booknotes: Yoko Ogawa, The Memory Police

Yoko Ogawa, The Memory Police, Pantheon Books, 2019. Trans. Stephen Snyder. This is a really great book. Really great. I was really taken by the slow burn of it, the fairly sparse prose, the way it honestly didn’t go the way I thought it would go. By the end, it takes a tonal turn that I wasn’t ready for, making the book more allegorical, more darker and more solemn, less an inquiry into memory than a resignation in the face of its necessary, inevitable degradations.

It’s less a mode of magical realism than one that takes a speculative premise and builds on it, something like Saramago’s Blindness. The beauty is in the exploration of the ramifications of that premise.

Side note: there’s a certain kind of un-realism common to contemporary Japanese writers in translation – Abe and Murakami come to mind. It feels more like a marketing drive than a national mode of writing…Does the US get a lot of Japanese literary realists (Murakami Ryu, Oe) that I can’t think of off-hand?

booknotes: Jacob Paul, Last Tower to Heaven

Jacob Paul, Last Tower to Heaven, C&R Books, 2019

This is a smart, funny, conceptually sharp, and sometimes sad book that tries, in our current days, to figure out how one can survive collective trauma, notably the Holocaust, without having it turn into parody or soundbite. The protagonist, himself named Jacob Paul, helps make this book deeply personal at the same time it goes on cross-country adventures for meaning and self-meaning. The book feels larger than its plot, forcing us to understand ourselves as possibly dreamed by another, as if it is part of a larger book. I never really thought anyone would have the guts/imagination to mash the Celan/Jabes continuum with an almost Confederacy of Dunces plot and main character, but Jacob Paul has done just that. Last Tower to Heaven is a big, ambitious, and I think very personal beast that kept me engaged and emotionally attuned throughout.

booknotes: Sadie Hoagland, American Grief in Four Stages

This book is amazing. These voice-driven stories, at once harrowing and quirky and elegant, remind us not simply that tragedy is commonplace. Rather than stopping (and potentially wallowing) in a fetishized moment of tragedy, the book mines the complicated ways through which grief and loss drive how we make sense of the world, and write themselves, despite us, into the dna of our behaviors.

Purchase at IndieBound

booknotes: Andrew Farkas, Sunsphere

Sunsphere is a book of many books. You could call them linked stories, almost literally revolving around the Sunsphere itself, or you could call it a novel about the Sunsphere that ranges, a bit like Cloud Atlas, through multiple time frames, multiple universes, multiple characters who come into contact with the Sunsphere. This is not a book about character psychology so much as it is a moving, wonderfully-languaged meditation on the absurdity of how we construct our universes, on meaning and meaning-making itself. The smart and sharp writing utilizes a number of modernist and metafictional techniques, further calling attention to how The Sunsphere, all things to all people, remains elusive, unpinnable. Great book!

Purchase at Small Press Distribution (along with Andy’s other books)

rate and review, rinse and repeat: a request

a small note in these quarantine days: without forgetting how we’re all, directly involved, intimately connected, in our varied levels of precarity:

most of us with new books out are fairly restricted in what we can do vis-a-vis book/self promotion, and even more restricted by what we feel is right. I feel, acutely, (I suspect I’m not alone in this) my narcissism in the face of larger concerns: to state that if a new book like Two Californias has a lifespan, then our current situation will severely curtail its ability to make its way out into the world.

but we can help each other out. I recognize that many of us are in spending lockdown, and/or don’t want to further burden the postal service, and so can’t/won’t buy books right now. Having said that, if you’re in a bookbuying mood, I’ll point you to the New Books of AWP 2020 list – ( – thanks to Danielle Pafunda for initiating this resource – and also to Rosebud Ben-Oni’s “Open to All: A Crowd-Sourced List of Over 300 Mid-2019 to 2020 Poetry Titles” ( at Kenyon Review.

yet there are things you can do that don’t cost money, which will help these books see the readership they deserve, AND (perhaps as importantly?) help writers when they write and try to publish/sell subsequent books. In particular, if you have the time and inclination, I’d encourage you to rate and review – 3 sentences will do! – our books on Amazon/Goodreads/other venues. (I know that Amazon/Goodreads are problematic entities – if anyone else has other/better venues, please let me know.) Thanks to Matt Kirkpatrick, who helped illuminate the easy and joyful benefits of rating/reviewing.

i’m listing here the books I know, as well as links to their Amazon/Goodreads pages:

Al Abonado: Jaw (Poems)

Leland Cheuk: No Good Very Bad Asian (Novel)

Kathryn Cowles: Maps and Transcripts of the Ordinary World (Poems)

Shira Dentz: Sisyphusina (Hybrid, out soon from PANK) and the sun a blazing zero (Poems)

Noam Dorr: Love Drones (Essays)

Robert Glick: Two Californias (Stories)

Eryn Green: BEIT (Poems)

Sadie Hoagland: American Grief in Four Stages (Stories)

Matthew Kirkpatrick: The Ambrose J. and Vivian T. Seagrave Museum of 20th Century American Art (Novel)

Shena McAuliffe: The Good Echo (Novel) and Glass, Light, and Electricity (Essays)

Danielle Pafunda: Beshrew (Poems)

Michael Palmer: Baptizing the Dead and Other Jobs (Essays)

Jacob Paul: Last Tower to Heaven (Novel)

Natanya Ann Pulley: With Teeth (Stories)

Anne M. Royston, Material Noise: Reading Theory as Artist’s Book (Critical Theory)

Sejal Shah: This is One Way to Dance: (Essays)

Cori Winrock: Little Envelope of Earth Conditions (Poems)

Brian Wood: Joytime Killbox (Stories)

please add other books in comments (with links?), and sorry if I forgot anyone!

peace, quiet, joy, health,


booknotes: Matthew Kirkpatrick, The Ambrose J. and Vivian T. Seagrave Museum of 20th Century American Art

In The Ambrose J. and Vivian T. Seagrave Museum of 20th Century American Art, Matthew Kirkpatrick shows us what the novel can do with language and structure without sacrificing an attention to the strange, varied desires of the human heart. Composed of captions to fictional art works, and interspersed with the slow-play stories of those who view these works, Kirkpatrick’s novel offers us multiple approaches to the book – as mystery, as art catalog, as a collective tale of a community of creators. Particularly revelatory and uncanny for me are the collection of doll houses, which give us miniaturized windows onto the girl whose disappearance drives us through these wonderful pages. Most highly recommended!

Purchase from Powell’s Books

8/6/19: On Toni Morrison

I was lucky enough to see Toni Morrison speak in Amsterdam, some 10 or 15 years ago. I hope that she did not suffer. There will be no new books or lectures from such a talented and powerful writer, talented and powerful person, and that is a sadness for us all.

I have Professor Abdul JanMohamed to thank for introducing me, in 1988, to Toni Morrison’s novels, to their beauty and sadness and joy and complexity, particularly The Bluest Eye and Beloved (which won the Pulitzer that year). From my earliest days writing, I wanted to tell emotionally powerful stories in different ways, using unusual structures and languages. I have Toni Morrison’s radical forms and lyric sensibilities to thank for this: the ways in which Manichean allegories (one of Professor JanMohamed’s fields of study) inflect Morrison’s work, the ways in which the ghost story and the stories of American slavery are entwined.

So thank you, Toni Morrison, for everything that you are. You have had a huge impact on me, and I can only hope to pay your influence forwards in meaningful ways.

7/25/19: book notes: dreamlives of debris

Lance Olsen, Dreamlives of Debris. Dzanc Books, 2017. Novel

Disclosure: Lance was my Ph.D. Committee Chair and Mentor, and I owe him so much in my development as a writer, a thinker, a reader, a humanoid, as someone who breathes this world.

Some things for me to learn/mull:

As I’ve read Lance’s work over the last 12 years, I’m startled, in Dreamlives of Debris, how startling and lyric Lance’s sentences have become. In earlier works, the sentences, even the shard/fragments, felt more raw – and now I’m struck by how each small module, less than a page (what he would call a narraticule) leaves me breathless, striking in language, as scattered in flight as Daedalus and Icarus and Debris, of whom he speaks. This language-heavy work has the added bonus, I think (occasionally, curse) of decentering my pleasures in the narraticule rather than in the whole, because the density seems to risk diminishing the whole. I felt this, recently, when reading Shelley Jackson’s Half-Life as well – that the intensity of small sections comes (inevitably?) at the risk of larger effect.

(I wonder, too, if my writing is similar, not in its quality but in the kinds and amount of work readers need to address.)

The effect of this book is like mining a very beautiful field of debris (no pun). It risks fetishing the language gems. I love the ways in which this book, like many of Lance’s extensive works, undermine what we expect from a novel. I find myself straining against the apparent (trope-driven) lack of pathos in the novel, which leaves me to wonder: is this pathos an ancient, outmoded concept? How can one break the laws of fiction and still retain pathos, or does it the entire taxonomy need a total reconfiguration?

Startling juxtapositions, detournements of language, especially verbs. A radical ontology, in the Beckettian tradition, where one constantly is reborn, afresh: a collage mind, which liberally quotes others, creating a chaos chorus; a narrator that can traverse history, allowing for a greater expense/expanse/depense of knowledge and language bits; a deep reliance on theory, placing Olsen in lineage (Nietsche, Bataille, Beckett come to mind); a conception of the novel as curation rather than as inspiration. I wrote, at first, that this book promotes a radical ontology that is pathological, but now I have no idea what that meant, and I’m keeping it.

The danger of a book like this, I think, is something that I recall from Lacan: that we tend to see all the objects in the worlds as versions of ourselves. It’s not point/counter-point (In talking about this book with Anne, I invoked Middlemarch – which seems ridiculous), but a refracted version of an ur-point. You wind up seeing yourself in everything, which is both blinding (making sightless) and blinding (the lightest light): every tree, every idea, every noun. It’s a kind of language-based narcissism, which is perhaps inevitable. If we are constantly remaking and reconstituting ourselves, minute by minute, then we may, filled with anxiety, have to reconfirm our presence in the external world, time and time again.