‘It Must Be a Misunderstanding’ by Coral Bracho: Adding Color and Depth to One of Life’s Hardships

by Meryl Natchez

Anyone who has experienced a loved one’s trajectory through Alzheimer’s might wonder how a book of poetry focused on that harrowing experience could be uplifting. But Coral Bracho’s It Must Be a Misunderstanding (New Directions; 135 pages), translated by Forrest Gander, is not only tender and compassionate, but leaves the reader suffused in the mystery of being. The book is dedicated to Bracho’s mother, who died in 2012 from complications of Alzheimer’s. A short book of fragmentary lyrics, it builds through its sections like a concerto, adding color and depth as it goes. The themes of Intuitions, Observations, and various […]

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‘Tell Me the Truth About Love’ by Erik Tarloff: A Bump in the Road to Romance

by Paul Wilner

Erik Tarloff’s new novel, Tell Me the Truth About Love (Rare Bird Books; 360 pages), is at once a comedy of manners about the not-so-smart set of San Francisco society, a sex farce complete with a mistaken identity subplot that could have come out of A Funny Thing Happened on the Way To The Forum, and a deeply serious examination of just how rocky the road to romance can be. Toby Lindeman makes an inherently undignified living as fundraiser for the San Francisco Opera, which helps him support his ex-wife and teenage daughter. But a chance meeting with Amy Baldwin, […]

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‘The Hungry and the Lost’ by Bethany W. Pope: Succumbing to the Rot

by Supriya Saxena

Bethany W. Pope’s The Hungry and the Lost (326 pages; Parthian Books; available for order online) offers a rich Southern Gothic tale that revels in the beauty and hostility of the Florida swamplands during the early 20th century. Pope’s immersive language draws the reader in early, but it’s the novel’s social commentary and respect for wilderness that leave a lasting impression. The Florida swampland attracts men who make a living from hunting herons, but after the birds stop coming and tuberculosis breaks out, a (fictional) small town near Tampa is deserted by all but two: the late minister’s mentally unsound wife, […]

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The Escape Artist: Bill Vollmann’s Remarkable Retreat into the Real

by Paul Wilner

An interview is by definition a species of performance: by the subject, struggling for definition, or invasion; and by the interlocutor, finding his or her own path in a journalistic enterprise perilously akin to speed dating. Conversations with William T. Vollmann (252 pages; University of Mississippi Press), edited by Daniel Lukes as part of the publisher’s “Literary Conversations” series, fulfills both functions. The incorrigibly ambitious Vollmann is the author of myriad explorations into Western mythologies, European history and literary journalistic inquiries into the roots of violence and environmental dystopia. His latest novel, The Lucky Star, returns to the Tenderloin underbelly […]

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‘A Little More Red Sun on the Human’ by Gillian Conoley: New Universals for a Secular World

by Gabriel Weiss

Gillian Conoley’s new book, A Little More Red Sun on the Human (320 pages; Nightboat Press) is a collection of selected poems from throughout her career. Conoley uses new forms of linguistic constructions to tackle the spiritual adversity of the modern age and to redefine the standard of poetic consciousness. Conoley was born in Austin, Texas in 1955, and the farming community she grew up in inspired the narratives of her early works, in which she recalled her childhood in the South. Her youthful reminiscence later evolved into an interest in the natural world, and became a tool for her […]

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‘We, the Survivors’ by Tash Aw: A Grim Portrait of Life Under Late Capitalism

by Zack Ravas

The latest novel by Man Booker long-listed author Tash Aw offers a grim portrait of contemporary Asia under late capitalism. We, the Survivors (336 pages; FSG) traces the life of Ah Hock, a Malaysian-born citizen of Chinese heritage living a quiet life of solitude on the other side of a murder sentence. Ah Hock relays his story to a young journalist looking to shed light on the circumstances that led to Ah Hock’s violent crime, a crime he himself doesn’t quite understand. The murder is ultimately connected to Ah Hock’s former career as second-in-command at a local fish farm, as […]

