Review Catch-Up: Jhalak and Women’s Prize Nominees, Etc.

Another in an ongoing series as I catch up on the current and previous year releases I’ve been sent for review. Today I have four books by women: a poetry collection about living between countries and languages, a magic realist novel about vengeful spirits in Vietnam, a memoir in verse about the disabled body and queer parenting, and a novel set in gentrifying Puerto Rican neighbourhoods of New York City.

 

From the Jhalak Prize longlist:

Honorifics by Cynthia Miller (2021)

Miller is a Malaysian American poet currently living in Edinburgh. Honorifics was also shortlisted for the Forward Prize for Best First Collection. Its themes resonate with poetry I’ve read by other Asian women like Romalyn Ante and Jenny Xie and with the works of mixed-race authors such as Jessica J. Lee and Nina Mingya Powles: living between two or more countries and feeling like an exile versus finding a sense of home.

Nightly, you rosary American synonyms for success learned the hard way: suburb – 10-year visa – promotion – carpool – mortgage – parent-teacher conference – nuclear family – assimilation … Homecoming is the last, hardest thing you’ll ask yourself to do.

(from “Homecoming”)

“Loving v. Virginia” celebrates interracial love: “Look at us, improper. Look at us, indecent. Look at us, incandescent and loving.” Food is a vehicle for memory, as are home videos. Like Ante, Miller has a poem based on her mother’s voicemail messages. “Glitch honorifics” gives the characters for different family relationships, comparing Chinese and Hokkien. The imagery is full of colour and light, plants and paintings. A terrific central section called “Bloom” contains 10 jellyfish poems (“We bloom like nuclear hydrangea … I’m an unwound chandelier, / a 150-foot-long coil of cilia, // made up of a million gelatinous foxgloves.”).

Miller incorporates a lot of unusual structures, some of them traditional forms (“Sonnet with lighthouses,” “Moon goddess ghazal,” “Persimmon abecedarian”) and others freer forms like a numbered list, columns, dictionary definitions or prose paragraphs. Six of the poems cite an inspiration; I could particularly see the influence in “The Home Office after Caroline Bird” – an absurdist take on government immigration policy.

There’s much variety here, and so many beautiful lines and evocative images. “Malaysiana,” a tour through everything she loves about the country of her birth, was my single favourite poem, and a couple more passages I loved were “the heart measuring breaths like levelling sugar / for a batter, the heart saying / why don’t you come in from the cold.” (from “The impossible physiology of the free diver”) and the last two stanzas of “Lupins”: “Some days / their purple spines // are the only things / holding me up.” Flora and fauna references plus a consideration of the expat life meant this was custom made for me, but I’d recommend it to anyone looking to try out different styles of contemporary poetry.

With thanks to Nine Arches Press for the free copy for review.

 


From the Women’s Prize longlist:

Build Your House around My Body by Violet Kupersmith (2021)

Back in 2014, I reviewed Kupersmith’s debut collection, The Frangipani Hotel, for BookBrowse. I was held rapt by its ghostly stories of Vietnam, so I was delighted to hear that she had written a debut novel, and it was one of my few correct predictions for the Women’s Prize nominees. The main action takes place between when Winnie – half white and half Vietnamese – arrives in Saigon to teach English in 2010, and when she disappears from the house she shared with her boyfriend of three months, Long, in March 2011. But the timeline darts about to tell a much more expansive story, starting with the Japanese invasion of Vietnam in the 1940s. Each date is given as the number of months or years before or after Winnie’s disappearance.

Winnie starts off living with a great-aunt and cousins, and meets a family friend, Dr. Sang, who’s been experimenting on a hallucinogenic drug made from cobra venom. Long and his brother, Tan, a policeman, were childhood friends with a fearless young woman named Binh – now a vengeful ghost haunting them both. Meanwhile, the Saigon Spirit Eradication Company, led by the Fortune Teller, is called upon to eradicate a ghost – which from time to time seems to inhabit a small dog – from a snake-infested highland estate. These strands are bound to meet, and smoke and snakes wind their way through them all.

I enjoyed Kupersmith’s energetic writing, which reminded me by turns of Nicola Barker, Ned Beauman, Elaine Castillo and Naoise Dolan, and the glimpses of Cambodia and Vietnam we get through meals and motorbike rides. What happens with Belly the dog towards the end is fantastic. But the chronology feels needlessly complex, with the flashbacks to colonial history and even to Binh’s story not adding enough to the narrative. While I’d still like to see Kupersmith make the shortlist, I can recommend her short stories that bit more highly.

With thanks to Oneworld for the free copy for review.

 


Handbook for the Newly Disabled: A Lyric Memoir by Allison Blevins (2022)

Allison Blevins, a poet, has published five chapbooks or collections and has another forthcoming. Based in Missouri and the director of an indie press, she tells her story of chronic illness and queer parenting in 10 “chapters” composed of multi-part poems. She moves through brain fog and commemorates pain and desire, which cannot always coexist (as in “How to F**k a Disabled Body”).

I’ll never

ride a bike again, hike, carry my children. I’m learning to number what I’ve lost.

Because of the pills, I no longer fall into sleep, I stop. I used to hate queer at 19

when I was a dyke. I can’t be disabled. I need a better word. I need a body that floats—

translucent and liquid—to my daughter’s bed, to cover her like cotton-red quilted stars.

(from “Brain Fog”)

Sometimes the title is enough: “My Neurologist (Who Doesn’t Have MS) Explains Pain Is Not a Symptom of MS.” Other times, what is left out, or erased (as in “Five by Five”) is what matters the most. For instance, the Photo Illustrations promised in the titles of two chapters are replaced by Accessibility Notes. That strategy reminded me of one Raymond Antrobus has used. Alliteration, synesthesia and the language of the body express the complexities of a friend’s cancer, having a trans partner, and coming to terms with sexuality (“I think now that being queer was easy, easy as forgetting / being born”). A really interesting work and an author I’d like to read more from.

