From the Shelf
My Bookstore: 'A Love Letter to Indies'
In 2012, Black Dog & Leventhal (one of our favorite names for a book publisher) published My Bookstore: Writers Celebrate Their Favorite Places to Browse, Read, and Shop, a tribute to independent bookstores by 84 well-known writers. Edited by industry veteran Ronald Rice, illustrated by Leif Parsons and with a foreword by author Richard Russo, the book included essays by, among others, Fannie Flagg, John Grisham, Isabel Allende, Dave Eggers, Wendell Berry, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Lisa See and Erin Hildebrand. Sometimes funny, often entertaining and always heartfelt, their contributions emphasized something readers may not be aware of: the many ways that indie bookstores are crucial to writers, particularly as they begin their careers and need help introducing their work and themselves to readers. In addition, indies keep established writers connected with their readers and with the wider book world. Bookstores also help writers in the same way they do other customers: introduce them to books and authors they wouldn't know about otherwise, and offer them all the activities, services and charm that indies provide.
Earlier this month, My Bookstore was released in paperback; this updated edition features contributions from nine more writers and an afterword by Emily St. John Mandel. This version is timed to appear in connection with the third annual Independent Bookstore Day, which takes place this coming Saturday, April 29. My Bookstore offers book lovers a great opportunity to read more by their favorite writers, and about their favorite bookstores.
Editor Ronald Rice commented: "The new edition comes at a time when I see a bumper crop of new independent bookstores opening. I'm very encouraged. I hope the book is a legacy of the spirit and vital importance of independent bookselling." He also called My Bookstore "a love letter to the indies," a description and sentiment we embrace--in a variety of ways.
In this Issue...
by Marita Golden
A successful, prominent African American family copes with the devastating impact of early-onset dementia on their lives.
by Joanne O'Sullivan
Sixteen-year-old Louisianan Evangeline Riley struggles to rebuild her life in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
by Mai Der Vang
A member of the displaced Hmong people delivers a visually rich and heartrending poetry collection.
Review by Subjects:
How Reading Makes Your Life Better
Bustle highlighted "11 little ways reading makes your life better every day."
Brightly offered tips on "how to read aloud to a child that won't sit still."
Pp qz: "Only a genius can name these books with their vowels missing," Buzzfeed challenged.
"Lose yourself in this beautiful literary map of London," the Telegraph advised.
Designer Youngmin Kang's Oddly bookshelf project "started with the idea that household items such as furniture would be able to add energy to many people if they were designed to function in a new structure."
Rediscover: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
In 1951, Henrietta Lacks, a 31-year-old African-American, underwent treatment for cervical cancer at Johns Hopkins University. Part of her diagnosis included a biopsy of her tumor. After Lacks's death later that year, researcher George Otto Gey discovered her biopsied cancer cells reproduced extremely rapidly, and were effectively immortal when kept under the right conditions. This cell line, which became known as HeLa, facilitated major breakthroughs in medical research, including Jonas Salk's polio vaccine in 1955. The HeLa line is still used to this day, and an estimated 20 tons of the cells have been grown in labs.
Neither Henrietta Lacks nor her surviving family ever gave consent for her cells to be harvested or propagated. The Lacks family, descended from black slaves and white slave owners, were not even aware of Henrietta's involuntary scientific contribution until 1975, and, in the 1980s, family medical records were published without consent. Rebecca Skloot's 2010 book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (Broadway, $16, 9781400052189), which spent more than two years on the New York Times bestseller list, explores the invaluable role of HeLa cells to medical science and the ethical issues raised by their use. A TV-movie adaptation of Skloot's book, starring Oprah Winfrey as Deborah Lacks and Rose Byrne as Rebecca Skloot, premiered on HBO this past Saturday. --Tobias Mutter
The Writer's Life
Julie McElwain: Playing with Time
Julie McElwain is the West Coast editor for Soaps in Depth, a national soap opera magazine. She lives in Long Beach, Calif., and is the author of two time-travel mysteries, A Murder in Time and A Twist in Time (recently published by Pegasus), featuring an FBI profiler who accidentally ends up in Regency England.
