Tag Archives: Summer 2020

Days of Distraction

Alexandra Chang
Ecco ($26.99)

by Bethany Catlin

It’s 2013. Zhang Jing researches, pitches, and submits a review of Sheryl Sandberg’s neo-feminist tome, Lean In. A male editor mauls it, demolishing the nuance of Jing’s review, which she finds published the next day under a simpering title without ever getting her approval. Instead of a thoughtful examination of feminism-gone-corporate, Jing’s work has been reduced to one-note clickbait—and the raise she “leaned in” to ask for months ago has yet to materialize. Lonesome little ironies like this one characterize Jing’s experience as a woman, as a writer, as a daughter, and as a Chinese-American.

Days of Distraction follows Alexandra Chang’s protagonist across the country from her tech journalist job on the West Coast to Ithaca, New York, where her boyfriend J is starting a PhD program at Cornell University. Though journalism does not exactly make her heart sing, Jing is a habitual researcher, hunting for affirmation or red flags in 19th-century news articles, urban dictionary web pages, Pew studies, and the FAQ section of OkCupid.

A glance at the author bio and a serious moment three-quarters through the novel, when J drops the affectionate “Jing Jing” and addresses the narrator as “Alexandra,” reveal that Chang didn’t mine only the internet or The New York Times for her material. Days of Distraction is autofiction, and it honors the genre with a steely self-awareness and a hard look at self-consciousness itself. Jing is willing to consider alternative explanations, to challenge her own perceptions, yet the insistent sexist and racist barriers she cannot stop encountering refuse to evaporate with an attitude adjustment.

Even as she notices how much of her experience goes unnoticed, Jing is refreshingly forthcoming about her own failures of attention. She realizes that she has been mistakenly referring to J’s laboratory work as “eye stuff” when he has actually been studying the genetics that predispose people to strokes. She scoffs at his family’s long-winded attempts to provide directions and dismisses J when he notes that they don’t all have smartphones equipped with Google Maps. On a visit to see her father in China, she describes herself primarily as exhausted by him. She documents her addiction to her phone, and all of the false realities inside it. Jing hopes to be understood without always seeking to understand, but her process of doing so firmly asserts her voice while enmeshing it in the thoughtful context of constant research and moments of unaffected tenderness.

Much of the novel tracks the progression of Jing’s self-concept when she follows her boyfriend across the country (after extensively Googling “trailing spouse”). She is not happy, but she wasn’t exactly happy before. She feels alone, but doesn’t know if she feels alone because she is not white and everyone in Ithaca is, or because she is not white and J is, or because J is always at the lab, or because her job is not satisfying, or because her family is far away, or . . . Much of this pain goes into challenging the limitations of her interracial relationship. And yet, the book always retains its three dimensions, and the beloved tedium of her shared life with a California white boy suffuses the novel with much of its firmest, fullest detail—the rituals of cooking, texting, driving, being. Despite the depictions of those critical gaps in understanding inherent in any heterosexual and especially any interracial relationship, Chang can’t help but make J the most endearing character in the book, loving him onto the page.

Days of Distraction is for anyone who needs a companion story to sit with their experience of being a person of color, or of being a woman, or of being a woman of color. This is also exactly the kind of reading that male and particularly not-white people need to undertake—it spotlights the ways in which one’s ethnicity or gender is inflated in its omnipresence and yet compressed into an archetype in almost every interaction. Jing mulls over an uncomfortable conversation with an overeager white woman: “She didn’t mean anything by it. . . . What does this mean, then?”

Chang’s book is ultimately a deeply comforting one because her protagonist is so often both disappointed and disappointing. It honors dissatisfaction, distraction, and distancing oneself from one’s own life and the characters in it—as well as holding them all inside as treasures, “preciously familiar, like a memory come alive.”


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If it ain't a pleasure, it ain't a poem:
A Conversation between
Dobby Gibson and Matthew Rohrer

Editor’s Note: To celebrate the publication of Matthew Rohrer’s new book The Sky Contains the Plans (Wave Books, $16), Dobby Gibson and Matthew Rohrer were scheduled to converse in the Twin Cities this past April. With that event cancelled for obvious reasons, we asked them to have a conversation anyway, and what follows below is the result. We offer it to our readers as a testament to poetry and friendship in these troubled times. (Please note the conversation was conducted prior to the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis.)

Matthew Rohrer is the author of several books and chapbooks, including The Others (Wave Books, 2017), which won the Believer Book Award, and A Hummock in the Malookas (Norton, 1995), selected for the National Poetry Series by Mary Oliver. He was one of the founders of the magazine Fence, and teaches in the writing program at New York University.

Dobby Gibson is the author of Polar (Alice James Books, 2004), which won the Beatrice Hawley Award, and three subsequent collections published by Graywolf Press, most recently Little Glass Planet ($16), named a Top Book for Spring 2019 by BuzzFeed. A recipient of fellowships from the Lannan Foundation, the McKnight Foundation, the Jerome Foundation, and the Minnesota State Arts Board, he lives and works in St. Paul, Minnesota.


Dobby Gibson: Hello to you, friend, from a socially distanced 1,201 miles. It’s hard to imagine you confined in New York City during this terrifying pandemic. Your poems are so full of walking around the city, and crowds and subways and ferries, and allowing your eye to wander out the window into the streets and sky. What’s life like for you under shelter-in-place?

Matthew Rohrer: Hi Dobby. It’s particularly bittersweet to be talking to you this way today, when I would have been on a plane on my way to see you, and do some readings for our books in your delightful city. Instead I am sitting on my couch, like millions of other people. And the truth is, I’m sure my experience is exactly like theirs too. And much better than many people’s. I’m very lucky to have enough food, and lots of boxes of wine, and a family that I actually like to spend time with. In terms of the poems—you know, I used to be a stay-at-home dad for five years, and figured out how to write without outside, outdoor stimulation. Maybe that seems odd to some people—aren’t poets just supposed to be in their garrets alone anyways?—but for me, I’ve always needed to or wanted to be out in the city, walking around, getting an electrical charge from the people, their speech, the energy of the city. So now we have a mourning dove nest on our fire escape and I call the mother Desiree, and I think about her a lot.

DG: This new book of yours is wild and wonderful, and like all of your books, so incredibly companionable. When I heard you read from it in New York City last month, I overheard someone leaving the event say to a friend, “I suddenly remember what it’s like to like poetry again.” It was such a wonderful compliment—but also so damning for the genre. It makes me wonder how you think about the relationship between poetry and pleasure. Why is it that so many people perceive poetry fails them in this regard?

MR: Have you heard that talk that Williams gave where he says “If it ain’t a pleasure, it ain’t a poem?” There’s also an online thing where you can listen to him say that on endless loop for 10 hours. I imagine fleets of helicopters descending over every cultural hub in America, playing that from weather-proof speakers attached to their undercarriages. I also think people misunderstand this quote—it doesn’t mean poems have to be funny or silly. I think Etheridge Knight’s poems are a pleasure to read, and they’re not silly at all. I also want to suggest, Dobby, that a part of this comment was aimed at you; your reading that night was really filled with light and pleasure too. I think people, at least in that audience, were unused to hearing someone so disarmingly gentle and truly questioning. There’s a duende to your poems that outs other people’s bossy poems as the narrow-ass things they are.

DG: That’s very nice of you to say. Now I have to ask you this, perhaps the biggest question on anyone’s mind right now about you and your new book: Did you wear special pajamas while writing these hypnagogic poems?

MR: Like many people in America, I wear a new-ish species of pant known as “resting pants” or “lounging pants” that are remarkably cheap because they are made by slaves in factories far away.

I want to ask you a question now: We just read together at NYU, and were going to give a couple readings for our latest books, and I wondered if you think there’s anything different about reading now, especially on the road, as compared to when we were younger?

DG: Readings feel less important to me than when I was younger. But I don’t believe my feelings about the act itself have changed much. At the risk of revealing my Midwestern inferiority complex, when I read out of town—or in town—both of which are rare enough to be special occasions, I still assume I’m viewed as an unknown and possibly unworthy interloper, and that my only chance at survival is to gingerly disarm an audience predisposed to reject me. No one has any professional obligation to like my work, and I’m not going to dazzle anyone with an outsized stage presence, that’s for sure. I love and dread that feeling of sending a tiny poem machine into a strange room and discovering what material it can gather from the lunar surface.

Too much uproarious laughter or cheesy gasps or too many sounds of assent and I’ll become suspicious of my poem. Same too, of course, for anything met by polar silence. I suppose this gets back to the complicated relationship between poetry and pleasure.

I have this thought about poetry readings and your work, perhaps confirmed by the afterword to your book, that the high-wire word-by-word collaboration readings you did with Joshua Beckman back in 2001 were the moment you were bit by the radioactive spider. That changed forever the way your poems think and move, and even your relationship to the line. Is that fair or am I wildly overstating things in my resting pants?

MR: I think that sounds right. It didn’t really change my relationship to readings though—I still find them strange and uncomfortable. Also did you know I just figured out I have social anxiety? I realized this at age 48. It explains so much about me. But yes, those intensive couple years working non-stop with Joshua definitely changed almost everything about how I approach poems. And here’s a funny thing he taught me that sort of ties these two threads together: he used to go to a bi-monthly open mic reading in the deepest recesses of Staten Island, where no one there knew who he was at all, and he’d read only as a way to edit his poems. He’d read his poems aloud to people and like you were saying, too much of anything—assent, dissent, laughter, gasps—helped him understand what kind of editing the poem needed. Once he took a bunch of us there with Tomaž Šalamun and we all read to a room full of people who were very polite.

DG: A secret Staten Island open mic workout regimen sounds very Joshua. He’s like the Rick Rubin of American poetry to me. He’s a student of the inner game in ways I will never be, in all my impatience.

I have been cleaning out old drawers during quarantine, and I rediscovered a promotional flyer from one of my strangest poetry readings, which was a campaign event for a U.S. House candidate a long time ago. He asked a few artists to play music or read poems or whatever at this rah-rah thing, and I participated, even though he wouldn’t be representing my district, because he was a DFLer and I generally believed in his cause. I remember this wave of regret crashing over me on the drive home. Even though I read preexisting poems, I felt used. The whole thing felt absurdly extracurricular. It felt as if I allowed my art to be domesticated and brought to heel. I swore to myself I would never do such a thing again and I would try harder to protect poetry as the one part of myself that was truly free. I don’t know if that makes sense or if I sound like the Muppet Sam the Eagle.

MR: Of course it does! They have to be so free that even your friends might not like them. They have to be so free that you might not even like them. I’m reminded of that scene in Starship Troopers where the teacher tells Rico “Figuring things out for yourself is the only freedom anyone really has.” I think that’s partly true, and then there are your poems, where you can also be free, where you can try to demonstrate what real freedom might look like.

DG: It’s like that great C. D. Wright quote: “It is a function of poetry to locate those zones inside us that would be free and declare them so.” Here we are, subjected by this huckster racist autocrat, trapped inside amid a global pandemic: What else do we have to go on?

You have been reading the letters of Lew Welch. I’m interested in any poet who found a way to live outside of the academic world—I’m always looking for another model. It’s my understanding that Welch—who was the stepfather to 1980s rocker Huey Lewis!—in his days as an advertising copywriter, created the tagline “Raid Kills Bugs Dead,” which is so great. What can we learn from him?

MR: Isn’t that such a great line? RAID KILLS BUGS DEAD. It’s all accents. It’s like swearing at someone. I think Welch is an under-appreciated poetry hero and maybe what he has to teach us, besides the ability to be an incredible poet without having students tagging along after you, is that if you really want to be good, and if you just hole up and put in a ton of work, you’ll come out the other side good. It might also be that he teaches us that you can be surrounded by much more famous friends and secretly be better than them.

DG: Are you familiar with Brian Eno’s concept of “scenius.” It’s the idea that a localized cultural ecosystem is superior to individual creativity, and a network is superior to a hierarchy. It’s an idea I’ve seen embraced by tech bros, which makes me skeptical. But now I wonder about Lew Welch and San Francisco scenius versus genius. Or Etheridge Knight. He seems far more genius than scenius, but what would he be without the pool halls of Kentucky or the friendship of Gwendolyn Brooks? There’s something quaint about the idea of scenius now that we’re all so interconnected as to have formed a collective biohazard.

I heard the poet Sun Yung Shin once say that being a good poet means being a good ancestor. I like thinking about her words in different ways. One way I think about them: As poets especially, our “scene” isn’t restricted by time or place, or life or death. I feel as if I’m writing in conversation with Du Fu as much as I am you.

MR: I didn’t know about that Eno idea but it makes sense; it seems to explain Seattle in the ’90s, or even the Lake District in the 1790s. And I totally agree with “being a good ancestor”! I think poets who do not count among their contemporaries and friends the dead poets are pretty quickly outed as not really poets. Or maybe just outed as young poets, who have yet to figure that out. I wonder who you turn to when you need a poetry recharge, or maybe especially now that we are all frozen in time and worried and people are dying all around us and losing jobs and everything is so FUBAR. . . . Are there poets that help you with your brain? Are there poets that help you with your poetry? I’m curious because to me your poems are so very much YOU—they always feel so firmly planted in the present. But I wonder who you have hidden underneath them?

DG: Stevens and O’Hara for sure, but I rarely reach for their books, the poems are so in me. I tend to self-diagnose, Web MD-style. If I’m feeling unimaginative, maybe I grab an old Field Translation Series book, like Miroslav Holub or someone like that. If I’m feeling inattentive, it might be Issa or Adelia Prado. If I’m unmotivated, Eileen Myles or Terrance Hayes or Hopkins or someone with a real song. When I need to access even more of my Scandinavian pain—and how could that be anything but a really good idea—there’s Tranströmer or Malena Morling.

Here’s a great and forgotten book: False Prophet by Stan Rice. He was married to Anne Rice. The book picks up at Psalm 151 where the Bible left off. He wrote it on his deathbed.

Really, though, I’d much rather be infected by a poet or poem when my guard is down. It’s one of the only reasons I stay on Twitter: reading people’s screenshots of good poems, which I then save to my phone. But, good God, do I have to read a lot of garbage to be struck by one golden poem.

I like it when you send me a poem out of the blue. Will you tell me who you read when you need to remember the taste of poetry—and then will you send me a poem?

MR: Usually when I need to retreat, to freshen up, it’s because the Voice of Modernity has spread all around me like this vulgar little virus we have with us now. I have to, and want to, read a lot of contemporary poetry, and after awhile, and this might sound untrue, but there is a Contemporary Sound that permeates even the most disparate poets. There’s this texture of modernity that everyone just floats on and in, and despite the insanely great and impressive range of poetry right now, it begins to irk me, and I need to escape to a different diction. Today by the way is Wordsworth’s birthday, and I love his early work. Not the lame stuff. Just the good stuff. And Williams, honestly reading Williams is sometimes too humbling—have you read the poems in Spring and All recently? They’re completely up-to-date. And they make me wonder what I have to offer. They sort of make me feel terribly small and useless, and I think that’s a great feeling that not enough artists have; they all for the most part feel the exact opposite. I think the secret is to only read poets whose first and last names begin with W.

And perhaps not for this publication, but just to ease and calm you my friend, I find this observational poem by Shelley to be life-affirming in its exactness:

Evening, Ponte Al Mare, Pisa

1.

The sun is set; the swallows are asleep;
The bats are flitting fast in the gray air;
The slow soft toads out of damp corners creep,
And evening's breath, wandering here and there
Over the quivering surface of the stream,
Wakes not one ripple from its summer dream.

2.

There is no dew on the dry grass to-night,
Nor damp within the shadow of the trees;
The wind is intermitting, dry, and light;
And in the inconstant motion of the breeze
The dust and straws are driven up and down,
And whirled about the pavement of the town.

3.

Within the surface of the fleeting river
The wrinkled image of the city lay,
Immovably unquiet, and forever
It trembles, but it never fades away;
Go to the [East]
You, being changed, will find it then as now.

4.

The chasm in which the sun has sunk is shut
By darkest barriers of cinereous cloud,
Like mountain over mountain huddled — but
Growing and moving upwards in a crowd,
And over it a space of watery blue,
Which the keen evening star is shining through.


Click here to purchase The Sky Contains the Plans
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Rain Taxi Online Edition Summer 2020 | © Rain Taxi, Inc. 2020

Essays: One

Lydia Davis
Farrar, Straus and Giroux ($30)

by John Toren

Unlike those literary artists who begin to write under the compulsion to give form to personal experiences or complex social situations, Lydia Davis seems to have been driven by nothing more than the desire to be a writer. As she confesses,

Both my parents . . . had had stories published in The New Yorker, which loomed large in our life, as some sort of icon, though an icon of exactly what I’m not sure—good writing and editing, urban wit and sophistication? By age twelve, I already felt I was bound to be a writer, and if you were going to be a writer, the choices were limited: first, either poet or prose writer; then, if prose writer, either novelist or short-story writer.

Though it would be difficult to characterize her achievement in a few words, Davis’s entire career is a testament to the value of ignoring such genre conventions.

Anyone who picks up the current volume anticipating the anecdotal humor of a Nora Ephron or the socio-cultural sweep of a Joan Didion, however, is likely to be bewildered and perhaps disappointed. For the most part, Davis is less interested in “life” than in the words and forms we use to describe it. Her stories sometimes have a recognizable shape, and her essays sometimes arrive at firm conclusions. But what readers most often find refreshing in her work, whatever the form, is the honesty and clarity she brings to it, and also the disarming awkwardness that sometimes accompanies these qualities. Her writing is methodical to a fault and devoid of lyric flair. To read her at any length is to be startled, jangled, entranced, and sometimes slightly annoyed.

Davis’s willingness to put thoughts to paper without regard to what kind of piece will result presents a challenge for editors shouldered with the responsibility of corralling them into separate collections. To take an example, in the piece “To Reiterate,” which runs to less than a page, Davis analyses the remark by Michel Butor that “to travel is to write, because to travel is to read.” She compounds that analysis by introducing the remark of George Steiner that “to translate is also to read, and to translate is to write.” What follows is a Gordian knot of semi-specious phrases on the order of “if to read is to translate, and to translate is to write, to write to travel, to read to travel, to write to read, to read to write, and to travel to translate; then to write is also to write, and to read is also to read, and even more . . .” And so on.

This piece appears not in Essays One, however, as one might expect, but in her The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, which appeared in 2009. On the other hand, a piece from the present collection, “The Impetus Was Delight: A Response by Analogy to the Work of Joseph Cornell,” begins as follows:

In the home of the Baker Carpet Cleaning family, the box with many compartments containing the mother’s heteroclite collection, waterfalls, plants, a plethora of fur-niture, vases, clocks, lamps, birds appearing and re¬appearing in motifs in the furniture and china as though alive, rapid heartbeats, Florida room, California room, Florida mug with flamingos . . .

The inventory continues non-stop for several pages. Though such a piece is intended to bear some relation to the assemblages of Joseph Cornell, it might be more at home in a short story collection.

Among the wide range of pieces gathered here are several conventional literary portraits—for example, an essay on Madame Bovary that first appeared as an introduction to Davis’s highly regarded translation of that seminal novel for Penguin Books. Other portraits focus on modern French authors closer to Davis’s own unorthodox writing approach, for example Michel Leiris and Michael Butor. Davis shows us another side of her art in a piece on American novelist Edward Dahlberg. She begins by locating on her bookshelf the precise location of three of Dahlberg’s books, which are sandwiched between Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast and Robert Creeley’s The Collected Prose. She describes both of these neighbors in some detail before taking up the works of Dahlberg himself, and she also takes the time to describe a dinner party during which a conversation took place about Dahlberg’s work:

I ask Ursule [Molinaro] what she thinks of Dahlberg. But that is after she has asked me, and the company in general, about Jane Bowles, whom she does not like, preferring Paul Bowles, as though one must choose between them. She likes Buzzati, Giorgio Manganelli, and one of our present company, Stadler, as well as Jaimy Gordon . . .

Davis goes on to site similarities between Jane Bowles’s work and Molinaro’s and brings Creeley back into the discussion before returning, three pages into the essay, to its ostensible subject, Edward Dahlberg:

I know Dahlberg interests me, though, again, I have read only a little, a long time ago, a few passages from one book or two. That was enough at the time, enough to learn something from, and to know to keep that book, and keep it handy. I always intended to read more of it, the rest of it, and more of his other books, just as I always intended, and still intend, to read the rest of other books, the whole of many other books, on my shelves, later—as though, when I retire. But retire from what?

This is hardly an orthodox way to begin an essay, but it sets us squarely within the environment from which our interest in Dahlberg or any other author is likely to develop: books on the shelf, conversation in a restaurant, reading and the insatiable desire to read more. These pages are vintage Davis, and they also expose her debt to a camp of European writers whom she greatly admires, a camp that includes Kafka and Beckett, Thomas Bernhard and Peter Handke. Davis’s prose typically lacks the intensity of these angst-ridden artists, however, and her deliberate approach to her subjects occasionally carries the ring of a ditsy script for a YouTube video.

Yet these same qualities are among the ones that endear her to many readers. They strike the tone of a high school English teacher who loves both literature and her students, and strives with selfless sincerity to introduce the one to the other. This is true especially of the essays—and there are quite a few—in which Davis proffers advice about how to write. The gist of her advice could be summarized in a few words: observe carefully; record diligently, especially when you’re not inspired; trust your own judgment; and resist the urge to bend your impressions into conventional forms. Davis is quick to admire the same qualities in other contexts. For example, in an essay that eventually works its way around to examining some passages from the Bible, she praises Thomas Jefferson for his “confidence in his own abilities and independence of thinking, independence from the norm, the accepted, a readiness to question the received, the conventional. He must have been moved by some dissatisfaction, nonacceptance—dissatisfaction with this conventional desk, with this grand staircase—and also by the pure pleasure in doing the thing himself, in poiein, ‘making.’”

Davis’s recount of her own growth as a writer suggests that in the early years she possessed little of the confidence she finds in Jefferson’s protean creative efforts. Yet she, too, loves to make things, and as this collection makes clear, she has long since figured out more than one way to make them.


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A Voice of the Warm:
The Life of Rod McKuen

Barry Alfonso
Backbeat Books ($29.95)

by Walter Holland

Singer-songwriter-poet Rod McKuen was a strange, self-conflicted, and tragic figure; an artist of frenetic creativity, he was also a closeted gay man who became trapped in his illusory pop persona as a mellow, lovelorn, balladeer and bard. His complexities do not lend themselves to easy narrative, and his tendency to embellish or outright lie, not to mention his frequent pandering for his own commercial self-interests, leaves one on unsteady ground when trying to explain all of his contradictions. Toward this end, biographer Barry Alfonso tries to separate fact from fiction, and to point out McKuen’s many irregularities, with mixed results.

Alfonso chalks up this obsession with popular acceptance, success, love, and adulation to McKuen’s illegitimate birth, unknown and absent father, and hardscrabble adolescence. This may be indeed one thread of the story, but Alfonso tends to play more partisan sleuth than impartial biographer; the scant facts of McKuen’s childhood create an invitation for subjective overreach. Worse, Alfonso sometimes fails to read his own unearthed clues, and falls into acting as a defender, publicist, and enabler for McKuen; he ends up besting the “King of Kitsch” at his own game by claiming him as a pop music innovator, populist poet, almost messianic icon, and mainstream entertainment Svengali.

In essence, McKuen’s tale is one that stakes familiar ground in American pop culture: the impoverished dysfunctional roots, the determined rise to towering fame, and then the slow slide into an inglorious end, which in McKuen’s case even includes self-imposed isolation within a once-luxurious mansion. This is in some ways a cautionary tale of how an abused kid struggles to play David in the face of numerous Goliaths: snobbish, pretentious critics; crass recording and publishing managers, agents, and handlers; and liberal-minded effete hypocrites who we are told hated or envied his brand of populist sentimentality and Middle-American appeal. Even gay activists who sought to “label” McKuen as homosexual are excoriated for trying to reign in this free spirit’s fluid and uncontentious nature.

But there are often furtive contradictions in McKuen. Early on, Alfonso tells us McKuen might have attended several meetings of the Mattachine Society in Los Angeles, and holds this up as proof of McKuen’s gay activism and lifelong commitment to affirm human sexual rights and espouse a love-for-love’s-sake, inclusive philosophy. But Mattachine was still a closeted organization, one that proposed an assimilationist strategy to recast homosexual men as wholesome, non-threatening Americans. McKuen hardly stays, disappearing after only one or two meetings.

These details of McKuen’s life are indeed fascinating, and they present a poignant, complex, and tender tale of an oddly-overlooked American pop cultural phenom. As such, this book joins the continued revisionist effort to out Hollywood’s gay, bisexual, and queer artists and dream-makers, including gay men such as Mike Connolly, Cary Grant, Rock Hudson, and Henry Wilson. Alfonso’s exhaustive research, merged with his expertise as a music journalist as well as accomplished songwriter, has unearthed an in-depth history of McKuen, his friends, his lovers, and his trail of joy and tears.

But Alfonso’s obsession with defending McKuen and his fervor at disproving elitist criticism forces his narrative into a mire of hyperbole and a repetitive, reflexive pop-psychology, one delivered in easy, single-sentence catch-phrases. Even Alfonso’s “Introduction” to his book seems defensive from the get-go: “Singer-Songwriter-Poet Rodney ‘Rod’ Marvin McKuen (1933-2015) is arguably the most successful popular artist of his time who has never had a biography written about him. Why?”

This aggressive rhetorical question, one supposes, is used to pique curiosity and draw us into the rest of the book. But after a brash listing of McKuen’s many claims to fame, we are told of the legions of critics who refused to “concede that this ‘King of Kitsch’ had an outstanding talent for anything except fleecing his customers.” Dick Cavett, Karl Shapiro, and Nora Ephron are all implicated as having cast Rod as a “clever hack, who cranked out treacly songs and superficial poems as if they were Hostess cupcakes, with utter cynicism.” Alfonso continues by suggesting they felt McKuen’s “sensitive-poet act was a con, a snare for the mentally lazy and the aesthetically stunted.” Then he writes:

This last line of thinking is important to note, because these critics looked down upon not only McKuen but his audience as well. That anyone would lap up such cloying pap was prima facie evidence of Middle American mediocrity. That these fans seemed to worship Rod as something more than an entertainer and writer of greeting-card verse only reinforced their indictment.

Harsh words indeed, and ones bearing a resentment that seems to be more rooted in 2019 Trumpian rhetoric than in good journalism. McKuen’s life was indeed veiled in braggadocio and a manic, impulsive work-drive; his output of songs, poems, and merchandising was spectacular, but so were his failed schemes, projects, and relationships. Alfonso’s defensive posturing and frequent editorializing seem to prevent him from seeing the clear and troubling signs of falsity and rampant commercialist opportunism in his subject. When they come up in the narrative, time and again he easily attributes them to familial upset, the absent father, the mean bi-coastal elitists, and overly-ironic leftists. There is a sense of protection and fealty to McKuen’s memory that feels oddly out of place, and that impairs what is otherwise a useful and interesting biography.


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Light it Up


Kekla Magoon
Henry Holt ($18.99)

by George Longenecker

Although young Black people have often been the victims of police shootings, their voices have been seldom heard in young adult literature. Kekla Magoon is part of a wave of writers changing that. Her novel Light it Up follows up her earlier novel, How it Went Down, in which sixteen-year-old Tariq Johnson dies from gunshot wounds. Magoon, who is Cameroonian-American and teaches at Vermont College of Fine Arts, has established herself as a young adult novelist with 11 books including Camo Girl. She’s received the NAACP Image Award, two Coretta Scott King Honors, and was the Kellogg-Hubbard Library Honored Author of 2019.

Light it Up is written in multiple voices, including Tina, Tariq’s sister from the earlier novel. The place, Peach Street, has a voice, reminiscent of James Baldwin’s If Beale Street Could Talk. Peach Street, like Beale Street, is a place where justice seems elusive and futile. Magoon’s fictional Peach Street in Underhill could be Ferguson, MO, or any one of dozens of places where similar shootings have happened.

Shae Tatum, a 13-year-old Black student, is returning home when confronted by a white police officer. She’s big for her age, and she has learning disabilities. With her ear buds in and hood up, she doesn’t even notice the cop, who yells and barely gives her time to respond before shooting her.

Each chapter and character bears witness. “Tina,” “Brick, “Eve,” a “Witness,” and many more give the reader first-person perspectives on the shooting and the community protests that follow. We also hear from community organizers, from a white supremacist internet personality, and from the shooter’s daughter (who’s been ostracized at school in the wake of her father’s actions). Magoon succeeds in giving multiple perspectives without diluting the message that Black lives are being taken needlessly and heedlessly. The many protagonists and perspectives can be hard to keep track of, but this doesn’t detract from the message. Their voices are clear and direct.

There is no closure in this novel, and we are left wondering about the fate of at least one character and of the fictional Underhill. So it is in the Black Lives Matter movement. There has yet been no closure and no conclusion—except that being a Black kid can get you killed.

Kekla Magoon is a talented young adult author who will reach her target audience as well as older readers with Light it Up. Call them personal narratives or soliloquies: These are gripping testimonials to injustice in a community poorly served by oppressive law enforcement. There are times when fiction speaks truth more simply, effectively, and eloquently than nonfiction. This novel is one of those times.


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Be Not Far From Me


Mindy McGinnis
Katherine Tegen Books ($18.99)

by Olivia Vengel

If you chop off your own foot in a possibly abandoned meth lab in the wilderness and no one is there to hear you scream, are you still whole? Seasoned YA author Mindy McGinnis’s novel, Be Not Far From Me, explores woman versus nature against a backdrop of the perilous Smoky Mountains. Her protagonist Ashley, like many narrators in wilderness novels before her, has been placed in an uninhabitable landscape and must fight for survival, as after running away from her friends during a camping trip, Ashley wakes up with a severely injured foot and no way home. Fast-paced, dangerous, and maybe a little bit cliché at points, McGinnis’s prose carries the reader along, unharmed, as Ashley fights her way through the forest.

McGinnis’s greatest strength lies in her narrator’s voice and her close connection with the natural world and its harsh realities. From the opening, Ashley is shown to be more in tune to nature than the other characters, having instincts in the wilderness that her friends don’t. She understands the brutality of nature and the way of life in the wild, and it shows in beautiful passages of description and introspection: “One animal’s death is another’s dinner; that’s just the way it is. What remains will go to the earth, yesterday’s bones sinking into today’s dirt, the only bit of life left where a mouse nibbled, leaving tiny indentations that say there was once something of worth there.”

Such musing on life’s tragedies and the road through them, intertwined with Ashley’s matter-of-fact tone, is for the most part done well, allowing the reader to stay in the character’s head without tiring of her. As she wanders through the mountains Ashley reflects on her past, specifically an old friend who met his demise in the very woods she walks through. While we don’t quite get a complex view of him or their relationship, the subplot highlights how comforting it is to read from the perspective of a narrator who thinks so deeply and realistically about tragedy and its lessons.

There are moments where McGinnis’s hand feels a bit heavy, most often when Ashley interacts with other characters. For example, when comparing herself to her best friend, Ashley says, “She is constantly horrified by the bruises on my legs that blossom under poison ivy rashes; I’m equally turned off by her manicures and the fact that she wing-tipped her eyeliner before coming on this hike.” As with many YA novels, these eyeroll moments come whenever Ashley points out a bit too obviously that she is Not Like Other Girls.

But she isn’t, and this novel isn’t quite like others either. It’s rare to find a book whose protagonist is a self-sufficient young woman who surmounts physical conflict with only her own mind and will power, and does so likeably. McGinnis gives us that and more.


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Bleach or Pinot Noir?
Susan M. Gaines and Jean Hegland
in Conversation

Novelists Susan M. Gaines and Jean Hegland have been exchanging and discussing drafts of their books for nearly thirty years. Earlier this year, they found themselves sheltering in place together in Jean and her husband’s northern California home. At the beginning of March, Susan traveled from Germany, where she has been living and working for many years, to the AWP Conference in San Antonio, the first stop in a book tour for her new novel, Accidentals (Torrey House Press, $18.95). A week later, she was at Jean’s house preparing for the rest of the tour, but in rapid order her book tour was canceled, Germany closed its borders, and California issued “stay at home” orders. In the conversation below, conducted over ten weeks of quarantine, Susan and Jean reflect on their communal writing life in the midst of pandemic.

Susan M. Gaines is the author of the novels Accidentals and Carbon Dreams (Creative Arts, 2000) as well as the science narrative Echoes of Life (Oxford University Press, 2008). Her stories have appeared in the North American Review, Missouri Review, Best of the West, and other anthologies, and been nominated twice for the Pushcart Prize. She is founding director of the Fiction Meets Science Program at the University of Bremen in Germany.

Jean Hegland’s first novel, Into the Forest (Calyx, 1996), has been translated into seventeen languages and adapted as a Canadian film (starring Ellen Page and Evan Rachel Wood) and a French graphic novel. She is also the author of Windfalls (Atria, 2004), which tells the parallel stories of two mothers, and Still Time (Arcade, 2015), about an aging Shakespeare scholar’s final encounters with the plays.


The rains have ended. Despite all the news of death and mayhem, they feel the pull of spring in the forest—the buoyant air, the mating birds and wildflowers, the lengthening days. . . . They go for afternoon runs or walks—Jean scanning the ground for scat and tracks, Susan scanning the canopy for birds. The days are punctuated by the household’s ritualistic inquiries: Did you sleep? Did you get time with the book? Whatcha working on? What should we make for dinner? Is it late enough to open the wine? Do we want to watch a movie tonight? They write or try to write. They watch the movie Honeyland, but it’s too sad. They try Picard, but it’s too violent. They order lots of books. Susan makes a trip to Safeway for supplies, which they decontaminate on the deck. They’re some three weeks into their quarantine, but already losing track of time.

Jean Hegland: I’ve long dreamed of the two of us sharing a months-long writer’s retreat—or at least not living so far apart. Now, of course, as wonderful as it is to have you installed in our back bedroom, I keep thinking about how awful it must feel for you to be stuck in our forest right now, so far from your own home, watching the pile-up of deaths and collapse of the world economy and ever-more-idiotic and dangerous pronouncements from the White House, instead of traveling around talking about the magnificent novel you poured your soul and intellect into for so many years.

Susan M. Gaines: It’s not awful here. It’s beautiful. I’m stuck in a place, if not a house, that is as much home to me as any. We’re in the woods, and the sun is shining. I can run for miles without seeing another human. Every time we have this conversation, I can only think about how privileged we are out here, basically doing what we always do, still healthy, finances not unaffected, but more than sufficient. What I feel is guilty. Every feeling of disappointment comes with a disclaimer attached.

JH: Accidentals is such a rich, intelligent mix of science and natural history, politics and family history, and fabulous storytelling. I’m heartbroken that it was released at such a bad time, just as everything shut down.

SMG: It’s a bad time to release any book. But I actually think it’s precisely the right time for Accidentals to be out in the world, just as people find themselves turning to both science and the natural world for comfort and meaning. It’s a story that reminds us of how the past shadows the present and shapes the future—of how easily and how often the existential problems of mass extinction and climate change have been eclipsed by seemingly more immediate, concrete threats such as the Cold War, terrorism, financial crisis . . . and, now, a deadly pandemic.

This is what’s so frustrating to me—it’s the perfect time for Accidentals to be released, but with bookstores closed and everyone’s attention riveted on pandemic news, I wonder how readers will ever find it.

JH: That’s the same problem the new Spanish edition of Into the Forest is facing. It was released just days before all of Spain was quarantined, and while the press, Errata Naturae, has done a heroic job of trying to bring En el Corazon del Bosque to the attention of readers, I suspect its readership will also be much diminished due to this infinitely larger tragedy.

SMG: The pandemic is affecting the literary world in so many different ways. Torrey House Press, for example, is a nonprofit environmental and literary press with a small salaried staff of publishing professionals, and I hate to think what the financial failure of Accidentals and their other spring and summer releases might mean for their future.


Four weeks into their quarantine. Susan sprains her little toe and can’t run. They spend whole days on the phone and Zoom with relatives and friends. Jean applies her rusty sewing skills to making masks. Susan accidentally kills a little brown wood rat that the cat brought in. Jean braves a trip to Costco. They see a tiny coral colored snake they’ve never seen before. Jean and Douglas clear dead trees along the road, preparing for fire season. On the second Yahrzeit of Susan’s husband Stephan’s death, they huddle in the alcove near the router to attend a Zoom Baz Mitzvah for Jean and Douglas’s twin granddaughters, from their living room in Chico. They sob and laugh. It feels strangely hopeful.

JH: While it’s one thing to consider what this pandemic means for the books we’ve already written, it’s yet another to consider its impact on the books we’re currently writing.

SMG: For me, it’s hard to separate the impact of the pandemic from all the other circumstances of work on this new, half-conceived novel. The thing about working on a book for as long as I worked on Accidentals is that you forget how to start something new, how to face the blank page, how to hear a new voice. And in this case, the whole process was aggravated—blocked really—by Stephan’s sudden death, and my endless, debilitating grief. But I thought I had at least settled the major issues and characters for this story, and I was looking forward to digging in—this book tour had some free weeks built in that I was hoping to dedicate to research and writing… And now, you’d think I’d have all the time in the world . . . But, well.

JH: In that sense, I think I have it easier than you, because my new novel is much closer to being finished than your new project is. I’d like to think that the first three-quarters of the book are in pretty darn good shape, especially thanks to the months I spent in residence at the Jan Michalski Foundation last fall. So as hard as it’s been for me to concentrate on writing of late, at least I know what I want to try to accomplish when I do manage to show up at my desk.

SMG: The other day, you came in from your writing hut with this completely jubilant smile on your face. You mumbled something about “generating new messes,” and you looked like you’d just launched yourself off a cliff and realized you could fly—you’re in the end-run, for sure. I can’t wait to read a complete draft with our writers’ group, hear what the guys think about that marvelous, quirky voice—I’ve come to think of that book’s main character as if he’s some mutual acquaintance of ours, rather than a character you invented. Maybe the four of us can actually get together, sit around the big deck table, six feet apart…

JH: I’d be utterly sunk if I were trying to begin a new project right now.

SMG: My non-existent new novel suffers from a lot of pre-existing conditions that I can’t blame on the pandemic. But I thought I was ready to leap off the cliff and fly with it, generate some nice messes. . . . And now the pandemic has me second-guessing each of my decisions about the timing and setting and even the main themes of the book. We never know the future circumstances in which a book will be read, but we assume—we have to assume—some coherence with the past. Ironically, that’s precisely the reason Accidentals seems so timely right now. It’s about the society that bred this moment, the past that shadows it. But as I face the blank page now, I have the feeling we are facing such a paradigm shift—or universal breakdown—in society, that anything I write will instantly be rendered irrelevant for future readers.

JH: Remember how in the aftermath of 9/11 it seemed impossible to write anything that didn’t somehow take it into account, even if what we were writing was set pre-9/11?

SMG: Imagine deciding to plot out a novel that features both a pandemic and a raving sociopath—the leader of the richest so-called democracy in the world—who tells citizens to drink bleach to get rid of the virus—

JH: Our writers’ group would have shot this down in the first draft.


Six weeks into their quarantine. A pair of Hutton’s vireos build a nest on the back bathroom window sill. Susan convinces them to stay on the nest while she showers. Jean’s new hive of bees is thriving. Susan is running again. Jean signs up for an online Shakespeare class. Susan attempts to go birding, but hears more than she sees. They attend a few Zoom book readings and benefits. Susan feeds the sourdough with powdered sugar from a clearly labeled jar, but redeems herself by making an admirably crusty, sour loaf of bread. The evening entertainment choices are reduced to Stephen Colbert or Mozart in the Jungle.

JH: Finally, hovering over the question of what this pandemic means for the books we’ve written and for the books we’re trying to write is the biggest question of all—the existential motherfucker that keeps all of us writers turning on the spits of our own devising—and that is the question of why we are doing any of this, whether stories and poems and essays can ever have any true or lasting impact.

Sometimes I really do think it's a worthless enterprise, that drinking bleach—or at least a nice pinot noir—might be the best response to this world-wide catastrophe, after all. But in my more sanguine moments I remind myself of what cognitive neuroscientists tell us—that Homo sapiens is indeed the “story-telling animal.” We are hardwired to see the world in terms of narrative. We depend on stories to teach us, challenge us, comfort us, entertain and distract us. I can’t imagine my own life without the solace, inspiration, and education of stories.

SMG: Of course we need stories—they determine our understanding of everything, including, I should mention, science. But how do meaningful stories get out into the world? How do they exert their power? Their dissemination and reception are so interwoven with capitalism and the market. It’s hard to separate the power of stories—and the ways they are used and abused—from economic power.

JH: I really lament all the important and beautiful books I’ll never know about because our culture so often promotes only the simplest, most status-quo-reinforcing stories.

SMG: In my daily writing life, I usually dance around the entire question of why I do what I do, why I devote myself to a vocation that fails to keep me fed and housed—and also has questionable social impact in the world at large. My habitual sidestep is to tell myself that writing is all I really know how to do well, so I should just focus on telling the best story I know how to tell—the most necessary story I can imagine, a story that no one else is going to tell—and after I’ve done that, I’ll worry about how to get it out in the world where it can find readers to engage with. But with the natural world and our entire civilization in such deep trouble, isn’t it just another cop-out? Perhaps I should quit writing novels altogether and do something useful, like take out the president or work at a grocery store.

JH: Both of those would be heroic occupations, but I’d still like to think that if you can just tell the story you want to tell in your next novel—and if other fine writers are also telling their best stories, and if dedicated presses, committed booksellers, and passionate readers are also doing their parts . . . then we can seed our culture’s thinking with post-pandemic narratives that are more meaningful, empathetic, and sustainable than the narratives of greed, fear, rampant nationalism, and viral capitalism that led us into this mess.

SMG: Well. At least that makes for a good story!

Ten weeks into quarantine. Susan and Jean—and husband—are still friends. Three baby vireos fledge without saying goodbye. Accidentals finds some readers, and Susan makes virtual visits to a few enthusiastic book clubs. The sourdough starter is quiet. Susan adds random thoughts to the notebook for her novel, working title Anthropocene Blues. The summer heats up, fire season looms. Their writers group of four meets—outdoors, properly distanced, hugs forbidden—to discuss a draft of Jean’s novel. Susan sees the first non-stop flights to Germany and books a return in late June.


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My German Dictionary

Katherine Hollander
The Waywiser Press ($17)

by John Bradley

A book of poetry can sometimes function as a time machine, and that’s what happens with My German Dictionary. “I couldn’t be / a good historian,” Hollander confesses in the opening poem, “Confession (Invitation),” “so I wrote poems.” These poems take us to Europe in the years between the two world wars, the landscape of Osip Mandelstam, Rosa Luxemburg, and Kathe Kollwitz. Over and over, the author turns her imagination loose on history.

To write historical poems, a writer must do much research, but that alone won’t bring a poem alive—the language must drive the poem, and the reader must feel transported. This happens constantly with these poems. In “General Strike, Berlin, 1920,” for example, we see a family brought to a standstill by the titular event:

Now the woman stands

at the stove, one burner on,
a blue water lily of light.
In the pot, the stew is rich
and black. The man sits at the table

his hands open like gray gloves.
The girl lifts a dish and light
licks the edge like a tongue of oil.
She passes the dish to her mother.

The woman fills it with the dark stew.
The man lifts his spoon like a beacon.

The scene feels like something out of a painting or a folk tale, yet it’s grounded in a specific moment of history. The mix of beauty and tragedy keeps the reader transfixed. Though nothing extraordinary happens, we feel it could at any moment.

Hollander’s book closes with a section of poems drawing inspiration from German words. This could easily become an intellectual exercise, but that rarely happens here. In “Das Wörterbuch,” for example, a poem on the word “dictionary” reads like a biography. An anonymous “he” “climbed inside the horn / of a phonograph. It was deafening, / and three times a day the leader’s voice / washed over him, like acid.” It sounds like a folk tale, magical and dangerous.

The only poem that breaks the spell of this book is “Dear Union,” a work mourning the death of the European Union. Opening with an epigraph by Marine LePen, who called the E.U. a “monster,” the author’s anger is certainly justified. Yet the poem often veers into sentimentality: “I want to touch down, like days of old, / board the beloved Tegel bus / and careen into your goodness.” This is the rare misstep, however, in a volume that much deserves the Anthony Hecht Poetry Prize it was awarded.

The closing words to this resonant book are “Take my hand. Let’s go.” For many readers, the only place to go is back into the magical world of My German Dictionary.


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Family of Origin


C.J. Hauser
Anchor Books ($16)

by Jeremiah Moriarty

In Family of Origin, C.J. Hauser’s wistful second novel, a family’s troubled past—and their attempts to reckon with it—provide a frame for much larger questions around fighting inevitable failures, the long shadow of parental rejection, and the looming climate catastrophe. It’s a story about losing your way and keeping the faith, and while some of the book’s formal flourishes don’t always land, its wit and big-hearted approach to contemporary dilemmas make it a welcome addition to the growing body of American climate fiction.

Hauser’s first novel, The From-Aways, was set in a small coastal town in Maine, and Family of Origin similarly begins where shipwrecked land-dwellers find themselves coexisting with the sea’s enduring mysteries. Adult half-siblings Elsa and Nolan Grey journey to Leap’s Island off Florida’s Gulf Coast, where their father Ian, a once-renowned biologist, has recently drowned. Nolan has asked Elsa to accompany him, but the Greys are estranged—one obvious reason for their estrangement becomes evident early on, but their time on Leap’s Island with their father’s former colleagues gives this estrangement ever-unfolding depth and dimension. Ostensibly the siblings have come to collect their father’s belongings and settle his affairs, but the question of his suicide leads them to what forms much of the novel’s structure: conversations with the other people on Leap’s Island, an eccentric group of scientists and writers and seekers who call themselves “Reversalists.”

The Reversalists believe evolution has begun running backwards, a preoccupation that tidily reflects the Greys’ own suspicion that they have veered off their course toward happy, well-adjusted adulthoods: “Whatever inner thing guided normal people in their choices—a diviner’s stick in the ribs, a magnet of the hips, a compass of the skull—Elsa’s was broken.” Elsa and Nolan find the Reversalist’s work preposterous, particularly because it’s based on observations of undowny buffleheads, a species of duck that flutters and floats around Leap’s Island. Their late father’s dedication to studying the buffleheads, though, means the Greys also try to understand their intrigue. It’s a charming, oddball development, and Hauser rightfully teases out all its provocative implications for time’s slippery nature and the politically dangerous way that we can idealize the past. Also among Family of Origin’s many strengths is that the Reversalists’ logic is always convincing enough to create real emotional resonance. As Elsa and Nolan interview the Reversalists about their emotionally distant father, someone seemingly “too rational for suicide,” the reader quickly realizes that they are also looking for an explanation—and a new language, really—for their own personal shortcomings.

The Greys are self-loathing creations, understandably mired in millennial ennui as they both flirt with nihilism. Initially, the scope of Elsa’s angst seems broader than Nolan’s lingering troubles: while he is mostly consumed with the self-diagnosed meaninglessness of his romantic partnerships and professional endeavors, Elsa sees no hope for the planet’s future and has turned her attention to flying to Mars—literally. The half-siblings have a complicated relationship even to their own estrangement, arguing about a shared history and issues that were “never resolved because they were always finding the rot in different apples.” They are both acutely aware of existential issues plaguing their worlds—climate change as well as the consequences of unbridled capitalism and an unregulated internet—but have very different approaches to dealing with these issues. A teacher who believes “her job had started to feel like lying,” Elsa looks to a citizen-manned Mars mission for healing: “This is why she had to go to Mars. She couldn’t bear to look over her shoulder and see one more sad, wounded bird laid out behind her.” Nolan reads more as a typical white millennial liberal, overwhelmed by the world’s problems but lacking any real initiative to face them given the potential for failure: “Nolan thought perhaps there was a quiet dignity in doing nothing rather than doing something well-intentioned but stupid.”

In their time on Leap’s Island, though, Elsa returns her attention to earth with Nolan’s help; together, they find ways to articulate their grief for their father as well as their deep frustrations with themselves. They grapple with complicity and practice vulnerability. They spend quality time observing ducks. They do what we all hope to do at some point, which is the deeply uncomfortable work of getting over ourselves. Hauser shoots off some formal fireworks later in the novel, a lyrical section about Leap’s Island’s history that feels undercooked next to the author’s no-nonsense but nonetheless complex characterizations, but the novel still hits, regardless. In fact, Family of Origin’s ending feels like a productive throat clearing, a transitional moment that sees its characters set down their own individual narratives in the hopes of writing a better ending for our collective one. As Hauser puts it near the book’s end, “if she could untether herself from what seemed inevitable, from her own inevitability, maybe Elsa would find other possibilities. Surprise herself. Maybe there was a difference between ignorance and forgetting. Maybe the past was no reason not to do anything at all.”


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Summer 2020

INTERVIEWS:

Poetry Flowing Everywhere: An Interview with Trapeta B. Mayson
The City of Philadelphia’s current Poet Laureate, Trapeta B. Mayson is a Liberian-born poet whose work focuses on the political and personal immigrant experience.
Interviewed by John Wall Barger

Poetry Breaks Through the Silence:
A Conversation with Ed Bok Lee and Steve Healey

Two Twin Cities poets discuss their recent books and how they both explore fatherhood and family experience in starkly personal ways.

Friendship is a Blank Canvas: An Interview with Rufi Thorpe
Rufi Thorpe discusses the inception of her newest novel, The Knockout Queen, which revolves around themes of female friendship and violence. Interviewed by Zhanna Slor

Language Is Never Static: An Interview with Su Hwang
Su Hwang discusses her debut collection of poems, Bodega, which poignantly considers how every interaction between people is freighted with history and tied to identity.
Interviewed by Michael Prior

If it ain't a pleasure, it ain't a poem:
A Conversation between Dobby Gibson and Matthew Rohrer

In a testament to poetry and friendship in these troubled times, two poets enjoy a long-distance conversation about poetry of the ages and life during quarantine.

Bleach or Pinot Noir?
Susan M. Gaines and Jean Hegland in Conversation

Two writers unexpectedly became roomies during the pandemic lockdown, and they reflect on their experience in a weeks-long conversation.

FEATURES:

The Melancholy of Maturity:
Translation and Adaptation in Normal People, The Story of a New Name, and Unorthodox: The Scandalous Rejection of My Hasidic Roots

As television series based on books by Deborah Feldman, Elena Ferrante, and Sally Rooney demonstrate, adaptations of translated works have more interest than ever in calling attention to their roots outside the American mainstream.
Essay by Sarah McEachern

Pandemic Reflections on Girl in A Band by Kim Gordon
Kim Gordon’s 2015 memoir is helping one reader get through the 2020 plague in the way that Punk’s attitude was born to do, achieving strength from a position of weakness with honesty and compassion.
by Sean Smuda

MIXED GENRE REVIEWS:

A User’s Manual
Jiří Kolář
Jiří Kolář was one of the great collage artists of the 20th century, and now we can enjoy his art work accompanied by his poetry in his first book-length literary work in English. Reviewed by M. Kasper

Memory in the Circuit Breaker: An Essay on Bernadette Mayer’s Memory
While in Singapore during the Covid19 stay-at-home order called the Circuit Breaker, Anderson reflects on the uncanny prescience of Mayer’s Memory, a newly reissued collection of photographs and diaristic writings from July 1971.
Essay by Stephanie Anderson

POETRY REVIEWS:

Romantic Nihilism/Hopeful Abandon: Two from Saturnalia Books
All the Gay Saints by Kayleb Rae Candrilli
Let It Ride by Timothy Liu

Two poets provide vastly different takes on modern love. Reviewed by Allison Campbell

Arias
Sharon Olds
In her latest collection, Olds offers humane and savvy takes on ordinary experiences; the results are thoroughly enthralling and movingly accessible. Reviewed by John Kendall Hawkins

Apostasy
Katy Mongeau
Mongeau’s poems read like narratives suspended over a tense allurement between wish-fulfillment and nightmare. Reviewed by Isabel Sobral Campos

4:30 Movie
Donna Masini
Masini employs an ingenious scaffold to explore the illness and untimely passing of her sister. Reviewed by Bhisham Bherwani

My German Dictionary
Katherine Hollander
Hollander’s poems take us to Europe in the years between the two world wars, letting her imagination loose on history. Reviewed by John Bradley

YA FICTION REVIEWS:

Catfishing on Catnet
Naomi Kritzer
Kritzer tackles the worlds of tech and teens with Catfishing on Catnet, following her on-the-run protagonist Steph, whose only social life takes place in internet chatrooms. Reviewed by Aidan Bliss.

Light it Up
Kekla Magoon
In her follow up to How It Went Down, Magoon revisits the aftermath of the death of sixteen-year-old Tariq Johnson by police. Reviewed by George Longenecker

Be Not Far From Me
Mindy McGinnis
This woman versus the wilderness narrative is a fast-paced ride, following Ashley as she fights for survival alone in the perilous Smoky Mountains. Reviewed by Olivia Vengel

FICTION REVIEWS:

Are Snakes Necessary?
Brian De Palma and Susan Lehman
In this collaborative debut novel, filmmaker Brian De Palma applies his cinematic stylism to pulp fiction, with all the silliness that implies. Reviewed by Joseph Houlihan

Agency
William Gibson
Refusing to give the reader a moment’s respite, Agency is a 400-page car chase resting atop a giant mound of metaphysics and gender politics. Reviewed by William Corwin

Dead Astronauts
Jeff VanderMeer
The latest novel from VanderMeer, Dead Astronauts is a gorgeous volume that engages the reader, pushes boundaries, and challenges convention and features an exciting cast including foxes, salamanders, and more. Reviewed by Michael MacBride.

Nietzsche and the Burbs
Lars Iyer
The economy of Nietzsche and the Burbs: book title, name of band formed by main characters, plot summary, all in one. Reviewed by Scott F. Parker

Days of Distraction
Alexandra Chang
Days of Distraction is autofiction, and it honors the genre with a steely self-awareness and a hard look at self-consciousness itself. Reviewed by Bethany Catlin

Family of Origin
C.J. Hauser
Hauser’s wistful second novel provides a frame for the larger questions of failure, parental rejection, and the looming climate crisis. Reviewed by Jeremiah Moriarty

NONFICTION REVIEWS:

The Case Against Reality: Why Evolution Hid the Truth from Our Eyes
Donald Hoffman
Cognitive scientist Donald Hoffman builds a case for creating a synthesis of science and spirit that more accurately represents human existence. Reviewed by Quinton Skinner

Conversations with William T. Vollmann
Edited by Daniel Lukes
This collection offers readers an illuminating portrait of the enigmatic writer through articles and interviews from 1989-2018 that often temper wild assumptions with even more stimulating truths. Reviewed by Chris Via.

News from the Infrathin: The Work of Marchel Duchamp

Marcel Duchamp: The Barbara and Aaron Levine Collection edited by Evelyn C. Hankins
Marcel Duchamp and the Art of Life by Jacquelynn Baas

Two books delve into the complicated work of the mischievous genius Marcel Duchamp, a defining figure in the art world whose works cast a far-reaching shadow. Reviewed by Patrick James Dunagan

Duchamp’s Last Day
Donald Shambroom
Duchamp’s Last Day highlights how, up until his very end, Duchamp placed substantial emphasis on gaiety and irreverence, turning his own death into a work of art. Reviewed by Jeff Alessandrelli

Essays One
Lydia Davis
As this new compendium demonstrates, to read Lydia Davis at any length is to be startled, jangled, entranced, and sometimes slightly annoyed.
Reviewed by John Toren

A Voice of the Warm: The Life of Rod McKuen
Barry Alfonso
Barry Alfonso tries to separate fact from fiction in this biography of the strange, self-conflicted, and tragic figure that was singer-songwriter-poet Rod McKuen. Reviewed by Walter Holland

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Query Monitor


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