Browsing Category

Book Reviews

Book Reviews

Kat Read Reviews Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women

March 10, 2020

 

Three Women
Lisa Taddeo
Avid Reader Press, $15.99

 

In her book Three Women, Lisa Taddeo tells the stories of three women and their relationship to desire by examining the ways they are socialized to obscure their needs and playact around their wants. The three sections are woven together, alternating back and forth. Each narrative has its own distinct voice, with an introduction and epilogue that provide Taddeo’s own family history. Throughout, Taddeo’s language is atmospheric and plunges the reader into the subjects’ worlds: the narratives they tell themselves and recite to others; the secrets they keep; and the pain that they experience and conceal when desire takes the wheel.

There’s Maggie, a teenager who is seduced by her older, married teacher. Lina, who is starved for affection, finds herself drawn to her high school boyfriend because her husband refuses to kiss her. And finally, there’s Sloane, whose husband enjoys watching her have sex with other people. Their stories are by no means comprehensive—all of the subjects are white, cisgender, and identify as mostly heterosexual—and Taddeo is careful to articulate the individual context of each woman, employing achingly specific details to deftly and subtly gesture toward broader truths.

In the Author’s Note on page 7, Taddeo writes “We pretend to want things we don’t want so nobody can see us not getting what we need,” which is something that resonated so deeply with me it nearly stopped my heart. Somewhere in my life, I had absorbed a message: If I do not pay attention, if I am not good, desire might bear her teeth and make me act impulsively. I had the sense that my desire was unbecoming, animalistic, unrefined, selfish. I learned how to pretend to want something I didn’t—usually, it was something a man wanted.

For many years, I lived my life that way. I made myself small, pliant, agreeable. I didn’t know how to want anything, but that didn’t mean I didn’t do anything: I met a man and he wanted to date me and then he wanted to marry me and we had a wedding and I looked beautiful and the whole time, it felt like I was asleep. . . .

I probably don’t need to mention that the women in Taddeo’s book are punished in some way or another for embracing desire. Maggie’s narrative is peppered with compound words such as “lovecrush” and “driftlove.” To me, these words captured and evoked the forward momentum of adolescent emotions, conveying a sense that Maggie is rushing into the future so quickly that her words cannot help but bump into one another. Tree branches are “swollen with ice” in Sloane’s narrative, a detail that might feel too on-the-nose if it didn’t perfectly capture the aching and arrested state of midwinter in the Northeast. Lina’s illicit encounters in cars have the appropriate sense of claustrophobia.

My first marriage failed for many reasons—geography, money, misalignment of life goals—but all of those things were easy to brush aside. Until. I fell in love with someone else, a man I’d known for many years. We were hanging out one night and I looked at him and realized suddenly I had been drowning for years. And at that moment, it was as though my lungs had suddenly filled with oxygen. It felt like fire; it was magnificent; and I blew up my entire life for it.

Desire was clarifying. It forced me to face my needs and compelled me to make a painful decision that I otherwise might have been too afraid to make. Within a few months, my first marriage was over. Eventually, I married that friend, the man who makes my skin come to life.

Three Women makes the case for the inevitability and ferocity of desire. We can deny it for a time, but eventually we’ll have to face who we really are and what we really want. And Taddeo’s book fulfills the promise of that beautifully-rendered truth, told through the prism of three women’s stories.

A few weeks ago, I was lying in bed next to my husband, with my copy of Lisa Taddeo’s Three Women propped open on my lap. I grabbed the small black notebook I keep on my bedside table and wrote my first notes for this review:

Desire:

Delicate
Dangerous
Delicious
Delirious
Dark

Since that evening, I have been thinking a lot about why my brain did that—why it wanted to pair this complex, layered idea with another word, building a barrier around desire.

The more I thought about it, the more I realize that this is something I have done over and over again in my own writing—I put a distancing word in so I don’t have to reckon with what I really mean. What am I afraid of? What would happen if I run with full velocity into the heart of desire instead of keeping it at arm’s length?

There is much to admire in this book, but I didn’t just admire it—I loved it because I related to it deeply. For a long time, I was afraid to tell anyone the story about why my first marriage ended. At the time, I thought no one would understand. I felt so alone and so ashamed. Sometimes, I still do. But Three Women extended a hand to me, inviting me out of my shame. For that, I am grateful.

__________________________
Bio: Kat Read writes and works at GrubStreet in Boston and is a graduate of their Essay Incubator program. Her essay “The Whale” was a finalist in Hippocampus Magazine‘s 2019 Remember in November Contest for Creative Nonfiction. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Manifest-Station, The Sun – Readers Write, The Hunger, GRLSQUASH, Pangyrus, Brevity Blog, and Prometheus Dreaming. You can find her on Twitter at @KatARead and online at www.kataread.com

 

 

Book Reviews

Timothy Parfitt Reviews Rob Halpern’s book Weak Link

March 10, 2020

Weak Link
Rob Halpern
Atelos, $12.95
200 pages


Weak Link
is a collection of odds and ends from poet and essayist Rob Halpern, some of which didn’t make it into his previous books, some of which have been expanded upon or updated, and others of which are excerpts from forthcoming books. While some portions are as dense as German rye bread, the intensity of Halpern’s prose kept me intrigued and his references were surprising and frequently astute. Bit by bit, it won me over.

While he constantly switches forms throughout the book, Halpern consistently works outside narrative. He tracks ideas as he bounces them off thinkers from this and previous centuries, with a focus on language’s ability to expose and resist the forces of the colonizing state. He casts a wide net to help him think through his constellation of ideas—with appearances from the likes of Roland Barthes, Bhanu Kapil and Dodie Bellamy. “Pornotopia” is a collection of notes on pornography, queer utopia, global capitalism and the body. It builds on Music for Porn, an earlier book of Halpern’s in which he merged battlefield scenes and homoerotic affect. His view of pornography is one of queer utopic potential and language becomes a means of bringing it closer to reality:

In other words, music for a future pornotopia whose rhythms and measures are not regulated by the violence of social reproduction, and who affects are not wired to the militarization of everyday life.

In “Hoax,” the book’s opening essay, he links Decke, a lesser known Gerald Richter painting to an alternate etymology of the word “hocus pocus” dating from the 19th century, one that claims that magical phrase was derived from both “hoax” and “hoc est corpus” (“here is the body [of christ]”). It’s an essay about social mirage, about society’s ability to systematically forget images of historical violence. In Halpern’s eyes, Richter becomes a realist when he painted an abstract fog on top of a widely disseminated picture of the corpse of a political dissident who allegedly committed suicide while in police custody. However, Richter’s realism doesn’t replicate the violent image itself, but rather, portrays the collective amnesia that surrounds it. It’s a different approach to realism, one that Halpern connects to Kathy Acker’s definition of the concept, which was to construct language that wants to get at “the connections between the ‘real events,” and the holes, the silence…the interstices through which all of us fall.”

Throughout Weak Link, Halpern resists using language in any way that could glamorize suffering or oppression. This can make for tough reading, as Halpern never serenades or sugarcoats. In “THE WOUND & THE CAMP, or VISCERAL SOLIDARITY,” he directly examines whether his mission—to bridge the gap between citizen and “offsite” state violence—can ever succeed.

Put another way: “the wound” and “the camp” float away detached from the forces that makes them. They are at the same time holes in the militarized sense and common places born of property’s circulation (arms, oil, or whatever) and always at the expense of very specific bodies.

Halpern’s sentences burrow, surround, and circle back again and again. Of course, writing can never truly bridge the gap between the author’s body and the bodies displaced and attacked by the global forces. Rather than retreat from this failure, he’s made it the central tenet of his work. In failing in this way, over and over, Halpern reverses some small part of the gulf between body protected and body oppressed. He reverse-engineers the magic trick he introduces at the onset and undoes the erasure that Richter performed. Hocus pocus, his writing exclaims, behold the body.

____________________

Timothy Parfitt is an essayist and critic whose work has appeared in Contrary, X-R-A-Y, riverbabble, Thread and Newcity.
Book Reviews

Jeffrey Barbieri Reviews Sonya Bilocerkowycz’s On Our Way Home from the Revolution

March 10, 2020

NOTE:  Opinions and political views expressed by reviewing contributors are those of the contributor and do not necessarily represent the view of Punctuate.

 

On Our Way Home from the Revolution: Reflections on Ukraine
Sonya Bilocerkowycz
21st Century Essays, $15.96

On January 8th, 2020, I awoke to the news that a Boeing 737 operated by Ukraine International Airlines and bound for Kiev had crashed shortly after takeoff from Tehran, killing all 176 on board. In the aftermath of the crash, aviation officials stated that their working theory was that the plane had been shot down by a surface-to-air missile, a theory which was corroborated three days later when Iran admitted that its military, on high alert in the wake of the US assassination of its top general, had indeed shot down the passenger plane because it mistook the craft for an American cruise missile being fired at an Iranian military target.

As these events were unfolding, I experienced an unsettling symmetry, having just finished reading the essay collection On Our Way Home from the Revolution: Reflections on Ukraine. I recalled the way in which Sonya Bilocerkowycz describes an eerily similar incident from 2014 in her eponymous essay:

MALAYSIA AIRLINES MH17 FLIGHT CRASH: 20 FAMILIES GONE IN ONE SHOT. While we were up on a mountain in Montana, kissing the cool air, an airplane was falling from the sky in Eastern Ukraine. Rebel fighters in the Donbass shot down Malaysia Airlines Flight 17 with a Russian-made Buk missile. The plane fell into a sunflower field.

Though the two events are separate conflicts and happened years apart, it struck me that they are both symptoms of imperial meddling: Russia in Ukraine and the US in the Middle East. For both countries the game has been on for decades and has been played using a full arsenal of creative strategies. In considering this, it also struck me that if even one American had been on the flight Iran shot down, our government would most likely have used it as a “shock doctrine” pretext for further escalation. We’ve seen it all before, many times over.

I think that is why another quote from Bilocerkowycz’s book has been ping-ponging back and forth in my head. It comes from the essay “Samizdat:” “History is on fast-forward, or maybe on replay.” Emblematic of one of her book’s major assertions, she uses this logic as an attempt to rationalize how Ukraine is struggling to free itself of occupation, a fight it’s been having for centuries against Russian forces or otherwise. Variations of this idea echo throughout her essays as the author situates herself as a Ukrainian-American seeking to disentangle the complicated histories of her family’s, and her country’s, struggle for survival and self-determination.

“I feel as if I am looking backward and forward at once, as if history is on a loop,” she writes in the essay “Swing State,” while regarding President Trump’s cozying up to Vladimir Putin; and later, in “The Village (Reprise),” while reading a pamphlet from 1950 meant to help Ukrainians fight the Bolsheviks: “as I read the first instruction (‘Explain to children that Russians are not our older brothers’), a hundred headlines from the current war shoot through my brain.” Her country’s long-standing suffering under Russia’s imperial zeal has created similar headlines, and similar traumas, across decades and generations of Ukrainians, like scars that still bleed.

This slippery relationship to time that Bilocerkowycz describes feels uncannily current, like an essential method of reckoning with the déjà-vu-inducing global events of the 21st century. There is a popular internet meme that comes from the television show True Detective (via Nietzsche, I should clarify, lest I invoke the wrath of any philosophers reading this) that is captioned with the quote “Time is a flat circle.” It is often deployed as a reaction to news that seems to indicate we are in the process of rehashing an idiotic strain of discourse, a deleterious cultural trend, or a particularly calamitous policy decision by one or another of our elected leaders. So, when the United States began the decade with an extrajudicial assassination of Qasem Soleimani, one of Iran’s most popular and influential figures, thereby dragging us closer to yet another war of aggression in the Middle East, I felt quite like Bilocerkowycz feels when regarding the Ukraine/Russia dynamic—that time is indeed a flat circle.

The structure of the essay collection as a whole keeps us keenly aware of this dynamic, circling back again and again to the pastoral setting of Bilocerkowycz’s ancestral Ukrainian village. The village, and its attendant history, is invoked in named interludes, but also breaks into other essays that otherwise take place in the present, creating through-lines that link events decades apart and cause the timeline to crease and warp. One of Bilocerkowycz’s central investigations is a recurring dive into the circumstances that forced her family to fight for survival as the land on which they lived was occupied by Poland, the Soviets, the Nazis, and eventually the Soviets again in the span of five years during World War II.

This is her family’s origin story, one that eventually leads to refuge in the Midwestern United States. We catch glimpses of the village through stories told by her grandmother from her Chicagoland kitchen as the smell of frying onions permeates the scene. We peer over her shoulder as she examines records from that tumultuous World War II era, trying to decipher what exactly happened when the Soviets had her great-grandfather, who was a leader in the village, disappear. And eventually, importantly, we see the village through her eyes as she visits her remaining relatives in search of some further connection to this place that seemingly will not retire quietly to the musty bookshelves of the past.

There is an admirable grappling here, as we see so often in books which invest time trying to describe a mixed heritage or immigrant mindset. Bilocerkowycz is not quite Ukrainian enough, having been born stateside, but still not quite American enough, evident in the way her childhood classmates would riddle her with questions about her unwieldy surname. This grappling is reminiscent in some ways of Aleksandar Hemon’s Book of My Lives, although it lacks the firsthand ties to “the old country” he gained growing up in Soviet Yugoslavia. This lack might have made Bilocerkowcyz’s collection seem disingenuous—like a way of inserting herself into a history she never truly experienced—were she not so upfront in her discomfort with this very fact.

In describing her time in Ukraine in 2013, during which she went to the Maidan protests that earned the country a new President, she writes: “I was a tourist. I left the revolution with a headache, and that’s all.” This discomfort persists—a nagging little notion that Ukraine is indifferent toward her, if not outright hostile. On one of her return trips to the village, her grandmother’s elderly cousin, Marina, forgets who she is and begins reprimanding her for being there: “Who are you? I don’t know who you are … Did you come here just to laugh at me? … I don’t know who you are, but you need to leave.” She does indeed leave, feeling guilty and rejected. But this does not stop her from continuing her search for answers.

While this discomfort is artfully portrayed, it is frankly expected that a collection whose subject feels split between two identities take pains to explore this difficulty. What I found myself truly enthralled by, what felt most urgent about On Our Way Home from the Revolution was Bilocerkowycz’s investment in dissent, in saying what is difficult, unpopular, or even downright dangerous to say. The essay “Samizdat” (a term referring to the dissident practice of copying and distributing literature banned by the Soviet state) is the collection’s best, weaving the author’s own experience being censured for an essay she wrote while teaching in authoritarian Belarus around the texts of other notable dissident journalists and novelists. Bilocerkowycz has an incredible talent for smuggling crystalline prose poems into her lucid analytical essaying—a bit like the act of distributing samizdat:

After classes, I gorge myself on experience: A bombing in the metro. The worst inflation rates in the world. Cookies with worms in them. Women tricked into ballerina bodies and sex tourism. Radiation fallout, blowing north with the wind, full of state secrets. Co-workers pointing to the ceiling when what they mean to say is our president. Jokes told over cognac.

Channeling the Romanian dissident author Herta Müller, she writes: “Grass grows inside your brain. It gets cut when you decide to speak.” After being suspended from (and subsequently reinstated to) her teaching job in Belarus for her essay critical of the dictatorship, she riffs on this line, writing that she is “an average sort of troublemaker, reckless with the lawnmower.”

This exploration of dissent segues into the essay “Swing State” which offers a scathing critique of the way many Americans—especially those in power—interpret ourselves and our partners in foreign relations. Characteristic of the collection, the essay builds a motif around a specific word: “thug,” using repetition with a difference to build an understanding bit by bit. Here the word is first uttered by an utterly sloshed Speaker of the House John Boehner, who Bilocerkowycz runs into while out to dinner with her mother and sisters in a nondescript Italian restaurant in South Dakota. When she volunteers that she’s moving to Ukraine in a few days, Boehner retorts: “Their president’s a thug … Putin’s a thug, too, he continues. All those guys are.”

This encounter forces Bilocerkowycz to consider what the word really means, and how readily it is applied to foreign entities, notably Vladimir Putin, by high-powered government slugs like Boehner. She draws quotes from Senators Mitch McConnell and Ted Cruz, both mentioning Putin as a KGB Thug, with the former adding: “I do think America is exceptional, America is different.” This begs the question: If being in the KGB makes someone a thug, how should we regard members of our CIA, with its laundry list of inciting coups and carrying out killings and abuses both foreign and domestic? And if Putin is such a thug, does that make our current president, who is so fond of him and his methods for quelling dissent, an aspiring thug? Bilocerkowycz quotes the journalist Anne Garrels, whose answer to the question seems conclusive: “The thing is, Vladimir Putin is a thug…But he’s their thug.”

Once again, this episode with John Boehner (now five years set out to pasture to drink all the Chianti he can handle) and his buddies tossing the word “thug” around to describe foreign leaders seems to grotesquely echo current events, perhaps because the present cannot be adequately distinguished from the past anymore. Consider how quickly American National Security officials, politicians (Democrats and Republicans alike, with the notable exception of Senator Bernie Sanders), and media rushed to label the freshly-assassinated General Soleimani a “terrorist” who was “threatening American lives and interests” in order to justify this sharp escalation toward further conflict with Iran. Consider that the second most powerful man in Iran was killed by a drone strike while on a diplomatic trip to Iraq, simply for defending his country’s interests against the power vacuum (created by American intervention and filled by ISIS) in his country’s backyard. If a man is a “terrorist” simply for overseeing the killing of enemy combatants by his troops, then how can our generals and their armies in the Middle East, having overseen an occupation of Iraq during which more than 200,000 civilians have been killed, be anything but terrorist forces? Consider that CIA “thugs” have been conspiring to meddle with Iran’s sovereignty since 1953, and how that still shapes relations between our country and Iran. Consider that Iran can’t attack American troops if there are no American troops blundering about the Middle East to attack. But now the political establishment, fresh off arming Trump with a new, bigger military budget, once again bays for war against the “terrorists.” “History is on a loop” once again as George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum, New York Times Iraq War propagandist Judith Miller, and a parade of other journalists, pundits, and Bush administration figures complicit in engineering the 2003 invasion appear on our tv screens to give us their enlightened takes on why Iran is an even bigger threat than Iraq was. We seem chronically unable to counter our own disastrous inertia, to see ourselves as anything but high-minded good guys, wronged when all we are trying to do is help. Bilocerkowycz writes: “As Americans, we like to accomplish things—make phone calls, write checks—and then move on with our day. We don’t have time to wallow over old ideology. We don’t have time to be reminded.” An image of President George W. Bush, standing at a podium aboard an aircraft carrier in 2003, making a speech in front of a giant star-spangled banner reading “MISSION ACCOMPLISHED” comes to mind. Is this future, or is it past?

On Our Way Home from the Revolution bids us to seek to understand the past, ultimately so that we forge a way out of the disorienting omni-present that defines our age. It bids us to have the courage to speak out against powerful interests that wish to keep us stuck in that deleterious loop. That being the case, we should count ourselves lucky that Bilocerkowycz’s book is not considered samizdat, that we can use that sliver of intellectual freedom to kick the door in, to hope for a tomorrow that seems increasingly less guaranteed. “I have heard that hope is a trap,” she writes, “but what if we choose it, knowingly? Is that not also our agency?” Not only is it our agency, but our responsibility as well.

 

________________
Jeffrey Barbieri is an essayist and an MFA candidate at Columbia College Chicago. He is originally from Rhode Island and carries that brusque New England cynicism with him wherever he goes.  He can be found on Twitter.

Book Reviews

Student Editors of Punctuate Present Points of View & Reviews of F(r)iction: A Literary Journal with a Difference

January 4, 2020

F(r)iction is the emboss of the international literacy nonprofit Brink Literacy Project. With a mission to escalate literacy rates and a commitment to storytelling, the magazine is by no means conservative. This literary journal is eye-catching, from its holographic cover, to its full-color pages.  Each page is a visual delight and tactile treat, featuring original short comics. The artwork is well-defined and accompanies every piece.  It represents young, underrepresented and diverse writers. In its wide array of genre and artwork, there are no borders, which makes the collection as a whole, highly baffling in its surprises, all for the sake of creative writing and fine art. F(r)iction takes risks with form and content in a mixed bag of goods, reveling in the unexpected, and rewarding inventiveness and insight in works from traditional literary fiction or genre-bending sci-fi, fantasy, horror poetry, and nonfiction¾all accessible to the reader.

It features edgy, gut-wrenching, and raw poetry by Nick Flynn and Alli Cruz; animalistic, wild, and weird short fiction from Annie Neugebauer, Jason Baltazar, Samantha Schmidt, Jason McCormick, Alexandra O’Neil, and Vaughn Gaston.  You’ll find pleasant revelations of creative nonfiction by Patricia Horvath, a pioneering writer feature with Joyce Carol Oates, a breaking ground debut author feature with Emily A. Duncan, and a community feature with Words Without Walls Prison Writing Program. In partnership with Words Without Walls, F(r)iction stays true to their mission, giving back to the community, and with that trade-off, we get a glimpse inside the minds of writers in Allegheny County Jail and Sojourner House with important words to be shared in multiple pieces in which we would know about otherwise. In a world that puts trust in the established, F(r)iction dares to challenge this notion, welcoming new writers to emerge with celebrity writers.

Writing world: take note. Readers: hold onto your seat. F(r)iction is fresh, providing menace to the publishing world in its beyond imaginative and interesting curated work.

Review by Lejla Subašić

 


F(r)iction, a print journal dedicated to publishing eclectic works, began in 2015, with an aim to do things differently. A letter from the editor on the first page of the journal is a call to action that in so many words encourages the reader to not let good, weird literature die. Those experimental pieces writers keep tucked away in lonely computer files and desk drawers have a home in F(r)iction.

F(r)iction announces itself as a different-kind-of-journal from the cover. Issue No. 13 beams an iridescent image of a devious child with a mechanical glove and homework glowing and floating around him. Embedded in this image is Joyce Carol Oates’ name among others, a nod to the magazine’s clout, enough to garner big literary names while still publishing new, emerging writers. With glossy, bright pages decorated with varied art submissions, it’s a journal that could cause a riot at the book fair while it leaves adults daydreaming, connected with their inner child.

I thought, based on the cover and colorful pages, F(r)iction would be lighthearted and playful. It is, in some respects. However, shortly after diving into a story adorned with illustrated peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, I was dumbstruck and heavy. “How to Make a Peanut Butter and Jelly Sandwich” by Samantha Schmidt tells the story of a cook for prisoners’ last meals and one odd request for a PB&J. The cook grapples with how to make something ordinary extraordinary and momentous. The story draws irony from the most conventional tradition in our society of making death (a common, ordinary thing) into a grand, special event. After reading this story, I am left in my reading chair, holding my head wondering how I let a literary magazine—one that told me it would be strange and thought-provoking—convince me it would be all play.

This is perhaps exactly what F(r)iction is aiming for. The name speaks to its efforts; it goes against the grain and causes a reaction. In addition to their print issues, F(r)iction’s website is just as glossy. Its navigable format displays a log of numerous categories, a testament to its variety. They feature comics, creative nonfiction, editorial, essays, interviews, flash fiction, poetry, read-alongs, reviews, short stories, and staff picks.

Where F(r)iction’s letter from the editor might tell a story of the underdog, a magazine fighting to stay afloat, the pages tell a different story. Each page radiates vivacity and radical confidence in the power of art. F(r)iction is armed with a glimmering mechanical glove and ready to fight.

Review by Brigitte Riordan

 


In many ways, a magazine—digital or hardcopy—constantly requires a fresh and bold adaptivity to the changing world around it. This lays heavily upon literary journals; the stories and narratives they contain represent the undertones of today’s society that are embedded in worlds either fictional, or not. In F(r)iction, the eyes are drawn in by the vivid color, images, and layout of the magazine. The most provocative section was created with the special feature “Words Without Walls,” a creative outreach program serving Allegheny County Jail, and Sojourner House, a residential drug and alcohol treatment program for mothers and their children. The visual artists for this magazine take big steps into making F(r)iction appealing to the eye, but what of its content?

The mission of this magazine is clear within the Editor’s Note, “. . . a collection of stories that would enchant us regardless of genre, where the biggest names in the industry shared a spine with brand new voices from diverse backgrounds. . . . It would be a book brimming with color and art and specialty printing.”

In other words, the magazine includes a variety of poems, short stories, interviews, and comics that all act to dismiss the quota of “traditional literature,” and although “Words Without Walls” is the special feature, the entire magazine plays off as such. Every story conspires with an image, playing off of the details within the stories. Each snippet of these give you a variety of narratives, sprouting from “Freaks” within a cruel circus, to warrior women whose bloodline are destined to kill off the beasts of their world.

The magazine does not disappoint with its inclusion of the witty, bizarre, and unique.

Review by Tracie Taylor

 


F(r)iction is a magazine that sees no limits and knows no boundaries, where both established and new writers have an equal opportunity to share their work. The magazine is one of the liveliest that I’ve seen, with a vibrancy that clearly encapsulates the passion of the writers and artists featured within its pages.

The relationship between story and illustration can be a challenge to navigate. It’s difficult to have those two elements coexist without one overshadowing the other, but F(r)iction found the perfect balance. The artwork not only compliments the stories, but propels them, and helps the reader become fully immersed in the writing.

“Clean Slate,” written by Jason McCormick with artwork by Enrica Angiolini, was one of the first stories that really stuck out to me. It was the bright neon graphics that caught my attention, and the first sentence, “I have purchased 28 boxes of chalk over the semester, and that is simply too much” drew me completely in. “Clean Slate” followed the story of a professor whose chalk kept going missing.

The professor waited for hours in the classroom to catch the culprit, but ended up falling asleep, and woke up at midnight to find that the new chalk that was left out had gone missing yet again. The professor rushed out of the classroom and saw a janitor pushing a cart down the hallway, and followed the janitor to the elevator and up to the roof.  After stepping out onto the roof, the reason why the chalk had been going missing became apparent; the ground was covered in drawings of stars and planets, and in the midst of that, a game of hopscotch.

The illustrations that were paired with this story did the job of providing the reader with a clear image of what the narrator was seeing. A mental image could have been formed without the use of artwork, sure, but then the story wouldn’t have been the same. A drawing of the hopscotch game took up the center margin, and the outside border was filled with neon red and blue and pink graphics of flowers and stars, and the black background the words and artwork were set on, made the graphics stand out even more.

The primary goal in Issue 13 of F(r)iction was to drift away from the traditional and take risks. Dani Hedlund, editor-in-chief of F(r)iction, states, “We dreamed of something different¾a collection of stories that would enchant us regardless of genre, where the biggest names in the industry shared a spine with brand new voices from diverse backgrounds, voices we would mentor every step of the way.”

Review by Katie Turner

 


At first glance, “the comeback issue” of F(r)iction, published in the spring of 2019, is for Mad Libs lovers, a mischievous little boy on the cover, ready to take Thanos-style revenge on his schoolyard bullies.  I entered my reading experience thinking this was a magazine geared toward youngsters like the boy on the cover, and was quickly disabused of that notion with the first story’s writhing grotesque of a main character, Centavo, also known as the shapeshifting Amorpho of the Cosmideluxe Circus and Sideshow.

Jason Baltazar’s imagery is precise within the story, describing how it feels to rearrange the muscles, arteries, and bones in time with music; how it feels to float formless on a peaceful pond; and how it feels to pander to a nameless crowd with your true self exposed many times over.

But before we even get to the opening story, “Amorpho and the Leering Freak,” we read the Editor’s Note, adoringly addressed to “Dear lovely reader.”  Within, Editor-in-Chief Dani Hedlund promises “a collection of stories that would enchant us regardless of genre, where the biggest names in the industry shared a spine with brand new voices from diverse backgrounds. . . . It would be a book brimming with color and art and specialty printing. Every page would be as lush as the stories within.”  Hedlund and her crew deliver.

For each page—even the table of contents—is jam-packed with specially-created art (even to the detriment of not having a page number most times).  For every poem, the title is blended seamlessly into the art.  Snippets of the art is featured in the handful of stories featured online from each printing, but the true decadence lies in holding the physical copy in hand.  The cover shines with luminescent flashes of reflective sparkles.  The deep reds and vibrant greens drip off the page¾the page itself transformed into the precise artwork needed to enhance and accompany each story, interview, or poem.

While “Amorpho and the Leering Freak” is sympathetic horror, “The Reds,” by Annie Neugebauer, is the classic Little Red Riding Hood fairytale expanded—the lineage of grief and revenge left behind after little red riding hood has been digested by the big bad wolf.

Side by side with these two genre-bending stories are the real truths told by female inmates via the Words Without Walls Prison Writing Program and an interview with prolific author Joyce Carol Oates.

The F(r)iction crew’s love for this “weird little book” is palpable and brave.  F(r)iction was “fueled by passion and naivety and stubbornness” when they started their strange and artful literary journal, and they still are.  In Hedlund’s note she promises the magazine will expand, to find new ways to thrive because the crew “love[s] stories.  We believe in their power to change the world.”

Check them out at frictionlit.org to see what they have to offer.  You will be pleasantly surprised at what a literary journal can say and do with just a little bit of passion, naivety, and stubbornness.

Review by Rachel Martin

 


The cover of the Spring 2019 issue of F(r)iction magazine is iridescent and glossy. There is a young boy illustrated with a mischievous expression, a bruise on his cheek, and wearing a mechanical red glove. There are beams of energy expanding out from the mechanical hand. There are school lockers behind him and papers that look like worksheets from class suspended in air and outlined in iridescence. In the editor’s note, I am greeted by the Editor-in-Chief, Dani Hedlund, addressing me as “lovely reader.” They are informing me of the struggle that the literary journal industry entails: dwindling readership, mentorship not being economically viable, and the foolishness of creating an issue with emerging artists—yet they notified me of their expansion as a magazine.

I find that the cover and the editor’s letter are very intuitive. They seem to embrace the “weirdness” of our world, leading the reader to “reimagine the way you see the world.”

F(r)iction magazine is full of underdog stories and they are each “steeped in fighting spirit.” This is evidenced by Nick Flynn, whose work is presented on pages 18 through 21. His three poems involve famous musicians. The first poem is titled, “Alphabet Street” and it describes a moment between the speaker and their daughter, listening to the radio. The daughter asks why the radio is talking about a person who has just died. “Why is anyone so / important?” The poem ends by including the lyrics of Alphabet Street by Prince in italics, “No / one, nothing—if that’s / the only way—is / replaceable.” The next poem, titled, “Rock ‘N’ Roll Suicide” is about the speaker’s daughter drawing a picture and in the last lines, David Bowie’s lyrics are intertwined in the moment with promises of not being alone. The last poem by Nick Flynn is titled, “Kurt Cobain Wallpaper.” The three poems not only include classic artists, but also personal thoughts and experiences by the speaker. He gives a feeling of staying alive through mundane moments, appreciating the present, and using music as a way to bridge the gap between experience and thought.

Although F(r)iction has well known writers, such as Joyce Carol Oats whose writing took the center of the magazine, the underdog theme is carried through. The fact that they feature writers from Words Without Walls—an outreach program that serves women in jail and women in a residential drug and alcohol treatment program, I hope to see more boundaries broken by this magazine in the future. Their expansive energy is enough to keep them moving forward.

Review by Riley McFarlane

 


In an industry where they “see great journals go under,” F(r)iction made it a mission to maintain their momentum and put together a selection of work of varying genres and forms by writers in different stages of their careers. Literary fiction and dark fantasy, short poetry and comics—this volume has variety. All of it is accentuated by eye-catching and, at times, bombastic artwork, tailor-made to each of its featured stories.

Each individual piece is united by the theme of underdogs. They take stories of characters in an oppressing, hostile environment seemingly out to beat them down, and how they lead their lives. And each author manages to use this theme in unique ways.

Annie Neugebauer’s “The Reds” tells a chillingly dark story of girl born into her role as a “Red”, forever bound to her duty of hunting beasts by a legacy of women before her. The bloody, graphic imagery contrasted with the protagonist’s cool and at times beaten voice captures the imagination. Vaughn Gaston’s “Snargle Fox” experiments masterfully with point of view, head hopping from one character to another, never content to remain in the same place for more than a few paragraphs at a time, ending with a surprisingly beautiful narrative.

As for poetry, I’d like to direct the reader’s attention to “A Dog Ran Down the Highway” by Kim Chinquee. For a poem less than fifteen lines, Chinquee’s work tells a far too familiar story of a woman’s relationship through implication alone. The last line, “Oh, no. I said. You’re not.” ends the poem on a note that, while not a conclusion to the woman’s story, is a gut-punch that I think everyone needs to read in context.

The work discussed above barely scratches the surface of F(r)iction‘s spring 2019 issue has to offer. The comics are beautiful, the poems, concise, the non-fiction, revealing. But, there’s something more magical about F(r)iction magazine’s spring volume that goes beyond the stories that it includes—something that may well apply to F(r)iction as a whole. It’s devotion to making each of its contributing author’s stories the star of its own show, is truly what makes F(r)iction a joy to read. I’ve read many anthologies that include sparse amounts of artwork, aside from the obligatory cover photo, that will draw in a reader browsing a rack of magazines. F(r)iction on the other hand has incredibly detailed artwork for every one of its stories, accompanied by pages accented by border, page breaks, and art in the margins that fit its aesthetic. If there is anything to take away from F(r)iction’s spring 2019 volume, it’s that they will spare no expense in making sure everything they publish is as polished and detailed as humanly possible. Some of the stories mentioned in this review are available on their website, and I highly recommend that you check them out.

Review by Elijah Abarbanel

 


 

Book Reviews

Timothy Parfitt reviews Rachel Z. Arndt’s book, Beyond Measure

October 30, 2019

 

Beyond Measure
Rachel Z. Arndt
Sarabande, $15.95
190 pages

 

It might be fitting, given Beyond Measure’s subject matter, to critique it by ascribing a point value (ignoring for a moment that Punctuate. doesn’t employ a Pitchfork-style rating system). For Rachel Z. Arndt’s debut essay collection concerns itself with measurement: how we as modern citizens quantify our own desires, how society determines our worth, how numbers do and don’t capture the nuances of lived experience. Oh, how we burden our measurements with so much meaning.

The collection kicks off with “Sleep,” which covers Arndt’s sleep studies she had to undergo to “prove” her narcolepsy to doctors and insurance companies. Except that in Arndt’s experience, the results of these studies never settled anything. If the results did not mirror her experience, does the fault then lie with the tests, or with her perception? This question provides the springboard for an incisive and frequently profound collection of essays, one that pulls apart how modern personae depend on frequent self-measurement using evolving and sometimes suspect criteria. In this way, much of the collection acts as a riff on Eulas Biss’s classic “Pain Scale,” another essay concerned with how we quantify and communicate individual experiences.

In “Elliptical,” Arndt elevates the well-covered subject of exercise by probing its contradictions of utility and progress. Gyms offer machines to keep oneself in place while promising individualized progress. “We measure ourselves so we can compare who we are now not with other people but with previous and future versions of ourselves.” This sentence goes to the heart of what Arndt finds fascinating about the landscapes of gyms, where rows of machines make the user both the worker and the product. In her hands, the drab gym becomes a post-modern dance in which personal meaning is only available through endless measuring.

Arndt builds and deploys her sentences with great care, and many unfold in surprising ways. Consider how she describes her experience taking Xyrem, a narcolepsy medication that moonlights as GHB, colloquially known as the club and date rape drug:

The lack of control while under its effects seemed sickeningly fitting, as if the only way to treat a disorder is with more disorder, entry against entropy, all control wrested from the patient’s hands and given over to pharmaceuticals that tempt with the sweet waft of warm chocolate chip cookies.

As the clauses progress, Arndt captures the bind narcolepsy puts her in, one in which pharmaceuticals promise both relief and also a further loss of control.

The best essays use the rituals and yardsticks of today to probe existential and eternal questions. In “Match,” Arndt deftly articulates the ways in which the merry-go-round of available options can often ultimately compound loneliness. The measurement in this case is one of comparing every current or potential mate against the theoretical ones offered up by gamified apps. But for me, not all of the essays wrenched insight and texture out of their subjects. Arndt’s essay on Bed, Bath and Beyond, for example, attempts to tease out the narrator’s feelings about becoming an adult by analyzing her habit of endlessly exchanging cooking and houseware. There’s no shortage of wit at play, but Arndt couldn’t quite manage to make her toothbrush purchasing decisions interesting to me.

As a whole, Beyond Measure pulls off the surprisingly powerful trick of articulating and then undermining our current metrics for living. Without a point or star value to lean on, I’ll simply say that days after finishing it, Arndt’s collection of essays has me reassessing the world through her eyes.

 

________________
Timothy Parfitt is an essayist and critic whose work has appeared in Contrary, X-R-A-Y, riverbabble, Thread and Newcity.

Book Reviews

Kristen Paulson-Nguyen Reviews Dani Shapiro’s book, Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love

July 18, 2019

Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love
Dani Shapiro
Knopf, $24.95
272 pages

In her fifth memoir, Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love, Dani Shapiro is prompted by her husband’s interest in genealogy and takes a DNA test. The results delivered the shock of her life. 

Shapiro discovers that Paul, the Orthodox Jewish man who raised her, to whom she felt connected on a neshama, or soul, level is not her biological father. Belonging to a prominent Jewish family played such a major part in her identity that Shapiro begins to feel conflicted. Is her father still her father? Which of her qualities were inherited through her genes and which are a result of her nurturing father, his hug she waited for each day as a child? I was fascinated by this soulful detective story as Shapiro explores the existential quandary, “Who am I?” 

Shapiro is a mother to a college-age son, Jacob, and worries how the results of her DNA test will impact him, the next generation. How will he react when he learns he has a new grandfather who’s not Paul? “Does this mean maybe I won’t end up bald?” Jacob asks. I thought this response to her disclosure was surprising and comical, but as a parent myself, I related to Shapiro’s worry. My father died when my daughter was one year old, and when she asks me about him, I feel the weight of responding, the weight of holding the family narrative. 

As signaled by the word “paternity,” listed second in the subtitle, the exploration of Shapiro’s profound and loving connection to Paul, who died when she was 23 years old, holds a place of prominence.  Inheritance is dedicated to him, and one of the epigraphs includes the first two lines of Sylvia Plath’s poem“The Colossus,” written by Plath about her father. I imagine that many readers will find themselves searching for their own fathers—whether they’re alive or deceased, biological or soul fathers—as I did in the beautifully written passages. I was moved to tears by a scene in Chapter 25 when Shapiro visits Rabbi Lookstein. “We thought your father was a hero,” he says, and I felt the acute depth of the Rabbi’s grief and Shapiro’s loss. “Who was I without my history?” she asks, bereft. 

In the final chapter of Part II, Shapiro’s 93-year-old Aunt Shirley claimed my heart as much as the character of Paul had when Shapiro goes to visit her. Shapiro’s many books are proudly displayed in Aunt Shirley’s room and Shapiro worries if her aunt will get rid of them when she tells her aunt about the DNA results. Her aunt’s response, however, validates her existence. “You’re not an accident of history, Dani,” says Shirley. “You are an agent to help my brother express the finest kind of love.” Love infuses the pages of Inheritance: for Paul; for the teachers and spiritual leaders Shapiro seeks for help; for fellow writers and their work; for her husband and son, and lastly, for herself, as she questions, “Why am I here? How shall I live?”

Like the best memoirs, Shapiro’s story evokes universal themes and questions that a reader will relate to through the lens of their own lives. In Part III, for example, Shapiro wants to believe her parents hadn’t betrayed her by not disclosing to her that she was donor-conceived. Every child, by middle age, must reckon with their parents’ actions or inactions, in order to grow. It was only when I became a mother that I realized how challenging it must have been for my own mother to raise four children with an emotionally distant father. The memoirist documents change and the space of the page gives them an opportunity to remind themselves of their arc, their struggles, and where or how to move forward. 

As Shapiro winds her way to greater acceptance, a voyage as twined as a DNA helix, she offers the reader a personal understanding of Judaism and her Jewish identity. The book’s affirming final scene gives us the word hineni (“Here I am.”) It’s confirmation that her Jewish identity is intact, despite that fact that her biological dad isn’t Jewish. I enjoyed learning side by side with Shapiro, but it was my sympathy for her character that made me feel most connected to Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love. Who among us hasn’t yearned for the finest kind of love? 

___________________
Bio: Kristen Paulson-Nguyen is a co-founder of the nonfiction reading series Tell-All. Her writing has appeared in HeadspaceBREVITY’s Nonfiction Blog, Hippocampus and the Adirondack Center for Writing’s Poem Village. Connect @kpnwriter.

Book Reviews

Delia Rainey writes a hybrid personal essay and book review on Sarah Cannon’s The Shame of Losing

July 3, 2019

The Shame of Losing
Sarah Cannon
160 pages
Red Hen Press, $16.95

I sit next to my mom in a hospital conference room. There are gray walls and a long gray table, where we are all sitting, eating catered deli sandwiches. Each seat is occupied by an older woman in her sixties or seventies. My mom, with her brown curlicue hair and colorful T-shirt, seems to be the youngest caregiver here. In another room, the survivors of stroke, brain injury, and aphasia also sit and eat sandwiches, catching up or playing checkers. They are husbands, fathers, grandparents. In the caretaker room, the women chat about mundane aspects of their lives: a bad knee, a bothersome mother-in-law, the local news. One woman swivels her attention over to my mom: “We haven’t seen you here in awhile. How are you doing? How is your husband? Have you been taking time for yourself?” As my mom opens her mouth to speak, the women sit around her nodding, their eyes squinting in knowing empathy. 

Traumatic brain injury is not a very understood or visible disability in our world. My family’s story is very different from Sarah Cannon’s, which she recounts in her new memoir The Shame of Losing. But every family has an important narrative found in a book of letters, notebooks, internal and external hardship. While many stories stay private, rarely spoken about outside of support groups, Sarah Cannon lets us in. She gives us permission to read her candid journal entries following her husband’s arboriculture accident that resulted in a traumatic brain injury.  In about 150 pages, The Shame of Losing compiles scenes from Cannon’s life in dynamic parts. As we read, we process these events with her. She reclaims the genre of diaristic emotional scrawl while also recalling her experience. The act of writing this book can be interpreted as an attempt of self-healing. 

Cannon brings the issue of our fragile bodies, our fragile lives, up to a personal microscope. However, this memoir does more than just highlight the aftereffects of a workplace injury. Cannon wonders throughout: do people really change over the course of their lives? Sometimes Cannon thinks, yes, we do, and “other times, I think our core is our core.” 

The Shame of Losing begins immediately in the moments before the accident. Cannon recalls herself as a suburban mother volunteering at a local arts center on October 30th, 2007. She received a frantic call from her husband’s arborist coworker, trying to explain the accident, caused by a fallen tree branch: “his cheekbones are sideways.” Throughout Losing,  “sideways” becomes Cannon’s least favorite word. She goes on to describe the feeling of entering the Level 1 trauma center for serious injuries: “sitting there alone, I felt abandoned by the world.” There is a sideways nature to the experience of grief. Nothing seems straightforward anymore, no part of our day can ever be predicted. Cannon sees her husband Matt in the hospital bed, his “skull crumpled, a blown-out eye, busted eye sockets, and a collapsed nose.” This is physical evidence of a much more invisible injury, an invisible story. 

 As readers of Cannon’s writing, we must always be prepared for a drastic change in tone and time. In this memoir, Cannon also writes about her happy Seattle childhood in poetic prose; her young love and marriage to Matt; and rearing two children together. These sections seem like diversions or distractions, but they lay real context: life was simple once. One moment, Matt and Sarah are in an airplane dealing with a fussy toddler and infant, and in the next, Sarah navigates the ICU: “I clenched my stomach in preparation for something I didn’t understand.” A journal entry from November 2007 switches to a letter to Matt that she will never send: “Hey, remember when we were first dating and. . . .” Then, we read a script for a fake suburban drama, starring Sarah, explaining to the neighbors how Matt lost his sense of smell. Mundane details shock and stir: winter air and the appearance of Christmas lights upon coming home from 42 days in the hospital. Forms shift again, when we are presented with an auto-fiction short story Cannon wrote, titled: ‘Man in the Woods with a Headache.’ By collaging notebooks, letters, screenplay, and short story, Cannon redefines the typical ingredients for a grief memoir. 

I recognized my own lonely experiences in The Shame of Losing. Cannon discusses how many of her friends kept a distance after the accident, or simply lost interest. She reflects on the old Matt, and how the “cute OT girls” would never “know my husband was once a helicopter pilot and that we used to call him a human compass.” One of the hardest parts of traumatic brain injury is letting go of our old lives and the person from “before.” Cannon wonders, and so do I, how do we mourn someone who is still here? A spritely, handy husband morphs into a loner with “brain drain.” As one year goes by, “Matt has fooled everyone that he’s okay.” But the healing of traumatic brain injury is a lifelong process. In a therapy session, Matt discloses that he doesn’t know how to feel love. In a metaphor that swims throughout the book like the word “sideways,” he describes that he’s in the desert. He’s so thirsty, and he knows there’s water somewhere, but he can’t drink it. 

A major strength of this memoir is Cannon’s passionate release of her voice, her shame. She speaks to us like we are confidantes over the phone late at night. We get to hear about the tedious woes of Workers Compensation, piles of paperwork, and pinching pennies. We nod our heads as Cannon complains about the easiness of other people’s problems and her jealousy of them. We listen as she screams in the hospital: “Get me the eff out of here!” In The Shame of Losing, we see a woman who is not a perfect mother, not a perfect wife. The family unravels even as they try to move on, going on vacations, watching their kids in school talent shows.

In my favorite moments, Cannon describes small, insignificant memories of solitude. She bites off a corner of one of Matt’s Oxy pills, and drives around aimlessly, listening to Frank Ocean. She goes to the grocery store after the kids go to sleep and lovingly picks out a tub of sour cream. She drives to the hospital, just one more time, trying to reclaim a ghost. 

Seemingly stitched together with journal pages, The Shame of Losing disclosed so much, yet many details were kept. This is only the tip of an iceberg of Sarah Cannon’s truth. I hope that with books like The Shame of Losing, the public will become more familiar with the impact and realities that traumatic brain injury has on families. Sarah Cannon is not a celebrity or a famous author. This is her first book. Through the genre of nonfiction, the stories of regular people gain power. 

Back in the conference room with my mother, I get up to leave, throwing away our paper plates, meeting up again with my dad. We leave out the back door of the hospital, back to a world that can never nod its head and understand.  I leave you with Cannon’s advice: “The best thing a supporter can do is understand the strangling effect the culture’s insistence on “getting over it” can have on mental health. It’s OK to be sad, and grief is ongoing. Have faith in your truth. Accept that there are no real answers. Healing can happen, if you want it.” 

_____________________
Bio: Delia Rainey is a musician and writer from the Midwest. She currently studies nonfiction in the MFA program at Columbia College Chicago. Her prose and poems have been featured in Hooligan Magazine, DIAGRAM, Peach Mag, and many others. Ghost City Press released her mini chapbook Private Again in August 2018. She tweets often: @hellodeliaaaaa.