NewPages Book Reviews

August 4, 2008

The Withdrawal Method :: Nylund the Sarcographer :: Structure of the Embryonic Rat Brain :: Awesome :: Margarita, How Beautiful the Sea :: Praying at Coffee Shops :: Shelter Half :: Hunger :: The Temple Gate Called Beautiful :: Spooky Action at a Distance :: Apologies Forthcoming

The Withdrawal Method coverThe Withdrawal Method

Fiction by Pasha Malla

Anansi, 2008

ISBN-13: 978-0887842153

Hardcover: 256pp; $29.95 (Canadian)

Review by Matt Bell

Pasha Malla's debut collection The Withdrawal Method starts off with "The Slough," a story divided into two parts. The first, a weirder, more fanciful tale, begins with the unnamed protagonist's girlfriend announcing that she intends to shed her skin, like a snake, and emerge as someone completely new. He begins to imagine what this new woman might be like and what he might mean to her, leading up to an abrupt shift as the story stops, resets and restarts as a more realistic narrative about a young man named Pasha whose girlfriend Lee is dying of cancer.

After the long months of her hospitalization, he too starts to leave her behind, to imagine the life that waits on the other side of her death. "There's no 'if.'" The doctors have given Lee three months, tops. “All these things are already mine," he says, while imagining which of their possessions he would keep and which he would get rid of. Later, he stares at their books, wondering what it would be like to "reinvent yourself as someone hapless and amusing, someone whose missteps are enjoyable, not simply wrong." At the end of the story, he picks up a notepad and starts to write, presumably penning the story that is the first half of "The Slough." It's an intriguing structure, and a fine introduction to Malla's work.

Many of Malla's stories take place in hospitals and waiting rooms, in the childhood bedrooms of sick children, and in the hollows left behind by the persistent decay of death and divorce. They revolve around loss, both the act of losing someone or something and the often nuclear fallout that follows the destruction of a family or a community. In "Being Like Bulls," a speculative story about what happens to the workers at Niagara Falls after the falls stop flowing, a young immigrant who has inherited his parents' gift shop business has to decide whether to keep holding on to what they had or to allow it to be destroyed instead, freeing him for whatever might come next:

Pretty much the entire store was destroyed... Even from where I gazed on from the periphery, it was impossible not to get caught up in things – the explosions of crystal and glass, the cracking of wood, the shelves crashing down in an avalanche of kitsch. But beyond the vague, vicarious thrill of voyeurism, I didn't feel anything. I'd expected to be flooded with sadness, or relief, or nostalgia, or catharsis. Instead, all I did was watch.

Elsewhere, a writer with a disintegrating relationship volunteers by spending his afternoons caring for a dying child, and a young girl finds her relationship to her divorced father shaken as she is redefined as a woman instead of a child, an object instead of a daughter.

In one of the best stories, "Pet Therapy," Karel, an accused child molester, takes a job at a hospital petting zoo protecting the goats from an amorous monkey. As he struggles to understand his co-workers and the aggressive, distant bonabo, he also faces the parallels between the monkey and himself, between the rape of the goats and the crime he is sure he's innocent of, except when he's not. He says, "I felt like I'd maybe even done it – that I might have blacked out for a bit and like sleepwalked my way into something. Or just been kidding around and maybe touched a kid in some way I shouldn't have, without realizing." As the story moves forward, Karel's need for forgiveness increases alongside his unreliability, until the gripping finale that leaves him stranded between punishment and mercy.

In this debut collection, Pasha Malla shows himself to be a confident and capable storyteller with a gift for depicting not only the excesses of loss and love that accompany our worst days, but also the new and often terrifying futures that lie ahead of those black moments. As his characters inch their way forward, looking for forgiveness or understanding or connection, so too do we, caught up in the gravity of these strong and strange stories.

 

Nylund the Sarcographer coverNylund the Sarcographer

Novel by Joyelle McSweeney

Tarpaulin Sky Press, October 2007

ISBN-10: 0977901947

ISBN-13: 978-0977901944

Paperback: 132pp; $14.00

Review by Cynthia Reeser

To understand the world through its surfaces is sarcography, according to the titular character of Joyelle McSweeney's Nylund the Sarcographer. The term “sarcography” breaks down to mean “flesh writing,” and is somewhat expanded to include rain, reading, one’s children or the idea of them, the senses, possibly more. McSweeney does not marry poetic and prosaic language – rather, she brings them together in a collision of semi-fabulist writing. Chapter 1, “I’m a Lug,” begins, “What else could I be as I walked down the street but a sarcographer of raining. I had to build a cask around it, built like itself.”

