Posted August 1, 2013
Wm & H'ry :: Object Lessons :: Lullaby (with Exit Sign) :: Salt Pier :: The Next Scott Nadelson :: Advice from 1 Disciple of Marx to 1 Heidegger Fanatic :: The Mere Weight of Words :: The Genius of J. Robert Oppenheimer :: Parnucklian for Chocolate :: The Art of Intimacy :: Garbage Night at the Opera :: There Once Lived a Girl Who Seduced Her Sister's Husband :: Braided Worlds :: Masha'allah and Other Stories :: Our Man in Iraq :: Bringing Our Languages Home :: Propagation
Literature, Love, and the Letters between
William & Henry James
Nonfiction by J.C. Hallman
University of Iowa Press, March 2013
Hardcover: 156pp; $21.00
Review by Reiser Perkins
Nothing will make you hate email like Wm & H’ry, the handsome little book by J.C. Hallman that distills the 800-plus letters exchanged between William and Henry James. Hallman points out that most readers will probably be more familiar with one of the brothers, but makes a convincing case that there is no fully understanding the one without comprehending the other.
The brothers wrote to each other about what you might expect (literature, philosophy, art, science), but what makes Wm & H’ry particularly delightful are the more candid glimpses. For example, the brothers take pleasure in detailing their various physical ailments. H’ry’s “moving intestinal dramas” are discussed with as much detail as his thoughts on Rome. He outlines a self-made cure for his bad back, the first stage of which is to “exercise . . . increasing until it entirely predominates & attains its maximum—even to not sleeping, if necessary.” The brothers also share an often gruesome fascination for boils and all things scatological. Squeamish readers may cringe at the mention of an “electrified pole” to be “put inside the rectum” and other such health fads of the day.
It’s also interesting to read of H’ry doubting descriptive writing as early as 1873: “I doubt whether a year or two hence, I shall have it in me to describe houses and mountains, or even cathedrals and pictures.” By 1901, Hallman writes, H’ry felt “that too often a huge gulf opened between a given description and the thing it described.” Hallman then points us to a passage in H’ry’s The Tragic Muse: “She only watched, in Peter’s eyes, for this gentleman’s impression of it. That she easily caught, and he measured her impression—her impression of his impression . . .”
“In other words,” Hallman notes, “impressions were no longer things, but thoughts, and the dent of an impression was a better measure of that which had been impressed—of what one had been made to think—than it was of whatever hammer had inflicted the blow.”
The brothers bait and berate each other, as siblings will, and Hallman effectively demonstrates how their aesthetics “had begun to diverge”:
Wm had come to conclude that the ability to state clear reasons for one’s thinking was the mark of genius; H’ry had grown only firmer in his belief that we need never attempt anything other than the slicing open of our veins to let the impressions flow.
Hallman is also adept at getting to the heart of what may have been going on behind all the banter. “The broader truth was perhaps even painful. Wm had once had the hand of a painter, but always lacked the soul of one; H’ry, precisely the opposite.”
One of the funniest moments is the scene Hallman sets up when expatriate H’ry returns to America to write a series of articles for Harper’s BAZAAR. During a train journey, H’ry is scandalized when a “bevy” of young girls boards the train and takes “vociferous possession” of the car:
The first surprising thing was that the girls were all well dressed. There was “nothing of the vulgar in their facial type or their equipment.” So how could they behave such? he wondered. Even more surprising, how could it be that the others in the car remained, as they did, wholly indifferent to the scene? . . . [He] was awestruck, for it was “in the manners of the women that the social record writes itself finest.” In other words, the scene was a barometer. The manners of American women measured both the ongoing disintegration of polite society and the schism that now separated him from his brother.
This schism, at times, turned nasty, as when H’ry replied to his brother’s beseeching him to “write a new book, with no twilight or mustiness in the plot, with great vigor and decisiveness in the action, no fencing in the dialogue, no psychological commentaries, and absolute straightness in the style” with the following:
I mean . . . to try to produce some uncanny form of thing, in fiction, that will gratify you, as Brother—but let me say, dear William, that I shall greatly be humiliated if you do like it, & thereby lump it, in your affection, with things, of the current age, that I have heard you express admiration for & that I would sooner descend to a dishonoured grave than have written.
As time went on, H’ry responded to Wm’s growing frustrations with silence, but Wm couldn’t let it go. In 1907, he was still trying to understand the difference in their methods:
Mine being to say a thing in one sentence as straight and explicit as it can be made, and then to drop it forever; yours being to avoid naming it straight, but by dint of breathing and sighing all round and round it, to arouse in the reader who may have had a similar perception already . . . the illusion of a solid object.
I’m always sorry when I hear of your reading anything of mine, & always hope you won’t—you seem to me so constitutionally unable to enjoy it, & so condemned to look at it from a point of view remotely alien to mine in writing it. . . . It shows how far apart & to what different ends have had to work out . . . our respective intellectual lives. And yet I can read you with rapture.
Hallman concludes with a short list, compiled from the letters, illustrating what a “terrible burden” letter writing could be. “For three or 4 weeks in London I did nothing literally nothing, but write letters, day after day,” complains Wm, while H’ry claims to have lost a whole month to a “veritable mountain” of correspondence. Even worse was waiting to receive a letter, which the brothers also complain about. Our email age may offer instant gratification and convenience, but Hallman shows us just how much our written communication lacks not only gravitas but what he refers to as “human frailty and warmth.”
The Paris Review Presents the Art of the Short Story
Anthology edited by Lorin Stein, Sadie Stein
Picador, October 2012
Paperback: 368pp; $16.00
Review by Michael Caylo-Baradi
A book can be judged by its cover, partially. This book is perfect example. The words Object Lessons: The Paris Review Presents the Art of the Short Story and the image of a typewriter below them compressed into a singular message for me: MFA in fiction. Even before opening the book, the cover tells me its target audience is creative writers, or more so, creative writers who are in a writing program, aspiring to be in one, used to be in one, are teaching in one, are about to teach in one, or believe you can’t teach creative writing, and thus look down on writing programs. But whether you stand by that idea or not, there’s a growing trend in that these programs, academies, or institutes are sprouting around the globe. To name three, out of many: the City University of Hong Kong’s MFA in Creative Writing in English was launched in 2010, and considers itself “The only MFA with an Asian Focus.” In the UK, the Faber and Faber publishing house started Faber Academy in 2008, and promotes the idea that “publishers know what writers need.” And in City University of New York’s The Writers’ Institute at the Graduate Center, its director—novelist André Aciman—has brought in editors from publications and publishers such as Granta; Harper’s; Knopf; The New Yorker; Farrar, Straus and Giroux; and, yes, The Paris Review to facilitate its writing workshops, in fiction and nonfiction.
Object Lessons, therefore, is a timely book. For aspiring creative writers who want exposure in established, literary journals in English, this short story collection is a valuable addition to their shelves. You can feel the Review’s pride on the cover, about its indispensability to the art of the short story, which includes a blurb from Time magazine that regards the journal as “America’s greatest literary journal”—a sort of red carpet set-in-footnote font that forces your eyes to squint. Beyond that carpet is the writing lab where the journal’s editors—Lorin Stein and Sadie Stein—“asked twenty masters of the genre to choose a story from The Paris Review archives—a personal favorite—and to describe the key to its success as a work of fiction.” Their descriptions and appraisals frame the stories in pre-workshop mode, the moment before students critique each other’s work; the introductions hint at how the masters assess the stories that left a mark on them. You can almost imagine Daniel Alarcón in-session talking about Joy Williams’s “Dimmer,” that Williams “doesn’t describe life; she explores it. She doesn’t write scenes, she evokes them with a finely observed gesture, casually interpreted to provide maximum, often devastating, insight.” In another session, we hear Daniel Orozco discussing nostalgia in Steven Millhauser’s “Flying Carpets,” and he asks: “how do you tell a story about sentimentality, while avoiding the excesses of sentimental prose?” Orozco’s answer approximately echoes Alarcón’s and their colleagues in the lab: “accumulation of concrete sensory detail—in other words by heeding that writerly chestnut: Show, Don’t Tell.”
