Book Review: The Goldfinch

“We are so accustomed to disguise ourselves to others,

 that in the end, we become diguised to ourlves.”

-Francois De La Rochefoucauld

the goldfinch

Review by Courtney Berti

Donna Tartt

The Goldfinch

Little Brown

ISBN 978-0-316-05543-7

 

Why would anyone want to read a novel about the typical American teenager: after his mother dies, a promising thirteen-year-old moves in with his gambling drug-addict father, falls in with the wrong kids at school, does drugs, becomes an alcoholic, grows up, repeats father’s mistakes…It sounds like the plotline for a dramatic television series for teenagers. But the truth is that Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch is less for an uninformed teenaged audience, and more for a jaded and cynical adult audience. How does one figure?

Written from the first person perspective, readers are plunged inside the head of thirteen-year-old Theodore Decker at the moment when his upright, stable, fairly happy world is turned upside down forever. Initially, we see Theo making his first bad decision with his friend Tom, leading him to be suspended. His mother is escorting him to school to address the suspension and his behavior with his teachers when they are caught by a rainstorm. The two of them duck into The Hague to take shelter, browse for a bit, and in the moment we are introduced to the subject in the title (The Goldfinch, a painting by Carel Fabritius 1654) an explosion occurs that kills Theo’s mom and brings him face to face with fate in the form of an older gentleman by the name of Welty. Welty, in his last moments, gives Theo a ring that later leads him to an antique shop where he meets a lifelong friend by the name of Hobie who remains for Theo, and readers, a stable moral compass throughout the rest of the novel—a necessary character for a novel that tries to tackle questions such as: What is good or evil? Does fate exist? Is there a god? Does any of it mean anything?

It is in the stating of these questions, and in the stylistic choices that Tartt makes, that a number of risks are taken in the realm of what constitutes literature. For example, the twists of fate and the surprisingly happy ending are what have led more than one reviewer to identify (and criticize) The Goldfinch as Dickensian, in nature. Stephen King goes so far as to call Theo a “21st century Oliver Twist…” The criticism is that all of the loose ends of the novel are tied in a nice neat bow in a manner typical of Dickens as well as pop fiction and genre writers—pleasing to the unlearned reader of fiction but infuriatingly predictable to the student and writer of literature. In her essay, “The Breakout Element: Unpredictability and the Novel,” writer Lan Samantha Chang calls this neat wrap-up, “resolution of plot, at the expense of characters.”

Because of this tendency to break away from character for the sake of resolution, the end of The Goldfinch is, perhaps, the most notable risk taken by Tartt. The narrative style of the last chapter of the book changes drastically so that the main character, Theo, and his friends are indirectly addressing the reader while the characters are basking in the reverie of disasters righted and lessons learned, very much like the end of A Christmas Carol. In some cases Theo actually does address the reader (who he, ironically, suspects does not exist) but a good example of the tone near the end is when his best friend Boris says, “And I know how you think, or how you like to think, but maybe this is one instance where you can’t boil down to pure ‘good’ or pure ‘bad’ like you always want to do—? Like, your two different piles? Bad over here, good over here? Maybe not quite so simple” (745).

It may be that Boris is challenging Theo (and readers) a little too bluntly to abandon strictly black-and-white thinking (along with all the other little things the reader is asked to think about), as if the lesson of the book was not already learned by readers in the telling of it. Perhaps this is why some critics will call it a masterpiece like the artwork upon which the story is based, and why other’s will call it a children’s book for adults. Only in children’s books is the underlying lesson so tediously re-stated, but I think that Tartt pulls it off. The happy note on which the book ends is exactly what is needed as the reward for the reader who has experienced so much misery along with Theo for ten years of his life and at least a couple weeks of our own.

Not to say that the book is a miserable read, by any means. Tartt manages to draw readers so completely into the psyche of Theo via long, meandering, almost stream of consciousness paragraphs that we are sympathetic with his cause and feel as tortured as he throughout the novel. While this doesn’t sound particularly fun, I would argue that Tartt takes a risk by daring readers to explore the uncomfortable places of one’s own consciousness by writing in the first person, but also by creating a highly introspective, philosophical character who feels separated from the goings on of his everyday reality.

For starters, the book is divided into separate sections with their own labels, indicative of Theo’s emotional climate contained therein, (i.e. “Morphine Lollipop,” or “Wind, Sand and Stars,”), and Tartt manages, through her writing, to help us make sense of why each section is labelled as it is. For example, in the chapter entitled, “The Idiot,” we see Theo talking to himself: “…I hated being around people, couldn’t pay attention to what anyone was saying, couldn’t talk to clients, couldn’t tag my pieces, couldn’t ride the subway, all human activity seemed pointless, incomprehensible, some blackly swarming ant hill in the wilderness, there was not a squeak of light anywhere I looked, the antidepressants I’d been dutifully swallowing for eight weeks hadn’t helped a bit, nor…” etc.

