Review of “Manual for Cleaning Ladies” by Lucia Berlin

Lucia Berlin’s collection of short stories, A Manual for Cleaning Ladies, takes you everywhere – from Mexico to Colorado, Texas to Chile. This seems fitting, considering Berlin herself jumped from place to place throughout her life. Berlin is known for having based the stories off of her own life, almost to the point of considering them autobiographical and not fictional, and this book of short stories shows that this is true of her writing. The stories are almost always focused on single, divorced women or young girls struggling through the different situations life throws at us and you can’t help but notice that the characters have recurring thoughts, actions, and surroundings. Characters also reappear throughout different stories and the main characters all maintain a very similar persona, which reinforces the feeling that they are all about the author herself. With the rawness and detail that she uses in writing a variety of experiences, Berlin must have lived a thousand lives in order to tell these tales so accurately.

Berlin writes elegantly, but it is what she writes about that keeps a reader engaged. She is unflinching in describing situations that would make many readers uncomfortable – a young girl pulling the teeth from her grandfather, an alcoholic crawling to the store for a fix, a woman preparing to get an abortion. Berlin does not back down from writing about difficult or gruesome subjects; her stories thrive on them. She turns the disturbing into a scene you cannot stop reading, such as when the main character in “Dr. H.A. Moynihan” describes her grandfather after all his teeth have been self-removed. “Without any teeth, his face was like a skull, white bones above the vivid bloody throat. Scary monster, a teapot come alive, yellow and black Lipton tags dangling like parade decorations.” When Berlin tells the story of an alcoholic mother, the woman’s gradual transformation from a barely functioning human to a halfway decent parent sneaks up on the reader, showing how a drink can be the normalizing element for an alcoholic.

And she is not only a powerful writer, but a funny one (granted, the humor is dark in most cases). In one story, she writes of her mother and sister and the ofrendas — a collection of items to welcome the deceased to the afterlife — that accompany them in death. On her mother’s ofrenda, the main character writes that there are “sleeping pills and guns and knives, since she was always killing herself. No noose . . . she said she couldn’t get the hang of it.” Although you don’t want to, you cannot help but laugh at the obvious joke. In another story, she makes a blatant pun about a character’s mistreatment of a police officer when drunk. “I owe Wong one [an apology]. I wronged Wong for sure.”

Berlin’s stories leave the reader wanting more, but shortening the collection could have made for a greater impact. By the end of the 43 short stories, readers could be burnt out from the onslaught of emotions that they produce. Omitting the less powerful stories would allow for some breathing room for the readers, letting them digest the message of each story individually rather than piling them on until they cannot make sense of how they feel.

However, the conclusion of the book is the most impactful. The final story, “Homing,” follows an older, sick woman who seems to be nearing death. She is reflecting on her past as she studies the crows that inhabit the maple in tree in her yard. As she recalls events in her life, she imagines the alternative paths her life might have taken if she had chosen differently, if an earthquake had hit, if she had married someone else. Some of the imagined events connect to stories from earlier in the book, making it seem as though this woman is the narrator from all of them and the reader has become a character in her story. In closing, she decides that whether she had chosen differently or not, “my life would have ended exactly as it has now, under the limestone rocks of Dakota Ridge, with crows.”

The reader can’t help but agree.


lucia-berlin

About the Author: Lucia Berlin (1936-2004, pronunciation: Lu-see-a) published 77 short stories during her lifetime. Most, but not all, were collected in three volumes from Black Sparrow Press: Homesick (1991), So Long (1993), and Where I Live Now (1999). These gathered from previous collections of 1980, 1984, and 1987, and presented newer work.


About the Author of this Post: Michaela Daly is a junior at North Central College and is majoring in English and Journalism. She enjoys short walks to the couch and refrigerator, and all potato-based foods.

Review of “H is for Hawk” by Helen Macdonald

H is for Hawk is a memoir which confronts themes of depression, obsession, and loneliness; all of which Macdonald artfully highlights in her first scene describing the tumultuous “landscape [she’s] come to love very much indeed.” This English landscape is reminiscent of all the grey-scape dreariness that postmodern authors like Thomas Pynchon evoked when describing industrialized Britain; a land of “twisted pine trees, burned-out cars, shotgun-peppered road signs and US Air Force bases.” Macdonald’s self-proclaimed love of the desolate is explored throughout the memoir, with the motif of a lost and desolate world as a common thread.

In the beginning of the memoir, Macdonald’s father passes away from a sudden accident. Macdonald’s emotional foundations are sundered and she is left longing for “that world already gone, [where she] was going for dinner with Christina . . . who’d been there all along, sitting on the sofa when the phone rang.” The death of her father silently kills the world which she lived in.

