[REVIEW] Saving American From Itself: Steve Erickson’s Shadowbahn

erickson

Blue Rider Press, 2017

REVIEWED BY JESSE LAWRENCE

SAVE AMERICA FROM ITSELF

— a bumper sticker reads, in a land with a flag of disunion, a land wherein a shadowbahn, a secret highway (possibly running parallel with the night train), “cuts through the heart of the country from one end to the other with impunity.” On the shadowbahn, it appears the whole country is a secret. It is no longer a united land, if it ever was. The Twin Towers have reappeared, and they continue to reappear, here and there, and disappear again, from here or there. It’s a time and a land that reminds us “we never were as impervious to the chaos of human history as we thought.”  This is America, yes, and this is the land of disunion.  This is a land with a birth, and also a death, “dates on a country’s tombstone.” The appearance of the Towers is seemingly a miracle, yet none will lay claim to them. The county certainly won’t, even going so far as to shove the responsibility off on the Lakota, whose tribal council elders are none too pleased about such a notion. The nation here, as is, always, still, cares not for tribal lands and rights unless such may be exploited for the nation’s own convenience or gains, and this case is no different. There is no change, now as before, and so we are stuck, not impervious, forever trapped, disappearing and reappearing, and trying to remember what came before, as if we might finally discover that which holds us back.

The Towers are examined form every angle. From below, from on high, with our eyes, and with camera lenses. Photographs are “enlarged, decoded, in-zoomed, and out-zoomed.” It’s Blow-Up on a national scale, concern and distrust on a Blow Out scale. It’s the Zapruder film all over again. And just as we have failed to escape or even remember history, we are back in time, as well. The shadowbahn leads us everywhere. We are JFK. We’re Elvis. We’re Elvis’s twin brother Jesse, dead at birth, yet somehow surviving, living that life the shadowbahn lead him to. We’re in hotels, and we’re in the Factory. We’re being shot at, here. We’re being shot at by Valerie Solanas, and by snipers? Conspirators? Hired hands? We’re living and dying and surviving. The voice says, “what I’m telling here is your story, America… You’re the one who lived it, and you fucked it up, didn’t you? Sure you did.”

Shadowbahn is an exploration of our nation, a journey through it, past and present, all to the tune of an American playlist. Within the book are multiple playlists, in fact.  As I’m sure will be the case with everyone who reads this book, I have compiled these playlists. I’m listening to one now, actually, as I type and erase and revise. I am listening to the playlist of the chapter headings. Tracks one through twenty-four. At least, I’m listening as best I can, for there is no Elvis here, unfortunately. Erickson admits that the concluding tracks are practically impossible to find, and Dylan and Caruso are just fine, but they’re not the precise ones. Perhaps this is why we’re stuck in history and time. We’ve somehow filled the puzzle with ill-fitting pieces. They hold the whole together, but only as well as a single stitch. It bought us some time, but is useless if we don’t mend. Progress comes through union.

On the shadowbahn, we are reminded that it is up to all of us. We are all our own sound, and we are each other’s sound. We are hope and music and sound and voice. Let us not lose our sound. Let us not surrender.

[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.

 

 

[INTERVIEW] Chloe Caldwell on I’ll Tell You In Person

Publisher: Coffee House Press in collaboration with Emily Books
Publication date: October 4, 2016
Number of pages: 184
Price: $16.95

 

REVIEW AND INTERVIEW BY MANDY SHUNNARAH

With stories about growing up and fearing growing old, friendships and friend foibles, the intimacies of obsession and the intricacies of depression, I’ll Tell You In Person is an essay collection as vulnerable as it is blunt. Chloe Caldwell’s sharp wit and keen powers of observation are in full force in her newest book.

Caldwell takes readers on an odyssey through turbulent formative years of heroin, binge eating, Craigslist dating, the loss of a close friend, coming out, living in Europe, best friends, ex-friends, relationship blunders, encounters with celebrities, and all the experiences of youth that make us who we are. I inhaled Caldwell’s essays with unusual quickness—losing track of time, forgetting the presence of people around me, being fully present and absorbed in a way that only the words of a gifted essayist can produce.

I’ll Tell You In Person chronicles young adulthood with aplomb. Though it can feel as if the reader is meant to recall her own adolescent calamities and stack them up for comparison, this collection isn’t some righteous manifesto. There is no moral to the story because, as seasoned writers know, stories don’t need morals.

***

I talked to Chloe about her book and the challenges of writing personal essays. (This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.)

Mandy Shunnarah: I have to start off by congratulating you because I read I’ll Tell You In Person faster than any book in recent memory. One of the elements I most adored about the book is that you’re deeply self-deprecating without being overly critical or judgmental of yourself, and without apologizing. I got the sense that writing about your past heroin addiction, binge eating, masturbation, job woes, and nearly over-drafting your bank account to impress a millionaire celebrity was cathartic. Tell me more about your writing process and the emotional pilgrimage of writing this book.

Chloe Caldwell: Thank you! I’m touched you felt that way. The essays all came to be in different ways and times. “Yodels” I wrote back in 2013 for The Rumpus. “Soul Killer” I sent to Salon that same year because I had no money and $150 was a lot for me. Same with “The Laziest Coming Out Story.” So half of the book was already written without being considered a book. I began putting the essays together and then added five new ones over the course of 2014-2016.

