[REVIEW] The Yellow House by Chiwan Choi

yellowhouse

Civil Coping Mechanisms, 2017

REVIEWED BY GABINO IGLESIAS

Chiwan Choi’s The Yellow House is one of those rare poetry collections that simultaneously serves as a manifesto of Otherness, a heartfelt and brutally honest journal of the most crucial moments of the poet’s life, and a celebration of the feelings, moments, and places that great poetry can invoke even when the writing itself is rooted in earthy, memory-tinged simplicity. As if that wasn’t enough, the collection is also an enjoyable recounting of how Choi found himself; a surprisingly cinematic series of vignettes that present the reader with loss, love, desire, friendship, family, and the city of Los Angeles.

The Yellow House opens with a simple three-line declaration that manages to set the mood for the rest of the collection while also proving themselves contradictory:

i chose poetry
over honesty
then lived this unremarkable life.

On one hand, Choi lets us know that there was a point in the journey of his life where a decision had to be made, and poetry won. However, the second line attempts to extract honesty from the process, and the poems that follow it prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that Choi’s writing is very personal and honest. Furthermore, the word unremarkable is the exact opposite of what’s presented in this collection; poems filled with the agonies of every coming-of-age tale, the magic of a childhood spent navigating different cultures, and nights spent in a massive, violent, strange city that tends to become part of those who spend enough time in it. After reading the book, coming back to those three lines is crucial because they reveal the playful man behind the poems and let us know that we were on a sad, humorous, carefully constructed trip from the very first page.

Choi’s style is a mixture of sincere sharing and words being used to deal with certain memories. However, more important than his approachable, enjoyable style is the vulnerability Choi brings to the page. From dealing with death to plucking pieces of life that were happening in 1980, Choi treats his subjects and his writing with the same openness, and that candor translates into beautiful poetry:

this is stupid and emotional
and not poetic at all,
but life is so weird and beautiful
and i can’t tell whether it’s slipping away
or if it’s drowning me.
i can’t get out of bed
and if there was skin next to me
i would bury all the feelings in it
to some 80s soundtrack
like a non-stop loop
of the best of the church.

There is a yellow house in The Yellow House, and its appearances are just one of the many elements of cohesion that make this a very complete collection. The other cohesive elements are love, loss, memory, dreams, the role of parents, and the equal importance of things said and things left unsaid. Ultimately, the beauty of The Yellow House is that is personal and universal, and that allows the reader to recognize Choi for what he is: a survivor who’s seen many things, a son, and a man concerned with recognizing the things that came before and made him who he is now:

on the porch
drinking barley tea so my legs won’t fail
(that’s what mother says)
and, for a moment,
looking at my hand.
it is still.
sometimes it shakes,
trembles.
sometimes it holds
tight
the world.

On the most basic level, The Yellow House works because it is, simply put, beautiful poetry. Devastatingly beautiful. However, for those who care about the details of the genre, Choi also demonstrates a unique understanding of the way blank space can affect his message as well as a sense of rhythm that gives his work a particular flavor. These last elements make this collection a must read for fans of language and poetry and a superb addition to the Civil Coping Mechanisms catalog, which already includes some of the best contemporary poetry collections: There Should be Flowers by Joshua Jennifer Espinoza, Lady Be Good by Lauren Hilger, and The Book of Endless Sleepovers by Henry Hoke, to name a few.

 

La Puta: a review of Plastic Vodka Bottle Sleepover by Mila Jaroniec

IMG_3047
Split Lip Press, 142 pages, $16

BY SAM FARAHMAND

vanity of vanities; all is vanity.

 

I came to Mexico to try to forget all about someone, which I now know I might’ve done the same on the other side of the border with the other half of a bottle of tequila, seeing the half I have left here and knowing all I might’ve done different there is say some of the same words but worse for lack of a bitterer word in a language I can pronounce all of the words right, but here the language means much more to me signifying nothing other than to show how I still feel about la puta.

It is my first time outside of America and my third day in Mexico after departing two days be­fore the inauguration from Los Angeles International Airport three quarters after one in Pacific Standard Time, arriving, after several hours hungover in Mexico City, a quarter before eleven in Central Standard Time in Mérida, Mérida being the capital city of the Mexican state of Yucatán in the northwest of the Yucatán peninsula several hours west of the beaches in Quintana Roo I am sure someday soon and maybe even before this trip is over where I’ll end up in Cancún, though for the time being I can’t cunt, but space being the best visualization for time we have for now, I needed to have some distance between the past and me.

Maybe I might’ve felt better if I had bought a bigger bottle, but I don’t like to drink tequila be­cause tequila is the sort of drink for people who don’t drink to drink, though I was told the tequila in the country is supposed to be cleaner than the water here, so if I don’t drink I might die. I don’t remember if it was an American or an alcoholic who told me that, one of the ones on their way to a beach where I am sure the sea there is the cliché they say it is with the sand and the sun the sort of sand and sun that would make one want to take a shot then shoot one of the locals, but they’re all tourists there.

Not that I’m not. I am rereading this review I rewrote from a second floor room in a hostel just south of the square in the center of Mérida, looking down at the couple of pages I had folded into quarters for being in my back pocket and blue around the edges from being in my back pocket as I sweated the blue from my jeans into the pages while staying up until the sun with strangers rub­bing the backs of their jeans on the front of my jeans. From here I hear the world has ended again and this time in America, looking up from the pages to see there is a bed and there is a bottle and there is a balcony I can stand on and see the center of the city and the cathedral and it is all alive, around it all of the carriages and cars driving in circles around the square full of the birds and the bums and it looks like one of those square parks in an America when an artist could afford to live and when love was just as clichéd as the time. Love is always as clichéd as time, but hindsight is me remembering how good her ass looks in black jeans.

 

When the conquistadors came they burned all the books but one, someone says to me somewhere where I’m not at the time because I am remembering I have ten nonconsecutive days of sobriety, not counting today, this new year. I know it doesn’t mean as much when I can’t cash in my chips because I am not on a roll, but it’s sort of the same as saying this is the forty-fifth when knowing there have only been forty-four with one who held two nonconsecutive terms, though for all our obsessiveness with counting the days and recounting, consecutive or nonconsecutive, there is no such thing as death in America.

Maybe death is why I am here, not because love is a kind of hatred, but because love is death in some syllogistic sense that every x is y is therefore the same as x is y is y. God is dead is dead and maybe I’m here because it seems like all our associations of south with down and down with death would make them much closer to death here, but then I’m disappointed that so far the only skulls I have seen have been covered in skin while the most they have shown of themselves is in their smiles.

It has been some time since I’ve smiled with my teeth, but then I think if i always came before e then the name of this city would translate to shit, which to me seems to be meaner than it seems meaningful, being here in Mérida rereading this review. I’m supposed to be here recording sound for the film my friend Santa Ana, a friend I’ve had for half of my life, is filming, maybe even act­ing in the film as a revolutionary but without any lines so I won’t have to remember anything, but we haven’t started shooting. I’m happy to not have to remember anything and I go back inside the room and I don’t know if it is the bottle or what is inside the bottle that is colored gold to make it look like urine, but I’ll still try to get rid of the same dream I’ve had for some time where I see la puta on the beach.

