In the Paris Review Issue 237 writers grapple with the existential and the absurd, sometimes to great effect, and other times missing the mark. I was particularly drawn to the first story, ‘The Beyoğlu Municipality Waste Management Orchestra’ by Kenan Orhan, where a garbage collector begins to collect instruments after the city cracks down on people’s possessions. The absurdity builds until he not only collects all the instruments for an orchestra, but also all the players. At the end, the police find out what he was doing, and so locked him up with objects that the speaker believed had also been arrested. It was a story reminiscent of dystopian novels but had a twinge of humor.
Another highlight included Ada Limón’s poem ‘Power Lines’ in which a power line crew works to remove a tree in the way. And its final lines worked beyond the piece, “Now the tree is gone. The men are gone, just a ground-down stump / where what felt like wisdom once was.”
And the third piece I felt worked elegantly was Joy Katz’s creative non-fiction essay ‘Tennis is the Opposite of Death: A Proof’, which confronted a father’s death and Katz’s mortality. Its interplay with memory, tennis, and the father-daughter relationship held an emotional urgency.
However, while those pieces were my highlights, there were some moments that felt incongruous and sometimes didn’t work. I was particularly hesitant with the subject matter of ‘Rainbow Rainbow’ by Lydia Conklin in which a pair of teenagers fawn over an adult. It then broaches uncomfortable territory when one of the teenagers is fondled by the adult. And while I’m sure Conklin meant well in the conveyance of the adult realizing what she did was wrong, but it didn’t have a strong enough impact to excuse the actions beforehand (and maybe that was intended). Though, the damage of the adult didn’t seem to register or truly play out for the characters, and so it felt like a piece whose characters thought nothing but positively about the encounter.
I was also left underwhelmed by the story ‘The Lottery in Almeria’ by Camille Bordas, which had an initially interesting premise with the lottery and the inherited house of the father. Though, I felt that it fizzled out when the relationship with the sister was not really vibrant. I thought that the textbook writer writing the beginning of the story worked well, though it didn’t seem to follow through in the end.
There were some stunners, but also some stories that didn’t work too well for me.
Final Rating: 3/5
The Spring 2021 issue of American Short Fiction contains seven short stories from such writers as Anthony Veasna So to Whitney Collins. While this wasn’t a themed issue, I noticed that about half of the stories focused on the loss or vacuum of an absent father. It was interesting to see the way each character approached and processed loss differently.
Though, for me I think the best story was ‘How Soon Until We’re Deadly?’ by Kevin Moffett. It detailed the intervening moments after his father’s death, and the karate dojo he attended to fill that fatherly role. The voice of the story was vibrant, with moments of humor sprinkled in. The speaker, at the point of writing the story, had already been able to reflect and understand what happened, which gave a strong anchor for me to hold onto.
I didn’t particularly enjoy other stories in the issue. I felt that ‘Bitten’ by Holiday Reinhorn was too surface level and relied too much on pop culture. And ‘The Get-Go’ by Elizabeth McCracken had awkward sentences and didn’t bring anything fresh to the conversation of loss.
Final Rating: 3/5
In this issue of Poetry Magazine, the collection works to create a tapestry of events both relevant and powerful. This issue focuses on featuring poets from Alabama in which the themes of the poems centered mainly around race, the pandemic, and the spots of joy around them. Because of this however, there were some poems of happiness/joy that didn’t feel like they met the moment of what the rest of the issue was working towards.
I’d like to highlight a few poems that had a strong impact. First, was the poem ‘I Just Want to Live Long Enough to See Allen Iverson Live Long Enough to Get His Reebok Check’, which both acknowledges and challenges the idea that progress happens in the small moments. To me, the second stanza particularly felt significant. Other poems to keep an eye out for are ‘Irish Goodbye’ by Kimberly Casey, ‘Burden Hill Apothecary & Babalú-Ayé Prepare Stinging Nettle Tea’ by L. Lamar Wilson, and ‘The Beach is Host to Small Things’ by Kwoya Fagin Maples.
