The Iowa Review Spring 2021 is a collection of poetry, nonfiction, and fiction published by the University of Iowa. This issue heavily focused on the voices of veterans within its fiction portion. There were some bright spots in the issue, namely ‘Coelacanth’ by Ellis Scott, ‘The Lantern’ by Greg Wrenn, and ‘Routes’ by David Lombardi. These stories, at least, felt authentic with unique voices and twinges of queerness that I felt like I could relate to.
However, I was deeply disappointed with the rest of the pieces featured. Many of the stories written by and about veterans carried with them a staleness like in ‘Where’s Charlie?’ by Erik Cederblom. The story relied too deeply on the narrative of the prideful and just America, that all nuance was lost. No new ground felt like it was trod since many of the stories featured white male protagonists and didn’t critically view America’s actions as it related to war. The enemy was generally vilified and the only story to critically think about the military, ‘He Said, She Said’ by Jerri Bell, eventually fell in line with that narrative at the end. I was also not impressed at the poem ‘Dire Offense’ by Mark Levine as it seemed to become incoherent with a nonsensical stanza listing random nouns. It dragged on far too long and also relied too heavily on an unconventional rhyming scheme. Overall, I expected a more critical issue.
Final Rating: 2.5/5
The Song of Achilles is a novel by Madeline Miller that focuses on the relationship between Achilles and his gay lover Patroclus before and during the siege of Troy. Miller takes from the source material of the Iliad and works in a deeply powerful mortal relationship not often written about in Greek mythology. The relationship been Achilles and Patroclus is written naturally and fluidly to offer a look into their budding understanding of each other. It’s a heartfelt, and at times, moving piece that works in Greek legend, the human condition, and a history that has been long overlooked. It was crafted in a way that let me ease into the work of Ancient Greece without being shocked. I also appreciated the relationship cultured between Patroclus and his father and Achilles and Thetis.
Final Rating: 4.5/5
American Short Fiction Issue 74 is a collection of short stories that deals in the strange and sometimes overlooked parts of the world. The characters in ‘After Hours at the Acacia Pool’ by Kirstin Valdez Quade, ‘Transit’ by Morgan Thomas, and ‘Sissies’ by hurmat kazmi are all seen as weird and different in the worlds around them. I am particularly fascinated with both ‘Transit’ and ‘Sissies’ whose language and moments feel right in the bizarre contexts they are within. I don’t often read a collection of short stories and find quality in each piece.
Final Rating: 4/5
Searching for Sylvie Lee is a novel by Jean Kwok which focuses on the disappearance and death of the character Sylvie Lee in the Netherlands. It is split into three narratives: the mother, Amy who is the sister, and Sylvie Lee before she goes missing. I found the threads of Asian themes worked well to show the alienation and distancing that Asians face in other countries. And I felt that the story was elegant in continuing to hold tension about Sylvie’s death up until the last moments. The reports, phone calls, messages, and emails felt natural in the novel and worked to vary the way the story was told. I enjoyed the drama, suspense, and action that existed, but I felt there were a few things that didn’t work as well.
First, I think that the thread that follows the mother is too static and acts to slow down and work against the narrative. For the majority of the story, up until the last chapter where the mother is the narrator, nothing happens to her or there isn’t a driving force for her. I think Kwok may have also realized this too as the chapters with the mother are barely three pages long each. There isn’t much ground covered in those moments, and so I didn’t feel personally attached to the character. And while I realize that she can’t speak English well, I didn’t think the intentional use of improper grammar worked to enliven the character. If anything, the grammar forced the mother character into an Asian stereotype. I would’ve liked to either have seen more of the mother in moments with Willem or her own struggles, or taken her narrative thread out altogether. The only thing that would require reworking is her reveal about her affair with Willem, but that could just be added in as dialogue.
I had initially enjoyed the sayings that all the characters used that acted as direct metaphors to the situations, but I felt that there were far too many. The metaphors lost all their subtly and felt far too heavy-handed. For example, the lines, “’You guys are bad influences. Those who associate with dogs get fleas,’” are redundant even though one is a metaphor. It would make sense to me if only a single character said these lines, but the grandmother, mother, Amy, and Sylvie all say them at one point, and so it felt like their meanings were deluded.
