Category Archives

Book Reviews

ZYZZYVA Book Reviews.

Fringes of Despair: ‘Love’ by Hanne Ørstavik

LoveThe boldly and rather ironically named Love (125 pages; Archipelago Books), written by Norwegian author Hanne Ørstavik, was originally published in her native country in 1997. Twenty years later, it has now been translated into English by Martin Aitken and is being released in the United States by Archipelago Books, perhaps in part due to the steady demand here for dark, noir-like literature out of Scandinavia.

Exploring many opposing themes, including hope, disappointment, longing, and unrequited love, the novella tells the story of Vibeke and her young son, Jon, who have recently moved to a secluded town in the northern reaches of Norway. The action of the story takes place over the course of just one day as mother and son go off on their separate journeys. Ørstavik invites the readers into her two characters’ innermost thoughts, seamlessly switching back and forth between their perspectives— often within the same paragraph. Their stories unfold breathlessly close together on the page, suggesting the strong link between mother and son that Vibeke’s actions betray.

It is the day before Jon’s ninth birthday and he spends the majority of it by himself. He takes Vibeke’s absence to mean she is busy planning a special celebration for him, but as readers we know this isn’t true; her designs are much more self-involved.

Though it’s easier to be angry with Vibeke rather than sympathetic, her deep loneliness and insecurities are apparent. Her character proves selfish and single-minded: she doesn’t think about what it takes to be a good mother, she wants to find a man. To that end, she cares about being beautiful; her needs come before Jon’s. In contrast, Jon constantly thinks of his mother. He wonders where she is, what she’s doing, and fantasizes about his birthday cake and the train set he hopes to receive.

As their nights progress, a creeping sense of tragedy brews within the story. Vibeke spends her evening bar-hopping with a man she met at a traveling carnival, while Jon bounces from stranger to stranger, accepting their offers to stay warm. Though Love is only one hundred and twenty-five pages, its careful craft and beautiful details make it worth savoring—right to its haunting but inevitable conclusion.

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Migration of Spirits: ‘Freshwater’ by Akwaeke Emezi

FreshwaterAkwaeke Emezi is a Tamil and Igbo writer from Nigeria who has received recognition for her short stories and creative nonfiction, as well as her work as an experimental video artist. With Freshwater (229 pages; Grove Press), she marks her first novel, an ambitious and original one at that. The book follows Ada, a young girl growing up in Nigeria, as she is both plagued and protected by a host of spirits that cohabitate her body and share her thoughts. Through beautiful and haunting prose, and through the different voices residing in Ada, we get a glimpse into her mind, a metaphysical space of “ọgbanje” (an Igbo term for a spirit that brings misfortune to a family by inhabiting the body of a child). Although Ada has been chosen by the god Ala to share her physical vessel with the gbanje, Emezi’s representation of her fractured mind proves surprisingly universal.

Freshwater begins with a narrator called “We,” a group of spirits who first exist in Ada’s mother’s body. “We” describe themselves as “the hatchlings, godlings, ọgbanje,” and act with indifference to the needs and interests of humans. The day they come into complete being is the day of Ada’s birth, “the day we died and were born.” Ada’s conception is explained by her father’s request for a daughter, which the god Ala answered. In doing so, Ada’s father opened a gate to the spirit world, summoning these entities into his family’s lives. When their little girl arrives, the happy parents name her Ada, meaning, “God answered.” “We” regards Ada from an observational perspective, but “We” and Ada often share the same desires, such as the need for blood, which they satisfy through Ada’s self-cutting.

Ada primarily shares her mind with “We” until she leaves Nigeria to attend university in Virginia. When Ada arrives, she is marked as prudish because of her disinterest in sex, telling her friends that she has made a vow of celibacy. But after her boyfriend sexually assaults her, a new ọgbanje appears—the licentious Asughara—whose purpose is to protect Ada by taking control of her whenever men are involved. Asughara adds an important depth to Emezi’s story, eliciting conflicting emotions. Ada and Asughara argue in the “marble room” of Ada’s mind and build a codependent relationship, leaving us to wonder if Asughara is protecting or harming Ada. Despite the uncertainty, one sighs with relief when Ada’s attempt to seek treatment from a therapist is thwarted because the therapist seems like an unwelcome third party who would create a wedge between Asughara and Ada. As “We” explains, the gods living in humans are inescapable; it is better to feed them than to ignore them.

