Verge by Lidia Yuknavitch

Dark stories about the disregarded misfits of the world force readers to look at “the in-between of things” and see beauty there, too.


Lidia Yuknavitch (The Book of Joan; The Chronology of Water) evokes a wide range of strong and subtle emotions with Verge: Stories, a collection dealing with “the spaces between things.” These stories are shocking, stark, pulsing; their power lies in their realism, even when the tone turns dreamy and approaches magical realism. Yuknavitch’s clear voice, with its unflinching demand that her readers recognize pain as well as beauty, is as precise and distinctive as ever.

“Verge” as a noun means an edge or border; as a verb, to approach (something) closely; be close or similar to. Here, Yuknavitch pushes readers to approach closely the uncomfortable edge of many subjects they may be accustomed to avoiding. Addicts, sex workers, traumatized children and adults, queer people, immigrants and other misfits are centered in narratives that some people might like to look away from, but shouldn’t, and in Yuknavitch’s compelling and often oddly lyric telling, readers can’t. She writes about the bright points in a dark world, and while the stories in Verge indeed lean decidedly toward the dark, those memorable points of light define them.

The earthshaking opening story, “The Pull,” features a swimmer whose “shoulders ache from not swimming” in wartime, one of two sisters “twinning themselves alive.” It feels as if set in a world far from the average everyday–until the final, heart-dropping line. Verge most frequently features female characters, but some male, including a couple of tender stories starring gay men. There are traumas–violent, sexual, emotional–and revenge, as well as quiet recoveries and acts of grace and mercy.

Other stories deal with children employed as black-market organ runners; men working at a fish processing plant in Seattle; a man seeking recovery both physical and psychological in an eye-opening cross-country drive. In “Shooting,” a woman’s want feels “like a mouth salivating… like the weight of an arm. Like the next sentence.” In “Street Walker,” a woman makes a telling slip in confusing one word for another. In “The Eleventh Commandment,” a strange girl protects an awkward, bullied boy using the power of story. In “Cosmos,” a janitor at a planetarium collects the detritus left behind by teenagers, building his own model world, until he finds himself perhaps overinvolved in his own work. In the longest story, “Cusp,” a young woman wishing to connect with her brother reaches out to the men in a newly constructed prison. In “Second Language,” “those bought-and-sold Eastern European girls are learning [something] besides English: They are learning to gut themselves open so that others will run.”

Disturbing and essential, these stories emphasize the forgotten, the pushed aside, the marginalized. Yuknavitch’s storytelling is urgent, raw and inspired, and if Verge is a love letter to those on the edge, it is equally important for all of us.


This review originally ran in the January 10, 2020 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 8 elevated tunnels made from cans and paper.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

I so enjoyed seeing Colson Whitehead speak at TSU almost a year ago – it seems a little strange it’s taken me this long to get to this one!

The Underground Railroad is compelling, a story with momentum and imagination. I had forgotten that the underground railroad would turn out, in this book, as a literal railroad that runs underground: that was a fun surprise to experience. “Fun” is not precisely the right word for this book, though. It’s about slavery and the quest for freedom; there is little here that is light or fun.

The protagonist is Cora, a young enslaved woman who makes a run for it with a young man, Caesar, who she doesn’t know very well. It begins with a little prefacing history, of Cora’s grandmother and mother before her. Her mother escaped the Georgia plantation where she and Cora were born, never to be seen again. The ghost of that woman hangs over Cora’s decisions and her feelings about those around her.

Cora travels, with and without Caesar, through several states via the underground rails. We see the details of various stations on the railroad: this one beautified and furnished, this one bare, a statement about the hard work required to dig survival out of rock and earth. Cora asks, who built the railroad? And the response: “Who built anything in this country?”

