Build That World: On Helen Macdonald’s Vesper Flights
and Rachel Kushner’s The Hard Crowd | Gulf Coast

I reviewed two excellent essay collections in the Winter/Spring 2022 issue of Gulf Coast. It’s a honor to publish in the journal founded by Donald Barthelme and Phillip Lopate. Check it out here!

The King of Infinite Space by Lyndsay Faye | L.A. Times

Lyndsay Faye plays a kind of literary jazz. The author likes to riff on the standards, putting her own stamp on them as she jams. Her previous novels include inventive takes on Sherlock Holmes (“Dust and Shadow”) and “Jane Eyre” (“Jane Steele”). Her Timothy Wilde detective series and her novel “The Paragon Hotel” infuse a contemporary sensibility into gritty, evocative historical fiction. Continue reading…

What About the Baby? Some Thoughts on the Art of Fiction
by Alice McDermott | The Boston Globe

(My first review for The Boston Globe! New publications are always exciting, but this one’s particularly meaningful because I lived in Boston for many years and loved it there.)

In “Faith and Literature,” an essay from her first non-fiction collection “What About the Baby?”, the award-winning novelist Alice McDermott explains the origins of her fictional milieu: “I write about a culture I know fairly well in order to resist the siren song of research.” The culture she’s referring to is that of Irish Catholics, mostly in Brooklyn or Long Island, at various points in the twentieth century. McDermott, as one would deduce, was born in Brooklyn and educated in Long Island, the daughter of Irish Catholic parents—“a cradle Catholic,” as she describes herself. She regularly explores the way the past haunts the present, community mythology, alcoholism, and the life-altering effects of grief. Continue reading…

Long Division by Kiese Laymon | Tasteful Rude

The most interesting mystery novels don’t announce themselves as such. There is no murder to solve or culprit to apprehend. Rather, events which have no obvious explanation unfold and an air of ambiguity surrounds them. Kiese Laymon’s novel Long Division belongs to this category of mystery. It is a bold narrative which, for more than half of its pages, withholds the nature of its machinations until an ingenious turn connects what had seemed to be a succession of unrelated cyphers. Continue reading…

The Last Man Takes LSD by Mitchell Dean & Daniel Zamora | L.A. Times

In 1978 and 1979, the French philosopher Michel Foucault gave a series of lectures on neoliberalism, the set of economic doctrines focused on free market enterprise, limited government and individual autonomy. Foucault wasn’t interested in the nitty-gritty of actual governing. “I have not studied and do not want to study,” he announced in the first lecture, “the development of real governmental practice.” Rather, he was interested in “the art of government.”

Embodied: An Intersectional Feminist Comics Poetry Anthology,
edited by Wendy and Tyler Chin-Tanner | Tasteful Rude

In 1976, five Black women sued General Motors because the company systemically prevented their advancement. The court, however, ruled in favor of GM because, as Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw put it, “General Motors did hire women—albeit white women—during the period that no Black women were hired [and thus] there was, in the court’s view, no sex discrimination that the seniority system could conceivably have perpetuated.” The court then recommended that the case be consolidated with another race discrimination lawsuit against GM. A person, in other words, could sue for race discrimination or sex discrimination, but not both, because claiming that there was a specific prejudice against Black women, in the court’s words, “clearly raises the prospect of opening the hackneyed Pandora’s box.”

Crenshaw uses this case—and others—in her seminal paper, “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics,” published in University of Chicago Legal Forum in 1989. Crenshaw coined the term “intersectionality” because “dominant conceptions of discrimination condition us to think about subordination as disadvantage occurring along a single categorical axis.” A feminism that only addresses the experiences of white women is no true feminism, and an antiracist politic that only addresses Black men is similarly incomplete, as neither on their own addresses the experience and oppression of Black women. Though “intersectionality” has been expanded to include all manner of categorical intersections—including class, sexuality, gender identity, nationality, disability, and age—it began as a legal concept specifically referencing Black women. Continue reading…

