This Spring’s Must-Reads

Spring 2016 Pic

The warmer weather brings with it some of the best publications of the year, and here are four of our spring favorites.

BroderSo Sad Today
Melissa Broder

March 15
Grand Central

Poet and Vice columnist Melissa Broder is undoubtedly one of the best essay stylists at work today. Her collection based on her previously anonymous Twitter account @sosadtoday made me fall in love with the essay form all over again. Broder’s writing is funny and sober, her honesty uncomfortable and comforting, and reading her book is just like getting a text from your best friend.

So Sad Today dissects topics we’ve all experienced but are reluctant to discuss: falling in and out of love, diving into and crawling out of addiction, and the crippling realities of anxiety and depression. In “I Want to be a Whole Person but Really Thin,” Broder connects her eating habits to her habits of mind. “Never Getting Over the Fantasy of You is Going Okay” reviews the possible remedies to infatuation in the digital age, and “Help Me Not Be a Human Being” is a series of love stories written for the insecure person inside all of us. She also examines the naked allure of sexting, the crucible of loving someone with a chronic illness, and how the internet is sometimes our most reliable, if not most sincere, companion.

It’s easy enough to say that So Sad Today is brutally honest, but there’s a real kindness to Broder’s honesty, too, the intimacy with which it beckons a reader’s shy and tender heart. In Broder’s company, we can dare to tremble at our own depths.

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The Best Books of the New Year

January 2016 Pic Resolved to read more this year? These books are the best the new year has to offer.

YapaYour Heart is a Muscle the Size of a Fist
Sunil Yapa
Lee Boudreaux Books
January 12

In his novel about the heated 1999 WTO riots in Seattle, Sunil Yapa writes: “What a violence of spirit to not know the world.” This violence spins at the heart of a story that unfolds on a November afternoon when both the citizens and the infrastructure of Seattle are rocked as 50,000 individuals gather to protest the World Trade Organization talks. The city becomes a meeting place of divided interests, a battleground at once expansive in global consequence and intimate in human conflict.

Seven narratives twist and converge as tumult and misrule reign in the streets. A financial minister from Sri Lanka holds the hope of his people in his hands as he confronts the mob on his way to meet with President Clinton. A young protester questions her commitment to nonviolence as she struggles to keep a dark secret hidden from her mentor. A hapless runaway gets caught in lockdown as he watches his father, the chief of police, forcefully dismantle the gatherers–the same chief who desperately longs to be reunited with his son. And two police officers watch the madness take hold from their perch, the actions and affections of the protesters ever steady in their rifles’ sights.

As the title promises, your heart will flex and surge as you read Yapa’s voltaic debut.

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The Best Books for the End of 2015

Year End Reviews Pic


Every year-end ought to be paired with a great book as the weather gets colder. Here’s a list of late fall’s best titles, so grab a copy for yourself and one for a friend, too.

SUICIDE OF CLAIRE BISHOP_carmiel banaskyThe Suicide of Claire Bishop
Carmiel Banasky
Dzanc Books
September 15

This thriller of a debut novel by Carmiel Banasky throws any tired stereotype about women’s fiction right out the window. An exquisite mix of Let the Great World Spin, The Goldfinch, and the indie flick Safety Not Guaranteed, The Suicide of Claire Bishop begins in Greenwich Village in 1959 when a wealthy, emotionally cautious Claire sits for a portrait only to find the artist has painted her suicide instead. When schizophrenic West encounters the painting decades later in 2004, he becomes convinced it was painted by the ex-girlfriend who still haunts him. His obsession sets himself and Claire on a collision course with the eerie, mercurial painting ever beckoning them onward.

Banasky has created a trademark theology all her own in West’s unreliable, yet oddly brilliant musings on time travel that pair unsettlingly well with the notion that Alzheimer’s, which has a hold on Claire’s family, is a kind of time travel all its own. Though the story itself is boldly labyrinthine and miasmic, the best part of the novel is the romantic mania that inhabits the prose. Intellectually provocative and elegantly rhapsodic, The Suicide of Claire Bishop celebrates the arrival of an uncommonly ambitious and inventive writer.

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The Must-Reads of Late Summer

August Reviews Pic

We all know the best thing to take with you on a summer vacation is a good book. Here are this August’s must-reads, begging to be read poolside or in the shade.

vu tran_DRAGONFISHDragonfish
Vu Tran
Norton, August 3

In his debut novel, Writing Award winner Vu Tran writes that “the life you leave behind never dies.” This eerie truth forms the thematic backbone for Dragonfish, a juicy Las Vegas noir about the ruthless ties that bind old lovers, mothers and daughters, and double-crossing gamblers.

