Exacting and lyrically prescient, Cynthia Atkins’s Still-Life With God presents God as gods, as sun, moon, and stars, yes, but also as God encompassing all aspects of the self: selves created and molded into whatever form we desire. This collection finds Atkins finding faith and spirituality in unusual places and things, in and within inanimate objects, like Cracker Jacks, the Internet, and a medicine cabinet. Here God is a shock jock, an alibi, and imaginary friends. Employing beautiful concisions suffused with allegory and metaphor, Atkins offers poem after delectable poem, the sweetest of candies with dark and satisfying centers. Atkins guides us through a journey in search of the divine in all things, whether embodied by our bodily wreckage or the machines of our madness. Moreover, Atkins is skilled at depicting the chaos and joy of human existence, simultaneously. Still-Life with God delights in all contradictions.
In this stunning debut, award-winning Canadian writer Souvankham Thammavongsa lays bare the plights of people living in the margins in 14 singularly impressive stories. Most of the stories in this collection center on the lives of Lao immigrants, taking a leaf out of the life of a writer who was born in a Lao refugee camp in Thailand before emigrating with her parents to Canada.
There’s so little to be happy about these days that when something comes along that sparks some joy we cling to it like a life raft. The Tiger King didn’t do shit for me but I couldn’t put Sam McPheeters’ book Mutations down. I tore through it in a day and a half, skipping meals and work along the way. I doubt I would’ve read it any slower if there was no plague outside my door or if we had a human being for a president, it’s that good.
César Aira’s Artforum is a love letter to the homonymous magazine in which the author explores and exposes his obsessive relationship to the publication and his travails to find copies of it in the wild in Argentina. However, it’s much more than that. Aira is a master of language known for infusing his narratives with as much philosophy as humor, and he does that here in a brilliant series of short essays/stories/journal entries that chronicle his travails to find the magazine.
Like the Bible, Ben Katchor’s book The Dairy Restaurant begins in the Garden of Eden. But his paradise is a clean, well-lit diner where a weary Jew can order a plate of gefilte fish or some blintzes and sit and dream. An encyclopedic elegy to a way of eating and living, it is mournful, exhaustive, and deadpan funny in roughly equal measure. It is also unlike any book I have ever read.
B.R. Yeager’s novel Negative Space is a coming-of-age book full of autumnal imagery and featuring a trio of narrators each struggling with complex issues within their own lives. In that, it is familiar. It’s also a novel in which the border between life and death is navigated with little explanation; where unsettling rituals spark paranoia and obsession; where certain familiar sights and sounds pull back to reveal horrors lurking on the other side. It’s not always the easiest of reads — due to both its structure and its subject matter — but it is deeply rewarding, in its own harrowing way. Reading it at a time when familiar routines are upended at a moment’s notice and the idea of a status quo seems like a luxurious illusion, it feels perfectly suited to this moment in history — a distillation of every emotion I’m feeling right now, in the form of a narrative both familiar and thoroughly unpredictable.
Say you’re a fiction writer and you’d like to allude to the communications technologies of the present moment. There are plenty of ways you can do this, from coming up with your own lightly-altered versions of real-world services to embracing an accurate picture of your smartphone’s suite of apps circa the moment you’re putting words on paper. The difficulty with the latter, though, is that the ups and downs of the tech world don’t always match up with the time it takes to get a book published; the way that Vine went from buzzed-about to deprecated in a relatively short period of time illustrates just how difficult of a juggling act this can be.
A caveat: Foreign Bodies is Kimiko Hahn’s tenth collection of poetry, but it’s the first and only one that I’ve read. By my own standards as a critic, this lack of familiarity with a writer’s work usually disqualifies me as a reviewer of one of their books. The only exception I make for this is when I read a book that is so fantastic and exhilarating and rich that I’m compelled to write less of a review and more of a celebration, a fan’s note, a paean to a particular book’s achievements. This is one of those cases.