I have been a bit negligent in updating this site over the summer, but I have been writing and reviewing books.
David Tromblay’s memoir, As You Were, recounts the author’s abusive childhood and military experiences. The memoir pulls zero punches, describing physical abuse at the hands of Tromblay’s father and grandmother in fairly graphic ways, but somehow the author’s dark sense of humor manages to take some of the edge off. The book also addresses the cultural erasure that occurred at boarding schools for Native American children, like the one Tromblay’s grandmother attended.
E.C. Osondu’s Alien Stories uses extraterrestrials as metaphors for immigrants in US culture. That sounds like a simple premise, but Osondu gets great mileage out of it, describing immigrant experiences in accessible and empathetic ways. The stories are often quite funny and always clever. Osondu is from Nigeria but now teaches in Providence, Rhode Island. I’m hoping he attends the Tucson Festival of Books because I’d really like to hear him speak or read from his work.
In other news, my review of Anna Zett’s Artificial Gut Feeling is featured in the Full Stop Reviews supplement, which is available for Full Stop’s Patreon supporters. The supplement includes several feature essays and many reviews. Definitely worth checking out.
I’d also like to congratulate Full Stop on their recent Whiting Literary Magazine Prize. It’s a real accomplishment and well deserved. I’m proud to be a contributor to their important work!
John Paetsch’s experimental poetry collection, Ctasy, of shapes off shore, (Hiding Press, 2020) reminded me a lot of the Museum of Jurassic Technology on Venice Blvd in Los Angeles. By blending antiquated scientific language and concepts with optical and personal imagery, the poet, like the quirky museum, challenges the ways we make meaning. The book is beautifully made and formatted. There’s even a confusing map to help you get started on your journey off shore. You can read my review here at Full Stop.
My review for Tex Gresham’s Heck, Texas is on Heavy Feather Review. You can read this book in a couple hours and it will leave you with years worth of far-out quotes. If you’re a fan of Harmony Korine’s film “Gummo” then this book is for you. Gresham is a keen observer, especially for people communicate in rural communities. Writing on walls, gossip, overheard snippets, Craigslist missed connections, and more a collaged into a hilarious, dirty too-real-yet-surreal portrait of a rural Texas. I highly recommend it.
My review of Friend: A Novel from North Korea is up on Full Stop.
This novel was written in 1988 by Paek Nam-nyong, a writer living in North Korea and a member of April 15 Literary Production Unit, a regime-sanctioned group of writers tasked with chronicling the saga of the Kim dynasty. The novel has attracted attention outside of the DPRK for years, even spawning a play in South Korea. The novel was made into a television series in North Korea. It is, perhaps, the most well-known modern work of fiction from that country.
My review of the novel for Full Stop explores how something can be at once a work of art and a piece of propaganda. I also ask what contrasting Friend with western media depictions of North Korea can tell us about propaganda, both in DPRK and the USA.
“The People’s Porn: A History of Handmade Pornography in America” by Lisa Z. Sigel offers several chapters, each with a focus on a different aspect of folk art, outsider art, and handmade crafts as they reflect sexuality. It’s my first review of a work of history, but I’ve always been extremely fascinated by material culture. My brother is an antique collector and dealer, so I’ve spent some time thinking about provenance and how history is embedded in artifacts. Honestly, I expected this book to be a bit funnier and more lighthearted than what I encountered, but it was more interesting for being deeper than what I envisioned.
Would an artificial instinct, an artificial gut feeling, be determined by the material form of the gut? For example, the wiring within a computer. Would the conditions of its physical existence define the ways its “body” would influence how its intellect made meaning? In the titular story of their new fiction collection, Artificial Gut Feeling, Anna Zett imagines what meaning would derive from the artificial gut feeling. Turns out it’s a suicidal desire for self-immolation; wired systems dream of self-destructing from the heat/excrement produced when they run.
Though Zett’s collection is presented as “personal science fiction,” the work is not easily identified with genre. For example, the heat/excrement metaphor is reminiscent of Georges Bataille’s 1927 essay, The Solar Anus, where heat and light are the excrement of the sun and existence is a cycle of things living within the excrement of others. Invoking a proto-postmodernist like Bataille reflects that Artificial Gut Feeling will appeal more to readers of Judith Butler and Elaine Scarry than fans of Octavia Butler or Liu Cixin. In this science fiction, science provides metaphors for postmodern feminist theory. Zett has clearly researched the science at the foundation of these metaphors, especially electricity and neurotransmitters, and the result is engaging, unique, and insightful.
On reason I like this collection so much is that Slate originally published all the stories and paired them with articles from scientists and other contemporary experts, adding a level commentary to the stories. That commentary, along with the collection’s focus on contemporary science and social issues, makes Future Tense Fiction a trove for a college instructor like me who teaches sci fi, literature, and composition. Just this semester I’m using Okorafor’s “Mother of Invention,” Oshiro’s “No Me Dejas,” Olukotun’s “When We Were Patched” and Maureen McHugh’s “Starfish Girl” in my courses. I also teach a Bacigalupi story (The Gambler), though not the one from the collection.
My faithful science fiction book club have also enjoyed the anthology. The stories demand conversation and the writing quality is excellent. Again, it’s a great way to get a feel for the most innovative and contemporary science fiction writers all in one place. I’m looking forward to branching out into these writers’ other work.
My first review with Full Stop is of Farooq Ahmed’s novel, Kansastan (7.13 Books; 2019). The novel recreates Civil War-era Kansas as Muslim society, with most of the action taking place in and around a rural mosque. They’re going to war with Missouri. The narrator is the most narcissistic scrub of all time and the world is out to humiliate him again and again in hilarious fashion. The novel isn’t like anything I’ve read before.
Of all the books I read and reviewed this year, Gabriel Ojeda-Sagué collection of poems, Losing Miami, was my favorite. Like many people, I primarily encounter climate change in numbers – numbers of degrees average temps have increase, number of species lost, number of fires, number of hurricanes, and so on. In Losing Miami, Ojeda-Sagué reminds us of the cultural losses we will soon face. He reminds us that geography is an element of culture and when we lose places, we lose ways of being. Things that can’t be expressed in numbers; things best expressed through poetry.
John Englehardt’s Bloomland is a novel about a massacre at a rural college told in second person and focusing on three characters, a student, a professor, and the shooter. This book is not for the weak-hearted. It is a tough read, but Englehardt writes the student, Rose, and the professor, Eddie, so real you feel like you know them beyond the book. They could be you. Eli, the shooter, feels a little more constructed from journalism. Overall, once you get used to almost every pronoun being “you” for an entire novel, this book pulls you in.
This is the last paragraph from my review:
Bloomland is a powerful, ambitious novel that bravely takes on one of the most perplexing, terrifying, and uniquely American phenomena—the school shooting. The novel won the Dzanc Books Prize for Fiction, a reflection of both craft and thematic relevance. One can only hope future readers will pick up Englehardt’s novel to understand an idiosyncratic period of our history when we abjured our safety and the lives of our children. For now, perhaps Eddie and Rose and their suffering will indict us through empathy so that we work toward a nation where Bloomland is truly fiction.