[REVIEW] Standard Loneliness Package by Michael J. Seidlinger

Broken River Books, 2018



Author Michael J. Seidlinger has entered the poetry arena with a book that, although he mentions in its pages might be his last foray into the genre, will leave a mark with readers. Standard Loneliness Package is a collection of epistolary poems, a recipe book for loneliness, a bestiary of errors and regrets, and a deep, personal exploration of our innate ability to fail at connecting with others or sabotage any meaningful connection we someone manage to achieve.

What makes Standard Loneliness Package especial is not the people that are at the center of every poem but the way Seidlinger processes his role in the time period he spent/spends with that individual. His faults are at the core of the collection, exposed and raw, aching to be deconstructed and understood, blatantly questioning themselves, and wallowing in a combination of regret, loneliness, grief, and even a touch of sarcasm.

The poems in this collection are about every conceivable element of human interaction. In some, Seidlinger appears as victim. In others, he is clearly responsible for everything that went wrong. The result is a narrator that is constantly asking why things went wrong and answering his own questions (sometimes); a narrators that is at once victim and executioner, that confesses and apologizes before asking a rhetorical question and smirking at his own mischief:

Do you know, I bet you don’t

But do you know that every single time

Every single time

You knocked on my door

Or tried to use a credit card

To get into my room

I was there

Did you

I bet you didn’t

Standard Loneliness Package makes it easy to see that time is the great healer, and that it also sometimes acts as a microscope that allows us to study every small mistake we made. Seidlinger navigates the space between the past and the birth of every poem with grace, showing that he understands his own shortcomings but also explaining why some of the results he got were inevitable, and we this might just continue to be so. Furthermore, there is a hunger for change that pops up now and then, a realization that, once an error has been deconstructed and understood, there are ways to change it. However, there is something deeper, some profound understanding that we are the way we are and sometimes significant change is something that’s forever lost in the a sea of agitated stagnation. In “To Unknown (3),” we see this line of thinking clearly (and depressingly):

Why do I worry if these poems will be published

Do I quantify every single thing I care about

It is true

Every poem is an apology

It is true

Every apology is a poem I have trouble reading aloud

It is true

Every time I apologize

What I’m doing is hiding behind

The fact that I don’t know how to change

How to heal

How to show you that I can do better

It is true

This is the best I can do

It is true

The best I can do is never enough

It is true

To keep those I want close

It is true

To distance myself from those I shouldn’t keep

The last part of the book, which is a creative nonfiction piece retelling the month-long trip the author took across the United States as a social media experiment, breaks away from poetry in form but retains some of the preoccupations that plague the poems that precede it. Alone in a car for a month, moving from state to state and meeting people, Seidlinger was immersed in social media (even more than usual), and the writing that emerged from that experience is rich, deep, and breathtakingly personal. What is our relationship to social media? How is mediated communication processed in the soul? What is the true meaning of a “like”? What happens to those messages we send and are never answered? Why do we sometimes refuse to reply to a message? More than offer answers to these questions, the author delves into his own experience living for them in the confines of a car, the context of the trip, and the frame of his shattered life at the time the trip began. It ends up being a strange, somewhat touching finale to a book that celebrates the beauty that can come from writing about horrible things.

[REVIEW] The Möbius Strip Club of Grief by Bianca Stone

Tin House Books, 2018



Bianca Stone’s The Möbius Strip Club of Grief is a tricky, multilayered poetry collection that lures readers in with its ease of access and wild, entertaining premise before slashing their throats with sharp doses of pain, truth, and a its pull-no-punches exploration of grief. The books door open into the loud, colorful immediacy of a burlesque purgatory where everyone is either watching of being watched, judging of being judge (by other and by the inescapable self), performing or being part/witnessing a performance. It looks, sounds, and feels like a festive place, but the underlying pain is as present as a bad rash on the face. Take, for example, the stripper in “Lap Dance”:

I think everyone’s glad I’m dead, said the stripper

with the caved-in face. Her fingers were bone and no

sinew. She flapped her arms at the two wrens

caught up in the rafters, staring down

on the empty dance hall. Chirps rained like sparks

from the electric saws in their hearts.

No one here is glad anyone is dead. But

there is a certain comfort in knowing

the dead can entertain us, if we wish.

The vivid, somewhat chaotic first third of the collection is an illustrated map of the place. However, the spatial specificity begins to fade away as the writing begins to tackle a plethora of themes that reach beyond the confines of the imaginary place. Soon death, math, pain, Emily Dickinson, memories, insecurities, and even murder show up to make the universe of the place richer and to obliterate any sense of safety the imaginary walls may have granted the reader. Eventually, the writing inhabits different spaces that range from pure memory to poems that read like (de/in)struction manuals for loss, which is the case with “How Not”:

Be completely dispassionate about the theoretical five stages.

This is an old death, but it’s your death. Complete the stages

in blurring fits of inebriation. Eat everything in sight. Fight

with your mother. Marry Ben in the woods. Fly across

the country. Stand in the street with the raging legless

angel. Hold a brick wall very close to your face.

The success of The Möbius Strip Club of Grief comes from Stone’s ability to constantly surprise and entertain. Her mother, memories, literature, (self)destruction, grief, and confusion are some of the elements that give the collection cohesion, but they are always dealt with differently, so turning the page is always a new adventure regardless of the elements being dealt with.

As the poems progress, the reader becomes discovers the mother as an almost omnipresent figure, the poet’s knack for phrases that turn around and loop themselves, the brevity of some of the strongest poems, and even the bizarre, chameleonic nature of the collection. Then reader becomes part of it. Part of it comes from the fact that there is only so much grief we can deal with before starting to feel it ourselves. The second reason is that, toward the last third of the book, the writing touches on the universal, on the hidden realities that affect us, inhabit us, and shape us. The perfect example is “Apes,” probably my favorite poem in the book:


If it happened at all

it was the apes who won,

shimmering stark-naked

and sitting a little apart from Adam,

who was deep into his clothing

the cuff links and soft leather,

pulling the zipper up Eve’s back

and she, clasping the bra shut like a jewelry box—


What to do with this mind?

