NewPages Book Reviews


Posted September 1, 2012

A Map of the Lost World :: The Time of Quarantine :: Intimate :: The World of a Few Minutes Ago :: Forms of Feelings :: Sea and Fog :: The House of Jasmine :: Journey to the Sun :: Two, Two, Lily-White Boys :: The Diesel :: The Black Forest :: The Russian Writer's Daughter :: Bonsai

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A Map of the Lost World by Rick Hilles coverA Map of the Lost World

Poetry by Rick Hilles

University of Pittsburgh Press, January 2012

ISBN-13: 978-0-8229-6182-6

Paperback: 82pp; $15.95

Review by Lydia Pyne

A Map of the Lost World is literary blending of history and poetry through lyricism, realism, and, it would seem, an almost empathetic touch of irony that leaves the reader caught between literary landscape planes. The book is comprised of five parts (each of the parts and each of the poems, by the way, with utterly fantastic titles) that do not necessarily work to frame a specific narrative whole, yet they nevertheless contribute to A Map of the Lost World in specific ways. What author Rick Hilles does, then, is weave together the particular commonalities between these parts: unexpected geographies, small moments, specific people, connected anecdotes, stories, transliterated language. The real literary strength of Hilles’s writing comes from his broad familiarity with historical themes and his ability to connect individuals—and his readers—to those themes.

Unquestionably, the strongest piece that appears in A Map of the Lost World is “The Red Scarf & the Black Briefcase,” which Hilles describes as being written in the voice of Lisa Fittko, a World War II Jewish Resistance fighter. Drawing material from her two memoirs, Hilles sketches the 1940 flight of the German Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin and his “Black Briefcase.” After Fittko leads Benjamin through the Pyrenees and safely to Spain, he is arrested by Spanish authorities and (apparently) commits suicide. Fittko comforts herself, however, that the black briefcase has made it safely to its destination—only to be told that it was never received:

It’s easy enough to romanticize the contents
of Benjamin’s black briefcase. What I recall most
about the weather-beaten bag? It had the mind
of a goat and the heft of a friar passed out on
communion wine, impervious to our best efforts
to assure its safety. I remember the black case
becoming heavier and heavier in our ascent, as if
its owner were mentally adding pages as we scaled
our way to the Spanish coast. Behind us, to the North,
la Côte Vermeille
, Vermillion Coast, of Catalonia’s
innumerable yellow-golds and reds.
I’d never seen such beauty; I gasped. It seemed
unfair to have to turn back to occupied France
while der alte Benjamin and his entourage departed
for what we hoped would be their lasting escape.

The loss of this bag—poetically, the loss of Benjamin as a philosopher—was what Hilles quotes Bertolt Brecht as calling “the first real blow that Hitler had dealt German letters.” We, as readers, see Hilles building a complex and brilliantly multi-layered symbolic character and object.

We also see the poignant parallelism in Lisa Fittko’s “Red Scarf”—where she flaunts her red scarf as a symbol of her Resistance and steadfastness in her cause. The red scarf slowly morphs into her character counterpart to the black briefcase:

Sometimes my memory puzzles me. It conjures
a red blouse on a clothesline, opening in the wind.
The fluted, Corinthian columns of the arms come alive
    like a sleepwalker almost waking
from an unbearable dream. The breeze breathes through
    the well-worn, translucent satin,
flexing and releasing.

Both characters wear their symbols—they are their own symbols; they become inseparable from them—and the author’s fluidity with language and transliteration pulls the reader into their story and history. Through the story of Lisa Fittko and Walter Benjamin, set broadly within that of World War II, Rick Hilles is able to write carefully, specifically, and compellingly about the relationship between history and the individual human condition.

At the end of A Map of the Lost World, Hilles includes notes and his thoughts about the context for the poems that are included with the collection. I would suggest reading these notes first, before the poems—or at least in parallel with the pieces. One’s understanding is deepened by the context. Although A Map of the Lost World does not stand out with particular coherence as a grouping of poems thematically or narratively, it does nevertheless work to infuse history with a literary sense. And, in the case of “The Red Scarf & the Black Briefcase,” we see Hilles’s brilliant talent for complex symbolism, parallelism, and a detached, almost ironic—yet empathetic—narrative voice.

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The Time of Quarantine by Katharine Haake coverThe Time of Quarantine

Fiction by Katharine Haake

What Books Press, March 2012

ISBN-13: 978-0-9845782-1-4

Paperback: 294pp; $15.00

Review by H. V. Cramond

With increasing frequency, well-meaning friends have been sending me articles that encourage me to stop worrying about the next generation and just have fun. It’s not that they think everything will turn out OK, but rather, that we’re so far gone, there’s nothing to be done. It seems that groups of climate scientists are predicting our demise with a specificity and immediacy that would make an old-timey cult leader blush. The Water Wars are coming: look busy.

It’s no surprise then, that in this polarized and rather hysterical national mood, stories about the end of days, of one man against a ruined world, hold particular resonance. The protagonist of Katharine Haake’s The Time of Quarantine, the sole survivor of an intentional community that sought to escape the world but was ravaged by disease, therefore faces a challenge the reader might have already imagined. Left on his own, will Peter follow his father’s rules, living safely among the hoarded rations and guarding the technology and culture passed on to him?

Shortly after my first read of Quarantine, I took a detour through What Our Speech Disrupts: Feminism and Creative Writing Theory. Like this earlier work of Haake’s, Quarantine seems less concerned with maintaining Peter’s received narrative of how the world actually got to this state than with what he has been instructed to forget:

What I want, your mother says, but you’re too young and tired now even to wonder why, is to be with my god and not worry about the far-off stuff, just get through the day and be grateful for its common beauties. All these people, I just want for them to be ok—to sleep and to dream like human beings to—all of them—the musicians and gardeners and mathematicians and teachers and seamstresses and fishers and storytellers and pharmacists and archaeologists and librarians and rodeo riders—to sleep and then to wake, just like you and me, in the light, with the birds and the music.
Well, your father doesn’t think so, but a day will come when we have to do what they do and die.