Overall, I enjoyed the suspense and the drama that unfolded in the novel. Generally, the weaving of the narratives held up, and I found myself reading that last hundred pages in a sprint. Though, the novel doesn’t come without its faults, which I felt worked to slow down the pace and box in certain characters.
Final Rating: 3/5
The Paris Review Issue 238 is a collection of poetry, prose, and art that widely looks at the world through a fractured lens—at least it tries to. To start off, I found the shining star of this issue to be in ‘This Then Is a Song, We Are Singing’ by Sterling HolyWhiteMountain. It is a piece that is written as if it were posted on a social media website and documents the tumultuous relationship between Wayne and Lulu. The language feels raw, which gives its final ending in which Wayne, the writer, kills Lulu and another guy genuine and powerful. However, the piece continues with the voices of others commenting and wondering if everything is okay. I found Wayne’s justifications and desires to be deep and, at times, dark. The other piece I was fascinated with was ‘Infinite Life’ by Annie Baker. However, I thought these pieces were outliers when it came to the freshness of pieces.
The biggest contention I had with this issue was that it was deeply apparent what types of voices weren’t heard. The piece ‘Walks’ by Caleb Crain falls into this hole as it documents the walks of a guy and his dog as the Covid pandemic begins. Often, when people write about the pandemic, usually it feels all the same, and this exists within that pocket. First, it focuses on an upper middle-class man who finds Covid to be a nuisance rather than something serious (often there are comments about other people wearing masks when he doesn’t find it necessary). Covid seems to have affected the speaker very little, and this is the case in the piece. It comes off as insensitive to the workers and people who actually were working so closely with Covid. I don’t want to hear about a well-off white man complain about Covid, I want to hear about the struggles of the workers/nurses/dying. Second, its use of birds as a metaphor feels, not only drawn out, but a little reductive. It seems, to me, too easy of a comparison of birds to cages to people stuck in their rooms. And because of that, its intended impact misses.
The other story I had problems with was ‘Exhaling’ by Emmanuel Carrère which documents the meditation trip he took and what it means to him when he has to get pulled out because of a terrorist attack in Paris. Frankly, the piece is boring. It drags on about breathing and describing the minutia of meditating to an irksome degree. It is annoying (and this is more of a personal preference) that all the foreign words were italicized and then were described. It became apparent to me that the speaker’s audience was not me, but in fact older white men. The sex scene goes on for way too long and feels like it was written by someone who just discovered erotica. And its final scene where the speaker is taken from the retreat early because of the terrorist attack on Carlie Hebdo makes no sense to me. Why would he need to go back to France when, at that point, he was probably safer at the retreat? If it was due to travel restrictions, it was not written clearly enough. The only redeeming quality of the piece is the scene where the wolf watches as the speaker and another person perform tai chi.
Overall, I was disappointed with the issue. It focuses on older white privileged male voices, which implicitly removes and marginalizes the voices of others.
Final Rating: 2/5
The January 2022 issue of Poetry Magazine looks at issues of disabilities, the working class, and sexuality. I was drawn in by the poems ‘In the Beginning’ and ‘Retranslation’ by Josh Tvrdy, ‘New Queer Cinema’ by Ben Kline, and was blown away by Alison Thumel’s ‘Coping’. ‘Coping’ which works to tangle the death of her brother and grief afterward with the structure and use of architecture. It is woven with class notes, drawing, and definitions that act to create an unbreakable tie between subjects.
Also featured in this issue is the discussion and mulling over of accessibility for the disabled in the poetry community. The essays by Kay Ulanday Barrett and Petra Kuppers question the current difficulties their communities face, and challenge the power structures the gatekeeping exists within.