Throw everything

into the fire and scream

into the internet

that there’s nothing to do

but stand in the dark recesses

throwing a bright red dodge ball

against the bone facade

and fall in and out of love

with suffering?

The Möbius Strip Club of Grief is unique in its structure and execution, and proves that Stone is a voice to be reckoned with, a writer who’s not afraid of suffering and blood, naked flesh and exposed emotion, weirdness and ennui. Now enter the club…if you dare.


Best Books of 2017

The year is almost over and it’s time to revisit some of my favorite reads of the year. As with any list, this is not as extensive/inclusive/comprehensive as I’d like it to be, but having to do other things besides reading severely cuts into the amount of time I can spend inside books (if you have any leads on a gig that pays you to read whatever you want, get at me). In any case, this was a fantastic year. I made a list of best crime reads and one of best horror books, but some of the best books were in the enormous interstitial space between genres. Anyway, here are some books I hope didn’t fly under your radar:

Where the Sun Shines Out by Kevin Catalano. I was ready for this to be great, and it was, but the pain and violence in its pages blew me away. This is a narrative about loss, guilt, and surviving, but the way Catalano builds his vignettes allows him to show the minutiae of everyday living and the sharp edges of every failure.

Absolutely Golden by D. Foy. Funny, satirical, smart, and packed with snappy dialogue and characters that are at once cartoonish and too real, this is a book that, much like Patricide did last year, proves that Foy is one of the best in the business and perhaps one of the most electric voices in contemporary literary fiction.

I Don’t Think of You (Until I Do) by Tatiana Ryckman. I met Tatiana when we read together at Malvern Books in Austin in late 2017. She read a chunk of this and it blew me away. I got the book that same night. Imagine your favorite philosopher deconstructing weird relationships while trying to simultaneously make you cringe in recognition and laugh at yourself. Well, this is what that philosopher would write. A short, powerful read that I will soon be reviewing here in its entirety, this was a blast of fresh air.

Itzá by Rios de la Luz. This short book destroys patriarchal notions of silence, abuse, and growth. Rios de la Luz wrote about a family of water brujas and in the process redefined bilingual bruja literature. This is a timely, heartfelt book that celebrates womanhood in a way that makes it necessary reading for every gender.

Pax Americana by Kurt Baumeister. With Trump in the White House, this novel is more than an entertaining look at the dangers of unchecked religion and politics. Yeah, call this one a warning that should be read by all. It’s also very entertaining and a superb addition to the impressive Stalking Horse Press catalog.

The River of Kings by Taylor Brown. I don’t want to imagine the amount of research that went into this book. However, I’m really happy that Brown did it, and that he turned everything he learned into a novel of interwoven narratives that is a celebration of a river, of people, and of language. This was so stunning that Brown immediately joined the ranks of “buy everything he publishes authors” before I’d reach the tenth chapter.

Human Trees by Matthew Revert. If Nicolas Winding Refn, Quentin Tarantino, and David Lynch collaborated on a film, the resulting piece of cinema would probably approximate the style of Revert’s prose. Weird? Yup. Smart? Very. Beautiful? Without a doubt. It seems Revert can do it all, and this is his best so far.

In The River by Jeremy Robert Johnson. The simple story of a father and son going fishing somehow morphs into a soul-shattering tale of anxiety, loss, and vengeance wrapped in a surreal narrative about the things that can keep a person between this world and the next. Johnson is a maestro of the weird and one of the best writers in bizarro, crime, and horror, but this one erases all of those genres and makes him simply one of the best.

The Sarah Book by Scott McClanahan. A slice of Americana through the McClanahan lens. Devastating and hilarious. Too real to be fiction and too well written to be true. Original, raw, and honest. Every new McClanahan books offers something special, and this one might be his best yet.

In the Distance by Hernán Díaz. This is the perfect marriage of adventure and literary fiction. The sprawling narrative covers an entire lifetime of traveling and growing, and it always stays fresh and exciting. At times cruel and depressing, but always a pleasure to read. I hope we see much more Díaz in translation soon.

Beneath the Spanish by Victor Hernández Cruz. Read the introduction and you’ll be sold on the entire book. Multiculturalism is fertile ground for poetry, and Hernández Cruz is an expert at feeding that space with his biography and knowledge and then extracting touching, rich poems and short pieces that dance between poetry, flash fiction, and memoir.

Some other outstanding books I read this year:

Dumbheart / Stupidface by Cooper Wilhelm

Inside My Pencil: Teaching Poetry in Detroit Public Schools by Peter Markus

Something to Do With Self-Hate by Brian Alan Ellis

Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions by Valeria Luiselli

There Are More Beautiful Things Than Beyoncé by Morgan Parker

Exit West by Mohsin Hamid

The Yellow House by Chiwan Choi



[REVIEW] Trench Town Rock by Kamau Brathwaite

Lost Roads Publishers, 1994


In “Trench Town Rock,” Kamau Brathwaite accounts for the broken third, people who live out a violent inheritance in a world where the criminals are no longer discernible from the officials who are assigned to stop them. The title is a nod to Bob Marley, as well as the Jamaican neighborhood where both the author and the singer spent time formulating their messages. In an interview Marley once said, “There is America, there is Russia, there is Rasta.” The statement forces the reader to look beyond everyday power structures. What exists in this third state? How is society evolving in the forgotten corners of the globe? Rastafarians are a minority with a weak political voice; their strongest avenue is art. Like Marley, Brathwaite reminds us that the artistic voice has the imperative in an otherwise broken society. Brathwaite embodies the harsh reality of his culture with unconventional strategies that make the reader feel his experience viscerally—jammed words, run-on lines, misspellings, and varied font sizes—to create louder and softer sounds. He uses myriad sources from the world he portrays: news clippings, radio transcripts, and West African mythology. He mixes and matches his indictment to show us the disintegrating state of postcolonial Jamaica.

