Ocean Vuong, who emigrated from Ho Chi Min City to Hartford, Connecticut as a child, sprang into mainstream literary consciousness in 2016 with Night Sky with Exit Wounds, a remarkable collection of poems on immigration, intergenerational trauma, and queerness. The work is one of the highest regarded contemporary collections on the market; Vuong’s honors include a Whiting Award and the T.S. Eliot Prize.
His first novel, On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, also speaks of multi-generational PTSD, charting the fate of a Vietnamese-American family struggling to settle into working class life in 1990’s New England. Vuong frames his novel as a letter from Little Dog, a young gay writer in his late twenties, to his illiterate mother Rose. Vuong published a version of the first chapter of the book in the New Yorker in 2017 for Mother’s Day.
Little Dog writes of his love for his mother and his grandmother, both of whom are reeling from the traumas of war, immigration, loss of language, and Alzheimers. And he recalls how the violence of the Vietnam War transmutes itself into the frequent physical attacks rained down on Little Dog by his mother. "I didn't know," Little Dog writes to her, "that the war was still inside you ... [and] that once it enters you it never leaves - but merely echoes, a sound forming the face of your own son."
Those readers familiar with Vuong’s poetry will recognize the same calibrated orality; he turns beautiful phrases which lend his pronouncements the timeless quality of deeply-earned wisdom. “Freedom is nothing but the distance between the hunter and its prey.” And his writing contains the line-by-line density of poetry: the rush of a joint makes Little Dog, feel ‘skull-less;’ a heart ripples in an emaciated body ‘like a trapped fish;’ a piano ‘drips its little notes, like rain dreaming itself whole.’ Given that a novel in verse ended up on last year’s Booker shortlist, to redress the balance I’d be happy to see this up for the T S Eliot Prize.
There is a new avant-garde afoot, and Vuong claims his own form, making the kind of grand gestures few writers would dare. Sometimes it’s beautiful, sometimes pretentious, sometimes both at once. And as compelled as a reader might be by the gorgeous language, or the political force and wisdom of Vuong’s insights, the novel lacks a compelling structure and sometimes loses its voltage through repetition, with many of the better observations dulled by the presence of so many similar ones throughout. This is a work worthy of attention for its exploration of class, race, sexuality and generational trauma. The committed reader will find much of value, but others may give up before they reach the end.
For me, this novel comes at a time when I am examining my own past. It comes at a time when Eugene Lee Yang releases an artistic articulation of a similar journey. To read books like these in a turbulent and confusing time can be a miraculous way to see one’s place in the universe as intentional. On earth we are not always gorgeous; and neither are the events in this novel. But there is a certain awe that comes in the wake of our worst moments, right alongside the best ones.
~ Ann Scott
Published Jun. 28, 2019 in Aspen Daily News
"The trick is to let the pot boil slowly. ... Let them think you're just average or ‘good for a girl’ and then slowly, slowly, slowly begin to let your true self shine. That's the only way to avoid feeling the jealous, embarrassed rage of a dude who's been beat."
“The Falconer” presents a refreshingly worthy protagonist: Lucy Adler, a champion 17-year-old Jewish-Italian basketball player coming of age in New York in the mid ’90s and secretly in love with a boy who’s been her best friend since preschool.
Lucy is street-smart, vulnerable, cynical, thoughtful – a multi-layered outcast who is destined to get her heart broken. “Mostly I like talking to him. Because the world rains arrows and honey whenever he’s near me. Painful and sweet.” Lucy’s pain is palpable but not overdone. Bad things happen, but some good things happen too. And Lucy takes it all in stride. She’s a girl to love.
Percy, the object of her crush, remains oblivious to the feelings of young women, outwardly resistant to the entitlements of his wealthy family but destined to lead a life of convention. Lucy, on the other hand, grapples with what kind of young woman she wants to be. Luckily she is surrounded by some compelling examples in her mother, her friends and her cousin Violet. Violet, a struggling painter, lives in a loft with an avant-garde feminist artist and supplies Lucy with books that seem to come with perfect timing, such as Simone de Beauvoir’s “Second Sex.”
