Month: November 2020

Voice to Books – Episode One

A note from the curators:

Being avid readers, we have always looked for book recommendations or reviews. As readers from minority communities, it became clear during high school we were not hearing about authors or reading about characters who represented what we saw in the mirror. Voice to Books hopes to shed light on diverse voices through literature from all marginalized communities, including BIPOC and LGBTQ+, by focusing on authors of varying backgrounds. We will select a topic for each month, reach out to reviewers from different walks of life, and compile the reviews together for a smooth-flowing, entertaining, and educational post.

In this inaugural post of Voice to Books, we hope to honor and celebrate how Black Americans made their voices heard throughout 2020 and during this recent election. Black communities have long suffered oppression due to systematic and outright racism but have also contributed more to the arts than many may realize or acknowledge. Below are five books by Black authors reviewed by five women of color. Readers can find copies of each of the reviewed books at Books and Crannies, a Black-owned independent bookstore.

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Reviewed by Sarah Sheppeck (author)
Americanah tells the story of Ifemelu, a Nigerian woman who moves to the United States to escape the political climate of her home country. Ifemelu is forced, quickly, to assimilate to American culture, which includes, by and large, the erasure of her Nigerian heritage, as in America all Black people are just that—Black.
Unfolding largely in flashback, the relationship between race and cultural identity is a strong theme throughout. The critiques are scathing, but the truth behind them is undeniable. In 2020, with discussions of race, culture, class, and immigration frequently at the forefront of societal analysis, Adichie’s text remains just as relevant, if not more so, as it was upon publication in 2013.
Americanah is long—hovering at around 500 pages—but the narrative is clean and succinct. Chimamanda Adichie reflects the beliefs and behaviors of American society back to us, illuminating all of our well-intentioned but misguided actions, our ignorance, and our failed attempts to understand what is, for many, impossible to understand: what it’s like to be something other than white in American society.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdom by N.K. Jemisin

Reviewed by Grayce Butler (student, tour guide)
In N.K. Jemisin’s novel The Hundred Thousand Kingdom, there are many checked boxes for what readers are looking for in a fantasy novel. Matriarchal tribe of badass warriors? Check. High-fantasy setting with political intrigue? Check. POC protagonist navigating said intrigue? Check! Yet, many readers may have no idea these boxes exist for them until they begin reading The Hundred Thousand Kingdom. The first in a trilogy, this installment revolves around Yeine Darr, daughter of the leader of a barbarian tribe in the north. A series of events bring Darr to the city of Sky where she is introduced to the Arameri family. She learns that she is a possible heir to the kingdom that the Arameri have ruled over for thousands of years. She then uncovers family secrets that have far-reaching consequences.
At times, the story did seem convoluted, but it feels intentional. With a complicated storyline in the vein of Alice in Wonderland, Darr has fallen into a world that is completely different than the one she is used to. Jemisin captures the feeling of being an outsider wonderfully, while creating realistic scenarios even in a high-fantasy setting. Fantasy novels can be hit or miss, but Jemisin’s novel is a definite hit. This book is a breath of fresh air to the genre.

Futureland by Walter Mosley

Reviewed by Darienne K. E. Jordan (director, writer, small business owner)
Are you a fan of dystopian, science fiction, Afro-futuristic literature? Then you need this book. Futureland by Walter Mosley is a collection of nine loosely connected short stories set in a dystopian universe where wealthy technocrats rule. Through each of these stories, Mosley highlights issues around drugs, capitalism, mental health, racism, and the prison industrial complex in a riveting way. There are strong elements of technology and Afro-futurism woven throughout the book, carving out space for Black people in a genre that often minimizes or excludes them.
This book has the vibes of Fahrenheit 451 meets 1984 with its own diverse twist. Although it was published in 2001, many of the themes explored within the collection of stories are relevant in today’s society. The stories are well-written and stand on their own but also tie together in an artful way that gives a clear picture of the larger universe. Mosley does an excellent job of hooking the reader and keeping them captivated with a detailed and distinct view of the world and its happenings. Be ready to re-read often.

