What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky by Lesley Nneka Arimah (Riverhead Books, 2017)
Have you ever read a book and felt like the author inserted their stories straight into your mind, and you can’t quite shake them after? That’s how I felt after reading Lesley Nneka Arimah’s debut collection of short stories, What It Means When a Man Falls from the Sky. I read this book about a month ago now, but the characters and stories still follow (haunt?) me.
The stories are all told from the perspectives of women. Men play key or supporting roles in some of the stories, but relationships between women—mothers and daughters especially—take the main stage here. The culture of Nigeria infuses many of these stories—some as the actual setting, others as familial/cultural ties. Many of the stories also employ magical realism, which adds to the way these stories stick to you. Arimah suspends reality in the details to achieve the big picture reality, placing her finger on the intuitive truth of the matter.
Some of the most haunting stories are the ones where the main characters seem to fight against their own nature, or their inherited nature/gender/class/grief, all the while circling around the inevitability of it. Stories such as “Who Will Greet You at Home”, which was originally printed in the New Yorker here. This story achingly embodies the way Arimah uses magical realism to suspend reality to better highlight the truth:
Women like her had to form their children out of sturdier, more practical material if they were to withstand the dents and scrapes that came with a life like hers. Her mother had formed her from mud and twigs and wrapped her limbs tightly with leaves, like moin-moin: pedestrian items that had produced a pedestrian girl. Ogechi was determined that her child would be a thing of whimsy, soft and pretty, tender and worthy of love. But first, she had to go to work.
As Ogechi crafts baby after baby, our hearts break as we watch in horror the cycles passed on by class and gender. This is what I mean: these stories will latch onto you, not unlike Ogechi’s baby. These stories reveal truths that are sometimes hard to see; yet Arimah tells these difficult truths in such a way—through gorgeous, crafted, precise language—that her reader can’t help but digest them.
Another factor of these unrelenting stories lies in their surprise. Despite some element of inevitability that I described earlier, Arimah still finds moments to flip the reader upside down, disorient, and surprise. An example of this is the opening story, “The Future Looks Good”, which starts with a woman knocking at a door, and the rest of the story backtracks leading up to that moment. The final sentences deliver a swift shock. Yet other stories take their time and don’t upend the reader with surprise, but rather, coax us along with their slow build. With this mix of styles, Arimah deftly balances the danger of over-exerting her reader while calling our attention to difficult, soul-wrenching things.
I had the opportunity to meet Lesley and hear her talk about this book in my role as producer of The Loft Podcast, where she was a guest recently (you can listen to the episode here). One of the things she said that I immediately felt echoed my own experience, was how there was an early point in her career as a writer where she knew what and how she wanted to write, but didn’t have the skill to write it yet. I feel that particular sense of frustration in my own current capacity as a writer. I was talking to my dear friend Timothy (yes! our same dear Hazel & Wren friend and past contributor!) about this recently, who in response sent me this article/video featuring a quote from Ira Glass on success. In it, Glass says, “Nobody tells people who are beginners […] that all of us who do creative work … we get into it because we have good taste. But it’s like there’s a gap, that for the first couple years that you’re making stuff, what you’re making isn’t so good, […] It’s trying to be good, it has ambition to be good, but it’s not quite that good. But your taste—the thing that got you into the game—your taste is still killer”.
Clearly Arimah has found the sweet spot where her work has met up with her taste and ambition to create this magical, haunting, groundbreaking collection of stories. And, my fellow worrying writers: maybe there’s hope for us, too.
Spring is slowly stretching out its green tipped limbs here in Minnesota. With the new season comes renewed curiosity, and that translates to everything from daily decisions to my book selections. I think you’ll see that echoed in today’s staff round-up, too. What are you reading that is fulfilling your curiosity these days?