Upon further examination, one sees that the title of this chapter (and its contents) is a criticism of modern American culture, which Tartt shows us throughout the novel—from New York to Las Vegas she uses pop-culture, art, film, and literature references to show their impact on Theo’s psyche. His choices and responses to this culture are demonstrated through his highly-conscious, deeply poetic, and philosophical persona.

Like this passage in which Theo is harried in the thrum of typical, every-day life for possibly the first time since he was thirteen, we see that it is not only the chapter headings, but the style of these long and winding passages, which are carefully crafted to reflect Theo’s state of mind. I believe that this is why, initially, the book feels slow and drawn out—reflecting a young boy’s half-stunned half-dead state of grieving almost too closely without giving any sense of a way out. But, once the story gets rolling and the reader is allowed to feel some relief along with Theo when he meets his friend Boris, these passages start to feel more natural, and then, dare I say, more like the stream of one’s own thoughts. Such is Tartt’s ability to display the vast emotional landscape of her main character.

As I said, I think that The Goldfinch is geared towards an audience of cynical and jaded adults. Not only does Tartt show readers how very little Theo is helped in tending to his emotional stability as a child, but also how this emotional state is carried on through adulthood. Tartt shows us the fast pace of the world and a man so caught up in it since he was thirteen that he must keep going or be overcome entirely, but by what? Theo acquired a painting, The Goldfinch, from The Hague on a day it was blown up. The explosion killed his mother and the painting serves as a metaphor for his emotions concerning her death—wrapped up tight in duct tape, a secret, hidden forever from himself and the world. The turnaround of the novel comes when Theo discovers that his friend Boris switched the painting for a magazine when they were kids and it has been sold to a person in Amsterdam. This metaphorically puts Theo in a place so distant from his feelings that he doesn’t even recognize them anymore—they are so far away that they are foreign.

Perhaps the ultimate criticism of American culture, therefore, is in the neat and risky resolution. Perhaps Tartt decides to “spell it out” for her readers because the point of the novel is to show how people have lost the emotional understanding to intuitively garner the meaning of the novel for themselves due to constant exposure to a culture that is too fast-paced, too dependent on drugs to drown out emotional problems, too distracted to feel—just like Theo. If this is the case, then the neat ending is the perfect ending to wrap it all up.

What makes The Goldfinch so brilliant, apart from the beauty in the writing itself, the complexity (and simplicity) of language, the depth of thought and emotion, is that by the end of an otherwise harrying tale, the reader feels relief, a sense of freedom from his or her own thoughts and the anxieties surrounding the belief that, “We don’t get to choose the people we are. Because—isn’t it drilled into us constantly, from childhood on, an unquestioned platitude in the culture—?”(761). And here, in this sense of relief, we understand why the book is named after and centered around a painting of a finch that is shackled to a perch by a chain drilled into a piece of wood by the culture of the man who maintained it.

 

 

Courtney BertiCourtney Berti lives in South Lake Tahoe with her dog and her boyfriend, Kelley. She will receive her MFA in Creative Writing from Sierra Nevada College by January 2015.

Book Review: House of Deer by Sasha Steensen

2014
Poetry
$15.95; 88 pages
Albany: Fence Books
ISBN: 978-1934200773

 

 

 

 

Knocking at the Door: Sasha Steensen’s House of Deer
Bryce Bullins

Sasha Steensen’s latest poetry offering, House of Deer, is a fascinating exploration of language, family, the self, the other, and connections both internal and external to all of those things. It continues Steensen’s exploration and deconstruction of language to its purest forms and parts, and in doing so establishes an approachable framework for both critical analysis and aesthetic enjoyment.

House of Deer is entrenched in the past. Nostalgia and memories drip from this book like a noxious nectar that beckons the reader to visit moments of time they may have never even lived through. Steensen’s excellent awareness of the line, attention to detail, and tone transport us to rural Ohio circa 1970. From the typeface on both the book cover and the titles of poems, which is reminiscent of the title cards to Little House on The Prairie, the collection makes no qualms about what its intentions or aims are. House of Deer doesn’t expressly stick to this 1970s homage however. For example, the lengthy and prose based “The Girl and the Deer” creates a narrative that dances back and forth from the perspective of deer and girl with aptly named sections “The Girl”, “The Girl and the Deer”, “The Deer”, etc. all while unfolding what reads like a Brothers Grimm fairy tale. While there are hints of time contextualization, nothing leads one to believe that this poem is expressly set in a specific time or place. Its narrative is capable of existing at any time. Framed another way, poems like “The Girl and the Deer” and “Fragments” exist in all places at once escaping our dogmatic expressions of time and memory.

At its best moments, House of Deer is frank and sparse. Steensen’s delivery is sharp, poignant, and at times jaw dropping in its ability to express authentic darkness so succinctly. As an example:

1977finds
house of saud’s
daughter stoned to death
&one Burchfield sister (9yrs old)
locked in a closet
while the other (13 yrs old)
aborts her father’s baby

What’s so strange about this from a reading perspective is that her objective tone isn’t anything new or experimental. Rather than write in a manner that intentionally obfuscates and confuses a reader, Steensen grounds her work in a tangible and present way few other poets can achieve. Its beauty lies in its ability to be visceral without feeling affected.

The non-spacing of words adds to House of Deer‘s already rich texture of language. As in “1804woodsmen”:

1804woodsmen &woodswomen &woodschildren
cut a road right before you
&hereinafter
ahistory of Garrettsville, Ohio:

Rather than feeling arbitrary or intentionally confounding, the tightness and closeness of the words represents a quick thought much in the vein of Cummings or of Williams; something that is meant to be read briskly, as much of our own thoughts are when they are finally strung together. In the case of “1804woodsmen” this tightness may refer to the close knit community of Garretsville, Ohio. The word associations and sounds that come out of these connection of seemingly unrelated words opens gateways to new avenues of language we would have never gone down otherwise. The brilliance in this lies in its deceptively simple execution. It’s not enough to simply tie any two words together in such a manner; it’s the deft selection of those words. Language is repetition and so it stands to reason that the poems in House of Deer can be read and re-read a hundred times and each time something new could be gleaned from its pages.

The complexity of language, of reminiscence, of past as present and future as one, commingle and make House of Deer a collection that is as captivating as it is melancholic. It demands a reader’s attention with its noise and subtlety. House of Deer beckons at its closure: “Come forth peril, little pearl in the darkness”. The peril Steensen speaks to is not necessarily a dangerous one, but rather one that is capable of vast illumination. Though it carries a heavy burden with it, its undertaking is essential.

 

Bryce2

Bryce Bullins is a first year graduate student focusing on poetry but has worked previously on the Sierra Nevada Review as an undergraduate student. He received his BA in English with a minor in Music from Sierra Nevada College in 2014.

 

Fifth Annual High School Writing Contest Winners Selected

Contact: June Saraceno
jsaraceno [at] sierranevada [dot] edu

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

(Incline Village, Nevada) Sierra Nevada College’s English Program has announced the winners of the 5th annual High School Writing Contest, a national competition which honors high school juniors and seniors in three categories: creative nonfiction, fiction and poetry.

The winners receive a cash prize, an invitation to the awards ceremony on Jan. 9, a scholarship offer from Sierra Nevada College, a private, non-profit four-year university in Incline Village, Nevada, and possible publication in the Sierra Nevada Review.

Bryce Bullins, managing editor for the Sierra Nevada Review said, “Selecting just a few winners from such a large pool was an especially difficult process considering the caliber of work these young writers submitted.”

Creative writing professors and Sierra Nevada Review staff evaluated a record number of submissions. Chosen from over 525 entries, the winning submissions came from students across the United States, including Maryland, Colorado, Florida, Arizona, and New Jersey.

“I am inspired and energized after reading these diverse and passionate stories. The future of the written word is clearly in good hands,” said Gayle Brandeis, the college’s Distinguished Writer in Residence and an award-winning novelist.

In creative nonfiction, first place went to Lindsay Emi, Westlake Village, California, for “Latin Class in Seven (VII) Parts.” Second place went to Darla Macel Anne Canales, Erie, Colorado, for “Oven.” Third place went to Gabriel Braunstein, Arlington, Massachusetts, for “Family on the Commuter Rail.” The nonfiction Local’s Prize went to Isabella Stenvall, San Luis Obispo, California, for “Wars with Numbers.”

Finalists in creative nonfiction were Emily Zhang, for “Family History,” Oriana Tang for “Sister,” Aletheia Wang for “Scar,” Jack Priessman for “A Merciless Deed,” and Annie Harmon for “Reflected.”

In fiction, first place went to Emily Zhang, Boyds, Maryland, for “Midwestern Myth.” Second place went to Lucy Silbaugh, Wyncote, Pennsylvania, for “Burrowing.” Third place went to Laura Ingram, Disputanta, Virginia, for “Absolute Value.” The fiction Local’s Prize went to Erin Stoodley, Ventura, California, for “Ghosts.”

