Review: How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America by Kiese Laymon

Cover courtesy of Simon & Schuster

Kiese Laymon approaches each of his books as a way to celebrate and innovate the form, whether novel, memoir, or, in the case of this book, essay collection. How to Slowly Kill Yourself and Others in America is thematically cohesive and intensely self-referential. It reckons with self-destruction, regret and revision, the worst of white folks, Mississippi, America, writing, truth, and lies. I read the 2021 revised edition, which contains seven essays from the 2013 edition and six new ones, as well as a revised author’s note. Another change is that the essays are sequenced in reverse chronological order, ending with the essay which opened the first edition.

The best way I can describe how these thirteen essays form a whole is to say that it feels like a well composed album. Themes recur and recur. Essays reference each other, and sometimes divulge the origins of each other. Specific phrases like “healthy choices,” “multiple dreamers,” and “the worst of white folks” stitch their way through the whole book. The book moves backwards in time, and meanders north from, then back around to, Mississippi.

That movement provides a structure for the book, a sweeping momentum which leaves you feeling like you’ve really gone somewhere by the end, though it is not the dominating logic of the book. That is, the essays are densely interconnected beyond just geographical or chronological ties. I think that’s what’s so album-like about it—the associative ties between essays, their dense inter- and intra-textuality, combined with the larger arc which gives the thing a simpler form you can hold in your mind. It is singular and plural, which is a hell of an accomplishment.

It’s also like an album because there’s features! Laymon’s mother, his aunt, and several friends lend their voices to a few essays; these sections are well written in their own right, and add depth and energy to the essays they appear in. And the choice to include them is thematically relevant too—in the final essay, “We Will Never Ever Know,” Laymon writes to his uncle, “We talked, but we didn’t reckon with each other.” (152) Bringing other voices into this book, voices in dialogue and disagreement with Laymon’s, is a demonstration of what that reckoning can look like.

This polyphony is most prominent in “Echo,” which features four writers in addition to Laymon: Mychal Denzel Smith, Darnell Moore, Kai M. Green, and Marlon Peterson. Smith starts it off with a letter addressed “Peace Fam,” and then each writer responds, one after the other, like a posse cut. They each write about being black, being a man, and being both; while each essay builds on the last, and they all circle around similar themes, they somehow never repeat each other. The echo shifts pitch and volume each time.

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Review: Bitter in the Mouth by Monique Truong

Cover courtesy of Random House

Bitter in the Mouth by Monique Truong is a coming of age story narrated by Linda Hammerick, looking back on her childhood in Boiling Springs, North Carolina in the 70s and 80s. The main drama of the book is the interactions between different members of Linda’s family, and Linda’s efforts to make her way amid the secrets and dysfunctions around her. One of these secrets is Linda’s, which she only shares with her best friend: Linda has the very rare condition of lexical-gustatory synesthesia. When she hears certain words, she can taste them.

Although her synesthesia is not the whole point of the book, it is a major component, and also the origin of the title, so I’ll start with it. It’s a brilliant device, and such an obvious shortcut to evocative writing that I’m surprised I’ve never seen it used this way before. Lots of writers employ synesthesia in their prose, as a poetic device (e.g. describing a noise as sharp, describing pain as bright), but here it’s built into the character. It allows Truong to frequently assail the reader with the most immediate, vivid sense one can evoke in the written word—taste. Peach cobbler, bread and butter pickles, and sourdough bread register with a reader at an intensity which fuzzy, shrill, or sea foam green do not. At the same time, taste descriptions are normally very difficult to work into a story, because most of the time we aren’t tasting anything. So having a character who experiences vivid, hyper-specific tastes when she hears words feels like a cheat, but an effective one nonetheless. There’s such a pleasure in discovering which words pair with which flavors, in reading dialogue that is peppered with dozens of tastes.

And that is, ultimately, why the synesthesia isn’t just a gimmick, or a way to quickly pull the reader into any scene: Truong commits to it fully in multiple ways which cause complications for the book. The first, most obvious commitment is that the tastes are always rendered in the dialogue, every single time. For instance, here is her teacher calling role:

“HammerickDrPepper, Lindamint.”
“Herehardboiledegg.”
“Harrispecan, Wadeorangesherbet.”
“Herehardboiledegg.” (30)

As I said, this is like jabbing a live wire into the reader’s insular cortex (good 👍), but it effectively throttles the dialogue (bad 👎 or at least a challenge for a writer.) Truong doesn’t just turn it off when it’s inconvenient—it’s always there, just like it’s always there for Linda. And that’s the other major way Truong commits to complication—Linda’s synesthesia is frequently a hindrance to her. In school, she has trouble focusing, and eventually has to start smoking (which dampens the “incomings”) so she can improve her grades. This compelling, juicy literary device has realistic consequences for the character and how she interacts with others; who she does and doesn’t reveal it to is a major plot point.

The other thing that sells it, that makes it rich rather than cheap, is that the pairings of flavors with words are arbitrary. It would be so easy to make a kind of game of this, and communicate Linda’s feelings about certain characters or places through her synesthesia, but that’s not how it works with people who really have it. For Linda, “Dill” is faithful—it tastes like itself—but most food words are not. She enjoys it when her mom calls her selfish, because “selfish” tastes like corn on the cob. This means Linda has a very different relationship with words than everyone around her—an extreme version of the way all of us experience certain tastes, emotions, and even words, in unique, incommunicable ways. As Linda narrates, “But we all haven’t tasted the same unripe fruit. In order to feel not so alone in the world, we blur the lines of our subjective memories, and we say to one another, ‘I know exactly what you mean!'” (15)

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Review: Long Division by Kiese Laymon

Cover courtesy of Simon & Schuster

Kiese Laymon is a phenomenal writer, and you can tell so the moment you begin any of his three books. I reviewed his memoir Heavy a couple years ago, and have finally read his other two books, starting with Long Division, a novel. I read the 2021 edition, which I’ll talk more about later. The book is split into two halves which read starting from either side of the book, and ending in the middle.