Santa Ana says we might pay a prostitute to play a prostitute in the film because it’ll be easier than finding someone else, so now I’m somewhere between Aguirre and Fitzcarraldo and maybe I am a revolutionary in some revolution I don’t remember in some dream, though I wonder if my likeness will be pressed into cloth. I didn’t bring my blue sweatshirt that reads El Camino Real in blue on a white background and Conquistadors in gold over a print of a conquistador on the front because it might’ve made me look like another tourist as far south in North America as he can af­ford to be in a Mexico standing in for a South America because Santa Ana couldn’t afford to take us down to the Amazon.

 

The tequila is down now to half a half of a bottle, which still feels more optimistic to me than the odds on a quarter, but soon I will be taking a bus down to a small town an hour outside of Mérida and only several hours away from where the world ended, on the way there the signs for Chichén Itzá and its pyramids and the signs for the crater at Chicxulub as if there might be one coming up for Xibalba, but after enough time, all any civilization leaves behind is its afterlife.

I don’t need to see the ruins or the crater to know they’re there. I know the crater is our creator as much as I know when the agave stopped being subsidized everyone in the towns started living off of showing the tourists the sinkholes fractured off from the crater buried under Chicxulub, the sinkholes they all call the sweetwater. The tourists swim in them, but I’ve been spending my time in a different sort of hole to water in because it’s a dollar for a score of pesos and a little less than forty for a forty with the cost of living here not much more than the cost of dying. All the houses here made of concrete and a lot of them painted on with signs for their savior and some verses he said, but I’d rather die than have someone else die for my sins. It’s my sins that give me the surest sense of who I am.

If not death, it’s God they’re closer to here. Maybe only because the sun is that much closer to the surface here, seeing the dogs straying on and off the sides of the roads and all of them coated in their diseases and sometimes so asleep in the sun I can’t tell if they’re dead. I don’t know what they did to deserve what they don’t, but at least they still have all their genitalia. Forgetfulness is forgiveness enough for me, but I’m afraid I’m losing some of my life here because they burn and they breathe in all of their trash during the day, though I have nothing of hers to burn but what is left in my head when I see a dog that looks like la puta lying down under a pair of white swing­ing saloon doors that makes everyone look like they have angel’s wings when they leave into the sunlight after they step over the dog still staring at me while I drink in this cantina several hours to the right of the middle of nowhere.

Every end, even a good end, is still an end. I see a fetus of a dog on the side of the road on the way back from the cantina and I hear a cock crow three times before the sun is up and soon I will be heading back to still another America to cross this country with some poet and I will likely be reading this review at one of these readings, if not another one of the essays I wrote that have this same short story in the middle, but here it is for the fourth time:

 

President’s Day

 

Happy hour ends in half an hour.

I’ll see you in half a half an hour then, I say but hold the tall can of Mexican beer to my mouth while I wait for her to come back and set down a red American Indian figurine on the bar for the buyback. It’s a good bar during happy hour because they give you two beers for one beer and it’s a good bar because the beers are cheap even when it isn’t happy hour.

The bartender is pregnant in a white dress and she looks like someone’s daughter who’s going to have to be someone’s mother. It must have been over half a year ago the last time I was in here and I saw her first, though if it weren’t for her being pregnant and all she would just look like any other bartender with rosy tattoos and long dark hair, but it must have been her tattoos or her hair or her being a bartender that got her pregnant. She tells me it’s, Five dollars.

Four Mexicans for five dollars.

What.

‘Cause it’s a tall can, so it has two cans worth in each can, then there’s another two on the way. I don’t know. I’m sorry, I just like this happy hour here.

If you like it so much, we have a midnight happy hour too.

When does that start, I ask but she just stares at me. I wonder if I want to wait here for another happy hour, even if The Library bar is the only good bar on the Lower East Side, though it’s nei­ther Lower nor Easter of me, but no one really lives in Manhattan. I mean, when does it end.

Are you not waiting for someone.

I don’t know.

What’s her name.

What’s your name.

Do you not know her name.

Do you wanna know my name.

You ask a lot of questions for someone who doesn’t know anything.

I laugh and the bar is quiet and I think I’ll get drunk enough to try to get her to drink with me, so I ask her what she thinks of my name.

I don’t know what your name is. It’s not like it’s embroidered on your shirt.

I don’t work in the sort of place where my name is embroidered on my shirt.

No one works anymore. At least, not today.

No one drinks today.

She says it like she’s going to turn to point at some sign, But whether they drink or not no one works for free.

Five dollars for four Mexicans, right. I hand her a ten dollar bill and say, Hamilton.

Hamilton. Your parents named you Hamilton. That’s too bad.

I laugh and tell her, No. I just find that I’m much less likely to spend all my money on alcohol if I call all the presidents by their names.

She tugs at the ends of the bill and asks me, Why don’t you call him Alexander.

I don’t wanna get too attached. I’m still an alcoholic.

She walks away with the Hamilton and goes to and opens the register then counts the change and closes it slowly with her hip and walks back to me and hands me the change and says, Here you go Hamilton.

These aren’t Hamiltons.

I’m calling you Hamilton.

Oh. So you’re not gonna ask me my name. You’re just gonna call me Hamilton then.

Well, your parents never did.

I raise the can to her and say, I still resent them for that.

Plus I don’t want to get too attached. I still have to serve alcoholics.

She smiles at me and I can see why she’s pregnant. I smile back as she turns to go to the other end of the bar and I can see why she’s a bartender. I drink as fast as I Mexican and keep drinking and I finish my drink so she has to come back and get me another drink. I leave a Washington on the counter with the Indian figurine and I look for her to come back, but she’s with someone else, so I just have to pick up and finger the figurine. I don’t know why his headdress is so large on his head or why they made him red.

They laugh at the other end of the bar and I look up for her to see me, which she does, but she sees me like she sees through me and she still takes her time coming back to my end.

I smile when she’s close and set the figurine down on the counter again.

You know, Ham, it hasn’t been half a half an hour yet.

You know Hamilton wasn’t a president either.

Are you telling me you’re not the president of these United States of America.

Well the president doesn’t have his name embroidered on his shirt.

He doesn’t work today either.

When does he.

I don’t know. He never comes in for happy hour. I guess I don’t know him as well as you do.

I guess I don’t know you as well as you do.

Another Mexican. She takes the figurine and comes back with another beer. Hamilton.

I guess I don’t know me as well as you do.

No one ever does.

I like talking to you. I know I don’t have a horse in this race. I can just talk to you.

Are you saying I have a horse of a face.

No, I mean it’s not like I have to ask you when you get off.

Are you not going to get me off.

Are you having fun with me.

You’re just trying to get me to say you’re fun.

Am I.

You really don’t know anything do you.

I don’t know much, but I do know I don’t not know anything.

Sure you don’t.

Can I have a lime for this one.

Sure. She picks a lime out of the limes and drops it on the mouth of the can. Will that be all.

I don’t know, I say forcing the lime into the can. Alexandra’s a good name, you know.

And Alexander’s a great one. But it’s not mine, so what’s that got to do with anything.

Your current predictament.

My current predictament is that it’s not mine.

It isn’t.

Well, it is. But I’m not keeping it.

That’s too bad.

Why’s that.

You’ve got your whole life ahead of you.

