NewPages Book Reviews


Posted May 1, 2013

Let Me Clear My Throat :: So Recently Rent a World :: Ex-Boyfriend on Aisle 6 :: Beat Poetry :: The Heroin Chronicles :: Last Friends :: Elizabeth Bishop in Brazil and After :: The Dervish :: Bite :: The Sultan of Byzantium :: Poems :: Safe as Houses

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Let Me Clear My Throat CoverLet Me Clear My Throat

Nonfiction by Elena Passarello

Sarabande Books, October 2012

ISBN-13: 978-1936747450

Paperback: 240pp; $15.95

Review by Julie Swarstad Johnson

“Once the Voyager was loaded with its telemetry modulation units and spectrometers and radioisotope thermoelectric generators,” writes Elena Passarello in Let Me Clear My Throat, “we then made the decision to affix human voices to the contraption’s flanks.” This image of singing voices rocketed beyond the edges of our solar system vivifies Passarello’s major concerns in her debut essay collection. Here, she examines the human voice, what it represents and communicates, and the global cultures and historical periods that have highly valued it. In these lively, memorable essays, Passarello describes the voice in different settings, explains what the voice communicates, and awakens her readers to the voices surrounding them.

The fourteen essays in Let Me Clear My Throat consider a wide array of subjects, including the Voyager space probes, castrati singers, crows, Judy Garland, and Frank Sinatra. Research melds with rich description, re-imagined historical events, and moments remembered from Passarello’s life. Passarello’s experience as an actress adds depth to the collection: she considers the human voice not only as intellectual curiosity, but also as something she has sought to master, something that has eluded her control. Additionally, as the first woman to win the annual New Orleans Stella and Stanley Shouting Contest, Passarello has credentials as a practicing screamer.

Passarello’s research and experience benefit her writing, but the book also succeeds because of her accurate and lyrical descriptions. She explains Howard Dean’s 2004 campaign-trail vocal gaffe as “a one-second glissando from an impossibly high note down two full octaves to a flat, guttural trough, as long as a slide down sixteen keys of a baby grand.” She describes Brando’s “Stella” as close to the sound of a trombone “whose bell and slide had been run over by a streetcar.” And her portrayal of what the mouth does when pronouncing the words “rebel yell” marries well-chosen details with fresh writing:

When voiced, those consonants pool both air and tone in the front of the mouth. They are revved by the opening r, volleyed back by the b. The y boomerangs the last, perfect short e to the lips, and the low-growled double l coaxes it right back, cocking the mouth. The phrase has the same rhythm as themes from Mozart and the gallop of hoofbeats.

By yoking seemingly disparate topics within essays, Passarello achieves something new, opening up room for surprising connections. For instance, in “Please Hold,” a Jean Cocteau play comes together with computerized phone systems. Early in the essay, Passarello treats readers to a humorous transcription of herself pretending “to be a robot when I am on the phone with a robot that is pretending to be like me,” in which she writes: “‘OTHER SERVICES,’ I bellow, squishing the melody of my natural speech. ‘CAN-CEL. MY. OR-DER.’” Mere paragraphs later, she questions the psychological disturbance caused by regularly disconnecting our voices from our bodies via telephones and video cameras. This combination of levity and gravity adds emotional resonance to Passarello’s arguments.

Although Passarello’s humor enlivens these essays, she occasionally sacrifices precision to flashiness. Expressions such as “dictatorial hype-church surrounding Your Next President,” “a cocksure mezzo-forte,” and “They spent a year welding each note to the throat, and then they stuck it to the less touchable muscles” lack the clarity found elsewhere. Similarly, the collection’s final essay, a formal experiment presented as a questionnaire for a ventriloquist’s dummy, feels out of place among the otherwise straightforward offerings. Another distraction appears between the essays in the form of interview and transcript excerpts, which open with titles like “The Starlet,” “The Frontman,” “The Shape-Shifter.” While each piece adds a new perspective to the collection, the perspectives’ sources remain unclear: nothing introduces these excerpts in the text, and overly brief references in the bibliography do little to explain these voices’ provenance.

This final distraction, however, highlights one of the collection’s virtues. Passarello wastes no time explaining herself, choosing instead to focus her reader’s attention squarely on her chosen subject matter. She propels us into the sounds she considers. By moving rapidly between ideas, Passarello keeps the voice’s central importance in human life at the forefront. Moreover, although her glibness sometimes irritates, her fast-paced prose illuminates. “A space inside all of us waits for something that hurts so much that we require it,” Passarello writes. “For when breathing stops, neck whips, torso rockets, joints lock, heart swells, and voice screams.” In passages like this, she illustrates convincingly the primal importance of the voice and earns her claim on our attention.

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So Recently Rent a World CoverSo Recently Rent a World

New and Selected Poems: 1968-2012

Poetry by Andrei Codrescu

Coffee House Press, December 2012

ISBN-13: 978-1-56689-300-8

Paperback: 352pp; $22.00

Review by Patrick James Dunagan

Andrei Codrescu is a grown-up punk kid who cherishes the pleasures of life. Reading his poems is to enter into the mind of a brilliant classroom prankster (and at least part-time sex junkie). There’s a lot going on, and he has a lot to say about all of it. Zany, off-the-wall goofiness finds its place alongside serious astute reflection. This New and Selected is all the more cherished for exhibiting the range of the poet’s self-transformation over the course of his lifetime. This remarkable range is significantly reflected by way of the mini-introductions Codrescu offers before each book selection presented here, ranging from bibliographic comments to personal memoir of the particular time and place of the original composition-specific poems. As a result, this volume comes to represent Codrescu’s shot at a tour-de-force performance.

