Foreword Reviews

Book of the Day Roundup: September 12-16, 2022

Sweet in Tooth and Claw

Stories of Generosity and Cooperation in the Natural World

Book Cover
Kristin Ohlson
Hardcover $27.95 (384pp)
Buy: Local Bookstore (Bookshop), Amazon

Descriptions of nature as competitive (Charles Darwin) and “red in tooth and claw” (Alfred, Lord Tennyson) shaped the way people perceive it today. Sweet in Tooth and Claw debunks such concepts to reveal that, in fact, cooperation and generosity allow nature to thrive. It also speculates about what differences would be possible if human beings followed nature’s example.

“Living things engage in constant, complicated interactions,” writes Kristin Ohlson, whose book affirms the ancient Indigenous perspective of nature as cooperative, generous, sustainable, and hopeful. Provocative and inspiring, her book invites consideration of the ways that humans—often considered to be exploiters, colonizers, and destroyers of nature—can learn from the natural world and partner with it to solve some of the planet’s most pressing problems.

Stories of cooperation between plants and bees, forests and fish, and microbes and trees celebrate nature’s astounding, calibrated complexity and the benefits of cooperation over attempts at domination. A moving example is that of ranchers in northeastern Nevada who, with a simple change of mindset and grazing practices, and with respect for the role of beavers in the ecosystem, saw desert lands turn into thriving, lush wetlands with flowing streams, ponds, and renewed aquifers—all without human help.

The book’s astounding revelations of how trees communicate through chemical “sentences” or emit chemical “screams” that prompt other plants to produce substances that deter attacking pests only scratch the surface of what there is to learn about nature. Without understanding such intricate, delicate systems, intervening humans often disrupt and destroy ecosystems that, with patience, would renew themselves.

A rich and fascinating book, Sweet in Tooth and Claw is stunning in its vision of how, by embracing nature’s cooperative, generous spirit, human beings might do part of the great work of helping the planet and its inhabitants to thrive.

KRISTINE MORRIS (August 27, 2022)

The Backstreets

Book Cover
Perhat Tursun
Darren Byler, translator
Anonymous, translator
Columbia University Press
Softcover $20.00
Buy: Local Bookstore (Bookshop), Amazon

The Backstreets is an absurdist, stream-of-consciousness novel by now disappeared Uyghur writer Perhat Tursun. It is an ominous meditation on isolation, oppression, and dehumanization.

One night, an anonymous Uyghur government office worker in Ürümchi searches the city for a place to stay. Obsessed with numbers and their connections, he finds a scrap of paper with three numbers on it; these become his lodestar. He seeks an address comprised of those numbers.

Throughout the night, the worker is overwhelmed by the polluted fog of the city. People float in and out of its dense miasma; buildings are obscured; streets vanish. He asks for directions but encounters only the suspicions of the city dwellers. The night stretches into a series of rejections and abuse, and the worker tries to understand the new world around him.

As he travels, the man’s thoughts drift through his memories and elusive dreams. The evocative setting becomes central, laden with vibrant images and sensory details: “windows look like gloomy gashes on the body of a man who had been beaten to death.” And the fog becomes the man’s nemesis, seeping into his blood and eliciting visceral reactions.

Tursun’s is the first Uyghur novel to be translated into English and is a rare window reflecting the daily degradation by the Chinese government of this tyrannized ethnic minority. The novel relies less on plot and characterizations than on emphasizing the bleak emotional existences of Uyghur people. A one-sentence incantation that’s repeated throughout the book encapsulates this sense of isolation and alienation.

The Backstreets is a politically charged, emotional novel about the impacts of prejudice, industrial city life, and desolation on China’s Uyghur people. It is a major literary event that is honest in its portrayal of oppression.

MONICA CARTER (August 27, 2022)

Chasing Whispers

Book Cover
Eugen Bacon
Raw Dog Screaming Press
Softcover $15.95 (198pp)
Buy: Local Bookstore (Bookshop), Amazon

In Eugen Bacon’s multifaceted and disarming short story collection Chasing Whispers, women and other beings are caught up in whirlwinds of emotion.

In “Chasing Whispers,” a young woman is interested in dating, but being with her potential partner brings up afterimages of an absent father. Searching for what happened to him, she turns to her mother, who tells her to “find the separation tree.” What she finds is astonishing. Bizarre images of eyes falling from sockets, unhinged jaws, women eating cats to the skeleton, and tree portals are reminiscent of a descent into madness—or symbols of coming into oneself. And in the surprising, funny, science fiction-tinged story “Industrial Pleasure,” a woman who’s fed up with working herself to the bone answers an ad for an apparent job. But the story does not give any hints as to what her new work entails. The story’s twist, and the logic underpinning it, is unexpected and intriguing.

In some ways, these are not stories, but emotions made flesh. “Where the Wind Blows” follows a writer on an as yet unsuccessful retreat. She meets a man and begins spending time with him. Simple dates follow, like an excursion to a boutique lavender shop. The wispy, dreamlike quality of the story gives way to profound, palpable disappointment and disillusionment when the writer discovers that the man has failed to reveal a crucial piece of information. Similar discontent infuses “A Deep and Terrible Sadness,” which pulls from a deep well of melancholy and seems to want its audience to suffer as well. Its narrator is mean and vindictive, and its lines are noisy with crashes and roaring winds, making it an accurate representation of the roller coaster of negative emotions.

Chasing Whispers is an emotive, immersive short story collection whose entries trade between being entertaining and thought provoking.


Days Come & Go

Book Cover
Hemley Boum
Nchanji Njamnsi, translator
Two Lines Press
Hardcover $24.95 (350pp)
Buy: Local Bookstore (Bookshop), Amazon

In Hemley Boum’s novel Days Come & Go, a woman’s terminal diagnosis triggers memories of her family’s tragic history.

Anna grew up without a mother. Her daughter, Abi, has never known a world without her mother in it. But Anna and Abi’s relationship is not affectionate. Now, as cancer erodes Anna’s mind and body, she speaks nonstop, hoping that her memories and experiences will enrich her daughter and grandson’s lives long after she is gone. Her tumultuous life story is the basis for the book’s emotional saga.

The family’s lives are intertwined with major events in Cameroonian history, from the war of independence that nearly separated Anna from her husband before they could marry, to the contemporary religious extremism that destroys her grandson’s friends in the most intense portions of the novel. Throughout, Anna tries to reconcile her traditional, rural upbringing with the European-sponsored education that allowed her to break the cycle of poverty. Meanwhile, Abi copes with the consequences of her extramarital affair; the devastating effect that the affair had on her son, Max; and the impending loss of her mother, whom she is just now growing close to.

Though it records family scars, this is a novel about resilience. Anna’s family’s greatest failings have been rejecting the past and refusing to face up to what’s obvious. They allowed danger and bad feelings to fester. Now, having endured more trauma than anyone should ever have to, they know all too well the cost of their willful ignorance.

Following as three generations work to leave their painful legacies behind for the sake of their progeny, Days Come & Go is a multigenerational story about lost innocence—and about perseverance.

EILEEN GONZALEZ (August 27, 2022)

Space Trash

Volume 1

Book Cover
Jenn Woodall
Oni Press
Hardcover $21.99 (96pp)
Buy: Local Bookstore (Bookshop), Amazon

Stuck in high school on the moon, three teenagers deal with a rival gang and dream of going to Earth in Space Trash: Volume 1.

In 2091, people feared that Earth would soon be unable to support life, and terraforming colonies were established on Mars and the moon. In 2115, Yuki, Una, and Stab attend an education center on the moon. They’re bored and frustrated students, though. After a fight with a group of bullies, the girls learn that Earth is still habitable, and still populated. Along with new allies, they find an old space shuttle, work to make it operational, and make plans to go to Earth.

Though the book is set in the future, the art features grungy hallmarks of the twentieth century, including compact discs. There’s a mention of Planet X Company, but despite that potential indication of gender specificity, it’s never explained whether the moon school is an all-girls school, or if there’s something larger behind its absence of boys. Key elements of the book’s backstory remain tantalizing and unexplained, with hints that more will be revealed in future volumes, as when Una comments that “revisionist history is such a proud human tradition.”

With the dialogue making clever use of different font sizes and weights, and with unusual emphasis marks within word balloons, the illustrations are eye-catching. Their art is colorful and engaging, too, with detailed backgrounds and realistic depictions of the characters that morph into cartoons in select panels for comedic effect.

Space Trash Volume 1 is an exciting and dramatic graphic novel whose teenage cast contends with a space-going mystery.

PETER DABBENE (August 27, 2022)

Barbara Hodge

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