Review of “Trigger Warning” by Neil Gaiman

With Neil Gaiman’s Trigger Warning: Short Stories and Disturbances, the author has given us an assorted collection of short stories with a dabble of poetry. In this collection of horror, sci-fi, and fantasy, you can learn about a mysterious American traveler who visits a quaint English town with dark secrets, solve a peculiar mystery with Sherlock Holmes, meet an odd man who claims to have uninvented the jetpack, and even defeat aliens with the eleventh Doctor.

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Review of “Everything I Never Told You” by Celeste Ng

everythinginevertoldyou-celestengEverything I Never Told You is a tale of a Chinese-American family in a time when diversity was constantly frowned upon. Set in the 1970’s, the Lees, a family of five, struggle to understand each other. They also struggled to fit into a world that didn’t understand them. The father, James, is of Chinese heritage, while his wife, Marilyn, is white. Their three children stand out as Chinese-Americans in an all white school. They kept one too many secrets from each other and in the end it cost their middle child, Lydia, her life. Ng uses this novel to explore the pressures with which parents weigh their children down, not even knowing they are doing so. Ng writes, “How had it begun? Like everything: with mothers and fathers. Because of Lydia’s mother and father, because of her mother’s and father’s mothers and fathers” (Ng 25). This novel beautifully captured the terrors secrets can keep and just what happens when the web of lies begins to unravel; slipping like water through your fingers so quickly you never even understood how you could possibly have held it all in.

Through a stunning display of multiple point of views, Ng smoothly navigates from one character to the next, letting each story play out until all the secrets the family tried so desperately to keep are brought to light. By switching points of view, the reader can hear the distinctive voice of the mother, the father, Nath, Hannah, and Lydia herself as the reader learns what they never told each other, making the title of the book a clever one.

Normally, a common fault with some novels is not holding the reader’s attention. Ng does not make this mistake. The novel captured my attention right from the start and kept me guessing all the way up until the final word had been read. The text itself has a dazzling introductory line when Ng writes, “Lydia is dead. But they do not know this yet” (Ng 1). The mystery of Lydia’s death had me guessing the entire time. How did this happen? Why did this happen?  One thing I really enjoyed in this novel was how each character was guilty, because at some point they all lied. One example of Nath’s lies is when he said, “All Nath would know, for sure, was this: he pushed Lydia into the water” (Ng 154). It really captured through the characters and family dynamic how many secrets we keep and how many lies we tell to ourselves.

This is a great read for those who have suffered similar pressures of the family dynamic and who want a read that will keep you captured from beginning to end. It was thoroughly enjoyable and will hold its readers captive from the first to last sentence. If you are looking for a quick and enjoyable read that runs your emotions all over like a rollercoaster, then crack open this book and find out just what really happened to Lydia.


celeste-ngAbout the Author: Celeste Ng is a writer in Cambridge, Massachusetts (It’s pronounced “-ing.”) Her debut novel, Everything I Never Told You, has won multiple awards and was a New York Times bestseller, Amazon’s #1 Best Book of 2014, and on the Best Book of the Year lists of over a dozen outletsHer second novel, Little Fires Everywhere, will be published in Fall 2017.

Review of “Dynamite” by Anders Carlson-Wee

The first poem in Carlson-Wee’s chapbook is titled, “Dynamite” and speaks of a childhood game he and his brother used to play, where everything they threw at each other was dynamite. They would hurl everything from pine cones to choke-chains at each other until they were bruised and bloody.

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“Find Me” by Laura van den Berg

laura_van_den_berg_2015Ever been at a point in your life, wondering where you belong? Ever feel like you have no place in this world, that you’re just drifting through life on autopilot? This is how nineteen-year-old Joy Jones has spent her life. Abandoned as in infant on the steps of a hospital, Joy had spent the her childhood and teens in group and foster homes, haunted by the constant feeling of unwantedness until she aged out of the system. She spends her days working a graveyard shift at a Stop & Shop, nursing an addiction to Robitussin, in hopes of keeping the memories of her troubled past at bay. She lives alone in a basement of an apartment building that has no windows, stating that her apartment is “like a tomb, the door a seal-would I ever get out?” As Joy questions the meaning of her existence, a sickness threatens to ravage the United States. With no official name, “the sickness” is a disease that causes individuals to suffer silver sores, memory loss and immediate death. One day, Joy is approached by a man in a hazmat suit, who invites her to join a program at the Hospital to find a cure for “the sickness”-as Joy discovers that she is immune to the disease. While she and seventy-three others are subjected to questionable treatments, she forms fragile bonds with some of the patients (like her roommate, Louis and the twins Christopher and Sam). As winter approaches, Joy breaks free and sets on a journey to find her birth mother, unknowingly unlocking the secrets to her past that she tried so desperately to hide, while also finding meaning in her life and what it means to love someone unconditionally.

I found “Find Me” to be a very compelling and unique read. Van den Berg is widely known for her short story works (“Isle of Youth” and “What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leave Us”), so for this to be her first attempt at writing a novel, I give it a three out of five stars.

First, the novel is split into two journeys: we begin with the Hospital where Joy is being held. She narrates her experience there, as well as recalls her life before the Hospital in (mostly) innate detail. The second half, Joy makes a cross-country trek to California to confront the mother she never knew, chronicling her trials and tribulations as well as discovering her self-worth. I liked how the author establishes the character (Joy) very well throughout the novel. Her voice can be heard clearly; it was like she was speaking directly to me because Joy was speaking, not only to herself but to someone who was willing to listen. For example: “I got on the wrong bus. I was not awake and not asleep and when I looked out the window, I was in Kendall Square. The bus stopped. I got out. The sky was a bruise. I was unsure of the time.” Joy’s attention to every detail pertains the theme that memory serves in the novel, particularly the first part when she is in the Hospital.

Unfortunately, this theme sort of dies down once she leaves the Hospital, causing the novel to lose some of its drive. The whole sickness is revolved around the recurring theme of memory, so it was disappointing when van den Berg strayed from it. I also noticed the novel tends to drag on a bit. Parts becomes stagnant when Joy is on the road (jumping from bus to bus, suddenly running into a childhood friend, getting trapped in a “haunted house”).

Some readers may find the narration a bit confusing and strange; Joy often goes off on tangents (habits of listing things off to prove that she’s not sick) and the narration often jumps back and forth between the past and the present, such when she is talking about “the sickness” and then switches to her childhood (the past): “Experts now say that the toll could be worse than the 1918 influenza, which left half a million Americans dead…. When I was a child, I lived for a time with a boy I grew to love.” Even though it might perplex a few readers at first, the author’s grammar and cues in the book helped establish the sudden switch.

All in all, I’d give this novel a three out of five for its unique take on a post-apocalyptic America with a female lead that struggles to find her worth in a world that is struggling to put itself back together.


About the Author: Laura van den Berg was raised in Florida and earned her M.F.A. at Emerson College. Her first novel, Find Me, published by FSG in 2015, was selected as a “Best Book of 2015” by NPR, Time Out New York, and BuzzFeed, among others, in addition to being longlisted for the 2016 International Dylan Thomas Prize.


About the Author of this Post: Tiara Hawkins

Review of “Manual for Cleaning Ladies” by Lucia Berlin

In 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 fiction, and this book of short stories shows that this is true of her writing.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Interview with Joshua Robbins

robbinsJoshua Robbins is the author of Praise Nothing (University of Arkansas Press, 2013). His recognitions include the James Wright Poetry Award, the New South Prize, selection for the Best New Poets anthology, and a Walter E. Dakin Fellowship in poetry from the Sewanee Writers’ Conference. He is Assistant Professor of English and Creative Writing at University of the Incarnate Word. He lives in San Antonio. 


How did you get started writing? And did you always want to be a writer?

I suppose I started writing poems in high school, mostly imitations of Sylvia Plath and Sharon Olds, David Bowie lyrics, as well as some fiction/prose modeled after William S. Burroughs and Jean-Paul Sartre. Of course, I had no idea what I was doing in terms of craft, nor did I plan on “becoming a writer.” But I do think those first steps were toward a path of apprenticeship in poetry that began in earnest in college and in my MFA program. I had no sense of writing as career choice until my poetry teacher in college, Laurie Lamon, pulled me aside and told me I could “make a career of poetry.” At the time, I was excited by the notion, but had no idea what that would mean for the future and the trajectory of my life in poetry.

 How long did you have to submit before you were published in a journal? 

I started submitting work in earnest around 2001 when I discovered that my MFA peers were doing so and finding success. I placed my first poem in The Canary River Review (which became The Canary and, later, Canarium Books) in 2002.

What advice do you have for young authors trying to get published?

Wait. Be patient. Don’t submit your work until it’s ready. (You’ll know when that is.) Focus on learning the craft. Read, read, read. Read widely and deeply. I realize none of my answer so far is about actually trying to get published, but I’m reticent to give nuts and bolts advice to young authors because I’ve found that, over the last 5-10 years, undergraduates are incredibly anxious about publishing, which is astonishing to me. It’s a considerable problem with the po-biz and the focus on being a career writer. Believe me: there’ll be plenty of opportunities for worrying and publishing later. Now’s the time for reading and studying, searching your own poetics and voice, figuring it out. But, if you do need me to answer directly, I’d say look to get involved with literary publishers and literary arts organizations in your area. It’s important, I think, to get a sense of how publishing works and how other writers do it. Get involved in your school’s literary arts journal. Put together a reading series with some friends. Share your work in public. Give your poems an opportunity to interact with the community of actual people around you, then you can look to submit for print publication.

 Do you think there are any special challenges associated with getting a poetry book, such as Praise Nothing, published, compared to a novel?

I’ll be honest and tell you that the process for publishing a novel is one I cannot relate to in any way. Sure, it’s all “writing,” but the business end of fiction is wholly different from poetry, for the most part. My fiction-writer friends talk about getting agents and landing contracts, “advances,” which don’t exist in poetry. (Especially the advances.) For me, publishing Praise Nothing was the result of submitting the manuscript to contests over a two-year period. Sometimes I think people don’t realize that, for poets, getting a book published within the contest system can cost a significant sum of money, which also, I think, results in slamming doors in the faces of many writers who can’t afford to participate in the game. It’s really unfortunate.

 Do you have any writing rituals?

I used to get up at 4am every morning, make coffee, and get down to business writing. If I had any “rituals” in the past, I suppose they were more object oriented, more like talismans: a particular coffee mug, earplugs, hooded sweatshirt, a specific pen and notebook. Now that I have children (three boys: 4, 2, and 3 months), time doesn’t afford rituals. Or talismans. I jot notes on whatever’s around: receipts, envelopes, my arm. I’ve recently started making notes in Evernote on my phone and have found that, when I do have an extended period of time to just write, I can get into drafting much more quickly because I already have the raw materials at hand.

Could you explain your writing process to us?

I usually begin drafting longhand in a large notebook or on a legal pad and listening for the emerging language’s cadence and the line’s natural measure. After that, it’s long process of making pass after pass over the poem: counting syllables and scrapping the excess. In the past, I would usually work toward a three- or four- or five-beat line. Now, that’s not so much the case. For me, though, the process of revising is how I come to figure out the poem’s content, movement, figuration, etc., and what questions I want the poem to ask, what arguments I want to make.

 Who or what influences your writing? Do you have literary heroes?

I think influences change over time. Gerard Manley Hopkins, Adrienne Rich, Robert Lowell, and Charles Wright, were very important to me when I first started writing. I’d put all of them on my “literary heroes” list. Most recently, I think what influences my poetry most are my readings in theology, particularly in the area of theodicy and theopoetics.

 I noticed that in a few of your poems, religion, specifically heaven, comes up. I noticed this first in “Heaven As Nothing but Distance.” Would you be willing to elaborate on how/why this topic seems to influence some of your writing?

 

I am, quite simply, obsessed with matters of faith and doubt, with what I believe is a broken connection to the transcendent. Always have been. Poetry is my means for considering and examining this struggle. And it’s really the only mode of artistic expression I’ve got. The act of writing, the process, is the means by which I can begin to approach and, maybe, understand the disorder of my day-to-day life and, perhaps, become a means to locate some order, to locate meaning in the confusion and chaos of being.

 


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.

Interview with Pedro Ponce

pedro-2_0 Pedro Ponce is the author of Stories After Goya (Tree Light Books ), Alien Autopsy (Cow Heavy Books), and Superstitions of Apartment Life  (Burnside Review Press). His fiction has appeared in Ploughshares , Alaska Quarterly Review, Gigantic, PANK , Copper Nickel and other journals; his work has also been featured in the anthologies The Beacon Best of 2001  (edited by Junot Diaz) and Sudden Fiction Latino. His book reviews appear regularly in the Review of Contemporary Fiction and The Los Angeles Review. A 2012 National Endowment for the Arts fellow in creative writing, Pedro teaches courses at St. Lawrence University in fiction writing, literary research, and conspiracy theory.


How did you get started writing?

I can’t remember a specific moment when I started or decided to start. I can, however, point to a couple of signposts. When I was eleven or so, I saw a production of Thornton Wilder’s The Skin of Our Teeth on TV, and I remember loving the way the characters talked to the audience from the stage. I also remember a high school English class where a teacher explained symbolism in a short story by Irwin Shaw called “The Eighty-Yard Run.” My teacher just kept pulling back layers of the story and revealing all this stuff going on under the surface. These are both moments when I was struck by what language can do, though I’m sure there are others I can’t specifically remember. Such experiences convinced me that I wanted to do something with writing.

