Fore-Side Chats: February’s Reading Catch-Up
Here we go with this next installment, catching you up with what I read in February in anticipation of my normal monthly wrap-ups starting June 2. If you didn’t tune in last week, one way I’ll be using this space on Real Pants it to chat to you (or with you, if you comment below!) about what I’ve read in the past month. I read fairly diversely and it would be kind of sad to just cross January-April off as lost months. Hope you find something good in here.
1. It Had Been Planned and There Were Guides – Jessica Lee Richardson (FC2 2015)
I already reviewed this one for Entropy, you can read the full review here. In full honesty, this one was pretty hit or miss for me. The first story left a bad taste in my mouth and to be honest I’m still not sure how I feel about the first section as a whole in its treatment of race and class. These are ‘gritty’ stories, and while the emotion felt genuine, other elements felt very stereotyped and over the top. I think I’ll have to reread them a few times times before I put my foot down firmly for or against them. I haven’t figured out whether I believe Richardson is ‘in on it’ in these stories—and yes, to me, for this collection, it does matter whether or not she is. Looking back, the middle two sections/stories “no, go” have actually turned out to be the most memorable because of their gimmick (which by the way isn’t a bad word, in my book.)
2. Balloon Pop Outlaw Black – Patricia Lockwood (Octopus Books 2012)
I started this book last year as a toilet read and never finished it. That’s right—I read it while pooping, which is a thing I love to do with poetry and chapbooks. But not at all the right thing to do with Lockwood’s first collection, because these poems are dense. Like, you’ll be on the toilet for half an hour trying to decipher what ‘popeye’ really means kind of dense. Read properly (this time), while not sitting on a toilet, it turns out it’s quite a bit easier to let the language in these poems wash over you and forego all sense of meaning as their scaffolding builds up around you. I tried in turns to resist a passive read and to just succumb to it. Not sure if I have much to say about this one, other than that Lockwood’s a tricky, tricky writer and I look forward to reading this again. (But not this year as I’ve already posted it on to a friend back in New Zealand.) Though I don’t recall where I was or what else I was doing while I read it this time, which does feel like maybe there’s a bit of sorcery going on here.
3. The Three Incestuous Sisters – Audrey Niffenegger (Abrams 2005)
I got the brilliant idea to read this one from Jen Campbell over on BookTube. If you’re feeling shy or squeamish about BookTube or just don’t know what the hell it is, start with Jen. She’ll guide you like a bloody (British) beacon. (And if you think you’re too wild to get into BookTube, like I did at first, Jen reads Jamie Mortara, Ben Brooks, and Sara June Woods and is deep into a lot of small presses. She’s introduced me to some British presses like Unsung Stories and the beautiful Persephone Books, which you’ll see cropping up here in the future.)
While I wasn’t as crazy about Niffenegger’s novels The Time Traveler’s Wife or Her Fearful Symmetry as Jen was, I had to get my eyes and hands on this graphic novel (or ‘visual book’ as Niffenegger describes it) after catching a bit of its interior on display in a few of Jen’s videos. Niffenegger is a fantastic artist and I would love to be able to display her artwork on my walls. The story inside this book is so beautiful and terrible and weird and fantastic and—instant classic for me, instant favorite. I will be reading this and rereading this.
Go to her site to hear more about Audrey Niffenegger’s work in her own words. I’ve picked up a copy of The Adventuress now, which I look at from time to time just to stroke its green velvet spine, but I’m currently resisting reading because I’m afraid I won’t find her even rarer book works and that Raven Girl just won’t affect me in the same way. Also, not to brag but I picked this one up secondhand from an artist for $12 online and even though it’s not too hard to find but it’s only been printed in the one edition and my copy’s been signed! I mean, what are the odds.
4. The Dressmaker – Rosalie Ham (Duffy & Snellgrove 2000)
Did you see this movie last year? Jackson and I went to see the adapted film version of The Dressmaker for a date night back in Wellington last year and we were thoroughly confused. This is a really, really strange film in which Kate Winslet and Liam Hemsworth are cast as similarly-aged lovers. I remember wondering in turns if I was watching a ‘romance movie’ (whatever that is), or a comedy, or a satire, or a drama, or something involving witchcraft, before watching everything unravel itself and realizing there was no pinning this one down. Wikipedia describes it as a “revenge comedy-drama”, which feels like an oversimplification that I also can’t argue with, for what it’s worth.
Ham’s book is similar, if not quite as over-the-top. It’s a lot slower at the front end than the film, and it takes a while to pick up speed but like the film once it goes it really careens. I found it hard to picture the layout of the town from Ham’s description, despite having seen the film. I think they differ quite a bit, and the layout was so strong in the film it was hard to get it out of my head although Ham puts a great amount of detail into laying out the shops and homes and train route. It just didn’t all add up, for me.