Allegedly by Tiffany D. Jackson (HarperCollins, January 2017)
Reviewed by Cassidy
Mary Addison brutally murdered a baby. Allegedly. At least, that’s what the judge decided when he sentenced her to “baby jail” when Mary was just nine years old. Now Mary is 15, and though she’s stuck in a group home with a crew of her violent and volatile peers and a case officer who couldn’t care less, she’s determined to make the most out of her life. . . until she becomes pregnant with her boyfriend, Ted. Mary is suddenly faced with a choice: stay in the system and give up her baby, or tell the real truth of what happened that night that three-month-old Alyssa lost her life. This book is one part thriller and one part searing indictment of the prison industrial complex (think Orange is the New Black meets Walter Dean Myers meets The Bluest Eye), rattling along at breakneck pace until the very last page. Oh, and no spoilers, but if you’re a big fan of twists, this book contains the be-all, end-all of surprise endings.
The Twenty Days of Turin by Giorgio De Maria, translated by Ramon Glazov (Liveright Books, 2017)
Reviewed by Josh
I’m caught between two books, one nearly finished and one nearly started. Giorgio De Maria’s The Twenty Days of Turin (translated by Ramon Glazov) is a weird, scary story that combines a strange, Borges-esque Library, a pseudo-Woolfian collective, temporary psychosis, and a narrator trying to uncover how all of this strangeness disappeared into the past. It’s a small book, and I’m savoring every little bit of it. Once I’m out of this nightmare vision of Turin, I’ll leap into Yoon Ha Lee’s Hugo-nominated science fiction novel Ninefox Gambit, about which I know very little but for which I am totally excited!
The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness by Sy Montgomery (Atria Books, 2016)
Reviewed by Taylor
Despite my fascination with octopuses, I didn’t know much about them before reading this book. First of all, I learned that it’s octopuses, not octopi. I learned that octopuses have complex nervous systems that dominate the arms, where they have an excellent sense of touch—and taste. I learned that octopuses taste with their suckers, passing food from arm to arm to mouth, where they have a sharp beak like a parrot. I learned that there’s still so much more to discover about these intelligent, playful, problem-solving, color-changing, shape-shifting escape artists.
Intrigued by octopuses, author and naturalist Sy Montgomery makes regular visits to the New England Aquarium, followed by a sudden ambition to get scuba certified, all along the way meeting people who share her unexpected love for the eight-armed creatures. In The Soul of an Octopus, Montgomery chronicles the observations and intimate encounters she shared with each octopus she came to know, weaving together thoughtful, moving stories of her friends—humans and underwater aliens alike—while exploring the question of consciousness and the remarkable connections made between species.
Shade the Changing Girl #1-7 by Cecil Castellucci, Marley Zarcone, et al (DC Comics/Young Animal, 2017)
Reviewed by Aaron
Take one birdlike alien from a parallel dimension. See her adopted by the most boring parents her sci-fi world has ever known. Then drop her
into the body of a hateful (and hated) Earthling teen. This is the formula that Shade the Changing Girl is built on. The series inherits a name and aesthetic from comics that positively ooze the times they were made: Steve Ditko’s psychedelic Shade the Changing Man from 1978 and 1990’s mad, bad, and dangerous-to-know reboot, the Changing Girl incorporates its forerunners’ lore without being bogged down by it; in fact, Shade queers just about everything: sci-fi, adoption, sexuality, family, and home. It’s a comic about the people that exist between and outside of accepted norms. Shade’s world is a Guillermo del Toro fantasy colored by Lisa Frank, and I can’t get enough.
Abandon Me: Memoirs by Melissa Febos (Bloomsbury, 2017)
Reviewed by Wren
Melissa Febos visited the Loft (where I work) last month. I hadn’t read any of her work prior to her visit, but let me tell you: I have officially reached fan-girl status. When researching prior to her visit, I came across this essay, “The Heart-Work: Writing About Trauma as a Subversive Act” and immediately signed up for her full-day short essay workshop and bought Abandon Me. I also found out via Twitter that not only do we share the same first name (ICYMI, my real name is Melissa, not Wren), but we also share the same Myers Briggs classification of ENFJ. YUP, FAN GIRL, HI. One thing (out of many things) Febos said in the workshop that really stuck with me was (paraphrased): tell your story with enough specificity that it reveals a universal truth. Her essays and memoirs do exactly this. Febos has a very different background than my own, but each essay resonates with a thread of universality within my own experiences. The essays in this collection juxtapose the legacies left by both her birth father and the sea captain father who raised her, and delve further into her relationships with drug addiction, love, and other familial relationships. Abandonment is an overarching theme that runs throughout these essays, and Febos doesn’t shy away from the raw, tender spots of her own story. This is a beautifully lyric, heart-opening exploration of her life and the universality of vulnerability.