Befitting a story about a fractured mind, the style of the novel is unconventional. Not only does Emezi write in multiple voices, but the story also progresses in a nonlinear fashion. Her writing compresses time and space—the past, future, and present moments in Ada’s life are ever-present, as are the places and people she visits. It begins with Ada’s birth, but once Ada reaches Virginia, the text moves back and forth in time, in ways that are often confusing. The organization of events is not without purpose, however. After the sexual assault, Asughara chronicles Ada’s adult life and often returns to the time before the assault and then far into the future. By doing this, Emezi reveals Ada and the gbanje in a way that resists an understanding of Ada as two separate selves: the Ada before the assault and Ada after. This pushes the young man who assaulted her out of the spotlight—we regard him as a negative influence in Ada’s life, but not as the key acting figure.

Ultimately, Emezi offers a perspective on mental illness that refuses categorization and diagnoses. Rather than characterizing Ada’s behaviors—her insatiable sexual appetite after being raped, her self-mutilation, alcoholism, and an eating disorder—as coping mechanisms or symptoms of mental illness, Emezi attributes them to conflicts between our spiritual and physical selves. She also refuses to portray the spirits that lead Ada to acts like self-harm as entirely malevolent. As she makes clear, Asughara and the other ọgbanje love Ada, and exist to protect her. (Often there’s the sense Ada should give herself up entirely to the ọgbanje, who, unlike Ada, cannot experience pain from the outside world.) With her brilliant novel, Emezi shows how the different aspects of our personality are often in conflict, and how that conflict can be inescapable.

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An Ideal Citizen: ‘The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea’ by Bandi

The AccusationThe cover of The Accusation: Forbidden Stories from Inside North Korea (248 pages; Grove Press) boasts a brightly colored piece of North Korean propaganda featuring six luminous, smiling faces. The seven stories in the collection, however, offer something very different: heart-wrenching accounts of a brutal life inside the country’s borders.

The Accusation’s journey to publication is miraculous in itself. Its author, Bandi (a pseudonym meaning “firefly”), smuggled his manuscript out of the country with the help of a defecting family member. For more than four years, he secretly wrote the manuscript, entirely in pencil, and remains in North Korea where he serves as a member of the Chosun Writers League Central Committee, a state-funded writing organization. Bandi’s book represents the first published work to criticize the North Korean government written by someone still living in that country.

The stories in The Accusation center on the importance of one’s reputation in North Korea, and how quickly it can be ruined by rumors and accusations of one’s opposition to the government. In each story, the characters experience a longing to break free of the societal pressure that restricts their intimate relationships. “City of Specters” reveals the absurdity of how even the most minor acts of can earn someone the label of anti-revolutionary. In it, a mother who uses extra curtains to protect her sensitive child from seeing a poster of Karl Marx that frightens him is quickly marked as a threat; a civil servant explains to her how unique curtains could be seen as a signal to spies. And while the rigidity of the government’s demands is so bizarre as to be almost humorous, Bandi depicts how these demands place a barrier between people. One must choose between being a good citizen and being a good family member, and choosing the latter most often results in punishment.

In these stories we see the ways this fear makes North Korea into a country of trained actors; to simply survive, its citizens must repress their grief and anger, even in the face of lost loved ones, and produce exaggerated performances of mourning for the death of Kim Jong-il. The characters in this book smile through their physical and emotional pain, only calling on these hidden agonies when tears are necessary.

The final piece in the collection, titled “The Red Mushroom,” suggests the author’s self-contempt and dissatisfaction with his career. Bandi writes about a reporter who is commonly referred to as the “bullshit reporter” since his work only praises the government or spins stories to the point of fabrication. This is, of course, due to the severe limitations put on North Korean journalists. Like his protagonist, Bandi is a state-sanctioned writer who must acquiesce to political restraints on his writing. The story raises the question of what it means to be an artist of any kind in Bandi’s country or in any other totalitarian state. While the cast of The Accusation would likely argue that it means one must be a liar, Bandi’s work speaks to our irrepressible need for self-expression and drive to create art. His writing and characters prove magnetic; they are anything but the one-dimensional characters of North Korean propaganda.

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Future Shock: ‘The Transition’ by Luke Kennard

The TransitionWith frequent moments of insightful social commentary, Luke Kennard’s first novel, The Transition (328 pages; FSG), takes us to an exaggerated version of our current society—a dystopian world of recognizable stress.