You've been a journalist for a lot of years. What made you decide to turn to fiction?
Growing up, I always wrote fiction. I wanted to write a mystery series like Nancy Drew. When I went to college, I pursued a double major--fashion design and journalism. When I moved to California, I utilized both majors when I became a business reporter working for a fashion newspaper. During this time, I kept writing fiction on the side. For years, I never made it beyond chapter six. Then I finally managed to complete an entire manuscript. I wrote three books, but couldn't get an agent interested enough to represent me. When I wrote A Murder In Time, I went through a slew of rejections. In the past, I'd give up after maybe the 10th rejection. There was something about this book that compelled me to keep sending it out until I got lucky and found my agent, Jill Grosjean, and publisher, Pegasus.
Your tenacity is reminiscent of your heroine, FBI profiler Kendra Donovan. Kendra has a hard time adapting to the rigid mores of life in Regency England, in spite of her prodigious talent and intellect. Do you think she would have assimilated more easily in a different era, or is the shock of time travel just too great?
I think Kendra definitely would have had an easier adjustment if she had landed maybe two decades in the past rather than two centuries earlier. As crazy as time travel is, Kendra would have adjusted to that concept--although she might need to pinch herself to assure herself that she's not dreaming. Kendra's biggest issue is being stuck in an era where women had no rights. I actually have trouble sometimes in my research wrapping my head around the lack of rights. I think we forget that until fairly recently, marriage and motherhood were really the only acceptable path open to women, especially if they belonged to the upper classes.
Women were educated at home, if they were educated at all. When they married, they became the property of their husband. If they didn't marry, they depended on their male relatives to provide for them. For someone as independent as Kendra, this is an unbearable circumstance!
What gave you the idea for a time-traveling FBI agent? It's a very fun concept; did it develop slowly or did inspiration strike?
For about 16 years, I've had the idea of doing a time-travel mystery, but it was really intimidating because I knew it would require a lot of research. Then, about 10 years ago, the son of one of my friends was playing a videogame on an old TV--one controlled with dials, not remotes--that I had given him. I was over at my friend's place when he and his friend came running out to say that there was something wrong with the TV. I went to look at it, and turned the dial to the appropriate channel, and--presto--their videogame returned. Both of these kids were so smart, but they were like, "We just don't get this old technology." I started to think, "If all our technology would just disappear one day, what would we do? Could we survive?" Instead of creating a story about a dystopian future where technology disappears, I decided to send my main character, a kick-ass, modern woman, back before most of our technology was even invented. Of course, it still took me several years to start writing!
How did you research the Regency era? Do you have a favorite Regency author to recommend?
I've read a lot of romances set in the Regency era, including Georgette Heyer (who is wonderful, and whom I would highly recommend). I also began reading blogs on the Regency era and Jane Austen, and nonfiction books--everything from crime in that era to fashions to lifestyles of the servants to the upper classes. After I wrote A Murder in Time, I came across C.S. Harris's Sebastian St. Cyr mystery series. I'm glad that I didn't read any of her books before I wrote mine, because we are creating characters for roughly the same time period (mine is set in 1815 while Ms. Harris' series begins a few years earlier). It's impossible not to have some similarities, and I would have been afraid of being influenced. However, after A Murder in Time was published, I read my first Sebastian St. Cyr mystery, and I am completely hooked! Ms. Harris has definitely become one of my favorite authors!
Speaking of time periods, if you found yourself suddenly catapulted to a new era, which one would you be crossing your fingers to find yourself in?
