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12.1 | Book Review

Jess Marinaro

Sarah Freligh’s A Brief Natural History of Women: A Review

Sarah Freligh’s collection of flash fiction A Brief Natural History of Women is a kaleidoscope of snapshots from women’s lives set in and around Detroit, Michigan. This collection exists as “a post-Roe book that recalls the bad old days pre-Roe” Freligh said in an interview with novelist Leslie Pietrzyk. Each flash fiction piece leaves readers with an acute sensation of longing to know these women, but for most we only get a glimpse into a few moments from their lives. The collection meditates on grief in many forms; from the death of a brother in “Other Tongues” to dealing with televised trauma in “A Brief Natural History of Law and Order.” Despite this, there are many ways in which this novel challenges the notion that to be a woman is to perpetually suffer. It argues for women to be loud and unapologetic in their pain. It argues that community and resilience are true markers of womanhood. It argues that grief is not isolated, and that the most human thing we can do is share our grief with each other.

The collection begins with one woman’s individual grief over her brother’s death in “You Come Here Often.” The specificity in the details and the use of second person brings us close to this woman, adopting her grief as our own. From there we are given a guide through which to navigate a more collective notion of girlhood and womanhood in stories like “A Brief Natural History of How it is to be a Girl” and “A Brief Natural History of Lipstick.” Here we see many revelations related to female bodies, sexuality, and what it means to become a woman. The stories slip in and out of specificity, but they always stay open enough to allow the reader to feel they are a part of each life we see careening by us. The collection does not follow a single narrative but rather provides many short explorations of narrative that build on top of eachother with both associative and direct connections. For example, the bar in “You Come Here Often” is, “always tuned in to a Law and Order episode” linking it to the normalized violence towards women that is explored in the later story “A Brief Natural History of Law and Order.”As the collection progresses, all these small threads weave themselves together into an incredibly intricate fabric.

I find it striking and poignant that even in a collection dedicated to women, a story titled “A Brief Natural History of Our Fathers” should show up. This story, along with many others, first presents an idealized image of traditional gender roles and then with strong, poetic language, Freligh quickly strips away the veneer to reveal the belly of the beast: “Our fathers are men. What our mothers say when we ask why our fathers never cook or change diapers…Some of our fathers die drunk in head-ons or face down on the factory floor, their rotted hearts knotted as pine trees. Some of our fathers carry their coffins and try not to cry.” Freligh’s observations of masculinity are like a hot spotlight directed at these issues. Dedicating a story in this collection to a discussion of the way patriarchy has shaped male suffering feels both surprising and completely necessary at the same time. I was not expecting to see it here, and yet without it, the collection would feel incomplete. “A Brief Natural History of Our Fathers” utilizes the unique collective “we” and “us,” the first-person plural, to tell the story. Freligh does this in other places too, such as “Girl Talk,” “All We Wanted,” and many of the “A Brief Natural History of…” stories. The result of this choice is a feeling of collective understanding. The reader is being roped in with these women, and in a way we become them as we read. This can be said for Freligh’s use of the second-person perspective as well, which is used in stories like “A Brief Natural History of Law and Order” to bring readers more directly into the lives of these women. Suddenly we are being stuffed in a body bag and our dead body is being autopsied. In a moment we become the overworked mother in “Oh, the Water” and the burden of her decision to leave is now ours to bear too. In this way Freligh constantly reminds us that other peoples’ grief is not separate from ours, as much as we may like it to be.

Along with a masterful manipulation of perspective, Freligh’s use of metaphor creates throughlines that connect stories that may seem otherwise unrelated. A great example of this is the language surrounding cars and automobile machinery that can be found throughout the collection. In some places it’s obvious, such as the story “A Brief Natural History of the Automobile,” in which she uses the car to compare and commodify women: “You’re no longer a sports car but a utility vehicle whose body is chipped and dinged,” or when referring to an affair, “You understand completely. Your husband has always wanted a Mercedes, now he’s found himself a good used one.” However, cars crop up in many of the other stories in more subtle ways. The woman in “A Brief Natural History of Babies, Because” conceives a child in the back of a car, and the fathers in “A Brief Natural History of Our Fathers” are compared to “headlights on a wall, there and gone.” The car imagery that haunts this collection seems to often be associated with the disconnect between what we expect of ourselves and what we actually become. There is a sense of just trying to survive, and doing what you have to to get by. It also has a masculine connotation and reinforces how traditional gender roles often push men and women to their limits.

Freligh’s acute precision with language allows much of her prose to feel like poetry. In this way the collection almost seems to inhabit a liminal space between genres–it has a hand in everything. I think this perfectly conveys the personality of the collection. There is a refusal to compromise the women’s voices, and through the diversity of stories, a refusal to be boxed into any concrete narrative. This refusal is what sets this collection apart. Stories like “The Thing with Feathers” are candid about the fear that lurks in the ugly shadows of womanhood. The title’s reference to Emily Dickinson’s “Hope is the Thing with Feathers”, sets up the reader to expect an uplifting message of perseverance, but that’s not exactly what we get. As the narrator confesses her sadness to a stranger on the street, she shares a story of a woman named Denise in her support group saying what she is grateful for, “I’m alive, Denise said.” This strikes a chord with the narrator. She says she is grateful she doesn’t have cancer, and at times she almost wished her life did have a set expiration date so that she could be done with “the business of living.” Essentially, she lands on the thought, “I’m bankrupt. I’m alive.” Here Freligh refuses to romanticize suffering and instead cuts to the core of the feeling. Like Dickenson, Freligh embraces hope, but she acknowledges the limits to it as well. Hope does not have to be a mighty bird, and sometimes all it can be is a simple affirmation of endurance.

In our interview with her Freligh describes “A Brief Natural History of the Girls in the Office” as the story that inspired the title, and it isn’t hard to see why. Coming in at the end of the collection, its focus on female camaraderie shines a light on the way women bond over shared grief. The story follows a group of work friends who check in with each other as they grow older and life attempts to break their spirits. “A Brief Natural History of Girls in the Office” feels like a cornerstone story in this collection. It emphasizes the resilience that can be found even within mourning over painful life experiences, “The few of us who were left started bowling together on Wednesdays, pretending the pins we scattered were second wives or the exes who were late again with the support.” This resilience exists because of community. It is found in break rooms and bowling alleys, and readers are inclined to think about all the other places they’ve known this camaraderie to exist in; salons, kitchens, bar bathrooms, and college dorms to name a few. This isolated example of female friendship ends up transcending its own individual circumstances and, like every story in the collection, illuminates the power women hold in standing with each other against the relentless pain of life.