“Book One,” (though Laymon says you can read them in any order, I chose the obvious order) follows a black Mississippian boy named City, in the year 2013. He and his school rival, Lavander Peeler, both make a scene at the national “Can You Use that Word in a Sentence” competition, and City is sent to stay with his grandmother in the rural town of Melahatchie. There, he contends with violent racists, his grandmother’s church, the reaction to his outburst at the competition (which has gone viral in the way things really could go viral back in 2013), and the disappearance of his neighbor, a girl named Baize Shephard. Also, he’s found a strange book titled Long Division, in which he is the main character.

In “Book Two,” a black Mississippian boy named City living in Melahatchie is in love with his friend Shalaya Crump, in the year 1985. Shalaya reveals to him that she’s found a way to travel to the future (2013), and she’s worried that in the future she’s dead. She can also travel to the past, 1964, where her and City’s grandpas are about to be killed by the klan. In 1964, the two meet Evan Altshuler, who wants to help them save their grandpas and his own family from. In 2013, they meet Baize Shephard.

Regardless of which half you start with, character is the first thing that jumps out, especially City, the narrator. He has a lot of opinions, a lot that he needs to let you know about Lavander Peeler, about Principle Reeves, about the “Can You Use that Word in a Sentence” competition, about Melahatchie, about Baize Shephard, and about himself. He’s self conscious in a way that stops short of providing a perfect accounting of his inner working at all times, but still goes a lot deeper than most 14-year-old protagonists do. Despite his braggadocio, City is scared and sad about a lot of things. Sometimes he admits this to himself, sometimes he admits only to the way it feels in his body.

It’s not just City though. From Lavander Peeler to Grandma, all these characters leap off the page, and then deepen, reveal richer hues within the bright colors that initially grabbed the reader’s attention. The scenes between City and Baize are dynamite, as she is just as boastful and opinionated as him—and this vibrancy, this vigor of spirit, makes the way the adults treat these young people that much more heartbreaking. The book puts a lot of focus on the cruelty inflicted on children, especially black children, through “education.” The prime example of this is the sentence competition in Book One, which kind of blew my mind and had me, for the first time, thinking about how bizarre and messed up spelling bees are. We meet 2013 City as a smart, verbally dextrous kid locked in a rivalry with the effete Lavander Peeler—and then we see that expansive, energetic persona squashed, curbed, even memified. City’s creative, imaginative, and righteously angry language is denied as not “correct, appropriate, or dynamic”—a dramatic, heightened version of the minute and myriad ways in which adults constantly rebuke children for their creativity, in which white people constantly seek the destruction or neutralization of black imagination.

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Review: Sex Fantasy by Sophia Foster-Dimino

Cover courtesy of Koyama Press

Sex Fantasy by Sophia-Foster Dimino is a collection of eight zines published between 2013 and 2017, plus two previously unpublished zines at the end. With one exception, the zines are not about sex fantasies, though they are about intimacy, relationships, and the gaps between people. The slight, but not total, mismatch between title and content is indicative of the way a lot of the book operates, in that it invites interpretation. It reaches for something, but doesn’t go all the way toward grasping it—the reader will have to do that on their own.

The book is divided into three sections of three issues each, and a fourth section of one. The first three zines are the most esoteric, consisting entirely of short declarative sentences (usually starting with “I”) paired with illustrations. Although there are a few moments of sequential art, there’s very little scene, and you could scramble the individual panels out of order and not change much. There isn’t even a consistent, recurring character that appears as the “I” or “you” in all the panels. They operate accumulatively—”I made an effort”, “I hit a wall”, “I wasn’t thinking”, “I’m useful” add up to a persona, an emotion. It’s textual-visual poetry, essentially—and like a good poem, you can slow down and appreciate each line, or panel in this case, as it’s own work of art. In fact, the format of the book encourages this, with each panel taking up an entire page, so that you’re only ever looking at two panels at once.

Although these first three zines aren’t my favorite in the collection, I think they hold some of my favorite individual panels. Some are very intricate, while others are imaginative or surprising in how they illustrate the text. “I like your socks” is printed beside a person wearing hamburger socks lightly stepping on someone’s face. “I’m a beverage vendor” appears beside a drink stand; the stand has three large jugs and three containers of ice or tapioca pearls; a bottle for tips; a vase with a flower; eight notes tacked to the stand’s single contiguous wall; a patterned canopy; empty cups held on pegs; a dangling bell; an OPEN sign; a vertical banner displaying a woman drinking from an enormous glass with a straw; and the “I”, sitting on a stool, wearing a spaghetti strap top, flip flops, a hair bow. The text is spare, but the illustrations are rich and suggestive of worlds that extend beyond their snapshot focus. They are not sex fantasies, but fantasy, or fancy, sure.