Finalists in fiction were Lindsay Emi for “For My Daughter,” Jessica Li for “Ellen and Su-Ji,” Tatiana Saleh for “Laundry,” Madison Hoffman for “Genderfuck,” and Oriana Tang for “Lara.”

In poetry, first place went to Oriana Tang, Livingston, New Jersey, for “Bildungsroman.” Second place went to Catherine Valdez, Miami, Florida, for “Mami.” Third place went to Ruohan Miao, Chandler, Arizona, for “Dust Bowl.” The poetry Local’s Prize went to Ava Goga, Reno, Nevada, for “Notes on Repression.”

Finalists in poetry were Emily Zhang for “Transitory,” Katia Kozachok for “Primordial Roar,” Allie Spensley for “Palo Verde,” Emma Symmonds for “Purging,” and Jessica Prescott for “Daughter of Zeus, Lover of Mine.”

Winners in each category received $500 for first place, $250 for second and $100 for third. The Local’s Prize honored student writers from Nevada and California with a $100 prize. These students are also eligible for a $20,000 scholarship to attend Sierra Nevada College.

The winning students have been invited to read their work in an awards ceremony on Friday, Jan. 9, 2015 at Sierra Nevada College alongside highly acclaimed writers Suzanne Roberts and Alan Heathcock. They will be reading at 7 p.m. Friday in Sierra Nevada College’s Prim Library as part of the college’s low residency MFA creative writing program.

The Sierra Nevada Review’s annual issue publishes poetry, fiction, and nonfiction by emerging and nationally recognized authors. All High School Writing Contest winners will be considered for publication in the 2015 issue, which releases in May.

The 6th annual High School Writing Contest runs Sept. 1-Nov. 1, 2015. Guidelines can be found at http://www.sierranevada.edu/writer

Book Review: The Waste Land, by John Beer

Beer Waste Land

Searching the Rubble: The Waste Land and Other Poems by John Beer

Bryce Bullins

2010

Poetry

$14.00; 110 pages

Ann Arbor: Canarium Books

ISBN 978-0-98223796-4-9

 

The audacity of naming your book after T.S. Eliot’s masterpiece is staggering. Mark that audacity a notch higher when the cover of the new book is a facsimile of the original, appearing identical in all aspects spare the author’s name. It sets up an expectation so high that if the mark is not reached, utter disappointment and even a touch of anger may surface. It’s a good thing then that John Beer’s latest collection hits that mark and goes a step further, serving up a remarkable example of contemporary poetry both in style and content.

Beer doesn’t try to copy Eliot as much as he tries to reframe the foundations of “The Waste Land” for a new age. Structurally, both poems contain five distinct sections and tones of voice and are closely tied to one another in overall arc and theme. Beer uses just as many allusions as Eliot did, though the footnotes are lacking (more on that later). Beer avoids the lyricism of Eliot in favor of more casual, though no less direct, prosody (in a way, Beer’s brute address creates a kind of lyricism in itself). Beer seems to take a slight jab, albeit in jest, at Eliot in the second part of his “Waste Land”: “O O that T.S. Eliot / he’s such a shrinking violet / and if you think I sigh a lot / try life with T.S. Eliot.” Beer self-deprecatingly admits that his “Waste Land” doesn’t have the same weight of Eliot’s but in the next two lines, Beer iterates quite subtly that “…you don’t need to be a hero.”

In truth, Beer’s “Waste Land” does carry weight and heft to it. Rather than writing through the lens of a world ravaged by the end of the first World War, Beer writes through the gorilla glass of the 21st century and the end of the most protracted conflict in U.S. history.

Beer’s “Waste Land” is our reflection in that glass, staring back at us, sometimes mockingly, sometimes sincere, but always with a sharpened edge.

The anaphora of the unknown city at the beginning of the poem is the most strikingly obvious example of this new world in that the city itself is never mentioned (though alluded to in the title as either Chicago or possibly New Orleans) but the vague descriptions given to the city could be for any place on this planet and speaks to the ever encroaching globalization in which everything becomes so blurred and hegemonic that scarcely any identity yet remains. It’s simultaneously foreign and familiar, cultivating a sense of unease but utter captivation with the words on the page that seem to sink into our marrow the more we read them.

The other poems that make up the “Other Poems” section of Beer’s book are equally exceptional in their own right. Punctuated by dry wit and a practiced tightness, each poem flows smoothly and interconnects with one another in a showcase of excellent book layout. For example, the three poems entitled “Flowers”: each begins the same way, verbatim, followed by a new situation for the couple in the poem. The emotions that these situations bring to the surface are reinforced and expanded upon over the pieces that sit in between each version of “Flowers” creating an overarching narrative. It’s a fascinating style choice and one that I found worked quite well.

