Signs Preceding the End of the World by Yuri Herrera, trans. by Lisa Dillman

This is an astonishing novel that I’m so glad I learned about from my MFA program director, Jessie Van Eerden.

Signs Preceding the End of the World is a very short novel, at under 100 pages. Herrera wastes no space on setting or set-up, but puts his reader directly into the action, leaving her to figure out when and where we are. Without taking too much of that experience away from you, I will say that our narrator, Makina, is preparing to leave her hometown (“the Village”) and head north, looking for her brother who left before her. She is a remarkable young woman, nearly fearless, and comfortable with a variety of underworld characters in the Village, whose connections will help her in her travels.

This is a book about boundaries, borders; change, movement, travel, transition; and about translation, language. All of these subjects have multiple meanings, so that a so-brief little book with actions just sketched in, and no background, works on an enormous number of levels. I dearly love this layered style, where one border stands in for all borders, and every detail can be mined for implications. I always think that a book like this has something to offer for everyone: for the surface-only reader, all the way through the dissertation-seeking academic. Not to mention that this book has been translated from the Spanish (and to a few other languages as well as English), so the question of translation within its story is continued outside of Herrera’s own work.

[This is the place to mention that Lisa Dillman’s Translator’s Note is perhaps the best I’ve ever read (though likewise brief). She goes directly to the question that made me turn to the Translator’s Note when I was on page 16 of the novel, which is always nice! and explores the beauty of the book as well as discusses her own process. For readers interested in the puzzle of translation, this novel would be worth reading just for this question, even if it were not an extraordinary read in itself.]

The work of Signs is emphasized by its brevity, I think. Makina’s journey and challenges are archetypal, and I mean by that that she must stand in for a huge swath of our world’s population, as well as that Signs hearkens to mythology, and any number of archetypal journey-stories. The quick-sketch nature of the book helps to demonstrate or play out these facts. It’s not that there aren’t details:

Rucksacks. What do people whose life stops here take with them? Makina could see their rucksacks crammed with time. Amulets, letters, sometimes a huapango violin, sometimes a jaranera harp. Jackets. People who left took jackets because they’d been told that if there was one thing they could be sure of over there, it was the freezing cold, even if it was desert all the way. They hid what little money they had in their underwear and stuck a knife in their back pocket. Photos, photos, photos. They carried photos like promises but by the time they came back they were in tatters.

(I love the ambiguous pronoun ‘they’ in that final phrase. Were the people in tatters, or the photos? or the promises?)

Although I can sense the fable/archetypal nature of this story, my background in those areas, particularly in Mexican culture, is not strong enough to see all the connections. So, that’s a level on which I have more to study about this lovely little book. Easy to read, but will continue to yield meaning on multiple readings, I can tell (and as Jessie says).

Yuri Herrera is a talent, and Lisa Dillman as well. I am looking forward to meeting Yuri at this summer’s residency in West Virginia, where he’ll be a guest writer. Wish I could meet Lisa, too.


Rating: 8 jackets.

I Just Lately Started Buying Wings: Missives from the Other Side of Silence by Kim Dana Kupperman

Where I recall feeling both impressed and flummoxed by The Last of Her, this earlier essay collection feels more accessible to me. The Last of Her is a story about Kim’s mother (or about Kim’s investigating her mother), a single cohesive storyline – not that there aren’t other storylines as well! But I Just Lately Started Buying Wings is a collection that ranges widely in subject. Allowing each essay to tackle its own beast has a different result. Somehow I felt more comfortable with this book, more like I was able to grasp the whole. All of this sounds more like a criticism of The Last of Her than I want it to be; I enjoyed reading that book and am wowed by the writing and the organization within; it’s just that I didn’t finish feeling like I understood everything that went on. I enjoyed both reading experiences, but felt more settled, contained within this one. I wonder if reading them in the order they were published – this one first – would have helped.

I Just Lately Started Buying Wings is a lovely series of meditations. I want to call it comforting, which is a strange adjective to choose, since many of its subjects are uncomfortable or painful ones: deaths of family members, romantic and marital strife, domestic violence, nuclear fallout (literally), personal uncertainties. But Kim Kupperman’s approach to these is so easy to relate to, so honest and open, and so thoughtful. She made me feel supported as (I felt) we entered these tough places together.

