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

LET ME BE LIKE WATER

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LET ME BE LIKE WATER, BY S. K. PERRY

In her debut novel, Let Me Be Like Water, S. K. Perry explores the long stay of grief after the loss of a lover. Holly moves to Brighton to be near the sea after the death of her boyfriend. While she seeks to process this unplanned loss, she craves isolation. But then she meets Frank, a retired magician who has also lost and grieved the love of his life. Frank initiates her into “his collection of broken people” and between home-cooked meals and cold swims, book clubs and bar nights, Holly begins to slowly loosen her desperate grip on her pain.

Though this love-lost scenario runs the risk of sounding maudlin, Perry writes in short, vignette-like sections that move between Holly’s present grieving and past happiness with her boyfriend Sam. These passages fluctuate between the dark and the light, the deep and the shallow, much like water. Despite the raw sorrow of Holly’s narration, she uses a sharp eye to describe little details in the landscape and facial features, which holds the reader’s head up above the emotional turmoil. Most importantly it is how Perry writes Holly’s strength of desire to recover which carries her prose forward. Despite bad days and setbacks, Holly wills herself—and the reader—into better places. By Christmas, she drunkenly observes, “I pray for flowers to grow out of my hands and for the wind to play me music, and think that if there is a God, he shouldn’t need us to tell him what it is that we need.” As readers, we don’t need her to tell us what she needs either, but instead we become like water, in its many movements alongside her.

Melville House.

—Review by Joy Clark

BANTHOLOGY

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BANTHOLOGY, EDITED BY SARAH CLEAVE

Compiled as a response to Trump’s 2017 travel ban, Banthology, edited by Sarah Cleave, presents voices from all seven banned nations in conversation and offers readers insight into not only the dislocation and dangers that inhabit their realities, but also the joy and magic that censorship threatens to strip away. The representation offered by these translated stories covers a wide array: from people in transit to people stuck in airports, assisted by healing jujube trees or fake passports, to people living in bomb shelters or a floating city named Schrodinger that just wants to return dead American tourists to American soil. They vary from darkly magical to darkly funny to darkly real—often genre-blurring—due to the strange, dystopian nature of the ban itself.

However, the collection maintains consistency in how it addresses issues of displacement, arrestment, and the longing in between. Rania Mamoun captures this with poignancy, in “Bird of Paradise,” when noting: “a wound has grown within me, as great as the distance I longed to fly.” But the collection also looks outward, at those responsible. In “Return Ticket” Najwa Bin Shatwan’s floating city discerns: “They never think about the outcome of their actions or understand how they affect us. But I suppose the real disaster would be if they did know and truly understood, and still did nothing to change.” Banthology is a collection that doesn’t just ask for knowledge and compassion, but prompts action, accountability, and change.

Deep Vellum.

—Review by Joy Clark