Sunday, March 3, 2019

My February in Reading

Here's a review of all of the books that I buried my nose in last month:

(Not a bad reading month, but definitely not a pace I can keep up with. Enjoying what reading time I've been able to sneak in so far!)

Tom Howard
Indiana University Press
(February 2019)


The back cover refers to Tom's writing as "blistering, striking, ferocious" and I would have to agree. An impressive and heady debut collection of stories that bury themselves deep within the reader and linger long after, like the many ghosts that haunt its pages.

Abi Andrews
Two Dollar Radio
(February 2019)

3 Stars

Part feminist adventure novel, part "non-fiction time capsule of all the important and scary things man has accomplished", The Word for Woman is Wilderness follows 19 year old Erin on her journey from England to Alaska when she decides, after watching a documentary on McCandless, to create a documentary of her own that can rival those previously told from the male perspective. Erin's experiences are intertwined with, and often overshadowed by, a relentless reflection and regurgitation of events and topics as wide and diverse as space travel, Native American culture, the writings of Thoreau and Jack London, and a strange obsession with the Unabomber Ted Kaczynski. 

TWFWiW felt about 100 pages too long. I much preferred the pages that were spent on Erin and her experiences as she hitchhiked and boated on the kindness of strangers, and her time spent in the cabin and wilderness in solitude, and was less a fan of the time that was spent on the rest, as I felt it disrupted the flow of the novel and continuously challenged my patience. Thankfully, the book is made up of short chapters, which made the movement to and from Erin and those painfully boring extrapolations bearable.

Sam Savage
Coffee House Press
(January 2019)

4 Stars

I wrongly thought I hadn't yet read one of Sam's books. And then as I was preparing to rate this one, I realized I had listened to The Cry of the Sloth quite a few years back. Apparently the book didn't leave much of a mark back when I read it, which makes sense as to why I didn't recall having read it at all until now. (thank goodness for goodreads, I guess!) 

Luckily, I was much more affected by this one, Sam's latest, and last - a grab bag collection of short fiction with an immense amount of heart. Or, at least, one that played immensely with MY heart. 

The opening story, An Affair of the Heart, about an older married couple doing the usual older married couple things on the surface, while the husband spends every moment thinking about his wife's infidelity from years ago, nearly crushed me. Thespa and Sky also deal with broken marriages, while other stories deal with mental illness or a sense of mental deterioration. Like The Awakening, in which a man cannot leave his house due to an unrational fear that he has left the toaster oven unplugged, or Wee People, in which a man, believes his home is being overrun by minature bankers with umbrellas, to the determient of his own marriage. In My Writing Life, the narrator has suffered severe brain trauma and walks the streets trying to peice his memory together while searching for the man who stole his bike and the woman who stole his heart, and then there's The Adventures of Kiffler Wainscott a man who shirks work like it's the plague but then retreats so far inside himself that in the end, he believes he's devolved into monkeyhood. So even they feed back into the overarching theme of this collection, which I believe is about what it means to be human, to love or find oneself unloved, and to desire to be something or someone more. While sometimes humorous, and sometimes far fetched, there's definitely something of each of us buried inside these stories.

Chloe Aridjis
(February 2019)

3 Stars

Chloe has written a novel that is quiet, charming, and familiar. Because it described itself as "pulsing to the soundtrack of Joy Division, Nick Cave, and Siouxsie and the Banshees", I was expecting more of a classic 80's vibe than it gave off. I mean, hell, Luisa is name dropping all of the music that accompanied me throughout most of my teenage years - The Smiths, The Cure, Depeche Mode! Nonetheless, it managed to unearth some long forgotten memories, running around with boys I knew my parents wouldn't approve of, doing things I knew the police wouldn't approve of, and yet still struggling with that feeling of being just this side of bored with it all. Of long road trips with limited funds, of spending evenings on the beach listening to the waves crashing in, and of falling in love with every cute boy, or good looking guy, that crossed my path and made eye contact with me. For a book that moves as slowly as this one, Sea Monsters is a suprisingly quick read.

Josip Novakovich
Dzanc Books
(February 2019)

4 Stars

The stories in this collection will break your heart as often as they warm it. In the title story, we are thrust into the middle of a small town bombing, where a husband and wife risk their lives on a daily basis - she to buy bread from the bakery, and he to tend to his bees in the field. Two brothers attempt to one-up each other with fabricated stories in "Lies" and "Counter Lies" while a family flees their wooded hometown to frolick in the ocean for an extended vacation in "A Taste of the Sea". Quite a few of the stories showcase the relationship between human and animal, with one even narrated by a rat. Though they sound innocuous enough, Josip's stories grapple with his characters', and our own, emotions. Readers, beware, it does not always end well for our furry and feathery friends and in this way, Josip commits what I consider one the greatest crimes in literature. Kill a person if you must, usually they had it coming, but please, leave the innocent animals alone.

Tim Meyer
Grindhouse Press
(February 2019)

5 Stars

Fetish fiction at its best! Incredibly readable and entertaining, its a dark and twisted love story featuring Ray, a thirty-something, able-bodied, clock-puncher at a local electronics store with an embarassing secret to hide - he digs amputee chicks. Like, ONLY digs amputee chicks. So much so that he attends a variety of support groups for people who have recently lost a limb on the regular, the way a normal dude might hit up the local bar scene. But the moment he lays eyes on Kayla, one of the new hires at work, he begins to question everything he thought he knew about himself. He's falling for her fast and hard. Well, maybe not hard. See, she's his almost-dream girl. The only thing that would make her perfect in his eyes? Yup, you guessed it. A few missing fingers, a missing arm or leg... but, as Ray is quick to point out, he's no monster. Yet, love does make you do some crazy things....