Final Rating: 3.5/5
In How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, Alexander Chee strings together a collection of essays detailing the way he understands himself, his trauma, and his writing. There is a vulnerability in the collection that pulled me into moments that were truly personal and inspirational. I read the essay, How to Write an Autobiographical Novel, in my last semester of college, and only now, a year later, I have come back to read the rest. In reading it a second time, what I think gave me another layer of appreciation was the parallel feelings I have of doing the same (of writing a novel).
The moment that reverberated with me was in the essay, 100 Things about Writing a Novel. Where he writes, “You write the novel because you have to write it. You do it because it is easier to do than not do. You can’t write a novel you don’t have to write.” What I took from the essay, and the collection as a whole, was the urgency that he felt when creating.
He also tries to both contextualize, understand, and deal with the trauma that has lived with him since his childhood. He talks both about his therapy sessions, and the adjacent lives it had pulled from and affected. But he mentions that after therapy, after a book, and after time, he hints at the way it still is there. And I feel that it is also implied that those moments, whether brought on by flashback or faces, may stick with him even after writing this novel.
Final Rating: 4/5
Little Climates by L.A. Johnson is a chapbook detailing the eerie moments of nature and the echoes of a brother-in-law’s death. Many of the moments that Johnson creates are either tangentially or are directly tied to driving, deer, and weather. All these bits coalesce in ‘Vanish Point’ where the events of what led to the death are alluded to.
There are two poems I found myself reading over again, which were ‘Forecast’ and ‘Evaporation’. Each poem seems to bookend the narrative in a unique and compelling way. For me, in ‘Forecast’, I found the lines “I dreamt tonight of a glass-bottomed boat/floating through a pine forest, needles pierced/above and below my reflection in the lake surface.” to hold a powerful image that encapsulates the fragility of the speaker. And on the tail end, ‘Evaporation’ describes a collection of items that start off derelict, but soon build to the sadness of the metal tools.
Little Climates looks to process and find meaning in the deeply dissonant moments with a ping of bitterness that makes me want to come back for more.
Final Rating: 4/5
On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong is structured as a letter from a Vietnamese American son to his mother about their relationship and his understanding of his sexuality. And through this letter, the speaker, Little Dog, grapples with what it means to be Asian and how families seemingly pass on their trauma onto their children. Though, Vuong allows for the story to burst from its spine, in that it goes far beyond its written word.
Vuong began as a poet, and his use of prose seem so natural and poignant that it only amplifies the novel’s meaning. There are, in fact, chapters that both read and are formed as poems. He is able to twist vast metaphors and weave in beautifully intricate images that the moments feel vivid and real. There are moments that are revisited and remixed into a kaleidoscope of urgent moments that made me nearly cry while reading at a laundromat. The earnestness of Little Dog forces the reader to feel like you are the mother meant to read the letter, which intrinsically creates an ‘in’ for the reader.
Not only does Vuong create such vivid images, he is also able to anchor the narrative in real world events and moments. This is the case in his use of Tiger Woods, the buffalo in nature documentaries, and the opioid crisis.
I am sure in only reading the novel once, I have missed out on layers of nuanced meaning. One thing that I had nearly missed was that Little Dog, when he talked about his mother abusing him, he switched to a third-person point of view. Things like that show both Little Dog wanted to separate himself from the story, and also protect his mother from fully comprehending what she did to her son.
There are so many things to say about On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, but I think that would pale in comparison to the novel itself. If there is only ever one book you need to read, then I believe this is the one.
Final Rating: 5/5
Minor Feelings, a collection of essays written by Cathy Park Hong, actively tries to pick apart and critically understand the systematic and cultural racism that exists in the US. She draws on her childhood in Los Angeles and college days to create a tapestry of examples, both internal and societal that make her question her lived experiences. She dissects the way her white colleagues manage to deflect and redirect pain back onto her. This book, as explained by its subtitle, tries to both explain and note the way Americans have treated its Asian citizens. But the book itself is not so much a piece of understanding the self, and more so a beginning to broader conversations of how Asian Americans fit in it.
