Daily Postings
literature : review

After the Massacre

by Carlos Fonseca

Staging historical justice in Hernán Ronsino's Glaxo

Sometimes history looks to fiction in order to bury its specters. Latin American literature seems to agree: from Juan Rulfo’s Pedro Páramo to Valeria Luiselli's Faces in the Crowd, it would appear that Latin American fiction is the last ground where the battle for historical justice can be staged. Hernán Ronsino's arresting Glaxo (Melville House, 2017), brilliantly translated by Samuel Rutter, revives this powerful tradition by immersing us in a world where the possibility of justice and forgiveness is always tainted by remorse and vengeance. In one of the four monologues that compose this short but delightfully structured novella, Vardemann—the town's barber—catches the sight of a kid playing outside as he gazes through his window:

Then I see Bicho Souza’s son, alone, moving through the rain with a green shotgun, made of plastic, playing at war and facing up at long last to those endless ghosts in the cane field.

The scene condenses, in the poignancy of its imagery, the novel's capacity to stage violence as something inherited, repeated, and displaced. Like Bicho Souza's son, we are all kids ignorant of the dangerous games we play. Like Vardemann's painful witnessing of a kid playing war, we readers are asked to face up to the endless ghosts of Argentina's history. In doing so, Glaxo sketches a spectral crime story where history, far from something abstract, is embodied within a terribly tangible landscape plagued by memory and guilt.

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literature : interview

Rachel Cusk

by Alex Zafiris

"For these books to work, the reader needs to play at least some role in the 'writing' of them."

Transit (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017) is the second in a recent trilogy of experimental novels by the London-based, Canadian-born writer Rachel Cusk. The first, Outline (2014), presents us with a deeply receded narrator. Only minimal facts are provided: Faye is a novelist who has separated from her husband, has two children, and is teaching a writing class in Greece. She barely speaks. What we learn about her surfaces through her interactions with others and their reactions to her. The rest we must assume through our experience of reading her words and via our own assessments of life.

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literature : review

Macho Memoirs

by Daniel Pearce

Taking writing to the mat in J.D. Daniels's The Correspondence

The early writers of epistolary fiction saw something in the letter that many of us who still write letters intuitively accept: that few forms besides the diary and the guttural yell lend themselves so readily to lapel-grabbing declarations of despair, vulnerability, and murderous rage—all private extremes in no short supply these last months. But the key innovation of those early writers was to compose seemingly candid letters intended for an audience of more than just the addressee.

That the canon of epistolary fiction is so male-dominated makes a certain sense when one considers, among other things, how much intimacy male self-expression stereotypically requires—since authenticity can only manifest itself as a confession to another, the explanation might go. This may also explain the magnetism of the letter form for a writer like J.D. Daniels, whose excellent debut collection, The Correspondence, consists of six "letters" that plumb macho themes all too accustomed to being listed as such. (In describing the book, one can hardly refrain from the tired, book-jacket-ready coupling of "masculinity and violence," which is by now enough to make any reader tap the mat.) But the letters that make up The Correspondence are, like most letters, about much and little, limited only by the associations the writer chooses to indulge: teaching, deciding not to teach, drinking, not drinking, self-hatred, self-love, friendship, and rivalry. Daniels moves so nimbly between topics and episodes that only athletic metaphors come to mind.

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literature : review

You Don’t Know Jack

by Ammiel Alcalay

Doing justice to Jack Kerouac in Todd Tietchen's The Unknown Kerouac and Jean-Christophe Cloutier's La vie est d'hommage

When Jack Kerouac died in Florida in October of 1969, it was a local event in New England. The Boston Globe clipping that I still have, "Jack Kerouac's Days on the Road Are Ended," has a Lowell dateline, noting that "last night this dreary old mill city, dominated by factories and tenements, sadly remembered its native son." Of course, Kerouac's "days on the road" had ended long before. By the time On the Road came out in 1957, many of the books Kerouac is most well known for were already written but unpublished (and once they did come out, many went out of print during and after his lifetime).

