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ZYZZYVA Book Reviews.

Nightmarish Existence of The Child: ‘The Impossible Fairy Tale’ by Han Yujoo

The Impossible Fairy TaleThe dichotomies of childhood—children’s capacity for both guileless love and extreme cruelty—make our earliest years ripe material for storytelling; fairy tales, in particular, have long traded on the contradictions of youth: Hansel and Gretel narrowly escaping an evil witch’s clutches only to burn her alive in her own oven, Red Riding Hood fending off the appetite of a ravenous wolf disguised as her grandmother before filling his stomach with stones. It’s through this lens the reader approaches The Impossible Fairy Tale (214 pages; Graywolf Press; translated by Janet Hong), the first novel from Korean author Han Yujoo and her first work to be translated into English.

The book opens on a bleak grade-school world (“Do you know you can kill someone with a fountain pen?” is one of the first lines spoken) and quickly establishes the novel’s central parallel: the charmed life of the angelic Mia—who wants for nothing and receives lavish gifts from both her biological father and her mother’s paramour (as the novel opens it’s a set of seventy-two German watercolor pencils, perhaps a nod to the Germanic origins of the Grimm fairy tales)—presented in sharp relief against a classmate’s known only as the Child, an unfortunate girl who experiences a constant torrent of abuse from her mother: “She wishes she could be erased. But every time she tries to erase herself, she only grows darker.”

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History and Poetry as Unending Things: ‘Whereas’ by Layli Long Soldier

WhereasWhereas (120 pages; Graywolf) is Layli Long Soldier’s first book of poetry, and what an exquisite book it is. Gathered in one volume, Long Soldier’s poems clearly expose the ways language—either English or Lakota/Lakȟótiyapi—is used to create and destroy opposing politics. She does not shy away from political speech in Whereas, and indeed, she can’t—not as long as Native people continue to suffer under continued settler colonialism, or as the various languages and traditions of the thousands of indigenous ethnic groups are continually stomped out yet revitalized in specific Native spaces.

Divided into two parts, the book begins with “These Being the Concerns,” a section comprised of seventeen poems, some previously published and some new. The last section, “Whereas,” consists of three poems titled “Whereas Statements,” “Resolutions,” and “Disclaimer.” “Whereas” considers many different scenarios where Long Soldier examines her relationships with other poets, with “emptiness” in American Indian poetry, with religion, with history (cultural, state-approved, or otherwise). Each poem also considers physical posture: bodies curled in fetal positions, crouching, teetering down a hall, kicking at another person out of anger. Like a number of poems in “These Being the Concerns,” “Whereas” unfurls across several pages, filling the spaces on each page, connected only by the telltale semicolon at the end of each line on every page.

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Meditating on Evil under Paradise’s Sun: ‘After the Blue Hour’ by John Rechy

After the Blue HourIn his new novel, After the Blue Hour (212 pages, Grove Press), John Rechy offers a hybrid erotica-mystery that he labels as “true fiction.” The author of seventeen books and praised by such great American writers as James Baldwin, Edmund White, and Gore Vidal, Rechy achieved literary fame with his first novel, the international bestseller City of Night, published in 1963. In his new novel, set in the ’60s, the narrator, a 24-year-old writer and ex-hustler also named John Rechy, receives an invitation to join an admiring fan, Paul Wagner, for the summer on his private island.

Upon arrival, John finds himself at a gorgeous yet strangely tense and mysterious paradise, alongside the extraordinarily rich and charismatic Paul, his soft-spoken mistress Sonja, and his relatively unstable 14-year-old son, Stanty. Here, in Gatsby-esque fashion, John spends each day in complete isolation with his new companions, sharing drinks, beliefs, and stories that come to reveal each character’s sense of moral depravity and grit.

