Recent Writing for BookBrowse, Foreword, Shelf Awareness, Shiny New Books, and the TLS
I’ve compiled excerpts from some reviews I’ve contributed to other websites and publications this year. I link to the full text where available. (When writing a paid review, I seek to be balanced but positive. Ratings reflect my personal response.)
The Last Animal by Ramona Ausubel: In Ausubel’s offbeat third novel, a widowed scientist and her two daughters embark on a rogue plan to make history by resurrecting the woolly mammoth. There is a quirky combination of cosmic and domestic concerns here. A winsome sister duo is at the heart of the unusual and timely story, with priority given to the points of view of teenagers Eve and Vera, whose banter is a highlight. Ausubel has wisely chosen not to dwell on the scientific details of de-extinction, yet that means that this becomes more like speculative fiction or a fairy tale. Ironically, the fabulist-leaning novel is best when most realist, documenting struggles with bereavement, sexism and parenting teens.
The Lost Wife by Susanna Moore: Moore’s hard-hitting novel is based in part on the memoir Six Weeks in the Sioux Tepees: A Narrative of Indian Captivity. In Moore’s version, Sarah, 25, leaves her baby behind when she flees an abusive husband, and once in Minnesota Territory marries John Brinton, who becomes a doctor on a Sioux reservation. By 1862, Sarah is friendly with the Native women. Although the Civil War is unfolding, the greater threat here is of revolt by the starving Indigenous residents. There is much of anthropological and historical interest, but Sarah’s flat storytelling, which may represent a pastiche of period style, means threatening or climactic scenes lose some of their potential gravity.
My Mother Says by Stine Pilgaard (trans. from the Danish by Hunter Simpson): After breaking up with her zookeeper girlfriend over their age gap and their conflicting takes on motherhood, the heroine moves back in with her father, a pastor who’s obsessed with Pink Floyd, and her stepmother. Her mother visits often, nagging her to finish her thesis. The line between her conversations and internal thoughts is thin. From her mansplaining doctor, she learns that the brain’s hippocampus is named for its seahorse shape. This inspires “Monologues of a Seahorse,” interludes of stream-of-consciousness association. Experimental and whimsical, this delivers deadpan narration of everyday woes.
In Vitro: On Longing and Transformation by Isabel Zapata (trans. from the Spanish by Robin Myers): A Mexican poet probes the enduring mysteries of pregnancy and birth in a memoir in fragments that travels from fertility treatment through to the early weeks of pandemic-time motherhood. The clinical language of a gynecological history—late menstruation, polycystic ovary syndrome, eighteen years on the pill, and infertility—and the embryo transfer process contrasts with Zapata’s mystical thinking. The microessays integrate family stories, history, and artistic explorations. This resolute account of a personal metamorphosis alchemizes tender experiences into enchanting vignettes.
Daughters of Nantucket by Julie Gerstenblatt: This engrossing debut novel explores the options for women in the mid-19th century while bringing a historical tragedy to life. Metaphorical conflagrations blaze in the background in the days leading up to the great Nantucket fire of 1846: each of three female protagonists (a whaling captain’s wife, a museum curator, and a pregnant Black entrepreneur) holds a burning secret and longs for a more expansive, authentic life. The action spans two tense weeks, one week before the fire through eight days after. The women’s lives collide in two climactic scenes. Gerstenblatt’s eye for detail results in sultry historical fiction for Sue Monk Kidd’s readers.
Camp Zero by Michelle Min Sterling: Sterling’s brilliantly unsettling debut novel is set in mid-21st-century, post-oil North America. Prioritizing perspectives from two all-female communities, it contrasts the heights of opulence and technology with the basic instinct for survival. How the strands connect is a mystery sustained through much of the book. Characters go by multiple names and harbor ulterior motives; scenes echo each other as disparate subplots meet in unexpected ways. The background is all too plausible. Sterling also takes to its logical extreme the state of being constantly online. Compelling dystopian cli-fi with three-dimensional characters—perfect for fans of Station Eleven and To Paradise.
Dear Chrysanthemums by Fiona Sze-Lorrain: In this elegant collection of 11 linked short stories by a poet and translator, China’s mid-20th-century political upheaval casts a long shadow. Music and food, not to mention love, bring meaning to those displaced in the aftermath of dissent. The stories—set in China, Singapore, Paris, and New York—span seven decades but always take place in a year ending in a six, a sacred number in Chinese divination. A highlight is “News from Saigon,” in which a prostitute meets Marguerite Duras in a Paris café. The connections are subtle, with the final story pulling together many strands. Ideal for readers of Madeleine Thien’s Do Not Say We Have Nothing.
Stranded by Maddalena Bearzi: Bearzi developed a deep love for marine fauna during childhood summers in Sardinia and cofounded the Ocean Conservation Society in the 1990s. Temporarily confined to land by Covid-19 lockdowns, she adopts a different tactic for exploring animal behavior: “an urban safari in my backyard and neighborhood.” These nature essays exemplify evenhandedness, curiosity, and close observation. From wasps to night-blooming flowers, her interest is wide-ranging. Gardening is a relaxing pastime and a connection to her mother while they are separated. As a behavioral ecologist, she views even her dog as a subject of study. A passionate primer to appreciating everyday nature.
Lo by Melissa Crowe: This incandescent autobiographical collection travels from girlhood to marriage and motherhood in post-pandemic USA. Crowe delves into sexual abuse and growing up in rural poverty. Yet the collection is so carefully balanced in tone that it never feels bleak. The emotional range is enhanced by alliteration and botanical imagery.
Dislocations by Karen Enns: The fourth collection by Canadian poet Enns skillfully evokes a rural upbringing and revels in the beauty of nature and music. One of its aphorisms could encapsulate the entire collection: “The ratio of love to grief / we understood as music.” Updating the pastoral tradition, the bittersweet verse also takes solace in the past.
Shiny New Books
A Fortunate Woman by Polly Morland & A Fortunate Man by John Berger: The similarities go much further than the title and subject matter: these two biographical works, both illustrated with black-and-white photographs, are set in the same English valley and the female subject of Morland’s is the next-but-one successor of the doctor who stars in Berger’s.
Berger (1926–2017), an art critic and Booker Prize-winning novelist, spent six weeks shadowing the doctor, to whom he gives the pseudonym John Sassall, with Swiss documentary photographer Jean Mohr, his frequent collaborator. Sassall’s dedication was legendary: he attended every birth in this community, and nearly every death. Sassall’s middle-class origins set him apart from his patients. There’s something condescending about how Berger depicts the locals as simple peasants. Mohr’s photos include soft-focus close-ups on faces exhibiting a sequence of emotions, a technique that feels outdated in the age of video. Along with recording the day-to-day details of medical complaints and interventions, Berger waxes philosophical on topics such as infirmity and vocation. A Fortunate Man is a curious book, part intellectual enquiry and part hagiography.
With its layers of local history and its braided biographical strands, A Fortunate Woman takes up many of the same heavy questions but feels more subtle and timely. It also soon delivers a jolting surprise: the doctor Berger called John Sassall was likely bipolar and, soon after the death of his beloved wife Betty, committed suicide in 1982. His story still haunts this community, where many of the older patients remember going to him for treatment. Like Berger, Morland keenly follows a range of cases. As the book progresses, we see this beautiful valley cycle through the seasons, with certain of Richard Baker’s landscape shots deliberately recreating Mohr’s scene setting. The timing of Morland’s book means that it morphs from a portrait of the quotidian for a doctor and a community to, two-thirds through, an incidental record of the challenges of medical practice during COVID-19.
The Memory of Animals by Claire Fuller: Neffy has nothing to lose when she enrolls in a controversial vaccine trial in a familiar mid-pandemic landscape. The novel is presented as her journal. The bulk takes place in two weeks she spends on a locked unit with four fellow test subjects. In the meantime, she is introduced to an experimental technology for reliving memories. The characterisation of the four other cast members is somewhat thin, and the elements feel randomly assembled. The world-building and tech are unlikely to stand up to science fiction fans’ scrutiny, but this has just the right dose of the speculative for literary fiction readers. It also happens to fit into a recent vogue for octopus novels.
Times Literary Supplement
A late-twenties journalist sets out to survey the situation on the ground for ten British species being squeezed out by anthropogenic climate change: The mission is very similar, and both authors embody passionate dedication to conservation, but the difference in tone of these travel narratives makes them likely to appeal to separate audiences…
In Search of One Last Song by Patrick Galbraith & Forget Me Not by Sophie Pavelle:
Galbraith’s is an elegiac tour through imperilled countryside and urban edgelands. Each chapter resembles an in-depth magazine article: a carefully crafted profile of a beloved bird species, with a focus on the specific threats it faces. Galbraith recognises the nuances of land use. However, shooting plays an outsized role. (Curious for his bio not to disclose that he is editor of the Shooting Times.) The title’s reference is to literal birdsong, but the book also celebrates birds’ cultural importance through their place in Britain’s folk music and poetry. He is clearly enamoured of countryside ways, but too often slips into laddishness, with no opportunity missed to mention him or another man having a “piss” outside. Readers could also be forgiven for concluding that “Ilka” (no surname, affiliation or job title), who briefs him on her research into kittiwake populations in Orkney, is the only female working in nature conservation in the entire country; with few exceptions, women only have bit parts: the farm wife making the tea, the receptionist on the phone line, and so on.
Pavelle’s book is a tonic in more ways than one. Employed by Beaver Trust, she is enthusiastic and self-deprecating. Her nature quest has a broader scope, including insects like the marsh fritillary and marine species such as seagrass and the Atlantic salmon. Travelling between lockdowns in 2020–1, Pavelle took low-carbon transport wherever possible and bolsters her trip accounts with context, much of it gleaned from Zoom calls and e-mail correspondence with experts from museums and universities. Refreshingly, around half of these interviewees are women, and the animal subjects are never the obvious choices. Instead, she seeks out “underdog” species. The explanations are at a suitable level for laymen, true to her job as a science communicator. The snappy, casual prose (“the future of the bilberry bumblebee and its Aperol arse can be bright, but only if we get off our own”) could even endear her to teenage readers. As image goes, Pavelle’s cheerful naïveté holds more charm than Galbraith’s hardboiled masculinity.
Taking Flight by Lev Parikian: Parikian’s accessible account of the animal kingdom’s development of flight exhibits a layman’s enthusiasm for an everyday wonder. He explicates the range of flying strategies and the structural adaptations that made them possible. The archaeopteryx section, chronicling the transition between dinosaurs and birds, is a highlight. Though the most science-heavy of the author’s six works, this, perhaps ironically, has fewer footnotes. His usual wit is on display: he describes the feral pigeon as “the Volkswagen Golf of birds” and penguins as “piebald blubber tubes”. This makes it a pleasure to tag along on a journey through evolutionary time, one sure to engage even history- and science-phobes.
Do any of these catch your eye?
Women’s Prize Longlist Reviews (Croft, Grudova, O’Farrell) & Shortlist Predictions
The Women’s Prize shortlist will be announced on Wednesday the 26th. I’ve managed to read a few more novels from the longlist and started another (Fire Rush by Jacqueline Crooks), which would take me up to 6 read out of 16. I have a couple of others on order from the library (Kennedy and Patel), but will only bother to read them if they are shortlisted.
Homesick by Jennifer Croft
I was intrigued by the publication history of this one: Croft first wrote it in Spanish, then produced an English-language version which, in the USA, was marketed as a memoir illustrated with her own photographs. Here in the UK, though, Charco Press published it as part of their new range of untranslated fiction – with no photos, alas. So, it’s clear that this is thinly veiled autobiography; literally all that may have been changed is the character names.
The protagonist is ‘Amy’, who lives in a tornado-ridden Oklahoma and whose sister, ‘Zoe’ – a handy A to Z of growing up there – has a mysterious series of illnesses that land her in hospital. The third person limited perspective reveals Amy to be a protective big sister who shoulders responsibility: “There is nothing in the world worse than Zoe having her blood drawn. Amy tries to show her the pictures [she’s taken of Zoe’s dog] at just the right moment, just right before the nurse puts the needle in”.
The girls are home-schooled and Amy, especially, develops a genius for languages, receiving private tutoring in Russian from Sasha, a Ukrainian former student of their father’s. Both sister are more than a little in love with Sasha. They alternate between competing for attention and indulging their joint passions – such as for the young Russian figure-skating couple who sweep the Winter Olympics. Amy starts college at 15, which earns her unwanted attention among her classmates, and struggles with her mental health before deciding to see the world. Despite periods of estrangement, her relationship with Zoe is what grounds her.