I don’t know if it gives me any sort of relief or catharsis at all. The tough thing about this book was I was super broke during the process of putting it together, and submitting it to publishers. It’s stressful to work on a book without money, because to have time, you need money. It was difficult for me to sit and work on essays when I knew I should be working at my dad’s music store for money or catering or finding more teaching jobs.

MS: With I’ll Tell You In Person being your second collection of essays, how did you find yourself evolving as you explored more facets of what it means to grow up?

CC: It’s hard to talk about this stuff, it’s so ephemeral. I’ve always been smart in spite of my stupid choices and have been hyper-aware enough to know I could only make ridiculous decisions before I got older. And now I am older. It’s a creepily acute feeling I have at thirty, both like a child and a grown woman. My life is unconventional in the sense that I documented my wilder years. It’s not that I did anything more interesting than anyone else, it’s just that I have it out there in the form of a book. I feel myself evolving in many ways—I’ve always been into growth and therapy, etc., but I like to keep some of my evolving private.

MS: You share very openly in your work, though it sounds like people are always wanting more. What’s that like? How do you separate yourself from your work and maintain a personal life as a personal essay writer?

CC: I share openly in my work and in my life as well, mostly. But my essays are by no means my life story. There’s a ton I haven’t written about. The essays are just what I thought would be entertaining or enjoyable for a reader, what I had ideas for. People are definitely always wanting more and it’s a slippery slope. Luckily, I have an awesome therapist who used to work in publishing in NYC and knows a lot about the writer lifestyle, reads my books, and is familiar with the “scene” and the authors and books I mention. She’s helped me create clear boundaries around a lot of this stuff.

As Maggie Nelson says, “I don’t worry about people who ‘think they know me’ because, not to sound flip, they just literally don’t.” I’m paraphrasing, but I feel the same way. I have a private life just like everyone. I just write about certain “slices of life” if you will excuse that horrendous expression. “Prime Meats,” for example, is about something I did ten years ago. So I don’t feel super close to a lot of the essays in the collection.

MS: You seem at peace with your younger self, and I get the feeling that’s something a lot of people wish they could do. How did you get to that point? Was it a difficult place to reach when, as a writer of personal essays, you’re inevitably reaching into the past?

CC: Well, I don’t think I thought of it as a point to get to or a place to reach, which helps. I guess it’s just part of my make up, and comes naturally to me, which is why I ended up being a personal nonfiction writer—a lifestyle most certainly not for everyone. I did some weird shit in my youth, but who doesn’t? Plus, it got me to where I am: healthy, with books published, a job I love. My life is filled with the classes I teach, so I’m constantly reading personal essays of other people’s mistakes, so to me, it’s the new normal.

MS: The title harkens an intimacy that’s present on every page. Considering how I inhaled the book it almost feels strange that you’re not actually my real life best friend telling me these stories in person. Are these essays stories you did tell people in person before writing them down?

CC: No, they weren’t. I was just texting that phrase to my friends/family all the time about small things, like what I felt about a movie I’d just seen or whatever. I felt limited on text message and email and many of my close girl friends live in cities across the country from me, so I liked saving up anecdotes until I saw them in person and we could chat over glasses of wine. I liked the conversational tone of it for a book title, so it stuck. None of the essays aside from “Hungry Ghost” are exactly riveting stories or anecdotes. That’s why I say in the opener that I don’t necessarily have “good stories.” I’m more the kind of writer who tries to make narrative out of nothing.

 

 

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 and Deep South Magazine. You can find more of her work at her website, offthebeatenshelf.com.

[REVIEW] Dancing in the Baron’s Shadow by Fabienne Josaphat

 

 

The Unnamed Press
256 pages
Released February 23, 2016

REVIEWED BY MELISSA OLIVEIRA

Good historical fiction requires a subtle balance: enough research to animate the historical subject, but not so much emphasis on factual detail that character, action and other elements of story are sidelined. Dancing in the Barons Shadow, Fabienne Josaphat’s fast-paced debut about two brothers trying to survive the brutality of Haiti under François Duvalier, is the sort of historical novel that moves more like an action film than a costume drama. Josaphat expertly projects event after event onto a well-imagined historical backdrop which reflects, I suspect, an immense amount of time spent reading and interviewing. Still, her novel runs along at a breathless pace, its tight plot never appearing to labor under the weight of so much research.

Some of the book’s tension derives from the setting Josaphat has chosen for her tale: Port-au-Prince in 1965. This is the Haiti of François Duvalier, a.k.a. Papa Doc, who was responsible for murdering between 30,000 and 60,000 people with the help of his militia, the Tonton Macoute, as well as infusions of anti-Communist aid money from the United States. We never meet Duvalier directly in this novel, but the influence of this US-educated-medical-doctor-turned-dictator pervades every aspect of life in Port-au-Prince. There’s an undercurrent of dread in each scene, and even the workaday conversations early in the novel are colored with the possibility that the Tonton Macoute is watching.

Yet even amid all this rich historical and political background, Dancing in the Barons Shadow is a personal story at its heart: a tale of two brothers whose different personalities and life choices bring them into repeated conflict with each other. When we first meet Raymond L’Eveillé, we learn that he is a Port-au-Prince taxi driver who is simply not able to make enough money to keep his family from starving because a statewide curfew cuts into what would normally have been his prime earning time. He waits anxiously outside a brothel for a client while curfew looms, hoping to make just a bit more cash before heading home. We hit the ground running a moment later, though, as Raymond is presented with a choice: to use his knowledge of the winding streets of Port-au-Prince to rescue a young family of three fleeing from the Tonton Macoute, or to do nothing and live with the fact that he might have prevented whatever awful fate awaits the family. “What kind of man was he?” Raymond wonders as he tries to ignore the father’s knocking on the taxi window. Yet his conscience wins, and he risks what little he has to help — learning only later that he has, in fact, saved the lives of a popular radio journalist and his family. He has also most likely landed in trouble himself; his white Datsun taxi isn’t difficult to identify, he knows.