The Dangers of Smoking in Bed by Mariana Enriquez | Tasteful Rude

Stepping into a Mariana Enriquez story, everything at first appears normal: people, furniture, lighting; it’s all there; nothing’s amiss. Yet an undeniable disquiet pervades. You don’t know why exactly, but you are certain something is wrong. Eventually and invariably, you discover that you are right. Though she has been publishing fiction and journalism for nearly thirty years in her native Argentina, so far only two books have been translated from their original Spanish into English: Things We Lost in the Fire and now The Dangers of Smoking in Bed. They are both story collections in which the oxymoronic phrase “magic realism” manifests to an extreme. They feature ghosts, witches, curses and cannibals while being equally rife with sexual violence, juntas, self-harm, and all manner of vividly rendered trauma. Continue reading…

HurricanecoverHurricane Season by Fernanda Melchor | On the Seawall

Hurricane Season begins,  appropriately, with boys. Here is the first line: “They reached the canal along the track leading up from the river, their slingshots drawn for battle and their eyes squinting, almost stitched together, in the midday glare.” These boys, mere children, are already immersed in a culture of violence, ready for some imaginary battle their world tells them to prepare for. None of them “would dare admit he was scared,” as the others, even if they were afraid, would make merciless fun of him. These boys are the ones who find the Witch’s body. Continue reading…

NORTON_BookShot_FOREIGN+BODIES+YK2Object Impermanence: On Kimiko Hahn’s Foreign Bodies | Vol. 1 Brooklyn

A caveat: Foreign Bodies is Kimiko Hahn’s tenth collection of poetry, but it’s the first and only one that I’ve read. By my own standards as a critic, this lack of familiarity with a writer’s work usually disqualifies me as a reviewer of one of their books. The only exception I make for this is when I read a book that is so fantastic and exhilarating and rich that I’m compelled to write less of a review and more of a celebration, a fan’s note, a paean to a particular book’s achievements. This is one of those cases. Continue reading…

Processed with VSCOcam with 5 presetPoets Who Shine a Light on Our Present Moment | Read It Forward

The following poets, of varying ages and points in their careers, each tackle, from an eclectic array of perspectives, the dizzying complexities of being alive today. Whether through surrealist imagery or personal narrative, these collections help us zero on the lives and dreams of richly drawn individuals and communities, so that by experiencing a moment in the heart of one person, one family, or one geography, taken altogether we can create a mosaic that resembles, imperfectly but still vitally, the world around us. Continue reading… (Image: @yummypixels)

31eba1e8a14d208b370b8ec9cba1b4cb-w204@1xNot a Clue by Chloé Delaume | Publishers Weekly

Delaume’s first novel to be translated into English is a sly and thorny work that loosely takes the form of a game of Clue, and even more loosely takes the form of a novel. The six murder suspects are psychiatric patients in Paris’s Saint-Anne’s Hospital, and each gets a few chapters providing their backgrounds, how they wound up institutionalized, and attributing to them a name from the board game. Continue reading…

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7 Anthologies to Broaden Your Perspective | Read It Forward

Books, as we all know, offer views into other worlds, journeys through unknown territories, engagements with unheard points of view, intimacies with the unfamiliar, and confrontations with the oppositional. They are transits into the other, guiding us—sometimes comfortably, sometimes perilously—through a world too big for us to travel in one lifetime. Through books we become voyeurs, co-conspirators, sidekicks, tag-alongs, psychics, and quantum leapers. They are our windows looking out over everything.

Anthologies go even further: they present a symphony of voices, ruminating on a single subject, a common theme, a unifying thread. They acknowledge in practice the truth that no one author can write the story for an entire group, so they collect disparate yet connected pieces to hint at the bewildering complexities of some of our most pressing issues. They amalgamate work from myriad backgrounds into, if not a representative whole then a satisfying unit that scratches at the idea of representation, like puzzles pieces that when put together form another, larger puzzle piece. Anthologies bring together writers and thinkers into a volume, and by doing so bring together readers into a necessary view of distant horizons. Continue reading…