Prolific to this day, Codrescu opens with a selection of recent work amounting to some 80+ pages. After that, the collection travels backward to start over again at the beginning with a selection from Codrescu’s first book, License to Carry a Gun, then advances chronologically forward, book by book, along with two sets of chapbook sections. This organization serves the work well, no doubt better than Codrescu’s original scheme—“to follow some of [his] ‘themes’”—would have. Luckily Coffee House books publisher, editor, and friend Allan Kornblum convinced him to go this other route. This organization scheme denies Codrescu any opportunity to window-dress his writing history. It also likely contributes to just how openly informative his mini-introductions are, being more reflective rather than attempting to re-shape the work to fit his current views.

The book opens with “signifier,” a near prose poem introduction to the new work, which startles with the clarity of its lucid complex extrapolation upon that forever ethereal pronoun for poets, “I”: “One day I had an idea. / This I you don’t know. / This I I barely knows.”

Following this evocation is a prose recital of his various encounters with manifestations of “I” across “a nearly half-century” of time, closing with the observation: “In the U.S., my adolescent Romanian ‘I’ met the emerging political ‘fuck you’ of the 1960’s. What happens after that is in English, and the story of this book.”

Codrescu began his poetic ascent in the United States at the tail end of the ‘60s as a recent émigré living in the Lower East Side of Manhattan, where he made his way through the ranks of the St Mark’s Poetry Project scene:

In New York in 1968 I met poets my age or slightly older, among them Ted Berrigan, Dick Gallup, and Anne Waldman. I learned English and poetry simultaneously, while working part-time at the Wilentz brothers’ venerable Eighth Street Bookshop. I quit writing in Romanian, French, and Italian, my poetry languages until then, and I tried to find a bridge between the dark metaphorical music of my first poets, and the pop insistence on the actual, physical world that was the passionate poetics of my new friends.

Codrescu became rather well known quite rapidly, soon crisscrossing the country with extended stays in San Francisco and points in between. After some time he began the peripatetic career of poet-professor eventually landing a longtime gig at Louisiana State University. Along the way, he edited the literary semi-underground sensational poetry zine Exquisite Corpse and the fairly solid anthology American poetry since 1970: up late, starred in the classic road trip documentary film Road Scholar, and became a periodic NPR news commentator. Among all poets of the United States, his distinct voice has arguably become one of the most publicly well recognized of any among his generation.

In his first published collection, License to Carry a Gun, the poems not only reflect his status as a recent immigrant but also reveal the gist of much that was to follow from his varied personae:

the flag is an adorable symbol
who never grew up.
like me.
a horny symbol too.
erected stripes touch the forked ends
of my soul.
—“the flag”

That Codrescu so self-identifies with the symbol of his new country comes as no surprise. He also says about the period, “America was nineteen years old in 1966 and so was I. I’d like to think that we’ve been in sync ever since.” His concern with identity remains paramount throughout his poems. It is easily one of the lasting values of his work, offering readers space to consider timely questions of nationality and immigration: how language blends with, alters/is altered by one’s self-identification(s). The result is an endlessly rich demonstration of how rewarding and varied the poetic crop is that arises upon exploration of such matters. As the last line of “the flag” rightfully celebrates with Whitmanic exuberance: “i praise this American possibility.”

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Ex-Boyfriend on Aisle 6 CoverEx-Boyfriend on Aisle 6

Fiction by Susan Jackson Rodgers

Press 53, October 2012

ISBN-13: 978-1935708650

Paperback: 180pp; $14.95

Review by Jodi Paloni

In the nineteen stories from Ex-Boyfriend on Aisle 6, Susan Jackson Rodgers creates strategically placed portals for readers to enter the private world of her characters as they embark on the difficult work of being human. This may sound like the ordinary job of short fiction, but often Rodgers imposes intriguing acts of karmic justice to waken her characters out of any chance of going about business as usual.

In “Fiona in the Vortex,” a woman agrees to water plants for an estranged next-door neighbor who is recently widowed and recalls how, years ago, before her own marriage and family, she kissed the woman’s husband just yards away from his unsuspecting wife. What makes this not-so-very-strange event intriguing is the way the protagonist experiences a haunting in which her former self becomes the unrelenting ghost.

A woman in near-term pregnancy in “How About You Shut Up” fights with her boyfriend about the name they will choose for their child. Decisions are tough. “She hadn’t decided whether she would marry the person sitting next to her—the father of the baby she hadn’t planned, at first, on having.” But sometimes you find the one person you need is the one whom you’ve most recently alienated.

And then there’s “The Chicken Man.” A mainstream upper-middle-class housewife longs to impress her garden club friends in another attempt to blot out her less-than-perfect past, when she is visited by a persona non grata who threatens to blow her cover. Creepy, isn’t it, when your perfect world begins to teeter after the delivery of a single chicken egg in an iron skillet to your doorstep?

When karma is not at play, there’s happenstance. Imagine running into your ex with his younger-than-you girlfriend late at night in the supermarket. The title story, a shorty but goodie, is written from a removed second-person point of view, as if to say that bumping into the boyfriend who “knows you are horrified by how you look, how you feel, how you are” is too unbearable for the protagonist to face in first person. The distancing technique creates a sense of disengagement that makes you, the reader, ache for the character.

In fact throughout the collection, Roger’s varying prose styles keep readers continually on alert. Where in one story you linger through pages immersed in a deftly crafted conventional narrative arc, in the next, you’re floating in a stream of consciousness, grounded only in the relatable honesty of the fiction. Or, you turn the page and find a different kind of reading experience altogether. In “What Happens Next,” a collection of flash vignettes pieces together a linked narrative told from multiple points of view. Another story, “Wives,” has the feel of a list. A third, an aftermath story of shock and grief titled “This Day,” is told in unsettling staccato sentence rhythm. Syntax creates the feeling of raw emotions.