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Our World Without Any Memory of Itself: ‘NK3’ by Michael Tolkin

NK3Michael Tolkin’s 1988 novel, The Player, remains a note-perfect send-up of late Eighties Hollywood excess, a paranoid neo-noir told from the point-of-view of the murderer himself—a creatively and morally bankrupt Hollywood executive. Now the acclaimed author, screenwriter, and director returns with NK3 (300 pages; Grove), his first novel in more than a decade. Tolkin has long specialized in satire so shrewd and well-observed that it barely registers as satire; NK3, in which a memory-erasing biological weapon creates a power vacuum for the working classes to seize control from the rich and elite, couldn’t have arrived at a more apropos time.

Initially, the biggest shock of NK3 is how much it reads like a post-modern take on the airport bestseller. The opening chapters leap from place to place and character to character with each flip of the page like the Michael Crichton thrillers of yore. These early passages are burdened by exposition as Tolkin works to establish his near-future world of 2020, a society that—like the best speculative fiction—looks radically different and yet eerily similar to our own.

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What Comes After the Trauma of Fleeing: ‘The Refugees’ by Viet Thanh Nguyen

9780802126399The Refugees (224 pages; Grove), the new book by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Viet Thanh Nguyen, consists of eight stories circling around the displacement caused by the Vietnam War. Though reviewers of the collection have tied the narratives of these stories to some kind of universal “immigrant experience,” the title of the book, as well as the historical context of the stories, refuses this oversimplified categorization. The Refugees gently but firmly reminds the reader of the difference, which lies largely in the ways one group has had some kind of choice in leaving their place of origin, while the other has been pushed out by a violent external force. The way Nguyen makes this distinction throughout The Refugees is elegant, even if it is not explicit. The opening story, “Black-Eyed Woman,” does this by discussing how a woman’s girlhood and innocence were stripped away as part of her experience as a boat person. By opening the collection with a story that depicts this familiar (but somehow still unacknowledged) narrative, Nguyen situates the rest of the pieces within a context of trauma and forced migration, of pain and loss.

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Poems of a Man ‘Robbed of His Country’: ‘In Praise of Defeat’ by Abdellatif Laâbi

laabicover-600x700Abdellatif Laâbi is perhaps Morocco’s most well-known poet-activist-writer, and a well-respected Francophone poet as well His personal history—founder of leftist Moroccan/Maghrebi magazine Souffles (Breaths) in 1966, imprisoned for “crimes of opinion” against King Hassan II from 1972 to 1980, and exiled to France since 1985—is staggering on its own, and his writing reflects each stage of his life in haunting and affective ways. This is perhaps what makes In Praise of Defeat (824 pages; Archipelago; translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith) so incredible. The book is a veritable brick—it’s almost intimidating in its scale, refusing to let the reader forget Laabi’s illustrious and prolific career. The poems span from his early work (“Le Règne de Barbarie/ The Reign of Barbarism,” 1965) to the quite recent (“Le Saison Manquante/ The Missing Season,” 2015), and the length of the poems—most notably, Sous Le Bâillon, Le Poème/Beneath the Gag, The Poem (1972-1980) and Le Soleil Se Meurt / The Sun Is Dying (1992)—range as impressively, too. It seems a little crass to call a book of poetry a “page-turner,” but as some poems here span up to ten pages, it’s worth noting that Laâbi’s deft metaphors sustain your attention so that the physical interruption of the turn of a page is lessened. (The book also includes an essay, “Writing and the New World Disorder.”)

With Laabi’s original French on the left-hand pages, and Nicholson-Smith’s English translations on the right, In Praise of Defeat showcases a series of poems, and selections from longer poems, hand-picked by Laâbi. In some cases, this means that only a few stanzas of a poem appear in the book, and the reader is left wondering what else was said, or what Laâbi wanted the reader to seek out on their own. The excerpts, however, do work as stand-alone poems.

