Category: Reviews

Boyhood: The Power of Generalities in Storytelling


Watching a boy grow up on screen with his fictional family is genuinely moving.

Yes. This movie is as good as they say, and yes, you should go see it if you haven’t already. Here’s the thing to know before you go: It’s best to view this movie as an ethnography of the American childhood, specifically the childhood of this boy, Mason, who we get to watch grow up before our eyes from age six to eighteen, but also that of his older sister, Samantha (Richard Linklater’s daughter, Lorelei) who is lovely and provides an important female counterweight to her brother in this family that is so American-generic that any of us can likely place ourselves within it.

This isn’t a romantic comedy or an action flick or a psychological thriller. It’s a straight forward coming-of-age story, and if you remember anything about growing up, you’ll remember that there’s a lot of small shit-happening-to-you kinds of events (school, weekends with dad) and a little of you-making-decisions-and-screwing-up stuff happening (not doing homework, lost virginity), but in general, most of the time, life for most people is pretty undramatic, and that’s the case in Boyhood, too. No one dies or gets cancer or goes on a great big adventure. No one has a disability or is abused or is a beautiful genius, shaping the character in extraordinary ways. But through the lack of drama, and I’d argue because of it, we’re delivered a “story” (albeit without the typical story arc) that is dramatically, emotionally honest and emblematic of what it feels like to discover ourselves incrementally as we do in real life. We also get to see the adults in this movie “come of age,” if you will. They, like most of us, are lost most of the time, and their lack of wisdom is refreshing.

I was most impressed by Linklater’s ability to provide us with moments that could be from any family in America, even though this family is indeed white and middle class, which obviously doesn’t represent all American families in a literal sense. However, most of us can relate to annoying siblings, neighborhood friends, divorce, road trips, homework, teachers who rat you out to your parents, teachers who badger you to be better, step-parents who fuck with your head, first loves, peer pressure, crappy food service jobs, heartbreak, imperfect parents, and a little marijuana smoking. In his low-key way, Linklater uses these moments to question (and kind of answer) the meaning of life. He takes these generalities, makes them just generic enough to fit your own life, and invites you in. This movie doesn’t wrap its characters’ lives up in neat packages, ending with a message of grace and understanding. No. This movie leaves everything a mess, as it should be, as it really is. For that reason, this movie is brilliant and beautiful.


Femcees Rising

Time magazine recently posted an article briefly introducing the 7 female rap artists they say are the industries new up-and-coming superstars, women they indicate are moving in the same direction as Nikki Minaj and Iggy Azalea, both of whom have found huge success in the male-dominated genre. The Time article was a response to XXL‘s (really good) list of 12 freshman rappers to watch over the next year, a list which, unsurprisingly, featured no women. Artists like Noname Gypsy and Nyemiah Supreme are joining the ranks of women like Brianna Perry to shake up the rap world brining pointed and poignant lyrics and melodies to the microphone.


However, one rapper they didn’t pay attention to is Minnesota-based rapper Dessa. Granted she is part of the underground rap scene and the Doomtree collective whih are not marked as mainstream music. Beyonce may not post Dessa’s music on her tumblr as she did for Brianna Perry, and you won’t see Dessa working with Timaland the way Nyemiah Supreme did, but her music explores cultural problems, issues of place and politics, crises of the heart, of life, and of childhood. Basically the same topics as all the other important MC’s working in the business and just as interesting to listen to, except she’s white.


Don’t Wait to Be Sleepless: A Review of Black Moon by Kenneth Calhoun

Black Moon

The world is a waking nightmare – Sweet!

A few weeks ago, a Twitter friend of mine followed one of my book recommendations by picking up Rainbow Rowell’s Attachments — a book about an IT worker who unintentionally begins reading the email exchanges between two coworkers, and then falls in love with one of them. It’s a mostly feel-good novel with just the right amount of misfortune to keep it from being too bouncy, and I genuinely enjoyed watching the two main characters blunder through their lives. I don’t know, maybe I could relate. Anyways, it was through Goodreads, the social media site for book nerds, that I learned my friend had finished the book… and hated it. I was surprised to find myself upset. Not that I disagreed with her assessment of the characters (for being more than a little unlikable), or the plot (for being front-loaded) –, no I was upset because she had picked up the book because of my recommendation. She had even put it down, and come back to it — a task I was never up for, once a book was put down, it was down. I felt I had disappointed her, and that maybe my taste in books was awful.