By the time you near the end of the collection, where a woman loses her cell phone and realizes that many of the things she has lost are gone forever and how she wishes she could lose certain things but can’t (“I’ve Looked Everywhere”), you’ve decided that you’re not the only person who muddles through a bad day making connections about a sliver of time in relationship to your life in general. You know you’re in good company in the story “You Again,” where the protagonist attends a reading at which “the poet reads to a dozen women who have come to hear her express their collective woes.” By this time in the book, enough overall tension has been built so you begin to worry that something really big could happen at any moment, and sure enough, it does.

In Ex-Boyfriend on Aisle 6 things happen. Characters either make choices or have no choice but to muddle through their challenges, and maybe we get to figure something out along the way.

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Beat Poetry CoverBeat Poetry

Nonfiction by Larry Beckett

Beatdom Books, October 2012

ISBN-13: 978-0956952530

Paperback: 154pp; $16.00

Review by Lydia Pyne

Any collection of poetry and prose tells a particular story. It speaks to the influences, the narrative threads, and the aesthetic focus of the collector. The collection—the set of prosaic curios—provides the reader with the story the collector (the anthologizer) has pulled together to display. Beat Poetry is a particularly interesting collection of poetry—one part encyclopedia, one part timeline, one part showcase for the poetry itself, and one part literary critique. Beat Poetry is an assortment of moments from the Beat movement, carefully arranged by poet and songwriter Larry Beckett. Beckett’s collection celebrates the classic (from “Howl” to Jack Kerouac) and then moves on to Gregory Corso’s “BOMB,” John Wieners, and others. Although it is difficult to follow a single or specific narrative thread of the anthology, what is unambiguously clear from the collection is the diversity and freedom in poetic form that Beckett highlights.

Beat Poetry begins with what could be called an annotated timeline—a series of events, poems, and people wildly intersecting each other in San Francisco, the 1950s, and 6 Gallery. Indeed, Beat Poetry’s invocation by Jack Kerouac to Allen Ginsberg, “Let’s Shout / Our Poems / In San Francisco Streets,” sets the atmosphere and indeed the scene for the remainder of the book. While many sub-genres of Beat literature focus on journey, migration, and self-determined meaning, Beckett’s collection is very solidly situated in the geographic place (and its associated meaning) of San Francisco. In other words, his collection poses a couple of questions: Once the Beat poets had arrived in San Francisco, what did they do? What did they write? The answers become clear to the reader—they wrote about where they were, what they knew, and how they tried to make sense of the world around them.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Beckett’s collected anthology is his sense of the evolution of the classic Beat poems as they were being written. Beckett walks the reader through a first draft, a second draft, and then a final draft of one poem—showing that the final version of any of the poems has its own life history and iterative process. By taking the reader through this literary archaeology, pulling back the interpretation and re-interpretation within the strata of poetic expressions, Beckett fantastically illustrates the crazy, frantic hectic-ness of Beat literature.

Consider, for example, one of the most classic Beat poems—“Howl” by Allen Ginsberg. Perhaps one of the most oft-quoted and best remembered lines from the beginning of the poem, the reader sees the final version first:

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness,
       starving hysterical naked,

juxtaposed with an earlier draft of the same beginning lines:

I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness,
       starving, mystical, naked,

By highlighting the changes in both punctuation and cadence, as well as the syntax, the reader easily appreciates the fluid, frantic nature of Ginsberg working to formalize his piece, moving from something that vaguely resembles Elizabethan blank verse to something typically “beatific.”

In a similar style of literary deconstruction, Beckett walks the reader through Gregory Corso’s “BOMB,” highlighting the allusions to classic literature as well as then-contemporary popular culture (e.g. “Do I hate the mischievous thunderbolt the jawbone of an ass / The bumpy club of One Million B.C.”). Perhaps most interesting is Beckett’s discussion of the physical style of “BOMB,” emphasizing its shape; the placement of the words on the page and the long scroll-like character of the poem create a mushroom cloud. Again, however, Beckett’s discussion of Corso’s actual writing process and intent (he wanted “BOMB” to be printed on one long page) gives the reader a deeper understanding of the poem.

Beat Poetry has a unique place in collections of Beat literature. It fills a niche that isn’t specifically academic, but still allows readers to explore some of the less-obvious aspects of the movement. Larry Beckett’s collection of poems clearly illustrates the commitment of Beat poetry to San Francisco and to the creative process of composition.

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The Heroin Chronicles CoverThe Heroin Chronicles

Edited by Jerry Stahl

Akashic Books, January 2013

ISBN-13: 978-161775-106-6

Paperback: 240pp; $15.95

Review by David Breithaupt

If President Obama created a cabinet position for a Department of Heroin, he would no doubt appoint Jerry Stahl to run it. Chances of this happening are slim, so instead we have Stahl editing this wide-ranging anthology of pieces that, as the title suggests, chronicles the joys, pitfalls, and harrowing nature of the American narcotic experience.

Readers familiar with the writings of Jerry Stahl will concede his expertise in the area of addiction and recovery, most notably depicted in his masterful memoir, Permanent Midnight. Having read a slew of dark recollections of addicts and the wrestling matches they perform with their demons over the years, I was afraid I might encounter an ongoing parade of junkies and their usual tales of predictable woe in this anthology. Stahl has averted such a disaster and served us a diverse platter by a talented collection of writers such as Lydia Lunch, Tony O’Neil, Eric Bogosian, Antonia Crane, and others. I was surprised by the departure from the usual formula of gloom contained in these pages of the needle plungers and powder imbibers. I’m not saying these stories aren’t often dark, but they stretch the imagination of your typical torrid tale of heroin users.