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Love (and Lives) on the Balance: ‘Lucky Boy’ by Shanthi Sekaran

9781101982242In her new novel, Lucky Boy (472 pages, Putnam), Shanthi Sekaran plunges readers into the drastically different yet irrevocably intertwined lives of two women, and in doing so explores facets of motherhood, immigration, and the American experience. Solimar Castro Valdez is eighteen when she leaves the impoverished cornfields of Santa Clara Popocalco in Oaxaca for “the promise of forward motion” in California. Her journey north is nightmarish; she is nearly forced into drug smuggling, she survives a rape, witnesses the horrific death of a boy, and for days rides in the bed of a truck, gagging on the stench of onions. In the middle of this tribulation, she falls for another traveller, a young man named Checo, who rides with her through Mexico atop the infamous train nicknamed La Bestia. As they near the U.S. border, they are separated, but the sense of determination Checo instills in Soli remains with her for the rest of the story. By her own volition and ingenuity, Soli finds her cousin’s house in Berkeley. By the time she arrives, her hair shorn, Soli is pregnant. Despite the journey, and despite the uncertainty of what her life will be like in America as an undocumented woman—and a mother—she remains eager to start her new life.

Sekaran seamlessly alternates between Soli’s story and that of Kavya Reddy’s. Kavya lives with her husband, Rishi, in a bungalow in Berkeley. The children of Indian immigrants, Kavya, who is in her 30s, is the chef at a Cal sorority house, and Rishi is a “ventilation engineer” at a Silicon Valley tech company. They bike to work, spend lazy Sunday mornings naked in bed, and take trips to the farmer’s market. Kavya’s privileged day-to-day existence initially stands in stark contrast with Soli’s. “Her grown-up life was fat with pleasure, but after three years, then four and five, the pleasure grew thin. She’d come to Berkeley to find herself, but found that her self was not enough. She wanted a self of her self,” Sekaran writes. “She wanted a child.”

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A Political Awakening in Haiti: ‘Dance on the Volcano’ by Marie Vieux-Chauvet

Dance on the VolcanoDance on the Volcano, by Haitian author Marie Vieux-Chauvet (1916-1973), was originally published as La Danse sur le Volcan in 1957. Previously translated into English by Salvator Attanasio in 1959, Archipelago Books has published a delightful new translation by Kaiama L. Glover. Glover, a scholar of Caribbean fiction, translation, and Francophone literature, seems like the natural candidate for translating Vieux-Chauvet’s stunning novel. She has already translated two other works of Haitian fiction, and her scholarly knowledge and apparent pleasure in making the sights and sounds of colonial Haiti accessible to an Anglophone audience are palpable.

Dance on the Volcano tells the story of Minette, a young black woman who passes for white in 18th century Haiti (then called Saint Domingue). Minette, blessed with a beautiful singing voice, becomes the first free woman of color to perform at the opera performance house in Port-au-Prince. The novel, which alternately radiates joy and terrible pain, traces Minette’s rapid radicalization and political awakening, while also depicting the build-up to the Haitian Revolution, as well as delineating race, class, and gender in the country at the time.

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Landscape as Character, Characters at a Distance: ‘Ema, the Captive’ by César Aira

Ema, the CaptiveCésar Aira’s books often shrug off the shackles of genre, tradition, structure, or sense. They’re also often short. Usually around 100 pages, these novellas are complete in and of themselves. However, readers will most likely leave an Aira text in a completely different mental state than from the one they entered with—such is the challenge and the pleasure of reading him.

Aira’s latest book, Ema, the Captive (128 pages; New Directions; translated by Chris Andrews), is fairly straightforward in substance and story. A 19th-century Western set in Argentina is probably the most succinct way to describe it but to box this book into neatness would be dishonest to its intent. Aira goes to great lengths to paint a living portrait of a time and place replete with war, struggle, brutality, community, and hope. Yet that portrait questions the veracity of the history it presumes to be a part of. (In an author’s note included as a postscript, Aira refers to the book as a “historiola,” and claims to have been struck with the inspiration for it when translating long gothic novels while on vacation.) Irony aside, the novel has been steeped in a kind of mythic dye.

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Otherwise Known as Love: ‘Pretend I’m Your Friend’ by MB Caschetta

Pretend I'm Your FriendMB Caschetta’s recent story collection, Pretend I’m Your Friend (Engine Books; 200 pages), explores what one of its characters calls “terrible love.” In eleven entwined stories, Caschetta examines confusing and often painful friendships, romances, and familial bonds: a set of parents who share a sexual desire for their kids’ babysitter, a dying mother who wishes cancer on her daughters instead of herself, a clairvoyant whose visions the end of her marriage. Just when you think you have wrapped your head around the root of a character’s issues, Caschetta will offer a different perspective in a later story. One problem bleeds into several others. A name mentioned in passing in one tale will attain its emotional weight in a much later piece.

