Thursday, February 26, 2015

Kate Reviews: Craving

Craving by Esther Gerritsen, translated by Michele Hutchison
5 stars – Highly Recommended by Kate
Pages: 177
Publisher: World Editions
Released: Jan 2015

Guest review by Kate Vane

Some books draw you in with an intriguing premise, extraordinary characters or dramatic locations. I’m just as fascinated by writers who create something entrancing out of the everyday.

Craving is the story of an apparently ordinary family in an unnamed Dutch town. It begins when Elisabeth has a chance meeting in the street with her adult daughter, Coco. Elisabeth takes the opportunity to tell her some important news – she is dying.

The dark humour of the book is immediately apparent. Coco cycles away, filled with excitement at the news, calculating how she can manipulate it for her own ends. Elisabeth is left with an awkward sense that she hasn’t quite dealt with this as she should.

Elisabeth is described by her family as having autism. She struggles to negotiate the complexities of her relationships with her ex-husband and daughter. She feels more at ease with her hairdresser.

Coco soon moves back into her mother’s home. This is less an act of compassion than an attempt to provoke her boyfriend, whose interest in her is waning. When mother and daughter are thrown together, the tensions between them are highlighted. Coco constantly seeks sensation – overeating, sex in public, petty acts of destruction. Elisabeth longs for calm and order. Coco wants answers about her past but for Elisabeth the questions make no sense. 

The author of Craving is also a playwright and this book has some of the feel of a stage play. It takes place in a small number of locations and the encounters between the characters are tightly drawn. Elisabeth’s inability to understand the dynamics of her family is at times poignant, at others funny and occasionally enviable. While those around her are weighted down with guilt and empathy, she is free to say what she thinks – with comic consequences.

However, the author also takes us deep into the characters. She shows the ways that Elisabeth and Coco have shaped each other. In particular, she gives us a sense of what it would be like to be Elisabeth – what she sees, what she fails to understand but also the perceptions she has that others lack – her faithful memory, her sense of the texture of things, the taste and scent of emotions and events.

I was almost afraid to get to the end. I didn’t want melodrama, but nor did I want another literary novel which is beautifully written but unresolved. I needn’t have worried. In keeping with the rest the end is subtle but startling.

Kate Vane writes crime and literary fiction. Her latest novel is Not the End

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Jessica Goodfellow Recommends The Book of a Hundred Hands

Writers Recommend is a series where we ask writers to, well, you know.. recommend things. Like the books that they've enjoyed. To you. Because who doesn't like being recommended new and interesting books, right?! Think of it as a PSA. Only it's more like a LSA -Literary Service Announcement. Your welcome. 

Jessica Goodfellow Recommends The Book of a Hundred Hands

I recommend reading the work of Cole Swensen, a poet who enters each of her subjects so deeply as to inhabit it, but who then leaves it to the reader as an abandoned and haunted house. Each of Swensen’s books has its singular ephemeral obsession: for example, Gravesend (University of California Press, 2012) is possessed by ghosts, The Glass Age (Alice James Books, 2007) revolves around (what else?) glass and windows, and National Book Award finalist Goest (Alice James Books, 2004) tries to capture light in its hands.


Speaking of hands, perhaps the most accessible of Swensen’s books is The Book of a Hundred Hands (University of Iowa Press, 2005), perhaps because its subject matter, hands, is one of the least ephemeral among her topics. These one hundred poems include ruminations on history, anatomy, basic functions such as gripping and grasping, hand gestures, handwriting, shadow puppets, art-making, and sign language. One of the sign language poems, “Thinking and Feeling,” begins “For instance, happy. That’s far away. So we gesture a little to the right of the head / in the sensation of / I couldn’t say. / A chime in a cell.”  Swensen uses jagged and staggered spacing along with wildly varying line lengths to mimic the movement of hands sweeping here, then pausing over there to form intricate finger movements. The poem ends with “We place / an inch and a half behind your left shoulder / a bird the size of a thumbtack. / You have to keep it happy forever.”

Swensen’s subjects are clearly researched with rigor, and yet her fragmented lines and loosely tethered imagery reveal only the essence of hands, ghosts, glass—whatever the graspless subject is. There’s a certain egolessness to having done all that work, but then winnowing one’s labors to an evocative nucleus. As a result, the reader gets the benefit of Swensen’s fixations with none of the accompanying mania. Well, maybe a bit of the mania. Enjoy!

Poems available online from The Book of a Hundred Hands include:
“The Hand’s Testament” (
“The Hand Photographed” and “The Hand Etched in Glass” (
“The Hand Painted In” and “The Hands Testify”


Jessica Goodfellow’s books are Mendeleev’s Mandala (Mayapple Press, 2015), The Insomniac’s Weather Report (Three Candles Press First Book Prize winner, reissued by Isobar Press, 2014), and the chapbook A Pilgrim’s Guide to Chaos in the Heartland (Concrete Wolf, 2006).  Her work has been featured in Best New Poets, Verse Daily, The Writer’s Almanac, and forthcoming in Motionpoems Season 6. She has received the Chad Walsh Poetry Prize from the Beloit Poetry Journal. A graduate of Caltech, she lives in Japan.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Mark Pothier's Guide to Books & Booze

Time to grab a book and get tipsy!

