Review: Night at the Fiestas

Night at the Fiestas By Kirstin Valdez Quade Norton, 2015 ISBN: 0393242986 $15.95 (Paperback)   Reviewed by Melanie J. Cordova Conceptions of New Mexico by mostly white easterners in its early time as part of the United States usually involved notions of danger, something to survive as one traveled from Texas to California and back, before transitioning into its ultra-brief, mostly imagined, so-called “Wild West” days. As travel became easier, ideas of New Mexico involved health and wellness as well as tourism; romantic notions of connecting to the land and finding one’s spiritual center lasted even beyond the atomic era of the mid-century and the dark cowboys of McCarthy’s Border Trilogy. The ten stories in Kirstin Valdez Quade’s Night at the Fiestas place this collection in the legacy of American Southwestern literature by openly challenging such romantic notions with an honesty that is refreshingly harsh. Most of the stories in Night at the Fiestas are set in New Mexico, but they contain characters that can pierce a reader from any part of the country. With the land as a springboard into nuanced, flawed, and raw characters, Quade’s Night at the Fiestas is harrowing in the best way. Land is as important in Night at the Fiestas as it is in any short story collection. Quade does not treat New Mexico or any other location in the collection as if it was some alien landscape. It is rather a place for her characters to go about their lives, a place where their personalities and idiosyncrasies can be explored. Margaret in “Canute Commands the Tides” falls prey to the romantic ideas...

Review: 5 Months, 10 Years, 2 Hours

5 Months, 10 Years, 2 Hours By Lisa Reisman Outpost19, 2015 ISBN: 978-1-937402-70-9 $16.00 (Paperback)   Reviewed by Melanie J. Cordova In Lisa Reisman’s 5 Months, 10 Years, 2 Hours, time is of the essence. This trim memoir follows our narrator Lisa as she goes from life as a New York City lawyer to a woman battling grade-four glioblastoma after being found unconscious in her apartment by her step-mother. Reisman structures the book to follow the five initial months spent treating this cancer, the ten years since its diagnosis, and the two hours spent competing in a grueling triathlon. Training and competing in a triathlon mirrors the narrator’s determination to push herself beyond her cancer and to live her life with passion. There is certainly no lack of memoirs focused on illness, but Reisman’s rich, illustrative details and impressive characterization makes 5 Months memorable and vibrant. In this memoir, the narrator’s self-characterization is both subtle and distressing. She clues us in early on to what’s emerged as a dominant trait: a sense of performance that is tragic given the circumstances. Our narrator Lisa is always attempting to be a model student for those around her, even as she is suffering from aggressive cancer. It comes across as a holdover from a pre-cancer attitude: “It was just what I told myself each time I strode into a meeting or conference or hearing. If I exuded self-assurance, I would be possessed by confidence. If I seemed fine, surely the rest would follow.” 5 Months, however, isn’t all such patent reflection. Reisman artfully depicts this characterization in scene as well, most memorably in...

The Secret History of Las Vegas reviewed by Winnie Khaw

The Secret History of Las Vegas Author: Chris Abani ISBN: 978-0143124955 Penguin Books, 2014 $16.00   Chris Abani’s The Secret History of Las Vegas is part thriller/murder mystery, part indictment against the brutality and injustice of apartheid in South Africa, but largely it is a reworking of pulp fiction distinguished by a veneer of weirdness and relieved by patches of appreciable beauty and originality. Secret History allows us a peek into the existence of the ostracized (the freaks), the marginalized (the prostitutes, the single mothers), and the silenced (the victims of government-sanctioned violence) but only lifts the flap a little bit before snapping it shut, much like the caul under which Fire hides himself when not talking. The first section, “Bristlecone,” bursts with lyrical prose that is interesting in its mythological references, but perhaps disconnects the prologue from the story thereafter,with its spare style, dotted with ideas of striking iridescence. These moments include the word Selah, “Hebrew for a pause in the psalm, a moment to consider the music.” The name foreshadows the frequent interspersing of introspection in more action-oriented plot advancements. In fact, although the writing is carefully deliberate, the story overall could be more tautly constructed, as the main character is given to lengthy musings which, while intriguing, can slow the pace of Secret History, decreasing the degree of sustainable suspense. In one instance, he wonders if “the current city of Las Vegas … would be read as the perfect Earth culture … to some future generation” and continues on in this vein. It can be argued that these ruminations add depth and background. However, as Las Vegas is not so much lived in Secret History as it is meditated on, at times...

A Map of Everything, reviewed by Robert Kostuck

Robert Kostuck reviews A Map of Everything by Elizabeth Earley.   A Map of Everything Author:  Elizabeth Earley Release date: March 2, 2014 Jaded Ibis Press, 2014, 288 pp., ISBN 978-1-937543-48-8 Black-on-cream edition: $16.99; Full-color edition: $49.00; Illustrated ebook edition: $7.99; CD Soundtrack: $9.99; Signed, limited edition art by Christa Donner: $TBD   In the closing chapter of Elizabeth Earley’s memoir A Map of Everything, a three-year-old child asks about an image of the periodic table of elements on an adult’s t-shirt. The child seems awed when told that it represents, in effect, “. . . a map of everything.” Earley writes, “. . . I lingered there on his answer to Li, feeling almost offended at the idea that the periodic table of elements represents everything that exists. Everything emerges from infinite chemical reactions and evolves with constant change. But surely it doesn’t account for everything. It doesn’t account for seemingly random, sometimes tragic events that intervene in a life lived in linear time. It doesn’t account for the invisible helpers of young sisters. It doesn’t account for metal screws twisted into the skulls of sixteen-year-old girls. The periodic table says that we humans are soulless–we are chemical reactions. But reverence is not a chemical reaction, nor is hope which, unfettered by gravity, extends itself over the valleys of our lives.” Hope is the common thread running through and connecting these one hundred and eighteen chapters, chapters which combine in unexpected ways and often jump out from the narrative, displaying the techniques of the short story. Hope is the thing that holds the narrator fixed to the earth,...

Top Reads

Last night, a friend asked me to list off my favorite reads from 2013. This is the sort of question that’s hard for a publisher since, of course, all I do is read books. Especially with the 2013 Literary Awards Program under my belt, I’ve probably juggled several hundred manuscripts in the past few months alone. My reaction was largely like the meme with the stunned boy on the news who just blurts out “I like turtles!” What were my favorite reads in 2013? Uh… I like books! The question got me thinking about updating the Publisher’s Blog — which I’m bad about because I feel like this is an inappropriate venue for me to say the crazy things I always say — so here we go! The best books I read in 2013! Why not? Because, despite the mountain of manuscripts I face every year, I keep track of what I read. I don’t only write down little mini-reviews, I keep track of how long I spent on each book and manuscript — for work and for pleasure. I do this because there’s probably something seriously wrong with me but, luckily, it meant I was able to go home after last night’s bookish discussion, break out my little journal, and then feverishly text my friend my favorite books from 2013. Four titles.  So there. And, because I’m that guy, only two of my four favorite titles were actually published in 2013. I decided to stick with my “pleasure” reading — books I went out of my way to read for one reason or another. That gets the impossible...