, again, this is not a non-fiction account of the Gwanju Uprising, researching it after reading the book made it clear that Kang had to sacrifice some delineation of the scope of the event to make room for her stellar dissection of the undulating waves of grief it caused. This bleeds over into the paper-thin representation of General Chun Doo-hwan’s forces, shadowy slivers of evil that butcher innocents at a whim. Yet, this isn’t the story of the Gwanju Uprising—the good, the bad, the deceased—it’s the story of how it affected those who survived it, of how it continues to affect South Korea.

And though reading Human Acts isn’t a pleasant Sunday drive, by any accounts, it is even more terrifying in the context of the current American political climate. We’ve faced “before” creating events in the near past—9/11, the Newtown Shootings, the Orlando Massacre, etc.—but in Kang’s world, the event isn’t an act of terrorism, it’s a decree sent down from the very, very top. Even if Kang’s book is centered on an event that took place almost 40 years ago, it feels like a warning, a harbinger even of a physical and emotional future, a universal grief felt from sea-to-shining-sea, suddenly, horrifyingly, possible.

 

Gentlemen Prefer Asians by Yuska Lutfi Tuanakotta

Gentleman



Gentlemen Prefer Asians

By Yuska Lutfi Tuanakotta
Published 2016 by ThreeL Media | Stone Bridge Press
$14.95 paperback ISBN 9780996485203

Reviewed by Krista Varela Posell

Yuska Lutfi Tuanakotta’s first book, Gentlemen Prefer Asians, is a collection of essays that details the marriages of three gay Indonesian men in their pursuit to become US citizens. Though the book’s subtitle is “Tales of Gay Indonesians and Green Card Marriages,” the essays amount to so much more, creating a nuanced portrait of family, love, and friendship in the 21st century.

The book begins with meditation on the impact of our memories, the way they “occupy,” “attack,” and “metastasize,” establishing one of the recurring themes throughout the book. The narrator invites us in to relive some of these “precious fragments” from his life, launching us into a narrative that is raw, vulnerable, and dynamic.

Throughout these essays we are introduced to multiple characters, many of whom are referred to by their profession: The Pilot, The Baker, The Nurse, and even the narrator’s husband is referred to as The Musician. In this way, the focus of the story is geared toward the narrator and his two Indonesian friends, Ario and Jaya. We witness the history of the narrator’s former relationships in a series of essays entitled “Gentlemen Suite.” Other minor but important characters include the narrator’s parents, who play a supportive role in supporting the narrator’s life. “Your Daddy’s Rich and Your Ma’s Good Lookin’” is an especially poignant essay that describes the narrator’s exodus from Indonesia from his mother’s perspective.

Ario and Jaya, two Indonesians married to American men, are the two other central characters and serve as a contrast to the narrator. Ario is somewhat conservative and subscribes to ideals about romantic love, yet complies with the open marriage his American husband desires and has trouble adapting to life in the US. Jaya is an outgoing, vivacious stud married to a man forty years his senior and, despite his bubbly demeanor, struggles to face his some of his own demons.

Many of the book’s most pivotal moments come through conversations between the narrator, Ario, and Jaya. These conversations highlight the insecurities and vulnerabilities of the three men within each of their relationships. Ario acts as the voice of wisdom for the trio and offers insight into the power dynamics between these men and their American husbands, spouting off lines like, “You are married, which means you are owned by a man,” and “Being equal means having power and power is sexy.”

Guiding us through these scenes is a narrator with a distinct voice that is witty and honest. He’s quirky, but intelligent. He’s well read and nerdy. He’s familiar with the Bible and Sylvia Plath, but also knows just as much about Star Trek, Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter. He’s self-deprecating, describing himself as a “gay, feminine Klingon,” but this makes him all the more endearing. The self-awareness in the narrator’s voice gains the reader’s trust as he gives us an honest account of his previous relationships—the way he kept The Baker on the hook, the way he uses The Pilot as a rebound.

Tuanakotta plays with the essay form in multiple ways. Some of the essays experiment with the second and third person, and from multiple points of view. Other essays are lists—the “Nonimmigrant Visa Applicant Checklist” and “Permanent Resident Case Filing Checklist”—that give a more objective perspective into the process of becoming a citizen. While most of the book is rooted in scene, some essays collectively titled “The Demons of Indonesia” are devoted to exposition, bringing the reader up to speed on the current political climate and LGBT movement in Indonesia. These acknowledgements of the queer struggle on a global level help to illuminate the complicated feelings that the three main characters have toward their husbands, their marriages, and the places that they call home.

Ario asks the narrator about halfway through the book, “Would you still marry your husband if you were American?” to which the narrator doesn’t respond. This is one of the implicit central tensions of the book—the balance between trying to find true love and becoming an American citizen. Though the narrator’s marriage to The Musician is hardly played out on the page, it isn’t really the point. These stories don’t portray the typical fairy tale romance of finding true love and living happily ever after. Ario divorces his husband and returns to Indonesia, and Jaya resigns himself for the time being to a loveless marriage to ensure his future financial stability. The narrator himself ends on a note of ambivalence, acknowledging apprehension of the (at the time of publication) upcoming US presidential election. His final thoughts are a sobering reminder that we still have a lot of work to do to protect the voices of those like the narrator, Ario, and Jaya. Their stories must be heard and spread widely to continue the conversation.

 

 

 

Homesick for Another World: Stories by Ottessa Moshfegh

Homesick for Another World


Homesick For Another World
by Ottessa Moshfegh
Published 2017 by Penguin Press
$26.00 hardcover ISBN 978-0399562884

Reviewed by: Noah Sanders

Ottessa Moshfegh’s is a joyfully disgusting writer. Her worlds are populated by an unappealing lot of losers, perverts, drunks and drug addicts, struggling to find purchase in whatever gutter they may have woke up in. Moshfegh seems to thrill in detailed descriptions of cystic acne, bloated bodies, horrifically mangled and misshapen limbs, and a slew of other physical deformities that afflict her characters. As monstrous as the characters in her first short story collection – Homesick for Another World – are on the outside, they are imbued with the potential for worse within. And it is a testament to her immense abilities as a writer that in the collection she is able to make these ugly creations not only relatable, but strangely likable. She is, quite frankly, a master of revulsion. Her characters breath, bleed, screw, and ooze from the page, sloughing through their sad existences, weakly reaching for someone, or something, to lift them up to places even marginally better.

