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90s Kids are so Disgruntled, I Hear

by Kati Heng

9780374140342           Asali Solomon’s DISGRUNTLED

Asali Solomon’s latest novel, Disgruntled, is a fascinating, fast-reading story of an outcast coming into her own. From an early age, the story’s star Kenya Curtis knows she’s different than the other little black girls in her class. It’s not just her name, the nationalism and African-roots connotations attached, not just the fact she celebrates Kwanza and can’t sit on Santa’s lap, or even the fact her father, who tells her to call him “Baba,” tells her to hold her hand inches away from her chest and just mouth the words as the other kids in her class recite the pledge of allegiance.

So much of what sets 8-year-old Kenya apart, it seems, stems from gatherings her parents host and attend with their friends, strong, black radical meetings focused on everything from celebrating the gifts of “the Creator” and organizing protests about events happening in South Africa.

Things change, though, as Kenya’s mother breaks off into more female-focused activism, attending readings of Audre Lorde and bringing the ideas home, while at the same time, her father begins to form his own ideals, bringing home another member of their activist group who has become pregnant with his child, thinking the four of them will become a natural family. Unsurprisingly, this is the last straw, and her parent’s fragile marriage ends that night.

From there, Kenya’s life is torn between her parent’s separate lives, rapidly growing in opposite directions. Her mother craves a normal life, totally different from everything they practiced before, moving Kenya to the suburbs of Philadelphia, into a wealthy, whiter school. Kenya’s father, gone to jail after an accident (more on this later), sends her parables of his life, making her question whether or not the comfortable life she and her mother have been leading is making her turn her back on her true self.

Kenya grows coming into her own amid all the different influences of her diverse set of late 80s/early 90s characters, classmates and friends, including Commodore, a young man whom Kenya has known since childhood, remembering him from the radical meetings in their parent’s living rooms, a man both frustrated and entranced by white girls, and Oliver, a wannabe punk musician, who, while black, wears a swastika on his leather jacket and plays in a band he calls Niggerpunk, arguing his nihilistic ways of life with anyone who dares to question him.

The story excels as the characters grow – I was all in for descriptions of Kenya’s friends, especially the rebellious Oliver, and her middle-school friend, Devi, who yearns desperately to share her pain with someone. It catches, though, on this incident that happens on the night Kenya’s parents break up. Spoiler, a little (it’s in like the first 100 pages, so sue me): Kenya goes to bed that night, the next thing we read, she and her parents are driving frantically to the hospital, her mother bleeding from her eyes. I thought I missed something, went back, and realized I hadn’t, the story had just jumped. A little bit later, we’re told Kenya was sleepwalking (?, since we’ve seen no sign of this before), and grabbed her dad’s gun and shot her mother in the eye (?, because this is just strange). It’s one of the major points of motion in the book, yet it’s glossed over and not really explained in a very off-putting way. Later, I guess, it’s explained better, but for about 200 pages, there’s just a hazy knowledge that Kenya did this and no real reason / resolution why.

Ultimately though? I can get over the unexplained shooting, and I did, simply because I was so intrigued by these characters, even the blank slate Kenya can sometimes be. Read it, meet these people, and let the ideas linger.

Entering Ducornet’s Deep Zoo

by Kati Heng

Rikki Ducornet’s THE DEEP ZOO: ESSAYS

9781566893763    I’d love to see the world through Rikki Ducornet’s eyes, if only for a day. If only for an hour. If it’s anything like her newest collection of essays, The Deep Zoo, it’s an entirely magical, kaleidoscopic view.

Even though the essays where written over journals, magazines and years, there’s a constant thread running through them all, the idea of that “deep zoo,” something Ducornet’s sees as the very essential pieces of an artist’s creative output; the themes they get stuck on and contemplate for life. The colors and emotions that stay present when you take away all the outer shapes and images of an artist’s work. The yearning present in a story’s conflict when you erase the circumstances. The mood and tones underlying every song on an artist’s LP.

In Ducornet’s eyes, everyone’s Deep Zoo is different. Based on this book, one can assume her own zoo holds the following: Animals, struggling through the world, dying naturally and beautifully. Ancient gods sharing their gifts, chief among them, Eros, god of love. Fairy tales, passed down through generations not because of their appealing lore, but their unapologetic truths.

Ducornet’s essays move all over the place, always trying to find the Deep Zoos of her subjects. And these folks themselves are fascinating. There are artists Margie McDonald, an experimental sculpture who creates a sea filled with creatures out of wires, aluminum, whatever she gets her hands on, and Linda Okazaki, whose paintings come alive with symbolism of animals as lovers (it should be little surprise that Ducornet herself is a painter, her understanding of art leaping across genres and materials).