Karl and Genevieve are both university-educated and hold decent jobs. Genevieve works as a teacher, and Karl has a dubious career as a fake product reviewer and ghostwriter for lazy college students who can afford his services. In the first few pages of the novel, we learn things have gotten to the point where the “average age of leaving the parental home drifted into the early forties.” At the same time, things such as male contraceptive implants, self-driving taxi cabs, and self-refilling refrigerators are common. Without the help of their parents to fall back on, Karl and Genevieve struggle and flail. In their early thirties, they still can’t afford to live alone — instead they rent a room in a shared house; having children remains out of the question. As rents keeps rising, Karl (secretly) opens up more credit accounts to pay for groceries, car repairs, and vacations they can’t afford. Whenever Karl complains about their lot in life, Genevieve reminds him that they are still wealthier and better off than ninety-seven percent of the world’s population.

To pay off some of his debt, Karl becomes involved in credit fraud and is ultimately caught. He is given an offer: go to jail for fifteen months, or participate in a pilot scheme called the Transition. After choosing the latter, he and Genevieve spend six months living with older mentors who guide them through concepts like employment, finances, relationships, and more. In other words: Adulting 101. The goal of the program is that by the end of their sentence, the couple will have paid off their debts and have enough money saved for a down payment on a house.

This too-good-to-be-true “Get Out of Jail Free Card” soon becomes a burden to Karl. He continues to land himself in trouble, and his relationship with Genevieve grows increasingly strained. Karl’s developing suspicion of the ill intentions of The Transition becomes the novel’s central conflict. Though Kennard expertly introduces new conflicts and builds suspense, there’s no dramatic conclusion to his story. In fact, the novel is consistently anticlimactic; just when you think there will be an aha! moment, Kennard adds another layer of complication and ambiguity. (Are the villains really villains or simply people looking out for themselves?) And each character is flawed in their unique ways.

The Transition is not as easily definable as a typical dystopian novel. Kennard writes cleverly about an unlivable economic climate, sprinkling instances of lovely nuance and truthful observation throughout. The novel never preaches or patronizes the reader. Instead, The Transition serves as a funny, fresh, and all too likely depiction of the future.

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Truth in a Glass: ‘The Wine Lover’s Daughter’ by Anne Fadiman

The Wine Lover's DaughterIn The Wine Lover’s Daughter: A Memoir (272 pages; FSG), Anne Fadiman, the author of Ex Libris, At Large and Small: Familiar Essays, and, most notably, her prize winning work of nonfiction, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, writes about her famous father, Clifton, or Kip, Fadiman. She centers her memoir, her first book in ten years, around her father’s love of wine, a love affair that begins on his first trip to Paris with an inexpensive bottle of white Graves.

Although Kip Fadiman’s love of wine was sincere—he found pleasure in the taste and complexities of wine, as well as an appreciation for its ability to enhance conversation—his daughter reveals that his interest was also tied to a desire to be as far removed as possible from his Jewish immigrant background. A self-described “meatball,” Kip Fadiman was born in 1904 to lower-middle class Eastern European immigrants in Brooklyn. Embarrassed by his parents and pedigree, he took great strides to “de-meatball” himself by reading through the Western canon, learning to speak impeccable English from his older brother (which later helped with his career as a radio host), putting himself through Columbia University, and, eventually, by becoming a leading wine connoisseur. Although he saw enormous success as a radio host for NBC’s Information Please, was editor-in-chief of Simon & Schuster before the age of 30, worked as a book critic for The New Yorker for ten years, and co-wrote the unofficial Bible of wine, The Joy of Wine, he always feared he would someday be exposed as a fraud or counterfeit.

Since he never got over feeling like an intruder to WASP culture, he worked to scrub himself of any Jewish identity, Fadiman writes, and was confounded to find later generations attempting to reclaim their Jewish roots. As she points out, wine fit in perfectly with his lifelong career of divorcing himself of his lineage – wine was civilized, civilizing, and decisively not Jewish. While her father’s embarrassment over his Jewish identity is at times troubling for a contemporary reader and for Fadiman herself, she reminds us, “I don’t have a clue what they were up against and never will.” Instead of attributing his attitude to denial and snobbery, she ascribes it to the culture that her father grew up in. This is the same culture that shaped his alma mater’s decision to pass on hiring him as a professor, claiming they had already reached their quota for Jewish professors in the department (which was at one)—a moment that made him perceive his incredibly successful professional life as a failure.

Fadiman’s writing remains polished, humorous, and approachable in The Wine Lover’s Daughter. Her love of language always shines through—in Ex Libris she discusses the Fadiman family’s joy for polysyllabic words and her father’s children’s book about a worm with an appetite for words like “zymurgy”—but her work never indulges itself to the point of requiring its readers to keep a dictionary at hand. The magnificence of her work is in her empathy for her subjects and her unwavering rationality. She never acquiesces to a reader’s impulse for her to judge her subjects or make a definitive statement that would ultimately prove reductive.