So we have a case of masters assessing other masters, a list that includes Ann Beattie on Craig Nova’s “Another Drunk Gambler,” David Bezmozgis on Leonard Michael’s “City Boy,” and Wells Tower on Evan S. Connell’s “The Beau Monde of Mrs. Bridge,” just to name a few. Most of their descriptions appear constrained by length, which makes you want more. Lydia Davis’s introduction is probably the longest, as she zooms in paragraph-by-paragraph on Jane Bowle’s “Emmy Moore’s Journal,” to celebrate the author’s “superb narrative characteristics . . . evident in just the first two pages of this small story: the clear and forceful narrating voice.” And I couldn’t agree more: “I am reproducing the letter here. Let there be no mistake. My journal is intended for publication. I want to publish for glory, but also in order to aid other women.” The voice understands its edge, the extent of its power. The publication of this forceful female voice appears timely, indeed, since it came out in 1973, the same year Erica Jong’s fearless, forceful voice came flying with the term “zipless fuck” in the novel Fear of Flying. The other introduction that stood out for me is Mona Simpson’s on Norman Rush’s “Lying Presences,” not because of her descriptions per se, but on how the story was accepted when she used to work at the The Paris Review; the managing editor back then accepted the piece after reading the story’s first sentence: “Jack liked his office and it was all right to like your office.” Unlike Davis, Simpson’s discussion is the story itself, and its characters, her way of telling us the story’s power lies on the dilemma presented to the reader, of a brother (Roy) asking his brother (Jack) a favor for room and board, “to get his life together.” Being a UFO freak, Roy had squandered his inheritance money to a “bizarre UFO foundation.” This information made this story a page-turner, at least, for me.
But the last story tops that. Introduced by Joy Williams, Dallas Wiebe’s “Night Flight to Stockholm” comments on the soul of creative writers, mercilessly. Like Simpson, Williams is also caught up in the life of its characters and the story’s premise, as opposed to issues of voice and language. One day, the story’s unnamed narrator calls “an expert in contracts,” Gabriel Ratchet: “Gabe, I’m going to be sixty-six tomorrow . . . and I’ve been writing fiction all my life and no one’s ever published a word of it and I’d give my left pinkie to get into The Paris Review.” His pinkie gone, the journal publishes his first story, “Livid With Age.” Next, The Triquarterly Review takes both his testicles, to publish his second story, “Silence on the Rive Gauche.” If you think this emerging writer has had enough, then you’ve underestimated his determination. After Wiebe’s protagonist loses his testicles, his gutsiness grows exponentially, until he gets the Nobel. Later, after receiving that prize, he looks into his life: “We all disintegrate into our words, our sentences, our paragraphs, our narratives.” How much did the masters in Object Lessons have to give away to be where they are now? The question is, no doubt, unfair. None of them have won the Nobel yet. But I’m sure their pinkies are preserved in The Paris Review’s Museum of Pinkies.
Although chosen as favorites, the collection doesn’t constitute a “greatest hits” anthology. The editors are straightforward about that. In its next edition, perhaps the masters could provide longer discussions about the stories they had chosen, or even workshop it, a rather tricky proposition that airs the shortcomings of someone’s art. No doubt this collection is already assigned reading. I could hear students discussing the mind behind Wiebe’s story, testing tempers in the room before the bloodbath, before the students take on each other’s work. Soon, the air behind its doors turns heavy, as the stories walk through la via dolorosa that often defines writing workshops, steep with disappointed sighs, weighty remarks, or the contentious applause. Everyone has high hopes for their story’s future drafts, its probable resurrection in another workshop, that soon it’d brave the desks at The Paris Review.
Poetry by Hadara Bar-Nadav
Saturnalia Books, March 2013
Paperback: 88pp; $15.00
Review by Emily May Anderson
Lullaby (with Exit Sign), Hadara Bar-Nadav’s third book, creates not a soothing lullaby but an elegy, one wide-ranging, searing, aching elegy for many different lost loved ones. The title poem says:
My family sings
its death march.
They are the size of the moon.
No, they are the size
of thumbtacks punched
through the sky’s eyelid.
Ghosts populate the book, “Ghosts born two at a time, tearing / from my nostrils” (“Family of Strangers”), ghosts who “beat / my ear canals like bells / and whisper along the length / of my neck” (“Close Your Eyes to Catch a Ghost”). But more concrete images of hospitals and waiting rooms also appear frequently, resonating with reality as well as with an eerie unreality, as in “I Sing to Use the Waiting” where the “loudspeaker sputters, mumbling to the air like a drunk. Two children take turns screaming from either side of the room (or I am the child screaming from my mouth to my ears).”
To say this is a book I enjoyed reading would be impossible. Enjoyed is not the word for such pain or for some of the visceral images, especially in the book’s third section. However, it is an accomplished book, and one I admired. These poems mourn, they lament, they cry, but they do so skillfully, universally, and with enduring strength and no apologies. In “One Need Not Be a House,” one of many prose poems in the collection, the speaker says, “Say it plainly: To be alive is to be Haunted; to be dead is to haunt,” before invoking those who haunt the book. “Who calls your name?” the speaker queries and is answered, “We do. Who speaks from your mouth? We do. Father, mother, daughter, we do.” Later a poem title claims that “To Ache Is Human.” Such bold declarations could be off-putting from a less adept writer, but Lullaby earns them with its sharp, surprising words and elegantly crafted lines.
Bar-Nadav’s language is precise throughout, clever, unexpected, and sometimes even playful. In “Prayer is the Little Implement,” for example, she writes, “Little Woe Weep has lost her sleep, or a hack on pills went up a hill to fetch a pain of daughter,” then immediately steps back. “Put down the scalpel and syntax,” the poem continues; neither medicine nor poetry can save lives in this book. In “Infection in the Sentence Breeds,” the speaker says: “With commas come a promise, with dashes come piece—misshapen grammar writ in bone. // I overhear an orderly say he breaks the limbs too stiff to fold. I over hear.” Although language can hurt, it also provides a focus and a sense of order.
In addition to deliberate reflections on words and grammar, the book uses the words of Emily Dickinson as a touchstone, incorporating italicized lines and phrases in a way which seems entirely appropriate for the theme. The book includes an erasure of Dickinson’s letters, the poem called “Master (Pieces),” but she generally peeks through in short phrases, flawlessly melding into Bar-Nadav’s own sentences. One lovely example comes in the book’s penultimate poem: “You once were,” the speaker says. A general “you,” all the “yous” of the book. “You once were. Then. Letters through which a promise drifts, until the Matter ends.” The promise of life, of love, filters through Dickinson’s words, through Bar-Nadav’s words, resonating after the book is closed.
Poetry by Dore Kiesselbach
University of Pittsburgh Press, November 2012
Paperback: 88pp; $15.95
Review by Theresé Samson Wenham
It is much easier to read mediocre prose than mediocre poetry. It’s too easy to believe that writing poetry is simply a matter of connecting with raw emotions and that whatever “truths” arrive are, in and of themselves, enough. This is perhaps why poorly written poetry is so uncomfortable to read; it forgets that poetry is about writing in a heightened language, not just about what is being said. An excellent poem cannot be paraphrased; it cannot be translated into prose. Yet, when we come across a poet who masters the measure of language, it appears almost transparent, effortless. Reading through Dore Kiesselbach’s Salt Pier for the first time was like that for me.
