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Book Reviews

Review by S. Ferdowsi of Sick: A Memoir

May 24, 2018

Sick: A Memoir
Porochista Khakpour
276 pages, paperback, $10.90
Harper Perennial
June, 2018

In Sick, Porochista Khakpour explores the entanglements of immigration and illness, addiction and ability, in a memoir that spans her early childhood to the near present. Only a toddler when she immigrated from Iran with her parents amidst the Iran-Iraq War, she settled in California before moving to New York, New Mexico, Illinois, and Germany during her adulthood; Khakpour’s first book of nonfiction covers expansive terrain in terms of physical landscape, but also turns inward as she recounts how she navigated and suffered (or, rather, navigates and suffers, in the present tense) from a wide spectrum of symptoms, health conditions and healthcare politics until, after years of misdiagnoses, she tested positive for late-stage Lyme disease. In prose that’s wrapped close to the body, Khakpour describes this complicated disease—how it is spread through tick bites and how it affects each individual differently, thereby making it difficult to research and treat—and vividly illustrates how it impacted her relationships with her parents, friends, partners and writing projects

While Khakpour does not shy away from detailing how Lyme disease is oftentimes a lived and agonizing reality, Sick employs Lyme disease—and chronic illness, more broadly—as a metaphor representing immigration and diaspora. Consequently, an ongoing theme of the book is interrogating the connection between not feeling a full sense of belonging to a home (whether this home is an individual identity or an entire nation) with the experience of illness. During one particularly bad bout of sickness, when her diagnosis was continually characterized as solely psychological as opposed to physical or infectious, Khakpour returns to her parents’ home in California and thinks: “Every part of my body felt like its wiring was all wrong, I felt like a foreigner in a hostile country, never adjusting or accepting […] I couldn’t quite fight it, but I could not be at peace with it either.” Continue Reading

Book Reviews

The Shell Game: Writers Play with Borrowed Forms

April 25, 2018

The Shell Game: Writers Play with Borrowed Forms
Edited and with an introduction by Kim Adrian
Foreword by Brenda Miller
Postscript by Cheyenne Nimes
276 pages, paperback, $24.95
University of Nebraska Press
April, 2018

Shell Games

When you think about the “essay,” what comes to mind? Perhaps you associate the form with early essayists—Montaigne, Lamb, Woolf—or you may think about Baldwin and Didion, whose works incisively and artistically depict the perils and peculiarities of American life. While all these essayists covered subject matter that varied in scope, their essays all employ a similar long-form style in an attempt to mimic the movements of thoughts in the mind while also translating them vis-à-vis the voice on the page. But what happens when writers play with form? What essays may they then create? In the anthology The Shell Game, published by University of Nebraska Press, Kim Adrian has curated a selection of thirty essays that adopt different forms in order to present new ideas, compose startling images, and provide a deeper understanding of the relationship between form and content.

In the forward, Brenda Miller outlines the basis of The Shell Game by describing a hermit crab:

A hermit crab is a strange animal, born without the armor to protect its soft, exposed abdomen. And so it spends its life occupying the empty, often beautiful, shells left by snails or other mollusks. It reanimates these shells, making of them a strange new hybrid creature.

As a result, a “hermit crab essay” is an essay that occupies an alternative form, which makes manifest what is vulnerable through a structure that is wholly unique and hybrid in nature. The Shell Game does not disappoint: essayists adopt—or is it adapt?—an online dating profile, a Rubik’s Cube, crossword puzzle clues, captions, alphabetical lists, multiple choice tests, rejection letters among other “shells” to demonstrate the inextricable link between form and content.

More specifically, the essays reveal how prompts, fill-in-the-blanks, and other preformed structures can push or nudge writers into discovering entirely new meanings and the ways in which creation emerges from particular contexts. In “Ok, Cupid,” Sarah McColl writes, “Built-in constraints have interesting effects,” which is what we see as she composes a personal essay through answering the questions commonly asked on online dating profiles. The interesting effects continue in “Rubik’s Cube, Six Twisted Paragraphs,” wherein Kathryn A. Kopple melds the history of the Rubik’s Cube and Cubism with the story of her father. She creates the form of the Rubik’s Cube by writing in six blocks of square text that work at interlocking the two threads in more and more complex ways as the essay progresses.

Yet what makes these essays so compelling, however, is not only that they comply with their chosen form but also that they include moments where they transgress. For example, the theme of fatherhood continues in Dinty W. Moore’s “Son of Mr. Green Jeans: An Essay on Fatherhood, Alphabetically Arranged,” which employs alphabetical entries and an objective tone usually found in encyclopedias. But by the letter “I,” the objective, third-person breaks down and begins to reveal a first-person account of the speaker’s relationship with his father. Moreover, the satisfaction of “We Regret to Inform You” by Brenda Miller comes at the end when a series of life events composed as rejection letters finally resolve into an acceptance (of self).

While I have highlighted only a few essays in the anthology, there are so many others that are sure to catch your eye. Footnotes, science logs, parables, and government documents expand and collapse as the various essayists use form to construct (and reconstruct) meaning. Ultimately, The Shell Game may serve to expand what readers may think of when they think of the essay. Among the grocery lists and Post-It notes, comic sketches and sermons, and the other ephemera of our everyday lives, essayistic elements exist—searching for their shells.

S. Ferdowsi is assistant managing editor for Punctuate. She is currently completing her graduate thesis in Nonfiction in the MFA writing program at Columbia College Chicago. Her writing aims to explore identity, culture, and the politics of/as prose.






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

Review: Two Books by Renee Gladman

November 28, 2017

Wave Books, 
126 pages,  $18

Prose Architectures
Wave Books, 
144 pages, $50

Renee Gladman

Prose as a Naked Language

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