Final Rating: 4/5
The Mar/Apr 2022 issue of The Kenyon Review is a collection of poetry and prose focused on work and the world which surrounds the working individual. I found its cohesiveness, and sometimes deviation from work, to be fascinating in that work consumes large chunks of someone’s life. The pieces that stood out to me the most were ‘Ink’ by Angela Woodward, ‘Bebo’ by Jared Jackson, ‘Butchers’ by Dylan Reynolds, and ‘Automatic Reply’ by Mikey Swanberg. I found the visceral, and at times fearfulness, conveyed within ‘Butchers’ kept me on edge, while the tone in ‘Automatic Reply’ was both genuine and humorous.
Though, I found the story ‘Anaheim’ by Jennifer Croft to be slightly lacking in that its reference to George Floyd was inconsequential to the plot. Also, the setting of the pandemic didn’t seem to provide a fresh enough take to be compelling.
Overall, I enjoyed the issue and thought it had some great insights into how we interact and think about work.
Final Rating: 3.5/5
The Immortals of Tehran by Ali Araghi is a novel that encompasses the breadth of an Iranian family and the conflicts they become involved in. It’s a novel about family, magic, relationships, politics, war, and is written in the same vein and voice that a weaving family history would be told in. The story mainly focuses on Ahmad, a son who can’t speak after he is forced to shoot his father, where he learns what it means to exist within conflict. Araghi is able to create a sweeping narrative that captures magic found within the family’s curse of living forever, the burning ability of Ahmad’s poetry, and the flowers created after a musician plays songs. The magic adds curiosity, suspension, and all felt wonderful within the world that Araghi builds.
I was especially impressed with how Araghi navigates the death of one of the immortal characters, Agha. Reading the portions where Agha observes himself to be dead and a celebration/funeral is thrown in his honor is surreal. And I felt the finality of setting Agha back in his tree, where he will reside in forever, was a fitting and bittersweet moment with both Ahmad and his grandfather, Khan. I also found the tie in with the story about the cats in the beginning added an air of legend to an already mythical story. Finally, in the last few pages of the novel, the narrator, in a way, identifies themselves which, not only adds to its parallelism with the cat story, but becomes a story about a story. This feels like a story that a grandpa tells their grandson, something passed so delicately from one mouth to another about how the family came to be. And for that, I loved it.
Final Rating: 5/5
Craft in the Real World: Rethinking Fiction Writing and Workshopping is a collection of essays by Matthew Salesses that looks to question, dismantle, and rebuild our notions of what fiction and workshop is. Salesses interrogates the idea of craft, and its white heteronormative beginnings, and what that means for minorities, such as Asian Americans. The book also looks into how to go about workshopping pieces in new and different ways. Salesses suggests what has worked for him in the past, and provides examples on those types of workshops, knowing of the initial model. And finally, Salesses provides pathways and questions that would be helpful in strengthening the workshopped piece. I enjoyed the overall tone of Salesses, as well as the concrete ways he tries to go about writing and workshopping.
Final Rating: 4/5
Obit by Victoria Chang is a collection of poems which try to work through and deconstruct the grief she had felt after the death of her parents. She discusses the deep well of pain and suffering as well as confronts what that mortality means to her. The collection is mainly in the form of prose poetry in paragraphs, which aid in creating a sense of endlessness to the grief and suffering. Additionally, there is a sort of repetition in the poems where each one begins by saying something (an object, a concept, a person) died. I think the poems that use this concept well are ‘Voice Mail’, ‘Civility’, ‘Gait’, ‘Secrets’, ‘The Clock’, and ‘Victoria Chang’.
To me however, while the poems worked to deepen the understanding of the speaker’s grief, they didn’t seem to push past those boundaries. Though, I did appreciate the lines in the poem ‘My Mother’ that said, “The way memory is the ringing after a gunshot. The way we try to remember the gunshot but can’t. The way memory gets up after someone has died and starts walking.” Chang admits in her poems that even after sitting and residing in the hurt that she still isn’t sure that it will go away. And for that reason, after finishing the collection, it feels like a bittersweet moment for Chang as she must continue to live with, understand, and grow from her parent’s death.
Final Rating: 4/5
Maxwell Suzuki is a writer, poet, and photographer based in Los Angeles.