review: ALL YOU CAN EVER KNOW by nicole chung

maybe the current generation is more sensitive, empathetic, or generally informed. but when i was a korean girl growing up in the whitest, most wealthy part of a conservative state, girls would dismiss their “weird” sisters with the quip that “she’s the adopted one.” even though she clearly wasn’t, as if it were the worst possible thing you could be. more than being poor, more than being sick. & in the 1990s, in this tiny town where parents don’t get divorced, where all the stores close at 8pm, where all the most popular boys in school have cornflower hair & giant blue eyes, maybe it was

no one ever told me to “go home” but they pulled out the corners of their eyes & pushed down their noses & complained about not being able to see. they asked me if i ever wanted to go find my “real” parents. when mulan came out, they asked me why i never show off my martial arts at recess

later, it became a game: white people who encounter me in the wild would guess what “type” of asian i am. in their brains, two neon signs would light up: CHINESE & JAPANESE in bold block letters. there were no other options. even now, old white men will stop me at work & say “nǐ hǎo” to me, their white square teeth acting like they’re doing me a favor

the adopted one. like there’s anything glamorous about it. like blood is the only currency


this is the thing: nicole chung is korean & adopted, too, but her story is not my story. because there is no ~one~ story about the adoption experience. some big, easy differences between us from the outset:

  • nicole has her shit together
  • nicole loves her (adoptive) parents
  • for most of her life, nicole was functionally an only child
  • nicole searched for her birth parents

still, i would be lying if i said i didn’t request an ARC of all you can ever know to find out more about who i am. because the truth is no one from a biological family, no matter how close to me, can understand how this feels, unless you’ve felt it:

Where did they get you? people at the grocery store asked. Or, on the playground, How much did you cost? Kids at school wanted to know why I didn’t look like them. Teachers stumbled over my Hungarian surname, looking perplexed even after my corrections.

up until last year, my legal last name was irish: the same letters in my first name, a tongue twister & a brain teaser. to see that name on paper then look at me. sometimes my new name turns heads (you’re not hispanic, tho??) but mostly, people think it sounds like a name for a writer.

mostly, i’m no longer a korean girl in a town with sixteen thousand people


cindy is nicole’s biological sister & what they told her (& cindy’s half-sister jessica) was that their baby sister had died. or that was the implication when the baby was coming for so long & then gone (two went to the hospital; only one came back). while “Cindy would never be able to recall anyone actually telling her the baby had died,” it became a fact about her life, the same way nicole grew up with the story that she was her adoptive parents’ “gift from God”

as nicole got older, she “[could] make out the gaps; the places where my mother and father must have made their own guesses; the pauses where harder questions could have followed: Why didn’t they ask for help? What if they changed their minds? Would you have adopted me if you’d been able to have a child of your own?

over & over, her parents would tell her the same storythey thought adoption was the best thing for you. they told her “the fact that I was Korean didn’t matter; what mattered was ‘the kind of person’ I was.” but things still happened. in second or third grade, a boy on the playground told her she was “so ugly, your own parents didn’t even want you!”

at that age, with white parents who “[took] a ‘colorblind’ view of our family…believed my Koreanness was irrelevant within our family, and should be so to everyone else as well,” there weren’t words for these attacks that didn’t leave bruises:

I never heard or read about any racism other than the kind that outright destroys your life and blots out your physical existence; even that was relegated in books and lessons to “it happened in the past.” What I experienced on the elementary school playground, and then later on my middle school bus, and for the rest of my years in Southern Oregon…always seemed too insignificant to be even remotely connected to real racism

instead, nicole was left with the feeling that she was “more like a white girl than an Asian one,” to the point where “sometimes it was shocking to catch a glimpse of my face in the mirror and be forced to catalogue the hated differences; to encounter tormentors and former friends and know that what they saw was so at odds with the person I was”

the white people that adopted me took a different approach. until third grade, they put me in a montessori school a long commute from where we lived so i could go to school with other people that looked like me, or at least were different than all the ashleys & sarahs. my best friends were from india, china, zimbabwe. one day, the white people that adopted me even came to my school & did a presentation about hanboks

maybe there’s other adoptees that would have flipped for this but it made me feel like i had done something wrong & didn’t know it, like i needed someone to apologize for me. in my childhood room, there was a poem in a frame about how i really had two mothers & that they both loved me the same amount. but unlike nicole who “kept a secret running tally of every single Asian person I had ever seen in public,” who “looked for my people, for my parents, for a sudden light of recognition that never came,” i had no desire to find the people that gave me up. i didn’t want or need to go back there; i wanted somebody who would take care of who i was here, now


old school adoptions were intense. in part one of her memoir, nicole explains that back in the day, “birth parents had no legal rights once an adoption was finalized.” that even more “open adoption [arrangements[] at the time of placementwith, say, the exchange of regular letters, photos, and phone calls” were up to the continued active participation of the adoptive family. otherwise, “the adoptive family had the right to cut off contact, at any time, with or without an explanation”

on top of that, the names of the adoptee’s birth parents could only be “accessed and shared with [her] by a confidential adoption intermediary, and then only after [her] birth family approved the information exchange.” much different than today, where (in the state of washington) nicole could request a copy of her original birth certificate as part of public records. but the legislation did not change until summer 2014, years & years after nicole started her research

so nicole needed a “search angel,” an industry term for the intermediary. as with certain bureaucratic processes, however, nicole found it difficult to “hire someone who would listen, understand the unique circumstances of my placement, and see us all as individuals with our own feelings and histories to be respected” instead of “[viewing] my birth parents or me as a cause, or representative of larger problems with adoption.” she wanted someone to care about her, as she was trying to navigate the idea of discussing the search with her adoptive parents:

