by Aminatta Forna
Atlantic Monthly Press (March 6, 2018)
Happiness begins as a quiet meditation on the ongoing challenges of coexistence between animals and humans. Brief histories of wolfers in New England, who rid villages of wolves in the 1800s; the evolution of the coyote and its migration from the west to east coast cities; and the reciprocal threat of foxes in contemporary London center the narrative on the ecologic. Both protagonists, Jean, a biologist more interested in tracking animals than her family, and Attila, a Ghanaian psychiatrist who specializes in postwar PTSD, also arrive in London as migrants without a sense of place or connection. Jean’s relationship with a network of immigrants who help her watch for foxes entangles her in the search for Attila’s missing nephew. As their pasts unfold and reverberate, war, immigration, and trauma on an international scale mimic the citizenry’s uproar against the foxes that are trying to make their lives in the city. What can at times seem unwieldy overlapping narrative trajectories swell into a symphony on coexistence between partners in a marriage, between groups in a city, between strangers and old loves, and between a person and their memories, their past selves.
The fox wended its way through the pedestrians, who for the most part paid it no heed, for they would not so easily be distracted from their fixity of purpose. Through the slanting sleet many people didn’t see the fox, those who did thought it was perhaps a loose dog.
Up Up, Down Down
by Cheston Knapp
Scribner (February 2018)
As Cheston Knapp careened from hitting tennis balls with a friend to the hologram of Roger Federer he imagines screened over his body on the court, my partner asked from the passenger seat, “Is he just not going to mention David Foster Wallace?” In a rare pause in the audiobook’s torrent of multisyllables, I assured her, “He’ll get there.” The tennis essay, a netless trapeze act for any writer since the publication of Wallace’s “Federer as Religious Experience” in 2006, adroitly encapsulates Knapp’s unstated mission in Up Up, Down Down: to go directly toward the subjects that we, the reader, might be wariest of anyone writing about. In “Far From Me,” Knapp not only gets to Wallace, but unlike so many fan boys and pantomimers before him, he scrutinizes Wallace’s influence on his writing and his sense of self. Finally, someone has owned up to falling down the rabbit hole of Wallace’s hypnotizing prose and bottoming out under its sway. To be influenced, Knapp discovers, is not to be inauthentic, but to participate. If Knapp is invested in unpacking the patrilineal legacies of (white) (cis) (hetero) (male) writers, it’s in service of his own wrestling with masculinity—daddy issues are never far behind the overt subjects of his essays (wrestling, UFOlogy, frat house blues, neighborhood crime). I’d like to dub his work in this collection bro studies, a minefield that he tends to with all the uncertainty, delicacy, and zig-zagging it demands.
Walking back to my friend’s house, a heavy, donut-sick feeling in my stomach, the sun working its way through the morning haze, I wondered what alchemical substance is added to time that makes it possible for us to forgive.
The Cold and the Rust
by Emily Van Kley
Persea Books (March 2018)
Winter in the northern Midwest is not a place I return to in person, at least not willingly. It is a place I dread for its deadly overcast sadness, a dread that, I learned from Michigan poet Emily Van Kley’s collection, constitutes its own heady nostalgia. The Cold and the Rust, winner of the 2017 Lexi Rudnitsky First Book Prize in Poetry, is a sense-drenched tour of buses and mines, deer hunts and Kmart parking lots. Girlhood and adolescence take place outside, in the outfield or in the lake or on the track, and winter is something to be borne. In a place where “what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” being an outsider, in this case growing up queer, is a condition that cannot even find its expression until long after you’ve left. Not that, Van Kley reminds us, a person can ever leave: “How self-/important, the notion//that a place can be left,/a person return.” Her queer lovesong to the Midwest, its stifle, isn’t it all of ours? “Praise the place where /I could not have met you.”
Too many deer make for a starving winter,
which means you, clutching your rifle in thin fall snow,
are an instrument of some vital love