Quirky, corny, and enjoyably unsettling, I chewed through Limbs in a matter of hours. In Ray, Tim has created a character that is strangely conflicted and extremely likable. Grindhouse Press has a winner on thieir hands!

Ashley Morrow Hermsmeier
Black Lawrence Press
(February 2019)

5 Stars

Why aren't more people talking about this chapbook?! This teeny tiny little collection of apocalyptic stories is pretty friggen amazing. We are thrust into strange and frightening realities in which characters await an angry swarm of killer bees (When the Bees Come Back), survive an earthquake only to learn that it's still wreaking havoc beneath them days later (The Big One), and are forced to repeatedly, and literally, bury past versions of themselves (Every Version of Me). They are powerful, punchy little things that sit heavy on the chest and leave you breathless with their effortlessness.

Aimee Parkison & Carol Guess
Fiction Collective 2
(February 2019)

3 Stars

A collection of speculative short stories and flash fiction bordering on the bizarre, showcasing dystopian realities in which girls / women / females are kept in various stages and types of confinement or captivity. Each begins with the title "Girl In..." and gives the reader the slightest glimpse into each girl's situation, be it dire, distressing, or disturbing. Many of the women within these stories are help captive behind glass, trapped within homes or rooms, in enclosures, and in many of these scenarios they are being monitored or watched. In some, they are like human dolls, doted upon, and loved, though without their consent. And yet in others, they are not captive in the physical sense but are caught up in mental turmoil they cannot escape. 

While I found the concept intriquing, especially on the heels of the #metoo movement, I didn't feel connected to the collection overall. While some of the stories were incredibly well executed and powerful, like "Girl in Mansion", "Girl in Doubt", "Girl in Rape Kit", "Girl in One-Act Play", "Girl in Glass", and "Girl in the Mall", many, including just about every footnoted vignette (and there were many!) just fell flat for me.

Samantha Schweblin / Translated by Megan McDowell
Riverhead Books
(January 2019)

3 Stars

I experienced this as an audiobook, so I want to start by giving props to the publisher for the cast of narrators they chose. They each did a phenomenal job. Even when the story was not fully engaging me, their narrations held me captive. Except for The Test. I stopped that story within mere minutes of it starting. One of my biggest pet peeves is when authors write in senseless animal deaths. Nine times out of ten, if there's a dog, the dog is going to die. Why authors feel the need to do this, I may never fully understand. And I hate it. Absolutely hate it! But this story... this entire fucking story was hinged on someone having to beat a dog to death to pass some test. And oh my god, you guys, what an absolute horrible fucking thing to write. So off it went, and I moved on to the next story. But from that point on, Samantha was getting some serious mental side-eye from me. I didn't trust her after that. 

On the flip side, Mouthful of Birds (the title story) in which a daughter returns home from school with a strange new eating habit, Preserves, where a couple reverse the woman's pregnancy, and Heads on Concrete, about a man who learns to channel his anger through ultraviolent paintings, were the best of the bunch. Absolutely gorgeously written and just-twisted-enough to make me fall head over heels for them. 

Others, like HeadlightsButterfliesThe DiggerMy Brother Walter, and Underground were notably good and equally strange. 

The rest were... forgettable.

A wholly uneven collection of short stories that totally polaried this reader!

Erika T Wurth
State University of New York Press
(March 2019)

3 Stars

Having spent my high school years in Florida, back in the mid-90's, I was surrounded by teens who were desparately trying to find themselves. It was an incredibly mixed demographic, a melting pot of african-amercians, hispanics, and white kids all cultivating their identities. 

Cops were a regular fixture, in school and paroling our developments. The Latin Kings were a growing presence as were the Bloods and Crips. There were countless drug raids, knife fights in the bathrooms and hallways, friends and students being sent to juvy for dealing drugs in the mall cafeteria. Kids who were wrongly identified (I was regularly pegged as spanish because of my brown eyes and dark hair, even though I am italian) were ostracized and regularly threatened or shown kindness based on everyone's assumption of your nationality or affiliation. Due to all this, our school started banning all gang-affliated gear and even attempted to disallow certain color-pairings altogether because of the turmoil and fighting it caused on campus. 

These are things I hadn't thought about in almost 25 years, but Erika Wurth's You Who Enter Here brought much of it back as I began reading about Matthew and Chris and their visions of rising up through the ranks of an Alburquerque Native American gang, the 505s. Matthew felt so familiar, like so many of the kids I went to school with. Lost, from a broken home, latching on to anyone who showered him with attention, escaping one bad situtation only to end up in one that, though it felt better, was even worse. The peer pressure, the money, the drugs, and the sense of family, something he hadn't felt in a long while, intriguing him, pulling him in. 

Erika writes raw, flawed characters who must learn to navigate harsh realities. She imbues them with desires that are often reflected within ourselves - the desire to be accepted, to be loved, to be admired, and to live a life that's worthy of living. But more than that, through her writing, and the recent writing of others (Stephen Graham Jones, Brandon Hobson, etc.), Wurth is ushering in a shift in America's perception of what it means to be Native American.

Erin McGraw
(March 2019)

3 Stars

Short, sharp, and poignant, with a strong focus on relationships and family dynamics, death and dying, and the crippling impact of the decisions we make, Erin's stories are charming and alarming, but also quite forgettable due to their brevity. Three to four pages a piece, they don't live long enough on the page to leave a lasting impression.