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Month: August 2020

read it: Crooked Hallelujah by Kelli Jo Ford

Grove Press: July 2020

Crooked Hallelujah is brave novel that sheds light on contemporary American life in surprising and meaningful ways. It first came to my attention after a friend of mine commented that the novel was garnering a number of online reviews from book bloggers who were complaining about the book’s lack of Native-American-ness. This repeated complaint created brain-dissonance in both my friend and me, since Kelli Jo Ford is a citizen of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, whereas the reviewers complaining about her book’s lack of an authentic Native American voice were white. I mean, come on.

This novel is to be praised first and foremost for its complicated, heartbreaking examination of the limited and self-damaging choices women have when they live in poverty–especially when they are raising children in circumstances that offer very little hope. There are so few literary novels written from the perspective of poverty, when it’s one of the existential crises of our age. The novel gives nuance and humanity to characters who are living on the bleeding edge.

The novel is also to be cheered because it’s a serious literary work that tackles head-on the sometimes-redemptive, frequently-damaging nature of religious conviction in modern life. Not since Jamie Quatro’s Fire Sermon have I seen the topic of religious faith dealt with so well in literary fiction (or at all, frankly). The outsized effect that religion has on American culture today is almost never given its proper weight in contemporary fiction, and I welcomed the insights Ford wrote into her story here.

I know that “brave” is a word so overused in author blurbs that it might provoke cynicism in a review, but if you can remember the original meaning of “brave,” that’s what this novel is.

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read it if you can: Tender is the Flesh by Abustina Bazterrica

UK: Pushkin/US: Scribner

Tender Is the Flesh by Agustina Bazterrica is one of the most relentless and ugly books I’ve ever read. The story about a society where humans are slaughtered for meat is presented in more detail than I was ready for, and the novel willfully refuses to allow itself to fall into any category of fiction that would make it easier to take as a reader. The flat direct style of its prose didn’t allow me as a reader to classify it, as I read along, as horror, or satire, or a metaphorical representation of social injustice, or a nihilistic moral thesis about humanity. It is exactly what it is. Never boring, it managed to continue to shock me until its final pages.

In 2010 Roger Ebert reviewed the cult movie The Human Centipede and wrote:

I am required to award stars to movies I review. This time, I refuse to do it. The star rating system is unsuited to this film. Is the movie good? Is it bad? Does it matter? It is what it is and occupies a world where the stars don’t shine.

That goes for this novel, as well. If forced to give stars, I would give it five stars, for the way it relentlessly fulfills its purpose.

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Reading Kevin Wilson

Tunneling to the Center of the Earth: Stories
by Kevin Wilson

After Kevin Wilson’s most recent novel NOTHING TO SEE HERE worked its peculiar charms on me, I found myself thinking, oh my god, where did this Kevin Wilson person come from? And now I know. Here he is, shining forth in his first collection, published in 2009 and soon to be republished by Ecco in September 2020. Or maybe I should say, “bursting forth” or even “exploding forth,” because there is a story here even in this first collection, a decade before Nothing to See Here, that has people spontaneously combusting in it. Unlike in Wilson’s recent novel, the combusting people blow up without any warning flames flaming up beforehand. They just go boom, in the story “Blowing Up on the Spot.” There are other body horrors in the other stories, and these are just as charming, and I really do mean “charming,” because the explosive transformations that happen to Wilson’s characters always seem a little on the light-hearted side even when they end in death.

It’s hard to say what I would have thought about these stories without coming to them back through time, via Nothing to See Here. I can’t imagine it because the novel had a big impact on me. But as ‘origin stories’ of Wilson’s proclivities, hangups, and obsessions, I loved these stories.