Back by popular demand, Books & Booze, originally a mini-series of sorts here on TNBBC challenges participating authors to make up their own drinks, name and all, or create a drink list for their characters and/or readers using drinks that already exist. 

Today Mark Pothier gives his story single, The First Light of Evening, the drink treatment.

Two "First Light of Evening" Martinis

Gentle Book & Booze Lover,

You might think, gazing at the cover of The First Light of Evening, with its empty wineglass and someone's smoke seductively wrapping around it, that this story of a middle-aged man left by his wife to reflect on his self-reflections involves some drinking. And you would be right. Our hero, Jim Finley, starts talking to us, or himself, over cocktails. He describes how he's dealing with his wife's departure, his grown kids, his growing coziness with the possibility he'll never be a writer, and how he loves sitting on the back porch by his books, watching the sunset, quoting Wallace Stevens, listening to jazz, and drinking… gin. No wonder Jim's son, home for the summer from college, never stays past supper.

One could say the story starts with cocktails, empties a bottle of wine, and ends just after a digestif interruptus at the edge of San Francisco's Ocean Beach. But because Jim is such an Unreliable Narrator — and which of us, Dear Drinking Readers, is not? — it's hard to know just how lit he truly is. He's as attracted to his own melancholy as he is to Caroline, sitting right next to him, who, that evening, slips onto his back porch and tries to get him outside. It sometimes sounds like he's nursing a grudge rather than a drink. (Even his hero, Wallace Stevens, lived a double life of sorts, gaining notoriety both as an insurance exec — "The Dean of Surety," he was called — and as a pissy lush when vacating in Key West, where, at 50, he once foolishly put up his dukes with a 30-year-old Hemingway.)

To wit: We're on shifty ground here. So I offer you two martinis, one real and one a little more or less so. Both are consumed within First Light of Evening, and you can easily try this at home while reading.

This first is my family's Go-To Drink, by the way, but I'll henceforth name it after this story, since the latter grew out of a writing prompt where I had to narrate a real event from the opposite point of view. In this case, that event was a first hug, two decades ago, that my father gave me soon after my mother left him (and after I, btw, had been dumped by a girlfriend). My father, unlike Jim Finley, quickly got over himself; he's not one to be undone by sentimentality, and he's now happily remarried. He's also a near a teetotaler — who "splits a beer"? — but whenever we get together, we always drink this martini. Relaxed chatting and mediocre jokes ensue.

The "First Light of Evening" Martini, #1
  • 1 olive (dropped into Appropriate Stemware)
  • 1 splash dry vermouth (any quality will do, as you won't taste it)
  • Beefeater gin, kept ever-ready in your freezer, poured to top

I do have bartender friends who lovingly make high-grade cocktails, and who wince at the frozen liquor ("It can bruise the spirits"), but rest assured that all of them suck these back when I'm pouring, and they do not complain. And yes, I have tried many, many other gins, but none satisfy my gene-pool's palate like Beefeater. Honest, we've tried. My sister and I once even got some precious Dutch stuff in a stoneware bottle, but still, in unison, we spit.

What's also cool about keeping the gin in the freezer is that, once mixed, this martini travels well in a thermos, for your on-the-go needs. My father, who lives back east and doesn't travel well, has come to San Francisco three times — for our wedding, for our first-born, and finally, as a kindness to us. Late in the afternoon he arrived on his last visit, I packed up a transport unit of Recipe #1 (olives separate, please), and took him out to sit on the same beach where Jim Finley's date ended (in the story) so we could toast ourselves into the sunset. We had a Singularly Good Time, happily far from the sad, morose days we'd shared two decades ago — far from the sort of moping that led to this, the second martini Jim describes at the end of his story:

The "First Light of Evening" Martini, #2
  • 2 pieces Appropriate Stemware (from Goodwill if you do this for fun, or priceless, shared heirlooms if you're really pissed)
  • 1 toaster (round-edged and chrome works best)
  • Bright overhead kitchen lighting

This one is for rare and unpleasant occasions. First, stand in the brightly lit kitchen. Pretend you're about to make a couple of the Recipe #1s (above), and reach up into the cupboard. Take down the two glasses. Suddenly realize that you're all alone, and remember why. Call fully to mind the One Who Done You Wrong. Seethe. Mutter, "You can have her/him" and then yell it again, loudly, as you toss one of the glasses over your shoulder. If, for some reason, that glass doesn't break, shatter it in the sink. Look at the scary mess you've made — all those shards! — and then catch your reflection in the toaster. Check out how smart and righteous you look when you're seething. Not. Allow it to slowly dawn on you that the only person who can get your shit together is you, because you're the one, ultimately, who's holding it all.

Then, run out to see someone you love to talk to, prepare Recipe #1, and — Salut!


