Richard Chiem’s King of Joy traces an abandoned girl’s tragic trajectory from unloved teenager to abandoned bride to snuff porn queen. This experimental literary novel is the right amount of both dreamy and dark.
Corvus, limp and poisonous as a human cigarette, is at the end of her rope. She exists in a creative, hysterical subculture that’s one party after another, stuffed into “an empty Olympic-size swimming pool, filled with mostly half-naked bodies, awash in fog, perspiration, and more neon flashes.” Of course, it can’t last.
Corvus, staged by her playwright husband Perry, achieves cult status. When she loses him, Corvus goes from grey to black. She drifts through the underworld of bespoke pornography, where she meets Tim, her new director, and her co-star Amber, who’s a golden foil to her permanent midnight.
The novel is lush, packed with jarring details, and surprisingly tender. Corvus—who seems doomed to circle the drain—instead revisits images, dialogue, and objects that link her past to her present.
Although sex and porn drive the plot, Chiem chooses to leave the act itself offstage; this puts the novel’s focus where it belongs and intensifies the characters’ connections. In King of Joy, everyone is either an actor or a voyeur, including the reader. Chiem’s command of perspective is excellent, and each sensory detail feels like a nail on the skin.
The novel is enticingly bitter at times, juxtaposing sharp images against pastel-sentimental landscapes. As Corvus trails Tim down a flight of stairs, she notes the tiny tattoo on the back of his neck: “MOM.” The balance of acid and sweet is King of Joy‘s strength. Corvus’s relationship with Perry, in particular, is unexpectedly moving, natural, and tender.
King of Joy is a delicious, demonic novel that fades through adjacent, looping worlds in the magical early 2000s. Chiem evokes a lost decade and suggests the shape of the monsters that churned beneath its surface.
CLAIRE FOSTER (February 27, 2019)
K Chess’s magnificent speculative novel Famous Men Who Never Lived straddles two among infinite worlds, “starting off the same and hurtling to two wholly different fates.” It is an awesome and humbling literary achievement.
In the world that Hel, Vikram, and over two hundred thousand other universally displaced people left behind, nuclear explosions were impetus enough to step through a portal into the unknown. They found themselves in a world not terribly different from their own: active, troubled, and hostile to outsiders, though also alive with art and possibilities.
In the two years that followed, some of the UDPs, like Vikram, adjusted, if as second-class citizens of reduced fortunes. As Vikram toils as a night guard, Hel—a specialized surgeon in her own world—lives off of government assistance and devours Vikram’s relics in search of peace, particularly novels by authors who were never authors in this strange new place. One such author, Ezra Sleight, may be the key to determining where the two timelines diverged, and it’s a possibility that consumes Hel’s hours.
Chess’s pages are elegiac as much as they are inventive and hopeful. Our world, seen through UDP eyes, is a place of yawing holes—musical notes that never trilled; stories never told; beloved and important people whom fate carried into obscurity or oblivion. Her characters peek beneath the ripples in the multiverse, probing permeable dimensions for deeper truths.
The text is triumphant, darkly humorous, and mournful by turns. All of Hel’s hungry actions conceal the unmourned loss of her son. Elsewhere, a resentful UDP takes to inventing customs to silence the always-here: where she’s from, she tells people, they carry cats everywhere, and drink blood, and slap corpses to be sure.
People prove to be both credulous and awkward in the face of the unknowable. As its characters grasp for a concrete place to rest in a world that ever diverges from its set paths, Famous Men Who Never Lived is mesmerizing.
MICHELLE ANNE SCHINGLER (February 12, 2019)
Recipes and Traditions from the Horn of Africa
Yohanis Gebreyesus’s cookbook Ethiopia: Recipes and Traditions from the Horn of Africa is both an educational and an inspirational addition to culinary libraries that encourages eating and cooking outside of your comfort zone.
From his introduction on, Gebreyesus leads his audience through a brief history of Ethiopia and its food. He provides tips and advice about the ingredients and equipment needed to complete the recipes. Early chapters cover two very important aspects of Ethiopian food: injera and other flatbreads; and the complex spice blends and pastes used in almost all of the nation’s dishes.
Introductory remarks preface each dish to explain either the significance of the recipes, their histories, or ingredients in them that play an important role. The book’s six chapters cover all aspects of the cuisine, from vegetables and fresh cheeses to snacks and drinks, and the recipes are easy to follow. A chapter on traditional Ethiopian breakfast foods spices up the morning ritual. Beautiful accompanying photographs capture the essence and spirit of the nation and its food.
Most recipes are based on traditional dishes, including Tender Lamb Cubes Simmered in a Mild Turmeric and Onion Sauce and Slow Cooked Spicy Chicken with Hard-Boiled Eggs. Some recipes put a modern twist on traditional dishes; others use traditional Ethiopian ingredients in more modern dishes, like Teff Tagliatelle with Sprouted Fenugreek and Carrots and Chicken in Tej Sauce with Oranges. Interspersed throughout the book are topical pages that cover subjects including the importance of teff (a fine grain taken from grass); Tej, a fermented honey wine; and the nation’s coffee production.
Cooking Ethiopian food is not for the fainthearted. For those who are not afraid of a good challenge in the kitchen, Yohanis Gebreyesus’s book, with its detailed and clear recipes, is a wonderful introduction to an ancient cuisine.
ERIC PATTERSON (February 27, 2019)
The past is the present is the future in Flashback Hotel, the masterful new short story collection by Ivan Vladislavić. Alternately whimsical and deeply affecting, the collection explores South African culture and the impact of belief on the daily lives of ordinary people.
Vladislavić writes with deadly playfulness. In his imaginary Johannesburg, nothing is what it seems. Each story in Flashback Hotel peels back the layers of reality, revealing the magical world beneath what’s immediately apparent. A child feeds the hole in the backyard, sleeps under a blanket of meat. A bomber waits in the city hotel he’s exploded: broken pipes, pieces of piano, and dead waiters are collected and covered in cement.
This is a bleak, dangerous world, where political agitation can transform the ordinary into a surreal nightmare in a single moment. However, it’s not all frightening. Flashback Hotel has a rare beauty, with delicately drawn images that offset its apocalyptic scenes. For example, a linen suit is “fresh cream with a dab of butter in it, richly textured, the pockets cool as arum lilies.”
Apartheid, racism, and political unrest are frequent themes in Flashback Hotel. The collection’s characters grapple with apartheid in different ways: no matter what they do, it’s as impossible to ignore as the giant stone head of Lenin that appears on a pedestal at the end of Bulkin Street. The collection plays with South Africa’s legacy of race violence, including frequent references to segregation, disenfranchisement, and glorifying racist leaders. Flashback Hotel is a satirical look at the “good old days” of South Africa. It asks the question, “Good for whom?”
Weaving elegant description and deeply disturbing imagery, Flashback Hotel is a remarkable collection of short stories that destroy the barriers between reality and fantasy, exposing the struts and bones beneath each suburban street.
CLAIRE FOSTER (February 27, 2019)
Twenty-Six Stories about All the Shit That Gets in the Way of Speaking about Sexual Violence
The Anatomy of Silence, edited by Cyra Perry Dougherty, comes with a trigger warning but won’t apologize for its content. A collection of twenty-six narratives on sexual violence in the United States and globally, it pushes back against a culture of silence that requires survivors to carry the shame and seeks to name sexual violence’s articulations and the personal and societal trauma it creates.
Contributors range from survivors to professionals in the field. The topic is considered from varied viewpoints including survivorship, allyship, complicity, intervention, support, reporting, and advocacy. The stories are similarly varied. Their forms include memoir, essay, reportage, opinion, and poetry, and entries often mix various modes to express sexual violence’s inexplicable, pervasive nature.
The book’s mission is unambiguous and necessary, yet the mechanisms of trauma create some inherent challenges in exploring and deconstructing this cultural epidemic. One contributor notes, “This is not an experience that can ever be shared in its totality—only fragments can be shown”; another says, “This fragmentation, this feeling, this inability to string words together [is] what trauma does to us.”
Memorable inclusions—like Melissa Dickey’s “Misogyny,” which recounts internalizing its rules, Lauren Spahn’s “Unintended Consequences,” about working at the the only sexual assault hotline in her county, Chelsea MacMillan’s “This Is Why,” about reporting a subway masturbator, and Ashley Easter’s “Community of Silence,” which looks at complicity in the evangelical Christian community—are resonant, with a strong sense of authorial voice and a specificity that forces consideration, if not outright confrontation.
Dougherty’s broad editorial vision creates space for silence to give way to speaking, allowing for contradictions and paradoxes in service of the larger goal of unearthing how sexual violence survives and thrives, both individually and systemically. At its best, The Anatomy of Silence demonstrates that there’s no aspect of society unaffected by this trauma.
LETITIA MONTGOMERY-RODGERS (February 27, 2019)