Lucy yearns more than anything to play ball and to be free like the boy falconer in the city statue she admires. But she can’t escape wanting to also be the kind of girl that attracts Percy, a more obvious beauty or even “the kind that infiltrates the mind and heart gradually ... the kind of beauty that doesn’t register at first, but then you find it lingering in your senses.”
She moves past the hurt of his inevitable rejection, receiving good advice from her friend Alexis, another square peg, “You’ve got añoranza, Loose. Now that the reality of who he is has been revealed to you, from now on, when you miss him, you’ll only be missing the dream of him. I don’t know a word for that in any language.”
Czapnik’s background as a sports journalist serves her well in this debut novel. She not only captures an era and a city with beautiful, vivid detail, her descriptions of bodies and movement on and off court are true art.
Published April 5, 2019 in Aspen Daily News
Aana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, named a “5 Under 35” honoree by the National Book Foundation, has debuted with a fierce collection of 12 unnerving and unpredictable short stories, tackling racism, hyper-consumerism and the glorification of violence.
“Friday Black” opens with “The Finkelstein 5,” a tale of five black children who are decapitated with a chainsaw outside a public library. Emmanuel, a young black man who has learned to “dial down his blackness,” prepares for a job interview against the backdrop of the controversial acquittal of the child slayer and the protests it sparks as black people commit violent acts against whites in revenge for the killings. This fire and brimstone reckoning reveals the brutal prejudices still at work within our justice system and our culture.
The parallels to recent events, particularly the 2012 fatal shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman, who was also acquitted, are unmistakable. One tale depicts a theme park, “Zimmer Land,” in which white people play out simulations of violent racist fantasies where young black men clad in protective armor appear to die from the high-velocity impact of faux bullets.
Adjei-Brenyah’s grim stories are like small nightmares that draw on real-life events. “Lark Street” is about a man haunted by the aborted fetuses of his girlfriend, as they snuggle up on his pillow, competing for his affection and pleading for their lives. And in the Orwellian love story of “The Era,” some children require injections of “Good.” Another tale realizes a purgatory afterlife occupied by the spirits of a school shooter and one of his victims. And a nuclear-apocalypse Groundhog Day recurs in "Through the Flash."
A trio of stories,“Friday Black,” “In Retail” and “How to Sell a Jacket as Told by IceKing,” unfold within a mall, which is filled with a predictable daily monotony, save the regularly occurring Black Fridays. These are the days when shopper deaths are expected as the inevitable consequence of bargain hunters stabbing competitors with stiletto heels.
Friday Black may be the publishing world’s addition to the vibrant pop-culture trend of new black surrealism. Films such as “Get Out” and “Sorry to Bother You,” or Donald Glover projects like “Atlanta” and “This Is America,” gain impact from a kind of absurdist framing, which this book shares.
The surrealism “allows us to address the absurdity head-on,” Ytasha Womack writes in her book, “Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture.” “Sometimes you have to be irreverent. Sometimes the situation is so absurd that the only way to address it is to be absurd.” This at once searing and witty social critique is worth the read.
Published Feb. 22, 2019, Aspen Daily News
“The morning burned so August-hot, the marsh’s moist breath hung the oaks and pines with fog.” ~ Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens
Wildlife Scientist Delia Owens grew up as an adventurous outdoorsy child in 1950s rural Georgia, where she learned to contentedly play and explore nature on her own. Now a bestselling Nature Writer, Owens understands solitude, having spent decades conducting research in remote areas of the United States and studying elephants and lions in Africa.
When this Winner of the John Burroughs Award for Nature Writing sat down ten years ago to write Where the Crawdads Sing, her intent was to create a novel that “explore[d] how isolation affects a person.” Her story is about Kya Clark, a child also growing up in the fifties, coming of age in the mysterious marshland of North Carolina’s Outer Banks.
Owens gets the setting right. Her description of rural southeastern coast and its natural inhabitants instantly took me back to marsh country. I could smell the sweetgrass and see the fireflies. And like Owens, some of Kya’s best friends are part of nature. Yet unlike Owens who pursued a solitary lifestyle, young Kya falls victim to an unlikely series of events that instead force her to fend for herself.