The Sound of Stars by Alechia Dow

Reviewed by Daniela Z. Montes (author, teacher, library technician)
The Sound of Stars is a science fiction novel by Alechia Dow. Two years before the start of the novel, Earth was invaded by an alien race called the Ilori. Humans met the Ilori with force, which resulted in the death of one-third of the human population. In the present, we meet seventeen-year-old Janelle “Ellie” Baker, a human girl who lives in an Ilori-controlled center in New York. The Ilori banned books, music, and art believing the arts lead to resistance. Ellie puts herself at risk by lending out her books to the other people in the center. One day, her signed copy of The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas goes missing, and she’s terrified because the Ilori could find her based on the dedication. Her punishment would be death. Much to Ellie’s surprise, the person who took her book is an Ilori named M0Rr1S who has one request: for her to bring him music. Ellie is confused by the request because Ilori aren’t supposed to express feelings, let alone enjoy human things like music. Chaos ensues, and Ellie and M0Rr1S travel across the United States to save humanity.
Readers will not stop gushing about this book. Alechia Dow does a wonderful job writing characters. None of them feel static, even those who are only briefly on the page. Ellie is a black, demisexual, chubby girl with wild curls that she tucks under a purple beanie. She loves books and is brave but riddled with anxiety at the same time. Readers will connect with Ellie’s personality, struggles, and triumphs. Then there is M0Rr1S, a lab-made alien boy who is kind and understanding. He loves to sing and enjoys music. Throughout the novel, Dow will put reader’s emotions through the wringer. They will cry, laugh, and have their hearts soar with joy. They will cherish reading the pockets of happiness Ellie and M0Rr1s are able to find on their way to saving humanity.

My Sister the Serial Killer by Oyinkan Braithwaite

Reviewed by A.E. Santana (author, editor)
Set in Lagos, Nigeria, this witty, quick-paced thriller follows level-headed older sister Korede, a hard-working nurse who is seemingly passed over in life by her beautiful, charismatic, yet childish sister Ayoola. But it soon becomes clear that no amount of sibling rivalry or personal resentment will keep Korede from protecting her family.
Braithwaite does an amazing job of showing her characters to the readers. There is no slow, detailed explanation for why they are doing what they do. They just do it. All the clues are there, and it’s up to the reader to look deep into their own shadow selves to understand and identify with the characters. For fans of thrillers and criminal psychology enthusiasts, My Sister the Serial Killer features how family secrets and past trauma can haunt children into adulthood.


Voice to Books is a monthly short list of reviews from a variety of voices curated by Daniela Z. Montes and A.E. Santana. Interested in contributing a review to Voice to Books? Please send inquiries to voicetobooks@gmail.com.

Daniela Z. Montes received her Master of Fine Arts from the University of California at Riverside‘s Palm Desert Low Residency Program. Her nonfiction horror story, Hellhounds, was published by Kelp Journal. She is a contributor and former social media manager for The Coachella Review. Daniela received her Bachelor of Arts in English from the University of California at Santa Barbara, where she received an honorable mention in the Kieth E. Vineyard Honorary Scholarship Short Story Contest. You can find Daniela at danielazmontes.com and on social media @danizmontes.

A.E. Santana is a Southern California native who grew up in a farming community surrounded by the Sonoran Desert. A lover of horror and fantasy, her works can be found in Demonic Carnival III, Weird Ales Vol. II, and other horror anthologies. She is the paranormal/true horror editor for Kelp Journal and a former drama editor for The Coachella Review. A.E. Santana is a member of the Horror Writers Association and is a founding playwright of East Valley Repertory Theatre in Indio, California. She received her MFA in fiction from the University of California at Riverside’s Palm Desert Low Residency Program. Her perfect day consists of a cup of black tea and her cat Flynn Kermit. You can find A.E. at aesantana.com and on social media @foxflur.

Mother Tongue Series (an excerpt) for the wounded daughters

If No One Could See

 “What would you write if no one could see?”

