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 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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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

Review of “Station Eleven” by Emily St. John Mandel

Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel, is a post-apocalyptic vision of the future with a twist. It’s a narrative written from the multiple perspectives of characters who exist before and after an epidemic ends modern civilization and who are all connected in some way. As the story weaves its way back and forth through the decades, it follows an actor burdened by the pressure of fame and his own poor life choices who dies on the eve of the plague; a member of a wandering band of armed actors who has lived most of her life roving in the wilderness; the actor’s second of three ex-wives who is obsessed with drawing and works on the same graphic novel for years; and the actor’s English friend who serves as the everyman thrust into a calamitous world drowning in sickness and fear. Throughout the novel, paths cross, stories are shared, and the old notions of love, fame, and desire are thrown into chaos and replaced by a single notion of survival. Yet, at the heart of the apocalypse lies togetherness and bonds that no betrayals, pains, or end-of-the-world scenarios can destroy.

Station Eleven paints a picture of a world that would be recognizable to readers, even if it is distorted by the crash of modern civilization. The events of the novel could, in all likelihood, happen today, in our society, in our world. Mandel cleverly crafts a world that the reader can identify with. Her settings are real places, her characters have real struggles, and her situations are based on real conflicts with emotion and survival. Placing the novel about twenty years into the future, she strikes the world with an unknown but realistic infection that reflects our modern society’s fear of outbreak. She topples our culture and plays with memory; in her America, our everyday comforts and joys are practically non-existent and are only remembered as distant pleasures of a better time. Our electronic devices, for example, are only artifacts that end up on the shelves of a makeshift museum in an airport, curiously examined by children with no memory of these things. Mandel’s world runs two ways: For those alive at the time of the epidemic, this is not a world anyone is prepared to face when the calamity strikes, and they have fond memories of the previous world and do what they can to keep parts of it alive. For those born in the post-apocalyptic America, this is only world they know, and all they can do is imagine what the old world was like. This is not an America anyone would choose to live in, and the pain of watching her characters struggle to survive is real because they have no choice.

Not only does Mandel reflect our society and culture well, she also weaves in her own brand of pop culture. The novel’s title refers to a series of graphic novels written by one of her protagonists, the actor’s ex-wife Miranda. These stories are read by other characters, such as the actor, Arthur, and the wandering girl, Kirsten. Throughout the course of the book, the Station Eleven stories pop up to connect characters across stretches of time. These connections, perhaps, serve as Mandel’s greatest strength in her writing: Mandel is capable of using objects, themes, and characters to plot out a chronology over the decades that gets revealed, piece by piece, as the story moves ever closer to its culmination. What makes Mandel’s story unique is that her connections are subtle. She doesn’t hit readers over the head with references to objects, themes, and characters that exist in both the old world and the new world. She lets these connections wander, alongside her Traveling Symphony, allowing the reader to pick them up at his or her own leisure, letting them have moments of epiphany as puzzle pieces slide together. Even the use of a Traveling Symphony, wandering actors who perform Shakespeare to whomever will watch, is interesting because Mandel utilizes them to connect the cultures of the old and new worlds. The line “Because survival is insufficient” is the Symphony’s motto, and Mandel uses this line to present a group of people who want to do more than just survive. They have these old plays by Shakespeare, and they’re doing what they can to keep this part of their past culture alive, for both themselves and for others. Because survival is insufficient. Because simply languishing in the wasteland America has become is to admit defeat, and defeat is not what the human spirit needs to fix itself.

Unfortunately, though Mandel masterfully connects past to present and character to character, there are moments where elements become jumbled. A variety of characters—typically those with the Traveling Symphony Kirsten is associated with—are not given names, referred to instead by whatever instrument they play, such as “the first flute” and “the third violin.” This causes many of these characters to not be as fleshed out as well as they could be and makes them roam in obscurity for the majority of the novel. Also, while the connections between the time periods are interesting and help bring the novel together, jumping between four or five different stories has the drawback of not allowing enough pages for each story to be fully experienced. Thus, at times the pacing can feel rather rushed and plotlines can be forgotten if they are not returned to quickly. Each story is told poetically, but there’s the sense that some characters don’t accomplish as much as others and that certain characters aren’t as important to like or to follow. However, the important characters are allowed room to grow, even if that growth sometimes feels forced.

Overall, Mandel has created an America that is thrown into a cesspool of destruction and misery, a world that could be our own. In our pop culture, as obsessed as we are with doomsday scenarios at the hands of aliens and zombies, Mandel offers a novel that could be real, where the events could happen at any moment. There’s some action, a lot of drama, and a ton of struggle. Though it sometimes feels like the puzzle takes a while to be put together, all the pieces are still there and get placed, one at a time. Reading Station Eleven requires thought and concentration to it, and those who give it the proper amount are rewarded with an inquisitive, if not haunting, tale that many readers can undeniably relate to on certain levels and hope they will never have to on others.


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Emily St. John Mandel is the author of four novels, most recently Station Eleven, which was a finalist for a National Book Award and the PEN/Faulkner Award, and won the 2015 Arthur C. Clarke Award. A previous novel, The Singer’s Gun, was the 2014 winner of the Prix Mystere de la Critique in France. Her short fiction and essays have been anthologized in numerous collections, including Best American Mystery Stories 2013. She is a staff writer for The Millions. She lives in New York City with her husband and daughter.

 


About the author of this post:  Nathan Kiehn is a junior at North Central College and has wanted to be a novelist since the fourth grade. Though he is currently the New York Times Bestselling Author of nothing, he continues to plug away at fantasy and superhero novels, hoping someone important will finally see one of his $2.99 ebooks on Amazon and pay him enough money to get through college. When he isn’t writing or working, he can be found saving the world in video games and with LEGOs.

 

 

 

 

Review of “War of the Foxes” by Richard Siken

Richard Siken’s book of poetry, War of the Foxes, explores the inner and subjective world of emotions, self-perception, and the imperfect pursuit of artistic expression. Within most of his free verse poems, Siken consistently uses the metaphor of painting to express not only the act of making art, but also the processes of human perception, connection and communication. The collection will especially delight readers familiar or interested in both the fine art of painting and creative writing. The poems function on multiple levels of visual aesthetics simultaneously, blurring the line between images evoked by the written form, and those in traditionally viewed in pictures and paintings.

By using the imagery of painting, Siken creates a strong metaphor for the act of making art itself. The opening poem begins with a discussion of the art’s inability to perfectly imitate reality, yet despite this, asserts art’s value and purpose: “The paint doesn’t move the way light reflects,/so what’s there to be faithful to?/ I am faithful to you, darling. I say to the paint.” (lines 1-3). The purpose of art is not necessarily to be true to reality, but rather to be true to the artist’s personal perception of reality, and to act as a tool of communication. This metaphor allows Siken to delve into the role aesthetics play in the navigation and negotiation of identity and interpersonal relationships through the art and aesthetics of the actual poems. While this approach may seem metaphysical, complex, and confusing, the poems read and present themselves naturally and seamlessly, and the emphasis on images and their intuitive, imprecise nature works, for the most part, to capture the intangible and abstract experiences involved in identifying and expressing the self.

There are few poems that do not touch on the metaphor of painting, and those that do not follow so closely to the theme of identifying and expressing the self that they hardly feel out of place. It is therefore interesting to find that the title poem, “War of the Foxes,” does not reference the process of painting. Instead, the reader finds vivid images of animals, nature, and people populating shifting and surreal anecdotes that flow into each other throughout the poem, centering on the struggles of finding, maintaining and communicating the self to others. At the beginning of the poem, two “twin” rabbits are chased by a fox, and to escape, one hides inside the other, and the fox is tricked into letting them go because he believes he can catch the remaining rabbit that must be unable to run away (l. 1-18). This instance is a vivid contemplation on the issue of the self and how it is or isn’t to be surrendered in a relationship or even community. To survive, one of the rabbits completely loses itself as an individual by merging with the other rabbit. Even though they animals survive the fox, the question is raised, at what cost? And more circumspectly, and much in keeping with Siken’s cyclical themes, a second question is raised: were the “twin bunnies” that different in the first place? The third stanza states: “This is the story of Pip and Flip, the bunny twins. We say that once there were two and now there is only one” (l. 12). The notion is troubling, and by the end of the stanza, it’s clear that losing one’s identity is disturbing, and possibly unavoidable to some extent when negotiating a relationship with others: “Together we trace out the trail away from doom. There isn’t hope, there is a trail. I follow you.” (l. 18-19). “War of the Foxes” works to solidify the discourses presented in the poems before and after it, clarifying what it means to express the self in any way, and the dangers that follow suit.

If the collection warrants criticism, it’s that the poems feel obsessive over the theme of negotiating and navigating the self. By the latter portion of the book, it’s predictable that, thematically, the poems will not bring about a satisfying resolution to the challenges that come with defining the self. They end presenting an existential sense of aimlessness in the speaker and other characters, and while the act of expression via art and aesthetics offers some relief and outlet for this conflict, it is a partial relief. It is not the theme itself that is problematic; that conflict is essential to the collection. Rather, it’s that readers may not need to witness every poem to understand the main conflict; once this was discovered, there was no further place to progress and each subsequent poem felt less significant. However, with this repetition, Richard Siken could very well be demonstrating the cyclical nature of the mind, and the illogical cycle of preserving and discovering the self while trying to sustain outside relationships from others that simultaneously demand compromise of the self. Nevertheless, Siken masters poetic and artistic imagery, and his description of human consciousness is striking and perceptive.


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Richard Siken is a poet, painter, filmmaker, and an editor at Spork Press. He is a recipient of two Arizona Commission on the Arts grants, two Lannan Residency Fellowships, and a Literature Fellowship in Poetry from the National Endowment for the Arts.

 

 

 


About the author of this post:  Meaghan Green is a senior at North Central College majoring in English Writing and Studio Art. She’s inspired by history, nature, and storytelling.