“Fish in Exile”

Fish in Exile 01

Poet Vi Khi Nao’s debut novel, published in 2016 by the incredible Coffee House Press. I read a paperback from the library.

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4 out of 5 stars.

Times Read: 1

The Plot:

After the loss of their children, a couple struggles for meaning and purpose in a world that insists on continuing.

Hypnotic, harrowing, confusing. Fish in Exile is a book of moments, unconcerned with cohesion. This style can easily fail but Fish in Exile holds together with beautiful passages and characters that come alive despite their despair and archetypal positioning. The most impressive, essential thing to Fish In Exile‘s success is the wry, dark humor, preventing this from becoming a dirge or a slog.

The book switches perspective between five characters: the parents of the lost children (Ethos and Catholic), Ethos’s mother (Charleen), and two neighbors who were present at the beach when the children died (Lidia and Callisto). Some parts sing brighter than others but the entire experience is worth the journey. Continue reading

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“bury it”

bury it

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

sam sax’s 2018 poetry collection. I read a first edition Wesleyan Poetry Series paperback from the library.

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4 out of 5 stars.

Times Read: 1

I’ve never reviewed poetry here; I don’t feel qualified (all right, I read Spoon River Anthology last year, but that felt more like a short story collection). I don’t consume enough poetry to know what makes it good, but bury it resonated so strongly. I want the world to read it. This is less a review than a pitch: I’m giving you a line or so from each poem in hopes you’ll track down the book.

Pieces titled “will” bookend the work, which is divided into sections: ROPE, DRAW, STONE, TOLL, SUSPENSION. bury it has an intriguing fixation with water – water as life, water as death. Continue reading

“Mars”

Mars

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

 Asja Bakić’s collection of ten short stories, originally published in Croatia in 2015. I read a 2019 Feminist Press edition translated by Jennifer Zoble (from the ever-awesome library).

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3 out 5 stars (all stories averaged).

Times Read: 1

Ten stories that lean pleasingly toward speculative and science fiction. Several feel like excerpts from novels or the genesis of an idea waiting to be fleshed out (“The Guest”, note [32]; “The Underworld, note [40]). Some work on hard-to-penetrate interior nightmare/dream logic (“Day Trip to Durmitor”, note [1]; “Carnivore”, note [24]), some stand wonderfully on their own (“Buried Treasure”, note [8]; “Passions”, note [26]). All are worth experiencing.

The translation by Jennifer Zoble is excellent and the physical quality of the paperback is beautiful (nice, thick pages, smooth cover, perfect size). Continue reading

“The New Me”

The New Me

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Halle Butler’s debut novel. I read a first edition Penguin paperback from the library.

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4 out of 5 stars.

Times Read: 1

The Plot:

Millie is trapped in a cycle of temp jobs, coming home to a dirty apartment, watching television and drinking until she falls asleep. She doesn’t know how to make it better, she doesn’t even know if it could be better.

The New Me stars an angry, lonely, drifting, aimless young white woman who can only afford her Chicago apartment with financial help from her parents. Millie is caustic, thinking thoughts about fellow train passengers like: A man across the train looks at me like I’m the villain, and then he looks down. Now he’s my enemy, too, how does he like that? (p.6). Millie is abrasive. Millie is difficult. I relate; I came so close to living her life.

At first, The New Me plays satirical and satisfying in a nasty way. We look down on the people around Millie when Millie does. Then, about halfway through, a shift: Butler shows us how Millie looks to others, how everyone in her world is lonely and struggling and wanting to be better, wanting to be more. We see Millie’s problems beyond ennui, we see her (refreshingly) loving parents who may be fueling some of her issues without realizing it. Inevitable dread sets in. No matter what Millie does, if she begins her day with a jog or vomiting from a hangover, the world will continue to process her in the same way. The illusion of creating a new self in adulthood is broken.

The strangest thing The New Me does is switch from first-person chapters from Millie’s point of view to very short third-person chapters from other characters’ perspective. These make up only about thirty pages of 191. One character, Karen, shows up multiple times, the others only get the spotlight once. This may turn some people off, but if you connect with The New Me at all, it’s worth the ride.

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“Severance” (Post 2/2)

Severance 02

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Post 1

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[40]

The sex we were having was not romantic. It was matter-of-fact sex, sex that was trying to do something, to stake a claim, to mark territory.

(p.138)

[41] Reference:

In a large, glass exhibition space that looks like the Javits Center.

(p.138-39)

 

The Jacob K. Javits Convention Center, commonly known as the Javits Center, is a large convention center located in Hell’s Kitchen, Manhattan. The controversial and revolutionary space frame structure was begun in 1980, finished in 1986, and named for United States Senator Jacob Javits, who died that year.

[42] Reference:

Bodega snacks, like those Sponch marshmallow cookies.

(p.150)

 

From Amazon’s product description:

Marinela Sponch marshmallow cookies are scrumptious treats that have been loved for generations. Colorful marshmallows sprinkled with coconut and strawberry toppings adorn this delectable cookie.

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“Severance” (Post 1/2)

Severance 01

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Post 2


Ling Ma’s 2018 novel. I read a Farrar, Straus and Giroux first edition from the library.

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 4 out of 5 stars.

 Times Read: 1

The Plot:

Candance Chen, the daughter of deceased Chinese immigrants, clings to her life in New York while Shen Fever destroys the world around her.

Severance has more than a passing resemblance to Laura van den Berg’s Find Me and suffers from a similar problem: the chronological first half of the story (the dissolution of society,  family dynamics and pre-sickness city life of the narrator) is much more interesting than the second half (when survivors band together). Ling Ma holds her book together better than van den Berg by telling both sides of the story throughout the entire book. We alternate between pre-Shen Fever to post-Shen Fever from chapter to chapter, but the New York sections always hold my interest more. The group of survivors never come to life; Candance spends the better part of a year with them and I never feel I know them while her NYC co-workers and lovers seem interesting and complex after single scenes.

Ling Ma combines apocalyptic unease with a moving tale of immigrant experience. The writing is honest; this hardly feels like fiction. I believe everything Candace tells me. She is a loner, set in her ways, unapologetic for her actions. I enjoyed following her and found the touches of satire and black humor spot-on. I loved her frank discussions of sex and personal flaws. I admired the effective moments of horror.

An odd stylistic choice to warn purists about: no quotation marks are used for dialogue but Ling Ma handles this effortlessly; there was only one point where I was confused whether Candace was speaking aloud or thinking in her head. Otherwise, we know exactly who is talking and when. Continue reading

“Territory of Light”

ToL

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Yuko Tsushima’s novel of twelve short stories, originally published in Gunzo magazine in 1978-79, translated by Geraldine Harcourt in 2018. I read a 2019 Farrar, Straus and Giroux first edition from the library.

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4 out of 5 stars.

Times Read: 1

The Plot:

A newly-single mother struggles to maintain her role against inner cruelties and outside stresses while raising her toddler daughter.

Territory of Light is a collection of twelve pieces that read like a novel. It was originally published over the course of a year in a magazine, which gives the chapters an episodic feeling and explains why situations are sometimes reiterated from earlier sections.

I know next to nothing about Yuko Tsushima but this writing has the honesty of autobiography. Even with so personal a story, Tsushima somehow makes it universal. I read Territory of Light in an evening, sometimes close to tears, sometimes shocked by Tsushima’s brutal honesty.

Territory of Light also gets the award for the best use of dreams I’ve encountered in a book. Not too on-the-nose or prophetic; never too personal or specific to understand.

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“Whatever Happened to Interracial Love?”

Whatever Happened to IL

Kathleen Collins’ first posthumous fiction collection. I read a first edition HarperCollins Ecco paperback from the library.

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4 out of 5 stars (all stories averaged).

Collins, who died very young in 1988, was primarily known as a filmmaker, directing two features. She was also (from kathleencollins.org/about) a poet, editor, civil rights activist (who some credit with the first use of “I have a dream”), essayist, teacher, and screenwriter among many other things. It’s worth reading her biography. She lived an incredible life.

The stories in this collection were written in the 1970s but feel shockingly modern. Collins’ voice is fresh and direct, emotional and heartbreaking. Most of the sixteen stories are very short, more like snapshots than fully fleshed-out tales. The fact that they read so well coming unpolished and fragmented from journals is astonishing. The title story, one of the longer pieces, is a standout five-star-story; most others are above average. Continue reading

“Netsuke”

Netsuke

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Rikki Ducornet’s 2011 novel, published by the fantastic Coffee House Press. I read a first edition paperback from the library.

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4 out of 5 stars.

Times Read: 1

The Plot:

A married psychiatrist beds everyone – waitresses, tax consultants, clients, men, women.

This, my friends, is what I wanted American Psycho and Ballard’s Crash to be.

Netsuke is separated into two parts – the first from the psychiatrist’s point of view (in all his arrogant assholery), the second giving perspective to his wife Akiko and two of his clients (who believe they are his sole affair). Ducornet moves between first person and third person with subliminal ease. The writing itself is beautiful, the language graphic and unflinching. There is a thinly veiled madness here, even when our narrator speaks of the simplicity of dinner or his wife’s decorations. Continue reading

“There Will Be No More Good Nights Without Good Nights”

There WIll Be No

[Explanation of Reading Journal Entries/Ratings]

Laura van den Berg’s 2012 chapbook of nine short (short!) stories. I read a 2017 Bull City Press reprint edition.

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3.5 out of 5 stars (all stories averaged).

Times Read: 1

This entire book runs the length of a short story but van den Berg packs plot, emotion, and her usual beautiful writing into each page. The stories live; the characters have a past and future and the mind tries to follow them beyond the story – the sign of a great short story writer.

I hate to admit it, but for years I didn’t think I liked female authors or main characters. This breaks my heart now and I wonder how many great books I’ve missed. I’m thankful that authors like van den Berg have shown me strong, complex, fascinating female characters that I connect to. In the past six months, she’s become one of my favorites.

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