My short story “Recognition” just appeared in issue 35 of RiverSedge: A Journal of Art and Literature, which is published annually by the Creative Writing Program at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley: https://www.riversedgejournal.com/works/recognition. I hope you enjoy it!
Night Sky with Exit Wounds by Ocean Vuong
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Night Sky with Exit Wounds is a challenging but very rewarding book of poems. Some poems, like “Aubade with Burning City,” about the evacuation of Saigon in 1975, are more straightforward and powerful. But this collection is best read slowly to give you time to think, reread, and digest the meaning of each poem before moving on. Each is rich, and I certainly didn’t fully understand all of them. I’d read Ocean Vuong‘s semi-autobiographical novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous recently, and it certainly helped me understand some of the allusions he was making. But with or without that background knowledge, these poems evoke strong feelings and emotions–of lost love, of cultural alienation, of a difficult family life. To borrow from “Someday I’ll Love Ocean Vuong,” these poems pass through you like wind through a wind chime. Except Vuong is talking there about dead friends. It’s one of many sad and wonderful poems in this collection.
My short story “The Grand Hotel” was just published in Hawai`i Pacific Review. This story is built on a fairly abstract concept, so I was really excited that the editors were enthusiastic about it. Please check it out at https://hawaiipacificreview.org/2022/10/27/the-grand-hotel/.
Maggie: A Girl of the Streets by Stephen Crane
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I picked up Maggie: A Girl of the Streets largely because of Paul Auster, who was doing the rounds singing the virtues of Stephen Crane when Burning Boy: The Life and Work of Stephen Crane was published. I’d read The Red Badge of Courage many years ago and enjoyed it. Maggie: A Girl of the Streets was Crane’s first novel (or novella), published in 1893. It’s about the poor working class in the Bowery in New York City.
You know that Maggie has little chance from the start. If that’s not clear from the title, it is from Crane’s sardonic tone about the hopeless situation Maggie has been born into, in an impoverished neighborhood with violent parents who have serious alcohol problems. No one seems to care for Maggie or help her in any way as her hopes for a better life fall apart.
At the time it was published, this book’s focus on the underbelly of industrialism must have been shocking. However, reading it from a modern perspective, what stands out as a narrative is what’s missing: Maggie. The title character amounts to little more than a receptacle for the cruelty and negligence of others. Much of the drama in her life isn’t depicted in any detail or even at all, only spoken about, including what ultimately happens to Maggie. This could be partly because of the times; publishing a book that depicted Maggie’s sordid slide from her perspective would have been very difficult, if not impossible. The resulting narrative style is innovative, circling around Maggie and her misfortunes to focus your attention on the callousness of all those who judge Maggie but repeatedly fail to help her. Their attitude reflects the general approach of a society high on progress, unconcerned with the suffering of those who were being harmed by the massive social upheavals going on.
That said, it’s not a particularly rewarding book to read from a modern perspective. It’s hard to feel much for Maggie, since you don’t really know and understand her, as Crane keeps mostly out of her thoughts beyond those meant to make you pity her. The following century of American literature brought plenty of biting social realism that surpasses this book in both insight and emotion. But someone had to do it first, and you can certainly admire Crane’s courage in centering a story around such a character when most of society at the time just wanted to forget about people like Maggie.
The Dead and the Living by Sharon Olds
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Sharon Olds‘s The Dead and the Living is an excellent collection of poems. After a brief section called “Public,” which deals with outside events, its focus turns to the personal, from traumas inflicted during upbringing to often unsettling musings about her children. Olds’s style is direct and accessible, but these free verse poems are thoughtful and beautifully crafted, dealing with the complicated emotions that can arise from abuse, neglect, and just plain living. The consistency in quality is remarkable. Standouts for me included “My Father Snoring,” which manages to be both threatening and empathetic, the wistful “35/10” about youth and aging, and the wonderful homage “The Elder Sister,” which opens:
When I look at my elder sister now
I think how she had to go first, down through the
birth canal, to force her way
head-first through the tiny channel,
the pressure of Mother’s muscles on her brain,
the tight walls scraping her skin.
Her face is still narrow from it…
Piranesi by Susanna Clarke
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
Piranesi is the kind of book I usually love. The main character lives in a world that makes no sense, a world of endless halls and statues, with tides coming in from different directions and the only reference to a broader world in the artwork itself. The best way to describe the book would be as a cross between Flowers for Algernon and The Woman in the Dunes.
Clearly, something is very off here. The mystery of what this world is keeps you reading and, without giving any spoilers, the explanation is a fascinating and clever idea. But while Susanna Clarke has crafted an original fictional world, I was disappointed with the frankly silly action and resolution. It causes this thoughtful book to feel more like a straightforward genre work, which it’s really not. Maybe if this hadn’t fallen into some genre conventions, it wouldn’t have found the audience it has, so I can’t fault them for making what might have been a wise practical choice. Still, I would have enjoyed the book a lot more had the action resolved in a way that was more consistent with the tone that Clarke had established. It also felt a bit bloated overall, as if an excellent novella had been given some extra padding.
That said, the ending was quite sweet. This was one of those novels that can get you looking at the world in a new way, and I expect many, particularly young adult readers, would absolutely love it.
I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Iain Reid
My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars
I’m Thinking of Ending Things is one of those books that plays with your perception of reality and keeps you unsettled throughout, and Iain Reid does a brilliant job. In one sense, it’s a meditation on the themes of memory, perception, and our sense of reality, as well as on loneliness and our need for others. But the setup is so brilliant, and Reid’s writing so crisp and efficient, it reads like a taut thriller.