7 Exciting Debut Novels Coming Out This Winter | Read It Forward

The reason debut novels are so exciting is because it’s the chance to witness potential greatness at its earliest stage—there are no previous novels to live up to, no signatures or habits to look out for, and no end to what we can imagine a new voice will do in the future. With each novel by a first-timer that you enjoy comes another career to follow, another sting in the dizzying yarn knot of your literary interests, and soon every month brings out a second, third, or fourth novel by someone who you’ve read since the beginning and whose development you’ve traced like a proud parent or a sports fan. Continue reading…

poetry-roundup-lede.w700.h467New Year, New Verse: 4 Great New Poetry Collections | Vulture

Poetry ought to be the preeminent form of this age — hell, every age. In a smattering of words, a poem can eulogize, satirize, criticize, proselytize. The greatest verse clues us into what Jane Hirshfield calls “poetry’s knowing,” its function of “clarification and magnification.” It’s the quintessential hybrid form: an amalgam of essay, lyric, story, polemic, and diary. Poets are penguins, to paraphrase E.E. Cummings. They use their wings to swim. Continue reading…

3c812d1d6454e6f356221bbc3ac0d3d3-w204@1xThe Old Drift by Namwali Serpell |
Publishers Weekly

Recalling the work of Toni Morrison and Gabriel García Márquez as a sometimes magical, sometimes horrifically real portrait of a place, Serpell’s novel goes into the future of the 2020s, when the various plot threads come together in a startling conclusion. Intricately imagined, brilliantly constructed, and staggering in its scope, this is an astonishing novel. Continue reading…

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10 Collected Works by Great Writers | Read It Forward

For true bibliophiles, there is nothing lovelier than a volume of collected works. Such a book, filled as it is with a career’s worth of writing, isn’t meant to be read conventionally, from beginning to end, but can be nonlinearly perused, occasionally opened, to any old page, to one’s favorite piece, and enjoyed again and again. Add to this the fact that these collection contain all—or at least most—of an author’s work in a given form, which means when it comes to the collected writer, you’ve got them covered; never again will you have to seek out something they published, since you’ve now got everything they’ve produced in a handsome, stuffed-to-the-brim edition. Below you’ll find some recent collected works by some of the most influential and monumental talents in the world—a few you’ve no doubt read, while others may be new to you. But they all, in their careers, ran the gambit of subjects and themes, explored the outer reaches of their forms, and composed a rich array of poetry and prose. Continue reading….

97803165602211Big Bang by David Bowman | Publishers Weekly

“Where were you when you first heard President Kennedy had been shot?” asks Bowman (1957–2012) in the opening of his big, bold, and brilliant posthumous novel, and for the next 600 pages, he investigates what occurred in the years leading up to that monumental event in American history. Through the lives of such iconic figures as Norman Mailer, Elvis, William de Kooning, Marilyn Monroe, Dr. Spock, Ngô Dihn Diem, the Kennedys themselves, and dozens of others, Bowman conjures an enormous narrative out of the troubled years from 1950 to 1963. Continue reading…

RIF-Back2SchoolForYourBrain-1200x900-830x62516 Back-to-School Books for Your Brain | Read It Forward

Every September there appears—in stores, in advertisements, in themed issues of magazines—a bewildering profusion of all things “back to school.” These are aimed, obviously, at children: to sell supplies, fashion, food, and whatever other product can somehow be categorized into the seemingly forever-growing category.

But here at Read It Forward, we thought, “What about everyone else? Are we not continually educating ourselves? Isn’t it our duty (especially right now) to always remain students? Shouldn’t we, in some sense, go back to school, too?” Continue reading…

sharon-olds-antonio-olmos-900x675The Poetic Persistence of Sharon Olds | Read It Forward

I have done what you wanted to do, Walt Whitman,
Allen Ginsberg, I have done this thing,
I and the other women this exceptional
act with the exceptional heroic body,
this giving birth, this glistening verb,
and I am putting my proud American boast
right here with the others.                              
—Sharon Olds, “The Language of the Brag,” Satan Says (1980)

It hasn’t been easy being Sharon Olds, especially in terms of the critical response to her work, which has been two-fold: to ignore her completely, or to lambast her for “exhibitionism.” Continue reading…

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Goodbye, Vitamin 
by Rachel Khong | The Columbus Dispatch

“Autobiographical” feels like the right description for Rachel Khong’s “Goodbye, Vitamin.” But because I don’t know whether her debut novel is based on her real life (and because it doesn’t matter if it is or not), I’ll say her novel feels “lived in.”

