Category Archives: Reviews

Beneath the Veneer: John Banville’s The Untouchable

By Steve Isenberg

John Banville’s The Untouchable (1997) gives imaginative life to what Lord Annan, then Provost of King’s College, Cambridge, described as  “the long-running inquest upon the culture, morality, and patriotism of intellectuals” brought about by the “saga of the Cambridge spies.”  The artistry of the novel is, indeed, no less captivating than the reality from which it draws — the double life of Anthony Blunt, who juggled the intense secrecy of a spy with the public stature of a leading art historian. Continue reading

Destruction and Deconstruction in Tommy Pico’s Nature Poem

By Massoud Hayoun

Tommy Pico’s book-length epic Nature Poem is written, in parts, like a string of OK Cupid messages from every run-of-the-mill gay manic depressive I’ve ever met — frantic thoughts, ultimately wretched and whining.

Maybe that’s what grated on me at the onset of this young, gay, city-dwelling Native American man’s journey. All-too familiar to me, as a gay Arab-American man, are the histrionics that pass for conversation at the Boiler Room in the East Village or at The Abbey in WeHo on a Saturday night. Even at a gay bar I once visited in faraway Urumqi, China, there was this same mixture of thirst and depression. It’s a global plague, deeply bourgeois; if you have the disposable income to buy a drink at a gay bar, you probably have enough time to think. And if you think too much about what’s going on around you at a gay bar, you’ll probably become thirsty and depressed. Continue reading

Xue Generis: Can Xue and the Dangers of Literary Exceptionalism

By Amanda DeMarco

“Can Xue’s works are truly exceptional,” Can Xue assures us. China’s most prominent author of experimental fiction is known, among other things, for talking about herself in the third person using her pseudonym, which means “dirty snow.” Her works inhabit a space of connected disjointedness somewhere between Diane Williams and Nadirs-era Herta Müller. Think Mikhail Shishkin’s Maidenhair politically unmoored. Hers is generally not a strangeness of voice or syntax — this is neither Woolf of The Waves, nor McBride’s A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing. Rather its strangeness resides in the world, or at least in what the speaker notices about it. Her works are usually related in a simple style that ranges from elegantly plainspoken to abrupt. There are halting arcs of narrative, rumor, causation; clues as well as red herrings. It has all of the bones of storytelling, but often lacks the connective tissue, leaving the deductive work to the reader, along with a much harder sort of work: the struggle to accept and comprehend things that don’t make sense. Continue reading

Lisa Ko’s The Leavers and the Devastation of the Deportation Machine

By Louise McCune

An interactive map on The GEO Group’s website bears 74 green dots. These represent the 74 for-profit correctional facilities — which house 80,566 incarcerated people — under the company’s purview in the United States. The green dots are spread widely. The shores of Puget Sound on the West coast and those of Chesapeake Bay on the East are comparably adorned. But the green dots do seem subject to some sort of latitudinal gravity; their numbers swell in the southern states, near the border with Mexico and the Gulf. Continue reading

Leonora Carrington’s Hellish Playgrounds

By Nathan Scott McNamara

Leonora Carrington’s stories are whimsical nightmares in the spirit of the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch. A man rides a happy cadaver to search for his lost love. A hyena kills a maid and wears her face to a fancy ball. A priest gifts a pork chop to a woman during a game of bridge. “The chop, which had undoubtedly spent a very long time near the ecclesiastic’s stomach didn’t appeal to me,” the woman says. It oozes “horrible blobs of grease” between her fingers, and she sneaks out to the yard to try (unsuccessfully) to bury it. Continue reading

Philosophy of Life and Death: Ryan Ruby’s The Zero and the One

By Austin Adams

Anxiously self-aware teenagers the world over ask themselves why life is worth living, and forthwith tumble into a crisis. Life cannot be lived with purpose or grace, they swear, until the Gordian knot of this dilemma is resolved. Years later, recalling the question and crisis, mortification necrotizes in the gut: how fatuous it all seems now, the urgent, naïve philosophizing of our youth. Continue reading

In the Last Days of Old Shanghai

By Susan Blumberg-Kason

For well over half-a-century, novelists have been setting tales in 1930s Shanghai, an unusually cosmopolitan city that was divided into foreign-run and Chinese-run districts and known for its bustling port and decadent nightlife. Talented Chinese authors, such as Zhang Ailing (1920-1995) who published in English as Eileen Chang, set stories in the metropolis while the era of the Japanese invasion of China (1932-1945) and eight-year occupation of Shanghai that began in 1937 were underway.  A writer now probably best known in the West for writing the stories that inspired the film “Lust, Caution,” Chang was the author of novels such as Half a Lifelong Romance and The Fall of the Pagoda, both set in Shanghai, as well as the translator of Han Bangqing’s The Sing-Song Girls of Shanghai, an older volume that chronicled the city’s red-light district in the late 19th century. Continue reading

Divergent Streams: The Poetry of Roberto Echavarren

By Anthony Seidman

The notion of a singular “Latin American poetry” perturbs the reader who discerns the radiant gathering of traditions, ruptures, and voices among the Spanish- and Portuguese-speaking peoples of the Americas. For example, the Poesía Negra of the Puerto Rican Luis Palés Matos (1898-1959) looks simply decorative when compared to the politically charged poetry of the Cuban Nicolás Guillén (1902-1989), another voice from the Negrismo movement. The controlled sonnets of Borges bear little resemblance to the overflowing cadences of Nicaraguan poet Joaquín Pasos. The Whitman who supposedly informs Neruda proves to be a different and more tangible presence in the poetry of the Dominican Pedro Mir (1913-2000). The Mexican José Gorostiza (1901-1973) is “difficult” in a way wholly different from that of the Peruvian César Vallejo (1892-1938). And yet many poets fresh from MFA programs gush about the singular burning coal of “Latin American poetry,” which was pressed against their lips so they could sing. Roberto Echavarren’s The Espresso Between Sleep and Wakefulness may be a disappointment for these readers, who only expect the love lyrics or elemental odes of Neruda. Then again, he may be revelation. Continue reading

Travels Across Uncomfortable Terrain: Nora Gold’s The Dead Man

By Maria Bloshteyn

If you believe in the value of travelling beyond one’s comfort zones, you’ll find much to support your belief in Nora Gold’s most recent novel, The Dead Man (2016). Gold is a Toronto-based writer who has a history of venturing into fraught terrain. Her first novel, Fields of Exile (2014) — she debuted with a short story collection that won praise from Alice Munro — dealt with anti-Israel sentiment on university campuses, which marries all too well with outright Judeophobia. The Dead Man, Gold’s second novel, examines the erotic longings of elderly men, obsessions of women deep into their middle age, and creative impotence. Throw in widowhood, manipulative stepmothers, needy wives, and therapy (music therapy, but still…), and you have a cringe-worthy melange that pushes almost every reader’s buttons. Yet it is precisely by adventuring in such difficult emotional terrain that Gold achieves something beautiful, transformative, and life-affirming. Continue reading