I tried not to recall the cautionary tales they’d told me about adoptees who should have been more wary of their birth families, or the way my mother had once said, You’re our daughter, no one else’s! In a joke attempt that struck me, even at the time, as strange and a little desperate

on paper, it was a lot. like why even do it if it was going to cost all this money, cause all this pain, ruin this neat little story where these white people saved her life & she lived happily-ever-after with her bachelor’s degree & scientist husband?

because she was pregnant & “couldn’t shake the overwhelming feeling that our baby was destined to inherit a half-empty family tree.” because “i don’t know” only goes so far. because “in most published stories, adoptees still aren’t the adults, the ones with power or agency or desires that matter.”

she wanted to look her daughter in the eyes & tell her the truth, not a story



if the story in nicole’s head was a french omelette, perfectly fluffy with the edges folded just so, the truth was like the first & only time you order eggs benedict from a diner in the middle of nowhere: the eggs are goop, the canadian bacon is spam, you’re sure you could see the “hollandaise” from jupiter. in other words, not at all what she expectedmessy, raw, pieces missing

imagine wondering your entire life if your parents thought about you, if your sisters still counted you when strangers would ask them about their family, wanting to know whose eyes & chin you had only for your search angel to tell you that you don’t exist. according to nicole’s file, the potential controversy over her korean birth parents bringing home a “sick” (premature) baby or having to explain why they had left her were so humiliating that “they thought it would be easier if they told everyone, including your sisters, that you had died.” not only that but her birth parents had since been divorced & lived in different states so she would not have to decide if & how she’d like to contact each of them

in the margin where the search angel delivers nicole this bad news as good news, i highlight it all & write holy fuck. the fantasy was not only blurry but obliterated: “If I opened my eyes to find my birth parents standing right in front of me, I wouldn’t have known what to say.” if it were me, i might have already hung up. but nicole stayed on the line & donna said the one thing that could have kept her from giving up: “There’s a name here in the file. I guess your parents chose it for you before you were adopted”

it was “susan” & it was enough


my name is from a dead beauty brand named annalia’s garden. my brother’s american name is after saint nicholas. at first, though, we were going to be named lucy & jet, & i thank the universe every day that that was not the case

the white people that adopted us kept our first names in korean as our middle names, but we’ve always kept them close. my brother uses his full korean name as his email & lists his hometown as seoul on facebook even though he’s never lived there. i added the rest of my korean name to my middle name when i changed my last name

right now, neither of us speaks korean but my brother & best friend are learning. nicole is learning. in the last chapter of her memoir, nicole’s oldest daughter abby asks her, “Mama, am I a real Korean?” as an imported korean, i recognize this wonder, but it was not something i thought about until i was maybe fifteen, not five. abby explains that her “real” chinese friends speak chinese, & that they’re all chinese while abby herself is korean & “lemonese” (lebanese)


over signature floats at the drive-in behind our childhood house, i ask my brother about what it means to be a “real” asian. he’s visiting america after his first year of teaching english in japan; i’ve only been dragged to wisconsin for legal meetings related to our nana’s death. he says that he got made fun of in high school if his grades weren’t perfect but wasn’t as stressed about it during college. both of us agree that if our birth parents contacted us that we would talk to them or maybe even meet them but didn’t have any interest in looking for them or building like a life-long relationship because of it

i don’t know why other people look, just as nicole accepts that other people don’t. but i think the fact that i have had a brother since i was two years old helps me; we didn’t need to search because we had each other


nicole asked someone to be her sister for the first time when she was ten. i don’t know if there were other times or it was only this then finding cindy, but it intrigues me. thinking of her own sister, nicole’s grandmother encouraged the idea: “Mary always looked out for me. all our lives! that’s what sisters do. maybe your friend needs someone to look out for her, too”

it didn’t work out with her childhood friend but the bond with cindy was immediate. they wrote each other every day; nicole even made a “cindy” folder where she kept their missives. cindy flew out to meet nicole. after that, they arranged a trip where nicole would go to cindy, & part of that vacation was dinner with nicole’s birth father

& this, of course, is the view from space. each of these milestones was filled with much more tension, anticipation, complication that i’ve listed here. but the moment that rooted me to present-day nicole writing this book, giving me this window, is one where her & cindy weren’t even together. on march 12, cindy calls & tells nicole she’s six weeks pregnant

“we haven’t told anyone else,” cindy says. to check, nicole asks, “not even your dad?” cindy’s reply: “for now, you’re the only one who knows”

if this were a movie, here’s where we would cut. but cindy goes on, saying she’s “trying not to obsess over it,” & nicole holds her hope, crosses all her fingers & toes. “I’m thinking about you both,” she says. in the margins, i’ve written ¡THE ONLY ONE!


adoptee has never been the first word i would use to describe myself. it’s probably not even in the top ten & wasn’t a word that entered into my vocabulary until a few years ago. what comes before it? woman. feminist. older sister, failed pianist, cat person. but being an asian woman in america affects every part of my life; i know it does

back in march, nicole wrote an article for longreads & one of the things she said was “Sometimes I wonder if I wrote a really bad book, and everyone is just afraid to tell me because my father is dead.” now it’s august. it’s been seven months & there’s still a month & some change until all you can ever know is out in the world

of all the things nicole has had to wait for, this will be the shortest

a year in reading

true, i no longer have a bookstore. but—there’s nothing to say i can’t write a 2017 roundup anyway! here are some books & one-offs i have loved this year

each book is linked to indiebound to purchase in yr city
no indies near you? many of them ship!
or there’s always yr local library ❤



hunger makes me a modern girl by carrie brownstein
riverhead, 2015

straight up: celebrity memoirs fascinate me. always have. i remember many trips to my hometown library where i would march straight to the back & spread out michael jackson books on the floor. i checked out moonwalk & this odd MJ poetry / scraps collection called dancing the dream multiple times. you can’t make this up: i even bought a hardcover copy of clay aiken’s memoir learning to sing

