Joy Clark

EVELYN AS

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EVELYN AS BY CHRISTINE BUTTERWORTH-MCDERMOTT

By reimagining her over and over again as a series of portrait poems—fitting for a girl who spent her girlhood posing for cameras—Christine Butterworth-McDermott offers readers an empathetic biography of the twenty-two years Evelyn Nesbit spent in the public eye while suffering the manipulation and abuses of men in private.

Often, the lenses for these portraits are those of other feminine figures—Eve, Persephone, Schehezerade, Saint Maria Goretti, Rapunzel—and thus interrogate the way narrative has typified and stigmatized women throughout time. Butterworth-McDermott questions the harm done to Nesbit—and all women who have gone unprotected, unwarned into pain: “Which beast for you, Beauty?  / Which red-white-clawed / spectacle / will dance on / his hind legs for you? / Every thing / you’ve ever done / has been a manacle, / soft as velvet or hard / as porcelain.”

However, what stays behind after reading this is the way in which these subjects still must be interrogated, the way in which—even in 2019—“a toy tiger, open-mouthed, harmless / (ready to bite) / the apple, fruit, pomegranate, knowledge / waiting in the wings / There is always red velvet / in the rooms owned by powerful men”. Evelyn As offers hope in its interrogation, in its willingness to confront these beasts and men and wolves, through the strength of women’s stories. It is both confession and apology, both love-letter and call to action, a book that will remind you of the importance of watching and listening to the vulnerable around you.  

Fomite Press.

—Review by Joy Clark

TIME IS THE THING A BODY MOVES THROUGH

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TIME IS THE THING A BODY MOVES THROUGH BY T FLEISCHMANN

Time Is the Thing a Body Moves Through is a lyric essay twining two relationships, two loves at different times in the author’s life. It is an exploration of what it means to be outside the boundaries of definition but still alongside another person. It is represented by fragments of daily life—sex and art and transit—and punctuated by questions. T Fleischmann uses a menagerie of personal experiences and research to develop these lines of questions; ranging from the frozen land of Thule to the Death Book initiated by the Public Universal Friend; from Felix Gonzalez-Torres's candies wrapped in cellophane to art made with Squirt cans on a farm. Fleischmann notes that Gonzalez-Torres’s art has been called generous, but asks, “. . . shouldn’t those things be free? Medicine, water, blood, the goldenness of something beginning, for whoever might need them?” Despite being only 176 pages, Fleischmann’s book is also generous in its refusal to wrap up or resolve, leaving a wealth of inquiries to be pursued, an endless supply of thoughts feeding thoughts. Time Is the Thing a Body Moves Through asks us to look again at things we thought we knew—ice on a barn, a friend spooning a friend—and see them beyond the constraints of cultural structures—including language.

Coffee House Press.

—Review by Joy Clark

THE BODY PAPERS

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THE BODY PAPERS BY GRACE TALUSAN

In The Body Papers, Grace Talusan positions her memoir as a series of bodies: the body of the family, the body of a city, the body of a culture and a heritage, and all link inextricably back to the personal body that Talusan inhabits. The topics she explores are numerous, which could become overwhelming if not for her undaunted prose, the connections drawn between images. The memoir itself becomes a body—many parts cooperating, an alliance of movement.

It would be too simple to say this is a brave book. Talusan guides us, so we see what must be seen about how a body survives, the danger from within and without. As a Filipino immigrant, she grows within a racist society that simultaneously others her and makes her invisible. Her memoir tells us of the measures that her parents took to protect her from deportation; her sexual assault as a young girl by a grandparent, leaving her with unanswerable questions and harm to her body and mind; and the cancer she faces in adulthood, in her own body and in the bodies of beloved family members. But in each of these narratives, Talusan finds a way to reflect on love, community, and responsibility—even in their most broken, desperate forms. She writes of watching Filipinos cross the life-threatening streets in Manila: “They do it calmly and gracefully, taking a few steps and then stopping in the middle of a busy intersection, where they wait patiently for cars to cross their path. They don’t flinch when a car brushes past them. They don’t scream or jump when a car speeds towards them. Sometimes they hold on  to the person next to them and they cross together, guiding each other to stop or go, now, quickly.” With The Body Papers, Talusan offers to cross with you, through distress and danger, always moving the body forward.

Restless Books.

—Review by Joy Clark

OFF SEASON

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OFF SEASON BY JAMES STURM

Originally released serially, during the fraught and divisive days leading up to the 2016 Presidential Election, James Sturm’s graphic novel Off Season tells the story of a marriage as it crumbles. Mark and Lisa are divided by their failed attempts at understanding and comforting one another’s inner despair; each chapter is a short vignette, taking on one moment at a time. The mundane springs to the surface—snow tires, kids demanding cookies, a cold beach; meanwhile the fraught backdrop of the election, economic instability, the universal pains of watching someone you love die—all take the background as American burdens: impossible to look at directly, impossible not to carry.

Sturm’s art is muted in shades of grey and blue, sometimes so soft it seems perceived through tears. All the characters are drawn with cartoon dog faces, which lends a gaze of kindness to their worst moments, and also reminds us how much one struggling, broken-hearted person resembles another. The story moves slowly, through present-day and memory, showing the reader how the moving pieces of a life can work in harmony or grate against one another. In one scene, Mark (who is the focalizer of the story) lies awake listening to his wife sob, and admits being, “. . . slow to recognize what I am hearing.” Confessional moments like these offer mirrors of our own moments of missed connection, slow-to-start empathy. Through close examination of these moments, Sturm offers a meditation on where things go wrong, and the difficult self-reflection we must employ to steer them right again.

Drawn & Quarterly.

—Review by Joy Clark

THE COLLECTED SCHIZOPHRENIAS

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THE COLLECTED SCHIZOPHRENIAS BY ESMÉ WEIJUN WANG

In this collection of essays, Esmè Weijun Wang examines schizophrenia through a myriad of lenses, some directed at the conflicted medical community, some at pop culture, and others directed acutely inward at her own experiences with schizoaffective disorder. Far from becoming repetitive in theme, each essay tackles narratives the reader might be familiar with (Nellie Bly and David Rosenhan’s infiltrations into psychiatric hospitals, the Slender Man stabbing in Wisconsin, the murder of Malcoum Tate, media representations like A Beautiful Mind and Legion) but probes and troubles the reader’s underlying assumptions by creating a textual space for intimacy/empathy in the confusion, pain and pursuit of understanding her own experiences. She posits after her diagnosis, “Because How did this come to be? is another way of asking, Why did this happen?, which is another way of asking, What do I do now? But what on earth do I do now?

Wang raises important questions about the future of understanding the schizophrenias. She notes conflicts in future research between the APA’s mental health handbook DSM-5 and the NIMH’s Research Domain Criteria project; between those who would fight for involuntary hospitalization and mandatory treatment, and those who want to protect individual autonomy; and between the perception of the schizophrenias as “signs of mental illness or psychic ability.” The Collected Schizophrenias is illuminating and important—not only because it educates and challenges—but because it forces us to consider how much we still have  to work to undo historical and systematic damage, to challenge our own broken, misguided partiality towards what it means to be healthy and sane.

Graywolf Press.

—Review by Joy Clark

MADAME VICTORIA

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MADAME VICTORIA BY CATHERINE LEROUX, TRANSLATED BY LAZER LEDERHENDLER

Using the unidentified skeleton of a woman found in 2001, outside of Montreal’s Royal Victoria Hospital, as her nexus, Catherine Leroux creates a collage of womanhood: fluidity and joy; erasure and pain. In twelve separate stories, she imagines variations of the life of this woman, Victoria, which inevitably end with her death. She peppers the collection with small chapters on the nurses and hotline workers, all while the public continues their quest to identify her. It would be easy for this type of structure to become disjointed, as each Victoria is fully realized—a sex worker proud of satisfying her customers, a time traveler, a grieving teenage mother, an experiment-turned-invisible, a lover who didn’t uphold her end of a suicide pact—but Leroux uses the repetition of these themes to maintain her cohesion: arrows pointing north, characters with heterochromia iridium, movement and migration.

Lazer Lederhendler’s English translation also sparks and simmers with luminous prose, allowing Victoria to emerge as a guiding star, the one constant in a shimmering landscape. “She gets the feeling every now and then that time has remained suspended since the first day she entered this house and that whole generations have passed through her hands, where they were rocked and wiped before racing toward adulthood; that, in their turn, those adults, the corners of their mouths still studded with cereal crumbs, send her their offspring not yet able to speak their given names; that from one generation to the next these people are increasingly shapeless, and that in a few years nothing will be left of them but vague outlines.” Juxtaposed in this way, Madame Victoria honors all women on the margins, all women dismissed by society. It tempts us to reconsider the ways in which we think of victims, showing us that if we listened, there is much they could teach us about ourselves.

Biblioasis.

— Review by Joy Clark

THINGS TO MAKE AND BREAK

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THINGS TO MAKE AND BREAK BY MAY-LAN TAN

In her debut collection of short fiction, May-Lan Tan riffs on themes of connection, intimacy, and absence. Her characters share cigarettes and common emptiness, masked beneath their speculation on impossible futures and pasts. In “101” the narrator conjures a child she never had, in “Legendary” a woman stalks her boyfriend’s ex, while in “Candy Glass” an actress thinks of her ex-lover who’s decided to “stick a flag in my lawn and go to church every Sunday, and marry a man . . . be part of the superstructure.” The stories all adopt the faulty eyesight of youth—the teenager in “New Jersey” panics as sexual orientation comes into her peripheral; the daughter in “Date Night” sees the world clearer after her mother has a seemingly sexual encounter; and both Laurens in “Laurens” are blind to the violence rushing towards them, but through their haze, our own eyes widen.

Each of Tan’s stories offer a new divergence from commonalities, a new way of looking at the friction between hunger and consumption, through a variety of scenarios. The characters range from a neglected child to an actress in Hollywood and the actions range from a mother who goes on a date to a dancer who is crucified by an unknown customer. Despite these ranges, the tender and desperate core of the book stays consistent. “I want to be filthy with beauty . . .” says one narrator say. “I want to be heart on bicep, balls in throat, with my best friend’s eyes in my pocket, and a flaming comet of hunger clutched in my fist like a pet rock.” In “Transformer,” one of the strangest stories in the collection, a woman recounts her encounters of intimacy and each lover morphs into the next, seamlessly, allowing only a brief moment for them to make their impression and often still carrying ghostly traces of past loves. The desires sparking in Things to Make and Break spark again and again—as individual as heartbeats, as intertangled as cigarette smoke around fingers.

Coffee House Press.

—Review by Joy Clark

A KEY TO TREEHOUSE LIVING

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A KEY TO TREEHOUSE LIVING BY ELLIOT REED

Elliot Reed’s debut novel takes the reader on a Huck Finn-esque journey via encyclopedic entry. Reeds offers us a glossary of the language used when growing up alone in a small, Midwestern town, ranging from terms like PODUNK TOWNS to FAULTY WISHING and presenting in spaces as wonderful, strange, and lonely as childhood itself. Reed doesn’t simply offer this glossary, but rather with this form, he tracks the life of its composer, William Tyce, as he moves through his adolescence uncovering the mysteries of why adults do things like leave their children or burn down houses. Each detail, whether a musing or observation, offers insight into the compassionate and resilient developing philosophy of its narrator. “When it feels as if things are getting away from you,” William writes in his entry on NEXUS, “I’ve learned, it is best to tie up what you can, hope it’s enough to float on, and hold on to the knot where it all comes together.” A Key to Treehouse Living holds a nexus out to the reader of every moment—from William’s days building and defending tree-forts to his life-endangering moments on a handmade raft—with each entry placed so precisely and lovingly as to hold the entire book together as it sails.

Tin House.

—Review by Joy Clark