Memories of his mother, who was not willing to give up on the world even to be with her son, who fought against the marvelous technology his father implanted to suit Peter’s brain to the new environment, intrude. As he comes into adulthood, Peter seeks to understand the world with a fullness unavailable to either of his parents, gathering with him a group of like-minded misfits: a poet who viewed the world from the high-rise her parents got to protect her; a court reporter who, like Peter, is intrinsically and surgically adapted to the new world; and a mathematician who escapes from a Gilligan’s Island-like futurology seminar.

The reader seeking something solid to grasp onto may be disappointed in the piling up of constantly shifting perspectives and the long meandering poetry of Haake’s sentences. Lyda, the poet, as she sees the world shift before her, exclaims: “This is what language would look like if language had a body.” The reader is thrust into a world of people trying to understand that world, and their fragmentary vision is ours. Ultimately, Haake’s language is an expression of desire, of choosing, but not of naming, and the world of Quarantine rises to meet it. Reality is elusive, but what remains is the feeling of bodies “huddled hip-to-hip, on the concrete floor . . . exchanging confidences. . . . Keep talking, Lyda thinks, Oh keep talking.”

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Intimate coverIntimate

An American Family Photo Album

Nonfiction by Paisley Rekdal

Tupelo Press, April 2011

ISBN-13: 978-1932195965

Paperback: 300pp; $19.95

Review by Courtney McDermott

Paisley Rekdal’s artistic book Intimate may be, at first glance, part of an indefinable genre. Flipping through its pages, one finds snippets of poetry, family stories, photos, and biographies. As the subtitle indicates, this is a textual and visual photo album of American family history. In her book, Rekdal challenges the definition of “American” family by examining race, lineage, and gender through the fictional biographies of Edward Curtis (a photographer of American Indians) and his translator, Alexander Upshaw, as well as scenes from Rekdal’s own life and the lives of her white father and Chinese mother. These biographies are interspersed with Curtis’s photographs and Rekdal’s poetry. She urges us to take accountability—not only for our dysfunctional family histories, but for the bloodied and prejudiced histories that belong to the American identity. Rekdal’s language is both delicate, and sharp—like a thin slice of glass cutting through our histories, our masquerades, our deceits.

Each character’s story is written with a different font in order to visually represent the complexity and layers of America’s own history through its many voices. As Rekdal reminds us, we stem from our history. Her poetry accompanies Curtis’s photos, offering her own interpretation of Curtis’s intent of photographing American Indians, what her interpretation is of the physical work, and our interpretation of events being brought to these photos. Just as Upshaw translates for Curtis, Curtis translates his ideas of American Indian culture, and Rekdal translates for her readers. This is a book of translation—of events, of photos, of biographical facts. Even with her own family, Rekdal tries to interpret her parents’ courtship and her father’s feelings about her mother’s illness, reminding us that history is constantly shifting; it is not static.

Rekdal’s narrative style is akin to prose poetry—lyrical, brief bursts that create a lush and interwoven literary fabric. She invites us to think of her poetry and art as a response to history—how we make sense of the complex, violent, muddy history that is so much a part of the American identity. Rekdal’s words come alive much like how the gold-tinting technique that Curtis used on his photos seemed to bring the images to life. As Rekdal so precisely writes, photos turn “people into events, events into documents,” yet she questions the authenticity of these documents. In one example, she targets the inauthentic nature of Curtis’s photos. When he photographed Indians, he removed modern objects from their homes, so that they looked “authentic,” according to his stereotypes. The varying accounts of white and Indian killings, battles, and revenges are always slightly out of focus. Who takes the photo (or who writes the account) is just as important as the subject of that photo.

The beauty of the book’s form is that it so perfectly marries the content—fragments of writing about fragments of history. One of the most poignant accounts that Rekdal records (and I use that term loosely, as many details are fictionalized in the work) is the story of Curtis’s attempts to record the various Indian languages. His attempts are merely that, because there is never enough time or space to record all of the languages in one man’s lifetime. No record will ever be complete, only snapshots will be left. And in Rekdal’s story, we are reminded that all of us survive only in fragments. Whereas the standard biography attempts to capture all of the moments of a year or several years or a lifetime, and thereby define what is significant, Rekdal immediately signals to us that no story will ever be complete, and she will not even attempt to try and dupe us into thinking so. She writes in segments, because segments are all we have.

Even Rekdal’s racial identity is segmented. In one lovely passage, she questions her mother about her racial identity. Am I Chinese? she wants to know. “A part of you,” replies her mother, but Rekdal is left thinking, which part? Even her identity is broken into parts, not whole and not seamless. This segmented identity helps her to relate to the biracial Alexander Upshaw, who fails to be fully accepted by either American Indians or whites.

This book is also very much about the role of photography in history, and one will want to return to its pages to try and reinterpret photos and the texts they accompany. “To photograph [this place] so beautifully is to insist on a formalism nothing else in life can match or answer”—though I would argue that Rekdal’s own art gets very close. Rekdal reminds us that our lives are built from history—the history of our forefathers and mothers, the history of our enemies, and the history of our neighbors.

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The World of a Few Minutes Ago by Jack Driscoll coverThe World of a Few Minutes Ago

Fiction by Jack Driscoll

Wayne State University Press, February 2012

ISBN-13: 978-0-8143-3612-0

Paperback: 173pp; $18.95

Review by Olive Mullet

Jack Driscoll’s short story collection The World of a Few Minutes Ago reflects Michigan’s weather, concentrates on mostly blue-collar workers and trailer inhabitants, and offers a mostly masculine voice but also a beautiful lyrical style, describing the beauty of stars as well as perfectly capturing the lives of his characters and their personality clashes. His story structure is meticulous and convoluted as we twist from the characters’ sad hard lives toward a resolution of acceptance and sometimes release.

The ten stories sometimes repeat themes—male friendships, low paying jobs, and tender older marriages. Each tale is engaging: Within a loving relationship, the manic wife gets the couple into trouble searching for ever more daring items to steal. A whistleblower slaughterhouse worker must leave town with his family. A macho older hunter, foolishly without a safety harness, falls from his blind and relives his cruelty to his homosexual son. And as part of a 70-year-old couple, a wife suffers from Alzheimer’s while her husband remembers his infidelities as a photojournalist covering wars and executions.

The exact locations in Michigan (only a few are mentioned: Grand Forks, Carp Lake, Sault Sainte Marie, Grayling) are not important. Rather, it is Michigan as a whole that Driscoll knows:

Another day of sunshine and stretches of snow, weather unable to make up its mind . . . only three seasons in northern Michigan: July, August, and winter . . . a sunlit cloudburst of snow turned everything bright white, a Michigan squall . . . wind-whipped road conditions, the shell-sculpted drifts and the whiteouts . . . the all-wheel-drive Subaru floating ghostlike over those treacherous patches of hidden black ice . . . the stone-white sky above those woods . . . the silver light of the star-lanes shines so luminescent you can see the shadows and the silhouettes of deer moving through . . . whenever a cloudbank in a particular shape rolls in, I imagine snowcapped peaks.

Even when it is a woman’s perspective (only twice in the collection) the rough background is identical to the man’s. Most of the lives can be captured in this quote from “The Season of Mercy”:

Prosperity in these parts meant hitting the lotto, and he’d spent plenty trying, playing, week after week, variations on that same unlucky combination of our three birthdays. My mom had forgotten to take in the laundry . . . all of his ankle-length white aprons hanging on the line, one for each working day. I didn’t say so, but they looked like ghost torsos, bleached and slightly billowy from the breeze, and nothing but darkness underfoot.

The young daughter Geneva speaks of her trailer home:

Home is always empty and cold, all pipey with clanks so loud the entire trailer park sounds as though it were freezing solid, with the bare bulbs dimming in their thin copper sockets and every battery in every beater exploding like hand grenades under the hoods. . . . [Of] the house lights, their faint radiance diminishing and pulsing she thinks of candles, and then of someone slowly flicking through signed-off TV channels—that static she sometimes wakes to, like the soft shaking of castanets, and finds her mom, still wearing her waitress uniform, passed out cold on the couch.

In the midst of these hardscrabble lives, the beautiful stars (especially the Corona Borealis) are a frequent image:

Some nights it was so bright I’d turn off my headlight, the giant sprocket of the stars seeming to tumble toward me . . . the nocturnal world in a perpetual slow-motion freefall that never actually fell. And like a certain recurring dream . . . of leaping over buses and railroad cars, suspended above the town like E.T., a diehard sky rider silhouetted against the full moon.

The messages may be “nothing will ever, ever last” or “the dangerous lay of the land, the self-destructive addictions of women and men,” or “my three flings, each short-lived—but then again, what doesn’t seem so anymore?” But these people are resilient. In “This Season of Mercy,” for example, Driscoll’s structure leads to an unexpected resolution. The story opens with a father dressed like a prostitute spending the night in jail. The embarrassing morphs into real fear for this threatened long-time slaughterhouse worker. Much later we learn the reason why. The consequence is that the family, who have never been out of Michigan, must leave the only house they’ve known—but with a kiss and a feeling of grace.

This beautifully written collection will resonate with all, but especially with Michigan readers.

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Forms of Feeling: Poetry in Our Lives by John Morgan coverForms of Feeling

Poetry in Our Lives

Nonfiction by John Morgan

Salmon Poetry, June 2012

ISBN-13: 978-1-907056-91-8

Paperback: 166pp; $21.95

Review by Cheryl Wright-Watkins

This book is ostensibly an essay collection, but poet and creative writing teacher John Morgan has also filled the pages with poems, biographical information, journal entries, book reviews, interviews, and reading and writing instruction. These various elements within the same volume combine to create an intimate portrait of the poet and his spirituality, teaching methods, family life, writing practice, and interactions with nature and place.

Morgan’s credentials include a BA from Harvard, where he studied with Robert Lowell, an MFA from the Iowa Writers Workshop, and several prestigious literary awards and fellowships; however, despite his impressive accomplishments, Morgan frequently reveals his humility, exalting the book’s veracity and the writer’s authority. For instance, in the essay “Why I Am Not a Novelist,” in which he explains his arrival at poetry after two failed attempts to write novels: “You see before you no superhero—just an ordinary, striving, fatherly, husbandly figure, trying somewhat bumblingly to make his way.”

In this expansive portrayal of a poet, his life, and his work, the reader understands that for Morgan, poetry is a way of life. He reveals how writing poetry has helped him emotionally deal with several difficult events, including his wife’s miscarriage. He includes three of the twenty-four sonnets he wrote in response to his son’s sudden, serious, chronic illness to demonstrate the “true sonnet feel of powerful emotions being controlled by form.” He explains his affinity for poetry: “Poems are like messages in bottles hurled into the sea from a cliff and we may never know when one reaches some distant shore and is taken into a reader’s heart.”

Morgan shows a number of his poems in various stages of revision, explaining in detail how and why he made particular changes. He generously shares his philosophy about poetry and includes detailed accounts of his writing process, quoting classic and modern poets as well as his own original work. As a bonus, he suggests several writing exercises.

One of the most instructive essays is a close reading exercise. The essay opens with William Stafford’s poem “Traveling Through the Dark,” which Morgan recommends reading several times before beginning the exercise—a reading guide composed of twelve questions, followed by Morgan’s expansive answers to these questions. These questions encourage the reader to examine word choices, tone, mood, sensory details. I’ve never studied poetry, but I found this exercise helpful to my creative nonfiction writing.

Morgan confesses that during the four years he spent writing his failed novels, he took LSD on two occasions, the second time two weeks after the first. He describes the experiences in explicit, agonizing detail—the terror, hallucinations, physical collapse, and the fear that his mind wouldn’t find its way back. This event becomes a metaphor for the shift in Morgan’s writing focus from novels and fiction to poetry: he converts a short story to a poem, finding his way back, as his mind found its way back from the LSD trip, to the practice of poetry.

