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We March at Midnight: A War Memoir

Ray McPadden. Blackstone, $26.99 (240p) ISBN 978-1-982691-01-1

Novelist and former U.S. Army Ranger McPadden (And the Whole Mountain Burned) delivers a raw and intimate memoir of his tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and his struggles with PTSD. The son of a career naval officer, McPadden “burn[ed] to do something noble” and, after “graduat[ing] from a handful of the army’s elite schools and Texas A&M university,” he was sent in 2005 to Kunar province in Afghanistan, where he led his 43-man platoon on “hunting missions” against tribal fighters allied with the Taliban. He describes the deaths and woundings of comrades in stark detail, and the “grave undertow” of guilt he felt when his squad failed to prevent an ambush on a supply convoy. Eventually, he began to “despise this war and the boyish reveries of manhood that brought me here.” After returning to the U.S., McPadden joined the Rangers and was sent to Iraq to target terrorist cells in nighttime raids. Back home in the U.S. on leave, he suffered from “spells of melancholy” and fits of rage that put a strain on his marriage. He did another tour in Afghanistan in 2009, before finally leaving the Rangers and spending the next 10 years “demilitarizing.” McPadden describes firefights and psychological traumas with equal precision, and makes a devastating case that the cost of America’s “forever wars” on its soldiers is too high. This visceral story leaves a mark. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 05/21/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Dirty Work: Essential Jobs and the Hidden Toll of Inequality in America

Eyal Press. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $28 (320p) ISBN 978-0-374-14018-2

New Yorker contributor Press (Absolute Convictions) investigates in this engrossing and frequently enraging survey the conditions of Americans who perform essential jobs that are “morally compromised” and “hidden from view.” Contending that “the dirty work in America is not randomly distributed, [but] falls disproportionately to people with fewer choices and opportunities,” Press interviews prison guards, military drone operators, oil rig workers, and slaughterhouse employees. In each case, he finds that the desire for lower “costs”—cheaper consumer prices, fewer American casualties in never-ending foreign wars, less government spending—has led to the exploitation of workers. And yet, Press argues, whenever abuses have been exposed, such as the crowded, unsanitary conditions that led to the rampant spread of Covid-19 among slaughterhouse workers, Americans have preferred to believe that “the key moral failures rested with a few reckless individuals... rather than with the exploitative system in which they worked.” Press’s lucid narrative is studded with gut-wrenching scenes, including a congressional hearing about the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion in which politicians expressed more concern about the disaster’s impact on native bird populations than the deaths of 11 oil workers. This deeply reported and eloquently argued account is a must-read. Agent: Rebecca Nagel, the Wylie Agency. (Aug.)

Reviewed on 05/21/2021 | Details & Permalink

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An Inconvenient Minority: The Ivy League Admissions Cases and the Attack on Asian American Excellence

Kenny Xu. Diversion, $27.99 (288p) ASIN B08MQN8J6D

Misbegotten diversity initiatives penalize Asian Americans for their meritocratic success, according to this provocative yet unpersuasive debut from conservative commentator Xu. Contending that the social advancement of “the Asian American community” in spite of historic discrimination “directly challenge[s] the Leftist narrative of minority victimhood,” Xu claims that Asian Americans have been left out of conversations about “diversity, equity, and inclusion” because they suffer from persistent stereotypes and lack the kind of “cultural capital” necessary to make their struggles visible to the mainstream. He delves into Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard, a lawsuit alleging that the university uses a “personality score” to discriminate against Asian applicants; profiles Asian tech workers who were passed over for promotion because they were stereotyped as “robotic” and lacking in “management know-how”; and examines attempts to “correct” the predominance of Asians in prestigious magnet schools by eliminating standardized tests. Xu raises intriguing questions about the place of Asian Americans in U.S. society, but his bitterness toward the “woke liberal leftist elite” overshadows his more eloquent case for preserving the American dream of achievement through hard work. This one-sided screed misses the mark. Agent: Andrew Stuart, the Stuart Agency. (July)

Reviewed on 05/21/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Hearing

Lyn Hejinian and Leslie Scalapino. Litmus, $20 trade paper (104p) ISBN 978-1-933959-47-4

The intriguing second book in a series of collaborations by Hejinian and Scalapino (1944 – 2010), organized around each of the five senses (after 1999’s Sight), is more interested in the figurative powers of hearing than the sensory ones. In her preliminary remarks, Hejinian explains that their intention “was never to forever track sound, or things emitting sound, or human auditory sensing, or the impressions and ideas that sounds prompt.” The prose poems that follow evoke the idea of sound both in the scenes detailed and in the rhythms of the writing: “The good man losing his voice joins the indigo interlopers, barreling boylike into the field. Other boys follow, not as interlopers (though loping) but as a team rolling a soccer ball.” Elsewhere, they address the concept of hearing head-on, “Hearing is emotional in time,” and speculatively: “Could hearing be just that sound or it’s necessarily the response to it at the same time?” It is occasionally difficult to glean any sustained momentum or narrative, but that is to be expected based on the goals of Hejinian and Scalapino’s project. Readers who enjoy experimental, atmospheric texts will find plenty of rewards. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 05/21/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Besiege Me

Nicholas Wong. Noemi, $18 trade paper (80p) ISBN 978-1-93481-994-4

“Shouldn’t you be going home, where questions/ are decades old?” a weary speaker asks in Wong’s bracing follow-up to his 2015 Lambda Award–winning Crevasse. Wong’s poems address queer and urban experience while also dissecting the political and economic factors that shape them, engaging with the history of Hong Kong, the speaker’s often unspoken sexual orientation, and generational gaps. His style is often playful and linguistically inventive, adding another layer of complexity to these poems. “The rain is a misnomer of the weather,” he writes in “City Mess, Mother Mess, Fluids Mess,” but notes later that “the teargas is beauty, puked after a long night.” Shorter, multilingual poems accompany longer ones, each thinking carefully about how intimacy is shaped in a time of political unrest: “Some people love like they believe the romantic/ folklore about the moon,” Wong writes, “They love/ the shoreline, without loving to trudge/ back up to hard land.” The poet’s kaleidoscopic consideration of cities and desires, which crackles with emotional energy, is successfully accomplished. (Mar.)

Reviewed on 05/21/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Dialogues with Rising Tides

Kelli Russell Agodon. Copper Canyon, $16 trade paper (96p) ISBN 978-1-55659-615-5

In her piercing fourth collection, Agodon (Hourglass Museum) explores intertwined anxieties—a family history of mental illness, looming environmental collapse, the inadequacies of love—with care and understated humor. In “Unsustainable,” she addresses a lover with foreboding and whimsy: “I want to keep you in my plastic/ Happy Meal heart, but what snaps open// stays on Earth forever, my center floating/ down a canal until it’s swallowed by a seal.” She vacillates between exploring family trauma and moments of genuine joy: “how once/ in Mexico, after I lost my wedding ring,/ I did a body shot off a woman/ I didn’t know and how sticky she was/ and how the tequila made the night a little quieter/ and the stars made the beach feel like a church.” Agodon has a talent for arresting titles. In “Magpies Recognize Themselves in the Mirror,” bystanders at a mall watch with understanding as a woman experiences a mental health crisis: “And like that/ we were her flock in our black coats/ and white sweaters, some of us reaching our/ wings to her and some of us flying away.” Despite the tragedies at the center of this book, Agodon captures the universality of dark emotions and offers a collection full of hope. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 05/21/2021 | Details & Permalink

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When the Heart Needs a Stunt Double

Diane Decillis. Wayne State Univ, $16.99 trade paper (114p) ISBN 978-0-8143-4832-1

The ruminative second book from Decillis (Strings Attached) weaves memory, imagery, and observation to understand the anatomy of heartbreak. “I have a habit of resisting love,” Decillis writes. “I name it possibility and forget what that means—/ a habit of unearthing the past that taught me/ to get used to the leaving before the leaving.” The book contains riveting details—of the natural world, paintings and poems, bodily organs, home shopping networks, planets—which take the form of autopsy files, centos, and dreams. Decillis’s voice is playful and humorous, even under the weight of personal history and inquiry. Among the many birds that appear in the book (ravens, orioles, wild geese), there is a poem about marshmallow peeps “bloomed... in the microwave,” the speaker “roast[ing] them into gelatinous oneness.” In these memorable poems, Decillis suggests that despite the hauntings of memory and grief, the tired muscle “lifting and lowering/ the weight of love and sorrow,” there is wit, and even strange grace in “the gilded scar” that defines each human life. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 05/21/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Life in a Field: Poems

Katie Peterson and Young Suh. Omnidawn, $19.95 trade paper (96p) ISBN 978-1-63243-090-8

Peterson (A Piece of Good News) collaborates with her photographer husband for this experimental pseudo-narrative. Rife with paradoxes and conceits that will leave some readers confounded and others enraptured, Peterson’s collection is driven by a detached and unhurried eloquence. A donkey, a girl, and a field serve as allegories that propel a loose pastoral portrait and droll commentary on existentialism, absurdity, avarice, and compassion. Readers must curb their typical expectations for a work of poetry, which Peterson explicitly asserts, “this story is not your story. You are not meant to relate to it./ You are meant to pitch a tent inside this page.” She furthermore affirms that her idiosyncratic approach serves as a mimesis of the “sudden changes of world. It does not necessarily/ mean plot.” As for Suh’s photography, the images soundly compliment the milieu of the text. Peterson’s incontestable innovation and wit will stir the imaginations of readers, expanding their sense of what is possible in poetry. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 05/21/2021 | Details & Permalink

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The Life

Carrie Fountain. Penguin, $18 (112p) ISBN 978-0-14-313601-9

The spectacular third book from Fountain (Burn Lake) reveals a young mother’s cluttered life and a glimmering world of faith shaken, stirred, and movingly reaffirmed: “God, sometimes I step/ into this life like stepping into a room// I can’t remember why I entered, and for/ a moment I see nothing—I can see nothing,// I can see it, a space in front of me that is not yet/ filled, that could be filled, and will be filled.” Every poem is a marvel of craft; Fountain displays exquisite judgment, with each image, figure, question, paradox, snippet of overheard conversation, and philosophical meditation finding its perfect place. The effect is quietly exhilarating. Humor and heartbreak intertwine often, finding their counterpoint in revelations about this “inadequate world”: “I want to know/ what is holy—I do. But first I want/ the rat to die,” she says, and later, “Childhood is so/ perfect, the way the rules,/ if unbent, can bear/ the weight of the structure/ and protect the little creatures/ still forming inside it.” Through the alchemy of honest inquiry and clever wordplay (“I pretend sometimes. Other// times, all I do is pretend”), Fountain makes good on the transformative promise of poetry, “making one/ thing become another” in this remarkable work. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 05/21/2021 | Details & Permalink

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Curb

Divya Victor. Nightboat, $16.95 trade paper (176p) ISBN 978-1-64362-070-1

Victor’s unsettling latest (after Kith) chronicles the violence perpetrated against South Asians by domestic terrorists, government bureaucracy, and other agents of the state. While the poems offer an impressive array of linguistic and historical referents, they locate their political critique of white supremacy in the American suburbs. It is on neighborhood stoops and among garden beds that Victor, in her distinctive documentary poetic style, explores how “a yard is a measure, a curb its end,” emphasizing the risk to nonwhite individuals presumed to be trespassing in white spaces. Sections alternate from lineated poems to prose that is a mix between reportage and memoir. For example, her retelling of the murder of Srinivas Kuchibhotla concludes: “On that day, I was pregnant & moving into my third trimester.” Victor explains, “All my poems are manifests/ for burials elsewhere,” and some poems even include GPS coordinates, inviting readers to seek out the places that are the impetus behind these mournful and angry reckonings with American violence. This stunning collection challenges readers to reconsider the fragile boundaries people share with one another as well as the reduction of bodies to mere scapegoats. (Apr.)

Reviewed on 05/21/2021 | Details & Permalink

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