Kya’s mother flees an abusive alcoholic husband. Then one by one, Kya’s older siblings depart, until she is finally and completely abandoned by her father. By age ten Kya must learn to survive and so becomes the wild “Marsh Girl,” not fit for school nor society, rather “bonded to her planet and its life in a way few people are.” Kya relies on the marsh; “whenever she stumbled, it was the land who caught her…the marsh became her mother.”
Befriended by a shrimper’s son, Tate Walker, who teaches her to read, Kya is ultimately encouraged to cultivate her gift for archiving marsh specimens. Tate also leaves. And though Kya is skilled in solitude, she yearns to be close to someone and begins a secretive relationship with a self-serving Romeo, Chase Andrews. When in 1969, this former lover (and attacker) is discovered dead, Kya is suspected. Small town drama ensues, and Kya endures a long theatrical trial, her cherished freedom hanging in the balance.
The plot alternates between the trial and earlier time frames. Owens described the writing process as “like a giant 150,000-word puzzle.” As a reader, I sensed it wasn’t effortless. She portrays her timeline afterthoughts as an editing “nightmare.” For this reader, the shifts seemed counterintuitive and curbed any suspense I may have felt for the fate of the main character.
And Kya’s plaintive tale is all too much pathos, lacking the compelling and authentic complexity of real human experience. I wished to connect, but Kya felt so contrived a vehicle, designed to teach the reader how solitude shapes and distorts. Owens’s nature writing depicts the natural world in such vivid accurate detail. Fiction arguably requires as much truth from so skillful a writer.
Originally published November 29, 2018 in the Aspen Daily News
Merve Emre is is an Associate Professor of English at the University of Oxford and author of Paraliterary: The Making of Bad Readers in Postwar America. In her latest book, The Personality Brokers, she creates a critical portrait of the Myers-Briggs Indicator, a personality test conceived and developed by Katherine Cook Briggs and Isabel Myers Briggs, an unconventional mother daughter team with no formal training in psychology.
“Better than a horoscope…less reliable than a heart monitor.” That’s how organizational psychologist Adam Grant describes the Myer’s Briggs indicator. Yet, the majority of Fortune 100 companies, and major universities along with the federal government use this people-sorter to assign students and employees to one of 16 discrete types.
In a discussion with friends about the test’s creators, we decided that those who hadn’t taken the Myers Briggs would give it a shot. And those who had would take it again, for good measure. The founders and keepers of the Myers Briggs Indicator insist that type doesn’t change, not over time, not over circumstance. As a person who has taken it multiple times over the last few decades, I could attest to that. Could.
But this most recent exercise revealed that within the last year, my personality type had made a significant shift. I have always sensed that these kinds of tests feed our egos in a way that steadies our faith in them. But I wasn’t prepared for the level of bewilderment that accompanied these test results. It was like waking up to a different eye color. Then I became intrigued. How did this happen? In what ways am I different? And more importantly, why am I so fascinated with myself?
Katherine knew that we all seek an answer to the fundamental question, “What makes me, me?” Her first sincere attempts to understand personality began in 1897 with a set of experiments she designed to turn her daughter into a genius. She conducted behavioral drills with Isabel in their living room, the “cosmic laboratory of baby training.” And Isabel impressed the neighborhood mothers when she began speaking full sentences at two, learned stenography at twelve, published short stories at 16, and at 17 was accepted to Swarthmore College.
Then In 1923, Katherine discovered a schematic for sorting personalities. She read Carl Jung’s Psychological Types in which Jung theorized that every person was primarily extraverted or introverted, intuitive or sensing, thinking or feeling. The work captured Katherine’s attention for several years, not only helping her to not only understand herself but inspiring her to seek a broader application for the betterment of society.
It was Isabel who would go on to adapt Jung’s schematic and craft the Myers-Briggs Indicator to help employers identify the traits of their employees. She pitched hard, making use of family connections, and successfully selling the test during a time when employers wanted increasingly specialized and productive workers. Throughout the 1950s and 60s, the Myers-Brigs Indicator attracted interest from the Educational Testing Service in Princeton, New Jersey and from UC Berkeley’s Institute of Personality Assessment and Research, who administered the indicator to Truman Capote, Normal Mailer and other prominent writers and artists.