What advice do you have for writers just starting out?

I don’t want to sound like an English professor (which I am, actually), but read. Read a lot. Read widely. Don’t just read what your teachers tell you to read, or what your friends are reading. If I had only read what my teachers told me to read, I would never have discovered as many possibilities for how to write and what to write about. Don’t get me wrong—the syllabus is a good starting point. But if you’re serious about becoming a writer, it’s only a starting point.

Could you explain your writing process for us?

I keep a notebook where I record ideas. “Ideas” is actually a generous way of describing what I jot down. What I really work from are images and bits of language. I’ll just record something and let it sit for a while—months or even years. After some time, those bits will gather other bits to them—an image will suggest a place, for instance, or a sentence fragment will hint at a narrator’s voice. That’s when I start imagining my way into a story, sentence by sentence. Sentences turn into paragraphs, paragraphs into scenes, scenes (eventually) into a story.

How has your work evolved over time?

After years as a short-story writer, I’m finishing my first novel. (There have been others, but this one is the first that feels complete to me.) The transition has been rough. My short stories feel easier to control; the big picture can be seen all at once. If you change something on p. 103 of a novel, it potentially affects the narrative in any number of ways, from 1-102, and from 103 onwards. I had to let go of my sentence-by-sentence process and just hammer out a draft in order to figure out the bigger structure. That first draft was a mess! But there was also another kind of pleasure that (gradually) emerged once I started hacking away—the clarity that emerged when discovering connections between different characters, settings, and ideas. Those connections wouldn’t have been revealed without thinking on a novel’s scale. I look at some of my published stories now and wonder if I cut off possibilities in them by seeing them as shorter narratives.

Your work often takes the common and makes it uncommon. Apart from Francisco Goya, the namesake of your chapbook Stories After Goya, where does this influence come from?

My favorite stories are often those that play with perception. For instance, C.S. Lewis’s Narnia books don’t start off in Narnia. They start off pretty realistically, on the ordinary side of the wardrobe. I feel the same way about Ray Bradbury  (and George Saunders, and Kelly Link, and Mary Caponegro, and Angélica Gorodischer, and…). In each of these authors, there are compelling characters and plots, but more importantly, you see your own world differently, even after you put the book down. I like to think that I’m part of this tradition.

How has your skill of making strange developed over time?

Very slowly. The uncanny is often obscured by the clever, which gets a few laughs but rarely sticks with you. I’m not sure I can articulate the difference beyond rough analogies. When I read something clever (or write something clever), I can always feel the author reading over my shoulder, nudging me as I turn pages in order to ask (rhetorically), “Wasn’t that funny?” I may laugh at something uncanny, but I know I’m alone and I’m afraid to take my eyes off the page because if I do, I could find myself inside the very story I’m reading.

Your novel Dreamland is a dystopia. What was the rationale behind this?

Dystopia is hot! At least, I thought it was hot when I started Dreamland in 2012. By the time I had a handle on the story (see above), it was clear that my dystopia was not going to be hot. It was going to be cold. Very cold. Without much of a hero or a moral message. Unfortunately, this lack of hotness is what interested me most and motivated me to finish.

Now that it’s mostly said and done, I recognize important similarities between Dreamland, and my previous (unpublished) novel. That last project was supposed to be a novel in short episodes, based on Goya’s etchings. (A sequence of remnants came out as Stories After Goya.) Both of these projects have dystopian elements, and I think it’s because the line between present and disastrous imagined future seems to be thinning every day. Dystopia is reality if you follow the news. So I guess you could call Dreamland my first significant foray into documentary realism.

What is one question about your writing no one ever asks you? Could you answer it?

It’s not so much a question I never get asked, but it’s how the question is asked. My work is often considered in terms of what’s lacking rather than what it’s doing (or trying to do). The language is dense; the characters can be hard to sympathize with because they are placed at a distance from the reader; the plots aren’t exactly page-turners. So it would be nice if I were asked why I do what I do, instead of why I don’t do what I could/should do.

Funny you should ask…The worst thing a reader can say, in my opinion, is “I’ve been there before.” Don’t even get me started on being “relatable.” If something is relatable, it’s easier to set aside and forget. But maybe some stories can live on, even if only as shadows, those feelings and experiences we only think aren’t there because we haven’t been paying attention.


 

About the author of this post: Hope Kennedy is a sophomore at North Central College, where she’s studying English and Management. Likes include writing, cats, and sleeping in on rainy days. Dislikes include inaccurate movies based on good books, the sound people make when they chew ice, and that awkward smile you exchange with a stranger when you make eye contact.