I read the title essay, a very short one at just two pages, a year or so ago, when I was considering attending WVWC’s MFA program. (One of the toughest pieces of advice I got in considering programs was to read the work of faculty members. If each program has an average of 8 faculty and they’ve published an average of 3 books each, and I’m starting with a long list of 15 schools, I’m supposed to read 360 books? So a nice short essay here and there…) It stuck with me. First, the lovely title, “I Just Lately Started Buying Wings”… it has such a dreamy sound, so many figurative possibilities; but it turns out it’s a direct quotation, spoken by a woman applying the prosaic, literal meaning. She’s just recently started buying chicken wings; she used to stick to breasts and short thighs. This turn, from lyric to literal, is the kind of surprise I savor.

Not that the symbolic wing is ignored, though. In this collection, I found that wings were a major theme: “Wings over Moscow,” most obviously, deals with a number of wings (airplanes, birds), but other essays as well see dropped wings, grounded airplanes, a father compared to Daedalus, “the maker of wings.” In the closing essay, Kim’s mother leaves secret treasures for her young daughter to discover: a list of these items includes a moth wing, and a blackbird feather. Secrets or silence (as in the subtitle) form another leitmotif. Likewise the body, meaning the physical: Kim’s own, and the bodies of three immediate family members (mother, father, brother) she cared for after death. Lovers, and the women and children she tries to help at a shelter for victims of domestic violence. When she seeks her grandmother’s mysterious personal history,

I sense in this silence my grandmother’s decision to sever herself from a body politic she adored but could not bear. Perhaps it is from her that I inherited this yearning to return, which might explain why, when she died, I wanted so badly to go back to her homeland. I was coming into my body–breasts budding, hips widening–as her physical familiarity and its comfort ceased to exist.

Note the two different uses of ‘body,’ and think about the meanings of ‘bear,’ as in the “body politic she adored but could not bear”: think about a woman bearing children, which this grandmother did, by definition.

This kind of recurring theme or image defines the book as a whole, as well as nearly every individual essay. This is the kind of trick I am strongly drawn to (I’m remembering Eula Biss’s Notes from No Man’s Land). There is much to praise here, in sentence-level writing, as Kim shifts from the starkly sensual to the lyrical and back again. She has a razor-sharp eye for detail, an uncanny gift for noticing and recalling the physical world, something I’m not so great at. But what I’m most excited about, most wonder at, is the tying together of theme and image within and across essays. It never feels forced: these are the things that make sense together, and also they match.

Kim Kupperman clearly has several strengths. I think she must see the essay form as flexible and beautiful and serious. She observes the world with great attention. She is thoughtful, and opens herself to criticism (for example in the hospital scene when her father is dying and his survivors are fighting). She has an ear for language and an eye for parallels. I can’t wait to get to know her better: her writing, her editing (I’m looking forward to her small press’s anthology You), and hopefully her teaching.


Rating: 9 segments of orange.

Maximum Shelf: Girl in Snow by Danya Kukafka

Maximum Shelf is the weekly Shelf Awareness feature focusing on an upcoming title we love and believe will be a great handselling opportunity for booksellers everywhere. The features are written by our editors and reviewers and the publisher has helped support the issue.

This review was published by Shelf Awareness on April 26, 2017.


The town of Broomsville, Colo., is rocked by the early-morning discovery of Lucinda Hayes’s body, slung against the carousel in the elementary school playground. Lucinda was a freshman in high school, and the town’s golden girl: beautiful, kind, smart, popular. In the days that follow, though, her secrets and those of her friends and neighbors will be expertly teased to light, old wounds reopened and a number of lives permanently changed.

Girl in Snow is Danya Kukafka’s first novel, and its riveting narrative dives immediately into the impact of Lucinda’s death through the perspective of her classmate Cameron, an unpopular, troubled teenager whose waking thoughts, dreams and artwork all fixate on her. “Cameron hated the word ‘stalk.’ He had other words for his relationship with Lucinda, but they were words no one else would understand. Words like vibrant, frantic, twinkling, aching….” He is an obvious early suspect. But there are others: the night janitor who found the body, Lucinda’s ex-boyfriend, a homeless man, even her parents.

Then the perspective shifts, as it will throughout this stark and striking novel, from Cameron’s to that of Jade, a junior at the high school, who finds it pointless to even pretend to mourn Lucinda’s death. The third point in this triangulated mystery is Russ, a police officer of 17 years who shares an old trauma with one suspect, and is related to another by marriage. The reader’s lens on the story rotates among these three characters as each struggles with the way his or her life has changed, and sooner or later feels compelled to investigate.