In Homesick for Another World Moshfegh’s keen eye and descriptive power are turned towards a motley cast of down-on-their-luck characters – a Chinese factory worker who seeks love, a woman who seeks vacation in destitution, a wall-eyed country kid trying to become a Hollywood star – their only connecting thread the want, in even the smallest way, to find solace, or escape, from their uniformly miserable existences. Moshfegh’s is a hopeless world, the stories set in barren, hard-luck locales that on occasion read almost post-apocalyptically, consolation to be found only in the skewed connections between human beings. The tales told in Homesick for Another World place universal life moments we all share – first dates, break-ups, moving to a new place – underneath Moshfegh’s powerful microscope, pushing past the superficial to expose the warts, pustules, and enlarged genitalia laying just beneath the surface.

A sense of escapism trickles through each of the 14 stories in the book, a morbid romanticism that drives and consumes these characters, pushing them towards reprehensible acts in the hope that it will free them from the lives they inhabit. The titular character in “Mr. Wu”, is a lovesick, bitter drunk who writes intimidating texts to a local arcade owner, hoping it will draw her to him, only to ignore her when the chance arises. “Nothing Ever Happens Here” features a wall-eyed teen who departs his small-town life, convinced he’s the next big Hollywood star, his self-delusions bolstered by the awkward romantic advances of a fading gossip columnist. Moshfegh is at her best when she writes of dreamers, no matter how abhorrent, failing to touch the stars, but discovering the small joys of their own lives in the process.

Most of the stories here are written in the first person, allowing Moshfegh to showcase the world of her narrators through their cracked and skewed perspectives. It is here that her often stomach-turning descriptions are most powerful, as the moles and receding hairlines and picked-scabs her characters are infested with seem to trap the reader within these lives. Forcing us to find the hints of light in the very darkest depths that allow her characters, sad as they might be, to move forward.

In short story form though, Moshfegh occasionally abandons narrative pay-off, bowing down to her own seeming delight in the strange and disgusting. In Eileen, her acclaimed debut novel, she had page space to build character and plot amidst the internal and external filth, allowing the ending to organically blossom. Though the weaker stories in Homesick for Another World – “A Dark and Winding Road” or “Dancing In The Moonlight” – still sing with her visceral characters and descriptions, the shorter form forces Moshfegh to make relatively large leaps that often times strand her characters, and the reader, without adequate closure. But Moshfegh’s writing is so immersive, so hideously enjoyable, that even when she can’t stick the landing, the routine leading towards it always merits attention.

To say that Moshfegh’s stories are hopeful, inspirational even, seems a strange descriptor. She revels in pouring on the disgustingness, but in her capable hands, it only makes the characters more real, more relatable. All of us want to meet someone, all of us have dreamed of fame, just like all of us have a truly ugly, even creepy side to our thoughts, to our physicality. Yet, she even as she afflicts her characters with arms that look like “prawn claws” or a tendency to “vomit in public, just to make a scene” or a general nihilistic approach to the world as it is, she drags them from the gutter, even for just a moment, allowing them a chance to stand up just a little taller, even if they’ll surely stumble back down.

 

 

Leave Your Body Behind by Sandra Doller

Reviewed by Mia Fassero
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Leave Your Body Behind
by Sandra Doller
Les Figues Press 2015
ISBN#978-1-934254-57-8

Sandra Doller’s new book “Leave Your Body Behind” is not a story told simply. This is not a straightforward confessional or memoir or book of prose poetry. Even Doller’s publisher refuses to slap the usual genre label on the back cover, opting for the simple yet broad description: Literature. Doller’s book is, in fact, the diary of a poet. “The poet demands” she says tellingly, of both herself and her readers, who must wade through her subtle clues and references to earn a deeper understanding of her story. The struggle brings a payoff: Doller smashes up her life and presents us with art beyond the typical framed work of literature. She reminds us that it’s possible to rewrite our histories, reinvent our memories. This is a book that demands attention, attention to detail on every page.

The first section reads like a collage of journal entries on acid. The voice is disembodied; time folds in half, images pop up from the absurd and perverse to the innocuous and innocent as Doller recaptures “the very security of a youth you have the privilege to not remember.” Throughout the book Doller allows herself the freedom to break all the rules when it comes to typical chapter formatting, punctuation, even spelling, as only a poet does, unapologetically. What surfaces is her ability to be both secretive and revelatory.

Doller is relentless at times, offering up a buffet of images and imperatives. “Nothing moves. Except white SUVs. All over California. All the sweet sheeping hackers. Love your fog. Was that a rat. Wasn’t it. So a dripping ceramic vase on a pedestal is supposed to make you feel better. So lots of glass. Petro product free. So corn. So you know what I’m talking about. So say it in English so we can all hate it together.” The accumulation of details could be overwhelming (and indeed this is the book’s only hazard). However Doller is smart, very smart (this is no secret). She is clever to package her prose in small doses, giving the reader a chance to regroup in the white spaces on the page.

The narrator is faintly sketched (I’m referring to Doller as “narrator” since it feels the most neutral in this genre-less space). She grew up in Virginia near a lake. She has a sister. Her mother was a less than nurturing nurse. Her father was a questionable character. She now lives on the west coast (San Diego as per her bio) and is a professor of creative writing. But these are not the details of interest. The interesting details are in the images she creates and the ideas she thrashes about on the page. It’s no surprise that Doller, the author of three books of poetry, is known for the haunting physicality of her work, the sparse yet precise language in her poems.

“I can’t do this…” Doller confesses, reminding us where this journey, the book, began. “It’s impossible to tell what will happen if we tell the truth.” As she examines her life in fragments, she infuses these fragments with imagination and then stacks them up alongside philosophical arguments within the context of modern times. It’s a compact and complete trip for the mind in a narrow 134-page book, roughly the size of a Zagat guide (a slightly sarcastic reference I believe Doller might appreciate).