In the essay, A Portrait of An Artist, a possible reference to James Joyce, she analyzes the life and work of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha. Most notably, Hong focuses in on Cha’s novel Dictee in that it has two unique factors. The first being that it doesn’t look to explain the art within its pages, thus forcing the reader to search for the answers themselves. The work is then transferred to the reader which acts as a parallel to how Hong thinks Asian Americans don’t need to cater themselves to a white audience. And the second is that silence in both Cha’s work and life act as examples of how Asian Americans desire to not discuss tragic events. The idea that silence is good or bad is left for the reader to decide.
There are difficulties a white audience has to confront to be on the same pages that Asian American writers and artists like Hong are on. Though, it is in the use of her tempered silence and examples that push the reader to confront their own biases. The book is bigger than itself in that it challenges a conversation and is unabashed about it. The true question—the reckoning that Hong is asking—is: will the conversation of racism stay within the Asian American communities, or will her white audiences do the work needed to understand the Asian American experience?
Final Rating: 4/5
The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen is a story about a double agent working for his communist comrades in the United States after the fall of Saigon. The novel details the inner workings of a man with a shallow attachment to the United States, and a hidden one to the communist party. From first leaving Viet Nam, to then hiding out in Southern California, the protagonist secretly communicates with a childhood friend, Man, with all the intel he can recover from the American veterans after they left.
To try and not be discovered by his American counterparts, the protagonist has to go to great lengths of concealing who he actually is. These acts range from subtle things to more devastating event, like killing a mis-identified communist. While in America, the protagonist notes that many of the veterans come home without a purpose; they have become janitors, and shopkeepers and nothing what they believe themselves to be.
Then, to try and represent the Vietnamese people as best as possible, the protagonist agrees to help with the filming of a movie that occurs in the Philippines. Soon, the protagonist is caught up in both trying to portray his countrymen accurately and realizes the brutality of the film itself. Though, because of the duality of his identity, many of these contradictions are tossed away, as he believes that he is solely of communist blood.
The final act of the novel brings both the American veterans and the protagonist back to Viet Nam for one final and intense stand. The mentality of the veterans going felt that their dignity had been stripped of them and would much rather die on enemy soil than half-exist in America. However, this does not bode well for them as after a mine explosion, presumed to be set by the Americans years before, and a fire fight, the protagonist is captured.
After revealing his communist status to the prison camp, he is placed in isolation and forced to write a confession. The protagonist is utterly willing to give them as much as they want, but it is not enough for the commandant. Eventually, he is brought to the final stages of his torture, sleep deprivation, to elicit the true confession the prison camp leaders are looking for. It is also revealed that it is Man, his childhood friend, that is the protagonist’s torturer. And while at face value it seems like a betrayal, Man explains he is saving the protagonist. The torture, after an unexplainable amount of time, soon uncovers what the protagonist is unable to remember: a rape he witnessed. The protagonist, in his madman state soon understands the contradictory phrase: “while nothing is more precious than independence and freedom, nothing is also more precious than independence and freedom!” Upon his reeducation, the protagonist leaves the prison camp with one of the other survivors, Bon.
The novel is packed so heavily with imagery and metaphor that it is no surprise how intricate and meaningful each passage feels. Instances such as when the woman is being raped, her name is “Viet Nam”, which acts as metaphor for the Americans coming into Viet Nam and destroying and raping the land and people. Or the imagery of the protagonist tied to a mattress during his torture, plays right into the parallel of the image of his birth from his mother—essentially signifying his rebirth. The amount of complexities and issues the story manages to explain and intuit is both astonishing and commendable.
Death is a huge factor in The Sympathizer as well as the effects of war. The novel shows that first, no man can play both sides of a war and come out unscathed. The second is the question if someone is fighting another for independence and freedom, then certainly someone’s freedom is removed, in which case, that contradicts itself. And maybe, Nguyen was trying to hint at the unabashed contradictions of the fighting Americans. In doing so, Nguyen has brought a critical eye to the actions and events of the Americans during the Viet Nam war.