In “Fragments of Joe,” Tony O’Neill (author of Sick City, Digging the Vein) offers an unusual tale in which two addicts are caught up in the middle of a violent drug rip-off and are severely injured. There is some question as they continue on whether they are alive or dead. O’Neil’s bizarre ending will catch you off guard and make you wonder what other dark matter is contained in these pages.

Nathan Larson (The Dewey Decimal System, The Nervous System), in “Dos Mac + The Jones,” presents his futuristic vision of what it might be like to score in a post-apocalyptic world, in case you ever wondered. Performance artist Lydia Lunch demonstrates in “Ghost Town” how substance abuse can taint the alchemy of a relationship. “I wasn’t interested in slowing shit down. Smoothing it out. Softening the edges,” she writes. “I wanted to keep the edges rough . . .” When you read her story you will see that she has perfected her technique.

One thing I noticed throughout the stories in this book is the consistent love/hate relationship each participant has with their drug of choice. It is the story of the abused spouse returning to their abuser. Stahl confirms this pattern with a quote from William Burroughs stating “it’s not the heroin that’s the problem, it’s the lifestyle.” Stahl expands on this notion in his own contribution to the book, in his typically self-effacing style: “On smack, sometimes, you feel so perfect, you just assume everything you do is perfect, too. And when you remember, and the remorse kicks in, it’s like a razor-legged tarantula crawling upside down in your heart, cursing you in dirty Serbian for being a lame-ass dope fiend who blew every chance he ever had and ended up in the world of incontinence-wear and catheters.” But not to worry, this is the beauty of that dilemma. The narrator of Stahl’s story has a suggestion. “Well, do a little heroin, and you can remember the good things.”

This is a tough crew in these pages, but you will find them human and vulnerable, perhaps more so than your average “normal” functioning being. “Junkies are like veterans,” Stahl writes, “or bikers, or cancer survivors, or ex-cons.” He adds, “Speaking just as a member of Team Dope Fiend, I don’t trust anybody who hasn’t been to hell. I may like you, I may respect you, but, when the balls hit the griddle, I’d prefer somebody get my back who’s had experience in my little neck of it.” With this posse in tow, Jerry has no need to worry. They have been to the depths and, like Dante on the wrong road, come back to enthrall you.

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Last Friends CoverLast Friends

Fiction by Jane Gardam

Europa Editions, April 2013

ISBN-13: 978-1-60945-093-9

Paperback, 240 pages, $16.00

Review by Olive Mullet

If you have not read Jane Gardam, you’re in for a treat. Her fans will be delighted that this British writer—the only two-time Whitbread Award winner—has a third novel in her Old Filth trilogy, Last Friend. Old Filth is Sir Edward Feathers’s nickname, an acronym for “Failed in London, Try Hong Kong.” Feathers is a judge for engineering and industrial suits in said city. His by-gone era, the Empire’s end, is represented by old people, his friends, and his memories, which are unsentimental although nostalgic. The characters are Dickensian quirky, some even with actual Dickens names. Readers will get more out of Last Friends having first read Old Filth and Man in the Wooden Hat, though all are companion pieces rather than sequels. The center of the trilogy is Old Filth and his marriage to Betty; the first book is told from his point of view, the second from Betty’s, and this new book from that of Veneering, Old Filth’s professional and romantic rival.

Gardam’s style is unique, often experimental, such as her occasional use of the drama form, appropriate to emphasize the outside view of an isolated, misunderstood character:

Scene 1: Lone Hall, Yarm, North Yorkshire
Set: A room, upper floor of large tumbledown, scarcely furnished house where, at a window overlooking the sea a young man FRED sits uprights at the desk, back to audience, writing a letter. The wide window he faces shows huge extent of racing sky.
Hour: just before sunset
Month: October
Year: say, 1955…
Pan to a dreary jerry-built town built over bomb damage of twenty years before. Trees that once marched along the ridge of the Cleveland Hills are limp and dying and stand out black and tattered, reminders of an ancient domain. Only the sea survives unchanged. It frames the shore of the flat and sorrowful landscape. It swings out. Swings in. For the letter-writer it is silent, and distant.

Fred is Fiscal-Smith, one of the two main characters in this novel. The other is Dulcie, both minor acquaintances of Old Filth, Betty, and Veneering. Last Friends’ development has Dulcie finally identifying with Fiscal-Smith. Dulcie, the wife of the judge who hired Veneering for Hong Kong and who married Old Filth and Betty, has never considered Fiscal-Smith as part of the group. Fiscal-Smith was Veneering’s boyhood acquaintance in the above-mentioned Yorkshire town, but “the best day of his [Fiscal-Smith’s] life” was when he was asked to be Old Filth’s best man. Although Fiscal-Smith has always been the man “no one wants around,” a skinflint who invites himself to stay with Dulcie after Filth’s funeral, eventually Dulcie misses him as “the last link. The last friend.” Like the story itself, those surviving beyond their generation survive with humor and determination, for instance on Fiscal-Smith’s train north:

In the Flying Scotsman, heading North, not the old patrician Flying Scotsman but a flashy lowlander calling itself so—the seats were lumpy and small. The train was cold. In two other seats at the small table for four there were two laptops plugged in and hard at work. In the fourth seat was an unwashed young man rhythmically nodding his head, an intrusive metallic hissing emanating from the machinery in his ears.