Macdonald’s isolation and depression also play out in her own attempts to dampen the natural ferocity of her goshawk, a process which is juxtaposed with the futile attempts of the literary giant T. H. White to train his own hawk. Macdonald digs into the life of White and discovers a past of abuse and despair which played out into White’s search to regain that childhood which he felt he has lost. In Macdonald’s desire to relive that time of innocence in which her father was alive, a feeling of deep empathy is established between the two authors.

In one of the most gripping scenes of Helen Macdonald’s memoir, T. H. White wanders a darkened barn after having spent two sleepless nights attempting to break the will of Gos, his temperamental Goshawk. In a manic fervor, White “had refused the humanity in favour of hawks, but he could not escape himself . . . He found himself in a strange, locked battle with a bird that was all the things he longed for, but had always fought against.” It is a jarring scene, as those who are familiar with White know him as the author of The Once and Future King, the man who forged the modern mythos of King Arthur and inspired the countless medieval dreams of children. In this scene, White’s red-rimmed eyes are facing the deep schism that separates his amiable public self and the insecure child buried in his soul.

Macdonald turns towards her relationship with White’s work, specifically the pseudo-autobiographical novel The Goshawk, to confront her own world split in two by grief. She utilizes her pedigree as a research scholar from the University of Cambridge to present a well-detailed and factual historical analysis of the art of falconry and T. H. White’s literary impact, enriching the memoir with a scholarly depth that pairs well with her evocation of raw emotion. The breadth of topics which Macdonald effortlessly blends together is astounding; she proves to be a true artist who understands both complex philosophy and the potential of memoir. Macdonald deconstructs the invisible wall dividing history from present in her deeply personal analysis of White’s literature. However, it is her emotional vulnerability that will draw most readers in; Macdonald’s candid style paints a beautiful picture of the paradoxical mania which brooding depression can cause. Macdonald’s soaring prose combines with an intoxicating topic that allows H is for Hawk’s to sink its talons into readers of any background.


helen-macdonald

About the Author: Helen Macdonald is a writer, poet, illustrator, historian and affiliate at the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge. Her books include Falcon (2006) and Shaler’s Fish (2001)

 


About the Author of this Post: Nathan Leatherman is a junior at North Central College majoring in English with a literature focus. He spends his days reading books, braiding his hair, and relaxing next to bubbling brooks. His goal in life is to own a private library/dog hotel.

Review of “The Anatomist” by Taryn Schwilling

In Taryn Schwilling’s book of poetry The Anatomist, the desire for the body and the desire for knowledge of the body dominate her collection of poems. The detailed descriptions of the human body, as well as graphic descriptions of the bodies of animals in the section “Meats,” sensualize and romanticize parts of the body that are often seen as repulsing. The Anatomist is a must read with its unique writing style, and gripping, forceful imagery.

The erotic descriptions that permeate Schwilling’s poetry are seen in the collection “Hyster,” in the first section: “Venus rises on her pink shell/ Stem Swell upward and out”. Using Venus, the Roman goddess love and sexuality, Schwilling introduces her main subject- the female body. By focusing on Venus and the act of her rising from the ocean, Schwilling creates a sensual tone, making every aspect of the female body beautifully poetic. The diction used in this first section describing Venus rising from the ocean is sensual, with the repetition the word “swell,” which Schwilling uses throughout “Hyster” either as an illusion to a sexual organ or to a general sense of sexuality. In the ninth section of “Hyster,” she writes: “your appealing emptiness/ her slim his swell/ reminiscent promenade”. The “slim” and “swell” mentioned represent the different sexual organs of a man and woman, with the illusion to the sexual act seen in the combination of these two in the last few lines of the poem. In this poem the sexual act is not explicit, but rather the language Schwilling uses leaves the reader wrapped up the lyrical sound of the poem and unique diction, giving the sexual act and the sexual organs themselves these same qualities, making them a beautiful essential part to the poem.

Schwilling’s poetry appeals to the senses in way that is truly remarkable. The section “Meat,” features descriptions that project clear images and are hard to forget. The descriptions of the different animals and how they are butchered are detailed, leaving a clear image in the mind, however the descriptions play a specific function as parallels to the female body. Schwilling uses the various animal descriptions as a metaphor for the objectification of the female body, which is made more impactful with the gripping imagery of animals being slaughtered. In “A Vision of St. Eustace,” the speaker creates an artificial woman, with specific features: “Arrange the skin Grecian. I’m contemporary & you’re human. So lifelike. Arsenic soap or salt or alum. Your new museum eyes. Sewn up, splitting forth”. In the creation of this artificial female body, the poet shows the physical expectations society places upon women, and how only a man-made, artificial being could live up to every physical aspect society places upon women. Words like “soap,” “salt,” “sewn,” and “splitting” all have the same sound that the beginning creating a an almost robotic, artificial, like sound when combined with the short sentences.