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‘Mickey Rourke and the Bluebird of Happiness: A Poet’s Notebooks’ by W.S. Di Piero: A Literary Time Capsule

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The relationship between a writer and their notebook is a strange and sacred one. W.S. Di Piero has been keeping a notebook since he first started writing, and, in the poet’s own words, his notebooks have taken on many roles, including “workshop, interrogation room, [and] monk’s cell.” In Mickey Rourke and the Bluebird of Happiness: A Poet’s Notebooks (Carnegie Mellon University Press; 88 pages), we are treated to selections from three decades’ worth of De Piero’s notebooks. Through this collection, Di Piero hopes to “craft a shadow self-portrait composed of hopped-up episodes from my mental and emotional life.” The resultant […]

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The Common Reader’s ‘James Baldwin & American Democracy’: Another Country, Another Time

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Nobody knows his name. The literary and political legacy of James Baldwin is going through a revival through works like Raoul Peck’s Academy Award-nominated documentary, I Am Not Your Negro, and director Barry Jenkins’ film adaptation of If Beale Street Could Talk. Add to this, the newest issue of The Common Reader: A Journal of the Essay, published by Washington University in St. Louis, and its eleven essays that further explore the lasting work and meaning of the author. High points of the issue, titled James Baldwin & American Democracy, include Cecil Brown’s piece, “With James Baldwin at the Welcome Table,’’ in […]

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New, Unique, and Alive: ‘Like’ by A.E. Stallings

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Reading A.E. Stallings’ new book of poetry, Like (137 pages; FSG), my first impression was a furious delight at the way she invigorates the old forms and makes them sing. No one else I know can breathe such life into rhyme, can elevate the mundane to the mythic, the prosaic to the transcendent. The diction is often deliciously at odds with the form—contemporary slang set off against the myth of Pandora, for example: He’d said she was a punishment from Zeus, And that virginity made for a sour dowry Depreciating as soon as you drove it off the lot. The […]

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The Grief of the Particular: ‘Be With’ by Forrest Gander

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Reading Forrest Gander’s work makes the reader feel as if she’s entering a world larger than her own, one with a broader vocabulary, richer imagery, and a deeper understanding of the relationships between the ordinary and the unknowable. Sometimes one is baffled, but more often feels stretched, welcomed into a cherished complexity. On the cover of his newest book, Be With (92 pages; New Directions), the names of the title and author in severe san serif type are pinned between black lines and the absence of lines. It’s a perfect cover for a book that explores absence and presence, loss […]

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A Balance Between Cultures: ‘How to Write an Autobiographical Novel’ by Alexander Chee

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In his first nonfiction collection, award-winning novelist, poet, and journalist Alexander Chee offers a reflective look at his life in How to Write an Autobiographical Novel (288 pages; Mariner Books). From his time in Mexico learning high school-level Spanish to his undergrad days at Wesleyan, and later the Iowa Writer’s Workshop, as well as his AIDs activism in San Francisco, the book is a well-orchestrated chronicle of a life well-lived. Growing up as a Korean American, Chee often struggled with his identity and felt awkward in public, as when his long hair caused him to be mistaken as a girl, […]

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The Great Blank at the Center of It All: ‘theMystery.doc’ by Matthew McIntosh

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On page after page of Matthew McIntosh’s theMystery.doc (Grove Press), redactions black out key words, crucial questions, and even whole sections of text. I don’t know how far I had gotten through the 1,660-page novel before I stopped expecting the eventual, climactic unveiling of the hidden words, the code-break that would deliver me from all my head-scratching. Surely, it was hundreds of pages after the flip-book sequence that begins on Page 73 with a voice shouting, “>HEY” (flip page) “>DO YOU THINK YOUR SAVIORS COMING BACK” (flip page) “>WHATS HE LOST DOWN HERE”—before I stopped looking for whatever it was […]

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