RRR, a Review

Reading, Uncategorized

I’ve only read the Fall 2016, Issue thirty-eight, of Red Rock Review, and I only discovered it while perusing the periodical racks of a Phoenix area Barnes & Noble while visiting family for Thanksgiving, but from what I can tell, RRR is a perfectly fine literary journal.  Sponsored by the College of Southern Nevada, it carries zero commercial responsibility, which is a good thing, mostly… it means more honesty and attention devoted to the work, except I also think it allows for a little bit of a lazy standard.

RRR is perfectly not surprising, but it is also not upsetting; it is what it is.  This doesn’t sound like a compliment, and I guess it isn’t… but at the same time, it’s not anywhere near the harshest criticism. On any given day, I’d love to be called perfectly fine.

My favorite work from the issue is the opening essay, “Eight Lousy Points,” by Scott Dickensheets[1]. It’s the only writing about football I’ve ever been able to read from start to finish, and it will probably be the only essay about football I will ever discuss at any sort of length. The essay has a strong opening; “The air in part of Benito Juarez International Airport smells like Montezuma’s Revenge: viscous, germy—fecal.” What follows is equal parts travel essay, recollections of childhood memories, observations from life, and parallels drawn to Bob Dylan lyrics. The biggest flaw in the work, however, is its vantage point, which is tainted with a little bit of white privilege, and a little/lot bit of overreaching, inaccurate hyperbole:

The throb of my tailbone—thanks to five hours wedged into an Aero Mexico seat clearly not designed for el gringo largo—underscores the fragility I feel: I’m in a country I don’t know, subject to laws I don’t comprehend, any misunderstandings to be sorted out in a language I don’t speak… I fear that the smallest incident might spiral into a stretch in Mexican jail. (2)

But, Dickensheets’ overreaching statements are permissible (mostly), because he masterfully weaves together an unpredictable essay from seemingly unrelated topics to form a poetic conclusion.

Jocelyn Kelly’s “Kingdoms for a Day,” is likewise disjointed, and likewise masterfully woven together. It’s what I call a landscape story; one where the narrator makes a general observation about the landscape (in this case, a public beach), and then dips briefly into some of the separate (but connected) elements that compose it; children building a sandcastle out of old bundt cake pans, a mother still sad from losing her child, a sixty-year-old woman reading a romance novel, and a couple caught in the freshness of new love. While the movements between the short fragments of the whole are somewhat predictable, there is poetry there somehow, there is something transcending that insists that “every moment [is] meaningful,” and that even small, seemingly unnoticeable connections can be just enough to “catch you even when you’re drowning,” (33).

On the contrary, a lot of the poetry in RRR is less successful. Bibhu Padhi’s[2] works remains too abstract/non-specific for my taste, with lines like:

…What carried the tremble in your songs

Up to those rare, blissful

 

Layers of love and sunlit air.

Tonight your voice

 

Floats back, through

A forgetting time of disownment… (“Again Your Voice Returns,” 21)

 And the works in RRR that contain more concrete detail, like Robert Karaski’s “The Definition of Joy,” verge on the purely prosaic:

The season wheels into summer.

Amy bakes lasagna in Aberdeen,

I cool off with lemonade… (29).

Criticism aside, Red Rock Review was a pleasant read (and a relatively inexpensive one, at only $6.50 for the volume). It also seems like a perfectly decent journal for aspiring writers like myself to submit to with little intimidation or fear, because if/when rejection or acceptance happens, it will be what it will be.

Footnotes:

[1] If Dickensheets is, in fact, his real last name, and not a penname, I’d be down to marry him, cuz, well, I mean…

[2] Bibhu Padhi is a more successful poet that I will probably ever be. He has published ten books of poetry and has been featured in countless big-name publications… so take my criticism with just a few grains of salt.

Insomnia and the Aunt: A Review

Reading, Uncategorized

Fuckin brilliant. Works like this make me feel like I need to read mountains and mountains of works like this. Sorry for gushing, but seriously… And I know expletives are supposed to make one look dumber (they are a known intellect killer; smart people know how to use their words well—they know how to explain complex ideas well), but seriously…

Tan Lin’s “ambient” novel, Insomnia and the Aunt, is described as a work that “explores the relationship between technology, television, and human experience,” but it is so much more than this, or anyone’s, simple explanation of it. Physically speaking, Insomnia and the Aunt is a hybrid accumulation of photographs, footnotes, and snippets of (fictionalized?) reality; but like all great things, it is greater than the sum of its parts.

Disclaimer: I love short writing; I love works that are constructed from seemingly disconnected pieces. To be sure, this work is not great in the traditional sense; it is not structured with a clear narrative in mind, nor does it have a clear character. If you are a traditional story-arch reader, this book is most definitely not for you. But if you are a reader constantly searching for the poetic in the mundane, the cerebral expression that is this book is refreshing.