back then, i imagined reading someone’s memoir was like getting VIP access to their personal diary. ridiculous, right? but i liked the idea of it—this illusion that someone i loved would want me to understand, trusted me with ~the truth~

now, i read celebrity memoirs & am more intrigued by what an icon might say knowing the fact that i can even separate them from any other stranger is because of pure artifice, an environment constructed. i know this. they know this. so what do they choose? it’s flipped from truth to dare

that’s not to say that there aren’t good celebrity memoirs, ones that could be categorized in the more general genre. then again by diane keaton, for example, stands out. sure, there’s some diary entries about working with abuser woody allen, letters from lovers throughout the years. mostly, though, it’s about her strained relationship with her mother, which she depicts in commentary from the present, old letters, & her mother’s journal entries. it’s the first memoir i read, celebrity or otherwise, where i felt like there were two voices with equal strength. it’s very to easy to say my mother was like this, my mother would say this—but what about when her words are right there? we meet her mother when she is a housewife & see her to her death from alzheimers. we see diane in her youth trying to understand her family’s dynamics grow into a mother who adopts children of her own. it’s amazing

i don’t know exactly what drew me to hunger makes me a modern girl, or what made me keep that book over many other books i left when i was forced to move twice in two years. the intense, gorgeous cover? the hope that the title could be a mantra rather than a curse? i started reading it in my new post-hurricane apartment when i didn’t know what else to read. it came with me on the trip to & from my best friend’s wedding

let’s say this: i was not prepared. i cried in the tub; i cried in my bed; i cried on planes. unlike the conspiracy theories concocted by little teenage me, carrie here was showing me who i am; she was seeing me

of the many threads in this beautiful book, the one that has stayed with me the most is another woman describing what it feels like to be living with anxiety, before discovering & accepting that anxiety is what it is. for years, i had arguments with friends, family, lovers, teachers, colleagues about parties, certain situations that have to do with driving, bars, theme parks, quizzes. i was told i’m overreacting, to ‘calm down’

when hunger begins, carrie leaves us with this: that she is destroying her one love, home, & family: her band sleater-kinney. not because she wants to but because sometimes the pain wins. in other words, it was her fault. even if she was maybe the one that needed it most

since finishing the book, i’ve been going through sleater-kinney’s discography. it’s feral, but aren’t we all?

the year of magical thinking by joan didion
knopf, 2005

the first time i read this book was during the summer of 2013, before i had any fucking idea what it feels like to grieve anything, & the experience of reading it was sorta like looking at drawings of medieval torture devices: curious but something i would never have to encounter

these days, the current political climate notwithstanding, it’s hard to imagine NOT being in a stage of grief at any given moment. i picked up magical thinking again when i felt like i had overextended the generosity of my friends & my journal

for those who don’t know, magical thinking is the book joan didion wrote after her husband died from a heart attack at their dinner table. they were married for almost four decades & had never spent more than two weeks apart. in fact, they were almost always together, both writing from home or traveling with each other when one needed to complete a location-based project. when joan’s husband died, their daughter was in the hospital with her own illness. she was alone; it was the holidays

i wanted to find the longer passage where she describes the vortex, how an ordinary thing that no one else notices can trigger a sudden jump in time in your brain where you’re not even there anymore but somewhere else & that somewhere else is so lovely & inaccessible that it shuts you down completely. how it feels to disappear & when you reappear to realize the people in your company are staring, that they have been for a while. that you, this time, are the crazy one. she writes about how doctors have studied this, how it happens to everyone that is grieving something. mourning. all that

it didn’t make me feel better in terms of feelings but it reassured my brain that i am not the only freak

from my quote journal, here are these:

All that and I had not even driven down there.
All I had done was catch sight of a commercial on television while I was dressing to go to the hospital.

I used to tell John my dreams, not to understand them, but to get rid of them, clear my mind for the day. “Don’t tell me your dream,” he would say when I woke in the morning, but in the end he would listen.
When he died I stopped having dreams.

I could not count the times during the average day when something would come up that I needed to tell him. This impulse did not end with his death. What ended was the possibility of response.

all of it singing by linda gregg
graywolf, 2008

it’s a bonus that linda gregg came to my alma mater when i was there & that my other best friend introduced her the night of her reading. my best friend was nervous about the reading, but i was nervous about the dinner. about the part when linda would ask what i’m writing & i wouldn’t have anything good to say. we didn’t have anything to be nervous about, though, because linda came to the dinner in her honor an hour late. she told us all about it: on the way to the restaurant, she saw a homeless man collapse in the street & made our professor pull over until medical help arrived. over bougie food beyond our means, she told us about how wind turbines do more harm than good, due to bird murder. which is to say she is a poet through & through

at the reading, she thanked my friend by name & wrote a kind note in her book. in my book, she wrote my name & drew me flowers

even if that never happened, all of it singing would still be a book that calls me back again & again. before moving to houston, i got the mailing addresses of women i had been close to over the years & wrote them each a poem i had chosen for them from the book. regardless of how long it had been since we’d spoken, regardless if they read poetry. one friend liked the poem i sent her so much that she used it as inspiration for a tattoo that she got across her entire torso

this is not that poem but part of one that stood out to me this time:

I wanted it to be made of actual things. Dirt
and corpses even. As real as the table you
said your love was that I could sit down to
and eat from if I wanted anything permanent.
I wanted absoluteness to be made of my heart.

misadventure by nicholas grider
a strange object, 2014

this is the second book that a strange object put out before they died for a couple years then came back to life last year. i remember it as the most brutal & unsettling book i’d read, at that point. but, i’ve read many more short story collections & debuts since then—& the brain-melting fever dream by samanta schweblin, translated by megan mcdowell. (seriously, i’ve never felt so stupid or terrified reading a book than that one. it’s a marvel.)

another book that i’m not sure why it’s lingered on my shelf but i gave it another read & WOOF. it took me two months to finish even though it’s just over a hundred pages because the first section made me want to bury my head in the earth so deep that it dug into the ocean

is that the effect it’s supposed to have? i don’t know. there’s stories about being in love when you’re not out, having an attraction that you don’t realize is sexual, being so bored & exhausted by marriage that you’d never do it again. two stories, “formers (an index)” & “liars”, are just lists. the title story is a police report

over & over, the characters in these stories seem to be screaming that they don’t know what they’re looking at, they don’t know what they’re seeing, & i still can’t determine whether the claustrophobia is theirs or mine

my favorite story is “cowboys,” the last one & the longest in the book. over twenty-five pages, nicholas introduces us to lifelong friends chris & dale. chris & dale have a secret, a game they’ve spent their lives perfecting. in a way, it’s simple: one ties the other in a knot & waits for him to escape; then they switch roles. it’s not gay, they assure each other. but there are rules, the cardinal one being that no one else is allowed to know about the game, or become another player. of course, this rule gets broken as the boys choose colleges across the country (one in new york, one in california)

mistakes aside, the game continues into their forties, even when they both have wives & children. reunited in milwaukee, they take turns paying for a hotel room once a month, telling the women that they are gambling at a local casino. they both have the money; it’s not a big committment. but is it?

the knots themselves delineate sections of the story (i.e. 1. The Basic. Hogtie, face down, wrists tied behind back, ankles tied, wrists tied to ankles). each knot is ranked by how long it will take the partner to escape. there should be no more than fifty feet of rope used. optional furniture can be a chair or the bed—better if the bed is larger, making reaching the knots more difficult. the gag is a bandanna & sock. another important rule: the man who did the tie was to stay with the man that was bound for safety reasons, or in the situation where they would need to hide the evidence

one night, dale leaves chris in their hotel room, knowing the hotel staff will find him the next morning when he has neglected his checkout

what keeps us together?, misadventure seems to ask. it takes the standard answers & explains why they are wrong

in full velvet by jenny johnson
sarabande, 2017

unlike features, it’s rare for me to communicate with writers when i write reviews. & that’s ok—i love publicists. especially when kristen radtke & ariel lewiton were the princess warriors of the new york sarabande office (now no longer). if ariel asked me to do something, i did it

jenny johnson contacted me after reading my review for ploughshares. it was the only time a writer i didn’t already know had done that & i was honored to tell her that it was the best collection i’d read in ten years. since some ether, since all of it singing, since any book of poems that made me weep ugly whale tears

yes, there’s a lot about deer & taxidermy, nature in general (lots of light here). but most of it is about queer love, from using fake names in shame to The small-town heat makes everything stick / our skin pressing into one another, // the hair soft and light above your tailbone— / I won’t forget how you directed me there

i mean, i love this book. i love it because it’s not my story & i know it will comfort & validate readers who can identify with it, that it has already. i love it because this is one of the great joys of reading, meeting people that are different than me & letting them shine

shine on, jenny—shine on

lit by mary karr
harper, 2009

if reading hunger makes me a modern girl this fall was shooting for forgiveness, i read lit this summer when i thought all i could deserve was punishment, since i had heaps of it around me anyway. let’s read about mary karr & her flailing failed attempts before she finally got sober. let’s read about mary karr & her divorce. let’s read about learning to pray

today, there are probably MFA students that when you say her name are like ‘yeah yeah yeah, marry freaking karr, what else do you have?’ but i read lit for the first time back in probably 2012. then & now, passages like this make me smile til my cheeks hurt:

Out of the blue, I say, I’m from the state of Texas.
What’s that supposed to mean?
I know my son is gonna survive these ass-whoopings no matter how many of them there are. But when it’s five against one and there’s not a grown-up to intervene, I’m gonna instruct Dev to pick up a rock or a stick and leave a mark on somebody. Let’s hope it’s not your kid.
My uncle’s a lawyer, she says.
My daddy’s Pete Karr, I say, and hang up.

mary herself would be the first to tell you that her books are not a blueprint for how you should live your life. but she’s far from the worst person, too

a few years ago, mary came to read in houston & i had the opportunity to chat with her on the phone in anticipation of the event, help out with the book signing. i was nervous, even though by then i had been working big book events for years. i didn’t want her to think i was too shy, too chipper. i didn’t want her to think my writing was stupid

but she seemed to trust me, as much as you can trust a stranger. she said she read our interview on the flight over, thanked me for writing things that were accurate. she told me about a recent piece in a larger mainstream publication that attributed her saying things she never said, things she would never say

in case i thought it ever gets easier! she spent the entire book signing giving writing advice to philip gourevitch on speaker phone. you know. a guy that’s only been writing for the new yorker almost as long as i’ve been alive

her hair kept falling out of her bun & she was wearing a blouse that was low cut enough to make me blush. stilettos tall enough to definitely maim someone. when reverend callaham appeared, she asked if we could pray for a friend’s three-year-old son who was being flown to the hospital as we spoke. we stood, held hands, & prayed. after, she did the sign of the cross

it doesn’t always work like this but my hope is that if she can dig herself out of where she was that i can at least break even

one day we’ll all be dead & none of this will matter by scaachi koul
picador, 2017

i have this relationship with buzzfeed where i don’t read any of their articles but follow a significant amount of their teams on twitter? i love scaachi, don’t even know how long i’ve followed her or how she came up on my timeline. (perhaps my beautiful canadian friend diana?) i follow saeed jones & isaac fitzgerald; i watch their new morning twitter broadcast #AM2DM. karolina waclawiak, just because of how many of her writers praise her as an editor. but scaachi is my hero, with her screaming & strong (unpopular) opinions & posts about her cat sylvia plath where she narrates her thoughts. she extra, before extra was extra