The heart of the collection is the three stories in which Caschetta focuses on the rats’ nest of pain that is the Wojak family. In “Hands of God,” we zoom in on one moment of Alice-James (A.J.) Wojak’s life, as she takes a trip to Florence with her high school friend Helena Frankel, “the most beautiful girl in all of Waynesboro, Pennsylvania, place of their birth, and exactly nowhere.” It is 1973, and the girls have saved up for two years for the trip. Two days before their departure, Helena discovers her boyfriend having a threesome with another couple.

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Under a Spell: Cavolo & McClanahan’s ‘The Incantation of Daniel Johnston’

the-incantations-of-daniel-johnston-front-cover_2048x2048Artist Ricardo Cavolo and writer Scott McClanahan have created an intimate portrait of one of their heroes—cult-famous indie musician Daniel Johnston—in their recent graphic novel, which serves as “an affectionate thanks and a hug for Daniel.” The Incantations of Daniel Johnston (101 pages; Two Dollar Radio) is more than a look at Johnston’s picaresque life; it is also a critique on fandom and an investigation of the ways an audience interacts with art and mental illness. While Cavolo and McClanahan refuse to skip over the tragic aspects of Johnston’s mental health, or skirt around the troubling things the self-proclaimed “curse upon the land” has done, they also lovingly dream up different paths Johnston’s life could have taken. There is a wonderful yet occasionally unsettling strangeness that permeates this book. It stems from acknowledging “the devils inside” all of us, as depicted in Cavolo’s colorful illustrations and in the dark humor in McClanahan’s language.

To combat the mythologizing of Daniel Johnston as an artist, Cavolo and McClanahan continuously remind us he is human. At the beginning, Cavolo draws Daniel on an embryonic level, still inside his mother’s womb. McClanahan writes, “Everyone was someone’s child once. Remember.” This sets the tone for the rest of the book. As Cavolo and McClanahan bask in the bizarreness of Johnston’s story, they also instruct us to acknowledge he is real. We are transported to Johnston’s childhood bedroom, where he grew up in a religious household in West Virginia. Within the room, Cavolo illustrates the drawings Johnston is known for: frogs, eyeballs, skulls, and superheroes. McClanahan writes, “There is nothing more amazing than the bedrooms of our childhood or the room we are sitting in right now.” These details of Daniel’s youth are given as much weight as the darker incidences that occurred later on in his life once drugs, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder afflicted his life.

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The Push and Pull of Forming an Identity: ‘Swing Time’ by Zadie Smith

Swing Time If it weren’t for the prologue in Zadie Smith’s new novel, Swing Time (464 pages; Penguin Press), a reader might be confounded by the many undulations the narrative takes as it kicks off in the present then looks back upon a past traumatic incident, excavating it. What could have been off-putting proves to be an adventure zig-zagging from public housing to brownstones, from England to Senegal, from 1982 to 2008, filling in the gaps in time and place and creating a definitive arc, albeit one completely warped.

Relationships, and the action that subsequently alters them, form the novel’s backbone, cementing the nonlinear action nicely. When we meet Tracey in the book’s opening, she’s another mixed-race girl whom the unnamed narrator has dance class with. Their friendship and fated falling out is the stuff of tragedy in the classical sense; our narrator muses, “there was always this mutual awareness, an invisible band strung between us, connecting us and preventing us from straying too deeply into relations with others.” Tracey is, indeed, the narrator’s sole object of obsession, one she returns to at varying points, often by way of other characters, illustrating their karmic inseparability—a lodestar by which she tracks her own success or failure. Tracey is the more talented of the pair, but her talent quickly dissipates when she falls prey to the socioeconomic odds stacked against her, eventually railing to bring the narrator down with her.

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