Kiesselbach is not wrought with emotion. He is neither blatantly sad nor joyful, but curious and observational. Since he doesn’t explain how he feels, he is not telling us how to feel, and these poems allow us to experience them through the connections of our own experience and knowledge. The poems engage in difficult topics: abandonment, fear, love, death, family . . . the usual, but the poems don’t usually address them directly. We are not given any easy answers, just imagistic language to compare against the history of our own truths. We already have the same answers, anyway.
Salt Pier moves from loss to completion as it delineates a series of relationships through finely crafted details and metaphors of the imagination. Throughout, there is a ghost of meter and rhyme to discover. From “Dart”:
Because it needed me
to fly it curved. I held
once a hummingbird,
softer than the feathers
I pulled out of you.
It had thrown itself
against a window.
It hadn’t lacked the nerve.
The poems vary in their use of person as well. A significant number of poems are written in the second person, sometimes speaking to another subject, sometimes speaking to the speaker. By transforming our perspective, the voice of the speaker becomes multi-faceted and, also, somewhat more interesting, adding to the complexity of the reading.
Kiesselbach’s most remarkable use of poetic language comes in the form of metaphors. They consistently surprised me and furthered the potential for meaning. From “Green Zone”:
A man in the crowd
spoke loudly to no one,
his face a vandalized
with its lock.
He could have ended the association with an image of a beat-up bike, but instead added the lock, which keeps it grounded and held in place, like the man’s face is bound to him.
As much as I enjoyed this collection, I also recognize that it may not have enough depth for real staying power. On second and third readings, I did not discover many more lines or images that furthered my understanding of his verses. This does not mean it lacked substance; he merely gave it to us easily on the first read. I look forward to seeing his next collection and how this poet matures.
A Life in Progress
Nonfiction by Scott Nadelson
Hawthorne Books, February 2013
Paperback: 264pp; $16.95
Review by Girija Sankar
“You’re the next fucking Philip Roth,” an adoring fan tells Scott Nadelson after a book reading. But, “No one would ever come up to a young Jewish writer from New Jersey and say, You’re the next fucking Scott Nadelson,” writes Nadelson in his memoir, The Next Scott Nadelson: A Life in Progress. The writer’s angst stems from flattering yet annoying comparisons to Philip Roth: “It was inevitable, I suppose, for a young, male, Jewish writer from New Jersey, especially one who wrote about family and generational conflict.”
A native of New Jersey, Nadelson moves to Oregon after college. He starts working for a literary organization in the hopes of eventually getting away from it all and getting to writing, his real passion. Soon enough, he meets a woman and gets engaged, only to have her leave him a week after the wedding invitations are mailed out. Nadelson’s life is now in shambles. His lover leaves him, his cat has diabetes, and his parents are relentless in their endeavors to set him up with nice Jewish girls. He moves to an attic apartment, making rent payments with a credit card. The Next Scott Nadelson, then, is an essay in peeling the onion that is Nadelson’s psyche.
The narration does not follow a vertical trajectory pre- and post-break up. Rather, it is a careful arrangement of events and incidents that build up for the reader the complex character that is Scott Nadelson, the protagonist, the jilted lover, the writer. The autobiographical essays include stories from his formative years in high school and summer camp, his stint as a fundraiser for the literary organization, and his musings on favorite authors and musicians.
In reading this and other similar memoirs, one wonders if calamities of a certain kind only befall writers of a certain kind, or if writers are who they are because of the specific way in which they interpret and articulate life’s struggles, turning the seemingly mundane and prosaic into something profound. In Nadelson’s case, I would argue that it’s the latter—break-ups are common, and so are heartbreaks. “I’d always prided myself on being someone who appreciated the absurdity of life, who didn’t take it too seriously, but there’s an enormous difference, I discovered, between reading a Kafka novel or watching a Woody Allen movie and living inside of one,” the author writes. In Nadelson’s memoir, readers find a skilled writer whose introspection into his insecurities endears him to his readers and presents a fine example of memoir writing that is immediate, honest, visceral, and altogether a pleasure to read. It must also be said that Nadelson’s honesty and openness are rare and underappreciated qualities in memoir writing, especially one from a male perspective.
Poetry by Mario Santiago Papasquiaro
Translated from the Spanish by Cole Heinowitz, Alexis Graman
Wave Books, June 2013
Paperback: 29pp; $16.00
Review by Patrick James Dunagan
Mario Santiago Papasquiaro’s book-length poem defiantly insists: “Poetry: we’re still alive.” Insolent, ecstatic, perverse, enthusiastic; Santiago’s poem is a beacon for the pursuit of life via poetry. Santiago yields the poem to nothing short of life itself, which comes pouring into it from all quarters. He believes “a poem is occurring every moment” and it is the force of this constant presence which he unfurls upon the page. Santiago encourages that “life is still your poetry workshop” where there’s opportunity to be immersed within “the fucking awesome vermilion of the twilight.” His turbulent, clustered lines scatter across the page in an onrush of joyous declaration:
What a moon!
like ɪ clipped nail
like ɪ glob of sperm
over the bristling back of the night
In their Translators’ Note, Heinowitz and Graman say: “Santiago uses the numeral ‘ɪ’ in place of the impersonal pronoun (‘one’) and the indefinite article (‘a’ or ‘an’). In Spanish, the numeral ‘ɪ’ is spoken in the same way as the impersonal pronoun (‘uno’) and the indefinite article (‘un’ or ‘una’).”
Heinowitz’s tightly condensed deft introduction explains that Santiago is the pseudonym for José Alfredo Zendejas, who inspired the character Ulises Lima in Robert Bolaño’s novel The Savage Detectives:
In 1975, along with several friends (among them Bolaño), he founded the radical Infrarealist poetry movement. Santiago and the “Infras” drew on a wide range of sources, from Baudelaire, Rimbaud, and Lautréamont, to Dadaism, Surrealism, Stridentism, and the Beats. Santiago was also influenced by the leftist, avant-garde Peruvian poetry movement Hora Zero and by Mexican writer-activists such as Efraín Huerta and José Revueltas (the pseudonym “Santiago Papasquiaro” comes from the town where Revueltas was born). For Santiago, poetry and politics were inseparable.
He lived peripatetically, “chasing the poet Claudia Kerik” around the world. “He was a thief in Paris, a fisherman on the coast of France, a political prisoner in Vienna, an agricultural day laborer in Spain, and a kibbutznik in Israel.” He eventually returned to Mexico City, pursued the use of hallucinogens, and wandered the city. A walking poem-come-to-life, his later years call to mind Bob Kaufman’s own in San Francisco. He left behind “over 1,500 manuscript pages at the time of his death” after being struck down by a passing automobile.
Advice from 1 Disciple of Marx to 1 Heidegger Fanatic is somewhat slight in length and depth but offers strong evidence of the appealing nature of Santiago’s work. There will no doubt be further publications as the immense amount of manuscripts is gone through and organized. Given the dizzying trajectory of his life, a biography also seems destined to land in print someday. The lively spirit found within his poetry will surely draw the interest of scholars. In the interim, the aggressive pursuit of an agonized lust for life which spills out from this poem, written in 1975 and “considered by some as the canonical poem of Infrarealism,” will have to suffice.
Santiago’s eye lingers over everything in sight, gobbling up fodder for poetic combustion. The poem lashes out into the world calling for exuberant delight over its sensuous descriptive details:
. . . right now it would only seem
that Beauty is emotively radicalized
like multi-colored T-shirts that say: kiss me
from the most erogenous part of their torsos
The world drew Santiago outwards to embrace life with a frenzy, and he, in turn, wrote poetry that exhibits the world’s seductions right back.
Although experiencing a world where “Reality & Desire get thrashed / get chopped up / they spill out over each other,” he affirms “we are actors of infinite acts”; we need only rise up in song to answer the world in response. His poem is one long dalliance of entangled enticement to join in the visionary journey.