Only now, at a remove of more than 45 years, are we starting to get a fuller picture of the enormity of Kerouac's achievement, and the extent to which it has been misunderstood, denigrated, and distorted. Because of the vastness of Kerouac's archive, held in the New York Public Library's Berg Collection, the need for serious textual scholarship and intelligent editing has been paramount. While Kerouac himself was a meticulous archivist, organizing all his work carefully, the editing quality of the posthumous work has varied, sometimes wildly.

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literature : first proof

One Poem

by Jacquelyn Ross

Now through next Friday, your perpetual struggle for recognition drives you to all-time lows. A conversation you have with an old friend will remind you of why you do what you do and refresh your creative direction. Beware of self-doubt, but be comfortable using ultramarine blue, at least until Neptune completes its rotation on the twelfth of February.

As Pluto moves into its ninth orbit around the sun, creative spirits are high. Keep impulses in check by remaining steadfast in your search for a more elegant solution, however understated. True progress is often meditative rather than prolific. Potential avenues for research may include lounge furniture, garden design, cabin porn, bus shelters... note the importance of exterior, interior, and spiritual structures. Take great care in the kinds of shelters you build.

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literature : review

Spectral Reality

by Saul Anton

Distance and searching in Katie Kitamura's A Separation

Like her earlier work, Katie Kitamura's latest effort, A Separation, is woven of taut, sturdy sentences that probe the folds of everyday life. It is, however, a departure from her previous novels' focus on men. This time, she opts to explore the inner life of a married Londoner who goes to an island in Greece in search of the skirt-chasing husband she recently separated from.

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literature : first proof

From Shot-Blue

by Jesse Ruddock

She hated the narrow dirt mile between their trailer and town. She wanted to erase it the same way she might spit and rub a number off the back of her hand. Rachel didn't own anything, but it was a lot to carry on soft ground. The mud and gravel road was thawing from the top down. It peeled under her steps like skin off rotten fruit. Its dampness rose into her shirt in a mix of sweat and dew that didn't feel good. She would abandon the table and chairs, the bed and mattress. The lamps were useless; where they were going, there was no electricity. But she couldn't abandon everything. They needed their bags of clothes, a handful of cutlery, and the pair of tins heavy with flour and sugar. In red-licorice cursive, the tins read Merry Christmas. But they weren't Christmas tins, she used them all year.

Tristan wasn't allowed to help because he made her think. She didn't need to think but to walk the mile. Yet back and forth to town, thoughts of him persisted, distracting her and biting into her shoulder more sharply than any strap. She thought of how he didn't run for the sake of running like other boys. She couldn't even picture what it looked like when he ran. And he didn't try to lift things just to see if he could. He was ten years old and had never tried to lift her.

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literature : review

Borrowed Time

by J. T. Price

On Doctorow: Collected Stories

If you know the "Bye-Bye Blackbird" moment from Michael Mann's powerful 2009 gangster film Public Enemies, then you know the work of E.L. Doctorow. Deep within the author's 1989 prize-winning Billy Bathgate, a gangster at the edge of a rocking boat, his feet firmly planted inside cement, hums the tune that figures prominently in the film. Like many of the writers of film and print who have lifted from his work, Doctorow was an accomplished serial borrower in his own right. The central plotline, amid a cornucopia of them, from perhaps his most famous novel, Ragtime—a fiction that could not register as more relevant in the era of Black Lives Matters and Between the World and Me—stemmed from Heinrich von Kleist's early 19th century Michael Kohlhaas, which in turn was based on newspaper reports out of 17th century Germany. On the page, the stylistically versatile Doctorow had fun: roving through time and space, sifting for recognizable texture, then with a light touch, investing his narratives with wit and perspicacity. Facts are danced with, twirled and dipped, in service to the work, making it all feel real when Doctorow is at his best. Doctorow was often at his best.

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literature : interview

André Aciman

by Gary M. Kramer

"Obsession and fantasy, like desire and fear, happen in the mind... the most powerful, fixated erotic organ known to man."

