Review of American Athenaeum’s Winter Issue: The Understanders

My editor-in-chief sent this review to me a couple of days ago (I’ve been strangely internet-averse lately and so haven’t been as vigilant with my email-checking as I usually am). The author is David R. Matteri, who has some glowing things to say about the issue and AA as a whole.
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American Athenaeum invites you to step into their “museum of words” with their latest “Understanders” issue. Inspired by T.S. Elliot’s unwavering dedication to his craft in the face of stinging criticism, the editors dedicate this issue “to every artist who stays true to their art and vision amid the naysayers.”

Reading this issue really is like walking through a museum. The “Views from the Past” section features writing from across human history. There is poetry from Li Qingzhao and the Sixth Dalai Lama, and haiku from Matsuo Basho. Sojourner Truth and Henry David Thoreau speak of gender and the human impact on the environment in a pair of thoughtful essays. We even get a few laughs from the wickedly funny play “Philosophies for Sale” by Lucian of Samosata, a chapter from Hugh Lofting’s “The Story of Doctor Doolittle,” and James Kenneth Stephen’s poem “The Millennium”:

Will there never come a season
Which shall rid us from the curse
Of a prose which knows no reason
And an unmelodious verse:
When the world shall cease to wonder
At the genius of an Ass,
And a boy’s eccentric blunder
Shall not bring success to pass

It is this journal’s mission to bring together voices from the past and present, and there are plenty of strong contemporary writers here. For example, Ed Tasca shows us how the people involved in the trial of Socrates could have interacted if they had access to twitter in “If Plato Tweeted: A Techno Defense of Socrates.” The entire story is written in tweets as Plato tries to gather support for his beloved teacher. He does his best to defend Socrates in under 140 characters but is rebuffed at every step:

@Platothephilosopher
Meletus, you were the one who brought the charges against our great teacher. And all you care about is Glucosamine’s party?

@olympusrules_Meletus
Plato, my inbox is on overload! Give it a rest!

Plato’s frustration is confounded by the technology he uses. Not only do people disregard his arguments, but they also criticize his lack of technical savvy: @Aristophanes3xfestivalwinner says, “For Olympus’s sake, Plato learn how to tweet. All ur tweets are 2 long and don’t make sense.” The communication breakdown is parallel to our own dysfunctional internet debates. It is funny, but so close to the truth that it hurts.

Jacqueline West takes a leap into magical realism with her short story “Paper Dolls.” It is about a young woman living by herself in a big city. She works at a school, but does not interact with other people or get enough to eat. Loneliness and hunger permeate the story as the woman goes about her mundane life: “No one would have noticed, she knew, if she had folded herself into smaller and smaller shapes until she finally disappeared.” Out of this crushing loneliness comes the unexplainable urge to create a paper doll in her small apartment. Over time, this doll takes shape and an eerie, life-like personality. The woman starts to hear voices as her work progresses: “Hungry, they said. Hungry.” It would be unfair to tell you what happens next; let’s just say that the departure from the real world is sudden and shocking. Trust me; you have to read this for yourself.

Adriana Páramo takes us into the poverty-stricken heart of Kuwait in her essay “Cheesus, A Very Good God.” Sent to this oil-rich country as a teacher, Páramo goes on a quest to learn more about the mass of immigrants moving into the small sheikdom. She offers an extensive history of the country’s prosperity and shows how the multitude of jobs created by the booming oil industry attracted so many immigrants that the number of native Kuwaitis dropped to 37 percent of the population by 1995. Páramo witnesses the grinding poverty and abuse that came as a result of this mass migration by posing as a Christian missionary. However, Páramo also discovers that the missionaries she tags along with are just as capable of cruelty and ignorance as the apathetic Kuwaiti government. It is a tightly written essay loaded with gritty details of the horrendous living conditions the immigrants are forced to live under with the opulence of Kuwait City looming in the background:

The kitchen, a tiny windowless room of about ten-by-fifteen feet where, despite the lack of ventilation, ten propane cylinders were connected to ten small stoves with mismatched, amended hoses. The assemblage more so resembled a grade-school science project than a functional kitchen for grownups.

There is more to this issue than just solid prose and poetry. There are also reviews and historical essays, and there is a special section dedicated to authors promoting their latest books with stories that reveal their creative processes.American Athenaeum is a rich journal with plenty of jewels to offer. With that said, I’ll leave you with one more jewel from Editor Heidi Parton: “Reading opens us up to a larger community—however remote in space and time—that is always there, and through it we realize that we are never truly alone.”
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You can view the original post (and check out more lit mag reviews) here.

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