The writing forms dips and peaks of prose, descending into obscurity and deliberate misspellings, then arcing up unexpectedly into a concrete, more readily accessible narrative. At times, the ordinary devolves into a poetic metaphysics, such as when Nylund, in a memory of his now missing twin sister Daisy, recalls sitting with her, looking through a pack of trading cards:

I held up each of the cards in turn and she flicked them away, over my shoulder and between the white rungs of the fence. They must have settled in the turned earth behind me. Now we were just looking at each other. An earth burial for the robots. Diet of worms. I had a bad taste in my mouth. The vein-hued and the colorless grubs rotoring the soil to get at the cardboard instincts. Wrong stuff in my wiring. Gummed paper guts. Play-brite vinyl sheathing my still copper blood.

Nylund fuses himself with the things around him, in this case with discarded trading cards. His body becomes, itself, a cask housing cardboard offal. His mind, too, is susceptible to such effects – the mind is, after all, something to be written upon: “Nylund felt his mind itself stretch and bend in sarcography.”

It may come as no surprise, then, that Nylund’s mind is split. Dualities abound, found in the language, split between poetry and prose, in his idea of selfhood, represented by his physical twin sister, Daisy, and the twin-ness inherent in his thinking: “If only we could twin our behavior to oppositely arrive.” Twinhood, it seems, is the spark that led to Nylund’s title; twins often have ways of communicating that confound those in the singular, and is sometimes described as a sort of telepathy. “Sarcographic development: telepathic surgery” would seem to point to this theory. But where there is twinning, there is by definition a sort of split, and for Nylund it shows up in instances of substitution (paraphasia) of one word for another (the “name” of the neck for the “nape”) and so on.

Nylund’s perceptions seem sometimes skewed or inverted. People, things, are expelled, extruded, rather than leaving on their own free will. An egg does not break, but rather, “The yolk exerts itself outwards,” and people do not simply leave a building, instead, “Silverbuttoned and then trenchcoated men emitted from the house.” Empty spaces, negatives, are everywhere, and this too seems part of the nature of sarcography: “On the lintel, numbers had fallen away and left pale eidolons, each empty space punched with a nailhole which asterisked the building.”

Nylund is a sort of schizophrenic modern-day version of Bartleby the Scrivener. Like that other fictional character, a man who was rendered immobile by his quirks and preferences, Nylund often displays an over-attentiveness to empty spaces and objects of no consequence. As he narrates what is supposed to be the story of his involvement in a murder plot and something involving the absence of his twin sister, his sarcographic nature leads him to envelop scene, setting and narrative into the scripting of his own mind.

Joyelle McSweeney has not only created a unique concept – that of sarcography – she has illustrated it memorably with a masterful redefinition of what constitutes prose, and created a character who is the very embodiment of writing, reminding us of how flexible the narrative form can be.

 

Structure of the Embryonic Rat Brain coverStructure of the
Embryonic Rat Brain

Poetry by Christopher Janke

Fence Books, March 2007

ISBN-10: 193420000X

ISBN-13: 978-1934200001

Paperback: 84pp; $15.00

Review by Cyan James

Christopher Janke has published a pretty book of poems. That’s obvious from the cover of Structure of the Embryonic Rat Brain alone: a mauve and purple tangle of presumable neuronal matter brushed with green. Fence Books, always pleasing with its designs, has cut Janke’s book wider than it is long and interspersed his poems with eye-catching doodles. If you flip the pages fast while staring at the lower right-hand corner you’ll see a rat put through its paces. This book makes it clear from the beginning that it intends on giving tactile pleasure while stimulating your mind. Like those famous lab rats pressing levers for cocaine, this book wants to keep you turning its pages.

Pretty continues into the poems themselves. I suspect Janke wouldn’t like this word – he’d probably prefer “complex,” “multi-noded,” “myelin-coated,” or “meiotically bold.” As someone delighted by grammatical skewering, intriguing page-jumps, and the abolishment of articles though, I call them pretty. Strikingly beautiful even, if you will, as in Janke’s opening words:

What kind of knife? What kind of throat? What steel? Who cuts the warp?
Who scissors through? Who pins the paws? What kind of pins? What color?
What creature? Who slices a head? What gory miracle? What unanimated
gelatinous – dead-pink & fatty. What kind slices? What kind
peers? What kind slices?