 Gina Frangello

what would I write if no one could see

I would write that I blame my mother

and then I would write that I was justified

 

it is an ugly story forged in the ugly stories

of her mother and her mother and her mother

and her mother I cannot extricate myself

 

from my mother I cannot get her fingers out

of my mouth when a mouse dies in the walls

of my house it can take months for the smell

 

to fade the mouse slowly rots until finally

its desiccated flesh turns to dust leaving only

the bones I cannot get my mother’s fingers out

 

of my mouth I wonder will the taste of her

fingers linger after she dies? I think maybe I will

 

taste her flesh persisting for days months first

bloody fresh coppery then sour then putrid putrid

putrid until there is nothing left in my mouth

 

but her white pebble finger bones rolling around

on my tongue after the tendons have rotted away

 

 

 

 

 

Mother Love

 “Of what had I ever been afraid?”

                         Audre Lorde

 of what had I ever been afraid

past dark past skin beyond stone

or fire or drowning my sponsor

once asked me this question of

what are you so afraid what will

happen if you just say no to her

past dark past fire beyond stone

my own skin burning say no just

say no easy as falling down a hole

I couldn’t give my sponsor an

answer except to say I can never

say no beyond stone beyond skin

past dark ten years on ten years

sober I can tell you the answer

it is mother love the answer for

that child is mother love it is the

bottoms of her feet slapping against

stone as she runs into the fire her

skin burning for mother love mother

love mother love what does a mother’s

disdain do to a child before she has

her speech to ask why? she keeps

running into the fire the bottoms of

her feet burning slapping against stone

 

This Time

 “… Here we’re all drunkards  … / joylessly … stuck together!”

                                                 Anna Akhmatova

mother I have savaged you across pages through decades across time

backwards and forwards mother Akhmatova said it best Here we’re all drunkards …/ joylessly stuck together!

I can wield words but I cannot tame us our story mother we circle

each other predator and prey we circle we spin

 birds in the wallpaper pining for air   mother why

can’t I write this story why do I hold your blood in my mouth

so much wasted time wasted words squandering time spinning in circles believing

like Anna if I tried hard enough if I wrote the words beautifully enough the sadness

the ugly my terrors your terrors could be tamed our stories rewritten

mother why can’t you remember any of your childhood

why do you love to tell the story of how I was born tiny and blue silent

and cold mother why did you tell me the earth was flat when I knew

it was round Akhmatova was right we are all just fucked

in any language mother   maman    madre    mater   mamma

I have chased you savaged you across pages across decades our truth hidden deep

our stories wound round together never quite touching

   a double grief helix mother

mamma why can’t you see me madre how did this happen maman why

couldn’t I help you tell me what name should I call you

              mother tell me if I write it right

this time this time this time this time

 

 

How She Lets Go

 “I am not the story you made of me.”

                                    —Lidia Yuknavitch

Look how her turquoise ring with its sterling silver setting

compliments her tan slender hand and the tips of her white

 

fingernails grown long now in summer   She has fat hands

like her father did   See how she uses her hands to carefully

 

brush and comb out her golden retrievers’ undercoats

shedding fast in the hot weather   She was always so

 

selfish   See how she watches her dogs’ eyes how she learns

their body language mimics it unconsciously how she checks

 

her petunias every day for aphids  She is unreliable She’s been

watching for the hummingbirds and she finally saw one

 

and then two flitting around the red geraniums Untrustworthy

She had been worried the hummingbirds disappeared

 

like the whales were disappearing off the Pacific Coast

shores   Selfish  She will buy a hummingbird feeder today

 