The book starts with the the title, the thought of an unnamed narrator who admits to herself as she’s traveling with her boyfriend, Jake, to meet his parents for the first time that their relationship isn’t going to last. The brief first chapter ends with the thought, “Maybe I should have known how it was going to end for us. Maybe the end was written right from the beginning.” Like much of the long conversation in the car on the way to his family’s remote farmhouse, this is a hint to what’s actually going on in the book.
There’s a conversation later on that, to me, seems key to understanding what Reid is trying to do. Jake is talking about why examples are used in philosophy, “how most understanding and truth combines certainty and rational deduction, but also abstraction.” He explains, “We don’t just understand or recognize significance and validity through experience. We accept, reject, and discern through symbols. These are as important to our understanding of life, our understanding of existence and what has value, what’s worthwhile, as math and science.” This is both an argument for the importance of fiction and a description of his approach as a novelist.
Although I found the end somewhat simple and disappointing, I enjoyed this book immensely. Interspersed throughout the narrative is a conversation between two unnamed people about something horrible that has happened. Without revealing spoilers, what actually happened isn’t absolutely clear by the end. In fact, what the very narrative you’ve been reading is isn’t certain either. There’s a pat explanation provided, but it’s not fully satisfying. On the other hand, that’s all in keeping with Reid’s musings on thoughts, memories, and reality.
All in all, this was a fun and very thought-provoking read. Note that Charlie Kaufman made a movie version of the novel. The first two-thirds of it is wonderful, brilliantly capturing the tension and ideas of the book. Unfortunately, the approach Kaufman takes in the third act is farcical, and it completely falls apart. To be fair, the last act is probably unfilmable, and he did take a creative approach, but it’s pretty terrible–one of the worst endings spoiling a great movie that I’ve ever seen.
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl by Harriet Ann Jacobs
My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars
Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Seven Years Concealed is the first book I’ve read about slavery that was written by someone who actually was a slave. While fiction like Kindred definitely packs a wallop, I found it particularly unsettling to read a firsthand account of slavery that I knew was true. Harriet Jacobs, who wrote as Linda Brent to protect herself and others, tells her story in a direct, matter-of-fact manner that’s disarming. It’s as if you’re sitting in the room with her and listening to her harrowing recollections.
Harriet was never beaten, but her horrific stories belie the outrageous myth of the well-treated slave that some people still bring up. While she may have been physically better off than the plantation slaves, once she falls into the hands of a doctor who lusts for her, the psychological pressure on this poor, powerless young woman becomes stifling. Although she is his property, Harriet will do anything to elude the doctor’s lechery and the revenge of his jealous wife, including seven years in a cramped, oppressive hiding place that leaves her permanently impaired.
After she escaped, Harriet Jacobs became involved in the abolitionist movement, and in her narrative she deftly uses her experiences and observations to highlight political and societal issues beyond the experience of slavery, including the hypocrisy of many Northerners and the evils of the Fugitive Slave Act, which required Northern states to capture and return escaped slaves. Hers is a perspective into U.S. history that everyone should read.
My poem “Photo from the Funeral Home,” which was published in Clio’s Psyche earlier this year, is now live online. It’s on page 98 (marked 348) at https://cliospsyche.org/…/ClioSpring20225-5-5-22FINAL.pdf. Or you can read it here:
Our Country Friends by Gary Shteyngart
My rating: 2.5 of 5 stars
I’d been looking forward to reading Our Country Friends for a while. I’d heard a fascinating interview with Gary Shteyngart and read all the great reviews about this, one of the first novels about the pandemic. Unfortunately, it didn’t live up to my expectations.
Alexander Senderovsky, a writer originally from Russia, has established a “colony” in the Hudson Valley, with a main house and a series of bungalows, although he can barely afford to maintain them. As the pandemic begins, he invites friends and colleagues to come out to the estate to ride out what they assume will be a short wave before returning to life in New York City. This novel could have gone two ways from here: It could have been a serious novel addressing the societal ills that led us, despite being the best prepared country in the world to deal with a pandemic, to respond so poorly that we lost more people per capita to the virus than almost any other developed country. Or it could have been a satire, a country farce about wealthy, out of touch elites on the order of a P.G. Wodehouse novel. It tries to be both, but neither is fully successful.
On the serious side, most of the characters in the novel are either immigrants and/or minorities, and the novel touches on their difficult experiences fitting into American society. The anger and hatred of many Americans toward people they see as different is a constant threat in the novel. Money, fame, and the effects of our media environment are also touched upon. But none of these things are addressed in a particularly thoughtful or satisfying way. The fact that the novel was set up as a farce tends to undercut any serious intent. Characters are there to make sure that certain points are to be made and that the mechanisms of the plot are served, moved around like pieces on a board and not particularly believable as people. Although we get glimpses into their backgrounds, these serve more as superficial markers for what kind of people we’re supposed to see them as than aspects of fleshed-out characters that seem real. One of the characters is even named Dee Cameron (get it? as in The Decameron).
Some of the plot mechanisms also seemed more suited for a farce. For example, two characters test out an app created by another that makes people fall in love when they take a photo together. That absurd event powers much of the action. People hook up and change partners, and spend much of their time consuming costly food and drink and expounding on things with more authority than knowledge. They do absolutely horrible things to each other with little consequence. But despite some wicked authorial comments about people’s foibles, none of it came across as really funny to me.
The biggest problem I had reading this, though, was an extended sequence in which one character moved around in their memories, drastically bogging down the last act for pages. It read very clumsily, like a TV show trying to fill some time with a cheesy dream sequence.
All that said, the book does move along fairly quickly, and you want to know what happens at the end even if you don’t particularly care about any of the characters all that much. Shteyngart also throws out so many ideas about the current state of our society, it does get you thinking about them. But in the end, the biggest thing I thought about was how this could have been a much better book if it wasn’t such a confused fusion of forms.