The punctuation and line spacing Schwilling uses throughout her poems, is interesting in that punctuation is often not used or hardly used at all in certain sections, instead she uses larger spaces between words to show a change in thought. While this writing style does increase the tone in some poems, it can make the flow hard to follow, and the meaning elusive at times. The lack of punctuation can be seen in first stanza of the poem “Eris”: “She is laid out supplicant/ in a posture the opposite of/ feral heaviness”. The quote shows not only the lack of punctuation, but also the unique spacing, seen between “feral” and “heaviness” and between “posture” and “the.” While the spacing functions as a kind of punctuation, in that it forces the reader to pause, it can also be difficult to follow.

The Anatomist presents the female body in a uniquely poetic light, using every part of the body to create a story with sensual imagery that is hard to ignore or forget. Schwilling challenges the way society portrays only certain aspects of the female body as beautiful, and uses brilliant metaphors to show the unrealistic and dangerous beauty standards placed on women. By making aspects of the female body, like the womb, beautiful and brilliant, Schwilling works against the notion that a woman’s reproduction organs are gross and not something beautiful.


taryn-schwillingAbout the Author: Taryn Schwilling is a recipient of a Fulbright grant. Has recently lived, taught, and conducted research in Cambodia and Iraq. A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and Boise State University, Taryn is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Denver


About the Author of this Post: Madison Rehovsky is a senior at North Central College majoring in English Studies and History. She loves reading, drinking coffee, and collecting old books. She plans to move back to Minnesota to pursue a career in publishing or museum work.

Review of “The Buried Giant” by Kazuo Ishiguro

I have a childish sweet tooth for medieval tales, of castles besotted with knights and magical creatures, so it comes as no surprise I would pick up the post-Arthurian story The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro. The Buried Giant, Kazuo Ishiguro’s seventh novel, leads the reader on the journey of protagonist couple, elderly Axl and Beatrice, as they travel, searching for their son, through the mist, which saps almost all past memory that blankets the land of England. Axl and Beatrice encounter conflicts, both literal and figurative, along the trail: the Saxon warrior Wistan and his foil, nephew to King Arthur, Sir Gawain; a pious sect of monks rumored to know the secret behind the mist; a dragon that is coveted and hunted by many and finally, a tension between Saxons and Britons for reasons buried behind the misty veil.

Ishiguro’s writing style intrigues me; he speaks across the pages in simplistic fashion, “For warmth and protection, the villagers lived in shelters,” and it is this manner that makes his story easy to follow by even a child, however, it does not stop at the level of narration. What reader of fantasy is not drawn to the clash of arms between warrior valor and despised monster or the long-awaited triumph of love over all obstacles? Ishiguro sends all these desired elements to the background. Why does he take the succinct morsels of any fantasy and render them as mundane as greens on a dinner plate? Perhaps Ishiguro is drawing our attention away from that cliché, like a chef offering a new dish instead of the old with a twist. As it is, for a new attempt to be flawless is a rare occurrence. Ishiguro struggles with his ingredients. For much of the novel, Ishiguro conceals the identity of the narrator, “I have no wish to give the impression that this was all there was to the Britain of those days,” and within different portions of the story Ishiguro switches between third and first person, here taking the role of Sir Gawain or a humble boatman, a choice that left me confused at times. His plot also suffers a crisis part way into the novel. Similar to Axl and Beatrice forgetting “how talk of this journey had started, or what it had ever meant to them,” Ishiguro has forgotten where his adventure started out only to end up deep into the woods fighting mythical creatures, escaping a monastery of monks and following an old, senile knight all while trying to find the path forward.

Ishiguro might not be the King Arthur of the kitchen, but I still found his novel The Buried Giant fun to read. Following Axl and Beatrice brought back memories of times spent with my own grandparents; moments when Beatrice’s chides Axl, ““Stop that, Axl” Beatrice whispered. “They won’t thank you for singing lullabies to them,”” or hearing Axl, with grandfatherly pride, exclaim, “No one’s ever said I’m slow in my work, princess.” Ishiguro’s other characters give me a nostalgic memory of past movies and stories within the comedic moments of Sir Gawain, “I’m a knight and a Briton too. Armed, it’s true, but come closer and you’ll see I’m just a whiskery old fool,” or the image of Axl and Beatrice floating downstream in a pair of wicker baskets. I chose to simply savor the dish Ishiguro served for the new form he offered in lieu of repeated plots.

If by chance you find yourself holding a copy of The Buried Giant, I prompt you to give it a read. Ishiguro attempts to strike a different flavor of fantasy storytelling and while not the five-star entrée, it has its own je ne sais quoi. Perhaps you too will discover a precious memory shrouded within the mists.


ishiguroAbout the Author: Kazuo Ishiguro was born in Nagasaki, Japan, in 1954 and came to Britain at the age of five. He is the author of six novels: A Pale View of Hills (1982, Winifred Holtby Prize), An Artist of the Floating World (1986, Whitbread Book of the Year Award, Premio Scanno, shortlisted for the Booker Prize), The Remains of the Day (1989, winner of the Booker Prize), The Unconsoled (1995, winner of the Cheltenham Prize), When We Were Orphans (2000, shortlisted for the Booker Prize) and Never Let Me Go (2005, Corine Internationaler Buchpreis, Serono Literary Prize, Casino de Santiago European Novel Award, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize). Nocturnes (2009), a collection of stories, was awarded the Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa International Literary Prize.