The last story of the collection “Mad” seems to bring us full circle, back to the woman we first sympathized with in “You Come Here Often.” The narrator’s aspirations are crumbling and “her heart is a stone” as she mourns her brother. The story ends with a mandated therapy appointment in which she is asked to draw what she thinks heaven looks like. With crayons she depicts a bar filled with plants and bird cages, comparing the birds’ beautiful singing to her late brother’s voice. Joe, her therapist, suggests, “Why don’t you open up the cage?…so she does. And oh, what a wild bird can do when set loose in doors.” This bird motif calls back to “The Thing With Feathers” only this time the bird’s wildness is big and destructive. This comparison also goes to show us how individual grief is intertwined with a myriad of other womens’ experiences, culminating in one final thought: “Such madness. Such carnage.” This final story ties together the entire collection and makes clear what Freligh wants to say about grief. Here the bird is still trapped indoors, causing wreckage–but she’s a little more free than she was in the cage. She can breathe just slightly easier; she has the space to express her pain as messily as she wants. Here Freligh resists the traditional Western conventions regarding grief. There is no insistence on moving on, only the recognition of all the complex weight that grieving women bear.

In more ways than one, this collection delivers on what the title offers. It is brief, and therefore not all-encompassing, however it is unflinching in its depictions of the lives real women lead. As the cover art suggests, it is an accumulation of small, but powerful, moments that reveal something larger. Sometimes it is beauty or grief, and always there is solidarity. A Brief Natural History of Women succeeds at an improbable task by interrogating womens’ grief and landing on a hopefulness that feels genuine and honest.

 

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11.2 | Book Review

Julia Grunes

Stephanie Vanderslice’s The Lost Son: A Review

Stephanie Vanderslice’s historical novel, The Lost Son, begins quietly, with its protagonist, Julia, waiting in an unwelcoming doctor’s office, “the vinyl edges of the examination table cold against her thighs.” The prose pulls the reader into the life of Julia, a German immigrant living in New York City in 1945, waiting to see if she is pregnant. Though she does not end up being pregnant, and the doctor says it is more likely that she is nearing menopause, this beginning sets up one of the defining characteristics of Julia: her motherhood. However, Vanderslice refuses to allow that to be Julia’s only defining characteristic. As the narrative flows back and forth from New York in 1945 to Julia’s childhood in Germany in 1910, the reader is shown how her intelligence and love for stories continues throughout her adulthood, even if they don’t seem to be as close to the forefront of her personality.

Vanderslice masterfully pulls the reader from place to place, time period to time period, with prose that sings, allowing the reader to hum with it, to become fully immersed in the settings that she has so artfully created. This immersion comes with the small details that are mentioned, like “a spot on the wooden table where someone had carved the initials JR SN inside a jagged heart” that Julia is running her fingertips over. With the use of these details, Vanderslice weaves together Julia’s past and present, revealing information with a gentle hand and at just the right time. When what has happened to her infant son Nicholas is revealed, the carefully placed thoughts about her husband Robert and her dread about remembering the infant’s “insistent tug on her breast” all begin to make sense. Julia is trapped in the past as she tries to survive in the present, and it only makes sense that the reader should be pulled into that same past as well.

Though Julia’s past is what motivates her for much of the novel, much of Vanderslice’s story focuses on the necessity of hope, on looking forward rather than back. Vanderslice encourages the idea of faith in humanity, even in the face of betrayal, even in the face of the horrors that the characters learn are occurring just overseas in the Second World War. In spite of the enormity of these events, Vanderslice reminds readers of a truth that is still relevant today: no matter the largeness of what is occurring, we are all still human. We are allowed to want things for ourselves and to be treated with respect, with love. One of the most poignant moments of the novel, in my opinion, is after Julia has gone on a date with Paul, and Vanderslice writes, “Julia wasn’t sure she had ever felt more listened to in all her life.”

In addition to its focus on motherhood and on womanhood, however, the novel explores a plethora of different topics, making it a story that any reader will find compelling.

Vanderslice touches on everything from the experience of soldiers in World War II, to the incubator babies on Coney Island, to the struggle of being an immigrant. The Lost Son refuses to be defined as only one thing, just as Julia refuses to be pigeonholed into any one role, whether that is as an immigrant, woman, or mother. Though this novel is surely historical, its themes follow us into the present day, and the questions that it presents about love and loss, about family and betrayal, are ones that will cause readers to take pause, to look at their own lives. Do you allow yourself to enjoy the moment, the life, that you are living in? Or have you become “so preoccupied with waiting” that you have “given no thought to what would happen afterwards”—whatever that afterwards is for you? Because there is always something. Something to wait for, to work towards. It is all too easy to forget to care for ourselves in the now, when there is always something that we can be reaching for, whether that something is in the present or in the past. For so much of her life, Julia struggles with allowing herself to be wanted, to be proud, to see her own worth.

As such, Julia’s lost son, Nicholas, represents the title of Vanderslice’s novel, but not the heart of it. In the end, Vanderslice allows Julia to come to the realization that, “all we can do is mend ourselves. Mend ourselves by reaching out for one another, even when it’s hard. When it’s frightening. Honor the dead by living. By telling their stories and inhabiting our own.” Julia realizes that she can be the beating heart of her own story, and by the end of The Lost Son, she has claimed this story, her life, as her own. Not Nicholas’, not her son Johannes’, not her sister Lena’s, not even Paul’s. Hers.

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11.1 | Book Review

Elizabeth Roos

Stephen J. West’s Soft-Boiled: An Investigation of Masculinity & the Writer’s Life: A Review

Stephen J. West’s Soft-Boiled follows the writer as he shadows the private investigator Frank Streets. Though much of the book takes place in rural West Virginia, West is a western New York native and attended SUNY Geneseo. To say the book is a memoir is a limiting description, as West also writes as a reporter, critic, and essayist—not only does he report his interactions with Frank Streets, but he also reflects upon his childhood and adolescence, his relationship with his wife, his experiences with fatherhood, and his purpose as a writer. In addition, West attempts to answer a question that many of us as writers grapple with: why do we write? And what does it mean to be an artist?