Enter his brother Nicolas L’Eveillé, a law professor whose arrogance and bourgeois values hamstring him in a myriad of ways. Nicolas has a history of living well while his brother’s family starves, but now stoops to a new low by refusing to help with the cost of disguising and repairing Raymond’s taxi. Though Raymond is sure the Tonton Macoute will find him in short order, he is unwilling to listen to a high-minded lecture on his flawed life choices. Yet Nicolas, true to form, wants to lecture but not actually help his brother. He also lectures his students on human rights abuses, for example, without thinking about potential consequences. Worse still, he has been recently at work on a book manuscript in which he proves the regime murdered writer Jacques Stephen Alexis. Nicolas imagines that his manuscript will be published in secret and distributed widely outside of Haiti, displaying for the world the repression of the Duvalier regime. He also imagines that he and his family will be able to quietly escape Haiti, and that his colleagues can be trusted to help. Yet Nicolas, trusting as he is, underestimates the power of fear and intimidation on even the most rational of people. Like many in that time and place, Nicolas disappears into the dreaded Fort Dimanche, where some of the novel’s most harrowing of scenes take place. I don’t want to reveal much beyond this point, except to say that Josaphat prompts the reader to ask Raymond’s question of every character and at every step: What kind of man was he? Can Raymond still think of himself as a decent man if he isn’t helping those who need it? What kind of man is Nicolas, underneath the education, money and prestige? What kind of person can anyone be under such dire circumstances?

Josaphat keeps her storytelling lens trained on the brothers. This makes for a novel that is both intimate and tightly plotted, though I wondered often about the stories of those outside of the main action. There’s a compelling cast of characters whose stories I was eager to follow even further. Eve and Yvonne, for example, are the wives of the L’Eveillé brothers, and their own choices propel them far afield. Each probably warrants her own novel, but I wanted more here: more flesh and detail, and more than a quick sketch provided in the epilogue. In addition, readers should be aware that this book covers some emotionally challenging ground, particularly in the torture and interrogation scenes. Still Josaphat makes it worth the reader’s while in the end. Given the decades of brutal repression under Papa Doc and his son, it wasn’t difficult to imagine an ending to the story that obliterated hope. It speaks to Josaphat’s skill, however, that this story leads to a place of hope and reconciliation.

During his self-appointed tenure as President for Life, Duvalier affected the dress, voice and mannerisms associated with Baron Samedi, the loa of Haitian Vodou associated with death, and the baron referred to in the book’s title. This Duvalier — the one with the flair for the theatrical, who insisted bullets couldn’t hurt him because he was already an immaterial being, and who ordered that every black dog be killed based on a rumor that his enemy could transform into one — garners much attention in conversations about Duvalier. While Duvalier’s reputation is explored in detail in Dancing in the Barons Shadow, Josaphat doesn’t let the baron steal the show. Instead, she offers her readers a tightly-plotted historical drama firmly situated in the realities of surviving under Duvalier.

 

Melissa Oliveira grew up in central Connecticut and holds an MA in English Literature from the University of Colorado. She lives and writes in Portland, Oregon.

[REVIEW] Nec(Romantic) by Cathleen Chambless

 

The Gorilla Press, 2016
100 pages

REVIEWED BY MADARI PENDAS

Cathleen Chambless’ debut poetry collection Nec(Romantic) makes you feel like you’ve entered a dream, and with each page you’re moving along the thoughts you rarely visit, perhaps avoid. A macabre simulacrum of the waking world.  It is a world where you are attracted to the things that would normally frighten and repulse you. This phantasmagoric book is not only a celebration of love, but of its equally magnificent counterpart, death. A love of the dead, a love for the dead, and love that brings death. It challenges our traditional notions of love and explores the idiosyncrasies that make each romance special.

In “44 Ways to Measure You and Me” all the unique encounters between two lovers is enumerated. The experiences that have endeared the lover to the speaker are also the same self-destructive qualities that drain and destroy the love: “17. I said yes, my head on your chest. 18. In poems I wrote you. 19. In songs you wrote me. 20. In secrets of cc’s. Syringes, and plastic baggies. 21. Hepatitis writhing 22. You said I would never find you, but I always did. 23. In parks. 24. On street corners. 25. In a cemetery.” Here is a love that avoids clichés, that is not a re-imagining of a John Keats Ode, but a gritty portrait of two flawed human beings, whose love is not measured in years, but by distinct shared experiences. The reader sees the totality of a relationship captured on a single page—from the first meeting “1.January 28, 2013,” to it’s conclusion, “44.When I leave before you die.” Despite the tragedies engendered by this love, the speaker still manages to find the beauty within the melancholy.

“Skeletons” is another poem that challenges the “happily-ever-after” notion of love we’ve been inculcated with. The whimsical piece depicts two skeletons relaxing in lounge chairs who symbolize a dishonest and feigned relationship, which is further implied by the final line, “That happens when you lock/ them [skeletons] in the closet for too long.” “Skeletons” demonstrates one of “Nec(Romantic)’s” most outstanding qualities, it’s pairing of outré visuals with humor and impactful conclusions. The amalgamation between realism and absurdity has a haunting and memorable effect, similar to a Joan Mirò painting.