She lies   See how she couldn’t yet write about being a mother

herself but how she remembers well the shape of her sons’ baby

 

feet toes straight across how sweet they tasted in her mouth

as she tickled them She’s fat and has beady eyes like her father

 

did  She remembers how her son took her face in his little

hands saying urgently “listen to me” when her gaze drifted

 

far away This is how she does it now that her sons have grown

and she spends her time alone with her thoughts: she trims the fur

 

mats from under her dogs’ ears careful not to nick their thin skin

she turns the soil over in her garden smelling the fresh black dirt

 

on her hands she feeds the cardinal family nesting in her juniper

tree she waters her garden she picks zucchini blossoms

 

to fry for her supper and she watches with a faint smile

as a bright green garter snake slithers across her path


Signe E. Land is a queer, disabled autistic writer living in Hot Springs, Arkansas. She holds an MFA in writing from the University of Minnesota and a JD from William Mitchell College of Law, graduating class valedictorian. Ms. Land’s work has appeared in William Mitchell Law Review, Bookends Review, Rivet: The Journal of Writing that Risks, Atticus Review, Lady/Liberty/Lit and others. In 2019, Ms. Land won third place in the Kay Snow Poetry Competition, Second Place in Atticus Review’s Flash Non-Fiction Contest, and was nominated for a Pushcart Prize in poetry.

Book Review: Kissing a Tree Surgeon

by Briana Weeger

Eleanor Levine’s collection of short stories Kissing a Tree Surgeon takes readers on a hilariously offbeat journey amidst an equally offbeat cast of characters. A woman takes her dead grandmother to a Bertolucci film in order to flirt with the popcorn attendant. A student with multiple personalities, including a “Jewish/nun/assistant endocrinologist; Jesuit fighter on behalf of the PLO; anti-Catholic dirt bomb activist; and Ayn Rand’s protégé,” attends Sister Jewniversity, “a bastion of anti-Semitic-anti-Zionist lesbianism.” And a man who thinks he is the love child of Judy Garland and Frank Sinatra is an unhinged AA sponsor.  

One such unorthodox character is Agatha Ravine, who makes repeat appearances as the narrator of many of Levine’s stories. Set against a New Jersey backdrop, Agatha is a misfit. She is a self-described social outcast who often has crushes on girls who were cheerleaders in high school, blonde shiksas, while she is more like the “protagonist in one of William Burroughs’s heroin runs.” And as she navigates both real and imagined adventures with an intelligent, sardonic wit, Agatha embodies the impulsive id we all have and at times wish we could let take the wheel.  

In the title story, “Kissing a Tree Surgeon,” Agatha is not invited to her friend Julie’s wedding. She thought it was because she had “made anti-Julie’s-boyfriend presents and gave them to her, in front of him.” But she comes to find out the real incident that infuriated her friend was when she kissed the tree surgeon. “Julie is drunk, and speechless, when she sees me making out with her old boyfriend Andrew’s best friend—a tree surgeon who lives in Rye, New York. We are at Andrew’s party where beer is on tap and hormones whir like gnats.” 

Agatha and other narrators reflecting on these kinds of past predicaments is a common thread that weaves through Levine’s stories. They look back on days where teenage transgressions felt like fatal blows and the raw newness of experience made lasting marks.  

In “The Boy Who Used the Curling Iron,” Agatha thinks about her ex-girlfriend Emily through the lens of their Senior Farewell dance. While Agatha received rejections, “Emily had the opposite problem. All the boys wanted her. She couldn’t keep the young males away—they were ringing her pink Cinderella phone like it was the Jerry Lewis muscular dystrophy telethon.” 

But Agatha and Emily eventually found each other and “rambled in each other’s brain like circuitous routes traveling undirected until she decided that my emotions were more in need of her than me. I’m like that sneaker hanging on the telephone line that looks inviting at first, but after five months is an eyesore.”

Often under the microscope are humorous descriptions of love and relationships gone wrong. Levine satirically depicts her narrators’ search for belonging and exposes an array of connection misfires and the thin borders that we feel separate us from others. Agatha’s ex Emily 

“took ballet lessons in Manhattan and got drunk in an Irish pub with Bobby Sherman’s niece,” while she “took public school violin lessons and played kickball in the street.”

And a woman who searches for love via OkCupid is duped: 

‘I’m not able to sleep at night,’ Vivian via Wisconsin via Amsterdam texted me. 