Cora will continue to wonder about the hidden hands who contribute to the quest for a better life, even as that life eludes her in her travels. This is not particularly a story of redemption or of happily-ever-after. Each time Cora survives a brutal and shocking turn of events, she loses those she cares about, and cynically revises her hopes: how stupid (she thinks) she was to think it could get better. The places she gets to know along the way could be viewed as archetypes (remember from Whitehead’s talk that I heard something like this idea): the place where no Black person is suffered to live, where the streets are lined with hanging corpses; the place where life appears secure only on the surface; the place where all can contribute according to their abilities. These steps along the way are instructive. But the book does not necessarily end on a hopeful note.

There’s a bit here of something I watch out for in books like this, historical fiction featuring ordinary or marginalized people: Cora perhaps holds a bit more far-reaching wisdom of the world than someone with her life experience might be expected to have. For example, she observes slave labor replaced by cheap Irish immigrant labor, and muses that as the Irish supply runs out or goes out of fashion, another poor country will send its emigrants to form the next wave. This speculation about the poor countries of the world seems like a lot for a woman who’s lived her life on a Georgia plantation to come up with. It’s a clear temptation, especially with benefit of hindsight, to invest one’s apparently “ordinary” characters with special knowledge and wisdom.

I appreciated the range of characters. Most of the book is told from Cora’s perspective, but short interspersed chapters come from the points of view of secondary characters, including racist white ones. I imagine those chapters in particular might have been hard to right, but also interesting to write, and they enrich the book by complicating things. Not that the evil slavecatcher gets much sympathy; but hearing his inner thoughts makes him more real, more believable, and therefore more frightening. Complication, in literature, is always good.

I believe I expected this book to be magical realism, and I’m not entirely sure that’s my impression after reading it. There’s nothing here (that I noticed) that couldn’t happen in our real and non-magical world. The literal underground railroad would be a feat of engineering and supplies, but not strictly impossible. The good and bad luck (if we can call it that) Cora and others face certainly seems fantastical, but is in line with the well-documented true stories of enslaved people. That said, it was a vibrant, rich way of telling the story of slavery and struggle: one we’ve heard/read before but clearly aren’t done with. The railroad part was fascinating, nicely told. The characters were always intriguing. I think pacing may be the great feat of this book: I scarcely was able to look away once I was in it. Thank you, Colson Whitehead.


Rating: 7 stations.

The Years, Months, Days by Yan Lianke, trans. by Carlos Rojas

Two novellas translated from the Chinese offer plucky characters in terrible situations, simply but poetically portrayed.

The Years, Months, Days contains two novellas by Yan Lianke, translated from the Chinese by Carlos Rojas. The title story, featuring just two characters, opens: “In the year of the great drought, time was baked to ash; and if you tried to grab the sun, it would stick to your palm like charcoal.” All the other residents of a tiny mountain village have fled, but an old man known only as the Elder does not think he’d survive the trip. He stays behind, with a blind dog for companion, to tend a single stalk of corn, in the hopes that when the villagers return, the kernels he nurtures will restart their community. In this stark tale, he speaks to the corn and the dog and his departed neighbors, alternately cursing and hopeful, and does battle with rats, wolves and the sun itself. As the food and water available to man and dog dwindle, every day becomes a fight for life.

The second novella, “Marrow,” is also about a grim struggle for existence. The father of four disabled children, out of guilt for his heredity, kills himself, leaving his wife to raise them alone. His ghost remains to accompany his wife and converse with her, in a twist that could be magical or merely her fantasy. When their children grow up, she works to find them marriages and homes of their own, despite their problems and the ill will of the villagers. Finally she discovers that there is a cure for their poor health and bad luck–but it involves the bones of direct relatives. When only her youngest is left at home, she devises a way to reinterpret his disturbing appetites for the better.

