April 2021 Reading Round-Up: Sense of Place

In our second round of micro-reviews, we are thinking about place – not just in terms of physical setting, but also the emotional and imagined places that books allow us to inhabit.

This collection includes poetry set on a rumbling train, a novella about a woman for whom time is as much as a place as the otherworldly rural setting in which she finds herself, and a mystery in which the real horror comes from inhabiting the mind of the troubled narrator. With books set from Cairo to the Oregon coast and everywhere in between, you are sure to find a book in this round-up that speaks to your desire to escape.

The Hole by Hiroko Oyamata

Genre: Literary fiction/novella | new directions 2020 | Reviewed by nora poole

Reading Hiroko Oyamada’s short novel The Hole feels like walking down a crowded street and being struck with the realization that all the people around you have lives as unique and complex as your own — followed by the realization that all these other lives are ultimately unknowable. The characters in The Hole (and in Oyamada’s debut The Factory, for that matter) are approached obliquely— it feels as though we enter somewhere in the middle of their stories, and by the time the novel is over (a quick 92 pages later), it feels like we’re still there.

The Hole follows a woman named Asa whose husband has just gotten a promotion and reassignment to a branch office in the countryside. The couple moves into a house owned by Asa’s in-laws, who allow the young couple to live rent free. Asa quits her job and sets about trying to figure out how to fill the long empty hours of her new life.

Short though it is, The Hole is intensely atmospheric and ominous, with page after page of heavy summer heat and the screech of cicadas. The story unfolds in a meandering sequence of stranger and stranger encounters, as Asa explores her new environs and the peculiar people (and creatures) who live there. Oyamada gives the reader just enough to make us think we know what’s going on, until, like Asa, we find the borders between the real and the fantastic have become wholly indistinguishable.

Why We Love It: This strange, atmospheric translation keeps you guessing long after you finish reading, and forces you to consider the ways that labor and work consume our lives.

Dead Girls by Selva Almada

Genre: fiction/noir | charco press 2020 | Reviewed by allison mccausland

Violence begets violence; that surprises no one. However, most of this violence targets women. Celebrated author Selva Almada frames the epidemic of femicide in her recently translated work, Dead Girls, in which Almada conducts a personal investigation of the term in provincial Argentina.

Almada’s powerful prose and Annie McDermott’s translation set the scene in the Argentina of the 1980s, where three cases among hundreds spark Almada’s investigation. The three cases in question are that of Andrea Danne, Maria Luisa Quevedo, and Sarita Mundin, all women in their teens and early twenties, treading the line between womanhood and defenseless girlhood. Although each murder was unique, what remains at the core is the senseless violence of men, the media-centric frenzy of victimhood, and the way each case became nothing more than a statistic soon after her death. Almada also adds vignettes of her own girlhood to demonstrate how her story could have ended much like those of the women she chronicles.

Almada travels through the girls’ hometowns, traces the paths of their final days, and interviews living relatives and townspeople to flesh out the individualized stories each one of them deserved before their lives were silenced. Almada also points to the need to carry the memory of these girls into the future, and to finally put a stop to similar acts of violence being perpetrated against women in present-day Argentina. Almada’s delve into true crime continues to make her one of Latin America’s premiere voices of the twenty-first century, and a force to be reckoned with on the worldwide literary stage.

Why We Love It: In this devastating chronicle, Almada builds a historical and literary home for victims of femicide, proving that systemic violence is global, and that there is power in making a place for stories that have been lost to history.

Tracks by Lynn Mcgee

Genre: poetry | broadstone books 2019 | Reviewed by kim jacobs-beck

In Tracks, Lynn McGee offers detailed observations of friends, lovers, family, and fellow New Yorkers. In that observational vein, many of the poems in Tracks are sketches of fellow train travelers, with McGee imagining into the details she can observe. In “Kids on the Train,” the narrator recognizes the subtle flirting of two teenaged girls. She tells us she has been “both” of those girls, as well as other passengers who are watching them: “I’ve been the boy wanting to be/part of something that doesn’t/want him” (24-26). Across the collection, the narrator is observant, perceptive; she sees her fellow subway riders in detail, but she’s also wise enough to understand the details she sees, to create empathetic narratives out of what she observes.

McGee writes repeatedly of a sister lost in a car accident, dropping those poems among other subjects, and resisting the story’s chronology. Instead, we piece it together, not only through the poems directly about the sister, like “Elegy for My Sister” and “Scent,” but also in poems about caring for the lost sister’s children. We see the narrator step in as support in several poems such as “Children’s Hospital, Autism Ward,” where the child with autism worries, “What’ll happen to my mom’s car?/Patrick repeated in the monotone/of his disorder. /Can they fix my mom’s car?” (1-4).

Overall, Tracks creates clear images and a loose set of sketches, with the story of a sister’s death serving as the anchor. Transportation is necessary, but it comes with the risk of accidents. The poems here are unsentimental, even blunt, yet they also convey attentive energy. As the narrator shares daily space with strangers, crowded together, coming and going, she keeps an empathetic, non-judgmental eye on her fellow life travelers. She is, in fact, giving them her full, respectful attention.

Why We Love It: This collection takes place on a train, but also in the real, tangible space of grief, reflecting on the power of observation to heal our wounds and connect with our communities.

