Book Review: Val Brelinski’s The Girl Who Slept with God

 

2017
Fiction
$16; 368
Penguin Books
ISBN: 978-0-14-310943-3

 

 

 

Val Brelinski’s The Girl Who Slept with God
by: Rebecca Evans

The Girl Who Slept with God, by Val Brelinski, is both a tragic and coming of age memoir infused with elegant writing of religion, hardship, and courage. Grace Quanbeck, at seventeen, has just returned from a mission trip in Mexico and is pregnant. Her father, Dr. Quanbeck, a Havard-educated astronomer, reacts and moves Grace and her younger sister, Jory, just shy of fourteen, to a home away from their religious community and private Christian school set in rural Arco, Idaho in the 1970’s. Their new house, next door to Hilda Kleinfelter, who later becomes a strong support role as a surrogate parental figure.

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Book Review: Sheila Hamilton’s All the Things We Never Knew

 

2015
Memoir
$13.99; 312 pages
Seal Press
ISBN: 978-58005-584-0

 

 

 

Weaving a Narrative Case for Early Detection: Sheila Hamilton’s All the Things We Never Knew: Chasing the Chaos of Mental Illness 
by Lisa Peterson

“It is my hope that my experience might serve as a cautionary tale for other people who are concerned about a loved one’s mental health.” – Sheila Hamilton

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Book Review: Jill Talbot’s The Way We Weren’t

 

2015
Nonfiction
$15.95; 304 pages
Soft Skull Press
ISBN: 978-1593766153

 

 

 

Competing Histories of Shame: Jill Talbot on Family and Loss in The Way We Weren’t
by Michael Fischer

The mother stands at a window, staring out at the rehab center parking lot like a lonely, cooped up pet, waiting for her daughter. The daughter thinks she’s visiting her mother at “special school,” one where even the teachers don’t get to go home at night. She’s too young to know the truth. Besides, it’s Christmas.

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Book Review: Kevin Hazzard’s A Thousand Naked Strangers

 

2016
Non-Fiction
$16; 261 pages
Scribner
ISBN: 978-1-5011-1086-3

 

 

 

Ten years on an ambulance in Kevin Hazzard’s A Thousand Naked Strangers
by Clare Frank

The blood-red cartoon ambulance catches my eye. As do the words NAKED and PARAMEDIC. This looks like my kind of book. I was a firefighter for nearly thirty years before I began writing. One of my challenges is finding balance—conveying witnessed trauma with enough grit to honor reality, but not so gratuitously that readers put the book down. Stateside, no one sees more trauma than ambulance paramedics, so I’m curious if this author achieves that balance.

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Book Review: Catherine Meng’s The Longest Total Solar Eclipse of the Century

2013
Poetry
$12; 128 pages
SplitLevel Texts
ISBN:  978-0985811136

 

 

 

The Sun Has Gone Out: Catherine Meng’s The Longest Total Solar Eclipse of the Century
by Bryce Bullins

There is an infestation of spiders in Catherine Meng’s The Longest Total Solar Eclipse of the Century. No less than a dozen references to spiders or spiderlike qualities exist in Meng’s text and it’s wholly fitting: what better creature best embodies the complexity of time than one who spins webs as intricate and unfathomably raw as the spider? There is great concern for time in Solar Eclipse and Meng’s attentiveness to its passage is humbling while simultaneously sprawling.

Meng asserts that “We could all benefit / from risking temporality / more often” and her verse echoes this sentiment. Solar Eclipse navigates the course and events of a year from the day of the eclipse (22 July, 2009) to the following year but in such a way that it feels as though time is seemingly lost in the process of recollection. Experiments in space, form, and language create a hazy, though still discernible, presence of grounding in some form of the present.

Interspersed within the collection are several diary entries that serve as poetic-prose sections that seek, whether intentionally or otherwise, to stabilize us in the temporality of the year. These diary entries are the most vulnerable pieces in Solar Eclipse because of their earnest honesty. In “M, Tu, W, Th, F” Meng asserts that “learning to want impossible things is a sort of freedom worms & crocodiles don’t know.” In this oddly humorous musing, Meng is subtly pointing out the flaws in our own ability to yearn for impossibility. The virtue of it being impossible makes us want it that much more and makes the lack of it that much stronger. In so many words, it is the drive that keeps us pressing onward.

