‘Catwalk’ by Meryl Natchez: Sorrow as a Matter of Perspective

by Rebecca Foust

 “Time is the school in which we learn, / Time is the fire in which we burn.”  Robert Frost believed a book of poetry should itself be structured as a poem, with individual poems functioning the way stanzas and lines do to create a beginning, middle, and end, or some other pattern that alchemizes the book into its own artistically complete and synergistic whole. In Catwalk (99 pages; Longship Press), Meryl Natchez’s meticulously structured and sequenced new book, the placement of every poem feels right and the result of a considered decision. That is, the poems are rooted in context in an […]

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‘Alice Knott: A Novel’ by Blake Butler: Conspiracy, Art, and Paranoia

by Nessa Ordukhani

In his latest novel, Alice Knott (304 pages; Penguin Random House), Blake Butler defies the conventions of traditional narrative with a scintillating specimen of postmodernism. Alice Knott, the eponymous protagonist, is a reclusive heiress whose wealth rests in famous works of art purchased throughout the years. Alice spends her days in isolation, roaming the halls of her childhood home like a ghost, haunted by the memory of her late parents and mysterious twin brother, until a viral video reduces her life to shambles. The video captures the events of one cataclysmic evening when a group of anonymous art terrorists invade […]

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‘The Disaster Tourist’ by Yun Ko-Eun: Craving Catastrophe

by CJ Green

Halfway through Yun Ko-Eun’s The Disaster Tourist (197 pages; Counterpoint Press; translated by Lizzie Buehler), the protagonist, Yona Ko, crumples up an itinerary. “I’ll decide where we go,” she says, and climbs onto a motorcycle and speeds away. It’s a representative moment for the overall novel, which is about power, who has it, and at what cost. When we first meet Yona, she possesses an equable composure. At work, she scans headlines, searching emotionlessly for the latest catastrophe: tsunamis, massacres, earthquakes, wars. To these scarred landscapes, Yona designs travel packages for morbidly curious tourists clamoring for a firsthand look at […]

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‘No Presents Please: Mumbai Stories’ by Jayant Kaikini: Seeping into the Surreal

by Cade Johnson

Jayant Kaikini’s No Presents Please: Mumbai Stories (274 pages; Catapult; translated by Tejaswini Niranjana), originally published in 2017 and translated into English this year, strikes the balance between dense and utterly readable,  bending reality into the surreal until the unfamiliar becomes familiar again. In his introductory note, prolific translator Niranjana indicates her primary challenge was “to maintain the ordinariness of the narrative until it could be maintained no longer,” and then articulate the shift when the “surreal began to seep into the story.” The first story in the book’s collection, “Interval,” speaks to this quality: it’s a romance between Nandu, […]

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‘The Book of Lost Names’ by Kristin Harmel: Remembering as Resistance

by Jesse Bedayn

Kristin Harmel’s fifth novel, The Book of Lost Names (400 pages; Gallery Books/Simon & Schuster), is a tour de force––a stirring testament to stoicism and courage in the face of “nightmares of monsters dressed as men.” Harmel’s story takes readers back to Nazi-occupied France, where the protagonist, a young, willful Jewish woman named Eva Traube, forges documents for the hundreds of Jewish children to be smuggled from France to Switzerland. If caught, she’ll hang. The heartrending story grapples with the contortion of morality, of faith and hope under duress, and the inimitable power of love. The book jumps between Eva’s years […]

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‘A Candle for San Simón’ by Kelly Daniels: Accidental Comedians, Road Warriors, & Rough Magic

by Paul Wilner

Inside (almost) every “serious’’ novel, there’s some pulp fiction struggling to get out. Kelly Daniels navigates the path between the two, mostly successfully, in A Candle for San Simón (Owl Canyon Press; 276 pages). Mirroring some of the themes of Daniels’ 2013 memoir, Cloudbreak, California, an account of shaking off the legacy of his drug-dealing, surfer-bum father, the new novel is a picaresque narrative of gun-running and gang violence in Guatemala written in a deadpan noir style that sometimes recalls Charles Willeford (and Malcolm Lowry). But the repressed always returns, and a father-son conflict is once again central to this […]

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‘Alone Together: Love, Grief, and Comfort in the Time of COVID-19’: Searching for Connection Amidst the Pandemic

by Cade Johnson

Alone Together: Love, Grief, and Comfort in the Time of COVID-19 (288 pages; Central Avenue Publishing; edited by Jennifer Haupt) is a collection of essays, interviews, and poems meant to serve as a resource for connection, hope, and grief in our pandemic world. (All proceeds from the book will be donated to The Book Industry Charitable Foundation, a nonprofit that organizes programs to strengthen the bookselling community, which has been hit particularly hard by the economic downturn brought about by COVID-19.)  In the essay “Books on Pause,” Kevin Sampsell writes about his work at Powell’s Books, the world largest independent […]

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‘The City We Became’ by N.K. Jemisin: The Battle Against Confirmation Bias

by Jesse Bedayn

In the first pages of N.K. Jemisin’s  fantasy novel The City We Became, (437 pages; Orbit), the reader is thrown into the vertiginous action: New York City contorts as it literally comes alive, fighting off an interdimensional Enemy—at times a tentacled incarnation of Lovecraftian racism. Without a moment’s lull, Jemisen’s protagonists—cities and boroughs in the form of human avatars—grapple with an adversary wielding xenophobia and bent on destruction.  In this, the first book in Jemisen’s Great Cities trilogy, metropolises are born after developing enough cultural complexity and overlay to form their own three-dimensional personalities. But as they enter the world, “They […]

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‘A Burning’ by Megha Majumdar: At the Whim of the Powers That Be

by Cade Johnson

Megha Majumdar’s first novel, A Burning (304 pages; Knopf), is one of the most invigorating debuts in recent memory. The Kolkata-born Majumdar weaves the story of three individuals living in contemporary India whose fates are at the whim of the powers that be. Jivan, a young, driven Muslim girl who grew up in the Kolabagan slum, aspires to join the middle class. After she witnesses a terrorist attack at a train station that kills more than a hundred people, she posts a Facebook comment critical of the local police response. “If the police didn’t help ordinary people like you and […]

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‘How to Pronounce Knife’ by Souvankham Thammavongsa: Life on the Margins

by Bella Davis

In her debut  story collection, How to Pronounce Knife (192 pages; Little Brown), Souvankham Thammavongsa focuses on power and privilege, connection and isolation. Born in a refugee camp in Thailand to Lao parents and raised in Canada, Thammavongsa centers the day-to-day lives of immigrants in fourteen stories, written in a precise and emotionally devastating style.   In the titular story, a young girl brings a book home from school to practice reading and asks her father for help pronouncing a word she’s never encountered. The next day in class she’s tasked with reading aloud and is sent to the principal’s office […]

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‘Dailiness: Essays on Poetry’ by Mark Jarman: A Devotional Poetic Voice

by Meryl Natchez

Amidst the clamor of poetic voices, reading Mark Jarman’s Dailiness: Essays on Poetry (Paul Dry Press; 177 pages) has been a deep pleasure. These essays display a profound, thoughtful, rigorous attention to poetry, especially its roots and formal structure. Jarman is a formal poet, and his explication of Donne, Herbert, and Hopkins, as well as contemporary poets you might not expect (Michelle Boisseau, Rita Dove, Brenda Hillman, and Sophia Stid, for example) is insightful and rewarding to read. The premise of the book is that life and work consist of daily showing up. This theme pervades the essays—poetry as daily […]

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‘Death in Her Hands’ by Ottessa Moshfegh: A Dark Antidote

by Zack Ravas

Under normal circumstances, the literary world would likely be abuzz over Death in Her Hands (259 pages; Penguin Press), the latest novel by Ottessa Moshfegh, one of the few writers of her generation who could be said to have “made it”—if we want to define that as a certain level of name recognition, lengthy book tours with celebrity moderators, and, more importantly, a style that is decidedly her own. Pick up a book by Moshfegh and you might have some idea of what to expect: unreliable-verging-on-unlikable female narrators, a smattering of gross-out details regarding characters’ bodily functions, and a tone […]

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