A game of fox and squirrels by jenn reese

Genre: yA fiction | henry holt & co 2020 | Reviewed by rebecca valley

At first glance, Jenn Reese’s middle-grade novel sounds whimsical. Eleven-year-old Sam goes to live with her aunts in the Oregon forest and is swept up in a card game come to life, full of dapper foxes and warrior squirrels. But at its heart, this book is a story of trauma, healing, love, and survival – a book that acknowledges the painful and often uncertain reality for children with abusive parents.

The core of Jenn Reese’s book is one of deep empathy. She writes: “Sometimes survival is all you can think about. That’s okay. Really. Survival is important.” When the book begins, we don’t know why Sam and her older sister Caitlin have been transported to Oregon to live with two aunts they’ve never met. We just know it has something to do with Caitlin’s broken arm. But it’s clear from the outset that Sam has learned to be cautious, and that her father is the cause. As the book progresses, we see Sam struggle to appease the manipulative fox who appears at the end of her bed on her first night in Oregon. In the process of pleasing the fox, Sam does things she regrets – but as Maple the squirrel reminds her, we are all complex beings, with complex motivations. When Sam struggles with her own behavior, and her conflicted feelings about her father, Maple replies: “Nobody is only one thing.”

This book explores the often intangible aftermath of abuse – not just violence, but the lasting repercussions of inconsistency, fear, and the confusion of loving someone who sometimes hurts you, or the people you love. Unfortunately, many children will see themselves in this book – and I am so thankful to Jenn Reese for offering them the language to process what they’ve seen, and the knowledge that they aren’t alone.

Why We Love It: This atmospheric novel set in the misty Oregon woods sympathetically portrays the many facets of abuse. Plus, it depicts a beautiful, supportive queer marriage!

Dragonfish by vu tran

Genre: thriller/suspense | w.w. Norton 2015 | Reviewed by tracy vazquez

The ocean exposes no secrets in Vu Tran’s mystery novel Dragonfish, which takes us on a voyage to Post-War Vietnam, Malaysia, and Las Vegas, Nevada.  The life of Hong (also known as Suzy) unfolds in the ghostly shadow of war, refugee camps, and fast–money living. 

In a world of glittering lights and risks, Hong is beaten and abused by her cardsharp second husband Sonny.  She escapes her misery and takes $100,000, leading to a hunt for her and the cash.  Robert, a cop and Hong’s ex-husband, is captured by Sonny’s men and tasked with finding Hong and returning Sonny’s money.  Meanwhile, Hong, free from her various relationships, tries to resolve her past:

‘The long dream,’ she said, ‘of these last twenty years—made her realize, once and for all that she was alone in the world and had always been, and that perhaps staying that way would not kill her.  It could save her.” (243)

Capsized in the turmoil, this dual protagonist story of remembrances and murders keeps us spinning.

Why We Love It: It’s rare to find a thriller that looks at immigrant and refugee experience! This mystery explores the place of memory, and how the past always catches up to us in the present.

Spring by Leila rafei

Genre: literary/historical fiction | blackstone publishing 2020 | Reviewed by allison mccausland

Turmoil comes in many different forms. In Leila Rafei’s debut novel, Spring, readers get a glimpse of the inner struggles saturating three intersecting stories against the backdrop of the Cairo protests in the Arab Spring of 2011. Rafei’s ability to craft identifiable, multifaceted characters allows readers to connect despite the difference in historically based circumstances.

Spring’s stories all revolve around Sami, a college student and only son. We follow his and Rose, his pregnant girlfriend, as their story unfolds. We also learn about his mother Suad, a struggling housewife contemplating her life choices and Jamila, Rose’s maid who is a Sudanese refugee trying to make ends meet after the disappearance of her husband. Rafei seamlessly drops readers into the psyche of each of her protagonists as they weave in and out of each other’s lives. Their desires and regrets highlight the parts of life that remain congruent despite the instability happening around them.

In a time of uncertainty, Spring allows readers to reexamine their own lives, especially in the past year, by looking into the not-so-distant past of Cairo, Egypt.

Why We Love It: This impressive debut novel reminds us that political unrest and uncertainty is a space we inhabit, whether in 2011 Cairo or the U.S. in 2021.

Death in her hands by Otessa Moshfegh

Genre: literary fiction/mystery | penguin 2020 | Reviewed by rebecca valley

In Otessa Moshfegh’s Death in Her Hands, I found a meta murder mystery – a story about madness, the pains of creativity, loneliness, and the aftermath of trauma. In it, an elderly widow and her dog move to a cabin in a rural, economically depressed community. But what begins with peace and solitude becomes an obsessive, painful hallucination when the widow finds a note in the woods and begins to suspect a girl has been murdered. As the book wears on, the widow weaves together the complex plot of a murder mystery; and we watch in horror as she falls deeper into the delusion that the mystery is real. As she attempts to solve this crime of her own making, the widow recollects decades of marriage with her husband Walter – and slowly unveils the traumas of her old life.

This cerebral book was sometimes as hard for me to pick up as it was to put down, and it is one of the few books I wanted to read about after finishing it. As a dedicated Agatha Christie fan and lover of the crime genre, I was struck (and terrified) by how Moshfegh defines the power of the imagination, particularly when it hones in on violence; what violence, real or imagined, does to your mind, and where it can take you.

Or, as Moshfegh writes: “How did people go on with their lives as though death weren’t all around them?”

Why We Love It: This decidedly strange meta-mystery set in rural America makes you feel like you are living in someone else’s head.

Want to review a book for our next round-up?Head to our submissions page for more information and to see a list of titles we’d love to cover.

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