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Review: The Next American Metropolis by Peter Calthorpe

Cover courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press

I’ve been on a bit of an urbanism kick recently, and of the books I’ve read this one seems like the best introduction for anyone just getting into the topic. The Next American Metropolis opens with a long essay about the failures of planning (or rather, the failures of no planning, or piecemeal planning) in America, how this has negatively impacted the American city and the American citizen, and the solution: transit-oriented development. Next comes a set of guidelines and definitions for the various components of transit-oriented development and how to plan it, from the regional scale all the way down to regulations for individual lots. The final section is a kind of portfolio of projects that Calthorpe and his firm designed, with full-page color diagrams and maps, and accompanying text explaining how these plans embody different aspects of the preceding sections. So although you can read it straight through, and it is organized for you to do that, the book also functions as a reference book, or even an art book where you can flip to any page in the latter half and find some wonderfully rendered architectural sketches or zoning plans.

As I said, the book is a great introduction to urbanism, and particularly New Urbanism—though Calthorpe doesn’t really use that phrase, instead focusing on “transit-oriented development.” The two are part and parcel. The idea is to build things to a human scale, not (just) a car scale. The idea is that single-use zoning (e.g. vast blocks of homogenous residential, downtowns composed of just office towers) are poison to the life of a city, as is any automobile-oriented development. The freedom to get anywhere in a car isn’t freedom at all, it’s dependence. It means anyone without a car in these residential suburbs is stranded. It means the people getting around in cars live their lives entirely in closed-off, private spaces—their home, their office, the supermarket, their car—and never mingle with their neighbors and fellow citizens on the streets or in public parks and plazas. It means that pedestrians are unsafe and uncomfortable, forced to walk down long blocks with a low-density of street connections, or cross enormous unshaded parking lots when shopping for necessities.

There’s a lot more to New Urbanism, but that’s the basic idea—we’ve built for the car and thus created inefficient, pollutant, and unpleasant cities; the solution is to build for pedestrians. You may be familiar with New Urbanism in some form already: if you’ve heard about neighborhoods or cities being “walkable,” well, that’s a principal of New Urbanism. This book was written in 1993, but the ideas are super relevant today because it has taken so long for cities to actually put them into practice. So if you’ve been wondering what exactly “walkable” means, or if this brief summary has piqued your interest, read this book! In the opening essay, Calthorpe provides great statistics about the growth of car-dependence, lengthening commutes, and some of the factors that drove mass suburbanization. He does just as good a job laying out the ideas and ideals of transit-oriented development, which are essentially timeless. The thing about New Urbanism is, it isn’t really new. It’s sort of how things were done in the era of streetcars, just before the mass proliferation of personal cars in America. This type of design works, and we’ve known it works for decades, and this 30-year-old book may as well have been published yesterday.

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Review: Lower Ed by Tressie McMillan Cottom

Hi! It’s been a while since I reviewed a book, or really posted anything on this website. I’ve been reading a ton of books recently though, and writing reviews is about all I can manage to write these days, so look forward to more of these over the next few months! Should be one each week, posted every Friday, just like the old days.

Cover courtesy of The New Press

Lower Ed is a non-fiction book about the rise of a new class of for-profit colleges—distinct from the old “mom and pop” for-profits—which operate as major investment vehicles and seek to capitalize on the ever-increasing demand for credentials, and the inability of American higher education or employers to meet it. There are a couple dominant narratives around for-profit colleges, which Tressie McMillan Cottom outlines. A) They are predatory institutions which exploit disadvantaged students (part and parcel with this is a view that these students are dupes); or B) They are a savvy, private response to the failure of public institutions to train workers for our modern labor market. McMillan Cottom avoids both of these oversimplifications, instead examining the ways in which all of these institutions and economic entities—the labor market, public universities, and for-profits—are contributing to a precarity, a risk shift, which is profitable for damn near everyone involved except the students/workers.

I will move past summary eventually, I swear, but these are some complex, rich ideas, so I’ve got to explain a bit more. “Risk shift” is something McMillan Cottom talks about a lot. Over the past few decades, risk has shifted away from the government and private employers, and onto individuals. What risk? Well, say you want to be a lawyer. You are taking a risk in going to law school, investing time and money that may not be returned to you (if, for example, no one hires you.) Say you’re an employer, looking for someone to be a barista. If you hire someone with no experience, and train them, you are risking that that time and pay will not return to you (say, for example, they leave the instant they get good at baristaing.) In the past, employers were more willing to take on that risk, providing on-the-job training and investing resources in keeping their employees by providing them advancement and, potentially, further education. This is less and less the case. While a café may still take you on with no experience, more desirable jobs are likely to require experience up front. If they do take you on and spend time training you, they’ll minimize their risk by not paying you—hence that hateful practice, the unpaid internship. Our government has also, more and more, foisted risk onto individuals (perhaps in the belief that the job market is what it was in the 60s, with employers willing to share risk with their employees.) State and federal funding for higher education has not kept pace with demand, and so tuition costs have ballooned. Total student loan debt has increased by 389.5% since 2003, now over $1,500,000,000,000. $1 trillion and $500 billion, to be clear. That is risk shift.

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New Publication: Can I Talk to You?

Something a little different this time: I’ve published a Twine story! Twine is a program that lets you write choose-your-own-adventure-type texts, but using hyperlinks instead of page turns.

“Can I Talk to You?” is a short, interactive story about having a conversation with a friend who really needs someone to talk to right now. Your friend has asked you to come over to her place to “talk,” and you are terrified. You don’t know how to talk about serious topics, you’re just a shut-in who spends all your time writing fantasy novels, what could you possibly offer? Then your friend informs you she found a magic sword.

Includes four possible endings, multiple beverage choices, and lots of dialogue! You can download or play it in-browser on itch.io for free, or you can name your price if you want to kick some money my way.