I brought this one back to the States from Jackson’s wonderful mum’s personal library and have since posted it back to her, along with Maud Casey’s Genealogy (from the January catch-up) and Banana Yoshimoto’s Goodbye Tsugumi (which I read in December and loved). I’m happy to have read an Australian Gothic and a debut novel from a female Australian writer, as I’m very under-versed in both. But for me, the strangeness of that film, 15 years in the making, surpasses the novel, which is a really unusual admission from me.
5. Baby-Doll Under Ice – Katie Jean Shinkle (Hyacinth Girl Press 2014)
I fell into a reading slump near the end of February. For my birthday, Jackson had ordered some chapbooks from Hyacinth Girl Press and they felt like the perfect thing to dive into—smaller bites of the kind of thing I love. I read all three back to back. Hyacinth Girl is a micro-press run out of Pittsburg by feminists, and I think that’s pretty cool. Katie Jean Shinkle’s poems in Baby-Doll Under Ice fall into two groups: the Charlotte poems and the rest, which are mostly ‘baby-doll’ poems. I loved the Charlotte poems right away, starting with the opener: “Charlotte decided long ago her organs were to be brandished as weapons./ Charlotte decided on citrus, her heart a lemon, her liver grapefruit.” Maybe it was the slump I was still clawing my way out of, but I never quite got used to the jumps between the baby-doll poems and Charlotte. In some ways these two groups are in conversation with one another, and both have their merits. But especially since the Charlotte ones were untitled I felt like I was forever being ripped away from them & distracted by the baby-doll poems. I found myself wishing the Charlotte poems had a chapbook house of their own to live in—I still want that, I think.
6. The Exhibit – Lauren Eggert-Crowe (Hyacinth Girl Press 2013)
I had pretty high expectations for this one based on some hype I had seen online, and unfortunately for me this one fell flat. This might well have been the slump talking but I just can’t remember feeling it at the time. I know for a while at least The Exhibit was Jen Campbell’s favorite read of 2015. I can’t really fault it – it has the strong premise of ‘the exhibit’, a framework to which each poem adheres – but I just can’t recall any of the poems individually, nor does going back to it now jog my memory of having read them. I do remember that I was lying outside on some grass in the sun while I read it and that I had been feeling pretty sad before I started doing those things, and my day was certainly improved by the simultaneous act of reading and sitting. No reason why I won’t re-read this one in the future and see if it does something for me then, and no reason to discourage people from picking it up. Also, of the three HGP titles this cover is by far the most badass.
7. The Kind of Beauty That Has Nowhere to Go – Elisa Gabbert and Kathleen Rooney (Hyacinth Girl Press 2013)
This chapbook was definitely the most miss-able of the three I read. This one also has a strong ‘project’ behind it (Hyacinth Girl, I’m sensing a theme here) in which each poem’s title is “Some Notes on XXXX”. The tone/voice was supposed to be comical I think but it was just way off, with lines like: “Don’t even try to tell me that swans mate for life. Do swans seem normal to you?” Shame, since Elisa Gabbert has written some pretty cool things since then and I definitely wouldn’t discourage anyone from reading The Self Unstable (Black Ocean 2013) or The French Exit (Birds LLC 2010), plus her advice column for Electric Literature is great.
I’d give this one a pass if you’re looking to pick up a few HGP titles, because there are just too many others that sound more appealing to me. If I were doing the choosing for you, I’d say to go for War/Lock by Lisa Marie Basile and maybe Amorak Huey’s The Insomniac Circus, I’ve had my eye on both of them. But really, if I were doing the choosing—and let’s admit it, I am—I would wait until the Year Six titles come out and get Dalton Day’s To Breathe I’m Too Thin and Megan Lent’s i will dance when i am dead.
8. Pool – JiHyeon Lee (Chronicle Books 2015)
I ‘read’ this one with Jackson one night and it’s such a sweet treat. A picture book that was way more up my alley than the one I read in January, Pool is wordless and breathtaking. Go ahead and gag on that saccharine little blurb, it’s true. The drawings are fantastic, the story is beautiful, and its lack of text in no way makes it more for kids or less reviewable. There is a clear narrative to be found in these pages, as they’re presented. But what the viewer chooses to focus on and how the reader interprets facial expressions, characters’ emotions, and the mysteries that unfold at the bottom of the pool is entirely individual and open for interpretation. Wordless picture books are great for anyone learning a new language and for those with learning differences like dyslexia, but unfortunately this also makes it easy to market some pretty shoddy books to marginalized communities. Examples like Pool break that mold in half with a massive sledgehammer.
Made it this far? Want more? Check out my other reviews for Real Pants and elsewhere. Leave a comment below specifying which, and I’ll write up a more focused review of any of the books I read in February. And stay tuned for the next installment, my March & April mash-up, coming out on May 26.