‘Why Didn’t You Just Do What You Were Told?’ by Jenny Diski: Seeing, Being, Naming

by Alana Frances Baer

Jenny Diski’s posthumous collection, Why Didn’t You Just Do What You Were Told? (448 pages; Bloomsbury), consists of thirty-three essays, selected from the over two hundred the prolific British author wrote for the London Review of Books up until her death in 2016 at 68. Opening with a lighthearted account of a breakup and concluding with a humble meditation on her cancer diagnosis, the book synopsizes the inertia of life. Between those bookend essays are others that tend toward a topic-oriented approach that awards agency to her subject, rather than herself. Writing about Friedrich Nietzsche and his sister Elisabeth, Diski discerns […]

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‘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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‘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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‘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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‘Missionaries’ by Phil Klay: The Cost of Indifference

by David Emmanuel

In an era of globalized conflict and widespread disinformation, all of which help fuel conspiracy theories and increasingly violent online factions, the world stage can appear given over to chaos. It is for precisely these reasons that Phil Klay’s most recent novel, Missionaries (404 pages; Penguin Press), feels so refreshing, as the author draws connections and finds meaning in the disorder. The plot largely takes place in Colombia and centers around the various factions (paramilitary groups, guerilla fighters, the Colombian government, and U.S forces) that strive to steer the country in the direction that best suits their own interests. Though […]

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‘Born Slippy’ by Tom Lutz: Unchecked by Moral Scrutiny

by Michelle Latiolais

Tom Lutz novel Born Slippy

With great guilty pleasure I left off reading A Journal Of The Plague Year by Daniel Defoe and picked up Born Slippy (310 pages; Repeater Books) by the critic and scholar Tom Lutz. This is Lutz’s first novel, and on show are the wild and woolly qualities of the best first novels, I am happy to report. There is no bubonic plague to drive the narrative and to provide the agar within which we observe human behavior, no. Instead, there is in Born Slippy a character named Dmitry, a one-man plague. Frank, the novel’s central intelligence, regrets many, many times […]

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‘Barn 8’ by Deb Olin Unferth: A Comically Extreme Heist

by Zack Ravas

The premise of Deb Olin Unferth’s latest novel, Barn 8 (252 pages; Graywolf Press), involves the heist of a comically extreme number of chickens—yet to label the novel a mere comedy would be tantamount to calling Kurt Vonnegut a “humor writer.” Sure, the book is funny, quite funny, but it is much more. Unferth is tackling, with great wit and technical skill, topics as pressing as Big Agriculture, the humane treatment of animals, and the impossibility of maintaining ideological purity in any social movement. The reality is that Americans love eggs: free range or not, we will eat as many […]

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‘Here I Am!’ by Pauline Holdstock: The Messenger of an Urgent Truth

by Alecsander Zapata

Pauline Holdstock novel Here I Am!

The past years have seen a renewed interest in capturing the adolescent perspective. In shows like Netflix’s Stranger Things and films like Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit,  the earnestness of a child’s voice in a period when everyone in the audience seems to have something to say seems both timely and necessary. Pauline Holdstock’s latest novel Here I Am! (292 pages; Biblioasis) embraces this trend, shining its narrative spotlight on Frankie Walters, an incredibly intelligent six-year-old with Avoidant Personality Disorder. When his mother dies while his father is out of town, Frankie is left alone; the young boy attempts to tell […]

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‘Track Changes’ by Sayed Kashua: A Loss that Reverberates

by Alicia Long

Sayed Kashua’s fourth novel, Track Changes (240 pages; Grove Press; translated by Mitch Ginsburg), is a haunting exploration of the unplaceable loss that reverberates through one man’s memory. Saeed, an Arab-Israeli man hailing from the small Palestinian village of Tira, has long maintained a passion for writing, and he develops a career of ghost-authoring other people’s life stories. As he learns to craft memoirs, drawing out stories and observations from taped interviews with his subjects, he finds that his true power lies in editing. At first, he transcribes the stories precisely as they are relayed to him, but he comes […]

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