About the Author of this Post: Mark Edwards is a transfer student to North Central College in his junior year pursuing a degree in English Studies. Prior studies at Waubonsee Community College were in theatre, which fueled his passion for film and acting. Mark, born and raised in Illinois, spent his summer of 2015 living in Los Angeles and plans to return after graduation at NCC in hopes of getting far, far away from winter.

Review of “A Guide to Being Born” by Ramona Ausubel

In this new collection of short stories, A Guide To Being Born, Ramona Ausubel tells eye-opening tales of life with strangely fictitious compelling twists. The eleven stories are divided into four periods: Birth, Gestation, Conception, and Love.

These stories face some of the most difficult aspects of life that most people choose to shy away from, from teenage pregnancy, to death, to growing old, and the concept of what happens next. Ausubel’s short stories capture your attention and leave you questioning: how you move on after each life changing experience? How do you continue to live after everything you are forced to bear that is unbearable? Each story has a unique flair that brings light to each of the real life topics in a whirlwind of tales spun with fascinating imagery. Each story brings in a variety of terrible truths that the reader can’t help but want to read on to find out what happens next.

In “Safe Passage,” from the Birth, section the reader follows the story of a grandmother named Alice who finds herself on a freighter with other grandmothers heading towards an unknown island. In this story, the reader is forced to face the concept of life after death and what happens not only to yourself, but also to the people you leave behind. Ausubel writes “The day she will not attend is laid out before her, the newspaper she will not read lands at her doorstep. The phone, the refrigerator, the cat. She holds her own hands” (18). Here Ausubel compels the reader to really question the notion of the people and life left behind when someone dies. Instead of looking at it from the point of view of family and friends who were left behind when someone they love dies, she takes us on a ride with the grandmother who has passed on effectively making the reader question what they will think back on as they move on. Reading this story, I found myself mournful at the idea that the world will continue to move on once I myself am gone and the pain of leaving behind the ones I love who will have to learn to live without me.

In “Atria,” from the Gestation section, the reader is tugged along on a young teen’s journey as she thinks of what her mother means when she says to grow up. Hazel finds herself pregnant after having sex with a random boy behind a 7-11 and then being raped behind a church of all places and refuses to see her baby as anything but a real life animal. Because Hazel has had something terrible happen to her, she sees the baby as nothing but a monster, an animal born of terrible circumstances and irreversible mistakes. Ausubel writes, “ ‘If it has four legs, I guess we can just get another pair,’ she said quietly. ‘It’s not twins – would have seen it in the pictures.’ ‘I never said it was twins’ ” (66). Here we can see how she portrays Hazel as fully believing her baby will be anything but human. This is a terrible twist that truly shows the horror of rape and mistakes made and what it can do to a person, opening the reader’s eyes to one of the many horrors of life. The reader and feels helpless as each scene plays out, knowing that there is nothing they can do to help her.

In “Catch and Release,” in the Conception section, we get the story of Buck and how she meets a war general ghost from the past who helps her to learn a little more about herself. Ausubel uses this short story to really look at the history of a name, telling us that it does and doesn’t define who we are. Our story is ours alone to write and make of it what we will, writing, “ ‘The story of Buck is just getting going’ he whispered” (121). This line really stood out to me because this is something more people need to point out. That we are the authors of our own story and no matter what has happened to us that there is always a future a new beginning just waiting for us to grab hold of it.

Finally in “Tributaries,” from the Love section, the reader is pulled into a world where if you truly love someone you will grow another arm, a love-arm. This is common in the society Ausubel creates and is used by her to allow readers to question just what she is trying to symbolize. One of my favorite lines from this story is, “ ‘My love is bigger than any limb,’ he tells her. ‘What is mine then?’ ” (190). This opens the reader’s eyes to the idea of what would happen if true love was proved by a love-arm growing. This sentence refers to a man whose love-arm is not real, but his wife’s is. This shows just how one person may love someone who thinks they love them back, but may never really know. While I did enjoy this short story it was also a little confusing. Ausubel creates this concept but never really makes sense of how it works. For example, one of the teachers has many loves so she has grown hands all over her body, but never grows a full love-arm. This poses questions of why no one else has grown hands that show their love of their family as well as a love-arm for their “soul mate” so to speak. This story makes the reader truly question just what Ausubel is trying to get at with this over all story of love-arms. By doing this she allows the reader to find a multitude of meanings behind each short story she wrote.

