Hieroglyphics by Jill McCorkle | Book Review

Flat JacketAuthor: Jill McCorkle

Illustrator: Steve Godwin

Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill

Published: July 2020

Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction

Pages: 320

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“A story is easier to fall into than your own life…”

– Jill McCorkle, Hieroglyphics


Memory and history share a disingenuous and diverting crossroads, much of which becomes a diluted and dilatable personal history. Hieroglyphics by Jill McCorkle, recounts the elder couple, Frank and Lil (look to the past), the first a history professor and the latter a dance instructor, from Boston, Massachusetts. They possess an unsaid understanding communicated on the visage of blunt and esoteric notes that last into their retirement in North Carolina. The younger couple, Shelley and Brent (look to the present), a stenographer and car mechanic, have an unofficial divorce, leaving this mother and wife to rear her unenlightened and impressionable son, Harvey, in North Carolina. Frank has unfinished business with his past and to complete it, he must visit Shelley’s home, his childhood home.

Two tragical epochs, Boston’s Cocoanut Grove fire of 1942 and the Rennert, North Carolina train wreck of 1943, challenge these tragical couples as they overlap each other in a time-bending way through mementos, keepsakes, notes, and personal effects. Much of Hieroglyphics is headspace work, a tedium that promises and processes mundanity. In this sense, memory is made a personal history where the past catches up with the present and vice versa. The innate truth (the absence of identity) and the adaptive truth (the loss of innocence) create a transformative internal conflict. The value of Lil’s hording tendencies and her hair-splitting plurality is not without its sincere reasons, as notional as they often are. Frank is a believable history buff, lost in times not his own as he comes to terms with a rocky childhood and an avalanching adulthood. Similarly, Shelley’s and Harvey’s inappropriate but wholesomely exaggerated use of escapism leave the mother and son stilted and siphoned as a family unit.

McCorkle’s novel succeeds in its sparsity or narrowness but also suffers from it. Circuitous paths lead to an ineffability, one that poses memory, however unreliable or indelible, as akin to living beyond any timeline’s marker. The bottleneck then, and a necessary one, is knowing what to part with and what to hold onto. The trouble is knowing and remembering the fragility and mystery of words said or written and unsaid or unwritten. Deciding between meaning and meanings, death’s forgetfulness and life’s displacement or life’s forgetfulness and death’s displacement, for posterity. Hieroglyphics leaves more unsaid than said through memory as history, leaves the pieces behind to be picked up again by the impromptu historians, and runs out of track long before the train has left the station.

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The Lightest Object in the Universe by Kimi Eisele | Book Review

Eisele_LightestObject_PB_HR_rgbAuthor: Kimi Eisele

Illustrator: Pete Garceau, Steve Godwin

Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill

Published: June 2020

Genres: Fiction, Sci-Fi

Pages: 352

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                       “Everything returns to its origin… Ready for repurposing.”                                            – Kimi Eisele, The Lightest Object in the Universe


Nothing is everything and everything is nothing in the grassroots, post-apocalyptic world of The Lightest Object in the Universe by Kimi Eisele. Similar to Jose Saramago’s Blindness, with a world that looks but does not see disparity past one’s nose, and unlike Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, with its bleak sparsity and savagery, here Eisele presents human nature at a crossroads with nature. The global economy and digital grid society depends on have failed; no more internet, American government, military, big pharma, corporations, transportation systems. Bartering is the new currency and modern medicine, an outbreak of the common flu (pre-COVID-19) ravages populations, wagons replace cars, and the only means for communication is a pack of cyclists, a rumored cross-country mailing service. Out of this blackout comes a return to basics with activists ready for revolution, teachers holding on to the past and reaching out to the future, friends and strangers made familiar and new, and star-crossed lovers defying the hard times from separate coasts.

The Lightest Object in the Universe has vulnerable and likeable characters, more tolerable than despicable too. Even the more suspicious faces, like a self-proclaimed preacher toting salvation, are not without reasonable persuasion. South American civil activist, Beatrix Banks, and Carson Waller, a Pennsylvanian high school history teacher, create a liminal backdrop for a seemingly dystopian end. It is only after the couple lose contact that their true nature withstands their fears and complacency. Headstrong as she is, Beatrix learns she cannot fight the good fight alone, so she joins and fosters a community in her neighborhood. Carson Waller chooses to leave his city and travel west to document the global collapse and to be with Beatrix. While there is no single antagonist in Eisele’s debut novel (the occasional uncivilized gang or slightly unhinged lost soul), minor and tame as they are, she does offer one sure villain at the end of the sidewalk: unpredictable, sometimes unpreventable, loss.