Fiction by Carissa Halston
Aqueous Books, June 2012
Paperback: 122pp; $14.00
Review by Karen Seehaus Papson
Carissa Halston was born in the wrong time. Her careful, precise use of language and acute awareness of the nuances in each painstakingly chosen word seem like attributes more suited to a woman from Emily Dickinson’s era. Yet, Halston’s novella The Mere Weight of Words, first and foremost a tale of language, is rooted in today’s world through her examination of how casually words can be used. Indeed, words are tossed, sometimes thrown, by those closest to Meredith, the book’s protagonist. In response, Meredith is something of a solitary person. In fact, she works to maintain this self-imposed isolation as she regularly uses her own deep knowledge of language to expand the chasm between herself and the people in her life. Readers will spend much of their time alone with Meredith as she grapples with her numerous demons.
Meredith’s own vision of herself—and indeed Halston’s own aesthetic—can be ascertained by examining Meredith’s preferred nickname, “Mere.” Halston writes:
. . . my father chose Meredith, from which I culled Mere.
mere – adj. – Having no greater extent, range, value, power, or importance than the designation implies; that is barely or only what it is said to be
Only what it is said to be. I chose this adjective eons ago, as mine to shoulder when nothing else suited me. How fitting that I wrought such a name from my father.
In just a few strokes, Halston easily conveys Mere’s own diminished sense of self-worth and also the extreme dysfunction that characterizes Mere’s relationship with her father. These simple details underscore what readers will quickly understand. This is not just a tale about language; at its core, it is about the difficulty in forging lasting human relationships. Mere struggles to do this particularly in her relationship with her father, a prominent filmmaker. However, Mere’s struggles with interpersonal relationships extend beyond the foundational father-daughter interplay and into her romantic relationships. Not surprisingly, Mere chooses a man who challenges her in ways strongly reminiscent of her father. The portions of the book featuring Mere’s and Patrick’s troubled romance provide some of Halston’s sharpest writing. In these sections, Halston displays Mere’s vulnerability and incisive wit in the simplest of exchanges: “I don’t recall whose idea it was, but during our final year of study, we were living together. ‘Patricia.’ The name was my commentary on our mounting domesticity. . . . ‘Patricia,’ I repeated, sliding my dagger in beneath a sweetness of tone.” Mere’s feminization of Patrick’s name speaks volumes about her own disdain for domestic life, her discomfort in personal relationships, and her pervading fear.
Halston certainly understands what motivates her character, and that is the real source of power in this novella. For many readers, the strength of the writing and the language will make up for the fact that the narrative leaves many areas unexplored. Mere’s visit to her father and their stilted exchange after his Alzheimer’s diagnosis could arguably take up its own novel. Likewise, Mere’s struggle with Bell’s Palsy should receive a bit more attention. However, readers can forgive these flaws simply because Halston’s prose is so pleasant to read. It’s clear that Halston has a way with words, and she has no doubt earned the devotion of a new set of readers with this volume.
Poetry by William Tod Seabrook
Firewheel Editions, September 2012
Chapbook: 36pp; $12.00
Review by Patricia Contino
Few American lives are as well documented as J. Robert Oppenheimer’s (1904-1967). The FBI kept files on “The Father of the Atomic Bomb” from 1941 (when he joined The Manhattan Project) up until the year before his death. Far more insight into the theoretical physicist’s controversial life and work is found in biographies by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin (their American Prometheus won the Pulitzer Prize) and scientist/historian Abraham Pais (J. Robert Oppenheimer: A Life). Politicians, military leaders, activists, and religious fanatics have exploited Oppenheimer’s legacy, but few can explain its ramifications better than Richard Rhodes did in his Pulitzer- and National Book Award-winning The Making of the Atomic Bomb.
Oppenheimer even has his own soundtrack: John Adams’ Doctor Atomic. The opera’s pivotal scene is not the Los Alamos blast (chillingly recreated with orchestra, chorus, sound effects and recorded voice of a Hiroshima survivor), but when Oppenheimer is alone onstage singing John Donne’s “Batter My Heart”—a favorite poem that inspired the name of the Trinity detonation site. He left papers and lecture transcripts but, unlike egomaniac scientists who won the Nobel Prize (he never did), no autobiography. Oppenheimer does speak for himself in the BBC Radio archives delivering the 1953 Reith Lecture “The Sciences and Man’s Community.” He also has the misfortune of being a badly executed in-joke in the first Jurassic Park film.
A chapbook on this complicated man may seem daunting, but William Tod Seabrook’s The Genius of J. Robert Oppenheimer works. He rightfully approaches Oppenheimer as someone “forever measured in half-lives.” The “three-person’d” omnipresence Donne addresses in his poem is liberally applied to Oppenheimer. However, Seabrook does not imply the Christian Trinity (Father, Son, Holy Spirit), but the suffering of multiple deaths “not unusual among geniuses.” There is the scientist’s actual death from cancer (erroneously given in the text as 1965); the revocation of his security clearance in 1954 due to Communist sympathies, speaking out against the escalating nuclear arms race, and his own arrogance; and his time at Trinity where he “perfected the bomb, and died more perfectly at Hiroshima.”
To the author’s credit, Oppenheimer never comes across as either deity or martyr.
The Nuclear Age is not exactly a dry topic. Starting with his Table of Contents, arranged as the Periodic Table, Seabrook is both informative and creative. These two opposites come together particularly well in a comparison made between Oppenheimer and Albert Einstein, who to this day remains a beloved curmudgeon:
Both Oppenheimer and Einstein taught at Princeton. Einstein was there when Germany was America’s enemy. Oppenheimer was there when Americans were America’s enemy. Einstein discovered how the universe works, while Oppenheimer sat in a witness chair, listening to conversations he didn’t remember, discovering how the universe works, really.
Another telling and extremely snarky comment regards Oppenheimer as “not having learned anything” when he begins his contentious marriage to Kitty Harrison.
While the tone of The Genius of J. Robert Oppenheimer is serious, there is a bit of science fiction. Oppenheimer, “The Destroyer of Worlds” as he called himself, has the ability to physically abuse his nemeses and predict the future. He also receives credit for being the author of “the Oppenheimer-Gita.”
This cheekiness may trip up some readers. A Google search does not show J. Robert Oppenheimer as the author of The Best Way to Cook Eggs. By being irreverent, Seabrook may be making a statement about the dangerous rise of anti-science rhetoric in education, media, and politics. Oppenheimer may have lost his security clearance, but science was nonetheless valued in post-World War II America. As Oppenheimer stated in “The Scientist in Society” (published in the out-of-print The Open Mind): “It is possible, manifestly, for society so to arrange things that there is no science. The Nazis made a good start in that direction; maybe the Communists will achieve it; and there is not one of us free to worry that this flourishing tree may someday not be alive any more.”
Thus, The Genius of J. Robert Oppenheimer gives the reader a genuine, unique sense of its subject—and inspires the need to know more.
Fiction by B.H. James
Red Hen Press, March 2013
Paperback: 264pp; $16.95
Review by Courtney McDermott
B.H. James, a high school English teacher from California, wrangles his knowledge of teenagers into the inventive coming-of-age novel Parnucklian for Chocolate. In stark, self-conscious language, the author navigates parenting, psychiatric facilities, and what it means to not quite belong in your family—a feeling not alien to most teenagers.
Protagonist Josiah is part Parnucklian. At least this is what his mother has told him his entire life—that she was abducted in college by his alien father, who is from the planet Parnuckle. The novel opens on the heels of Josiah’s sixteenth birthday, as he moves back in with his mother and her new fiancé, Johnson Davis, after having spent time in a group home. Suddenly, Josiah is expected to learn new habits and explain his oddities in what is considered a “normal” home life:
Josiah first met Johnson Davis’s daughter Bree four days after moving into the home of Johnson Davis. Having decided at eleven years old that if he ever grew up and had people that he loved he would live with them all together in his home, Josiah thought that Bree, whom he thought was pretty, liking the way that she looked in her soccer uniform, may be someone he could love and have a family with and live all together with in a home, and by the end of that night, he was sure of it.