i pitched a review for O.D.W.A.B.D.A.N.O.T.W.M. to the rumpus & former reviews editor brian hurley said it was taken but directed me to the interview department. from there, i played email tag with the editor & scaachi & picador for months & it became my first full-length feature on the rumpus site. the process was both the first time i felt like i had an editor that believed in me (thank you, brian) & the first time in a long time that i had a book i wanted to be everywhere. not that picador needs the help; i wanted people to help scaachi

not that scaachi really needs the help either. if she wants your attention, she’s gonna get it

lost & found cat by doug kuntz & amy shrodes
crown books for young readers, 2017

after last year’s presidential election, the good people came out in masses to order children’s books about activism. a is for activist by innosanto nagara in particular was sold out at our warehouse for weeks

i found lost & found cat during a normal day of opening boxes & receiving inventory. i read it cover to cover, passed it around the back room. three of us read it; two of us cried (or at least teared up). the next time i saw our children’s specialist, i thanked her & asked her if we could order more because it was something i would definitely hand-sell

here’s the story: an iraqi family is forced to emigrate to greece & they include kunkush the family cat (because family is family). to keep him safe, kunkush’s family holds him in a basket as the waves jostle the boat. on land, kunkush escapes, scared by the barrage of unfamiliar sounds & smells. his family tries to search for him but cannot stay long

as his family continues their journey, kunkush faces more battles when he encounters unfamiliar cats & is unsure how to navigate this new outdoor environment. he is dirty, hungry, cold, & sad. a few days later, aid workers rescue him, clean him, & move him to berlin, where he is placed with a foster family. meanwhile, volunteers take to the internet with community posts & crossed fingers, hoping to reunite this kitty with his humans

through facebook, kunkush’s family contacts the team & has a skype date to confirm that it is him. inspired by the story, photojournalist doug kuntz flies from berlin to norway with kunkush himself

& well. i’m sure you can guess how it ends—lots of hugging, lots of crying. BUT! the most endearing thing about the picture book is that it includes REAL PHOTOS from the REAL REUNION, photos of sweet baby kunkush. co-author amy schrodes is the volunteer who took him in before he was moved to berlin. co-author doug kuntz is the one that came through with the assist! NOT TO MENTION sue cornelison’s adorable illustrations that highlight both the plight & triumph of kunkush the refugee cat

WHAT IS NOT TO LIKE. CATS. FAMILY. HOME. presentation of current political crisis in a way that even children can understand. i hope this is a story that was read to children throughout the year but santa, if you’re listening…

whereas by layli long soldier
graywolf, 2017

when whereas was passed to me the first time, i was hesitant to read it because i didn’t think any comment i could make would help it out at all. flipping through, it’s clearly written by a brilliant mind, an expert in topics that i can’t even begin to approach. i also didn’t want any fumbling rambles i made to negate someone else’s experience

however, casey o’neil, sales & marketing manager & graywolf’s main bookslinger at the bookstore level, asked me if i might be able to write a blurb for indie next & i tried my best. & it’s still there!

When pain is obvious but goes unrecognized, it feels like trying to strain salt from sugar. With the poems in Whereas, Layli Long Soldier engages with where she’s ‘from’ through history and memory, analysis and reflection. Her mission? To stay angry—to declare, ‘I’m here I’m not / numb to a single dot.’ From rants and dreams and one lexical box to a pantomime of legalese, Long Soldier is agile, aware, and not asking for pity. She aims, instead, for action—’whereas speaking, itself, is defiance.’

i used her words, as much as i could. but basically, if you’re looking for some real talk about what’s going down with native peoples, why, like slavery, it’s not something that is “over,” read this book

tell me how it ends by valeria luiselli
coffee house press, 2017

i’ll say it outright: coffee house press is my favorite indie press, ever. not because i’m friends with them (although that’s wonderful—hi mandy, hi caroline) or they’re hip right now or blah blah. it’s because they published this book, & that it is singular, like everything valeria touches. it’s because for the 2017 CHP BBQ, all proceeds from the fantabulous baked goods went to the young center, a chicago non-profit in line with valeria’s call to action. because THEY PAY THEIR INTERNS

i wrote about this book for ploughshares. i have a blurb in it. i have shouted about it all the ways i know how to shout. i donated money to the young center because i didn’t want being a thousand miles away from the cookies to stop me

there’s so much panic in the world right now, in the micro & the macro. this book reminds me to pay attention & that there’s still work we can do. as civilians, in conversations, with our time

keep yr head up

stomachs by luna miguel (translation: luis silva)
scrambler books, 2016

i don’t know what the ratio is for other writers who have contact forms on their websites (or those bold folks that list their e-mail addresses in their twitter bios) but the messages i receive through mine are mostly spam. like ‘Dear Writer’ e-mails sent because i have a contact form

jeremy from scrambler books was an exception. throughout our e-mail correspondence, it was clear he knew who i was, how i write, & what books i gravitate towards. this is how stomachs came to me

even though i received it at the end of february, it was april before i got to read it & july before my review was placed. part of it was life stuff but just as true is that this book wrecked me. so much of the poetry i read (& love!) is written by men & women that have got some years on me. but luna & i were born the same year, so when she says, ‘I want to lose weight crying,’ i really fucking feel it

daddy issues by alex mcelroy
the cupboard, 2017

this one is a chapbook! can’t say it’s my expertise—the only other fiction chapbook i’ve read is the mystical juned by jenn marie nunes (yesyesbooks, 2016). but since meeting him at lily hoang’s reading (here’s me foaming at the mouth about her), alex has been a source of strength, poetry, news, cat photos…i met him before i met his work, which i think is my preferred way