Ausubel continues to create moving and reality shattering themes throughout the rest of her short stories. In a truly new and compelling way she pulls the reader into a world of reality and fantasy that will have you wondering just what happens next. Where will she go from here and how will each story end. If you truly enjoy a bit of reality mixed with fantasy on some of the darker topics of life, I would recommend sitting down and reading this book for the day. You might just find you have a new outlook on life when you finish the final page.


ramona-ausubelAbout the Author: Ramona Ausubel grew up in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She is the author of a new novel, Sons and Daughters of Ease and Plenty, forthcoming in June, 2016 from Riverhead Books as well as the novel No One is Here Except All of Us (2012), and a collection of short stories A Guide to Being Born (2013). Winner of the PEN Center USA Literary Award for Fiction and the VCU Cabell First Novelist Award, she has also been a finalist for the New York Public Library Young Lions Fiction Award, and long-listed for the Frank O’Connor International Story Award and the International Impac Dublin Literary Award. She holds an MFA from the University of California, Irvine where she won the Glenn Schaeffer Award in Fiction and served as editor of Faultline Journal of Art & Literature.

Review of “Slade House” by David Mitchell

Slade House by David Mitchell, was a unique book unlike any other I have ever read, to say the very least. The mystery of this house is what drives this story, and makes you not want to put the book down. It starts off eerie, and with each story, your hunger grows to find out what truly happens in this house and why. There are five stories/disappearances that happen in the Slade House, and with each story the reader starts to understand a little bit more and more about the contraption of the house and what happens inside. The first starts off with a boy reluctantly with his mother on their way to a house that they were invited to. It is told from Nathan, the boy’s point of view, and at the house he meets the son of Lady Grayer, the woman who owns the house. Nathan and Jonah run around and play games at the house. During the visit Nathan think’s he is hallucinating and he ends up waking up thinking it was all just a dream. However, he is not actually dreaming that was reality and when he thinks he is awake it was really just a dream. He then is ‘woken’ up and his soul is eaten by Jonah, the boy he was playing with. This point in the story is when the reader starts to realize the book may not be consistent with reality. In the next part, we are then thrown into the life of a detective, Gordon Edmonds. He is investigating the disappearance of Nathan and his mother and stumbles into the Slade House. After some investigating, his soul is then consumed by a woman named Chloe who was actually Lady Grayer, the house master in disguise. After this second story, the readers start to recognize a pattern that is steady throughout the rest of the book. The process of entering and investigating the house continues for three more stories and with each additional story, a new piece to the puzzle is added to solve the mystery of the house. The readers found out the history of the house owners and why they consume souls. The final story is the wildest and more important, that pieces the whole story together.

In the final story of Slade House, Lady Grayer is back to luring people into the house by herself. In the fourth story, the character got away before the soul was consumed, and the ‘house’ feeds off of the energy of these souls, and thus it is growing weak. In her tactics to try to get people to come to the house, she invites a psychologist to the house who knew Fred Pink. Again, the psychologist is drawn to the attic however, she is not who she says to be either but she is immortal and cannot be consumed. They try to attack her soul but they are too weak, and she destroys them and the house collapses, and just as this is happening Lady Grayer puts her soul in a child that is still in the womb, somewhere far away.

After writing this summary of the book, I realized how crazy everything actually sounds. It was a little hard to follow at times , but the one thing that held this story together were the connections between each story. Whether it was a friend of a friend in the next story, each past story was connected with the story being told. The other connection that ran through the story was the nine year difference between each story, and by the time the story ended 36 years had passed. Lastly, I think the small connection of the pub at the beginning of each story symbolized the start of the dreamy like state people get when they enter the Slade House.

One of the main strengths of the author was the cleverness and consistency of each story. Each story gave the same eerie feel, with whole new characters and backgrounds. Yet at the same time, all of the stories started off and ended the same way. Everyone passes the “Fox and Hound Pub” in the beginning on their way to the house, and then they all run into the Slade House by accident and then all somehow ‘stumble’ into the attic to have their souls eaten. This ability to flow from five stories so smoothly was incredible. After the second transition of stories, I started to realize what was going on. This is the main weakness of the author. A lot of things had to be implied, for example after reading the first story of Nathan I had no idea his soul had been consumed and he was dead. I only then realized this after the second story and as it transitioned into the third. However, this does add the element of mystery to it, so I can understand why it was a little unclear.

Overall, this book is well written, the plot about the house was original and the development of characters in such little stories was excellent. There were many characters throughout the book but each story revealed a lot about the characters and their motives in such a little space. For example, in such a short period of time the readers were able to learn about Nathan and his parent’s divorce and how he may be addicted to pain medications. The revealing of small important snippets about the different characters makes it believable that these people are actually humans inside of a dark paranormal world. With that note, it is a silly story, as none of these things can actually happen and you are taken deep into the world of “Anchorites,” souls being consumed, and the very fine line between dreaming and reality. But if you can suspend disbelief, it does make a great ghost story. I would recommend this book to people who love mystery and ghost stories because this is a perfect combination of both.


david_mitchellAbout the Author: David Mitchell is the award-winning and bestselling author of The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, Black Swan Green, Cloud Atlas, Number9Dream, Ghostwritten and The Bone Clocks. Twice shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, Mitchell was named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by TIME magazine in 2007. With KA Yoshida, Mitchell co-translated from the Japanese the international bestselling memoir, The Reason I Jump. He lives in Ireland with his wife and two children.