The other major focus of Last Friends is filling in the up-to-this-novel unknown background of one of the principals—Terry Veneering. The long middle section starts in 1937, during Veneering’s impoverished childhood, and then traces the combination of good luck and good, quick decisions which land him at Old Filth’s elevated level.

Gardam’s book is full of unforgettable, amusing scenes, such as the one in Dulcie’s hometown of St. Ague (where retired Old Filth and Veneering ultimately and ironically find themselves neighbors). Dulcie and Fiscal-Smith are locked in a church in the cold morning hours, draping themselves in clerical robes, oblivious that the back door is open.

In terms of the plot, not only is there not much story, but Gardam also jumps around from past to present, though without losing control. In fast-moving vignettes, she inserts information obliquely, events and people referred to in flashes and moments that stand out glinting in the story. For example, “Sir,” Old Filth’s headmaster, arrives to rescue a teenager with an impossible Russian name, renaming him Veneering after a social climber in Dickens’s work. At the same time, the rescue is also from the boy’s present headmaster with the unfortunate name of “Fondle,” which Sir refers to as a “bad start.” Meanwhile, in passing, Sir reveals that he had to fire his deputy, Smith, from his all-boys school when Smith got married—and we realize that this Smith is the father of Fred, who similarly renamed himself Fiscal-Smith.

This elliptical storytelling does nothing to diminish emotions, as in Veneering’s and his mother’s repeated sad, final waving to each other. In fact, the storytelling does much to prime the reader for the novel’s marvelous ending.

Because Last Friends differs from the other two in having fewer dramatic events and more philosophy, it may not the best book in the trilogy to start with. However, I guarantee Gardam’s captivating powers throughout.

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Elizabeth Bishop CoverElizabeth Bishop in Brazil and After

A Poetic Career Transformed

Nonfiction by George Monteiro

McFarland, August 2012

ISBN-13: 978-0-7864-6693-1

Paperback: 224pp; $55.00

Review by Alyse Bensel

George Monteiro’s series of critical essays investigating Elizabeth Bishop’s work during and outside of her time living in Brazil is geared toward readers already familiar with Bishop. Divided into two sections, “Brazil” and “Elsewhere,” Monteiro’s essays range from a few pages that briefly analyze a single poem or event to larger works that encompass multiple poems, collected letters and correspondence, and Bishop’s biography. Astonishingly comprehensive, Elizabeth Bishop in Brazil and After manages a thorough undertaking of situating Bishop’s life to her work through careful close readings and archival research in order for the already well-equipped Bishop reader to better understand her work.

Many essays focus on the relationships Bishop sustained throughout her lifetime, both romantically and professionally. Although a considerable amount has already been written on her involvement with Brazilian native Lota de Macedo Soares and their time spent living together in Rio, Monteiro does not solely remain with biography. Rather, he investigates Lota’s influence on Bishop’s writing. An essay titled “The Brazil Book” tracks Bishop’s and Lota’s separate corrections and annotations in Bishop’s edition of the Brazil book for Life’s World Library Series. In the collection’s first essay, “The Unwritten Elegy,” Monteiro investigates Bishop’s collection of poems Questions of Travel, claiming that

. . . read as a book made public, to be sure, but openly dedicated to Lota, Questions of Travel becomes one more of the singular gifts given to illustrate and reaffirm the personal truth of the lines she quotes from Camões: “Giving you what I have and what I may, / The more I give you, the more I owe you.”

Further essays also discuss Lota’s influence on individual poems as well.

Translation, both of Brazilian poets by Bishop and of Bishop by Brazilian poets, remains important to understand Bishop’s literary life in Rio. In “A Tale of Jam and Jelly,” Monteiro pieces together Bishop’s correspondence with Manuel Bandeira, a Brazilian poet, as well her letters to Marianne Moore about the poet, reflecting how “Bishop’s judgments had followed her changing taste in modern poetry.” Additionally, other essays examine the use of Brazilian words and events in Bishop’s poems, tracing how and why she decided to utilize these experiences from Brazil in her work.

Remaining firmly in the realm of literary criticism, Elizabeth Bishop in Brazil and After invites the reader to delve into Bishop’s biography while paying close attention to both her written work and the relationships she forged throughout her lifetime. Touching on nearly every aspect of Bishop’s life—from her interactions with Ezra Pound and her exchanges with Marianne Moore to her sometimes tense friendship with Robert Lowell—while remaining rooted in its central theme of Brazil, this collection of critical essays builds off one another, creating a logical progression that readers can follow with ease. While dense, these essays are rich in content.

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The Dervish CoverThe Dervish

Fiction by Frances Kazan

OPUS, April 2013

ISBN-13: 978-1-62316-004-3

Hardcover: 256pp; $24.95

Review by Girija Sankar

Turkey is in turmoil. World War I has just ended and the mighty Ottoman Empire is on the brink of collapse. The empire is being carved up as Allied protectorates. In a world of foggy truths, mistrust, deceit, and the weariness of war enters a young American widow, who is fleeing from memories of a distant past and wounds still raw from the death of a loved one.

This all provides the dramatic setting for The Dervish, Frances Kazan’s follow-up novel to Halide’s Gift. Mary Benedetti, the American protagonist, narrates the story more than 40 years after her husband’s death. Mary is an artist from Manhattan who recently lost her husband, Burnham, in the war. She visits Constantinople in 1919 to be with her sister, who is married to an American diplomat. Mary, enchanted by the exotic sights and sounds of the Orient, is quickly drawn back to her easel board, and throughout the story, her renderings on the canvas serve as a peephole into her mind. Through a quirk of fate, Mary witnesses the murder of a young Turk and is consequently drawn into the nationalist struggle for a free and independent Turkey. At first, she is a silent observer, but soon, she becomes an activist herself, leading surreptitious missions out of the safe confines of the American embassy in Constantinople. Quite predictably, she soon meets and falls in love with a charismatic leader of the movement, Mustafa, who happens to be the father of the murdered young man.

As a piece of historical fiction, The Dervish paints a rich and multi-hued background with well-developed characters and dramatic plots including all the requisite elements for some illicit romance. There are the patriotic and brave nationalists, the conniving Allied soldiers, the curiously detached American diplomats seemingly on a moral higher ground, and then there’s Mary herself—a woman who ends up finding romance and adventure when all she sought was quiet reflection.

The narrative flow of the book is at times choppy and uneven, with abrupt transitions. The romance between Mary and Mustafa seemed unimaginative, a delayed afterthought inserted into otherwise fast-paced storytelling. At least one lovemaking scene was cringe-worthy.

Perhaps Kazan’s greatest strength, however, is her ability to render a fast-paced adventure and romance novel set in the midst of the most turbulent times in modern history. The reader is not unburdened by the weight of history even as the story remains anchored to its particular time and place.

Modern Turkey is confident, proud, and at ease with its transcontinental identity. Kazan’s Dervish breaks through this tough exterior to reveal a snapshot of its turbulent history.

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Bite CoverBite

An Anthology of Flash Fiction

Anthology edited by Katey Schultz and John Carr Walker

Trachodon Publishing, November 2012

ISBN-13: 978-0-6157-2189-7

Paperback: 121pp; $12.95

Review by Kirsten McIlvenna

In the editor’s note, Katey Schultz points out that to her, the best flash fiction “mark[s] a moment in the story with such vivid texture, the reader has no choice but to feel it right between the eyes.” And that is a great description of all of the pieces included in this collection. In each one, you can pinpoint the exact moment where it twists, revealing a deeper meaning, a hidden truth, or a surprising plot change.

In Brendan Isaac Jones’s “Mitch,” the narrator is a young boy who, when his pet fish dies, preserves his friend in the freezer:

Each afternoon when I arrived home from school, I made a beeline for the kitchen and took Mitch out for a swim. I filled the bathtub and sailed him around in great swoops. SHWEEEOO! At a certain point, Mitch thawed and softened, and I was forced to return him to the freezer for a couple hours before he was ready to go again.

He keeps the fish for four years until his father makes him get rid of it. If you get past the image of a decayed, stinky fish, you’ll find the sweet innocence in needing to make something last, in needing to keep a companion. It ends perfectly (with that quick bit that hits you “right between the eyes”): “His life was measured not by heartbeats, but by how long he was able to swim in my hand.”

In Lesley Alicia Tye’s “Green,” written in second person, a father (“you”) is haunted by his mistake of squishing one of the frogs in the backyard. “The sound reverberated in your head, frog legs beating on your eardrums in an inconsistent rhythm that reminded you that everything you do is a failure. . . . But the frogs were not going anywhere.” The father decides to take matters into his own hands.

James Bernard Frost’s “Agate” shows how the mother of this family is distant and does not participate in the fun. Instead of appreciating the “gems” her boys collect for her on the beach, she points out that they are “Little plastic chips. . . . Phytoestrogens get released into the ocean. They kill life.” And they know she is distant: “She had these eyes, these dark downturned eyes. She looked like she was alone, like she wasn’t with us at all.” And this is perfectly demonstrated by the narration, which comes from a collective “we” of the boys (which includes the father), singling the mother out as the “other.”

Ester Bloom offers my favorite description in the whole book: “If ordinary people have the 36-crayon Crayola box of emotions, he only has the most basic eight-color set; more complicated blends of feeling are beyond his comprehension.” Another of my favorite descriptions comes from Rosie Forrest’s “Back When We Knew Him”: “As he told these stories (many about not giving a damn in this overwrought world), he swung a High Life by its neck, and when he took a drink, he swung the glass bottle high like a trumpet.”

Bite ends with, well, a bite. Tom Weller’s “Hercules Massis” shows the sheer strength of Hercules Massis’s teeth:

Hercules takes the bit in his mouth. The metal feels warm against his lips, tastes electric on his tongue. He takes a deep breath, stares down his challenge. An eight-foot length of rope, thick around as a baseball bat, connects the bit in his mouth to the train, one locomotive and two box cars.
. . . A man wearing a bowler hat fires a starter pistol. Pigeons burst into the air. Hercules Massis takes one east step backward. The rope goes taut. Silence.

But while this may seem at first just a story of brawn and of a “hero,” it turns into a love story, but not in the traditional sense: “Tomorrow morning the newspapers will proclaim, Hercules Massis, Man with the World’s Strongest Teeth. . . . But Hercules Massis will remember most clearly the sound that train made as it rolled down the track . . . calling to him, insistent, uninhibited, the way lovers do, and the way a bit in the mouth can feel just like a kiss.”

The editorial work is excellent, stringing together the pieces in a fluid and natural order. Tom Hazuka’s “That’s All You Have to Do,” about a brother and sister that go fishing, is followed by his second piece, “Daddy’s Here,” in which a father takes his son for a first fishing trip. This is followed by another story about a parent-child relationship. In Jenny Robertson’s “Cry Room,” we see the complicated relationship between mother and daughter when the daughter’s son cries in church. The next story is again between mother and daughter, but it focuses on how everything “was like this: enchanting, transient, out of reach the moment her hands held it.” “A Certain Slant of Light” is followed by “Fear of the Dark,” and so on.

I kept this book in my purse, pulling it out whenever I had a spare minute. Part of what makes anthologies so great to read is that you can feel like you have read something completely within a couple of minutes, yet there is still more. Each piece stands on its own, but it’s a delight to have them all work together in Bite.

