Interrogating Whiteness: reading Austin Channing Brown’s “I’m Still Here”

By Sarah Hoenicke for Anomaly

I’m Still Here, by Austin Channing Brown. Convergent Books, 2018. 192pp, nonfiction.
Michael Brown was killed just weeks before I began my junior year at a private college in Oakland, California. “Police brutality” wasn’t a phrase I’d considered within an American context. My parents homeschooled my eight siblings and me. Our access to TV, the internet, music, movies, and people outside our church’s very small community was strictly limited. As a 24-year-old college transfer student, back in 2014, I knew next to nothing about the Israel-Palestine conflict, about the war in Iraq, about the history being made by America’s first Black president. And, if memory serves me correctly, the Christian curriculum we used at home taught that racism in America ended in 1865, with the Civil War.

The population of the county where I grew up, as of the 2010 census, was 50 percent white, 15 percent Black, 15 percent Asian; 24 percent of the population identified themselves as of Latinx origin.

I never considered the fact that I might be racist, or that I came from a place of privilege. I was in for an education. When Michael Brown was killed, and as the news reports of killing after killing after killing came out, my consciousness shifted. How could I live in a country where these things were happening? What could I do to stop these horrors?

Continue reading here.

A Time to Mourn

By Sarah Hoenicke for Anomaly

Vacationland, by John Hodgman. Viking, 2017. Tales of Two Americas, edited by John Freeman. Penguin, 2017.

This month, my plan was to write about two new books, both by white men with the first name John. I wouldn’t usually choose titles with such homogeneity.

When I select books, it’s because I think they’ll add to who I am by exposing me to who I am not, and these were no exception to that practice. I like to read and write about experiences different from my own. This is why I’ve written about novels concerning gay South Asian women afraid to come out to their families, and men negotiating the inherent “us and them” of military life in Iraq, and the ingenuity of impoverished Americans facing a fictional second American civil war.

We decide how much to stretch our minds by what we ask them to do. Empathizing with the many book-bound friends a reader makes in their lifetime does this. The books I’d chosen for this month’s column seemed to achieve this — at first. But then, I was involuntarily schooled in another method of growth.

I awoke thirty-four days ago to a voicemail from my mother-in-law: One sobbing sentence, telling David, my husband, that his only brother was “gone.” He’d died in his sleep. Our life slowed with the shock.

Continue reading here.


And to Questioning, Stay Faithful

By Sarah Hoenicke, monthly column for Anomaly

The Book of Separation by Tova Mirvis. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017. 320pp, Nonfiction.

“If I pulled off the hangnail, I could once again pray undistracted,” writes Tova Mirvis in her recent memoir, The Book of Separation. “But if I pulled it off,” she continues, “I would be breaking one of the laws of the day. In this small sliver of nail,” she says, “lay a daunting theological quandary.” For an Orthodox Jew, as Mirvis had been during the time she writes about here, work of any kind is forbidden on Shabbat, and especially on Yom Kippur. Also called the Day of Atonement, Yom Kippur is the annual holy day that comes at the end of the 10-day period of penitence. This period begins with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and is intended as the time for Jews to examine their actions of the year before, and to be given new beginnings.

Religion can cause us to be aware of and obsess over tiny, seemingly insignificant details. At the church I attended with my family until I was 12, nail polish wasn’t allowed. It caused me grief and frustration every week as I invariably forgot to take off my polish before we left for Sunday services, and so had to be admonished and bade to scrub it off in the car. The pink pleather cover of my childhood Bible will forever be bleached in five fingertip-shaped splotches from the acetone in the remover.

Continue reading the rest of the essay at Anomaly.

Points of Access: Achy Obejas’s “The Tower of the Antilles”

By Sarah Hoenicke for the LA Review of Books

thetoweroftheantilles“THE MALDIVES,” a story included in Achy Obejas’s most recent collection, The Tower of the Antilles (Akashic Books), is about a woman leaving her cramped, limited home in Cuba for the United States. She’s lesbian, and in the process of being “saved” from her country by a father who is determined to convert her to Christianity, and whom she never gets to see. Of course, she doesn’t get saved in the way she thought she would, either. The story’s pragmatic voice and its themes of dislocation and everyday hardship are all typical of Obejas’s body of work. A journalist, and the author of three novels, a poetry chapbook, and numerous works of translation, Antilles is her second story collection. Her writing consistently asks how much access we have to each other and to ourselves. It questions the limits put on place and belonging for those who don’t fit one or many of the cultural stipulations about correct behavior, level of ability, sexual orientation and expression, gender, or religion. Foremost, however, Obejas understands that language is access.

