The Kenyon Review May/June 2022 is a collection of prose and poetry that looks at life after the pandemic and in relation to nature. This issue had some intricate stories, namely, ‘The Arm of the Lord’, by David Crouse, and ‘Burning’, by Uche Okonkwo. Some of the poetry that captured me was, ‘Escape & Energy’, by Brenda Hillman, and ‘Mercy Me’, by Corrie Williamson.
Though the story that I felt was the strongest was ‘Happy Is a Doing Word’, by Arinze Ifeakandu which follows two boys who are learning about themselves and their queerness in relation to the rest of their community. I loved the way the voice of the story bleeds through the pages, and how the anger, frustration, sadness, and joy play out as the boys are outed to their parents and friends. It is a captivating story that worked to give dimension to queer experience.
Final Rating: 4/5
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 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
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
Last Night I Dreamed of Peace by Dang Thuy Tram is a diary of a Vietnamese doctor who treated patients during the Vietnam War. The diary spans roughly two years, where she documents and discusses the patients she treats and the longing for loved ones who have been killed by the American forces. The diary works to counteract the generally accepted narratives of the Vietnam War by exposing the pain and suffering America caused within the region.
The entries talk about someone she deeply loved before they split for the war, and the people she grew to understand and work with. Throughout, there is a thread of vitriol and anger for the American forces, which can be seen most represented in the sentence, “We certainly must defeat the American invaders, must bring ourselves to the days of independence and freedom.” In other entries, she talks of the Americans as demons. What is interesting to me, and possibly a sore spot for America, was that in America’s eyes, we were bringing peace and freedom to a land ruled by communism. However, Thuy flips the script on that by stating the Americans were, in fact, the ones oppressing and stopping freedom to occur. The diary ends on June 20th, 1970 and two days later, Thuy is shot and killed.
Final Rating: 4/5
Freeman’s: Change is a collection of stories, non-fiction pieces, and poems that are loosely tied to the theme of change. It features writers such as Ocean Vuong, Lauren Groff, Rick Bass, and Yoko Ogawa. I found the particular pieces by Christy NaMee Eriksen (a writer who I knew from a local poetry slam club), Ocean Vuong, Lana Bastašić, and Siarhiej Prylucki to be stunning. Though, there were pieces that lacked the sparkle I was hoping for.
I’d like to especially highlight two pieces that struck a massive chord in me, and one of them was Ocean Vuong’s story called Künstlerroman. His story details the life of a man going backwards in time as he watches on. He is so delicate and powerful with his words, that I couldn’t stop rereading the sentence, “Then the cake on the table, air returning to the boy’s pursed lips as the seven candles, one by one, begin to light, and the wish returns to his head where it’s truer for never being touched by language.” The other piece that blew me away was Bread by Lana Bastašić. It was haunting, and painful, and deeply true in its rendition of what it means to be a girl becoming a woman.
Final Rating: 4/5
Before the Earth Devours Us by Esteban Rodriguez is a collection of essays detailing life as a Mexican American boy in Texas. The essays ranged from getting a dog to throwing a dead bird into an office building. The essays focused so finely on livable moments that the descriptions and synthesis of ideas worked well together. I also noticed that throughout the collection, Rodriguez understood the limits and strengths of his early life analysis.
Written with a captivating voice, there wasn’t a dull moment in the collection. And things as little as losing a raptor drawing or stealing an action figure were crafted in a way that pulled me into the minutia of being a child still unsure of the world.
Final Rating: 4.5/5
Desert Exile by Yoshiko Uchida follows the story of the author and her family as they are taken from their home in San Francisco to the internment camp at Topaz during WWII. Her documentation and explanation of her experiences were heart wrenching and at times difficult to read passed. In her recounting, there is a thread of anger and pain as she shows the life her family had lived before to the difficult times at the camps.
It was interesting to read about the specifics of the time of the internments, such as the schools, the assemblies, and the marching band that had greeted them at Topaz. Uchida tries to provide that bridge of understanding for newer generations of Americans that don’t quite know the tragedies of the Japanese American people. And I found it both important and powerful that she had the ability to be both frank and descriptive with the world her and her family were thrown into.
Final Rating: 4/5
Crying in H Mart by Michelle Zauner is a memoir told in food about the relationship and loss of her mother. Both to Zauner are inextricably linked, and so I found myself reading about meals that I would want to have. She managed to create a whole picture of her mother that was both loving and critical.
However, the memoir sometimes worried too much about what happened and not what it meant. And sometimes, the phrases and sentences didn’t convey as much meaning and imagery as I felt they needed. Though, I enjoyed the way Zauner navigated two languages through the use of food.
Final Rating: 3.5/5
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
Maxwell Suzuki is a writer, poet, and photographer based in Los Angeles.