 

Review of “Between the World and Me” by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me is, at first glance, a portrait of one African American’s revelations about race, identity and the world as viewed in the form of a letter to his teenage son, Samori. Coates attempts to address the nature of being black in today’s America, where unarmed African American men and their children are being killed at the hands of police officers.

The book first offers us a glimpse of Coates’ youth, growing up in Baltimore with a pervasive sense of fear ingrained into him by authority. His mother, who insisted that, while holding his hand and crossing a street, “…if I ever let go and were killed by an onrushing car, she would beat me back to life” (Coates 16). His father, too, tried to instill in him fear, fear not of his father, but of authority, of police. Once, Coates recollects, he wandered away from his grandparents at a park, who then “spent anxious minutes looking for him” (16). Upon learning of this, his father beat him, telling his mother, “‘Either I can beat him, or the police’” (16).

The police, Coates tells his son, “have been endowed with the authority to destroy your body” (9). But the police are not the only thing Coates learned to fear. He also feared the streets, where “death could so easily rise up from the nothing of a boyish afternoon, billow up like fog” (20). He feared the crews who walked them, who “would break your jaw, stomp your face, and shoot you down to feel that power, to revel in the might of their own bodies” (22).

Coates juxtaposes his reality of the streets with the clichéd world of the suburbs, of “pot roasts, blueberry pies, fireworks, ice cream sundaes, immaculate bathrooms, and small toy trucks that were loosed in wooded backyards with streams and glens” (20). Coates associates this world with what he calls “the Dream,” what he sees to be an exclusionary dream only for whites, the origin of which lies on the suppression and oppression of blacks.

Throughout this engaging narrative, there is, in some passages, a tendency to generalize. Despite the personal nature of his experiences, his take on the notion of racism and white supremacy, is impersonal – he sees these things as unyielding and faceless forces.

At one point in the novel, Coates and his young son are exiting a cinema, when a white woman impatiently pushes him. Coates writes:

There was the reaction of any parent when a stranger lays a hand on the body of his or her child. And there was my own insecurity in my ability to protect your black body … I was only aware that someone had invoked their right over the body of my son. I turned and spoke to this woman, and my words were hot with all of the moment and all of my history. She shrunk back, shocked. A white man standing nearby spoke up in her defence (94).

To Coates, this woman is force of nature, ‘a comet’ he calls her. At this moment, Coates sees this woman as a white person attempting to lay claim on the body of his son. He tells the reader that, as he confronted the woman, “my words were hot with all of the moment and all of my history” (94). While I do not claim to know the motives or underlying factors that sparked the incident, there is a chance that the woman did this act, not because of Samori’s race, but some other factor which the reader is not aware of. By making her into a ‘comet,’ she ceases to be a person, a person with free will and a responsibility for her own actions- whether they be good or bad.

It is this tendency to generalize, however that also provides the reader with the narrative, almost debate-like quality of the novel, which remains one of its strengths. Between the World and Me is, overall, a fascinating portal into one African American’s struggle with race, identity, and the world and one I would highly recommend.


ta-nehisi-coatesAbout the Author: Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and the author of the #1 New York Times bestseller Between the World and Me, a finalist for the National Book Award. A MacArthur “Genius Grant” fellow, Coates has received the National Magazine Award, the Hillman Prize for Opinion and Analysis Journalism, and the George Polk Award for his Atlantic cover story “The Case for Reparations.” He lives in New York with his wife and son.

 

Review of “Vampires in the Lemon Grove” by Karen Russell

With Vampires in the Lemon Grove, Karen Russell delivers a diverse set of short stories that reach deep into the realm of bizarreness. A vampire couple struggles to quench the unquenchable thirst while trying to fully realize their identities in a foreign world. A group of girls are held captive in a malicious, cutting-edge new factory that specializes in turning girls into human-silkworm hybrids and producing silk in the midst of a silkworm famine. Seagulls communicate the secrets of the universe to a troubled teenager. A family’s quest for land in a dystopian American Old West leads to unfortunate (and inexplicable) consequences.

These are just a few of the oddities to look forward to in Russell’s follow-up to her 2011 Pulitzer Prize nominated Swamplandia! which earned praise from nearly everyone across the board. Vampires is nothing short of a good collection, but it’s a mixed bag.

