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
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
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
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.