Mark Ernest Pothier's first published story won a Chicago Tribune/Nelson Algren Award in 1994. He wrote weekends and after-work for the next 15 years, until the editor at Kindle Singles resuscitated his fiction career by picking up two of his stories, "The First Light of Evening" and "The Man Who Owns Little," which have been downloaded by more than 16,000 readers and produced by Audible. He lives in San Francisco's Outer Richmond district with his wife and kids, holds an MFA from SF State, and is polishing his debut novel.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Book Review: This Boring Apocalypse

Read 2/17/15 - 2/18/15
3 Stars - Recommended to fans of the Blake Butler and Ben Spivey style literature
Pages: 122
Publisher: Civil Coping Mechanisms
Releases: March 2015

I should start a "Note Worthy" review series, specifically for the books I've taken notes on as I read. I feel like this is becoming a recent trend. First, for The Country of Ice Cream Star, to keep track of the amazingly beautiful, but initially complicated, invented dialect. And now for This Boring Apocalypse, which is just one of the most bizarrely written lit-fic novels I've read in a long time.

Here we have a woman who attempts to eat, and then begins to dismember, her girlfriend. Like, literally removes her body parts, starting with her legs, which she carries around with her and stores in her closet. What initially appeared to be a tender sexual act suddenly becomes tainted by her fear that her girlfriend is cheating on her, and so next she removes her arms. To keep her captive. And then she wants to reduce her to her smallest functioning parts, so she begins to remove the organs and then her head. So all she is now is just a hollowed out torso. Fucking weird, right? It's almost like she's playing with a doll, or a toy. There's no blood. There's no fighting. There's just this pop and bam! Body parts removed.

And like a kid who grows bored with their toys, our narrator tires of the girlfriend, disposes of her and chases down a man to play with. She wastes no time in removing his arms and legs. Pop. Pop. Off they go.

Then she sulks because she feels her own body is in control of itself and she desires to be in control of IT. While trying to control her body, she injures herself. This injury, which festers rapidly and painfully, ends up re-birthing her girlfriend. What the fuck, right?

As she's nursing her festering wound, she says "it is important to become part of the horror, lest we'll be controlled by it. Then the horror will overwhelm us. But if we are a part of it, we can at least control the part of it we are." And that's basically what the rest of the book amounts to, her need for control, at all costs. Of herself and of others. Whether this stems from a desire for companionship, or a place of intense jealousy, we ultimately find ourselves sucked down into her diseased brain. A mental rabbit hole we cannot claw our way back out of. It's a complete horrorshow.

People are planted in the ground by their feet and become trees, lab rats don white lab coats and perform experiments on infants, people she tires of and lets go return to her in the strangest ways... it's like an apocalypse of her mind.

Told in short, fantastical chapters, This Boring Apocalypse is a fast paced, increasingly bizarre novel filled with the surreal and distorted imagery that is the stuff nightmares are made of.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Book Review: Jillian

Read 2/12/15 - 2/16/15
3 Stars - Recommended to fans of litfic where all of the characters are depressed, miserable, and slightly manic
Pages: 150
Publisher: Curbside Splendor Publishing
Released: February 2015

Is Jillian this year's most un-feel-good book of the year? Quite possibly. And depending on how you like your literature, that's not necessarily a bad thing.

But fair warning girls, get out the tub of ice cream. Or the tube of cookie dough. Or whatever your comfort food of choice is. Because not only has Halle Butler gone and created herself some of the most depressing, manic, and miserable characters you'll ever meet, she's also somehow managed to pull off this neat trick where her book becomes a mirror that reflects all of your shit back at you, too.

You'll meet Megan. We get to hang out with her quite a lot. She's fresh out of college and hates her dead-end job at the gastroentrologist's office, where she views and files images of diseased colons. Yeah, I know. I'd hate that shit too. (haha, get it? Shit?!) She shares this small office space with Jillian, a super-chipper, super-fake thirty-something single mother who would drive ME up a wall. She's dating Ryan, who drags her out to parties where she has to hang out with people she doesn't like. The only way she can tolerate hanging out with these people is to drink. When she drinks, she says dumb, bitchy shit, and sulks over it the next day. Her best quality? Ranting to Randy every evening about all of the nutty and obnoxious shit her co-worker Jillian does.

You'll get to hang out with Jillian, too. She's an absolute basket case. She's broke as hell but blows money like she's made of it. She can't afford to keep her kid in daycare yet she can rationalize spending seven dollars for a starbucks coffee every morning on her way to work (I'm more of a Dunkin fan, myself but yeah, $15 smackers a weekend on Chai Tea and donuts biatch!). She can't pay the bill for her traffic violation but she goes ahead and adopts a shelter dog, and leans heavily on the good will of her neighbor Elena. She's not living the life she believes she's owed, but it's ok because she's living in a dream world where things will get better. Her best quality? She's a fucking riot when she abuses pain pills.