The common themes of these bleak stories are clear: hunger, solitude, the searing strain of existence. In a brief, insightful translator’s note, Rojas observes that Lianke’s work often transforms such abstract needs into literal ones. Indeed, the author’s descriptions are synesthetic: smells “roll noisily”; gazes produce a “crackling sound”; and a wolf’s roar is purplish-red. In a spare but artful style, Lianke presents the sun’s rays as physical realities, which have measurable mass and can be cut or shattered. His characters inhabit a bleak, harsh world. In bitterly hard circumstances, they show courage and ingenuity, defiance and grace. His renderings of real-world desolations are imaginative and wondrous; these austere fables are minimal, but beautifully composed. The Years, Months, Days is for readers who appreciate grim lessons, magical realism and lovely, lyric prose.


This review originally ran in the November 17, 2017 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 yelps like blades of green grass.

Eggshells by Caitriona Lally

A narrator who belongs in a fairy tale becomes lost among the indifferent streets of Dublin in this quirky, imaginative debut novel.

eggshells

Caitriona Lally’s first novel, Eggshells, portrays an unbalanced but charming narrator stuck in an overwhelmingly complex Dublin, searching clumsily for home. In the opening pages, Vivian settles into the house she’s recently inherited from her great-aunt Maud, who “kept chairs the way some people keep cats.” This dusty, cluttered house suits the eccentric inheritor, who avoids mirrors and hygiene, preferring to cultivate her own “earthy tang.” Vivian believes that she is a changeling, fallen out of a world of fairies and elves and into this one by accident. Her daily chore is to find a magical door through which to reenter her rightful place in that other world.

Unsurprisingly, Vivian’s obsessions and whimsies make modern Dublin’s other residents uneasy. She has few contacts: her nosy neighbors, given to shaking their heads; a flummoxed social worker; and an impatient older sister: “her world is full of children and doings and action verbs, but I’m uncomfortable with verbs; they expect too much.” The sisters share the same name, Vivian, although sharing is not the right word: the older sister comfortably inhabits the name, while Lally’s protagonist is forever displaced, lacking an identity of her own.

Vivian walks the city and takes buses and cabs, exploring streets with promising names (Poppintree, Lockkeeper’s Walk, Ferrymans Crossing, All Hallows Lane) and performing tricks and charms–circling a particular pole three times, whispering to herself, and otherwise alarming passersby. She maps these routes and analyzes the shapes she’s walked, looking for meaning. She advertises her search for a friend named Penelope (“Pennies Need Not Apply”). Vivian is, in her awkward way, a giver: she leaves cryptic but (she believes) encouraging notes in books that she donates to charity shops, and €5 notes in the pockets of cardigans on sale in thrift stores. She makes lists in her notebook–names of birds, favorite sweets, museum artifacts–anywhere she might find weird words and possible anagrams. Vivian’s fascination with wordplay echoes Lally’s knack for language, and this emphasis is one of the great charms of Eggshells, a sweetly off-kilter novel about loneliness, communication and finding one’s place in the world.

Vivian stumbles, and may never find the portal to the place she yearns for. But she makes shaky progress: acquiring a pet goldfish, throwing a dinner party of sorts, finding a new friend with traumas and eccentricities of her own. Eggshells is ultimately a funny, occasionally grim story centering on a sympathetic character who is either disturbed or a changeling from a fanciful world: it is for the reader to decide.


This review originally ran in the February 16, 2017 issue of Shelf Awareness for the Book Trade. To subscribe, click here.


Rating: 7 goldfish.

Maximum Shelf: Lily and the Octopus by Steven Rowley

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 May 9, 2016.


Steven Rowley’s first novel, Lily and the Octopus, is a startling, scintillating experience, both funny and emotionally wrenching: a story that shatters all expectations.

lily and the octopus

In the opening lines, narrator Ted Flask introduces his contented home life with his domestic partner, an aging dachshund named Lily. They live in Los Angeles, where Ted works from home, and they are comfortable in their routines: pizza on Sundays, Monopoly on Fridays, talking about cute boys on Thursdays. They have inside jokes, holiday traditions, and an idyllic story of love at first sight. Lily holds up her end of conversations, although as a dog she is of course distractible, and her memory can be short. Her voice is just as we expect a dog to sound. As a puppy (in flashbacks, as in the scene of their first meeting), her breathless enthusiasm comes out in all caps and exclamation points: “IT’S! A! GREAT! TIME! TO! BE! ALIVE!”

