Elizabeth DeMeo




Mercè Rodoreda’s Camellia Street is a study in whiplash. Though first released in Catalonia in 1966, the book remains sharply resonant and intimately relatable today to any woman who has ever felt herself apart, numbed by life’s vicissitudes even as she finds sweetness in them—any woman “trapped alive,” as narrator Cecília notes, “in a piece of candy.” In less than 200 pages, Cecília charts her history: how she was discovered as a foundling, how she abandoned home to live first with her young love Eusebi in a shantytown, then with a stream of various men solicited on street corners, in cafés, through friends. Though fraught with loss and near-constant uncertainty, Cecília’s past as she tells it is one of relatively little emotion. Buoyed as much by own hard shell, her own stark remove as the sensory details of post-war Barcelona—a bejeweled silk dress stitched by nuns, a wooden angel with hands removed, bluebells planted then crushed between fingers, the velvety ferns in a café, the lime-flower tea—she flits from one café to the next, one man to the next, finding herself installed in one apartment after another in detached fits and starts.

If she is dream or doll to the men she encounters, Cecília is fully real to us readers, made vivid through Rodoreda’s careful attention to details both sensory and strange, and often grim; “. . . how the moon,” Cecília muses, “was gnawed by termites with worms in all holes, like corpses in burial niches.” In this regard, Cecília’s sense of remove only serves to make her feel all the more human; her detachment a survival mechanism as hard and cold and necessary as the stone benches she sits on when she works Las Ramblas. Though, as translator David H. Rosenthal astutely notes in his introduction, “[t]he parallels between her inner life and the disoriented, catatonic Barcelona of the 1940s and 1950s are striking . . . Rodoreda never presses the point.” Indeed, what’s most brilliant about this book is its myopic lens; its keen ability to peer narrowly, vainly, self-absorbedly outwards through a wonderfully crafted mind.

Open Letter.

— Review by Elizabeth DeMeo




Wild Milk is equal parts setup and punchline, a brilliant logic of surreal, layered humor that skips its way towards deeply-felt truths. Author Sabrina Orah Mark, who has previously written two books of poetry, offers us short stories that blend fairytale, Who’s-on-First-style drollery, and current cultural moment to deliver back a clearer version of our own warped reality, often presented through the lenses of mothers and daughters. Here, Mark says, is a world of women, of makers and givers who are caring for others—sons, presidents, students—even as they work to understand themselves. It is to our benefit that Mark routinely shrinks this world down (“Father has been getting smaller. Yesterday he towered above me. Now he comes up to my knees”) and blows it back up (“‘By the time they arrived,’ I explain, ‘the daughters had turned.’ ‘Rotten?’ she asks . . . ‘Gigantic,’ I repeat. ‘And mealy. I sent the whole bin back’”), blurring the realms of adulthood and childhood to better illuminate the emotional realities of both.

The stories in Wild Milk are linked by their language—Mark is quick to remind us, in stories like “My Brother Gary Made a Movie & This is What Happened,” that we can use words to play even as we push against them, struggle to select the right ones—and relative brevity, their strangeness and whimsy, and also, often, by the delightful threading of images from one story to the next. In this regard, Mark is as much juggler as she is philosopher and jester, remixing milk, eggs, bones, oranges as she throws out questions: “‘Have you ever believed . . . in something much, much bigger than you?’”; “‘If you love Poems so much, why don’t you marry Poems?’” It’s a testament to Mark’s exceptional skill as a writer that we exit Wild Milk agreeing, assessing the bright, poetic language that she wields so well here and asking ourselves: why can’t we—indeed, why don’t we all—marry this book?

Dorothy, a publishing project.

—Review by Elizabeth DeMeo




A prowling wolf cub. A feral adolescent, staring in from the boreal forest. Tiny, doll-like creatures performing in the back of a strip club. These, among others, are the inhabitants of Cristina Rivera Garza’s The Taiga Syndrome, a peculiar mystery that draws from both Hansel and Gretel and Little Red Riding Hood even as it refuses to fall into fable. Here, instead of a crimson-cloaked girl, is a grown woman, a modern detective who accepts a case that will take her into the titular Taiga in search of a recently-departed woman, whose subsequent letters lead her former husband to believe she secretly wants to be pursued.

The resultant investigation is both bright light and shadow, a slow tightrope walk towards the cold, coniferous Taiga and its cache of strange secrets. Rivera Garza maintains resistance to the traditional fable. Routinely her detective-narrator breaks the spell of her story, reminding us of the act of her telling, through commentary on her word choice (“‘Breathlessly,’” she notes, “is an adverb with rhythm”) and the presence of a literal translator accompanying her through the forest. In their breadth and variety, Rivera Garza’s words—wonderfully translated by Suzanne Jill Levine and Aviva Kana— also resist fable. In the space of a single short chapter, the author moves from delicate and beautiful (“The booming of the sky made me tremble. The wing beats of birds with no names, that couldn’t have names. The violently clashing branches”) to strictly anatomical language (“The masculine hand on the lower edge of her jaw. Below, the submandibular glands, the submental ganglia. Underneath, the veins and facial arteries and stylohyoid muscles. . .” ) proving hers is a book of raw nerves, exposed skin, but also hardness: sinew and bone. For the detective-narrator—and, indeed for us readers—Rivera Garza’s pages are these things and more. What she has created here is a diary of longing, anxiety, trauma; a record of the tension between our deepest, most personal forests and the ways that we choose to preserve them.

Dorothy, A Publishing Project.

—Review by Elizabeth DeMeo




In Eleanor, or, The Rejection of the Progress of Love, Anna Moschovakis brilliantly sketches two women as concentric circles. In the inner circle, there is Eleanor, a writer in search of her lost laptop; in the outer, there is a narrator writing her way through the story of the aforementioned Eleanor. Though the book—a meta-mixture of story, authorly rumination, philosophical musing, and literary and syntactic analysis—could perhaps feel heady or jumbled in the hands of a less careful writer, what Moschovakis achieves here is a deft examination of selfhood and the ways it may be made manifest through language. Here, in Eleanor, is a fictional author who shows us the narrative choices she’s made and why she’s made them, created by a very real author whose intellectual velocity only compounds as she interrogates where writer ends and character begins.

For Moschovakis, this space between writer and character is a unique vantage point from which to query contemporary politics, technology, philosophy, and love. Over the course of the book, we move from coffee shops in Brooklyn to farm communes in Albany to nightclubs in Addis Ababa; from vaguely defined relationships to unrequited advances to one-off hookups. Of particular note are the narrator’s thoughts on her character’s sex life, made all the more insightful when presented against the reactions of a male critic who reads the Eleanor manuscript: “...depictions of sex and sexual dynamics in novels,” the narrator muses, “especially novels by women, tend to invite a particular kind of dismissive critique, or else sensationalism…” Moschovakis is particularly astute when focusing on the inner self, the commingling of mind and body in the form of desires, impulses, processing power. Her narrator writes, “‘when Eleanor sleeps, the rearrangement of her mind’s furniture happens without her direction…the things…have themselves become unfamiliar, that they are in effect strokes of genius, sui generis acts of the imagination: that they are novel.’” So, too, does Moschovakis’ book seem to arrange itself as we move, dreamlike, through it, encountering a singular architecture of novel and novelist that challenges us to read and think towards new possibilities, new heights.

Coffee House Press.

—Review by Elizabeth DeMeo




In the one-woman ballet that is Idiophone, Amy Fusselman dances sensationally. As in any good ballet, Fusselman’s success rests on hundreds of small, flawlessly executed movements. The building blocks of her performance—her first, second, and third positions—are short, straightforward sentences, whose careful construction and brilliant layering enable Fusselman to leap widely. On the stage of this book-length essay, she moves gracefully from the Nutcracker ballet’s past and present to her relationship with her mother and children, her history of alcohol abuse, a slit gong (the titular idiophone) from Vanuatu, the state of female artists, and more.

Above all, Fusselman is curious, deftly mining white space and static to craft a book of whys: (“[w]hy,” she asks, “can’t you just leave one world and move into another?”) and hows and whats: (what, she wants to know, do you do “[w]hen your way of being is an affront to other people? / when your way of writing is an affront…”) It’s to Fusselman's credit that she is as interested in the guts of these questions, their undersides and wiring, as she is in their answers, as well as the vantage points from which they are posed. For Fusselman, no space or person is too small—or too large—to inspire. She is as apt to look to Tchaikovsky for answers (“I need to message Tchaikovsky. I need to message Tchaikovsky about having almost nothing to go on…”) as she is a pair of imagined mice or boxing legend Joe Louis. The result of such wide-ranging inquiry is an essay that sparkles with vulnerability, humor, and insight. “I will be a magician,” Fusselman tells us, “…who explains my tricks.” And what a delight for us to be here with her, under her top hat, her spell.

Coffee House Press.

—Review by Elizabeth DeMeo