Objectively, Cameron is a stalker; he is certainly troubled. Jade is sullen and generally hostile. Russ, like the two teens, is haunted by his past. They are absorbing characters, with layers of secrets that overlap among them. Although Jade’s chapters are told in first-person, and Cameron’s and Russ’s in the third, their distresses are all written with raw immediacy, and each character is complex, aching and ashamed, for different reasons. Kukafka drags these hidden injuries and infamies out of her characters slowly and by degrees. This measured pacing and withholding of information gives her novel an atmosphere of nearly painful suspense. This is not a traditional murder mystery, although the killer’s identity does remain unknown for most of its length. Rather, it is a quietly taut thriller concerned with the secrets we keep from our closest loved ones–and even from ourselves.

Kukafka’s meticulous details–like Jade’s musical tastes and Russ’s wife’s background–enrich her characters and add to the sense of realism. Cameron is a skilled visual artist with a precise understanding of plant and animal anatomy. Jade is a loner, “eyes ringed in black; raven, greasy hair swooped over one eye,” “two inches of pale stomach rolled over her waistband even though it was winter and she was probably cold,” and even though her mother disapproves. Jade’s little sister is their mother’s Barbie doll, “a mannequin for Ma’s regret about her worry lines and all those cigarettes she smokes.”

Jade knows that “When people die, they become angel caricatures of themselves,” and Lucinda was perhaps not so perfect as the news reports would have it. The reader has only the perspectives of Cameron, Jade and Russ to go on, and their opinions of her vary, but even in these glimpses the dead girl receives some nuance of characterization.

Secondary characters come just as fully formed. Lucinda’s ex-boyfriend Zap, whose parents are French, loves astronomy. Cameron’s art teacher has a history and loves of his own, besides his obvious passion for his work. Broomsville may be an “overgrown cul-de-sac,” “like a cardboard town filled with paper people,” but its inhabitants are as variously disturbed and troubled as any group of imperfect humans. One of them is a murderer, but it seems they are all guilty of something.

Kukafka’s prose often leans toward short sentences and quick turns, but also pauses for beauty or metaphor. There is a poignancy to Cameron’s observations of the physical world, as he kneads his eraser, noting “snowflakes kissing a windowsill, fingernails dug into the skin of a tangerine.” He thirsts for beauty, and thinks there’s “nothing worse than loving someone and mixing up their earlobes with someone else’s.” But one of the points of Girl in Snow is that appearances are often terribly misleading.

“It’s all about perception. What I see is automatically my truth, simply because I’ve seen it.” The impossible objectivity of sight and memory, and the slender boundary between devotion and obsession, between appearance and truth: these are the central questions of a novel with a murder at its heart, but with broader concerns. Girl in Snow is about the effects of Lucinda’s death on an entire town, and Kukafka’s memorable characters allow those effects to keep hold of the reader long after the final denouement.


Rating: 7 Crucibles songs.

Come back Friday for my interview with Danya Kukafka.

reread: The Liars’ Club by Mary Karr

Shortened version: it was excellent and moving, again. (Original review here.)

I will repeat myself (from Wednesday’s review of The Art of Memoir) that one of Mary Karr’s greatest strengths is her voice. Her personality sings or laughs or screams off the page, vernacular and colorful, wise and confused, approachable and authentic and believable. Her story is wild. If it weren’t told in such convincing fashion and with such human wonder by its narrator–in other words, if I tried to tell you here about some of the things that happened to young Mary, less artfully–you wouldn’t believe it. But in this memoir, you do.

Karr grew up in a little east Texas coastal refinery town (here under a fictional name), with a short spell spent in Colorado. Her family was troubled, and gave the neighbors some entertainment (or opportunity for self-righteous head-shaking). But this is not a simple story of hardship and woe. The Karrs are also fiercely loving and loyal, with a capacity for humor. Karr’s narrative voice seeks answers and knows how to criticize, but she loves her flawed people; she’s not out to get them. (This is one of the key tips of The Art of Memoir: write out of love, not hate. Additionally, though this sounds even harder, “as Hubert Selby told Jerry Stahl, ‘If you’re writing about somebody you hate, do it with great love.'”)

From a craft perspective, I suppose I will start by examining the rich inner world Karr relates here, as for example on pages 148-157. In this eventful chapter, Karr’s mother creates a massive bonfire of most of her children’s–that is, Mary and her sister’s–belongings, before threatening their lives with a butcher knife. This scene is described in great detail, meticulously, so that it takes pages for moments to pass. Alongside the scene we get little Mary’s coping mechanism: her imagination supplying parallel events to explain or counter those she is witnessing. There is a backwards-looking perspective provided by the adult Mary writing these lines, but also much of young Mary’s real-time daydreaming. There are flashbacks. It’s an extraordinary sequence, and she uses a similar strategy elsewhere, in other such horrifying, dramatic, traumatic scenes. I know one reader who finds the lengthy, meticulous description of trauma difficult; but I think it’s actually a remarkable way to put us in the scene, as well as paint the child’s surreal experience. (Also, it’s difficult. But there is no way to read about rape that is not difficult. It should be difficult.)

My remarks here just scratch the surface of what The Liars’ Club has to offer. I’m a little confounded by the reviewers who didn’t love this memoir. The “best” criticism I saw was by a reader who believes that memoirs should teach a high moral lesson or reveal an important, famous person’s life. This book perhaps does neither, but I disagree with the premise; and so, thankfully, does Mary Karr.


Rating: 8 electric can openers.

The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr

Another gem from Mary Karr. As a craft book, this one has it all (that is, all the things I like): a friendly, approachable, authentic-feeling voice; lots of references to other books with succinct, clear commentary; a balance between practical advice, appreciation, and commiseration; a humble, self-deprecating approach from a well-respected author. Also, I just really like Mary Karr.* Her on-the-page personality comes through so clearly and feels so much like someone I’d like to know. (Our hometowns, though very different, are less than 100 miles apart. My affinity for place makes me wonder how much this contributes to my feeling of kinship.)

The Art of Memoir is just over 200 pages long, including a 6-page, densely-packed reading list* (always exciting, and intimidating!). It begins with Karr’s “Caveat Emptor,” a disclaimer in which she writes, “no one elected me the boss of memoir.” One of the recurring concepts in this book is Karr’s reluctance to take up the mantle of expert; but she does acknowledge her “fifty-plus years of reading every memoir I could track down and thirty teaching the best one (plus getting paid to bang out three)”. She then takes us through a study of some of her favorite memoirists–Nabokov, Harry Crews, Maxine Hong Kingston, Kathryn Harrison, Michael Herr–and, with apologies (“if I didn’t have to pay out the wazoo to quote from better books than my own, I’d have way more Nabokov in here”), her own work. She offers chapters with titles like “Why Not to Write a Memoir” and “How to Choose a Detail,” and focuses on carnality (“sensory impressions, not sexual ones”), lies, individual talents, how to deal with loved ones, blind spots and false selves, exaggeration, and so much more. Unsurprisingly, she places early and heavy significance on the subject of voice, and there may be no writer more qualified. It’s one of the things Karr does best, in my opinion.

Perhaps for that reason, I was especially charmed at what she had to say about Harry Crews’ A Childhood: The Biography of a Place:

At the time I came across A Childhood, I was an academically uncredentialed former redneck Texan trying to pass myself off as a poet in hyperliterary Cambridge. Crews had lost time trying to hide his own cracker past, and then he’d written about that milieu in a book that would serve as my lodestar. How good it is, I can no longer gauge. But it helped to guide me out from my biggest psychological hidey-holes. Reading Crews, I found the courage to tell the stories I’d been amassing my whole life. I include so much of him here to underscore how mysterious a single influence can be if he shares a novice’s foibles. Were I a tattoo-getting individual, I’d owe him some fleshly real estate.

That kind of enthusiasm is catching, of course, and I was convinced to go straight to Crews; in fact, I had to put this book down to read that one (for reasons of school schedules). In case you missed my review of that book, here it is. And directly after, I turned back to Karr for a reread of The Liars’ Club. (Fresh review coming up on Friday.) I have yet to find my way to her acclaimed memoirs Cherry and Lit, but I think they’ll be on the list.

Like the best craft books, this one makes good reading in itself.* It’s not a manual. Karr’s personality on the page is worth spending time with, and she makes the appreciation of good writing more accessible. She writes for general readers (and warns them, when things are about to get technical, that they might skip the next few pages). There are also passages specifically for writers: a list of “old-school technologies for the stalled novice,” for example, that does not rely on writing exercises. In short: there is much to love here. Not least, Mary Karr herself.


Rating: 8 inner enemies.

*These are all things I could have written about Stephen King’s On Writing as well, and they would have been equally true. It’s no coincidence that I enjoyed both of these books. If you like one, do go find the other.