“Sonnets to Morpheus” is a section rife with humor (because the Morpheus in question is not that of Greek myth but the Morpheus of the Wachowskis Matrix film trilogy) and seriousness. Beer sprinkles lines taken directly from the films such as Neo’s now famous line “I know kung fu” and pairs it with beautiful prosody such as “Their music fell into my heart / like an unexpected taxi” and “…The children line up / beside the pond. They never realize / we poison them with their own reflected breath.” It is a testament to Beer’s ability as a poet that he is able to combine such disparate topics together yet create something thoroughly enjoyable and thought provoking.

The only thing baffling about Beer’s collection is that he leaves out the footnote markings for the notes that appear in the back of book. For a book that is trying to imitate Eliot’s original, it comes as a glaring omission. However, rather than vexed or annoyed with the discovery of the notes, it made me thirsty to revisit Beer’s words immediately, catching the nuances and allusions that had been missed on a first reading. Like Eliot before him, Beer can be read for the sheer aesthetics of the line or for the expertness of his craftwork that make those aesthetics possible.

Beer’s language and the pure emotive feeling his poems exude make each one feel as if it is city unto itself. They are built from the ground up to be a marvel and each one feels different than the last, crafting a truly unique voice over the entire body of work. Of course there are thematic elements that tie them all together, just as there are common similarities between cities that make them feel the same, but it’s the subtle changes and the atmosphere of each that makes them special and significant in their own right.

Bryce2

Bryce Bullins is a first year graduate student focusing on poetry but has worked previously on the Sierra Nevada Review as an undergraduate student. He received his BA in English with a minor in Music from Sierra Nevada College in 2014.

 

Black Rock Press Visit

by Tom Loeschner

 

On Wednesday morning Sierra Nevada Review staff members paid a visit to the local press, Black Rock Press, at University of Nevada Reno. Staff members Amy and Inge run the Press and teach bookmaking to students at UNR.

black rock press

 

Machines dot the concrete floor of the lower room in the Jot Travis Building. The press shop is a wonderful world of flywheels, oscillating ink rollers, and 100,000’s of metal and wood types. Some of the printing presses date back to the last century while others are newer.

Various hand crafted books made in house are on display.Holding a handcrafted book by Black Rock Press gives the same experience as seeing a new painting or feeling a handmade ceramic bowl, you can see and feel the work that went into it.

black rock press 2

The vibrancy of the ink, the layout of the fonts, unique bindings and the texture of quality paper gives their books a truly artisan feel.

Black Rock Press 3

__________________

Tom Loeschner Loeschneris an aspiring writer and student at Sierra Nevada College. While Tom is an Incline Village, Nevada native, he has lived in both Washington and California. Tom enjoys writing creative non-fiction, climbing, fly fishing, and spending time with his wife, Andrea, and their dog, Munchichi.

Announcing the 2014-2015 Sierra Nevada Review Editors

Welcome to our new student editors:

Rebecca Victoria Ramirez Ramirezholds a BA in English, graduating Cum Laude, from California State University, Stanislaus. She is currently pursing her MFA in Creative Writing at Sierra Nevada College. She is a writer of both poetry and non-fiction, with poetry from her youth being published in her city’s anthologies. She resides with her four children and partner in Northern California.

 

 

 

Bryce Bullins Bryce2is a first year graduate student focusing on poetry but has worked previously on the Sierra Nevada Review as an undergraduate student. He received his BA in English with a minor in Music from Sierra Nevada College in 2014. Bryce currently lives in Pahrump, NV. 

 

 

 

 

 

Greg Gonzalez Gonzalezis a Junior attending Sierra Nevada College as a Creative Writing major. He currently resides in Incline Village Nevada, but he is originally from Sacramento California. His focus is in fictional writing and has completed two novel manuscripts. One day he envisions himself not only writing books, but he wants to own two restaurants as well.

 

 

 

Tom Loeschner Loeschneris an aspiring writer and student at Sierra Nevada College. While Tom is an Incline Village, Nevada native, he has lived in both Washington and California. Tom enjoys writing creative non-fiction, climbing, fly fishing, and spending time with his wife, Andrea, and their dog, Munchichi.

 

 

 

 

Meredith Crosby Crosbyresides on the north shore of Lake Tahoe in California but calls South Carolina home. She is currently a senior at Sierra Nevada College in Incline Village, Nevada. She will graduate with a Bachelors in English and a minor in creative writing. An avid hiker and nature enthusiast, Meredith can be found most days wandering with her pitbull rescue mix, Prudence, in Tahoe’s pristine wilderness. She also has a contemporary dance background and is an aspiring yogi.