West’s title, Soft-Boiled, is a pun upon the genre of hard-boiled detective fiction, which the book both analyzes and scrutinizes. Intertwined with discussions of masculinity and artistry, West takes time to talk about the purpose of “escapist reading” and cites passages from W.H. Auden. In particular, West analyzes how these “whodunits” connect back to the idea of the Self-Made Man—a concept that West interrogates in detail in his book. He compares, alongside Auden, the mystery stories such as Sherlock Holmes to the hard-boiled, “depressing” stories of The Maltese Falcon kind—a story that Auden believed to be “works of art.” However, West proposes a different conclusion: as the narrative concerning Frank Streets culminates in his arrest, West drops the fiction analysis, and begins comparing his motivation to write to his own metaphorical Maltese falcon. He begins to wish that Streets is guilty, so that his book can conclude with excitement. In the end, however, he finds himself ashamed of this fact—while also finding it ultimately inconsequential to the heart of his own story.

The Self-Made Man is a concept that is central to this book—it is one of the main ideas West seeks to understand, and it is discussed alongside other concepts such as “traditional American masculinity” and “authentic American brand of manhood.” These concepts seem to arise out of West’s questioning of his own motives: why is he writing in the first place? Very early on, West recounts an interaction between him and a writer friend, where he confesses that he is “uninteresting at a macro level” and could be described by sociologist Erving Goffman as “the one unblushing male in America.” However, West continues on about his experiences with gender theory, and writes, “Yet I blush, dear reader. I blush for my desire to matter more than my privilege. I blush for my need to make art, even when my art is not needed.” This raises an important question that is, perhaps, unanswerable—however, by the end of his book, West makes a strong attempt to answer it.

West’s analysis of masculinity majorly remains focused on himself throughout the book. However on occasion he also extends his internal discussion to the subject of his writing inspiration, the private investigator Frank Streets. As previously mentioned, West is motivated by an interest in detective fiction; it is for this reason that he chooses Frank Streets to interview and shadow while writing his elusive first book. In West’s description of his first meeting with Streets, there are numerous comparisons between the reality that West experiences and his previous knowledge of fiction: “He’s no hard-boiled private dick,” West writes, “he is a man of obtuse angles, not the stuff dreamed up in a hard-boiled novel.” However, this is not to say that Streets completely subverts West’s expectations, or that he is something beyond West’s conceptions of masculinity. In fact, West writes that Streets is a “bear of a human” and that “the room felt smaller with him in it,” all familiar descriptors for a stereotypically masculine man.

It is evident in West’s recounting of interactions with Streets that he views himself and Streets in high contrast—West, in dissatisfaction with his own masculinity, describes Streets as incredibly masculine, and himself as unfortunately feminine. This is most evident in the handshake the men share: “My hands are not small [but] grasped in Frank Streets’s calloused paw, my hand looked girlish, like he might crush every bone in it by accident.” This is perhaps one of the most common ways that West reflects upon his masculinity throughout the book. In his descriptions of the interactions he has with others, he commonly writes his actions and dialog with negative and/or demeaning descriptors. Later on, during a meal shared with Streets and others, West describes himself as the following: “I sniffled and swallowed…I squawked…I chuckled and buried my face in my soda.” I found this detail to be intriguing; instead of using neutral descriptors, West chose these—why?

Perhaps because it lends itself to the idea that West embarked upon writing this book not only as “An Investigation of Masculinity” as the subtitle says, but as an investigation of “the Writer’s Life.” Aside from his chronicling of interactions with Frank Streets, West also analyzes his relationship with his wife and his experiences with fatherhood. In his recounting of a trip to Oaxaca, Mexico, to support the writing of his wife K, West laments, “that was before El and I nearly missed our flight because he wasn’t listed on my boarding pass; before I learned that a man traveling alone with an infant is more likely a human trafficker than a father…” What follows is a moving account of West struggling with his purpose in Oaxaca, his importance to his wife and child, as well as what it meant to be an artist. Following a tense conversation with K and an interaction with a street artist, West truly seems to open up to the possibility that he will never be a “writer smirking with the secrets of the world.”

It is at this point that the main ideas of the book come to a head. To be a writer has been West’s primary motivation for writing the book—a perhaps cyclic philosophy, but not one that has gone unquestioned by West. “Fuck books. Fuck art. Fuck the desire to be petty,” West writes. “Fuck all of it. I like being ordinary…Can I also be a man? Can I also be an artist?” Eventually, Frank Streets is cleared of all charges. Despite this, it appears that West has departed from his reasoning to writing about Streets. K has received a position teaching at SUNY Geneseo, and the pair have left West Virginia. West does not return to speak with Streets about his story; instead, he takes the final pages of the book to define himself. He reflects, once again, on the idea of his purpose. At the end of the exploration, West becomes content with his insecurity, and leads the reader to become content with theirs, as well.

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10.2 | Book Review

Alison DiCesare

Leslie Pietrzyk’s Admit This to No One: A Review

Leslie Pietrzyk’s short story collection, Admit This to No One, illuminates the lives of Washington D.C. residents. Following a cast of recurring characters whose lives are intertwined as well as several standalone narratives, Pietrzyk weaves social and political conflicts together in a series of stories that are all, ultimately, about power. In the words of the character Lexie, “politics is about power. Likely art is too.” Not a moment goes by when the reader is not painfully aware of the power dynamics between any given characters and the tension they create.

This book is set to the backdrop of Washington D.C., which, as a setting, serves as both a symbol and connective tissue. In the abstract, the city represents politics and how everyone in the stories wears some kind of mask. This theme of facade runs through the entire book, especially when it comes to the elusive Speaker; everyone says one thing and means another, hoping to be more powerful than someone else. She creates an enticing dissonance between the characters’ actions and their intentions that makes reading this book an experience akin to gossiping, complete with all of the accompanying discomfort and titillation. The city also connects the stories in a more literal way, bridging the gap between narratives that are, on the surface, unrelated. Two stories, “We Always Start with the Seduction,” and “People Love a View,” both take place on the Wilson Bridge, which invites comparison, even though the first is about the Speaker seducing interns and the second is about a couple attempting to intervene in an incident between a Black man and a police officer. The setting makes you think about how all of the characters are working to their own ends, pretending they’re noble (and, in some cases, believing it) as they disregard the wellbeing of the people around them.

A unique element of this collection is the cast of recurring characters that all exist in relation to the Speaker. The first story, “Till Death Do Us Part,” introduces Madison, the daughter of the Speaker and a woman he had an affair with who he largely abandoned in childhood, moving on to yet another new family. Madison, as a narrator, sets the tone for the entire collection, her voice injected with biting teenaged cynicism. She carries herself with an at times cringeworthy mixture of precociousness and naivete, scoffing at “cow-faced” bystanders who lack the status she has only because of her connection to a father who, when asked directly if he hates her, responds “I barely know you.” Pietrzyk revisits Madison in “Anything You Want,” and then again for the final story, “Every Man in History,” both of which show her struggling to connect romantically with men. In every story she’s in, she grapples with what love really is because the Speaker never taught her, only able to feebly declare that “I do want to love someone” as she sleeps with married men. Pietrzyk also follows Lexie, the Speaker’s daughter from his first marriage. Her first story, “Stay There,” stands out because it is the only one in the collection not set in Washington D.C., though it’s set largely on the journey there. Lexie is supposedly the one who escaped, the one who “stomped [the Speaker’s] goddamn heart” and got away with it, cutting him off and becoming an artist and professor, far away from the world of politics. Yet she still ends up drowning in the sea of her father, letting her own career implode for an affair, just as her father did, and desperate for a child so she can finally know unconditional love. After the Speaker left his family “with such shameful finality,” Lexie struggles to hold onto people, unable to shake this fear that they, too, will leave. He always holds that power over her, no matter how far she runs. In some ways, she has power over the student she’s dating. She’s powerless to aging, which she fears will cause the loss of her desirability, and along with it both her sexual power and power to have a child—this story is a tangled web of power structures imploding in on each other and themselves.

In addition to his daughters, the collection follows Mary Grace, a character who works for the Speaker and appears in “I Believe in Mary Worth” as well as the titular story, “Admit This to No One.” A cutthroat Washington insider, Mary Grace is the Speaker’s senior staffer, the most powerful person in the office until the boss walks through the door. Mary Grace is compelling because in “I Believe in Mary Worth,” Pietrzyk presents her as sympathetic, a woman struggling to make it in a man’s world and help other young women when she can. Yet, in “Admit This to No One,” she is revealed to be an opportunist. She is with the Speaker because of where he can take her career, and cares more about getting ahead than whether or not she hurts people, stating that, to her, “bad news is perversely good news, because it’s a sure indication that she’s important. That she’s powerful.” The Speaker, though the driving force behind all these narratives, is only a protagonist in two stories, “We Always Start with the Seduction” and “Admit This to No One.” The former is fascinating in how distant and disingenuous the Speaker feels, even as we glean some insight into his inner world for the first time. Even at his most personal, the reader is held back and the mask never slips; he is so infuriatingly in control of his own narrative that even as he contemplates jumping off the Wilson Bridge, he views it from the perspective of the media, wondering “how the headline reporting his death would read, the size of the font.” His manipulation of events runs so deep that even the narrative lies to the reader to favor his version of reality, Pietrzyk ending the story in the masterful move of revealing “He’s lying, of course. Of course he is,” making the reader feel both betrayed at the manipulation and stupid for ever believing him.

The stories that stand alone, detached from this web of recurring characters, still focus on power, just in different ways, often stepping away from political and parental power. “Wealth Management,” the second story in the collection, focuses on two couples having dinner while the narrator’s wife, Chloe, is having an affair with the other man at the table, who she calls her “work husband.” This story had every muscle in my body clenched as all four grappled for power: the narrator, Drew, doesn’t care about his wife but is determined to prove himself to be superior to her work husband and also humiliate her as punishment; Chloe and her work husband are flirting overtly, and the work husband’s wife is flirting with Drew in order to get back at her husband. The whole scene, which consists solely of the couples talking at a table in a restaurant, is a power struggle that reveals that none of them care if they hurt each other or even innocent bystanders as long as they win. “People Love a View,” also has four people acting towards their own ends, only this time there are much higher, more physical stakes as a Black man is pulled over by a cop and his dog is mortally wounded. A woman, Jillian, inserts herself into the situation in order to help, but really only cares about keeping up the appearance of a good person and the social currency she will obtain from it. Her date, Patrick, scorns her even at the risk of appearing racist because she’s making him uncomfortable. The Black man goads the cop into shooting his dog just to make him feel bad. Again, everyone’s only thinking about themselves. This story and “This Isn’t Who We Are” deal primarily with racial power, “People Love a View” addressing white people being performatively antiracist and “This Isn’t Who We Are” dealing with internalized racism. The latter slips into the realm of metafiction, which happens twice in the book, ending with the haunting command “Read this, and pretend that it’s not about you. Publish it, uneasily, as ‘fiction,’” a call to accountability from Pietrzyk herself. Indeed, the use of metafiction calls into question the power dynamics of the whole collection, written by a white woman who has power over all of the narratives.

One of the greatest strengths in Pietrzyk’s execution of this collection is her ability to write unlikable characters who are fleshed out, compelling, and for whom you end up rooting. As Jillian gets a man’s dog killed on the Wilson Bridge, the readers cannot be confident that she would have been a better person if she had walked away. As the Speaker’s daughters hurt their romantic partners, we can’t shake our pity for their misunderstanding of love, even when that romantic partner is a student being exploited by a professor. As Mary Grace grabs shamelessly at power, dismissing a sexual assault survivor on her staff, we attribute wisdom to her decisions because of how much she has struggled as a woman to make it in politics. Even the Speaker, so cold and calculated, has a moment when he claims that “He deserves this delight,” and doesn’t everyone deserve to find happiness, really?” There are no heroes and villains in this book. Every single character does at least one questionable thing, and none of them get happy endings; Pietrzyk often ends on disquieting moments with no closure. This collection is about the fight for power, and how it seeps into every aspect of one’s life—personal, social, political. The book doesn’t shy away from the gritty nuances of this struggle as it captures all the things that power really means.


Alison DiCesare is a senior English creative writing major with a minor in film studies. At school she is a tutor for the Writing Learning Center, the secretary of Circus Club, and a dancer for Orchesis. At home she spends her time reading, writing, watching YouTube, and practicing her belief that dessert can (should) be eaten all hours of the day.