A Childhood: The Biography of a Place by Harry Crews

I’ve been hearing about this one for years, I think first in South Toward Home. While it was already on my semester reading list, I was prompted to put it next in line when I read in Mary Karr’s The Art of Memoir: “[A Childhood] is underrated–virtually unknown–except among the aficionados of the form.” So there. (My reading of The Art of Memoir was interrupted, so its review will follow this one. Preview: I like it.)

This is a memoir of a very short period, when the author is five and six years old, with just a few oblique references to his later life. During these two years, the child Crews becomes aware of himself in the world; he suffers serious injury and illness; his mother leaves his ‘father’ with her two sons, and after a few reunions, splits from him forever; and Crews learns that this was not his biological father, but the brother of that man, who is dead. In his reflections, what motivates the writing of this book is that Crews is haunted by the absence of his late biological father, and by a lack of ties to his home place of rural Georgia.

Both story and prose are tough, muscular, macho, unadorned, laden with violence and hardship; there are lovely lines concealed within, but Crews is most concerned with chronicling his scars. It is a raw and affecting book, and attempting a ‘biography of a place’ through a memoir of just two years is an intriguing strategy. I am fascinated by this idea, that two years of a child’s life can serve to profile a place.

I really appreciate Crews’s voice. This element (combined, obviously, with place and class) reminded me again and again of Rick Bragg. Bragg’s The Prince of Frogtown is on my reading list this semester as well; I hope I get to it in time. Of course I was also drawn (as with Sanders) to Crews’s preoccupation with place, where he’s from and what that means. Another kindred in this way, although his style (and the story he has to tell) differs greatly from my own. Crews is another author that plays with a fluid ‘truth’, which Mary Karr commented on as well: she forgives this favorite memoir because the more imaginative sections are obvious enough to pick out. Those are some of the sensational bits. But really, Crews lets his story stand for itself. His childhood will read as shocking to some of us; but it also reads as very real.


Rating: 8 slisures of grapefruit.

The Mighty Franks by Michael Frank

This memoir of family wounds and favoritism charts dark territory as the author searches for understanding.

the-mighty-franks

“‘My feeling for Mike is something out of the ordinary,’ I overhear my aunt say to my mother one day when I am eight years old… ‘I wish he were mine.'”

Michael Frank comes from an especially close-knit family: his mother’s brother married his father’s sister. He is devoted to his doubly related Aunt Hankie and Uncle Irving. The elder couple is childless, and so they “share” the younger couple’s three sons, of whom Mike is the eldest. The two households are neighbors in Laurel Canyon, in the Hollywood Hills. Both grandmothers live together at the foot of the canyon. It is all very cozy: Aunt Hankie calls them “the larky sevensome,” or “the Mighty Franks.”

And Mike is the luckiest, larkiest one of all, because he is Aunt Hank’s pet. They spend their free time together. She takes him antiquing, and sets out to teach him everything she knows. Hank (a nickname for Harriet) and Irving are successful Hollywood screenwriters, and they have the finest taste in architecture, art, literature, movies, music (nothing after Brahms) and manners. Hank has an overwhelming personality and strong opinions, and when she says that Mike has the eye, the artistic eye for the creative pursuits she prizes above all, he is naturally proud–and motivated.

The Mighty Franks is Michael Frank’s memoir of the relationship he shared with his forceful aunt. While he is favored, his two younger brothers are mostly ignored (Hank sniffs that one has the makings of a scientist, the other, an athlete). He is the modelling clay she plays with, until he begins to awaken to a world larger than Aunt Hank, and forms his own opinions and tastes. She sees this as rebellion, ingratitude or worse. As Mike grows up, Hank seems to break down and the Mighty Franks begin to fissure.

Frank moves between the child’s perspective of events as they unfold and a place of reflection. In writing this story, he seeks a better understanding of his aunt, the imperfect workings of his extended family and his own relationships within and outside it. Hank is firm about hierarchies: the Renaissance over the Middle Ages, Faulkner over Hemingway, Fred over Ginger, early Fellini over late. Similarly: Hank over her younger brother, both of them over their spouses, Mike over his brothers. And always Hank first.

The Mighty Franks is an immediate, gut-wrenching account of events that are often painful for young Mike. While not an easy story to take in, Frank’s ruminations offer some necessary distance. His tone is serious and his prose occasionally verbose, but the saga of this flawed family is deeply involving. Any hint of sensationalism is more than balanced by the psychological insights Frank eventually achieves.


This review originally ran in the April 11, 2017 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 6 period pieces.
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