 

Courtney Berti Courtney Bertigraduated from Sierra Nevada College with her BFA in Creative Writing. She is currently pursuing an MFA in Creative Writing with an emphasis in fiction. She lives in South Lake Tahoe with her hairy boyfriend and her fuzzy dog who both have a tendency to resent her very hairless laptop.

 

Book Review: Of Gods & Strangers by Tina Chang

Chang front cover rgb low res

by Laurie Macfee

2011
Poetry
$15.95; 103 pgs.
NY: Four Way Books
ISBN 978-1-935536-17-8

When I began Tina Chang’s entrancing Of Gods & Strangers, Monty Python could be heard in the back of my mind saying, “And now, for something completely different.” From the form of poems on the pages, to titles like the indescribably wonderful “Bitch Tree”, “Self-Portrait as Empress Dowager” or “Flesh Elegy”, to the content, which sweeps from personal to historical to political, I knew this was going to be a completely different ride.

I read with a quickening, as if I couldn’t turn pages fast enough, even while wanting to slow down and savor lines. My heart beat faster, the way it does with a novel I can’t put down: it is 3am and the arc of someone’s voice won’t release me. This is an important and heart-breaking work by the Poet Laureate of Brooklyn. How can a book be set down, upon reading lines like these, found in “Substantial”:

If I try to tell the truth, parachutes the size of fists
rain down in a territory in which they are not welcome.

If I live out my lies, I see a woman’s sketched face
on the charcoal surface of a field where she

breaks apart on the pond’s puzzle. I get on all fours,
low to the ground as if in an emergency.

I hide under desks, cover my ears, put on
a gas mask to look like a skeleton of an extinct insect.

Perhaps that was my ancestor’s story and not mine
when the blast of sirens rang through the city….

The way Chang layers images (fists, skeleton) with locations (territory, under desks), emotions (not welcome) with imperatives (an emergency), sounds of words (extinct insect) with sounds in the narrative (blast of sirens), then lands softly on a political/historic/familial truth (ancestor’s story not mine) that leads us to a simple statement hidden a couple lines later, “Who is listening / if not me?” All this makes her work immediately compelling, haunting, masterful.

Structurally, Chang’s poems are a study in form. How the lines sit on the page inform the reading of each. She uses numbers to create lists, prose-like poems (though there appear to be purposeful breaks), traditional structures like couplets or tercets, long sweeping as well as short chopped lines, solid masses of text, a poem that is 3/4s italics, double spaces between lines, stars to separate stanzas, words instead of numbers in a series (one, two, trois, four), or words that wander a page. The result is a push-pull, and we are falling, then wrapped, bound in the expected and repeated embrace of a couplet then buffeted into intellectualism found in contemporary indexing. But woven through this diversity of appearances is a personal thread of identity, so that it does not feel like she is trying on dresses so much as showing us the complexity of her owned wardrobe.

Chang writes fearlessly from a woman’s standpoint, whether talking about break-ups or “Sex Gospels”, genocide or natural disasters. Some of her experiences echo my own, such as “The Story of Girls” but most do not, like the series of ten poems sprinkled throughout the book about the last Chinese Empress Dowager. However I am grounded in her lyric and social consciousness, the way she trusts the reader to make links between ideas without spelling it out: “I dream I am whipping a donkey / and I don’t want to be whipping a donkey…./ Love is breaking me.” She strips away all pretense, is unblinking and raw. In “Possibility”, Chang writes that when she was a girl, her mother’s lover bought her a small cross and sat her on his lap, how she thought “he could be my lover too”, the fierce and almost brutal reality she ends with, “The man sat still, letting the young girl / kiss him, then never came back. / This is how dark it can get, the heart says. / And the heart fasts for years until / it is lean.”

Chang’s images can jar, like “The butchers with their smeared aprons croon with knives” in her poem “Baguio”. They can seduce with epic or horrible beauty, like the opening “All night long there was digging, and the bodies like accordions / bent into their own dying instruments, and even after this, / after the quake, there was, in news reports, still singing” from the poem “Praise”. They can touch on the philosophical or self aware, “What is it that I want / in all these disappearing cities?” or the humorous, “I was sitting on the bitch tree, smirky and small.” But the great joy in reading Chang’s Of Gods & Strangers is her endings. Her poems are waves that carry you to the place you didn’t know you needed to go, and crash you.

I read the poem “Foraging and Dodging” maybe seven times. It begins with a stranger, which links to the title of the book, and explores the way love can wound, “Think of the horseshoe, the imprint / it made when thrown against / the door. Think of the woman / who dodges it and keeps loving / the man who threw it.” There is such ferocious revelation and hope in how Chang navigates the strangers who rule our lives as gods. The last stanza ends, “as she drove away, the bend / in the road coming into her / field of vision, as if life / loved her back, as if / she had a chance.”