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Maria Pawlak

Gail Hosking’s Retrieval: A Review

Less than a year ago, the United States ended its longest-ever conflict. The country left Afghanistan without grace, hiding highly-publicized videos of departure behind policy and promises. For many, it was an all too familiar scene. Forty-six years earlier, the United States ended its then-longest war in much the same way: carelessly and without poise. Even now, the U.S. government clings to technicalities in order to avoid officially calling what transpired in Vietnam a “war” at all. But its legacy endures. In her book, Retrieval, poet Gail Hosking demands that readers wrestle with the discomfort of a war many would rather forget: one that took her father from her. Through her skillful writing, deft descriptions, and immense vulnerability, Hosking takes the reader on a tour of her memory—a tour that’s fundamental to understanding the enduring history the Vietnam War era leaves behind on a human level.

While the book is split into three sections, Hosking makes the conscious choice to shy away from distinctly ordered memory. The poems do not follow the chronological order of the speaker’s life. Rather, they feel spontaneous and disjointed, attacking and retreating like soldiers without commands. The opening poem, “Chance and Hope,” sets the stage for the ensuing exploration into memory with the observations of a child. Hosking writes, “[m]y father put together survival kits…concentrating like a character / with his script of danger, his story of men.” By comparing the narrator’s father to a character with a script from the onset of the collection, Hosking explores the falsehood of eager duty that much of the country was lulled into during the war.

She repeats this assertion in the second section of the book in the poem “Notes From the Underground,” writing that the soldiers “knew the war was run by politicians / but went anyway because that’s what soldiers do.” The speaker carries more cynicism here, well aware of the politicized nature of the war, but that doesn’t change the fact that soldiers do what they’re told. In the very next line, she imagines that the soldiers are the “ones who help paint a picture—a case of hand grenades / under my dad’s cot…” Once again, these soldiers are not mere men; they are painters setting a scene like the character with a “script of danger” that Hosking imagines the speaker’s father to be in the opening poem. It’s with this expert reimagining and returning that Hosking lets the speaker explore the same experiences and memories more than once, each with new heartbreaking observations and declarations.

Hosking’s poem, “Personal Effects,” is emblematic of the expert skill present throughout Retrieval. Bare-bones and practical, “Personal Effects” is a list that goes through each of her soldier father’s belongings. Alliteration threads the seemingly simple poem from start to end, opening with the line “[s]ix short-sleeve shirts / four wash-and-wear trousers.” While the opening is innocuous enough—who among us hasn’t packed T-shirts and simple shorts in our travel bags?—each consecutive line ups the ante. The final several lines pack a punch:

six month’s gratuity pay

one signed statement

I fully recognize the hazards involved

one black body bag.

Phrases like “signed statement” and “black body bag” invite the reader to enjoy delicate, alliterative language even as the implication of these words leaves a hole in one’s heart. As one reads, the practicality gives way to tragic truth in the form of a life signed away. Hosking knows to leave her readers gasping; she doesn’t have to spell out what that black body bag means for the speaker’s loved one. It’s clear enough after a simple four-word line. The restraint of this poem paired with the more exploratory nature of “Hope and Chance” and “Notes from the Underground” demonstrate the dichotomy between the truth of the fact at hand—that men are packing up their bags and going to war—and how it feels to witness this as a daughter of one of those men.

Throughout Retrieval, Hosking’s voice never falters. While “Personal Effects” might end with a plain yet foreboding “black body bag,” it’s “A Life” that says plainly, “[t]he week he is killed she cooks / black-eyed peas and ham hocks,” as if the death of one’s father is no bigger an event than a rainstorm or grocery trip. By choosing to go small when exploring huge wells of emotion, in this case grief, Hosking hooks the reader with an understated, restrained tone.

Visiting her memories through Retrieval is a journey the reader is lucky to go on; an experience that leaves one changed. Through each poem, Hosking picks apart a sliver of history on two levels, one personal and one wrestling with the legacy the Vietnam war era has left behind. From “think[ing] about what your father / goes through over there / in the jungle…” to newer memories that invite “a calm settling inside me, my heart / opening from rusted chambers,” the clarity and contemplation of Retrieval leaves one mournful yet serene and, surprisingly, full of hope.

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9.2 | Book Review

Rebecca Williamson

Albert Abonado’s JAW: A Review

The mouth is crucial to our identity. It is vital for our most basic need of eating, but it is also essential for language, love, and song. It’s with our mouths, after all, that we form our most important and difficult questions: who am I? Where do I belong? In JAW, poet Albert Abonado, a first-generation Filipino American, explores identity, family, and culture. With attention to the human body—specifically the various parts of the mouth—Abonado probes what it means to be both Filipino and American. In poems that are both serious and funny, Abonado tackles the question of identity and reveals the challenges of sustaining one’s cultural heritage.

The collection  begins with “America Tries to Remove a Splinter,” a poem about assimilation. Despite America promising it will be quick, the reader understands there is a cost to the extraction: 

you will not notice how

I have put my hands inside your bones which are hollow 

which are your father          your mother         I have your hand

on my palm       how does this feel

The person who has the splinter never responds in this poem, but the following poems provide some answers. In the poem “How to Unbend the Tongue.” The speaker admits he has tried to learn Tagalog, but can’t fully master it. He wishes he was comfortable “to say / blood and dick with sincerity” in Tagalog but can’t do so. In the end, he is unable to unbend his tongue to speak the language of his family. Another poem that explores language is “The Greeting,” where the speaker dreams about his father’s tongue, “how it contracts, isolated, / enters the world already heavy / and blackened.” 

Family history is also examined as a way of understanding what it means to be Filipino American. The second section of the collection is focused on Tito Manuel, who Abonado said in an interview on The Sundress Blog is based on his deceased Uncle and his stories of surviving World War II. In “Tito Manuel Escapes the Death March,” the speaker says:

No offense to the man whose
body I hide beneath, but I am good
at being dead

regardless of what
my urine soaking
in the ground might suggest. 

The  image of the speaker—Tito Manuel—burying himself under a dead body to remain alive is harrowing and reveals how significant experiences of inherited trauma might become woven into one’s identity. Tito Manuel’s story becomes another layer of what it means to be a Filipino American, especially how such identities are heightened during war. 

In JAW’s third section, Abonado turns to popular culture to further explore identity. Through poems that address Harold and Kumar, the Asian characters in the buddy film Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, Abonado questions the losses of immigration, the challenges of  assimilation, and the damning effects of stereotyping. In the poem, “The Darkest Sugars Are Always the Sweetest,” the speaker says:

Kumar, 
you and I are great Americans. We have great American 
Hands and great American hair. Great American American holes 
in the elbows of our button downs and great American 
teeth with great American coffee stains.