Everyone has their whole lives ahead of them. Well, not everyone. Not even you, Alexander.

Why not, Alexandra.

She smiles and she says, Happy hour ends in half a half an hour.

 

Plastic Vodka Bottle Sleepover

 

I am reading a copy of Plastic Vodka Bottle Sleepover while on my half a half an hour break in a break room in back of a bookstore in a strip mall that could be anywhere in Los Angeles but any­where else and where there isn’t enough time for me to go anywhere else to do anything else, but then again, all the sections in this book are short enough for me to read some of them whenever I have a break to read the only copy of this book to ever be in this bookstore.

It is the day after New Year’s Eve and might as well still be the night before when I smoked a Romeo y dos Julietas worth of cigar that don’t seem to be getting along with everything else still in my stomach while I am slurring through returning all the returns the customers have to return. The bookstore is one of those brick-and-mortar ones customers always become all fire-and-brim­stone about before they’re angry with me at the price of the bestsellers they decide to order online after leaving all their books at the register for me to reshelve. Dust doesn’t collect in alphabetical order, so I’m still not sure where all of the books should be reshelved, but the bookstore is doing well enough during the holidays for one of the assistant managers to tell me we might be able to be paid this year after all, though I am afraid I’m not selling enough to stay on after my seasonal employment and I am afraid I’m not smiling enough at every customer’s attempt to confront their death anxiety through capitalism.

I’m no stranger to that since I sold my soul to be the writer I am, but I still don’t know how to sell out, which I would if I could, so for a time being I have leased the pain in my spine from my back to my neck for ten dollars an hour in a hell that isn’t waiting in a line but waiting on a line. The hell in a well, you’re doing well, you’re not doing good. I am not doing well, but I am doing good enough good to customers as plastic as the plastic with which they pay, which must be why they become so angry with me when I have to charge them a dime for a paper bag, but they think they can smile through anything if their teeth are whitened enough. I tell them a tote bag we have for two dollars has on it the original cover art of This Side of Paradise. Most of them don’t know how to read, but their fingers are good for turning pages.

One of them asked me if I could bring her dog back from the dead, which made me smile that she could have asked for me to bring back anyone from the dead but only asked me to bring back her dog. She bought a book and I told her about our fourteen day return policy with a receipt for a full refund before I go to piss because I drink a lot of water to have to piss a lot to have to walk across the bookstore to the restroom to piss to have to wash my hands hard and try harder to stare at myself, though there isn’t a sign here that says employees must wash sins of the customer, but I know why I’m here as much as I know ignorance isn’t innocence.

Another one buying a copy of the Bible asked me if I believe in the word as he patted down a Bible he still hadn’t bought. I told him I believe in words, but he had nothing to say other than to pay for his copy of the Bible because all we have in common is consumerism is our communion. We even have our own pyramids to it here, though we seem to forget the point of the pyramid is to be buried under the pyramid, but on my last day before I leave for Mexico I realize I’ll have to make some means of getting money into my hands and holding onto it longer than turning it into change and handing it right back. I look at the change and remember there might even be a black face where there were only white skulls with powdered wigs on them before, but still it all looks green to me. We bend the truth over until it’s lying down like this line.

There is a section too long for me to read in the few minutes I have left, so I set the book back in my locker in the break room and sit down while I hold something else in my hand to stare at it so it doesn’t look strange that I’m sitting here and staring at nothing. I try to remember what I had read because I always thought that if you underline all the lines you like, you should cross out all the ones you don’t, so I only dogeared the pages I will come back to for the review, but all I think of as I try not to think is la puta.

 

Plastic Vodka Bottle Sleepover Part Two

 

Plastic Vodka Bottle Sleepover is a book about one of those unnamed narrators trying to get over a lost love à la La Maga from the book Hopscotch by the Latin American author of whom I don’t remember the name. The title Plastic Vodka Bottle Sleepover feels like it should have a hyphen put in there somewhere and a handful of consonants taken out, but then I remember the author of Plastic Vodka Bottle Sleepover is from the other half of the world where most of their words are almost all consonants and where consonants aren’t considered to be an autoerotic asphyxiation of language as much as a means to get the most out of their vowels when they say something.

I have always thought much more of the hyphen that comes before American than where the ______-American comes from because punctuation is like a simile, though the truth is you’re not an American if you weren’t born in America, but you’re even less of one if your father and moth­er were. Like love, the only thing we ever share is the past, but history is a mass hysteria. Maybe my memory is worse than I remembered because I remember there was more Polish than there is here, but here is all of the Polish in Plastic Vodka Bottle Sleepover with the page numbers for the pages on which the Polish is:

 

           Musimy jakos zyc, czy istniejemy czy nie

  1. 16

            dinozaura, prosze

  1. 21

            Przygody Dobrego Wojaka Szwejka.

  1. 85

            Wszystko Twoje

  1. 100

           Trzeba sobie jakos radzic, powiedzial baca, zawiazujac buta dzdzownica

  1. 115

            barszcz

  1. 118

            uszka

  1. 118

            pierogi

  1. 118

            Trzymaj sie, siostra

  1. 124

            Nareszcie

  1. 124

 

Writing a review is like the difference between underlining a line and writing, seeing as a review is only written for the writer and the only reason I’m writing this review is because I will know at least one person will, whether or not they underline lines, read this, but then again, there are a lot of lines about an American Dream in Plastic Vodka Bottle Sleepover worth underlining and there are a lot of addresses to you as a reader and in some of the shorter italicized sections to you as an unnamed character, but as you reads through the book the same as I travels through time, Plastic Vodka Bottle Sleepover being as deictic as it is, whatever that is, you realize like in life how your you‘s start to get used and your I‘s get used to it as they do the meaninglessness of me.

But we make sense of things through things though things because we are all merely stand-ins for someone else, if not stand-ins for something that came before all this and if not for something to come after, friend being the worst f word there is as far as any mot just concerns me, but it’s all the same. Something, as in, anything, is a lot closer to everything than it is nothing.

I should rewrite this review after I realize all of the art of today is the art of the art of, though for the time being the most common quality of writing that makes me less likely to read it is if it is published. It makes me think this all might’ve ended up instead of down if I were some sort of successful author, as if selling a bestseller would make a bookstar of me, but like being loved for who we’re with, don’t we all want to be loved for who we’re not. I was always afraid the only Na­tional Endowment for the Arts I’d ever have my hands on is my cock.

I reread this review and I realize I’d forgot how much of ourselves we have to forget when we try to forget someone else, but in my head all I hear is the same old same All hail, Might’ve, thou shalt be king hereafter. I ask the author to read this review before I send it out to be rejected, but then the author tells me she thinks it reads like la puta is referring to her, which makes me smile that she might’ve thought this review is about her, though maybe even I don’t know who la puta is, as much as I now know I didn’t, but no one, maybe not even la puta, knows who la puta is but la puta.

Still I might be able to get something good together to review Plastic Vodka Bottle Sleepover, something, as in:

 

The title Plastic Vodka Bottle Sleepover turns in itself like love into a lover as it turns the nouns into adjectives from Plastic to Vodka to Bottle to Sleepover and we see all life is is this effort to try to turn nouns into adjectives. Plastic Vodka Bottle Sleepover is all about deixis and in more than one sense, but in the story and the sound of its title, it is the same as This Side of Paradise and, like the title This Side of Paradise itself, it is the same in a structural sense of sound reflecting story to show how it signifies This Side of Paradise.