Poetic Scientifica by Leah Noble Davidson (University of Hell Press, 2013)
The title drew me in. Science, it seems, is endangered by the current administration’s denial and de-funding, so I’ve been longing for its textured diction and conjecture. Davidson denied my expectation, but offered something more broad and thought-provoking than just scientific vocabulary.
From the very beginning in a section titled “Nobody Reads the Introduction,” Davidson reminds the reader of the interplay between language and meaning and also that meaning is subjective and constructed by language and experience. She puts forth a hypothesis that the book goes on to test: “It is possible to give a poem deeper meaning by abstractly defining the dialect of the words of which it is composed.” In one sense the book is a biome rich with nutrients which feed the ‘organism,’ or the opening poem. The first poem is placed before the table of contents and each word of the poem is used as a title for every poem in the book. Therefore, each word in the opening poem is a cell made up of the linguistic molecular structures and associations that make up each corresponding poem in the book. Davidson contextualizes her own dialect, as it were, and creates a scaffolding system for the reader to climb deep into the underbelly of the opening poem.
Right away, I wondered how Davidson would write satisfying poems for the articles in the opening poem. How do you write a good poem a title like “the” or “so”? Poetic Scientifica answers that question again and again. In the opening poem, the word ‘into’ is repeated three times, so the book contains three poems titled “into.” These are three of my favorite poems in the book; they’re about abuse and violence, but the voice is both direct and distant, giving the reader the impression that the poem is examining a wound with an objective hand. These poems engage the reader viscerally while creating a shared meaning of the title word between the reader and the poet. The three poems titled “into” build on each other, and by the end of the book, I feel more intimately connected to the poet than I ever would have expected.
Formally, the poems vary in this collection. While some poems employ end-stop, others ignore the line altogether in a prose-like manner. I would not recommend this book as a model of strong line breaks, and I feel that the voice comes out most strongly when Davidson lets language resonate on a sentence level. In “have,” a prose poem, she creates tension with long sentences and minimal punctuation:
The depression begins with you fingering hand towels you can’t afford in a store you’ll never remember the name of because you’re consumed with how they remind you of the ones you dried the dishes with when you quit working to stay home with the baby while he started his career at the job that you got for him
In other instances, reading Davidson’s imagery is almost like visual hallucination. “So you are in a boat without language,” “Tell” begins, “and I have a stick for a mouth.” From here the speaker gesticulates wildly within this reality. The poem is playful and inscrutable because we can’t imagine spaces that have no language, but the poem also carries emotional power. And the ending lines carry so much more weight than a flippant experiment in constructionism: “there are no words in your head. // Just a picture, a moving picture of what we won’t call water and a loss for something not a stick.” Davidson’s playfulness comes out in other poems as well such as “person” which is just as fun while less cerebral.
Harold the Zombie is picking his wounds again—
the mood must feel as gray and distant.
Jennifer asks him if he feels like
a pitted olive cheese. “No,
Harold wants to be a vegan, wants
to quite smoking, and learn Pilates He wants to
watch less TV, but it keeps him off the streets.
out of people’s heads,
out of his own head
In my opinion, a few poems are less hard-hitting, in and of themselves, than others; however, the project of the book answers for itself and for each poem too. Each page is necessary to test the hypothesis, and that’s what makes this book a satisfying read.