The collection devotes itself to the macabre and the ways individuals interact with the paranormal and magical. The poems “Egyptian Fairy Voodoo” and “On Extracting a Human Heart” are written from the perspectives of fairies and deities, and explore humanity from an otherworldly perspective, thus providing a rare commentary on mankind.

In “On Extracting a Human Heart,” the speaker asks: “How do I extract a human heart?/ With time and trust./ Ask the gods why words will make humans peel open.” Here humankind is dissected from above, where language can be weaponized and used to “peel open their chests.” In “Egyptian Fairy Voodoo,” the fairies view humans from a lateral perspective, and provide insight from a quasi-contemporary standpoint.

The devotion to the painful, ritualistic, and otherness of existence inspires a deeper connection between reader and author. Shared traumatic experiences, whether real or re-imagined, bond the reader and the writer who converge on the page. The emotional intensity of each poem demonstrates to the reader that they are in fact getting more than just a collection of poetry, they are receiving a “gem out of her heart,” as is put in “Necromantic Glossary for the Practitioner.”

The book also examines the definitions and social constructs of womanhood. It challenges the current notions of femininity and deliberately chooses to spell woman with a ‘Y.’ These choices and statements offer another view of romance—love for oneself, inclusive of one’s gender and identity. In the emotive poem, “SHAVED PUSSY POETRY,” a vagina pleads against being shaved, and the pain of the act is viscerally recalled, “Stubble & skin snag between metal teeth/ bloody bubbles run down legs/ her pussy too sore to make love.” Here the organ that is essential for making love, receives none. It is tortured by its owner in order to comply with a modern conviction that women must be smooth and soft.

The poems that discuss feminism, like “MODERN DAY F*WORD,” and “Why I spell it with a Y,” highlight the need to love women not because they are extensions of men, or a means to glorify them, but because of the unique space they occupy in the universe. They are not men without penises, as Freud described them, but separate beings. The artwork in the book emphasizes this point by portraying the female form in nontraditional and startling ways. In one image a beclouded woman stands in the foreground while headlights shine behind, in her arms are sheets that create the illusion of wings. Here woman is ethereal and vague. In another tree branches sprout from her body and she stands centered. Here woman is an evolving being that grows farther from her origin.

If one dissects the title of the collection, “Nec(romantic),” it is syntactically obvious that romantic occupies greater space than the prefix “necro.” Such is the case with the subject matter. The book is greatly influenced by, and devoted to, death and the mysticism surrounding it; but more importantly this book is about love. Every iteration, every strange and confounding form love occupies, and the ways love can inhabit, and destroy us.

In “Little Boxes,” we explore a love that causes emptiness, instead of assuaging it—“even with a lover/how alone I was, how alone I still am.” We explore addiction, the most heightened form of love. An addiction is to be enamored. “Nec(romantic)” entwines the compulsions of addiction with those of love to demonstrate their similarities, and their shared abilities to ruin lives. In “Little Boxes,” the lover’s addiction leads to his demise, while the speaker’s love for the addict leads to hers. “A phantom wearing a person/ suit is what you became, with/all of that heroin in your veins./ At night I’d put my head/ on your chest and feel startled/ when I heard your heartbeat. I/ forgot you were a human being.”

I did not read this book the way I read other books, as a passive consumer, who has errant and irrelevant thoughts while reading. I was haunted. I felt the weight of the book on my life, as a specter in its own right. I was also overcome with a tenderness for the things in my own life which are strange and morbid, and which I fear writing about. I found Chambless’ fearlessness and audacity inspiring. She has turned her traumas and curiosities into a special universe within these pages. She frees the skeletons from her closet and props them up for all the world to see.

 

 

Madari Pendas is a Cuban-American writer and poet living in Miami. Her works focus on the surreal and absurd aspects that accompany living in an exile community, and the inherited identity crisis of being a Latina in America. She has received literary awards from Florida International University, in the categories of fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction. Her work has appeared in the Accentos Review and the Miami New Times. 

[REVIEW] A Series of Un/Natural/Disasters by Cheena Marie Lo

Commune Editions
March 2016

REVIEWED BY HOLLYNN HUITT

A series of Un/Natural/Disasters is not the place to turn if you’re looking for levity, for beautiful language and pleasing rhythms. The collection of 39 poems bluntly beat a track around hurricane-ravaged New Orleans, asking us to take another look at the tragedy and absurdity of what happened in 2005, of what continues to happen today.

Lo’s poems are powerful and honest and they can be tough to read as Lo unflinchingly shows us the sights, sounds, and statistics of New Orleans. We catch some familiar and heartbreaking signs left behind after Katrina, like the neon X’s marked on houses, the creep of successive water lines. At other moments, the poems are hopelessly cryptic and unfamiliar (lists or scatterplots of numbers and symbols with no context) and we long for Lo to explain them to us. Lo withholds, working like a conductor, sunk beneath stage level, summoning thoughts and figures into formation, only occasionally stepping in to repeat something, as if to say “did you get it?.”

In “Because another tropical storm is coming,” snatches of sound bites march down the page, different voices making the same point. The sound clips in “Warning signs and signals” are clustered together, but you can almost hear Lo flipping through TV clips, the smooth, modulated voices of news anchors sounding increasingly bizarre as the poem progresses. Several poems, like “Poor,” beat out a dark chant, the word repeated so many times, it becomes a humming mantra about the wrongs of Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath. It is moving and numbing.

Lo doesn’t have all of the answers, here. There are moments where the poems are intentionally vague, like in “Something About Being Maddened by Hunger.” Consider that there is more to this situation than can be described in words, or covered in the news, they seem to say. Consider that, even as you read this collection, even as you feel sorrow, you will not ever fully understand. There will always be something eluding your grasp.

Despite this, the subtext to the collection feels clear. Who is to blame? Who is to blame for what happened to this city, the houses, and, most importantly, the poor black people who suffered the most? Reading this collection is not unlike going to a protest, one you might’ve stumbled into, so you stand near the back of the room and let the statistics, definitions and numbers, wash over you. But as you hear more and more, your anger and outrage grows, until you realize you’re no longer in the back, but you’re standing in the front of the room and the keynote speaker is stepping onto stage.

That’s when this collection solidifies, becomes unshakable. Lo’s voice seems to ring out for what feels like the first time toward the end, in short and skillfully pared down poems. They drop perfectly into place in the broader collection. In “We are alone” they ask, “Where has everyone gone?” making it clear, that they, too, are bewildered. There can be no resolution, no explanation that makes it easier to wrap the tentacles of our brain around all that has happened in New Orleans. Think about it, Lo seems to say. And don’t stop for a long time.

[REVIEW] The Association of Small Bombs by Karan Mahajan

Viking/Penguin
March 2016

REVIEWED BY ERIC FARWELL

Small, painful changes abound in Karan Mahajan’s debut novel, The Association of Small Bombs. Revolving around two families and two market bombings, the work examines the ways people change, drift, and act out in an effort to stave off loss. Despite some passages involving discussions of India’s political divide, it would be quite a stretch to consider this a political novel. Mahajan’s focus is on the aftermath of a terroristic attack, and how the event opens up doors to either grow closer and celebrate life, or isolate oneself and build walls to keep life out. As the characters all struggle to accept the doors they’ve opened, the focus moves away from the big picture concerns, and tries to account for ways one can negotiate being true to oneself in their growth and still do right by others.

By this measure, the characters are divided into two groups: those who extend their hands and those who are recklessly selfish. Vikas and Deepa Khuranas, who lose their two sons at the start of the book, grow in distinctly different directions. Vikas, a documentarian, begins visiting the market where the boys died, speaking with police officials, and generally trying to make sense of it all via the detachment his camera lens allows. Deepa opts to throw herself into her cooking business, slowing down only to dote and obsess over their daughter, Anusha, a sort of miracle baby that brings the family together while pushing them apart. Vikas, absorbed by his work, hates his daughter, who serves as a reminder of what he lost. Deepa continues to try and reach Vikas through his grief, but ultimately there’s too much between them to sustain. Mahajan navigates their emotional separation by focusing on them as separate, isolated individuals. In plain, unbusied language, Vikas and Deepa find the poetry within their misery and slowly make their way back to themselves. Without the drama and pretense of a typical “literary fiction” couple, the Khuranas are able to be fully real, due to Mahajan’s writing and the small, stumbling steps he gives his characters permission to take.

The pace of the novel adjusts as needed, with sections slowing down or speeding up based on the emotional charge of the characters. For the younger characters, there is little inward-reflection done, nor is there any sense of scrutiny regarding the ways of the pedestrians in India. This appears at first blush to be a reaction to manuscript length and deadlines, but after further consideration it’s apparent that this is another subtle shade of reality that Mahajan is using to color his characters. Unlike their elders, the young men Mahajan focuses on are part of the volatile nature of India’s seemingly strained political culture. Unlike Deepa and Vikas, who have something real to lose in political upheaval, these young men look to involve themselves in whatever they think will change things for the better and keep them from ending up like the Khuranas when they’re middle-aged. This interior difference between the boys and their elders is what makes passages involving a deeper consideration so poignant, such as when Vikas looks out his window and considers the effects of reality on the artist. ““He couldn’t bring himself to do it, couldn’t tear himself from this window, which was like a portal into heat, death, futility, irritation – and also a stage. What had happened to him was so real, he couldn’t re-enter the world of make-believe – yes, that was the work of a documentary filmmaker too: make-believe” (75).

Maybe the greatest trick Mahajan pulls off is creating a fully vibrant India, even if it doesn’t extend beyond the few characters that populate the novel. Everything from the description of the Lajpat Nagar market:

“A formless swamp of shacks, it bubbled here and there with faces and rolling carts and sloping beggars. It probably held four seasons at once in its gigantic span, all of them hot. When you got from one end of the market to the other, the wooden carts with their shiny aluminum wheels had so rearranged themselves that the market you were in was technically no longer the market you had entered: a Heisenbergian nightmare of motion and ambiguity” (1)—to the use of words like “beta,” “auntie,” and “uncle,” which help to build a concrete world that rises off the page. The stilted, proper English of the characters imbues them with a vivid realness one wouldn’t expect, but Mahajan uses sensory details masterfully. When it comes to pain and violence, Mahajan provides detail sparingly, giving us enough to feel with the characters, but not so much that it breaks the spell of the book. Sparseness is the novel’s secret weapon, and because the world is detailed enough, the lack of information surrounding the political aspect of the work never seems cheap or undercooked. We take the journey because the world feels so real; and in real life, the whys and wherefores of an individual heart are rarely transparent.

Starting with Shockie, a radicalist bombmaker who sets of the explosion that sets the course of the book, we’re ushered into the unseemly world of political militants, exhaustive rhetoric, and racial and economic barriers that these cells feel need to be toppled. In Shockie, we also have the idea of the stock-character cliché. He’s dogmatic, seemingly violent for no reason, and committed to a dangerous cause without clear connections to its agenda. It isn’t until Ayub is introduced later in the story that we begin to see the nuances of Shockie’s psyche. Ayub comes to join the radicalist cause after feeling anger over losing his girlfriend and closest friend, and thus losing his power as pseudo-leader of the NGO, which looks to promote peace and understanding as a way of generating governmental change. Unlike Shockie, Ayub is a complex character that transitions from one extreme to the other without much difficulty, yet remains conflicted about his actions up until he sets off a bomb. His complexity imbues him with humanity, and in certain ways it is unclear whether or not he serves as an villain or yet another stock-character: the young man who turns to violence as a way to still his own pain. It is only in Ayub’s naivety that we’re able to see those aforementioned nuances to Shockie. Here, nearly seven years after he set off the bomb in Lajpat Nagor, Shockie is grizzled, broken, and strangely emotional, full of pain and regret over his actions, but unable to tear himself away from the cause that he originally believed in.

Bridging the two terrorists is Mansoor Ahmed, the childhood best friend of the Khuranas’ two sons. After surviving the first bombing, he begins to fear venturing too far away from home. When his father decides to send him to America for college, Mansoor’s nerdy and awkward shell begins to melt away, but after the onset of carpel tunnel nearly cripples him, he returns to India where he gets involved in the NGO and he engages in a fanatical observance of his Muslim duties. Oddly, the one bright spot in his life seems to be Ayub’s girlfriend, Tara, whom Mansoor covets and privately lusts after. If there’s a weak spot in the work, it’s Mahajan’s characterization of Tara, who never seems to lift very far off the page. Unlike Deepa, Tara is relegated to the role of tired girlfriend, seemingly conjured in order to help Ayub move on to setting off the bomb. Mahajan uses her to fill a void, and when she leaves for university in the states, both Mansoor and Ayub try to invent new roles for themselves in order to escape the bleakness of their lives.

Ayub ultimately goes on to betray his values while Mansoor embraces his. After he escapes the hospital, Ayub’s guilt leads him to confide in Mansoor, whose deep-seated fear of terrorism and strong Muslim selflessness leads him to taking the fall for Ayub. Inside the one place he knows is probably safe, Mansoor reflects on the whys and wherefores of his life, ultimately deciding to live a quiet life at home with his family. This hits upon what Mahajan seems to be after: if there’s anything one can depend on after a tragedy, it’s that life will continue on in strange ways, just as it would regardless. If our greatest feats of humanity are forgiveness, reconciliation, and love, then those are what we should look to develop when loss and worry crop up on our streets. Perhaps, if we can keep this in mind, when we clear off the shrapnel and dirt, we’ll see the NGO was right all along.

[REVIEW] The Good Son by Paul McVeigh

Salt Publishing
April 2015

REVIEW BY CATH BARTON

It is the late 1970s. Mickey Donnelly is 10 years old. He lives in Ardoyne in West Belfast. Mickey has passed his 11+ exam and has been offered a place at St Malachy’s Grammar School. But he is told that his family cannot afford to send him there.

In The Good Son, Belfast-born Paul McVeigh tells the story of the nine weeks of Mickey’s summer holidays before he goes to secondary school. He tells it through young Mickey’s eyes, conveying all the spark and wild dreams of a pre-pubescent boy. Ardoyne is a Roman Catholic area more or less surrounded by Protestant areas. It is not safe anywhere in Ardoyne, for this is the time of the Northern Irish “Troubles,” when sectarianism violence can erupt on the streets at any time. Mickey is quite matter-of-fact about the reality of this. He has grown up with it, although he’s only ever seen Protestants on TV.  On an errand to a shop by the iron barricades which mark a boundary between Catholic and Protestant areas he says:

“They’ve started calling them peace lines which really makes me laugh cuz actually this is where people come to kill each other.”

Mickey is innocent about the worst atrocities and we can laugh at his misunderstandings. When he is heard shouting in the streets about another child’s father being in prison for stealing sausages he gets a visit from one of the Ardoyne Hard Men to set him straight about the man having “fought hard for his country.. But Mickey is still confused:

“They wanted him to steal sausages? Why? Were they hungry? And could they not just buy them from the butcher’s like everyone else? There’s no way I’m ever going to join the IRA if that’s the kinda missions you get sent on.”

There are more immediate issues that concern Mickey day-to-day. As he dodges through forbidden streets, his pre-occupations are looking after his mother, the mysteries of sex, and the initiation torments which await him at St Gabriel’s secondary school. His dream is to go to America, where he plans to work in a diner. And one day, he tells his Ma, he will be President of Ireland, because he is a good boy. Like all small boys though, he does not differentiate between large and smaller ambitions. He is given a five pound note with which to go shopping and he knows it’s a lot of money:

“One day, when I grow up, I’m goin’ to have a five of my own and I’m goin’ to spend it all on sweets.”

Mickey Donnelly is truly, at heart, a good boy. The guile of adolescence has not yet infected him and he loves his Ma, his little sister Wee Maggie and his dog Killer—who makes him “as happy as a pig in poo”—with a protective ferocity. When he spies Ma through the fence, railing against a world in which she has married a drunken waster, he begs her to give him a job in the house so he can help her out.

In this family, a slap round the head is more common than a hug and sorry is not a word used very often, but there is laughter and underneath there is palpable love. Paul McVeigh navigates the choppy sea of Mickey’s shifting experiences and rapidly-changing emotions with skill and verisimilitude. Having lost food coupons which he had been given for shopping, the boy devises a way to repay his Ma by chopping up wood to sell round the houses, getting his hands full of painful splinters in the process. When she finds out she talks to him with uncommon tenderness:

“ ‘My son,’ she says, and her body sort of shudders. She shakes her head. ‘Your wee hands are destroyed.’ She traces the splinters and welts with her fingers.”

Next minute she’s wiping her eyes and flying at an accusing neighbour with the hatchet that Mickey uses to chop his wood.

Mickey may live during the Troubles with a capital ‘T,’ and he gets often into trouble with a small ‘t,’ but I don’t experience him as a troubled character. Yes, he is often confused, but aren’t we all confused as children? Yes, he suffers heartbreak, but is that not part of growing up? Mickey is an intelligent boy and he has a strategy for survival—he acts. He’s seen lots of films on TV. He knows how to look cool—he practices the Ardoyne Hard Man Dander, chest puffed and knees pointed out as he walks. Other boys may call him names because he’s a loner, but he’s plucky and resourceful and he cares about other people. When he sees a bunch of girls chanting insults at one who has been tarred and feathered he wants to rescue her:

“Even though she’s a Brit-lover, I don’t think it’s right. I mean, you can’t help who you fall in love with.”

At the end of the summer of this story, Mickey works out a way to help his Ma and possibly even get himself to America. Possibly. Whatever the difficulties of his life, it is not, at least at the point where this story ends, tragic. Though we are bound to wonder what will become of young Mickey.

In The Good Son Paul McVeigh traces the physical geography of Ardoyne with as much precision as he depicts the geography of the human heart.  As a reader you run up and down those streets with Mickey, onto the wastelands where kids sniff glue and bombs explode unpredictably. He navigates the tricky first person narrative style with assurance and peoples the story with vivid characters. Fartin’ Martin, Ma’s-a-Whore and Minnie the Tick Woman may sound like the names of caricatures, but they step off the page as realistically as young Mickey himself and as brightly as the characters in Mickey’s favourite film, The Wizard of Oz.

Mickey Donnelly deserves to take his place in the litany of boy literary heroes. Paul McVeigh’s prose sings from page one in the accents of the North Belfast streets, and is rich in detail. While The Good Son does not have the same breadth, it has something of the spirit of Dickens or Zola, transformed for our times. Gritty realism with a human face. Not only is it hugely enjoyable, but it also conveyed to me more of the atmosphere of the Troubles than any number of factual accounts.

 

 

[REVIEW] Not a Self Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu by Yi Shun Lai

Shade Mountain Press
218 pages
Released May 6, 2016

REVIEW BY MELISSA OLIVEIRA

As long as we suspect we’re falling short in some area of our lives, there’s really no end to the books we will buy to try to improve: a 2014 article I read stated that self-improvement was “a $10 billion per year industry in the U.S. alone.” As it turns out, when it comes to solving the problem of ourselves, we have very deep pockets — and solving herself is exactly what Marty, the smart but hapless narrator of Yi Shun Lai’s wonderful new novel, Not A Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu, seems on a quest to do.

From the outside, twentysomething Marty Wu appears to be doing pretty well. She moved to New York from Taiwan when she was five, and when the novel opens she has a job in Manhattan working in advertising sales for a magazine. Unlike her previous job as an illustrator, advertising sales isn’t a line of work that particularly excites Marty. Still, she appears to be good at it: the early pages of the novel find her on the verge of closing a deal that promises a fat bonus check.

Yet Marty, whose story comes to us in the form of a diary she began on the advice of a self-help book, is someone we come to know intimately, and all is not perfect in Marty’s world. We know, for example, that her fascination with self-help books borders on an obsession born of insecurity. Each interpersonal interaction and emotional reaction is noted carefully in the pages of this diary and compared to an ideal version that she might have read, say, in The Language of Paying Attention to YOU or a similar user’s guide to life. We also know that advertising sales is a poor fit for this vibrant and creative young woman, and that the aforementioned bonus check is a potential way out of the gig. Alone at her desk, she listens to fashion and design podcasts, and daydreams about investing her windfall into a little storefront: the type of warm and intimate costume boutique that would, she hopes, allow clients to “slip into another skin” for a time.

But Marty is our heroine, and as she says herself, “I think somewhere in one of my books it says that I must be a Protagonist, like characters in novels. Protagging is hard. Characters in novels never have it easy.” Yi Shun Lai, for her part, pulls no punches with Marty. Rather, as Lai steers Marty into increasingly uncomfortable and painful situations, Lai writes with an incisive humor and a light, chatty tone that often had me laughing aloud as I read.

While this was one of the funniest books I’ve had the pleasure of reading in a while, though, it isn’t all laughs. Marty, we understand, has a serious longing to go after what really matters to her, but she is hobbled by variety of obstacles — the very challenges that made her such an avid consumer of self-help books in the first place. The promise of such books, after all, is one of hope — hope that Marty might finally learn how to be a better leader, colleague, saleswoman, daughter, person. Since there are no guides for learning simply to be a better, stronger Marty, our narrator flails. She searches relentlessly for advice from people and books that are so distant from the reality of her life and relationships.

This brings us to Marty’s relationship with her mother. Mama excels at cutting Marty down: thoroughly, efficiently, and often while switching in rapid succession between English and Taiwanese. “I double-step,” Marty writes when meet Mama for the first time, “trying to move quickly, and trip. ‘Sloppy,’ says my mother, only in Taiwanese it sounds like more than that, like you haven’t just tripped, but that you’re a tripping, drooling shadow of a functioning creature.” Watching Marty endure what she does is often heart-wrenching, and we aren’t entirely surprised that she will try anything to please and appease her mom — even resorting to lies in order to make herself seem like the Good Daughter she imagines would make Mama happy. After an epic career misfire in Las Vegas, however, Marty’s constructed self falls away in a hilarious and startling way. Marty, now forced to reevaluate and refocus, decides that the Old World might be a good place for a fresh start, so she accompanies Mama on a trip to the family home in southern Taiwan.

It all sounds very serious in the telling, but the writing is efficient and funny, with Marty’s voice making the whole thing really pop. Still, the centrality of the mother-daughter relationship and how Marty navigates its tremendous challenges charmed me more than I expected. Where another novel might make stronger use of a romance plot to keep us interested, Lai sidelines the romance a bit, giving the mother-daughter relationship enough room for serious exploration and nuance. This dynamic is where all that humor digs deep into the particular challenges of defining and asserting an artistic identity in the world — whether that world is the hectic atmosphere of New York City business, or the strong family landscape and rich tradition of small-town Taiwan, or even just within the heavy gravitational pull of a difficult parent. I don’t wish to spoil anything, so I will say only that there are no easy, one-size-fits-all answers for Marty, and it’s better that way. It’s a complicated journey to learn to help oneself, but it’s also a joy watching this fun and multidimensional character navigate it.

What blindsided me was the expert combination of humor and deep feeling that I found here. Where Not A Self Help Book initially engaged me with its light and enjoyable storytelling, I found that by the final pages I was impressed by the subtlety and the seriousness Lai treated the relationships between the women of the novel. Some, I think, will see parallels between this book and Bridget Joness Diary, as it shares some similarities with that book — epistolary storytelling, young female narrator, the preoccupation with self-help books. If, like me, you enjoyed Bridget Jones, you’ll probably delight in Marty Wu as well. My feeling, though, was that underneath the superficial similarities, Not A Self Help Book was an entirely different sort of novel. It’s one that cares deeply for its complicated female characters for their own sakes, and more than for their entertaining antics and romantic attachments. As I read, I felt keenly aware of real, lasting consequences for Marty Wu, as one who must become her own authority on bridging different cultures, ideals, geographies and life stages. A novel that can do all of this and still make me laugh out loud is one I can heartily recommend.

[REVIEW] Trouble the Water by Derrick Austin

BOA Editions
April 2016
REVIEW BY JORDYN SCHWERSKY
Derrick Austin’s stunning debut, Trouble the Water, gives readers unique insight on what it means to be a queer, black man in today’s world. He navigates the complicated worlds of race, sexuality, and religion with such fearlessness that we as readers can’t turn away even if we wanted to. Mary Szybist, in her forword, writes that that fearlessness begins with the book’s title, and she’s right. Before we even see the first page, Austin lets us know that this is not a book to be read passively. Rather, Trouble the Water is both a title and a command, a command for us to trouble both society’s waters and our own.
One of the most striking aspects of Trouble the Water is the graceful way Austin weaves sexuality and religion together, so much so that at times they are one and the same thing. Sex and God are both equal and opposite, drawing Austin’s speakers in and also forcing them to turn away. Heaven is another’s lips. One poem, called “Devotions,” is an ode to a lover. Often poetry about sex or religion takes an obvious standpoint, either on one side of the line or the other, but Austin’s poetry makes the reader think, hard, about what it is we believe in, particularly on the subject of LGBTQ issues. Sexuality and religion are separate issues that have been so convolutedly twisted together in today’s society that it’s hard to see them coexisting, but Austin attempts to show us that they can.
The other prominent theme in Trouble the Water is race. In the poem “Blaxploitation,” every line ends with the word “black,” forcing the reader to confront that, for a person of color, blackness is something that is ever-present rather than something which exists only when it’s convenient. Then there are times when Austin writes about race as if it’s an afterthought, balancing the ideas that race is both a massive part of people of colors’ lives and at the same time is merely a descriptive factor.
An interesting tool that Austin utilizes throughout all his poems, whether they focus on race, sexuality, or religion, is to use art as a descriptor and comparative factor. Many of his poems are set in museums, others inspect God and Christ through paintings. The poem “Breakwater” is theimagined story behind a photograph. Paintings and photos and music are not separate from our humanity; they are our humanity.
Austin tackles the difficult task of being both hauntingly amusing and utterly serious, making the reader feel hope and joy and sorrow all at once. He makes us rethink old assumptions and reminds us that we have the power to change what we think we know. Religion can evolve to fit today’s society. Love is complicated. Race is too. In the end, though, we’re all essentially the same, just people trying to live our lives free from fear. In “Torch Song,” the speaker says, “when I open my arms to the crowd and mouth / the night’s first note, I don’t sing; you singe,” and I think that line embodies Trouble the Water. Austin sings to us in a way that makes the reader feel uncomfortable, on fire.
Austin is an important voice in poetry. His book comes at a time when it is becoming more and more difficult to ignore the social injustices these communities face. Trouble the Water is not justthe title of Austin’s book; it is a command. The only question now is whether or not we will listen.