Brathwaite awakens the reader to the dangers of life in Jamaica from the opening page. The narrator is asleep when a murder takes place in his apartment complex. The reader understands quickly what is at stake, feels it in his body through the use of telling action, font size, and unconventional spelling. Brathwaite brings us into his bedroom and we are “aweakened by gunshatt.” We hear the Jamaican voice in our head, feel his fear as he fumbles “into the dark with its various glints & glows: mosquito, very distant cockcrow, sound system drum, the tumbrel of a passing engine.” Sound is mixed together with darkness and suddenly, without punctuation, we launch into “TWO SHATTS” and the text grows bold and large to replicate the startling sound of a gun fired. When the police arrive they scurry in like insects, the line that describes them running on “with salaams & slams & semi-automatic acks, revolvers slung from belts and holsters or tucked like asps into their waist-line trousers; & evvabody walkin fass fass fass . . . “The language mimics the emotion and action. The message he wants to convey—busy movement around the scene of the crime—enters the reader’s vision with a scurrying transience. His stylistic conveyance continues throughout the book without getting tired because of the variety of information he presents.

Relentless images involving unsolved crimes and violence carry the reader forward. There is a dead man with “beautiful long hair curled around his body making snakes like dance/like dancing . . .” The snakes sway menacingly and remind us of a time when the people on this island were considered no better than animals. He describes a dead policeman by first describing him as a “big, dark, meaty guy” before reversing to negate X his presence in the world. “But I can’t tell you what he looked like: features, the human face, I mean: both eyes shot out/stabbed in, his nose unhinged, a huge gash in the right side of the throat, his tongue there black & smooth . . .” He cancels the man’s presence in the world with the words “can’t tell” before the passage folds back towards the police: “yet all his skin & flesh still firm & natural like if he flash & living still & not a ant or insect (here he uses a carefully planned line break) coming even near his blood & no one say a prayer . . .” The margins on this page, combined with the line break and indentation, imply that the police are the insects. Brathwaite makes use of a line break to convey dual meanings: the police return as insects, yes, but there are also actual insects crawling all over the crime scene, insects taking advantage of what has been spilled. Insects steal what is wanted and desired even as the body is still warm.

The way the society turns on itself, the way people betray each other for small gains is examined in the second half of the book. A woman gets her arm chopped off for her bracelet, people dig around dead bodies in a car crash for shoes and coins. The community has become so desensitized to death; death has become such a part of their mental landscape, the crowd witnesses with an unblinking eye. In turn, Brathwaite portrays this fact with such shocking calm that the reader feels a rising horror. By the time we get to the end of the book’s first section and Brathwaite writes, “so that these crimes we all embrace the victim and the violate the duppy and the gunman so close on these plantations still so intimate the dead/undead,” we see. The words— plantation, the embrace, the dead/undead—are specifically chosen. The vocabulary is laden with associations that have the strength to imply we are embroiled in this world’s historic errors, bound and complicit, not able to escape our responsibility and wonder.

A bit of history is introduced in a radio interview in the section labeled “Straight Talk.” A one word page follows—it says “ttortt.” Double tt’s, both sides confused and potentially responsible—the government official in the conversation refers back to the 80’s when crimes were at their previous height. The new surge of violence has everyone thinking about revolution and revolt. At one point in the interview Brathwaite interjects during an argument, “[Perkins had in fact retailed a similar story just before McKenzie phoned]” and the reader sees that they are fighting less over differences than they are posturing for gain. Who gets credit for telling the story? In a society where power means money people lie. People manipulate the political possibilities in order to benefit their own interests. “McK” begins to sound like shorthand as his name gets shortened, like a preacher he says I “want to bring you back, Mr. Perkins, to 1976, Mr Perkin when those very same people, Mr. Perkins . . .” The repetitions of a Sunday school class and a discussion is launched about observing and reporting. The reader sees that these men are discussing reality versus truth. The reader sees that the discussion about observing and reporting has a subtext: the problem is a question of reliability or the manufacturing of reality through the organization of facts. The truth is that no one has the answers anymore.

Finally Brathwaite himself is a victim of violence. When he calls his manager for increased security in his apartment the guy tells him he is “concern” but then basically tells him to stop complaining or leave. “If I continue to feel threat at MMA, I ‘should’ (I quote) ‘look into the possibility of alternative (sic) accommodation (sic).” No one cares. How do these impoverished postcolonial countries establish a new, functioning community when the criteria for what is good and stable have been lost? It is fitting then, after pages of news clippings that illustrate more violence, Brathwaite turns toward a Jamaican story from West Africa about “Anansi.” Anansi is a trickster, a rebel, the sneaky one who manifests a spirit of rebellion and is able to overturn the social order when he so pleases. For oppressed people trickster conveys a message from one generation to the next: dignity can be had, freedom can be found, only if a person keeps trying. Brathwaite’s essay sits on the margins. It comes back at us again and again. It uses large and small font, unconventional spelling, dashes and brackets, clippings and dates, transcripts and memory, sound that mimics the cadence and volume of violence. He uses everything at his disposal in the attempt to keep trying. He is Anansi. He uses Anansi strategies in his structure, story, and spirit.



