seven years by Alyssa Harmon | Book Review

Author: Alyssa Harmon

Publisher: Self-Published

Published: October 11, 2022

Genres: Poetry, Relationships, Self-Help

Pages: 121

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“notice the labyrinth you feel… open your eyes.” – Alyssa Harmon

Love is not an exact science. To call love a science at all seems paradoxically counterproductive to the matters in the right hemisphere of our brain. Our second brain, the heart, attempts to make sense of emotions, searches for meaning between lines that were crossed. Justifications and expectations become muddled in the journey of the heart if one does not learn how to love themselves and the necessity of change. Love of another, unrequited love, and wanting to be loved a certain way have the potential to descend into selfish cases of bitterness. Reading the debut poetry collection seven years by Alyssa Harmon shows that heartbreak contends with healing in a conquest for change and consistency.

The title refers to the interval of time in which human cells are replaced. The poems are collected into corresponding years, each with their own mix of emotions. As a nonlinear narrative, the theme of change being the only constant is felt. The trauma of memory is accounted for in “some things never change” and “dog tag.” The first a longing for what was good or promising, and the latter a symbol, an albatross, of a militant background or pensiveness without being spurious. Similarly, “memorial day” deals with memory and history, what was and what is left behind. Harmon succeeds at capturing how one can easily overthink (sugarcoat or soil) the bad and good memories, the hindsight and foresight.

Imagery about heartbreak lends itself to cliché too often, however. In “tsundoku,” the idea of not letting go or returning to the same story is conveyed with a literal metaphor of books. Again, in “cereal boxes” love for the prize inside would be sincere if it was not compared to a toy one could play with. Unless they are strictly showing the hurt that can corrupt a person amidst heartbreak, comparisons like these are missed opportunities to show more of what an idea has to offer. Call a person the same old story, but what about the people who are books in the world that is a library? Ideas stop in the middle of development for what seems to be confessional pity parties. Heartbreak (cold, justifiable, yet hypocritically passive-aggressive in tone) obstructs the healing within most of the poems. Brevity as wit comes off as lack and explanation as clarity instead lingers in some cases throughout the years.

Much of it leads to confusion, a feeling one with heartbreak would come across, but it rarely evolves or explores that confusion. Some poems settle for obvious imagery that are familiar and nostalgic at the risk of being juvenile. Being stuck in the past becomes too repetitive, self-involved, and self-referential for healing to take place. Is it a necessary phase in the healing process? Granted growth happens after hesitancy, denial, and leaving ego at the door, there is still a stage that has not been reached or held onto: acceptance. Accepting the fact that everything and everyone is a work in progress, seven years is a mixed bag still making its way out of the bag.

Final Rating:

Red/Blue Pill

Crushing by Sophie Burrows | Book Review

Author / Illustrator: Sophie Burrows

Publisher: Algonquin Young Readers

Published: January 2022

Genres: Graphic Novel / Young Adult

Pages: 160

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Somewhere in the hustle and bustle of a British city, two unnamed protagonists, a modest man and woman, toil through with a wistful longing for connection and understanding. Social norms and societal pressures pervade their conscience, leaving subliminal cues they cannot fulfill. Modern romance and relationships become a hapless hunt for happiness. Sweet and innocent curiosities are soured by the invasion of indiscriminate idiosyncrasies, the hallmarks of human nature, that taint the experience of being with and knowing someone. Complications ebb and flow between the need to connect and the want to be alone. Their activities explore the mundane and humdrum facets of life, the vast chances and possibilities in a crowd of doubt, and the moments of loneliness and love that cripple and create our will to rise again.

Sophie Burrows gives her Crushing the silent film treatment. Each page is a vignette told in a muted colored, Etch A Sketch frame of mind. The fading hues of black and grey make the touches of red an interesting motif in motion. Life is subdued, painful, worrisome, but measured and malleable, momentary and momentous. The characters can feel existence expanding and shrinking as they have their awkward encounters. The man, perhaps a penciled Ed Sheeran, performs odd jobs and errands that require small talk and scripted dialogue which drains him. He is at once unassuming but emasculated and challenged by his masculinity, attempting to find some deeper, meaningful purpose. The woman, perhaps a penciled Mara Wilson, is a café waitress who is challenged by her femininity but is not unaware of her grace. She feels safe belonging in certain venues that celebrate personality rather than idolize superficiality. Subtle glances, strong advances, and a surreptitious sundry of steep satisfaction sully and spoil sexuality and anything sultry for silly and serious reasons. Both creatures of habit are homebodies by heart and are made to think that they are a problem rather than a solution. Although, them being a solution to a problem is not too farfetched and not too feasible either.