Khong has crafted a believably human protagonist in Ruth, a 30-year-old woman who’s back in her childhood home to help take care of her father, who has Alzheimer’s. “Goodbye, Vitamin” follows Ruth’s adventures in her old stomping ground for one year, during which she also tends to her own problems, including a broken heart and a lack of purpose. Continue reading…

170720_FCiccolella_ReadItForward_FINAL_REV-900x675How One Becomes What One Is: 7 Memoirs of Artistic Development | Read It Forward

I’ve read a lot of memoirs by writers—in fact, it’s probably one of my favorite categories of literature. First of all, there is the sense of seeing what life is like for someone you’ve only known about through writing and/or their celebrity. Secondly—and this comes almost as a consequence of the first—it can be an absolute delight getting the inside scoop on other writers and figures of note. Think, for instance, of Ernest Hemingway talking shit about Ford Maddox Ford in A Moveable Feast, his memoir of Paris. Or consider the juiciest bits of Stephen King’s On Writing, as in, e.g., that his novel Misery is a metaphor for cocaine addiction (which makes perfect sense when you apply it to the narrative!). Memoirs can function like literary tabloids, revealing the underbelly of the written word. Continue reading…

Image: Elsa Jenna

Habash_StephenFlorida_9781566894647-682x1024Stephen Florida by Gabe Habash | New York Times Book Review

“People are bad at giving up,” a man tells the title character late in “Stephen Florida,” Gabe Habash’s debut novel. “A lot of the time they don’t do it early enough.” He’s commenting on life in the oil fields of North Dakota, where Stephen is considering a job after college, but he might as well be describing Stephen’s current situation: He’s a wrestler at Oregsburg College in the late 1970s, and it’s his senior year, which means it’s his last chance to win a collegiate championship. Habash’s novel follows Stephen through his event-filled final season and traces his complex inner turmoil as he pursues his unbending ambition to dominate the competition. By the time the above statement is made to Stephen, he’s veered far away from mere determination and ended up near monomania, and his will to win has become enmeshed in bitter jealousy, calculated malice and philosophical scrutiny. The sport itself, in other words, is beside the point, as are the actual benefits of succeeding. Stephen’s drive has brought him to the brink, but is it too late for him to give up? Continue reading...

PrintAt Home in Ruins: Imagine Wanting Only This by Kristen Radtke | Fiction Advocate

Kristen Radtke’s meditative graphic memoir Imagine Wanting Only This ruminates on ruin and decay—of an abandoned city, of a genetically faulty heart, of love and relationships, and, in the long run, of all things. Through black-and-white images with stark juxtapositions, Radtke braids together the death of her favorite uncle, Dan, the end of her engagement to her college boyfriend, her travels to various ruins around the world, and her own struggle to find a home somewhere that isn’t in the process of deteriorating. Continue reading…

8618636763_309f95c7fd_o-1-Terms of Concealment: Junot Díaz and the Language of Masculinity | Devise Literary

What’s interesting about these terms isn’t what they mean so much as how they’re employed: Díaz always uses them when discussing relationships, both sexual and emotional. His Spanish, then (which is never translated for non-Spanish speakers), not only adds to the authenticity of the narrator, but also functions, for the English-speaking reader, as a distancing device between Yunior and his actions, his seeming lack of moral compass. This usage both emphasizes the words and obfuscates their meaning. And finally, because Spanish is Yunior’s native language, his method of obscuring his inner self employs the words of his earliest—and one might argue, most fundamental—form of expression. Continue reading…

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Strange Gods, Odd Ducks, & Other Unreliable Narrators | Read It Forward

