Category: Book Review

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A stylizaed triptych of Joan Didion, author of "The Year of Magical Thinking", in sepia, blue, and orange-red hues.

Where Else Is There? Reviewing Joan Didion’s “The Year of Magical Thinking”

Actor Keanu Reeves, when asked in an interview the question of what happens when we die, truthfully responded with, ‘I know that the ones who love us will miss us.’ Reeves’ response, while honest, was likely not what the audience expected. Many, unless having experienced the death of a loved one, never conceptualize it happening, as it remains a far-off abstraction. As a 19-year-old, I didn’t think about ‘being gone forever,’ or ‘being missed.’ Romanticized in literature, it’s not uncommon for thoughts on death to change over time. From the young artist who wishes to be immortal (often tragically dying young, e.g., Keats, Shelley, Plath, Van Gogh) to the older adult hoping she can easily pass away in her sleep—these perspectives will shift with age.

In March 2012, my beloved orange cat, Apollo, died suddenly while at the vet. He’d had some obstruction in his gut, but in no way did I think my dropping him off that morning would be the last time I’d ever see him alive. Struck with heartache, I called my mom who recommended I read Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. She informed me that this was an excellent memoir on grief and that she’d just read it in her book club. While reluctant to read anything recommended by my mom’s book club given its propensity for convention, I knew of Didion’s work and that she wasn’t the typical MFA writer. So, I placed that book on my mental ‘to-read’ pile and then didn’t think about it until 11 years later. […]

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A stylized photo of Bob MacKenzie, author of "The Miriam Conspiracy" (2023), originally published under the title "Another Eternity".

Renewing Canon: On Bob MacKenzie’s “The Miriam Conspiracy”

The experienced reader encounters a work with a certain awareness of literary history, of written genres; in some cases, it might be that an experienced reader will avoid certain genres as having less personal resonance, of being unsatisfying to read, perhaps because of the superficiality of the text—a situation that can both attract or repel a reader because the work is “brain candy”. For those readers who enjoy a more demanding reading experience, there are literary works; and while there is an established, historical canon of such literary works, new additions being made to that canon are subjected to as laborious a process as that of the canon of sainthood. The experienced reader may or may not defer to the institutionalization of written works as being thus canonized, but there are those experienced readers who find delight in discovering works worthy of literary consideration that may be otherwise unknown. In this latter case, of undiscovered country, readers are invited to tour a novel by Bob MacKenzie originally called Another Eternity, but which is being re-released under the title The Miriam Conspiracy.

An investigation into the physical entity of this book reveals a number of interesting aspects: inclusion of color plates, font changes, use of symbols in the text itself that concur with the symbols referenced in the narrative and used to separate sections within chapters. The book has a visual vibrancy, despite being a soft cover trade sized volume. The older edition (with copyright 1982 and 2012 by Dark Matter Press, Canada), also displays award stickers from Readers Favorites as a kind of promise to the potential reader choosing a book by its cover. Additionally, the author information page tells us of a full life spent in the arts, of awards and rare editions; the author photo itself is the opposite of the glamor shot so prosaic now, as it mostly shows the beard of the author at a podium, apparently in performance—this is no neophyte effort, and a discerning reader will enter the text with perhaps a bit of a gourmand sensation, with an anticipation of encountering a savory read. […]

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A stylized portrait of a smiling Shirley Hazzard, author of the novel "The Transit of Venus", in 3 different colors.

Bolt of the Average: On Shirley Hazzard’s “The Transit of Venus”

In historical study, certain individuals and/or classes are made distinct from the passive mass by the degree of their protagonism; charting their prominence through an era, it becomes clear that such activity is as much a testament of the human will to signify one’s own existence as any well-articulated primary account. For the self, however, protagonism is simply its indigenous function, motivating one’s behavior from the get-go. Already so distinct, so distinguished, to ourselves, how could we ever be of that vague crowd whose actions are mostly homogenous, and whose culmination for some historian of the far-flung future amounts to nothing more than sheer statistical data?

About three-quarters of the way through Shirley Hazzard’s 1980 novel The Transit of Venus, a character of up-till-then secondary (tertiary, even) significance finds himself protagonized, and here is how Hazzard illustrates the beginning of his centrality—or the delusion of such […]

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The cover for Moira J. Saucer's poetry collection, "Wiregrass", which features a hand-made cover with a physically decorated yellow flower.

Beautiful Books: On Moira J. Saucer’s “Wiregrass” (Ethel Zine)

Big box bookstores rarely carry small press books, and although some independent bookstores might shelve small press publications, they do not usually offer handmade books. There are also artist-made books, most often a single volume that can be a stunning example of what a book can be: a sublime experience of combined fibers. Books as an art form have been a genre most often seen in either craft shows or esteemed special collections, and can vary from exquisite blank journals to fragile historical treasures. It is not often enough that the ordinary bibliophile will curate handmade books into their collection, even if that personal library includes small press volumes.