And because the story is told in close third person, we get to swing back and forth from character to character - cringing as we see how Jillian tends to her son and their dog; feeling embarrassed for Megan as we watch her cry on the floor of the shower. We're privy to Randy's inner most thoughts about Megan and their relationship. We're witness to the way Jillian's neighbor Elena gets revenge on her for all of the weeks Jillian's taken advantage of her. And we shake our heads because we are them. In little ways. In the smallest moments. We have done what they are doing. We have thought what they are thinking. We have hidden from our problems, feigning ignorance and telling ourselves lies until we believe them. We have felt the horrible crushing weight of our own self-hate, and thrown that hate onto others, only for them to throw it right back on us.

While I wasn't a fan of the passive-aggressive ways Megan and Jillian dealt with their issues (I HATE passive-aggressive people!), I did appreciate the message buried beneath all of their bullshit. It's a pretty poignant look at how what we do shapes who we are. We own where we are. We created the situation we have found ourselves in. Whether we act on it or we ignore it, we are the only ones who can do a god-damn thing about it.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Book Review: The Country of Ice Cream Star

Read 2/03/15 - 2/12/15
4 Stars - Strongly Recommended to fans of post-pandy fiction. This one's unlike any you've read before.
Pages: 592
Publisher: Ecco Books
Releases: March 2015

It's a great time to be a reader if you're into post-pandemic dystopian literature, isn't it? Lately, it seems as though every author out there's devising new ways to bring about the end of the world. And what I find most interesting about this sub-genre -the post-pandy genre- is the fact that these stories aren't actually concerned with the trigger, the thing that brought about the near-end of humanity. Because the trigger is simply a catalyst. The meat of these stories is in the aftermath.

Take Emily St. John Mandel's Station Eleven. She brought about the near-end of the world with a nasty, aggressive Super-Flu. Sure, she has to lay down some groundwork for it, but the bulk of her book focuses on what, and who, remains foremost in the survivors' minds. What are the survivors latching onto? What is keeping them human? What connects them to others? In her case, it's art and theater and culture.

Or we can look at Carola Dibbell's The Only Ones.  In a near future, a series of back-to-back viruses and infections plague the country and wipe most humans out. People are still getting sick and dying and this novel's concerned with just one thing... keeping our species from going extinct. So Carola's focus turns towards genetics and cloning and playing god by manufacturing hope for humanity in a petri dish.

True to the post-pandy formula, Sandra Newman infects her world with a strange virus that initially rocked the United States ages ago and which now lingers dormant inside every child, killing them slowly and painfully before they reach the age of twenty. Hers is a world containing only children. Hers is the country of Ice Cream Star and let me tell you.. what a country it is!

The novel is told from the point of view of Ice Cream Star, our fifteen year old protagonist, and is written entirely in a made-up dialect, with no glossary of terms in sight (more on that later). She and her brother Driver are part of the upper echelon of a small nomadic tribe of children who make their home in the woods of Massa(chusetts). Ice Cream's group refer to themselves as "tarry night sorts" (dark skinned) and operate under a hierarchy that is greatly influenced by the disease they call posies.

It is through Ice Cream's narration that we discover the "Nighted" States was once, way before her time, evacuated under the threat of this disease. If her bunch be "tarry night sorts", then where did all of the white people go? She ponders on Europe - a name that appears in the evac notices that still linger here and there in the abandoned homes they raid - as a place more likened to hell and myth than an actual, honest-to-god country people fled to, because of the occasional sleepers they come into contact with - the dead, skeletal bodies of those who died from the initial outbreak.

Their laws and rules are also mostly guided by superstition and fables.

There are other neighboring "tribes", that function under their own set of laws and rules, with whom Ice Cream and her group interact - the Christings, who are godly church-going people; The Lowells, who live in an abandoned mill and act as laborers and merchants; and The Nat Mass Armies, a military-like group of males. And when Ice Cream and her crew unexpectedly stumble across a grown white man hiding out in a sleeper's house during a routine raid, everything they thought they knew about life and the disease that claims them all at such a young age is about to change.

This 'roo' convinces Ice Cream Star that his people have a cure for their posies, and as her brother begins to show signs of the disease, she becomes determined to get her hands on it. What follows is a story of hardship, heartbreak, betrayal, and redemption.

The Country of Ice Cream Star immediately brings to mind Lord of the Flies. In this brave new world of parentless children, and of children having children, new societal norms and agreements have replaced the ones we typically function under. For example, women (or, more correctly, girls) can and do fight in wars but mostly lack social status. The Nat Mass Armies toss their unwanted female-born children to the Christings, kidnap others to keep as sex slaves, and are allowed to "choose" one against their will to become the Queen of the newest Nat Mass Army king. Inter-group pairings were looked upon as necessary strategic moves. Girls, once they hit their teenage years, were strongly urged to reproduce, in order to keep their tribe's numbers up. The Christings men, though claiming to follow the word of God, kept multiple wives. And one particular 'Panish' group with strange Catholic obsessions hand-select a man and woman, usually against their will, to become their Maria and Jesus, while they assigned "apostles" to manage and maintain their city laws.

This book also has strong similarities to Clockwork Orange. In the Country of Ice Cream Star, they all speak in a mish-moshed version of English, where most words lose their first letters (tober, vember, cember for the months of the year; lastic, lectric, larm, magine all have their opening vowels dropped) and others are just plain ole made-up.

Try this on for size:

"Ya, this been feary day, because we find a sleeper house. In houses with these dead we take no loot. It be unlucky wealth. Nor is good taboo to leave the house. Must rid it with clean fire."

Words like "vally", "bone", "bell", and "gratty" are defined only by their intended use within a sentence. And most of the time, you need to see it appear three or four times before you truly grasp its meaning. So, how does one keep track of all of this incredibly ambitious and strangely beautiful dialect? Well, like this...

Honestly, I don't know how I would have made it past the first 50 pages without these notes. Being locked inside a single character's head for ~600 pages is one thing. Being locked inside Ice Cream Star's head, with this trimmed down but highly complicated dialect, was an entirely different animal!

Difficulties with decoding the dialect aside, by the time I read the first paragraph I knew I was in this for the long haul, For all of her flaws and naivety, I found Ice Cream to be incredibly charismatic. I was entirely too curious to follow her around to even consider putting the book down. You wanted to be there as she comforted her dying brother, as she rallied her tribe to stand alongside the roo to fight for the cure, and as she fought, struggled, and escaped whatever perils came their way.

Sandra Newman has crafted a fascinating and frightful alternate future, one that pulls you straight down into its very heart, though it's the unique language of Ice Cream Star that holds you there tightly. It's heady and ballsy and manages to break every dystopian barrier there is with a sophisticated ease.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Brandi Wells' Would You Rather

Bored with the same old fashioned author interviews you see all around the blogosphere? Well, TNBBC's newest series is a fun, new, literary spin on the ole Would You Rather game. Get to know the authors we love to read in ways no other interviewer has. I've asked them to pick sides against the same 20 odd bookish scenarios. 

Brandi Wells'
Would You Rather

Would you rather start every sentence in your book with ‘And’ or end every sentence with ‘but’?
-I think I’d rather end every sentence with ‘but,’ because I love negation, even if it’s only implied or hinted at.

Would you rather write in an isolated cabin that was infested with spiders or in a noisy coffee shop with bad musak?
-The isolated cabin with spiders. I don’t really mind spiders, but I can’t work with any noise. In Alabama there were a couple spiders that lived in my shower, though they stayed up near the ceiling. I called them my shower spiders. I watched one of them catch a fly and wrap it in web once.

Would you rather think in a language you could understand but write in one you couldn’t read, or think in a language you couldn’t understand but write in one you could read?
-I’d probably go insane if I thought in a language I couldn’t understand.

Would you rather write the best book of your career and never publish it or publish a bunch of books that leave you feeling unsatisfied?
-I guess I’d rather write the best book. Maybe I could keep writing shitty books after that.

Would you rather have everything you think automatically appear on your Twitter feed or have a voice in your head narrate your every move?
-I think I’d rather have a voice narrate. I would be hopelessly embarrassed for everyone to know what I’m thinking. “My armpits itch-I wonder if it’s my deodorant-Can anyone see me scratching my armpits?”
Would you rather your books be bound and covered with human skin or made out of tissue paper?

-I’d rather the books be made of tissue paper. The skin would probably freak me out. Books with animal skins freak me out too.

Would you rather read naked in front of a packed room or have no one show up to your reading?

-I’d rather no one show up for the reading, which isn’t outlandish at all.

Would you rather your book incite the world’s largest riot or be used as tinder in everyone’s fireplace?
-Did they read the book before they burned it? Maybe? They at least got it somehow. It seems okay that they burn it afterward.

Would you rather give up your computer or pens and paper?
-Pens and paper. Please, never my laptop. I feel like I’m in a sort of romantic relationship with the laptop.

Would you rather have every word of your favorite novel tattooed on your skin or always playing as an audio in the background for the rest of your life?

-I wouldn’t mind having all the words on my body. I’d maybe need to work on having a bigger body though.

Would you rather meet your favorite author and have them turn out to be a total jerkwad or hate a book written by an author you are really close to?
-I’d rather my favorite author be a jerkwad, which has probably happened to everyone several times over. NBD.

Would you rather your book have an awesome title with a really ugly cover or an awesome cover with a really bad title?
-I’d rather it have an awesome title and bad cover. This was the hardest question of the group.

Would you rather write beautiful prose with no point or write the perfect story badly?
-I love beautiful prose with no point.

Would you rather write only embarrassingly truthful essays or write nothing at all?
-Embarrassingly truthful essays seem okay.

Would you rather your book become an instant best seller that burns out quickly and is forgotten forever or be met with mediocre criticism but continue to sell well after you’re gone?
-Instant bestseller that burns out quickly. I don’t care what happens after I’m gone. I’ll be gone.

Brandi Wells is the author of Please Don’t Be Upset (Tiny Hardcore Press) and This Boring Apocalypse (Civil Coping Mechanisms). Her writing appears in Denver Quarterly, Sycamore Review, Paper Darts, Folio, Chicago Review and other journals.

