Marcus Burke-- In high school the wrestling team practiced on the other end of the field house and it was a regular occurrence to glance down the gym and see a wrestler hugging a trash can throwing up or to see a sign on the gym door warning us to stay away from the wrestling mats because of an outbreak of MRSA or Impetigo. Being slightly horrified of these skin conditions, I headed those warnings and stayed away, but Gabe Habash gives readers a convincing glimpse into the head of a hardnosed obsessive athlete. As a former division three college basketball player I’m often asked about writing and how it compares to basketball and my first thought is that in both endeavors you’ll need to be pretty obsessed with what you’re doing and also be okay with spending a lot of time alone and be able to deal with all the strange habits developed in that alone time, and these three things are captured incredibly well in Stephen Florida by Gabe Habash. Division three athletes know that for the most part they’re not going to be pro’s and are mostly playing for the love of the game, though, there’s always an exception to the rule. There’s always that extreme guy on the team that hasn’t considered many other facets of his/her life besides being an athlete and Stephen Florida would be that teammate.
We follow Stephen through his senior year of college as he quests after his last opportunity to win a division four championship and his take no prisoners approach in doing so. In Stephen’s pursuit of championship glory, he pushes away the few people that care for him as he’s must accustom to caring about wrestling. As I read this book I felt like I’d met several Stephen Florida’s while I was still in my playing days. What I most enjoy about this book is seeing Stephen blindsided by the reality that he would have to find something else to do with his life the following year, regardless of the outcome of his wrestling season. There’s a fine line between being crazy and the pursuit of being great and Stephen Florida walks this line well.
Katherine Towler-- Sherman Alexie’s powerful memoir You Don’t Have to Say You Love Me (Little, Brown, 2017) is as much a record of excavation as it is a narrative. Alexie circles again and again around the death of his mother from lung cancer, each time looking for new understanding, each time exploring another facet of his grief and culpability in their failed relationship. “This mourning has become a relentless production/And I’ve got seventy-eight roles to play” he writes in one of the poems that make up almost half the book. Alexie is brutally honest about the love and hate he feels simultaneously for his mother as he struggles toward a clearer view of her and himself. A powerful woman who was one of the last speakers of Salish, the Spokane/Coeur d’Alene tribe’s language, she was also neglectful and abusive. Like Alexie, she was a product of the systematic racism practiced against generations of Native Americans, something he reports not as an excuse but as simple fact. He chronicles this inheritance in unflinching terms, revealing the extreme poverty of life on the reservation, the alcoholism of both his parents, and his mother’s untreated bipolar disorder, from which he also suffers. The unorthodox structure of this book – short, episodic chapters interspersed with poetry – becomes hypnotic, an incantation that reflects the inability of those whose cultures and families have been destroyed to create a coherent narrative of their lives. In the end, though, this is not a book that rests on blame, and that is Alexie’s triumph. It is a searing confrontation of hard truths and a celebration of survival.
Amy Irvine-- After a summer of reading for research (Eurasian burial mounds preserved in permafrost) and reading with my middle school daughter (Judy Blume, on bras and wet dreams), I tumbled into The Book of Joan, by Lidia Yuknavitch. This is dystopia at its best—the eco-fem dirge of The Handmaid’s Tale meets the visceral requiem of The Road. Chelsea Gain calls Joan “transgressive and badass and nervy and transformational… a Katniss Everdeen for grown-ups,” and I agree, except you could hate science-fiction and still fall in love with this book, purely for the prose that is exquisitely, fiercely, poetically carnal. This is also a book that—while looking ahead to a time when both earth and humans are hopelessly neutered and our skin is the last place to carve out, literally, a story—has the rearview mirror trained on a Saint who wielded both sword and faith in a way that still sets souls ablaze. Meaning the passion of mystics persists—even when all other human traits dry up and blow into a sky that has become a swansong. When future students say, “I wanna write sci-fi” this is what I’ll point to and say “Pastiche this!”