Morgan’s letters and journal entries chronicle his journey from his childhood in a Jewish family in New York City to teacher of creative writing graduate students at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. Much of his writing focuses on his strong sense of place and his relationship with Alaska, demonstrated in the two book reviews—one on a book about the catastrophic Exxon-Valdez oil spill and the other on a collection of Koyukon Indian tales. Morgan ends the book with a passage about the importance of place, “the most profound use of which is as a metaphor for the self in its deepest, meditative self-knowing. All places used in this way are mythological and reach between people, across decades, across continents.”

This unique book appeals to a diverse audience. Writers of all genres will find the book informative and instructive as well as entertaining.

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Sea and Fog by Etel Adnan coverSea and Fog

Poetry by Etel Adnan

Nightboat Books, January 2012

ISBN-13: 978-0-9844598-7-2

Paperback: 118pp; $15.95

Review by Patrick James Dunagan

In the morning as I walk to work down the streets of San Francisco and the endless movement of fog and wind brings the crisp salt air in from off the bay water, setting it to swirling about the buildings and sidewalk, I’m oftentimes reminded of how much this really is a beach town. Etel Adnan’s Sea and Fog is an extended series of lyric meditations contemplating human desire, loss, war, art, and much more through the lens of writing towards this landscape, though Adnan’s own daily observations take place from her home in Sausalito across the bay. In these definitely ordered, yet infinitely variable, short prose-blocks, consciousness is fully immersed in the act of writing as motifs and concerns overlap and reoccur. There’s guiding awareness that “here,” wherever we may find ourselves, remains a definitive spot in observable time: “There’s a moment to the moment. We’re in the world.”

Adnan’s soundings of the natural event phenomena named in her book’s title urge both herself and the reader to not allow anything in our experiencing of them to slip by and/or be taken for granted:

The sea is to be seen. See the sea. Wait. Do not hurry. Do not run to her. Wait, she says. Or I say. See the sea. Look at her using your eyes. Open them, those eyes that will close one day when you won’t be standing. You will be flat, like her, but she will be alive. Therefore look at her while you can. Let your eyes tire and burn. Let them suffer. Keep them open like one does at midday. Don’t worry. Other eyes within will take over and go on seeing her. They will not search for forms or seek divine presence. They will rather continue to see water which stirs and shouts, becomes ice in the North, vapor in the tropics.

The churning mass of water which encircles our planet is one entity, an event to be taken as a whole in and of itself. Whether you’re standing beside the Pacific or the Mediterranean, you’d best notice the specifics of the thing in front of you. Recognize how large an encounter you’re in the midst of witnessing. Don’t reach for any meaning or recognition beyond the surge and splash about you: listen in.

Habits of writing and reading come and go much like the fog; they may be measured out, extended or contracted, played with and chased down for our own means yet are never fully mastered or utterly finished with. Adnan goes in search of what informs the forms she’s utilizing:

We write in silence. Something feints on each page. How to apprehend any person? How to make sure that seeing anything is not seeing oneself? How to forego one’s self without losing that miserable self? What would perpetual revelation be?

Questions without answers are embraced. Easily sat with and dwelled upon, then returned to again, to be enfolded about with thought and feeling. Adnan isn’t offering up easily consumed assessments of life’s purpose for guidance, spiritual or otherwise. Her probing investigative riffs refuse be budged away from dogged pursuit of where the subject leads: “All kinds of diseases inhabit our solitude. Some people witness their soul’s death before dying. That’s an apocalyptic event, a private eclipse.” Adnan is one with her writing: “Only in the fog do I feel complete.”

The book has been arranged in two sets: “Sea” followed by “Fog” (which in turn closes the book with a shorter lyric-series “Conversations with My Soul,” a second set within the second set). Here in these “conversations” Adnan’s writing turns taut and intimate, addressing the hours the rest of the book has been consumed by:

in the nights of
   her absence
my body
  was waiting
    for her

And the reader, like the poet herself, moves into a space where such “waiting” is done (a space which is visually mirrored by the book’s cover art: a propulsive abstract painting by Adnan full of moody dark and light thick blues, blacks, and grey strokes of paint—the sky?—along the top), losing track of time, caught up in the eternal dimensions which are specific to the lyric moment:

The sea is not
 deep enough to
  contain the hour
that just went

Returning from the moments of our reading to our body’s physical place, we rise and move beyond Adnan’s book and enter (again) the world about us: with our experience at the ready for us to greet it.

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The House of Jasmine by Ibrahim Abdel Meguid coverThe House of Jasmine

Fiction by Ibrahim Abdel Meguid

Interlink Books, May 2012

Translated from the Arabic by Noha Radwan

ISBN-13: 978-1-56656-882-1

Paperback: 156pp; $15.00

Review by Olive Mullet

Egyptian prize-winning novelist Ibrahim Abdel Meguid’s The House of Jasmine, though set in the ‘70s during Anwar Sadat’s presidency, has a lot of resonance for Egypt’s current Arab Spring. Shagara, a low level employee of Alexandria’s shipyard, reflects in his own petty thievery the corruption not only of his shipyard administration, but that of the Sadat regime. As the translator Noha Radwan explains, this novella is “a story of deception and fraudulence, planned by a scheming administration and carried out by a disenchanted and dejected population.” Shagara redeems himself in the reader’s eye because of his love of beauty, his simple desires, and his own self-criticism.

Shagara is charged with taking workers to events when Sadat comes to town, the first of which is with President Nixon. Shagara withholds half the money promised the workers and bribes the bus drivers to keep quiet. In spite of this repeated thievery, no one complains, so insignificant is his crime in the midst of rampant corruption. His life is simple and mostly solitary, having only three friends who fall in together without knowing each other beforehand. He wants to marry but doesn’t know how to go about it. He has more to offer a bride than many he knows, having moved into a large apartment overlooking the harbor and having accrued enough ill-gotten gains. But he has also been cheated in this purchase of the apartment and can’t help but notice the deterioration of neighborhoods he knows. Even as an apolitical person, he is literally caught up in the huge 1977 revolt over the price of bread and other staples and becomes, albeit briefly, part of a purposeful mob:

I find myself forced to advance toward Sayyid Birsho and the flood of angry workers pouring down Maks Street. Traffic is blocked, and passengers stream out of the tram and stopped cars. The windows of the houses overlooking the street are thrown open, and faces of women and children appear in them. They’re repeating the slogans, and I too am chanting along with Sayyid Birsho.