Review: The Gold Coast by Kim Stanley Robinson

Cover courtesy of Orbit Books

The Gold Coast is the second book in the Three Californias Triptych, written by Kim Stanley Robinson. The triptych portrays three visions of a future Orange County: the first, The Wild Shore, post-apocalyptic; the second, The Gold Coast, dystopian; and the third, Pacific Edge, utopian. I’m simplifying, but that’s the basic idea. For the most part, characters don’t carry over from one book to the next—you could pick this book up by itself no problem. I’ll talk more about the effect of reading it together with the others later, but suffice it to say it makes an excellent stand-alone novel.

The two major plotlines of the book follow Jim McPherson and his father Dennis McPherson. Dennis is an engineer working for Laguna Space Research, a defense contractor. It’s 2027 but the Cold War never ended. The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists has set their clock “one second to midnight man, set there for twenty years.” Jim is a part-time English teacher at a junior college, making ends meet by doing some clerical work at a real estate office too. He’s enchanted by the history of Orange County, the orange groves long ago torn out to make room for condos and freeways, which have so devoured the landscape recently that he and his friends refer to the county as “autopia,” and it’s residential areas as “condomundo.” He’s dissatisfied with the state of the world and the state of his own life, but doesn’t know what to do about either. So the two major plot-lines are 1. Dennis McPherson’s efforts to land a contract for a new missile defense system, and the hell of bureaucracy and inter-departmental rivalries which get in his way; and 2. Jim McPherson’s growing involvement in efforts to sabotage defense contractors in Orange County. These two plotlines will of course have to converge at some point.

That said, this isn’t a book driven by plotlines, and the two I just described aren’t exactly the focus. Where other novels direct their energy forward in chains of causal events, Gold Coast directs its energy outwards. More than anything characters drive the novel, representing a broad section of the young people of Orange County. Steadily, steadily, the world reveals itself through their different viewpoints, through the maneuvers of their daily lives. Jim is a prototypical lost young man, but the pitfalls of this trope (e.g. telling a story ostensibly about social issues by centering a middle class straight cis white man, most protected from the consequences of those issues) are avoided by the fact that the book takes on so many different viewpoints. Each chapter follows a specific character, and Jim’s chapters are just one tributary of the novel’s expansive river basin. The book almost feels like a sitcom at times, especially since so many of the viewpoint characters are part of the same friend group. So Jim’s aimlessness isn’t valorized or held up as some universal experience, it’s just one life cast among the lives of drug dealers, ambulance drivers, surfers, revolutionaries, art teachers. The one glaring failure is the lack of women. Sure, they’re around, but only one of them is given her own chapters. Oddly enough, it’s Jim’s mother. So while Robinson is admirable for including chapters following her life, which is indeed an expansive and realized life entirely separate from her son or her husband, he’s worth criticizing for otherwise showing Orange County entirely through male inhabitants.

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Review: Familiar Face by Michael DeForge

familiar face
Cover courtesy of Drawn & Quarterly.

Michael DeForge’s characteristically busy panels full of simple, abstracted forms fit the world of Familiar Face, his latest comic, perfectly.  This is a world in unending flux. Every day there are updates, patches, optimizations, altering everything from the subway map of the city to people’s physical bodies. The changes are sometimes drastic and always immediate—no gradualism. One day the narrator character wakes up and finds her body has shrunk, another day the layout of her apartment building has totally shifted, and she’s surrounded by new, unknown neighbors. All these changes are for the benefit of the inhabitants of this world, supposedly, though from the outside they seem totally arbitrary.

As I said, DeForge’s art style is a perfect match. It doesn’t let your eyes sit still, and rarely explains itself. The narrator has a … cat? dog? A very angular spindly little creature which shows up in some panels depicting her apartment, never mentioned in the narrating text which runs over most of the graphic novel. That narrative text keeps the reader on track, helping them identify certain things (e.g. this text description of subway tracks is paired with a drawing of these veiny tubules, so those must be subway tracks), but on other matters the reader is left to strain at comprehension on their own. Is this squiggly blue bit here a car? A person? A dog? You’re as bewildered as the narrator, as anyone in this world, and often the panels are crammed full of this visual information, all in vibrant colors. Now, lots of what I’ve said here could be applied to other works by DeForge, but Familiar Face goes a step further by frequently changing the design of the main character. The one concession to the reader is that characters retain their color scheme, but that’s it—the changes go unremarked by the narrator, forcing the reader to keep pace. I remember at one point reading along and stopping short when I realized that the little four-legged creature I’d been following for a couple pages was, in fact, the narrator!Read More »

Review: Dead Astronauts by Jeff VandeMeer

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Cover courtesy of Macmillan.

If a cataclysmic shattering world could write a novel, this would be it. The organizing principle of Dead Astronauts is not chronology, nor non-linear chronology (a book told out of order still postures itself against a fixed, correct order which the  reader can construct in their mind.) The organizing principle is ecology, iteration, echoes. I had a dream recently where someone told me they “experience things cumulatively,” which I find to be an oddly apt description of this novel. You experience this book cumulatively. The book takes place in the world of Borne, but it may as well not, because aside from the familiar post-apocalyptic landscape and the similarly surreal lifeforms that populate it, the way the world behaves is just totally different, starting with the timeline-hopping Dead Astronauts.