Josiah craves a sense of normalcy, and yet there is no hope of him getting it in this “family.” What is most amusing and ironic about Parnucklian for Chocolate is how Josiah ends up being the least alien of the characters. His mother’s inability to parent—the invention of Parnuckle in the first place—makes her one of the most bizarre characters in the novel. She completes Josiah’s homeschooling homework, only feeds him chocolate (because that’s what Parnucklians eat), and slaps him when he uncovers details about his real father. It’s no wonder that Josiah imagines that his real mother must be a Parnucklian goddess that looks like Cher.
Johnson Davis, the strict, “normal” stepfather, is almost robot-like in his regimen and “[l]ike the Greeks” in his child-rearing practices. Josiah was put in a group home for indiscriminately peeing on things around the house, and though his chocolate diet and lack of knowledge about the English equivalent for words (he thinks an Andre Agassi is a penis, for example) make him odd and amusing, in the end James reveals that Josiah may have the clearest sense of reality, after all. Imagination is Josiah’s most powerful protection; where his mother uses imagination to hide the truth about Josiah’s father, Josiah uses his imagination to make the most of his present situation.
Though Josiah is quirky, the greater interest of the story lies in Bree’s character, Josiah’s soon-to-be stepsister and love interest. She is evidence that even the “best” home life can alienate people. She is at times seductive, manipulative, cunning, bold—all to mask her vulnerability. Yet she is selfish, and by the end, no different than she was before. Bree is an Eve character—tempting and raw, but sex seems to be her only weapon, which lessened my empathy for her. In constructing Bree, it would have enhanced her character to use more than just sex and smoking pot to get across the message that she is stumbling through life trying to find her place. There is little original about Bree’s character, though her quick quips and colorful personality at least make scenes with her interesting.
James writes in long, meandering sentences, and the use of Johnson Davis’s full name and the technique of writing about things through an outsider’s perspective lend themselves to this tale of an “alien” child. However, some of these techniques felt like tricks, and though used consistently, were overwrought. In a short story, James’s style would have thrived and heightened narrative tension, but in the novel length they were exhausting. There is almost a staccato-like rhythm to James’s sentences, and repetition of names and information is reminiscent of Gertrude Stein, perhaps. This repetition, and distance that it creates, allows James to reveal disturbing scenarios—like the truth about Josiah’s father and mother—as though he is holding them out at a safe distance with a pair of tongs, far enough away to be examined without being discomfiting.
The Space Between
Nonfiction by Stacey D’Erasmo
Graywolf Press, July 2013
Paperback: 144pp; $12.00
Review by Wendy Breuer
The Art of Intimacy: The Space Between by Stacey D’Erasmo is an addition to the Graywolf Art of series, edited by Charles Baxter. Discussions focus on examples from literary works: what effect is achieved? How? Was this the writer’s intent? The writer becomes alive within the work, making choices in a conversation that includes the reader.
D’Erasmo begins her exploration by describing a photographic exhibit in which the photographer, Nan Goldin, pairs her work with images from painting and sculpture from the Louvre, creating “impressions, painstakingly rendered, of living human beings, now gone . . . vivid fossils of intimacy.” This provides a starting point to define intimacy within a work of fiction:
What makes it “work” or not? One way into this delicate matter might be to look not so much at individual characters and their motivation . . . or even at their interactions per se, but at exactly what is in that space between them, the linkage. . . . Where do they meet? How does the text bring them together? What electricity do we feel from the juxtaposition?
This book attempts a typology of ways to use language to explore the unknown space of connection.
D’Erasmo makes a compelling case for use of the subjunctive mode: “If I saw you. If I had found you . . .” She points out that “it’s an optical illusion that is also potentially quite a powerful tool for summoning up desire and loss simultaneously.” As an example, in William Maxwell’s novel So Long, See You Tomorrow, a teenage boy fails to acknowledge and reach out to another boy who has experienced a devastating tragedy. This fleeting moment gives way to regret and an ongoing sorrow. “From this failure, an intense act of imagining takes place as the narrator reconstructs the entire story . . .” Maxwell allows the narrator, out of emotional necessity, to create a subjunctive empathy for the experience of the other boy that he was not able to do in real life.
D.H. Lawrence crosses boundaries through the physical. Sexual intimacy becomes a life-changing disturbance that brings empathic closeness which D’Erasmo suggests is not unrelated to the subjunctive, “as if” as a meeting place. Characters “use their bodies to break open their psyches, to know something, get somewhere that isn’t available by any other means . . . the only boat out of a crushing psychological and cultural localness.”
Image, simile, or metaphor creates intimacy. D’Erasmo points out that, through this means, characters may be united by the author in ways of which they are not fully conscious. An example is image of candlelight that unites the company at the Ramsays’ dinner party in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse: “In Woolf, the image is the meeting ground for any and all human beings . . . it is communion, erotic space; it is transformational . . . capable of moving outside the confines of time and space, leaping at will from person to person.” The candle flames create connection and dissolve boundaries between inside and out, dark and light, known and the encroaching unknown darkness of death.
More complex is the discussion of intimacy that is created by destructive force. D’Erasmo asserts: “One method by which writers create a space between in which to do intimate damage, is the use of blur, penumbra, and darkness.” The stakes are ambiguous as in the relationship between the captain and the murderer he takes on board and conceals in Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Sharer. A crime against another may take place in language only, through “linguistic ruthlessness.” The reader becomes an ambivalent witness in the dark.
D’Erasmo discusses contemporary works, which require intimacy between the author and the reader “in the white space.” More is required from the reader than in conventional narrative. In Italo Calvino’s If on a winter’s night a traveler, the authorial voice is always hyper-aware of the presence of the reader where the as if “. . . is a fold, another tale, a space of nearly limitless possibility.” Play it as it Lays by Joan Didion, presented in fragments, requires the reader to actively piece together some kind of moral and narrative coherence. In The Water Cure by Percival Everett, the unreliable narrator/author leads the reader from rage at the murderer of his child into the moral abyss of cruel revenge not fully comprehended as it unfolds in fragments.
“Why meet?” D’Erasmo asks. “It’s all too easy to throw a little intimacy, especially damaged intimacy, at a narrative to get it to seem serious and literary.” She argues that we do not know what will happen, “if only we have the courage to look closely.” The intimacy between writer and characters comes in the exploration. This work provides helpful light for the search.
Fiction by Valerie Fioravanti
BkMk Press, December 2012
Paperback: 188pp; $15.95
Review by Elizabeth O’Brien
Garbage Night at the Opera is writer Valerie Fioravanti’s debut short story collection. Set in Brooklyn, New York, the book follows the trajectory of two successive generations of a large family of Italian descent. At the heart of the family are several sisters who, as they enter adulthood, live on and raise their own families in the building where they grew up. The sisters appear and reappear throughout the stories in the many roles their lives demand of them: as sisters, wives, mothers, aunts, and so on. Tracking the family tree through the book’s jumble of characters and relationships can be difficult at times, but this is fortunately not necessary to the understanding of the story lines.
At its best, Fioravanti’s work features characters with compelling motivations who make surprising decisions, and several of the stories included here are excellent. “Garbage Night at the Opera,” “After Jude,” and “Seventeen” are all standouts. Some of the other stories are lessened by action that plays out passively in back story, and by occasional lapses in point of view. However, the arrangement allows the fourteen individual stories to add up to a collection that’s larger in whole; Garbage Night at the Opera’s first story focuses on a young girl named Franca and her father, Mossimo, and the book’s trajectory reintroduces the father-daughter pair at the end of the book, much later in life. Other characters reappear similarly. Read in order, the stories cumulate in a well-rounded anthropology of the family and the neighborhood where they live, as the neighborhood suffers the vagaries of time and undergoes economic and demographic changes following successive closings of local factories and breweries.