Yet in Ethel, we have a small press that has consistently produced an impressive catalogue of handmade books. In addition to side sewn bindings that speak to a serious home sewing machine, each cover features collage and sewn elements—obvious work by hand yet done in the sequence of an edition. A recent release from Ethel is Wiregrass by Moira J. Saucer, which is an apparition in yellow, a textual and tactile experience that begins with holding the yet unopened book. The cover image itself has hand painted elements—a leaf, a flower (done is a yellow that is akin enough to the cover’s yellow to give the impression of depth of perception)—and then outlined with some lines sewn onto the cover. Our consideration of the artist-editor painting, then sewing a sequence of covers must pause at this achievement alone; of the hundreds of small presses whose editors consider a manuscript by the effort and reward model of production, Ethel’s commitment to the manuscript includes this level of commitment: handcraft is hours upon hours upon hours. […]

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A stylized still image of James Baldwin (author of Giovanni's Room) being interviewed late in his life.

Blown Back On Me: Analyzing James Baldwin’s “Giovanni’s Room”

The discovery of my own body might best be characterized as a long string of small traumas that, in some significant ways, runs on even well into my twenties, where, as a full-fledged man (ostensibly, legally, deludedly, etc.), it can be difficult to account for what was not properly understood as a boy.

Cloistered square in the middle of a flock of five children, sequestered by a Third World Evangelicalism pent-up with ideas of physical impurity and its largely punitive opposite in divine nature, it didn’t take long for me to build an antagonistic, even harried, relationship with the mirror and its contents. What the reflection contained was both myself and an Other, an un-asked-for future that kept slipping into my arms and legs and chest in prickly hair and heaps where they hadn’t been before. I was always a chubby child, and I became accustomed to maintaining the weight. I despised exercise and over-ate. I lazed about and constantly read or watched TV and avoided anything that might wrest my body from relaxation towards events that could attract scrutiny to its obvious weaknesses. […]

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A stylized shot of Werner Herzog, filmmaker of "Aguirre: Wrath of God", "Fitzcarraldo", "My Best Fiend", and author of Of "Walking in Ice" (1978) and "The Twilight World" (2022).

Dream’s Fever: On Werner Herzog’s “Of Walking In Ice” (1978) and “The Twilight World” (2022)

Two men are alone. One walks through ice and the other through jungle heat. Despite the presence of others, they are singular in their company, and are compelled by a sense of immense duty that further extricates them from those present.

One man is Hiroo Onoda, a Japanese military officer (in)famous for his continued service to the Empire decades after its formal surrender in World War II, inhabiting his island post in the Philippines with stolid zeal – or, at least, the Onoda conjured up by Bavarian filmmaker Werner Herzog, who in the preface to his novel The Twilight World remarks how he (to the shock of his Japanese hosts) gave up an opportunity to meet the Emperor so that he could meet and speak with Onoda, instead. […]

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A stylized photo of Bruce Ario wearing a hat, wearing a jacket, and smiling into the camera on a Minneapolis street in winter.

Plainly Great: The Poetry of Bruce Ario

Being one to enjoy writers of a more ornate bent, who can create wide colours and sounds with words, I am, at least in personal taste, less drawn to plainness. There is a pleasure in having the full spectrum of expression before one’s eyes, albeit a superficial one, akin to the indulgence of exorbitant fashions. Still, every now and then, a voice comes along that shakes such excesses out of me. Returns me to a yearning for the absolute simplicity of the simplest words. And, as of late, it is a selection of poems from Bruce Ario (1955 – 2022) that has shaken.

True, Bruce Ario is not, to me, a new voice. He’s had poems published on the net and has written novels. From glimpses alone, one can estimate the substance of a writer’s craft, yet the magnitude of it escapes until one perceives the whole. And what a majestic whole this is! Several hundred poems – a voice condensed. That voice: plainspoken, democratic, the most accessible poet to exist thus far without attendant compromises on quality. Think of all the failed attempts at such in recent years: whatever Rupi Kaur or other ‘Insta-poets’ have loosened upon the masses. Most of Bruce’s poetry could fit an Instagram post, share Instapoetry’s superficial appeal – save a difference: a depth worth the dig. […]

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An imagined landscape of the Rio Grande from Jessica Schneider's novel, "Human Stuff".

For A Lonely While: On Jessica Schneider’s “Human Stuff”

Art opens within a necessary season.

Indeed, it did in me, for my season primarily wanted succour. Adolescence, unstable time, grew the need to grow against a reality taken in. And, I admit – it was The Catcher in the Rye that placated that need, sent me towards the altar of Art. Holden’s woes seemed mine, drew me, and I turned pages to find my mirror. It was only later I learned Art could be much more, for a mirror need shatter that tells much truth; when behind – infinite lies.

So angsty works will always be in demand: the need will long exist. Yet, a certain arbitrariness resides in therapy when woe wants little but its own identification. The works in which I found my peace were, in hindsight, of variable quality: anime such as Neon Genesis Evangelion, the stories of David Foster Wallace, the novels of Herman Hesse. Some, I would realize, said deeper things, used angst as interrogation rather than end. As many a mature reader of Salinger would note, even Holden has an unreliability that implies a reality beyond him. He is, after all, recounting his tale from a sanitorium, broken, not a voice of authority. But such a work has limits. Nowadays, particularly in YA Lit, there are too many Holdens: clone Holdens, zombie Holdens. In the end, succour is lucrative. […]