[REVIEW] Eat Only When You’re Hungry by Lindsay Hunter

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017



Lindsay Hunter knows a thing or two about old wounds. The characters of her previous novel Ugly Girls, a Florida-based female coming-of-age story, are angry and complicated – dripping with all the cringing, emotional contradictions of puberty. Hunter once again uses the Floridian landscape as a pressure cooker for the characters of her new book, Eat Only When You’re Hungry, to vivid effect. But before we migrate down south, the story begins with Greg and his wife Deb, living in a strangely bucolic version of West Virginia. Despite the financial ruin and rampant drug addiction in most parts of the state, Greg is able to spend his retirement in a calmer neighborhood, most likely by his own design. We quickly learn that despite being obese and addicted to fast food, Greg has inherited his Mother’s snobbery toward the ‘unwashed masses’, much like the domineering mother of Bojack Horseman, whose venom and emotional trauma echoes down generations well past her own. Ironically, or maybe inevitably, Greg’s own son, GJ, is a junkie and perpetual loser, mooching off Greg’s ex-wife Marie in Florida. But when Greg gets the call from his ex which claims that GJ has disappeared, Greg rents an RV and takes off for the Sunshine State, in a hero’s journey that quickly dips into scathing self-examination, and finally a poignant dirge for the life he could have lived.

Of course, things don’t go as planned for Greg. Things deteriorate from the very start, when he leaves the comfortable womb of routine and immediately delves into a limp-dicked episode at a truck stop strip club. This is just the beginning of a pattern we see Hunter creating for the character from the start. On the one hand, we sympathize with Greg, who is often at the mercy of his own food addiction, depression, and traumatic upbringing. But there are just as many passages detailing how Greg’s violent actions and choices have shaped GJ’s own trauma. As in life, there is no hero or villain, just a cycle of behaviors that we try to fight against but often lose. Hunter drives the point home with Greg’s own awareness of his destructive behavior. Rather than a one-dimensional character trapped in a pattern of denial, Greg knows exactly where the blame rests for the fate of both himself and his son. “The mercy in that child’s heart, Greg knew he’d never deserved it. Would never deserve it. But if GJ was still a child, there might be mercy still,” he ruminates on moments when GJ didn’t yet understand what was happening, and takes it as hope that there could be possibility for change. But the other interpretation is that the time for enacting any kind of change has passed, and Greg must live with the shitty environment he’s created for him and his loved ones.

In addition to this generationally-repeating trauma, we also see Hunter deftly capture one of the most prevalent moral dilemmas – the child as a junkie. Though encouraged by the abuse and emotional distance of his father, GJ is an embodiment of all the classic symptoms of addiction: thefts, broken promises, ducking in and out of the lives of his loved ones without warning. The most heartbreaking aspect of this is that Greg does not feel one-sided, black and white contempt for his boy – rather, he understands and relates to him all too well. His mistreatment and disdain of him comes from a place of his own self-hatred, which he transfers to GJ, despite being sympathetic to his situation. “Home was a refuge of silence, where there were no expectations and no pressures. So Greg could understand why it felt so good for GJ to lie to himself, lie to Greg and Marie, about his plans for the future, and then never find the wherewithal to follow through.” In a way, Greg and GJ are two of a kind, both regretting their lost opportunities in life despite ending up on vastly different planes of social status. They are bound together by the common thread of addiction, with Greg’s weight and diet carrying as much impact on his health as GJ’s drug habits. Both are prisoners, and both have lost.

Trying to think about how these characters can resolve their lives misses the point. What Hunter has done in Eat Only When You’re Hungry is write a lovingly detailed ode to contemporary tragedy, one that looks ugliness in the face and accepts it as a fact of life. Calling this novel a ‘tragedy’ would be a bit of a misnomer – there is redemption toward the end – but not the kind of deus ex machina, jump-the-shark resolution we’re all used to seeing. In Eat Only When You’re Hungry, people are capable of both bad and good; they fight their impulses and are controlled by them. The answer is not that we always have a choice, or that our impulses are beyond our control, but that we live in a world with both and it’s our job to make sense of it. That empathy should be practiced not just with the people we meet ‘fighting a hard battle’, but with ourselves, too. Forgetting to do so can cause grave consequences for the people you love and who try to love you. Like addiction, habits are not easily broken, but require constant practice, vigilance, and patience. Lindsay Hunter has given us her parable of Greg, who even in the midst of his life spiraling out of control, remembers the mantra that at one time, gave him hope.

Hossain’s DJINN CITY satires & encapsulate’s today’s zeitgeist

(Unnamed Press)


Saad Z. Hossain’s recently released Djinn City from Unnamed Press builds on his 2015 novel Escape from Baghdad! This Bangladeshi writer captivates with his often humorous blend of satire, sci-fi, fantasy, and mythology that takes place in 2066 underground, at ground level, and in the skies.

The novel opens with the backstory of Indelbed, a child who lives with his widower dad and a few ghostly servants in a decrepit house in Bangladesh’s capital. His father is a very learned and very drunk man, possibly because he misses the boy’s mother, and he refuses to allow his son a traditional education. Dr. Kaikobad won’t even educate his son about his own mother, other than the fact she died giving birth to him, which people love to joke about as “death by Indelbed.”

When Kaikobad falls into a coma, Aunt Juny, Uncle/Ambassador/GU Sikkim, and cousin Rais take the little guy under their wing. They initially seem to resist doing so, less so upon learning he’s related to djinns and his father is a djinn emissary.

Who/what the heck are djinns, anyway? A survey course in mythology might convey their various villainous characterizations. In Hossain’s novel, they are indeed villainous. They come in human form with a powerful aura that surrounds them and works as a weapon. It’s their human qualities that bring out Hossain’s funny, satirical encapsulation of today’s zeitgeist. They’re a litigious lot who think nothing of creating 743-page contracts, they have no allegiance with family members, and they politicize seemingly everything. Capable of becoming embroiled in frequent existentialist debates, they argue about evolution and creationism and djinn superiority over all other creatures.