The second chapter of the book, and also the longest, follows these titular characters, “the three.” If not for this section, the book wouldn’t have anything close to a main plot, just lots of small stories filling in the histories of different places, the backstories of different characters. So, what is the narrative? “The three,” Grayson, Chen, and Moss, are on a seemingly futile mission to reclaim the City from the Company, a mission they’ve repeatedly undertaken across multiple alternate timelines, facing different variations of the same archetypal characters each time, often (always?) ending in failure.

But … why? This chapter was probably my least favorite—the parts of it that I liked most were the parts delving into the astronauts’ pasts, while the actual narrative through-line, this mission, just wasn’t all that compelling. What are they reclaiming the city for? What would they do once its reclaimed? The thing Grayson Chen and Moss seem to care about most is each other, not the City. Grayson and Moss may have personal reasons to want to exact vengeance on the Company, but … enh, that’s more my own speculation than anything the text explores. And unlike in the Area X trilogy, the hollowness of the mission isn’t developed and spotlighted as a theme, it just feels like flat writing.

Once the title characters get out of the way, other chapters shine a lot brighter, like that of Charlie X, a scientist at the Company with a fast deteriorating memory, or the chapter for the Dark Bird, a deadly, tortured creation of the Company. These chapters are much less narrative-focused, more non-linear and experimental (granted, even the Dead Astronauts section is far more experimental than something like, say, Borne—it’s a testament to how wild this book is that that chapter seems conventional in contrast to everything else.) Probably my favorite chapter was “Can’t Forget,” a vigorous, hateful 60 pages narrated by the Blue Fox, describing an ancestral memory of humankind’s assault on foxes, through fur-trapping and climate change up to the Company’s experiments on and exploitation of the Blue Fox as a biological reconnaissance tool. I could write a post about that chapter in itself—the use of huge walls of repeated text, the effect of actually reading through it, the defiant and truly inhuman voice VanderMeer achieves. There are a few single sentences in the chapter that floored me, simple phrases that land with explosive impact because of how the text builds up to them.

Truly, VanderMeer’s prose is great throughout the whole book, it’s as inventive as the novel’s overall structure. He gives lots of focus to the materiality of words, their sound, their weight when repeated over and over, with less emphasis on strict semantic meaning. Characters stutter out series of rhyming words, text appears in blocks with big vacuums of white space in between. Just as this world is full of characters whose striking, mythological stature transcends a more realist, psychological approach, the language often strives for force, vitality, in order to transcend the mere conveyance of information.

If a cataclysmic shattering world could write a novel, this would be it. And because of its non-linear nature, because the narrative is more a decentralized history than a single plot, it beckons to be reread, reread in pieces, in sections, out of order or over and over again. If you like VanderMeer’s more experimental stuff, definitely check this out. There is little out there like it.

Review: So Much for that Winter by Dorthe Nors, translated by Misha Hoekstra

9781555977429
Cover courtesy of Graywolf press

So Much for that Winter is a collection of two novellas by Dorthe Nors, “Minna Needs Rehearsal Space” and “Days.” Both are about break-ups to varying extents, and both take highly lineated forms. Every sentence in “Minna Needs Rehearsal Space” get its own line, with scarce use of pronouns or compound sentences, meaning most of the novella looks like this:

Minna introduces herself.
Minna is on Facebook.
Minna isn’t a day over forty.
Minna is a composer.

“Days”, on the other hand, often breaks sentences across multiple lines. It is made up of numbered lists, with each list composing one day, so it looks like this:

1. So much for that winter,
2. I thought, looking at the last crocuses of spring;
3. they lay down on the ground
4. and I was in doubt.

As I said, both novellas are about break-ups, but “Minna Needs Rehearsal Space” is a little more explicitly about a break-up. Minna is a composer who is in love with Lars, and a few pages into the novella Lars dumps her via text. Also, Minna needs rehearsal space, and she was supposed to get a space through a friend of Lars’s, but that’s a no-go now. So Minna tries to go about her life, tries to get over Lars, tries to keep composing, and eventually goes on a vacation to Bornholm which takes up the last third or so of the story.

“Minna” is a very humorous novella, reveling in awkward encounters and embarrassing moments. It honestly reads a bit like chick lit, just in an unusual form—a form which does, in fact, accentuate its dry, pithy humor at times, while also allowing some more poignant, meditative moments at others. Overall I quite enjoyed it, but I didn’t feel a very strong connection to the main character. Maybe it’s the form, making even the most sincere moments seem a bit flip in their delivery. Or maybe it’s the pacing, the constant release of tension from each line break, each period, preventing total immersion. Or maybe I just don’t care that much about break-ups? I also found it strange (and this is kind of a problem with “Days” as well) that the main character appears to have no job. Is she really making a living off of her “paper sonatas”? It’s a touch odd, in a book focused on everyday life, that monetary concerns/financial anxiety basically never come up. Maybe that’s just how people are in Denmark, IDK.Read More »

Review: Death’s End by Liu Cixin, translated by Ken Liu

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Cover courtesy of Tor Books.

Death’s End is the conclusion to the Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy. Spoilers for the first two books, which I reviewed here. Death’s End more or less picks up where The Dark Forest left off, with Trisolaris in an uneasy cold war with the Earth, and Luo Ji sitting with his finger on the button. I say “more or less” because the book actually does take some time to go back to the “Crisis Era,” describing a failed espionage project, and introducing us to the book’s main character, Cheng Xin. This brief episode at the beginning, where we see a human brain sent out to the Trisolaran fleet, is the last bit of set-up Liu needs—after a book and a half of waiting for the fleet to arrive, we finally have a book where, start-to-finish, humanity is dealing with immediate existential threats, or suffering immediate damages. With the exception of these few chapters of anticipation at the beginning, the whole book is falling dominoes.

