‘The Joy and the Terror Are Both in the Swallowing’ by Christine Shan Shan Hou: A Sword Down the Throat

by Lily Nilipour

Christine Shan Shan Hou’s poetry collection The Joy and Terror are Both in the Swallowing (92 pages; After Hours Editions) takes its title from a quote by American photographer Diane Arbus. It was a time when Arbus’ marriage was failing—a time when, as Anthony Lane writes in The New Yorker, she “was, like her mother before her, dragged into depression and sucked down, declaring, ‘The thing that sticks most in the throat and hurts the most is how easy it is. The joy and terror are both in the swallowing.’” Ten years later, in 1970, Arbus took a portrait of […]

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‘The World to Come’ by David Keplinger: The Beautiful in the Broken

by Ray Levy Uyeda

As if we have all understood and accepted that everything in the world has resonance, that our lives have begun many times over, and that the land and its creatures tell stories, David Keplinger’s newest poetry collection pinpoints what follows that understanding and acceptance. In The World to Come (106 pages; Conduit Books & Ephemera), Keplinger’s prose poetry plays with the liminal space between knowing and not knowing,investigating the universal, that which applies to us all, alongside the universal, or the literal universe and its planets. Winner of the Minds on Fire Open Book Prize, The World to Come is […]

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‘Summerwater’ by Sarah Moss: Mortality, Regret, and a Rained-Out Vacation

by Rayna Carey

Staying at a tourist campsite at a loch in Scotland, the different families of Sarah Moss’s Summerwater (203 pages; Farrar, Straus, and Giroux) have to contend with a day of heavy summer rain. Even though relatively little action occurs for most of Moss’s humorous and poetic novel, Summerwater’s narrative is driven by its various characters’ contemplations during the rainstorm. From frustrated teenage siblings to a little girl taunting a stranger to an elderly couple silently wrestling with the past, the diverse characters reveal themselves through their internal stream-of-consciousness dialogue as they contemplate mortality, regret, and marriage, as well as their […]

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‘Beautiful Things: A Memoir’ by Hunter Biden: A Document of Addiction and Redemption

by Joseph Holsworth

“I’ve smoked more cheddar popcorn than anybody on the face of the earth.” This line from Hunter Biden’s new memoir catches him at the lowest of lows. At this point in his decades-long addiction, he’s scrounging around for drugs, desperately searching between the seats of his car for anything resembling crack. His favorite snack food left flaky little pieces that to his addict’s eye looked just like rocks. Hunter Biden’s memoir, Beautiful Things: A Memoir (272 pages; Gallery Books/Simon & Schuster), is written with the acumen and craft of a born writer. This book is not the typically pointless and […]

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‘Post-Mortem’ by Heather Altfeld: The Complexity of Loss

by Meryl Natchez

There is a custom in the Jewish tradition called Kaddish, which includes saying aloud the names of the dead. The idea is that they live again for that brief moment when their name rings in the air. I thought of this while reading Heather Altfeld’s new book, Post-Mortem (100 pages; Orison Books), which details the complexity of loss we all know about but rarely speak of: the death of languages of indigenous peoples, of species, of the earth. Though the tone of the book is elegiac and it’s not light reading, the specificity and detail in these poems often make […]

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‘Rabbit Island’ by Elvira Navarro: Masterful and Strange

by Lily Nilipour

In “Strychnine,” the second story of Elvira Navarro’s collection, Rabbit Island (164 pages; Two Lines Press; translated by Christina MacSweeney), an unnamed narrator wanders an unnamed city while struggling to write a story—her story. The only thing she can decide on is a style: “She wants to enter this aura of serene iciness she has just imagined, which is also the tone she wants for her text.” But the narrator’s project becomes hindered by the growth of a strange protrusion from her right ear–a paw with toes that have small mouths. The paw hangs painfully from her earlobe, garnering sideways […]

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‘Festival Days’ by Jo Ann Beard: Bright Illuminations

by Michelle Latiolais

Consciousness. One of science’s big questions. What is consciousness? But we have been writing consciousness for thousands of years now, and one of America’s most miraculous writers has just given us a second collection of essays so brilliantly perceptual that the writing is—for all intents and purposes—neurological. The visual tapestry is so vivid, so rich, one forgets one is in the medium of language. Take almost any image or detail in a Jo Ann Beard piece and follow its pathways, its firings, its bright illuminations, its quieting into a kind of shade thrown across the entire essay—it is a map […]

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‘My Heart’ by Semezdin Mehmedinović: Matters of Life and Death

by CJ Green

People say that when you have a child, it’s like your heart has left your body and begins walking around on its own. This idea came to mind reading Semezdin Mehmedinović’s novel My Heart (225 pages; Catapult; translated by Celia Hawkesworth). It begins with a heart attack that sends the protagonist into an eloquent, existential spiral, after which his priorities become increasingly clear to him. “Since I passed fifty,” he explains, “I know that everyone dies young.” The overall effect is of a camera sharpening: the background noise gives way to a crisp foreground, the local details of love and […]

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‘A Swim in a Pond in the Rain’ by George Saunders: An Impassioned Introduction

by Colton Alstatt

George Saunders’ A Swim in a Pond in the Rain (432 pages; Random House) is a warm introduction to the Russian masters of literature—warm as a house party: “Reader, meet my friends Tolstoy, Chekov, Gogol, Turgenev. Russian masters, meet my reader.” Using his experience teaching stories by these authors, Saunders is a generous guide inspired by his love of the short story, whether masterful or imperfect. As he scans the seven stories included in his book, Saunders has fun as he works for ways a prospective writer might create similarly enigmatic stories. Neither inefficient nor blocky, these discussions are the […]

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‘How Beautiful We Were’ by Imbolo Mbue: A Vast Landscape

by Owen Torrey

In one telling, the story might begin here: the children started getting sick, and nobody knew why. At first, two died within a month. Before long, several more got feverish, then stopped being able to speak, and, soon after, to breathe. Surely, it was said, there must be a common cause. But what was shared between these children? Only the irreducible things: the ground they walked over, the air they breathed, the water they drew from the village well—right where the pipelines ran. When Imbolo Mbue’s second novel How Beautiful We Were (364 pages; Random House) begins, these things have […]

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‘Popular Longing’ by Natalie Shapero: To Remain in This Life

by Owen Torrey

At the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, you can see a picture frame with nothing in it. The frame is nice enough: gold and engraved, waiting in a light-filled room on the second floor of the gallery. In this spot, in 1990, two men smashed the glass of Rembrandt’s The Storm on the Sea of Galilee before cutting the canvas out of its stretcher and leaving with the stolen work in tow. The painting hasn’t been seen since. Still, the museum keeps the frame hanging: a symbol of its awaited return. In the longest poem in Popular Longing, the […]

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‘Let Me Tell You What I Mean’ by Joan Didion: Telling Things As They Are

by Zack Ravas

In times of crisis, we often look to the voice that is calm, rational, not prone to high emotion; perhaps it’s fortuitous, then, that a year into the global pandemic we’re receiving a new book from Joan Didion, one of our most controlled stylists—a writer known for her careful, neutral tone, and one who can observe an incident and report her findings with a precision that often belies the extremities of her subject matter. It’s right there in the title of this latest collection: Let Me Tell You What I Mean (149 pages; Knopf)—would readers really expect Didion to do […]

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