Final Rating: 5/5
In John Green’s The Anthropocene Reviewed, Green reviews things from Teddy Bears to the song “Auld Lang Syne”. And I find it fitting that now, I am reviewing a book that contains only a life catalogued in a five-star system. When asked what the book is about, Green mentions that he’s never quite sure, that maybe it’s about growing up, maybe about the effect of time, and maybe as broad reaching as about the human condition. And to that end, it does mean all those things to him, and most likely more.
My personal favorite essay, as I’m sure with the other 100,000 people who have watched the video essay on Youtube, is that of “Auld Lang Syne”. There is an honest earnestness in the way Green weaves his own life experiences with the convoluted and sometimes melancholy history of the song. And I’ve noticed, as mentioned in the bits of his introduction, that without the personal flourishes of each review, they would feel detached and nearly sterile. Because of this, the reviews that have strong personal connections are the essays that stand out.
Though, there are moments where it seems Green only has a loose personal connection to the topic, and thus the narrative relies on history rather than a deeply intricate understanding of him, as an individual. And while I understand that yes, it is a book of reviews, so what else is it supposed to be about other than the exact thing being reviewed. Though, the detached essay of “Yips” contrasts so heavily with the essay following it “Auld Lang Syne” that I feel as though its significance is nearly lost.
I’ve learned that the reviews say more about the reviewer than the things they are reviewing. Such as: what things does the person value, or what things did they not include, or how is the thing personally relevant.
Final Rating: 4/5
(As a side note, there are 44 reviews (45 if you include the half-title page review) with three 1 star, two 1 ½ stars, five 2 stars, three 2 ½ stars, three 3 stars, four 3 ½ stars, eleven 4 stars, six 4 ½ stars, and eight 5 stars. This is plotted below.)
There are only a few books in my life that I can say have impacted me to a great extent, and Night by Elie Wiesel is one of them. Simply put, he forces the reader to confront a battered history that had befallen the Jewish people in Europe during World War II. I can only say that it has brought me a greater understanding of the horrible actions that were taken in this shameful era of human history. But to greater extent, it puts a personal and vulnerable touch to what the Holocaust was. When I was younger, I had learned about the Holocaust with an almost separation from the events. I knew that 6 million Jews had been murdered by Hitler, but on that grand of a scale, I couldn’t truly comprehend each of those lives in all their complexities and tragedies. I have found myself digging for information on tragedies such as the Holocaust as it shows the raw and unfiltered humanness of life, oppression, emotion, and death. We rarely like to bring up things so painful that a word seventy-five years later still causes hushed whispers. But as time moves its metal hands, we can only spend that time understanding and progressing from what we had been before. Night is that much needed reminder of the atrocities that humans have the ability to do to each other. I would like to reflect on a passage Elie Wiesel’s acceptance speech of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986. “…I have tried to keep memory alive, that I have tried to fight those who would forget. Because if we forget, we are guilty, we are accomplices…And that is why I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim… Wherever men and women are persecuted because of their race, religion, or political views, that place must-at that moment-become the center of the universe"(Elie Wiesel, 1986). I wish that things like this never happened, but seeing as we cannot alter history, we can only hope to prevent anything tragic in the future. We can only force ourselves never to forget, to inform our children of how horrible actions had caused endless suffering. And to never deny these concrete facts. To learn and read from survivors like Elie Wiesel gives us invaluable insight and personal accounts of a history that should never be repeated. I continuously am filled with a simple yet pressing question that doesn’t seem to be answered, which is: How could humans do this to one another? How could so much baseless hatred be directed towards a certain type of people? It brings me great sadness to have to reflect on something that should have never happened. And so, as Elie, I will advocate, stand up, and do everything in my ability to stop the suffering that befalls individuals and groups of people. Because if we don’t help one another, then it will only perpetuate more suffering that the world shouldn’t endure.
Final Rating: 4.5/5
Maxwell Suzuki is a writer, poet, and photographer based in Los Angeles.