Category: Book Review

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A black and white depiction of horses running amidst dust, as imagined in Jess Bowers's "Horse Show" (2024). [Featured image via SorcerySoap HocusPocus for Pixabay.]

Standing Horses: Review of “Horse Show” by Jess Bowers

We have forgotten the horse, and in doing so, are erasing our own history: the collaboration between horse and human extends into prehistory, and the effect of horses upon human civilization now extends into the width of our roads, our vehicles, and everything we have built that is predicated on that measurement—in truth, the width of a hitched team, the width of two horses yoked together. It is at our peril that we forget the horse, that we forget what we owe them for our civilization; any document of human history involves movement across land and the most formidable masses of moving humans were collaborating with horses. It’s not just us, although humancentric views are internalized as such.

The equestrian world, of humans and horses together, exists almost as a parallel reality to that which we know prosaically as modern society. Horses are large and require room to move about, they require land which is being erased by endless human rapaciousness, they are fragile and the hard corners of human habitation often are their undoing. Caring for a horse involves the muscles of your body and getting them their dinner before you get yours; it involves insect bites, dirt, feces, and a rudimentary skill as a medic. Horse habitat also involves complex natural ecosystems, and in many places has become the last retreat for too many species of wildlife. […]

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An illustration from Kenneth Grahame's "The Wind in the Willows", depicting the Water Rat in its nest.

Their First Small Beginnings: On “The Wind in the Willows”

It’s often said that the greatest of children’s literature is accessible to the appreciations of both child and adult alike; appealing, indeed, to that self still sensitive to certain finely-phrased simplicities which ought to remain alive in every reader, of any age. It is literature that respects the child’s intelligence not because it expects every child to be somewhat precocious (and thus capable of understanding high-level metaphor, and/or possessed of a preternaturally large vocabulary) but because it is mindful of the adult that the child will become; the adult whom, in nostalgic fits, will likely look back on the books she enjoyed in her youth with the discernment that maturity normally brings, and then effect a kind of culling, asking of them: Which of you commands similar authority over my intellect and delight as from years ago? Which of you will I find did not condescend to who I was when I had so much yet to read, with little sense of what was good and bad?

Maybe it is that lack of condescension which marks the very best of children’s literature. Despite the obvious, and necessary, limitations set in place for such works, there is a distinction reserved for the book that holds almost nothing back from its young reader, while at the same time nurturing that mind’s naïveté into a fuller awareness of what she might come to expect from more mature art in the years to come. […]

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A stylized portrait of Erich Maria Remarque, author of "The Way Back" and "All Quiet on the Western Front", sitting down holding a cane.

What Comes After: Reviewing Erich Maria Remarque’s “The Way Back”

I had never heard of The Way Back until relatively recently. An acquaintance mentioned that Erich Maria Remarque’s more famous wartime work, All Quiet on the Western Front, had a sequel (of sorts). It seems I’m not alone in that little ignorance, as The Way Back has been greatly overshadowed by its predecessor. While that’s a shame, since it’s an excellent novel in its own right, it’s somehow apt. War itself cannot be ignored – it carries a prurient thrill, no matter how pacifist a slant you put on it – but no such satisfaction can be gotten from its aftermath.

So it’s not surprising that this book has been ignored, just as the ex-soldiers it portrays are overlooked by the civilian world they return to. All Quiet on the Western Front begins with a dedication, to “a generation that was destroyed by the war –even those who survived the shelling”, and The Way B ack is a sequel insofar as it continues to unravel that thread. It is narrated by Ernst Birkholz, who is a kind of kindred spirit to the earlier novel’s Paul Baumer. One of the masses, yet a little too sensitive and observant to be really called an Everyman. […]

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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. […]