 

I have never had much of a Mary to hail, but I’ll try because I’m afraid only one person will read this as much as I’m sure la puta will read this because you are la puta and I am la puta and all of this is puta y pues puta y puta y pues puta. Our puta who art in puta, puta be thy name thy king­dom puta thy will be puta in puta as it is in puta. Give us this puta our daily puta and puta us our puta as we puta our putas and puta us not into puta but deliver us from puta; pues puta. Hail pu­ta madre full of puta, puta is with thee.

The words are, whether we write them or not, all there because all we are is our word and our words for our word, though looking back now on all of my looking forward, all I know is I don’t even know myself, but that isn’t all I don’t know.

All I know is I don’t know.

 

Sam Farahmand is an Iranian-American writer from Los Angeles. He is an editor at drDOCTOR. He has an MFA from The New School and his writing has appeared in Hobart and drDOCTOR Vol. 1.

[REVIEW] Communion by TJ Beitelman

communion

Black Lawrence Press, 2016

 

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN DUCKWORTH

“Most things don’t take root, and that is as it was intended.”

The above quote, a cryptic line from the story “Sister Blanche” in TJ Beitelman’s Communion, captures much of the magic and tragedy suffusing the collection’s stories—stories of marriages halfway ended, affairs partway consummated, vows only partially kept, and conversations only begun but never finished.

The full title of Beitelman’s new book is Communion: Stories, but that doesn’t quite describe the animal that is this book. While in places a reader may well be lulled into thinking they’re leafing through an ordinary short story collection, such as in “Antony and Cleopatra,” or “Joy,” other sections will lead to questions of genre. The early short pieces of the collection (“Artic Circle,” “Masks”) could be read both as prose poetry as well as flash fiction, testament to Beitelman’s lyrical dexterity as well as his strength at setting a scene and selling a mood. In a further departure, the book’s longest piece, “Notes on an Intercessory Prayer,” is less a story and more a lyric essay with brief fictional incisions into what is by-and-large a tribute to the late Benazir Bhutto. The last flush of stories (“Hope, Faith, and Love,” “Communion”) toward the end of the book can stand as individual pieces as well as chapters to a larger surrealist work that tells the myth of a working-class Messiah and the family he leaves behind without saving.

While most of the stories in Communion are set in Southern locales, their characters traditional (after a fashion) Southerners of working-class extraction, there are some notable exceptions. One of my favorites, “Yoi, Hajime” centers on a Japanese chicken-sexer reflecting on his time working in Atlanta, Georgia alongside a young black woman who he longs for but never gets around to courting. The model guiding most of Beitelman’s stories is less the lopsided pyramid taught in creative writing workshops around the country and more the asymptote: the curving line that draws closer and closer to the line that would be its mate without ever touching. The endings are often open-ended: pots left simmering on the stove. A wonderful example of this is the excellent flash piece “Blackface,” which leaves the reader with a powerful and pervading sense of mystification mixed with enlightenment as we see a drunken teenager break into a neighbor’s house only to come face to face with his own mother—naked and in blackface. The motivations are irrelevant, as are the consequences to the characters in the aftermath—all that matters is the powerful moment of recognition between the mother and son before the son flees the house.

TJ Beitelman’s Communion is not a conventional short story collection, nor is it the sort of collection that one could use as an easy, marketable model for putting together a first book. It is, however, memorable and equal-parts troubling, affecting, and inspiring.

[REVIEW] Human Acts by Han Kang

hang

Hogarth Books, 2017

REVIEWED BY MATT E. LEWIS

Can something be called a war crime, if there was no war? If a government truly wishes to obliterate the occurrence of a despicable act they committed, can they do so with only a well-placed bullet or torture or destruction of physical evidence? Or do they accidentally create something immortal – a memory of a person that is lodged in the minds of family and witnesses forever, like shrapnel that burrows into the body and aches in cold weather? These are the kinds of questions asked by the people in Han Kang’s newly translated book, Human Acts, which focuses on the connection between multiple people surrounding the death of a teenage boy during the South Korean “Gwangju Uprising” of 1980. It was during this time that a South Korean president, Park Chung-hee, was installed in power via a coup d’etat, declared martial law, and used lethal force against unarmed civilians and unspeakable torture on those deemed to be enemies of the state. Kang uses several perspectives in her writing to capture this snapshot in time, this all-too-recent authoritarian massacre, and the lasting effects on the people that survived it. Best known for her bestselling book, The Vegetarian, which examines the brutality in which gender roles can be enforced, Human Acts looks at another aspect in which humanity reveals its ugly, violent, primal nature – when those in power seek control, by any means necessary.

The books starts with a teenage boy, Dong-ho, searching for his friend in a gymnasium converted into a morgue. He is soon conscripted into service in the task of recording data about the corpses of those killed in the protests. In this way Kang begins a conversation repeated throughout the novel, the question of when exactly a soul leaves a body, what separates a human being from a rotting corpse, and how one can grapple with a person you once knew putrefying in front of you. During the course of his work, the banality of Dong-ho’s work – cataloging things like the height, gender, clothes, and shoe brand on the corpse – demonstrates the parallel with the banality of the evil that put them there, the indiscriminate and merciless killing of unarmed protesters, whose only crime was to intellectually oppose a government run by brutal thugs. Dong-ho hopes to find Jeong-dae and his disappeared sister, Jeong-mi, alive, despite the fact that he watched a bullet cut down Jeong-dae at the beginning of the protest. Without the confirmation of the physical body of his friend, he continues to engage in magical thinking, a way of coping with such a brutal loss at such a young age. As if in response to this, Kang begins the next section with the narrative of Jeong-dae’s spirit, still stuck to his rotting body as soldiers dump him and others in a field to be burned. Jeong-dae’s spirit mourns for the loss of his potential life, and seethes with the anger of his mindless execution. He meditates on the lives of the soldiers that killed him:

“I want to see their faces, to hover above their sleeping eyelids like a guttering flame, to slip inside their dreams, spend the nights flaring in through their forehead, their eyelids. Until their nightmares are filled with my eyes, my eyes as blood drains out. Until they hear my voice asking, demanding, why.”

It’s not just the dead who ask these questions, but the living as well. One of the women working at the gymnasium, Eun-sook, sees things in Gwangju that attempt to normalize the landscape of the town. Specifically, the water fountain at the center square is turned back on again, which is the government’s subtle way of disregarding the sacrifice of the protesters. Instead of going along with this underhanded legitimization of the corrupt ruler, she complains to her town provincial office: “What I mean is, how can it have started operating again already? It’s been dry ever since the uprising began and now it’s back on again, as though everything’s back to normal. How can that be possible?” Eun-sook soon learns that in times of martial law and authoritarian control, even such benign protests can have serious repercussions. When working as an editor, she witnesses mass censorship of texts that disagree with the government, and she herself is viciously questioned and beaten in her connection to it. Kang finds beautiful ways in which to respond to these fascist tactics, such as when Eun-sook attends a play with the censored language that she worked on, only to find that the actors soundlessly mouth the forbidden words instead of actually speaking them. It is in this dialogue that a quote is made that reverberates for nearly every character in the book, a kind of elegy for those who survived this horror: “After you died I couldn’t hold a funeral, so my life became a funeral.”