Here’s an example that takes place when Rais and his mother are on the trail to figuring out how a sort of overlord evil djinn named Matteras killed Uncle/Ambassador/GU Sikkim.

“What if humans and djinns are just related species, or even just mutations of one specie?” Rais says. “Most djinn don’t believe in evolution or genetics. They wouldn’t like this at all. I mean, it might tear them apart.”

“Even the most tolerant, humanized djinn think they’re inherently better. Imagine if there was irrefutable proof that they’re just like us? I don’t think they could accept that, as a specie,” Aunt Juny responds.

These debates go on throughout the book. For instance, Matteras throws Indelbed into a labyrinthine underground murder pit of Matteras’s own creation. There rock wyrms threaten to eat the boy, who’s been there long enough to become a man, and Givaras, who’s apparently been there for at least a millennium. Givaras, a pedantic, Dr. Frankenstein type, has tried and failed in his attempts to breed various forms of creatures who are placed down there with him. Failed, we learn, means killed.

Now the rascally character, who flagellates between likeable and despisable, plans to try again– this time with Indelbed. Before he does so he says: “I will try a technique of heating your blood, essentially boiling it. The pain is going to be rather horrid; I think some of the sensations will get through despite your damaged spine. However, you should survive, which is the main thing. It’s only pain, eh?” This time Givaras succeeds. In fact, from Indelbed’s perspective, he could construe the experience as a lesson captured by that old platitude “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

Matteras’ attempt to convince the other djinn at a major conference that there’s an overpopulation of “Humes.” They’re destroying the earth, he wants other djinn to think. Continuing on with Hossain’s themes of superiority and evolution vs creationism Matteras wants to get the OK to commence massive natural disasters that will ultimately destroy the human race. “Are we to end our days in obscene couplings with jumped-up monkeys? Chosen by God, I say! Chosen by fire!” he says.

Then there’s the existential perspective of Kaikobad, the little boy’s comatose father. He is actually alive as a sort of ghost. Walking through parts of the capital city he sees “buildings winking out of sight overnight, entire streets turning to mist.” People were disappearing as well. He “saw them fade in front of his eyes, dissipating into a kind of alternate existence, or to some purgatory.”

On a final note, Hossain’s humor is just one more reason to read this book. Its light-heartedness echo the Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, especially when he mentions technologies actually in use today:

“Us djinns are more free spirit antiestablishment types…We don’t go in for big government.”

“You follow Twitter?” “Follow? We’re the ones who invented it! Djinns love brevity. It’s a racial trait, I’m sure you’ve discerned.”

My only complaint is that there are too many characters to saliently keep up with. To be fair, though, that very complaint marks me as a Western reader. We aren’t used to such a high number of characters. Among subcontinental literature, however, it’s inherent.

Nichole L. Reber picked up a love for world lit by living in countries around the globe. She’s a nonfiction writer and her award-winning work has been in World Literature Today, Ploughshares, The Rumpus, Lunchticket, and elsewhere. Read her stories on a Chinese cult, wearing hijab in India, and getting kidnapped in Peru at http://www.nicholelreber.com/.

Shanbhag’s first novel to be translated from Kannada into English lingers in its intimacy

(Faber & Faber)


The intimacy Vivek Shanbhag creates in his 118-page novel Ghachar Ghochar lingers in a way many of today’s first-person fictions or memoirs don’t. But it’s the realities he shows in this fictional account of rising India that arrest the reader first.

His first novel to be translated from the Indian language of Kannada into English (by translator Srinath Perur), Shanbhag’s story centers around one family’s entrance into the middle class, a popular theme in contemporary Indian literature. There is the traditional Amma (mother), who dotes on her family from her kitchen throne; Appa (father), who’s been forced into early retirement; uncle, Chikkappa, the family breadwinner; sister, Malati, the epitome of spoiled brats everywhere; and the unnamed narrator.

Before opening a profitable spice company, the family used to rely on earning household staples like an iron, a clock, and a suitcase as employer prizes for Appa’s good sales record. All financial decisions were made together. The family even discussed how many rupees Appa could give each person for holidays and on what they’re spent—a pair of pants for the narrator (the son) a cooking spoon for Amma, a sari for sister.

The first sign of the family’s success is a gas oven. Bringing a gas oven into the shabby house, Amma can cook standing up for the first time (in very traditional Indian households cooking is still done whilst kneeling). Soon they move into a house large enough for each person to have a bedroom all his/her own, though not all is marvelous.

“We were leaving something behind, though I couldn’t say what,” the narrator tells us. “The house was huge in comparison to the one we had left. Two stories. A room for each person.”

The furniture brought from their old lives is ill suited to their luxurious life. Neither does their new décor: when Amma and Malati are given free range at the furniture store the results are more mix-it-up, less match-it-up.

Moving into the middle class is more than cosmetic, of course. This is apparent in the quick demise of Malati’s marriage. When she moves in with her new husband’s family, she throws temper tantrums, acts superior to them. “Maybe she had gotten used to having whatever she wanted and it diminished her capacity for making the inevitable compromises that accompany marriage,” the narrator tells us.

Then we come to the narrator’s own marriage, arranged by class not by caste—evidence of modern, newly-middle-class India— occurs for similar and also quick reasons. His wife Anita finds out that despite the big title he has with the family business, he has no bona fide responsibility there, and feels deceived. She can’t relate to a man who doesn’t have to work, who lives off family members, and so she leaves.