Buy this book today. Ask me if you can borrow my copy. Check it out of the SNC Poetry Center. Whatever you do, this is a book to be read.

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Laurie Macfee_headshotLaurie Macfee is in the MFA Writing/Poetry program at Sierra Nevada College. Currently, she is the Redfield Fellow in Book Arts at the Black Rock Press, Poetry Editor of the Sierra Nevada Review, and an adjunct in the art department at the University of Nevada, Reno. She lives with her husband artist Joseph DeLappe and their cats Pixel and Izzie in Reno.

Book Review: We the Animals by Justin Torres

Review by Chelsea Archer

we-the-animals

 

Justin Torres

We the Animals

2012

Mariner Books

9780547844190

“Now a boy is of all wild beasts the most difficult to manage. For by now the more he has the foundation of prudence not yet fitting up, he becomes crafty and keen, and the most insolent of wild beasts. On this account it is necessary to bind him, as it were, with many chains” (Plato).

This quote opens a novel telling of wild youth, family dysfunction, brotherly bonds, and the unconditional love that persists in the most trying of settings. Justin Torres’ We the Animals is a slender yet heartrending debut novel that tracks the unnamed narrator and his two brothers through their less than perfect childhood.

Justin Torres molds this fictional world into a quasi-autobiographical tale written in first person plural, a less-well-used and complicated ploy that’s instantly noticeable (much like Jeffery Eugenides’ bestselling novel The Virgin Suicides). But through it all, the mesmerizing story of a boy reaching for manhood stands all on its own, pulling the reader toward absolution.

The “We” are three sons of an interracial couple, Ma and Paps. When the book begins, the narrator is nearly 7, and his two brothers only a few years older. They stick closely together, eating, playing, and fighting as a single unit. In these moments of connected “we” the brothers are revealed, “We wanted more. We knocked the butt ends of our forks against the table, tapped out spoons against our empty bowels; we were hungry. We wanted more volume, more riots.” At times this unity can make it difficult to distinguish each individual personality. However, the narrative does break into first person singular at seemingly random intervals throughout the novel and then entirely takes over the closing chapter. “I pressed my hand against the glass, suddenly embarrassed, needing the cold. That’s how it sometimes was with Ma; I needed to press myself against something cold and hard, or I’d get dizzy.” The reader now sees this character’s differences, the things that make him who he is. Though usually running wild with his brothers, the narrator is an intelligent, curious, and sensitive little boy.

The book is comprised of brief chapters progressing through a roughly chronological telling of the brother’s younger years. There’s a jagged edge to these chapters that are reminiscent of memory–fragmented, only focused on the brightest moment, the most painful instant captured for all to see while the mundane fades to bare awakening. These moments paint a disjointed image of personal growth, emotional development, and a new sexual understanding.

As the end fast approaches, and the narrative POV changes to first person singular, a sharp line is drawn between who the narrator was and who the narrator wishes to be. The diction and sentence structure play against each other, one simple while the other is complex, giving the last line a final knockout punch. “Everything easy between me and my brothers and my mother and my father was lost.”

We the Animals is an imperfect debut novel that grips the edges of your soul and refuses to let go, leaving a haunting final impression that is certainly worth the read.

Book Review: Who Will Run the Frog Hospital by Lorrie Moore

Review by Chelsea Archer

who will run the frog hospital

Lorrie Moore

Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?

1994

Vintage

978-1-4000-3382-9

“In Paris we eat brains every night. My husband likes the vaporous, fishy mousse of them. They are a kind of seafood he thinks, locked tightly in the skull, like shelled creatures in the dark caves of the ocean, sprung suddenly free and killed by the light; they’ve grown clammy with shelter, fortressed vulnerability, dreamy nights. Me, I’m eating for a flashback.”

The first paragraph of Laurie Moore’s Who Will Run the Frog Hospital opens a novel telling of wild youth, unseized potential, and adult disappointment. Known for her short story collections, Moore’s second full length novel brings together elements of short fiction as the narrative tracks protagonist, Berie, through recollections of her childhood in upstate New York and recognizes the unfulfilled status of her marriage and adult life.

The story begins in first person present where it introduces Berie and her husband Daniel in Paris. We are given an immediate impression of discontent before being whooshed back to her childhood. The story subsequently pops back and forth between the past and present for the remainder of the novel. In these spaces between time we gain insight into who Berie truly is and who she once was.

In a present conversation with her husband, Berie lies about her past, a lie that brings us, the reader, into her confidence. “‘You’re no hoodlum.’ ‘That’s true,’ I say sighing. And in this lie I feel close to him, so grateful to him, so full of pity. It goes like that. Our talk goes something like that” (48). While the majority of the novel takes place in Berie’s past, it acts like a framing point, a way for us to understand who this woman is and how she became this way. Without these flashbacks the shadow of a woman that Berie has become would hold no emotion or interest due to lack of context.