Human Acts has moments when it gorgeously exemplifies the spirit of dissent, and the characters who choose to stand, even when faced with death and torture. The mothers of children killed in the protest risk their own life to demonstrate at the president’s parade through Gwangju, thrown in jail again and again for the crime of their morning. The account of a prisoner who, though savaged by the guards and conditions of his political imprisonment, looks at his actions with pride rather than regret.

“I remember feeling that it was all right to die; I felt the blood of a hundred thousand hearts surging together into one enormous artery, fresh and clean…the sublime enormity of a single heart, pulsing blood through that vessel and into my own. I dared to feel a part of it.”

While such a triumph of hope is possible in the face of this dark time, the core focus of Human Acts is the remembrance of the pain of loss, which in itself is an act of dissonance against fascist revisionism. The last part of the book is Kang’s own account of her experience during the uprising, and of the later discovery of the story of Dong-ho, which moved her to write the book. After pouring over stacks of documents relating to the uprising and interviewing those that knew him, Kang finds herself haunted by what she has learned – she becomes plagued by nightmares of being bayoneted by soldiers, finding herself in dreamlike recreations of the situations these people had faced. Even at a friend’s wedding, surrounded by happy, well-dressed peers, she finds herself plagued by the survivor’s guilt that the research has inflicted on her. “How was such a scene possible, when so many people had died?” she asks herself, still shaken by the connection of the horrors her research has to reality. But she finds solace in the fact that “Human Acts” accomplishes the goal of any account of a crime against humanity seeks to achieve – the fact that these events, these people, these names are not forgotten or lost to history. To do so disrespects the memory of their sacrifice and the eternal ache of loss felt by their loved ones. Perhaps most timely is the lesson that the threat of fascism is not a distant nightmare, but a very real threat, waiting only for an ideal series of events to wedge its way into our lives and cause havoc once again. As such, we as readers must absorb the stories of these people and their lives, allowing their sacrifice to embolden our vigilance and our resolve.

 

[REVIEW] VHS and Why it’s Hard to Live by Tatiana Ryckman

11TR

 

Zoo Cake Press, 2016

 

REVIEWED BY MATHEW SERBACK

Tatiana Ryckman is the voice inside of my head.

Maybe I feel this way because we are both from Cleveland, Ohio. Or maybe it’s because we both migrated to big cities in Texas. Or maybe the answer is something more obvious – something simple; Tatiana Ryckman is just better at being honest.

In her new collection of flash nonfiction VHS and Why it’s Hard to Live, Ryckman expresses the sadness we all feel about never becoming the person we thought we wanted to be. She has an unmatched talent for finding the embarrassing truths we don’t want to tell ourselves and exposing them through tangential connections.

Each story in this collection is built with precision. The sentences bubble, and the self-reflections bubble, but they always burst by the end. It’s the small moments of self-revelation that absorb me into the prose. It is in these moments that Ryckman is the voice in my head.

In “Coming of Age,” a flash piece about love and hatred, she writes, “In high school, a boy who would sneak into my room at night but who would not date me said ignorance was the path to happiness, and that happiness was death to the self. It’s a little dramatic, but it explains a lot about the times.” I’m suddenly compelled to find my high school girlfriends on their social media of choice and tell them how sorry I am for the past – to tell them how wrong I was about the future.

That’s what Tatiana Ryckman’s writing does to the boy who was sneaking in and out of windows and telling half-truths they knew were lies. Just imagine what it’ll do to you.

In “My Death,” Tatiana considers the way she will die, “I can’t walk to the grocery store, which is not to say I don’t walk to the grocery store but every time I have walked to the grocery store, alone, at night, I know I am being followed. Or if not followed, then watched, to be followed on a future night.” That’s the same voice in my head that tells me I’m afraid of sharp objects – the pronounced corner of a table, the useful end of the screwdriver – and most importantly, knives. Ryckman reminds me that we all are sharing in a ubiquitous death. She has to walk to the grocery store, I have to use a knife, and you have to board that airplane. Her death is waiting in the bushes. My death is in my right hand.

Each story is a different thought that keeps you up at night.

And even now, as I try to tell you how beautiful and tangled Ryckman’s language is, she’s the voice in my head that is reminding me that VHS and Why it’s Hard to Live isn’t about her – it’s about me, and always will be, “Maybe you know what I mean; maybe all of our shit is just pet enough to keep us up at night, alive and in the world reaching our full potential, wondering what the world would be without us.”

BEST 21 BOOKS OF 2016

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BY GABINO IGLESIAS

 

Last year was such an outstanding year for literature that a top ten list just wouldn’t cut it. Horror, literary fiction, poetry, nonfiction, noir; every conceivable genre produced at least a couple of gems that deserve to be on this list. I started the year aiming to read 200 books, which is something I try to do every year. Work, looking for work, too many long books, and writing a dissertation were all elements that got in the way. That being said, I managed to read about 110 books, and here are the best 21 in no particular order:

 

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21. Floodgate by Johnny Shaw. This was fast, fun to read, packed with more action than a superhero movie, and showed a level of worldbuilding that makes it a novel that should be used to teach it. Shaw can do crime, violence, intrigue, and comedy, and all of those can be found in spades here.

 

 

 

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20. Death Confetti: Pickers, Punks, and Transit Ghosts in Portland, Oregon by Jennifer Robin. Robin is a performer, writer, and traveler whose life definitely belongs to the small group of those that should be written about. This collection of nonfiction takes place mostly in the streets, on public transportation, and in bars across Portland. The people and situations the author encounters are enough to make it a recommended read, but the outstanding and commanding way in which Robin writes about them make it an absolute must and earn the book a spot on this list.

 
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19. Slipping: Stories, Essays, & Other Writing by Lauren Beukes. One of the first authors to come to mind when thinking about writers who can move in and out of a plethora of genres while simultaneously sounding fresh and unique, Beukes has become a household name thanks to novels that are a bizarre, scary, wildly entertaining mix of science fiction, crime, and horror, and this collection offers more of that.

 
Image result for bruja wendy ortiz18. Bruja by Wendy C. Ortiz. What Ortiz does for the memoir here is comparable to what Flaubert’s Madam Bovary did for modern realist narration or what Capote’s In Cold Blood did for the nonfiction novel. Simply put, Ortiz’s “dreamoir” is a new thing and this book will be the starting point for a movement as well as the go-text for all upcoming memoirs that inhabit the interstitial space between reality, memory, very personal surrealism, and dreams.

 

Image result for magic city gospel17. Magic City Gospel by Ashley M. Jones. Going into a poetry collection without being familiar with the author’s work is always an adventure. With this book, the adventure yielded a treasure trove of southern imagery, a screaming celebration of roots and culture, and an unapologetically raw view of the female African American experience. This is brave, beautiful, necessary poetry that should be taught in schools and that undoubtedly becomes more important with each dumb step the country takes backwards.