Obviously though Talese fully intends the reader to take Foos’s story as true: from the no-frills candor (what one might call a Talesean trademark) of the opening line—“I know a married man with two children who bought a twenty-one-room motel near Denver many years ago in order to become its resident voyeur”—to the implied ickiness of Foos’s manuscript, the book practically drools over Foos’s every illicit description, a creepiness that is only palpable if the reader 100% believes that Foos actually saw (and, sometimes, did) the things he wrote about. My point isn’t to defend Talese here (though nor is it to decry him either) but to point out that The Voyeur’s Motel wouldn’t have been that different, content-wise, if instead of taking Foos’s claims for gospel they had been explicitly doubted throughout—but doubted with a growing and gross sense that he actually did do a lot of the shit he said he did and can to a certain degree prove it. The discreetly camouflaged vents Foos claimed to use for his purposes really exist, for instance, and Talese even joins the voyeur on one of his invasions into his guests’ privacy. Knowing these facts, his inconsistencies and half-truths wouldn’t be detractions from the efficacy of the narrative but a pivotal component its very vitality, as it doesn’t really matter if we believe that Foos spied on these particular people doing these exact acts—what matters is that we believe that Foos saw things like those. Our imaginations will do a far better job than reality, anyway. Continue reading…

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Jonathan Russell Clark Swims in Books |
Go Away, I’m Reading

I was interviewed on the literary podcast Go Away, I’m Reading! Check it out here!

From the GAIR site: “Book critic Jonathan Russell Clark talked with us about the satisfaction he finds in writing criticism, his inspirations and the capriciousness of what hooks him in books. We also talk collecting books (and how they become the most hated objects in the house), unintentional manifestos, handling reader feedback, bridging the gap between older critics and the current literary and digital landscapes, and the way nobody ever takes a book recommendation.”

140210_r24626-1200A Promise Matters More Than Snow: Rethinking Robert Frost | Devise Literary

Maxine Kumin’s “The Final Poem” suggests something about Frost’s own poetry that many often overlook. Frost tells Kumin and the other fawning poets of Bread Loaf that the audience “can’t take in / half of what you’re giving them.” If we were to believe conventional analyses of Frost’s work, an audience would be able to get everything in one hearing, as many interpretations of Frost’s poetry don’t account for the layers of Frost’s work. Moreover, Frost is often thought of as a poet of nature and rural life, which to me feels a bit like referring to Anne Sexton as merely a poet of domesticity—these descriptions are ostensible; it is what is underneath them that defines them. Let’s take three of Frost’s nature poems—“Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening,” “Birches,” and “After Apple-Picking,” which are often interpreted as laments on man’s distance from nature—and determine the way that each of these poems shows how nature only offers fleeting respite and temporary transcendence. Nature cannot save us spiritually; it can only place us “toward heaven,” and only then for but a moment. Rather than lament this ephemerality, Frost concludes, “Earth’s the right place for love.” Continue reading…

readbook-900x675What Does It Mean to Have ‘Read’ a Book? |
Read It Forward

In his book Where I’m Reading From, Tim Parks asks an important question of readers: “Do we need to finish [books]?” The reason this query is so vital is that most people, I’ll argue, don’t actually finish all the books they’ve said they’ve read—and if this is so then we must all understand what we mean when we say we’ve “read” a book. Continue reading…

screen-shot-2016-10-28-at-9-59-15-amThe Difficult Second Album | Read It Forward

Okay, so now you’ve published your first novel! And, better still, it’s highly acclaimed! Your picture’s in The New York Times! You may have even won a prestigious award! All of your dreams have come true!

Now all you have to do is repeat the process all over again, except now the likeliness of duplicating the first book’s impact, receiving the same accolades, and winning more awards is basically a fraction of what it was your initial go around—which, even then was pretty remote—and if you understandably fail to achieve these things (again), you’ll disappoint people you’d never asked to esteem you so highly in the first place—and here you thought you’d made it and were finally free from the thankless work of obscurity, but these people, the very ones who lifted you from anonymity, now seem to be almost deliberately forcing back down into it. Continue reading…

screen-shot-2016-10-14-at-10-45-40-amAuspicious Beginnings: 7 Excellent Recent Debuts
Read It Forward

So the following debut novels are ones that over the last year or so have really stayed with me, moved me, compelled me, and in general felt especially deserving of acknowledgment and recognition. Some of these books have received some wide acclaim, some have benefited from major marketing pushes from their publishers, and some haven’t gotten the attention and the accolades they absolutely deserve. I truly hope all of these writers have long and flourishing careers in literature. Continue reading.