Robert is a weary Oakland cop who can’t help but miss the chaotic romance he had with his ex-wife Suzy. When he finds out his beloved has disappeared from her tumultuous and violent life in Las Vegas, he descends into the whirlwind of their past together and the secrets she hid about her life in a Malaysian refugee camp, including the existence of an estranged daughter. Suzy’s new husband Sonny—who is, by turns, both savage and kind—blackmails Robert into finding the wife he loves and also feels he owns. Robert’s allegiances twist and double-back as he learns the truth about Suzy’s mercurial existence. As his own hopes of reuniting with her hang in the balance, Robert must put himself in one powerful man’s line of fire in order to help mend a broken family bond, just as the golden dragonfish is believed to do.

A sophisticated mystery anchored in one woman’s quest to make amends with the daughter she abandoned, Dragonfish delicately capsizes our notions of what it means to long for escape from the prisons of our own making.

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Review: THIS IS THE HOMELAND by Mary Hickman

HickmanHomelandThis Is the Homeland
Mary Hickman
Ahsahta Press, May 2015
80 pages

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Mary Hickman’s first volume of poetry begins dazzlingly with “Joseph and Mary,” a poem carved out of Joyce’s Ulysses. Whether this was done by dramatic erasure or by mosaic-like re-arrangement of fragments is hard to say, but however it was accomplished, it enchants. Hickman’s distillation of Joyce’s novel carries a distinct flavor of Stephen Dedalus, a Stephen who has perhaps changed genders, but is still a shape-shifting intelligence in exile, looking for a body it can call home.

The body may be the homeland named and claimed in the title. Names of the body parts appear frequently—forearms, hips, glands, knees, feet, spine. The poems sometimes invoke yoga (“The Locust,” “Woodchopper”) or chiropractic (“Spinal Twist”) or even the operating table (“Twelve hours his chest / cracked & / died”), but somehow our best efforts to name and claim the body leave an elusive remainder. “This is the homeland,” the final sentence of the first section of “Territory” confidently asserts, but by the end of the second section the poem is asking, “What land is this?” In This Is the Homeland, the body is both the only place we will ever live and a mystifying, unknowable other.Continue Reading

This Spring’s Must-Reads

Spring Reviews

Spring is in the air, and good books are in our hearts! Read on for our picks for this spring’s best literary offerings.


QuadeNight At The Fiestas
Kirstin Valdez Quade
Norton, March 23
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Kirstin Valdez Quade is one of the National Book Foundation’s 5-Under-35 honorees, and her debut story collection proves that she’s a writer of remarkable depth and precision. With stop-offs in Utah and California, much of the collection is set in Quade’s homeland of New Mexico. Beneath her pen, an almost impenetrable landscape reveals a violent history that still beats with a tender heart.

Each of the ten stories offers a lyrical aria of its own, but together they create the music of generations, of families, and of a people. In “Nemecia,” a young girl hopes to step out from behind her cousin’s shadow by leading the Corpus Christi parade. “Mojave Rats” demonstrates how a day spent in a frigid trailer between mother and daughter can turn into a prescient portrait of their shared inheritance. A man’s ambition to carry the cross and bear the pain of Jesus during Passion week in “The Five Wounds” becomes complicated when his pregnant daughter appears at his doorstep. There are boa constrictors, faux family reunions, blueberry fields, and enough hard-earned resilience to withstand a tough winter, the long absence of a loved one, and the struggle of caring for a new life while growing old.

This is a collection to be celebrated not just for its fine storytelling and subtle sentiment, but for its cultural exploration of those who inhabit the hardened and tortuous lands of the mythic Southwest.

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When We Are Given a Feast of Flesh


How do I remember spaces? Bedrooms, beaches, backseats, bazaars. The time between dreams. Night. The no-man’s land of a twelve-hour flight. I remember the world as words.

I spent my last few weeks in Delhi hunting for books. For relatives, for friends, but, finally, for my own sake: to call back India when I was back in the states, when I was back in the spaces that were so familiar they faded into blurred backgrounds. Reading often works as incantation: in a second I am summoned back to the bookshop where I first flipped through a novel or the waiting room in which I finished the final page.

A place is defined by what I read when I’m there, the words wrestling for attention before memories awake. My months in India involved a mix of glum history, map-filled guidebooks, critical theory with cracked yellow spines, and poetry. So much poetry, in fact, that I bought another grey duffel to check to ship it all back. “What’s in here? Bricks?” asked a friend, hefting one of my bags as we headed to the Indira Gandhi International Airport. Bricks of books that weren’t yet architectures of recollection, reminders of cows crowding the street, cars hugging curbs and honking hello, city skies shot through with smoke and sun.