By 1980, the year Isabel died, it is estimated that over one million other people had taken it. By 2012, sales of personality tests were bringing in about $20 million a year, and Myers-Briggs had become a household name. Emre’s cultural history deftly reveals the a-typical nature of its creators. They were affluent autodidacts, homemakers, published writers and zealous crusaders for self-actualization. They shaped the personality-assessment industry with an indicator that has become an icon. But how would they type?
Originally published October 18, 2018 in the Aspen Daily News
Written under the influence of Michael Pollan
To be more creative, to expand our connections with the people in our lives, to free ourselves from self-defeating thoughts, to be happier. Can psychedelics play a role in our personal well-being? Michael Pollan, a self-described “square,” separates truth from myth, becoming a chronicler and participant in the exploration of this question. How to Change Your Mind documents the suppression and potential therapeutic future of psychedelics. And here, as in his previous two best-sellers, The Botany of Desire and The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Pollan combines history with politics and personal reflection on the healing potential of the plant world, specifically magic mushrooms.
The book points to some of the damage done by Harvard psychologist Timothy Leary and other counterculture leaders, who successfully branded psychedelic science as part of the hippie movement. Within the moral backlash toward that era, this association partly ensured the drug’s criminalization. But not before scientists discovered an amazing potential to treat addiction, alcoholism, anxiety, depression and the distress facing patients with a terminal diagnosis.
Over the last two decades, medical centers along with the U.S. government, are allowing new research into the study of psilocybin, the active ingredient in LSD, to treat these conditions. Pollan also reports that “the practice of microdosing — taking a tiny, ‘subperceptual’ regular dose of LSD as a kind of mental tonic — is all the rage in the tech community.”
Modern technology, specifically fMRI scanners, confirm a similar brain activity between people meditating and those taking psilocybin. LSD molecules resemble serotonin and can breach the neurotransmitter’s receptors. Not everyone’s reaction is the same, and Leary’s major contribution was an emphasis on the effects of personal expectation or “set” and guided circumstance or “setting,” which some argue should include a trained therapist.
However, almost all reports of psilocybin-induced experience share what Pollan calls a “plane of consciousness,” that was new to him and felt truer than everyday reality. Why should this experience prove so helpful? As Pollan explains it, disorders that are the result of mental and emotional “grooves” in our thinking have become “default.” Experiences with psilocybin have the ability to create new cerebral connections that release us from “rigidity in our thinking that is psychologically destructive.” He provides intriguing examples, such as a study involving terminal cancer patients who felt lasting relief from their anxieties around death.
While Pollan does not argue for the arbitrary legalization nor for the recreational use of psychedelics, he does argue that our anxieties around them lack merit. He also expresses hope that the drugs will be more widely available, not only those suffering from addiction and trauma, but also for the middle aged, whose “habitual thinking…is nearly absolute.” What Pollan personally sought was an opportunity to “renovate my everyday mental life,” and found that his experience gave him a greater and lasting sense of openness and appreciation of life.
As always, Pollan’s work is highly readable. And to my mind, the author once again suggests (to quote Botany) the plant’s ability to restore “a kind of innocence to our perceptions of the world.'' Here he creates another provocative opportunity to wonder at the unique power of nature and its relationship with the human condition.
Originally published September 6, 2018 in the Aspen Daily News
Successful French hip-hop artist Gaël Faye was born in 1982 to a French father and Rwandan mother who lived as expatriates in Burundi, a country in the Great Lakes area of Eastern Africa.
Faye describes the bulk of his creative work in music, screenplays and fiction as rooted in poetry. He began writing poems at an early age, anchoring himself to their composition throughout his abruptly uprooted adolescence, and then expanding his small works into song and prose.
He has recently emerged as a dexterous talent, winning numerous literary prizes, including the prestigious Prix Goncourt des lycéens for Petit Pays, published 2016 in France and selling over 700,000 copies. Sarah Ardizzone translated Faye’s novel into Small Country, now published in over thirty countries worldwide.
The book opens just before the first democratic election in 1993 of Melchior Ndadaye in Burundi, bordered by Rwanda, Tanzania and the Congo. There, life is fairly carefree for ten-year-old Gabrial, living with his expatriate French father, Rwandan mother and little sister Ana in the capital of Bujumbura.
Ten year old Gabriel (Gaby) and his pack of mischief making friends sneak beers, gossip about girls, avoid Francis the bully, sell stolen mangoes and sneak Supermatch cigarettes. Faye’s inspiration for these characters comes from a lyric he wrote days before the civil war. Pili Pili sur un Croissant au Beurre; it’s a song of privilege and boredom and from a child who does not yet understand what the future holds.
The 1993 assassination of Melchior Ndadaye will come just three months after his election in a military coup that begins a ten-year civil war, killing over a million Hutus and Tutsis in mutual prosecution of physical difference. The violence will monstrously spread, propelling Rwanda into genocide rooted on an accepted colonial concept of ethnicity. Faye writes, “A glowing, uninvited ghost is showing up at regular intervals to remind us that peace is merely a brief interlude between two wars...we didn’t know it yet, but the hour of the inferno had come, and the night was about to unleash it’s cackles of hyenas and wild dogs.”
Small Country explores the grief that accompanies a boy plunged from the familiar into the horrific. Gaby first steadies himself by writing poetic letters to his French pen pal Laure. He befriends an elderly widow with large bookshelves, immerses himself in reading instead of following friends into guerilla warfare. Eventually he must make the worst of choices. It’s an ambitious character development, and at times Faye loses a little authenticity, attempting to balance seasoned expository with the naïve perspective of a boy.
Faye’s own boyhood was lost to war, and he followed his mother to France where he describes being so filled with injustice and the shock of a new culture that he didn’t unpack his suitcase for months. Like Gaby, he was a child traumatized by the evil that passed though and transformed Africa. He writes, "Genocide is an oil slick: those who don't drown in it are polluted for life."
Within that darkness, Gaby loses not only freedom but identity, abandoning his former self in order to survive. Faye illuminates the brutal struggle of refugee experience through what at times can feel like disjointed memoir. Yet, he delivers a perspective not often shared about the Rwandan genocide. The story is slow building and deeply moving, told in simple beautiful language, and a worthy eye-opening read.
Originally published July 26, 2018 in the Aspen Daily News
When I was twelve, I sought out the kind of fiction that led me down magical paths, places where powerful incantations held sway in mysterious other-worldly planes. In recent years, I’ve gravitated toward the kind of writing that teaches me something new or challenges my sense of what literature should be. Fantasy fiction hasn’t been my go-to. Yet, I was easily caught in the dark net cast by Zoe Gilbert, a PhD student of mentor Alison MacLeod in South-East London, and 2014 winner of UK’s revered Costa Short Story Award.
This unique award is judged anonymously, with the names of the competing authors withheld throughout the process. Gilbert’s short story Fishskin, Hareskin received the highest number of public votes and is now one of the separate yet interconnected stories contained in her bewitching debut novel, Folk.
Zoe Gilbert has conjured an eerily beautiful world, an un-happily ever after place, drawn from old tales from the Isle of Man, where “moonlight reaches down between branches” and kites strain and wood quivers. The briny air is rich with the scent of sodden thatch, salt sea-fog and cobnut shells. A fiddle mourns for lost loves where wild enchanted characters inhabit a land tethered to sub-pagan ritual.
At times this book languishes in a way that detracts from its narrative. However, Gilbert triumphs with some simply infatuating prose. She spins ancient myth like a true Solomon, recounting a world, unreal yet more real than our own.
And while the pursuit of supernatural storytelling is to create a universe far far away, these constructed worlds cannot help but reflect a kind of hyper-reality, shining light on our own existence, how are we the same, what are we missing? Take the story of Verlyn, a character born with a wing for an arm and sadly defined by that peculiarity. Verlyn’s tale illustrates our misunderstanding of difference and the resultant fear that blinds our ability both to understand and to love.