In his remarkable fourth novel, Enigma Variations, André Aciman continues to explore themes of alienation and panic as his characters brazenly explore shameless thoughts about their carnal and emotional longings. The effect is a more relatable understanding of what motivates obsessive, neurotic behavior, and how identities and desires shift to achieve self-worth and actualization. The book takes a prismatic approach to revealing the life of its protagonist, Paul, through five stories that recount his relationship with various men and women over time. Paul is compulsively in his own head, where fantasies, both erotic and flighty, coexist. Aciman initially explored the search for identity in his exquisite memoir, Out of Egypt, which captured the personal journey of his family into exile. The theme of "recapturing the past," which haunted his family, is echoed in the Enigma Variations, albeit to a lesser degree. Here the characters grapple with time as well, positing statements like, "The past is a foreign country," and, as a teacher asks, "Have you drunk the wine of life?"

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literature : review

Futurism, Hashtags, & the Old Wild West

by Jeffrey Grunthaner

Douglas Kearney's buck studies recasts worn out notions of black masculinity.

Douglas Kearney's buck studies (Fence Books, 2016) remaps the 20th century in a project that is both lyrical and epic, personal and historical. The work references a cacophonous range of topics including vintage pop songs, Modernism, #blacklivesmatter, and Italian Futurism. Fiercely committed to identity politics, Kearney recasts historical personae to create a chorus of complex identities throughout the text, reassigning sacred figures and characters to the circumstances of a later time. In a section called "Ecce Cuniculus," a humorous retelling of the Stations of the Cross, Jesus becomes Brer Rabbit. In "Mane," the first poem in the collection, Stagger Lee's "hard bad rock song" guns down Billy Lyons, a tragic misuse of bravado inserted into the same imagistic plane as Eddie Murphy's "The Nutty Professor" character: "what a man what a mighty badman. / Lee as some Herakles! Herakles!"

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literature : review

Projectile Poetry

by Zoë Hitzig

War, worship, and capital in Danniel Schoonebeek's Trébuchet

"Never let a serious crisis go to waste," retorted Rahm Emanuel, then-Chief of Staff, when questioned about the Obama administration's post-recession economic plans. What he meant at the time was that the 2008 crisis offered an opportunity to introduce deep, systemic changes to the status quo. Nearly a decade after the crisis, neoliberalism is stronger than ever. The curious refortification of neoliberalism is the subject of economic historian Philip Mirowski's Never Let A Serious Crisis Go To Waste (Verso, 2013), that takes its title from Emanuel's quip. Mirowski's thesis, in broad strokes, is that neoliberalism survived the financial crisis because it's no longer a school of thought that some adhere to more than others. Instead, we are all neoliberals now; neoliberalism is somehow within us. We inhabit "entrepreneurial" selves—as evidenced by our self-promotion and self-branding on social media. We instantiate the inherent logic of neoliberalism on a daily basis, unable to see our own positions inside of it. 

Danniel Schoonebeek's explosive sophomore poetry collection, Trébuchet (University of Georgia Press, 2016), is a Mirowskian call to arms that challenges our contemporary American brand of capitalism and demands that we confront our own role in perpetuating it. Trébuchet defines itself in its prologue as "a book like the earth you might salt if you warred against you." Schoonebeek's vision is one in which we "war" against ourselves and destroy our means of production thereafter, as Rome sowed salt in the fields after conquering Carthage to render the following harvests unyielding. He communicates his vision in incendiary poems that range from curt lyrics evoking antiquity ("Archilochos," "Telémakos," "Chorus," "Trojan") to prose poems written in present-day legalese ("Poem with a Gun to Its Head"). The poems scour the page in formal novelty—four have gutters down the center, one is an erasure, one is a diagram, one is horizontally rendered, and the final poem, "Dark-Eyed Junco Was Her Name," takes place over 43 pages, many of which hold just a handful of words. Often, Schoonebeek grapples with contemporary politics head-on in poems such as "Glasnost," "Reaganomics," and "Neutrality." But these critiques also take place within the context of an abstract, universal "kingdom" about which the book tells a folktale. This kingdom perennially destroys itself, only to rebuild the elements of war and capital: "new monuments / new gasworks and watchtowers, / new barriers, new thrones, and new battlements."

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literature : interview

Marcelo Morales

by Kristin Dykstra

"There was no capitalist reality segregated from socialist reality. There was one reality, period."

Marcelo Morales, born nearly twenty years after Cuba's 1959 revolution, is younger than many island writers whose works have been translated and circulated abroad. Part of his acclaim is his willingness to addresses the twenty-first century in prose poetry that boldly takes on both public and private aspects of Cuban history.

His newest poetry collection, El mundo como ser (The World as Presence, University of Alabama Press, 2016), appears deceptively straightforward as compared to Cuba's writerly tradition, which is so rich in stylistic complexity. We see, through the eyes of Morales's speaker, how a dystopic Havana confronts a moment that feels suspiciously like the end of its own history.

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literature : first proof

Three Poems

by Elizabeth Metzger

Sex with angels
was the template for my grief—
 
I gorged myself on marble guns
with impotent marble triggers.
  
You better, you better,   yes you
 
The angels begged me to release them,
batting their sights at shadows.        
 
Angels, you better go home.  
 
To achieve oneness of mind and wound      
one must serve another.

Okay, I said,
as they called back their ammo.
 
It's hard to tell if their tongues
were working, or if it was me
 
who had run out of movable parts.

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literature : first proof

After the Rides

by Ian Caskey

We took the shuttle to the entrance of the theme park. My father said, Remember our car is in Squiggly section C.

The day was thrilling.

When we returned to Squiggly section C, there was another family inside our car. They looked just like our family. My father stopped my mother and I from yelling at them as they drove away.

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literature : review

A Wrinkle in Swing Time

by Chase Quinn

Friendship and the lies we tell ourselves in Zadie Smith’s Swing Time.

Swing, a jazz term, is about resisting expectations, embracing surprise, and establishing flow. Zadie Smith's Swing Time (Penguin Press, 2016) evokes this concept in literature by depicting how powerful our illusions about time and place can be. While tilling the ever-fertile soil of race, class, and gender relations with signature wit, Swing Time achieves its greatest insights engaged in questions about friendship and shifts in perspective. What results is an unswerving examination of some of our deepest and most neurotic anxieties. The fear that, for instance, people are far less predictable than we might like to believe. Or worse still, the notion that someone you thought you knew, beyond hurting or disappointing you, might utterly exceed your expectations.

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literature : interview

Laura Sims

by Claudia F. Savage

"Humans are complicated, and I find that complexity—even as it pertains to murderous behavior or planetary sabotage—fascinating and repulsive in equal measure."

The latest book by Laura Sims, Staying Alive (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2016), doesn't pull punches. The world is on fire, the world is ending, and it is highly unlikely we are going to get out of this mess. Yet, somehow, as Cormac McCarthy writes in The Road, there are moments of relief, even beauty. Sims renders the apocalyptic terrifyingly gorgeous, desirous even:

You were always a murmurous forest
But now you are
This
                                    Incandescence

Referencing texts as varied as Bradford Angier's How to Stay Alive in the Woods, Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little House on the Prairie, the TV series Battlestar Galactica, and Svetlana Alexievich's Voices from Chernobyl, Sims's tone is one of both commiseration and warning: "Not simply torn between longing and safety / But torn." We want to forget. We want to start over, but we're not sure we can.

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literature : interview

Joel Whitney

by Rob Spillman

"If we know the government is funding the arts or funding journalism, then it behooves us to put structures in place that will allow for them to be fearless."

It's long been known in the publishing world that in the 1950s, the CIA was involved in founding the influential literary magazine, the Paris Review. My wife, Elissa Schappell, was senior editor of the Paris Review under George Plimpton in the '90s, so I saw firsthand his charismatic charm, and it was hard to imagine this liberal lion anywhere near the CIA. Yet Peter Matthiessen, one of the other founders, was employed by the agency, which was formed after World War II to counter worldwide Soviet influence. Its focus was not just political influence, but cultural influence, so-called "soft power," which the Soviets were successfully wielding, winning hearts and minds of Western cultural elites. The CIA also funded the first American abstract expressionist exhibit in Europe, the Boston Symphony's first European tour, and dozens of cultural magazines.

