Nicolette Polek’s ‘Imaginary Museums’ Is a Surreal Exploration of Timeless Themes

imaginary-museumsThis review appears on paperbackparis.com:

Nicolette Polek’s debut collection of short stories, Imaginary Museums, contains a surreal world in miniature. These stories – more accurately categorized as flash fiction – are parable-like sketches, elegantly rendered, ranging from uncanny to mythical. Moving back and forth between the Midwest and Eastern Europe, Polek exhibits a preternatural control over the tone of her narrative snippets. Each tale, from the runaway bride in “Arranged Marriage” to the mathematician seeking reinvention in “A House For Living,” successfully distills the nature of isolation. Polek’s characters, disconnected in various ways from the realities that face them, move in a dream world that mirrors our own in almost every way. The few unsettling differences that rear their heads are enough to make the reader feel out of step.

Yet, Polek’s stories are not without a sense of profound grace – a need to amend disconnection (between lovers, to one’s homeland, with God) in order to heal the rifts that form. She uses her masterful command of compression to encompass a range of scenarios, from interpersonal relationships (“Garden Party” and “The Dance”) and the prospect of death (“The Nearby Place”), to larger themes such as immigration (“Invitation,” “Your Shining Trapdoor”) and the anxiety that comes with experiencing grief and uncertainty (“Doorstop,” “The Rope Barrier”). In these glimpses, Polek manages to move fluidly from scene to scene without veering outside the collection’s atmospheric tone.

This sense of consistency lies in the smallest details aligning with the collection’s overarching thematic elements, from the stories’ placement in each of its four sections to the pointed strangeness of her sentences. In the title piece, “Imaginary Museums,” the protagonist’s sister is described as someone who “picked vegetables, read the Bible, and always had bad phone reception.” Such incongruous descriptions crop up around Polek’s characters in almost all of these fictions. But, as is the case with most stories that border on the surreal, kernels of truth are embedded in the characters’ strange traits and observations. In “The Rope Barrier,” a woman finds that her habit of cordoning herself off from things and people with a literal rope barrier cannot save her from life’s difficulties. Polek writes:

The woman both despised the rope barrier and hissed at those who approached it. She felt singled out and angry at things that were bigger than her. It felt, now, as if she were forced to put herself on a side of things she encountered, and that she often chose the wrong side.

— excerpt from Nicolette Polek’s Imaginary Museums

The beauty of these stories rests in their simplicity and control, something that Polek has honed to a point in this particular craft of flash fiction. While there are individual stories that lack the structure to stand on their own outside the collection, the whole is well worth revisiting for its elegance and technical accomplishment.

Eliese Colette Goldbach’s Memoir ‘Rust’ Is a Poignant Debut

Rust_Book-CoverThis review appears on paperbackparis.com:

Eliese Colette Goldbach has lived every dreamer’s nightmare. In her book-length debut Rust: A Memoir of Steel and Grit, Goldbach details how the recession and her struggle with bipolar disorder effectively precludes her from securing meaningful employment post-university. Through the overarching framework of her working life at the mill, Goldbach’s memoir describes a downward trajectory of disappointment. The largely halcyon days of her childhood – distinguished by ambition, promise, and a naïve, unguarded piety – give way to years of self-doubt and loneliness in adolescence and young adulthood. Most strikingly, her account of working in a massive steel mill encapsulates the dark side of a certain fantasy peddled to millennials since their youngest days in elementary school: if you get a college degree, you are guaranteed work. Like many others in her position, Goldbach finds that the combination of a liberal arts degree, an economic recession, and a severe illness do not lead to the image of success imparted upon us by working-class parents.

When relating her early memories as a child growing up in a devout Roman Catholic family, Goldbach describes what I imagine is the near-universal desire among young girls in the Church to become nuns. The obsessive, fearful need for goodness, combined with the competitive nature of a younger sibling trying to out-do an older sibling in everything, imbues the author with what she comes to describe as a hunger for the extraordinary. As with most strict religious upbringings, and a future weighed down by expectation, Goldbach’s later years are marred by disillusionment followed by the need for course correction. She finds that the institutions she once believed represented justice, morality, and compassion are not so when difficulties arise in her life, namely her battle with bipolar disorder and a sexual assault during her college years.