The loss of normalcy and the self that society could never define before and possibly never had a grasp of. The loss of things and people taken for granted and overlooked. Our scatterbrained and slapdash answers to loss, in the form of grief, self-importance, commercialized distractions, flag-waving, or simply suggesting the “right” suggestion or solution, makes another inadvertent and possibly irreversible consequence, an unnecessary heaviness. In these moments, the destruction becomes a form of creation, a new page to write and rewrite upon. Small gestures of kindness, love, and good deeds are challenged and welcomed in these times of uncertainty, which ultimately gives more connections than disconnections, an unexpected lightness. Eisele has wonderful pacing, adding time and awareness where it has been lost, savoring the ordinary and laying it bare. The journey breathes through its remarkable and endearing encounters, short-lived but never gratuitous, and chokes at its destinations. More than a timely precautionary and predictive tale, The Lightest Object in the Universe demystifies the rarely seen, too often mythologized and heavily advertised, subtlety in humanity with waves of ease and vigor.

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Green Rose

Prairie Fever by Michael Parker | Book Review

Parker_PrairieFever_pbk_HRAuthor: Michael Parker

Illustrator: TK

Publisher: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill

Published: May 2019

Genres: Fiction, Western

Pages: 320

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“Words written are said to mean more than words spoken.”

– Michael Parker, Prairie Fever

Literature about the late 18th and early 19th century American West attempts to capture a rustic yet robust era and culture in transition. A place too that lived beyond dictation and was possessed by the fortitude to expand the western frontier through ideas, some bad, others better, and few good. In Prairie Fever by Michael Parker, a boundless charisma conjoins two sisters from Lone Wolf, Oklahoma, head-in-the-clouds Elise Stewart and nose-to-the-grindstone Lorena Stewart, until a reported murder in the Kiowa County News and their retentive and inscrutable schoolteacher, Gus McQueen, jeopardizes their sisterhood. Elise is the younger sister who arguably never learns, turning facts into fantasy while personifying the family horse, Sandy, and its escapades. Lorena being older has no time to bend words, always precise in her speech and actions, as part of her wont to be prude. At the schoolhouse, Mr. McQueen is the outsider from Hibriten, North Carolina inexperienced in the teaching profession, numbing his sociability and sensibilities. The natural coercion between these three creates an inescapable, at times humorous, fractious trust and distrust in each other. They slowly realize their natures are both a fixed and fluid transitivity of love and cruel-to-be-kindness.

Three parts make up this pastoral and pictorial novel, each with a sense of depth equally distributed to both exteriority and interiority. Parker elevates the losses and denigrates the ego to consider the trepidations and triumphs in the landscape of life’s choices. He does this best in the enigmatic word choices, careful and deliberate as they are, hinting at the tumult and temperance of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era respectively. A confidence in communication and information also bodes translucent beliefs and disbeliefs in a tone as lilting as it is loud. Prairie Fever also does well to cast respites and rebukes with a multiperspectivity reminiscent of Small Island by Andrea Levy. Every word is held onto with conviction and gumption before they are challenged by and float away in the elements that change them and rarely return them. Words distort and sculpt, deviate and delineate, betray and justify actions. Those actions, those supposed scripted choices, easily meet an erasure and redrafting against the stubborn and spellbound hand’s desires. Prairie Fever is an oxymoronic trip, imbibed with dread-tinged hope, through the voice of time, seemingly invisible and slightly audible, that relays an ever transmuting historiography of human error, erudition, and efficacy.

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It’s Lit!

The Best of Greg Egan by Greg Egan | Book Review

TBoGEAuthor: Greg Egan

Illustrator: David Ho

Publisher: Subterranean Press

Published: October 2019

Genres: Science Fiction, Fantasy

Pages: 736

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“The wormhole makes tangible the most basic truths of existence. You cannot see the future. You cannot change the past. All of life consists of running into darkness. This is why I’m here.”

     – Greg Egan, “Into Darkness” in The Best of Greg Egan

Science fiction fans will be happy to note that there is no such thing as “the best.” This is the appropriate irony of this collection, as it unwittingly, clumsily, and carefully challenges the idea of an idea of an idea into infinity and beyond any foreseeable, preventable, diagnosable end. Time, existentialism, number theory, artificial intelligence, naturalism, simulated reality, metaphysics, human consciousness, religion (consistently battered, bruised, and bullied into a biased, likeable unlikelihood), quantum mechanics, and the existence of frontiers without the capability of definition, except through jerry-rigged laws and yet-to-be-believed theories in their place and paces, make up these thirty years of hard science fiction. Between the seasoned fact-checkers and mathematical zealots to the lighthearted space opera goers and speculative enthusiasts, there stands a haughty anomalist who comes from the nineteen-nineties (it would be criminal and oxymoronic to call him an Australian science fiction writer at this point) Greg Egan who has a hunch for what his best (so far) is, and what a hunchback he has (or not, since keeping up appearances is not his thing, and neither is Google).

From Subterranean Press, The Best of Greg Egan collects cybernetic think pieces with remarkable haptic situations. His depth of field is diverse and perverse, foreboding and familiar, experimental yet elastic. Although these stories manage a clarity that confounds itself as it grows more curious, a lot is still to be questioned despite the seeming disconnects threaded and plot holes filled. Characters are painfully aware and disturbingly made unaware of their second class citizenship and the capitalist and commercialist gains forced onto them in stories like “Learning to Be Me” and “Closer.” The willful ignorance and digital dire straits following the forgone autonomy for transhumanist robot bodies and plastic replicas, the literal turning over of the human brain and body to technology is all cause for concern, but never in time to admit the mindless reliance placed on these drawn-and-quartered alternatives. Before any digital dust kicks up, there are some novella-length companion pieces that bid for the noninvasive engineering of the human spirit. “Oracle” and “Singleton” share a skewed timeline between worlds not too foreign from one another that both raise the question posed by Alan Turing of whether or not a computer can think. That and if a computer can impersonate human behavior, social cues, and desires that may or may not be able to alter the visible and invisible universe, like in transcendental and nature-bending tales, “Unstable Orbits in the Space of Lies” and “Chaff” or “Luminous” and “Dark Integers.”

A few one-off stories also hold their own merit in this short story collection, bringing a singular, personal lens to the unnatural made natural. From a man’s brain being kept alive via blood from his wife’s uterine walls to the cultish outbreak of a dermatological disease worse than leprosy that burns the underside of the entire body’s skin, to the acts of faith put to work for an ocean-cultured boy placed on dry land and a chemical engineer and Iranian, Muslim girl inventing a breakthrough her country never knew it could have, it is etymologically more than possible Egan is a lionized substrate of a tin man made human rather the opposite way around. The guesswork is cleaned and polished yet still gets its nose gritted by the grindstone. The outlandishly unorthodox remedies to change the fallible into the infallible, the overwhelming indecision and limitations of physicality are these stories bread and butter or quarks and neutrinos. Whether he be man, machine, both, or none of the above, readers can be certain, and linguists can determine, that Egan is not without the remnant of a heart.

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How Reading Fast Slows You Down

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“It is not just about being well-read, it is about reading well”

Writing a book and literary blog has me thinking if I will have time to read all the books I want. I know I still can but it requires enough time management to pull off. How will I ever balance the time I spend reading with the time I spend writing? Simple, just learn how to speed read. Speed-reading is a straightforward practice. By extending the landscape of your peripheral view and minimizing the information or “skimming” for the most important information written on a page, you are on your way to being a speed-read demon! Read again.

When you read this sentence, as a reader, you cannot predict the following sequence of the message being told without having to see and read each and every word. Are there certain phrases you can notice based on diction and punctuation that serve no other purpose but to be an aesthetic and transitory choice? Most certainly, but not every sentence is worth skimming. This is not new age flash fiction. One word makes all the difference to the meaning presented versus the one personally given. Of course, the point of speed-reading then becomes less about sensibility or memory and more about tangibility or information.

I thought I would be able to devote more time, and in effect more quality, to my writing if I could just get from cover to cover in the least amount of time possible. Unfortunately and unsurprisingly, my writing suffered. Speed-reading restricts a complete understanding of a text by acknowledging only the information it provides and not the expression of it. What does reading mean for me if I am just flipping pages as fast as I would recite the alphabet?

Speed reading proves ineffectual if you intend on retaining and comprehending what you read. Otherwise, it is a remarkable feat to see how fast you can turn a page without receiving a paper cut. Your writing on a subject will be a reflection of how well you read that subject too. It is not just about being well-read, it is about reading well. Friends of mine tell me how fast they read, some coming in at less than a few hours. I cannot help but wonder why they read so fast other than to get to their next book as soon as possible. Now I am not saying it is not possible to retain a story’s characters and events within such small amounts of time, but memory does not always end up being 20/20 hindsight.

To get through every page without skipping a word (and I do falter and have to back track to words, even sentences, I missed if I am not careful) is a challenge but it does not have to be. Why bother reading fast if the margin for error is higher than your comprehension? While it seems the only benefit speed-reading has is surveying the page for grammatical errors and typos, it is a potential malpractice we can correct. Instead of measuring the pages to minute scrutiny, find the right pace.

Pacing allows you to read at the speed where you will best comprehend a text. Staples tests how fast you can read with real pieces of literature and my results were 282 words per minute which is close to the average of 300 for adults. Staples’ test also shows you how long it would take you to read certain pieces of literature after the results. I do not know if the test is giving me the benefit of the doubt or adding insult to injury, because I do know it took me a month to digest the brick that is Charles Dickens’ Bleak House, and that was with devoted hours set aside every Thursday through Sunday.

My general rule of thumb tends to be lenient with a chapter or more for reading and a page or more for writing each hour. I do this with the same attitude as Anne Lamott’s “small assignments” from her book Bird by Bird. Lamott says to read and write in balanced and gradual amounts, enough to fill a “one-inch picture frame,” to avoid getting bogged down by the rest you have to read or have to write (17). A paragraph is much more manageable than a whole page, let alone an entire book.

I am satisfied with my pace and it may be slower than yours, but reading the fastest is not what is important. Reading to comprehend regardless of when you finish reading is. Challenge yourself, read something unfamiliar to you; I would not have thought twice about reading Bleak House given its intimidating length but I was better for knowing the difference between Lord Doodle and a Dandy (by the way, not so different).

Slow and steady is the approach I take and I may not win the race of time. What I do win is the pleasure and quality of reading long after having read.