Russell likes (and is very good at) building worlds with her stories. These worlds are reflective of our world and most of the time Russell does a great job of emphasizing the part of society she’s commenting on by making that the bizarre part of this new world. For example, humanity’s capacity for greed and exploitation is represented through the silkworm famine in a version of Japan that still seems to cling to classical values in “Reeling for the Empire”. The ridiculous (and sometimes destructive) lengths people will go to over sports is shown through the nonsensical “foodchain games” in one of my favorites of the bunch “Dougbert Shackleton’s Rules for Antarctic Tailgating”. Sometimes the meaning behind the allegory takes a couple of reads to uncover, but more times than not Russell makes it clear why the world she’s depicting is the way it is.

The characters are, however, hit and miss. Miles Zenger and Beverly in “Proving Up” and “The New Veterans” respectively are solid characters whose motives and progression are clear and strong throughout the story. Each has a unique voice that comes through in the narration and each has aspects the audience can relate to. Miles’ naivety and ambition and Beverly’s desire for attachment and fulfillment really speak to the reader. Others, like Rutherford B. Hayes in “The Barn at the End of Our Term” and Nal in “The Seagull Army Descends on Strong Beach, 1979” respectively are relatively flat and don’t do much to make the readers connect with them. I’m still not sure I can recognize Hayes’ inner conflict and Nal seems like the dejected teenager that Salinger pioneered and everyone else copied.

Russell is at her best when using the bizarre elements to augment her commentary, but  when she lets the weirdness take the wheel, the stories tend not to be as strong. “Reeling for the Empire” is a great example for the weirdness overshadowing the bones of the story. The story itself follows a fairly basic template (don’t worry, no spoilers) but the layering of strange upon strange ends up distracting the reader and takes away from the impact of the climax. And because it is so weird, a story that could’ve been extremely harrowing ends up being a bit corny. Similarly, “The Barn at the End of Our Term” is another story that was hindered by its bizarreness rather than helped. Having a slew of dead presidents reincarnated as horses is a very interesting concept, but Russell doesn’t deliver on the political and situational commentary that she sets up. Instead (again, trying to avoid spoilers) the story serves as more of a love song. Which leaves me feeling that she’s being bizarre for bizarre’s sake.

Other times, Russell’s subtle use of odd elements charge the story and force you to think twice about our society. The bone trees in “Proving Up” make the audience reassess their predispositions about the romanticized American West. As I mentioned earlier, the foodchain games in “Dougbert Shackleton’s Rules for Antarctic Tailgating” supplement the focus of the dangerously stupid behavior of rabid sports fans in the modern age.

All the stories are well-written and are littered with strong description and varied dialogue. At times, Russell tends to drag things out a bit, but the stories are always entertaining enough to get through. Vampires in the Lemon Grove is a fun, well-written and thought-provoking set of short stories with its own set of flaws. Even if every story doesn’t excite you, I have no doubt that at least one will.


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About the author: Karen Russell, a native of Miami, won the 2012 National Magazine Award for fiction, and her first novel, Swamplandia! (2011), was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. She is a graduate of the Columbia MFA program, a 2011 Guggenheim Fellow, and a 2012 Fellow at the American Academy in Berlin. She lives in Philadelphia.


About the author of this post: Kevin Dieber is a sophomore at North Central College.

Review of “Memoranda” by Michael Martone

Michael Martone’s little—quite literally—chapbook, Memoranda, does a good amount of work considering how much empty space is found on every page. With each ‘chapter’ focusing on another soul in the workforce, readers are left with a detailed, sometimes grimy view of society, as the readers take a glimpse into various aspects of the daily lives of different professions.

Structurally, this book is full of very, very small chapters, each averaging out to about forty to fifty words. These chapters are short in the extreme. The content of each follows a central theme of working life. That is to say, each chapter is a small peek into a different world of work. While one chapter may look at a Forest Service Forester, another follows a stenographer.

One of the things to be loved about Memoranda was its pace, which lets the reader read more in one sitting, compared to longer chapter books. Contrastingly, at least for me, this also meant having to go back and reread parts as I would begin to pick up pace and stop actually reading the content. And that’s where the stories actually take place: the content. Of course, the short style does have its place in the text: the shortness of the chapters can be seen as representative of the fact that there are so many different jobs that could have filled the pages. There isn’t possibly room for everyone, so Martone uses short chapters to quickly delve into one, then come back up for air almost immediately, before going back for another. It’s what Martone puts in each of those chapters that brings the book to life. Little splices such as “black box isn’t black but orange not orange more blood red not a box so much but not not missed” offer a look into the horrifying job of trying to transcribe contents of a cockpit recorder after being recovered from a wreckage site (13). The emotion Martone  fits into the few lines that each chapter contains is a deep can of sardines, packed in so tight that at first glance the reader can miss part of it. This was another part of the book that I loved: the little things really do matter in Memoranda.

