[REVIEW] Human Acts by Han Kang

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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.

[REVIEW] Fuego by Leslie Contreras Schwartz

Image result for fuego leslie contreras schwartz

Saint Julian Press, Inc.
March 2016

 

REVIEWED BY Jennifer Morales

 

FUEGO, Leslie Contreras Schwartz’s debut poetry collection, is, as its title (“fire” in Spanish) suggests, a sprawling and hungry force. The poems, like the flames of a well-fed fire, arc widely, touching many topics. Schwartz, a mother of young children, writes about the limits and wonders of the pregnant body, about the fruits of labor — whether it be a tomato from the garden, a baby, or a poem — and about the struggles of children to assimilate to the confining world of adults. Several of the poems are ekphrastic responses to the photography of Amy Blakemore, who uses cheap equipment and highly refined developing techniques to make portraits that are rich in palette but often hazy in form. Others celebrate the daring and lonely feats of legendary endurance swimmer Lynne Cox.

It was this latter set of poems that tipped me off to Contreras Schwartz’s theme of boundaries —of bodily autonomy and bodily integrity, of unreachable shores, about the thick margin between being a writer and being a mother. “The Swim to Antarctica,” portrays Cox in her struggle to force herself to swim through 22-degree waters: “… her own voice breaking through to say what she/always/wanted to say to the body/you are owned, not owner …” In “Long-Distance Swimming,” the poet considers the teenaged Cox’s advance toward the unknowable land of adulthood: “… a lighthouse/rising to meet her on some continent,/some mainland she doesn’t have a name for yet.”

Contreras Schwartz’s poems alternately attempt to acknowledge and obliterate these boundaries, giving FUEGO a tug-of-war rhythm — fierce resistance followed by rest for the next hard pull. This struggle/rest rhythm feels apt for a book that includes many pregnancy and childbirth poems, mimicking as it does the pattern of labor contractions.

Even with all this back-and-forth, the threat of engulfing stillness is always present. One can sense a fear of inertia — a swimmer suddenly swallowed by the sea, a writer who loses the thread of a poem. In “The Falcon,” the life of a bird of prey is hemmed in by injuries, and the bird, in its flightlessness, has become a useful educational display for schoolchildren. Many poems deal with the stillness of the mother-body, while on bed rest or on the operating table during a c-section, or while endlessly breastfeeding a newborn.

The poet pushes back against that stillness in the title poem, “Fuego,” insisting that “This is not/a woman, sitting in a room/writing. It is a woman/whose hair has grown/wild fire, melting every/frozen moment in her house.” Later, in “Gardening,” one of my favorite poems in the book, she welcomes it: “… We all/need retreat, to rest, to feel/sometimes that it will come to us/by itself, a heavy plate that/says this is all yours.”

Contreras Schwartz celebrates the small triumphs of children against the strictures of adulthood. “My Daughter Sees Clouds” is one of the most powerful poems in the book, speaking of a child’s growing agency in the world as she gives names to the forms she sees in the sky. This self-granted authority to label the clouds is in high contrast to the rest of her day, a day governed by others: “… Everybody’s hands/pull and push her/into seats and halls, into lines and restrooms,/down to sleep and wakefulness. …”

She also quietly revels in women’s power to bring forth life while simultaneously bucking narrow world views that say that a woman’s value lies in her reproductive capacity. In “Burwell v. Hobby Lobby,” a found poem, she cleverly satirizes critiques of “Women who wish to run./Free-” levied by the plaintiffs in the infamous birth control coverage case.

Although the language in FUEGO is occasionally burdened with some unproductive repetition (e.g., many things in these poems“bloom” or are “tiny” or “deep”), there are moments of true transcendence. As a fellow mother/poet, I’m grateful for Contreras Schwartz’s passionate exploration of those opposing hemispheres of identity.

FUEGO is Contreras Schwartz’s debut. I hope more of her creative flame is going to burst out of the writer’s room soon.

 

 

Jennifer Morales is a poet, fiction writer, and performance artist. She is the author of Meet Me Halfway: Milwaukee Stories (University of Wisconsin Press, 2015), the Wisconsin Center for the Book’s 2016 Book of the Year selection. Her poetry has appeared most recently in Glass Poetry Journal’s special edition, Pulsamos: LGBTQ Poets Respond to the Pulse Nightclub Shooting, Kenning Journal, Verse Wisconsin, and Stoneboat, and is forthcoming in MAYDAY Magazine. Jennifer received her MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University-Los Angeles in 2011, and currently serves on the board of the Driftless Writing Center in rural Wisconsin.

[BOOK REVIEW] A Sky the Color of Chaos by MJ Fievre

Image result for a sky the color of chaos

Beating Windward Press
November 2015

 

[REVIEWED BY HOLLY HUITT]

MJ Fievre’s first English language book opens with a blast of swirling, sticky, language so descriptive and powerful you’ll break a sweat before you’re one paragraph in.

“Port-au-Prince, Haiti—where the sun burned, and the clouds didn’t break into rain. Collars melted against necks and Eskimo ice creams melted down hands. Grass withered. Madansara birds fell into parched silence. Taptap and kamyonèt shot by, honking, and the clouds of dust they stirred up took hours to settle.”

A Sky the Color of Chaos is the author’s own story, set in a politically unstable and dangerous Haiti where gunshots and power outages are a part of daily life. Fievre begins with seven-year-old Jessica (as she calls herself in the memoir) who lives in an apartment in the thick of Port-au-Prince where she wastes no time introducing the unpredictable violence both in the streets and in her home. Jessica’s abusive father is central to the book, and so much of her world revolves around him as she grows up in their middle class home, as a student in a strict but encouraging Catholic school, and later, as a rebellious teen in the rusted out cars of her teenage boyfriends. Jessica’s coming-of-age is darker than most, not only because it is set in the turbulent landscape of Haiti, but also because she grows from a child who both loves and needs love from her father, to a pre-teen who despises him and fears she is like him, to a young adult who realizes that, as her mother tells her early on, “Things are not always black and white.”

The most remarkable thing by far in Fievre’s memoir is the rich language, written with a poet’s ear and eye for description and rhythm. Fievre’s astonishing  similies and metaphors, heaped upon each other for paragraphs at a time are dazzling, like this passage about her sister, Soeur:

I looked a Soeur in the stutters and twitches of sleep, her arms in disarray like fish confused by waves. Her body flinched, and it clicked, and it dreamed. The flickering of eyelids, like moths that slowed their flight before landing.”

Even the most gruesome passages, where a young Jessica is confronting death—the burning of a man in the street, the stack of decomposing bodies in the morgue, are painful and lovely. The backdrops of Jessica’s life shine with incredible clarity and heart.

Fievre’s beautiful language is sadly absent from the lengthy footnotes that sometimes creep across multiple pages, informing the reader of historical facts in a professorial tone that seems at odds with the rest of the book. There is an obvious urge to cover a vast amount of information in a relatively short time, both in the footnotes and the way Fievre races through the years, sometimes devoting an entire few years to a single short-paged chapter. In particular, we speed by the moment when Jessica’s father goes from raging, controlling patriarch to indulgent, checked-out father who allows drinking, partying, and much free time with boys. Jessica the narrator is, rightfully so, caught up in the heightened drama of being a teenager in Haiti, where your love interest could also be a member of a deadly, torturous secret police force. But, it is still a shame that the core tension of the story—that of her relationship with her father—fizzles out so soundlessly.

The description of Jessica’s three boyfriends, each wonderful and threatening in their own way, come fast and indulgently, and they are a pleasure to experience. Fievre taps into the emotional and physical experience of being a teenager, with descriptions of Jessica’s inner turmoil that are both highly specific to her and universal at once. It is hard to read them and not feel tinges of recognition at the angst and attempts at self-realization that come with teenage years. She writes masterfully of emotion, giving concrete weight to words that are otherwise just floating, fluttering ideas.