The Tower of the Antilles houses 10 stories. The first and last tell a kind of fragmented origin narrative, bookending the more personal tales, and they begin with the same first line: “What is your name?” They are delivered in numbered sections; the first has seven, the last has six. The seven parts of the first evoke the Biblical creation narrative’s seven days. Called “The Collector,” it seems to alternate between two distinct time-periods — one primitive, one modern. The pieces come together, however, to show that this difference is of language, not of time. The islanders “had no calendar, no writing system, and kept track of days by counting on their fingers and toes.” When “visitors” first came to the island, the natives asked “through grunts and signs” how the new people had arrived. “We sailed on these big boats, said the visitors.” But the islanders saw no boats — theirs were small, made from maca trees. These visitors came on “caravels, each sporting three lateen sails angled against the wind.” After this encounter, the unnamed protagonist begins collecting all manner of sailing craft, renting spaces to keep them. In the end though, he undoes “each and every vessel,” and inventories the parts, “folding the fabrics left to right” like flags. Rather than a creation to begin with, we are given a discovery followed by a dissembling, as if to set us up for the clash that happens internally for people of colonized lands. Without the pre-packaged, acceptable identity of the mainstream, characters in Obejas’s fiction frequently encounter small identity crises.

Obejas writes with gentleness, without flashy wording or gimmicks, about people trying to figure out where they belong. For example, in a story from her 1994 collection We Came All the Way from Cuba So You Could Dress Like This?, the protagonist’s friend is “too indio to be Mexican, and too Spanish to be Indian.” Her stories center around ill people, men who can’t face their attraction to other men, and a pair of women who sex-play with guacamole and put it back in the refrigerator afterward, only to have their male roommate eat it (unaware of its recent use). None of her characters is perfect; most of them are a little mean. In Antilles though, it’s impossible to miss the tenderness with which these flawed creations are handled. She’s both keenly aware of all the ways that people behave badly and of the complex emotional states from which those behaviors stem.

Continue reading here.

Restaurant Employees: Our Shameful Histories

By Sarah Hoenicke for Fiction Advocate

The-Customer-is-Always-WrongIt would be easy to assume that the casual racism and sexism of the characters in Mimi Pond’s The Customer is Always Wrong are relics, representative of a less enlightened time. But, though lead character Madge is stuck at a “meaningless” restaurant job in the seventies, her experience jives strongly with mine, as a waitress in the early 2010s.

Restaurants are where many of us “artistic” people work in order to keep the lights on while we pursue our truer purposes. And they have several standard characters. There are always coworkers slipping off to the bathroom for extended periods. (The guys I worked with would go together, two or three at a time, always with the same Altoids container; Madge’s junkie coworker Camille slips off with a long black purse.) There are coworkers constantly in relationship-related flux. There’s the guy who’s always angry. (A coworker of mine once punched the wall while holding a salt shaker in his fist. Another chased a table out of the restaurant; they’d written “zero” on the tip-line to a bill for hundreds of dollars.)

Madge, of course, wants out of this. She feels too good for it, better than everyone except her boss, Lazlo. A proto-hipster, Lazlo is the person we’re supposed to feel sorry for. He’s a poet, a good listener, the guy holding everyone else’s lives together while his own rips at the seams. I get Madge’s attachment to Lazlo. He’s a father figure. He’s also the person she doesn’t want to be. Desperate to escape to New York City and live out her dream of being a cartoonist, Madge stays away (mostly) from the drugs and drama that drag her coworkers down—that is, until Lazlo needs her car and her savings, to say nothing of her emotional support. (His daughter is in trouble.)

I was attached to the manager of the restaurant where I came of age, but I got out before I could get stuck in the perpetual loop of codependence, lunch shifts, and “team-building” nights out. Restaurants in California are easy places to get stuck. (Oakland, for Madge; Fairfield, for me.) The money is pretty good, the hours are rarely long. They’re not “real” enough jobs to make the people who work them feel as though they’ve forsaken their passions. Even years in the same place can feel temporary.

Continue reading here.

Cosmic Disruption: A Twenty-first Century Decentering

By Sarah Hoenicke for Anomaly

1*mz9FTbWbhenSscxdlTFGbA“It looked as though we had all gathered on hilltops to pray for the world on its last day,” Annie Dillard writes of a congregation of eclipse-viewers, in her essay, “Total Eclipse.” Dr. Ofelia Zepeda’s poem, “Riding the Earth,” reverses the gaze; instead of people come together looking out at the heavens, the heavens watch a woman who “felt the earth move again”:

She sees herself with her long hair floating,
floating in the atmosphere of stardust
She rides her planet the way a child rides a toy.
Her company is the boy who takes the sun on its daily journey
and the man in the moon smiles as she passes by.

This jovial companionship of woman and earth and the astronomical “boy” and “man” elicit much the same feeling as Dava Sobel’s telling of the women of the early Harvard Observatory, in her 2016 book, The Glass Universe.Through absorbing storytelling and a persistent knack for remaining in her subjects’ present, Sobel carries readers through the many multinational and often female efforts of the late 1800s and early 1900s to understand the skies.

The Glass Universe by Dava Sobel. Viking, 2016. 333pp, nonfiction.

Sobel shows, without having to explicitly argue it, that progress happens as a series of many meaningful, small steps taken by a multitude and distilled over time, and that better, more complete work is done when carried out by a diverse group. Universe is a joyful book because, like “Riding the Earth,” it describes a moment in which women held positions of power and importance as though it were the most natural thing for them to do so. Rather than a tale of struggle, this is one of comradery, of men fighting for the recognition of their female peers, of collaboration and assistance.

Continue reading here.

A Gentle Visit

By Sarah Hoenicke for Anomaly

Goodbye, Vitamin, by Rachel Khong. Henry Holt and Co., 2017. 208pp, fiction. What We Lose, by Zinzi Clemmons. Viking, 2017. 224pp, fiction.

“The visit was a liniment,” writes poet Alberto Ríos in “Coffee in the Afternoon.”

A balm for the nerves of two people living in the world,
A balm in the tenor of its language, which spoke through our hands
In the small lifting of our cups and our cakes to our lips.

I was reminded of this simply-worded poem by two debut novels out this month — Goodbye, Vitamin by Rachel Khong, and What We Lose by Zinzi Clemmons. Both read like well-documented, thoughtfully worded journals. Both deal with memory, the loss of a parent, and the importance of food when trying to cope and heal. And yet, they are completely different in tone. Where Khong is light-hearted and sweetly mournful, Clemmons is darkly emotional, connecting her personal loss to the bigger issues that have shaped her family and life.

English speakers (myself included) often slip and use “where” when referencing time. “There was this time where,” I’ll say, and catch myself, my mind fumbling to make the seemingly logical correction to connect time to “when,” to place it on a line rather than in space. But don’t we see time as physical? Who hasn’t gone back to their childhood bedroom and felt herself transported to the time-space contained there? In close relationships, we contain time for each other, storing memories jointly. This concept, called transactive memory, was proposed by social psychologist Daniel Wegner in 1985. It seems this is why other people can take us back in our minds — we’ve shared a significant event or portion of life, and so they own some of the recollections. So, what happens when a person close to us, who has been this kind of home to our memories, dies?

Continue reading here.

An American Weakness

By Sarah Hoenicke for Anomaly

Gypsy MothIn a recent op-ed for the New York Times, Julia Fierro writes: “Weakness or, to be more specific, showing or admitting to weakness, seemed both un-Italian and un-American.” Fierro is writing here about the impact of Zoloft on her life, and more specifically, her writing career. Before Zoloft, her anxiety and OCD made it impossible to create. Since, she’s written two books.

She hits on something deeper than her personal experience with that line. Afraid of appearing weak, she hid her struggle. All of us do this. We hide parts of ourselves to protect ourselves from the consequences (anticipated or actual) of not fitting in with the American ideals of strength, individuality, and self-reliance.

This is certainly true for the characters in Fierro’s second novel, The Gypsy Moth Summer, out this month from St. Martins. With this book, Fierro encapsulates the life cycle of Avalon Island’s inhabitants, and shows that every person hides their secret self, their quiet worries, the voices they hear. Rife with thinly-veiled racism and class struggles, the tensions on Avalon come to a head as gypsy moths take over.

Fierro sees the world, she says, “through a very intense filter.” She describes her first book, Cutting Teeth, this way: “Modern parenting in the over-saturated information age.” The adults in this book about family, privilege, and paranoia are intense. They are each the center of a very small world, working to mask their weakness.

Continue reading here.

Micro-Review: Lina María Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas’s Don’t Come Back

By Sarah Hoenicke for Gulf Coast

Screen-Shot-2017-05-20-at-6.20.23-PM-200x300Lina María Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas’s series of essays, Don’t Come Back, is an exploration of belonging and of the ways memory and imagination interact to create history. Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas reminds readers that we can still write creation narratives, as she does in four of the essays. There are still stories untold, and original ways to tell them. Part legend, part graphically violent cultural history, part familial myth—here, magical realism meets the explicitness of Annie Dillard. In many of the essays, Ferreira Cabeza-Vanegas takes information from interviews with family members and builds on it, imagining backgrounds for the interviewees, and connecting these individual stories to the larger events of history and cultural myth.

Continue reading here.