In Prick Song, ancient ritual prescribes village girls to fire ribboned arrows into a thick gorse maze which young suitors compete to retrieve. Bloody scratch marks earn the boys kisses on their stinging lips, but the proceedings turn grim when a battle ravaged victor is burned alive.
In Water Bull Bride, Gilbert conceives a water bull as Minotaur, who disguises himself as a man so to capture and seduce a bride. Underwater he elicits a sexual appetite in her that cannot be quenched by mortals.
A new mother who is preoccupied by hares wraps her strange offspring in the skins of childhood pets. A young boy named Hark lives behind a waterfall and uses his ox-voice to answer villager’s questions. Each of their stories can stand alone; together they hint at the passage of time, culminating in a deep and strangely beautiful sense of place.
When I finished Folk, I found myself sadly staring at the cover, then out the window, wishing I could return to Gilbert’s mythical land called Neverness, that my bare feet touched a verdant forest floor or that I might shake hands with a less (more?) human being. There’s something incredibly appealing about erasing the sharp angles of contemporary existence, and there’s a sense of loss in the return to hard boiled reality.
This is not a title that will be to everyone’s taste, but lovers of fantasy fiction will admire Gilbert’s work, and I imagine that some soon to be fans will like it too.
This review originally appeared in the Aspen Daily News on April 12, 2018
The Hainish Cycle series by Ursula K. Le Guin
Burning Your Boats: the collected short stories by Angela Carter
A Guide to Being Born by Ramona Ausubel
Tender Morsels by Margo Lanagan
Unlike other dystopian novelists, Zumas plots no dramatic martial law. Her characters simply wake to a president they didn’t vote for and then later to the legislation that decides how their bodies are used. In an Oregon fishing town, four characters swallow what it now means to be a woman. One wishes she could escape her children, one surrenders a child for adoption, one seeks abortion and one desperately wants to be a mother.
The story centers on Ro, “The Biographer,” a depressed, single, high school history teacher, whose father lives in a Florida retirement home, whose brother died of a heroin overdose, and whose last chance to have a child is through artificial insemination. Ro visits a fertility specialist’s office, described as “a room for women whose bodies are broken,” where she tries to rationalize her urgent impulse to motherhood.
Susan, “The Wife,” lives in the house she grew up in with an aloof husband who teaches at the same school as “The Biographer.” Susan begs him to attend couples therapy while trying not to resent their two toddlers who annoy and fatigue her stay-at-home life. Susan envies Ro’s childlessness but offers only condescension, both women burdened by societal expectations.
Adopted Mattie, “The Daughter,” loses her virginity to her careless boyfriend. The promising but pregnant 15-year-old in the Biographer’s class, she pursues abortion in a world that now views her as criminal.
Gin, “The Mender,” a defiant healer, shares forest herbs to help end pregnancies for women without money or insurance. Arrested in a modern-day witch hunt, her narrative unites the other women, who work to get Gin acquitted.
And Eivør, a 19th-century, Faroese polar explorer and the compelling subject of Ro’s biography, disrupts each chapter with fragments of her brutal determined life, serving as a compass for women who persist.
Zumas fluently speaks their truths, from the Daughter’s fear and earnestness, to the Mother’s conflicted emotions and the Mender’s earthy intuition. Her prose will suddenly quicken in a flood of anxiety, sarcasm and rationality.
“She doesn't want to skip the Math Academy.
(She kicks Nouri’s gothsickle ass at calculus.)
Or to push it out.
She doesn't want to wonder; and she would.
The kid too—Why wasn’t I kept?
Was his mother too young? Too old? Too hot? Too cold?
She doesn’t want him wondering, or herself wondering.
Are you mine?
And she doesn’t want to worry she’ll be found.
But she has a self. Why not use it?”
Thrilled by her mercurial style, I bookmarked a dozen pages in Zumas’ "Red Clocks," a story that cleverly reveals the underpinnings of a current socio-political wrangle yet maintains hope for personal transformation. Leni Zumas is one to watch.
This review originally appeared in the Aspen Daily News on March 1, 2018
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