Published by BlazeVOX [books] on 22 March. With thanks to the author for the e-copy for review.

 

Olga Dies Dreaming by Xóchitl González (2022)

This was on my radar thanks to a starred Kirkus review. It would have been a good choice for the Women’s Prize longlist, with its bold heroine, Latinx and gay characters, and blend of literary and women’s fiction. The Puerto Rican immigrant community and gentrifying neighbourhoods of New York City are appealing locales, and Olga is a clever, gutsy protagonist. As the novel opens in 2017, she’s working out how best to fleece the rich families whose progeny’s weddings she plans. Today it’s embezzling napkins for her cousin Mabel’s wedding. Next: stockpiling cut-price champagne. Olga’s brother Prieto, a slick congressman inevitably nicknamed the “Latino Obama,” is a closeted gay man. Their late father was a drug addict; their mother left to be part of a revolutionary movement back in PR and sends her children occasional chiding letters when they appear to be selling out.

The aftermath of Hurricane Maria coincides with upheaval in Olga’s and Prieto’s personal and professional lives. The ins and outs of Puerto Rican politics went over my head somewhat, and the various schemes and conspiracy theories get slightly silly. The thread that most engaged me was Olga’s relationship with Matteo, a hoarder. I hoped that, following the satire of earlier parts (“Olga realized she’d allowed herself to become distracted from the true American dream—accumulating money—by its phantom cousin, accumulating fame. She would never make that mistake again”), there might be a message about the emptiness of the pursuit of wealth. So I ended up a little disappointed by a late revelation about Matteo.

However, I did appreciate the picture of how Olga is up against it as both a woman and a person of colour (“no person of color serious about being taken seriously was ever late to meet white people”). This debut was perhaps a little unsure of what it wanted to be, but the novelty of the main elements was enough to make it worth reading.

With thanks to Fleet for the free copy for review.

 

Would you be interested in reading one or more of these?

22 responses

  1. Lately, I have also run into the problem of a first short story collection being fabulous and the debut novel not living up to the hype. My guess is that it’s the influence of developmental editors at various magazines in which the stories were first placed–who sharpen the stories. I think a lot of readers would be surprised at how many editors are very hands-on. And I think that’s happening less with novel editing?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That’s a very astute explanation for the difference and wouldn’t have occurred to me! I can think of a reverse scenario (Brandon Taylor’s novel was followed by short stories) and had the stories come first I think I would have liked each book less.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Ahh, off to look up Brandon Taylor!

        Like

      2. So good! Real Life was one of my top 5 in 2020.

        Like

  2. I got sent the Kupersmith when it first came out and will definitely read it now, especially as you mention Nicola Barker, a favourite of mine.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s a very interesting book, dark and frenetic in places. I wonder if you’ll see the comparison! (I’ve read three of Barker’s novels.)

      Liked by 1 person

  3. We’re on roughly the same page with the Kupersmith and Gonzalez, although I found pretty much everything in the former more engaging than Winnie’s present-day storyline! I agree that the Gonzalez was a mix of disparate elements, and I wanted her to lean more into the original blurb that she apparently pitched for the novel: ‘Robin Hood wedding planner robs from her clients, sends money to mother (revolutionary?) to fix house in Puerto Rico’!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You’ve given a much better idea of the plot with your review. Looking back at what I said about her short stories, I see that ghosts and snakes have long been preoccupations of hers.

      That is a pretty great elevator pitch, and to an extent the finished book does reflect it. What do you think the title “Olga Dies Dreaming” was supposed to mean?

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      1. Ah, I don’t think that’s true! It’s a tough one to summarise. Thanks for your review of The Frangipani Hotel which has further encouraged me to read it.

        I can’t work out what Olga Dies Dreaming is supposed to mean! I guess it’s maybe a reference to her focusing so hard on being rich and successful etc that she doesn’t notice real life passing her by? Ie buying in too hard to the American dream? Did you have any thoughts?

        Liked by 1 person

      2. That’s a great interpretation; I was more than half expecting her to literally die at the end of the book!

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I enjoyed the Kupersmith a lot but did find it unnecessarily complex at times. Thanks for the recommendation of her stories. Will check those out.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I had to take a lot of notes to keep the timeline straight. Which is not a problem, but because I’m always reading so many books at once it means my focus strayed.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Build Your House Around My Body sounds just up my street and Olga Dies Dreaming might be just around the corner, ha ha. I’m not much of a poetry reader, but Honorifics does appeal, perhaps because it’s not all straightforward poetry. Plus the cover is stunning.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh yes, a floral cover always gets my vote. I’m pleased that several of these picks appeal to you!

      Like

  6. Honorifics appeals the most to me. I loved the selections you shared.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s such a beautiful book. One of my favorites I’ve read this year.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. Honorifics even appeals to me as a claimed non-poetry-reader! I assumed Olga Dies Dreaming meant Olga was dead at the beginning …

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s a very odd title!

      Like

  8. […] Honorifics by Cynthia Miller, which I reviewed last week, had more personal resonance for me, but these are both powerful collections – alive to the present moment and revelling in language and in flora and fauna. However, only Capildeo progressed from the Jhalak Prize longlist onto the shortlist, which was announced yesterday. […]

    Like

  9. I’m interested in all of them! Probably the Kupersmith the most. The Blevins sounds hard, but worth reading. Even the poetry appeals! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The Kupersmith is really neat. I hope it makes the Women’s Prize shortlist so it will get a wider readership.

      Liked by 1 person

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