It is primarily through the narrator’s relationship with his wife that he conveys the deepest intimacy to readers. It starts, however, long before that. In fact, by the second page, we’re learning how inexperienced he is with women. We meet him after he’s skulked away from his first would-be girlfriend. There’s no conversation, no argument, no nothing except his seeming to disappear from her life. Hanging out at the café afterward, he hopes to find confidence in the adages of the waiter Vincent, which bring supposed therapeutic clarity like American bartenders do for their patrons. “Part of me longs to speak to Vincent but I’m holding back— what if his words hint at the one thing I don’t want to hear?” he says of the man who doesn’t know beyond a superficial level.

The narrator’s a bit wimpy, but in the vein of Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert, we fall for him because of his imperfections, because of his intimate confessions. He gives details of his marriage, not in sexual ways but with gentle self-reflection: “A woman I didn’t know had chosen to accept me, in body and mind.”

“Her arms tightened around me. I could feel her bangles pressing into my back. Through touch, this unknown woman began to be known to me.” Their intimacy is still nascent when she tells him the family story behind the meaning of ghachar ghochar, which is one of the most universal parts of the book.

Later, Anita clashes with the females of the narrator’s family, causing shifts in his own dynamics with them. But he couldn’t stand up for her or against his sister and mother. When Anita leaves town, the narrator and the family reestablish those dynamics.

“It was as if Anita’s absence had allowed us to be ourselves again, without inhibitions.” They’d rather remain an interdependent unit, unbroken by outsiders. Like any intimate unit does.

Read the novel to see if he’ll fight to get Anita back. Read it to learn more about the realities of rising Asia.

Shanbhag is the author of eight works of fiction and two plays, all held to critical success in his native South India. He held a 2016 residency at the University of Iowa’s International Writing Workshop.

Nichole L. Reber picked up a love for world lit by living in countries around the globe. She’s a nonfiction writer and her award-winning work has been in World Literature Today, Ploughshares, The Rumpus, Lunchticket, and elsewhere. Read her stories on a Chinese cult, wearing hijab in India, and getting kidnapped in Peru at http://www.nicholelreber.com/.

[REVIEW] How Seidlinger’s MY PET SERIAL KILLER Slays a Whole Genre—Then Reanimates It, Better and Gorier

(Cinestate, 2017)


As befits a gory dissection of horror films, Michael J. Seidlinger’s My Pet Serial Killer opens cinematically.

Lights up on an ennui-stricken graduate student. We’re given a few cryptic words—Claire, student, master—and an impressionistic portrait, its features subordinated to a pervasive sense of unhappiness. Over the next thirty pages, this misery takes shape: What begins as dissatisfaction becomes misanthropy, what begins as loneliness becomes a profuse yearning. An attending psychologist would revise his diagnosis from depression to narcissism; a malignant strain of narcissism with a litany of other issues percolating underneath—but leaving the patient somewhat anchored in reality.

Through Claire’s perspective, we are given the terms of a conversation we can’t yet understand: “I,” “you,” “woman,” “man,” “master,” “pet,” “fight” and—crucially—mystery. Twenty-odd pages in, another character takes shape: Victor Hent, the Gentleman Killer. We’ve seen Victor before, in prior literary and film incarnations. His dark, slicked-backed hair and the shallow world into which he wades evoke Patrick Bateman—particularly as portrayed by Christian Bale.

Predictably, Victor and Claire forge an instant attraction. A reader scouting for tropes might read Victor as Claire’s karma; the runoff of her own toxic psychology into the real world, here to punish her for her narcissistic power fantasies—fatally so. One might expect Claire to join the ignominious ranks of the foolish dead, the slasher victims who could’ve averted their sad fates simply by locking their front doors.

Nope. Seidlinger bucks our first expectation by quickly and firmly establishing Claire as the dominant half of the pair.

But it’s not just that Claire dominates Victor: Her power fantasies are so fully actualized it quickly becomes difficult to picture her suffering any kind of comeuppance, even at the end of the story.

What follows My Pet Serial Killer’s cryptic (but suitably disturbing) opening scenes is a gory romp which explores not only the psychology of murder and murderers, but also the psychology of horror films and audiences; a the literary answer to the burgeoning film canon of self-referential horror flicks: Funny Games, Behind the Mask: the Rise of Leslie Vernon, Cabin in the Woods, and so on.

Without giving too much away—in fact, we can file this comment under Captain Obvious—Claire’s attraction to Victor stems from his capacity to kill. He kills, she watches. More critically, Claire applies her forensics expertise in order to enable and preserve her clumsy, impulsive “pet.” She’s not just complicit; she’s in charge, and the manner of her voyeurism implicates the audience in her mindset.

Specifically, she tends to watch the murders as a filmgoer would—through camera. Seidlinger makes the deft decision to incorporate old-school cassette tapes here, recalling the early days of slasher flicks. Furthermore, Claire demands Victor cultivate a certain aesthetic, ramp up his Patrick Bateman flair—to her, this isn’t just murder; it’s art, and it doesn’t count if it fails to project an aura of mystery.

At his most direct, Seidlinger cuts the narrative with italicized reflections, which he maddeningly labels “optional.” To oversimplify: These reflections raise Claire’s voice up to the level of the author’s, with deranged allusions to the novel’s critical underpinnings. In these rants, Claire frequently imagines how her work would play with audiences. If Seidlinger’s “optional” tag regarding these italicized rants reflects a genuine ambivalence—as opposed to just a tongue-in-cheek sense of humor—that’s understandable. The old maxim goes “show, don’t tell.” However, it’s My Pet Serial Killer’s direct and deeply interior moments that transform the novel from a violent, audience-shaming slog into a visceral think piece.

For example, the first of the italicized segments contains a satirical advertisement for the horror genre, a darkly hilarious rant which blends Claire’s fetishes together with the fascinations of the audience. Crucially, Claire’s ramblings inch close enough to sanity that the reader can—in some sense—“get” her. From this union between Claire and the audience springs one of the novel’s principal obsessions: mystery.

 In Nothing Ever Happens, you live a life of certainties until you come across a mystery, and whatever you do to make sense of that mystery only ever feeds that mysteryin Nothing Ever Happens,the mystery is really the only reason to livewith such a state of mind, its a good enough reason to let deviance be our director.

Implicit in this fascination with ‘mystery’ is the admission that the horror genre is popular, not because we enjoy pain, but rather because we hate boredomand mystery rescues us form that boredom. Horror’s guided by the same core motive force as any other genre; the impulse towards escapism. The fact that the novel admits this early on salvages it from potential silliness—the ridiculousness inherent in a comparison between the average reader and the deranged Claire.

But as the novel unfolds and Claire’s actions become increasingly brutal, the distinction between hating boredom and enjoying pain becomes murkier. Seidlinger’s attempts to incriminate the audience become more potent. And here lays the novel’s true monster: Not Victor or even Claire, but the sense their macabre performance exists because only because we want it to.

In other words, the novel’s real horror is the fear that attends guilt.

And it works.

Seidlinger achieves this black, guilty fear through many channels—not least, a provocative narrator and the bare, brutal facts of the plot. But Seidlinger’s most subtle success lies in his novel’s structure; a well-made two-room insane asylum to house the narrative’s philosophically-demented screams.

My Pet Serial Killer has two parts: Be Mine and Youre Mine. The aesthetics of Be Mine concentrate mostly on blood, Dexter style. Youre Mine is more honest about what happens when people die—all those other, somehow less sanitary, fluids. Both stories have an interplay of sex and violence, but the sex becomes more prevalent in the latter half. While both arcs have a docudrama element, Be Mine plays out many of the classic slasher film tropes, while Youre Mine is heavier on snuff and found footage elements. Furthermore, Claire’s reflections on the genre change in emphasis—from the film to the television format. This seemingly inconsequential shift actually belies an important theme of the novel: That the violence never stops.

In other words, while the novel is never a comfortable read, it gets progressively less so. We graduate from the familiar horror tropes and their attendant fantasies, moving into cruel and uncharted waters. All the while, from beginning to end, Claire mocks—or, more precisely, sarcastically applauds—the reader for staying with her on her journey even as it rockets beyond sterile, commercially-accepted fantasies towards something far worse. In the end, you’re left wondering if you’ve crossed a line—Claire’s line.

The line between hating boredom and enjoying pain.

It’s no mystery—My Pet Serial Killer wants us to feel complicit in Claire’s crimes.

And we always are, even more than we would be than if we were watching them in filmed form. After all, its a novel. Our own imaginations are doing the work of conjuring everything that happens. And there lies the story’s principal strength: In the manner of a true nightmare, doubts and fears linger on. Even now, as I slowly reaffirm the difference between the audience and the monster.

After its original release by Enigmatic Ink in 2013, My Pet Serial Killer has been re-published by Cinestate today, Halloween 2017.

With EXIT WEST, Hamid turns eye to Europe’s mishandling of asylum seekers


(Riverhead Books)


Once again Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid has captured the zeitgeist. In his latest novel, Exit West, he continues to pull no punches. His earlier novels put the US and “rising Asia” under the microscope, but this time the culprit is Europe. In this novel he puts us in the shoes of the Middle Eastern refugees and we get a glimpse into what it must be like to be forced to flee from one’s homeland, the perils faced at the hands of other terrified, desperate asylum-seekers, and then being cast aside by Westerners, who prove they’re not as glamorous or as kind as Hollywood movies portray.

Hamid’s rigorous observations and capacity to represent diverse perspectives come from having lived in London, the US, and Pakistan. Those experiences appear throughout his corpus as examinations of the turbulent bumps of globalization. Altogether, he writes compelling, if not cutting, stories. His talents result achieving universality in observations and compassion of the human condition. That’s surely helped him achieve international acclaim.

Let’s consider Exit West. His latest release, based on the Syrian refugee crisis, features Nadia and Saeed, two young sweethearts thrust prematurely into a relationship when unrest roils through their city. With a bit of magical realism the couple finds secret doors leading to the safety of Greece, England, and then the US. (See if these doors don’t conjure thoughts of Being John Malkovich.)

Hamid’s essays in The Guardian and Time also take Westerners to task. In fact, most readers will find themselves looking at their patriotism in a way they’ve never been challenged to do before. His scathing essays raise a mirror to us, causing us to wonder if/when we stopped being the land of opportunity. He writes:

“A pair of runaway slaves fleeing the antebellum South, arriving in Boston. A family of Jews fleeing the Third Reich, arriving in New York. A baby boy fleeing the destruction of his home world of Krypton, arriving in Kansas. Most Americans know what must be done with such people. They must be taken in. Given a chance. Allowed to become an equal part of the ­American story.

“How many Americans today would think it right to send the slaves back to the plantation, the Jews back to Europe, the infant Superman back into space? The very idea seems abominable, absurd—un-American.

“Why, then, is there such an outcry over accepting refugees from places like Syria?”

Hamid’s other novels are also tales sprung from today’s news headlines. Consider The Reluctant Fundamentalist. (Director Mira Nair turned it into a gripping film starring Kiefer Sutherland, Liev Schreiber, and Riz Ahmed.) This story takes place primarily in New York before and in the months after 9/11. Told from the perspective of Changez, a Pakistani immigrant who graduates from Princeton, earns a position with an elite Wall Street firm, and falls for WASPY, wealthy Erica. Changez exemplifies the American Dream we still want to pretend exists. Until two planes tear into the World Trade Towers, transforming him overnight into a persona non grata.

“I ignored as best I could the rumors I overheard…: Pakistani cab drivers were being beaten to within an inch of their lives; the FBI was raiding mosques, shops, and even people’s homes; Muslim men were disappearing, perhaps into shadowy detention centers for questioning or worse. I reasoned that these…(things) were unlikely ever to affect me because such things (didn’t) happen to Princeton graduates earning eighty-thousand dollars a year.”

