Fore-Side Chats: July Edition
This month, I’m writing to you from a watership! Jackson and I scored our own state room (read: 6×6 wooden box of heaven) on my family’s sailboat, and we’ve been cruising on the Chesapeake Bay since July 1. Ah, the (poverty-stricken, sometimes freeloading) life of a baby freelance writer/editor. Besides providing my dad with top-notch, not-at-all belligerent crewmanship, I’ve managed to polish off 12 sizeable books this month. They were mostly amazing. Let’s get to them.
1. Hotel Life – Katie Lewington (self-published 2016)
A self-published ebook for sale on Gumroad, Katie’s poetry chapbook was a quick read to start off the month. This is your basic word doc-turned-PDF chapbook, which due to what I perceived to be some formatting issues has transformed it from a series of poems into one long verse poem with very short lines. The premise (writing from experiences of hotel rooms) is great, but the writing failed to captivate me. Some of this had to do with the stylistic issues mentioned above, which may be an issue with uploading files to Gumroad more than anything else (but idk, I haven’t used the platform yet myself). The writing is earnest, but overuses clichés and tropes, key words you’d expect like luxury and money, of which Katie is aware: “what am i writing?/ i don’t know” and “am i really so predictable/ to write/ after a weekend away”. She is being honest, and yet holding the reader at a distance. I needed intimacy for this chapbook to mean something more to me.
2. Brown Girls in Bright Red Lipstick – Courtney Sina Meredith (Beatnik 2012)
Courtney killed it this month, with the release of her debut short story collection Tail of the Taniwha (Beatnik 2016)—it’s GOLD!—and the announcement of a three-month residency at the International Writing Program, Iowa University starting in August. I had my eye on Courtney’s bright red poetry collection for a while before picking up a copy after her insane reading outside of Pegasus Books in Wellington last November, as part of LitCrawl. Courtney’s words translate well to the page, but truly she is a performer. When she started singing her title poem, I lost all control over my tear ducts and knees. I would have been embarrassed if my reaction hadn’t been mirrored in the faces of every person I turned to. It felt like Courtney was staring into all of our souls and cradling/seducing them while simultaneously devouring them. Courtney is a Samoan-New Zealander with a powerful voice and the determination to say what needs to be said, not just what is comfortable or what some people might want or expect to hear. Her perspective is necessary and beautiful. Two of my favorite poems in the collection are “Space Dance” and “Don’t trust a Samoan girl”, but really you need to read them all.
3. Margaret the First – Danielle Dutton (Catapult 2016)
This month, I read a lot of books by women that make me feel weak in the knees. I saw Danielle at AWP this year, both at the bookfair and at a reading at Poetic Research Bureau, and while I was too busy screaming inside my head to say anything intelligent to her at the time, she is a beacon of light. Danielle founded the small press Dorothy, a publishing project, in 2010 and has written two books prior to Margaret the First. Publishing two books a year, I’ve read most of Dorothy at this point, but this was my first venture into Danielle’s own prose. Catapult (the website and the small press) is a thing of beauty, and Margaret the First does not disappoint.
Visually, it goes without saying that it’s a stunning book, with French flaps and a bright yellow interior cover page. Beyond that, Danielle has done the unthinkable and turned a historical figure into a lively, strange new character. Margaret the First is a fairly quiet book for such an outwardly outrageous woman, which is to say I think Danielle nailed it: salacious lives are rarely all they’re cracked up to be. And I say “unthinkable” but it obviously has been done before—most notably in Kathryn Davis’s Versailles (another fave), which sort of works as a kooky but wise old cousin to Danielle’s fresh-faced Margaret the First—in the genre of “unconventional historical fiction”. I need to read more books like these two, and soon.
4. Mickey – Chelsea Martin (Curbside Splendor 2016)
I’ll be reviewing Mickey in full for Real Pants, so I will keep this pretty brief: go read Mickey. Go do it now. It won’t take you very long, and you will laugh out loud. There is a lot of white space in this book and Chelsea is very funny. I haven’t read her other books but I want to now. Is this book fictional or self-referential? I don’t know, but it feels real. Something I felt very strongly while reading Mickey was ‘this reminds me of Tao Lin and Zachary German, but not annoying like them, probably because she is a woman.’ Recommended for people who like alt lit, people who like self-aware young female narrators, and all the cranky people out there who think those two things sound like rubbish.
5. The Filaments of Heather – Heather Goodrich (Sad Spell Press 2015)
How did I luck into this? 2016 has been The Year of the Chapbook. The Filaments of Heather joins a growing clutch of newly-read, newly-all-time-favorited chapbooks: Leslie Allison’s Martha, Kaisa Cummings’ Home Remedies, and most recently (hello, it future me) Sara Tuss Efrik’s Automanias, trans. Paul Cunningham, which I’ll be chatting about in August. Alongside old faithfuls like Nina Powles’ Girls of the Drift, these feminist chapbooks give me all the best deep-gut feels I look for in a full-length collection, but in a more manageable portion that I can read and then immediately reread before my attentions get diverted to, say, docking the boat or falling asleep in a sun-drenched haze. Why is The Filaments of Heather another insta-fave? Really great writing, relatable but insane, it tackles body dysmorphia and feeling old in very unexpected packaging. Heather has a broom and she loves to use it. I picked this one up at Powell’s on my PNW road trip earlier this year as a way of dipping into Witch Craft Magazine’s publishing arm. Please give me the rest now.
6. No Country for Old Maids? – Hannah August (Bridget Williams Books 2015)
Have you heard? There aren’t enough eligible men in New Zealand to go around for all the fantastic, heterosexual women making this small country their home (or so they say). Gosh, am I glad to have found a Kiwi partner before moving to this strange new land. When I first heard about Hannah’s research I found it silly. I mean, the subheading for her thesis paper-turned-BWB Text is “Talking About the ‘Man Drought’”—unbelievably, an actual talking point amongst serious scholars in NZ and Stuff.co.nz enthusiasts alike, coined by Australian demographer Bernard Salt in 2005. If that’s not silly, I don’t know what is.
As it turns out, Hannah’s a pretty with-it kind of gal (maybe even another brain in the pack of these fantastic NZ women everyone’s talking about?), and far from being dry and anti-feminist, No Country for Old Maids? is a research-based essay in chapters that made me laugh harder than Mickey. Like me, turns out Hannah can’t believe some of the suggestions coming out of her fellow researchers’ mouths. And as such, a main branch of her research involved identifying and questioning a cohort of ‘eligible’ thirty-something women on the ludicrous steps these others have suggested females make toward finding a mate in our troublingly well-educated times—including (I shit you not) “enhancing one’s erotic capital” and “forming connections with partnered men.” Hannah remained calm, and managed to stay a step ahead of my rage laughter with comprehensive, thought-provoking inclusions of same-sex partnership, queer relationships, polyamory, and much, much more. The perfect read for ‘man drought’ skeptics like myself, and for anyone who wants to read about a topic that may or may not have been on the minds of a whole lot of New Zealanders post-The Bachelor’s debut in 2015.
7. The Hearing Trumpet – Leonora Carrington (Flammarion 1974)
I read the 1996 Exact Change edition of this book, which is a wonderful-looking book featuring a detail of Leonora’s The Giantess on the cover and a beautiful kind of aquatic green tint to the cover’s interior. If you don’t know, Leonora was a Surrealist painter who hooked up with Max Ernst pre-Peggy Guggenheim and lived most of her life in Mexico. She was beautiful and wonderful and wildly inventive. The Hearing Trumpet is her most well-known novel, and it is very weird. It begins with a very simple narrative about a 92-year-old protagonist named Marian who lives with her son and his family, and somehow evolves into a post-apocalyptic climate change nightmare in which the poles switch places with the equator, a hole in the Earth opens up, and everyone who’s in the know starts worshiping the Queen Bee as Goddess and creator. It’s very New Age desert mamma, via mental institution and unlimited imaginative powers. If you can read this and not fall in love with Marian Leatherby, you have a hard, hard soul and I fear for you.
8. Witch Hunt – Juliet Escoria (Lazy Fascist 2016)
I have found myself a new soul mate in the form of Juliet Escoria’s poetic voice. Juliet is one of the only people whose bitterness and hatefulness is endearing. I haven’t read Black Cloud, Juliet’s short story collection (which is my own cross to bear), but I have watched and loved her video stories. She is honest and cruel and she makes me think in those ways about myself, which makes me feel scared but simultaneously glad there is someone else out there like me and maybe worse (but we are not bad people.) She is married to Scott McClanahan, who is another dear, fucked up person. Sometimes the poems she writes mention Scott, sometimes they do not. They are all for Scott. I should probably keep this brief because Juliet sent me my copy of Witch Hunt and I’d like to do a full review of it.
I liked its sections, particularly “How Do I Make the Bad Thoughts Stop”, “Nature Poems Are Boring”, and “True Romance”, and the poems “Letters to Ex-Lovers” and “Top 10 Greatest Feels”. I read part VI of the poem “True Romance” out loud to my mom and Jackson, which reads: “Unseasonably hot/ the day/ of our wedding, so you padded your suit/ with paper towels in hopes/ of soaking up/ the sweat./ It didn’t work./ Dancing with you/ made my cheek wet.” My mom asked, “Is that the whole thing?” and screwed up her face. I read other parts of the poem aloud, but just for Jackson.
9. The Victorian Chaise-Longue – Marghanita Laski (Persephone Books 1999, reprint, first published 1953)
Getting real here for a second, I think this Persephone Books reprint of The Victorian Chaise-Longue is the classiest, fanciest, prettiest book I own. As strange a book as its author, it is very much in the vein of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper” and I would recommend it to anyone interested in the phase of psychology where women got smacked with the label of ‘hysteria’ anytime they felt like rage quitting on their boring, often literally fenced in lives.
