Robert Vaughan’s latest is meant to unsettle. The book is broken down into three subsections of poems and microfictions: Cacophony, Aviary, and Demented. A key for my reading comes from “Tilted” from Christine & the Queens: “I start the books at the end/ I got my chin up for nothing/ My crying eye is because of the wind/ My absences are a feeling/ I can’t stand…I pretend to have understood everything.” So much of Askew is about atmosphere, of feeling unable to stand because of circumstance, of not understanding fully what has transpired and why it happened. I got my critic’s chin up, only to feel like interpretation and categorization isn’t the game here.
that was it
was that it
Maybe it’s my age that made me start singing Nirvana’s Heart-Shaped Box. Or maybe I just can’t stop thinking about vaginas. Regardless, it was the first thought I had when looking down at the black and pink cover of Ursula Andkjaer Olsen’s My Jewel Box, translated by Katrine Ogaard Jensen. The title, the colors, the image of something like a large urn or oven opening to the viewer in front of a framed image of what looks like an eclipse, holes upon holes—it read to me as vagina, as female, as the core of feminine power.
There aren’t many authors today who are willing to revisit the Holocaust and write about it. But then again, most authors aren’t Jerry Stahl, who has the chutzpah to pull it off masterfully. The author of Permanent Midnight (1995), I, Fatty (2004), and OG Dad (2015), was feeling depressed in 2016, and he wanted to feed his unhappiness to quell his demons. So, he scheduled a trip to Poland and Germany to tour the Nazi death camps. His mode of travel – a charter bus replete with a tour guide who was well-versed on Hitler, Koch, Mengele, and other lunatics who found joy in torturing and killing Jews. Stahl chronicles his experience in Nein, Nien, Nein! One Man’s Tale of Depression, Psychic Torment, and a Bus Tour of the Holocaust. Throughout the book, released this week, Stahl writes exactly what he thinks, and some of his thoughts – such as “Hitler ripped the world apart like a child tearing the head off a doll” – reminds reader of just how horrific the events that occurred at the death camps were. The author’s witty prose is appreciated because without levity a trip around the concentration camp horn would make any man or woman beg for mercy. His ability to provide his readers with a seat on the bus to experience the tour is exceptional. There was only one man for this job, and that man is Jerry Stahl.
Meg Tuite’s latest collection, White Van, has foreboding, danger, and violence from cover to cover. Even the haunting cover with lightning striking a black van, defies our expectations and turns things upside down. Tuite’s collection is a series of poetic prose entries; some of the sections seem straight micro-fiction, while others appear more like poems. They defy easy categorization, just like Meg Tuite. What draws each one together is the brutal energy of a world of serial killers, pedophiles, pornographers, kidnappers, suicides, prostitutes, and loners. Tuite’s dystopian landscape is one I remember well from my Brooklyn of the 1980s. Each kid on the block was told to watch out for the infamous white van because you didn’t know what would happen if they grabbed you and threw you in there. Did it mean death? Dismemberment? Sexual exploitation? Rape? Drugs? Prostitution? Your imagination and nightmares were left to sort the dark, twisted possibilities. Tuite plays with this fear and journeys readers down the rabbit hole into this unnamed, but presumably American, hellscape of torture and brokenness, and she does so with a jarring style of brutal intensity as she bears traumatic witness to pain, suffering, abandonment, and forgetfulness.
Chloe Caldwell is an essayist known for her bold personal essays, resonant pieces about love, longing, addiction, and attempting to find meaning in mundanity. Heidi Julavits once wrote, in a review of Caldwell’s 2016 collection I’ll Tell You in Person (Emily Books, 2016), “Chloe Caldwell has written the ideal ‘female companion book’ – meaning, while reading I’ll Tell You in Person, I felt like I had a female companion with me at all times.” Her inviting and unpretentious prose imbues a strong sense of warmth into all of her work, allowing the essays to read like an assortment of polished diary entries.
Are we looking for the absolute truth of love or the absolute feeling of it? Or is the question better put: is love whatever best suits our personal needs, or is love ineffable? In Bud Smith’s novel, Teenager, one can imagine it as a light flickering past the darkness in our lives. The main character, Kody, would likely say that he was too dim to comprehend the deep meaning of such things. After all, he is a teenager and can only know what he has already seen and what he imagines. What he has seen is a bleak mixture of foster homes, a hellish high school, juvenile hall, and then Teal. To the world, she was Tella Carticelli, but to him, she was his LIGHT flickering past his darkness. She was his “Teal Cartwheels” and no obstacle or sense of reality could keep him from her. Or her from him.
Robert Lopez’s latest novel-in-stories reads like a stream of conscious search for hope. A Better Class of People connects back with some of his characters from Good People from 2015, and the trilogy will be concluded with The Best People in 2024. All of the stories are first person narratives, told by a singular alienated narrator. The voice throughout A Better Class of People is hypnotic and rhythmic and often unreliable. Lopez has said that sound and energy are keys to his writing process. That’s where it all starts for him. And, you can hear the effect of this in every story of this collection. We’re on a ride with an impulsive voice and it’s uncertain where we’re going or where we’ve been here. Every other story is a subway interlude—you see this reflected by a train symbol above the table of contents. At times, the book is darkly funny and sometimes downright disturbing and tragic. There are even times the storyteller is potentially dangerous; he might or might not have a gun and often considers “shooting someone in the face.” Overall, the sound of the voice, like the electric currents of the subway, creates drama, intrigue, danger, and tension, and it pulls the reader through a strange, dystopian world that is both fascinating and unforgettable.
Literary noir maestro Fuminori Nakamura has always been interested in understanding the psychology of crime, and in My Annihilation he allows that obsession to shape the entire narrative. The result is a dark novel that’s the literary equivalent of a puzzle box; an experimental, relentlessly cerebral story in which every narrator is unreliable, memories are tampered with, and reality is as shifting as points of view.