His and his friends’ aimlessness is part of the populace feeling bewildered and alienated by surrounding events. In time his friends and he do move out of their ruts, some even out of the country. But throughout, Shagara loves his city and is romantic about women. The love of the city is evident from the start:

Alexandria is usually filled with bright light at this time of year, her sea stretching leisurely into the distance, while the windows of her houses open like a woman drying her hair in the sunlight, and the girls stroll cheerfully in the streets. . . . This little city is enchanted; she can rid herself of her garbage even when the garbage collectors and street sweepers don’t appear on her streets. It’s as if she had an agreement with secret ghosts to keep her beautiful.

He is drawn to a beautiful House of Jasmine near his neighborhood—from the garden smells of jasmine and from a beautiful woman’s smiling face in one of the windows. The owner has beautiful daughters, but the only time they are seen is when a taxi draws up and the bride steps out. These events are like Sadat’s flash visits to Alexandria. Eventually the house declines like Sadat’s era:

I saw the house of jasmine was completely dark. No sweet scent met my nose anymore. The flowers were wilted, and leaves on the trees were dry and dusty and many of them had fallen to the street, where they crackled under my feet. . . . On the walls . . . the paint was peeling and moisture had left several large stains, and I saw a ferret climbing upward.

Another romantic venture involves recognizing a girl smiling at him on the bus and going back to his childhood home to find her, only to discover his home is now called “the shelters” where the poor live. The childhood sweetheart, of course, is married and had expected no more than his returning her smile.

The descriptions are so vivid, the details so intimate, that the reader feels he is in the scene. But also the picture one gets of the Sadat era is absolutely counter to what Americans expect or know. Sadat dismissed his people’s complaints as an “uprising of thieves” (perhaps suggested here in Shagara’s petty thievery, which was initially a matter of survival). As the translator says, “The Sadat era was the precursor of Mubarak’s rule,” the 1977 revolt like 2011’s Tahrir Square revolutionaries.

In The House of Jasmine, readers will find not just beautiful writing, well-defined characters, and humor, but also a valuable perspective we need to know.

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Journey to the Sun by Brent Cunningham coverJourney to the Sun

Poetry by Brent Cunningham

Atelos, January 2012

ISBN-13: 978-1891190353

Paperback: 120pp; $13.50

Review by Trena Machado

In Journey to the Sun, the author tells of his travels at age thirteen to the “Source of All Life.” The book is difficult to categorize; no ready vessel of satire, political tract, manifesto, spoof, spoken word will corral it, but there is shouting, exuberance, spontaneity of energetic discovery in short narrative phrases: OK!, alight! alight!, Gold & Heat & Progress for all! 4x4x4!, you are not the FIRST!, you are not even the TRILLIONTH!, this is AMERICA!, Double Slash Zero! The human VOICE is heard in this writing. The book begins with an Invocation:

to mention you first
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 
no other power could have
made me this consistent
it’s clear you make
a lot of things happen
the plants flower
& the rains rain

Then, in the first three pages, the journey has been made to the sun and back:

I saw, I lived, I came back
desperate to hold
my green green land
to run to its lakes
& cry at nothing

A thirteen year old, one foot in childhood, one foot into the adult world, the cusp that we will always remember, the knowing that we know . . . and from there we are on our journey: the sun, source of life out there, the sun, the self within, both far, far away. There are years of observing, hunting and missteps in between until we speak to our self:

so, yes, now I could see
both where I was going
& what I had to do
(to the SUN!)
& No-one had ever told me

Cunningham’s repeated use of being guided from within (“you KNOW because you know—”) points at the innate capacity of self-knowledge, making choices and keeping in touch of knowing that we know. We evolved out of onslaught:

that we have learned & fought
& built glass residencies
& out-smarted apes & pufferfish
comets & draughts & killer bees
& meanwhile endured the snows
of five tri-million winters

Then, a continuation on to today of a harsh commercial and political culture:

first that our minds
must abridge & sum
& in doing so CRUSH
all delicates & weirdos
up to one trillion exclusions
or, no, 40 trillion
or, no, 40 trillinium
in even the barest spot

The voice of the poet calls us to recognize the poet within, “each soul having & hearing.” The underpinning of our civilization is out on the thin limb of rationality. Logic breaks apart on the reef of definition and cannot help us: “If we define ‘things’ as whatever things sound can travel through, then light cannot be a thing. / But it must be a thing, since it can’t be a quality. / There is a deep problem in our idea of things and qualities.” Nor is there a solution. Cunningham ends with the journey “is” the journey, the poets and “idiotes,” those willing to take the risk and know they know “& cry at nothing”:

it only WORKS
in Poetry
& not even that

The solo ego reaches maturity with being able to connect with earth: “Every-thing we needed / was back there—” The LOUD language, enthusiastic for life, not merely residing on the page, lets us feel the journey. A poet is the one who communicates about our inner voice that knows it knows: our one real thing.

Postscript: Worthy of note is the book cover’s design, front and back: the non-mechanical contraption of geometry, powered by crystal clusters, housing numbers, shapes, with a few escaping loose arcs carrying a tiny human figure towards the sun, the Source of Everything.

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Two, Two Lily-White Boys by Geoffrey Clark coverTwo, Two, Lily-White Boys

Fiction by Geoffrey Clark

Red Hen Press, September 2012

ISBN-13: 978-1-59709-227-2

Paperback: 144pp; $16.95

Review by Ryan Wilson

Nostalgia, a common pitfall for many fiction writers, works purposefully in Geoffrey Clark’s Two, Two, Lily-White Boys, a risky, old-fashioned themed novel that takes aim at the usual sentimental tropes: adolescence, sex, innocence, apathy.

