WHITE DECIMAL

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WHITE DECIMAL, BY JEAN DAIVE, TRANSLATED BY NORMA COLE

In White Decimal, Jean Daive asks emptiness to speak. He draws from minimalism, from a “white decimal / at the edge of space,” from the way an “avalanche remakes absence,” and he interrogates the image of white superimposed on white. With each layering, Daive limits and focuses his palette with reverent restraint. His verse breathes through the sparseness and the rhythm of his lines. It stretches out to fill and embody the white space that surrounds his poems. This is a collection where each image, each phrase, each syllable is carefully curated and arranged in an attempt to discover the thing that “haunt[s] what absence no longer holds.”

And it is as a master of curation where Norma Cole’s skill as a translator shines through. It’s clear, in this bilingual edition of the book, that Cole has given each word of Daive’s original its due; each rings out in English as measured and unwavering. Like trying to pinpoint a “white insect” in “boundless snow,” White Decimal is a collection most interested in what’s revealed from searching.

Omnidawn.

THE DOLL’S ALPHABET

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THE DOLL’S ALPHABET, BY CAMILLA GRUDOVA

The Doll’s Alphabet, Camilla Grudova’s debut short story collection, splits open a dollhouse of domestic life and allows us to examine the magical dystopian interior. Characters are beset by complications of poverty and want in grotesque, haunting ways. In “Rhinoceros”, a woman searches for inspiration for her artist husband in a zoo where animals are seemingly extinct, in “The Mouse Queen” a mother must provide for her twins after abandonment by a husband who accused her of having sex with ancient pagan gods, and in “Edward, Do Not Pamper the Dead” a couple wrestles with moving in together after society forces them to get roommates. Unlike many dystopian settings, Grudova does not focus on the mechanics of how society operates in a macro sense, other than reminding us that food is scarce, spaces are crowded, and, as a poster says in “Waxy”—“Do Not Let Your Man Loiter.” Instead, she concentrates her efforts on creating chilling scenes of sickness and starvation within the domestic space, deformed babies and transgressive bodies emerging from the pages in consequence.

In many ways, each story is like peering into a little house. Sewing machines, tinned meats, rodents, works by Ovid and Tchaikovsky—these are the objects that litter the floors of these stories, and they seem to demand attention. But Grudova’s images also offer strange glimpses into human interiority, giving shape to unknown emotions. In “Agata’s Machine,” a character describes a bride’s armpit as “the place where the body leaves its imprint on fabric most intensely, those pathetic, damp, and silent mouths of the heart.” Grudova offers us a long look at the mouths of the heart, perhaps even inviting our own.

Coffee House Press.

KITARO’S STRANGE ADVENTURES

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KITARO’S STRANGE ADVENTURES, BY SHIGERU MIZUKI, TRANSLATED BY ZACK DAVISSON

In Kitaro’s Strange Adventures, the fourth installment of Shigeru Mizuki’s Kitaro series, we follow a community of supernatural but benign entities known as yokai through a selection of adventures from the larger GeGeGe no Kitaro narrative. These stories portray something like a commensalism between humans and yokai, with rat spirits, anthropomorphized eyeballs, flying cloth creatures, and many other elements of Japanese folklore fighting malicious demons on behalf of mankind—though mankind is not always thankful (or even aware) of Kitaro and co.’s efforts.

Kitaro’s Strange Adventures easily juxtaposes dry (and at times irreverent) humor with grim elements of horror and myth: on one page, the nebulously “good” Nezumi Otoko knocks himself out with the fumes from his own vengeful flatulence; a few pages later, Kitaro squares off with the joy-devouring Iyami in his eerie forest home, a porous mushroom-shape stilted on tall, gnarled roots. Mizuki’s art enacts this juxtaposition, too, through the parallel of his jovial characters and dark landscapes, such as the seemingly innocuous Kitaro traversing dark, thickly shaded mountain ranges to the rhythmic “clip-clop” of his iconic sandals.

Each story tells a tale of community effort rather than individual heroism. Though Kitaro is referred to as the “protector of the innocent,” he is rarely able to overcome evil on his own. Only by fighting alongside his yokai friends and family can Kitaro take down the many threats that come his way—a practice, possibly, that proximal human societies would do well to emulate.

Drawn & Quarterly.

DEAD GIRLS

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DEAD GIRLS, BY EMILY GEMINDER

Emily Geminder’s debut collection, Dead Girls and Other Stories chases ghosts, some otherworldly, others internal. Geminder offers a distinctly female perspective, often through a collective, yet sharply personal narrator. History pulls along the underside of these stories, both individual and global, deepening her world and connecting her themes across time and circumstance. “History only looks heavy and solid,” she tells us in “Choreograph.” “In fact, it won’t ever stay still.” In “Phnom Penh,” four female reporters come to Cambodia “to replace a dead girl,” each of them believing that they are her, that they will share her fate. Set amidst the distant aftermath of the Cambodian genocide, the narrator of “Coming To” explores connections between experiences of female fear, lost consciousness and spiritual possession. “Something inside me has come dislodged,” the narrator tells us after one of many fainting spells. “The ghost on my chest comes and goes.” In the titular “Dead Girls,” a young reporter attempts to gain a sense of safety by taking a workshop on human dissection. She struggles to write about global murders of women and girls, while her own sexual assault still haunts her body and feeling of self.

Geminder has an ability to give her words life, to render her themes experiential. Characters discuss a fragile connection to gravity, and at times we are the ones who come untethered. Ghosts flit through each story and we as the readers are left haunted. In a way, these stories themselves are ghosts, they burrow into the mind and endure.

Dzanc Books.

CATAPULT

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CATAPULT, BY EMILY FRIDLUND

Catapult, Emily Fridlund’s follow-up to her debut novel, History of Wolves, is a collection of stories that pulse and push. Selected by Ben Marcus as winner of the Mary McCarthy prize in short fiction, these eleven stories investigate desire, exploring the spaces between love and obsession, affection and fixation, disdain and apathy. With sharp prose and dark humor, Fridlund exposes characters yearning, and often failing, to connect, to break free. In “Marco Polo,” a husband obsesses over his wife’s abnormal sleep pattern, imagining a lover in the next room with her while he lies awake in bed, his mind “scraped open, empty.” The narrator of “Here, Still,” preserves a longstanding friendship out of guilt; “It is the same,” she tells us, “as being in love.” In “Lock Jaw,” Craig tries to maintain the status quo in the face of his wife’s sickness, pacifying her worries about the future of their family, “feeling with a pang just how easy it is to agree to things when you know they’re temporary.”

The characters in Catapult throw themselves at the elastic borders of their lives, sometimes punching a hole, sometimes rebounding. Fridlund keenly observes the scrapes of the everyday, recasting these narratives with new, vividly drawn characters that surprise and disturb.

Sarabande Books.

NORTH STATION

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NORTH STATION, BY BAE SUAH, TRANSLATED BY DEBORAH SMITH

A good collection of short stories is like a siphonophore: although made up of a number of individual organisms, they all fit together so organically that, to an outside observer, the collective forms a coherent whole. The stories in Bae Suah’s North Station perform such an act. Like a beautiful and mysterious Portuguese man o’war, themes, motifs, and images within are interlaced and woven throughout the seven pieces to create a romanesque, hermetic atmosphere full of intricacies simultaneously scintillating and opaque.

Suah constructs a refined labyrinth that’s not for the faint-hearted or shallow reader⏤from the twists and turns of the very first sentence: “Yang had had countless harsh words thrown at him over the course of his life . . . he discovered that one of his castigators was no happier once they were rid of him, in other words that there was no correlation between their misery and Yang himself, and that this lack of correlation might have been all that ever lay between them, his timid heart found it strange, and faintly baffling.” Following this starting point is a dive into a world of transnational wandering, death-anxiety, confused identities, and missing sunglasses.

The influence of German literature on Bae Suah’s writing is undeniable too. From its allusions to Walser and Erpenbeck to the existentialist musings on the absurdity of life in the face of death, North Station represents cultural hybridity, a joining together of the semiotics of East Asia and Central Europe. The language, facilitated by translator Deborah Smith, invades the reader’s mind like a heady smoke, leaving in its wake a profound sense of loneliness and wonder.

Open Letter.

THE SMOKE OF HORSES

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THE SMOKE OF HORSES, BY CHARLES RAFFERTY

The Smoke of Horses, Charles Rafferty’s twelfth work of poetry, includes 56 prose poems that initially seem self-contained, but soon enter into a larger conversation with one another through repetition, reappearance, and meditations on particular images. Images of birds watching lovers kiss, Magellan, and plastic grocery bags purposefully litter the poems and in each appearance, the meaning of image itself is renegotiated and rearranged in a way that nudges the reader to further excavate how images inform our connection to human history, past and present.

In Rafferty’s poems, a shared world exists, one seen in “Antique,” when the speaker states, “Even now, I’m told, every breath I draw some atoms that Jesus once breathed, and a little bit more of them from Hitler and Reagan.” The logic of each image haunts the speaker, and, in turn, the reader; though single images are often exhaled until they become unrecognizable, their lineage remains nonetheless traceable, a move which Rafferty invites the reader to participate in through poems such as “Catena.” “If you look hard enough,” Rafferty says, “you can see how da Vinci made Pollock inevitable. It has never been otherwise. We share 15% of our genes with mustard grass. You can see how a swamp becomes coal and then stack exhaust and finally a melting continent.”

BOA Editions.

IN THE DISTANCE

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IN THE DISTANCE, BY HERNAN DIAZ

The musical prose of Hernan Diaz’s debut novel In the Distance is as rich and surprising as the quest that the novel’s protagonist, Håkan Söderström, embarks on through the volatile American West. After unforeseen circumstances send Håkan from Sweden to Gold Rush era San Francisco, he finds himself alone, destitute, and facing a vast language barrier. Among swindlers and bandits, he journeys through barren deserts, salt flats, and expanses of mountains in search of his brother, and, along the way, becomes infamous.

Though it successfully mines many elements of a classic western novel, In the Distance is far more than a western. The meticulous care with which Diaz has clearly crafted each sentence proves he is a highly versatile author, one who is virtually limitless in scope. In this novel, one of the most captivating aspects of his prose is his skillful rendering of the utter confusion that Håkan often experiences while threatened and spoken to in English. This confusion enhances the plot and amplifies the mystery of the bizarre, life-threatening situations Håkan encounters, while simultaneously heightening what’s at stake for him. In a similar fashion, Håkan’s limited range of speech emphasizes his solitude and individuality, and at times even threatens his sanity. Ultimately, it is a combination of nuanced characters like Håkan and finely-tuned, lyrical prose that enables Diaz to wildly succeed here in humanizing an often mythologized time in history.  

Coffee House Press.