when the new england review published his essay “endure”, i met alex on paper. i read it twice, sent it to friends, read it again, put up tweets. short as it is, this essay was something i had needed to read for years, & was glad alex was the one to write it. the fear & doubt, the trust so deep it turns to terror

with daddy issues, i was curious to see how alex works with fiction but its effect on me was the same. like returning to reading before reading became a large part of my job, where i was trained how to more or less eat books (a blurb here, a review there, an interview here, an upcoming feature, a book list)

alex must know what it looks like when a lanky white grad student like himself releases a book called daddy issues. must know that people expect old men whining about baseball, sleezebags leaving their wives for someone younger & bustier, beatings that are “designed” to “build character,” abortions & miscarriages. those things aren’t there, at least in these daddy issues

here, a child barters with a classmate so he can take his zombie grandpa home for a school project until something goes wrong & the child’s brother murders the already-dead grandfather, whacking the cadaver ’til there’s nothing left. a mother literally shoves her hands down her son’s throat—digging, clutching, searching. one man tells another man that his wife is made of ten thousand birds, which the husband refuses to believe until he goes home & she seems to evaporate

in short, alex writes. not to impress, avenge, atone—he turns things over until they become something new. he writes what he has to say then leaves the rest

the possibility of fireflies by dominique paul
simon & schuster, 2007

out of print, this one—or so it seems? which is all the more reason to write about it here

1987: ellie is fourteen & everything sucks. her sister gwen is hanging out with weird angry people who listen to weird angry music, throw parties, & get in trouble. her mom is getting worse—more days where she refuses to get out of bed, more yelling, more nights where ellie goes to bed hungry

some days, ellie comes home from school & the door is locked because no one else is home. she sits on the front stoop & watches the fireflies, thinks about other places she could be & how to get there. she thinks about her dad, & how he doesn’t even call anymore

things at school haven’t been super great, either, because it’s clear that ellie & her best friend celia are as opposite as they could be. celia’s family has dinner together every night at the same time. celia’s mom greets celia’s dad with cocktails; celia’s mom cooks dinner every night (complete with dessert!); celia’s mom drives them to the mall. celia cares about make-up & boys & the camp she goes to every summer for the entire summer

celia is a normal girl with a normal life, & can’t relate to this stuff. no one can relate to this stuff. then leo moves across the street & everything changes

BUT NOT HOW YOU WOULD THINK? or maybe you would. but when i read this for the first time as a teenager, it rocked my world, & gave me five new layers of skin. because little 14yo ellie does NOT hook up with 21yo leo—neighbor, babe, frontman of a rockband. IT’S NOT ABOUT THAT! it’s a different type of love where they teach each other things. it’s about ellie & how she learns to say no. & that she leaves, but not the way her sister did—running off with fake friends, the trouble only beginning. ellie calls her dad, takes the bus to his new house that she has never seen, & the first thing he says to her after all those years is welcome home

like. this book is my anthem

imagine wanting only this by kristen radtke
pantheon, 2017

i’ve already foamed at the mouth about k-rad some here but i wanted to include her graphic novel here for two reasons:

1) knowing of someone ≠ knowing someone & it’s a beautiful thing to be reminded of that, learn more about the layers that were unknown to you before

2) similar: it’s so freaking hard as a public figure to create a NEW IDENTITY after you’ve been doing another thing for so long & i want to help highlight kristen’s post-sarabande life

after much delay, i read imagine wanting only this in one sitting. trapped in my apartment from hurricane harvey, a story about a fellow midwest girl traveling to broken places seemed about right

Y’ALL. I DID NOT EVEN KNOW! kristen, who in our working relationship was always warm but distant, spills her fucking guts. in her graphic memoir, she shows us her favorite family member, her first big love, & the photographs that were all she thought about for years

sometimes we do things & we don’t know why, or there’s not a way to explain it that would make sense to anybody else. kristen going to these places & looking for something underneath the nothing is one of those things

maybe there’s not much else to say except that i respect it

citizen: an american lyric by claudia rankine
graywolf, 2014

i am into backlist. if i find a writer i like, i will read around their work. because publishing is so bizarre that it’s not always true that the most current book will be the ‘best’ one. sometimes books are published out of order. sometimes the idea is there but the mechanics are not. i don’t like the idea that a book expires

so yeah, i read citizen three years after it came out. i remembered when we couldn’t keep it on the shelves because the copies that would take weeks & weeks (sometimes months!) to arrive were already promised. or we’d put out two copies & they would go within the hour. i remembered the hype & thought this book would be sad. like, here’s one boy who was shot for being black & another & another & another. sad like one minute you’re crying but by page thirty, it’s so deep that you can’t even grow tears to reach it

instead, i was shocked, angry, confused. two particular accounts stayed with me. one is when the narrator meets a new therapist at her home: ‘When the door finally opens, the woman standing there yells, at the top of her lungs, Get away from my house! What are you doing in my yard?’ the narrator steps back, stating an appointment was made. the woman is still snarling—if she were a cat, her coat would be fluffed to capacity, her back arched—until she notices her mistake: ‘Oh, she says, followed by, oh yes, that’s right. I am sorry. I am so sorry, so, so sorry’

on another page, the narrator is at the drugstore & the front of the line is here. a man steps in front of her & the cashier corrects him: ‘Sir, she was next.’ & he says, ‘Oh my God, I didn’t see you.’ out of forced patriarchal politeness, pity, perhaps decades of this interaction, the narrator says, ‘You must be in a hurry.’ wouldn’t i like to say this diffused the situation. but no. he says, ‘No, no, no, I really didn’t see you’

there’s no one quote that can summarize the whole book but this one that i saved in my quote journal is both a feeling i would never want anyone to feel & learned is the entire landscape for many black men & women:

The worst injury is feeling you don’t belong so much

to you—

yes, there have been times where i could identify with this feeling. in my lack of family support, in abusive friendships, in romantic relationships. but it’s the degree that makes the distinction. it’s that, for me, it was temporary



“how the witchcraft of clarice lispector saved my life” by scott esposito
the literary hub, 2017

i had never heard of scott esposito before i started working at the bookstore. not that i bought all my books from amazon either but i didn’t think about literature in translation any more than i thought about anything else. i didn’t read book blogs. (i still don’t really read book blogs.)

but people in houston & elsewhere were quick to tell me about quarterly conversation, how he’s been a tastemaker for years. when he followed me on twitter, i thought it was an accident or because of the brazos brand, not anything to do with me

where we began to connect for real is when the bookstore was robbed. kenny coble did his thing & shouted from the balcony of the internet about how it would be good to order a book or two to help us out, try to replace the money we had lost. & even if that’s not exactly how it works, twitter took it to heart & people started ordering en masse

we went from maybe three or four book orders a day (sometimes more if there were a popular in-store event & people reserved their signed copies) to forty web orders a day, or more. strangers who had never even been to texas went through our catalog & ordered books & gifts to save for christmas

also around this time, stephen sparks was accepting pitches for the lit hub series ‘bookselling in the 21st century.’ which is exactly what it sounds like: booksellers talk about what it’s like to sell books these days, in hopes we will stop having people come in & break out their tissues, saying o isn’t it awful how amazon is going to force y’all to close?

i pitched the idea then invited kenny & scott to collaborate with me. in the end, kenny was unable to participate but working together on the piece, scott & i developed a friendship that started with books then extended to all the other things we love outside of that—our cats, fashion, good food, the emotional spectrum

the deadline was tight but we got it done & the result was the most read feature on the lit hub website for 2016

since then, scott & i kept in touch often & i’m honored to consider him a close friend. but when this essay came out, i was so so happy to get some insight into his life when for a while, he was just scott, instead of scott esposito the great. & to be fair, scott considers himself to be just scott. but here he was working a shitty, dead-end job to pay the bills. here he was clutching onto literature because it was the only thing that kept his brain from leaking out his ears. & here he was telling me about another iconic figure, & in a way that i could see what he was seeing. i mean, a ‘compact, ferocious novel—that feels like the extended scream of a woman who has quietly wept her whole life’? who doesn’t want to read that!

as of yet, i haven’t found a way to be where scott is, where the passion & the grind align. but it’s nice to know that it’s possible for people to get there

“stark, erotic images of chinese youth stir controversy” by wilfred chan
CNN, 2017

if 2016 was the universe taking people i love, 2017 has been the year where people die & i am ashamed i didn’t know who they were before it happened. ren hang is one example of this. when it happened, alexander chee posted this profile, which also introduced me to wilfred chan

it’s true that suicide draws people in a dog sees squirrel kind of way. but what a life, as they say. the photographs are odd & fantastic, compelling & almost repulsive. it’s more asian bodies & more men’s bodies than i’ve seen anywhere else, with deep contrast between dark & light that keeps you looking

& right there the whole time is wilfred, leading through the display with the right amount of notes about the artist & the pieces. as if you were touring an actual museum, a private showing

one of the shortest reads on here but no less beautiful

the longest short, no. 130: “my dad was my first oprah” (interview w/ ashley c. ford)

if you know about ashley c ford (AKA @iSmashFizzle), you probably have heard her talk about her dad. how he’s been in prison for her entire life. & how he would write her letters, crisp cursive missives in fine black ink on white lined pages. as a recent follower, i haven’t read everything, but i was there when her dad was released this past spring. i read this electric essay where she talks about the reunion

this phenomenal forty-seven minute podcast is where ashley talks about how their relationship changed over the years, including when she finally found out the charges for his sentence

[SPOILER ALERT / TW] he was there for rape. & when he told her, he probably never imagined that she was a rape survivor herself. but she was & she is, & shit fell down on both sides. not to the point of breaking but in a certain way, it’s almost the worst thing that he could have done, short of murder. because, drugs? you can get sober; you can get clean; you can quit. assault? even when you take full responsibility (which he did, from the day the cops arrived), it’s still hard (damn near impossible) to have your father tell you the reason you don’t know him is because he made the choice to assault another woman, that he did the same crime that had been done to you. ‘i could not fathom, to be perfectly honest, a world where it would be acceptable for me to love my father,’ she says. ‘even if i still did, it wasn’t acceptable.’ [END OF SPOILER]

even if you’re not a podcast person, i so recommend this. instead of the hour you fall into a youtube hole. re-watch an episode of a show that you’ve seen so many times you know it by heart anyway. twitter timeline terror. candy crush

ashley, i salute you

“future perfect” by patrick nathan
red sofa literary, 2017

patrick nathan & i have thirty-three followers that we both know. via likes & RTs from those people, he’s been in & out of my timeline for years. but i don’t know much about him other than what anyone else would be able to find out looking through his page. this little post, originally written for NaNoWriMo, is the thing that made me [Follow]

originally written for NaNoWriMo, patrick discusses how he got the news about graywolf on a day where he was already having the best day ever & how the fear persists. how even though ‘it’s absolutely startling—even a bit terrifying—to be believed in so strongly,’ it doesn’t cancel out the anxiety of rejections & passes, especially ones sent via mail merge: ‘What was a ‘big break’ if I still couldn’t break through a slush pile?’

how fucking freeing, for someone who has a book coming out with their dream press to say, ‘With each new rejection, I felt like I’d lost the right to feel rejected.’ not that i want nathan to feel bad. but with a brain that seems to attack me most when i am happy, when NOTHING IS WRONG, it was nice to know i’m not as broken as i think. or that there’s ways around it

we can always fail better

interview w/ scaachi koul

Rumpus: There are more events to be had, in Canada and abroad, but what are some lessons that you’ve learned while touring for this book?

