Specificity has a way of creating potency, and in Alysia Li Ying Sawchyn’s essay collection A Fish Growing Lungs, the power of a well-chosen detail is apparent. Intertwining anecdotes and diaristic, poetic reflections are used to explore the constructs of mental health, mental illness, and diagnosis.
Though it is ostensibly a series of essays, because of the linked quality of the book’s stories, it toes the line of a memoir. Each essay is a chapter of a cohesive whole, focusing on a different time period of Sawchyn’s life, shining light in through a new angle.
In her intimate portraits of her own mental health and misdiagnosis, Sawchyn questions the way that we approach mental health. “Inheritance” explores the tenuousness of guessing whether our ancestors experienced mental health symptoms, while “Deep Sea Creatures” presents the malleability and fallibility of the DSM-5. The spellbinding “Withdrawal” includes a timeline of Sawchyn’s psychiatric treatment history, its long-running diagram clinically analyzing the practice of clinical analysis.
Notes on a history of cocaine addiction are interwoven with two tales of a hike up Old Rag. Nonsuicidal self-injury is illuminated through stories of retreats for individuals in recovery. In a later chapter, Sawchyn’s process of relearning herself after her diagnosis is encapsulated in Thursday nights with friends at a nightclub. The open, raw edges of the collection articulate experiences that cannot possibly be encompassed in clinical language, or through the tropes of a “very special episode.”
The authority of diagnosis and of diagnosticians is difficult to question without a behind-the-scenes peek into the lack of objectivity of the system. This unveiling of the system, even a little bit, is empowering stuff. Intimate, thoughtful, and artful, A Fish Growing Lungs is a captivating collection that invites a conversation about how we approach human suffering.
JESSIE HORNESS (April 27, 2020)
In David Quantick’s horror comedy Night Train, a woman wakes on a train with no idea how she got there—or, worse: who she is.
As she explores her surroundings, the woman encounters a room full of dead bodies; the only other living person on the train seems to be Banks, a strange man who refers to her as Garland. Garland’s memory returns in fits and starts as she and Banks explore the train’s cars, each one more bizarre than the last.
Banks and Garland are joined by Poppy, a girl who seems to be indestructible and who saves them from being killed by a monster as terrifying as it is alien. The threesome make a pact to get off of the bizarre, dangerous train.
Startling and with relentless thrills, the book’s atmosphere becomes more threatening in time with Garland’s slow discovery of who she is and where she came from. Short chapters and punchy dialogue ensure that each revelation is tense. Details about the world outside of the train come at ideal intervals, each revealing just enough of the puzzle to keep the story barreling forward.
Though it is ominous and frightening, there is also lightness to the book. Its characters have dark senses of humor. Though they are limited by the confines of their environment, their true natures are revealed through their entertaining inner monologues and comprehensive flashbacks. Garland’s biting wit sustains her and her companions even when the circumstances are dire, as when she facetiously calls for the check following an unappreciated comment. Comic relief helps to temper the book’s scares.
At times horrifying, at other times laugh-out-loud funny, and always entertaining, Night Train is a ride unlike any other.
ANGELA MCQUAY (April 27, 2020)
A Young Adult LGBTQ+ Anthology
Lighthearted romances kick off in Short Stuff, a young adult LGBTQ+ anthology that raises the stakes with each story. In one entry, a girl comes out, but reels from her mother’s rejection of her; elsewhere, a character finds romance during their final family trip before they enter college and secure independence.
Meet-cutes are followed by relationships that first involve animosity or a sizable dose of trepidation. In one tale, an egotistical Olympic hopeful, Basil, lambastes an eager concession worker for adding basil to all of his daily specials. But time and proximity ease the characters’ apprehension, and heady attraction blooms. An exception arises with “Life in the Time of Coffee,” in which best friends Gemma and Anya first met when they were children; a decade later, their friendship has deepened. The rejection that Gemma suffers after coming out ushers in the collection’s more serious tones, though even as Gemma deals with her pain, the struggle is peripheral to her goal of finding love.
Though most of its entries are contemporary, the anthology includes “Gilded Scales,” a satisfying tale featuring maidens and vengeful gods. In it, Fenn defies local customs, joining her village’s male warriors to subdue a terrorizing dragon and rescue a young woman. In limited space, Fenn’s world’s customs, backstory, and traditions are established, and she faces the serious complications represented by gender norms and oppression. In Fenn’s fight against the establishment, she takes great pains to prove her bravery and win her right to marry a person of her own choosing.
The entries of Short Stuff are diverse, complex, and packed with the butterflies of young love.
TANISHA RULE (April 27, 2020)
Daniel Ben-Horin’s black comedy Substantial Justice concerns humanity’s best and worst traits.
In the 1980s, Spider makes an honest living as a mechanic and distracts himself from lost love with mind-altering drugs. Then, ten years after she left, Siobhan reappears in his life, drawn back to the West Coast to suss out whether mistreated workers need her legal representation.
Soft-spoken Spider and altruistic Siobhan are, by all accounts, not an ideal match, but death, violence, and disgruntled exes do nothing to dull their love; the two pick up right where they left off, forging their reconnection as violent white supremacists and hippies clash in the forests of California. It’s smooth sailing until Spider’s closest friend, Yosh, winds up murdered.
Yosh was a prolific marijuana dealer and a vitriolic radio show host with a long list of enemies. As Spider is swept up in the mystery of Yosh’s death, an eclectic cast that includes biker gangs, a cartel operative, and lumber tycoons collides, their violence drawing Spider, who’s connected to his community’s seedier side, in.
The book’s languid pacing results in ample time for characters to develop, and the text saunters back and forth in time to build up Spider and Siobhan’s shared history. Aspects of Spider’s personality are revealed at a natural pace, cropping up in quiet moments and informing his motivations.
Much focus is devoted to illuminating the time period: one in which technology was seeping in, but that also involved the aftermath of Vietnam. A cult blossoms around the burgeoning personal computer and internet and plays a pivotal role in the conclusion. Humor—imparted through Spider’s laconic wit, snappy banter, and the comedy of the bumbling, racist villains—keeps the tone light.
Substantial Justice is a humorous thriller set in a tumultuous time.
JOHN M. MURRAY (April 27, 2020)
Restaurateur Suzanne Vizethann’s cookbook, Welcome to Buttermilk Kitchen, is garlanded with breakfast and brunch dishes that showcase sophisticated Southern comfort foods from a renowned Atlanta eatery.
This work has zero tolerance for scrimping on using premium ingredients, or on not taking the time to fresh grind nutmeg or make sauces, jams, pickled vegetables, and textured toppings from scratch to enrobe its dishes. Vizethann is an able guide through the best types of ingredients and kitchen equipment, work done before she launches into her calorie-unconscious, belt-loosening, dizzyingly decadent recipes.
While it contains both breakfast standards and token healthy options, Buttermilk Kitchen-style means that the flavors are kicked up to the moon. The signature O.G. Buttermilk Biscuits are the base for her customers’ favorite Chicken Biscuit—a sweet tea-brined, dredged, and fried chicken breast slathered with homemade red pepper jelly and cucumber pickles. And making the restaurant’s weekly stash of sixty pounds of pimento cheese still requires homemade mayonnaise and hand-massaging before it is tossed into grits, omelets, and sandwiches.
The book’s many boozy brunch drinks start with fresh squeezed fruit juices; its desserts wear a crown of pie crumb or crackly feuilletine shards; and the lox plate starts with salmon cured in a glorious and colorful beet brine. Sweet and affectionate nods to Atlanta’s hometown cookie appear in recipes for vanilla wafers and mason jar banana pudding, while a tribute to Vizethann’s late father comes in an amped-up recreation of Ray’s Waffle Burger.
The book’s large and airy format, ethereal food photos, and sturdy binding that enables easy opening and propping make it accessible and inviting for home cooks. Welcome to Buttermilk Kitchen is a paean to Southern flavors and culinary traditions that will no doubt have you scheduling a brunch for your best beloveds pretty darn quick.
RACHEL JAGARESKI (April 27, 2020)