As if daring readers to give up early, Clark’s protagonist, 14-year-old Larry Carstairs, learns his lessons at a Boy Scout Camp. Boy Scout Camp! Also, the year is 1953. 1953! It’s almost as if Clark wants his reader to conjure some unpainted or lost Norman Rockwell classic in his prose.

The novel is slow to develop with a meticulous “gee-whiz look at that” narration. Larry reveals camp life as if he’s a novice, even though he’s been there before. Yet there are some insights that very much capture the adolescent mind: “I’d been thinking about the guy who got away with blowing a fart at mess, trying to figure out if I admired him. I guessed I did.”

Bursting Larry’s simple thought balloons is Curly, his sociopath bunkmate, who consistently lies about his past and what he values. But Curly’s chief preoccupation is deducing who at camp might be “a queer.” He tells far too many “queer jokes,” so many that his own sexuality becomes a part of his mystery.

Rather one-dimensional in his rendering, Curly is also said to be a charmer by both the scouts and the adults, though we see little evidence of this in his dialogue or conversation with Larry. In fact he’s depicted more as an extroverted bully, even if Larry is too unworldly to deduce this for himself. Curly is, however, intelligent enough to paraphrase Chekhov and confirm that he is an atheist, traits that intrigue Larry all the more.

Clark’s somewhat plodding story improves significantly after Curly takes an interest in Andy, an effeminate scout interested in acting. The eventual, predictable tragedy and Curly’s role in it baffle Larry (and consequently the reader), mainly because Curly appears so nonchalant about his own obvious involvement. Furthermore, he threatens to shift his blame onto Larry, but just as quickly wants to befriend him again.

Here the age and inexperience of Larry’s narration is of maximum use, as he must decide whether to pursue justice or retreat back into childhood. Clark makes the right choice for Larry, painting the portrait of someone still too unsullied to face true conflict. This is paralleled with his first sexual experience, which happens immediately after camp has ended.

Sex, as always, clarifies, and Larry is left contemplating the very adult role of ambiguity in life, a favorite subject with Curly, who we ultimately learn has just been playing a part, making him all the more inexplicable:

A shooting star streaks across the western sky but its bright finger of white light is extinguished before I can properly register it. I forgot to make a wish. Probably just as well, I wouldn’t have known what to wish for anyhow, beyond hoping that things will turn out okay for most everyone.

Larry’s vague hope here plants him back into childhood, as he’s not ready to clarify his desire yet, but his admission that he doesn’t know what to wish for is proof of his burgeoning maturation.

The summer, as it always does, has changed a boy forever. But Clark’s subtle work with Larry and Curly adds a deeper layer of ambiguity to the always wooly, always dependable “coming of age” tale.

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The Diesel coverThe Diesel

Fiction by Thani Al-Suwaidi

Translated from the Arabic by William M. Hutchins

Antibookclub, July 2012

ISBN-13: 978-0-9838683-1-6

Paperback: 88pp; $15.00

Review by H. V. Cramond

First published in Beirut in the mid-90s, Thani Al-Suwaidi’s The Diesel was labeled a “shock-novel” by early critics; this novella’s protagonist shifts gender identity and moves in a world of desire that spans not only the range of hetero- and homosexual yearnings, but stretches to encompass the sea and the sun. The book has since gained acceptance, and, according to translator William M. Hutchins, Al-Suwaidi has become an important Emirati author. As the United States continues to awaken from cultural isolationism and its political activists are inspired by uprisings in the Gulf region, this important translation is more relevant to English-speaking audiences now than when the book was first written.

Hutchins’ scholarly introduction comprises the first third of the book and seeks to provide a context for what follows. Through his inclusion of media coverage, scholarly discussion, and his own work insights on literature in Arabic, Hutchins describes literary precedents that are more open to sexual variety than a Western audience might imagine. Hutchins also places The Diesel in a storytelling tradition where the novel is only a recent development. Storytelling, like the world in this novella, is caught between a mythic, pre-Islamic past and the consumer-driven, linear culture that craves clean lines and an easy answer.

Much of the scandal surrounding the book has to do with the often violent sexual themes and the gender fluidity of the protagonist, who takes on the name the Diesel. NPR reviewer Alan Chuese calls the Diesel a djinn, a demon who bubbled up from the oil beneath the Emirates, born with the body of a man and the soul of a woman. It is easy enough to name this character transgender and not-human but these labels limit possibilities. The author is a poet: his language seems to complicate rather than answer questions about boundaries.

The Diesel, after sexual trauma in a mosque “spare[s him] making choices that otherwise would have eventually confronted [him],” decides “to configure this body in a novel fashion to return the man to his original memory.” Dancing among the women, the Diesel declares: “I felt for the first time that I possessed a woman’s body and would no longer be able to resist this feminine force.” Body, not mind or soul. Time and methodology are unclear (and probably unimportant), but it seems that at one point, the body shifts to match the woman’s soul inside of it.

Yet, the Diesel is drawn to women by “masculine desire” and once he becomes an unparalleled success as a performer, the Diesel states that he “understood why a man might have a stronger artistic instinct than a woman” and is referred to by masculine pronouns. It seems the Diesel has access to both masculinity and femininity, both inside and out. Later, the Diesel describes how his “all-woman” troupe “became the town’s kings, who could make it rejoice or weep.” Perhaps Hutchins chose the word kings instead of queens to convey a nuance about power. But power and gender are linked systems, and both demand a compliance undermined by the Diesel.

As his popularity grows, the Diesel’s performances cause marital chaos when the various scents of his male followers become indistinguishable:

[T]hey would return home carrying in their sandals sand clotted with sweat. The moment one of them entered his dwelling, his wife would know her husband had arrived. Frequently what happened, though, was that this smell of sweat and sand was so similar for all the men that any one of them could sleep with any woman in town, because she would think he was her husband.

When one man smells like another, and a man can also be a woman, where is order? The Diesel, it seems, comes to break down: “The town was suffering from dust that blanketed its face. Oh, how wretched people are when dust doesn’t enter their houses to rid their possessions of the lethal cleanliness they invite.” Yet the association of chaos with women is troubling.