Oh, my gosh, that is an excellent question, and a tough one! I always enjoyed reading Regency romances because that time period seemed so elegant and well-mannered. And I still enjoy reading Regency romances, but after considerable research into that era, I think realistically it would be difficult for a modern woman. I value my independence, and it would be too hard to give that up. If I was forced into another era permanently, I'd take my chance on some unknown time period in the future. But if I could temporarily visit an era, I would like to check out the Victorian age in England. I also really loved Jules Verne's stories, and he made that era seem almost magical. I don't know if I could survive the women's fashions, though, with the bustle and corset, and button-up shoes!
Corsets are awful indeed! But perhaps we can look forward to some Victorian fiction from you in the future! In the meantime, can you give us a sneak peek at what's in the works? More Kendra Donovan?
It depends on how well A Twist in Time does, but I am working on a third book that continues Kendra's adventures. I can't say too much--the book is still mostly in my head--but there is a twist in it that I'm quite excited about! --Jessica Howard, blogger at Quirky Bookworm
The Wide Circumference of Love
by Marita Golden
Who do you become when your memory disappears? How do you continue loving and supporting your spouse when Alzheimer's disease changes that person into a stranger? Marita Golden (After) explores these questions and others in The Wide Circumference of Love, which traces the arc of one African American family through the triumphs and tragedies that compose a life.
As the well-respected founder of a Washington, D.C., architectural firm, Gregory Tate has formed a career designing buildings, but when he is diagnosed with early-onset dementia at age 68, his world crumbles. His devoted wife, Diane, a family court judge, struggles with the stress of being her husband's primary caregiver, but is indecisive about placing him in an assisted living facility, where he eventually falls in love with another patient. Their grown children have differing responses to their father's condition: Lauren becomes immersed in the family business while Sean remains distant. Gregory's illness evokes comparisons to his father's battle with Alzheimer's disease as Diane becomes consumed with unresolved childhood issues, particularly a horrific crime that shattered her family.
Golden takes a frank and authentic approach to dementia's relentless and all-encompassing nature--losing one's dignity, forgetting loved ones' names, bewildering personality changes, disappearing friends--while also calling attention to the increased prevalence of Alzheimer's in the African American community. Indeed, any one of these problems and stories could be the plot of a separate novel, but Golden connects them seamlessly and compassionately, treating each with the prismatic complexity that defines family crises. In doing so, she makes each character's past an integral part of their present, as well as their impetus to move forward into a new and unexpected future. --Melissa Firman, writer, editor and blogger at melissafirman.com
Discover: A successful, prominent African American family copes with the devastating impact of early-onset dementia on their lives.
by Mathias Énard , trans. by Charlotte Mandell
Musicologist and opium smoker Franz Ritter has insomnia, due in part to worry over an illness for which his doctor has sent him to "a specialist in exotic infections." As Compass, Mathias Énard's Prix Goncourt-winning novel, begins, Franz listens to "the rhythm of the trams descending towards the Schottentor" from his Vienna apartment, and reads an article his friend Sarah, a scholar and his former lover, has written about an Iranian novelist who died impoverished in Paris. For the remainder of that long night--and the bulk of this dense and challenging novel--Franz recalls his and Sarah's travels throughout Iran and Syria. They grew fascinated with artists influenced by the East--Balzac and Proust, and composers like Félicien David, "the foremost Orientalist musician, forgotten like all those who have devoted themselves body and soul to the ties between East and West."
Compass is not so much a traditional narrative as a series of essays on politics, music and literature, and on the ways in which Western artists have incorporated the achievements of their Eastern counterparts into their works--artists for whom the compass pointed east. Énard's tone is erudite without being stuffy. And he has an endearing wit: Franz says that the specialist his doctor sent him to looks like the German poet Gottfried Benn, a resemblance that prompts an already worried Franz to state that "being auscultated by the author of Morgue and Flesh doesn't inspire a whole lot of confidence in you." --Michael Magras, freelance book reviewer
Discover: This challenging novel ruminates over Eastern influence on Western music and literature.
