A Relationship Gone Missing: ‘Love, an Index’ by Rebecca Lindenberg

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Many poems of love loss have been written, but none are as difficult to categorize as those in Rebecca Lindenberg’s collection Love, an Index (McSweeney’s; 96 pages). The title itself is a teasing, post-romantic gesture, as though the subject can be summed up in one sequential arrangement. And yet, the poet attempts. But unlike Elizabeth Bishop’s “One Art,” whose world is full of “many things… filled with the intent / to be lost that their loss is no disaster,” Lindenberg’s poems do not possess that self-consoling bravado. Her loss is abrupt and unforeseeable; her lover-poet, Craig Arnold, mysteriously vanishes while […]

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Finding the Sacred in Life on the Calle: ‘Girlchild’ by Tupelo Hassman

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The first thing to be understood about Tupelo Hassman’s debut novel, Girlchild, is that the young protagonist, Rory Dawn Hendrix, is alone. This is not only evidenced in her isolation: living in Reno’s Calle de las Flores trailer park, her general lack of school friends, or the way her poverty is treated coolly by government officials. Rory Dawn’s aloneness comes off in her fearless narration, the way she wanders off unaided into unknown places, to be followed by the adventurous reader. Rory approaches everything familiar with caution. The Calle is her home, but it doesn’t offer the comfort or the […]

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What We Do to Ourselves, and to the Wild: ‘Raptor’ by Andrew Feld

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A bold investigation of cruelty, Andrew Feld’s Raptor (University of Chicago Press; 88 pages) illuminates the visceral details of the external world through electrifying, scary close encounters. Feld wastes no time in announcing his provocation: “You wanted a little bit of wilderness / Held docile on your wrist. What could be tamer / Than extinct?” These lines pierce straight through to the locus of a power struggle where the table is turned on a bird tamer, who is probed by accusations of culpability and blamed for razing what he touches. Feld’s poetry dissects violence and imbues it with drama, provoking […]

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The Purposes of Rituals: Alain de Botton’s ‘Religion for Atheists’

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Atheists and agnostics often dismiss religion’s tenets and rituals as being fashioned to exploit the human need for such things. Our fear of death is assuaged by the promise of an afterlife. Our despair in the face of injustices that we cannot correct is resolved by the assurance that there is a spiritual magistrate in the great beyond that will set things right. Our need for “community” in an increasingly alienating world can be satisfied by formally congregating with others who share our beliefs. The meek shall inherit the earth, the first shall be the last…it all sounds perfectly, cynically, […]

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Regrouping Abroad and Nearby: ‘Contents May Have Shifted’ by Pam Houston

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Like any MFA graduate worth their salt, I have a shelf in my library reserved for the writers I’ve also called my teachers. I mean this in a very literal way, and not in the traditional my-work-is-a-marriage-of-Joyce-and-Tolstoy way of thinking about literary influence; the majority of my artistic mentors have been living, breathing men and women with office hours on Monday and Wednesday afternoons. Pam Houston is one such writer. As the director of the graduate program in creative writing at UC Davis, she’s sold a lot of books to fledgling writers vying for a place in one of her […]

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Who’s Afraid of ‘Khirbet Khizeh’?

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A few years ago, blogging for another consonant-heavy literary magazine, I put my Comparative Literature degree to use in compiling a series of reading lists (Readings for Revolution and Readings for the Next Intifada, for example) composed to serve as introductions to various countries and conflicts in the Middle East. Since then, I’ve done my best to keep up with recent trends in Hebrew and Arabic literature and have discovered a couple writers who might merit a revision of said lists (the Libyan novelist Hisham Matar, for example). But it has been a long time since I came across a […]

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A (Long) Painful Path to Self-Knowledge: Cheryl Strayed’s ‘Wild’

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Close to the beginning of Wild (Knopf, 336 pages), Cheryl Strayed’s compact and potent memoir about hiking 1,100 miles along the Pacific Crest Trail, the author finds herself holed up in a remote motel room, assessing her baggage. In a literal sense, this means tallying up the all the things she thinks she’ll need for the trek – a lantern, a tent, a foldable saw, a packet of condoms – and stuffing them into a giant backpack. In a metaphorical sense, it means mapping out her escape from a life punctured by difficult endings: the unexpected death of her mother, […]

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Truly Knowing What You Eat: ‘Field Guide to California Agriculture’

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America’s appetite for all things culinary seems boundless. The saturated media environment tempts with food blogs, hundreds of new cookbooks, and on-line restaurant reviews. Wait staff routinely reel off the provenance of every item on the menu, and some reality television offers meals as entertainment. Visiting with vendors at a local farmers’ market provides a closer encounter with the “who,” “what,” and “where” surrounding California’s food supply. For those wanting to dive deeper, though, the recent Field Guide to California Agriculture (475 pages; University of California Press) offers an illuminating and entertaining trek into what authors Paul F. Starrs and […]

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A Kind of Portraiture: ‘Threshold Songs’ by Peter Gizzi

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In Peter Gizzi’s fifth and newest poetry collection, Threshold Songs (Wesleyan University Press, 108 pages), the poem serves as a place where Gizzi can “talk / to myself through you.” He asks, “what does it mean / to be tough / or to write a poem / I mean the whole / vortex of home / buckling inside.” The collection is a place where Gizzi can articulate the “aboutness” of language, the interval between discursive sounds. This place both urges speech and thwarts the compulsion; it’s the gap where poetry is invented internally and is exonerated externally. […]

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Beyond Life’s Slow Drizzle: ‘Vicky Swanky Is a Beauty’ by Diane Williams

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There are 51 stories in Diane Williams’s new book of short stories, Vicky Swanky is a Beauty (McSweeney’s Books, 118 pages), and not one of them is longer than a page, front and back. I read the collection in a night, and spent a week and a half (with pleasure) working the text over again. Is this flash fiction? It is, except when there isn’t really a narrative. Then the pieces are prose poems. Williams uses a lot of devices consistent with prose poems – the second-person voice, the posing of questions. But whether her book can be classified as […]

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Summoning the Achingly Beautiful Out of Strife: Craig Thompson’s ‘Habibi’

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There are some artists and writers that truly utilize the medium of comic books and graphic novels to create a unique narrative experience that only sequential art can deliver. Craig Thompson is one of those individuals. Following the success of his semi-autobiographical Blankets, Thompson has once again given readers a poignant and sincere tale of love and spirituality in Habibi (Pantheon; 672 pages). Set in a world that is both historical and modern, mixing epic deserts and extravagant palaces with modern city landscapes and industrial wastelands, readers follow Dodola and Zam, two children who escape from slavery by fleeing to […]

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The Wear and Tear of a Boy’s Life: Roy Jacobsen’s ‘Child Wonder’

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Roy Jacobsen’s coming-of-age novel, Child Wonder (Graywolf Press; 239 pages), offers a well-crafted metaphor for the cultural transformations of Norway in the 1960s – a time “[b]efore oil,” as Jacobsen writes in the foreword, “before anyone had any money at all.” The book, translated from the Norwegian by Don Bartlett and Don Shaw, is also a romance of youth, filled with nostalgia and secrets, rage and violence. And, of course, transformations. Suddenly, for Finn, the story’s narrator and hero, things become “brighter,” eyes become “bluer.” Though he is an emotionally rich, thoughtful and observant character, Finn still acts out like […]

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