The mill provides Goldbach with financial stability as a union laborer. And while her illness continues to cast a shadow over her personal life during these years, she finds herself part of a community among her fellow workers. By extension, she finds a new identity underneath the auspices of Cleveland’s famed grit – a place where the backbone of America’s infrastructure is born. Steelwork is known for its hazards, and Goldbach makes a point of comparing the steelmaking process with hellfire. The extremity of the work – along with the “snitches get stitches” attitude of her fellow workers – requires a new level of toughness, or else, a newbie will get chewed up and spit out by the mill. This rough-and-tumble education belies everything she thought she knew about the blue-collar industry in her hometown. Goldbach writes:

I heard about it from pundits and economics professors, and I’d come to believe that the Rust Belt was the collection of tidy metaphors that everyone else wanted it to be.

-excerpt from Rust

Goldbach’s personal experiences during this time of young adulthood provide a poignant, relatable reading experience for those who have been negatively affected by the post-recession economy, for those who have struggled with an incapacitating illness, or for those teetering with the religious values of one’s youth.

But, in the same vein as J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy and other post-election literature, the strongest components of Goldbach’s memoir rest on keen observations of life at the steel mill, specifically as a woman in a largely male environment; how the identity of laborers is consistently exploited by politicians; and the myriad ways households are divided by hyperbolic political rhetoric. In a characteristically Biblical description, she describes the “rift” between Americans as something that “had been borne from a particularly human failing.” Goldbach writes:

 We had forgotten how to see each other. We had let our guard down. We had closed our eyes. Now the weavers of shrouds and fantasies had come along recognizing our self-imposed darkness. They believed that we were too blind to know better, so they covered our eyes carefully, hoping that none of us—both steelworkers and lawyers alike—would ever see clearly again.

-excerpt from Rust

Unfortunately, Goldbach fails to delve into the nitty-gritty of the economic disillusionment and pure rage that changed the tide of our 2016 election, which would likely uncover a slightly more nuanced portrait of this oft exploited demographic. Human failing certainly plays a role, but decades of poor economic policy and plain old political opportunism likely play a larger one.

As a whole, Rust is a moving portrait of Goldbach’s formative years, with gems of societal observation strewn throughout the narrative. Its shortcomings, which stem from too many narrative threads vying for center stage throughout the book, are mitigated by the author’s clear talent for observational storytelling.

Rick Barot’s ‘Galleons’ Examines Love, Identity and Colonialism

the-galleons-rick-barot-reviewThis review appears on paperbackparis.com:

In his latest poetry collection, The Galleons, Rick Barot explores identity, love, aging, knowledge, and sight within the context of post-colonialism. With the consistent, steady pattern of couplets—a mark of Barot’s attempt to impose what he calls “muscular logic”—the reader experiences a rendering of the world that ranges in scale from the heavy-bellied Spanish galleons of empire to the indulged son making wooden models of galleons in his basement. Barot’s “grudging faith / in the particular” leads to a meticulous effort to name things—an imposition of order on the distinctly human cycle of paradox, violence, and grief that marks the passage of time. His ability to pinpoint specific moments or elements within larger phenomena, and vice versa, shows a poet committed to sight—to noticing and putting down on paper the ways in which our personal histories intertwine with nature and the universe at large.

In his poem titled “The Marrow,” Barot writes, “I saw things / mostly as they were, which meant a kind of health.” In this sense, it’s easy to consider the poems in The Galleons as an exercise in healing. Barot devotes a significant portion of the titled Galleons poems, of which there are ten, listing stolen items from Spain’s colonial rule in the Philippines. When “research is mourning,” and when what we’re capable of doing differs from that which we want to do, the ability to recognize what exists and what has passed becomes a crucial part of identifying the self. We see this in “The Galleons 6″—a poem in which Barot makes an inventory of ships used by the Spanish empire from 1564 to 1816, and again in  “The Galleons 8” where the personified ships yearn for that which is lost to them.

Similarly, in the collection’s quieter moments, we see the poet lose faith in the “romantic notion” of overarching narratives when attempting to understand what defines a life.  He observes, “The shard and not the whole / comprises a life, the image and not the narrative,” pointing to world-shattering moments in which the smallest details remain clear in the mind rather than knowing as it occurs that the moment itself will change everything. These shards—these small defining moments that Barot strings like pearls throughout the collection—speak to the sense of relief that comes with being able to remember and give names to that which animates our existence.

With this naming comes precision and a clear sense of narrative purpose. Barot’s efforts reveal a reckoning with the past, personal and historical. The awareness that comes with forging these observations into art allows for hope and beauty to enter spaces where they had not existed. He writes, “And the window within the eye, / which you don’t see until you see, is white as a winter sky, / though you know it is joy that is held there.” Barot gives us the gift of sight in The Galleons, and with it, the power to capture hope.