‘Oh boy,’ I replied, feeling the pangs and intimacies of love through the iPhone, ‘I wish there was something I could do.’ 

‘There is …’ 

‘What dear? How may I give you greater comfort in the evening?’ I had already checked out the Priceline.com tickets for Madison, Wisconsin, which were slightly cheaper than Amsterdam. There was a brief pause. She wrote back. 

‘Financial.’

In many stories involving the pitfalls of dating, Levine blurs the lines of reality and surreality, so the reader’s focus lies on the importance of what was felt over what actually occurred. A woman is haunted and shunned by the dead relatives of her ex-girlfriends, characters argue over spaghetti and a lost dog at the end of the world, and a girl falls in love with a turtle who won’t text her back. 

Levine’s unique voice catches you off guard and takes you on a wild journey you didn’t know you needed. Ultimately, Kissing a Tree Surgeon is a collection of stories about belonging. And in a time where feeling like an outsider amidst a surrealist landscape is common, Levine reminds us to laugh about it.     


Briana Weeger is a native of Southern California and is currently an MFA student in the low-residency program at UC Riverside. An alumna of UCLA and Brooklyn College, Briana works with underserved and immigrant youth using story crafting and storytelling as a means of self-discovery and empowerment. In her own writing practice, she is exploring the impact of often overlooked social customs with a mix of both fiction and non-fiction.

Photo Essay: Near & Far

By Aimee Liu 

When California locked down last March to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the physical world seemed to shrink overnight. To contain the virus, we were instructed not to travel unless we were frontline workers. Many of us were confined to our homes. If we went outside for exercise, we were to stay in our immediate neighborhoods. Within these restrictions, space took on new dimensions, new urgency as an existential need. The distance between near and far seemed to fluctuate, requiring constant negotiation.

In this context, photography became one of my primary survival tools. To maintain my sanity, I’d go out each day to explore a new walk around East Venice, where I live. My territory stretched from Mar Vista to the beach, from the pavement to the sky. Light, I soon learned, was a magical ally, conferring a sense of the infinite even to the most unyielding barriers, transforming the spatial contours so that the whole world seemed present in a single moment. 

 

The lens of a camera, the tools of editing, can push space away or bring it closer. And a funny thing happens when you bring it closer: nearness turns into a whole new kind of distance.

As I walked my neighborhood, I found space expanding whenever I looked closer. 

I discovered adjacent universes within the rusting surface of an abandoned truck.

 

Hidden caverns and unearthly terrains between the leaves of a giant agave.

Worlds within worlds opened up, replacing the claustrophobia of lockdown with a sense of wonder at the endless possibilities of inner space.

 

Shadows, too, made distance plastic, deepening surfaces, playing with form…

transforming an ordinary garden wall into a labyrinth.

 

The whole moon and the entire sky
Are reflected in one dewdrop on the grass. 

So wrote the Japanese Buddhist priest Dogen in the 13th century.

It’s still true today. Within that dewdrop, near and far are one.

 

William Blake understood, too:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour. 

 

Look closer. See farther. Practice the alchemy of vision.

 

And almost anything seems possible.

 

Once upon a time I was a painter and discovered the visual mystery of reflection.

The surface of a teapot, the shimmered realms within a glass of water, the elusive distance of mirrored space inside a windowpane.

Imagine my delight when I discovered that photographs can capture this mystery, too.

 

And then there were the endless possible combinations of near and far…

 

Look up!

 The color blue…

 

Celestial bodies straining to meet the earth.

 

And oh! The clouds!

Those majesties of the universe.

So near, yet far, 

far, far.

 

The horizon is the line where distance splits,

the vastness we can touch meeting the space forever beyond our grasp.

Add ocean to the equation, and

you are set free.

 

We can make it from here to there.

 

From near to far.

 

The secret is all around us.

It’s not even secret at all.

 


Aimee Liu is the author of the new novel Glorious Boy and many other books of fiction and nonfiction. Her articles have appeared in The Los Angeles Times, Ms., Literary Hub, The Rumpus, and The Los Angeles Review of Books. She teaches in Goddard College’s MFA in Creative Writing Program at Port Townsend, WA.

 

Shadows Over My Window

 by Ashley Corinne

Falling asleep in a room I don’t belong in—in a bed that’s not my own. All the melatonin in the world can’t help me slip into my dreams and away from watching the shadows of tree branches stretch across the room. It was a mistake to come here and pretend like things were going to be different. I want to sleep it all away and wake up to a day where I haven’t done anything so foolish. Maybe to a week ago, before I’d even thought about coming back to this town to rewrite my miserable past self into someone I don’t despise.

If I could get to fucking sleep at all, though, that’d be great.

I can’t stop thinking about the way they looked at me, like a ghost on their doorstep. I was a blurred memory from a past life—just a case of déjà vu.

That’s when I knew it was a mistake.

I backed away, slipping stupidly on the wet stairs. The wind was too strong to keep my umbrella in its functional position. It flapped up and pulled me down the sidewalk like Gene Kelly’s ultimate nightmare. I looked back at them, still standing in the doorway, watching me with glazed expressions. My stomach clenched with humiliation and bile burned in my throat.

I ran all the way back to the cheap motel, sweating under my soaked jacket. My hair was tangled and matted. The lady at the front desk didn’t say anything, just handed me a cup of bad coffee from the machine behind her and gave me a sympathetic smile. I must’ve looked ridiculous next to the optimistic girl that left an hour before.

“Thanks,” I whispered, unable to use my full voice. Shame was still stuck in my throat.

I sat on the scratchy bed sheets in silence for hours. I counted the cracks in the wallpaper and then the tiles on the ceiling. Then I stared so long at the dresser my imagination drew pictures in the knots in the wood. The coffee went cold in my hands, untouched. I couldn’t even bring myself to peel off my wet clothes until the sun set and darkness fell over the room.

I can’t unsee their faces. When I close my eyes, they’re imprinted on the backs of my eyelids. The two of them, standing in the doorway, separated from me by no more than a few feet—and years of ignored phone calls and torn up letters and rejection.

So instead of sleeping, I watch the shadows over my window. People passing by, stumbling drunk over nothing, talk-whispering to companions and blissfully unaware of anything happening behind the closed doors they pass. A bird taking shelter on the handrail, singing a soft lullaby to lighten the stormy weather. It’s joined by a companion, and they finish the melody before flying away.

For a while, the tree branches thrash in the sharp wind, banging against each other and the iron railings. Now the rain is just mist, and they wave gently over the curtains. They’re trying to speak to me—maybe to say things will be okay.

My phone buzzes on the bed behind me, but I don’t want to look away from the window. I don’t want to miss anything the trees want to say.

Without moving my gaze, I feel around for the phone to see who could possibly be trying to reach me at this hour. The screen is bright in my eyes.

Mom.

Maybe the trees were right.


Ashley Corinne is is a writer based in Los Angeles, California. Since graduating from Cal Poly with an English Degree in 2018, she’s been working in Home Entertainment at Warner Bros Studios. She loves writing, film, and drinking copious amounts of coffee. She’s currently working on a Young Adult spy novel that she hopes to get published. You can find her ramblings about books, film/TV, and music at ashleycorinne.com.

Book Review: Suppose a Sentence

by Kit Maude

It’s an experience that will be familiar to avid readers everywhere: you’re making smooth progress through a book, until suddenly a passage or sentence stops you in your tracks. Whether the sensation is more like that of a blown tire or a beautiful landscape that deserves more than glancing appreciation, very much depends on the work in question. Often, one is moved to  share it with others only to find that people don’t necessarily like having a book thrust under their noses and being told to read something entirely out of context. However, this is exactly the premise that the critic and professor Brian Dillon has chosen for his deeply engaging critical work Suppose a Sentence. Taking as his starting point twenty-eight sentences chosen from works of the western canon, a selection that spans several centuries beginning with Shakespeare and ending with the contemporary poet Anne Boyer, Dillon veers between close reading and more expansive reflections on his subjects in a series of brief essays that rarely exceed five or six pages and are sometimes much shorter. 