The Choice to Stay: SJ Sindu’s “Marriage of a Thousand Lies”

By Sarah Hoenicke for the LA Review of Books

Marriage-of-a-Thousand-Lies-imageTO BE WHO SHE IS AND NOT DISAPPEAR — this is the great challenge for Lucky (Lakshmi), the main character of SJ Sindu’s debut, Marriage of a Thousand Lies (Soho, June 2017). The marriage ostensibly central to the book is that of Lucky and Kris (Krishna); the two met in college where Lucky knew Kris as “the other South Asian queer on campus.” They are companionable, though they are sometimes distant and spiteful with each other, carrying out the emotional byproducts of their loveless union. Both from traditional South Asian families, they are outwardly a happy heterosexual pair busily fulfilling Lucky’s parents’ expectations. Kris came out to his own family, and they disowned him; he and Lucky bonded over this, their “proximity to the cliff,” their “danger of falling.” Alone or in more accepting locales — gay bars, on the rugby field, at home — they express their irreligiosity, true sexualities, and their frustrations with the restrictive gender expectations and the sexism of their culture.

In marrying, they took the complications of their identities and fit them into a construct they could live by and be understood within the Boston Tamil community, to which Lucky’s family belongs; by moving to Bridgeport after getting married, they granted themselves a small measure of freedom. This geographic separation will prove inadequate. Their marriage cannot save them — it blocks them from fully realizing their truer selves, from the lives they wish they were living. Lucky’s marriage to Kris, though essential to the story line, isn’t what drives the book. Called home to her mother’s house when her grandmother falls and must be cared for, Lucky gets caught up in a quasi-relationship with her high school best friend, Nisha (with whom she’d had a young fling). Nisha, who is engaged to a man, strings Lucky along, noncommittal, yet desperate to be released from the life in which she feels entrapped.

Marriage is replete with characters spouting outdated and false ideas about homosexuality. Lucky’s parents are highly educated and well employed. They belong to a community that is progressive enough to vote for Obama, and yet so old fashioned as to expect that men and women will converse in separate rooms at social gatherings. The women commune in the kitchen, discussing children, household problems, and the like. The men retire to another room to smoke, drink, and discuss politics. This community changes the channel when homosexuality is mentioned, believing it to be a decision, a predilection, which the gay person can grow out of.

Continue reading here.

The Many Homelands of the Mind

By Sarah Hoenicke for the Punch

old_house-LARGETwo literary journals, in their recent issues, put together interesting perspectives on home and belonging

Home. Homestead. Homemade. Homegrown. Homeland. Homesick. At home. To home in on—clearly, the concept of home invades much of our thinking, and so, too, our language. Home signifies interior; to be away from it, exterior. To be without a home: homeless; to be forced out of one’s home: displaced. Home and its linguistic relatives imply unity and kinship, but its opposites scatter into unrelated forms, just as those without homeland must scatter to places unrelated to their pasts — foreign, outside, away.

For a concept that’s so integral to our thinking, how is it we’re so bad at providing its real counterpart to people? At recognizing its lack, and the effects of that absence?

Two recently released issues of the literary journals Chicago Quarterly Review and Freeman’s contain in their 700 combined pages many lifetimes worth of perspective on home and belonging.

The range of writing here is such that many readers will find themselves stopping for breath between entries. The talent and beauty is, at times, overwhelming, as is the cruelty and suffering conveyed.

Continue reading here.

The Many Faces of Arab Culture: Hala Alyan’s Salt Houses

By Sarah Hoenicke for the Rumpus

Salt-HousesMost Americans have a simplistic idea of Arab cultures and the variety of experiences within them. We seem to assume that every Arab is religious; that every Arab woman wears the veil, and that it is forced on her; that women have little freedom to be educated, think for themselves, or travel. Hala Alyan’s debut novel, Salt Houses, serves as a small corrective to that generalized picture—“small” only because we need many more stories like this one to stand a chance against the prevailing narrative.

Salt Houses follows the Yacoub family over roughly fifty years. This gentle telling of a raucous history—jostled by its many personalities and much geopolitical discord—begins in March of 1963 with the family’s matriarch, Salma, in Nablus, a city in the area presently known as the West Bank. When the book begins, Hussam, Salma’s husband and the Yacoub patriarch, has died. Alone, Salma converses internally with Hussam about what troubles her—their daughter Alia’s refusal of the veil; the mis-ordered marriages of her children (Alia, the youngest, before her older brother, Mustafa); the camps of displaced Palestinians, and her family’s “armor of wealth,” which saved them from that life; and the changing roles of women in society, which she witnesses through her children.

Each new chapter of Salt Houses shifts perspective and jumps in time. From Salma, we go to Mustafa in 1965, still in Nablus, and then to Alia in 1967 in Kuwait City. The book moves forward in time and across space, reaching all the way to Salma’s pregnant great-granddaughter Manar in 2014, in Jaffa. These perspectives touch back on each other through small details, fashioning a collective, familial history. One character’s revelations illuminate the life of another.