Narrated with deadpan frankness, Fioravanti’s characters’ lives are shaped by economic hardship, leading to unemployment, alcoholism, strained romantic relationships, sexual violence, teen delinquency and other troubles. These themes will be familiar to readers of Raymond Carver, Charles Bukowski, and other American canonical short story writers who have long portrayed the masculine response to hard times in their work. Fioravanti’s stories, however, tend to prioritize the female rather than the male point of view, which offers a refreshing counterpoint perspective on familiar themes.
The tight focus on a single extended family also allows for occasional moments of tragic compassion, as when Rose Anna sees her niece’s bicycle, a luxury she can’t afford for her own children, and wonders “how many cigarettes it would take to buy something that fine, to see her own child’s face riding by looking so red-cheeked and happy. Sometimes Rose Anna wanted better for her children so bad she wished she’d never had them.” Fioravanti’s women deliver bouts of devastating honesty that elevate the characters emotionally. Garbage Night at the Opera was selected by Jacquelyn Mitchard as winner of the G.S. Sharat Chandra Prize for Short Fiction sponsored by BkMk Press, and is overall a strong debut collection.
Fiction by Ludmilla Petrushevskaya
Translated from the Russian by Anna Summers
Penguin, January 2013
Paperback: 171pp; $15.00
Review by Olive Mullet
Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s title tells us we should expect wry humor and irony in these 17 short stories. They are set in ironically coveted post-Revolution Moscow apartment buildings, divided and subdivided into tiny units, shared by hardly affluent citizens. Yet these people carry on in unexpected and convoluted love relationships. Translator Anna Summers tells us that the four sections of this latest collection, which encompasses Petrushevskaya’s earliest and latest stories, include:
glimpsed romances in their earliest stages (“A Murky Fate”);
the twisted and accidental circumstance in which families are thrown together;
parents struggling to raise children without murdering each other (“My Little One”); and
mature romances that have run their course or have been realized in a new form (“A Happy Ending”).
According to Summers, the thematic center is maternal love—“the only kind that must survive if families are to endure.” But the mothering may be of an old deranged man (“Tamara’s Baby”) or of a difficult husband once he becomes helpless (“A Happy Ending”). In the ironically entitled “Hallelujah, Family,” the seductress sister-in-law girl gives birth to a girl who in time continues the pattern so that we have eventually four generations of women giving birth to females without the benefit of marriage.
Petrushevskaya knew such people from her life in these apartments. The “follies and cruelties of post-Soviet society” are summed up in the Russian word byt, which means “waiting in line for basic goods, from potatoes to winter shoes (‘Young Berries’); it means inflation that robs old people of their savings (‘A Happy Ending’): it means alcoholism . . . poverty, inhumane laws and a shortage of housing.” These “domestic stories of fringe characters . . . offer a cast of pathetic characters barely holding themselves together . . . their lives [are] their claustrophobic apartments, their ungrateful children, their sick parents, their frustrated marriages.”
This may sound depressing, yet these stories are not grim. In fact, many are not just ironic but happy. For instance, the first story, “A Murky Fate,” starts us off smiling with the characters. A woman asks her mother to vacate the apartment so she can have a lover visit. The lover insists on two things: wine and cake. As soon as he comes in, he heads for the cake, eats most of it, drinks some wine, does his business with her, then goes back to the cake and leaves. But in spite of not continuing their affair, both are smiling at the end.
Most stories end very differently from what is expected at the start. In the beginning of “The Fall,” the “we” narrator notices a guest at a resort: “We couldn’t ignore her—she was too vulgar. We overheard her laughter . . . everywhere. Just imagine her: a tight perm, plucked eyebrows, gaudy lipstick, a miniskirt, new platforms. It was all cheap and tasteless but with an attempt at fashion.” She attracts:
A pack of admirers representing every breed. . . . At the head of the pack parades a tall one in a heavy wool suit, despite the heat. . . . He is followed by a potbelly in a shapeless tank top; next comes, incongruously, a skinny youth with hippie locks; and the procession is finished by a runt in a tracksuit.
This opening does not forecast the realization at the end, a sad one—lovers “deceived by the promise of eternal summer, seduced and abandoned.”
Many stories contain humorous passages, such as one character in “Like Penelope” having to correct translations like “a passerby passed by” and “he was sitting on a seat.” Deprivations are made funny when exaggerated in order to convince an apartment dweller to let someone move in. And more dark humor is found in the “Ali Baba” story: “She wanted to tell them, for example, about the first time she took pills, when she went blind for twenty-four hours. The second time put her to sleep for two days, but the sixth time she woke up in the morning fresh as a daisy.”
Not all of the stories have an uplifting end, but readers cheer for the resilience of these people, who somehow turn a new corner, and life begins again.
Nonfiction by Alma Gottlieb, Philip Graham
University of Chicago Press, September 2012
Paperback: 184pp; $20.00
Review by Lydia Pyne
A braid is a fantastic narrative metaphor for complex collections of worldviews. Through the plaited entity, we can see independent strands woven together, each contributing to the creation of something that is more than its single self. We can see complex knotting and intricate interlacing that highlight the skill of the weaver (or storyteller, in our metaphor). A single-strand narrative is a ponytail—simple, standard, and fairly unimaginative. A braided narrative, however, is a building block—one that leads to unending possibilities of elaborate designs and coiffures. In Braided Worlds, their ethnography-reflection-travel memoir, Alma Gottlieb and Philip Graham work extremely well with the metaphor of a braided narrative. Their collections of stories from their time with the Beng in Côte d’Ivoire clearly reflect their commitment to “re-create the immediacy of the present-moment external drama of our lives among the Beng people, as well as the drama of our internal states.”
The authors bring a unique set of skills and expectations to their collaborative writing effort. Gottlieb (an anthropologist) offers her ethnographic field expertise and the commitment of continued work to make sense of the socio-cultural complexities of the Beng. Graham, her husband and a writer, brings his sense of narrative structure. Indeed, if one were to step back and reflect about the levels of “other” in the Gottlieb-Graham-Beng relationships, Braided Worlds offers the reader a great sense of what being “outside” of different circles means. For example, Gottlieb and Graham are “other” to the Beng, the Beng are “other” to most Western audiences—and even Graham sits a bit as an “other” since his work with the Beng doesn’t depend on the observer/observed interaction that Gottlieb’s does. The authors point out that this particular book picks up where their previous co-authored book, Parallel Worlds: An Anthropologist and a Writer Encounter Africa, ends. These sets of experiences seek to bring together (weave or braid together, perhaps?) experiences and people that were running more “in parallel” in their previous work.
What does the book do, really? Fundamentally, it is organized thematically around life history, the supernatural, emotional expression, and the importance of place—all of these themes focused on the Beng and the evolution of Gottlieb-Graham’s fourteen-year relationship with them. Within each of these themes, the authors offer their own voices to events and recollections. They switch off as narrators, giving each other the opportunity to pull a different strand of their braid into its proper place in these narrative recollections. Moreover, and perhaps more significantly, it is abundantly clear that the authors want the reader to be able to have a sympathetic viewpoint and easily accessible window into the life and thinking of the Beng—they explain, describe, and offer reflection about their time with the Beng without being apologetic. We see Gottlieb’s anthropological training and commitment completely here.
However, in many ways, the book arguably also reflects the turmoil, the confusion, and the conflicting commitments within the Beng communities, Côte d’Ivoire itself, and the underlying complexities of Gottlieb’s and Graham’s work. Braided Worlds, to continue its role in metaphor, could be considered a microcosm of the unrest and conflict on the myriad of cultural and political levels the authors write to. The book seems to suffer from a bit of its own identity crisis—not, perhaps, unlike the different strands the authors bring together. Braided Worlds is neither, truly, a travel memoir nor an anthropological analysis. It jumps from one field experience to another. It seems to require a willingness on the part of the reader that all of these threads will be brought together by the end of the book (by the end of the “field season?”) and leaves the reader wanting a bit more structure and direction. In short, it is more than a collection of family stories and less than a textbook—but that leave a lot of literary space in between. (Indeed, Gottlieb and Graham charmingly use their son, Nathaniel, as a proxy narrator for the reader. Nathaniel’s first encounter with the Beng is most likely the reader’s first encounter with the culture, letting us see its complexity through the eyes of a six-year-old.)
What Braided Worlds perhaps lacks is a commitment to a literary genre. The authors seem to want the legitimacy of their credentials (e.g. the writing and anthropological credentials) without the accountability toward their disciplines. The reader feels that there is a sense of franticness and urgent necessity that the authors write toward—an imperative to tell these stories and to make sure that others know that the stories have been told, even if the telling of these stories pulls the reader in a myriad of literary directions.
However, Braided Worlds offers a unique opportunity for readers to encounter the plaited complexity of the Beng world and the turbulent politics from Côte d’Ivoire that surround the community. The collection gives readers a chance to “see behind the curtain” of anthropological research and understand what might motivate some anthropological studies (in the case of Gottlieb) or some broader writing projects (in the case of Graham). Braided Worlds does nothing if not highlight the “quest for cultural understanding [that] deepens and complicates in such a way that surprises are always possible.”
Fiction by Mariah K. Young
Heyday Books, November 2012
Paperback: 216pp; $15.00
Review by Trena Machado
Masha’allah and Other Stories by Mariah K. Young, recipient of the James D. Houston Award, is a book of nine short stories that take place in the Bay Area of California. Young, enlivened by the energy and spirit of the streets, uses an empathic voice to imagine the lives of those around her living in financial insecurity as they cobble together a living with various gigs, pot drop-offs, random parties to bartend, limo drivers with pick-ups, men meeting in clusters to be day laborers. She writes about those trapped and pushing against economic restraints: people induced to come to America under false promises by their own countrymen, minorities finding ways to use their talents to catch the rung up out of what they were born into, immigrants constructing a forged identity to become citizens, a teenage girl who escapes the life of her parents’ illegal operation to breed dogs for dog fighting. Young’s empathic voice lets us feel the humanity of the characters beyond class and ethnicity . . . “they are us.” Even though it may not be their voice and the way they would express their experiences, or even their ethos, we are given a path to cross over to them.
Three of the stories are about immigrants, “One Space,” “The Front of the House,” and “Prints.” Each story shows the global society in which we are now living—the new melting pot of economic refugees from all over the world. “One Space,” written in the second person, is unsettling as the character is experiencing a life of dislocation from his wife and the familiarity of his homeland. This unnamed man, being in America illegally, has had a series of different names from Phoenix to Los Angeles to Oakland. His alienation is penetratingly deep as he is sending money home to his family even as he wants to be with his wife: “But to come home without something to offer—best not to come home at all. The score is clear: back in Poza Rica, you wouldn’t be working at all. You would never be able to have a home for you and Eldie.”
In “Prints,” the series of multiple names appears again as we meet a seven year old who is terrified that he won’t remember to say he was born in San Francisco, not Manila. His final time to clinch onto citizenship is at sixteen, if he passes the test for his driver’s license and has his photo and name on the same document. He will have no more worries: “The license would be my proof.” In “The Front of the House,” two people were tricked by their countryman, Ramesh, into coming to America, one for a good marriage and the other for a good job—both remaining in the same economic plight as if they had remained in India. Jack, renaming himself, coming from Delhi to be a manager, was put to washing dishes. He did not know “when he could finally bring them over—Sati would have to point him out to their son, introduce them like strangers.” His son had been in the womb when he left three years prior.
Running through the stories are the longings of an economic underclass trying to get a handhold up to a place of a more assured survival. What the characters have in common is a drive to combine their will and talent to find a place which is often about being “legit.” In “Chinta’s Fabulous Traveling Salon,” Chinta saves to be able to rent her own chair in a salon. In “Studies in Entropic Botany,” Art, growing marijuana for the street gangs, dreams of wearing a suit, having a desk, and selling his wares in a licensed medicinal club that he owns: “I wanted on that club train.” The push against poverty leeches them from below, but their spirits are strong and each of them, in full dignity, is never a victim.
Young’s writing techniques provide the stories with layers and depth. Metaphors are created purely by the specific. In “Litters,” a pit bull delivering her pups turns and eats the weakest one, making a bloody mess and frightening away seventeen-year-old Della’s cousin. The story that Della’s deceased father told her to make it better when she was a child she now tells her cousin: “She had to feed her other pups. . . . Instinct. It was the only thing she knew to do.” The pit bull’s action and the explanation echoes through passage after passage of her family’s plight, centering the punch of the story. Another writing technique that makes the characters come alive is their moment to moment self-reflection and decision-making that are list-like but have the effect of immediacy.
In “Masha’allah,” Sully, a limousine driver who had better things planned for himself and his beloved wife but got caught in a job lay-off he could never recover from, thinks to himself:
. . . that same logic is probably what keeps Suze with him—Sully was a good bet once, and she’s too loyal or too stubborn to admit that he didn’t pay out the way he was supposed to. No kids, a pissant pension, and they are still living in the same house on Twenty-sixth Street, the house that they were supposed to move out of once he got a management job at the shipping yard . . .
Experiencing the empathic, even though hypothesized, drama in the dominant culture’s voice of being an immigrant or a minority dealing with the limitations of poverty, we come closer to feeling what it is like to not fit into an economy held together by an entrenched social system. The empathic voice not only lets us see ourselves, but lets us experience the lives of other people and the world in a more accurate way—we are now in the first stages of a global society, more and more neighborhoods in the large cities a mixture of many ethnicities and cultures. The American melting pot, unlike in the past, is now mostly non-European. We need a human bridge to one another, and the vision and insight of these stories are a link in providing that.
Fiction by Robert Perisic
Black Balloon Publishing, April 2013
Paperback: 208pp; $14.00
Review by David Breithaupt
What can a novel show us that a textbook might not? Perhaps it can demonstrate how people truly live and breathe in any historical point in time. When I was young, novels like Robert Olen Butler’s Alleys of Eden presented an experience of what the American debacle in Vietnam was like. Richard Wright’s Black Boy revealed a world so alien to me, a Midwestern white boy, that I could hardly believe it was real. The Orphan Master’s Son took me to North Korea. Of course I studied history books in school and on my own, but it was the novels that left an imprint as if they were true memories. They took me to real places.
Robert Perisic’s novel Our Man in Iraq takes us to a modern-day Croatia with growing pains as it struggles to catch the bus of global capitalism while jumping from the cab of European socialism. Toni, the book’s hero and drama student-turned-economic reporter, explains:
We’ve been through communism, war and dictatorship. Constant brain-ironing. Your circumstances adjust miraculously when you live in systems like that and you don’t have the dough for big experiments. Your life shrink-wraps around you and you tread a narrow path; you hold course and wait for the storm to blow over.
Perisic’s story opens in Zagreb, a metropolitan center in Croatia, with our aforementioned hero and journalist struggling to build a life for himself and his girlfriend Sanja, whose star is rapidly rising in the theater world. “We belonged elsewhere, somewhere better—we were artists, after all! No one understood us,” he laments. Alas, Toni finds himself instead pressured by a well-meaning but pushy family to hire his cousin Boris to work for Toni’s paper. Boris is one of those hard to employ relatives who depend on the kindness of others to get by. Toni decides to send Boris to Iraq to cover the war. Cousin Boris promptly begins sending back email dispatches which are part Gonzo, bordering on incoherent, yet strangely convey a reality more accurately than traditional approaches. “When the price of Tomahawks comes down the world will change. When they come up with advanced weaponry at an acceptable price, the world will be different. Then the Yanks will also be able to intervene where there’s no money. But the question is when that’s going to happen,” Boris ponders in one note. Toni takes the heat, though, when Boris goes missing. Then it is discovered that he was Toni’s cousin. The dung hits the fan and Toni is fired for nepotism, just as his girlfriend’s acting star continues to grow. “My whole life I’d secretly been waiting for a miracle,” confesses Toni, “And now it was high time for it to happen.” Toni’s miracle doesn’t occur; instead he invests his entire savings in a bank which promptly fails.
But not to fear, it’s always darkest before the sun comes up, and Perisic takes you on a literary roller-coaster ride across a country that is as turbulent as the lives it is hosting. Along the way you will meet a cast of characters who pop off the page, including Toni’s friend, Markatovic, who “had a registered firm for marketing, publishing, and all sorts of things, and he drank too much coffee all over town; he handled a million pieces of information from all sorts of different departments. He liked to say he knew half the country, and he presented himself as a link to everything.” There is the bodyguard-surrounded tycoon, Dolina, “a dissident who’d clashed with the powers-that-be in the capital,” and the old economist, Mr. Olenic, “who’d witnessed all the reforms of the last decades” and whom Toni interviews for his paper, delivering his overview of the present-day Croation economic picture. Then add a cast of eccentric family members and girlfriends. You wouldn’t find most of these characters in a textbook, just as you might be hard-pressed to find Joseph Heller’s Yossarian in a history of WWII.
Our Man in Iraq was published in Croatia in 2008 and enjoyed eight weeks on the bestseller list. Here’s hoping the American public gives Perisic an equal look.
Language Revitalization for Families
Anthology edited by Leanne Hinton
Heyday Books, March 2013
Paperback: 256pp; $20.00
Review by Alyse Bensel
Promoting a grassroots approach to language revitalization, Leanne Hinton has edited over a dozen retellings from families who have brought their native languages back into the home. All of the essays in Bringing Our Languages Home possess a clear congruency in five different categories on how to approach language learning. Most essays focus on learning and reintroducing American tribal languages, such as Miami, Yuchi, Mohawk, and Karuk. This anthology certainly has a very focused audience, but those with an already established interest in linguistics and grassroots movements may also wish to follow along with these varied essays.
In her introduction to Bringing Our Languages Home, Hinton explains the exigence and context for compiling the anthology. She relates the history of certain indigenous peoples’ forced integration into dominant society. However, there are current and growing counter-movements to this enormous loss: “This book is about families who so love their endangered language of heritage that they have made them a part of their homes and their daily lives, despite all of the pressures against doing so. And it is for families who might wish to do this brave act themselves.” In the book’s conclusion, Hinton also provides practical guides and links to resources for interested families to take the next step or go further in reviving their language.
Organized into sections that describe the family’s current situation (“Starting From Zero,” “Leaning from the Elders,” “Families and Communities Working Together,” and “Family Learning-Language Programs”), each essay employs different storytelling techniques to convey its story. Ranging from in-depth narrative to more lyrical stories to step-by-step guides, these essays capture the voices of sometimes multiple authors. In the opening piece “Miami Spoken Here,” each family member writes a segment of the essay. Having to learn their language from documents, as there were no more living fluent speakers, parents Daryl and Karen chronicle learning the language and then passing it onto their children. Daryl writes: “I remember feeling a sense of loss but also a sense of responsibility when I learned the status of our language. I became determined to try and learn what I could.” Many other families detail these struggles and successes with none, very little, or one-parent language comprehension.
For those wishing to know more about the historical roots and progression of native and indigenous rights, including that of a right to language, Bringing Our Languages Home builds off of larger historical movements by presenting the family and community-level impacts of those who fought (and still fight) to bring cultural access to their communities and, most importantly, their children. Margaret Noori, in “Language, Family, and Community,” points out how “there is a need for both orality and literacy beyond the walls of comfort and shelter. Parents and children working hard to save endangered languages need to hear the words of their people in culturally supportive classrooms, at friendly local businesses, around the drum, and in digital space created by computers and cell phones.” Allowing a space to reflect and think of ways to expand the range of a language, these essays establish how families and communities are continuing to promote heritage languages while providing readers a roadmap of their own.
Poetry by Laura Elrick
Kenning Editions, December 2012
Paperback: 103pp; $14.95
Review by Patrick James Dunagan
Practicing a vagabond bit of poetic loitering, the haunting use of a well-steadied repetition lingers round Laura Elrick’s Propagation, sounding off with jarring consistency throughout:
of the resonance
resonant detail and
what you can say
of the detail
and that’s resonance
what you can say
This series of untitled lyric fragments at times resembles mixed-up notes from jotted-down scraps of overheard conversation, which are then brought together without key details included. The sort of idle day-to-day chitchat which makes for such mild banter gets mixed together with news from unknown sources, full of what appears to be cast-off debris from hefty doses of serious reading, without much of any context tying it all together:
heavy gets more
as if sediment like
through time lodged
in that geology
This would at first seem not to yield much of interest, yet again and again instances are found where a series of lines carries a significant attraction when read, whether silently or aloud. Possible meaning begins to accrue only to then retreat with a recurring thud as speech patterns get flipped about and rearranged. Syntax gets remixed, then remixed anew:
out of me
the blood is coming out
again the blood comes out
the blood comes
comes out and
blood comes out also
blood comes out also
blood also comes out
Mysterious and disturbing, or matter-of-fact and disarming? Elrick withholds as much as she offers. In the back of the book, her “Notes & Acknowledgements” attributes her interest in such repeating of “phonological residues left over from The Day as modulating chain structures” to “an earworm episode” brought on by “Robert Desnos’ poem ‘Sleep Spaces.’’’ She refers to the writing undertaken in Propagation as “tossing a phrase off in looping pulses until it begins to migrate,” acknowledging that “a kind of narrative emerged in the work, though an oddly shaped one to be sure.”
Assorted themes and motifs get picked up on, tussled about, but never further developed. There are instances of clear, direct statement but no final summation; phrasal accumulations run down the page driven by the sheer propelled inertia of repetitively weighted lines. Every causal return an opening as much as a closing:
I wouldn’t be a bully
I wouldn’t bully
never I would never do that
I would just never bully
I would just never bully somebody
my colleague I
wouldn’t bully my colleague I
wouldn’t bully my colleague
especially I wouldn’t
bully the less powerful
ones the less confident the ones
with marginal relations you know
I wouldn’t do that
that is one thing I would
There’s apparent humor—“the king / is dead POP! / the king / is dead”—along with a shopping list: “peanut butter / cayenne / coriander / lemon pops.” Rhyme and off-rhyme make random appearance, casting a rare, casual elegiac mood. There’s also an undeniably earnest desire for expression that meets frustration as well as fruition in face of the resistant form the writing project itself adopts:
matters that silence
if it isn’t passive
This lends itself towards sign of possible resolution: “and talking matters / and silence / silence matters.”
No resolution is found, however, for the possible is always to be left in the hands of the unresolved. Elrick’s attention continually remains diverted upon what is immediately raw. The writing flickers, quavering at the point of unleashing directed knowledge. Only, Elrick is never interested in having the work be so invested outside of its own means. The poet remains fixedly open in her process, while the work stays permeably closed in exasperated gasping over spent material. Everything seemingly enters into the writing as simply as it ever exits. The results are a much hampered, exquisite yet harmless display of various disturbing syntactical layering back of everyday speech. Yet that lingering buzz which never dissipates hangs in the air, willing itself insistently onwards.