ROUGH MAGIC: RIDING THE WORLD'S LONELIEST HORSE RACE

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ROUGH MAGIC BY LARA PRIOR-PALMER

“Somehow,” writes Lara Prior-Palmer in her debut memoir, Rough Magic, “implausibly, against all odds, I won a race labeled the longest and toughest in the world—a race I’d entered on a whim—and became the youngest person, and first female, ever to have done so.” In 2013, she indeed won the Mongol Derby, a grueling, 1,000-kilometer race on horseback styled after the medieval Mongol postal system. Any prosaic record of this improbable victory would sell plenty of copies. But Rough Magic doesn’t just describe one triumph: it constitutes another, and in a whole new territory. “Because my competitiveness is like a kite I refuse to pull down from the sky and examine,” Prior-Palmer writes, showcasing both dexterous imagery and hapless ambition, “it has power over me.” Through arresting landscapes and many awkward moments, she rides a muscular yet floaty prose, replete with deftly mixed metaphors and off-kilter verbs. Dogs “snorkel” along the ground and cameras “drink color” from the land.

The memoir draws much of its energy from Lara’s escalating rivalry with the frontrunner, Devan Horn, which, we begin to understand as she paints the Texan “devil-woman” in increasingly cartoonish hues, is really a rivalry with her own vices—fear and self-consciousness, pettiness and ambition. “Who’s worse?” she asks at one point, “Devan or Lara?” On the page, the main difference is that Devan keeps her mask on, but Lara lets hers slip so that readers can peer beneath. If we still have trouble grasping her, it is only because, as she writes, “[t]his being human means inhabiting an unfinished form, forever moving on to the next thing . . . What use is a conclusion, or an understanding, when all I want to do is open up, mess up, unpack, and unreel?”

What use, indeed?

Catapult.

—Review by Mekiya Walters

SOFT SCIENCE

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SOFT SCIENCE BY FRANNY CHOI

Soft is not the word that comes to mind when reading Franny Choi’s Soft Science. Donna Haraway’s “excruciatingly conscious” might surface rather, yet Choi offers us this mode. Then, what is soft science? what is it if not a science with give? Her collection necessitates a giving away to and an absorbing of while her speakers perform by the same intake of information on the internet as a smart bot. Choi moves inside and beyond the hegemonic barking that storms online platforms—squashing that which falsely clicks into place, bending over to screenshot before all that which has brutalized—as she examines life in the age of smartphones and SmarterChild through the many-sided lens of Asian femininity and queerness. Some of her poems fracture language and white-space, revamping familiar forms, like her glossary and sequence of Turing-test poems. The structures of these forms act not as the bones of the book, but a chrysalis that signals an ongoing state of becoming. Opening Soft Science is the following quote from Haraway, which anchors and gives a lens to our understanding, “We are excruciatingly conscious of what it means to have a historically constituted body.” Choi’s Cyborg poems most overtly interrogate the ways in which the (female) body is constituted, man-created, and expected to perform thusly. Note here, in “A Brief History of Cyborgs,” how the speaker is described as much like a machine as the scientist’s machine-turned-daughter is human: “I once made my mouth a technology of softness [. . .] I made the tools fuck in my mouth [. . .] until they birthed new ones. What I mean is, I learned.” A few lines later, we see the daughter-bot’s manner of learning runs parallel: “The scientist’s daughter married the internet, and the internet filled her until she / spoke swastika and garbage . . .” Even with her insistence that humans are cyborgs, Choi doesn’t forgive anyone for their participation in racism, garbage politics, rape culture, and the commodifying gaze. Instead, Soft Science becomes a study of how the internet is the window to the collective unconscious and the smart (soft) bot, programmed by only what is found there, a mirror.

Alice James Books.