Alia Trabucco Zerán’s ‘The Remainder’ Explores Grief and Reckoning

The-Remainder-Alia-Trabucco-Zerán-ReviewThis review appears on paperbackparis.com:

In her introduction to Alia Trabucco Zerán’s groundbreaking new novel — recently shortlisted for the 2019 Man Booker International Prize — Lina Meruane frames the narrative as an exercise in “mortuary maths,” asking how we reconcile the number of people born with the number of those who die in a country stuck in the shadow of Pinochet’s dictatorship. Meruane suggests The Remainder, and other examples of post-memory literature, respond to a specific need: “the need for a kind of grief that manifests in the counting of dead bodies and the recounting of stories.” These stories, Meruane observes, question whether or not “borrowed or imposed memory [can] be separated from one’s own memories,” or if the cut will lead to another kind of death.

Told from the dual perspective of childhood friends struggling with the weight of this collective memory, Zerán explores the ways in which those coming of age in the wake of a dictatorship attempt to forge their own identities out of sustained trauma — a cycle that any number of careful calculations will almost certainly fail to undo. Yet they persist, as all characters of Latin American fiction are wont to do, searching for a cure to what ails the progeny of colonialism: the original sin.

In The Remainder, Felipe, Iquela and Paloma, the children of former militants, embark on a journey to recover Paloma’s mother’s body after it is diverted away from Santiago. Their attempt to repatriate her forces them to reckon with what they remember of the past–the brutality and grief threaded into every inch of recollection, whether experienced directly or as a product of the strange osmosis that permeates their shared stories.

We see this as the book’s narrators, Felipe and Iquela, build the story through alternating passages, effectively representing the duality of the questions Zerán attempts to answer. In Felipe’s countdown to zero–the end goal in which all of Chile’s dead have been accounted for–we see a manic, hunger-panged reaction to grief. Felipe’s is a form of suffering in which the whole and all its parts are seen at once. Nothing can be unseen, therefore, nothing can be forgotten. Everything flows from him in a wild rush of sensory overload. His passages, which go on for several pages, contain only one long stream-of-conscious like sentence. Iquela, on the other hand, is tethered firmly to reality, preoccupied with imposing her own memories (interspersed throughout the text in parenthetical asides) on the narrative of her life, and in doing so, forging a new language. In childhood, both narrators inflict and endure physical pain in an attempt to feel something that is their own–”a pain that was visible and mine,” as Iquela remembers it.

Paloma’s arrival forces the trio to examine the past and finally put it to rest, allowing them to arrive at zero. She leads them to the cure, the final reckoning, by allowing Felipe and Iquela to join her in recovering her mother’s body. It becomes an offering, which we see in Iquela’s final passage as she faces the prospect of returning to Chile:

…Only by ridding myself of it all would I be able to face going back, only by shaking off the “scars,” “grief,” “sorrows,” and repaying, syllable by syllable, that incalculable debt, a debt that would have rendered us mute…I’d walk toward my mother, gazing at her affectionately, carrying the weight of all the things she’d ever seen (carrying remains, debts, sorrows). And in an old voice–no less mine for being inherited–using frail and untranslatable syllables, final words which, once spoken, would leave me empty and alone in a desert full of new lines (to be spoken in a timeless language), I would say to her with a hint of sadness, ‘I’ve brought you Ingrid Aguirre, and here is Felipe Arrabal.’ And I would hold her (her skin so close to her bones and her bones so close to mine), and only then, from within the perfect parenthesis of our interwoven bodies, would I open my mouth to tell her: ‘Mother, I’ve done all this for you.’

excerpt from The Remainder by Alia Trabucco Zerán

The pain Felipe, Iquela and Paloma carry with them — that which was passed along to them and which they inflicted upon themselves — will pass. Holding onto it will not repay the “incalculable debt” of loss, from those who disappeared to those who were killed or forced to flee. There are too many deaths to square, but the return of one body–Ingrid’s repatriation–is the key to being at peace with their ghosts.

Zerán’s formidable command of two distinct styles throughout the novel (translated beautifully by Sophie Hughes), her ability to plumb the depths of generational trauma and her ability to engage with and deconstruct the concept of collective memory propels The Remainder to the status of masterpiece. She continues the longstanding tradition of Latin American writers attempting to make sense of political violence by rendering the darkest sins of a country, and the pain of its people, into a beacon of light.

Natalia Ginzburg’s Genius Shines in Her 1947 Classic ‘The Dry Heart’

the dry heartNatalia Ginzburg’s novella The Dry Heart famously springs forth from an unnamed narrator’s matter-of-fact statement, “I shot him between the eyes.” But even before we get her pronouncement, our narrator asks this man, her husband Alberto, to, “Tell me the truth,” and he responds, “What truth?” In this brief exchange—in the moment just before such an extreme act of violence—Ginzburg presents the core theme of her story: what truth can be found in this narrator’s life? Can it be found in her marriage? Her motherhood? Her role as a daughter or friend? The simple answer embedded within this shocking, tension-filled portrait of marriage is that truth does not exist for our narrator. It has been, by turns, misinterpreted, morphed, stolen or replaced—an alchemical transmutation, collapsing deceptive imagination and a husband’s fatal weakness of character into an eerily exacting portrait. Our narrator observes, “It’s very difficult…to know what we’re really like inside,” and we see, in Ginzburg’s incisive, direct prose, how an ill-defined life has pernicious and tragic consequences.

Our narrator, a woman in her late twenties, lives a dull life. She dutifully visits her family every weekend and returns to her boardinghouse to read novels in her spare time. When she begins seeing Alberto, an older man who cares for his elderly mother, a new, entirely imagined world opens for her. Ginzburg writes:

When a girl is very much alone and leads a tiresome and monotonous existence, with worn gloves and very little spending money, she may let her imagination run wild and find herself defenseless before all the errors and pitfalls which imagination has devised to deceive her.

-excerpt from The Dry Heart

She and Alberto have no real love for each other, but the anticipation of their meetings—the visions for the future she constructs from the possibilities associated with their pairing—lead to an imagined love, which happens to be as powerful and all-encompassing as the real thing. Of their dates, she says, “We went for long walks along the river or in the outskirts of the city, where lovers go, and yet we exchanged none of the words or gestures of love.” Such is the only excitement she can find, perhaps, within the strictures of Italian society in the 1940s.

Her thoughts are entirely preoccupied with Alberto. Her work as a schoolteacher no longer interests her, and she sits and waits for him to visit or call. Eventually, they marry because, it seems, they have nothing else to do with their attachment, and a child is born. The narrator is uncertain about her relationship with Alberto, the love she breathed into being disappeared with the birth of her child. Although she knows about  Alberto’s long, torturous affair with a woman called Giovanna, she carries on with the care of their child by herself while he leaves for extended periods of time.

She obsesses over the child, placing all of her care and affection into the rearing of her daughter’s sickly form. When her cousin Francesca comes to stay, the younger woman’s disregard for social convention reveals to the narrator a different sort of life, jaded as she is trying to understand her own motivations and those of the people around her.

In just under 90 pages, Ginzburg offers up a clean sliver of the human heart, revealing all its frustrations and limitations; its foolish desires keeping us pinioned within worlds we can’t remove ourselves from even if we wanted to. In the end, our narrator’s final act takes on a frightening logic. Why wouldn’t we attempt to break the cycle and free ourselves from these hellish turnings of the mind? Only a writer of Ginzburg’s caliber could turn this simple sketch of life into a trenchant examination of despair.

Jac Jemc’s ‘False Bingo’ Defies Convention

false bingoThis review appears on paperbackparis.com:

In her latest collection of short stories, Jac Jemc explores the tenuousness of morality, plotting the ways in which good and evil intermingle with fear, desire and violence. Each story—touched with a sense of foreboding or uncanniness—depicts some small imbalance in the realities of its characters. From a woman who takes refuge in a crumbling, allegedly ghost-ridden former plantation to an ex-con delving into the therapeutic effects of taxidermy, Jemc reveals herself to be an ambitious writer willing to take risks for the sake of cutting into the heart of something sinister.

Jemc presents readers with a mixed bag of odd stories, alternating between sketches like “Any Other” and “Loitering” with longer pieces such as “Manifest” and “Don’t Let’s.” In some instances, Jemc writes deceptively simple narratives that contain a hint of unease. Other stories eschew conventional plotting altogether for something more impressionistic. We see this in “Get Back,” where she begins with the following sentence: “Villard took my grace with an undone, half-paralyzed anger, and so I found him daily and burned his house down on what I deemed a repeated whim.” A succession of violent acts ensue, none of which come with context or explanation. Is this the psychological portrait of a torturer, or is it another exercise in questioning the boundaries of morality?