Right away you see the word-play. The eventually-dropped article establishes one of the book’s liet-motifs, the ambiguities at work within language: Are we establishing the type of slices or their dispositions? Insightful play and turns-of-phrase that tunnel into one’s own ratty brain stud the rest of Janke’s pages. What impresses me perhaps most about Structure of the Embryonic Rat Brain is Janke’s ability to craft precise, jaw-clenching descriptions from strings of strong words juxtaposed in unexpected ways. What seem like mere lists of words and phrases collectively assume their own breath and intensity. Meaning seems buried just under the surface, inexplicit yet undeniable. For example, take these lines from page 11’s poem: “O people of the desert, of the flood, of desperation and groping with intangible hands.” Feel the Biblical catch there? Wonder about the hands?

When this approach becomes most dedicated, it risks the peril of randomness. A reader may lose patience with the occasional indulgences of seemingly-silly combinations such as in “o great hyperbola, o great and slippery dog from which the earth has descended with its giant purple eye, with its prairie for the multitudes of buffalo-angels and hippo-angels with the what-spark in the center of the brick with the glimmering hyperspatial relation between a woman and her town with the castigations.” Luckily, this is a minor pitfall into which Janke seldom falls. Instead, his references indicate profundities as yet incompletely mined. He makes us want to look closer, through the telescope of language, at the things we are still trying to name. He makes us want to speculate.

And then there are the rats. Muted rats. Brother rats. Rats subject to the “theory of squish.” Rats who dream. Rats in the stars and stars in the rats, and the rats who think of you when you are on your earthbed thinking of them. Read page 35 for more about rats, and a demonstration of how Janke forces the noun to carry numerous kinds of weights, meanings, and pressures. This is how a very clever rat might subversively reassemble gnawed bits of scrolls, histories, myths, suppositions and scientific texts of all sorts and dates.

Which brings us to the book’s title – what does Janke mean by it? I’m not even going to conjecture. I’m going to let you find out for yourself, with the injunction that you should. And I’m going to leave you with more of Janke’s first page: “The mind, my horse, I, its awkward saddle, leather-riven and awl-holed, my seat a shining star of sludge, dirt and oil, muck, how I move my arms, how I reign.”

 

Awesome coverAwesome

Novel by Jack Pendarvis

MacAdam/Cage, August 2008

ISBN-10: 1596922400

ISBN-13: 978-1596922402

Hardcover: 200pp; $18.00

Review by Matt Bell

In Jack Pendarvis's novel Awesome, the titular character is, in the most literal way, larger than life. A giant among men, he starts the novel off by proclaiming his own magnificence:

I am a hale man with beautiful teeth. My doctor always remarks upon my superb physiognomy. I am strong and clean. This morning I put on a nice yellow shirt and some brown slacks, pleasant to the touch. I capped myself off with my lustrous derby.
Finder of lost kittens, fixer of potholes, I stride the sidewalks. I am a white American male of Scandinavian descent. I try to be a good citizen. I have all the money I will ever need. I go around seeing what I can do to help. I can lift an automobile if I have to. I can run fast. I am at ease with the lingo of the common folk, explaining complex truths in a down-to-earth slang accessible to all. I can leap one hundred yards from a standstill, if necessary. I have the skills to build a robot. Deep down I am just a regular guy.
I am a giant. My name is AWESOME.

Anchored by this spectacular voice, the plot stays grounded despite constant threats of floating off into absurdity: Awesome sets out on a quest to acquire several objects which, when found, will supposedly earn him the forgiveness of his fiancé Glorious Jones, who left him on his wedding day after a miscalculation by Awesome's robot ward Jimmy causes Awesome to try to coerce Glorious into pleasuring herself on camelback in front of their wedding guests.

Okay, so sometimes it does get absurd, but wonderfully so—all of the above happens in just the first sixteen pages. The narrative continues along in this fashion, each plot point almost guaranteed to be less expected than the last. Luckily, the novel sidesteps any frustrated expectations for a more ordinary plot by attacking its own oddities with the gusto and glee that suffuses Awesome's voice. His misgivings during his quest are always short-lived, drowned in a sea of self-confidence and vigor that makes this novel a joy to read. Pendarvis uses his sense of excited wonder to bring the reader to vantage points of sarcasm and satire where he can offer dozens of witty observations about literature, pop culture, and other targets. All of this happens during a series of excellent set pieces involving, among other things, a group of mushroom-laden hippies guarding a needle in a haystack, a second giant in need of a good buggering, and the mysterious disappearance of every maraca in America, as well as appearances by various cultists and the Department of Homeland Security.

