Posts Categorized: What We’re Reading

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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.

Sizzling Summer Reads

As the Great Heat Wave of 2012 finally breaks, I find myself able to leave my apartment for the first time in weeks. True, I still sweat when I touch the doorknob, but I can finally stand to leave my perpetually-73-degree apartment (begrudgingly). While avoiding the heat, sun, and everything to do with outside in general, I found myself with a lot of free time and in my recent stint of hermitism, I stumbled onto a book that tried to set my heart on fire.

The Fire King

Marjorie Liu

The Fire King

The Fire King is a paranormal romance novel about the blossoming love between Karr, a shapeshifting warlord from the past, and Soria, a one-armed woman.

The plot follows Karr’s return to life and all of the craziness that usually ensues after unearthing a half-man half-dragon/lion. Soria and Karr find themselves linked together by things that they don’t understand, but what we already know as love. Read more…

Matthew Siegel’s Summer Reading List

Before I fell in love with it, many of my earliest adventures in poetry reading were spurred on (okay, okay, required) by my teachers and professors. It took longer to fall than I’d care to admit, but I can only imagine the process would have been a little quicker had Matthew Siegel been my instructor. This summer he’s busy teaching gifted high school students at Stanford, and this is a look at what he’s assigned.

And how jealous of these kids am I!

If Birds Gather Your Hair for Nesting by Anna Journey: This is a book that continues to impress me each time I read it. Imagistically, these poems soar. They are both confident and vulnerable. Poems that make me want to write poems. Poems that make me want to be a better poet.

Please by Jericho Brown: This is another book I teach from regularly, especially when I am teaching literature to musicians. To say these poems talk about music and love and distance and identity would not be saying nearly enough. I love this book.

We the Animals by Justin Torres: His is a book that will beat you about the face and heart. Justin’s stories have made me weep openly. This book goes straight for gut.

Self Help by Lorrie Moore: A contemporary classic I’m reading for the first time. Lots of second person stories that really work and the ones that aren’t blend right in. Family drama. Love stories. Things of the heart.

Siegel’s poems appear in our Summer 2011 issue.

Philip Pullman Is So, So Right

Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy took me a while to get into as a kid, but by the time I’d finished reading it, it had, rather ironically, become a sort of bible for me.  I recognized that these books were full of wisdom, and their wisdom touched me deeply in ways that I continue to explore. At twenty, I’ve seen a little more of life than I had at twelve, and I find new levels of meaning every time I reread each book.

The thing about His Dark Materials is that it isn’t a children’s series.  But then, it’s not really adult literature either.  For me, this is a series that defies age boundaries because it has so much to say about humanity as a whole.  Pullman uses children as the vehicle for a message that is much richer and more complex than childhood itself.  The end of childhood is not the end of the journey as it is depicted in so many children’s books.  Instead, it is the beginning of a new and beautiful and deep appreciation of having a presence in the world.  Pullman writes of his protagonist at the end of The Amber Spyglass, the final book in the series,

“[Lyra] felt as if she had been handed the key to a great house she hadn’t known was there, a house that was somehow inside her, and as she turned the key, she felt other doors opening deep in the darkness, and the lights coming on” (444).

Lyra’s entrance into maturity, both sexual and emotional, is also the beginning of an illuminated presence.  With her newfound knowledge of love and desire comes light, not darkness, nothing evil or impure.  To me, this series is most profound when it speaks to our fear that when we are no longer children, we lose the best part of ourselves.  Instead of trying to regain an innocence that we can never again achieve, why not strive to appreciate the natural order of things?  Why not revel in the hefty presence of a physical body and its needs and rhythms?  Why not love ourselves for being human, for growing and changing and learning?

Along with their emphasis on the sexual awakening that comes with adulthood, the books tell us that all people have the potential to love, that life is precious to everyone who can think and feel and be:

“She wasn’t Lyra just then, and he wasn’t Will; she wasn’t a girl, and he wasn’t a boy.  They were the only two human beings in that vast gulf of death” (Spyglass 360).

To be human, Pullman seems to say, is to cling to others in the face of death.  Life begins to have true meaning when we (through Lyra and her friend Will) realize that death is a void, and that the beating heart of humanity is the only thing that anchors us in the world of the living. The physical body, not the purity of the soul that accompanies an ignorance of the body, is ultimately the most important part of being human.  And being human in the best way we can is the best thing we can aspire to.  As Will says,

“Angels wish they had bodies.  They told me that angels can’t understand why we don’t enjoy the world more.  It would be a sort of ecstasy for them to have our flesh and our senses” (Spyglass 439).

Pleasure is good, Pullman says, and for this he has been judged by those who believe that his books work against a traditional Christian morality.  Be this as it may, his message about pleasure has its own morality.  Lyra and Will are Adam and Eve in reverse, and the world of humanity is the new Garden of Eden.  They gain knowledge by trying to help their friends and by developing a mutual trust in one another.  The forbidden fruit, then, becomes the most beautiful and desirable type of love.  And the passion that stems from this love is not sinful, but rather the natural extension of love.

Pullman’s trilogy transcends boundaries of age and gender and addresses what is human in all of us:  our consciousness and our questions.  While his books leave room for interpretation, they provide reassuring answers as well. It’s okay to enjoy life, Pullman seems to say, as long as we are good and kind people.  This might seem to be the simplest of messages, but in a world that’s as convoluted and complex as our own, it takes a long time to get there.


 Miranda Hoegberg is a summer intern for Indiana Review.