[REVIEW] Washing the Dead, by Michelle Brafman

dead

Prospect Park Books

344 pages, $19.99

 

Review by David S. Atkinson

 

Barbara confesses an odd thing to her sonographer when eighteen weeks pregnant with her daughter. She says she “prayed that God had spared a girl from landing in [her] womb.” That’s a pretty heavy way to start Washing the Dead, the debut novel by Michelle Brafman (a teacher at The Johns Hopkins MA in Writing program whose writing has appeared in Fifth Wednesday Journal, the minnesota review, Blackbird, Slate, the Washington Post, and elsewhere). Regardless, knowing what I know now, it seems like a pretty apt place to begin.

Barbara is terrified about raising a girl because of her traumatic relationship with her mother. Her mother was loving, but could occasionally be inexplicably distant:

My mother’s mood hovered over us, a mist that could either turn to rain or vanish into the sunlight. During our family walk to Shabbos services, I saw her eyes honeying over, the first sign that at any moment she could dip away from us, into that place inside herself. Even since last April, the mist had turned soupy, and I worried that we would both drown in it.

“Let’s do the last block fast, Mom.” If we moved quickly, we could outrun the fog.

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[REVIEW] The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli (translated by Christina MacSweeney)

teeth

Coffee House Press

184 pp, $16.95

 

Reviewed by Leland Cheuk

 

In Valeria Luiselli’s first novel Faces In The Crowd, a promiscuous, melancholy mother loses herself so thoroughly while translating the work of a Mexican poet named Gilberto Owen that her narration slowly becomes that of the equally promiscuous, swashbuckling poet. In Luiselli’s funny new picaresque The Story of My Teeth, Gustavo “Highway” Sánchez Sánchez picks up where Owen left off. He too is a charismatic raconteur whose first-person narration simultaneously charms and cuckolds. Highway not-so-humbly describes himself as “the best auctioneer in the world.” He collects all kinds of objects, including the teeth of the famous. He claims to be wearing Marilyn Monroe’s choppers. He’s got a serious case of Napoleon Complex because he attributes many of his unusual aphorisms to Napoleon (I doubt the French emperor ever said “it wasn’t all velvet petals and marshmallow clouds”). As an auctioneer, Highway spins elliptical, impressionistic love letters about the objects he’s trying to sell. About Plato’s teeth, he says:

Our first lot is a piece in a somewhat deteriorated state…Significant flattening of the point leads to the supposition that the original owner, Mr. Plato, talked and ate continuously…Mr. Plato once made a comparison between the period of dentition and a man falling in love: “In this state, the soul enters into effervescence and irritation; and this soul, whose wings are just beginning to develop, can be compared to a child whose gums are inflamed and enervated by its first teeth.”

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

palce

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 Girls of Usually, by Lori Horvitz

girls

Truman State University Press

238 pages, $16.95

 

Review by Erica Trabold

 

 

Lori Horvitz’s The Girls of Usually chronicles the most defining moments of the author’s life. From performing magic tricks to traveling the world to learning more about herself and her sexuality, thirty-two brief essays support a loose narrative that begins with Horvitz’s childhood and ends somewhere mid-life, a pause for reflection amidst a string of failed relationships.

Horvitz holds nothing back. On the page, her prose breathes contentment, curiosity, and energy— she is eager to share insights gained through personal experience, however unconventional her life may be. At the forefront, Horvitz addresses potential concerns about the scope of the project, which spans an entire lifetime. In an author’s note, she reminds readers that most scenes have been reconstructed to serve the book’s larger inquiry and essence. No transcripts exist to verify action, intent, or dialogue down to the very word. As is the case with most writers of nonfiction, Horvitz bases her exploration on the kinds of source material readers would expect, information gained through access to journals, personal interviews, and memory. Continue reading

Books We Can’t Quit: The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard

fire

Picador

 

Review by Martha Anne Toll

 

I heard her on the radio; I found her book at the library. Neither sufficed. I had to own Shirley Hazzard’s The Great Fire. The leading man in this taut, beautiful novel is Aldred Leith—measured, strong, true—crisscrossing continents out of duty, curiosity, and ultimately love. Co-starring are Helen and Benedict Driscoll, seventeen and twenty respectively; together, a single force of nature. Winner of the 2003 National Book Award, The Great Fire inspires and intimidates. I would die happy if I could execute a single sentence as compact, poetic, and meaningful as any in this novel.

Here’s the opening, two sentences to illustrate the depletion of war:

Now they were starting. Finality ran through the train, an exhalation.

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[REVIEW] The Heart Goes Last by Margaret Atwood

The Heart Goes Last cover

Nan A. Talese

326 pages, $26.95

 

Review by Mary Akers

 

As a thirty-year fan of Margaret Atwood, I eagerly purchased the first few episodes of The Heart Goes Last back in 2012 at Byliner, a reader’s website, when the working title was “Positron” and Atwood was still figuring out what form the story would take. When it grew into a novel and the opportunity arose to review it, I jumped at the chance.

As the novel opens, Stan and Charmaine are down-on-their-luck newlyweds. They have lost their home, their jobs, and are living out of their “third-hand Honda,” doing their best to avoid gangs of marauding rust-belt thugs after a financial crisis leaves middle class citizens marooned in a sea of debt and desperation. Continue reading

[REVIEW] Everywhere Stories: Short Fiction from a Small Planet, edited by Clifford Garstang

Everywhere

Press 53

234 pages, $19.95

 

 

Review by Denton Loving

 

 

“You just don’t know who your enemies are. And your enemies are so often your friends, Molly. It will always be like this, I fear,” says Lana, the narrator of Alden Jones’ “Heathens,” one of twenty stories collected from twenty different authors from around the world and edited by Clifford Garstang in Everywhere Stories: Short Fiction from a Small Planet.

Lana is an American teaching in a village in Costa Rica. She is well loved by her students and the community, but in the story, she is caught up in teaching a lesson of a darker kind to Molly, a teenaged innocent visiting Costa Rica as part of a group of fly-by Evangelical missionaries.

Lana discovers that the world is dangerous, which is also Garstang’s first thought in his introduction to the collection. These diverse stories range from every continent, from toothless bikers in New Zealand to young women approaching adulthood in the Congo, from a boar attack in a German park to a suicide bomb in Israel. If these stories share a single theme, it is of this danger that permeates our human existence, regardless of our geographic location. Continue reading

[REVIEW] Witchita Stories, by Troy James Weaver

Witchita

Future Tense Books

200 pages, $12

 

Review by Ryan Werner

 

Previous general portrayal of the Midwest has been decidedly not-my-Midwest: Garrison Keillor’s rosy-cheeked shitheads and the good-guys-win-bad-guys-lose world of John Hughes. My Midwest is boredom and its trappings—drugs and sex and Tori Amos tapes—and as those ideas run through Troy James Weaver’s Witchita Stories, it does to Wichita, Kansas what Gummo did to sub-rural Ohio or what Alice Munro did to small town Canada. It shows how those not on the map survive without the map.

Opening jam “Summer” is the best of them all. It doesn’t go far, because nothing in town goes far. “My sister is sixteen and she’s already at that stage in life where she’s bringing over guys that look like Fonzie or Vanilla Ice.” That’s the first sentence, and I wish I had written it. I wish I had written the next part, too, about these guys and their bad music, their misappropriated styles. How the sister is distracted to a point of neglect and how hot it is outside and how you just won’t die one way or the other, won’t melt away in the heat and won’t freeze to death in counteracting it.

And that’s it. 329 words and maybe ten steps off the front porch, a walk into the kitchen to eat what your sister didn’t make you. Continue reading

[REVIEW] [insert] boy, by Danez Smith

boy

YesYes Books

116 pages, $16

 

Review by Peter LaBerge

 

“Being black, holy, drunk, my mother’s son”

 

            Thank God for good poetry. Thank God for good poetry collections that leave necessary emotion in their wake, and thank God for poets like Danez Smith, who—through his debut Lambda Literary Award-winning poetry collection [insert] boy—demonstrates that what is political should be openly approached in personal terms, and vice versa. In [insert] boy, Smith ignites a discussion about life as a queer person of color in today’s racially charged, orientation conscious society. Through the arteries of movement, music, and religious (or non-religious) experience, Smith allows us to imagine life from his perspective in a way that only the most powerfully evocative poetry can.

The collection begins simply enough. In the opening poem “Black Boy Be,” Smith compiles a list of similes that complete the sentence “Black boy be _________.” We meet a character who ranges in manifestation from “a village ablaze” to “an ocean hid behind a grain of sand” to “blood all over everything.” Within the first few lines, we effectively meet a character who represents the world. Ultimately, we come to find this sense of motion informs many of the poems in the collection. In the first “Poem in which One Black Man Holds Another,” “the black boy falls into himself / & you mourn everyone ever.” In the third poem of the sequence, the narrator “make[s] fire in the absence of storm.” In “The Black Boy & The Bullet,” “one’s whole life is a flash.” By emphasizing the fast-paced, always static nature of his narrator, Smith enhances the experience of [insert] boy’s reader by reinforcing both the urgency of his message as well as the entrancingly violent quality of the events that transpire. Continue reading

[REVIEW] Debridement by Corrina Bain

debridement

greatweatherforMEDIA

98 pages, $16.00

 

Review by Jay Besemer

 

One risk with the personal review is that one’s own experience insists on taking up space in a conversation about someone else’s work. But a book like Corrina Bain’s first full-length poetry collection Debridement demands a greater degree of transparency and subjectivity in a reviewer. So here’s my little bit of space in this conversation: I am a transgender man, moving through a “transition” that will actually continue through the rest of my life, as my middle-aged, chronically ill body continues to work with the testosterone that has saved me. I experience and write about Debridement from that highly embodied, complexly irreducible subject position. It is not the same position as Bain’s gender non-conforming one, and that also needs saying, because these nuances of position are at once subtle, mobile, difficult to navigate and vitally important.

This means I am not the same reading (or writing) person I used to be. My previous version would have been uncomfortable weighing in on a book whose violence is both unapologetic and necessary. For that’s what Bain’s book is—violent and necessary, and violent by necessity. I’m not talking about the violence of content, though there is that kind of violence in these poems. I’m talking about a surgical violence. A radical, invasive disruption of one’s person and body for healing purposes. Only here, the poet is not telling readers about a healing trauma (or about healing from trauma). In Debridement, Bain is both holding the knife and under it. He is cutting away his own dead parts as well as ours. And make no mistake: we need this. Continue reading