Monday, February 16, 2015

Drew Reviews: Komodo

Komodo by Jeff VanderMeer
5 Stars - Highly Recommended by Drew
Pages: 35
Publisher: Cheeky Frawg

Guest review by Drew Broussard 

The Short Version: The story of an ordinary woman, plucked from her (our?) plane of existence by transdimensional beings kind of like angels to do special-ops type work for them that might just bring about the end of the multiverse. Also there are ghost frogs and transdimensional komodos and a whole host of other weird things.
The Review: Well, fuck. 
I've been a fan of Jeff's for a long time but I had no idea just how weird he could get until now. And I say this having read his Ambergris trilogy, full of mushroom-people and squid festivals, as well as the Area X trilogy, with its brightness and tunnel-that's-a-tower and mice-washing - I mean, I knew he was weird. But this takes the cake, in the best possible way.
This novella - almost more of an individual short story, really - will take you maybe less than a half hour to read, but it almost demands that you turn around and start reading it again. Not that I think you'll understand it any better, necessarily, but you might glean some interesting secondary details. See, our narrator is a woman recounting what seems to be a weird children's story at first.  Or, well, she's talking to a child at least and the things she's making up are strange enough and even a little silly... but, no, they're real. Whatever's going on is really going on - and as the story goes on, it's either that the narrator stops trying to make analogies or we, the reader, have gotten used to the ones that are being made and so you find yourself in short order nodding away at the appearance of a dead rotting bear that is in fact not dead nor is it actually a bear, rather another strange transdimensional creature, described as "something ancient from the future, a refutation of everything you think you know about physics."
I mean, okay. Sure. You will know better than I whether or not you're the sort of reader who can get on board with this sort of thing - I, blissfully and happily, happen to be one of those.
Although it wasn't always that way. There was a time when I might've looked at the weirdness of this story (which actually masks a pretty ordinary operative-gone-rogue plot, in some ways) and been completely turned off. But the thing is, the thing that makes Jeff's work (and the work of the Miévilles and Ciscos of the world) worthy is that it doesn't wear its weirdness on its sleeve. It isn't trying to show off, to preen and primp and do acrobatics with language in order to make you think that you must not be worthy if you can't understand it. No, it's just really honest and open and telling a good story. If that story happens to deal with the multiverse and an "angel" called Gabriel and, briefly, ghost whales... well, okay. As long as you're telling me a story, you can put in whatever you want. I'll be there. And this is Jeff's gift: he can make the weirdest thing you could possibly imagine somehow, well, imaginable. The descriptions in his story (of that bear, of the "angels", of the many other weird creatures and species and things that pop up) quite often don't make a lick of standard sense and if you try too hard to imagine them, you might pass out. But the ability to ride Jeff's delightful prose into a sort of liminal craziness allows you to imagine without directly imaging, if that makes sense - saving your sanity while still creating for you the enjoyable experience of imagining something as you read. 
I could go on about this at length, but it's probably faster for you to just go find the story and read it.  That is, if you don't mind getting a little (read: a lot) weird.

Rating: 5 out of 5. A blast. Many many times weirder than anything in the Ambergris or Area X trilogies, in the best possible way. If you're a fan of VanderMeer, you ought to check this out and see just how wild the man's imagination can get.  If you aren't a fan of VanderMeer yet, go read City of Saints and Madmen or Annihilation and get a little taste of what's to come. Jumping into the deep end is dangerous, for you and for others - but I promise the water is fine either way. Just look out for the...

Drew Broussard reads, a lot. When not doing that, he's writing stories or playing music or acting or producing or coming up with other ways to make trouble.  He also has a day job at The Public Theater in New York City.

Saturday, February 14, 2015

Too Woo or Not to Woo - Love in Literature: Part the Third

On Valentine's Day, back in 2012, I had some fun with the whole hallmark holiday gush-fest and recommended some left-of-center love stories to you guys. Then in 2014, I invited some of our review contributors to join in on the mushy-gushy lovefest. 

And so it seems we are baaaaaack, like a bad poltergeist remake, and bringing forth the books we think are most fitting for this, the rosiest, silkiest, smoothiest of all canned holidays. Talking up love in literature, TNBBC style:

Melanie Page's Literary Love Picks:

Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal, by Christopher Moore
This is a novel about dude love that knows no bounds. Sure, one of them is Jesus and the other is his best friend Biff, but when you get into the meat of the novel, you realize that there is no way that Biff could ever abandon his BFF. After Biff is reincarnated to write more stories for the Bible, you can just sense his unease, sense that something is missing. It’s not the girl he loves; it’s his buddy.

If Beale Street Could Talk, by James Baldwin
One of the best lovemaking scenes I’ve ever read was in this novel. Despite the agony of knowing Fonny is in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, Baldwin’s words make me want to be young Tish, a woman who knows Fonny’s love and carries his warmth around like fur-lined coat. Another beautiful aspect of the novel is that the relationship begins in friendship; Fonny and Tish have known each other since childhood and have personally committed to always protecting one another.