The most striking aspect of Solar Eclipse is how it deftly rests on a blade’s edge of the necropastoral[1]. While never overtly approaching the bleakness of ecocatastrophe, Meng’s allusions are grounded heavily in the present moment that creates the conditions possible for ecocatastrophe: her verse occupies a space where blog entries coexist with goat farmers in Uruguay and “whatever nascent understanding we’d had about empathy / had its limbs hacked off / right from the start.” This is to say nothing of the countless other pastoral tropes Meng conjures up, but her verse often subverts them as in “Game Reserve”:

Just because there is no eagle
doesn’t mean the eagle isn’t here.
Or maybe ‘eagle’ is really the name for ‘crow’;
And the group of them
above me is saying so.

If the eagle represents the majesty of the world before ecocatastrophe takes its toll, then the crows are what remains after. There is no more deft an analogy than a murder of crows circling above us, occupying the space of the beautiful world we have destroyed.

It is in this world that Meng seeks to illustrate individual flairs of hopelessness, anxiety, optimism, and banality. By doing so, Meng captures a climatology all her own of a life lived now. Whether we are present for it as well (read: aware) is a separate matter entirely.

[1] See Joyelle McSweeny’s essay on the necropastoral, in which she probes the political-aesthetic paradigm and its inability to be separated from nature

Book Review: Amaranth Borsuk’s and Andy Fitch’s As We Know

2014
Poetry
$18; 144 pages
Subito Press
ISBN: 978-0990661214

 

 

Something Like That: Amaranth Borsuk’s and Andy Fitch’s As We Know
by Bryce Bullins

Erasures, when done exceptionally, can create a landscape wholly unique. Paradoxically, the willful redaction of text can enhance, if not make better, a narrative. For example, Yedda Morrison’s Darkness erases, or more accurately whites-out, large portions of the first chapter of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. In doing so, Morrison doesn’t so much rewrite Conrad’s narrative but rather enhances it by bringing the natural world to the forefront. Similarly, through this same process of careful and willful redaction, Amaranth Borsuk and Andy Fitch have made something quite unique with their work As We Know.

Written in diary entries from April 30th to July 1st, As We Know seeks to abolish identity and embrace banality. Days pass with vignettes of stoops and flowers in the park, internalization of anxieties and ponderousness, and musings on the nature of umbrellas. Most striking is the lack of gender identifiers of the writer and no hints to let us peel away whatever may be there. It’s a brilliant and bold move. By removing gender identifiers, arguably the identity of a narrator is dismantled, at which point we are able to become more invested in the language on the page as we now have a blank space with which to connect with work in myriad ways. In essence, our own biases, whatever they may be, are dismantled via the absence of identity, leaving us with an unfiltered dialogue with the text itself.

As We Know has a meta-sensibility to its willful destruction of identity. Within the first four pages a quote from Georges Bataille appears in which we are given firm notice that As We Know is taking on the job of the formless and is attempting to “(1) [debase] objects by stripping them of pretensions—in the case of words, pretensions to meaning—and (2) [attack] the very condition on which meaning depends, the structural opposition between definite terms.” We are immediately told what’s at stake by taking away all that is usually at stake. This is to say nothing of the underlying conceptual aspects of As We Know. To quote from the artist’s statement, “As We Know attempts to intervene into the gendered history of editorial intervention as it has played out in the famous cases of figures such as Dorothy Wordsworth and Emily Dickinson.” By not concerning itself with identity from the outset, the tension that generally exists between ownership and authorship dissipates. Though it is clear that there is still some consternation in the text as at times: entries often flow together seamlessly, almost as if one day bleeds into the next with little to separate the preceding day(s), and yet there are times when there are clearly conflicted voices, one of which is giving what is tantamount to stage directions: “(figure out how to organize those better)” and “(figure out where to make these past or present tense)”. This struggle never quite manifests into open aggression but instead subtly stews beneath the work, begging questions as we move forward in time. There is no resolution by the end, only hints at a partial and tenuous closure when we reach the acknowledgements and are given a simple dedication: “this book is for Emily and Dorothy.”

As We Know deftly uses the art of strike-through to cultivate its attentiveness to banality and temporality. The grounding for this banality comes from a quote from Roland Barthes, which serves as an epigraph (as presented in the format of As We Know):

; whatever he writes
, it will always be a vested discourse, in which the body
will make its appearance (banality is discourse without body).
In other words, what he writes proceeds from a corrected banality.