Crushing feels superstitious in tone, as if being in a relationship is this forbidden yet fortuitous stage to stand on. However, the performance is nothing one can chalk up to a Disney movie or romantic comedy. Relationships are not this fantasy to live in, they are made tenable to be made fantastic. What is more, relationships do not have to become a fantasy; there is something to be cherished in the ordinary. Expectations should be real, not overblown or done without. Sometimes those expectations are corroborated, calibrated, or even discovered later unexpectedly until they become shared values. There is no easy way to desire, establish, or keep a relationship. Small acts of kindness are enough to be like a relationship, ever so briefly, even if a relationship does not begin, continue, and develop from them. Burrows expresses this, the caveats, and necessity of a relationship in one’s life: to find the person that compliments, not complicates, life or the relationship. Isolation is not always the best answer, being alone can be better, but togetherness can be the thing that saves you.

Final Rating:

It’s Lit!

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.

Final Rating:

PillRate

Red/Blue Pill

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.

Final Rating:

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It’s Lit!

Apple, Tree: Writers on Their Parents by Lise Funderburg | Book Review

Apple, Tree

Author: Lise Funderburg

Illustrator: Nathan Putens

Publisher: University of Nebraska Press

Published: September 2019

Genres: Biography, Nonfiction, Memoir

Pages: 232

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“I suppose there’s a pleasure in that wistfulness too–in remembering the way something was and holding tight to what will also one day be a memory.”                     – Lauren Grodstein, “Around the Table” from Apple, Tree

Childhood is reverse parenting. Growing up takes on the responsibility of becoming, which is found in the adults who rear the child. Growing down however leads one to becoming what is else, what is more, what is unexpected. Apple, Tree: Writers on Their Parents by Lise Funderburg explores the adolescent trappings and developments of its contributors, starting from the root and out to the branch where gravity took a hold of them and plotted them in front of the parental gaze. Far pass Freudian theory, this collection on child rearing and family dynamics informs the writer’s life as something both undesirable and desirable as bath time. The dichotomous relationship of the apple (child) and the tree (parent) can be felt first in the bifurcation by the comma in the book’s title. Difference within or between family members is not always apparent, but as the tree holds the apple, the parent holds onto the child, until the child notices just how far out of reach the parent is and vice versa. The proverbial fall experienced by these collected writers attempts to find out if this transition into adulthood should be a rude awakening or a heedful reminder.

A running theme in Apple, Tree is the child who believes to possess large philosophies while the parents have small ones. It is not until they have aged that they realize it is the opposite. In some cases, these philosophies are challenged. Reading Shukree Hassan Tilghman’s piece, “Lies My Parents (Never But Maybe) Should’ve Told Me,” one finds the impossibly delicate veil that lies between humoring a white lie and the, sometimes, harrowing truth at the end of its punchline. In Avi Steinberg’s “Household Idols” and Donna Masini’s “What We Keep,” stories of heirlooms are rummaged for in what would be the unmistakable home of an accidental, sometimes purposeful, hoarder. Some authors here have struggled with identifying with their parents, sharing similar appearance (“Sisters” by Ann Patchett) or judgment (“One Man’s Poison” by Kyoko Mori). A chance to pervade rather than drown in the genetic pool still exists yet. From her story, “Unlived Lives,” Laura Miller writes that parents “can be the most familiar people in the world and total strangers; they have a dark side like the moon, that’s invisible to us as long as we remain locked in the fixed orbit of the parent-child bond” (87). Dissidence and denial delineates and loosely defines the duality a parent and child share. Daniel Mendelsohn’s mother has a neat-freak personality, for example, causing her to chase the life she could have had by keeping her house a spotless sheen in the hopes that time lost will return to her. It is behaviors like this, the need to meet perfection, that leave both the parent and child less than imperfect.

Funderburg mentions in her introduction that Apple, Tree is an exploration of “the space between the apple and the tree…” She also quotes John Freedman as saying that this exploration of family is a “love [that] is in clarity, not sentiment” (Funderburg xii). Perhaps there is no one answer to all the unanswered questions children may have for their parents. Parents too, may not know or have all the answers themselves until their children come up with better questions. The theory that the apple does not fall from the tree must have some truth in it. Maybe the answers present themselves only in practice? Here is one more attempt to answer a proverb with another: when the apple is ripe, it will fall.

Final Rating:

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Green Rose