Quotes like this give us a refreshing perspective from an immigrant, a non-American in the country’s saddest moment in almost 60 years. It sheds light on that line between nationalism and patriotism, imploring readers to more deeply consider which side they stand on.

Next comes How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia, also published by Riverhead. It’s a modern day version of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, structured in twelve mocking steps on how to rise to the ranks of the middle class. The author has left the setting deliberately unclear: is it India or Pakistan? Nonetheless setting matters only insofar as we get to know a young man, born into a destitute family, the kind who live in the slums that Westerners often assume are the only kind of housing in India. As the man becomes street smarter, he builds a lucrative water business and climbs the social ladder in ways that would have made Ayn Rand beam.

Hamid plugs into humanity’s natural tendency to envy/dislike the wealthy. He allows us to coast on our assumptions that they got that way by skipping morality, respect, and integrity, by marrying for convenience rather than an emotional engagement. He captures the zeitgeist by making us feel like we’re reading about a country transmogrifying before our eyes.

His use of the second person brings us still deeper into the action. Such is the case in a particular scene depicting backroom deals and corrupt alliances that form the backbone of capitalism:

“Yet he suspects it is not these obstacles giving you pause. No, the brigadier thinks, you are wary because you know full well that when the military-related businesses advance into a market, the front lines change rapidly. We get permissions no one else can get. Red tape dissolves effortlessly for us. And reappears around our competitors. So we can move fast. Which makes us dangerous commercial adversaries.”

Hamid’s debut novel was Moth Smoke. He’s also written a collection of essays, Civilization and its Discontents. His work has won or been short-listed for the Man Booker Prize, the PEN/Hemingway Foundation award, the DSC Prize for South Asian Literature, and others.




The Reluctant Fundamentalist film



Excerpt of the book



How to Get excerpt



Exit West excerpt



Hamid’s essay in Time


Nichole L. Reber picked up a love for world lit by living in countries around the globe. She’s a nonfiction writer and her award-winning work has been in World Literature Today, Ploughshares, The Rumpus, Lunchticket, and elsewhere. Read her stories on a Chinese cult, wearing hijab in India, and getting kidnapped in Peru at http://www.nicholelreber.com/.

Myriam Gurba’s MEAN traverses a vast world


(Coffee House Press)


It’s hard to say which quality makes Myriam Gurba’s Mean such a stellar read. Her dark sense of humor? Her unique perspective as a queer Chicana from California? It could also be her structure. She compels the reader through her nonfiction novel without letting us merely settle into the book as entertainment. Instead she engages our intellects, which makes an altogether enjoyable experience.

Gurba weaves topics together in the forms of found poems, prose poetry, news reports, memoir, and lists. Once we’ve connected enough strands we see patterns emerging: racism, misandry, class, and sexuality.

The story begins with a young, petite Latina with long clothing walking in a Little League baseball diamond at night. A man follows her, chases her then bludgeons and rapes her. News reports leave her nameless, call her a transient. Gurba finds out this woman’s name is Sophia (Torres) like Sophia the capital of Bulgaria, like Sophia Loren, like the Sophia in the Bible; she’s 5’2” and Mexican, and the young migrant worker had already had a rough life before it came to a close there in Oakley Park, not far from Gurba’s house. It’s what the two women have in common that allows readers to connect the strands Gurba weaves into a larger picture, especially in the chapter “Strawberry Picker,” where we see race, misandry, and class.

“Sophia is always with me. She haunts me.

“Guilt is a ghost.”

Guilt ties in to the multiple meanings of privilege Gurba shows us. Daughter of a Mexican teacher/mother and half-Mexican school administrator/father, she and her siblings enjoy a middle-class life. There’s a large gap between her family and the Mexican migrant workers who pick produce in the California fields. Privilege, she intimates, isn’t just for whites.

Privilege doesn’t, however, equal invincibility. It couldn’t save her sister or Gurba herself from eating disorders. Nor could it shield her from the grade school classmate who repeatedly molests her and fellow female classmates; or the history teacher who, despite witnessing the boy’s actions, does nothing. Nor could it shield her from having an unfathomable empathy for Sophia Torres.

Not all is tragedy though. The author’s sense of humor gives this book an equal amount of levity. Sometimes that means taking pot shots at race and gender: “Of course an elderly white dude taught anthropology,” she writes in the chapter “Nicole.” “Who better to explain all the cultures and peoples of the world than he who is in charge of them?”

Sometimes humor means taking pot shots at sexuality, eating disorders, feminism, misogyny: “Good girlishness resists pleasure. Good girls prove their virtue by getting rid of themselves,” she writes in a Catholic-heavy chapter. “Death by anorexia is a fail-safe sexual-assault prevention technique,” a line that reverberates like a nail-studded boomerang later in the book.

Gurba continues to bust balls, provoke, and raise readers’ eyebrows throughout the book, and she traverses a vast world. She takes us from the Japanese style of art known as Ukiyo-e, her great-great-grandfather’s role in a 19th-century Mexican revolution in support of Communism, and masturbating to the Diary of Anne Frank. She makes us ponder what would make an appropriate gift for the grave of the rape victim. Even Michael Jackson makes an appearance.

Read Mean for its humor and stimulating structure. Read Gurba for her unique perspective and literary stylings.


Nichole L. Reber picked up a love for world lit by living in countries around the globe. She’s a nonfiction writer and her award-winning work has been in World Literature Today, Ploughshares, The Rumpus, Lunchticket, and elsewhere. Read her stories on a Chinese cult, wearing hijab in India, and getting kidnapped in Peru at http://www.nicholelreber.com/.