In Anna Dorn’s Vagablonde, Prue, a Los Angeles lawyer, hopes to wean herself off of various psychotropic prescriptions.
Prue is also an aspiring rapper, despite the fact that she is bourgeois and has “the coloring of a Nazi.” As Prue’s musical success intensifies, her sense of stability deteriorates. Her nurturing girlfriend, Ellie, moves to New York, and Prue spends much of her time with Jax Jameson and his “Kingdom,” a cadre of creative artists similar, as Prue notes, to Andy Warhol’s famed pop culture Factory. Jax produces music featuring Prue in her Vagablonde rapper persona—bleached blonde and outright white—joined by other musicians in a group called Shiny AF.
Though her work with Jax, a wild-eyed, quasi “shaman” fond of tribal tunics and work boots, is liberating and well received, the Kingdom holds marathon partying sessions that take a toll on Prue. Her musical efforts are at the mercy of social media’s hyped mass adoration or condemnation, increasing her sense of anxious exposure.
Beyond the hothouse atmosphere of Jax’s Kingdom and the surreal backdrop of Los Angeles, Vagablonde‘s jagged, prismatic humor both deflects and reveals Prue’s emotions. Prue, with her insecurities, talents, ambiguities, and flaws, is a captivating narrator. She compartmentalizes her legal work, writing briefs with skill between episodes of substance abuse. Obsessed with astrology, she idolizes Gemini musicians Tupac Shakur, Kanye West, and Lana Del Rey. In her own artistic expressions, Prue “tackles queer erasure with a self-aware swagger,” rapping like an auto-tuned, “seductive alien.”
Peopled with vibrant characters amid searing yellow skies and cobalt twilight, Vagablonde is a glimpse into a rarefied, “of the moment” world, with a heroine who, like other famed platinum blondes before her, hides her troubled vulnerability behind the icy whiteness of her hair.
MEG NOLA (April 27, 2020)
In Search of the Last Untamed Food
Feasting Wild is a fascinating record of ecological travesties committed in the name of pleasing humans’ insatiable appetites.
There’s an otherworldly sensibility to Gina Rae La Cerva’s accounts of the lands, airs, and seas as they used to be: of oceans so teeming with green turtles that they seemed to move; of skies darkened by, and cacophonous with, the beatings of a million pairs of pigeon wings; of forests and fields biodiverse beyond our imagination.
To gather a sense of what’s been lost, La Cerva travels the world, feasting upon, and learning about, foods that are now considered rare and desirable. She begins at Noma, where, after a decadent feast, she horrifies the chef by gagging over the smell of wildstuffs fermenting in a jar, and troubles human fetishization of the wild:
[T]he abundance that once existed … seems so unfathomable it might as well be fiction. We do not understand our own poverty.
The text is both erudite and poetic as it chronicles animals and resources that no longer exist, including herbal knowledge that was subverted by the church. Cellular memory is a factor: in the primeval Białowieża Forest, home to La Cerva’s ancestors, the book celebrates the wood’s floor, which “glow[s] with phosphorescence through the darkest nights” because of its many varieties of mushrooms. Even there, though, human impact is apparent: the wildflowers bloom too early, and viruses carried by foxes infect the berries. Elsewhere, a romance in the Congo unfolds against the realities of bushmeat exports and colonization, while domestication is shown to quell appetites only in the short term and not to improve imperiled environments. Even in places that nature has reclaimed, nothing is as it was before.
Feasting Wild is an intelligent, compelling requiem for species and spaces that have been lost; it laments the rapaciousness of human appetites.
MICHELLE ANNE SCHINGLER (April 27, 2020)
Ashleigh Bryant Phillips’s gritty short story collection Sleepovers is bold in exploring rural life in the US South. Its entries reflect upon family, childhood, relationships, and loss against backdrops of poverty, abuse, and tragedy.
While the stories in Sleepovers stand on their own, together they reveal a town where everyone knows one another, and where secrets do not remain hidden for long. In “Shania,” two girls are friends until a violent episode comes between them. Their paths cross again years later when one returns from college to find the other pregnant and working as a cashier. Touching on the effects of family, poverty, and abuse, the story sets a provocative foundation upon which the remainder of the pieces, and their numerous hard-luck characters, are built.
Written from the perspectives of children, the elderly, the well-intentioned, and the wicked, the entries include “Return to the Coondog Castle,” which is told from the points of view of a mistreated wife, a young mistress, the mistress’s mother, a widow, one of two churchgoing sisters, and a Bluetick coonhound. Each distinctive narrator adds nuance to the tale.
Strong descriptions capture a once vibrant community that’s given way to a grocery store, a trailer park, a Baptist church, and a Duck Thru gas station. The plight of the town’s farmers is evidenced by abandoned soybean fields that were drowned by rains after lengthy droughts. Residents confront harrowing historical legacies; one leaves the town to attend college, another is an EMT and an attentive mother, and some show kindness to others at times of need. They grapple with the powerful ties of family, the limits placed on individuals, and the challenges of breaking free from the past.
Sleepovers is an unflinching collection through which the complexities, curiosities, and complications of rural Southern life come through.
KARLA STRAND (April 27, 2020)
This riveting bedtime story follows Grace into an alternate world where she must escape the menacing claws of a giant crab that forces lost children to gather pearls from snapping clam shells. Hauntingly wild, captivating artwork depicts Grace’s surreal journey as she rallies a group of ragtag children to lead them home again. Because of this instant classic, imaginations will soar; whether it’s bedtime, daytime, or any time else, a bit of fantasy is in order.
PALLAS GATES MCCORQUODALE (April 27, 2020)
Lisa Braxton’s historical novel The Talking Drum captures a vibrant immigrant community in its death throes.
Petite Africa is in trouble. The city of Bellport plans to demolish this rundown, immigrant-majority neighborhood and build a civic center in its place. In addition to this crisis, an arsonist is targeting apartment buildings on the chopping block. The people who live in and around Petite Africa deal with each threat in their own ways, either coming together or breaking apart in the face of an uncertain, even dangerous future.
Set in the early 1970s, the story revolves around three couples: Sydney and Malachi, newlyweds who are planning to open a bookstore and cultural center; Della and Kwamé, whose unhealthy relationship founders when Della begins to assert herself; and Natalie and Omar, whose marriage is crumbling under the weight of their poverty. Each individual has their own problems, goals, hopes, and fears to contend with, even as their neighborhood fights to survive.
Each character brings a distinct perspective. Uncertain but determined Sydney, steady Omar, and jaded yet hopeful Della see the happenings in Petite Africa and neighboring Liberty Hill through the lenses of their previous experiences, both good and bad. They struggle to improve their lives in the face of loss, racism, betrayal, and government indifference.
Petite Africa is a unique blend of activists and business owners, of dynamic outdoor markets and burned-out buildings. Despite the challenges presented by slumlords and bureaucrats, the residents go about their lives as best they can, fighting for what they believe in. All they have is their resilience, their memories, and each other. But perhaps, in the end, that is all they need.
The Talking Drum is an absorbing historical novel about the importance of community in shaping who you are and what you can accomplish.
EILEEN GONZALEZ (April 27, 2020)