After years of trying to enjoy wine, the author finally confronts the fact that she will never love wine the way her father did. When she reaches this conclusion, she goes on a trek to find some biological reason for her distaste. At first, this chapter seems like a distraction, one that detracts from the otherwise magnificent account of the father and his relationship with his daughter. Yet, by the end, one is reminded of Fadiman’s skill as a writer. What made her book The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down such a great success was her refusal to succumb to easy answers. She wrote with empathy for both the Western doctors and the Hmong families as they struggled over the (eventually) failed medical treatment of a young Lao girl in Merced, California. Here, she again refuses to see the world in simple terms. The answer is not found in her and her father’s different biological reactions to wine, but in their rich, yet dissimilar histories. She recognizes that her father’s love of wine could not be separated from the romance of his first experience with the white Graves and his longing to reinvent himself.

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Violence and Consequences on the Fringes of Society: ‘In the Cage’ by Kevin Hardcastle

In the CageWith In the Cage (309 pages; Biblioasis), Kevin Hardcastle drops the rural noir genre into the ring of literary fiction. Hardcastle, winner of the Trillium Book Award and ReLit Award for Short Fiction, has created a novel where crime fiction and the literary tradition occupy the same space. In the Cage tells the story of conflicted characters with complex relationships navigating violence and its consequences against the morally gray backdrop of remote Saskatchewan.

Daniel is a caring but stoic husband and father whose mixed martial arts career ended twelve years earlier with a detached retina. He and his wife now live in near-poverty with their daughter. Unable to find steady work, Daniel moonlights as hired muscle for a local gangster. When a money collection gig turns more brutal than delivering one-two punches, Daniel grapples with the true cost of the path he’s chosen to provide for his family. Returning to the gym gives him distance and sanctuary from his problems, but his time spent training is overshadowed by the presence of a chilling, pale-eyed villain whose sadism intimidates even the most hardened criminals.

What’s perhaps most notable about In the Cage is its unflinching look at the destructiveness of violence. Hardcastle’s descriptions are clinical yet shocking. A shotgun blast erupts and “One part of the man flew skewered with rib-bone.” Punches flatten noses. A throat is slashed and “it seemed like all he had in him had exited the body through that cut.” Hardcastle’s descriptions are free of gusto and provide just enough detail for them to act like a chokehold on the reader.

The author is clearly knowledgeable in the area of mixed martial arts. During Daniel’s training and fight scenes, the various punches, kicks, and submission holds are elaborated on with enough sensory detail that even readers unfamiliar with blood sport will be able to feel them. These sequences serve double duty, providing just as much insight into the characters as into their fighting ability. Daniel’s interior and the expression of his will are narrated with deceivingly simple, Hemingway-esque prose. “Blood and sweat sprayed the canvas and their feet atop it,” for example, or when Daniel kicks a heavy bag in his basement, Hardcastle describes the sound like “a nail being hammered into the hollows of the place.”

The remote Canadian setting evokes the hardships of rural, working-class life. Daniel and his family live in a perpetually cold, blue-collar necropolis of rust and poverty. His worksite is, “Acre upon acre of frozen ground with muddied swaths in the white.” And in my favorite line of the novel, we read, “There he thumped the gas pedal and the tires threw broken chips of brittle tarmac as he went townward through cold and lightless country.” With passages such as these, one not only feels the mood of desolation but also a hushed metaphysical horror akin to Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian.

Apart from the carnage, In the Cage is also a touching, multi-generational reflection on family values. Some of the best scenes feature Daniel’s elderly neighbors, Murray and Ella. Their kindness and moral expectations serve as prescient warnings to Daniel in a place where poor choices are paid for dearly. Even so, readers are likely to sense Daniel won’t heed his neighbors’ warnings, and that the novel’s bloody denouement will not end with a knockout.

Genre fiction is often criticized for its recurring tropes and boilerplate plots, but Kevin Hardcastle’s novel proves otherwise. In the Cage is both fresh and haunting. It is a novel of grace and brutality, and the balance between them.

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Writing History: ‘We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy’ by Ta-Nehisi Coates

We Were Eight Years in PowerTa-Nehisi Coates will be the first to tell you that his road to becoming a celebrated essayist, author, and staff writer at The Atlantic began with failure. Failure to keep a job. Failure to graduate college. Failure to write exactly what he felt needed to be said. So begins his recent essay collection, We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy (Random House, 367), which, contrary to Coates’ inauspicious start, cements his reputation as a gifted, iconoclastic writer and serves as required reading for anyone concerned about how, and when, black lives have (not) mattered in American history. The book is separated into eight parts, one for every year of Barack Obama’s presidency. Each section contains a present-day self-reflection and a look at the goings-on of that particular year, followed by an original essay by Coates previously published in The Atlantic.