 
Image result for a collapse of horses by brian evenson16. A Collapse of Horses by Brian Evenson. Evenson is one of the most talented living writers in the world, and this collection is full of stories in which he proves it time and time again. Sad, strange, creepy, touching, surreal, scary; if you can think it or feel it, Evenson does it here. The best short story collection of 2016 and yet another superb entry into the oeuvre of a man who seems to only get impossibly better with each new offering.

 
Image result for black wings has my angel15. Black Wings Has My Angel by Elliott Haze. The folks at the New York Review of Books know how to pick their classics, and this one is my favorite so far. A narrative that still resonates in modern noir’s DNA, this is a dark, twisted tale of love, violence, secret agendas, and the way plans have a tendency to crumble.

 
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14. Witch Hunt by Juliet Escoria. This book is full of the kind of poetry that reaches deep inside you, pulls out the ugliest things you have to offer, and then slaps you in the face with them, and Escoria does it all just by sharing her own life. Full of heartbreak, broken relationships, and crippling realizations, this book is what happens when a talented author decides nothing in her past is sacred and exorcises the demons by writing them out.

 

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13. The Incantations of Daniel Johnston by Scott McClanahan and Ricardo Cavolo. This is the only graphic book on the list, and it’s more of a surreal biography than a novel. Touching and magical, Cavolo’s art and MacClanahan’s words combine perfectly to offer readers a look inside the brain and soul of an outstanding artist tortured by mental illness and haunted by demons most of us can’t even begin to fathom.

 
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12. The Book of Endless Sleepovers by Henry Hoke. Sometimes a poet is capable of stuffing his entire life into a book, and that’s exactly what Hoke did here. The pain, awkwardness, drama, and discoveries of a child transform into the suffering, joy, and blossoming sexuality of a young man, and all of it is filtered through the author’s sharp mind and tender heart. By the time I was done with this, I wanted to ask a million questions, congratulate Hoke a million times on his accomplishment, and give him a million hugs.

 
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11. Chicano Blood Transfusion by Edward Vidaurre. El barrio has a heart that spans the globe, and Vidaurre taps into it to write poesía with a lot of truth and feeling. Readers will find the usual themes here, but also a range of new ones and different, unique experiences and memories. La poesía del barrio has a new voice in Vidaurre, and I can’t wait to see what he does next.

 

 

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10. Albina and the Dog-Men by Alejandro Jodorowsky. Just like no film director can compare their work to the bizarre visions created by Jodorowsky, no author can claim to bring together poetry, love narratives, and surrealism to the page the way he does. This is a long, sexualized, mythological fever dream that fits in perfectly with everything Jodoroswky has given us in his long, illustrious career.

 
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9. Glue by Constance Ann Fitzgerald. I read this book on my phone while sitting in my car. I didn’t plan on that, but the first few pages hooked me and the rest is history. This is a powerful, autobiographical narrative that deals with loss and coping. Fitzgerald shines at showing us that being broken and not knowing how to handle things is a perfectly normal part of being human.
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8. Mongrels by Stephen Graham Jones. Sure, this is a werewolf novel, but it’s also an outstanding noir, a fantastic YA narrative, an emotional family saga, and a great road trip tale. Jones has always managed to work in many genres at once, and this one stands amongst his best work to date, which is saying a lot.

 

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7. Disappearance at Devil’s Rock by Paul Tremblay. Anguish and loss are at the core of this creepy narrative. The disappearance of a young son is the vehicle Tremblay uses to scare readers, but it’s also the event he uses to deconstruct the way humans (re)act under pressure and how an event can make people collapse. This is another author than only gets better with each new book, and I eagerly await whatever he puts out next.

 

 

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6. The Fisherman by John Langan. I’ll keep this one short: the mythos book that will be talked about and discussed twenty years from now? This one.

 
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5. I Am Providence by Nick Mamatas. A scathing academic deconstruction of the Lovecraftian scene and its problems would collect dust in university libraries across the country, so instead of doing that, Mamatas wrapped it all up in a wildly entertaining and surprisingly funny novel about a murder at a Lovecraftian convention. If you care about the destruction of racism and misogyny but don’t mind doing it with a smile on your face, this book is for you.

 
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4. Novi Sad by Jeff Jackson. Post-apocalyptic fiction done right. Tense, gloomy, strange, and poetic. This is the shortest novella on this list, and it packs as big a punch as anything else on this list.

 

 

 

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3. Patricide by D. Foy. The best literary novel of 2016. Smart, fast, violent, philosophical, and possessing a depth that most literary fiction can only dream of. Foy is an author whose work will be talked about a lot in the near future. I suggest to start reading him now.

 

 

 

 

Image result for Swarm Theory by Christine Rice.2. Swarm Theory by Christine Rice. I could write ten pages on the way Rice weaved together a narrative about a whole town and all its denizens, but that would probably bore you. Instead, I’ll say this: Swarm Theory is the most impressive book about a town/plethora of characters that I’ve read since devouring Camilo Jose Cela’s The Hive, and remember that Cela got a Nobel in Literature in 1989.

 
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1. The Heavenly Table by Donald Ray Pollock. Along with Jones and Evenson, Pollock is a national treasure whose work constantly mesmerizes readers. Hilarious, vicious, filthy, and smart, this story of brotherhood, death, and crime was one of the few true literary gems published by one of the Big Five in 2016.

[REVIEW] The Kingdom by Fuminori Nakamura

 

Soho Crime, 2016

 

REVIEWED BY GABINO IGLESIAS

While most contemporary crime writers attempt to breathe fresh air into the tropes of the genre, Japanese noir wunderkind Fuminori Nakamura is writing some of the most unique noir narratives by leaving the tropes and expectations of the genre to the side and tackling it from a plethora of different angles. In The Kingdom, which he describes as a companion novel to The Gun, he places a woman at the center of the action and replaces guns with the human body and criminal intent with a secret agenda that has more to do with emotional distress and love than with becoming rich or exacting revenge. The result is an emotionally gritty and surprisingly fresh story that is as dark as its sister novel but occupies an entirely different space.

Yurika works as a freelancer in Tokyo’s underworld. To the casual observer, she is just another upscale prostitute, but she targets powerful men for a reason. Instead of having sex with her johns, Yurika drugs them and takes risqué photographs in order to blackmail her targets. The images are turned into the men she works for, a shady organization whose inner workings she ignores. The money is a good and she can keep her identity intact, so she is satisfied with the working arrangement and has learned to do her job quickly and efficiently. Unfortunately, a figure from Yurika’s past resurfaces, and that makes her realize that her secret agenda may not remain secret much longer. Before long, Yurika is caught in a deadly game of secrets, desire, and bad intentions where her past, her present, and her future seem to collide and fall into the hands of some of the most powerful and sadistic men from Tokyo’s criminal underworld.

One of the elements that sets Nakamura apart from his contemporaries is that his sharp, lean prose manages to deliver full, nuanced narratives despite that fact that most of his novels can, and almost demand to, be read in a single sitting. In the case of The Kingdom, he does this with a story that simultaneously occupies two worlds: that of Yurika’s memories and motivations and that of the evil men she works for and their victims. The way these worlds clash and interact makes The Kingdom a brooding existential thriller and allows its author to delve into philosophy, history, and an exploration of human nature.

While the cut-to-the-bone prose, ultraviolent imagery, and philosophical ruminations are all staples of Nakamura’s work, there are two new elements at play here, one that works very well and one that quickly becomes the novel’s only detraction. The first is that The Kingdom is steeped in a sexual atmosphere that bridges the gap between danger and desire. Nakamura hasn’t shied away from eroticism in his previous work, but it is so permeating here that it becomes a silent character that affects every other character in the book in various ways. The second element, the one that should have been caught by the editor, is the constant use of heat. Yurika feels heat in her mind and body and wonders about the heat inside her. This is not a sexual heat but rather a term that is used for everything from arousal to fear and from obsession to shame. By the last third of the novel, the repetitive use of the word in a never-ending array of contexts becomes slightly annoying.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this novel is its protagonist. Yurika is deep and complicated, but she’s also unlikeable and detached from the world around her. She is also obsessed with understanding desire and the ways it correlates with destruction. Most of the men who come in contact with her ignore the fact that they are victims, and when Kizaki, the underworld boss that changes her life forever, changes that dynamic, Yurika’s whole being is shaken up. However, before that moment comes, Nakamura allows the reader to look into the psyche of a woman who understands pain on a personal level but for whom chaos and uncertainty are a welcome way of life:

“I looked straight at him. He’s kindhearted eyes got me hot all of a sudden. If I entwined my legs with his under the table, what kind of face would he make? He mistook me for good-natured. I wanted to ruin him. He had been by my side since I was a child thrown out into the world without knowing anything. I wanted to dirty all of his beautiful memories. He would probably be depressed to know the woman I actually am, but in the end, he’d probably try to sleep with me. It would probably be all right to sleep with him. But which would be more intense? The heat when he slept with me, or the heat from making him obsessed with me, then betraying him, and ruining this good man’s life?”

The Kingdom is dark and strangely seductive. It explores the lives of a group of individuals who live outside societal norms and who possess unique moral compasses. As with all previous novels, Nakamura pushes against the boundaries of crime fiction here, and he does while pushing readers into uncomfortable terrain. Furthermore, the author’s ability to pull elements from other genres as well as his knack for filtering the worst side of human nature through philosophy make this a recommended read for fans of noir as well as for anyone looking to be mesmerized by a masterful storyteller entering the kingdom of nightmares, bad intentions in hotel rooms, violent sex, and broken hearts.

 

 

[REVIEW] Super Extra Grande by Yoss

 

Restless Books
June 2016

 

REVIEWED BY Gabino Iglesias

Science fiction is a place where minority authors have brilliantly mixed the possibilities of the future with the sociopolitical problems of their time. Everything from politics and sexism to racism and the silence of the subaltern (the one Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak wrote about) have been explored within the context of a narrative that takes place in a fictional future. Cuban science fiction author Yoss’ Super Extra Grande does all these things, but he wraps his sociopolitical arguments in so much humor, adventure, and raunchiness, that it is easy to miss it. Yoss, the pen name taken by José Miguel Sánchez Gómez in 1988 after winning the Premio David in the science fiction category, marries hard science with wild invention and throws that mix into a hilarious, politically and sexually charged universe where all alien races have stopped being unknown to each other. The result is a witty narrative that proves that, when done right, science fiction can be the most entertaining genre even when delivering a message.

 

Super Extra Grande takes place in a distant future in which Latin Americans have invented a way of travelling that’s faster than the speed of light and which has put the members of all seven intelligent species in the universe in contact with each other. Dr. Jan Amos Sangan Dongo is a veterinarian who works with the largest creatures in the universe. At the beginning of the novel, Jan Amos is deep in the bowels of a gigantic sea creature on a mission to recover a piece of jewelry for some very important people. The mission is dangerous and messy, but the mess he’s thrown in after makes it look like a walk in the park. When a colonial conflict threatens to make war explode between the seven intelligent species, Jan Amos is forced to embark on a perilous rescue mission that will make him go inside the most gigantic creature in the universe to find two swallowed ambassadors and bring them back. Unfortunately, the two ambassadors he must rescue also happen to have a shared past with him, and the nature of their relationship could complicate things quite a bit.

 

Super Extra Grande imagines a Latin-Anglo future in which Spanglish is the official language shared by the seven intelligent species. Besides the beautiful implications and the fact that Yoss is pointing at something that is plausible if looked at through the lens of the shifting linguistic dynamics in the United States and the growing use of both English and Spanish is schools and households in various countries across Latin America, the truth is that having Spanglish dialogue enriches the narrative and makes it crackle with authenticity. Here is an example of an admiral discussing the mission the galactic veterinarian will end up in:

 

“Probablemente it’s sad, pero it’s también very realístico. Besides, nosotros no somos rivales. Not ahora, anyway…Pero I insist in any case that Doctor Sangan should be given as little información as possible. Él es just un civilian. And the truth is, you’ve already told him demasiado.”

 

The way that Spanglish is constructed feels legitimate, and it helps those unfamiliar with Spanish to get the gist of it based on context. In this regard, kudos must be given to translator David Frye for his outstanding work.

 

Besides the space it creates to discuss alternate realities, the best science fiction is that which delivers on the promise of its name, and Yoss pulls it off with flying colors in part thanks to his degree in biology and in part thank to his fearless approach to creation. The variety of creatures he crafted for this relatively short novel is a testament to a powerful imagination, and the fact that he managed to flawlessly merge them with a larger narrative without bogging down the action is proof that he is a talented storyteller. Furthermore, Yoss’ work deserves attention because regardless of what he does in the story, he always keeps his focus on subverting the order of things:

 

“As it turns out, the large eels with six “nipples” are all males. And the few that swell with eggs to double their size, as well as the intelligent humanoid beings who build ships powered by the Arnrch-Morp-Gulch entailment (that is, the Tunnel Macroeffect or González drive) and who defend their space borders so aggressively, are all female.”
Yoss tackles science fiction with the attitude of a rock star, and he has the talent to make even his wildest ideas work. Super Extra Grande follows the parodic tradition of Cuban science fiction and treads new grounds in terms of the amount of imagined science and fauna found in its pages. This is a narrative in which anything is possible, love and desire are thrown into the tumultuous new territory of interspecies relationships, and Spanglish is the unifying language of the galaxy. In other words, this is science fiction at its best: wildly imaginative, revolutionary, full of strange creatures, and a lot of fun to read.
 

Gabino Iglesias is a writer, journalist, and book reviewer living in Austin, TX. He’s the author of ZERO SAINTS (Broken River Books), HUNGRY DARKNESS (Severed Press), and GUTMOUTH (Eraserhead Press). His reviews have appeared in Electric Literature, The Rumpus, 3AM Magazine, The Collagist, Heavy Feather Review, Crimespree, Out of the Gutter, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, HorrorTalk, Verbicide, and many other print and online venues. You can find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.

[REVIEW] One With the Tiger: Sublime and Violent Encounters Between Humans and Animals by Steven Church

Soft Skull Press
November 2016
300 pages

REVIEWED BY Hollynn Huitt

 

Steven Church is betting that you’ve stood outside of a lion enclosure at the zoo and, for at least one long second, thought about jumping in. But not because the lion is cute, or looks like a big, sweet cat lounging in the sun. You want to jump in because you’re afraid, deeply afraid, and that fear draws you to animals like a magnet. One with the Tiger opens with the story of David Villalobos, a young man who jumped into the tiger enclosure at the Bronx Zoo, where he was promptly mauled. Church has a casual and compelling style of writing, and the opening chapter seems to be setting us up for a deep dive into David’s psyche when he jumped into the cage. And the book does do that, in it’s own way, although not by interviewing David, or diving deeper into the story. Instead, David’s dangerous compulsion is the starting point for an in-depth exploration of what it means to be drawn to, and get too close to, dangerous and wild animals.