Many people are confused and think that Insomnia and the Aunt is a story about a Chinese American family, or, more specifically, about the narrator’s memories of his Chinese American aunt, but in reality it’s more than that. What most people miss is the fact that the fictional aunt in the story is not only fictional in relation to Tan Lin (author), but more than likely, also fictional in relation to the narrator. The careful reader discovers this pretty early on:

The names for my family are linked, like a mirror or perhaps a footnote, to the physical world and to social inconsistencies and historical accidents. In other worlds, my mother and father rarely saw my aunt in my presence, except maybe once on our first and only visit to a Chinese restaurant in Spokane. (14)

From this page forward, it seems that the best interpretation of the aunt is allegory. Without reading the aunt literally, the ‘factual’ information offered by the narrator is simply an observation that his family rarely watched TV together (in fact, his only recollection of this ever happening is when it happens accidently/forcefully while eating in a Chinese restaurant in Spokane). What solidifies the allegorical read of the aunt is the sentence that comes after the quote above; “Some relatives are meant to be imagined years before or after they died,” (14). There is no clear way to interpret this statement except to accept that the narrator is making the intangible, tangible. His aunt/the TV—or more accurately, his aunt/the act of watching the TV while being stuck somewhere between Chinese and American—is the real subject of this book.

And to be sure, Lin captures some really poignant things about the interaction between bridging one’s immigrant culture with the passive/not-so-passive act of philosophizing in front of the TV:

For an immigrant like my aunt, America is not the images on TV, it basically is the TV, which is why she decorates it with paper doilies, vanilla incense sticks and stuffed Garfields. This is also why my aunt thinks all TV, even live TV, is canned, and why she thinks America is basically not a place or even an image, but furniture. (19-20)

Without explaining too much of the book to you, Lin’s philosophizing is beautiful and compelling. Reading this book is similar to the way the narrator describes the way he watches TV, “involuntary and achronological, a kind of anthropological dumb show,” where one simultaneously half-watches segments of “old westerns… late night shows and Jackie Gleason re-runs,” (16).  And in this way, Lin allows himself to a-chronologically play with philosophical ideas of interpretation, representation, and order, instead of tinkering with crafting a story.

It’s the mental landscape Lin creates that is most interesting and surprising about this book. It’s what kept me reading, and it’s what makes me want to start a furious search for more books that operate the way this one does.

I doesn’t happen often, finding a book that forever changes how you read; but Insomnia and the Aunt is a permanent marker in the road of my reading (and writing) journey, one that has cracked open for me possibilities and expectations for books that I didn’t realize could exist; this is what I find most exciting.

-*-

Other great moments from Insomnia and the Aunt:

‘When will the gazelle die?’ I ask my aunt.

‘Already dead.’

My aunt has trouble understanding when something is dying on TV and when something is dead in real life and that already dead is not the same thing as the fiction of watching it on TV. ‘They won’t show that on TV.’

‘Gazelle. Already dead,’ my aunt says. She adds, ‘not already dying.’ (16)

 

“If live TV is disturbingly real, canned TV for my aunt is a function of reincarnation, or maybe morphology, at once vague, casual and novelistic. (20)

 

…a child from Kansas City who can imitate the sounds of strange animals like bush hogs or California condors defeats conversation before it starts—and this of course, is what creates that beautiful thing known as talking, (36).

Noon Time

Reading

Where has Noon been my whole life? Noon, the famous time of day for lunch—for naps—for breaks; is apparently also a shrink-wrapped literary journal. At $12, it was a compulsive buy, one pointing in the direction of “wasted” income. You know what I mean… some people buy cigarettes or joints, I blindly buy coffee and random books; the outcome is the same (no money), but “waste” is the American way, and it’s how I get by.

Enough about that tangent… at $12, I didn’t know what to expect; all I knew about Noon was its appealing tan and blue abstract cover. And because we all judge books by their covers (admit it, you do too), I bought it. And in this case, I’m glad I did. This literary annual will be one that l willingly “waste” my money on from year to year until its cycle ends.

It’s not that the 2016 volume of Noon contained literary works that blew my mind or shook my world; no, it’s much more simple than that. Not everything has to bring you to your knees or make you ponder philosophical questions. Not every story worth reading has to evoke large emotion or ponder heavy questions. In fact, sometimes the opposite is just as poignant. Literature can be birthed from some place small… in fact, it can remain something small…a turn of phrase…an unexplained symbol… a moment in time. Literature can be something as simple as a noon-time break; pedestrian really—nothing special, except that we live for those short moments where we get to sit down and breathe, nap, or gossip.