The collection, in an attempt to quickly capitalize on Coates’s spotlight, could have been a lazy mix of vague recollection of events and re-presentation of previous work. Not so. These prior essays are so richly written they reward a second (and third, and fourth) read. His arguments–on mass incarceration, studying the Civil War, etc.– have not lost their initial force, and in fact have been invigorated by the current political maelstrom we find ourselves in. Additionally, the commentaries preceding each essay are remarkable essays in themselves. Coates uses them to re-evaluate the successes and failures of his work, to add cultural and personal context to each piece, and to reflect meaningfully on the directions he and his country have gone. There is no fluff or languorous storytelling here. The chance to publicly, rigorously question and explain one’s previous work is a gift few writers are ever granted, and Coates does not waste the opportunity.

The highlight of the collection is the essay that first brought Coates to national prominence: “The Case for Reparations,” a feature article published in The Atlantic in June 2014. While none of the other essays are weak links in any sense of the term, “Reparations” can and should always stand above the rest, for its taboo subject matter and sheer moral certainty if nothing else. The idea of the US government paying reparations to black citizens for slavery is “a wildly impractical solution” to some, as Coates admits he once believed, if not an absolutely laughable one to others. Coates is a patient writer, a rarity in the twenty-four hour news cycle of hot takes, and the persuasiveness of his arguments is burnished as a result. He never bows to lowered expectations when he finds the fire in his argument, nor sacrifices seeing the forest for finding each tree. The rise and flow of each essay isn’t truncated to serve the smaller anecdotes that form the emotional core of his book, but works with them to create a genuine portrait of black lives in America.

We Were Eight Years in Power also demonstrates how incredibly well researched his work is. Somehow, Coates tells readers, white and black, facts we didn’t know (for example, that black families making six figures often live in neighborhoods where white family incomes are near the poverty line) and re-frames facts we did know (such as the tenuous class mobility of black families) creating arguments that are both unsurprising and shocking. We have always known that racism affects homeownership, but many of us have overlooked the participation of the U.S. government and viciousness of white property owners in creating that reality. Coates will not let us look away any longer.

He writes philosophically and thinks historically, without obscuring our current moment in time. When he writes, “The need for purpose and community, for mission, is human…It is that search [for meaning] that bedeviled the eight years of power,” Coates sees what many do not—that though we have only our own eyes and ears to experience the world with, our personal developments are part of the history we come from. Coates life growing up black in Baltimore is his own. No one else can account for what he did and saw. However, those experiences are not divorced from what happened in New England colonies in the 17th century, or at Gettysburg in 1863, or in the streets of contemporary Compton. Coates weaves all these threads together as though they were never separated at all, never sacrificing each component’s singular character.

Reading and re-reading Ta-Nehisi Coates is a special experience. Writers frequently pride themselves on making the act of choosing each word seem effortless, invisible. Yet Coates chooses to keep the curtain up, all too frequently reminding his readers that he still feels like an imposter–a black Howard University dropout working at The Atlantic?–and that he has been making it up as he goes for a very long time. All work worth doing is done painstakingly, but Coates’ honesty about the difficulties of thinking and writing intellectually is startling. His forthrightness actually makes the book more difficult to criticize, since he admits his own mistakes so plainly it leaves very few for the rest of us to find. This collection is a worthwhile read for its breadth, academic rigor, and shattering prose, but it deserves special attention for its self-portrait of a black writer finding his way. Every American should read this because Coates so effectively challenges our mythologies and assumptions with real data and human stories. But every writer should read it because nowhere else will a writer ever be so brutally forthright about the (political) struggle of writing itself.

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Reckoning with the Past: ‘Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI’ by David Grann

Killers of the Flower MoonIn a time where many of us are revising our understanding of American history, David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon: The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI (Doubleday, 339), presents another world of facts some have attempted to forget. The book, a 2017 finalist for the National Book Award in Nonfiction, is a work of stunning archival research whose prose is as laudable as it is grisly. From the outset, Grann’s book proves a necessary journalistic exposé – one that was years in the making – about a campaign to marry and then murder Osage Indians on their own reservation. But between the lines, Grann has written something else: a wrenching Western true-crime mystery about a tribe nearly destroyed by white greed.