It’s an approach to which Dillon is very suited. A member of what one would probably call the neo-Barthesian school if Barthes had ever really gone out of fashion, Dillon is eminently comfortable with the idea that a fragment can be as significant as an entire novel, that a sentence can encompass a universe and, perhaps more importantly, for his book at least, he knows how to convey that conviction to the reader in an entertaining and insightful fashion.

After this encomium to brevity, however, it’s worth pointing out that very few of the sentences Dillon chooses can be described as succinct in and of themselves.  The sentence written by John Donne, taken from one of his final sermons, for instance, is seventy-three words long and thus has enough meat on it to allow for an overview of the final months of the poet’s life.  A persuasive argument follows that, in the sentence and the sermon overall (Dillon quite rightly doesn’t see any need to limit himself to a restrictive view of his concept), Donne was anticipating his imminent demise with a set of breathtakingly morbid but powerful metaphors: “But ‘Deaths Duell’ is also a cabinet of baroque horrors, a repository of gruesome images cast in sentences that are in themselves errant or deformed.” The sentence he selects by Charlotte Brontë, from her novella Villete, in contrast, is just three words: “The drug wrought,”  but it packs a similarly graphic punch leading to what Dillon sees as a opiate hallucination experienced by the heroine Lucy Snowe. Moving into the 20th century, we come to what is essentially the engine room of the book: the high modernists Gertrude Stein (who lends the book its title, although not from the chosen sentence), Virginia Woolf, and Samuel Beckett, followed a few chapters later by Barthes himself—significantly the only translated sentence analyzed. Where in the chapters concerning the writers from earlier periods the emphasis tends to be on their imagery and biographies, modernity brings in a little more literary theory before, in the absence of the context granted by hindsight, contemporary writers such as Claire Louise Bennet and Anne Carson are subjected to the closest readings yet. 

There’s a lot to love about Suppose a Sentence. Obviously an exercise like this requires a great deal of erudition; while there may not be many great surprises among the writers chosen (one exception is the jazz writer Whitney Balliet), in no case is the sentence from one of the author’s major works, and the danger is that the author will get lost in the minutiae of sentence composition or, conversely, begin to condescend to the reader. Dillon avoids both of these pitfalls. In fact, the overriding sensation one derives from these essays is the enthusiasm with which he goes about his work—wow, he seems to be saying to us, over and over again—listen to this. He often gets so carried away that one begins to notice him actually beginning to mimic the style of the phrase under examination; some of this is clearly intentional, but sometimes, one suspects, it isn’t, at least not consciously. This is very much in keeping with the overall tone of the book, which to a degree is structured as a literary conversation across the centuries; many of the featured writers “interact” with one another. Woolf (whose sentence is 181 words long) especially keeps popping up to comment on the work of the others, although the discussion is necessarily one way.

The conversational style also allows room for a little friction; the chapter on James Baldwin is, like the sentence analyzed (“They thought he was a real sweet ofay cat, but a little frantic”) also a slap down of the unfortunate posturing of Norman Mailer, while the one on Susan Sontag is hardly a clear-cut appreciation—the horror with which Dillon greets Sontag’s rather pompous declaration in her diary that she has “written a better story than [Donald] Barthelme” (she hadn’t) is palpable. 

Having read the book chronologically, from beginning to end—hardly the only, and perhaps not even the most advisable way to read it given that each essay is a joy in itself that could easily be spread between other reads—one feels that Dillon’s great achievement has been to gather the voices of his subjects into a single room, succinctly and effectively portraying the echo chamber in which all literary creation takes place.     

 


Kit Maude is a translator based in Buenos Aires. He has translated dozens of Latin American writers for a wide array of publications and in addition to The Coachella Review writes book reviews for ÑOtra Parte, the Times Literary Supplement, and World Literature Today.

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