In a sense this is a simple chronological story, told in a matter-of-fact way. Yet each of its vignettes – some just a paragraph long – is perfectly chosen to reveal the family dynamic and the moment in American history. Detailed chapter headings continue the narrative and sometimes contain a shocking truth. What Croft does so brilliantly is to chart the accretion of ordinary and landmark events that form a life; Amy realizes this as she looks back at a packet of her photographs: “laid out step by step like this, more or less in order, the pictures also form a kind of path.”
Initially, I had my doubts as to whether this should have been eligible for the Women’s Prize. In the end it didn’t matter whether it was presented as memoir or autofiction, so true was it to the experience of 1990s girlhood, as well as to sisterhood and coming of age at any time in history. It reminded me strongly of Very Cold People by Sarah Manguso, but felt that little bit more universal in how it portrays family ties, ambition, and life’s winding path. (See also Annabel’s review for Shiny New Books.)
With thanks to Charco Press for the free copy for review.
Children of Paradise by Camilla Grudova
In 2017 I reviewed Grudova’s surreal story collection, The Doll’s Alphabet, describing its tales as “perverted fairytales or fragmentary nightmares.” Okay then, let’s continue in that perverted, nightmarish vein. Holly, new to the country/city, finds a room in a shared flat and a job as an usher at the Paradise Cinema, which shows a random assortment of art films and cult classics. The building is so low-rent it’s almost half derelict, and the staff take full advantage of the negligent management to get up to all sorts of sexual shenanigans, as well as drinking and drug-taking, while on duty. Holly and her co-workers are truly obsessed with the cinema, watching every showing at work but also hosting all-night movie marathons in their apartments. “The outside world, all of its news, faded away, and the movies became my main mirror of the world,” she confesses. “They were a necessary evil, customers, so that we, the true devotees, could have access to the screen, our giant godlike monument.”
The title is simultaneously ironic and an homage to Les Enfants du Paradis (1945), and the chapters are named after particular films. A change of ownership forces the Paradise to become more mainstream – hello, Marvel flicks and hipster snacks – but a series of horrific accidents and deliberate acts makes it seem like a cursed place. Aping movie genres, perhaps, Children of Paradise starts off as an offbeat stoner comedy and by the end approaches horror to an extent I didn’t expect. The content becomes increasingly sordid, visceral, with no opportunity missed to mention bodily fluids and excretions. I’m not notably opposed to gross-out humour, but the whole thing felt quite distasteful as well as miserable. (Public library e-book)
My general feeling about these first two books, and probably a few others from the longlist (Crooks, McKenzie, Paull, et al.), is that the judges are trying to showcase the breadth of women’s writing: ‘Hey, guys, women can write autofiction and horror and humour and patois and speculative fiction and everything in between!’ But I don’t think these more niche or genre fiction representatives will make it any further in the race, especially because each may have been championed by a different judge.
Where the judges will find common ground will be on the standard stuff that always gets shortlisted: fairly run-of-the-mill character- and issue-driven contemporary or historical fiction. That makes it sound like I’m being dismissive, but in fact I do generally like much of the fiction that gets shortlisted for the WP: it’s readable book club fodder. It’s just maybe not inventive in the way that certain longlist titles can be. On which note, er, see the below!
The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell
What a relief it was to wholeheartedly enjoy this sumptuous work of historical fiction, after the disappointment that was Hamnet (though perhaps I’ll feel more kindly towards the latter when I reread it for Literary Wives in November).
Lucrezia di Cosimo de’ Medici is a historical figure who died at age 16, having been married off from her father’s Tuscan palazzo as a teenager to Alfonso II d’Este, Duke of Ferrara. She was reported to have died of a “putrid fever” but the suspicion has persisted that her husband actually murdered her, a story perhaps best known via Robert Browning’s poem “My Last Duchess.”
The focus is on the final year of Lucrezia’s life, but in flashbacks we meet her as a rebellious girl with a talent for drawing and a fascination with animals. At first it appears that Alfonso esteems her for her spiritedness – he gives her a painting of a stone marten as a betrothal gift, after all, and has her depicted with paintbrush in hand – but as the gradual storyline meets up with the 1561 spotlight, it becomes clear that she is only valued for her ability to produce an heir. However spacious and opulent they are, it is impossible to forget that Lucrezia, as a noblewoman, is confined to the edifices owned by her father or her husband.
O’Farrell’s usual present-tense narration is engaging throughout, and the two long chapters either side of the midpoint, one concerning her wedding day and the other the preparation for her portrait, are particularly absorbing. I was convinced I knew how this story would end, yet the author pulls off a delicious surprise. This is ripe for the miniseries treatment, not least because it is so attentive to visuals: the architecture of the main buildings, the lavish clothing, the colours, and the eye for what makes a good painting. Scenes are even described in terms of a spatial arrangement appreciated from afar: how three figures form a triangle in the centre of a room; how two people on a balcony bisect the view from a window.
Despite the length, this was thoroughly engrossing and one I’d recommend to readers of Geraldine Brooks and Tracy Chevalier. (See also Laura’s review.) (Public library)
The other nominees I’ve read are:
Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver
Black Butterflies by Priscilla Morris
My ideal shortlist (a wish list based on my reading and what I still want to read):
Homesick by Jennifer Croft
Fire Rush by Jacqueline Crooks
Black Butterflies by Priscilla Morris
The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell
I’m a Fan by Sheena Patel
Memphis by Tara M. Stringfellow
My predicted shortlist:
Trespasses by Louise Kennedy
Demon Copperhead by Barbara Kingsolver
Stone Blind by Natalie Haynes
The Marriage Portrait by Maggie O’Farrell
Memphis by Tara M. Stringfellow
Wandering Souls by Cecile Pin
An overall winner? Perhaps Trespasses by Louise Kennedy, or an unprecedented repeat win from Barbara Kingsolver or Maggie O’Farrell.
(See also Laura’s predictions post.)
What have you read from the longlist so far? Which of these books are calling to you?
Review Catch-Up: Herreros, Onyebuchi and Tookey
Quick snapshot reviews as I work through a backlog.
One each today from fiction, nonfiction and poetry: a graphic novel about the life of Georgia O’Keeffe, a personal response to Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah, and a beautiful collection of place-centric verse.
Georgia O’Keeffe by Maria Herreros (2021; 2022)
[Translated from the Spanish by Lawrence Schimel]
This is the latest in SelfMadeHero’s “Art Masters” series (I’ve also reviewed Gauguin, Munch and Vincent). Madrid-based illustrator Herreros renders O’Keeffe’s life story in an abstract style that feels in keeping with the artist’s own. The book opens in 1915 with O’Keeffe still living in her family home in Virginia and working as an art teacher. Before she ever meets Alfred Stieglitz, she is fascinated by his photography. They fall in love at a distance via a correspondence and later live together in New York City. Their relationship ebbs as she spends more and more time in New Mexico, a desert landscape that inspires many of her most famous paintings. Much of the narrative is provided by O’Keeffe’s own letters (with idiosyncrasies retained); the additional summary text is unfortunately generic, and the urge to cover many years leads to skating over long periods. Still, the erotic attention to detail and the focus on the subject’s dedication to independence made it worthwhile.
With thanks to SelfMadeHero for the free copy for review.
(S)kinfolk: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah by Tochi Onyebuchi (2021)
I’ve reviewed six previous releases from Fiction Advocate’s “Afterwords” series (on Blood Meridian, Fun Home, and The Year of Magical Thinking; My Struggle and Wild; and Middlesex). In these short monographs, “acclaimed writers investigate the contemporary classics,” weaving literary criticism into memoir as beloved works reverberate through their lives. Onyebuchi, a Nigerian American author of YA dystopian fiction, chose one of my favourite reads of recent years: Americanah. When he read the novel as a lawyer in training, it was the first time he sensed recognition of his own experiences in literature. He saw his immigrant mother’s situation, the collective triumph of Obama’s election, and his (re)discovery of Black beauty and spaces. Like Ifemelu: he was an outsider to African American identity and had to learn it gradually; and he makes a return trip to Nigeria at the end. I enjoyed this central thread but engaged less with asides about a 2013 visit to the West Bank (for a prisoners’ rights organization) and Frantz Fanon’s work on Algeria.
With thanks to Fiction Advocate for the free e-copy for review.
In the Quaker Hotel by Helen Tookey (2022)
Tookey’s third collection brings its variety of settings – an austere hotel, Merseyside beaches and woods, the fields and trees of Southern France (via Van Gogh’s paintings), Nova Scotia (she completed a two-week residency at the Elizabeth Bishop House in 2019) – to life as vibrantly as any novel or film could. In recent weeks I’ve taken to pulling out my e-reader as I walk home along the canal path from library volunteering, and this was a perfect companion read for the sunny waterway stroll, especially the poem “Track.” Whether in stanzas, couplets or prose paragraphs, the verse is populated by meticulous images and crystalline musings.
not a loss
something like a clarifying
becoming something you can’t name
There are evanescent encounters (“Leapfrog”) and deep time (“Natural History”); playing with language (“Concession à Perpetuité”) and erasures (“Pool / Other Body”). You’ll find alliteration and ampersands (a trend in contemporary poetry?), close observation of nature, and no trace of cliché. Below are the opening stanzas of a couple of poems to give a flavour:
With thanks to Carcanet Press for the free e-copy for review.
Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?
Winter Reads, Part II: Au, Glück, Hall, Rautiainen, Slaght
In the week before Christmas I reviewed a first batch of wintry reads. We’ve had hardly any snowfall here in southern England this season, so I gave up on it in real life and sought winter weather on the page. After we’ve seen the back of Storm Franklin (it’s already moved on from Eunice!), I hope it will feel appropriate to start right in on some spring reading. But for today I have a Tokyo-set novella, sombre poems, an OTT contemporary Gothic novel, historical fiction in translation from the Finnish, and – the cream of the crop – a real-life environmentalist adventure in Russia.
Cold Enough for Snow by Jessica Au (2022)
This slim work will be released in the UK by Fitzcarraldo Editions on the 23rd and came out elsewhere this month from New Directions and Giramondo. I actually read it in December during my travel back from the States. It’s a delicate work of autofiction – it reads most like a Chloe Aridjis or Rachel Cusk novel – about a woman and her Hong Kong-raised mother on a trip to Tokyo. You get a bit of a flavour of Japan through their tourism (a museum, a temple, handicrafts, trains, meals), but the real focus is internal as Au subtly probes the workings of memory and generational bonds.
The woman and her mother engage in surprisingly deep conversations about the soul and the meaning of life, but these are conveyed indirectly rather than through dialogue: “she said that she believed that we were all essentially nothing, just series of sensations and desires, none of it lasting. … The best we could do in this life was to pass through it, like smoke through the branches”. Though I highlighted a fair few passages, I find that no details have stuck with me. This is just the sort of spare book I can admire but not warm to. (NetGalley)
Winter Recipes from the Collective by Louise Glück (2021)
The only other poetry collection of Glück’s that I’d read was Vita Nova. This, her first release since her Nobel Prize win, was my final read of 2021 and my shortest, at 40-some pages; it’s composed of just 15 poems, a few of which stretch to five pages or more. “The Denial of Death,” a prose piece with more of the feel of an autobiographical travel essay, was a standout; the title poem, again in prose paragraphs, and the following one, “Winter Journey,” about farewells, bear a melancholy chill. Memories and dreams take pride of place, with the poet’s sister appearing frequently. “How heavy my mind is, filled with the past.” There are also multiple references to Chinese concepts and characters (as on the cover). The overall style is more aphoristic and reflective than expected. Few individual lines or images stood out to me.
With thanks to Carcanet Press for the e-copy for review.
The Snow Collectors by Tina May Hall (2020)
Henna is alone in the world since her parents and twin sister disappeared in a boating accident. She lives a solitary existence with her sister’s basset hound Rembrandt in a New England village, writing encyclopaedia entries on the Arctic, until she stumbles on a corpse and embarks on an amateur investigation involving scraps of 19th-century correspondence. The dead woman asked inconvenient questions about a historical cover-up; if she takes up the thread, Henna could be a target, too. Her collaboration with the police chief, Fletcher, turns into a flirtation. After her house burns down, she ends up living with him – and his mother and housekeeper – in a Gothic mansion stuffed with birds of prey and historical snow samples. She’s at the mercy of this quirky family and the weather, wearing ancient clothing from Fletcher’s great-aunts and tramping through blizzards looking for answers.