Continue reading here.

The Secret Life: On Julie Buntin’s Marlena

By Sarah Hoenicke for Brooklyn Magazine

“Everyone has a secret life. But when you’re a girl with a best friend, you think your secret life is something you can share,” says Cat, the young narrator of Julie Buntin’s stirring debut, Marlena. Marlena and Cat think, like most teens, that their friendship is exceptional.

Marlena begins just after Cat’s recently divorced mother relocates their family to a prefab house in Silver Springs, Michigan. Cat’s post-relocation identity is one forged around rebellion. She skips school, gets high in the town church’s basement, swigs her mother’s boxed wine from a plastic water bottle, and observes drugs being made and used.

The catalyst for these changes is Cat’s neighbor, Marlena. She’s a bit older than Cat, but still young enough—seventeen to Cat’s fifteen—that the two quickly become inseparable, as only teenage girls can be. They split a bed, food, a tab of ecstasy. Clothes are passed between them, and they even share a boy, though Marlena doesn’t know about it.

The thing they won’t experience together is a future. We learn early that Marlena, at eighteen, dies alone in the woods, her face in a few inches of water.

The book alternates between teenaged Cat in Michigan, and mid-thirties Cat in New York City. This structure allows young Cat an understanding beyond her age. It shows us the impression left by Marlena on Cat’s older self: She’s an alcoholic, and, though she married a kind man and has a job at which she’s steadily promoted, she’s disconnected from her life. Almost twenty years, and a significant change in class status, stand between the two periods, yet Cat still marks her age by Marlena’s passing birthdays.

Continue reading here.

On American War, Omar El Akkad’s Tale of the Second American Civil War

By Sarah Hoenicke for Gulf Coast

imagesOmar El Akkad’s fiction debut, American War (April, Knopf), envisions a second American Civil War, waged 2074 to 2093, again between South and North. The effects of global climate change have induced a mass-move inland as the coasts are lost to rising seas and frequent, massively destructive storms. The Southerners wish to continue to use fossil fuels, as the rest of the world moves on to cleaner energy sources, and wish to leave the Union and form the Free Southern State.

Akkad could have perhaps allotted himself an easier, if less interesting task had he set the book in the North, on the side of the righteous idealists, following protagonists on the “right side” of this would-be history. But the choice to create fierce Southern characters pitted against the murderous and unyielding idealism of the North feels intentional. Because of it, this book’s liberal audience will not slip into the easy catharsis of political rightness. Its central plot is appropriately messy and brutal, the war’s casualties not easily ignored or broadly categorized (read: “deplorables”).

This is the story of Sarat Chestnut, as told by her nephew, Benjamin, though it isn’t apparent until late in the book that he is the narrator. From the beginning, Sarat feels mythic. She names herself—née Sara T. Chestnut, a blurring of her first name and middle initial by a teacher let Sarat hear her name anew. Rather than the “impotent exhale” of Sara, she chose the “bite” of Sarat. She has a twin, Dana, who is typically feminine, and interested in everything Sarat is not—lipstick, boys, fitting in. Young Sarat does experiments with honey on her parents’ porch, and revels in the mysteries of the land around her. Once her family has been moved to the Southern refugee encampment, Camp Patience, adolescent Sarat becomes ever more daring, an unfurling of herself that leaves her on one occasion literally covered in shit.

Jami Attenberg: Listening to Write

By Sarah Hoenicke for Guernica
Photo by Zack Smith Photography.
You think, because she’s so funny, so sharp, so sarcastic and constantly moving, that Jami Attenberg can’t make you sad. But she can floor you. Fiction like Attenberg’s—entertaining, witty, a swirl of happiness, hope, and disaster—is an escape from daily reality and worry. It’s also a way into topics that are rarely approached otherwise, unless by way of sterile academic argument. Precisely because they appeal to emotion, Attenberg’s stories render accessible those things we often can’t, intellectually, persuade people to see.

All Grown Up follows Andrea Bern, the daughter of a heroin addicted, musician father and activist mother. Andrea doesn’t want the things she’s expected to want—babies, marriage—but she doesn’t know what she wants instead.  She likes to drink, sleep with men, and, for some time, paint. As with many of Attenberg’s stories, All Grown Up doesn’t feel plotted. Everything is revealed seemingly at random as Andrea thinks back to her past and experiences her present. Because we’re moving around in time, we see the same moments in Andrea’s life through multiple lenses. This has the odd and wonderful effect of creating a multidimensional personal history for her that feels a lot like one’s own past: There is no linear quality to time; at discrete points in our lives, we view memories and experiences differently.