—Review by Madeline Vardell

ALL THE FIERCE TETHERS

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ALL THE FIERCE TETHERS BY LIA PURPURA

Each page of Lia Purpura’s newest essay collection, All the Fierce Tethers, demonstrates what happens when life itself is scrutinized beneath the lens of a proverbial microscope. With the revelatory combination of Purpura’s detail-oriented eye and imagination, she is able to cast a brilliant, transformative light on even the most quotidian aspects: a tin that once held mints “[c]ould be put to good use and serve again, holding buttons, coins, pills;” the dollar bills used at the grocery store can evoke a wonder of their previous purchases, the possible “bribes they sealed, drugs scored;” and when a hawk dives into grass and emerges again with a mouse, she meditates on the blood from the kill. The “sun falls on the spot where I know the blood is. Someone climbing this tree on a bright day in fall wouldn’t notice a thing, the red long gone to shadow or moss.” Purpura examines this predator/prey relationship: “the piercing and tearing was urgent and bloody, and—no proper animal would think to note this—there was no anger, waste, or meanness.” She guides the reader in this illuminative way, covering a vast and eclectic range of subjects, from prayer to irony, beauty, even to the once peaceful, now extinct Dodo.

All the Fierce Tethers is both a marvel of language and a treatise on our taking the time to stop, look around, and pay attention to our surroundings and, concurrently, to acknowledge the interconnectedness of life and its objects. Written in vibrant, luxurious prose, Purpura leaves her readers looking at the world in a distinct and more vibrant way.

Sarabande Books.

—Review by Nicholas John-Francis Claro

SCARED VIOLENT LIKE HORSES

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SCARED VIOLENT LIKE HORSES BY JOHN MCCARTHY

Scared Violent Like Horses by John McCarthy, winner of the Jake Adam York Prize, is a gorgeous lyrical and focused meditation. It reexamines and confronts the past violence of home, specifically the North End of Springfield, Illinois. McCarthy asks us to look at a place’s “soft violence” that “renders and yields this truth—each place is different / in its silence [. . .] It dares you / to misunderstand its rhythm, its landlocked and landmarked song—” He pushes us to look steadfastly at violence as acts of both reclaiming and sensemaking. In “Callousing,” after the speaker is tracked down and beaten by the Johnson farm boys, he states, “Praise this—this memory I rise with all the days of my life. Praise / this—that which breaks only to harden.” In other poems, the speaker recalls his own inclusion in the everyday violence of youthful boredom, “Most of the time, on uneven ground, / we’d throw hooks and haymakers then backpedal scared.” Even here, McCarthy locates the silent truth, “I was never that skilled at slipping punches or finding angles / or pivoting out of the way. I just didn’t want to be alone.” Scared Violent Like Horses never slips a punch—instead it remembers the punches and locates the bruises until the speaker’s jaw is “a healed bone calm enough to speak of violence, to contain its taste.” His title poem reads, “We needed someone to force us / into confronting the uselessness of our violence,” and McCarthy does this, and more, he asks readers not only to confront the past’s violence, but, more importantly, he provides a model for healing and, if possible, praise for what has happened, for where we’re from, and for where we’ve ended up.

Milkweed Editions.

—Review by Jacob Lindberg

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

THE ARCHIVE OF ALTERNATE ENDINGS

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THE ARCHIVE OF ALTERNATE ENDINGS BY LINDSEY DRAGER

Lindsey Drager’s latest novel, The Archive of Alternate Endings, makes a needle of Halley’s Comet and a thread of its tail, along which are strung the beads of myth and history. Hansel and Gretel, Edmund Halley, Wilhelm and Jacob Grimm, Johannes Gutenberg, a dancer, a programmer, multiple witches, and a space probe that transmits folktales into the abyss, all shuffle across the novel’s stage, which spans a millennium, taking place in the years that the comet returns. “[N]othing in this life is unbent,” Wilhelm Grimm remarks one evening in 1835, “and as such all things intersect.” These intersections, somehow, make the novel cohere.

