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Moorefield House Publishing

Reviews

Reviews

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Review of Portrait of an Alcoholic

Posted on August 14, 2017 at 8:00 AM Comments comments (389)

Desire & Disquiet: Kaveh Akbar’s Portrait of the Alcoholic

Review by Santino DallaVecchia

Since Kaveh Akbar’s debut full-length collection is due out from Alice James Books this fall, it’s worth taking the time before it’s published to read his chapbook, Portrait of the Alcoholic, a brief but arresting portrait of a consciousness surveying life as a solitude within it. The title inclined me to think I’d be reading a every-person style portrait, a composite take on the loneliness of addiction. Instead, Akbar plunges us into vibrant confessional poems that simultaneously set the reader behind his eyes while placing us in his broad gaze. We’re never quite mirrored and never quite addressed in the many pieces that form the titular portrait. Instead, these capacious poems craft a world where a singular voice surveys and observes from the weary perspective of alcoholism. Akbar moves from addiction to sobriety and all the stages in between, but in each facet of experience, he explores the ways in which the world is always beautiful and always swollen with loneliness. He explores memories of his half-forgotten childhood language, his relationship with religious faith, his struggle with drinking, and his intense experience of the world, all to create a portrait that both holds to and encompasses the individual. In a piece that encapsulates the concerns of the entire collection,“An Apology,” he writes,

Lord, I meant to be helpless, sexless

as a comma, quiet as cotton

floating on a pond. Instead,

I charged with desire like a

tiger sprinting off the edge

of the world.

This is the personality that permeates the collection. His stated intent and persistent effort is towards a generous stillness, a helplessness in the world’s turmoils, a peaceful existence. But something compels him, something inordinate and undeniable, desire. What is the nature of desire? Portrait of the Alcoholic ruminates from the desiring perspective of a vision that’s consumed almost too much. Throughout, Akbar crafts scenes so minimal in their excess that desire, the tiger who sprints off the world’s edge, is perhaps the recognition that the world exterior to ourselves exists, and that we exist in it. How else could we become so overwhelmed by moments like these:

I knew a girl who knew every bird’s Latin name.

I kissed her near a polluted river

and would have been fine

dying right there,

but nature makes no such jumps.

One thing,

then the next.

Or:

The first thing I ever saw die—a lamb that took ten

long minutes. Instead of rolling into the grass, her blood

pooled on the porch. My uncle stepped away

from the puddle, called it a good omen for the tomatoes

then lit a tiny black cigar. Years later I am still picking romas

out of my salads. The barbarism of eating anything

seems almost unbearable.

The enormity of human experience– no matter how small or how seemingly commonplace– is so overwhelming that, in the prism of the poems, we become willing to die after a single kiss, or abstain from a food after a single death. Existence itself compels us towards wonder and it drives us to learn to cope. Desire is the catalyst for our humanity and our disquiet. Early on I suggested that this collection isn’t an every-person narrative, but instead a deeply personal document, a self-portrait in words. And while this is true, Akbar’s transmuted such deeply intimate moments into a substance of recognition, a catalogue of moments we haven’t experienced in the particular but have encountered in our own emotional solitudes. The simple but profound recognition of our solitude in the world, bridged in such tender moments as the kiss by the river, or such violences as a lamb’s death, insist we find a way to mediate our relationship with our lives. We aren’t all alcoholics, but we all seek some place of rest in the midst of the everything that’s always happening. Kaveh Akbar offers the testimonial of a man trying to survive his desire, and in doing so, crafts a collection of poems that help us begin to understand how we relate to the startling reality of our own lives.

Omar El Akkad's American War Review by Jacob Hammer

Posted on July 26, 2017 at 7:25 PM Comments comments (11)

American War by Omar El Akkad

Reviewed by Jacob Hammer

This book is one of the most imaginative that I have read in some time. When I first

saw it, I assumed that it might be a novel about American military presence in the Middle

East or something like that. When I looked further, I found it was going to be a different thing

all together.

The author begins by setting up a frame for the novel. A writer and historian is

reflecting on his life and the things he has been through like the effects of prolonged global

warming and the Second Civil War. At this enticing speculative future, I was immediately

drawn in. After the brief prologue establishing this frame, we dive into an engrossing

narrative.

We begin with a young girl named Sarat and her family. The Second Civil War has

only been raging for a short time and her father is hoping to get them north. In his attempts,

he is killed. At first, her mother Martina wants to stay, but she is talked into taking her twin

daughters and son to a refugee camp called Patience that is right on the border with the North.

For a while their life continues as normally as it could in a refugee camp in the middle of a

war-torn county. Sarat, her sister Dana, and her brother Simon all grow up in the camp.

Eventually Simon falls in with some of the rebel militias that recruit in the camp despite his

family’s disapproval. Dana lives as much of a normal teenage life as she can. Sarat, on the

other hand, begins running errands and being taught a slanted history by a mysterious, welleducated,

and well-dressed man named Albert Gaines. He seems suspect from the start, but

the books and knowledge he can give Sarat are inaccessible otherwise, despite their selfserving

ends. These ends are not apparent until Camp Patience is attacked by Northern militia

groups in the night. Sarat and Dana are able to survive only because they hide in Gaines’

office. Martina is killed and Simon is shot in the head but not killed. This is Sarat’s true

breaking point. In the chaos of the raid, she kills a Northern militiaman and, unable to process

her shock any other way, helps the aid workers as they clean up the ravaged camp. After this,

Sarat becomes the willing and murderous tool of Gaines. The remains of their family are

given a house far from the ruins of Camp Patience and the Southern government makes a

hero/martyr of the nearly brain-dead Simon. Sarat’s accomplishments as Gaines’ puppet

culminate in the assassination of a high-ranking northern general. It seems, at first, that she

will be able to get away with it, but in the reign of terror that follows against all known

combatants and recruiters, she is given up by Gaines and captured herself.

For years she is kept in a torture prison that the North operates off the coast of a

submerged Florida. She is broken by this non-stop brutality eventually and not long after that,

is released back to what remains of her family. Only Simon remains with his former caregiver

and now wife, Karina. His condition has improved greatly against all odds and he and

Karina have a son together, Benjamin. Sarat tries to adjust to life there and to the nearing

peace between the North and the South, but she is still full of anger against those who she

feels have caused all the anguish in her life. She and Benjamin grow close in the time when

she is recovering from her imprisonment despite Sarat’s differences with Karina and Simon.

When an associate of Gaines offers her a way to strike back at the North in a devastating

way, she takes it, but not without making sure that Benjamin will be far from harm. She

travels to the North and releases a biological weapon in the new capital city of Columbus that

soon spreads to the entire country and lasts for a decade.

Meanwhile, Benjamin has a hard life, but a life nonetheless. He ends up in Alaska, far

from the plague and is able to attend college. He eventually becomes the historian and writer

that we met in the prologue and collects Sarat’s journals and other documents to recreate the

past of his family through the tumultuous war years. From these he creates the narrative of

the book.

The storyline is engaging, to be sure, but what really made this novel interesting was

the world that Omar El Akkad postulates. The Second Civil War is started by several

incidents—chief among them the outlawing of fossil fuels in 2074. The world is ravaged by

the effects of climate change. We are given a stark and uncompromising vision of a future

that seems a little too plausible. He avoids over explaining any of the technological advances

or every event that leads up to the war. This same under explanation is found in classic

speculative-future novels like Brave New World and The Handmaid’s Tale. Instead he, much

like those authors, is able to keep a focus on the individuals and the effects of this war on

them. The use of a frame tale then a close third person narration throughout allows us to get

inside the head of all the characters and understand their perspectives deeply. Another

interesting touch is the inclusion of interviews, book excerpts, government documents, and

other sources outside yet related to the events of the main storyline between each chapter.

This gives us as readers the chance to maintain a broadened view on the events in the novel

and not get too caught up in the way that individual characters are viewing things. This kind

of depth would be difficult to achieve any other way and is something that I have not seen

before.

This was a great read that I would recommend to anyone looking for something that’ll

be hard to put down and reward your enthusiasm with depth of content. It’s certainly a

haunting view of the future and the experiences of the characters definitely make me think

differently of civil wars occurring now and the refugees affected by them.

Review of Vievee Francis' Forest Primeval: Delving Into the Obscured World

Posted on July 24, 2017 at 9:05 PM Comments comments (0)

Vievee Francis’ Forest Primeval: Delving Into the Obscured World

Review by: Santino DallaVecchia

Vievee Francis’ third collection, Forest Primeval, immerses us in a world revealed, an undertone

beneath the day to day. It’s a poetry not just of the more common and dramatic revelation but of

revealing, of looking into the submerged forest under the cities of human interaction. In

“Another Antipastoral,” a prelude poem to the collection as a whole, Francis situates herself in

contrast with poetry witnessing the world as it is:

I have fallen from my dream

of progress: the clear cut grass, the potted and balconied tree, the lemon waxed

wood over a marbled pillar, into my own nocturne. The lullabies I had forgotten.

How could I know what slept inside?

She doesn’t explore the quotidian; she chronicles a descent into the nocturnes and lullabies that

form the wild and disremembered source of our world. In this Forest Primeval yearns not so

much for what should be as much as what it suspects the obscured world has been all along. It’s

a subtle, lyrical, and mysterious collection of poems about what’s true beneath what we take to

be fact.

***

Divided into six parts, Francis sets up an expansive landscape in two poems that precede the

collection as a whole. The subsequent sections quietly play off one another, undulating back and

forth between the fantastical yet grounded, and the grounded yet vaguely otherworldly. Francis

embraces the immersive and seductive power of mythic evocations; she also knows their

limitations. The awareness that a literal world overlays the world of the poems never recedes–

but likewise, it never overshadows the mysterious and fantastical associations the collection as a

whole brings to bear. It’s a precarious balance. But what else could it be? The divide between

supposed and real, between perception and fact, between a tale told and a life transcribed, is

tissue paper thin, and the brilliance of Forest Primeval is how fluidly it maintains all these

categories without succumbing to any one of them. She balances and counterbalances deftly;

where the fifth section becomes nearly apocalyptic, the sixth and final section offers small

absolutions and a fresh chance at wonder. Our expectations are constantly rearranged but never

jarred.

***

Within this subtle template, a broad array of poems play out. From blues-inflected fairy tale

revisions to facetious but deadly serious redrafted myths to recorded experiences made strange

by a detail’s constant recurrence, the collection murmurs back and forth constantly. The

cumulative effect is a quiet shift in consciousness. The collection rejuvenates the reader’s

experience of the world, because, through Vievee Francis’ poems, we become briefly able to

glimpse into the vast meanings and possibilities inside that world. In “The Ledge,” a poem that

alternates between fairy tale revision and a narrative about a man alone in a room, she writes,

He imagines heaven

as a window that might allow one

to see what one has missed

where one might

muse upon an implication

without having to touch it

Forest Primeval offers this same opportunity: to muse upon an implication through poetry. In

each poem and section, we’re allowed to reflect in the mythic yet intimate space Vievee Francis

crafts. The world, once obscured, is revealed anew as a place of expansive possibility.

***

Vievee Francis. Forest Primeval. Triquarterly Books, 2016

Our Endless Numbered Days Review

Posted on June 22, 2017 at 8:15 PM Comments comments (412)

Our Endless Numbered Days by Claire Fuller

Reviewed by Jacob Hammer

 

This time I was drawn to the book not by the cover but just by its title. It’s the same as one of my favorite albums by one of my favorite bands, Iron and Wine. So I picked it up and decided to read it on a whim and the positive association of its title with one of my favorite albums.

 

I found in the pages a complex and engaging book that I read in huge chunks at a time because I simply didn’t want to put it down. Throughout the book, we have to question what has really happened and what is a patch or alteration created by the protagonist as a means of survival. This kept me eager to move between the carefully spaced memories and current timeline so that I could discover the reality among the dazzling and dark memories.

 

The book opens with the narrator, Peggy, in the present of the novel in London. She is in her mother’s home and adjusting to the civilized world as best she can. This immediately grips you because you have to wonder why she has so much adjusting to do, where she’s been. Chapter 2 begins to dig into the meat of these questions. We are introduced to Peggy’s father, James, who is a disaster prepper and meets with a group of his friends in the house regularly. There is palpable tension between Peggy’s mother, Ute, who is a famous concert pianist over these meetings and her father’s endless lists of supplies, but since we are viewing through Peggy’s recollections of her childhood, things are not as clear as they could be. Tensions mount further until Ute leaves for a mainland European tour leaving Peggy with James for some time. James decides to take Peggy and run to the wilderness to avoid the doom he sees as impending and the danger he feels will be imminent in the cities. Peggy is only eight at this time and has no reason to doubt her father as they struggle through the wilderness eventually arriving at die Hutte. Die Hutte is actually a very run-down cabin with almost no supplies in it, but they make the best of it. James even fashions a make-shift and soundless piano on half of their table and teaches Peggy to play it and read music. There is a large storm soon after they have finally settled in and James tells Peggy that the rest of the world has been destroyed, they are the only people left, and that she cannot pass the boundaries he describes or she will fall into oblivion. Eight year old Peggy believes him with the total and fearful belief of a child. Their first winter is hard, but they adapt and prepare better the next year. Several years pass this way.

 

One day alone in the woods, Peggy sees signs of another person. She has trouble reconciling the difference between what her dad has told her and this conflicting evidence and at first she is very afraid of this stranger. As James seems to lose his grip on reality more obviously and more often (he even begins calling her Ute sometimes), Peggy begins to trust this stranger, Reuben, and eventually she spends all of her free time with him. They become lovers. James decides Peggy and he should eat poisonous mushrooms and end their lives in die Hutte, but Reuben pleads with Peggy to run away with him instead. James tries to stop them and threatens them with a knife as they try to run away and James is fatally wounded in the scuffle by Reuben before Peggy and Reuben run away into the forest. They become separated in their hurry, but Peggy makes her way to civilization again, nearly dead by the time she finds help. Ute is finally reunited with her long lost daughter and they begin trying to rebuild their lives and her memory.

 

Throughout this whole stream of events, we are brought back out of these recollections and to

Peggy in Ute’s home as she tries to get along with a brother she never knew she had and a mother who has become a stranger to her. She has been in therapy to try to recover memories that have become blurred or distorted and reflects on the past as she moves through her day and eventually prepares to meet some of her friends she has not seen for nine years. When they come over and she is talking with them, it is revealed that she is pregnant and that, though the police searched, they never found Reuben or any other camp in the area except the one her father and she lived at. Her fingerprints are the only ones on the axe that killed her father. Reuben was never real. Peggy seems to be at peace with this realization despite all the complications that it creates for her and for her newfound family.

 

What makes this book so intriguing is how you as the reader are discovering the truth of what happened throughout the book as Peggy does herself. In the first chapter we have a pretty good idea what happened and we know that Peggy is safe now with Ute and not lost in the wilderness, yet there is still suspense because we wonder how she ended up back in civilization. We wonder about what happened and what did not happen because we know that Peggy has memory issues due to her experiences. Early on we are cued to look for discrepancies because Peggy speaks to her doll very personally and her early memories feel dreamy. As we go along, the memories become clearer in detail, but still have an aura of fabrication about them that is hard to put your finger on. When we finally learn that Reuben was a total fabrication it comes as a surprise, but it also makes total sense for Peggy to create a salvific character like Reuben in her situation. In the end, that fabrication gives her the motivation to go against her father’s demand that they both drink poison and the bravery to cross the river and make her way back to civilization. So much happens to Peggy in the book. The lies and abuse from her father are horrible even through the distorted lens of Peggy’s memory, but in the face of this we see Peggy a strong girl who was able to make it through all of that and will be able to make it through everything she has to face in the future.

Review of Marie Howe's Magdalena by Santino DallaVecchia

Posted on June 19, 2017 at 9:30 AM Comments comments (0)

Marie Howe’s Magdalene: the Voice, the Mystery, the Language

I’d been excited to see Marie Howe was releasing something new since I saw a blurb for the

collection a few months back– she’s a striking lyrical talent, and she’s also got that one book a

decade mystique, like Donna Tartt or (until the end of his career) the late Jack Gilbert. There’s

something stirring about these artists– it’s always an event when they release something new.

And the praise for Magdalene has been justifiably lavish. The collection feels like the apotheosis

of the poetic vision she’s been creating since her 1988 debut, The Good Thief. It’s a lean but

capacious testament to desire, faith, and the limits of personal identity’s efficacy; it’s erotic, and

devotional, and lonely, and comforting. Marie Howe’s poetry has been all of these things in her

first three books; Magdalene brings them together into a careful whole. It’s also a compulsive

read; the collection forms a thematic chronicle, which Howe seamlessly weaves through her

identification with the biblical character Mary Magdalene. The drive to read and read and read

until the whole book is finished is compulsive, because, without crafting an explicit narrative,

there’s a story– all held in sway by the figure of Mary Magdalene.

***

It’s not so surprising that the collection is narrated vis-à-vis the veneer of a voice– all poetry,

after all, takes place somewhere between lived and imagined experiences. Words aren’t the

things they represent and even the most confessional poems take place in words composing a

voice. Poems are always mediated experiences. But the question behind Magdalene nonetheless

persists– why particularly Mary Magdalene? I read curiously throughout, but Howe offers a hint

early in the collection, in a poem titled “How the Story Started,” writing,

I was driven toward desire by desire.

believing that the fulfillment of that desire was an end.

There was no end.

Mary Magdalene, famed for having seven devils cast from her by Jesus, associated throughout

legend as the wife of Jesus, the woman who found him after the resurrection, is a woman famous

for her desire, a desire of complications and ostensible contradictions, a desire both human and

divinized. And Howe slips into this role to step into the prism of all the associations Mary

Magdalene brings– but recognizes right away that the endlessness of this chain of connotations.

In embracing this persona, she’s allowing it to permeate her voice and to inhabit the speaker, the

“I” talking to us in the poems, but she’s also acknowledging how immediately any voice extends

far beyond itself and its ideas of itself.

***

I was moved and transported throughout Magdalene both by the remarkable breadth of

experiences Howe presents and by how deeply she communes with poetry itself. The poem is a

crossroads: inside its bounds, we survey all our disparate paths and potentialities and ultimately,

pause and expand our life while we read. We’re allowed, inside poetry, to suspend our ordinary

relationship with spacetime and move fluidly between eras, between people, and between

different aspects of ourselves. In Magdalene, Howe’s created a vivid world in language where

we, the readers, journey into perception after perception through the dual voice of Marie

Howe-as-Mary Magdalene and Mary Magdalene-as-Marie-Howe.

Pull Me Under Review

Posted on May 19, 2017 at 2:40 PM Comments comments (0)

Pull Me Under by Kelly Luce

Reviewed by Jacob Hammer

 

The first thing that drew me to this book was, naturally, the cover. The black background featuring a woman or girl removing a mask of her own face drew me in right away. I went over to where it was displayed to get a closer look at the title that went with such an enticing graphic. As I read the inside jacket I thought it might be something that I wanted to read, but I was in the middle of a couple other books and I didn’t want to buy something new just yet. Throughout the next couple of weeks I kept returning to it as I walked around the store at work and re-reading the jacket, feeling its heft in my hands, and thinking about it until I finally caved and bought it.

 

I devoured Pull Me Under as it devoured me– it engages us with its complex characters and its quick pace. The prologue tells us about the past of the narrator starting at age twelve. The daughter of an aspiring American painter and an internationally acclaimed Japanese violinist, she’s bullied in school over her weight and for her mother being American. They call her Hafu (which means “half”) to constantly remind her of her mixed-heritage. Her mother dies and a few weeks later she retaliates against her classroom bully and accidentally kills him with a letter opener. She is immediately moved to a juvenile detention facility, but cannot remember what it is she has done nor will anyone tell her for some time. Her father visits her once and when he leaves they are both angry. He never visits again. When she turns twenty, she has to choose citizenship in either Japan or America. Her father has cut off all communication so she chooses to attend college in Colorado, to leave her former name of Chizuru Akitani behind in favor of Rio, and to start a new life in America. She becomes a nurse and gets married. They have a daughter named Lily and everything about her past is kept neatly under wraps to both her family and herself.

 

That is until a package arrives notifying Rio of the death of her father, Hiro, and the time of his funeral. Her husband and daughter offer to drop everything and go with her to Japan, but she insists on going alone. It will be the first time she has been back. When she arrives in her hometown it is at once very much the same and also different. As things almost always are when they are returned to. At her father’s funeral, she meets her favorite teacher growing up, Danny. She had been one of the only people address the bullying that Rio faced when she was younger and Rio had hoped she would visit while she was in the detention facility, though she had not. Rio asks her to translate a letter that her father sent on his death. Danny translates only cold remarks and disappointment. Rio is understandably upset by this and it leaves her craving more time with Danny. The next day she surprises Danny as she is getting ready to embark on the Shikoku pilgrimage around 88 temples. Danny had been planning on leaving without seeing Rio again, but now the two are roped into beginning the pilgrimage together.

 

They set off as Rio begins to recollect more and more details from her past. She brings up memories of her mother before her death, memories of her father, and also memories of the events leading up to her final conflict with her bully Tomoya Yu. It is hard for her to face these realities of her past, but the landscape and people around her continuously bring them to the forefront. Along

the trail they have several small adventures and meet a student attempting to pass his law exams and eager to practice his English, Shinobu. He travels with them through several temples and also translates the letter from Hiro again for Rio revealing that Danny left out several important details and completely distorted the tone of the letter as a whole. Most notably, that she and Hiro were having an affair at the time of Rio’s bullying and also that she has a key to her father’s house that is supposed to be given to Rio. She’s upset at this breach of trust and, while they are stranded by a powerful storm in a temple, strikes Danny during an argument. This shocks both of them and Danny leaves without telling Shinobu or Rio to continue on her own.

 

Rio and Shinobu track her down in a hospital nearby where she has gotten sick and injured from being out in the storm. They also discover that she has been hiding a worsening cancer relapse from them. She refuses to receive treatment and wants instead to be allowed to pass. Rio decides to help her do so in peace. All the while, Rio’s husband, Sal, has been becoming increasingly concerned about her lengthening stay and her lack of contact. He has also been beginning to put together some parts of her past. Rio is terrified by this and tells herself she will explain everything when she gets back. She travels from the hospital to Shinobu’s hometown to visit with him before returning home. From there she goes to her father’s house to reminisce and process all that has happened, but she left all of her identification at Shinobu’s. The police come and arrest her and place her in a special prison for foreigners because she cannot produce identification and is trespassing. Eventually she is able to get someone from the US embassy to contact Sal and he comes over. Things are incredibly tense and, even when Rio is released after some bureaucratic acrobatics and reunited with Sal and Lily, she and Sal still have to deal with the years of deception. Meanwhile Lily is beginning to fall in love with Japan and the heritage that she has been cut off from until now. Sal and Rio are able to come to terms with all that has come between them, for the most part, and Rio decides that she is going to finish the pilgrimage before returning to the states. Sal reluctantly agrees to this plan, but it is clear the wounds have not healed. Through all of this Rio has come to accept all the parts of her past and from there been honest enough with herself to share that past with those closest to her.

 

In some ways, this was a very easy to read book. The movement from the brief and matter-of-fact account in the prologue into the more expansive bulk of the book is seamless. The frequent use of flashbacks in the middle of the book feels effortless and tells us as readers only what we need to know about Rio and in small enough pieces that we are eager for more and never lose track of the main narrative. These flashbacks also harken back to and enrich our understanding of the account in the prologue and help to tie the entire novel together. Luce also does an excellent job familiarizing us with Japan through Rio’s eyes. Many things are still familiar to Rio, but through the lens of nostalgia. This allows the reader to access the landscape, customs, and language through Rio’s reacquaintance while staying immersed in the story. The idea of being half is also woven through the book expertly. Rio explores this initially through her racial identity, but as we move through the book, deepens this exploration to include her honesty to herself and eventually her honesty to those closest to her. This brings us all the way back to that eye catching cover. By the end of the novel we see Rio remove the mask that she has been wearing everywhere, fooling even herself. Together with her, we see the true Rio and we face the relief, the fear, and the road onward through the pilgrimage and home.

Swamplandia! Review

Posted on April 14, 2017 at 8:05 AM Comments comments (59)

Swamplandia! by Karen Russell

Reviewed by Jacob Hammer

At first I was a bit skeptical about this book. If I’m being honest, it was largely due to the large alligator on the cover. I am just not a huge fan of alligators, but one of my co-workers at the bookstore convinced me to overcome my apprehensions about the prevalence of alligators in the book and give it a try. What I found was a book that is inventive, adventurous, and rewarding.

The events of the story center around a family of alligator wrestlers who run a theme park called Swamplandia! in the Ten Thousand Islands off of Florida’s coast. The book begins in the perspective of Ava Bigtree, the youngest child in the family. Throughout the novel Ava narrates for us in the first person lending the book a more approachable feel overall. Early on, the mother (Hilola Bigtree) dies. If that tragedy were not enough, Hilola also was the star of Swamplandia!’s most popular shows. This leaves the family in dire straits. On top of all that, a rival park named The World of Darkness moves in on the mainland that offers top-notch rides, attractions, and advertising that the Bigtrees can only dream of at this point. For a while, Ava tries to take over for her mother and become the new star of the show, but attendance is still dropping at the park and her dad (Chief) begins pursing slightly hair-brained plans to improve the park and compete with The World of Darkness. Ava’s oldest sibling Kiwi is doubtful of the Chief’s plans and eventually develops his own plan to run away to the mainland, get a job, then begin to pay off the outstanding debt of Swamplandia!, and even fund some of the Chief’s more doable plans. Meanwhile Osceola (who is the middle child of the family) becomes obsessed with a book called The Spiritist’s Telegraph and begins to communicate with ghosts.

From here, the book separates into one narrative following Kiwi and what we could call the main narrative that stays in the first person with Ava and the rest of the Bigtree tribe. Kiwi struggles to adapt to the world off the island and ends up with a job as a janitor at The World of Darkness that pays him so little he ends up owing the company money at the end of the first month. Through a series of misadventures Kiwi is eventually able to gain a promotion to a pilot in a new feature that includes flying over the swamps in a boat-plane. While he is away, the remaining Bigtrees continue to struggle to keep the park open for a while longer until the stream of tourists dries up completely and even the ferry comes only rarely. At this point, Chief takes a trip to the mainland he claims is to help find investors. He is gone for a couple of weeks before Ava and Osceola find an abandoned dredge boat on the outskirts of the island Swamplandia! is located on. Osceola meets a ghost whose name is Louis Thanksgiving. She meets him in the boat regularly and alone for a few days while Ava’s suspicion of the ghost grows and her doubts about his existence begin to disappear. One night Osceola goes out to the dredge and does not come back by the morning. When Ava goes to check on her, the boat is gone. At this point Ava meets the Bird Man. The Bird Man makes his living using a whistle to chase birds away from people’s islands and has just scared the buzzards off of Swamplandia! Ava confesses her fears that Osceola will go with Louis into the Underworld to the only remaining person on the island. After some convincing and offered payment, the Bird Man reveals that he knows the way to the Underworld and that if they leave right away, they still have a chance of getting there before her sister is lost forever. They travel for days together in a small boat navigating the tangles of mangroves and channels on their way to where the Bird Man claims the Underworld is to be found. He convinces Ava that they are going to find her sister and Ava believes him because she so desperately wants to find her before it’s too late. The

Bird Man betrays her at the end and as Ava is beginning to have some doubts about the Bird Man’s supposed secret knowledge and even the existence of the Underworld he takes advantage of her. This betrayal is shocking at first, but as Ava makes her escape through miles and miles of impenetrable and uninhabited swampland the signs of the Bird Man’s true intentions begin to seem obvious and make the hurt all the more deep to the reader.

At this point you almost want to lose hope. We have discovered that the Chief is working at a Casino to make some cash in the hopeless pursuit of opening Swamplandia! again. Kiwi is making progress on the mainland, but constantly veering on the edge of disaster. Osceola is lost in the swamp and her only hope of rescue, Ava, is now lost in the swamp as well. I looked at the amount of pages left in the book and was almost nervous things really weren’t going to turn out so well. Characteristically to the rest of the book, a series of strange events leads the family back to each other. Kiwi is taking his flight test when he sees Osceola on a hill in the swamps waving frantically for help and puts the plane gently into a pond to rescue her. Ava spends a couple of days in the swamp running from the Bird Man and just when it seems he may have her caught she escapes through an alligator hole and is rescued by a search party that was tipped off by some gator hunters who saw her and the Bird Man shortly before he attacked Ava. Together the siblings go and find the Chief at the bowling alley/ motel he is staying at. From there the kids go to a real, mainland school and they all live in an apartment together. They adapt to life outside of the swamp and let go of Swamplandia!, but not the memory of Hilola.

This was an incredibly inventive book. I doubt if I will ever read another book about a family of alligator wrestlers dealing with the death of a mother that includes ghosts, a whale-shaped theme park, a red alligator, and even more crazy wonderful things. Throughout Ava illustrates her deep sense of place with detailed (but not exhausting) descriptions of her surroundings whether plant or animal. This immersed me in a world I was totally unfamiliar with and made me feel just as at home in it as Ava did. Moreover, when Russell was narrating the events of Kiwi’s time on the mainland, I felt almost as disoriented as Kiwi did while he adjusts to mainland life in Loomis County. This book was engaging without being demanding, entertaining without being trite, and worth another read to puzzle out the layers of imagery and other complexities so expertly woven into the narrative.

History of Wolves Review

Posted on March 17, 2017 at 1:15 PM Comments comments (0)

 

History of Wolves by Emily Fridlund

 

Reviewed by Jacob Hammer

I had been thinking about reading this book for a while. When it came out recently, it lingered on my radar. I was reading several other books though, so I was not in a hurry to get another one on my plate. One day, glancing around, I saw that there was a used copy available and I snatched it up and moved it to the top of my reading list.

 

The first chapter feels almost like it tells you the whole story. The narrator, Linda, is a teenage girl living in a small town in Minnesota. One of her teachers falls ill and is replaced by a new teacher who comes from California, Mr. Grierson. He seems to be nice if a little out of place in the cold and trying too hard to be relateable. He picks out Linda to represent the school at a special History competition. Linda chooses to investigate the history of wolves. Later in the school year Mr. Grierson is forced to leave because of accusations at his previous school of inappropriate behavior with minors and faces charges for pictures that are found in his former California apartment accidentally by a drug sniffing dog. The narrative flashes back briefly to a moment of Linda’s mother performing an impromptu baptism with her, then abruptly, shifts past Linda as a teenager and forward to her adult life where she still wonders about what happened to him.

 

The jumps in time seem like they’d ruin the suspense of the novel, but instead they lead the reader to deeper curiosity as to how so many things could have been resolved and how the characters could have been through so much. The jumps in time force us as readers to experience all the parts of Linda and the other character’s lives simultaneously.

 

The very next chapter takes us right back to Linda in high school. She begins baby-sitting for a family that moves in across the lake from her parent’s house. No one else lives on the lake other than these two families. At first Linda just watches them from her side of the lake and wonders about their lives, but through an accidental encounter she begins working for Patra babysitting her only son of four, Paul. Patra’s husband, Leo, is an astrophysicist and is away in Hawaii researching most of the time that Linda is with Paul and Patra. At first things seem different, but fine with Patra and Paul to Linda. To the reader there is always a bit of uneasiness. Fridlund is able to foster that uneasiness through the time-line jumps that are less frequent than in the first chapter but more and more effective.

 

Eventually we learn through those jumps that some kind of tragedy happens related to Paul. The exact nature of it and the legal proceedings and personal conflicts that Linda becomes wrapped up in don’t get revealed until the final chapters of the book. The pleasure is in the unraveling of the threads that connect these lonely people. In this unraveling you engage more with the development of the characters and embrace a different kind of anticipation.

 

This was a heavy book. It weighed on me as I became more and more immersed in it and increasingly aware of the difficulties and tragedies faced by Linda and everyone in the book. Fridlund does an incredible job allowing the reader to feel at home at the lake that Linda lives on. The few other places that are travelled to throughout the novel feel incredibly foreign to the reader because they are so for Linda. As the book moved through the seasons I felt the coming cold of the

fall, the weight of the winter snows and the cold, the still cold promises of spring, and the choking humidity of the foreshortened summer. Tied to this sense of place is also Linda’s palpable sense of loneliness that permeates the book fueled by the use of first person narrative throughout. At times Linda reminded me of Mick Kelly from The Heart is a Lonely Hunter in her experience of loneliness and her demeanor. Because of how well Fridlund is able to connect the reader with these tools, we are able to experience the multiple different time-narratives in the piece like memories of our own instead of disorienting flash-forwards and flash-backs. This as well as Linda’s ability to continue through everything that happens while becoming stronger all the time is heartening to inhabit and is what makes the book so powerful.

Grief is the Thing with Feathers Review

Posted on February 17, 2017 at 1:15 PM Comments comments (74)

Grief is the Thing with Feathers by Max Porter

Reviewed by Jacob Hammer

I first encountered this book as I was choosing something to display in the bookstore I work at. I perused a list of titles and when I saw Grief is the Thing with Feathers I knew I had to see what a book with a title like that looked like. I went over to the shelf and found a slim volume with a striking minimalist cover dominated by grey and yellow with three windows and a crow. It didn’t last long on the display. In a couple of days I was carrying it home with me.

 

The most simplistic way to look at the plot would be that the characters of the novel, a father and two boys, deal with the death of the mother/wife character that occurs before the beginning of the narrative. This seems like a simple enough thing, despite the emotional complexity there’s room for, the book could almost seem like a dull or depressing prospect on the surface. That would be an incredibly inaccurate assessment.

 

As soon you reach past the title page you see that this book will be very different. The entire thing is divided into three different perspectives. That of the Boys, Dad, and another agent, Crow. The first section we read from Dad begins fairly prosaic in many ways. He is drained from the funeral and all the formalities and social interactions that surround so many of our rituals of death. At the end of this first portion we are introduced to the character who makes this book so wild, Crow. He is an otherworldly being that comes to help the Boys and Dad deal with their grief. I think he describes himself best in this passage early on in the book:

In other versions I am a doctor or a ghost. Perfect devices: doctors, ghosts and crows. We can do things other characters can’t, like eat sorrow, un-birth secrets and have theatrical battles with language and God. I was friend, excuse, dues ex machina, joke, symptom, figment, spectre, crutch, toy, phantom, gag, analyst, and babysitter. (pg. 15)

 

At times he seems to play tricks on them. He seems indifferent to their pain as he drags them onwards through life. Yet he protects them from things as well. Quite literally in one passage wherein he viciously attacks a demon that wishes to feed on the grief of the Boys and Dad (pg. 54-58). At other times, he seems tenderer than any human could ever hope to be.

 

During all of this the structure of the book is dynamic. If you are willing to sink into it; it’s incredibly rewarding. Some parts of the book look more like poetry than a part of a novel. Others jump forward in time or backward. Some tell stories that are related to the narrative in content, but are entirely made up. There are dreams and meanderings and all the while you, the reader, are engaged on an incredibly deep level with the emotions of the Boys and Dad. All the while, you are learning with them how to deal with a loss you come to feel along with them. Crow provides different paths for each of them because each of them deal with this loss in different ways.

 

Eventually the Boys and Dad don’t need Crow anymore. They have moved through their processes of sorrow and Crow can move on now. Perhaps he will go to another group of people in need, perhaps he doesn’t need to. Crow is mysterious and wonderful that way. The Boys and Dad illustrate beautifully how far they have come under the guidance of Crow by spreading the mother’s ashes, exclaiming: “I LOVE YOU I LOVE YOU I LOVE YOU/ and their voice was the life and song of their mother. Unfinished. Beautiful. Everything” (pg 114).

I read this book in just a little over an hour. I didn’t intend to, but once I began I found that

I could not stop. The book was an experience to say the least. Engrossing, immersive, uplifting, bizarre in the best way, lyrical. When I finished, I felt that I had been standing on a shore, the tide had come up to my neck, and then subsided suddenly.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter Review

Posted on January 19, 2017 at 10:05 PM Comments comments (0)

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers

 

Reviewed by Jacob Hammer

 

This book had been on my mind for a month or so before I decided to read it again. The last time I had read it was about three years ago and I knew that I wanted to experience it again when I found myself recommending it to everyone anytime I had a chance.

 

There’s a lot that could be said about this book. McCullers gives us incredible insight into her characters. I find myself empathizing with them in visceral ways that I rarely experience with anyone else’s fiction. In some ways it’s totally heartbreaking. Within this heartbreak there is a sweetness that has no match and that makes the emptiness and ache of the aftermath worth it to me.

 

The storyline of the book revolves around several characters. One is Mr. Singer who is deaf and mute and living in the town the novel takes place in. His one friend, Antonapoulos, is also deaf and mute and eventually suffers from some unnamed illness and must go to an asylum leaving Mr. Singer on his own in the world with no one to speak sign language with. Another is Mr. Brannon who runs one of the local restaurants which almost all of the characters frequent. He is feeling distant from his wife at the start of the novel and enjoys spending time in the quiet of the night shift at the café. Mick is a young girl in a large family that operates a boarding-house in the town. She is learning about a passion she has for music, but continually facing obstacles like her family’s increasing poverty throughout the book. Jake Blount is a drifter who comes in to town, frequents the café Brannon owns, eventually gets work at a carnival in town, and is fervently interested in labor rights and class issues. The final character is Dr. Copeland who is a black physician devoted to helping his people not only physically, but to inspire them to rise from the position they are in (during the late 1930s South) to one of equality. There are many other side characters who help to create connections between the main characters of the narrative as well, but who do not get the focus that is given to these few.

 

Some of the essential connections among these characters are the loneliness that all of them feel deep down and also the passion they possess which drives them despite the adversity surrounding and pressing upon them from every side. This is especially apparent in how Brannon, Mick, Blount, and Dr. Copeland all begin to turn to Mr. Singer and speak to him alone. He is very kind to them, but admits in letters to his friend at the hospital that he does not understand them all the time and that he does not know why they turn to him to lay down their dreams and their struggles. Yet they continue to come and increasingly rely on him as different tragedies and successes occur for each of them in the pursuit of their dreams. What goes ignored by everyone in the midst of their own troubles is how truly alone Singer is. The only person he could (or it seems want to) communicate with is far away in a hospital where Singer is rarely able to visit him. He begins to retreat and come undone. The reader is able to see this because of the third-person omniscient narration that McCullers uses so deftly, whereas the other characters remain completely unaware of his struggle. Singer pines away even lonelier than the others to such an extent that when his one true friend eventually dies in the hospital, he goes home and quietly kills himself. This comes as an incredible shock to those who had depended on him to take all their worries and burdens and be their sole confidant.

 

This is when the novel really begins to unravel and the tragedies that had been deepening and waiting for most of the other characters become suddenly apparent to them. Blount puts this very well as he reflects on what Singer had meant to them all and where they are left by his death:

 

And how much further was he now than then? No further. Nothing had happened except that he had made a friend and lost him. He had given Singer everything and then the man had killed himself. So he was left out on a limb. And now it was up to him to get out of it by himself and make a new start again. (pg. 345)

 

The characters all separately resolve to continue pursuing their dreams, but they are more sobered. They all acknowledge the adversities facing them and, realistically, the reader is left fairly sure that they will not achieve what they were hoping to achieve. This seems like it would be totally disheartening and a terrible place to end things. Mick, though, says something important in reflecting on her dreams of being a composer:

 

Maybe she would get a chance soon. Else what the hell good had it all been—the way she felt about music and the plans she had made in the inside room? It had to be some good if anything made sense. And it was too and it was too and it was too and it was too. It was some good. (pg. 354)

 

I think if we can remember this, then there can be some hope in this novel. There is some light because there is value in the experience of the dream. Even if things conspire and we don’t get to do as much as we had hoped, we at least lived for something larger than ourselves and it made the difficulties that we faced worth something in the end.

 

This novel will leave you wounded and hurting and it will also leave you feeling oddly less alone. McCullers’ ability to connect us to these characters with the third-person omniscient narrator is so deft that we come to understand these characters so deeply and we rise and fall through everything with them. We become Singer and we even become a person that Singer is able to speak to. We learn from the characters not only from what they say about themselves, but how they feel, what they want, and how the other characters see them. We the reader embody them in all their loneliness and find ourselves less lonely, in a way, and aching for the connection that could cure the wounds we find in ourselves.


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