Here, Abonado seems as if he is persuading Kumar of their shared Americanness, the proof is the love of Coca-Cola, that most American of beverages, and the rotten teeth it creates. Indeed, the speaker “cannot stop singing about its virtues to [his] wife.” In “The Mercy Suit” we are again confronted with images of the mouth, though here it stays closed: “Kumar, I have watched my loved / ones do this, leave behind holes / where their voice should be.”

The final section feels like a reconciliation of the Filipino and the American within the speaker. “Someday I Will Love Albert Abonado” acknowledges that the name—Albert—had belonged to the speaker’s grandfather’s. Albert is told “learn / to love your spine, which is a collection of your mother’s / spindles, love the fingers that break each time you use them / to count.” Here, our speaker returns to the body to plead with Albert to love himself. He encourages Albert to see the name as “sweetened,” a bounty,  “harvested again.”

JAW is about family, identity, immigration, and what gets left behind. As the collection ends with “Self-Portrait as a Wisdom Tooth,” the speaker says, “I collide against myself, recoil from / my ghostly hum. I do not own / the blood that passes beneath me, but I threaten its alignment.” JAW, a moving and resonant collection, is a reckoning with the past and the future as the speaker in “Idle” says:

They followed a star here 

They came looking for myrrh          This is an old story

Maybe you’ve heard it before

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9.1 | Book Review

Sara Devoe

Sonya Bilocerkowycz’s On Our Way Home from the Revolution: A Review

People have various identities. There is one’s gender identity, cultural identity, ethnic identity, sexual identity, and so on. But what does it mean to take pride in one’s identity? What defines one’s identity? Is it understanding one’s own roots? Is it participation in certain cultural events? Is it going to the Ukrainian restaurant in the East Village of Manhattan, or sacrificing relationships to fight in a revolution? In her collection of essays, On Our Way Home from the Revolution, Sonya Bilocerkowycz tackles these questions as she explores her identity as a Ukrainian American. 

On Our Way Home From the Revolution is comprised of fifteen essays in which Bilocerkowycz pieces out where exactly she fits in the timeline of the Ukrainian Revolution. In doing this, her essays look at family relationships, culturally immersive experiences, and travel to show a changing sense of what it means to be Ukrainian. We are welcomed into Bilocerkowycz’s Ukrainian heritage and invited to watch memories of her family (specifically her Busia, which is Ukrainian for grandmother) play out. Busia is a central figure throughout these essays; guiding Bilocerkowycz on her journey of self-discovery from afar. On their relationship, Bilocerkowycz says, “I don’t know where Busia ends and where I begin.”  Bilocerkowycz travels to the Ukraine to teach English, where she experiences revolution firsthand. 

Extensive research also informs this collection. For instance, “Word Portrait” is a document taken from police files which lists the characteristics of Bilocerkowycz’s grandfather, also known as prisoner No.XXXXX, who was arrested for betrayal. Bilocerkowycz obtained this through emailing the Ukrainian archives about her grandfather. Other instances of research mixed with speculation are the multiperspectivity that lies in “Duck and Cover.” Bilocerkowycz imagines herself in the shoes of several different people. She imagines herself as Sasha, an eight-year-old student who was present at the time of the 2013 Chelyabinsk meteor. “Duck and cover is what your fourth-grade teacher screamed, but what she meant is this is war,” she would say to Sasha. Bilocerkowycz also puts herself in the shoes of Anna Politkovskaya, a Ukrainian journalist who was murdered in an elevator. Bilocerkowycz says, “Ten years later, when my grandmother dies, I will admire her crown of glory and think about where I came from.”

The essays stand alone, but together the effect is one, long story with intertwined characters and once central conflict–a search for identity. The interconnectedness we see between “The Village (Fugue),” “The Village (Reprise),” and “The Village (De Capo)” is a great example of this. All three stories follow Bilocerkowycz’s grandfather, and her journey of discovering his past actions. In “The Village (Fugue),” we are told by Busia about the village elder in the small Ukrainian village, who then becomes Bilocerkowycz’s grandfather who was aiding the Germans in “The Village (Reprise).” Despite what she learns about her grandfather, Bilocerkowycz does not let the facts erase what she feels for this country and her people. In “The Village (De Capo),” she tells the reader “…I am telling my daughter she may go to the revolution. Which means I am telling my granddaughter, too: Yes, of course, leave home and go.”

Bilocerkowycz’s use of vivid imagery makes the reader feel as though they are experiencing life alongside her. With just its title, “I Saw the Sunshine Melting” offers a both innocent and eerie way to describe the Chernobyl disaster of 1986. Bilocerkowycz mentions how many of the bus drivers, one including her great-uncle’s cousin whose name they don’t know, got out as evacuation was occurring and sunbathed, blissfully unaware of radiation poisoning. Readers would also be struck by the imagery in “Encyclopedia of Earthly Things,” a story that is written entirely about Bilocerkowycz’s affiliations with certain words–like the word “poppy,” which she describes as, “Petals of red paper, easily lost. Suggests virginity. The seeds are also like fish eggs.” Each word or object she describes comes along with a resonant image affiliated with her Busia, and although some are sweet, some are brutal, like “A Sunflower Field,” which she describes as, “…a graveyard. It is a cemetery for Boeing plane parts.” 

Though On Our Way Home from the Revolution is rich in history, it is not just a collection for history lovers. Unlike history books, Bilocerkowycz immerses readers in another’s life. We come to understand the emotional reckoning Bilocerkowycz has undergone. As much as this is a collection of essays about revolution, it is also about the yearning to discover one’s place in the world. As Bilocerkowycz asks, “Am I just a reflection of a reflection?” It is a collection for readers who desire to open themselves to harsh realities and see how those realities pave ways for new beginnings. 

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8.1 | Book Review

Nicole Callahan

Aisha Sharif’s To Keep From Undressing: a Review

What is the connotation of the word “performance?” Our primary association with “performance” is the theatrical; our understanding of performance has become inextricably linked to the idea of something pretended, something acted out but not done. We think of performance as dishonest. To perform humility or joy is not understood to be the same as to be humble or joyous.

That may be why people dismiss the idea that identity is a type of performance. To say that identity is what you do and not simply what you are is often an uncomfortable proposition. Many people find comfort in identarian labels—for good reason. Labels like “woman” or “man,” “gay” or “trans,” “Chinese” or “Jewish,” unite individuals with shared experiences and allow for societal comprehension of complex concepts. Aisha Sharif’s collection of poetry, To Keep from Undressing, resonates with a truth seldom expressed so thoroughly: that identity is a performance. A complicated, contradictory performance, clearly, but a sincere one, nonetheless. Throughout her collection, Sharif’s speakers wrestle with their lived experiences. They are Black, Muslim-American women; daughters, sisters, wives, mothers, and poets. The way these identities interact is at the very heart of Sharif’s work, it informs the structure of her poetry and her understanding that each identity is its own intricate performance.

To Keep from Undressing is divided into five sections. Each includes a part of the poem “If my Parents Hadn’t Converted: Questions and Answers,” which straddles the line between humorous and sincere hypothetical scenarios. The poem explores how the speaker’s entire life was shaped by one decision. Christian Aisha, or “Marian Elizabeth” would have had a prom dress “just short enough / to reveal / [her] knees.” When asked how many Muslims the Christian version of herself would “actually befriend,” she leaves no response at all. The poem serves as a pillar to the collection, always returning it to the key questions of who we are and how our experiences shape us. Sharif suggests that her Christian self is still her in a way, but that despite the fact that we all have various versions of ourselves contained within us, the Christian Aisha is missing certain key experiences that are an important part of her current identity.

The experimentation with structure in Sharif’s poems establishes her poetic identity. Sharif manipulates the formal aspects of poetry to build upon new ideas. Her poems’ experimental structures further emphasize the importance of performance. In the poem “A Mathematical Expression of Faith,” the relationship between the speaker’s family’s old Christian ways and the new Muslim ways they practice is presented as an equation to balance. Many poems have a call-and-response structure or a song-like quality to them. “After School on the City Bus, Memphis, TN,” for example, is performed as a school yard chant. At a live reading of the poem, Sharif’s voice echoed out the words of a juvenile bully, a taunt which she wishes she had responded to with a song of her own, by singing “Muslims know god.” Poetry’s very roots lie in performance, and these poems emphasize that relationship. Sharif has a firm understanding of her poems’ sonic qualities and the way they play with language and vernacular, for example in “Hijab Be,” where Sharif discusses the versatility and freedom of her fellow hajabis, how “Hijab be prayin’ still. / Hijab be raisin’ hell.” She combines and shapes her different identities and different schools of thought—scientific, schoolyard, Black, Muslim—to establish the identity of her work.

The collection’s philosophy on identity culminates in “The Fitting Room,” where Sharif’s speaker explains to a non-Muslim saleswoman why she wears the hijab. The speaker questions her own choice to cover, though she doesn’t reveal this to the saleswoman. Despite the way she questions her faith, she chooses to put her hijab back on, “pinning the performance in place.” This action is her way of performing faith through her doubt, which shows the complexity of her relationship to covering. Sharif’s hijab reifies her belief in a concrete way. In the simple act of putting on a headscarf, a mere performance, she creates her identity.

In contrast to the act of dressing, the creation of poetry serves as a symbolic undressing. Sharif’s work is the dissolution of identity markers to reach at the undefined internal experience. The collection takes its name from a line found in “Iddah: Part II,” which explores the time after the speaker’s sister got divorced. The sister lies stagnant in yesterday’s clothes, she does “anything to keep from undressing.” When considering the way in which putting on a hijab cemented her external identity in “The Fitting Room,” the act of dressing becomes synonymous with performing identity. In this way, her sister’s fear of undressing signifies an unwillingness to lose her identity of “wife.”

To Keep from Undressing balances the creation and deconstruction of identity. The collection constructs identities, as contradictory and complex as they may be, but it also deconstructs the actions we take to create our identities. It dresses and undresses the poet. To Keep from Undressing is itself a performance that created something real.


Nicole Callahan is working towards a degree at a college. She has done some things, does other things currently, and would like to do still other things in the future. When she isn’t in one place, she can often be found at another. She loves certain books, foods, and activities.

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Nicole Callahan

Aisha Sharif’s To Keep From Undressing: A Review

What is the connotation of the word “performance?” Our primary association with “performance” is the theatrical; our understanding of performance has become inextricably linked to the idea of something pretended, something acted out but not done. We think of performance as dishonest. To perform humility or joy is not understood to be the same as to be humble or joyous.

That may be why people dismiss the idea that identity is a type of performance. To say that identity is what you do and not simply what you are is often an uncomfortable proposition. Many people find comfort in identitarian labels—for good reason. Labels like “woman” or “man,” “gay” or “trans,” “Chinese” or “Jewish,” unite individuals with shared experiences and allow for societal comprehension of complex concepts. Aisha Sharif’s collection of poetry, To Keep from Undressing, resonates with a truth seldom expressed so thoroughly: that identity is a performance. A complicated, contradictory performance, clearly, but a sincere one, nonetheless. Throughout her collection, Sharif’s speakers wrestle with their lived experiences. They are Black, Muslim-American women; daughters, sisters, wives, mothers, and poets. The way these identities interact is at the very heart of Sharif’s work, it informs the structure of her poetry and her understanding that each identity is its own intricate performance.

To Keep from Undressing is divided into five sections. Each includes a part of the poem “If my Parents Hadn’t Converted: Questions and Answers,” which straddles the line between humorous and sincere hypothetical scenarios. The poem explores how the speaker’s entire life was shaped by one decision. Christian Aisha, or “Marian Elizabeth” would have had a prom dress “just short enough / to reveal / [her] knees.” When asked how many Muslims the Christian version of herself would “actually befriend,” she leaves no response at all. The poem serves as a pillar to the collection, always returning it to the key questions of who we are and how our experiences shape us. Sharif suggests that her Christian self is still her in a way, but that despite the fact that we all have various versions of ourselves contained within us, the Christian Aisha is missing certain key experiences that are an important part of her current identity.

The experimentation with structure in Sharif’s poems establishes her poetic identity. Sharif manipulates the formal aspects of poetry to build upon new ideas. Her poems’ experimental structures further emphasize the importance of performance. In the poem “A Mathematical Expression of Faith,” the relationship between the speaker’s family’s old Christian ways and the new Muslim ways they practice is presented as an equation to balance. Many poems have a call-and-response structure or a song-like quality to them. “After School on the City Bus, Memphis, TN,” for example, is performed as a school yard chant. At a live reading of the poem, Sharif’s voice echoed out the words of a juvenile bully, a taunt which she wishes she had responded to with a song of her own, by singing “Muslims know god.” Poetry’s very roots lie in performance, and these poems emphasize that relationship. Sharif has a firm understanding of her poems’ sonic qualities and the way they play with language and vernacular, for example in “Hijab Be,” where Sharif discusses the versatility and freedom of her fellow hijabis, how “Hijab be prayin’ still. / Hijab be raisin’ hell.” She combines and shapes her different identities and different schools of thought—scientific, schoolyard, Black, Muslim—to establish the identity of her work.

The collection’s philosophy on identity culminates in “The Fitting Room,” where Sharif’s speaker explains to a non-Muslim saleswoman why she wears the hijab. The speaker questions her own choice to cover, though she doesn’t reveal this to the saleswoman. Despite the way she questions her faith, she chooses to put her hijab back on, “pinning the performance in place.” This action is her way of performing faith through her doubt, which shows the complexity of her relationship to covering. Sharif’s hijab reifies her belief in a concrete way. In the simple act of putting on a headscarf, a mere performance, she creates her identity.

In contrast to the act of dressing, the creation of poetry serves as a symbolic undressing. Sharif’s work is the dissolution of identity markers to reach at the undefined internal experience. The collection takes its name from a line found in “Iddah: Part II,” which explores the time after the speaker’s sister got divorced. The sister lies stagnant in yesterday’s clothes, she does “anything to keep from undressing.” When considering the way in which putting on a hijab cemented her external identity in “The Fitting Room,” the act of dressing becomes synonymous with performing identity. In this way, her sister’s fear of undressing signifies an unwillingness to lose her identity of “wife.”

To Keep from Undressing balances the creation and deconstruction of identity. The collection constructs identities, as contradictory and complex as they may be, but it also deconstructs the actions we take to create our identities. It dresses and undresses the poet. To Keep from Undressing is itself a performance that created something real.

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Volume 7 | Book Review

Rachel Britton

Ófeigur Sigursson’s Öræfi: The Wasteland, translated by Lytton Smith

The first line of Ófeigur Sigurðsson’s Öræfi: The Wasteland prepares its readers for a journey of self-searching: “The glacier gives back what it takes, they say, eventually brings it to light.” As I stood in the Skaftafell Visitor Center last summer, peering into a glass case of human debris from the 1953 British expedition on Öræfajökull, I could feel the glacial cracks in my bones. Broken tent poles. Pieces of clothing. Snapped skis. When the jökulhlaup swept those students away, a glacial rush of silt and water, it erased roads, street signs, buried cairns under snow. 

From a distance, the Vatnajökull glacier seemed smaller, though it covers eight percent of Iceland’s surface; but standing out on one of its many tongue glaciers, crampons digging for stability, the ice seemed to be all that ever was. On my way to Öræfi, I traveled with Sigurðsson’s protagonist Bernharður Fingurbjörg across the south of the island, exploring its landscapes, environmental conservancy, and the history of death metal. Fingurbjörg, a toponymy student from Vienna, is conducting research for his doctoral thesis on place names and simultaneously searching for answers about his mother’s experience at Mávabyggðir, a peak on the ice cap where the seagulls reportedly roost. He is braving the glacier when he is viciously attacked by a wild sheep and forced to crawl all the way down to the same Skaftafell Visitor Center. There, his story is interpreted.

In Lytton Smith’s translation of this Icelandic novel, place names become important markers, without which the protagonist and readers would be lost. Perhaps the most repeated word in the book is just that: lost. Fingurbjörg, who shares a last name with one of his destinations, admits early on that he is “going to Mávabyggðir to find [himself] because [he is] lost in the world.” And so names guide like trail posts throughout the journey. Sigurðsson is clever, drawing connections to classic Icelandic literature like Burnt Njal’s Saga and the Poetic Edda—naming a character after the latter allows the name-revering Fingurbjörg to literally have a romantic affair with poetry. Once we realize the wit behind character and place names, we find ourselves paying particular attention, constantly making connections to names and their inscribed meanings. Sigurðsson makes toponymists of us all.

As Bernharður moves from Reykjavík to Öræfi, he accumulates a band of companions. Each given a name that encompasses their identity, they teach Bernharður about the land he’s traversing, offering impromptu and sometimes incorrect history lessons. The Regular, sometimes known as The Guest, is a particular mentor, getting the poet Bragi to provide Bernharður with a free collection of books—must-reads, according to the mentor. Bernharður lugs these with him in a bottomless trunk that follows him wherever he goes. He describes the trunk as “an extension of [his] body,” and carries in it all his books, possessions, and cakes that his mother made for him to take on this journey. It even becomes a shelter, in which he can sleep, court Snorri’s-Edda, and store his spices, especially his beloved caraway. 

Sigurðsson’s novel becomes a meditation on truth and fiction. As stories are told and retold, by Bernharður and a veterinarian named Dr. Lassi and an interpreter and the unnamed Auth., we must decipher and decide what it real and what is not. The Regular speaks to this in one of his rants, saying “the novel is the author’s role, driven by fantasies and delusions, he shapes himself in fiction, finds his style and finally the style becomes the author’s role, his character, the man himself is lost…” The novel is presented as a letter Bernharður has sent to Auth. A quite thorough, 200-page letter.

Formally, Öræfi rarely comes to a complete stop. The prose continues down the page in long sentences, often pausing only with the assistance of a comma, reminiscent of the miðnætursól, the midnight sun that stretches Iceland’s days long and thin. The story, in this way, moves as though it is told directly through dialog, carrying on without pause; no matter how difficult the hike or painful the recited tale of Captain Koch’s Greenland expedition, the plot pushes on into the unknown. This distinct form carries readers through Bernharður’s journey—through The Regular’s rants, through the sheep attack, through the blinding erasure of a glacier. 

Sigurðsson’s novel is a clever, funny, and philosophical exploration of truth, land, and self. In the most basic sense, Öræfi: The Wasteland is the story of a tourist who comes to Iceland and falls into a crevasse. Along the way, we are swung around the twists and turns of human life—its truths and fictions—and led to question how we might make myth of our own lives. 

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