To a woman upholding the existing social order, associated with fathers and mosques and worship of the virginal, the Diesel says, “So you are the way you are, a female who perfumes this day with her breaths and who receives the prayers of males to return males to their true nature and their origin . . . to woman.” Women are, in fact, among the most likable characters in the novella. It’s cool that women get to dance and sing, and that his sister thinks fish swimming around her menstrual blood means she gave birth to them; however, I’m not sure how the protagonist’s statement here is so different from the male character in Wide Sargasso Sea who sees maleness and Englishness as order, goodness, and reason but brown-womanness as undifferentiated matrix, as passive desire receptacle or evil stimulator. If the Diesel is, in fact, a supra-human being, he must know something more about the way the world works, and his dismissal of the conservative woman, his constant chasing of veiled dead-or-not-dead women seems to imply a natural alignment of women with nature and truth.

I like to think men are grown-ups, no more or less moral or natural than women, and that gender-essentialism, particularly the bit about women being the body and men being the mind, is part of what got us into this whole mess in the first place. I’m not saying that women’s hip shaking isn’t particularly striking, or that men don’t perpetuate the bulk of the sexual assault, but viewed through a lens other than realism, The Diesel offers other possibilities. Some reviews of the book seem to view the protagonist as a reliable narrator, privileging his narrative over others, and it’s true: many characters, including the muezzin, are mute through much of the novel.

But if a poet with one novel can be an important novelist, and oil can become embodied, then why can’t its sister really marry the sea? If men can become women, did women once become men? It’s more interesting to think that instead of a special, powerful creature, the Diesel might represent a more full view of human possibility, one that achieves fullness not by moving humans to one side of a line or another, but rather by paying attention to people instead of lines.

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The Black Forest by Christopher DeWeese coverThe Black Forest

Poetry by Christopher DeWeese

Octopus Books, March 2012

ISBN-13: 978-0-9801938-9-3

Paperback: 65pp; $12.00

Review by Sarah Carson

Christopher DeWeese’s The Black Forest is a book that falls into a family of highly imaginative, surreal, dream-like poetry collections that seem to be especially trendy lately. I’m certainly not complaining. Many of my favorite books of poetry fall into this family, like James Tate’s Return to the city of white donkeys and Zachary Schomburg’s The Man Suit.

It’s hard then not to compare DeWeese’s work to these writers, especially since a) The Black Forest is published by Schomburg’s own press, Octopus Books, and b) James Tate has blurbed the collection, saying, “These poems sock home truth and enact poetic somersaults that leave me out of breath.”

The work collected in The Black Forest is worthy of those comparisons. It’s not necessarily a book you can just open up and quickly make sense of, though I’m not sure you’re supposed to. In fact, as I read it, I wondered how much a reader is supposed to make much sense of at all. Describing it as dreamy or surreal or imaginative would be fair, except for the moments when it surprisingly becomes thoughtful and pensive. It is a collection full of twists and turns and leaps of logic. Some are exciting and profound, while others are a bit confusing—maybe intentionally.

The book is broken into three sections, “The Forest Fire,” “The Hidden Fire,” and “The Black Fire,” and I’d hoped for a natural progression through what seemed like a progressive metaphor. I did a little research and read an interview with Deweese, who says, “I wanted to make the book grow more interior as it progressed; for the nature of the reality the poems inhabit to cast longer shadows,” but I’m not so sure this is the case.

In any event, the lack of cohesion between the poems in each section doesn’t take away from the fact that there are quite a few imagistic gems in the collection. My personal favorite is “Poem for Secretary’s Day,” which begins:

Secretaries, today is your day
and all the phones are missing.
We lashed the desks together
and we’re turning on the faucets
and watching Waterworld
and ordering a pizza.

The collection is filled with boisterous proclamations such as these, like in “The Wizard,” which starts: “Where is my wand? / The snow is getting thick / and I want a dome to live in.” Or “Folksong,” which begs: “Tusk, don’t leave me withered / Spring, butter my skin.”

The book is not without its mournful, pensive moments. While some of those reach a bit, there are small moments where DeWeese seems to get right to the heart of the matter, as in this untitled piece:

Like a court-appointed mourner,
I sent plastic flowers
to the discount cemetery.
I found a pit over my heart, Arthur,
and I jumped mumbles
like important prayers,
birds when I imagined the distance
between who we used to be
and the voice I heard

Overall the collection is fun to read. It’s interesting. It’s punchy. Though I have to say, I’m still not entirely sure what all it means. If I had to come up with an analogy, I’d say it is what Twisted Sister is to Bob Dylan. It’s awesome, and I want to jump around to it, but what’s at the heart of it, I’m not sure.

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The Russian Writer's Daughter by Lyda Rosner coverThe Russian Writer’s Daughter

Stories of Growing Up American

Nonfiction by Lydia S. Rosner

Mayapple Press, February 2012

ISBN-13: 978-1-936419-10-4

Paperback: 104pp; $15.95

Review by Patricia Contino

Never judge a book by its title. The Russian Writer’s Daughter sounds like one of the far-too-many tragic family histories of life and creativity during the Soviet Union. And while Lydia Rosner is the daughter of Russian writer Abraham Sokolovsky (changed to Sokol upon immigrating to America in 1917), her accessible, thoughtful memoir is an American one, specifically a New York City one. She focuses on her own life and that of other Russians in the United States, at one point taking aim at another famous Russian writer’s daughter, Alexandra Tolstoy. Rosner and her father deride the charity Tolstoy founded and the White Russians (anti-Communist Russian immigrants) who take advantage of it as “fake.”

Dr. Rosner is an expert on city and family life. As Professor Emeritus of Sociology at John Jay Community College, City University of New York, her research concentrates on the Russian migration of Brooklyn’s Brighton Beach neighborhood and the Russian Mafia. The only thing she shares in common with her subjects is being Russian. Her family valued education and success gained by honest hard work. There are relatives who are doctors and among those she encounters are Paul Robeson (who visited her summer camp) and pianist Eugene Istomin (one of her aunt’s boarders, incorrectly identified in the book as marrying cellist Pablo Casals’s daughter, not his widow).