Bridget Jones’s Diary (the trilogy), by Helen Fielding
If I’m being honest with myself, when I want to read about someone who makes fairly stupid decisions at every turn and yet has great encounters with sexy British men, I’ll turn to BJ. I think everyone, male or female, wants someone to say, “I like you very much. Just as you are.” I also like to watch the mess that BJ is: her obsessive calorie/alcoholic units/cigarette counting, weighing herself, trying to avoid certain people (workaholics, alcoholics, people with girlfriends or wives, etc.) so she doesn’t get dragged under with them. She makes me feel cooler.

My Life in France, by Julia Child
While this book is largely about Child learning to cook in France and her three-way partnership that resulted in one of the most popular cookbooks ever, you’ll also discover that Child had a beautiful love story. Julia and husband Paul never had children, so their lives focus entirely on their ambitions and one another. They were funny, too; every Valentine’s Day the couple would send out very sexy cards to all their friends!

Currency, by Zoe Zolbrod
Robin is a tourist in Thailand, and Piv is her guide and lover. When these two get involved in trafficking animal products internationally, you know things aren’t going to end well. In the meantime, though, their trust in one another is a beautiful thing to watch develop, which made me want to trust in anything and everything just to feel that sense of falling into safe arms.

The Dangerous Husband, by Jane Shapiro
I have to confess, this book confuses my students every time I teach it. I mean, how could a fictitious couple with seem so perfect for one another (and they’re getting older—tick tock, folks!) have problems? Like, is Dennis trying to kill his wife, or is he just the clumsiest man ever? And, in her fear and doubt, is the wife trying to preemptively kill Dennis? And they’re such a great match!

What the Body Requires: A Symphonic Novel, by Debra DiBlasi
A woman heads to Europe to kill her husband for taking a lover, but his doppelganger surprises her instead. This new man she did not expect is enamored with the American woman on the war path for revenge; she brings light to his lightless life. Some moments involve hi stakes situations and a bit of mystery, though I’d never call What the Body Requires a genre novel. This book is highly sexual, but never cliched. DiBlasi just kills it.

Lindsey Lewis Smithson's Literary Love Picks:

In no particular order, read these with someone you love. Some are sexy, a little racy, while others are quiet and meditative. All of them will get you thinking a little more about that person you’ve given your heart to.

“Folie à Deux Ménage à Trois” from Harlot by Jill Alexander Essbaum
The book is called Harlot and there is a woman hugging a penis on the cover. Nothing could say Valentine’s Day more. This particular poem is full of great rhymes, word play, a killer use of form, plus, as the speaker says “we teeter on the precipice of this suggestions, the three of us.”

Davis’ “to love” reads like both a breathless declaration of love and a well thought out letter trying to convince another of love. The poem mixes progressive tense verbs and mashed together meanings with meticulous line breaks that leave many things open to interpretation. No matter how you read it though, the speaker is clearly in love.

“Recipe for a Long, Happy Marriage” from Charlotte Bronte, You Ruined My Life by Barbara Louise Ungar
There is a lot of tongue in cheek humor in “Charlotte Bronte, You Ruined My Life,” which Ungar uses to make her message of love, unrealistic expectations and loss so palatable. Instead of an over effusion of romance “Recipe for a Long, Happy Marriage” literally boils the whole thing down to a few simple steps, and the only ingredient is “Find the right person.” 

“Rise” from Interior with Sudden Joy by Brenda Shaughnessy
Like Barbara Louise Ungar’s “Recipe for a Long, Happy Marriage” Shaughnessy mixes food and love in “Rise.” Instead of a simple formula this poem is laced with double or triple meanings and dark sexy word choices. Depending on your mood you either leave this poem a little turned on, or considering death. 

“Love at First Sight” from Miracle Fair: Selected Poems by Wisława Szymborska
“Love at First Sight” is a beautiful, thoughtful, made-for-TV romance of a poem. Szymborska mediates on the loveliness of chance in life and how the most unsuspecting moments may be the ones that change your life; “Every beginning, after all,/is nothing but a sequel,/and the book of events/is always open in the middle.”

“Letter to a Lover” from Come on All You Ghosts by Matthew Zapruder
“Letter to a Lover,” which appears in Matthew Zapruder’s third collection, Come on All Your Ghosts, illustrates love in every life instead of grand sweeping moments. The speaker opens by saying “Today I am going to pick you up at the beige airport” and then proceeds to list the day-to-day things he is excited to share with the girl. Most love happens around the mundane things, like airport pick ups, but there is something heartwarming in the careful way Zapruder makes these moments shine.

“Ignatz in August” from Ignatz by Monica Youn
Monica Youn’s “Ignatz in August,” which is one of a series of poems inspired by the character Ignatz Mouse from the Krazy Kat cartoons, doesn’t sound like something that would initially spark romance or ove, but this short poem is surprising.  Consisting of only six lines, this visceral piece begs to be read between people in love, opening with  “you arch/up off me.”

