The Kenyon Review Spring 2023 is a collection of poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and translations which heavily focused on translations edited by Jennifer Croft, Jeremy Tiang, and Anton Hur. Overall, I thought it was a decent issue, and there were some wacky stories, such as ‘Tumbleweed’ by Ao Omae and translated by Emily Balistrieri which follows the life of a movie star tumbleweed who had once been a person. Another strange story was ‘The Aspiration for Cha-Ka-Ta-Pa’ by Bae Myung-Hoon and translated by Sung Ryu which is about a futuristic time where people go to a library to be immersed in life of the 2020’s and the language/spelling is not like I’ve seen before. There were two stories that I enjoyed which were ‘A Field Guide to the Bear-Men of Leningrad’ by Sam J. Miller and ‘Two-Headed Dog’ by J. T. Sutlive. The first story features a town in which people fear bear-men who come in at night and eat the villagers, but it turns out that the speaker realizes they’re one of the bear-men. And the second story is about two men, one American who teaches English, the other a Japanese man who works construction/clean-up after a tsunami. The two men are gay and grow close and have an on/off relationship. And I enjoyed the subtlety of the emotions between the two when one of them grieves the loss of his brother in the tsunami. Overall, I enjoyed the short stories, albeit they were a little weird, but didn’t connect too much with the poetry.
Final Rating: 3/5
They Came Like Swallows by William Maxwell is a book about an Illinois family living through the time of the Spanish Flu. It follows the lives and happenings of two sons, Bunny and Robert, the father, James, and the mother, Elizabeth. Early on, all the characters gravitate toward Elizabeth as the glue that holds their house together. Bunny is young enough to have an innocent love toward her, Robert sees her as someone to protect, and James doesn’t see a life without her. The story follows the boys initially as their schools are let out due to the epidemic. Bunny listens in to James reading the news, tries playing with some of James’s toys, and at one point is saved by his brother when other kids are beating him up. Bunny then becomes sick with the flu, where he is cared for by his mother and Irene. He gets better, but it takes him a while and there is a scene where Robert offers to show Bunny his figurines but doesn’t let him play with them (which I thought worked well in showing the dynamic between the two). Elizabeth is expecting a child, so her and James rush off to another town with a doctor who, it’s hinted at will most likely perform a C-section. As they are having the child, Bunny and Robert are taken to their aunt’s house where Robert gets sick, and Robert and Bunny fight about playing with each other’s toys. Finally, after having the child, Elizabeth comes down with the flu, and eventually dies from pneumonia. James returns to their home and is utterly broken. The news is broken to the children and somehow James must find a way to continue caring for Bunny, Robert, and now a new baby. Near the end, James compilates selling everything, giving the boys to the aunt, and leaving. However, as a ray of hope, Irene suggests she could help care for the children and be there for James. The novel ends with James and Robert both looking at Elizabeth’s body in the casket, where James asks Robert, “’You won’t forget your mother, will you…’”.
In addition to this main plot, there is also a minor plot that unravels once it’s revealed that Robert lost a leg years before and now, he wears a prosthetic. He lost it when he was riding along on Boyd’s car, Irene’s husband, fell off, and his leg was run over. There is a tension between James, Boyd, and Irene that is finally reflected upon when James says that Elizabeth never forgot about that incident.
The story is broken into three parts, the first of which follows Bunny, the youngest child. Then it breaks off following Robert up until he hears that his mother has died. And the last part is focused on James and how he is dealing with his wife’s death. It’s an interesting progression to have the narrative follow each character, as if to show they slowly lose their innocence and must mask their emotions. It was a sad novel, but I thought the relationship between Robert and Bunny were authentic and at times humorous.
Final Rating: 3.5/5
Bliss Montage by Ling Ma is a collection of stories which focus on the Chinese American and immigrant experience, all of which are wildly surreal. The first story, ‘Los Angeles’, is about a woman who houses a hundred of her ex-boyfriends in their home; ‘G’ is about a drug that can make you invisible; ‘Returning’ is about a couple who goes to a fictional country called Garboza in which people are buried underground and are cured of ailments; and yet even another, ‘Office Hours’, is about a portal in an office that leads to a forest where time doesn’t exist. All these stories force the reader to suspend their disbelief and go along with whatever strangeness that occurs.
Though, what’s interesting in many of these stories, the strangeness is simply taken and not fought against. The story ‘Yeti Lovemaking’ shows, at first, the speaker is confused, but then just moves along as if making love to yetis is part of their life now. Particular stories, such as ‘Los Angeles’, deployed really interesting tactics in storytelling. One of the tactics was how the husband only talked in dollar signs, and was never named, while all the ex-boyfriends were given names and had their own understandable dialogue.
Ma also pulls us out of stories at moments that don’t initially make sense. For example, in ‘Returning’, the story ends with the woman pulling Peter out of the hole and calling both his English and Garbanese name. What we don’t get to see is how the Morning Festival changed Peter, or how they returned to America, or even how their relationship would change. Ma does however, sprinkle in ideas of how the end of the story should be interpreted. Particularly in ‘Returning’, the speaker is a writer who has written a book and describes it as, “’…this couple who spend a lot of time and resources planning for their idealized future, which never comes’…’But then the wife breaks out of the spell, but the husband doesn’t. They become separated on different timelines.’” The novel the speaker is talking about summarizes the fracturing of a couple after one of them gets cryogenically frozen and the other doesn’t. ‘Returning’ has these two parallel stories within it then, where the speaker and Peter are in a rocky patch and the Morning Festival is what might save them, and the couple wanting to both get frozen together but one soon deciding not to. With this read of the story, ‘Returning’ doesn’t need to continue more than it already has gone. The speaker, or more likely Peter who has just been transformed after being in the dirt, will call their relationship off. And the uncovering scene is the first inkling of that change within him.
Other stories do something similar which I found delightful and at times wanting more. It was interesting to see how Ma writes a lot about writers, with stories such as ‘Returning’, ‘Peking Duck’, and ‘Office Hours’ all featuring some iteration of a writer as the main character. Overall, I loved the stories and how vivid and surreal each one of them was.
Final Rating: 4.5/5
Dryland Issue 11 is a collection of poetry, short fiction, nonfiction, and interviews focusing on the people and experiences of South Central LA. There were a few poems that I enjoyed, particularly, ‘We’re Still Too Close to Mexico, Still so Far from God’ by Antonia Silva, ‘Watching the Sunrise from the Second Story’ by Angel Cerritos, ‘A Car Crash is not a Poem’ by Lupita Limón Corrales, ‘Amá Teaches Me How to Whistle’ by Moncho Alvarado, and ‘Newlywed in a Pandemic’ by Samantha Rivas. I also enjoyed the nonfiction piece, ‘My Dad Who Bakes Bread’ by Cecilia Caballero because of how it ties their family history to food and how that changes and alters how they see the world. I enjoyed the issue overall, though found the short fiction to—at times—be a little too simplistic. (Note: Dryland was renamed to sin cesar after this issue.)
Final Rating: 3/5
Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin is a novel set in mid-century Paris, with an American, David, who falls in love with another man, Giovanni. David has a fiancée, Hella, travelling in Spain, and his father funds his expenses as he lives in France. We meet David as he is packing up and leaving the house that he lived in after he met Giovanni and Hella has left him. David then begins to remember how he met Giovanni who at the time was a bartender, with an older gentleman, Jacques, who liked Giovanni. Jacques implores David to order drinks for him and Giovanni in the hopes that Jacques would be able to have sex with Giovanni. At this moment, and throughout the novel, David struggles with his sexuality, at times in total denial of his attraction to men, other times being open to the idea, and sometimes somewhere in between.
At the bar, David and Giovanni hit it off, and everyone in the bar notices their chemistry. As it becomes morning, they invite Giovanni to join them for breakfast, which they take a taxi with the bar owner, Guillaume. They have oysters and wine, continue their banter, and eventually they end up at Giovanni’s room where they have sex. David and Giovanni then begin to live together because David has stopped getting payments from his father, where they desire each other, but at the back of David’s mind he knows Hella will be back. Once Hella sends a letter that she will be returning soon, things start to go wrong for both David and Giovanni. For Giovanni, he was fired from the bar because Guillaume, who had hired him only because he was attracted to Giovanni, tries to have sex with him. And for David, he goes to dinner with an old acquaintance, Sue, where neither of them really wants to have sex with each other, but once it’s done Sue has feelings for him and he is more disgusted than ever. Hella returns from her trip, David and she try to continue their engagement, but something has changed within David. David has stopped seeing Giovanni, who has begun spiraling out of control and eventually lives with Jacques for a little bit. Giovanni is so hurt by the way David abandoned him and because he got fired from his job, he returns to the bar and kills Guillaume. He is on the run but is eventually found where he is sentenced to death. By that time, David and Hella have escaped from Paris in a smaller town in France. David is still distraught, and Hella begins to suspect something is wrong. It all comes to a head when David decides to go to a bar, meets a sailor, and is caught by Hella. She breaks their engagement, and leaves David in France as she returns home. The novel ends with David in the empty house thinking about Giovanni and what it would be like for him to die.
Giovanni’s Room is an insanely moving novel. Baldwin can sit in David’s mind, rationalize his actions, and find denial everywhere he looks. What impressed me about this novel was how strong the voice, descriptions, and moments were. I was able to see the tenderness in David, and still see he was shielding the world and himself from his true identity. I loved the way the novel swayed back and forth in time, where everything had already happened and David was alone in an empty house. David cut off his interactions with Giovanni, losing him, believing it would save his engagement. But in doing so, he lost Hella too. It’s a deeply lonely novel, one that sat with nostalgia and guilt. Baldwin also made a lot of interesting choices in narrative, giving large moments to the interactions with Giovanni, but fairly brief moments with Hella. I also liked how he dedicated only a short paragraph to how Giovanni and Hella met independent of David. I also thought the imagined life of Giovanni in prison and his walk to the guillotine was brilliant for a final scene. I liked how when we met Giovanni he was the perfect man, and then fell from grace in part because of David. It’s a story I will not stop thinking about, and it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read.
Final Rating: 5/5
Maxwell Suzuki is a writer, poet, and photographer based in Los Angeles.