Like my lunch break during the work week, the works in Noon are short (sometimes frustratingly so). The stories do not have complicated plots or characters; in fact, let me sample one for you by Greg Mulcahy in its entirety:

Jaguar

What concession, Emily said, would Jaguar, spirit of the forest, make?

Averaging between a page and three, the majority of the stories in Noon are what most people would call awkwardly short; but their beauty and value is the fact that they offer something outside of the space or time needed to read them. These little bites of language offer nourishment and energy that can be digested and expended throughout the day.

We forget sometimes the purpose of eating. We eat food because our body needs energy. We get wrapped up in the search or desire for ambrosia when, really, chicken strips or a sandwich will do the job just fine. In the same way, we sometimes forget the purpose of written language.

It’s not that I’m saying the works in Noon are equivalent to cheap fast food. No, the stories here are much more spot on than a greasy burger or battered slice of hormone infused chicken breast. But at the same time, they aren’t works that would appear in Agni. Like a chicken strip, or rather, like the takeout “Spicy chicken fried with Szechuan peppercorns, and beef fried rice,” (10) in Michael Cuglietta’s story “The Feast of Jupiter,” the stories in Noon are accessible and satisfying; they are the perfect meal to digest while mourning the loss of your dog. The stories in Noon are perfect to digest while “Loud announcements [come] over the speakers providing updates about the many delays,” (95).

Highlights from the Noon Menu

Kayla Blachley’s “Glamour”

Waiting for a plane to be de-iced

Pair with a bottle of Smart Water

1 minute 21 seconds 160 calories
Susan Laier’s “Wedding Ring at Rest”

a woman stressing because she can’t find her wedding ring…stressing more because she doesn’t want it

perfect with a cup of coffee

1 minute 16 seconds 240 calories
Susan Laier’s “The Lost Voice”

a cellphone that drowned in a toilet

pair with a bag of Cheetos

1 minute 0 seconds 110 calories

Fact is, everyone should read Noon; not in the same way one read books, but the way one reads life, one short moment at a time… with moments of greater time in between to absorb, digest, and reenergize.

It’s Amazing Performance Art: A Review of Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman

Art, Book Review, Political Discussion, Reading

I wasn’t super excited when I saw the book on the shelves simply because I don’t like doing things that other people take pleasure in hyping up, especially when it requires the commitment of time and thought that reading requires. I wasn’t one of the recent readers of Go Set a Watchman that was overly anticipating the book, simply because I knew that the book couldn’t be more than it was (a book).

I knew that when I picked it up it would be a quick read like To Kill a Mockingbird. I expected it to be accessible. And simply by association, I expected it to be referential to everything I already knew about the characters of Mockingbird, if not also referential to everything I already knew about Harper Lee, the south, and racism. I’ll take this one step further and say it now so I can get it off my chest; any reviewer who seemed surprised or offended that Watchman functions largely because of what we know about Mockingbird needs to review their own intelligence. How could a book that’s about the same place and same people by the same author not be reliant or referential?

I saw through the fancy marketing touting Watchman as a newly discovered novel/sequel; other book readers should have too (yes, that’s a dig at you Brilliant Books in Traverse City, Michigan). And any reader not brilliant enough to see that marketing always makes a promise that is more hype than substance certainly does not deserve their money back.

If you don’t already hate me for saying that, you will most definitely hate me for being so snobby as to admit that, while flipping from page to page, I didn’t expect much in terms of “poetry” or “art” out of an author who became a household name for the publication of a singular book that has been read by every eighth-grader who has gone through the US education system since the 1960s (I mean poetry as in poetic literariness).

I say this not to bash Harper Lee, or to bash Mockingbird, or to bash 8th graders. In fact, I thoroughly love Mockingbird for what it is. I’ve read it. I’ve taught it to eighth-graders. I’ve written vocabulary lists for it. I’ve created and graded assessments for it. I’ve read good and bad short response essays from students about it. But my appreciation for Mockingbird didn’t come because it is a rousing work of “art” or “poetry;” and I certainly didn’t teach it as such. When I taught eighth grade English, we didn’t do (very many) diction studies on Lee’s sentences, nor did we overly analyze her use of imagery or metaphor (in fact we might have spent more time pointing out clichés). The more literary elements that one finds in good writing have always been sparse in Lee’s work; I didn’t expect Watchman to be any different. Reviewers like Adam Gopnik, who accuses Watchman of being a book that “falls apart as art,” either has a hitch in their memory or isn’t making these statements from a place of honesty.

If you do a Google search for “Go Set a Watchman Review,” you’ll find Gopnik’s New Yorker article in the good company of many other negative reviews. I call them deluded because they refuse to understand art outside the confines of dissecting its elements. They refuse to see things beyond the sum of their parts or outside of itself. They are stuck in the now antiquated view of art as object and refuse to see any possibility that art can be concept.