The overall effect of all this ridiculousness is a cumulative feeling of goodwill toward Awesome, making it impossible not to root for him as he attacks each of his trials with a bigness of heart and mind. Certainly, his self-centeredness causes him to occasionally lose track of the bigger picture, but along the way his bumbling bravado helps more people than it hurts, and even his tantrums are full of laughs. Pendarvis knows how to keep the spectacle coming, allowing his imagination to run wild and take us along for the ride. Awesome is a fine work of satire and humor, and not to be missed.

 

Margartia, How Beautiful the Sea coverMargarita,
How Beautiful the Sea

Novel by Sergio Ramírez

Translated by Michael B. Miller

Curbstone Press, September 2007

ISBN-10: 1880684845

ISBN-13: 978-1931896412

Paperback: 340pp; $15.95

Review by Rav Grewal-Kök

The prolific Nicaraguan writer Sergio Ramírez is almost unknown in this country. Only a handful of his thirty or so books have been translated into English, and just two appear to be in print in the United States, including Margarita, How Beautiful the Sea, which won the Alfaguara Prize, a major Spanish literary award, a decade ago. Margarita, translated by Michael B. Miller, is an ambitious, sweeping and beguiling work whose action spans more than half a century. With its huge cast of poets, journalists, generals, intelligence agents, failed cotton barons, whiskey priests, dictators, and many others (a character list at the end of the book runs eight pages and contains 75 names), it is a Nicaraguan national epic.

Margarita’s plot unfolds along two main lines. One centers on the return of the modernist poet Rubén Darío to his native León in 1907, after many years abroad. The other, climaxes in the 1956 assassination of the ruthless American-backed dictator Anastasio Somoza. The assassin is another poet, Rigoberto López Pérez, a student of Darío’s life and work.

Ramírez’s Darío is in flight from a wife he loathes (“La Maligna”), nearly destitute, poisoned in his early forties by hard drinking, yet still a gifted poet, still capable of generosity and grace. He begs off an official reception because he would rather teach Chiron, an illiterate servant boy, how to read; he claims to have infused Chiron with the numen, “the spirit of the muses.” By contrast, Somoza, a onetime latrine inspector now dressed in Palm Beach white, accented with a silver cigarette holder and bulletproof vest, is a flat figure – corrupt, banal, and unredeemed.

When Darío disembarks on Nicaraguan soil, Eulalia, a glamorous woman “with thick, knitted eyebrows and a diadem on her forehead” recites some of his verses in greeting: “As I steered my boat for Cythera / I greeted the waves, and the waves replied / with the happy sound of female voices.” To Darío’s eyes Eulalia is a vision in “snow, charcoal, and ash,” while her words catch on the Pacific breeze. Compare that to the reception accorded Somoza when he steps out of his armored limousine before a sham constitutional congress. His henchmen have trucked in supporters from León’s barrios with the promise of free rum and tamales. The crowd cheers: “Long Live The Man, the best goddamn man there is. You’re The Man, you’re The Man, goddamn right!”

The two plot lines are intricately linked. Darío writes a poem (whose opening line is also the novel’s title) on a fan held by a young girl, a girl who will grow up to be Somoza’s sister-in-law. Rigoberto is part of an amateurish circle of conspirators, all vaguely literary types, who seem more interested in talking about Darío than in planning Somoza’s murder. Norberto, another of the conspirators, woos Darío’s granddaughter, Zela the Moor. Zela’s father, Dr. Balthazar Cisne (husband of The Rose Child, Darío’s natural daughter with Eulalia), attempts to secure Somoza’s patronage for a set of electric lights to illuminate a statue of Darío in a León square. I could go on and on: in Ramírez’s Nicaragua, everyone seems to be related to everyone else, and the past is never laid to rest.

At times, Ramírez expresses his characters’ lack of agency through the recurring trope of the Fates, the three goddesses of human destiny, who spin their looms to manipulate the narrative events. More convincingly, Ramírez has his eyes on another, less mythological set of actors. Chiron, the once-illiterate servant boy who is now Darío’s numen-infused literary heir, sees a group of drunken American marines desecrate a cemetery. The editor of a León newspaper publishes Chiron’s account of the vandalism on his front page. In response, the marines beat Chiron unconscious, and while he eventually recovers, he has lost the powers of speech. The marines eventually depart Nicaragua, but the yanqui shadow remains. Sartorious Van Wynckle, a sinister American intelligence agent, oversees Somoza’s security force. Along with the men he has trained, Van Wynckle ensures that the anti-Somoza conspirators are arrested and tortured, and that Somoza’s sons succeed him into power. The imperial hand sets the course, and the Nicaraguans suffer.

While Ramírez is not a disinterested observer of power (he was active in the Sandinista regime that ruled following the 1979 collapse of the Somoza dynasty, and was Nicaragua’s vice-president from 1984-90), Margarita never strays into propaganda. Ramírez’s characters live through violence and poverty, but they also have friendship, rum, love, and, often miraculously, poetry.

 

Praying at Coffee Shops coverPraying at Coffee Shops

Poetry by Maureen A. Sherbondy

Main Street Rag, March 2008

ISBN-13: 978-1599481081

Paperback; 40pp; $10.00

Review by Roy Wang

One indication that a book is worth reading is the number of notes made in the margins, and I ended up with quite a few scribblings all over the clean, short poems of Maureen A. Sherbondy. Praying at Coffee Shops, with the striking cover image of a Jew praying at the Wailing Wall, suggests it will be about the modern Jew finding her place in the world. While essentially true, the stark image of close-eyed prayer belies the nuance, humor, and worldliness that come through in these poems. Nowhere is this more clearly exemplified than the title poem, whose full name is “Praying at Coffee Shops in the South”:

What are these public interludes with God?
Two men at Starbucks holding hands
bent over in prayer, leaning into the invisible.

My mother said no kissing in public places
but here they are –
pressing lips against java-infused air,
searching for the mouth of God.

In 22 short meditations, Sherbondy weaves in and out of her private spirituality and the interaction forced on her and her heritage by a world that both needs and doesn’t understand Judaism’s strength. Poems touching on Christian and Nazi oppression later give way to ones on Southern “hospitality” in what, sadly, seems like a natural progression.

The lead poem, “Tashlich,” is a very effective evocation on the ceremony of casting off sins by throwing pebbles into the water. Utilizing the line breaks for most of the grammar, the extra stanza in the ending renders the sense of an endless loop through the near-symmetry, yet also gives the greater weight to the guilt that perhaps builds with each iteration:

How many sins
have you swallowed
dead salmon.

How do we live
with our sins
that return –
a small pebble
caught in the back
of our throat.

With only a handful of WWII veterans and survivors left, the most infamous genocide in recent memory has been alarmingly fading in much of our collective consciousness. Sherbondy jerks us back with a few stories based on relatives, like the poem about a cousin who snuck potatoes to avoid starvation at a concentration camp:

Her dreams are filled
with nightmares.
She sees sacks and sacks of potatoes,
peels floating on top of red water,
and all those dead eyes.

There are a few poems in the middle touching on Tikkun Olam, or Repair of the World. While the focus on acts has long been a primary manifestation of devotion for moderates, it unfortunately doesn’t translate into the most interesting poetry here. Perhaps it is wrong to wish for something more flashy, but these dreamy wishes of healing the world take on more than they can support. Fortunately, the bulk of the book is less generalized, and it’s in the more specific poems that Sherbondy shows her greatest strength, allowing her a density of implication through choice word selection, reference, and subtext.

Sherbondy has a pretty good ear, and one tool she uses is a pseudo-nursery rhyme to accent a sort of return to childhood or render a riddle. Consider these lines from "Deconstructing Our Daily Bread," a poem about a man who has taken to picking holes in bread:

But do you know that bread
means pieces or bits?
and dear Motzi Feldman
who sits in prison
waiting for the court’s decision,
I think you knew, and made the bread appear
as it should be, by ripping today’s definition
into bits, leaving crumbs behind as clues.

Sherbondy is far too modern and earnest for this book to be perceived as a Jewish rant. The ripples of dissent and resentment arise organically from a continual pursuit of her own spirituality, and the ordering of these poems functions well to maintain that interpretation. All in all, Praying at Coffee Shops is marvelously effective poetry, full of little realizations and multiple layers of meaning that the best poetry delights us with. Having also just released After the Fairy Tale, a wonderful collection in a similar spirit, it’s clear that Maureen A. Sherbondy will provide great reading for the foreseeable future.

 

Shelter Half coverShelter Half

Novel by Carol Bly

Holy Cow! Press, June 2008

ISBN-10: 0977945863

ISBN-13: 978-0977945863

Paperback: 254pp; $15.95

Review by Jody Brooks

In this collection of overlapping stories, Carol Bly explores a town of moral highs and lows, a town held together by a family bakery, the ecumenical choir, and a need for automotive transportation. Bly has created a snow-covered community surrounded by the dark northern forest and the mysterious bears that inhabit it and a story about the chemicals that can either scrub the town clean or sully its very name.