Attenberg’s descriptions are snarky, a bit in-your-face, but on point and always visual. They are much of what enlivens her characters. A “real” Italian man has “chest hair by the fistful.” Another character’s clothes “seem to hover around his body, barely attached.” And my favorite, Deborah: “gray-haired, bespectacled, wearing a witchy black dress with a smattering of black sequins, a delicious bosom, you just want to crawl up inside of it already.”

Continue reading here.

Theoretically Personal

By Sarah Hoenicke for BOMB

Resisting confession in Yiyun Li’s Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life

“For years I have had the belief that all my questions will be answered by the books I am reading,” Yiyun Li writes in her latest effort, Dear Friend, from My Life I Write to You in Your Life (Penguin Random House, February 2017). But, as Li concedes, books “only lead to other books.” Dear Friend, too, could lead its reader to any of the writers written about in its pages—William Trevor, Jane Austen, Elizabeth Bowen, Thomas Hardy, Ivan Turgenev—but the books and authors are so intricately connected to Li’s thought process that it would feel wrong to take them solely as recommendations. Dear Friend, dubbed a memoir, is a collection of autobiographical essays on Li’s reading life and the meditations therein.

In truth, it’s difficult to articulate exactly what this book is about. Like reading philosophy, it requires rereading, patience, and the will to interpret. Li is not interested in appealing to her reader’s emotions, instead circling around the vague atmosphere of her own. And yet, the prose is unambiguous—simple and direct, as is Li’s praxis. Some will say this book is about Li’s choice to write in English, which she refers to as her private language, and it does take on a variety of personal themes, even as they’re paradoxically handled from a distance. Despite this, Li is wary of the expectations of individualism, since “living is not an original business.” Perhaps because of this leeriness, her fiction more often deals in collective memory, in ways of being that are plausible within a people’s history while not fitted to any one person’s life.

Continue reading here.

BOOKS | The Young Widower’s Handbook

By Sarah Hoenicke for Wales Arts Review

28110853In his pleasantly hyperbolic fiction debut, The Young Widower’s Handbook, Tom McAllister engages his readers in the life of Hunter Cady and the memory of his wife, Kait, who dies early in the story. Almost everything we learn about Kait comes through Hunter – his recollections of their conversations, travel dreams, and personality differences. Kait’s death launches Hunter into a period of self-reckoning—he travels haphazardly around the U.S., talking himself through his grief, and ignoring his life, which is falling apart.

Though college graduates, Hunter and Kait meet while both still living with their parents. They fall in love, get married, buy a house. They fantasise about where they’ll travel, but then stay at home and watch travel documentaries, they tell themselves, for research, and don’t go anywhere. Kait’s death makes Hunter realise how little he’s done with his life – he does unfulfilling work at a rental car agency. Kait’s ashes along for the ride, he sets out to see something of the States, thinking that it makes the most sense to start with his own country, and later to go farther afield.

Hunter’s trip is a long series of mishaps. He’s constantly thwarting himself—a habit that preceded Kait. Once, to avoid learning the skills of his outdoorsman father, he intentionally cut his hand as he was cleaning a fish so that he could return to the tent, where he had a video game hidden. He’s a dreamer whose only full deed was to fall in love with his wife. Rather than the handbook the title suggests, this is a prolonged warning label detailing how not to be human in love, a fate none of us can escape.

Continue reading here.

In Conversation with Daniel Lowe

Sarah Hoenicke talks to the author of All That’s Left to Tell, Daniel Lowe, for Wales Arts Review

DanielLowe-1-426x279We know that stories have lives of their own, independent of their tellers. They wind and shape themselves differently in hearers’ minds, and then come out slightly transformed in retellings. In Daniel Lowe’s fiction debut, All That’s Left to Tell, stories create life, hope, pain, and they bend the mind, as story itself is investigated by the book’s telescoping structure of a story within a story, within a story.

This is the tale of Marc Laurent, a Pepsi executive whose wife has just left him, and who decides to take on a six-month business stay in Karachi, Pakistan. We find out early that he’s been kidnapped, and that on top of his separation from his wife, his daughter, Claire, has been murdered. All of this feels overwhelming because it’s revealed in such quick succession, but then the book saves itself. Lowe’s real talents become apparent very quickly once one understands that the plot of the story is perhaps its least interesting facet.

The conversations between Marc and his interrogator, Josephine, propel the story, as she tries to extract information from him in order to better know to whom to send a ransom note. Rather than torture him as one would expect her to, she tells him the story of his murdered daughter’s future as Josephine imagines it. In doing so, she makes him care about his life again.

Continue reading the interview here.

The joys of a novel: Jade Chang interviewed by Sarah Hoenicke

jadechanginterviewBy Sarah Hoenicke for the Columbia Journal

“Sometimes just living your life in a way that is completely unapologetic is a rebellion.”

Jade Chang’s debut novel, The Wangs vs. the World, is an extraordinarily balanced first book.  Often, debuts lack perfect continuity—containing lapses into portions of the story that the author needed to know, but the reader did not.  In this case, there are no lulls or glimpses of the process that led to the finished book.  There are only the characters—the individual and complex members of the Wang family.

This is an immigrant novel in that the Wangs’ patriarch, Charles, has immigrated to the United States and spends much of the novel comparing the two cultures he’s known, but his perspective hardly consumes the narrative.  We hear from Charles’s three children—artistic and together Saina; Andrew, an aspiring comedian; and Charles’s youngest, Grace, an avid fashion-blogger.  These three and Charles make up the bulk of the book, but they’re given a lively supporting cast—even allowing the car they travel in some airtime.

Charles made his stateside fortune in cosmetics, but when he makes a bad deal and his prosperity abruptly collapses, he becomes obsessed with reclaiming family lands in China.  Before he can do so, he must pick up his scattered family members and move them to Saina’s home in New York—this means a cross-country car trip with many unforeseen calamities and conflicts bubbling up along the way.

Continue reading here.

Anuk Arudpragasam: Within the Bounds of the Body

arudpragasam_dailyAnuk Arudpragasam’s debut novel, The Story of a Brief Marriage, takes place over a single day near the end of the Sri Lankan civil war. The novel’s protagonist, Dinesh, has been pushed, with fellow beleaguered citizens, to the coast. When we meet him, he is living in a camp, helping tend to the wounded and bury the dead, his existence overwhelmed by the needs of those around him. Civil war raged in Sri Lanka from 1983 to 2009, but the novel doesn’t detail the history of the war. Instead, it is driven by Dinesh’s internal life, like this moment during a wave of shelling:

It was a loud, unbearably loud explosion, followed immediately by others, so loud that as soon as the first one came, the rest could no longer be heard. They could be registered only as the pervasive absence of sound, as a series of voids or vacuums in the sound sphere so great that not even the sound of thinking could be heard. The world became mute, like a silent film, and as a result the bombing often brought about in Dinesh a sense of calm.

While keeping us anchored in Dinesh’s body and immediate experience, Arudpragasam is able to talk more broadly about the nature of life in a war zone. Bombing wouldn’t usually be thought of as a calming experience, but for Dinesh it brings mental silence, a break from the constant work of existence within a foundering country. While this isn’t a true story, it reflects behaviors observed near the end of the war. It became common for families to marry their children quickly—especially their daughters—in hopes of saving them from the violence, sexual and otherwise, of the army. Such a marriage gives the book its title, and imparts on Dinesh a renewed sense of his future amid the ever-pressing present.

Read the rest of the interview here.

Book Review: The Expense of a View by Polly Buckingham

By Sarah Hoenicke for the Masters Review

THE-EXPENSE-OF-A-VIEW-e1483997770199Our current political conversation often revolves around the financial disparities rampant in American culture. Polly Buckingham’s recent story collection, The Expense of a View, hones in on the lives most impacted by the inequalities this gaping imbalance engenders. Buckingham tells the stories of the system’s most vulnerable—the ill, the partnerless, the parentless, the addicted, the poor, the isolated—exploring what it means to try to be a “healthy” adult when life has always lacked a major component of stability. The Expense of a View won the 2016 Katherine Anne Porter Prize for Short Fiction, and was released this past fall from the University of North Texas Press.

The inaugural story, “Honey,” is one of the collection’s best. In it, Buckingham gives a glimpse into the life of a “transplant”—a woman in a new place, “with a new job and no new friends.” She’s observant of the graffiti calling a former neighbor “snitch,” of the “dismembered motorcycle,” of the dog that’s died in her wood shed. Buckingham plays with the language, evoking things there and not there, the sense of two worlds coexisting. Is the Labrador sleeping or dead? Is its face pockmarked or shadowed? These differing interpretations of observed phenomena provide the reader with insight into the stories that follow and the collection as a whole. The point of view is half of the story. It controls how events and people are understood, placing blame or vindicating, vilifying or lionizing. The onus is on the readers, in part, to question what bias we bring with us. “Honey,” like many of the pieces that follow it, presents a believable picture of a depressed place that is all too full of dark realities.

Buckingham is concerned with the effect of environment on mindset, and vice versa. About the protagonist of “Night Train,” she writes, “His office is dark, except for sudden flickers of light shining into the porch.” This sentence perfectly describes the interior of this character’s mind as he descends further into emotional shadow after a family death. And on addiction, Buckingham is subtly observant: “Adjusting meds doesn’t work if you bury them in the potted plants.” As the title of the book suggests, these stories are preoccupied with people who don’t have the capital to obtain a view—either literal or figurative.

Continue reading here.

When the Hurlyburly’s Done: Roy Scranton’s “War Porn”

By Sarah Hoenicke, for the Los Angeles Review of Books


WAR PORN, Roy Scranton’s fiction debut, is not a comfortable book. Scranton’s experimental and interesting prose is meant to disturb the entrenched thought patterns of his readers. He defies the American cultural tenet that our military is lawful, moral, and organized, depicting it instead as it more probably is: needlessly brutal, a blunt instrument rather than a refined machine. War Porn is a complex novel about complex systems. It calls into question mindsets rampant on both sides of the Iraq War — what the sides believe about each other, what holds up, and what’s obviously unnuanced bigotry.the Los Angeles Review of Books

An English teacher of mine once called Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 a “hyperlink novel.” She meant that the book is trying to scatter its readers’ attention by being filled with things to look up — like a web page filled with clickable links that lead away from the main article. She said we should avoid looking everything up, and thus avoid becoming scattered. Readers of War Porn would be wise to follow this advice. The novel bombards with military jargon — mostly capitalized abbreviations like GWOT, IED, HAL, MRE — yet it remains entirely possible to understand the drift of the text without searching for the abbreviations’ meanings. Indeed, to do so would be to miss the point of this particular technique. When left obscure, the jargon causes the reader to be engulfed by a vague confusion, like the feeling of doing something for the first time, or of visiting a country in which one is not familiar with the language. We are meant to be overwhelmed. We experience three distinct narrators throughout, three different prose styles, and unannounced time changes, the text oscillating frequently between present and past. And yet Scranton succeeds in furthering his narrative while still maintaining his reader’s attention and interest. War Porn isn’t easy to comprehend, but it isn’t easy to put down either.

Continue reading at the Los Angeles Review of Books.

The Story of a Brief Marriage, by Anuk Arudpragasam

By Sarah Hoenicke, for Entropy Mag

The Story of a Brief Marriage by Anuk Arudpragasam Flatiron Books (Macmillan), 2016 208 pages – Flatiron / Amazon

The Story of a Brief Marriage by Anuk Arudpragasam
Flatiron Books (Macmillan), 2016
208 pages – Flatiron

In his debut novel, The Story of a Brief Marriage, Anuk Arudpragasam has taken one day and stretched it to cover two hundred pages. The plot points of the book could easily be summed up in one sentence: A young man, traumatized by life in a war zone, goes slowly through the daily motions of life until he accepts a marriage proposal, which returns to him a sense of his future. But it takes precisely the amount of space used by Arudpragasam to endear us to his characters—Dinesh and Ganga—and to endow the novel with the emotional impact he intends.

Originally from Colombo, Sri Lanka, Arudpragasam is currently a Ph.D. student in Columbia University’s Department of Philosophy. Though this novel is set during the Sri Lankan civil war, which raged from 1983 to 2009, and all of the events in the book are shaped by the war, this is not a fast-moving, historically propelled story. Written in long sentences, much of the prose describes extended, uninterrupted periods of introspection. By meditating on the body and its functions, Arudpragasam deftly brings to life the trauma incurred by war, and the healing made possible through even the most basic human interactions and rituals.

Dinesh is a young man who has grown up during the war. He is encamped on the east coast of the country, along with many other displaced Sri Lankans. They have been pushed to the edge of the island by the fighting in the west, north, and south. Not only does Dinesh exist in continuous fear of the abrupt end of his life, he must also be on constant alert for soldiers who would forcibly recruit him into the fighting. When we meet him, he has lost his family, and is living alone in the camp. The book opens as he helps to amputate the arm of a young boy, who has already lost a leg in the daily raids.

Continue reading at Entropy Mag.

Review — Freeman’s: Family

1*O4xdrt2ewibKDzZL7PCr6ABy Sarah Hoenicke

Mine is the only body I’ll ever experience. I am limited by my perceptions, my history. Reading is one way to transcend these boundaries, somewhat, to enter the psyches of others, through their words. Reading can result in an understanding of experiences that can’t or won’t be shared by two people.

But the full experience of personhood remains something singular. Even if a very industrious and tireless person were to decide to read every page of every diary I’ve ever kept — there have been twenty-five, of various sizes, starting with the very young, flowery, and heavily illustrated, and becoming ever more monochromatic and wordy — they still would not be me, or even know me.

Another way to gain a still incomplete understanding of a person is to know them in the context of their family.

I am the middle child in a family of eleven. My parents homeschooled the nine of us, didn’t expose us to TV unless it had originally aired pre-1960, dressed us as though wanting us to be comfortable on the set of Little House on the Prairie, and thought it was more important that we knew the ten commandments by heart than the names of the seven continents.

Continue reading at Anomaly.