To be sure, in my opinion Go Set a Watchman is art. The book—the story—does not fall apart simply because the language is cliché, the dialogue is preachy, or because the flashback sequences and adult memories of Scout are clunky. To be sure, I agree with all of these criticisms. But Go Set a Watchman does something that supersedes its technical failures or malnourishments. It may not be an exemplary art object, but as a socio-conceptual artwork, Watchman is brilliant.

It’s brilliant because of all of its criticisms. It’s brilliant because of the timing of its publication. It’s brilliant because it revises history by questioning everything we think we know. It’s brilliant as performance art. Whether we have the author to thank for this performance or the publisher, it doesn’t really matter.

Now your BS meter might be going off. You might want me to explain how a book can be seen as a performance art piece. Fair enough: Performance art relies on four elements; time, space, the presence of the artist, and a strong relationship/reaction between the performance and the audience. Performance art relies heavily on an audience’s reaction to a concept. The release of Watchman has activated all of these things. Most importantly, Watchman has had plenty of reaction; and the reaction has deepened the meaning of the work.

Everyone angered by the fact that their beloved Atticus Finch is a racist misses the point. Everyone that can’t get past the fact that Watchman would not function without the existence of Mockingbird, misses the point. And at the same time, these people are the point. The anger and the disgust toward the publisher for releasing this novel, the anger that people have for this revision to “history” are a physical manifestation of what Lee tried to construct in Go Set a Watchman. These reactions are a physical manifestation of what Scout experiences when she comes into the world as her own person. Like Scout, so many of us fans of To Kill a Mockingbird “…somewhere along the line fastened [our conscience] like a barnacle onto [Atticus],” and in reading Watchman, also like Scout had to experience the pain of separation. Uncle Jack explains this pain best:

When you happened along and saw him doing something that seemed to you to be the very antithesis of his conscience—your conscience—you literally could not stand it. It made you physically ill. Life became hell on earth for you. You had to kill yourself, or he had to kill you to get you functioning as a separate entity… He was letting you break your icons one by one. He was letting you reduce him to the status of human being.

This pain is understandable, but it isn’t the endgame. Jean Louise can’t just stay in this pain, otherwise she won’t ever grow.

Go Set a Watchman requires growth. This type of visceral reaction, this type of parallel between fiction and reality is a performance artist’s dream. Sure enough, Harper Lee couldn’t have conducted this, nor could she have ever dreamt that when this first draft of her beloved novel was first rejected years later it would be a catalyst for growth. Maybe this is giving the shifty tricks of a publisher too much credit, but I halfway don’t care. The revisionist nature of the book is its magic. It does for history what Lee was trying to reveal through her character. It illustrates in a safe environment what is happening in the larger context of our society.

Watchman applies pressure to the pulse of society in the same way Mockingbird has done for all these years. Both of these books are about racism, but they are also, individually and collectively, about differing and changing perspectives. They are powerful allegories that teach us much about our own bigotry and the failures of our society.

To be sure, in the 1960s, during the adolescence of our country’s civil rights, we needed the version of Atticus Finch that we all grew to love. But one does not stay adolescent forever. At some point, as a country, we were going to need the imperfect version of Atticus that was first created, whether Harper Lee knew it or not.

All of this is to say that I completely disagree with Adam Gopnik’s statement about Watchman in his New Yorker review. He states:

When the action moves to these abstract arguments about civil rights, the book falls apart as art—partly because today it is impossible to find the anti-civil-rights arguments anything but creepy, but more because any novel that depends for its action on prosy debates about contemporary politics will fail.

Is Gopnik completely disconnected from the reality of our society? Does he know nothing about Ferguson, Sandra Bland, Samuel Dubose, or the dangerous shift in our country to blind acceptance of what we cutely call “micro-racism”? Perhaps his snobbishness forces him to misspeak.

In our political age, with the division and debate between liberal and conservative so polarized, so flooded with inflammatory language and action, it’s hard not to see relevance in this newly released work of fiction (prosy debates and all).

Not to mention, Go Set a Watchman functions beyond issues of race. The discussions and arguments Jean Louise and Atticus have about Supreme Court decisions and states rights are the same philosophical and ideological discussions and divisions happening today. What can we learn from the allegory of Go Set a Watchman that can’t be applied to the recent Supreme Court Decision about same sex marriage or other recent events of political unrest? And while I’d like to hope that my dear Jean Louise, as real or as fiction as she might be, would not be against something that fifty years from now is the social norm, we only have to look at ourselves closely to see that the continuum between conservative and liberal might not be as linear as we think. We ourselves might just be more akin to Atticus than we think, or at least akin to Scout when Atticus accusingly tells her, “Sweet, you’re such a states’ rightist you make me a Roosevelt Liberal by comparison.”