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literature : review

A Circus of Meaning

by Kyle Paoletta

Animals say it better in Yoko Tawada's Memoirs of a Polar Bear.

Yoko Tawada's novel Memoirs of a Polar Bear (New Directions, 2016) opens with a bear, the first of three generations of authors, recalling her traumatic childhood in a Soviet circus. A sea lion editor circulates her story in a literary magazine, the Russian censors take notice, and the bear is exiled to West Berlin. The novel is less about the politics of the time, though, and more about the struggle of expression itself. "In the past," the bear agonizes, "I'd used language primarily for transporting an opinion to the outside. Now language remained at my side, touching soft spots within me." But when her work is translated, she becomes alienated from her own story, complaining that the German translator "turned my bearish sentences into artful literature."

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literature : first proof

Four Poems

by Claire Donato

I am in the Void
I sd to my friend
To which he responded
How was your day

Re: the day:
It was a Pool of Tears infested by social media
It was an infinite regression accented by yr texts
It was akin to http://www.instagram.com/tsa
It was a pair of CGI black boxes: ◼️ ◼️

And last night I dreamt twice. First, the second
Body was burning, then the world was a machine, and you
Were lying beside me like some inert butterfly effortlessly, an image
Which depends upon notions of nearness that can be defined
As follows:

I woke up
You were not there
I wanted to throw up
Then I went back to sleep
Feeling the same or similar

And of course I thought the world
Was deeply stupid, but then it opened up
Into sighing choral harmonies that moved
Me toward the pronoun we, and a door 
Appeared leading into another world
In which I, a black box filled with music, said
How was your day to you.
In other words, you said hi first.
And then we merged: ◼️

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literature : interview

Michelle Tea

by Sara Jaffe

"I'm just using language to manipulate the reader into feeling my feelings, or the feelings I hope they feel."

A little less than halfway through Michelle Tea's new novel Black Wave, our narrator—also named Michelle—reveals that the story she's been telling is not the "true" version of events. Originally, she tells us, this was to be a book about the end of a major long-term relationship, but the ex didn't want to be written about. In the past, Michelle powered through such discomfort with the mantra "don't act that way if you don't like to see it in print," but she's increasingly "haunted by the thought that the work she did, her art, brought pain to other people." So she shifts around the order of some encounters and events, and has herself move from San Francisco to Los Angeles alone, rather than with that ex, which is, we're told, what "really" happened. Also, the world is literally about to end.

The looming apocalypse is present from the beginning of the novel—late '90s San Francisco is a "vampire town," heated by a "killer sun," so we already know we're not reading straight-up memoir. But something happens when Michelle the narrator, who, of course, we can't help but read as a stand-in for Michelle the author (of numerous memoirs and novels), intervenes to let us know that she's presenting us with a manufactured reality. The whole book begins to buzz, glow, backward and forward, with the possibility of both the imagined and the real. Every utterance becomes multivalent. The effect is more complex and compelling than the typical state of suspended disbelief fiction typically invites us to embrace. Black Wave—brainily, hilariously, heartbreakingly—makes felt the labor of dragging language onto experiences in order to give them a shape that will reveal their emotional truth without bringing pain to other people. Every sentence is thick with what it both can and cannot communicate about a person, a time, a place, a life.

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literature : first proof

Spring

by Ari Braverman

The city has turned so beautiful in its new season that being indoors is giving the woman a stomach cramp. From her desk, the woman can see the whole expanse of the parking lot. On the medians between parking spaces, white flowering trees fill the air with the odor of semen.

"My son's room smells like that all the time, now that he's hit puberty," says the woman's office-mate.

"They're a varietal of pear tree," says a person nobody likes, plunging a fork into a microwavable meal.

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literature : interview

Edmundo Paz-Soldán

by Scott Esposito

"Breaking away from magical realism ended up creating another stereotype: that of a generation obsessed with mass media, new technologies, and disdainful of politics."

Edmundo Paz-Soldán is one of the leading Bolivian writers of his generation. A widely decorated author and Cornell professor of Spanish literature, he has generally been grouped with the McOndo movement (a sort of repudiation of magical realism), but in truth Paz-Soldán's work is so multifaceted that any single classification disserves him. His books include noir, sci-fi, and a hacker novel, just to name a few, and he has also been a prolific political columnist for various newspapers, including The New York Times.

Paz-Soldán's 2011 novel, Norte, has just been released by University of Chicago Press in a sterling translation by editor and translator Valerie Miles. It traces three thematically interlocked narratives of Latin Americans who have made the border crossing and, to quote the author, have become "lost in the US." Containing elements of popular pulp fiction, academic satire, metafiction, and psychological realism, it is a riveting book that gives a complex perspective on the borderlands shared by the United States and Mexico.

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literature : interview

John Reed

by Gee Henry

"The best way to write myself out of the project was to overwrite my own biography. I mean, who is this 'I' anyway?"

John Reed has been writing hard-to-classify books for over a decade, to great acclaim and sometimes greater notoriety. His novel Snowball's Chance was a blistering and controversial sequel of sorts to Orwell's Animal Farm that culminated with a 9/11-like attack on two windmills. Jonathan Ames called it "scary" and "engrossing," as well as a "sustained triumph." Reed's novel The Whole was a satire inspired by his relationship with a certain MTV VJ and was published, bravely, by MTV Books. My favorite is the aptly titled Tales of Woe, a grim collection of tragic accounts from around the globe. Fictionaut said the stories were "without any redeeming character whatsoever—just bleak, bleak, unremitting, and undeserved." In truth, they actually loved the collection.

Reed is a real New York City character—mysterious yet completely accessible, old-school but cutting-edge. A few years ago, he started sharing some newly written sonnets on Facebook. Although they were largely about love, or desire, they weren't really fit for readers looking for happy-ever-after scenarios. Many ended with a narrator seemingly suspended above a great metaphorical chasm, either about to descend into oblivion or ascend to something sublime. Reed collected these sonnets and others in his latest project, Free Boat: Collected Lies and Love Poems, out now from C&R Press. And, since no book of Reed's is written without adding a "remix" (a term often used by reviewers to describe his writing), he added something strange throughout—a semi-autobiographical letter to guide the reader through all the poems. Sometimes this letter is addressed to Reed's current or former wife, sometimes it's addressed to his literary agent, and sometimes it's directed to the reader. In these, he goes from childhood to adulthood, to a decadent period spent in Cuba, then to the present moment. It contains mug shots of multiple "John Reeds" from around the country, as well as pictures of people Reed identifies as family members. This may be the closest thing to a memoir he'll ever produce.

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literature : review

This Rude World

by Cypress Marrs

Jen George's The Babysitter at Rest tells tales of the absurd expectations of womanhood.

In The Babysitter at Rest (Dorothy, 2016)—a brilliant and surprising debut collection of short fiction—author Jen George subverts conventional narrative form to reckon with socially imposed ideals of womanhood. Each story follows a woman in her twenties or early thirties as she negotiates the cultural expectations made upon her life and body. It's well-trodden ground, but George hurtles us through the landscape of such archetypes with prose crude enough to be refreshing and dark enough to be funny.

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literature : review

Floating Market

by Caitlin Youngquist

White space speaks volumes in Hoa Nguyen's Violet Energy Ingots.

Something numinous lies in Hoa Nguyen's newest collection of poems, Violet Energy Ingots. Slender and minimalist in appearance—and sheathed in a spare cover of flecked paper like other publications by Wave Books—it contains sixty-one poems, totaling no more than eighty-three pages. In one's hands, it gives the impression of a fast, sprightly read; flipping through, Nguyen's fondness for blank space is easily discerned, with pockets of emptiness carved out between words in nearly every poem. But the book's sparsity of text belies its gravity and nuance, not to mention the time it insists readers spend to really regard the poet's elegiac cadence, beguiling complexity, and evocation.

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