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Book Reviews

Timothy Parfitt

February 15, 2018

A Look Back at a New Narrative

Writers Who Love Too Much: New Narrative 1977-1997 

Nightboat511 pages, $24.95 

Edited by Dodie Bellamy & Kevin Killian 

New Narrative, a late twentieth-century art movement that fused queer praxis, radical  politics, and daring writing, is now on arguably on its third or fourth “wave,” but I had not encountered it until recently. Now the similarly uninitiated can thank Nightboat for publishing the delightful and overdue anthology Writers Who Love Too Much: New Narrative 1977-1997. As editors Dodie Bellamy and Kevin Killian explain in their introduction, the movement reshaped narrative into “a system of writing designed to be optimally responsive to cultural and political change.” Indeed the personal essays, auto-fiction, interviews, and criticism in this collection explode notions of “good” writing and art in order to build something true to modern lived experience.

Take Robert Glück’s “Sanchez and a Day,” in which a narrator and his dog must evade a truck of threatening homophones.  Glück’s complex layering of memory and sensation sets up a left turn towards intimate (and overtly political) direct address: “I had angry dreams. Even in my erotic fantasies I couldn’t banish a violence that twisted the plot away from pleasure to confusion and fear. And what I resolved was this: that I would gear my writing to tell you about incidents like the one at Sanchez and Day, to put them to you as real questions that need answers, and that these questions, along with my understanding and my practice, would grow more energetic and precise.” The questions raised by Glück dictate the mode of writing, regardless of inherited notions of taste and “show, don’t tell.” As a reader, there’s some whiplash when the artful anecdote goes from consumable experience to a shared, solvable problem.

In Dodie Bellamy’s “Dear Gail,” the narrator describes her future lover’s eye contact as a “missile dying for a target.” That phrase could be used to describe many of the characters who knock around this collection. Indeed much of the writing, which first grew out of a free poetry workshop in San Francisco in the late seventies, uses desire as the lens through which the view the self, taking more narrative cues from pornos than from what’s traditionally considered literary canon. In Dennis Cooper’s “Square One,” a skin flick idol is held up as divine harbinger of grace and loss. “The actor’s beauty is God. Their sex is heaven . . . Never again will his face be as gripped by what’s deep inside him but slipping from his possession.” Eros and politics are forever intersecting, whether in excerpts by better-known figures like Eileen Myles’ (Chelsea Girls) and Chris Kraus (I Love Dick), or those by cult favorites like Lawrence Braithwaite. In the Braithwaite’s Wigger, language, desire, and racism push language to its breaking point: “He’d tug at the crotch of his slacks / rub his big belly—have his hand up by his chest (it looked like a thermal-photo) as Brian swayed, paced and gestured in his boxers / telling him about his plans to annihilate a body w/ the seduction of words and weapons / /”

Power dictates how stories get told, so it’s worth examining how narrative builds and reflects our understandings of the world. Writers Who Love Too Much offers an array of off ramps away from pre-made conclusions and towards  more  nontraditional (aka dangerous) modes of meaning-making. It can be hard to unlearn inherited notions of right and wrong.  By making the “wrong” parts of personal experience (politics, kitsch, desire) so central to their work, the writers of New Narrative have complicated and broadened conceptions of what the modern nonfiction essay can do.

Timothy Parfitt is a Chicago-based essayist and translator. His writing has appeared in Deadspin, ThreadNewcity, Chicagoist, Timeout Chicago and Wassup.


Book Reviews

Negesti Kaudo

November 28, 2017

Prose as a Naked Language

Wave Books, 
126 pages,  $18

Prose Architectures
Wave Books, 
144 pages, $50

Renee Gladman


I began reading Renee Gladman’s Calamities on an early morning Southwest flight from Chicago to Washington D.C. in February 2017. It was for an assignment, of course, and I was on my way to a writers’ conference, hoping to get the minimum of work done before being thrust into the fray of writers, books, and alcohol. Immediately, I was underlining sentences, not because I fully understood them, but because I was fascinated with the work they were doing on a syntactic level, the way Gladman’s sentences ebbed and flowed forever, the way a paragraph could continue along for a page without exhausting itself. Calamities is an exploration of the intersections of humanity and language through essaying in its rawest form. Throughout the 126 pages of short essays, Gladman pulls readers into her thinking, forcing them to contemplate the same questions she asks of herself, and confiding in them with moments of insecurity, creative process, personal relationships, and teaching.

The essays in Calamities begin with “I began the day . . .”  And while readers cannot know if Gladman is writing in the present-moment or later, each essay captivates with an introspective look at the ways language relates to every miniscule facet of her like. “I began the day looking into the infinity of the revision of my novel in progress,” Gladman begins. Another time, “I began the day in an embrace.” Later, “I began the day wanting these essays to do more than they were currently doing and even had a book alongside that I thought would help me, but it turned out I wanted more from this book as well.” Gladman’s introductions create a structure for her book, becoming the way of knowing when one essay ends and another begins.

The book is complicated in its language, but casual in its tone. Gladman doesn’t bolster her thoughts, instead remaining vulnerable and complicated on the page, never truly answering her own questions. At one point, Gladman asks why “the person in the world” (presumed to be one of her eleven shy female students) would study English: “What was she doing in a field that really left a person nowhere to go but further into herself?” While Gladman asks this of someone else, it’s interesting because she is an author, so one might assume that she’s also asking the same question of herself. Even so, Calamities may be Gladman’s answer to her own buried question, investigating language through language and contemplating what it means to be a contemporary black woman writer (among other facets of her identity). In this way, part of the calamity is intersectionality. I read along as Gladman balances being a middle-aged black woman, a lesbian, a fiction writer, an essayist, a professor, and a citizen simultaneously. The book is very human, being that it asks of the reader the same things Gladman asks of herself, but neither one has to act upon the answers. Throughout Calamities, Gladman is doing exactly what she asks of “the person in the world,” exploring further into herself not only in the existing prose, but also in the writing on the walls, walks through the city, her fiction series Houses of Ravicka, relationships, lesson plans, drawings, and more.

I was the only black person in my class, and one of the few—if not the only—students who enjoyed reading Calamities. It was in my top three books that we read in the class, but no one else was awed and inspired by Gladman’s longwinded sentences like I was, they had not sat in an airport for four hours waiting to get on a plane with only Calamities in my backpack. But I had, with pen in hand, reading and rereading complicated sentences and paragraphs. I was determined to finish Gladman before I returned to Chicago; I was determined to learn what exactly was the calamity.

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Book Reviews

Crazy for Vincent

April 26, 2017


Crazy for Vincent
Hervé Guibert
Translated by Christine Pichini
Paperback, 96 pages

At what point does infatuation become obsession? When does love become a habit, and what does it mean to desire what destroys you? In Crazy for Vincent, Hervé Guibert, the French writer, and photographer, addresses these questions in relation to the author’s own tempestuous relationship with a young man named Vincent. Originally published in French in 1989, Crazy for Vincent has been translated into English for the first time by Christine Pichini.

Guibert published several works across many genres during his short life, dealing heavily with themes of death, homosexuality, and the body. Crazy for Vincent is no exception. Beginning with Vincent’s death following his fall from a third story window, Guibert traces their relationship back through the years, piecing together excerpts from his journal to form a portrait of a man. What emerges from the fragments is the haunting and visceral evocation of a body, ravaged by the violence of youth and cursed with a homely face.

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Book Reviews

The View from the Cheap Seats

March 16, 2017

The View from the Cheap Seats
Neil Gaiman
William Morrow Publishing
544 pages

Since beginning his career as a journalist in the early 1980s, Neil Gaiman’s work has been a testament to the adage, “a writer writes.” From the groundbreaking Sandman comic series and original graphic novels Mr. Punch, Violent Cases, and Signal to Noise, Gaiman has moved to short stories, novels, and movies including New York Times bestsellers American Gods, The Ocean at The End of the Lane, Trigger Warning, as well as the academy award nominated animated film Coraline. Gaiman’s writing seems to recognize no limitations by making a career of crossing genres and mediums to tell a story. The growing list of literary and creative honors he’s received point to his ability to successfully bridge audiences through words.

The View from the Cheap Seats: Selected Nonfictions is Neil Gaiman’s first collection of selected nonfiction from the last twenty-five years. This volume includes not only essays and articles, but book introductions, album liner notes, transcriptions of award speeches and lectures, as well as creator profiles and tributes. At over five hundred pages, the book brings together eighty-four different pieces, many of them never collected in book form or appearing in print for the first time. Continue Reading

Book Reviews

Study In Perfect

March 16, 2017

Study in Perfect
Sarah Gorham
University of Georgia Press
214 pages

Longtime poet and president of Sarabande Books Sarah Gorham makes a successful debut to the world of essay collections with her newest book Study in Perfect. In her introduction, she offers Aristotle’s three interpretive definitions of the word “perfect.” She then continues to explore throughout the book different philosophical, cultural, and touchingly personal standards of perfection and imperfection. The essays vary in topic and length, the longer ones spanning more than twenty pages and delving into complex analyses with multiple through-lines that never get tangled. Sprinkled throughout the book are shorter essays considering individual topics, most less than a page long: “‘Perfect Conversation’ (That which has attained its purpose): ‘I love you.’ ‘I love you too.’”

In her longer essays, Gorham conducts her studies on perfection on both a microscopic and worldly scale. In the essay that opens the book, “Moving Horizontal,” she experiences the transient nature of perfection when she and her husband discover an open-layout home filled with light, a contrast to the Victorian house they raised their children in and once loved. She quotes the architect who designed their new home and establishes a strong voice and thoughtful theme that carries through the rest of the essays. She examines nature and animal behavior, and questions the tendency our species has to impose human characteristics onto everything we see; she speculates about the psychology of the human tendencies to lie and to be selfish and sentimental, drawing opinionated conclusions from both personal experience and scientific fact; she pulls quotes from poets, philosophers, songwriters, historical figures, everyone from Grace Slick to Imelda Marcos.  Continue Reading

Book Reviews

How We Speak to One Another: An Essay Daily Reader

February 15, 2017

How We Speak to One Another: An Essay Daily Reader
Edited by Ander Monson and Craig Reinbold
309 pages, Coffee House Press, $20.00

It is impossible to define an essay unilaterally. Essay Daily’s first collection, though it does not aim at a definition, solves that problem rather neatly. How We Speak to One Another begins with a simple premise—writers writing about essays that are important to them—and continues like any good conversation: wandering, doubling back on itself and ending less in a firm conclusion than a silence, leaving room for the reader’s own thoughts to fill that space. A gathering of forty-seven essays allows a reader to bite off chunks at a time, dip in and wander at their own pace, eavesdropping on the way, for instance, on how Matt Dube, Aisha Sabatini Sloan, and Emily DePrang agree and disagree about Joan Didion.

As in any anthology, some essays work better than others. There are a few gems dealing with a single book or essay. Elena Passarello’s whimsical consideration of the equally whimsical, ever-changing Book of Days by Robert Chambers, for instance, is one of the most delightful in the book. On the whole, however, the best essays do more than consider how or why a certain piece works, and instead make the reader a participant in the conversation, rather than a voyeur. They struggle, as Rigoberto González and Lucas Mann do, with writing nonfiction as young people. They consider, as Megan Kimble does, the economy of writing, technology, labor, and personal relationships. They might consider something particular, as Maya Kapoor does with David Quammen’s use of trout, but they expand to something broader, such as the use of the body in research.

At times, the editors’ hands in the construction of this conversation is a little too obvious—placing Pam Houston’s consideration of a Sports Illustrated column on O. J. Simpson next to Dave Mondy’s examination of Jim Bouton’s Ball Four, for instance, makes the conversation focus too heavily on sports writing when both writers struggle with much more. Yet, for the most part, How We Speak to One Another is a well-arranged collection of essays, showcasing a variety of forms, opinions on nearly every major debate about the essay and a panel of writers of various genders and races. As a result, this book becomes something like Chambers’s Book of Days—a place where the reader will find something new each time, whether it’s a reminder of the important intersections between time and place, or simply the fact that bathtubs can reveal important things about truth in the essay.
—Rukmini Girish

Rukmini Girish is working towards her MFA in Nonfiction at Columbia College Chicago. She is also a contributing editor at Floodmark, a website dedicated to providing inspiration for writers outside academia. Her work has appeared in East End Elements, and on

Book Reviews

The Miles Between Me

September 26, 2016


The Miles Between Me

Toni Nealie
Curbside Splendor
200 pages, paper, from $9.95

Beginning with the writer’s relocation to the United States from New Zealand two weeks prior to September 11, 2001, The Miles Between Me counts among its recurrent concerns colonial legacies of racism and white supremacy, the violence of borders, and the losses inherent in distance. And while the title suggests a potential fragmentation or rupturing of the self, the book’s opening sentence—“I like to fly”—insists also on a pleasure in movement, a straightforward joy in the moments when we both have been and will be somewhere.

The Miles Between Me is Nealie’s first book, a collection of essays with scopes at time lyric, personal, and critical. They are, like many of the best works in the genre, vehicles in which the writer’s own intimate questions are allowed to travel through and be formed by the circumstances that surround her life. In “The Dark-Skinned Dispenser of Remedies,” for instance, Nealie researches the life of her grandfather, a medical herbalist and immigrant to New Zealand from India who was sentenced to hard labor in prison when a girl died after passing through his care, the manslaughter charge clearly motivated by racism rather than wrongdoing. While the history itself and Nealie’s deft narrative engage, it is the ultimate questions of family and history, of what we inherit, that truly elevate the essay. Reconciling her mother’s memory of her grandfather as a cruel man with the cruelties he also faced, Nealie pushes always for greater complexities and, in turn, greater empathies for mother and grandfather both.

Divided into three sections, “Unraveling,” “Bequeathed,” and “The Miles Between Me,” the concerns of this collection are recurrent, meandering in that way essays are particularly adept at meandering. In discussing distance, Nealie notes that “To connect seems impossible and marvelous.” In facing what she has inherited: “Now I decide what to hold on to, what to let go of, and what to pass on.” In thinking through the sadism of the border patrol: “My love affair is with my husband, not my adopted country, or the gatekeepers.” Neither wholly distinct nor entirely dependent on one another, these concerns echo. All borders are somewhat porous, and all people make their choices in the imperfect contexts of place.

To try to face any one topic as singular would be to face it incompletely. Instead, Nealie writes through the lens of the generous self, able to pay attention, beautifully, and to draw the connections only the self can draw. “Lesser, today, is the distance to home, which I recognize as the space fashioned inside of me,” she writes. Thought has a movement to it, and movement a thought. Careful, evocative, and surprising, The Miles Between Me offers us a chance to move along with it.

 —T Clutch Fleischmann