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
$26
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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

Sunday_Book_Market,_Daryaganj,_Delhi

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

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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.

disgruntled_asali_solomon
Disgruntled
Asali Solomon
FSG, February 3
$26
Buy: bookebook

 

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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Talkativeness

Talkativeness_for_website_grandeTalkativeness
Michael Earl Craig
Wave Books, April 2014
104 pages
$18.00

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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
$11

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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

Days in the History of Silence

lindstromDays in the History of Silence
Merethe Lindstrom
Other Press, August 2013
240 pages
$14.95

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I’m not very familiar with Norwegian literature, so I can’t comment on whether Merethe Lindstrom’s Days in the History of Silence follows the typical conventions of Norwegian novels. What I can say is that this award-winning work defies many of the conventions I tend to associate with novels written in English—foreshadowing, dialogue formatting, an eventual climax—and to surprisingly memorable effect.

The story is told by Eva, a relatively well-off, retired teacher who, faced with her aging husband’s complete silence, is compelled to dwell in memories of the other silences they’ve created in their lives. She remembers the son she had as a teenager and gave up for adoption; she remembers the fact that her husband, a Jew, survived WWII in hiding as a child; and she remembers the reason they fired Marija, their undocumented immigrant housekeeper and closest friend. These are all stories Eva and Simon never told anyone, not even their three daughters.

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Orange Roses

51xwlRDsvOL._SY300_Orange Roses
Lucy Ives
Ahsahta Press, September 2013
104 pages
$18.00

With the proliferation of graduate programs in creative writing, the day approaches when most poetry published in the United States will have been written by people with graduate degrees in writing poetry—a prospect that may launch a thousand jeremiads. But I will not complain, so long as the academicization of American poetry means we will be getting more books like Lucy Ives’s Orange Roses.

Ives’s poetry is aware of its own processes—as in “Early Poem,” which enumerates its one hundred sentences as they occur (“In the thirteenth sentence I realize I have chosen something”). It is also aware of its own awareness of its own processes, as when the eighty-third sentence forgets to count itself, prompting the admission, “sentence eighty-four contains the question, didn’t you already know that this would start to happen.” For some, this will seem like disappearing down the meta-poetic rabbit-hole.  But the rabbit-hole, remember, is one of the ways to get to Wonderland.

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Toscanelli’s Ray

This review was contributed by Roderick Vincent.

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Toscanelli’s Ray
Wallis Wilde-Menozzi
Cadmus Editions, April 2013
345 pages
$16.95

Wallis Wilde-Menozzi lived in the U.S. and England before moving to Italy in 1981. Perhaps it is this confluence of international perspectives that enlighten the philosophical elements latent in her writing. After publishing Mother Tongue, a memoir, the frequently published poet now explores truth-telling in the freer form of narrative, in her debut novel Toscanelli’s Ray.

The book is set in Florence, Italy. Florence itself is like a scarred face in the narrative, a maiden afraid to gaze into the mirror, and it is Wilde-Menozzi who drags her into the light to show her she is still beautiful. Yet the heart of any city is essentially its people, and the exploration into larger realities within both is a fascinating trail to understanding flickering motes of the human spirit.

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Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge

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Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge
Peter Orner
Little, Brown and Co., August 2013
208 pages
$25.00

This review was contributed by John Francisconi.

The staff of The Paris Review recently took part in an AMA interview on Reddit, during which they were asked a question about flash fiction’s growing popularity. Here’s how they responded:

“Hate it.” —Clare [Fentress]

“Define ‘flash,’ define ‘growing,’ define ‘popularity.’” —Lorin [Stein]

“Love it.” —Justin [Alvarez]

Stein’s noncommittal commands nicely balance out the polarizing reactions that his staff members, and many readers, have to flash fiction. Yet despite the apparent ambivalence, The Paris Review published two very short stories by Peter Orner that appear in his latest collection, Last Car Over the Sagamore Bridge.

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Fun Camp

This review was contributed by Maria Anderson.

Durham-Front-Web-212x300Fun Camp
Gabe Durham
Publishing Genius Press, May 2013
166 pages
$12.95

What happens when Fun is a rule? In Gabe Durham’s Fun Camp, all of the nostalgia-inducing elements are present: letters home, odd counselors, fun and unfun campers, campfires, and hikes that traditionally devolve into hidden woodsy hookups. There are Shame Parades, After-Dinner Digestion Dances, and games of Steal the Bacon. According to the counselors, “What the child really fears are his own boring impulses.” Fun Camp breaks these impulses.

Cracking campers’ hearts open to the credo of fun means enforcing a long list of rules. “Best to think of the ‘rules’ as opportunities,” a counselor says. These opportunities include no drug implements, “no unprescribed speed,” “no not singing,” “no unfun thoughts,” and “no holding back.” Counselors combine these rules with daily structured activities to make the campers stronger, and their greatest joy is when, “in a Come to Fun Camp moment such as this, the boring child expresses true contrition, and repeats with you the three tenets of surrender: I suck but I know it. I’m bland but I’m working on it. I am hated by those who will someday revere me, for as their self-awareness slackens, my power grows.”Continue Reading