Give Us This Day a Feast of Flesh by N.D. Rajkumar took up only a little space in my grey duffel. The volume, at barely one hundred pages, contains poetry translated from Tamil by Anushiya Ramaswamy and is bookended by a critical essay examining the history of Dalits in India and their literature.

I bought the Rajkumar at the Oxford Bookstore in Delhi. At the time, I thought Oxford was affiliated with Oxford University Press, and I shrank at the idea of supporting a historically colonial enterprise with my purchase of “alternative” Dalit poetry, a poetry that rallies against caste and hierarchical Brahmin values. The Oxford Bookstore chain actually shares no affiliation with the Press, nor is it even based outside of India. The colorful and clean stylization of the bookstore’s orderly insides betray the ecstatic violence and vulgarities of Rajkumar’s verses, where “I watch the old woman in the moon / Clinging to her walking stick / Bend, spread her legs / And piss into the moon” (50). The next poem ends: “I strike the master in his heart.” Perhaps Rajkumar sings of insurrection, but could I even begin to approach this song in this place that sold expensive infused teas and cappuccinos? “If anyone not our kind / Happens to read this manuscript: / Heads will roll,” Rajkumar raises as an omen in the third song. The poems of Give Us This Day a Feast of Flesh are not named, but numbered, like tallies struck against a maker.Continue Reading

This Winter’s Must-Reads

There is no better way to pass the coldest season of the year than by cozying up with a good book, and 2015 has started off with a bang. Here are our picks for this winter’s best literary offerings.

Asali Solomon
FSG, February 3
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Meet Kenya: acute observer, recurrent sleepwalker, a young woman who feels the shame of being alive. Growing up in West Philadelphia in the 1980s as the daughter of a man obsessed with Frank Lloyd Wright’s butler, Kenya straddles her father’s subversive world and the more stable life her mother desires. After the abrupt dissolution of her parents’ relationship, Kenya attends a mostly white girls’ prep school where she’s forced to learn how to navigate a world she doesn’t have the freedom to call her own.

As she grows, Kenya’s mother and father take turns rescuing their daughter and needing to be rescued by her. Her imprisoned father doesn’t send a single letter; instead he entrusts her with the beginning pages of his novel. Her mother becomes increasingly oblivious as Kenya dodges the lecherously cheerful eye of her stepfather.  She falls for a young artist who is only interested in white girls, she takes a chance and befriends an estranged sister, and she learns the weight of a gun in her hand and the shock of pulling the trigger.

A cutting and contemplative coming-of-age story, Disgruntled deftly charts the lonely terrain of self-discovery and the impenetrable bonds that ever beckon us homeward.

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Michael Earl Craig
Wave Books, April 2014
104 pages

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If you were among those persuaded by Thin Kimono (2010) that Michael Earl Craig was a poet to watch, you may consider your intuitions confirmed. Talkativeness dwells a little more deeply in the voice of that earlier volume, becoming more at home in it, but still capable of surprise.

Craig’s territory is contiguous to the domains of Ashbery, Tate, and Dean Young, but a little further off the interstate, a little lonelier. The natives are kindly but unlikely to offer help unless asked. For that matter, you might get further by simply paying closer attention.

The book’s epigraph, from Yamamoto Tsunetomo, states, “No matter how good what you are saying might be, it will dampen the conversation if it is irrelevant.” But—the following volume seems to ask—how confident can we be that any remark is irrelevant, when it may connect intimately to the topic at hand by unguessable, labyrinthine subterranean channels? How do we know that the apparently tangential is not, in fact, the royal highway to the real?Continue Reading

Review: Dear Lil Wayne

lilwayne_coverDear Lil Wayne
Lauren Ireland
Magic Helicopter Press, April 2014
76 pages

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Joe Wenderoth’s Letters to Wendy’s celebrated its tenth anniversary this year. Sad to say, the book has not aged as gracefully as I had hoped. Every time I bring out a few selections from Letters to Wendy’s, my Intro. to Lit. students alternately roll their eyes or stare blankly at the overhead projector. In all likelihood they are overwhelmed by poetry in general—especially absurdist prose poetry about fast food—and Wenderoth’s epistolary book is hyper-graphic, too. However, I’m also sure that many have never even seen a comment card before and thus fail to understand the overarching conceit of the project.

Perhaps Lauren Ireland’s epistolary poetry collection Dear Lil Wayne is the Letters to Wendy’s of this decade. Continue Reading