And the scope of the book is truly phenomenal, full of so many historical episodes across different eras of human existence. I say “historical” because that’s really the only way to describe it, even though it’s a history of the future. Cheng Xin is the main character, as she lives through many different epochs by undergoing “hibernation” for long periods of time, but human civilization is the protagonist. It is humanity that is at stake, humanity that must act, humanity broken and humanity triumphant. And so many of these episodes are captivating little stories in themselves—a war crimes trial of the survivors of the Doomsday Battle, the horror of mass-resettlement to Australia, and three intriguing and cryptically coded fairytales which form a strange, imagistic core to the book much in the way the game Three-Body did to the first novel. This serial nature is also similar to the first novel, but here, each episode has two previous books’ worth of material to build on, bringing all that unstoppable momentum crashing forward on and on. It makes for a solid read.

I also greatly enjoyed the book on a thematic level. It covers a lot of ground, and a lot of different sci-fi concepts, but above all it is a profoundly sorrowful book, a book about death—of people, of civilizations, of the universe. It is pre-apocalyptic, post-apocalyptic, and intra-apocalyptic all at once. It also manages to leverage some basic observations about the universe, along with some of Liu’s own postulations, to reach terrifying conclusions about the fate of all things, similar to the ominous overtones of the first book. The idea of the “Dark Forest” is already harrowing enough, but Death’s End promises even more terrifying ideas about the nature of space and cosmic intelligence, about the utter insignificance of our place in existence, and it delivers on those promises in spades.

If you enjoyed the first two books, definitely read this one. If you enjoyed the first one but not so much the second, I’d still highly recommend Death’s End. While it’s a lot longer, not nearly as compact as The Three-Body Problem, it still feels like a return to form, in the ways I’ve mentioned above. And if you haven’t read any of the trilogy, I highly recommend all of it. As a whole, it present a dark and captivating vision of galactic civilizations, and humanity’s future among the stars.

Some blog housekeeping: No more “What I’ve Been Reading” posts! Only individual reviews from now on! Basically, the “What I’ve Been Reading” posts made sense when I first started doing them because the reviews were quite short, and they were a quick way to throw in a bunch of reviews in the middle of some other series of blog posts. However, now I tend to write longer reviews, and if I feel like I can only write a paragraph about a book, I just don’t write anything. Also, for the foreseeable future book reviews and other kinds of reviews will be the only thing going up on this site, so I have no need to condense them and make way for other posts. Also, no more “Recommendation Dump” posts. Just gonna atomize everything.

I mean, probably. Maybe I’ll still bundle reviews together from time to time. Who knows. But that’s why this review is its own post, even though its not super long, and that’s how it’ll be from now on.

Review: Acceptance by Jeff VanderMeer

acceptancecover
Cover courtesy of Macmillan.

 Acceptance is the final book in Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, the rest of which I reviewed a while ago, here and here. Spoiler warning for those books, I guess?

There are three major narrative threads in Acceptance, which the book alternates between by chapter—the lighthouse keeper, the Director, and Ghost Bird & Control. The Lighthouse Keeper’s story occurs before Area X has taken over the coast, though it soon becomes clear that Area X’s arrival is impending. The Director is the director from Annihilation, and her narrative takes place before the events of that book, showing the lead up to that expedition. Ghost Bird and Control (the book also alternates between them by chapter, though their stories form one continuous narrative) are entering Area X and trying to find the Biologist, their story picking up right where Authority ended.

All of these component parts are great. The Director chapters are reminiscent of Authority, getting into the oppressive, decadent world of the Southern Reach agency, a long slow burn with the “12th expedition” looming on the horizon. The Ghost Bird and Control chapters are more like Annihilation, though a bit faster, punchier—a return to Area X, with new revelations, new menacing phenomena, and a steady drive toward a mysterious objective. And the lighthouse keeper chapters feel completely new, with Saul Evans (the lighthouse keeper) being maybe the most normal character in the whole trilogy? I came to quite enjoy these chapters, settling into the small coastal town setting, getting to know Saul, and slowly seeing the gruesome shadow of apocalypse fall across everything.

However. The sum is less than the parts. Authority, the previous book in the series, was a very slow book, but I came to enjoy it, its immersive quality and careful consideration. The Director and Lighthouse Keeper chapters are, likewise, fairly slow, the characters don’t have big objectives, and they present worlds you really want to sit with. By contrast, the Ghost Bird and Control chapters are maybe the most action packed of the trilogy—if the books have been building up to anything it is these chapters, and you just want to keep reading, keep pushing deeper into Area X and closer to their goal. So the faster chapters break the immersive, slow-burn pacing of the slower chapters, and the slower chapters wreck the momentum of the faster ones.Read More »

What I’ve Been Reading, October 2019

The Three-Body Problem by Liu Cixin, translated by Ken Liu — This book made waves a few years ago when it was first translated into English, and became the first Asian novel ever to win the Hugo for best novel. I’ve been meaning to read it for awhile, attracted to it because it is 1) a work in translation, 2) hard SF that takes after the golden age works of Clarke and Asimov, and 3) an exemplar of the thriving Chinese science fiction tradition. As well, I’ve recently become attracted to stories where humanity has to undertake massive, global projects to prevent existential threats—one such story being Liu Cixin’s “Sea of Dreams”, translated by John Chu. In that novelette, I was captivated by Liu’s titanic vision and cool, sharp prose. On all of these expectations, The Three-Body Problem delivered in spades.

The Three-Body Problem is a book about first contact, and the ever widening implications of that contact. It takes place in three major narrative strands: the Red Coast Base, a secretive military facility established in Inner Mongolia during the cultural revolution sporting an enormous antenna; the presentish, as various scientists are suffering strange fates or spiraling downward in existential depression; and, also occurring in the presentish, the VR landscape of a surreal game titled Three Body.Read More »

What I’ve Been Reading, July 2019

Ah summer break is here at last, the summer break that will never end because I’ve graduated now, Forever Summer—and I’ve been reading a ton of books!

Kid Gloves by Lucy Knisley — Kid Gloves is the latest graphic novel memoir from Knisley, describing her experience of pregnancy, and everything leading up to it. What’s great is that, in addition to the conception-to-birth pregnancy narrative that we’re all fairly familiar with, Knisley also describes the process of trying to get pregnant, of having miscarriages, and, crucially, her internal state through all of this. Kid Gloves is a very vulnerable, honest book, which spends a great deal of time getting across how Lucy feels about the pregnancy at various stages. Just viewed externally, pregnancy is a pretty dramatic process, but (as Knisley discusses in the book) the experience of the person actually carrying the child is often sidelined in mainstream pregnancy narratives. Not so here.

In addition to her own narrative, Knisley adds in interstitial bits of pregnancy research, trying to debunk some of the misconceptions around pregnancy, and shed light on some lesser known truths. Sometimes this research feels very integral to the personal narrative (the section focusing on miscarriage myths, for instance, spends a lot of time trying to assuage the irrational guilt women who have miscarried often feel), while other sections of research feel kind of inconsequential. Like, pregnancy superstitions or the medicalization of labor might be interesting, but they seem disconnected from the rest of the book in places. Something New had sections like that too, but overall the tone of that book was a lot lighter, so it all felt of a piece.Read More »

Review: Island Book by Evan Dahm

island book cover
Cover courtesy of First Second

How have I not talked about Evan Dahm before? Evan Dahm is one of those creators I just can’t get enough of. I’ve read all his graphic novels at least twice, and that includes this, his latest completed graphic novel, Island Book.

Island Book tells the story of Sola, a girl living on an island in a vast, unexplored ocean. Many inhabitants of the island believe she is cursed, because of her strange connection to a giant creature simply called “the monster” which lives in the ocean, and which devastated the island when it attacked years ago. So one night Sola steals a boat and sets off into the ocean, hoping to discover the mystery of the monster, and why it seems drawn to her, for herself. She soon learns that there are other islands out there, populated by different peoples, some of whom join her in her quest to find the monster.

By different “peoples,” I mean different fantasy races. If you’re familiar with Evan Dahm’s work, you’ll know what I’m talking about. I believe he refers to them as “kinds” rather than species or races. Basically there’s no humans or elves or dwarves (though Sola’s island’s islanders are fairly close to human.) The character/kind design is an outgrowth of the island they live on—or maybe it’s the other way around. Anyway, this means all the islands are incredibly uh guess what insular, on a design level. Motifs of shape and color are repeated in the look of the land, the island’s ships, and the islanders themselves. For instance, “Fortress Island” is inhabited by these big, hulking turtle people, with ships that look like ironclads. Likewise, the cultures of the islands harmonize with their iconography, and the whole color palette of the book changes from island to island.Read More »

Review: Imagine Wanting Only This by Kristen Radtke

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Cover courtesy of Pantheon

Agggh! This book has sat on the floor of my bedroom since September of last yearbasically for my entire senior year thus fargoing unread! I made one cursory pass at it sometime during the fall semester, wasn’t really hooked by it, was kind of put off by the art style, and then abandoned it. Well, good thing I didn’t just return it to the library, because now I have read it, and it’s fantastic. (SIDENOTE: I am not a monster. Although my honors student status allows me to check out books for the entire school year without having to renew them, I normally don’t do so unless the book a. is incredibly obscure and clearly not in any demand or b. has multiple copies available. Radtke’s book [probably because she got her MFA here] has multiple copies at the UI library.)

Imagine Wanting Only This is a graphic novel memoir mainly focusing on a period of Kristen’s life starting with her undergrad career and ending shortly after leaving graduate school and moving to Louisville, Kentucky—the “stuck in them 20-somethings” period of life, to borrow a phrase from SZA. As the book moves between major decisions and life events in these years—moves, break-ups, illnesses—Radtke returns again and again to the themes of loss, deterioration, decay, the desire for something more, something new—and the way all these things conflict within her. Is it possible to hold onto the old and gain new relationships, new experiences? Is it possible to hold onto anything at all, when everything is so transitory? What is the value of preserving a ruin versus letting it fall into rot? The strongest through-line of the book is ruins. The urban decay of Gary, Indiana, the devastation of the Peshtigo fire, the volcanic destruction of a town in Iceland, even the mold and water damage in Kristen’s sad college apartment. These images hold the book together, link one event with another, and keep the book feeling cohesive despite the lack of any straight-shot plotline throughout the whole story.