Indeed, these little chapters pack quite a punch most of the time. Of course, every positive has its negative. While short chapter lengths are a great way for the reader to get quick, clean snippets of someone’s life, they also lend themselves naturally to being read too quickly. The chapter on the surveyor, which discusses “this fungus, 2,000 acres, like the antennae we’re installing” is a quick line that doesn’t hold much at first glance (6). As with the stenographer’s story, there is more to it that that. The size of the fungus is crazy! The surveyor’s account of an “Unexpected Environment Impact” has a massive amount of imagery associated with it (6). The only problem with that imagery is that Martone only gives the chapter two sentences to force the imagery into the reader’s mind. When a reader starts to pick up momentum, the little details can be easy to miss, and with chapters this short, everything is a little detail. Some readers enjoy this, but I prefer being able to at least get the gist of the surface meaning on the first round, then go back for the between-the-lines metaphors and imagery. Unfortunately, I just don’t get that with Memoranda. Indeed, this book seems to be asking its readers to read at what may be a different pace than they normally would in order to fully enjoy it.

Even still, Martone shows how a few good words can have more meaning than a hundred weaker words. When actually noticed, the imagery and emotion in stories, such as the when the climate analyst says, “Knowing more, we know less […] that blue cloudbank, disguised as smoke, it turns out, is smoke,” which offers insight into the realization that the climate is changing in a negative way,  is beautiful and insightful, but can also be easy to miss depending on your reading style (9). My main complaint was that this book forced me to read in a way that I normally don’t, but I think the content and skillful writing done by Martone more than makes up for the personal quarrels I may have with Memoranda. Because of this, I highly recommend reading it at least twice (to ensure nothing goes unnoticed).


10410600_10203829371801978_8128860793081392665_n_0 Michael Martone has written several chapbooks as well as works of nonfiction and fiction (including a fictitious autobiography). Martone was born and grew up in Fort Wayne, Indiana. He attended Butler University and graduated from Indiana University. He holds the MA from The Writing Seminars of The Johns Hopkins University. Martone has won two Fellowships from the NEA and a grant from the Ingram Merrill Foundation. His stories and essays have appeared and been cited in the Pushcart Prize, The Best American Stories and The Best American Essays anthologies. He is currently a Professor at the University of Alabama where he has been teaching since 1996.


About the author of this post:  Nicholas Drazenovic is currently a senior at North Central College and is a co-editor of 30 North. He is studying English with a concentration in Writing, as well as Computer Science. After graduation, he hopes to pursue a career in either technical writing or software development.

 

Review of “Bright Dead Things” by Ada Limón

Bright Dead Things by Ada Limón is a compilation of work that describes what it is to be at home, how to identify the self in physical settings; how to “be” in the “where you are”. The quality of the poems themselves is like miniature stories, each with their own tiny crescendos and fades that follow recognizable story arcs, making a number of the poems prose poetry. The poem “Mowing” serves as a perfect example of Limón’s ability to capture depth in small moments. She writes “The man across the street is mowing 40 acres on a small lawn mower. It’s so small, it must take him days, so I imagine that he likes it” (7).  It is this quizzical nature that is an aspect of Limón’s voice that I appreciate as a reader the most: she observes ordinary instances and can expand upon the details.

In Ada Limón’s book, the sense of questioning surrounding spaces is easy to connect with. Her writing is fixated on two concepts: space and identity. These two themes intermingle in her poems throughout the book, but appear prominently in the poems “The Great Blue Heron of Dunbar Road”, “Prickly Pear and Fisticuffs”, and “Before”. Her ability to marry these ideas, one tangible and one only conceptual, in a way that is relatable into a wide spectrum of readers is where her skills are truly exemplary.

Limón does not need to depend on metaphors that are unrealistic, or evoke a kind of mystical, transcendent story-telling to be a compelling poet. Her writing is based in a realism that is both relatable and unique to the author’s world. It brings realness to Limón as a person as well; she becomes more than just an author; she becomes a character herself in the poetry. Her insight on her own world and ability to transfer these feelings into poetry is another element that makes Bright Dead Things so bright.

If you are looking for poetry that reminds you of your home, your childhood, and of all the small pieces of life that exist, then Ada Limón’s Bright Dead Things, will be the ultimate book of poetry to read.


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Ada Limón is the author of four books of poetry, including Bright Dead Things, which was named a finalist for the 2015 National Book Award in Poetry and one of the Top Ten Poetry Books of the Year by The New York Times. Her other books include Lucky Wreck, This Big Fake World, and Sharks in the Rivers. She serves on the faculty of Queens University of Charlotte Low Residency M.F.A program, and the 24Pearl Street online program for the Provincetown Fine Arts Work Center. She also works as a freelance writer splitting her time between Lexington, Kentucky and Sonoma, California.


About the author of this post:  Ryann Overstreet is a junior at North Central College where she studies Writing and Philosophy. She has two orange cats that she is obsessed with and eats a box of pasta a day.