As We Know isn’t merely “corrected banality” but perfected banality: each entry is clearly marked with a day, sections marked with timestamps, and the erased structure of the work makes it feel as though these were a series of never-ending connections due in large part to the repetitious banality that makes up our own days. As mentioned, days bleed together as simply as turning the page, so much so to that when we were cognizant of being on May 5th it is suddenly May 20th.  Strikingly, this preponderance of time dilation is one of As We Know‘s greatest strengths.

When taken out of the context of the work at large, the entries still work exceedingly well as standalone pieces. Take for example the excerpt the Sierra Nevada Review published in volume 25 from May 22:

As We Know 1

No knowledge of the preceding days is necessary to feel the weight of this entry, allowing it to work and flex its integrity entirely on its own as a self-contained micro narrative. Placed into the context of the full body of work, its weight is certainly enhanced, but because of the way in which As We Know is constructed, it lends itself naturally to vignettes rather than predicating itself on needing the entire body to function. Apropos, considering the dynamics of authorship and voice within.

When not tarrying with bringing the past to the present and grounding the timeline of As We Know somewhere within the confines of an abstract present, the struck-through text, by and large, tends to remove what would otherwise be superfluous details and descriptions. It is ironic then, that these superfluous details and descriptions are what enhance the banality of our lives. More correctly, these superfluous things merely give us the illusion of enhancement. What is banal is always banal, no matter how one dresses it.

As We Know is an experiment in language and presentation devoid of all frivolity and pretension as established by Bataille. It is direct, bare, and nearly holistic in its austerity. Its complexities are vast and often times lend to the meta-narrative of our own lives in that As We Know, intentionally or otherwise, winds up confronting us with our own subjectivity to both content and form.

 

Book Review: The Glass Castle

 

Untitled

 

January 17, 2005

ISBN: 074324754X

Scribner, New York

 

 

 

 

 

It was the sort of knowledge that kept you on your toes:

Jeannette Walls The Glass Castle: A Memoir

by Rebecca Victoria Ramirez

“What I did know was that I lived in a world that at any moment could erupt into fire. It was the sort of knowledge that kept you on your toes,” writes Walls in the first few pages of her memoir. Some of Walls’ earliest memories are of a fire that engulfed her, running up the tutu-like skirt of her pretty pink dress, as she stood on a stool, hovering over her family’s stove, boiling hot dogs. She was only three years old. Her mother, Rose Mary, a self-proclaimed artist, sat just a room away, painting. “Why spend the afternoon making a meal that will be gone in an hour,” she’d often ask her children “when in the same amount of time, I can do a painting that will last forever?” Walls’ childhood was one ruled by an emotionally-absent mother and an alcoholic father, who instead of parenting their four children, more often than not ignored and neglected them.

If ever they did provide for their children it was by virtue of some sort of thievery. And often their crimes included the children’s participation. “Mom’s plan was for her and Maureen to go into the dressing room . . . with an armful of new clothes for Maureen to try on,” Walls writes. “When they came out . . . Lori, Brian, and I would create a ruckus to distract the clerk while Mom hid a dress under a raincoat she would be carrying on her arm.”

Consistently creditors caught up with the Walls family, and the children, acclimated to this lifestyle, were always on point when their father announced it was “time to skeedaddle.” They gathered the few belongings they could carry escaping into the dark of night. After years of dead-end jobs and countless “skeedaddles” from one town after another, Rex Walls, wife and kids in tow, returned to his hometown of Welch, Virginia. Rather than the contentment one might expect to find in their father’s hometown, what followed were more years of discontent. Rex and Rose Mary purchased a dilapidated house lacking electricity and running water. The children, consequently, were reared in a home abundant in filth, deprived of food, warmth, and sanity.

Despite the volatile childhood that unfolds within the pages of her memoir, Walls’ does not portray her parents as monsters. Rather, she describes them as she saw them, through the eyes of a child. The portraits Walls paints of each member of her family are vivid: each with their own voice, demeanor, and personality. Readers will come away from this memoir feeling as if they’ve come to know Rex, Rose Mary, Lori, Brian, Maureen, and Jeanette herself. There is nothing refined about the words that fall from the lips of innocence onto the page of Walls’ memoir. And so as readers we find that what remains is a story of unadulterated love within a family.

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Rebecca Victoria Ramirez resides in Northern California with her partner, children, and an assortment of pets. She earned her BA in English May 2013 and will earn her MFA in Creative Writing January 2016.