The book is split into 8 sections, each one loosely themed around an incident involving humans and animals, or humans behaving like animals. Take the “Timothy Treadwell” section, which focuses on grizzly bears–both the author’s personal experience and the documentary and the enigma of Timothy Treadwell, star of the Werner Herzog documentary, Grizzly Man. Church is exceptionally gifted at writing about movies–his spare but warm style gives lends just enough detail to make you feel like you’ve seen the movie, and his enthusiasm about each of the scenes he describes in One with the Tiger is contagious. I watched Grizzly Man after reading and honestly preferred Church’s description and analysis to the actual movie.

Church brushes on the innate savagery within humans as well, in his chapter “Iron Mike” (roughly organized around Mike Tyson’s ear biting of Evander Holyfield) and how we are little more than raving raging animals underneath all of our culture. This part of the book is full of boxing facts, which can get tedious, but is ultimately carried on the strength of Church’s skillful weaving of real life events, movies and literature in a snappy, easy-to-read digest.

But it’s the third category of incident that Church is most fascinated with, the one that David Villalobos presented to us at the beginning of the book–people who willingly go into cages or environments with dangerous animals with not because they want to die, but because they they feel an almost indefinable pull, perhaps because of adrenaline, or because it’s forbidden. Church is obsessed with this particular demographic, in part because he has felt the call, and he’s betting that you do, too.

The book an easy and fun read, and strangely holds together, despite being fragmented into parts and missing a basic narrative arc. We subconsciously hold out hope for a plot twist at the end: that Church will step into a cage, or that he’ll be able to speak with David Villalobos. Maybe then he could clue us in on something we couldn’t read for ourselves in the news or media. But instead he is relegated to rehashing news clippings and interviews. Church’s subject matter, horrific and compelling in a train accident sort of way, is the strongest quality of the book, and he handles it without machismo or affectation. He’s just a regular guy trying to come to terms with the strange obsession he feels and by the end you’ll be looking at the world–the world of dangerous animals at least–in a whole new way.

[REVIEW & INTERVIEW] Am I Alone Here? by Peter Orner

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Publisher: Catapult
Publication date: November 1, 2016
Number of pages: 276
Price: $15.25

REVIEWED BY Mandy Shunarrah

To label Am I Alone Here? as any one genre is to do it and the reader an injustice. Part memoir, part literary criticism, and all love letter to literature, Peter Orner’s essay collection is the kind of book readers can’t help but cherish. My copy of Am I Alone Here? has as many flags and sticky notes as the stylized book on the collection’s cover. I read it with splendor.

With each essay, Orner measures his life in books—namely how, as a book lover, the literature he’s reading informs and intersects with his life. Reading is the lens by which Orner looks back on teaching law in Prague, the dissolution of his relationship with his ex wife, and his now-deceased, emotionally unavailable dad who haunts the stories like the ghost of Hamlet’s father. Bibliophiles will recognize the seamless neural connections that inextricably link existence and books in each piece.

You need not have read all the books and authors Orner mentions to appreciate the resounding influence literature has had on his life. He only tells you what you need to know to understand each essay and doesn’t burden the reader with extraneous details. Even if you haven’t read the stories the essays hinge upon, you get the impression you’d enjoy them just as much as Orner does. In none of these essays is Orner attempting to prove a supposed superior taste in literature—you can tell he genuinely delights in these stories and wants to share them with others who might enjoy them, too.

When you read Am I Alone Here? you feel as though you’ve read a hundred books and lived as many lives. For bibliophiles, the question of whether we are alone here is a rhetorical one: a question we ask ourselves with every book we read. The question “Am I alone here?” is at the heart of why we read and why literature is an art essential to life.

I talked to Peter about his reverence for the written word and the process of writing his first full-length work of nonfiction. (This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.)

Mandy Shunnarah: Tell me about how these essays came to be. Since this essay collection bends genres and your past works are fiction, I’m curious to know if these essays poured forth organically or if a change of direction was something you’d been planning.

Peter Orner: Writing, any kind of writing, is hard for me. I’ve always felt it was like squeezing blood from a stone. These essays began (and ended too) with me sort of talking to myself in the very early hours of the morning. I think of them as morning notes to myself. I never plan very much. But after a certain point I realized these notes were speaking to each other.

MS: When you would discuss where you were in your life at the time you were reading a particular book or story, I believe the youngest age you mentioned was 19. Were there any books you felt a connection to before that time?

PO: You know that book about the little bird who’s born while his mother is off getting food? And he flies around asking every other animal and a bulldozer, too, if they are his mother? [Are You My Mother? by P.D. Eastman] I remember holding that book and wanting to hear it again and again. What a sad, beautiful book that is. I think it all started with that one. What would a psychologist do with this answer?

MS: It’s clear you’re an expansive reader. Was it difficult to choose what authors and stories you would include in the book? Are there other books you’re deeply fond of that didn’t get mentioned in your essays?

PO: So, so many. In the introduction to the book I list a few including Bessie Head (wonderful, deadly writer from South Africa/Botswana), Evan Connel (the great story writer from Kansas City), Calvert Casey (a Cuban Irish story writer), and Penelope Fitzgerald (the British novelist whose work, all of it, floors me)…There is also a piece I’ve been working on in my head about Primo Levi for many years about reading Levi in a cemetery in Bolinas, California. One day I’ll actually write it. Or maybe not; it is better in my head.

MS: Since completing Am I Alone Here? have you read anything you wished you’d read sooner so it could’ve been included in the collection?

PO: I recently read Patrick Modiano’s weird memoir, Pedigree, and took a lot of notes in the margins. Got me thinking. And earlier this year I discovered the work of the American story writer and novelist William Goyen. Goyen’s been largely forgotten. He deserves some serious resurrection because he’s an original. He’s fearlessly vague, and like Modiano, obsessed with memory.

MS: Your contentious relationship with your deceased father is a recurring theme in many of the essays. Did writing about him after his passing help you understand him in a way that wasn’t possible while he was alive?

PO: I wish I did. I think I’m more confused about him than ever. But I’m suspicious of answers in general, and much prefer questions. Will I ever get to the bottom of the strange person who was my father? Probably not. Writing about him made that question less even less answerable.  

MS: What are you working on next? Since you’re primarily a fiction writer, do you anticipate writing nonfiction again in the future?

PO: This will be my last book that incorporates specific aspects of my own life—he said, hoping it was true. I live and die by fiction… But in a way nonfiction is just fiction with a little more literal facts. Either way, like I say, it’s all hard for me.

 

 

 

Mandy Shunnarah is a writer based in Columbus, Ohio, though she calls Birmingham, Alabama, home. She writes personal essays, book news, and historical fiction. Her writing has been published in The Missing Slate, Entropy Magazine, PANK Magazine and Deep South Magazine. You can find more of her work at her website, offthebeatenshelf.com.