There are discussions of literature. Ducornet calls on everyone from Kathryn Davis to Kant to measure the images she sees written on the pages of people such as Omensetter’s Luck, a novel published in the 1960s and lauded as a classic, or Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom. Obviously, the literature she finds fit to discuss in this collection finds no bounds.

There are looks into film – even the screen not too small or immature a platform for Ducornet’s concerning eye. Lost highway is scrutinized in comparison to Lynch’s other works and in comparison to myths of the Evil Eye.

But best of all are Ducornet’s look into mythology, the legends of Eros and of fairytales, and tied to this, her looks into her own work. Here we see her at her most vulnerable, trying to piece out the themes of her own work that she believes may yet endure, the aspects of her words and her earth she wishes the audience not soon forget.

A piece from one of the essays, “The Practice of Obscurity,” shows exactly the way Ducornet’s mind melts things together: “For if Eve broke the rules, her other intention was to keep a garden. And if the apple is one she bakes into a pie, it is also the one that poisons Snow White and renders her comatose.”

Prepare to be smitten with allusion upon allusion upon illusion.

MAKING NICE by Matt Sumell: Best of 2015, Easy

by Weston Cutter

            I know I had a review copy of Matt Sumell’s Making Nice kicking around in the basement for awhile with me, and I’d try it occasionally, and for whatever reason it didn’t quite hang, and then finally one afternoon I dipped in+the thing transformatively took off in ways I’m embarrassed I somehow missed all those weeks and weeks I’d been trying but not catching it. The give on this is fairly direct: it’s a ‘linked’ or whatever collection of stories, all of which center around Alby, an early-30s guy whose voice is fervently alive, yes, but who’s also lost his mother to cancer and who has a father with whom he has a relationship that’s somehow not very warm and somewhat combative but also so deeply full of love it makes you fucking weep, plus there’s Alby’s sister Jackie, the sort of subject of the first story, “Punching Jackie,” which story’s about the rightness of Alby’s punch of his own sister, and like most of the stuff in Making Nice, you can’t read “Punching Jackie” without thinking 1) Alby’s sort of a dick, 2) he’s also almost entirely bullshitfree, meaning his calls and choices are almost never *wrong*, just sort of brutal and exposing, and 3) you can’t help but feel for Alby: he’s a mess but he’s so authentic in aiming for his own basically legit notion or idea of good that you can see, again and again, how he’s gonna get shafted by things, but then, each time he does, you still wince and feel for him.

I don’t know how to pitch this book more highly, honestly. I fell into it through the story “I’m Your Man,” but it could’ve been any of them, plus there’s also this: you remember that feeling that comes from a book of fiction that’s actually got an emotional risk in play? Like: it’s not just language, and it’s not just ideas—you can feel a level of blood+guts? That’s Making Nice: I teared up at the end, for how desperately Sumell’s trying to get Alby where he needs to go, and for how rawly clear Sumell—in prose that’s hilarious and both tender and tough perfectly equally—paints everything. It’s a ferocious, glorious book, and the only downside is that the thing ends, and, from my vantage point, there’s not a single other writer doing stuff this alive and wild, meaning: we’re just gonna have to read the hell out of this till Mr. Sumell writes another thing.

Sumell was kind enough to answer some questions over email, the results of which are as follows.

In the broadest ways: what are your and/or the book’s ‘influences’? (At one point in the book you mention Alby being a lifelong baseball fan, and as much as this question’s obviously *about* books or whatever, if there are other things that influenced it—baseball on the radio, I suppose, or the feeling of being on boats, or whatever, I’d be excited to hear them.)

Oh man, there’s just too much to cover here, be it the bands I grew up listening to—like The Afghan Whigs, Faith No More, The Jesus Lizard, Ween—or my 30 years as a Stern fan. I take my comedy very seriously, go to shows at the Largo and Meltdown pretty regularly. Love Todd Barry, Natasha Leggero, Bill Burr, David Cross. There’s movies, or more specifically movies with a healthy amount of pointless aggression, like MacGruber, for example, like Hamlet 2. But maybe what I should speak to is the complexity of influence itself, how–when answering this question–most people tend to list off a string of favorites, like I just did, people and things they admire and hope they were influenced by. I’m not actually convinced it works like that, as I’d bet I’ve been influenced by a lot of things that are not only not my favorites, but in fact the opposite of my favorites. Check William Gass on this who, when asked why he wrote, responded: “Because I hate. A lot. Hard.”

It’s almost too obvious to put in print, but what I hate most of all is losing people. Parents. Girlfriends. Friends. Pets. I’m just the worst at it, and as a writer who tries–as Geoffrey Wolff put it–“to use the good luck of bad luck, to use what hurts,” well, that’s been a major theme for me. Loss. It’s something I circle around, as both a person in the world and as a writer. It’s certainly one of the things I have in common with Alby. We suck at grieving. And speaking of grief, I am, indeed, a Met fan. There’s a certain pain in that, too, although that’s more comedy than anything else at this point.

And you very smartly zeroed in on boats. I grew up on them, and there’s a certain lure there for me, a mysticism around which there’s a very specific culture that I can speak from. And believe me, this list could go on for pages about any one of these things…

Sorry if this is too stupid, but: how autobiographical is the book? Lots is made clear in the acknowledgements—your mom passing, a brother named AJ—but I’m just curious. Equally I’m curious about how anxious you are for how folks’ll read the book—as a young man’s working-through of sorrow, or as an actual, fictive thing. I don’t at all mean to be a dick, but in the rawest sense: how much are you Alby? Are you nervous or anxious or anything about how much the book feels like it’s exposing? (in fairness: maybe it’s exposing nada, and you’ve just made a phenomenally believable work of fiction, in which case: holy hell that’s some good tricking). I hope none of this comes across as anything other than the respectful/amazed qs of a guy who sort of can’t imagine opening up the way it sure seems as if you have.

Totally fine, man. It’s the question folks seem most interested in, and I get why they’re interested—I’m grateful for any interest. I’m just not sure how to answer it—53% in this story? 22% in that one? How one would even begin to calculate something like that I have no idea and besides, the book is a creation regardless of what I’ve taken from “real life.” I’ve selected things to include, meaning I’ve also selected things to not include—it’s not the whole truth but a distortion of it, a misrepresentation to suit the needs of the story. A misrepresentation of truth is a fiction. Plus, a lot of this thing is complete invention… just made shit up, also to suit the needs of the story.

That said, I won’t deny that parts of it are deeply personal—that it was “emotionally expensive” for me to write. And while I certainly share some things with Alby—like being a shitty griever, for example, or being a Met fan—I’ve also allowed him to make worse choices than I would or could, simply on the idea that bad choices make for good stories.

If that’s not a satisfying answer, consider Hemingway’s take on it: “The good parts of a book may be only something a writer is lucky enough to overhear or it may be the wreck of his whole damn life and one is as good as the other.” So sure, some of this book is from—as in inspired by—the wrecks of my life, and some of it inspired by things I’ve overheard or invented. I’m just not all that interested in separating out for people which is which. I prefer to be judged on the work.

As someone who fled Minnesota for Virginia (tech) for grad school: why’d or how’d you end in California from NY? I don’t even know if that’s fair to ask. Maybe not.

Long story, of course, but the abbreviated version is that I graduated with degrees in English and Environmental Science from UNC Wilmington, which qualified me for exactly nothing except a thirty-nine-and-a-half hour work week in the garden department of a Home Depot in Patchogue, Long Island. Like most jobs I’ve had, it was fucking horrible. I mean, they had mandatory pep rally’s every Sunday morning where people chanted about having orange blood. I’m not even kidding, they did that. I lasted three months, if that, before I totally lost it, hung my apron on a rake and walked out.

Next thing I knew I was at a Navy Recruiters in Sayville, got pretty far into the process of joining up—took the ASVAB, got the physical—but when I wasn’t committing fast enough they started applying the pressure. At some point someone got in my face and said I was an embarrassment to my recruiter, then he got on the phone and started yelling at me. I told him to fuck off and walked off the base. That was that.

Next was teaching English in Japan but that didn’t pan out, ended up on the road with a mobile marketing job—me and my best friend since kindergarten—setting up racing simulators in bars twice a week, all over the country. Three years later we washed up in San Diego. Been in Cali ever since.

Does this book and your writing overall have any, that you can feel, like, kinship with other writing being done at present? The book reads to me as totally 100% its own; if someone were to come to me and say she loved the book and wanted something else similar, I wouldn’t know where to point. This feels so totally of-itself it’s hard for me to even imagine anything like an artistic/literary lineage its taking part in (maybe Hannah). Do you feel it grounded in something? This might be too close to the influences question, and, of course, my apologies if so, but it’s exciting, too, that this thing’s got so little in common with what I at least see as other contemporary lit.

That’s a tough one. The comparisons have certainly been made—names like Hannah and Diaz, Denis Johnson’s Jesus’ Son—but I’m not comfortable making those comparisons, at all. I mean, while I’m tremendously flattered to even be mentioned along with writers of that caliber, have I really earned those comparisons? I’m not sure I have. Those guys are heroes of mine.

Besides, that’s for other people to decide.

Among the Great Glories of the book is of course Alby’s voice—assured and searching and elsewhering at all times: the number of times a paragraph’s start feels like it’s got almost nada to do with the para previous is astonishing (that’s me trying to say: congrats for the courage or whatever it was that allowed you to trust making such turns). I remember way far back JSFoer talking in some interview about the voice in Everything is Illuminated, how it took time to nail it down but how sure he was of it eventually. Did finding Alby’s voice take time? Was there any process to it, or did it just hit?

I think I had the voice fairly early on. And I had decent aim, too. But what I didn’t have are targets worth taking aim at—if that makes sense—and it took me a while to figure out that good writing is not standup. It’s much more than that. A lot of my early work just couldn’t be taken seriously, but luckily I had some great teachers over there at UC Irvine to put me on the right path. Geoffrey Wolff, Michelle Latiolais, and Mark Richard (who if you haven’t read, check out his collections Charity and the Ice at the Bottom of the World). At one point I straight up asked Mark what advice he had for me, and he said something like: “It’s easy Matt, just make them laugh and break their fuckin’ hearts. Do those two things and you’re doing pretty good.” I aim for that, mostly.

What’s the view out your window? 

I live on the corner of Sunset and Gardner, above a horn shop, half a block from a fire department. It’s loud. All night long it’s loud. Out one window is the brick of the building directly across the alley. Out another, across the street, is a grey where they used to host poker games on the second floor. For a while I was lock-picking my way onto my roof here to drink beers and watch the cast of characters play cards. It was fun, but didn’t last. Not sure what it is now. But my favorite window to stare out is the circular one in the upper, left corner of the apartment. It’s like the porthole of a ship, but larger. Out that window is nothing but blue.

Weisbard+van den Berg+Oswalt: Yes/Yes/Yes.

by Weston Cutter

Top 40 Democracy by Eric Weisbard

This is the book for all of us who are still hung up on the greatness of Something In The Air, Marc Fisher’s genius take on radio, and waiting for something as good to read on the subject. Weisbard’s doing something a good bit different from Fisher, though you’d be foolish to try to rank them: the question he’s crunching on might be something close to why do we sound like what we do, in terms of radio? Better, too: he doesn’t just do some broad-overview thing (though he certainly could: dudes chops are intensest fun to read, and best of luck setting the thing down once cracked in), instead examining the development of this radio format (which is so ubiquitous as to perhaps be invisible or feel like Just What Is, which is another reason the book’s magic) through a selection of artists—the Isley Brothers, Elton John, Dolly Parton—that Weisbard manages not just to make fascinating in their own right, as performers and musicians, but they work together to make his strange, awesome case for him. Sorry. That was a clunker of a sentence in which all I was trying to say is: Top 40 Democracy is not only smart and interesting and fun but insightful, and done in such a way that makes how much you learn from it feel as surprising as discovering Doritos-flavored broccoli.

Find Me by Laura van den Berg

I have and will contiue to read everything van den Berg writes, and I’ve yet to be let down by her, a sentiment it sure as hell seems I share with the overwhelming majority of folks I know who’ve read her work. Meaning: you should read this. It’s post-apocalyptic, it’s her first novel (after two insanely great collections of stories), and the writing’s the same gorgeous thing van den Berg’s been doing in her other stuff: it both draws you in but feels, to me anyway, almost hard. Sharp. There’s strong sentiment, certainly, but not once will you wonder if the work at hand prioritizes that sentiment: there’s a loneliness in all van den Berg’s stuff, a haunting (ghost is everywhere in this) that makes even the strongest emotional stuff come off as slightly terse. That sounds like criticism, but it’s not: the book’s profoundly emotional by the end—you feel a lot, as reader, even if the characters are perhaps a click or two cooler on the emotional thermostat. That said: yr a fool to miss them, this, all of it.


Silver Screen Fiend by Patton Oswalt

I thought Oswalt’s Zombie Spaceship Wasteland was just incredibly good: I like Oswalt as an actor and comedian, and his writing’s so good and alive it’s a little frustrating that it’s his at this point *third* career aspect. I was less sure about Silver Screen Fiend, at the start: who really wants to read about some dude watching movies? But of course while the book’s a lot of that, it’s much much bigger. Here’s what I mean: Kati Heng wrote this thing on David Bowie, and one of the things I like so much about it is how it comes close to addressing the weird way we’re held in thrall to the art that opens us so up. We all have stories like this. I wrote letters to authors a decade+ back essentially asking how do you do it, and I spent tons of time just with their books open, around me, like they were incense or something, letting their essences into the air near me.

And so now there’s Oswalt’s Silver Screen Fiend which is, I think, among the real beauties as far as books-of-worship go. Dude loves movies, which is great, but it’s not just *that* he loves movies, it’s *why*: he wants something from them, wants to be saved by them, wants to transcend because of them. Maybe that’s overheated, but it doesn’t read that far off. And it’s his own earnestness about his affections that betray the bigger, radder, awesome thing he’s actually doing: he waxes for a good bit on the moment Clint Howard pauses in his delivery of a line in Apollo 13 at the start of a chapter about Down Periscope and Oswalt’s single line in it, and you see—again—how carefully the guy watches. He’s not just being entertained: if there’s gonna be a drum beat for the revelatory power of movies, the guy hitting the drum better be a guy able to convincingly find glory almost everywhere. And the guy does: the chapter in which Oswalt and Louis CK are in Amsterdam is as fucking moving as anything I’ve read. If you have ever been, or are, the sort of person who desperately wants to to do some practice but who feels like you’ve got to like earn or get there or whatever, this is the book for you. Just look, look how Oswalt writes this one thing: “I was traveling with Louis CK—a stand-up on his way to becoming a filmmaker by simply shooting a film. I’d probably watched three times the amount of films that guy had seen, so far, in his life. But I hadn’t shot one frame of celluloid.” You finish the book almost cheering, because the life Oswalt was hoping to get to sure seems like the one he’s not leading, and how you couldn’t be happy for him for that, after reading this, is beyond me.

Tales of the Father(land)

by Kati Heng

18803652   FATHERLAND: A FAMILY HISTORY by Nina Bunjevac

It’s been a minute, really in no thanks to Binary Star (see my last post). I freaking couldn’t read books after that – I think I started four and couldn’t finish them just because my expectations of literature were improbably high. Finally though, Nina Bunjevac’s Fatherland: A Family History was the thing to do the trick.

A graphic novel about her family history, especially the history of her father, we first met Peter Bunjevac, her dad, as he stalks down her and her mother, showing up at the doorstep of the apartment her mother had rented to hide from the man. He’s met as an intimidating figure, a looming and dangerous presence, an alcoholic, an abuser and, although it’s not quite clear in the beginning a rebel against the communist life the rest of her family is not seemingly suffering because of.

We met Nina when she’s very young; it’s when she reflects later in life, when she digs into her family history that we see another side of her father. We see the side of him, the Serbian boy displaced in the 1950s to Canada, that lost those he loved early. The side that was orphaned and troubled by the wars and uprisings surrounding his homeland. The side that fell in love with Nina’s mother simply from a photograph. We also see the scary side, the part of Peter that embraced a terrorist organization aimed at destroying the Yugoslav government and its supporters, especially those near him in Canada and the US.

We see the parallel life Nina led, one of relative ease in comparison to her father’s. Born in Canada, Nina’s mother stole her and her sister away under the guise of taking a visit to her parents, leaving their brother Petey at home with their father, staying in Yugoslavia permanently. Living with her mother’s parents, sympathizers for the Communist government, under whom they had never fared better, Nina grew up hearing the noise that her father was a terrorist, a no-good, a traitor while she and her sister thrived in a far more ordinary life than what one would except for a Cold War kid.

It’s a great dichotomy, the parts of this story. Nina’s own tale is simply told, an almost normal childhood, simple growing up with a mother and grandparents who love her, birthday presents, photos taken each season of her and her sister lined up next to each other; while her father’s is a history. We learn of the Serbian nationalist movement through the eyes of it’s displaced citizens, we learn not just Nina’s grandparent’s positive side of communism, but the side of which her father saw, bloody, war-torn, filled with death.

It’s amazing to wonder how Nina reconciles the pieces of her family. Much like this graphic novel, I imagine she must focus on two distinct parts; one that comes naturally and one grown on her through appreciation of her father’s hardships.


(a page from FATHERLAND)


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