In The Russian Writer’s Daughter, Dr. Rosner covers her Depression-era childhood through her young adulthood in the 1950s. It will not be lost on readers familiar with Manhattan that she lived in what is now the prime and prized real estate of the Upper West Side. Heartfelt appreciation is given to her own family’s boarders who “took up [her] mother’s curiosity,” thus “allowing her own space and Americanized world.”

As she does regarding being Russian, Dr. Rosner never sentimentalizes gentrification. Kindergarten was a life lesson:

At P.S. 186 I entered an English-speaking world of admirable teachers who had to contend with the new America. Children who spoke Russian, Polish, French, German and Hungarian. All new to this country. All running from a European world that was going up in flames. 1939. 1940. Only the Negro kids, as we knew them then were American. But they too were refugees in their own country at that time.

Additionally, by cleverly inserting a description of the “UP” and “DOWN” staircases in school buildings, Dr. Rosner pays tribute to Bel Kaufman, the granddaughter of a Russian-Yiddish writer (Shalom Aleichem) who taught in the New York City public school system and authored her own still-potent, funny memoir.

And unlike the Old Country before, during and after the Revolution, Russian Orthodox Christians and Jews co-existed peacefully. Rosner’s family even goes as far as participating in Easter celebrations because her parents sought and received an “affiliation” with their heritage.

Yet her recollections are not all idyllic. Her parents discuss a rock-throwing incident (a possible bias crime) in Yiddish, “the language of secrets,” as not to upset her or her brother Alex. Abraham declined an invitation from Stalin to return to the Soviet Union; returning would have meant the Gulag or worse. Then, fearing arrest during the height of the McCarthy era (“Now we’re all Communists,” he laments), her father destroys a family heirloom: the inside of a trunk lovingly covered with American maps:

The inside of the trunk was a colorful assemblage of United States maps, available free at every gas station. Papa had pasted them down in such a way that no writing showed. There was not a bump or lump everywhere. The muted reds and greens and yellows of states and countries, intersected by green roadways and blue rivers, created an elegant lining that looked just like the expensive luggage on display in the windows of better Fifth Avenue leather stores.

It is this tender story, along with the many others Dr. Rosner relates, that makes The Russian Writer’s Daughter valuable.

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Bonsai coverBonsai

Fiction by Alejandro Zambra

Melville House, March 2012

Translated from the Spanish by Carolina De Robertis

ISBN: 978-1-61219-168-3

Paperback: 83pp; $13.00

Review by Olive Mullet

Chilean writer Alejandro Zambra’s first novel, Bonsai, for all its short length (83 pages), is easy to read, dense with events if not with explanations, and intriguing. The chapters are short, the prose clear but remote from the “characters,” who the author claims are not characters but only given names for convenience’s sake. He also tells us which characters are not important even though he gives information about them. Of necessity, the reader slides over these bewildering directives to get two main themes—lying and love. Overriding all is a love story between Emilia and Julio, who meet at age fifteen in a Spanish class.

We are told in the first paragraph that Emilia dies, and in the next chapter, when she died (at the age of thirty). Also in that first paragraph is the information that the couple had separated by that time. Yet the voice is wry about her death: “After turning thirty Emilia died, and so she no longer turned older because she began to be dead.” This goes along with one of the novel’s epigraphs, by Yasunari Kawabata: “Years passed, and the only person who didn’t change was the young woman in the book.” In other words, Emilia may have died, but she is immortalized in a book and is not forgotten.

Literature plays a notable part in this novel. Of all the affairs both Julio and Emilia subsequently have, theirs has the most details—such as the fact that they read famous writers to each other before lovemaking. And later Julio writes a novel, Bonsai, which is suggestive of their years-ago affair.

Their love was real: “Julio and Emilia managed to merge into a single kind of mass.” The secondary characters remain the same as always but not true with lovers: “What’s the purpose of being with someone if they don’t change your life? . . . Life only has purpose if you found someone who changed it, who destroyed your life.” Emilia presents this “dubious” theory as acknowledgement that pain exists with love. And Julio feels the same:

When Julio fell in love with Emilia all the pleasure and suffering previous to the pleasure and suffering that Emilia brought him turned into simple imitations of true pleasure and suffering.

Even after years of not seeing her, the novel’s last paragraph shows how deeply he feels her death when he finally hears about it. Hence the novel’s other epigram, from Gonzalo Millan: “Pain is a measured and detailed.”

Literature/writing is also part of the theme of lying. When Emilia and Julio are together, they lie to each other about having read Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. And later when Julio has an affair with his white-haired neighbor Maria, he claims that he is transcribing the novel of a famous writer, Gazmuri—but actually Julio was not hired because he wanted too much money. To cover the lie up even more, Julio writes a novel, which he claims is Gazmuri’s, and calls it Bonsai. He gives this novel to Maria when she leaves. Later we learn that Gazmuri’s actual book is titled Spares.

The bonsai is an intriguing image in the book. It starts as a short story, “Tantalia,” which Julio and Emilia read to each other and are affected by:

“Tantalia” is the story of a couple that decides to buy a small plant and keep it as a symbol of the love that unites them. They realize too late that if the plant dies, the love that unites them will die with it. And [so] . . . they decide to lose the little plant in a multitude of identical little plants. Later comes the despair, the misfortune of knowing they will never be able to find it.

Hence the many affairs afterwards, but the novel that Julio writes shows he has not forgotten. He even draws the tree on a precipice, and examines the meaning of the bonsai:

A bonsai is an artistic replica of a tree, in miniature. It consists of two elements: the living tree and the container. The two elements must be in harmony and the selection of the appropriate pot for a tree is almost an art form in itself. . . . The container is normally a flowerpot or an interesting chunk of rock. A bonsai is never called a bonsai tree. The word already includes the living element. Once outside its flowerpot, the tree ceases to be a bonsai.

So does this define their love as it has evolved, a stunted tree, a bonsai without its proper container? Such questions are among many in this intriguing novel, and its wry tone makes any answers less certain.

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