Even if A Sky the Color of Chaos were only the story of a remarkable girl surviving and overcoming violent and overwhelming odds to reach her dream, it would be worth a read. But it is also an incredible portrait of Haiti in a time where much of the world only associates the country with its devastating earthquake. It is tough and wistful and empowering all at once. In other words, it’s the kind of book that you could (and should) read over and over again.

[REVIEW]: This Census-Taker by China Miéville

this-census-taker

Del Rey, 2016, 206 pp.

Reviewed by Giselda Aguiar

 

China Miéville’s novella, This Census-Taker, starts with the narrator retelling the story of when he, as a nine-year-old, ran away from his uphill home to the town below and announced to the gathered crowd: “‘My mother killed my father!’” All this within the first three pages of the book.

From the moment of that utterance to the end, Miéville crafts a story of shock after shock: disappearances, unexplained behaviors, murky pasts, and mystical elements.

Before continuing with the current narrative, Miéville (and the narrator) use(s) flashbacks to set up the boy’s relationships with his parents prior to the incident. The narrator tells of his father’s unusual and frightening behaviors concerning animals and, perhaps, humans; of his friendship with the town’s homeless children; of the oddities of the place and its inhabitants; and of snippets his mother tells him of his parents’ pasts.

Through these flashbacks the narrator establishes the setting and his personal history with some of the other main characters before returning the story to the present action.

After the boy readjusts his account of what he witnessed and after a brief investigation by the downhillers, no evidence of foul play is discovered and the young boy must stay with his remaining parent. The rest of the novella is of the weeks that followed.

Just as some of the towners dismissed the boy’s story, the reader starts to question how reliable the narrator is. He is a grown man looking back at his childhood. While the amount of time that has lapsed is not clear, years have passed, which might have muddled his memories. In addition, his nine-year-old self has all the confusions and misunderstandings of a child, making the retelling not completely dependable.

However, these uncertainties are what make the novella a compelling read that has one guessing what is true and trying to figure it out with the clues available: what the boy knew or thought he knew.

The book starts with a mystery and while it is “solved” in the boy’s mind, halfway through the reader might start doubting the boy’s explanation of what must have happened after he ran from home the first time. Perhaps the remaining parent is being honest or is indeed a psychopath. The introduction of a mysterious stranger adamant in completing his job, even though everyone in his position “‘were recalled,’” adds to the reader’s doubts and misgivings as to what really happened and where the adult narrator is now.

Many other unsolved mysteries abound and are not resolved by the end: the town’s history and certain people’s backgrounds, motives, and whereabouts. Readers are left thinking that something internationally horrible happened between several nations before the start of the story that has left the town in an almost post-apocalyptic world with orphan children running the streets and people forced to use candles for lighting.

The time it takes the narrative to return to the present action is a bit long for such a short book: about a third into the novella. After it returns to the boy telling the downhillers about the crime he supposedly witnessed, the narrative is easier to follow than the flashbacks that preceded it and the real interest is in this later two-thirds. Had the entire novella been organized in chronological order—starting with the events in the flashbacks instead of the boy running down the hill—it would have made a boring start and the reader might not have had the incentive to keep reading without the cliffhanger created by the insertion of the flashbacks into the present action.

A stylistic or narrative issue the reader will encounter may be the added hints concerning the narrator’s current whereabouts and situation. These hints—given throughout the book, starting first in the flashback section—might confuse readers with its vague indications and hard-to-follow timeline, and they include shifts in point of view from first to third or first to second. These switches might create confusion or an ephemeral feeling as the first-person narrator disconnects himself from his younger self.

If you cannot handle a book that leaves unanswered questions, then perhaps this book is not for you as it will leave you with an unsatisfied curiosity. But if you want a puzzle that leaves you wondering days, weeks after finishing the book, then pick this novella up. It can lead to a great discussion with friends who also want to figure out the mysteries in This Census-Taker.

 

Giselda Aguiar has an MFA in creative writing from Florida International University. When she is not teaching English Composition to college freshmen, she is reading or writing in the mystery and fantasy genres. Her writing and photography has appeared in The Florida Book Review, MIami, TUami podcast, and AngryGOTFan.com.