So when I finished Kenneth Calhoun’s Black Moon, and was hopping around my apartment in anticipation of recommending it to my friends, you’ll understand why I hesitated before actually screaming from my car window about it. I was even more cautious because I know Ken, in a hey-the-universe-is-weird kind of way, and I almost never trust the opinions of friends of writers, no matter what sense that might make. Friends should be cheerleaders. Friends should have a mostly positive outlook of your work, even if they don’t always like what you write. Why would a friend of a writer tell you not to read her friend’s work? Maybe a frenemy would tell you not to, but a real friend would walk you into to the bookstore, guide you to the shelf, and place the book in your hands. Read more »

bark review: “ruth: woman of courage”

ruthso, there’s been this trend lately to be, like, all positive & shit when reviewing books.  which i kinda understand.  technology has enabled us all to be content producers.  anybody & everybody can not only write a book, but publish it.  and negative reviews help no one more than the writer.  especially if that writer hasn’t come up the old school way and/or become part of a writing community, building up a stable of editors they trust to critique their work—but it’s also true for established writers, who could be otherwise unchallenged because of their burnished reputation.

as readers, however, we might get a perverse thrill from a literary takedown by a critic, but do we really need negative reviews?  if the end objective for readers is to know which books to (not) read, couldn’t we more or less glean that by seeing which books never get (positively) reviewed anywhere, ever?  on the other hand, is a critic who only writes glowing reviews in danger of becoming overly fawning, or desperately sifting for gold where little (if any) exists?

it is in that context that i wonder what the fate of ruth: woman of courage would be were it published in 2014.  it is, ostensibly, a children’s retelling of the story of ruth (i.e., from the bible) which was published in 1977 & beloved by tiny young christians across the land.  but let’s pretend it was released today.  would it come out on a vanity press, and be panned by academics and lovers of literature alike as unserious, barely(?) sensical words spewed on a page?  or would it be snapped up by some by some indie publisher, and hailed by the masses on html giant as a pre/post-ironic deconstruction of contemporary amerikan language which delves into the myth of feminist biblical moral strength?  tough to tell.

whether or not the world needs negative reviews in 2014 is up for debate.  but i submit that if you’re going to use the *literal* word of god as source material, you’re setting yourself to an awfully high standard—a standard which some reviewer should hold you to.  and, paula jordan parris: for you, that reviewer is me.

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Dave Eggers’s The Circle: A Mirror and a Crystal Ball

the-circleHave you ever read a book that left you feeling a little hollow, a little less safe, and yet it was a story that you felt completely in control of most of the time? That was my experience reading The Circle by Dave Eggers. The Circle is a story of a twenty-something woman named Mae (short for Maebelline, a sure nod to the makeup brand, leaving readers to wonder if Mae’s parents had actually named her after a beauty product in this dystopian society) who has just landed a job at a futuristic version of a Google/Facebook/Twitter-like company called The Circle, making her a “newbie” Circler.

In her first week or two there, she learns just how much this job will become an overbearing part of her life. She’s required to “smile” at all sorts of meaningless chatter online (The Circle’s equivalent to “Likes” on Facebook.) and every few days it seems that a new screen is being added to her desk, requiring her to pay attention to multiple social and business arenas at once.

At first, I was as enamored by The Circle as Mae was. What’s there not to like? The campus is beautifully manicured, all amenities are free to employees — even a stock of merchandise brought into the campus’s overnight apartments for employees who don’t want to drive home after a long day at work — and creativity seems to be bursting out of every room.

This, coupled by the fact that Mae is able to include her parents (her father suffers from MS) on her super amazing health insurance, makes The Circle seem like a dream job, which is the point.

Eggers sets us up to fall in love with the place, but all the time, we’re watching Mae being bombarded with more and more media, technology, and social obligation, and it all starts to feel like a burden not worth carrying. Mae is even chastised for not attending enough after-work festivities when she first arrives on campus. Like a good employee who wants to please her superiors, she acquiesces and starts to fill up her time with extra-curricular activities that keep her on The Circle campus overnight more often than not.

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All the Songs Are Triumphant and Resolve to a Minor Key

praying-drunk-coverPraying Drunk
Kyle Minor
Sarabande Books
193 pages, $15.95

This morning I trashed e-mail from an organization called Kentucky for Kentucky. I have bought a couple shirts from the organization: “Lincoln is my Co-Pilot” and “Kickass Commonwealth since 1792.” This morning they were advertising a new poster, the Bluegrass alphabet:

A – Ali, B – Bluegrass, C – (Kentucky) Colonels, D – Derby, E – Ernest, F – Fried Chicken, G – Goldenrod, H – High Five, I – Isaac Murphy, J – John Jacob Niles, K – Keeneland, L – Lincoln, M – Mammoth Cave, N – Natural Bridge, O – Opossum, P – PawPaw, Q – Quilt, R – Rosie the Riveter, S – Shaker Village, T – Turtle Man, U – United We Stand, Divided We Fall, V – Vault (Fort Knox), W – Wigwam Village, X – Moonshine, Y – Y’all, Z – Zombie.

I am not usually so taken with statehood camaraderie, except perhaps after growing homesick watching Winter’s Bone or later today, when I finally finished Kyle Minor’s new collection of stories, Praying Drunk.

I’d read the first story in the book, “The Question of Where We Begin,” in a collection of flash nonfiction essays. The second line reads, “My uncle takes a pistol and blows his brains out,” and the following paragraphs wrestle with why, maybe this, maybe that, cause and effect, driving backward from the personal story, the family story, the national-historical story, to the mythic, big, beginning story. Here is an excerpt:

We begin with the trouble, but where does the trouble begin? My uncle takes a pistol and blows his brains out.

Now we may proceed to the aftermath. The removal of the body from his bedroom. The cleanup. The reading of the will. The funeral in West Palm Beach, Florida. The woman he wanted to marry, taking the ring he gave her and putting it on her finger after the death.

But this beginning is not satisfactory.  The mourners are now parsing their theories of why. Did you know that he was brain-damaged when that city dump truck hit him twenty years ago? Look at his children grieving in the front pew of the funeral room. Why wouldn’t they visit him except when they wanted his settlement money? Had his settlement money run out? And where is his ex-wife? Why couldn’t she love him enough to stay with him (for better or for worse, right?) Do you think it’s true he was physically violent with her like she told the judge?

I read “The Question of Where We Begin” months ago and said, simply, “Wow.” I had not read anything that good in a long time. Not only was the structure interesting—as it echoes the questions that we ask ourselves sitting in a pew, whittling down the suicide to the most basic and complex set of questions we can ask about character, choice, and death—but I recognized the people, the poverty, the darkness lingering at the edge of the forest. Read more »

Hi 2014, I’m Looking Back

In October, Cathie reached her 100th Bark, a milestone I’m sure neither of us could have predicted when we volunteered to write for our MFA’s blog a few years ago. For me Bark has been an accountability tool, a community, and also, at times, an escape. As days, then weeks and months passed and I got closer to my own 100th post, I started looking around for ideas — what could I write about to mark the occasion? The pressure was making me sick. One night, I was up late, surfing the internet and I starting reading old posts — then it came to me. As we head into the new year, I thought I’d share with you my favorite Bark posts, the ones that still sit with me in the dark, the ones that made me laugh or cry. I’m really proud to share space with such talented writers. It was hard to choose, but I thought ten was a nice round number. Take a seat, right hear next to me, and let’s go for a ride.

1. Michael Bell Public Space and How to Use It

Featuring Moose the dog, this post by Michael Bell is quietly powerful.  The theme in writing that really grabs my attention is vulnerability, and Bell’s here is subtle and endearing. He’d roll his eyes at me.

2. Tim Greenup Claustrophobia: Sleeping on an Amy Cot, Writing Formal Emails

I’d forgotten how funny Tim can be — sardonic, sarcastic, self-deprecating, slapstick and witty all in one paragraph. But again, the vulnerability creeps in beneath the humor, making what seems on the surface to be a complaint about an army cot really the honest exposure of the every writer’s insecurities so compelling.

3. Leyna Krow I do not want you to hit me as hard as you can

It helps to know Leyna to imagine her in a boxing ring, all wonderfully long arms and legs, but even not knowing her I think this post speaks to another writer’s dilemma: taking on experiences for the sake of  having something interesting to write about. It’s a road most writers travel, and have to learn to move on. Also, this post contains one of my favorite pictures.

4. Cathie (Smatherton) Johnson Someone to Catch You

This is classic Smathie. When she’s not schooling us on some Hitchcock movie, she’s breaking our hearts with posts that punch straight in the gut.

5. Amaris Ketcham I’m Fantasizing about You

I used to share Friday post days with Amaris, and every week I’d be bowled over by her posts. She takes risks, leaps from the highest ledge, and always executes the swan dive. I considered a post with her photography, but went with this post, because it’s the perfect example of how she takes a risk and pulls it off.

6. Karen Maner The (as if by magic) Masters of Sex 

Always well-researched and not afraid to lead you down a rabbit hole, this particular post by Karen on the TV show Master of Sex is probably one of my favorites of all time. After my initial reading, I sent it to two of my girlfriends and we sat together laughing and quoting lines. Her commentary on sex is hilarious and scathing.

7. Asa Maria Bradley Who First Called You Writer?

I enjoy posts that vocalize thoughts I’ve had but been unable to verbalize. This one speaks to the moment when a writer becomes a writer to herself in the eyes of another.

8. Shira Richman Oh, the Places You Won’t Go

Consistently compelling, I looked forward to Shira’s posts each week. This one is set in Germany, involves manners and boundaries and in the end, left me looking over my shoulder.

9. Kristina McDonald The Trouble with Tin Men

Dark and twisty, this awesome post by Kristina is based on the real characters from The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

10. Scott Eubanks How to Be An MFA Student

Forever a classic.


If I could go on forever, I would mention this post by Melissa, this post by Jason, and this post by Casey(fitzy) are worth a read, too! What are your favorite posts?


(un) Necessary Errors

As 2013 winds to an end, magazines and media compile their annual “Best of” issues and articles on all topics of interest to readers and consumers. Books are no exception. The first such lists I read came from Slate, pitched as “Best books of 2013: Slate Staff Picks.”  

This list came out on Monday and is not to be confused with Tuesday: The overlooked books of 2013. or Wednesday: The best lines of 2013, and the best poetry of 2013. or Thursday: Dan Kois’ 15 favorite books. All capped off with Friday: The Slate Book Review Top 10.

I like finding out about great books I’d missed in a given calendar year and it’s fun finding out which books  writers I admire enjoyed this year. Perusing the list, I’d only heard of a few. Egger’s new novel about social media domination was familiar and one I’d been considering picking up. “We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves,” by Karen Joy Fowler about a child raised alongside a chimp as part of a psychology experiment sounded intriguing.

131202_SBR_NecessaryErrors_COVER.jpg.CROP.original-originalAnd then I was very surprised to see a book I’d read and which I’d found thoroughly unimpressive. David Haglund wrote in praise of “Necessary Errors,” a novel by  Caleb Crain and I was curious what he liked about a novel I’d found so mediocre.

Having moved to Prague in 2003, two months after graduation to teach English, I was the target demographic for this coming-of-age story set in post revolution Prague, and following the mild adventures of a recent college grad who moves to Prague in 1989 to teach English.

And at first, I dug the book.  Crain perfectly captures the feeling of living in Prague months removed from college.  The sense that you are truly experiencing life, that you’ve taken a significant and worthwhile risk by moving so far from home, but combined with a dreading feeling that you are spinning your wheels, while peers back home move on with graduate school and careers.  There is the magic of seeing a city with centuries of history become your home; and the loneliness of knowing you’ll always be a foreigner to the Czechs. Read more »

‘How the Barren Cling to the Fertile’

6878937100_a74e91d513_cI got really excited about this library book my dad handed me a week or so ago. First, because the cover was really pretty and dreamy, and then because I liked the title, and after that because it claimed to be all about ghost towns and deserts and Nevada brothels and then something to do with the author’s father being connected to Charles Manson?

This book must have been written for me as a Welcome Back to the States present, I thought.

And I’m still thinking that. Because now that I’ve read Battleborn by Claire Vaye Watkins, I feel like I’m in good company as a writer. And also like I want to take a long, long drive through the desert and see what kinds of empty spaces come to meet me.

Watkins plays with time in a musical, imagistic way. She renders desert-worlds from the 1850s to the 1960s til now, sometimes all in the same story. She keeps the reader afloat in a strong net of place and neighborhood and memory. In the first story, “Ghosts, Cowboys,” the passing detail of a cat that ran away when the owner moved, returns later as “a tiny bleached skull in the hills above his cabin…’picked clean by  coyotes.'”

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ian curtis is dead. long live ian curtis.

peter hook performs at the double door, 9/15/13 - photo © alejandra guerrero (

peter hook performs at the double door, 9/15/13 – photo © alejandra guerrero (

i’ve long felt that “regret” is an incredibly powerful word, one not to be trotted out lightly.  you can be disappointed that you sounded like an idiot, stumbling over your words, while trying to talk to your own personal hero, live in the flesh.  you can even be ashamed at your lack of courage, quietly enduring disrespect only to silently berate everyone (including yourself) after the fact.  but you can learn from those things & move on & become a better/worse/not-really-all-that-different person for it.  regret, though.  regret is like begging a genie from a magic lamp to let you go back & profoundly redirect the course of your life.  regret is the thing you’d probably feel after suicide if you were still capable of feeling.  regret you save for the heavy shit.

you regret not being honest about how you felt & telling that girl that, yes, of course, you loved her.  you regret going through four years of college (and even more years after graduation), reading all those goddamn books and not making the cognitive leap that, hey, you’ve always been a pretty decent writer, and, well, maybe you should try writing something like all those books you love so fucking much.

so it might be a bit of a stretch to say, now, i regret assuming that some late night rock show would start well after the posted start time, like they always do—except for this time, when it didn’t.  this time being when peter hook & the light brought their “movement/power, corruption & lies” tour to a tiny club in chicago at 11pm on a september sunday.  it might be a stretch to say i regret not showing up until almost 11:30.  but then again, maybe not such a huge leap after all.

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