Again, in light of this political moment, I appreciate this book for the way that it draws attention to the unwieldy power of words to contain multitudinous meaning. For example, think of the how the word “great” connotes vastly different meanings in the phrase: “Make America great again.” Davidson takes words and shows the reader how each contains a world, a color, a story. After reading this book, certain words will seemingly never be the same for me now that I’ve experienced these dialectical expansions. Just for fun, I put a handful of those words together into a sentence: Burrito your brains into the hallway for business ballet. Now that sentence may or may not mean anything to you, but I bet if you read Poetic Scientifica, it will mean a great many things.
Can you think of any words that pack a punch for you? Try writing a poem that explores a word other people might never think twice about.
Want to know what I love most about these round-up posts? I love how my “must read” list expands into genres and styles of writing that I wouldn’t otherwise have discovered on my own. One of the ways I’ve been coping with the current political climate is to read as much as possible, and as widely as possible. I believe that by immersing ourselves in different perspectives (which books can do so well), we are inspired to grow, practice awareness, and find compassion for others. I hope you, dear reader, will also find new perspectives in whatever you’re reading, and that your “must read” pile of books is ever-growing.
We Are the Ants by Shaun David Hutchinson (Simon + Schuster, January 2016)
Reviewed by Cassidy
The world is ending, and only one person can stop it. Sixteen-year-old Henry Denton is abducted by aliens and given two choices: press a big red button and save the world, or do nothing and watch everyone die in one hundred and forty-four days. It should be an easy decision. But after Henry’s boyfriend commits suicide and leaves behind no note or explanation, Henry isn’t sure the planet deserves to be saved. An in-depth exploration of grief and how we choose to survive, We Are the Ants is a brilliant, unique, compelling book that I never knew I needed. The book lives in a nebulous space between contemporary and science-fiction. Though Henry is very sure the aliens (or sluggers, as he calls them) are real, the reader is left questioning if they’re actually there, or a manifestation of a deeper trauma.
Here by Richard McGuire (Pantheon Graphic Novels, 2014)
Reviewed by Taylor
Richard McGuire’s graphic novel Here takes place in the same location at different times, going back and forth over billions of years. Through stunning full-page spreads and overlapping frames marked by the year, the reader simultaneously sees the living room of a 20th century house spanning generations in one family, the hunting grounds for Native Americans in the 1600s, the first colonial settlers, the glaciers of the past, the floods of the future, and everything in between. More than being a story with a defined plot, Here is a beautiful piece of art meant to highlight our undeniable impermanence in this world.
Azumanga Daioh by Kiyohiko Azuma (Yen Press 2010)
Reviewed by Aaron
I’m currently reading two too-long books, so while I struggle with those, I’ve been cramming in lots of quick reads. The best of them has been Kiyohiko Azuma’s Azumanga Daioh, a long-running comic strip about girls in high school. Each four-panel strip is a strange delight, weaving through school activities, drunken teachers, bizarre dream sequences, and quiet moments of delight in cats. The characters are multitudinous and varied, so it never feels like the book is showing a “right way” to be a high school girl. The best moments of the strip come from the characters’ failures, especially when shown against the persistence of life and friendship despite those failures.
Well, no, the best parts are the trippy dream sequences with talking ponytails and mutant cat dads. But the friendship stuff is good too.
Haiti Glass by Lenelle Moïse (City Lights 2015)
Reviewed by Wren
Do you ever have a poem stop you in your tracks? That’s how I first encountered Lenelle Moïse’s work. I get the “Poem of the Day” emailed to me from Poetry Foundation, and when her poem “quaking conversation” showed up in my inbox, it shook me to my core. I immediately ordered Haiti Glass from City Lights and devoured it in a single sitting. The collection is a complex, raw love letter to Haiti and the people that live there. It’s at once heartbreaking and joyful, fierce and tender. Moïse deftly wields language to expose and surrender to the complexities of this living, breathing portrait of Haiti. And so, I’ll leave you with the last stanza of “quaking conversation”, the poem that first sparked something in me as a reader:
come sit, come stand, come
cry with me. talk.
there’s much to say.
walk. much more to do.
Happy reading, and listening, and doing, folks.