As its subtitle suggests, Killers unearths the remarkable story of the “Reign of Terror” against the Osage Indians in Oklahoma in the early 20th century. The allotment agreement given to the Osage Indians by the U.S. government in the 1870s included a rare provision that stated the Osage owned the “headrights” to any “oil, gas, coal, or other minerals” beneath the land they owned, rights which could only be inherited, not bought or sold. Soon after, oil was discovered all across Oklahoma and the registered members of the tribe became wealthy beyond imagining. Grann even recounts the outrage found in articles about the Osages’s fortunes, instances where “the press claimed that whereas one out of every eleven Americans owned a car, virtually every Osage had eleven of them.” But over the course of the following years, slowly at first—then in larger numbers—individual Osage began to disappear or fall strangely ill.

Grann’s narrative starts with the “whodunnit” disappearance and murder of one Osage woman, Anna Brown, and grows to encompass the dozens, if not hundreds (since many deaths went unreported) of Osage who were poisoned, shot, bludgeoned, blown up, or otherwise killed in the early 1900s. Grann traces the subsequent investigations by a nascent FBI with considerable intensity, cannily pushing readers to race through the book to find out who killed Anna Brown, Charles Whitehorn, Joe Bates, and so many others. With every page, Grann builds suspense without ever reducing the victims to mere historical subjects. Each person is rendered vivid and captivating throughout, a feat that doubles the horror of the events described.

To add to the urgency of this story, acknowledging that the past is always present, Grann describes his interviews with many of the descendants of the victims of this “Reign of Terror.” These interviews, described in the book’s final section titled “The Reporter,” are perhaps the most fascinating part of the book. “The Reporter,” of course, is Grann, and his attempt to uncover what has happened is a happening in itself, extending the story of Killers into our time rather than pretending it exists apart from us. Switching to the first-person, Grann here also candidly reveals the scope of the work involved in producing historical nonfiction. He evocatively describes the near-mania that can take over when assuming such a project, with “stacks of files” growing into towers in his office as he pores over thousands of FBI documents, archives, wills and testaments, and rarely touched archival photographs.

By detailing the herculean process necessary for unearthing this story, Grann humbly points us toward the real debt he and his work owe to individuals like Kathryn Red Corn, director of the Osage Nation Museum, and Margie Burkhart, murder victim Anna Brown’s great-grandniece. Grann makes it clear that without their insight and willingness to assist his project, Killers could not exist. And in acknowledging their pain and contribution, he underscores the impetus in producing this piece of history: to reckon with the past’s effects on the present. The Reign of Terror on the Osage did not just rob its people of their money – it fragmented families, robbed children of their parents, grandparents of their children, and the tribe of its brothers of sisters. Killers, Grann makes clear, is about, for, and in a significant sense by the Osage, both living and deceased. Grann makes it plain that those losses are still felt today, and although white history has forgotten them, “the Reign of Terror had ravaged–still ravaged–generations.” Killers does not dredge up the past for its own sake, but wisely grapples with its effects on the present.

Because of Grann’s journalistic-historical hybrid approach, we never lose sight of the sight of the here and now: those still suffering today from wrongs no one can make right. While his research could have filled a textbook on Osage-U.S. relations, Grann hones his work instead into a deep, riveting mystery. As a result, Killers of the Flower Moon becomes the most compelling read of the year, shining with a sincerity of purpose and a rare clearness of mind worthy of the lives lost.

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Delicious Cocktail of Topics, Tones: ‘In the Shape of a Human Body I Am Visiting the Earth: Poems from Far and Wide’

81e1JQnEzOLBecause I love poetry, I always open a new book with some trepidation. I so much want it to be good, to be transformative, and as I turn to the first page I brace for disappointment. But from its intriguing title to its diminutive footprint In the Shape of a Human Body I Am Visiting the Earth: Poems from Far and Wide (McSweeney’s; 184 pages) sparkles. Honed from the archives of Poetry International by a trio of editors (Ilya Kaminski, Dominic Luxford, and Jesse Nathan), the poems span centuries and countries. Poets range from standbys such as Baudelaire, Celan, Neruda, Rilke, Walcott; to acclaimed living poets—Hirshfeld, Ryan, Zagajewski; to contemporary poets from multiple countries whose names and work you may not know.

So what binds the collection together? The editors have chosen poems that share a sensibility that combines wonder and literate despair. Most of the poems fit on a single page; very few are more than two. The poems share a straightforward diction combined with mysterious content. They tend to often end with a twist. The title poem by Malena Mörling that opens the book is a good example. Here is how it ends:

My arms and legs still work,
I can run if I have to
or sit motionless purposefully
until I am here and I am not here
the way death is present
in things that are alive
like salsa music
and the shrill laughter of the bride
as she leaves the wedding
or the bald child playing jacks
outside the wig shop.