Almost Missed You
by Jessica Strawser
Violet is on a blissful vacation with her happy family--or so she thinks. When she leaves the beach to rouse her son from his afternoon nap, she finds that her little one has vanished, along with her seemingly perfect husband, Finn. Her belongings are just as she left them, but her husband's luggage, their toddler's toys and the rental car are gone, almost as if they'd never been there at all.
So begins Almost Missed You, a novel about tragic departures, missed connections and the secrets we keep from others and ourselves. This debut from Jessica Strawser (editorial director of Writer's Digest magazine) is fast-paced and suspenseful, divided into chapters from the perspectives of Violet, Finn and their mutual friend Caitlin. The narrative, jumping through time from the day that Violet met Finn to their present-day catastrophe, serves the story well, unspooling scenes that are as moving as they are surprising. As Finn draws Caitlin into his deception, complicated questions of guilt, loyalty and love entangle the characters further, and long-kept secrets begin to surface.
Strawser cleverly explores the rich landscapes of motherhood and marriage in a novel that will keep readers engaged as they put the pieces of the story together alongside the characters. Improbable coincidences abound, and though they might be unlikely, their consequences are often gratifying and surprising. Book clubs are sure to enjoy Almost Missed You, as will readers who like a little tension with their domestic drama. --Richael Best, bookseller, Elliott Bay Book Company, Seattle, Wash.
Discover: Multiple missed connections add intrigue to this novel about a woman abandoned by her husband and young son.
Mystery & Thriller
A Twist in Time
by Julie McElwain
Readers of Regency romances or FBI thrillers are sure to love A Twist in Time by Julie McElwain, an inventive mix of the two genres. The year is 1815, and Agent Kendra Donovan is inexplicably trapped in England, instead of 21st-century Washington, D.C., where she belongs. Kendra tumbled through a time slip (in A Murder in Time) that has left her stranded in a world of fancy ball gowns and prim and proper society matrons--definitely not women trained in tracking serial killers.
But when Lady Dover--former mistress of the Duke of Aldridge's nephew Alec--is found brutally murdered and mutilated, and Alec comes under suspicion, Kendra must put her investigative skills to work to clear the young man's name.
She becomes frustrated by a society that treats women as second-class citizens, and which only accepts her oddities because the Duke is her patron. But in order to catch a cunning killer, Kendra must learn to adapt to some of the mores that chafe her.
Full of intrigue and passion alike, A Twist in Time is a delightful mix of genres. The blend of romance (like that of Sarah MacLean) and slightly grisly mysteries (like those of Kathy Reichs) makes Julie McElwain's novel hard to categorize. Nevertheless, with its rapid pacing, slew of interesting characters and time travel, A Twist in Time is riveting. Anyone who enjoys the unusual is sure to enjoy Agent Kendra Donovan's adventures. --Jessica Howard, blogger at Quirky Bookworm
Discover: An FBI agent trapped in early 19th-century England must help solve a murder.
Food & Wine
The Haven's Kitchen Cooking School: Recipes and Inspiration to Build a Lifetime of Confidence in the Kitchen
by Alison Cayne
If traveling to New York City to take a culinary class isn't possible, picking up The Haven's Kitchen Cooking School: Recipes and Inspiration to Build a Lifetime of Confidence in the Kitchen by Alison Cayne is the next best thing. Cayne, owner of the wildly popular cooking school, has written a "modern-day equivalent of how people have learned to cook for centuries... watching, practicing, and making (and correcting) mistakes."
The cookbook opens with the basics, including knife skills, necessary tools and equipment, and must-haves in the pantry and refrigerator. From there, it's arranged around key concepts (like mise en place) taught through recipes. Cayne clearly and succinctly explains each concept, highlighting necessary tools before moving into a teaching recipe. In the chapter on soups, she uses the recipe for a ribollita--built from a basic foundation and gradually adding ingredients to create layers of flavor. More complex recipes follow; Cayne's philosophy is that "anyone can cook, they just need to build confidence through practice." The chapter on eggs is "a lesson in timing and temperature." From a simple omelet all the way to a soufflé, she calmly leads the home cook toward self-assurance.
Ample color photographs are included, and the layout is clean and minimalist, with room on each page for making notes. Cayne's voice is calm, cheerful and pragmatic. She doesn't demand one standard practice, instead teaching the fundamentals and then encouraging exploration and creativity. --Cindy Pauldine, bookseller, the river's end bookstore
Discover: Alison Cayne offers the ingredients for learning how to cook for a lifetime.
My Fellow Soldiers: General John Pershing and the Americans Who Helped Win the Great War
by Andrew Carroll
April 2017 marks the centennial of the United States' entry into World War I. In 1917, after attempting to keep the country neutral for more than two years, Woodrow Wilson asked Congress to declare war against Germany. Public opinion had already turned against Germany since the invasion of Belgium in 1914 and the sinking of the Lusitania in 1915. But the Zimmerman telegram, in which Germany secretly tried to goad Mexico into attacking the United States, along with unrestricted submarine warfare in the North Atlantic, finally pushed the nation to war.
General John Pershing (1860-1948), who was stationed in Texas when the war began, received command of the American Expeditionary Forces. He had recently led a punitive expedition in Mexico to kill or capture Pancho Villa. During this period, Pershing had suffered a catastrophic personal tragedy that would shape the rest of his life: his wife and three young daughters were killed in a house fire; only his six-year-old son survived.
Pershing worked tirelessly as commander of the AEF in France, in part to keep his personal demons at bay. He came across as overly stern or wooden, all while having a passionate affair with a French painter less than half his age. In My Fellow Soldiers, Andrew Carroll (War Letters) captures the many sides of this seemingly stoic figure, partially through newly discovered personal letters. Carroll, founder of the Legacy Project, which seeks to preserve wartime correspondence, also includes the experiences of other American combatants such as Quentin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, regular doughboys and female nurses. These elements combine for a fascinating and timely history. --Tobias Mutter, freelance reviewer
Discover: An accessible account of the American Expeditionary Forces in World War I and its commander, General John Pershing.
Essays & Criticism
Letters to a Young Writer: Some Practical and Philosophical Advice
by Colum McCann
In naming his work Letters to a Young Writer, novelist Colum McCann (Thirteen Ways of Looking) invites comparison with Rainer Maria Rilke's classic Letters to a Young Poet. In fact, McCann insists on the comparison in his first sentence, quoting Rilke: "Nobody can advise you and help you, nobody." It is a disclaimer that McCann echoes throughout the book.
He draws on his experience teaching in the MFA program at Hunter College in New York, but Letters to a Young Writer is not a how-to book for novelists. In fact, when McCann offers a concrete piece of advice about building a writing career, it often runs contrary to the standard counsel offered in such books--contacting an agent about a novel you haven't yet written, for example. The book is a series of prose poems dedicated to kindling, or perhaps re-kindling, the spark that keeps writers writing. His prose style is emphatic, hovering on the edge of turning into a rant. He proclaims that there are no rules, offers passionately held opinions in their place, and then tells his reader to burn the letter, forget the advice and go write.
Perhaps the most useful insight that he gives is that "you must be prepared to hold two or more opposing ideas in the palms of your hands at the exact same time." It's a skill that he demonstrates in essay after essay. (The second most useful suggestion is "Don't be a dick.")
Writers, young and not-so-young, will find Letters to a Young Writer a source of inspiration. --Pamela Toler, blogging at History in the Margins
Discover: Colum McCann offers an inspiring, encouraging, sometimes contrarian book about writing.
How Cycling Can Save the World
by Peter Walker
Cycling is more than a pleasant hobby: it has the potential to revolutionize the infrastructure, air quality and public health of the world's cities. Avid cyclist Peter Walker (who lives and rides in London) is on a mission to bring bikes back to urban areas--not to flood the streets with Lycra-wearing fanatics, but to introduce more people to the joys of life seen from a bicycle seat. A former courier who now runs the Guardian bike blog, Walker explores how governments can make the roads safer for cyclists--and how nearly anyone can benefit from hopping on a bike--in his aptly named first book, How Cycling Can Save the World.
Walker begins his journey in cities such as Utrecht and Copenhagen, where cycling is unremarkable, except to visitors. The vibrant cultures of these and other bike-friendly cities didn't happen by accident: Walker recounts years of infrastructure changes and political battles, interviewing public figures who have championed cycling in places such as London and New York. He also emphasizes other benefits of life on a bike: better health, knowing and appreciating one's neighborhood, fewer car emissions (and costs).
Although Walker acknowledges hazards (including hostile drivers and traffic accidents), his overall tone, like his title, is positive. "At the risk of sounding borderline messianic, cycling makes your life better," he says. Packed with thoughtful research and inspiring anecdotes, How Cycling Can Save the World inspires readers to take to the streets on two wheels. --Katie Noah Gibson, blogger at Cakes, Tea and Dreams
Discover: Journalist and avid cyclist Peter Walker makes a joyous, thoughtful, well-researched case for biking.
Children's & Young Adult
Between Two Skies
by Joanne O'Sullivan
Deep in Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, fishing rodeo champion Evangeline Riley and her family live quiet, simple lives in the fishing village of Bayou Perdu, "a tiny, secret place that almost no one knows about." While Evangeline celebrates her 16th birthday, news reports come in that Hurricane Katrina has turned west, toward Louisiana. Mamere, Evangeline's beloved grandmother, announces the family must flee and "[w]hen Mamere sounds like that, everyone listens." From the crowded confines of a hotel overrun with other evacuees, the Rileys watch in horror as their way of life is swept away by one of the most devastating storms ever to hit the U.S. Suddenly adrift in a new school in Atlanta, Ga., and labeled a refugee, Evangeline longs to return to the open sea and her home. Fate seems to grant her a new chance at happiness with fellow refugee Tru, whose presence brings comfort, music and perhaps even love.
Between Two Skies by debut author Joanne O'Sullivan is a delicate, captivating story; her descriptions of Katrina and its monstrous damage are vivid and heartwrenching. The forced exodus of the Riley family brings difficult changes for all, as some members blossom in the big city while others seem to fade. Resonating with emotion and daring to bring readers into the heart of the south at a time of great sorrow and great joy, Between Two Skies is a multifaceted look at the places we call home and what it means to return. --Kyla Paterno, former children's & YA book buyer
Discover: Sixteen-year-old Louisianan Evangeline Riley struggles to rebuild her life in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Ashes to Asheville
by Sarah Dooley
"Right before my sister, Zany, steals our dead mother off the mantel, I'm trying to decide which sock to stuff in Haberdashery's mouth to shut him up."
Following this zinger of a first sentence, Ashes to Asheville takes the ball (or urn, in this case) and keeps on running. Twelve-year-old Fella and her 16-year-old sister, Zany, had a normal, loving family in Asheville, N.C., with their birth mothers Mama Lacy (Fella) and Mama Shannon (Zany). But then Mama Lacy developed cancer and the family moved to West Virginia to be closer to the girls' grandparents, even though Mrs. Madison, Mama Lacy's straight-laced mother, never approved of " 'that woman' Mama Lacy took up with." In the grieving "craziness" that follows Mama Lacy's death, Mrs. Madison gains custody of Fella, taking her away from Zany and Mama Shannon. Mrs. Madison also gains custody of the urn with her daughter's remains, in spite of the fact that Mama Lacy wanted her ashes spread near the family's old Asheville home. Willful Zany decides it's up to her to carry out their mother's wishes... in the middle of the night... in a car borrowed from a sleeping Mama Shannon. What follows is a nightlong escapade of epic proportions, populated by a reluctantly useful thief named Adam, a yapping stowaway dog called Haberdashery, and a whole lot of Mountain Dew and coffee.
In her exquisite, poignant novel, Sarah Dooley (Free Verse; Body of Water) explores the strange places grief takes people when, as in Fella's case, they have to learn "how to accept that somebody could die and be gone when I wasn't finished loving them yet." --Emilie Coulter, freelance writer and editor
Discover: In this funny, touching novel, two sisters steal their mother's ashes and set out on a road trip to return them to her happy place.
I Feel Bad. All Day. Every Day. About Everything.
by Orli Auslander
"Given that I am both female and Jewish, feeling bad was an ubiquitous part of growing up," writes Orli Auslander in the introduction to her collection of 100 sketches that cover her nearly 20 years of cognitive behavioral therapy. She deciphers many of the circumstances that have made her feel bad. Each black-and-white page conveys an observant, no-holds-barred, self-critical quality that depicts Auslander's innermost thoughts. Her work bears similarities to Allie Brosh's anxiety while succumbing to the woe-is-me musings of Harvey Pekar or Daniel Clowes. Some of her sketches cover issues of identity, some document the internal struggles of parenthood (I Feel Bad #3: I transfer my fears [to her children] and I Feel Bad #32: My kids barely know they're Jewish) and the generational battles waged within immigrant families (I Feel Bad #11: I failed my father and #12: My father failed me). Some address the hypocrisy of Auslander's own actions: I Feel Bad #31: I don't give enough, as she dumps a few pieces of change into a panhandler's cup while bedecked in designer duds, and I Feel Bad #4: I'm irresponsible, in which she texts while driving, nearly running down a pedestrian. Some seek connection while others beg for solitude. As Auslander resigns herself to misery, she also recognizes her "long dormant sweet and tender rational side" that battles to be heard.
She never thought she could share something so personal with strangers, nor did she feel that strangers would understand, but the intimate nature of these sketches speaks to the core of what it means to be a modern-day woman. --Nancy Powell, freelance writer and technical consultant
Discover: New York artist Orli Auslander lays out 100 ways she feels bad.
by Mai Der Vang
Mai Der Vang gives fiery, poetic voice to a secret war and a dispersed people in her powerful poetry collection Afterland.
A member of the Hmong diaspora community in the United States, and co-editor of How Do I Begin: A Hmong American Literary Anthology, the wildly imaginative and talented Vang sheds much-needed light on the U.S.'s clandestine military operation in Laos near the end of the Vietnam War, specifically on how the U.S. government recruited, then abandoned Hmong fighters. In these poems, Vang writes with the heartbreak of a refugee. The scenes of destruction and death and abandonment she describes become a tacit indictment of U.S. foreign policy: "What grief-song erupts/ when you see the last/ American plane take off/ distant above Long Cheng."
Vang digs beneath the chaos of war, searching the very conception of home for any familiar dimensions. To this end, her lines blaze with a distinct and vivid imagism. "Next came partitions of ice," reads the collection's eponymous poem. "Metallic roads./ Once, I was born in a bowl." While many of her images ring clear in direct, simplistic tones, Vang is not scared of the murkiness of the experimental. In several poems, the language leaps with surrealist impressions that at once deepen and obscure the poet's searching tenor. In "Light from a Burning Citadel," the sky "sleeps quilted in a militia of stars." In "Meditation of the Lioness," the "Violets are hatching volcanoes," and "Today's bees have swallowed/ The last milk of lanterns." These semantic fireworks color the collection's cooler, more settled truths. But it is the latter, the more subtle denouements of Afterland that linger in the mind like smoke, what Vang describes as "the sense/ of an answer." --Scott Neuffer, freelance journalist, poet and fiction author
Discover: A member of the displaced Hmong people delivers a visually rich and heartrending poetry collection.