As someone who v proudly wrote a 40-page paper on “The Yellow Wallpaper” for a class called Psychology and Literature in the psych department of her undergraduate university, then poured red wine on her laptop, fried her hard drive, had to start over from scratch, and still loves Charlotte’s short story, I went into Marghanita’s work with very high hopes and they were not dashed. Though perhaps not as thoroughly satisfying a creep factor as the end of “The Yellow Wallpaper”, Marghanita’s novella provides some serious locked-in syndrome gratification, mixed with a bit of time travel and body horror. I was v into it. Feels like I have been making some very good book pairings in the vein of ‘x is to y as Top of the Lake is to Twin Peaks’ already this year. Bonus: in true Persephone fashion, the endpapers are wallpapers.
10. Springtime – Michelle de Kretser (Catapult 2014)
I have the most beautiful library of books (and no one can take that away from me). After reading Margaret the First and Springtime this month, Catapult Books has quickly risen to the top tier of my favorite small presses in terms of design, aesthetic, and quality. Michelle’s slim book is subtitled ‘A Ghost Story’, which this is in the subtlest of ways. Much like Danielle Dutton’s book was subtly historical fiction. HMM. At 85 pages with multiple breaks in the narrative, complete with illustrations, Springtime reads more like a short story than a novella. I think its most novella-like quality is the amount of time that passes in/around the narrative—the sudden jumps forward feel more book-like, less story-like, but that’s not to say a good story can’t span decades, or that a good novella can’t be confined to the passage of several hours or days.
A contemporary Sri Lankan-born Australian novelist, I’ll confess Michelle de Kretser was not on my radar until she visited Victoria University last year while Jackson was getting a degree in the MA program there, AND I had to be reminded of this connection when I told Jackson I was thinking of reading Springtime. This book is good for subverting expectations, as a short novel, as a ghost story, and as a mystery, and I’m glad to have gotten a taste of Michelle’s prose in this way because I’ll definitely be checking out her other work soon.
11. The Trees – Ali Shaw (Bloomsbury 2016)
I will be writing a full review of The Trees, and therefore will again try to keep my deepest thoughts on the novel hidden until after that gets published. I first heard about The Trees earlier this year on BookTube, and wrote to Bloomsbury asking for an ARC, which they kindly sent over to me. If I’m right, it seems like The Trees came out earlier this year in the UK and is available in a US edition in August (potentially, now). The Trees is one of those books where I’m not quite sure who the author’s intended audience was. Is it for teens? Adults? Me? All three? This is my first Ali Shaw book, though his other two titles (The Girl with Glass Feet, The Man Who Rained) sound very appealing. It was by far the longest book I read this month, at 483 pages, though I got through it quickly. It is very plot-driven, quite action-based and fast-paced, which makes it easy to keep the pages turning. I’d like to think I impressed and scared my fellow boatmates as my daily page count skyrocketed, but probably they weren’t all that moved by it. I’d call The Trees an easy read, and it’s a book you can get through without much deep thinking, despite its proclivities toward eco-terror and, not unlike The Hearing Trumpet, fantasy-based results of climate change. There are some problematic aspects of this book I’ll get into in a longer review, but nothing too egregious that should deter anyone from picking it up as a fun end-of-summer read.
12. Tender Data – Monica McClure (Birds, LLC 2015)
I finished off the month with another one of my most beautiful books, because why not? Treat yourself! There is something so inexplicably appealing about those plumes of color, the quad-lined Tender Data font and the casual, Dear Diary-styled ‘Monica McClure’. French flaps? Black endpapers? Birds, LLC logo on the spine? Icing on the cake. I picked up Tender Data at AWP with every intention of getting Monica to sign it for me, but retreated in fear of her Malibu Barbie vibes. Monica McClure and Ben Fama are like two jewel-encrusted peas in an 18-karat rose gold pod. I have no idea when they’re being ‘real’ and what is Fantasy, but I think that’s partly the appeal. Ben & Mon are too cool 4 me.
The speaker(s) in Tender Data walk(s) a fine line between highbrow femme scholar and grown-up prom queen snobbery. Her poems are cold, calculated, and keep the reader at arm’s length. This is deliberate, and playful. Sometimes this works very well: “Nude in the Cat House”, “Flashdancers”, “Mammary”, “Old News” and—wait, when does it not work? I think it always works (for me) in sets of one but becomes overwhelming (to me) when it is sustained across many pages, as in “Blue Angel”. Then, I began to think ‘this is above me’ and ‘I can’t handle this’ but I couldn’t not feel impressed. My favorite poems were the ones in the “Chiflada” section. The closest we get to intimacy though is in the final section, “Novelistic Discourse”, which made me feel kind of tenderly toward Monica, compelling me to re-evaluate the rest of the collection, and favorably so.
Made it this far? Want more? Check out my other reviews for Real Pants and elsewhere. Leave a comment below and I’ll write up a more focused review of any of the books I read in July. And stay tuned for my August wrap-up, where I’ll most likely be reading from some version of the Great American Road Trip.