[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] 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.

[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] This Must Be The Place, by Sean H. Doyle

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Civil Coping Mechanisms

102 pages, $13.95

 

Review by Nicholas Rys

 

Sean H. Doyle is a seeker. His gasoline-soaked debut, This Must Be the Place, begins with a quote by legendary American Mystic, Edgar Cayce, “…at any time, in any world, a soul will give off through vibrations the story of itself and the condition in which it now exists.” Throughout the book, both parts at the end of that quote prove to be important, as Doyle summons up not only the vibrations of the story itself, but also the condition in which it now exists.

The book presented itself to me unusually. I was half drunk on a Thursday night and for some reason, eager to start something new. The explosive and deceptively playful cotton-candy-meets-Jackson-Pollock cover art was too loud to ignore, even strewn across my living room floor next to a handful of other 2015 books I had recently ordered. Despite my better efforts to call it quits after the first vignette. This is heavy stuff, I thought. I should wait until tomorrow. I read the first half in one feverish sitting. Continue reading

[REVIEW] The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson

argonauts

Graywolf Press

160 pp, $23.00

 

Review by Jacob Spears

 

The unsettled prose in Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts reflects the intractability of her concerns in writing about identity, personhood, and how we make relationships with others. The white space that surrounds each paragraph is a return to the fragmentary form she developed in Bluets, which also found Nelson using the intimacy of her life to write about larger cultural ideas. The Argonauts, however, is a more difficult work, interested in expressing concerns about gender and normativity without attempting to situate those concepts through a fixed discourse. Every bit as erudite as her previous book, The Art of Cruelty, though not as magisterial and academic, The Argonauts embarks on a voyage of exploration in which the ship, like the Argo, “designates molten or shifting parts, a means of asserting while also giving the slip,” intent on retaining “a sense of the fugitive.”

Though it swells in and out of its address, Argonauts unfolds mostly as a confessional written to the second-person ‘you’ that is her partner, the artist Harry Dodge, who very publicly underwent a transition from female to male through the course of their relationship. “Something about identity,” Nelson quips, “was loose and hot in our house.” As a memoir, Nelson’s account of intimacy is at turns light and disturbing, charming and uncomfortable. What if where I am is what I need? she asks, citing Deborah Hay. “Before you, I always thought of this mantra as a means of making peace with a bummer or even catastrophic situations. I never imagined it might apply to joy, too.” Argonauts is an attempt to chart this course in which her position and experience—like language—is anchored in the moment of exchange. A place, context, or sentence inevitably shifts understanding, performance, and intention. Continue reading