Shifts in time, space and tone pull us along as Doller shifts techniques from small chunks of prose to longer riffs. Her story “begins in Omaha” but this particular memory is in fact set in a tropical place, Mexico, where the author luxuriates in the lightness of nostalgia. Over time we come to know our narrator through repetitive imagery that reveals her struggles growing up, her issues with her father, her career as a professor, always coming at you in an oblique manner. Her specificity of detail is grounding – “a photograph taped to the back of a painting” when talking about her father, for example. Spread amongst the shadowy imagery are admissions scattered throughout – “They say I have no theme.”

Doller becomes more transparent as we come to know her midway through the book, admitting in subtle and not so subtle passages the difficulty with nostalgia. As she yearns to remember the past, she dips her toe in – she recalls childhood summers at the lake, popsicles, teenage pranks – then she pulls away. Her technique reflects the issues inherent with memory. Doller introduces each new “chapter” with quotes from myriad sources – from scientific and online news journals to modern dance critics and punk rock lyrics. Using the sources as structure is remindful of what may have started as self-prompts. Her tone ranges from confidential to confrontational, her use of language is consistently unconventional and unrelenting. Doller doesn’t hesitate to use the word “rape” in one sentence followed immediately by the phrase “Christmas Day.” The contrasting imagery is meant to make us flinch. When the tone shifts from passive to reactive, her one-liners pack a punch: “you should be paying me not to procreate.” Doller delivers entire paragraphs of directives that you can’t turn away from, forcing the reader into a state of heightened awareness.

Whether Doller is recalling a teacup store in Mendocino County or a hobo by the beach, her personal sketches of memories are sparse but poignant and her language is anything but cliché. “Even the cobwebs are clean” she remarks, describing the interior of a house, “atmospheric, red berry ambiance.” Her analogies are witty and timely, citing Tom Cruise’s teeth and Madame Bovary in a “gold lamé onesie” on the same page. The accumulation of details is what makes this work potent.

Doller takes on the vegetarians, politicians, and teenagers. She jabs, pokes and jostles the reader then smooths things over again. Expect unorthodox word choices, spellings of words. Expect to Google a name or two or more (sorry Lesley Gore). She notes that we can “recollect and collage and forget it…” How do you forget being called “slut” or a mother not acting like a mother or a father not acting fatherly, Doller asks. But she doesn’t seem to be searching for an answer.

“Is that prose or poetry and why” Doller quotes Gertrude Stein, one of her influences. In the end, who really cares? And why worry if the story moves you. It’s Doller’s natural inclination toward the poetry that is the strength of this easy-to-hold, hard-to-describe novel. Yes, Leave Your Body Behind is a diary, a meditation. It is also a flood of form that defies classification. As former poet laureate Natasha Trethewey said “It’s one of poetry’s greatest gifts to show us ourselves through the intimate voice of another.” Doller’s DNA is wrapped around this authentic body of work.


 

 

 

 

 

 

Super Mario Brothers 2 by Jon Irwin

All the World’s a Stage: A Review of Jon Irwin’s Super Mario Brothers 2
Reviewed by: J. Scott Donahue

SMB2-cover-nospine-shadow-wide_1024x1024


 ISBN2 978-1-940535-05-0

The game begins with a tableau in red, blue and sepia.  Each character is frozen in a vaudevillian mélé. Press start and select one of the four characters–Mario, Luigi, Toad or Princess Peach–to begin one of the most bizarre dreams in videogame history.

In the same clever way a Super Mario Bros. 2 gamer chooses the right player for each world, Jon Irwin plays four different roles: a videogame journalist, a nostalgic fanboy, a personal essayist, and a player in life negotiating obstacles in death, existence and the absurd. Writing with reverence and good-natured snobbery, the prose oscillates between a doting blaison and a sleuthing inquiry.

We learn the origin story of SMB2, an exegesis of the game’s genesis.  Mario is traced back to his original role as “Jump Man,” the protagonist of Donkey Kong, and the ubiquitous “Video Man” in other early ’80’s Nintendo games.  Then came Mario Bros. in 1983 and Super Mario Bros. in 1985, games that prepared the way for Mario’s pop culture canonization. Fun fact from the book: Mario is now a more recognizable icon than Mickey Mouse.  An even funner fact: The Mario Bros. game franchise has since progenated over 200 games.

With Mario’s Methuselan genealogy in context, it’s a mystery as to why SMB2 stands out in history as this mutant limb, or maybe a super-glued limb, on the family tree.  Humorously, upon the games release in 1988, the jarring inconsistencies were inexplicably camouflaged before the transfixed player.  Even critics hailed the game as a “direct successor”, according to Irwin.

Irwin spends much of his book investigating that which many of us NES players only could sense was amiss about the game. So many questions arose: Why is Mario throwing tubers at quadrupedal Shyguys wearing masks; where are the Goombas and Koopa Troopas; and where are those iconic boxes with question marks?  Players absorb mushroom power just by lifting the thing up. Players vanquish enemies by overhead-throwing objects (or other enemies).  And instead of following the damsel in distress trope, the Princess can play to save her own damn self.  Such questions and disconnects that Irwin points out, compared to the original SMB, somehow evaporate more quickly than a moment in the game’s Sub-Space–if only for the game’s brilliance, mystery, theatrics, and adorable weirdness.  The game begs the questions aimed at the game, “Who are you, and what have you done to Mario?”

One could suspect foul play or fraud. The original sequel of Super Mario Bros. was first released in Japan.  “Masochistic,” in fact, is the word Irwin employs to describe the Japanese game, designed by Takashi Tazuka.  Poison mushrooms, levels of excruciating difficulty, not to mention words that flash on the screen that literally translate to “Unskilled crap”, reminding you of your failure–proved too much for any sane gamer to take.  In Irwin’s words, “It took a player’s confidence away, decimating self worth.”

Upon reading the book and realizing the true origin of SMB2, my nostalgic feelings toward the game admittedly took a rage spiral.  How did I not notice some clue of foul play?  And surely my seven-year-old self had been duped or worse–in the American suburban child’s case–handled with care.  From this book I learned that my childhood experience of playing NES had been censored for the safety of my mental health.

Yet somehow, American Nintendo Rep Howard Phillips found a way to satisfy the American addiction to winning, all while crafting a game that isn’t boring, and to do it as cheaply as possible.  Enter stage left: A Japanese game, called Doki Doki Panic,comprised of a family of four characters and aesthetics of One Thousand and One Nights.  Enter stage right: Nintendo’s ethos, striking a balance between the reused and the nuanced. SMB2 is, in every sense, Nintendo’s philosophy of adding nuance to the husk of a game.  The book answers the question early: Nintendo found it to be in its best interest to cater to Americans’ victor complex.  Take away the punishment from its predecessor, all while crafting an unforgettable game as cheaply as possible.  Nintendo’s ethos strikes a balance between the reused and the nuanced.  To that extent, SMB2 beloved to Mario Bros. fans and a profitable successor to the original, is nothing but a testament to Nintendo’s philosophy.

This book is hardly an indictment of Nintendo’s committing mass fraud to devoted Mario players, and more about how Nintendo saved the brand of Mario from going the direction of torture. Irwin earns the answers with some hard-won sleuthing, interviewing Nintendo pioneers like Tazuka, Phillips and other Nintendo pioneers.

Getting personal, Irwin’s obsession with the game breaks a wall between a third-person avatar.  He embodies the oft-chosen character, Toad, who wears turban-like mushroom headdress. The action of the player tapping the D-pad, and buttons A and B, sitting criss-cross applesauce on the carpet is nonexistent, while braided throughout the book are scenes in which author might as well be in the game.  The narration of each play field is performed in first-person, so much so that you almost imagine a minimized, digitized version of the protagonist; think Jeff Bridges in TRON. A crisp scene of the author sucked into the game in the final dramatic moments of game play. Toad isn’t battling the boss; the author is fighting the boss.

Of course, no book devoted to a retro ’80’s game should forgo an inevitable moment of the absurd.  After all, absurdism is as much a trait of the game as it is in existence.  SMB2 is like a ready-made game, a piece of dada art.  The connection between the game and existence is finally bridged, however, after Irwin witnesses the final moments of his grandmother’s life.  After which he returns to the game and, in a moment of sobriety, asks himself a question.

The author’s relationship to the game mirrors that of his Toad character struggling to keep a key above his head, while a demented flying mask zooms by.  This game, I agree, is too important to slip into a wrinkle in Nintendo’s canon of classic games. The author fights to keep SMB2 relevant as a Mario Game, to keep the book from disappearing from the collective consciousness of Mario Bros. aficionados.  In the words of former “speedrunning” world record holder of SMB2, the game’s has a lot of weird things in it.”  Weirdness, Irwin makes the case, is at the heart of the game’s worth.


 

Phoning Home by Jacob Appel

Reviewed by: Charlene Caruso

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Publisher: University of South Carolina Press
Language: English
ISBN-13: 978-1611173710

When read together, each of the thirteen pieces in Jacob Appel’s Phoning Home build upon the next, resulting in a multifaceted glimpse into the mind of Appel as he explores the ways in which identity can be consumed by illness and eroded by modern society’s response to approaching death. He is uniquely qualified to tackle these questions as he is both a physician and a bioethicist. Each essay is crafted to invite the reader into the author’s mind. The title essay introduces us to seven year old Jacob. His parents are being tormented by a crank caller who is never caught. Appel employs this experience to reflect on deceit, secrets and how little we know about ourselves or others. He manages to slip in and out of his past, admitting about his childhood self, “I still have no idea what made this creature tick,” peeling back the layers of time—as a grown man—sitting across from his aging parents wondering if he should confess the truth. He decides against it as he looks at them, “What they have gained in happiness, they have lost in joy.” He riffs on how confession reveals what strangers we are even to those close to us and that misbehavior is not always a predictor of pathology.

We follow him as he explores assumptions and beliefs about his own identity, those of his family members, and by extension each of us. He is a storyteller, a man full of important questions. In “The Man Who Was Not My Grandfather,” he reveals his grandmother Lillian’s refusal to marry a distant cousin, thereby denying her family their only opportunity to leave Latvia and come to America, a chance to escape the Nazis. This story is untold until an aunt tries to track down Lillian’s genealogy, finding an old photo of this handsome unnamed cousin with all his sisters. There is also a group portrait of three rows of the extended family taken at a wedding, rows of young children, many of them toddlers, unknown cousins, staring at the camera. They were among 16,000 Jews who lived in that region of Latvia before World War II. Less than one hundred survived. All the rest murdered, likely shot or starved, many before the end of 1942.

When asked about the man in the photo, Lillian admits he was the man her father wanted her to marry. “Why should I marry a man I’d never met?” This is a story Lillian doesn’t want to remember. She reminds Appel that if she had made the choice to marry that cousin, there would be no Jacob Appel to ask these questions. Instead, an entire branch of the family tree was destroyed. Who could predict such evil? Who can acknowledge its meaning, even now? A young girl’s decision, reflected back in time, can never answer these questions.

Another essay, “Caesura—Antwerp, 1938,” is a story about Grandpa Leo and a broken watch. Leo had emigrated with his parents from Belgium before the Nazi invasion. He met Lillian in the U.S. and they married. Decades later while in Spain on vacation, his prized watch stops working. The watch is old, and after asking around he is given the name of one man who possesses the skill to repair it. When Leo enters the shop he recognizes the man as a childhood friend from Antwerp. Their meeting is brief and they part without any promises to keep in touch. This man is one of the only survivors from their neighborhood. “Each had assumed the other was dead.”

Leo had told many stories about his life in New York but rarely discussed his early years in Antwerp or his boyhood friends. Appel finally realizes, “For my grandfather, time had stopped like a broken watch in 1938 Antwerp—and when it restarted in Manhattan, after a seven-day voyage across the Atlantic, it did so in a different continuum, its hours and minutes both identical to and, entirely unlike, the hours and minutes preceding his escape.”   Appel reads a letter written to his grandfather at the end of 1945, “Alas, the news from the East is not good. We have heard nothing from the following relatives, and we can only assume the worst.” The rest of the letter contains a handwritten list over two pages long of names of another branch of the family murdered in the Holocaust. Name after name, all memory of them erased. These two essays linger, acting as a refrain throughout the collection.

In “An Absence of Jell-O,” Appel draws us in by humorously describing a child’s anticipation of tasting his grandaunt’s Lime Jell-O, “a weapon of torture,” a forbidden treat secretly promised to him if he behaves himself while visiting his elderly great aunt. He uses humor to convey his overwhelming, childish disappointment as visit after visit, no matter how hard he tries to be good, he fails to secure any Jell-O. Looking back as an adult he realizes there never was any Jell-O. He sees her bizarre behavior and peculiar eccentricities as a form of dementia, often undiagnosed in those days. He concludes she may have suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. Appel’s disarming use of humor nudges us past our fears and into examining the pros and cons of undergoing DNA testing to determine the presence of genes linked to Alzheimer’s disease. He presents facts in a conversational tone, and poses moral dilemmas in a personal framework. Appel makes the decision to get tested.

Appel’s voice is engaging and compassionate. We meet real people in his essays, people losing the battle with age and disease and losing the right to decide their fate, patients in hospitals and mental wards. We meet doctors who cannot heal them.  In “Dropping Dead—A Eulogy,” he makes a solid argument for dying with dignity instead of enduring the suffering a prolonged death imposes on us by advances in medicine. Many diseases which proved fatal not so long ago can now be managed and the mortality risk reduced. For Americans, sudden or swift death is now the exception rather than the rule.

Appel reminds us that the added years of life are not always a positive experience. Sometimes, surviving one illness leaves us vulnerable to developing other chronic diseases that rob us of our independence and prevent us from enjoying those extra years. It is an important discussion as technology and scientific discoveries rush far ahead in the ability to extend the length of our lives but often at the cost of significantly reducing its quality.  Whether discussing lost toys, lost loves, lost minds or lost lives he reminds us that our individual voice needs to be heard. It is rare when a collection of essays written and separately published over a span of almost a decade reads like cohesive chapters of a tightly constructed book. Phoning Home gives us that experience.


 

 

 

 

And the Hills Opened Up by David Oppegaard

Reviewed by Amber Parker Hills Cover_FrontCover_FINAL-01


And the Hills Opened Up
By David Oppegaard
Published 2014 by Burnt Bridge | New Orleans | San Francisco
$11.99 paperback ISBN 9780988672710

And the Hills Opened up is a horror novel set in the small mining town of Red Earth, Wyoming in 1890. From the first scene, David Oppegaard propels the reader into a quiet tension. The story opens on a hot July day with Hank Chambers—a foreman sweating through a summer fever—giving a headcount of his men before they set fire to the dynamite that would blast open the hills, unearthing much more than copper ore. There is something very unsettling about this opening scene: the sweat in Chambers’s eyes (a cringe-worthy, recurring detail), his uncertainty over the headcount of his filthy crew, the crow that flies overhead, the way the earth shakes once the mine is blown, and the way the black smoke curls upwards from the depths, darker and thicker than usual. And it’s in these tiny details that Oppegaard builds this sense of dread, and he does it without revealing anything too soon. He only hints at something being awakened, something so unexpected and so terrifying that Chambers “felt a heaviness resting on his shoulders, like the hills themselves were pushing down on him”—a delicate foreshadowing of the hell that is to come.

Oppegaard paints a simple yet vivid backdrop for his tale: the town of Red Earth survives on salaries paid by the Dennison Mining Company, a monopolistic entity owned by the absent character of Mr. Dennison—a man who wants things done his way, a rich man’s way. Despite his elusiveness, Dennison’s presence is felt, particularly in the people working for him, like the villainous overseer of the town’s payroll, Revis Cooke, a pompous creep who lives in a limestone-walled mansion that stands out from the small church, hotel, scattered shacks and cabins in town. The miners are overworked and paid poorly, spending most of their money and off-time drinking and sleeping with the prostitutes at the Runoff Saloon. These are the inner workings of the town and Oppegaard, patiently, makes it real for us. He takes what could be a clichéd western with one-dimensional characters—a sickly foreman, a young and inexperienced sheriff, a widowed whore, a gang of outlaws, a priest with impure thoughts—and amplifies all of it with a unique perspective, a completely twisted one.

There are a lot of characters in this novel, but the prominent ones are developed thoroughly. The main characters are given individual storylines, which eventually connect together, seamlessly, contributing to the larger story arc. Through light brush strokes of physical description and back story, Oppegaard gives his characters the attention they deserve. He brings them to life. He humanizes them, makes us believe in their story. It’s all necessary given the world Oppegaard has created, and the absolute devastation he eventually hurls us into. Impressively, Oppegaard is able to establish that feeling/connection readers have with characters without dragging out the main story. It’s that connection that heightens the destruction of the events that follow.

The events that follow are nothing short of epic and horrific; the violence escalates as we are introduced to the larger villain of the story: “The Charred Man.” He’s a skeletal figure with claw-like fingers and blackened skin, like he had been burned and buried alive, deep in the mountains. Within the dark tunneled mine, The Charred Man is first discovered by one unsuspecting mineworker. Equipped with no more than a single lit candle, the miner has only enough time to notice the lack of light in the burned man’s eyes before his throat is ripped out. But there are several monsters in this story: The Dennison Mining Co. and Cooke are symbols of moral decay and greed, while the Charred Man appears as a kind of “demon” or evil unlike anything living, a form of punishment for a small town living in sin (or perhaps he was just looking to harvest some new skin.)

What makes this western/horror successful is Oppegaard’s prose. It’s minimal, but written such precision of language and detail. The dialogue is on point. And who knew gore could be written so beautifully:

“It defied physics and good sense, but the tunnel packed with the bodies of the dead and maimed did not collapse as Hank Chambers climbed across its sloppy floor, which was actually less a surface and more a constantly shifting mass of knees, elbows, and anguished faces he did not want to look upon…He did not know if it was the smell, the wetness, or his fever, but he felt his mind loosening as he slipped forward, its grinding cogs reverting to some ancient form of thought, his body an eel among eels. His only focus was the light in his hand, which must not go out, which must not go out, which must not go out no matter what else might happen. Chambers had spent much of his life edging darkness and he would not submit to it now, even if this was his final hour.”

Oppegaard doesn’t tie a neat bow on this ending; there is an uneasy sense of relief, as if some great question is left unanswered. Who or what is the Charred Man and why is he here? Is the Dennison Mining Co. to blame for blasting too deep, or is it more complex than that? I feel like Oppegaard doesn’t need to explain anything, it would only take away from the experience. And the Hills Opened Up gives the reader exactly what they came for: a thrilling, real-time experience. This novel is so visually stunning, so utterly gruesome, and so perfectly paced, that it truly feels as if you are just another resident of Red Earth. And after closing the book, it will feel as if you were the only one who made it out alive.

 

 

Under These Stars by Tony R. Rodriguez

Review by Charlene Carusounder deez


Under These Stars
By Tony R. Rodriguez
Published 2014 by Beatdom Books
$12.99 paperback ISBN 9780956952585

Under These Stars is a novel by Tony R. Rodriguez that follows a young writer named Sarah as she embarks on a solo road trip across several states after getting in serious trouble at her job. Sarah is conflicted and boozy. She works for an online journal conducting interviews but she has aspirations of becoming a famous and respected writer. Anything but a heroine when we are first introduced to her in an office in San Francisco, she sits in front of her boss,  awaiting his pronouncement of punishment for getting a wildly successful underage author drunk during an interview.

Afterwards, Sarah makes up her mind to drive alone around the country visiting friends and write a memoir about her trip, leaving behind a fragile relationship with a serious young man named Theo. Theo pleads with her not to go on such a long trip without him. He fears it will ruin their relationship. But she leaves anyway, anxious to begin her new adventure, but stops short of breaking up, even though she admits to herself she probably doesn’t love him.
Sarah experiences life like she drinks alcohol, in gluttonous gulps. At first, the result is a lot of throwing up, both literally and virtually, with insipid regurgitations on Facebook, where she is recording her trip. She uploads an endless stream of Instagram pics and posts verbal snapshots, “Jack-In-The-Box is good,” while staying silent on her suspension from work. She counts the number of “likes” each of her posts inspires. She puzzles over which filters to use to edit her pictures. Sarah tells the reader she limits her use of Twitter to sharing her movie reviews in inspired tweets, proudly admitting she has 12,000 followers.

The story spirals in brief scenic chapters punctuated by Facebook posts and philosophic riffs. Rodriguez’ narrative skill is on display as Sarah flits from thought to thought and place to place at a frenetic, fevered, alcohol-soaked pace that mirrors the rapidity with which this reader turned each page. She pours out pages of her memoir. Pours down drinks. Soaks in movies. Forever bar-hopping. The only constant for Sarah is the music. All her travels are propelled by wonderfully chosen songs. She specifies with precision each song and artist and album she plays while driving toward her next destination. It is the only time she seems to listen. She plays the album by The Naked and Famous “Passive Me Aggressive You,” twice, and their single “Youngblood.” She listens to “There’s a Girl,” by Dressy Bessy, and Tennis’ retro sound in the song “South Carolina.”
Rodriguez beautifully renders images of the land to conjure a vision of conflict and tragedy with passages like, “Near the Mexico border, two countries lip-locked in geographical tension.” He crafts unforgettable moments from sentences laced with unexpected verbs as in Sarah’s reaction to the desert landscape, “Farther and farther, I see the land continue to vampire the sparse life out of the scenery and beyond.”

Before long, Sarah’s trip takes her to an unexpected destination, herself. Rodriguez captures in devastating detail the challenges of being a young woman in today’s world through Sarah’s revealing interactions with females from her past. He deftly manages to build the conflict between his characters so that each friend she meets is a puzzle piece: a fractured part of her history, a glimpse of what she might become. Sarah struggles to build a relationship with herself amid the chaos of memories, desires and fears that she previously resisted or denied. Each encounter shakes up Sarah’s deluded sense of self. She begins to perceive something in her life is lacking, but she can’t identify what.

After a drunken, blacked-out night, in circumstances that disturb her, Sarah decides her problem is alcohol. So she takes a detour to Yellowstone National Park, surrounded by the night sky of the title.   She spends time in sober contemplation. Instead of sharing all her thoughts, she tells the reader they need to experience their own private revelations in such a place. Sarah decides to cut her trip short. She has found a new direction.

Using a concept learned in college, Speculative Realism, as her model, she rewrites the second half of her memoir in the language of what if, an experiment in the intersection of philosophy and literature. Through Sarah, Rodriguz explores the interaction between creativity and reality, where the text itself acts on the reader, provoking new actions rather than simply evoking emotional meaning—art that sparks.  The experiment is certainly successful. After finishing the book, the story impelled this middle-aged reader to re-read the novel while playing each carefully catalogued song to accompany the text. A male writer who has created a young female protagonist that makes an older woman want to take a road trip with them both, is what speculative realism in literature must be about. To paraphrase Muhammad Ali: whatever Speculative Realism means, if it’s good, Under These Stars, is that.


 

The Wes Letters

Reviewed by Amber Parker
wes letters


The Wes Letters By Feliz Lucia Molina, Ben Segal and Brett Zehner
Published 2014 by Outpost19 | San Francisco
$16.00 paperback ISBN 9781937402648

The Wes Letters is an epistolary novel, or more simply: a collection of letters addressed to the famed film director, Wes Anderson. These letters are penned by three friends – Brett, Ben and Feliz – a trio of artists/grad students, quirky and neurotic. The story begins when Brett meets Wes Anderson on a train moving through New Mexico but expands into something unexpected. And from that moment—a discussion of literature between sips of wine—a story unfolds. It’s a language-driven story that travels first across the US—by train, plane and bus—from the Midwest to San Diego, until finally ending in Finland’s Bear Forest. Ultimately, it’s a story that isn’t really about Wes Anderson at all.

Wes Letters is a chronicling of musings and imaginations. It’s absurdly funny (they consider breaking into Anderson’s home to steal his toothbrushes, asking him to help paint their apartment, celebrity therapy by way of Snoop Dogg/ Lion, “Moonrise Condom,” etc.), somewhat confessional, and, at times, deeply personal. It’s a mix of self-reflection and philosophical meditation. It’s an evaluation of changing technologies, multiple media platforms, celebrity/recognition, and the general state of the modern world and how we project ourselves into it. It’s also about traveling and place (physical and emotional), loss and connection—“writing to you calms me because the further I type the more real you become,” writes Feliz. Wes Anderson is the constant and is what keeps readers grounded, even though he never actually responds. He is the “black hole” into which they confide their deepest thoughts and memories: “I am specifically writing these letters to forget, or to replace memory with stories, shifting sand and perhaps some magic,” says Brett. Rather than losing their most intimate thoughts into the void that is “Dear Wes,” we are on the other end, listening and understanding the pain of remembering and what it means to forget/be forgotten.

A novel as personal letters reflects a sort of realism, and it helps that the authors’ first names match those of the three narrators, which verges on a kind of “collective memoir.” The epistolary style is unique to each narrator, and perhaps that’s a nod to Anderson’s own distinct narrative and visual style in filmmaking. It’s also written as stream of consciousness. I particularly loved the story’s vividness, the precision and intensity of language, especially in Brett’s hybrid letter/poems. The sound sensations he creates are incredible, almost haunting (for some examples, read entries: “AIR SPACE,” “CHICAGO,” “INSOMNIA,” “MIDWEST,” and “SNAG.”).

Memory and place are key motifs in this novel. Memories were strewn together anxiously, brilliantly fragmented, offering a fracturing of time. The two year timeframe in this novel is easily tracked through events, technology, and thanks to Feliz, by specific dates/hours/minutes. But most striking about Wes Letters are the darker, private moments – the poignant glimpses of fragile humanity, most often revealed through Brett’s letters. I’ll not forget the memory of his dying friend, Eddie, the memory of his grandfather (a man with a “6-minute memory loop”) triggered by a bus ride, and the section about his mother’s brain cancer. The results are breathtaking imagery, language and emotion: “In the sunshine I forget to miss people,” Brett says.

This novel is also about writers/writing. Oftentimes the narrators are too critical of themselves, but that’s something I (and any other writer) could relate to. “Too scattered perhaps, not enough of a cohesion,” Brett writes in his final entry: “LOCATION SCOUT AND TENTATIVE ENDING,” but I disagree. These three perspectives are collectively strong because the stories elegantly entangle themselves, creating cohesion. The structure also lends to that cohesion because it keeps everything together in a neat framing device. One could argue that the story lacks plot, an arc, but they address some of these “faults” throughout (and who says we need any of that?). Brett even defines the reasoning behind it all: “I just feel that location, and the assembled relationships between interiority, is what matters most to me at this point.” At one point he describes himself as without character, that he is just “settings and moods,” which I thought summed up perfectly how Wes Letters is written.

On the other hand, I believe that there is character development. Readers get to their cores; we understand them by the memories they choose to share. Their stories are relatable, not isolating. Anderson-haters and non-writers alike can enjoy this novel because it speaks to our generation, a generation of ambitious and creative types, as well as a universal feeling of anxiety and despair. I think, too, that Wes Letters might be saying that life isn’t like a Wes Anderson movie; there are no “happy solutions.” Life is “about what makes us weep. The molecular emotions. The little accumulations. All those repeated rememberings…placeholders,” Brett says. It is a story about forgetting (or replacing, rewriting) memories, but it is also a story about remembering and being memorable. I think that’s something all of us can identify with, which is why the journey we take with them is unforgettable.


 

Distant Neighbors: The Selected Letters of Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder

Reviewed by Charlene Caruso

Distant Neighbors Cover

Edited by Chad Wriglesworth
Published 2014 by Counterpoint Press | Berkeley
$30.00 hardcover  ISBN 978-1619023055

Distant Neighbors: The Selected Letters of Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder is a collection of letters that spans forty years of friendship between two prolific writers who have each spent a lifetime living in harmony with the land in unusual and complementary ways. Gary Snyder’s passionate respect for the wild nature of the land led him to live in the wilderness of the Sierra foothills. Wendell Berry’s deep connection to an agrarian lifestyle drew him back to farm in Kentucky where his family had been stewards of the land for generations. This collection of correspondence begins in 1973, shortly after the writers became acquainted professionally through Jack Shoemaker, an editor and publisher in the Bay Area who worked with both men.

In his introduction, editor Chad Wriglesworth, succinctly describes the relationship between the two writers and the importance of this relationship to a contemporary reader: “By choosing paths of hospitality over mindless competition, these two men—known for giving us alternative models for living in place—have also left us a so-called road map that leads to more generous and imaginative ways of existing together.”   Snyder and Berry are both purposeful and thoughtful in their letters—whether penning short notes about planting or composing long letters examining differences in their beliefs, there is a fearlessness in the way they live in the world.   Both men are committed activists for the earth, inhabiting the land in a deeply personal way, choosing to raise their families to respect and rely on nature and accept what each season offers, be it bounty or hardship.

As writers, these letters offer their critiques of each other’s work and in doing so display a mutual respect that becomes a deepening and enduring friendship over four decades. Both men passionately express their respective views on spirituality and human’s relation to nature. Snyder views the world from a Zen perspective, while Berry sees the world through a more Christian lens. Their discourse is a spirited exploration of their values, always seeking clarity and precision, but never sinking to an indictment or judgment.

Throughout the letters, there is a patience, a deep sense of following nature’s pace that proceeds from a total lack of pretense in writing and in living.   In one letter, Snyder leaves off from a discussion on the spiritual teachings of Zen and early Christians to ask Berry if he believes “one could use a tractor to get his place where it would grow enough grass to keep horses from there?”   In response, Berry interrupts a rant on “poet-interviews” to write, “On the tractor question, I think you must do what seems to make the most sense in your particular circumstances. I regret tractors, I guess, at least as much as I regret interviews. Both, however, can be well used.”

Wriglesworth has been scrupulous in documenting the context and chronology of the correspondence and he acknowledges the invaluable assistance he was given by both writers in completing this project. His careful curation has resulted in a cohesive collection that steadily traverses the courses of both men’s lives as they intersect with each other and with the culture and times in which they were written. The questions of what one believes and how these strongly-held beliefs determine the way one lives in this world will always be important. In the case of Snyder and Berry, their principles have not only shaped their own lives but also continue to help shape the ways people think about and interact with this world.


 

The Mexican Man in His Backyard

Reviewed by Jeff Chon

mexican man

The Mexican Man in His Backyard
By Stephen Gutierrez
Published 2014 by Roan Press, Sacramento
$15.00 paperback ISBN 978-0981596891

In the essay “Lucky Guys Forever,” the young narrator sits in a booth at Lucky Guys – a local burger joint and struggles with feelings of inadequacy as he watches a former classmate named Herrera preen over his beautiful ten-speed bicycle. We are told Herrera is in trouble, even though nothing particularly bad happened in Lucky Guys that day.

“Nothing bad happened at Lucky Guys,” the narrator tells us, “and that is the honest truth. In my story, certain versions are played with, but none of them untrue. That is the virtue of writing imaginative non-fiction. You get to do what the fuck you want.” This spirit of fearlessness propels the rest of the essay, as Gutierrez uses speculation and personal reflection to show us how something bad did indeed happen at Lucky Guys. Herrera had bullied the narrator throughout elementary school years before their encounter at Lucky Guys. Years after Lucky Guys, Herrera became a junkie. In the recursive landscape of memory, something bad did indeed happen at Lucky Guys: Herrera triggered Gutierrez’s retrospective impulses–impulses that carried through his teenage years and culminated in an essay filled with the regret and sadness that has clung to his memories like barnacles.

A sense of fearlessness permeates The Mexican Man in His Backyard, a collection of essays and short stories set in Gutierrez’s youth in East L.A. and adulthood in Fresno. Whether he’s writing about watching his father succumb to Huntington’s Disease, or the paternalistic privilege of white academics, or his inability to connect with the Mexican neighbor who’d watch Dodger games while sequestered in the back yard, Gutierrez illuminates the sadness and beauty of recollection with courage and clarity. Gutierrez gets to do what the “fuck” he wants because he’s telling the truth. We know he’s telling the truth because we believe the things he says. And readers believe the things he says because, from the first sentence on, our guide addresses the subjects of his pieces with tenderness, while assessing himself with a brutal honesty that is precise, lyrical, and unsettling.

Reading The Mexican Man in His Backyard, I was reminded of how all great writing aspires to draw the reader into its world. I spent a good chunk of my twenties living in East L.A. and I always felt like an outsider. No matter how hard my very kind neighbors tried to embrace my presence, I never felt as though I belonged there. This book was not only a homecoming of sorts, but by accessing his internal monologue in such an effortlessly conversational tone, Gutierrez finally made me feel like an insider, more than a decade and over 400 miles later.

 Creative non-fiction is unfairly seen as the bastion of the self-centered. The practitioners of this craft are frequently viewed as people who can only write about themselves, can only illuminate what has happened to them. With The Mexican Man in His Backyard, Gutierrez shows us how essayists have the ability to write about their lives in ways that resonate with all of our lives. Stephen Gutierrez isn’t merely writing about himself; he’s writing about all of us.


 

 

A Moody Fellow Finds Love and Then Dies

Reviewed by Joel Bahr
moody


Published 2014 by Outpost19 | San Francisco
ISBN 9781937402624

“Everyone thinks a lot of things are going to happen,” the narrator tells Moody Fellow, the central character in Douglas Watson’s A Moody Fellow Finds Love and Then Dies, “but only some of them do.”

Indeed, the conventional workings of novels—a problem resolved, or a lesson learned, or a redemption made good—don’t ever come into play in Watson’s first novel. The title is a dare of sorts. Watson tips his hand from jump street, and pulls the reader along in direct, stripped bare prose as he slowly teases out Moody’s origins, his failures (and eventual success) in love, and, ultimately, his death.

A Moody Fellow is quick and easy, a fairytale telling of an ordinary life, one where the fourth wall is broken so regularly that it’s reduced to rubble by the time Moody meets his messy end, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

In the novel’s pages, we follow Moody from childhood to college and eventually into the unnamed City. It’s a sparse world, and for a majority of the book we only see Moody fail. He is earnest and too nice for women to love as he bounces from one unfulfilling place to another. Throughout the book Moody sits at a piano, though untrained, and produces wild, erratic concertos from his heart. A strange girl sees him play one night, and takes him into his arms, eventually bringing Moody the love he seeks.

A few other characters dart in and out of the novel—a woman so beautiful that men (and birds, too) catch sight of her beauty and fall down dead at her feet; her insecure boyfriend; an artist who produces statues of cubes; a psychiatrist who worries about his wife’s infidelity—but primarily the novel is Moody’s, and he fills it with sincerity and false starts.

The novel evokes a sense of waiting. While the fairytale feel opens the door for profundity, either from Moody or the narrator, it never really comes. The closest we come to it is in the book’s waning pages where Moody is pulled from the dictation of his life to have a conversation—an exit interview—with the narrator.

Moody, upon being informed of his impending death, protests, “But I’m in love!” only to be undercut by the narrator. “So what? So are billions of others.” The only redemption for Moody is found in knowing that he had been loved before dying—a gift not granted to all. And the novel, which ultimately is a love story of a quiet, ordinary life, is also redeemed by Moody’s romantic. While there may have been a sense of expectancy because of the form of the novel, the real trick here is that sometimes—in both art and life—things don’t go as we expect them to. If the title of the book is a dare, a challenge to watch things unfold exactly as they were promised, then those readers who follow through can pull some satisfaction from knowing that Moody, who has loved and been loved, gets a happier ending than some.

In his exit interview, Moody asks “Shouldn’t I have to make some kind of big definitive choice or screw something up and then try to fix it?”But life has a way of not being art, the narrator reminds Moody, and after Moody offers a truism on love (“It’s something you go out and look for in the world, I think, but it’s really inside you, is what I would say if pressed.”) the narrator dabs a magic ointment behind his ears and sweeps away any memory of the conversation.

A Moody Fellow is a work that imitates the majority of normal life—full of disappointments and misunderstandings. Pages turn quickly, lulling readers into a world that resembles a life they’re familiar with, but novel has a strange gravity to it. For those who stick it through, they’ll find there is no ointment behind their ears, and in the days after tucking Moody Fellow away they’ll notice him lingering in their mind.