Jemc’s transition between these modes of narration can be jarring, like encountering mismatched set pieces in a pristine stage design. But these stories beg to be reread and reexamined, and, in so doing, the grand scheme of the author’s thematic vision becomes clearer. She leaves it to readers to piece together the jagged edged remains of her broken characters and their shame, but the doomishness of it doesn’t come entirely without levity, as in “The Principal’s Ashes.” Can you imagine a classroom of seven-year-olds reciting Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl”? You know, the poem with “waving genitals” and cigarette burned arms, etc. Such is the product of Jemc’s imagination.

Despite its incongruity on first inspection, Jemc manages to construct a masterful collection similar in tone to Maryse Meijer’s staggering 2016 debut, Heartbreaker. These stories, when experienced as a whole, will linger with readers as they attempt to complete the puzzle Jemc has left for us to solve.

Margaret Renkl Melds Personal History with the Natural World in ‘Late Migrations’

Margaret-Renkl-Late-Migrations-Book-Review

This review appears on paperbackparis.com:

Margaret Renkl‘s debut, Late Migrations: A  Natural History of Love and Loss, contains multitudes for such a slender volume. Structured as a series of vignettes through which Renkl juxtaposes her family history with observations of the natural world, this timely collection presents the universe in miniature—the violent, painful, heartbreaking realities of daily life that, when accepted for what they are, yield hope.

Renkl writes with the well-trained eye of a seasoned naturalist despite her not being one. Her thorough attention to detail—her ability to name things in the natural world for what they are—imbues each piece with an authoritative grist and a tapestry-like quality, aided by Renkl’s assured poetic flair. Her encyclopedic knowledge of the natural world, particularly her knowledge of birds and flora, stems from the adventurous days of an uninhibited childhood during which time was spent running barefoot in the red clay of southern Alabama. Such is her attachment that a twenty-something Renkl could not complete her graduate course in Philadelphia, where she came to understand the loss of nature was like the loss of home.

In the present, Renkl makes a small haven for wildlife out of her backyard in Tennessee, where she observes the “red in beak and claw” behavior of territorial passerine birds and the steady predation of rat snakes and raptors alike. “This life thrives on death,” she writes, and with that, the difficulty in knowing when to provide aid and when to leave things as they are. Through these observations, Renkl tells stories of her family, her universe—an endless source of deep love, support, and humor. Their struggles, presented in tandem with scenes from the natural world and the insight Renkl draws from them, weave together to form a narrative that discourages cynicism and despair. And while it might take the reader some time to gain purchase in the short, seemingly desultory passages at the book’s beginning, the overall effect is something deeply moving.

When I began Late Migrations, I feared what conclusions Renkl would present concerning the ever-growing existential threat to our natural world. After all—the longstanding hope of our species, all our talk of eternity—rests on the fact that life will continue beyond our oblivion until the sun reaches the end of its life cycle and the entire galaxy is destroyed. How do we manage the weight of this knowledge? And with it—how do we possibly maintain hope? Renkl touches on the effects of climate change lightly, going into some detail about the ways in which the migrations of certain birds are altered by changes in climate patterns and the forced encroachment of non-native species into areas where their presence threatens native wildlife. I was saddened by these accounts, but I was also unexpectedly comforted by Renkl’s optimism about the resiliency of these living things.  She does not place blame, or attempt to shame anyone, the implication being that, while the situation is dire, there is always the chance for life to regain its balance with death. Ultimately, the cycle continues as we expect it to. Every living thing adapts to tragedy.

On her imagining of what an early human would have thought upon encountering the “flare of light on moving water,” she writes:

The first instant must have felt the way waking into darkness feels–not knowing at first if your eyes are open or closed.

In that instant, the river is not a life-giving source of water and fish and passage. In that instant, it is not the roiling fury that can swallow whole any land-walking, air-breathing creature. It is only itself, unlike any other thing. It was here long before we were here, and it will be here after we are gone. It will erase all trace of us–without malice, without even recognition. And when we are gone to ground and all our structures have crumbled back to dust, the river will become again just the place where light and water and sky find each other among the trees.

The beauty of Renkl’s writing in Late Migrations is staggering—on a par with other naturalist writers such as Annie Dillard and Peter Matthiessen. The honey-tongued lilt of southern dialogue and the verse-like quality of her prose show a writer with full command of her craft, effectively transforming a slim, unassuming collection of essays into a magnificent microcosm of the multitudinous universe.