Koul: 1) Teach people how to say your first and last names before they go up to a microphone.
2) Sit up straight at live events.
3) One glass of wine is not enough, three is too many, but weirdly enough, five is perfect.

the one & only! full Q&A over at the rumpus

review: STOMACHS by luna miguel (tr. luis silva)

This review was originally published at Ploughshares on 7.14.17

Let’s romanticize purple. Let’s use it when something is so maudlin that it becomes gaudy, to describe a thing that contains copious amounts of weltschmerz. Let’s have this consensus: purple is not the way you (should) want your work to be described. But there are times for sadness and severity and all things bleak, and what do we do then?

Luna Miguel might not have solutions but Stomachs reminds us that melancholy is not always destructive. Translated from the Spanish by Luis Silva and published by Sacramento indie Scrambler Books, Stomachs is Miguel’s first poetry collection available in English. While some covers mean to obfuscate, the design here is blunt—even belligerent, gnarly and grotesque. In a reproduction reminiscent of old-fashioned film, the same image is produced over and over: a naked woman splitting herself open at the abdomen, blood stains trekking toward her navel. It announces that this collection is not for readers seeking cute haikus about cats, or the heartbreak that would rather focus on coffee mugs left in kitchen sinks. This is the ugly kind.

full review here

review: AN ARRANGEMENT OF SKIN by anna journey

Sometimes being a poet means something inside you snaps, but not like a balloon too close to the ceiling. It bends and begs and burrows, and you, flailing like a sad firefly, break all the things you’re not supposed to break, trying to find it. You start with the things that keep you sane, and move outward, until the most feral version of yourself is alone on the phone with a stranger.

You call a stranger because of the shame, or because other lines have been cut. You’ve cut them, with the breaking. Except the phone call isn’t really about the things you’ve done—it’s not about the recitation. It’s asking someone, anyone, if you can still exist apart from your mistakes. Can you see me? Can you hear me?

For Anna Journey, it starts at the University of Houston, during the last year of her PhD program.

full review here

review: TELL ME HOW IT ENDS by valeria luiselli

This review was originally published at Ploughshares on 3/9/17

Here’s a challenge: tell me a story, without knowing the beginning, middle, or the end. Now, tell it in your second language, or one where the handful of words you know transforms you back into a child. No, let’s say you are a child. Let’s say this conversation will be recorded, and what you say—and how you say it—will determine where you are allowed to live. Let’s say you came alone.

This situation happens every day at the immigration courts in New York City, where novelist and essayist Valeria Luiselli volunteers as an interpreter. In her expanded essay Tell Me How It Ends: An Essay in Forty Questions, Luiselli outlines the intake form for undocumented minors. The procedure, on paper, is simple: Luiselli presents the questions, the children speak, and Luiselli transcribes their answers in English for the lawyers who will fight to secure their legal status.

full review here | order thru coffee house press here

review: IN FULL VELVET by jenny johnson

This review was originally published at Ploughshares on 2/3/17 

The trope with invoking the muses is that it is always a request. Whether it is pleading or demanding, pedantic or indignant, the epic tale is something owed. For her debut collection In Full Velvet, poet Jenny Johnson’s address begins with “Thank you,” and it is radical, as if a muse might peer over the edge of her throne and say, “My, those are words I have not heard for some time.”

“Dappled Things” spans eight pages, each with two stanzas. In a meditation too specific to be anything but genuine, Johnson names gratitude for everything that is “still somehow / counter, original, spare, and strange,” like “the alien markings on my girlfriend’s cheek and how / they form a perfect triangle.” She comments on the weirdness of “[generating] a realm / where we can always see, never see” and the optimism that remains relentless despite all: “Where’s Hope? Hope’s a weed, obscene / on my head, springing white hairs.”

When Johnson does ask for something, it is from herself, rather than the universe. With “Summoning the Body That Is Mine When I Shut My Eyes,” she employs the oddities of nature to remind her that she is here now, sentient and present:

Come belted kingfisher flapping
Come lavender asters wheeling
Come loose, a sapling lengthening
Come honeysuckle Come glistening

Each image has a sense tied to it, perhaps with the hope that conjuring these things can remind what a privilege it is to witness them.

The title poem, as the cover implies, explores the vascular skin that grows on deer antlers during their development. Here, again, is a fascination with the body: “Gut a body and we’re nothing left but pipes whistling in the breeze.” Johnson describes watching a scientist severing the wing of a cassowary (“Because it made me want to turn away”) and quotes a taxidermist giving instructions about deer:

Now we’re going to put a puncture in the tip.
So, we’re not just hitting the one vein.

That’s what we want to see.

It is gruesome but Johnson is reaching for something, trying to understand the oddity of being alive. “Love, we are more than utility, I think,” she writes, and it is both a declaration and a question. “I know my body’s here,” she writes, “when the turkey vulture comes out of the thicket, wings spread wide, smelling all of it.”

However, it would be wrong to categorize this book as a collection of “nature poems,” as it were. “The Bus Ride” is Johnson’s joy of looking at her girlfriend as the light comes through the window, making her glow. “In The Dream” is the transcription of a nightmare that begins with her “alone in a dyke bar.”

In “Souvenirs,” the last stanza is about an ex-girlfriend calling years after a bad breakup. Now living a thousand miles apart, the ex-girlfriend asks Johnson’s permission to build a model of her new home. The ex-girlfriend is a sculptor and wants to use sugar cubes but does not know the measurements. Johnson does the work with grace:

I cannot explain my consent
that evening, alone, at home,
the yellow tape unspooling, I measured closet widths,
calculated the feet between hedges—
I wanted her to craft it perfectly to scale.

If In Full Velvet is a map of Johnson’s mind and memory, it is one worth saving. Johnson is precise with herself, patient with others. These poems celebrate the feeling of spinning in tight circles until all that is left the spiral, rushing from the inside out.