This is a kitchen-sink novel with loads going on, as if Hall couldn’t decide which of her interests to include so threw them all in. Yet at only 221 pages, it might actually have been expanded a little to flesh out the backstory and mystery plot. It gets more than a bit ridiculous in places, but its Victorian fan fiction vibe is charming escapism nonetheless. What with the historical fiction interludes about the Franklin expedition, this reminded me most of The Still Point, but also of The World Before Us and The Birth House. I’d happily read Hall’s 2010 short story collection, too. (Christmas gift)
Land of Snow and Ashes by Petra Rautiainen (2022)
[Translated from the Finnish by David Hackston]
In the middle years of World War II, Finland was allied with Nazi Germany against Russia, a mutual enemy. After the Moscow Armistice, the Germans retreated in disgrace, burning as many buildings and planting as many landmines as they could (“the Lapland War”). I gleaned this helpful background information from Hackston’s preface. The story that follows is in two strands: one is set in 1944 and told via diary entries from Väinö Remes, a Finnish soldier called up to interpret at a Nazi prison camp in Inari. The other, in third person, takes place between 1947 and 1950, the early years of postwar reconstruction. Inkeri, a journalist, has come to Enontekiö to find out what happened to her husband. An amateur photographer, she teaches art to the local Sámi children and takes on one girl, Bigga-Marja, as her protégée.
Collusion and secrets; escaped prisoners and physical measurements being taken of the Sámi: there are a number of sinister hints that become clearer as the novel goes on. I felt a distance from the main characters that I could never quite overcome, such that the reveals didn’t land with as much power as I think was intended. Still, this has the kind of forthright storytelling and precise writing that fans of Hubert Mingarelli should appreciate. For another story of the complexities of being on the wrong side of history, see The Women in the Castle by Jessica Shattuck.
With thanks to Pushkin Press for the proof copy for review.
“Fresh snow has fallen, forming drifts across the terrain. White. Grey. Undulating. The ice has cracked here and there, raising its head in the thawed sections of the river. There is only a thin layer of ice left.”
Owls of the Eastern Ice: The Quest to Find and Save the World’s Largest Owl by Jonathan C. Slaght (2020)
Slaght has become an expert on the Blakiston’s fish owl during nearly two decades of fieldwork in the far east of Russia – much closer to Korea and Japan than to Moscow, the region is also home to Amur tigers. For his Master’s and PhD research at the University of Minnesota, he plotted the territories of breeding pairs of owls and fit them with identifying bands and data loggers to track their movements over the years. He describes these winter field seasons as recurring frontier adventures. Now, I’ve accompanied my husband on fieldwork from time to time, and I can tell you it would be hard to make it sound exciting. Then again, gathering beetles from English fields is pretty staid compared to piloting snowmobiles over melting ice, running from fire, speeding to avoid blockaded logging roads, and being served cleaning-grade ethanol when the vodka runs out.
The sorts of towns Slaght works near are primitive places where adequate food and fuel is a matter of life and death. He and his assistants rely on the hospitality of Anatoliy the crazy hermit and also stay in huts and caravans. Tracking the owls is a rollercoaster experience, with expensive equipment failures and trial and error to narrow down the most effective trapping methods. His team develops a new low-tech technique involving a tray of live fish planted in the river shallows under a net. They come to know individuals and mourn their loss: the Sha-Mi female he’s holding in his author photo was hit by a car four years later.
Slaght thinks of Russia as his second home, and you can sense his passion for the fish owl and for conservation in general. He boils down complicated data and statistics into the simple requirements for this endangered species (fewer than 2000 in the wild): valleys containing old-growth forest with large trees and rivers that don’t fully freeze over. There are only limited areas with these characteristics. These specifications and his ongoing research – Slaght is now the Northeast Asia Coordinator for the Wildlife Conservation Society – inform the policy recommendations given to logging companies and other bodies.
Amid the science, this is just a darn good story, full of bizarre characters like Katkov, a garrulous assistant exiled for his snoring. (“He fueled his monologue with sausage and cheese, then belched zeppelins of aroma into that confined space.”) Slaght himself doesn’t play much of a role in the book, so don’t expect a soul-searching memoir. Instead, you get top-notch nature and travel writing, and a ride along on a consequential environmentalist quest. This is the kind of science book that, like Lab Girl and Entangled Life, I’d recommend even if you don’t normally pick up nonfiction. (Christmas gift)
And a bonus children’s book:
If Winter Comes, Tell It I’m Not Here by Simona Ciraolo (2020)
The little boy loves nothing more than to spend hours at the swimming pool and then have an ice cream cone. His big sister warns him the carefree days of summer will be over soon; it will turn cold and dark and he’ll be cooped up inside. Her words come to pass, yet the boy realizes that every season has its joys and he has to take advantage of them while they last. Cute and colourful, though the drawing style wasn’t my favourite. And a correction is in order: as President Biden would surely tell you, ice cream is a year-round treat! (Public library)
Any snowy or icy reading (or weather) for you lately?
October Recommendations: Ashworth, Donoghue, Kay & McWatt
Intricate essays about writing in the wake of trauma, a feel-good novel about an odd couple on a trip to France, hilarious festive outtakes from a career in medicine, and a race-themed family memoir: I have four very different books to recommend to you this month. All:
Notes Made while Falling by Jenn Ashworth
(Coming from Goldsmiths Press [UK] on the 15th; already out from MIT Press [USA])
Like Anne Boyer’s The Undying and Sinéad Gleeson’s Constellations, this is an incisive memoir-in-essays about the effects of trauma on a woman’s body. Specifically, Ashworth’s story starts with her son’s birth in 2010, a disaster she keeps returning to over the course of seven sinuous personal essays. A routine C-section was followed by haemorrhaging, blood transfusions and anaphylaxis. The effects lasted for years afterwards: haunted by the sound of her blood dripping and the feeling that her organs could fall out of her abdomen at any time, she suffered from vomiting, insomnia and alcoholism, drinking late into the night as she watched gruesome true crime films.
Ashworth toggles between experience, memory, and the transformation of experience into a written record. She admits she has lost faith in fiction, either reading or writing it (she is a lecturer at Lancaster University and the author of four novels). Her Mormon upbringing in Preston is a major part of her backstory, and along with her childhood indoctrination she remembers brief stays in a children’s home and in the hospital with chicken pox.
The essays experiment with structure and content. For instance, “Ground Zero” counts down from #8, with incomplete final lines in each section, then back up to #8, with each piece from the second set picking up where the first left off. Slashes and cross-outs represent rethinking or alternate interpretations. “Off Topic: On Derailment” encompasses so many topics, from excommunication to Agatha Christie to rollercoasters to Charles Dickens, that you have to read it to believe she can make it all fit together (elsewhere she muses on Chernobyl, magic tricks and hating King Lear).
“How to Begin: The Cut” started as a talk given at Greenbelt 2013, when I was in the audience. I especially loved “A Lecture on Influence,” a coy self-examination through creative writing lessons, and “How to Fall without Landing: Celestial City,” a meditation on the precariousness of the human condition. Her frame of literary reference is wide and surprising. This also reminded me of Sight by Jessie Greengrass, The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison, I Am, I Am, I Am by Maggie O’Farrell, and In the Days of Rain by Rebecca Stott; I would recommend it to readers of any of the above.
Some favorite lines:
“My God-hurt head has a hole in it or needs one; to let the world in, or out – I can’t ever decide.”
“how to write about everything? How to take in the things that don’t belong to you without being poisoned by them? How to make use of the things that live inside, those seedlings you never asked for? How to breathe in? How to breathe out? How to keep on doing that?”
“Some days it feels like writing truthfully about her own life is the most subversive thing a woman can do.”
My thanks to the publisher for the free copy for review.
Akin by Emma Donoghue
(Coming from Picador [UK] on the 3rd; already out from Little, Brown and Co. [USA])
I’ve read Donoghue’s six most recent works of fiction. Her books are all so different from each other in setting – a one-room prison in contemporary America, bawdy 1870s San Francisco, rural Ireland in the 1850s – that it’s hard to pin her down to one time period or roster of topics. She never writes the same book twice, and that’s got to be a good thing.
Akin gets off to a slightly slow start but soon had me hooked. Noah Selvaggio, a childless widower and retired chemist in New York City, is looking forward to an imminent trip to Nice, where he was born, to celebrate his 80th birthday. He never guessed that he’d have company on his trip, much less a surly 11-year-old. This is Michael Young, his nephew Victor’s son. Victor died of a drug overdose a year and a half ago; the boy’s mother is in prison; his maternal grandmother has just died. There’s no one else to look after Michael, so with a rush passport he’s added to the itinerary.
In some ways Michael reminded me of my nephews, ages 11 and 14: the monosyllabic replies, the addiction to devices and online gaming, the finicky eating, and the occasional flashes of childlike exuberance. Having never raised a child, Noah has no idea how strict to be with his great-nephew about screen time, unhealthy food and bad language. He has to learn to pick his battles, or every moment of this long-awaited homecoming trip would be a misery. And he soon realizes that Michael’s broken home and troubled area of NYC make him simultaneously tougher and more vulnerable than your average kid.
The odd-couple dynamic works perfectly here and makes for many amusing culture clashes, not so much France vs. the USA as between these Americans of different generations. The dialogue, especially, made me laugh. Donoghue nails it:
[Noah:] “The genre, the style. Is rap the right word for it? Or hip-hop?”
[Michael:] “Don’t even try.” Michael turned his music back on.
(At the cathedral)
[Michael:] “This is some seriously frilly shit.”
[Noah:] “It’s called Baroque style.”
[Michael:] “I call it fugly.”
But there’s another dimension to the novel that keeps it from being pleasant but forgettable. Noah’s grandfather was a famous (fictional) photographer, Père Sonne, and he has recently found a peculiar set of photographs left behind by his late mother, Margot. One is of the hotel where they’re staying in Nice, known to be a holding tank for Jews before they were sent off to concentration camps. The more Noah looks into it, the more he is convinced that his mother was involved in some way – but which side was she on?
This is feel-good fiction in the best possible sense: sharp, true-to-life and never sappy. With its spot-on dialogue and vivid scenes, I can easily see it being made into a movie, too. It’s one of my favorite novels of the year so far.
My thanks to the publisher for the proof copy for review.
Twas the Nightshift before Christmas by Adam Kay
(Coming from Picador on the 17th)
If you’ve read This Is Going to Hurt, the UK’s bestselling nonfiction title of 2018, you’ll know just what to expect from the comedian’s holiday-themed follow-up. It’s raunchy, morbid and laugh-out-loud funny. In the seven years that Kay was a medical doctor, he had to work on Christmas Day six times. He takes us through the holiday seasons of 2004 to 2009, from the sickeningly festive run-up to the letdown of Christmas day and its aftermath. With his Rudolph tie on and his Scrooge spirit intact, he attends to genital oddities, childbirth crises and infertility clients, and feebly tries to keep up his relationships with his family and his partner despite them having about given up on him after so many holiday absences.
This will be a stocking-stuffer for many this year, and I can see myself returning to it year after year and flicking through for a laugh. However, there’s one story here that Kay regrets omitting from This Is Going to Hurt as being too upsetting, and he also ends on a serious note, urging readers to spare a thought for those who give up their holidays to keep our hospitals staffed.
A favorite passage:
“A lot of the reward for this job comes in the form of a warm glow. It doesn’t make you look any less tired, you can’t pay the rent with it, and it’s worth a lot less than the social life you’ve traded it for, but this comforting aura of goodness and purpose definitely throws light into some dark corners and helps you withstand a lot of the shit.”
My thanks to the publisher for the proof copy for review.
Shame on Me: An Anatomy of Race and Belonging by Tessa McWatt
(Coming from Scribe UK on the 10th)
“What are you?” This question has followed McWatt since she was eight years old. When her third-grade teacher asked the class if they knew what “Negro” meant, one boy pointed to her. “Oh, no, not Tessa,” the teacher replied, following up with a question: “What are you, Tessa?” But it has always been hard to put her mixed-race background into one word. Her family moved from Guyana to Canada and she has since settled in England, where she is a professor of creative writing; her ancestry is somewhat uncertain but may include Chinese, Indian, indigenous South American, Portuguese, French/Jewish, African, and Scottish.
The book opens with the startling scene of her grandmother, a young Chinese woman brought over to work the sugarcane fields of British Guiana, being raped by her own uncle. “To strangers, even friends—on some days also to myself—I am images of violence and oppression. I am the language of shame and destitution, of slavery and indenture, of rape and murder. I am images of power and privilege, of denial and shades of skin, shapes of faces,” McWatt writes.
Her investigation of the meaning of race takes the form of an academic paper, Hypothesis–Experiment–Analysis–Findings, and within the long third section she goes part by part through the bodily features that have most often been used as markers of racial identity, including the nose, eyes, hair and buttocks. She dives into family history but also into wider historical movements, literature and science to understand her hybrid self. It’s an inventive and sensitive work reminiscent of The Color of Water by James McBride. I would recommend it to anyone who enjoys reading (or feels they should try) interrogations of race.
A favorite line:
“as I try to square my politics with my privilege, it seems that my only true inheritance is that I am always running somewhere else.”
I won a signed proof copy in a Twitter giveaway.
Have you read any October releases that you would recommend? Do any of these tempt you?
To the Bright Edge of the World by Eowyn Ivey
Eowyn Ivey’s intricate second novel weaves together diaries, letters, photographs, and various other documents and artifacts to tell the gently supernatural story of an exploratory mission along Alaska’s Wolverine River in 1885 and its effects through to the present day. If you have read Ivey’s 2012 debut, The Snow Child, you’ll remark once again on her skill in bringing the bleak beauty of Alaska to life on the page and blending magic realism and folktales with a nonetheless realistic view of history.
In March 1885 Lieutenant Colonel Allen Forrester sets out with a small team – including brash Sergeant Bradley Tillman, melancholy photographer Lieutenant Andrew Pruitt, native guides, and Samuelson, a trapper who serves as a go-between – to navigate a previously unmapped portion of Alaska. Back at Vancouver Barracks he’s left his wife of four months, Sophie. Bold and curious, she intended to travel into Alaska with Allen until she learned she was pregnant. Now she passes the months of her confinement – and raises eyebrows among the military wives – by pursuing her amateur hobbies of birdwatching and photography.
Through alternating passages from journals by Allen and Sophie, Ivey contrasts the big adventures of surveying new territory with the smaller adventures of domestic life. Along their perilous journey Allen and his men encounter many legends and incidents they cannot explain: shape-shifters, like the women who morph into flocks of geese or the shaman who takes the form of a half-lame raven; a baby born out of a tree trunk; and a prehistoric creature that guards a lake. As Allen writes in a letter to Sophie towards the end of his journey:
I can find no means to account for what we have witnessed, except to say that I am no longer certain of the boundaries between man & beast, of the living and & dead. It has been a strange experience indeed. All that I have taken for granted, of what is real & true, has been called into question.
A framing story sets the historical narrative in the context of the present day: Walter Forrester has sent his great-uncle Allen’s letters and journal to a small Alaska museum for safekeeping. Initially the young curator, Joshua Sloan, is annoyed at the unwanted donation and the extra work it creates for him, but gradually – right alongside the novel’s readers – he starts to be sucked into the story the documents reveal. Through their correspondence, Josh and Walt develop a touching friendship despite their differences.
Ivey fits the pieces of her epistolary together in a sophisticated manner and makes you care about each of the characters. Sophie and Pruitt, especially, have traumatic backstories that help you understand their behavior. Sophie reminded me most of Meridian Wallace in Elizabeth J. Church’s The Atomic Weight of Love – both are self-taught scientists with a deep love for birds and a determination to live interesting lives even if others disapprove. The novel also brings to mind Maggie O’Farrell’s This Must Be the Place in that it skips back and forth in time and intersperses a central narrative with other documents, including an auction catalogue of relevant objects.
I found Sophie’s voice instantly more engaging than Allen’s shorthand-like style, and it took me a while – maybe 60–80 pages – to warm up to the storyline and characters. I would have appreciated an Author’s Note at the end of the book explaining what, if anything, was based on a true story and which documents are authentic. (As it is, I assume that all the characters are fictional but the explorers’ journey is based on the historical record.) Nonetheless, I can highly recommend this rollicking adventure tale to fans of historical fiction and magic realism.
With thanks to Katie Brown at Tinder Press for the free review copy.
Reviews Roundup, March–April
One of my goals with this blog is to have one convenient place where I can gather together all my writing that has appeared in disparate online locations. To that end, once a month – or maybe more often – I’ll provide links to all the book reviews I’ve published elsewhere, with a short taster and a rating (below) so you can decide whether to click to read more. (A couple of exceptions: I won’t point out my Kirkus Indie or BlueInk reviews since I don’t get a byline.)
The Animals by Christian Kiefer [BookBrowse is a subscription service, but an excerpt is available for free on the website]: Kiefer’s second novel contrasts wildness and civilization through the story of a man who runs an animal refuge to escape from his criminal past.
The Sunlit Night by Rebecca Dinerstein: A debut novel as charming as it is quirky. Two young adults from Brooklyn meet in the far north of Norway, where one is an artist’s apprentice and the other is burying a beloved father. Bittersweet family backstories and burgeoning romance make this a winner.
Beauty and Chaos: Slices and Morsels of Tokyo Life by Michael Pronko (& interview): The pleasant and diverse travel essays in this collection draw on Pronko’s 15 years living in Japan. A long-term resident but still an outsider, he is perfectly placed to notice the many odd and wonderful aspects of Tokyo life.
The Blind Man of Hoy: A True Story by Red Szell: Red Széll started losing his sight at age 19. In 2013 he became the first blind person to climb the Old Man of Hoy, off the Orkney Islands. An inspirational rock-climbing adventure.
Adeline: A Novel of Virginia Woolf by Norah Vincent: Set in 1925–1941 and focusing on Virginia Woolf’s marriage and later career, this is a remarkable picture of mental illness from the inside. For the depth of its literary reference and psychological insight, this is my favorite novel of 2015 so far.
On Immunity: An Inoculation by Eula Biss: This wide-ranging work of nonfiction explores the facts, myths and metaphors of vaccination. Biss powerfully captures the modern phenomenon of feeling simultaneously responsible and powerless.
Chaplin and Company by Mave Fellowes: An aspiring mime buys a London canal boat and finds her father in this debut novel. Fellowes writes good descriptive passages and handles past and present capably. However, I was unsure whether Chaplin and Company overall has much narrative verve. What I will take away is an offbeat, bittersweet coming-of-age story.
Gorsky by Vesna Goldsworthy: An updated version of The Great Gatsby set amongst contemporary London’s über-rich Russians. The novel is wise about the implications of class and immigration. However, as a whole it doesn’t work as well as some updated classics, such as The Innocents (Francesca Segal). In a sense, Goldsworthy’s literary debt is too obvious.
Quite a Good Time to Be Born: A Memoir, 1935-1975 by David Lodge [more personal musings and an overview of the book’s content]: David Lodge, one of Britain’s most celebrated comic novelists, surveys 40 years of personal and social change.
Better Than Before: Mastering the Habits of Our Everyday Lives by Gretchen Rubin: The author of The Happiness Project returns with a thorough guide to making and breaking habits, offering different strategies for different personality types.
Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher: A very funny epistolary novel in the form of letters of recommendation written by a grouchy English professor. English graduates and teachers in particular will get a kick out of this, but I daresay anyone who has ever been fed up with bureaucracy at work will sympathize with Fitger.
The Last Asylum: A Memoir of Madness in Our Time by Barbara Taylor: Taylor was once a mental patient at Friern Hospital. This is an arresting vision of madness from the inside, as well as a history of England’s asylum system.
We Love This Book
It’s What I Do: A Photographer’s Life of Love and War by Lynsey Addario: Photojournalist Lynsey Addario remembers a decade on the frontline of conflicts in the Middle East and Africa and strives for balance in her work and personal life. Journalists face real danger every day. It’s all here: bombs, car accidents, dehydration, beatings, and sexual assault. Yet all the risks over the years have been worth it “to convey beauty in war.”
Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum: Essbaum’s arresting debut novel reads like a modern retelling of Madame Bovary, with its main character a desperate housewife in Zurich. As deplorable as Anna’s actions may be, she is an entirely sympathetic tragic heroine. Watch her trajectory with horror but you cannot deny there is a little of Anna in you.
The Wild Beyond by Piers Torday: the suspenseful finale to “The Last Wild,” a fantasy trilogy for younger readers. The environmentalist message is not subtle but it is powerful and should inspire older children. Blending hints of Pullman and Tolkien with up-to-the-minute dystopian themes, this is an inventive take on the classic quest narrative.
The Time in Between: A Memoir of Hunger and Hope by Nancy Tucker: Nancy Tucker suffered from anorexia and bulimia for nearly a decade. Written in an original blend of styles, her eating disorder memoir is wrenching but utterly absorbing. You won’t find epiphanies or happy endings here, just a messy, ongoing recovery process – but 21-year-old Tucker narrates it exquisitely.
Quadrapheme literary magazine
Quite a Good Time to Be Born: A Memoir, 1935-1975 by David Lodge [more of an essay about the context and sociological themes]: Even readers less familiar with Lodge’s work may be interested in the book’s insights into the social changes of post-war Britain. Lodge has not had a conventionally exciting life, and he knows it. From the title onward, his focus is more on his time period than his own uniqueness. He appears as an Everyman who superseded his working-class origins and expectations through hard work and luck.
Shiny New Books
Reading the World: Confessions of a Literary Explorer by Ann Morgan: Not just another bibliomemoir. A better balance could have been struck between recycled blog content and academic musings on postcolonial literature and censorship. An interest in the politics of literature in translation would be a boon to anyone attempting this.
Foreword Reviews (self-published titles)
The Woman in the Movie Star Dress by Praveen Asthana: In this carefully plotted novel, a young Native American finds self-assurance and explores her sexuality by trying on the clothing – and personae – of Hollywood actresses. Spirited characters and dialogue make this an enjoyable read for classic film lovers.
Silence by Deborah Lytton: Lytton’s second novel for young adults concerns the unlikely match between a Broadway-bound singer who experiences temporary deafness after an accident and a pianist with a speech impediment and a traumatic past. It is a touching story about the forces that so often threaten us into silence and the struggle to find a voice anyway.
Woody Allen: Reel to Real by Alex Sheremet: Woody Allen fans will prize this comprehensive, readable rundown of his oeuvre. This is an exhaustive study, ideal for established Allen enthusiasts and film students rather than the average moviegoer looking for an introduction.
I also post reviews of most of my casual reading on Goodreads.
The Mermaid’s Child by Jo Baker: This was Baker’s second novel, originally published in 2004. It doesn’t nearly live up to Longbourn, but it’s a fairly intriguing blend of historical fiction and fantasy. Malin’s father was a ferryman; her absent mother, so he swears, was a mermaid. Curiously timeless and placeless.
The Dream Lover: A Novel of George Sand by Elizabeth Berg: This historical novel about George Sand is a real slow burner. Berg makes the mistake of trying to be too comprehensive about Sand’s life; it would be better to just choose illustrative vignettes or representative love affairs (e.g. with Chopin) rather than include them all. There are two different timelines, 1831–1876 and 1804–1831, but together they’re still just a chronological slog.
The Year My Mother Came Back by Alice Eve Cohen: There’s some gentle magic realism to this mother-daughter memoir. In the difficult year that forms the kernel of the memoir, Cohen’s younger daughter, Eliana, had a leg-lengthening surgery; her adopted older daughter, Julia, met her birth mother, Zoe; and Cohen herself underwent a lumpectomy and radiation for breast cancer. During radiation sessions, when she had to lie face-down, perfectly still, for 10 minutes at a time, her mother – dead for 20 years – would appear and talk to her.
A Sting in the Tale: My Adventures with Bumblebees by Dave Goulson: A wholly engaging tour through everything we know and are still trying to learn about bumblebees. I saw Goulson, founder of the UK’s Bumblebee Conservation Trust, speak at a nature conference in November and found him to be just as enthusiastic and well-informed in person. His occasional anthropomorphisms are unfailingly endearing.
Black River by S.M. Hulse: Back in the town of Black River, Montana after his wife’s agonizing death, Wesley Carver must face the trauma he experienced as a prison guard when he was held hostage and tortured during an inmate riot. Now his attacker is up for parole, and Wes plans to attend the hearing and discourage the jury. At first you might think you’re reading a revenge story, but this is something subtler and sweeter than that. (What a shame that Hulse had to go by her initials, rather than Sarah, to be taken seriously in this genre, even though she’s on a level with Philipp Meyer.)
Trumbull Ave. by Michael Lauchlan: I didn’t like this quite as much as the other Made in Michigan books I’ve read, but Lauchlan does a good job of contrasting pastoral and post-industrial views of Detroit through free verse, as in “Detroit Pheasant,” the poem that gives the collection its cover image.
What Ridiculous Things We Could Ask of Each Other by Jeffrey Schultz: I enjoyed these poems set in a seemingly post-apocalyptic urban wasteland. They’re full of black humor, sarcasm and realistically pessimistic views of the American future. They’re very densely structured, usually in complete sentences of free verse.