Drager has managed to synthesize the meta abstractions and intricate structures of experimental fiction with the rich, warm, living essence of good, old-fashioned, character-driven prose. Alternate Endings is unapologetically Borgesian, at once a library of Babel and a garden of forking paths, but its ideas hold meaning because real people live and die by them, caught up in spirals of shame and compassion, always on the verge of—but never quite tipping over into—understanding. Always siblings strive to protect each other. Always outcasts lose themselves in murky woods. Always the same story with different endings—or different stories with the same one. You get the distinct impression, upon closing the novel, that you could open it again and find that the stories inside have been evolving and metastasizing, new concepts cropping up on every page. You might be tempted to try this. Do.

Dzanc Books.

—Review by Mekiya Walters

UNCERTAIN MANIFESTO

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UNCERTAIN MANIFESTO BY FRÉDÉRIC PAJAK, TRANSLATED BY DONALD NICHOLSON-SMITH

The first volume of Frédéric Pajak’s Uncertain Manifesto (currently in its seventh volume in French) is composed of oblique relationships. The relationship between its large illustrations and short snippets of text is loosely associative, even mysterious. The chapters range from memoir to historical account to philosophical musing. At first, the book feels something like a stack of random pages ripped from Pajak’s sketchbook, notes haphazardly compiled rather than meticulously ordered. Though, as the book progresses, a greater arc emerges. Uncertain Manifesto is haunted by the memory of Europe hardly holding onto “the vestiges of peace, and with these crumbs improvising a society that erases other societies,” as Pajak hints in the introduction. The book exists in the shadows of other manifestos—centrally, Mein Kampf and the Communist Manifesto—but, by the end of this first volume, one gets a sense that Pajak has set about concocting some kind of balm, something to ward against the dangers of entrenched ideology.

Much of the book chronicles Walter Benjamin’s travels during the 1930s, and his thoughts on the rise of fascism. A reflection on the nature of fascism, likely felt important when the first volume appeared in French in 2012—in 2019, Uncertain Manifesto’s arrival in English feels vital. In less capable hands, such a genre-defying, heady enterprise might have sagged under the weight of its own ambition; here, it’s full of wit and life. Powerful precisely on account of its subtlety.

New York Review Books.

—Review by Landon McGee

SOONER OR LATER EVERYTHING FALLS INTO THE SEA

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SOONER OR LATER EVERYTHING FALLS INTO THE SEA BY SARAH PINSKER

Sarah Pinsker’s stories nestle in the cracks of our world with strange concepts that resound emotionally with the reader. Some of the realities found here contain more verisimilitude. In “Talking With Dead People,” a woman constructs replicas of murder houses and, powered by A.I., the houses speak in the voices of the dead. Other realities convey distorted or futuristic visions of Earth. In the title story, “Sooner or Later Everything Falls Into the Sea,” cruise ships peopled by the wealthy sail endlessly to avoid the contaminated land. A scavenger finds Gabby, one of the ships’ musicians, washed up on the shore. Gabby relearns the earth and its relics of civilization. “Funny how you don’t realize the last time you see something is going to be the last time,” she says of turtles, now likely extinct.

An atmosphere of nostalgia and doom pervades the collection. The characters act out of deep wells of fear, hope, and longing, as the environment collapses or is transformed unrecognizably. In “A Stretch of Highway Two Lanes Wide,” a man who loses his arm in a farming accident wakes up with a bionic replacement and becomes convinced that he is a road in Colorado. By some glitch in the technology, his self is twinned. The concept is whimsical but the story, like all of Pinsker’s stories, considers what it means to be human when the circumstances we associate with humanity have changed. A longer story, “Wind Will Rove,” considers the value of human history out of context. A history teacher aboard an intergenerational colony ship finds that art, especially music, is meant to thrive with creative synthesis. The defamiliarization of the ship, reminiscent of Ursula K. Le Guin’s “Paradises Lost,” allows Pinsker to explore how the past is lived in the present, and whether humans are resilient enough to secure a future beyond our polluted planet.

Small Beer Press.

—Review by Sara Ramey