As the novel unfolds and Ted fills out as a character, though, it becomes clear that his life is not necessarily well-rounded. He has a therapist he dislikes; he finds her dim-witted, and in his head runs all her advice past his ideal, imaginary therapist. He has panic attacks. His career has stalled. A long-term relationship, ended 18 months ago, continues to haunt him; recent attempts at dating have gone poorly. Until Lily, he worried that he was unable to open up, unable to love. In Ted’s favor, he has a superlative human best friend named Trent, who always comes when called and brings Valium. And, crucially, Ted has Lily. She is the best thing in his disordered and inwardly-turned life.

Those first sentences introducing Lily also introduce the octopus. A new addition to their household, he has a death grip on Lily’s head, and he’s not going anywhere. Like Lily, the octopus talks. Ted wants him to leave, but the octopus will not let Lily go. She begins to have seizures. She weakens.

Ted dreams of an octopusectomy. The vet offers chemotherapy, radiation and surgery, but is not optimistic about Lily’s chances. Ted tries to involve her in the decision-making, but Lily is a dog: her attention span is limited (oh look, red ball!) and, anyway, at 12-and-a-half human years, she has been feeling a little run-down. She rarely speaks in caps anymore. Ted was warned by a vet that, as Lily aged, she would begin to exhibit what he called Enclosed World Syndrome; that is, her perceived world and realm of interest would shrink. It is true, her walks have gotten shorter. Of course, Ted himself has the same malady. As the octopus’s tentacles tighten around Lily’s precious small head, Ted realizes he has a battle on his hands.

It is easy to fear that the market for books about beloved dogs may be flooded, but this one does something new. Lily and the Octopus is its own beast, and the reader is not the same person at the end as at the beginning. In many ways this is the story of Steven Rowley’s life in all its emotional truth, if not in specific, literal details. Ted and Lily’s Los Angeles is a thoroughly realistic setting, but a few elements–most obviously the talking octopus–offer boggling departures. By relying on metaphor, Rowley creates a fantasy world with touches of magical realism, somehow both more affecting and more comforting than reality.

Lily and the Octopus comes with the trappings of humor, canine antics, strong characters and profound emotions. Rowley, who is also a screenwriter, peppers the story with Cate Blanchett, Ryans Gosling and Reynolds, Bradleys Cooper and Milton. Equally prominent are the literary references: Kipling’s jungle, Auden’s “Funeral Blues,” and a reading list to prepare for an octopus hunt: Hemingway, Melville, Patrick O’Brian. The book opens in the spirit of a fun read, but the tone quickly deepens to a sadder and a more intense experience. Ted and Lily’s story centers around relationships: love and life partnership, the nature of commitment and of loss, and what it looks like to fight for one’s friends. As Ted battles the octopus and tries to shore up his darling, he ends up examining every aspect of his own life, his own shortcomings and the strengths he discovers in himself, almost by surprise. His journey, then, is not only about a man and his dog but about breaking out of life’s stalemates. This introspection and interior aspect to the novel is only one of the depths that make it both more than another story about a beloved dog, and more than a whimsical work of fantasy–although it is a superb example of both.

Lily and the Octopus is literary and raw, and relentlessly heartfelt. Questions of who and how we love are at its center and, vitally, the question of how we part. Imaginative, ever-astonishing, suspenseful and wise, Rowley’s surprising novel is thoroughly gut-wrenching, but well worth the pain. With a winning dog at its robust heart, no reader could ask for more.


Rating: 9 moments with the red ball.

Come back tomorrow for my interview with Rowley.

%d bloggers like this: