DEATH AND OTHER HOLIDAYS

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DEATH AND OTHER HOLIDAYS BY MARCI VOGEL

Marci Vogel’s Death and Other Holidays, the inaugural winner of the Miami Book Fair / Degroot Novella Prize, is a tour de force that comprises a year in the life of April, a painfully average woman who grapples with the vicissitudes of young adulthood after the death of her beloved stepfather. Composed of gorgeous vignettes that chronicle April’s trials and tribulations in 1990s Los Angeles, Death and Other Holidays is raw, honest, and darkly humorous. Vogel’s tight prose reads like something of a diary by its immediacy, capturing the inner workings of April’s mind, and speaks to the aching young adult in all of us. From one section, April recalls a science experiment where researchers measure molecules before and after having people watch them, and they find that the molecules have changed. “Something as minor as taking pictures changes the world, at least on a molecular level,” writes April. Here, too, readers who watch as Vogel’s endearing protagonist battles death and young adulthood will most certainly find themselves changed.

Melville House.

— Review by Hiba Tahir

IN COUNTRY

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IN COUNTRY BY HUGH MARTIN

Hugh Martin’s second poetry collection In Country delves into the war in Iraq from the American soldier’s perspective. The language and listing quality of his memories are plain and simple, but the stories they tell are not. Readers see the complicated relationship that the American militia, both as individuals and as a collective, have with Iraqi civilians. Poems move from tenderness—Thanksgiving dinners with the Iraqi soldiers and games with children in the streets—to the brutality of beating an Iraqi man until he’s the shade of plum: “As he lay there in his own piss, I saw his eyes shut, / sealed with swollen skin (this isn’t to say this incident—just one small evening event—is to showcase some soldiers / saving men / from beatings. We, / mostly, weren’t).”

Martin’s poems deal with the aftermath of war too—the resentful parents who mourn the sons they believe the US took from them, and then, the particular hardships felt by soldiers, chiefly, the combined monotony and isolation from American society. Still, In Country continues to return to the question of what is service? Poem to poem it is posed: “I served by opening each drawer, / each cabinet, looking for wires / & weapons while women screamed in a room / where we’d put them with the children / away from the men / we’d put in another room / to be watched while we searched. I served / by handing out peppermint candies / to children in villages / as fathers and mothers stood in doorways / not speaking, even though if they did / we’d never know what they were saying.”

BOA.

— Review by Jenee Skinner

MINA

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MINA BY KIM SAGWA, TRANSLATED BY BRUCE AND JU-CHAN FULTON

In her mind, teenaged Crystal is unparalleled; she gets the grades, works the system, has no one and needs no one—except Mina. But when a friend’s suicide leaves Mina heartbroken, she begins to pull away from Crystal, who observes her mourning with a perplexing detachment. As Crystal wrestles with both her own isolation and the violent impulses that emerge in the wake of Mina’s withdrawal, disturbing reveries and half-finished thoughts flicker and flare in her consciousness before erupting in one startling, obsessive line: “The problem is: there are too many people who ought to be killed.”

Mina’s translators, Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton, masterfully capture Crystal’s manic voice, navigating long, suspenseful dialogues between the two girls in which Crystal’s lines are cardiograms, spasming between threat and apology, threat and apology, as arrhythmic and untrustworthy as a palpitation:

“IfyoufeelIambeingcrueltoyouIamsorrysorrytrulysorryreallysorrysorrysorrysorry.”

Even as Crystal’s actions become more and more volatile, she remains resolutely, alarmingly, in control of herself, her future, her way of life. In this tense, slow-burning novel, Kim Sagwa hacks into the egocentric complexities of adolescence to criticize a monolithic and unsympathetic collectivist tradition. “If you want to win,” Crystal asserts, speaking for a society that is greater than and beyond her, “you need to be illogical, powerful, and destructive, and the more of each the better.” With Mina, Kim has created a compelling narrative of mental degradation, flaying both Crystal’s ego and a culture at large to reveal the often disturbing complexes found therein.

Two Lines Press.

— Review by Samantha Kirby

THE FEMALES

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THE FEMALES BY Wolfgang Hilbig, translated by Isabel Fargo Cole

At one point in The Females, the narrator thrusts his hand into a garbage can and feels “a fleshy hairy mound . . . a labial circle . . . firm and sucking, around [his] lower arm.” The most erudite critic would be hard pressed to find a better metaphor for the experience of reading this slim novel, penned by the East German author Wolfgang Hilbig in 1987. Cast adrift on the sea of the narrator’s consciousness, we grope for meaning in the depths, and what seizes us throbs not with love or even lust, but with something primordial, libidinous, Freudian. The Females offers a dizzying tour of a psyche tormented by totalitarianism, distorted by loneliness, and beset by impulses far more complex than any mere sexual urge.

But why on earth is the narrator putting his hand in trashcans? He’s been reassigned to garbage duty after losing his factory job; but more importantly, the factory women he used to ogle—all the women in the city, for that matter, and all the female nouns in German, too—have disappeared. And he’s desperate to find them. His quest for anything remotely feminine leads him to phallic champagne bottles, memories of a poor performance review, and speculation that he’s “hidden in the bowels of [his] mother . . .” Yet somehow, despite his relentless and disturbing visions, one can never quite imagine the narrator harming anyone but himself. Hilbig teases a thread of tenderness from the midst of his madness—tenderness that renders the prose uncannily irresistible.

Hilbig’s genius, long obscured from the Anglophone eye, has only recently gained visibility thanks to Isabel Fargo Cole, who launched a slew of Hilbig translations in 2015. Her efforts have introduced English readers to the fruits of a literary career that racked up nearly every major German literary prize, yet so irritated East German officials that they readily endorsed Hilbig’s exodus from the Soviet Union in 1985. He died in 2007. Yet for English readers, Cole’s commitment to his legacy and meticulous prose have granted him a sort of resurrection.

Two Lines Press.

— Review by Mekiya Walters

WAYS TO HIDE IN WINTER

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WAYS TO HIDE IN WINTER BY SARAH ST. VINCENT

In her debut novel, Sarah St. Vincent creates a compelling mystery set against the wider concerns of the War on Terror. In a national park in Pennsylvania’s Blue Ridge Mountains, nearly abandoned in winter except for the locals, a few hunters, and then a stranger whose presence warrants explanation, this novel unfolds. Kathleen works at the park’s only store and develops a careful friendship with Daniil, the stranger from Uzbekistan. Ways to Hide in Winter drifts through the snow-covered scenes of its rural concerns—an aging grandmother, Kathleen’s dead abusive husband, her distant parents—but it also presents the secrets of its characters in sudden and unexpected moments of violence and betrayal, eventually involving Kathleen in a manhunt for her new, mysterious friend. The author’s experience as a human rights attorney informs the drama of the novel in a convincing way, filling each page with global implications without losing the immediate suspense, as well as the sense that in what should be a quiet, small town, there is someone watching, a secret left unsaid.

Melville House.

— Review by Lucas Palmer

WHEN RAP SPOKE STRAIGHT TO GOD

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WHEN RAP SPOKE STRAIGHT TO GOD BY ERICA DAWSON

When Rap Spoke Straight to God is a raucous and irreverent book-length poem that refuses to sit still. Erica Dawson, author of two previous award-winning collections of poetry, turns her keen sense of form toward the poetic epic. Her poem, told in four parts, explores existence as a WOC in a deeply flawed and dangerous world. She speaks of the divine and the mundane in the same breath: “I tell Lil’ Kim that nothing makes / this woman feel better than telling God, / See my slow goddess and my two / fists, same size as my beating heart. / Same fists, the size of my stomach.” This fluent twining of opposites occurs throughout the collection: new and old, light and dark, divine and embodied. One of the most compelling dualities is her use of form. Her considered and formally astounding poetics are deeply aware of formalism’s fraught history as a bulwark of the traditional literary canon, which excludes POC like her. As a response, Dawson packs her formal poetics with meaning: “When Jeezy said     Jesus said the sky’s / our only limit, rap asked God who deferred / it to the dirt interred around the incus / the anvil of our ear’s middle passage.” Combining old and new iterations of biblical figures, abstract ideas and intimate bodily details, and the timeless dichotomy of earth and sky, she constructs verse heavy with history, from the “deferred” of Langston Hughes to the “middle passage” of the slave trade. Dawson engages with contemporary issues plaguing our culture, from #MeToo to the resurfacing of simmering racial hatred. When Rap Spoke Straight to God is a complex and transcendent response to our dangerous era.

Tin House.

— Review by Emma Van Dyke

SHE WOULD BE KING

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SHE WOULD BE KING BY WAYÉTU MOORE

“If she was not a woman,” says the wind of Gbessa, a girl who can revive herself after dying, “she would be king.” The complex origins of Liberia, the first African settlement for emancipated African-Americans, forms the backbone of Wayétu Moore’s powerful debut. The narrative focuses on three characters and their unexplained powers: Gbessa, a young indigenous Liberian exiled from her village on suspicion of witchcraft; June Dey, an inhumanly strong runaway slave from Virginia; and Norman Aragon, the son of a white British colonizer and a Maroon slave from Jamaica who inherited the power of invisibility from his mother. The three meet in the settlement camp of Monrovia, where they use their gifts to help temper the tense relationship between the settlers and the native peoples.

Moore’s use of magical realism fits aptly into the proto-mythic atmosphere of a country coming into being amid the realities of African diaspora. The wind often interjects as a combination of narrator and chorus, animating the African landscape that shelters the characters. The settlers’ fraught relationship with the peoples indigenous to Liberia casts a welcome light on the complexities of African culture and life. Moore’s novel, most of all, constructs an African narrative that is not focused on war, poverty, or a simplified village life. She Would Be King explores universal themes of ethics, familial expectations, and unexpected passions in the midst of a new nation settling itself among existing African societies.

Graywolf Press.

— Review by Emma Van Dyke

THE NEW ORDER

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THE NEW ORDER BY KAREN E. BENDER

Karen E. Bender’s new story collection is steeped in the present political moment, with an eye to our future. Our cultural corrosion—especially our denial of sexual assault and gun violence—impacts Bender’s female narrators in quiet, resounding ways. The young protagonist of “This Is Who You Are” develops anxiety as she copes with knowledge of the sexual abuse of a classmate and the bombing of a Jewish school, made personal by her identification with one of the bombing victims. “History always felt like it was breathing softly behind us,” she says.

The New Order delivers deceptively straightforward reflections on the mundane, as the reader is drawn into worlds much like our own. In “On a Scale of One to Ten,” a small family moves to an unnamed Asian city to escape a stalker back home, only for their daughter to be bullied at school: “We stood under the sky, a fragile blue tarp; beneath it, we felt almost invisible. Most people were invisible to other people, except when others saw them and wanted to harm them.” Cruelty is not always immediately evident in Bender’s stories, though its consequences echo. In “The Department of Happiness and Reimbursement,” a government initiative to pay complainants in the workforce for their silence backfires when a woman facing harassment refuses to barter away her pain for monetary compensation. The narrator’s final, plaintive thought captures the essence of the collection’s wist and cynicism, hope and hopelessness. She sits on the discarded couch of a woman whose life has been obliterated because she spoke out, and wonders “what would happen to all of us.”

Counterpoint Press.

— Review by Sara Ramey