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The Sultan of Byzantium CoverThe Sultan of Byzantium

Fiction by Selçuk Altun

Translated from the Turkish by Clifford Endres and Selhan Endres

Telegram Books, April 2013

ISBN-13: 978-1846591488

Paperback: 288pp; $14.95

Review by Patricia Contino

“What are you, some kind of aristocratic character escaped from a romantic novel?” asks the comely professor of the narrator/protagonist, who fits this description so perfectly. He also may or may not be The Sultan of Byzantium of Selçuk Altun’s absorbing novel. The longest-lasting and most satisfying intrigue is that readers never learn the name of the narrator, a dashing economics professor, until the book’s conclusion. How it is revealed, resolving many a loose end, is well worth the journey getting there.

Like the double history reflected in the title, Altun’s book is slightly hard to define, immediately separating it from ambitious bestsellers by authors (that means you, Dan Brown) that settle for easy answers that won’t scare off readers. What makes The Sultan of Byzantium worthwhile is that those who prefer one genre over another will admire how they fit together in chapters sequentially named after characters of the Greek alphabet. They will also have fun seeing how the author slyly inserts himself into the periphery of the narrative.

Sultan is first and most definitely a carefully executed mystery. The 33-year-old Turkish-American narrator could be the heir to Constantine XI, giving him legitimate claim to the lost Byzantine Empire (476 AD-1453). He certainly has qualifications that emperors, empresses, and their modern-day equivalents should strive for—he is educated, compassionate, and well-mannered; thinks before speaking or acting; and is a true reader of poetry, literature, and history—but seldom do. That is why empires crumble. Power and the wealth that goes with it are attractive to this man for different reasons:

I would have a glass building built in the shape of a book in the city center. I could establish the greatest library in the world for dictionaries and poetry. At night a laser show on the front of the building would project, in rotation, the letters of all the alphabets of the world. On another wall a new poem would be illuminated every night. The building would be my shield from the world’s ugliness, and also my grave.

His concern for children, from bringing home the starving child who becomes his adopted sister Hayal to his encounter with a handicapped youngster who acts as his guide in the Ihlara Valley, is documented over and over again.

Does he have any weaknesses? High-end prostitutes; preferably two at a time.

Instead of genetics resolving his birthright, he must complete a series of tests created by a secret society called Nomo that guards Constantine’s legacy. The quest takes him around the world, thus qualifying Sultan as a sophisticated travelogue. The bibliophile revels in this aspect of his undertaking, which leads him to research facilities such as Georgetown’s Dumbarton Oaks with its collections of Byzantine and pre-Columbian art. To the narrator, these two styles that share violent histories appear on the verge of war themselves with “busts challenging the masks and vice versa. He describes the mansion’s “well-tended gardens” where “birds sang carefully,” delightfully re-creating with words Stravinsky’s cheery same-named Concerto in E Flat (commissioned by the Blisses who lived and collected art at Dumbarton Oaks).

“In my childhood fantasy all of the towers of the world were cousins,” the narrator recollects. More than anything else, The Sultan of Byzantium is a novel about history. Pages are given over to the art, architecture and rulers of The Byzantine Empire. Altun and his narrator aren’t looking to test their readers. Rather, this information inserted in the hope of re-evaluation. The Crusades, particularly the Fourth (1202 - 1261), were disastrous for the Byzantines. A peaceful man in heart and soul, the narrator calls out the sackers of Constantinople for being “hooligans.”

This moral outrage carries into Venice, its sinking and pollution explained as “paying for its past sins.” The lover of poetry and literature has none for the city that inspired so much. However, his rage at the Four Horses atop San Marco (sieged during the Sack of Constantinople) soon softens upon closer inspection: “I had an odd feeling, here before the most famous horses in the world. It was like running into some of one’s own people now forced to work in an international circus. Their innocent looks hurt my heart. They seemed to know who I was, and expect me to take them home.”

He even finds compassion for the natives, whose city is overrun with tourists. “Venetians never take off their masks. They laugh secretly at the tourists who think they wear them only at carnival,” he observes. Tourists are regarded throughout Sultan as being no better than the Crusaders.

The last historic observation—and evidence—is offered by the narrator’s dead American father. He too was a professor . . . and an intelligence officer. His notes are on the Hagia Sophia, Istanbul’s most famous, multifaceted landmark:

Each of its mosaic mazes possesses a rich and unique combination of religion and art. In them I saw everything: a fairy-tale palace, a time tunnel, a lighthouse, an aquarium, a caravanserai, a virtual hot springs, a suburb of heaven, a purgatory, an art studio. . . . If visitors from another planet came to earth in some future millennium, it would be Haghia Sophia that would present them with the common message of humanity . . .

This way of seeing has served his son well, and there is no reason to think it won’t in the future. To find out if that future includes being named the Sultan of Byzantium, you’ll need to pick up a copy of this absorbing novel yourself.

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Poems CoverPoems

Poetry by François Villon

Translated from the French by David Georgi

Northwestern University Press, December 2012

ISBN-13: 978-0-8101-2878-1

Paperback: 304pp; $21.95

Review by Patrick James Dunagan

I’ve found more often than not among poetry fans the myth of Villon the “criminal poet” usually exists far in advance of any experience reading the actual work. Much of this is a result of the general lackadaisical attention given in our day and age to searching out older texts on our own to enlarge our reading. We tend to hear from others more than discover for ourselves, taking what we hear as valid evidence rather than looking for ourselves. Books such as this one are needed opportunities to rectify this behavior.