That wonderful series of images left me short of breath, made me think, made me reread the poem from the beginning. I can’t remember when I have read through an anthology with such interest, anticipating the pleasure of each poem, I had to stop again and again to ponder the poem as if staring at the after image of a blaze of light, trying to define its source.

Continue reading

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Great Blank at the Center of It All: ‘theMystery.doc’ by Matthew McIntosh

9780802124913On page after page of Matthew McIntosh’s theMystery.doc (Grove Press), redactions black out key words, crucial questions, and even whole sections of text. I don’t know how far I had gotten through the 1,660-page novel before I stopped expecting the eventual, climactic unveiling of the hidden words, the code-break that would deliver me from all my head-scratching. Surely, it was hundreds of pages after the flip-book sequence that begins on Page 73 with a voice shouting, “>HEY” (flip page) “>DO YOU THINK YOUR SAVIORS COMING BACK” (flip page) “>WHATS HE LOST DOWN HERE”—before I stopped looking for whatever it was that had been lost in those black blocks and began to focus, instead, on the strange constellations of voices and images arranged around the voids.

It can be difficult to recognize a work of real vision. At times McIntosh’s book is profoundly un-fun to read. Without warning the text breaks apart into a cacophony of (seemingly) non-sequitur plot shards, screenshots from classic films, and blips of (seemingly) random dialogue separated by long stretches of emptiness or indecipherable symbols. An uncharitable reader could easily fill up all the black and blank space in this book with dismissals. But the author’s formal trickery can’t be written off as merely evasive, pretentious, or coy. Setting aside the reader’s perfectly valid expectations of entertainment and pleasure, theMystery.doc is some sort of masterpiece—obscure or vulnerable by jagged turns, but in every moment energized by a self-assured sense of purpose: the novel knows, even if you are, for a long time, completely in the dark.

McIntosh employs a grand-scale version of the interlocking vignette structure that made his first book, Well, such an exciting and unique debut. Particular voices and narratives emerge, vanish, and recur over the span of several-hundred-page chapters. A photo sequence begun on page 325 returns on page 1,600. The story of a drowned couple is told and retold. The Twin Towers fall again and again. The novel accumulates meaning the way many mosaic-style works do: by the resonances (or dissonances) created between fragments, and—more mystically—by a kind of sustained déjà vu, which reminds us with echoes of familiar dialogue or repeated photos that no detail is irrelevant to the larger image being composed.

Continue reading

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Urban Hymns: ‘You Private Person’ by Richard Chiem

You Private Person“I smoke a cigarette, imagine flocks of birds in the blue sky, and realize I am always going to be a sad person.” So begins Richard Chiem’s You Private Person (125 pages; Sorry House), a reprinted and revised edition of the Seattle author’s first collection of stories. Often in the form of sparse and slender vignettes, Chiem’s stories offer muted portraits of existential malaise among young urbanites. Originally published in 2012 by Scrambler Books, the stories and their running order have since been updated by Chiem, who has already garnered praise from alternative literature luminaries such as Dennis Cooper and Kate Zambreno.

The stories in You Private Person are, by definition, quiet; they appear to take place in a pocket universe comprised entirely of those still and unremarkable moments that make up most of our waking hours, whether it’s watching the clock tick by at work (“I have twenty-two minutes left until I get to go home, she says. That’s like one Simpson’s episode”), or silently listening to the car radio with your partner (“I like that we wait in the car for songs to end before we get out”). These empty minutes are frequently extended for the duration of entire stories, lulling the reader into a false sense of security as You Private Person interrogates the unfeeling stupor of contemporary existence, so that when something momentous does occur—a man falling to his death from a hotel rooftop, a car colliding with a semi-truck on the freeway—the violence has a shattering effect.

In a series of interconnected stories titled “sociopaths,” the narrator contemplates acting out the murder of the man who sexually abused his girlfriend during her childhood. In the icy, Raymond Carver-esque “what if, wendy,” a man derails what could have been an after-bar hookup with a conversation about his own moral failings. “The thing is, I don’t know how to be good anymore,” he confides. Elsewhere, the arresting “how to survive a car accident” details Chiem’s 2008 automobile crash, a traumatic experience that the reader senses must have been life-altering for the author. Each of these stories capture characters arriving at moments of reflection—instances when they are inspired to pause, drink in hand, and contemplate how they managed to go so astray in life. Chiem doesn’t judge these characters, and instead allows them to draw their own conclusions: taking stock of the mess her personal life has become, the long-suffering wife of an ill-tempered boxer muses, “I think I just wanted everyone to be happy.”