I think one of the things that initially put me off about the book was Kristen and her boyfriend Andrew acting like such creeps (“Really, you can’t say the word ‘yes’ without invoking James Joyce,” Andrew opines at one point), and being unsure whether or not I was supposed to relate to them and feel like their grody behavior was romantic. Because I know these students, anyone getting a liberal arts education knows these students, and they’re the kind of students who I don’t care to be around because I can’t connect with them through their wall of irony and aggressively performed insightfulness. That said, it pretty quickly becomes clear that no, Radtke is not trying to romanticize (for example) the way these two descend on Gary, Indiana in the most exploitative, ruin-pornographer manner. It also becomes clear that a lot of their pretension and surety about the world is covering deep insecurities and internal tensions, which allowed me to relate to them in a way I’m sure I could never, I’m sure they would never let me, if I met them when they were that age at UIowa.Read More »

What I’ve Been Reading, April 2019

Been a while since I did one of these, I guess because I’ve been reading lots of short stories. Anyway, here’s what all I’ve been reading the past few months (my god it’s been four months since I read Heavy where did the time go I’m about to graduate aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaa.) Also, I recently read Imagine Wanting Only This by Kristen Radtke, which I had a lot to say about, so that’ll be posted as its own review a few days from now.

Heavy by Kiese Laymon — As the subtitle describes it, Heavy is “an American memoir,” following Kiese Laymon from his childhood up to his early adulthood, returning again and again to themes of abuse, education, body image, racism, and America.

Incredibly, even with these heavy themes, whenever I started listening to this book, I just couldn’t stop. I even listened to it on my airplane ride from Cedar Rapids to Atlanta! Let me tell you, on airplanes I only ever listen to podcasts, or music. Stuff that does not require a lot of cerebral commitment. But when I ran out of saved podcasts, I started listening to Heavy, and the hours just flew by.

Part of the engrossing pull of this book may have to do with how novel-like it is. It’s composed primarily of scenes, scenes that are fully fleshed out with long stretches of vivid dialog, and intriguing, instantly identifiable characters. And the narrative voice shifts to fit the different phases of Kiese’s life. There’s no sense of retrospective distance between the narrator and the events he’s describing, and the result is that as a reader you can be fully immersed in these remembered moments as they play out. That said, Laymon still manages to address more abstract ideas—the book is not just a series of things that happened, it does also pull revelations out of those events, which steadily accumulate and build on one another throughout the book. As I said, it is novel-like, and the novel that it is like is a novel which expertly joins theme with narrative, emotions with ideas, character with critique.Read More »

What I’ve Been Reading, December 2018

You ever just have a run of really good books? Like, every book you pick up you just enjoy straight away, and love reading it all the way through? That’s what I’ve had these past few weeks. This is what I’ve been reading:

The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. Le Guin — This book follows George Orr, a thoroughly average, inoffensive man living in early 2000s Portland, Oregon (the future at the time Le Guin wrote it.) George Orr is wholly unremarkable, except for the fact that, sometimes, his dreams change the world. When he wakes up from these “effective” dreams, he’s the only who remembers the old world—although he also has new memories from this new world—and otherwise, the new world marches on without missing a beat. When Orr is referred to the psychiatrist William Haber, he tries to get cured of this ability, but soon realizes that Haber is only taking advantage of his effective dreams to try and make a better world as he sees fit—and each attempt only creates a more dystopic reality.

The pacing in the book is terrific, with Haber growing more powerful in each new iteration of the world, and circumstances getting more dire for all of humanity. As well, it lets Le Guin really show off her world-building chops, with all these slightly different futures for Portland and for the whole Earth. The book is largely driven by dialogue, but what prose there is is that clean, cut-glass writing you’d expect from Le Guin. This allows her to establish these new altered worlds quickly, with just a few prominent images to pull the reader in.

What I loved most about this book is the themes it’s dealing with. The idea that the world’s woes can be solved by rational solutions, that these can be applied universally without nuance, is completely dismantled—or rather, Le Guin shows what happens when these rational ideals have to face up against the illogic of humanity, of Orr’s dreams. Nowhere did this theme his harder for me than when Haber tries to solve the war in the near east by telling Orr to dream of a world with no more war. The results are, of course, not perfect, and in fact far more frightening. Haber is the perfect image of the bloodless Rational™ Liberal thinker, who believes there is war in the Middle East because middle easterners are foolish religious zealots, and iF onLy tHey CoUld See tHE lIgHT of ReAsoN TheRe wOulD Be No wAR, and by golly I am the man to fix the Middle East’s problems. Le Guin’s stroke of brilliance is that when this rationality meets Orr’s unconscious mind, the result is not a bunch of humans who suddenly love each other, because in a sense humans were never really the problem—the result is unfathomable monsters.Read More »

What I’ve Been Reading, Spooktober 2018

Okay, so I intended for this post to go up in October, but it took me awhile to finish House of Leaves, and honestly, whateverSpooktober can live on in our hearts year round. So yeah. Here’s a ton of spooky stuff that I’ve been reading.

Universal Harvester by John Darnielle Universal Harvester begins with Jeremy, a VHS rental store clerk in the small town of Nevada, Iowa, when customers begin returning tapes and complaining that something has been taped over part of them. When Jeremy inspects the tapes, he finds odd, lingering shots of a farmhouse spliced into the middle of the movies—and the inserted footage only becomes more and more disturbing.

But that’s just where the book begins. As it progresses, the narrative winds its way through various small Iowa towns, backward and forward in time, sometimes leaning more toward horror, sometimes more toward the mundane (which isn’t to say that the two aren’t connected.) Overall the book is very atmospheric, but it isn’t an atmosphere of constant dread. It’s a portrait of the midwest that is loving without being provincial, critical without falling back on the old clichés we all know about middle America and rural communities. That’s really what struck me about the book—its quiet, steady chronicling of the lives of characters dealing with loss, struggling to find home, caught between staying and leaving. It’s a book without climaxes, no do-or-die moments, just endless process, a book about living.

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