Villon was “born around 1430” and any trace of him disappears from the historical record after 1463. He lived the majority of his life in Paris, trained at least in part as a religious cleric, and kept himself busy—always one step ahead of (and sometimes in back of) legal authorities of his day. From his poems, it appears he was a devotee of prostitutes and small-time criminals, a habitué purveyor of tavern life permeated by action going on roundabout “the streets” (to put it in the vernacular of today’s world). It’s a known fact that he—perhaps accidentally—killed a priest in a knife fight, managing to barely get off without being hanged. Instead, the decree banishing him from Paris for 10 years for the murder is the final document existent in regard to his life.

Translator David Georgi points out that it was Ezra Pound (following in the tracks of the French Symbolists) who is in large part responsible for an early heralding of Villon’s work into English. Georgi argues that for Pound “Villon represented an ideal of unsentimental verse built in concrete details […] everyday objects like buckets, turnips, and roasted chickens.” Rather infamously, Pound quipped that Villon “sings of things as they are.” Indeed Villon’s poems face reality head-on, as when he sings of the visible changes of an aging body in lines beginning “This is all that human beauty comes to?” Villon offers no encouraging words for aging well. This is no celebration of the body immaculate. Ever the realist, Villon lays everything bare, taking delight in accurately nailing a true-to-life description, which Geogi’s translation carries over well into English:

And the breasts? Shriveled and shrunken.
The hips? As bad as the tits, and
that sweet little thing—hah! The thighs
are thighs no more, but drumsticks,
brown and speckled like a sausage.

Georgi has included all of Villon’s work, which “consists of one longish poem of forty stanzas, a longer one of about two thousand lines, and sixteen shorter poems.” The two long sequences, what is usually known as The Testament, and the similar, yet shorter, Bequests, entail an accounting of what the speaker, identified as Villon, leaves behind upon his future death. Embedded within The Testament are a number of skillfully rendered ballads. Ballads, too, make up the majority of his shorter poems. All of the work is intrinsically tied to biographical facets of the character Villon’s life: his interests, background, social life, friends, as well as enemies.

The imagery in Villon’s poems is vital to the sense. The poet is always holding the reader close, but as if holding the poem itself even closer. This is as close to really meaning it as poetry ever gets:

And you, my teeth, bestir yourselves; each
leap forward and sing your gratitude
louder than an organ, trumpet, or bell
and, just for once, give no thought to chewing;
consider how close I’ve come to being dead.

The knowledge that these lines are from Villon’s final poem, and thus the only record of his response to the repeal of his death sentence in exchange for his ten years banishment, only intensifies and validates the feeling that Villon lived through his poems. They are an undeniably self-conscious projection of the poet’s life-as-myth—an enduring accomplishment.

Georgi’s translation is not only the most complete but easily among the best of Villon’s work I’ve yet to encounter. He doesn’t attempt to force any metrics or rhyme, focusing his efforts instead on keeping the English crisply alive, concise, and accurate in terms of sense. Georgi utilizes utterly accessible diction while retaining the original text on facing pages. It was also reassuring to find him remark:

At an early stage, I also had the privilege of a lively correspondence with Stephen Rodefer, discussing his 1977 translation, or transformation, Villon. As a poet rather than a translator per se, his business with Villon was different than mine, but his boldness and inventiveness were an important lesson for me.

Rodefer’s versions (he’s also more recently done some Baudelaire covers; see the Rodefer issue of the Chicago Review) are veritable poetic encryptions having more to do with his own life and reading than strictly focusing upon Villon’s own. They are nonetheless an invaluable source of insight. That Georgi is aware of Rodefer and searched him out in correspondence is to his credit. Rigorously following through on such details make his book one of the Villon translations which many readers, including myself, have long been looking for.

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Safe as Houses CoverSafe as Houses

Fiction by Marie-Helene Bertino

University of Iowa Press, October 2012

ISBN-13: 978-1609381141

Paperback: 164pp; $16.00

Review by Katy Haas

In her debut short story collection, Safe as Houses, Marie-Helene Bertino fills the pages with wit and warmth in her nine stories. Bertino, who served as the associate editor of One Story for six years, shows good mastery of the short story in her unique storylines—such as dating the idea of your significant other, or a lonely alien coming to Earth to learn more about humans.

The title story follows a man named Pluto and his newly acquired partner, Mars, as they break into someone’s house to destroy the sentimental objects there. Leaving money and material valuables alone, they dismember family photos, macaroni art, and rare wine, removing the irreplaceable. Considering the wife who lives in the house they’re wrecking, Pluto thinks: “I want her to shake her head, locked in the band that pulls her face into a painful-looking grimace and know I have done her a favor. She will say, ‘I will never take anything for granted again.’” As he and Mars cause destruction, more is revealed about the sadness he carries around and why he victimizes people in this way.

The last story, “Carry Me Home, Sisters of Saint Joseph,” is about Ruby, a woman trying to forget her ex. Following a guide to quit smoking so that she can quit him, she smokes cigarettes, eats apples, or starts a hobby every time she thinks of him. In her quest to forget, she ends up living in a local Catholic church, tending to their wilting tomato plants. At first, Ruby is cynical, referring to the nuns that live at the church as “Sister Crooked Part” or “Sister Whoever,” but as more time goes on she opens up to the nuns, beginning to thrive as her care causes the tomato plants to do the same.

While each story in the collection is different, with unique characters that all possess their own separate back stories and goals, Bertino’s voice remains the same. It shows up in the main characters, which all have at least a tinge of sarcasm or cynicism. Though the people in these pages all go through their own separate problems, the collection feels unified and woven together well by a common thread of their discontent. As I finished each story, I wondered what she had in store for the next one, and was never disappointed.

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