Chiem’s prose matches his steely characters turn for turn. His style is stripped down, minimalist but poetic, with frequent pop culture references (the 2003 suicide of Hong Kong superstar Leslie Cheung looms over one story). Recognizable indie acts like Rilo Kiley and Broken Social Scene play in the background of many scenes. Unsurprisingly considering its original publication date, You Private Person does feels like a document of the mid-Obama years, a time of relative societal calm when the primary concern of these characters’ lives would have indeed likely been the struggle to pay bills and maintain a steady relationship.

Chiem proves adept at examining our obsession with the notion of The Other; many of these stories find their perspective pulling away from their ostensible male narrators in order to consider the interiority of the women they love: “Sometimes she cannot tell whether or not she is being cruel or sarcastic or playful on purpose, especially when she doesn’t have anything clever to say. Inside her head, intentions misfire.” When asked in an interview about his tendency to empathize more with the female characters in his work, Chiem stated, “For me it was about giving particular characters a voice, even though they don’t really say much. It’s about having their lives lived.”

These lives and the quiet tremors they create help form the bedrock of Chiem’s stories; they’re why he’s swiftly becoming one of our great chroniclers of urban melancholy. You Private Person understands that sometimes, when faced with the weight of the decisions we’ve made, both good and bad, and the consequences they’ve wrought in our lives, the only choice we really have is to start the next shift at work.

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Language of Trauma: “Incest” by Christine Angot

IncestWhen I started reading Christine Angot’s Incest (207 pages; Archipelago Books), I wondered whether its erratic style was simply the result of how the French language, translated closely, sounds in English. But I soon discovered that it’s not just the translation: French and English-speaking readers alike have found Angot’s book untidy and difficult to decipher. From an artistic point of view, I must commend the translator, Tess Lewis, for resisting the urge to force Angot’s narrative into coherent and clear prose. Rather, her English translation of Incest strives to replicate the same frazzled reading experience as the original French.

Incest is a book that blurs the lines between a novel and stylized nonfiction. The story explores the life of a young woman (who, in a meta touch, shares the author’s name) reeling from a turbulent lesbian love affair as she begins to navigate the emotional trauma of her past, in particular the sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of her father. The narrator herself is aware of the fractured nature in which she relays her experience. She chides herself, partway through, for remaining so obscure:

“I punctuate my sentences in an unusual way, I’m going to try to stop. I will use punctuation only for clarity, so that readers can find their way. The clarity of my statements. So that my statements are clear, and understood. A bit fastidious, maybe, but this time properly. I won’t write, anymore, for example, ‘I licked her, this woman, whose child is a dog,’ I won’t write that anymore, what’s the point?”

At times the narrator attempts to be more logical, but inevitably slips back into her circular, obsessive mutterings. It is shocking, then, to be faced with the visceral nature of her memories. Angot’s testimony of her abusive teenage years proves both vivid and immersive. You can tell that the narrator, by describing her experiences, is being forced to relive them as well. The book struggles to make sense of anything else in the narrator’s life as it dances around the very real pain of her past.

Some critics hailed Incest as a fresh, brutally honest recounting of a traumatic experience. And yet others stated they couldn’t make it more than 40 pages through its convoluted and frequently repetitive narrative. There are even those who have dismissed the book as sensationalistic navel-gazing attempting to ride its taboo content to popularity. A 2013 Telegraph article labelled Angot as “France’s Queen of Shock-Fiction.”

This seems to imply that there’s something inauthentic about Angot. But there’s nothing inauthentic about the way she examines incest’s effect on her character’s cognition, or her ability to derive meaning and draw connections from even the most horrific of personal experiences:

“I associate things others don’t associate, I bring together things that don’t fit together. Dog-child, incest-homosexuality or AIDS, cousin-couple, blonde-bitch, money-hate, movie star-bitch, Leonore-gold, mass grave-gold mine, Holocaust-ghetto, worker-black, etc.”

Angot calls these associations “incestuous ideas,” and believes that the incest eliminated her mind’s ability to recognize partitions between concepts:

“I reached a point of no return, the word associations were threatening, incestuous ideas were filling my head…There is no partition, everything touches, nothing is untouchable…I’m not making this up. The brain cannot be divided into separate parts. It’s not that I’m missing something upstairs, as the saying goes, it’s a house without walls…”

She’s right. You can’t make stuff like this up. Now it will be for English readers to decide whether navigating Incest’s murkiest passages and disturbing subject matter is worth the price to experience Angot’s searing vision.

Posted in Book Reviews | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment