Review by E. Kirshe
Scribe by Alyson Hagy is a fascinating and quick read yet at just under 160 pages this novel packs a lot of story. Hagy’s writing is beautiful, stylistically as the whole book comes off as poetic as well as having that practicality that lets the reader feel like they are really in the landscape of the novel.
“Outside, the air was layered with the scents of cooling bark and leaves. The sun flared behind the hill where the Hopkins house lay in ruins, nothing left to scratch the sky but its four stout chimneys. Persimmons. The sunset was the color of persimmons.”
And what a strange location it is- set in a harsh dystopian landscape of a post-war, post-pandemic Appalachia the decimated population relies on bartering and brute force to survive.
The unnamed main character trades in words, writing letters for people who seem to think the act can vindicate or more importantly offer them absolution. She’s been living in peace on her family’s lands for years; alliances are kept in place both with the local overseer Billy Kingery and with the group of migrants she allows to live on her land, the Uninvited, a group which seems to almost worship her late sister. When she agrees to write and deliver a letter, something of a confession, for a mysterious man named Hendricks a devastating series of events unfold. Continue reading
In this delightfully tongue-in-cheek volume, Lezlie Lowe gives us a deep look into human history from an unexpected angle: the elimination of waste. She covers just about every aspect of public toilets you can think of, centered around access – who gets to use them, and who doesn’t.
Access is especially bad for women, Lowe points out, because the overwhelmingly male designers do not take women’s biology into account. Just one of the frustrating facts Lowe delves into is the fact that biologically, women take longer to urinate and need to urinate more frequently on average than men; yet public toilets often have twice as much accommodation for men as for women.
Throughout the book, Lowe covers every population that public toilets fail – people with disabilities, inflammatory bowel disease, the LGBT community, people of color, and the homeless. The lowdown: public toilets fail us because they are mostly designed by young, straight, white, abled men. Continue reading
Review by Shane Meyer
“Ice Storm,” one of twelve short stories in Laura Valeri’s collection The Dead Still Here, is a catalog of defeat and despair: two dead daughters (one a victim of cancer, the other of the Iraq War); their parents’ dried-up marriage (Ellie, a work-a-holic, and Duke, an alcoholic); physical and mental disfigurement by war (Duke’s brothers scarred by service in Vietnam and Korea); and the loss of religious faith or even a belief in “goodness.” 9/11 plays a role too. Duke, desperate to escape his toxic circumstances, chases a good feeling to his detriment. “Ice Storm” is a template for the bulk of the stories in the collection for its use of the themes of domestic relationships scarred by loss and the role of the dead in sealing fate.
Another theme is the failure of romantic love. In “Prophecy” the protagonist, Angela, can’t seem to shake her half-interested sex partner, Sean. She goes to a santera who tells her that she’s doomed to this fate. Valeri attributes the infallibility of the prediction to Angela’s unpopularity in high school, her unattractiveness and—despite her professional success—her unshakeable belief that she can woo Sean. In the end, she nearly succeeds but sees her hopes quickly and cruelly dashed: Continue reading
Review by E. Kirshe
Were you ever asked that old ice-breaker question: if you could have dinner with any five people, living or dead, who would it be? When Sabrina Nielson arrives to her 30th birthday dinner she finds her five picks sitting around the table. Though it’s more or less what I expected, Rebecca Serle’s take on this premise is very well executed and sensitively written.
The Dinner List is bittersweet with moments of levity and heartbreak throughout. It’s a one-night-only therapy session for Sabrina as she navigates her most important past relationships: Robert, the (now deceased) father who abandoned her; Jessica, her somewhat estranged best friend (and her traditional birthday dinner companion); and Tobias, the on-and-off-again boyfriend of basically a decade, for closure and healing. All of this is mediated by her old college professor Conrad, and also, Audrey Hepburn.
The Dinner List mainly digs into Sabrina’s relationship with Tobias, who she still regards as the great love of her life. Occasionally Serle serves up some funny moments, general relationship advice, and all with a bit of magical realism. The Dinner List pulls you through relationships, very human fatal flaws, and explains why those five people made Sabrina’s list- essentially answering who shapes a person’s life.
Review by Tess Tabak
A quick yes or no question: Does someone calling themselves a “community architect” make you want to punch things?
If yes, this is not the book for you.
Before anyone accuses me of being cynical, let me say that I wanted to like this book. I actually enjoy reading self help / new agey stuff. But I want them to either tell me something I didn’t know, or at least tell me something I did know in a new way. Most of the information in Radha Agrawal’s Belong: Find Your People, Create Community, and Live a More Connected Life is fairly common knowledge (don’t we all know by now that Facebook is not a substitute for in-person contact?). The exercises feel half-assed – at one point she says, “If you need ideas, Google it.” The amount of doodles and blank journal pages in the book make me think that Agrawal came up about 25% short on the page count, and they went with filler instead of more content.
Worse than that, Agrawal clearly has never experienced, and does not have a deep understanding of, what it truly means to feel alone and friendless. Good for her, but reading this book from such a state is akin to a guide on the Heimlich maneuver that begins, “First, take a deep breath.” What is someone truly friendless supposed to do with advice like “make sure you get 5 hugs a day”? Continue reading
In Spokes of an Uneven Wheel, Colin Dodds takes his reader through a journey of incoherence and monotony into a realm controlled by human desire and impulse. Dodds takes measured stabs at everything from corporate hierarchy to Abrahamic religion.
Dodds depicts scene after scene of routine monotony, illustrating that true terror can lie within the abstract systemic confines many of these poems attempt to escape. Dodds crafts narratives that breathe life into the overlooked, such as the subjects in “Hard Surfaces” or the inanimate like in “Landscape Mid-Consequence”: “An asymmetrical face/appears in the exhaust drift/between the taillight and license plate”. Continue reading
Review by E. Kirshe
Jamal Brinkley’s debut book A Lucky Man is a collection of nine excellently written short stories that showcase a deeply thoughtful body of work.
The stories are set in Brooklyn and the South Bronx, the city serving as a backdrop for stories where complex familial relationships take center stage, as does black identity, and masculinity. These themes are all addressed through different stages of life: college aged, middle aged, and young boys serve as narrators throughout the collection.
In the first story, “No More than a Bubble,” two college-aged men, Columbia students, attend a party in Brooklyn. The narrator here jumps between the party, and how they fit into it, how he wants to be seen there especially by the women, and who he really is as he thinks of his parents. “We both preferred girls of a certain plumpness, with curves—in part, I think, because that’s what black guys are supposed to like. Liking them felt like a confirmation of possessing black blood, a way to stamp ourselves with authenticity.” It’s revealed he has a white Italian father and a black mother, something he reflects on through the course of the story as he and his friend follow two girls to their home, moving deeper and deeper into Brooklyn.
Review by Tess Tabak
When a mixup sends Roxana, an 18-year-old girl, to Copenhagen, a mysterious Danish man named Soren whisks her away to live out one of his sexual fantasies.
I’m not quite sure I’d describe Open Me as an erotic novel, even though it’s marketed as such. It contains elements of that genre – the story exists in somewhat of a fantasy state. Through a series of odd circumstances, our heroine is trapped in another country, completely alone, at the mercy of an attractive stranger. But I’m hesitant to label this book erotica. There is a strong sense of the body in this book, but actually very little sex. It dwells more on the protagonist, Roxana, and her growing understanding of what it means to be a woman. She feels a strong desire at the start of the book to be acted upon, to be a completely passive participant in lovemaking. By the end, she learns that passivity isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Erotica or not, Open Me is a gorgeously written book. The author, Lisa Locascio, takes impossible-to-describe feelings and puts words to them. Roxana talks about her “cathedral feeling,” the private thrill she felt when hearing music played on a church organ for the first time. The author has an intimate understanding of the inner workings of young girls, and the loneliness of not being able to share those special feelings. When Roxana tries to tell her best friend about the cathedral feeling, a sarcastic comment bursts the bubble. “And again I was a bag of feelings with no start and no end, a tunnel through which sensation moved.” Continue reading
Review by Tess Tabak
In This Mournable Body, a woman named Tambudzai grapples with the harsh realities of living in Zimbabwe after the Revolution of the 1990s.
The author, Tsitsi Dangarembga, writes on familiar topics (anxiety, existential dread) but set against a backdrop that’s truly harsh and depressing. Tambu is mistrustful of white people living in Zimbabwe – but this isn’t the crystal clear “us vs. them” of books set further in the past, like Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart. The white people in this novel are somewhat further removed from the atrocities of their ancestors. In modern Zimbabwe, the lines have blurred. The white people that Tambu loathes haven’t done anything “wrong,” per se, except for profiting off the crimes of previous generations. Tambu acknowledges her advantages – she received a Western education at a prestigious school – but oppression means that she still can’t find a suitable job, unable to tolerate the way that white men steal her work for their own, or how she’s paid far less than her peers just because she’s black. Continue reading