Posts Categorized: What We’re Reading

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Microreview: Laurie Ann Guerrero’s A Tongue in the Mouth of the Dying

Often a debut collection will satisfy a reader’s hunger pains only to be wiped away after the initial reading like stubborn crumbs. Laurie Ann Guerrero’s A Tongue in the Mouth of the Dying defiantly demands a place at the table. This collection offers sweet and savory poems that invite the reader into a domestic sphere where all is not as it seems. Poems like “Babies under the House,” “Esperanza Tells Her Friends the Story of La Llorona,” and “My Mother Woke a Rooster,” signal the intensity of full-bodied language that is delivered throughout this tantalizing debut.

Guerrero’s complex narratives rely on powerful bodily tropes such as bone, skin, and tongue. In the introductory poem, “Preparing the Tongue,” she writes, “In my hands, it’s cold and knowing as bone.” Language assumes the form of a tongue “Shrouded in plastic,” which the speaker carefully unwinds. She craves “to enchant it: / let it taste the oil in my skin, lick / the lash of my eye.” Instead of employing domestic language generally associated with meal preparation, the speaker forcefully admits that she will “lacerate the frozen muscle, tear / the brick-thick cud conductor in half to fit / a ceramic red pot.” It will be painful, if not bloody, and by the end the “frozen muscle” will be transformed into sustenance for the body. These poems are crafted out of urgency for consumption.

Throughout the collection, Guerrero asks what it means to have a tongue with no voice, to suffer quietly, to rewrite history. A series of poems titled “One Man’s Name: Colonization of the Poetic,” explores the caustic relationship between heritage and language. In the final installment of the series, Guerrero writes:

Write the body well, I say.
Pink man, write well, write body.
Little pink man: write books,
write history, white history: Cortéz
and I have the same hands: grandmother.
Bodies ripped with babies and men: molcajete:
pounded, blood-red dust, pigment
for painting. Art. Framed in gold.

In her visceral debut, Guerrero hacks away unnecessary language “like an axe murderer.” By relying on careful lineation and striking imagery, she weaves a complex tapestry that displays a body ravaged by history. She sews images together with language like a skein of blood red embroidery thread. A Tongue in the Mouth of the Dying reveals what it means to conquer with, and be conquered by, imagistic language.

Guerrero’s poems are not silent. Like a raging rooster clawing its way across a tin roof, these poems demand the reader pay attention. In “Put Attention,” the speaker remembers her grandmother’s inability to translate Spanish into English, thereby butchering her own demand for the speaker to “Ponga atención.” “Put attention, put attention. Put it where?” the speaker asks. “Shall I put attention in my glass and drink it soft like Montepulciano / d’Abruzzo? Like Shiner Bock? Horchata?” With each poem Guerrero petitions, “Put [your] attention somewhere large.” A Tongue in the Mouth of the Dying repeatedly dismembers large issues like family, race, and history in an effort to make them more digestible. Through careful construction, these poems become palatable bites that leave the reader feeling satisfied instead of overfed.

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Microreview: Sad Little Breathing Machine by Matthea Harvey

There are some writers whose work tends to itch the insides of your ears long after you have put the book down and gone on to do your usual things. Although there are many writers whose works stay with me, Matthea Harvey’s Sad Little Breathing Machine is a poetry collection I feel very lucky to have grown acquainted with. Portions of Matthea Harvey’s writing find me when I am making figurines out of bubbles in the dish soap or humming to the white noise of the A/C in my Elantra. I find the music in this collection meticulous and sentient. ‘[This] little Narrative is so adorable’ quips one of the characters in Harvey’s “Once Upon A Time: A Genre Fable.” I also find this to be true. I cannot think of many works I think of as both adorable and melancholic. The fact Breathing Machine pulls of both makes reading it a pleasure to come back to, and the kind of book one continues to develop a different relationship over time, as one matures, like The Little Prince and its heart-breaking love between a boy and his rose.

Much like the writers Indiana Review celebrates with the Half-K prize, Matthea Harvey does not burden Sad Little Breathing Machine with a definition for the kinds of writing we are witnessing. Is it a collection of poetry? Are portions of it micro-fiction? Breathing Machine is more about the recognition that different stories demand different types of narration—different states of embodiment. I relish the ambiguity of genre in “Baked Alaska, Theory of.” I love how a “country song” resides over the narrative’s complicated protagonist like a benevolent soothsayer to the perils of father-daughter relationships: “O the flesh is hot but the heart is cold, you’ll be alone when you are old.” Not even the enchanted princesses of this other realm are immune from the friction of a family dinner. As a reader, each time I go back to portions of Breathing Machine, I feel continuously delighted by what I uncover in these well-crafted pieces. As a writer, each time I return I gain a greater appreciation for the cogs maneuvering this machine and its craftsman’s quiet handiwork.

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Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven

Even on its surface, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven is a beautifully constructed spiderweb of a novel. It begins with the death of Arthur Leander, an aging actor, and expands outward. On the same snowy night, a deadly Georgian Flu breaks out in North America and spreads quickly, completely wiping out 99 percent of the population. Moving back and forth in time, the narrative weaves together the lives of Arthur’s ex-wife, his college friend, the paramedic who tries to revive him, and, most centrally, Kristen Raymonde, the eight-year old child actress who witnesses his death.
Fifteen years after the collapse, Kristen is performing Shakespeare plays with the Traveling Symphony, a ragtag group of musicians and actors who wander through the half-formed settlements of the new world. Painted on their caravan is the Star Trek quote, “Because survival is insufficient.” But when they encounter a violent prophet, the symphony must once again fight to maintain their fragile existence.
At once sprawling and intimate, Station Eleven is less interested in the gore of the epidemic than it is in the aftermath, the different ways humans embark on the painstaking process of rebuilding. Both before and after the epidemic, Mandel’s complex characters grapple with the same questions, searching across an impersonal world for connection and meaning and hope.
While traveling with the symphony, Kristen remembers flying on airplane as a child. “She’d pressed her forehead to the window and saw clusters and pinpoints of light in the darkness, scattered constellations liked by roads or alone. The beauty of it, the loneliness. . .” For me, Station Eleven is that pinpoint of light, that faint voice coming through a dark tunnel, a prayer for the modern world.

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Laura Spence-Ash’s “The Remains”

Lately, my Christmas list consists of a series of subscriptions to lit journals, and this year I was lucky enough to get One Story—and even luckier that the first booklet that landed in my mailbox was Laura Spence-Ash’s “The Remains.” Spence-Ash tells the story of Mrs. Constantine in five distinct sections, from five points-of-view, none of them Mrs. Constantine’s. We meet the main character, in fact, by meeting her corpse, which has been decaying in her half of a Queens duplex for months. One of the remarkable and memorable components of this piece is the care and attention Spence-Ash brings to her choice of characters who fill out the—well, the remains—of Mrs. Constantine.

The cast includes a spectrum of familiarity to the woman, and in that way, a spectrum of peculiarity when we remember that Mrs. Constantine’s remains have gone unnoticed for nearly a year. The police sergeant who discovers her and the reluctant seamstress who used to do her alterations could hardly be blamed for not realizing the woman hasn’t been around in some time. But when Spence-Ash introduces Mrs. Constantine’s next door neighbor, a young mother who admits to herself that she smelled something strange earlier in the year, I began to question my own passivity and the ease with which we can explain away truths that are uncomfortable. Spence-Ash raises the stakes with Bob MacMillan, Mrs. Constantine’s old boss, who called the police when she stopped showing up to work, but has quietly resigned to her absence. In a heartbreaking final section, we meet Mrs. Constantine’s ex-husband, a man who has moved on where the dead woman could not.

“The Remains” captures brief moments and realizations that each of these characters go through, pulling together deft outlines of what the lonely death means for them all, while also constructing a subtle portrait of the deceased. Perhaps my favorite part of this story, however—which I first read in January and think about and re-read regularly—is the little note in Ms. Spence-Ash’s bio which informs us that “this is her first published story.”

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The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri or: How to Find a Good Book at the Airport

Warning: This review contains no spoilers. Viewer discretion advised.

[I’ve got that summertime, summertime sadness…]

It’s 8:54 AM on a Thursday in July and I’m standing in a Hudson Book Sellers at Chicago Midway Airport.

In 25 minutes I’ll be departing for Las Vegas.

In 25 minutes it will be me and Lana Del Rey cruising Southwest Airlines, eating hard shitty pretzels, and wondering why this Bachelors Party had to be in Vegas.

But for now it’s me and Cindy. Cindy, who is working the morning shift at this Hudson Book Sellers.

Midway Airport is like the Mos Eisley of Airports. You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. One must be cautious when flying.

But here I am, with a bag of McDonald’s Hash Browns, looking for a book to read before I lose myself to Sin City.

I should have known better.

Why I would find a book worthy of a 4 hour flight? What good can possibly come from a Hudson’s Book Sellers?

The usual players are displayed neatly in the window:

Now Boarding:

James Patterson: Row 1, Seat A.
Elizabeth Gilbert: Row 1, Seat B.
Nicholas Sparks: Row 1, Seat C.
John Green: Row 1, Seat D.

Paul Asta Row 26, Seat E.*

*In reality I am B46, because Southwest does that weird non-assigned seats thing.

I am taking coach to a whole new level of sadness, and we’ve been sad for a long time.

The Fault in Our Stars is flying off the shelves at a record pace. It’s the paperback of the summer, and I’ve seen at least 6 copies as I walk to my terminal.

But then, in the darkest corner, behind a cardboard standup display for Trident Gum, I see it:

NATIONAL BOOK AWARD FINALIST.
PULITZER PRIZE WINNER.

Friends, I tell you, even in darkness, there is hope: The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri

In truth, I have never read anything by Jhumpa Lahiri before, so I cannot speak to how the Lowland compares to her other work.

But I will say I find her prose engaging, face paced, and lively. And it is perhaps for this reason I am willing to overlook certain points where things don’t add up.

I am a sucker for coming of age stories and stories that concern brothers.

I am a sucker for character driven narratives as opposed to plot driven ones.

I appreciate characters that can show emotional complexity over a span of time and represent a full spectrum of feelings as opposed to having singular drives.

In this way, I believe Lahiri is successful.

If you’re looking for an emotional, character driven novel, The Lowland is for you.

Also, possibly The Fault in Our Stars, but I don’t know.

All I can say is If you’re looking for book at Hudson’s, look in the corners of the bookshelves. There’s something for everyone.

The fault is you not looking hard enough.