As we bounce back and follow Berie around a small town called Horsehearts, we witness life in the 1970’s. Here, teenagers smoked weed, listened to records, and drank booze–the horror of Vietnam far from their minds. Berie and her best friend Sils (the beautiful one) sneak out at night, use fake ID’s, and allow strange men to drive them home, yet their reputations remain intact, the mask of sensible girls pulled firmly into place.

Now, it can happen that flashbacks can become tiresome, can begin to feel unimportant, but Moore does a smart thing–for every 20 or 30 pages of flashback, she inserts a short burst of flash forward. “When, three years later, LaRoue hung herself in the county hospital psychiatric ward, the nurses arriving too late to cut her down, I would remember this exuberance, the hollow nervousness and yet the genuine sororal note, rattling around there, trying to get out” (140). These moments serve to make the past feel more immediate, to give it a solid footing in the present moment. We now understand the stakes in that the moment that the protagonist doesn’t.

It’s these elements that make Who Will Run the Frog Hospital such a poignant and entertaining novel. At the close of the story we realize what the narrative tells us–the past makes us who we are in the present and forces us to remember the ideals that were once of such import. Simply because time has passed and things have changed does not mean that the same things we cherished as children no longer touch our hearts.

Book Review: Little Known Facts by Christine Sneed

Little Known Facts

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Christine Sneed

Little Known Facts

February 2013

Bloomsbury USA

ISBN: 978-1608199679

 

Christine Sneed’s debut novel, Little Known Facts, is a heartwarming and genuinely thoughtful look at the glitz and glamor in today’s star obsessed, reality television watching material world. Sneed successfully humanizes Renn Ivins and his complicated family, highlighting their flaws and sufferings in a circumspect and close-to-home manner. Sneed’s lens offers the reader a candid and, at times, humbling view of what it takes to find your way in life – no matter who your daddy is. It is as if Sneed possesses a powerful fluorescent light that out-shines the stardom of Hollywood, allowing the reader to see beyond the spotlight of fame to discover the everyday worries and disappointments of these seemingly advantaged families. Renn’s slew of ex-wives  and lovers and late life insecurities remind us that they have as many, if not more issues than the “normal” or “average” American family. Addressing aging, self-acceptance and love, Sneed proves that with the right insight and understanding we can all find our place in life—whether it was where we thought we would be or where we never thought we would ever be. Her insight is astounding and her delivery is flawless.

Sneed stands strong as a fiction contender. She is a refreshing alternative to the ghostwritten tell-alls and celebrity biographies that assault our senses from every angle—in  book and grocery stores nationwide and I am sure the public would agree that the truthfulness of this story rivals those. Her story is light in a way that it even has the tendency to poke fun at itself—there is a novel about a famous family within the novel about a famous family. Melanie (ex-wife #2) publishes a memoir titled This is Not Gold, and reflects on whether or not some of her decisions were for the reasons she had thought.

In chapter eight, titled “A Good Person,” Sneed bestows the opportunity upon the reader to examine Renn under a microscope. The reader learns that he keeps detailed and rigorous journals of his life and feelings. These journals start at the first of every year and are promptly burned at the end. In this chapter, Sneed reveals the desperation that so many have to “tell their story.” How misinterpreted one’s life can become. Renn keeps two journals: one to be published postmortem and a second that is personal. He defends his keeping of a journal, revealing that it “…is where I write down things that I have done or thoughts I have had that sometimes make it hard to sleep at night…Despite the risks, I need to keep this second journal because it’s like a pressure valve—if it weren’t there, my life would blow up” (173). Most people with jobs, families and stress can relate to needing a similar sort of release.

With this novel Sneed reminds her readers that at the heart of things we are all the same. We struggle, we fight, we suffer and we do terribly embarrassing things—no matter our age or stature. We wish that we could control how people view us—and though we may not have a post mortem memoir that is worthy of publication, we do have pride and a sense of self-preservation that is inherent in almost everyone. There is a humanizing detail to every persona and perhaps if one were to take the time to step back and look, we would all discover that money, fame, popularity, and success are all just things and with those things come grief, sadness, disappointment and self-realization.

 

 

Crystal Miller lives in Tampa, FL with her family where she teaches writing at Hillsborough Community College. She is a voracious reader and before entering Sierra Nevada’s MFA program, she earned her Bachelor of Arts at SUNY Empire State College with a dual major in Literature and Creative Writing. Crystal is currently working on her first novel, which will be the first in a series regarding female serial killers.

 

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