“Torch Song for Ophelia” from Torch Song Tango Choir by Julie Sophia Paegle
For the reader in search of a smooth talking man, or who for the woman is just got dumped, “Torch Song for Ophelia” is a Valentine’s Day anthem.  “Forget/about Hamlet./He required too much: air,/ Purgatory, his harpy/whore,/ revenge,/stories” Paegle writes, and then her speaker sweeps Ophelia off of her feet with profusions of love, sex and appreciation.

“places of happiness” from Forever Will End on Thursday by Nic Sebastian
Despite some tension between the two speakers in “places of happiness,” by Nic Sebsastian, this poem shows two people who really do care about each other.  They travel together, ask about the other’s work, and in the end “on the road to Chittagong/you covered me with your jacket and held/my hand.” This simple gesture, among the unique locations and vivid details, is what makes this poem, and most of the book, special.

“The Knowing” from Strike Sparks: Selected Poems, 1980-2002 by Sharon Olds
That post coitus snuggle moment, when you (hopefully) amaze at the person you are with is touchingly described in Sharon Olds “The Knowing.” This speaker is in love, in lust, and in like with the person she has just slept with and gladly shares this with the reader in heartfelt detail. At the end of the poem Olds expresses the sentiment I hope we can all share on Valentine’s day:  “I am so lucky that I can know him.”

Lori's Literary Love Picks:

Love is everywhere, in everyone. Sometimes that love is so strong and intense that it's borderline breaking-the-law obsessive. Other times it's muffled and hidden for fear of having our feelings hurt. In these selections, you'll find some of the funniest, sickest, and more deranged looks at love:

Romance for Delinquents by Michael Wayne Hampton
Love is for suckers. Or at least it sometimes feels that way, don't it? We've all fallen for the new, naive love that births a billion butterflies in our chest. But what about when it becomes an angry and unreciprocated love, the kind that forces those fluttery little creatures down, one by one, into your stomach, where they churn and dissolve in your acidic emotions? Or how about the curious, borderline obsessive love that clouds our senses and causes us to act in strange and sometimes dangerous ways. Watch out that it doesn't turn into a jealous love, one that, as we begin to rage and howl, darkens those clouds and blinds our vision.In Michael Wayne Hampton's Romance for Delinquents, we are judge, jury, and witness to love in all of its extremes

Elegantly Naked in my Sexy Mental Illness by Heather Fowler
The stories in Elegantly Naked in My Sexy Mental Illness, Heather Fowler's fourth collection, hold a scalpel to the brain of each of its protagonists, in an attempt to differentiate true mental illness from what is natural and normal. When does a simple crush become an obsessive desire? At what point do we decide that these paranoid thoughts in our head are no longer innocent, no longer healthy? After you read her stories, your guard will be up. Your eyes will turn their suspicious gaze left and right, left and right, all day long. You'll automatically diagnose everyone around you, and begin to keep your distance. But I promise it won't last long. Because the unease will wear off. The routine will suck you back in. The familiarity with these people, the trust, it will all return. And in a few week's time, it'll be as if you never looked at them any differently. And that's ok. Because it's the norm. And because sometimes, we find mental illness a little thrilling, a little sexy.

The Bones of Us by J Bradley
J Bradley's poetry is stark and sharp and gutting. It's not for the recently heartbroken. It's a suicide partner; a deflating raft in an ocean of sharks. It won't help you heal your wounds. Oh no. It will seek out the wounds you were certain had healed and it will tear them wide open again. It will pour lemon juice and salt into them and smile a sadistic smile. It will draw fine, faint lines across your skin with its nails and teeth and lick its lips as the blood beads on the surface. A powerful, poignant reminder of how fleeting and fragile our love is, The Bones of Us is a breath taken, and held, for fear that if we let it out, it'll blow away all we came to care about. 

Please Don't Leave Me Scarlett Johansson by Thomas Patrick Levy

Stalker alert! This chapbook is the perfect Valentine read for those suffering a broken heart or those who are in the midst of a crazy-ass obsess-fest. It takes the idea of celebrity fandom and throws it on its back, taping its mouth shut and sniffing its neck in the backseat of a kidnap-van. 

Panic Attack, USA by Nate Slawson
This is everything that poetry should be and never was until now. Honest and naked. Sensitive to the point of sappy but with a surprisingly hard core edge. Nate Slawson's words punch you in the gut with their beauty. They make you wish your boyfriend/husband/partner pined for you in such painfully raw and inspiring ways. This book touched me in places I shouldn't have enjoyed but did. I love it's naughty, raunchy little heart. If Panic Attack, USA were a person, I would kidnap it and hold it hostage in my closet and make it whisper its dirty little poems to me every night.

Rod KcKuen - his entire collection
I was incredibly saddened when I heard about Rod's passing this year. I have loved his poetry ever since I first discovered him, back in college. His poems are so beautiful, full of love, and loss, and so tired, and so awake. They are heartbreaking and breath taking. And you should become acquainted with them.