Each chapter gives us a new point of view – Dieter, the gentlemanly German; Bernie the seasoned cop; Stan Garris the auto dealer; Peter Tenebray the richest, most revered man in town. But despite the genre-sound of these characters, Bly’s story rises above the conventions we’ve come to expect from a mystery. She paints a vivid picture of a small town that is both familiar and strange:

Darrel lied in a natural flow. The man’s brain-dead waste ran out of his mouth like bad water from a culvert. It was the naturalness of Darrel’s lying that irritated Bernie. It was no good speaking to him about it because Darrel would only be confused. To Darrel, words were something you used to relieve yourself of the moment’s tension. Words did not symbolize a past action. Words did not constitute a promissory note for any future action. Darrel made promises because he knew he would feel better after he had spoken. It just barely mattered which words he chose to speak. Worse, he was a mama’s boy.

Bly’s characters are calm and they are kind. Never forget your manners, they say. Be polite. Don’t ask too many questions. But mannered small talk and actual perception are two different things. This story is about the truth below the daily conventions, the real stories that small town pleasantries dare not touch. It’s about the dangers of not thinking for yourself, of believing in a cause simply because you were drafted or christened into it. This is about the danger of things unseen – the fact that most go through life blissfully unaware:

Even really simple people like Menzies, the school principal, were bored with church. Menzies, that poor sap, had to show up there because the Board of Education members and a lot of other people knew that he slapped bad kids around some but if he showed up in church, it confused people’s judgments.

In a town populated by veterans, friends of veterans, and dedicated VFW members, there exists a leftover WWII animosity. The residents are still angry at the Germans and yet fail to see the real wrongdoings in their own town. Bly has created a world full of contradiction and hypocrisy. It’s a town where people dump bodies, steal dogs, and step in metal bear traps. It’s a world in which people are either saints or sinners, witty intellectuals or uninspired idiots, those who have faith or those who don’t. Brad Stropp, for example – a sinner, an uninspired idiot, a man without faith:

Whoever said the meek shall inherit the earth didn’t know anything about being on the bottom of the system in your own hometown. And another thing Brad Stropp was sure of: those ancient people like Jesus got to live outdoors all the time, keeping sheep from falling into hot sandy ravines, and kicking back with strangers at wells and saying wise things which people actually stayed to hear – nothing was like that now, and people weren’t like that now.

Bly forces us to look at the problem of kindness: Does unconditional kindness to friends and neighbors free you from involvement when that same kindness is being used for an evil just outside town limits? Does ignorance free us from guilt? Not according to Bly.

While Bly’s prose suffers from too many imagined scenarios and characters talking or thinking to themselves, it does redeem itself with an inspired woven plot that moves from the destruction of one life to the destruction of the environment we all share. If you stick with her until the end, you’ll find that this book is about more than just a small town and an unsolved murder, rising above convention to expose a dark moral and a deadly chemical undercurrent.

 

Hunger coverHunger

Novel by Elise Blackwell

Unbridled Books, April 2008

ISBN-10: 193296150X

ISBN-13: 078-1932961508

Paperback: 152pp; $11.95

Review by Matt Bell

This first paperback edition of Elise Blackwell's debut novel Hunger comes five years after its original hardcover publication by Little, Brown in 2003, but the book has aged well, its short narrative seeming even more timely as it uses its historical setting as inspiration for an exploration of how our appetites at all times threaten to topple not only our personal morality but also our professional and political principles.

The novel is set during the German siege of Leningrad during World War II, narrated by an unnamed protagonist from his home in contemporary New York. His safety in America secured from the first chapter, it quickly becomes obvious that physical danger exists only for the other characters in his story, and his guilt as a survivor of the great siege comes through on every page. As the story progresses, more facets of this guilt will be revealed, much of it deserved but some not.

During the siege of Leningrad, the narrator and his wife worked as botanists at the Research Institute of Plant Industry in Leningrad, under the "Great Director," a man based on the historical person of Nikolai Vavilov, a prominent biologist who discovered the "centres of origin" for a wide variety of plant species, devoting his life to the genetic improvement of cereal crops before dying in prison in 1942 or 1943 after being persecuted by scientists aligned with Josef Stalin. Although all of the characters in Hunger are inventions, this is still a powerful backdrop against which to work, and Blackwell makes the most of it, as in this scene from the beginning of the siege:

The volunteers of the opolchenia, including my Alena but not myself, scurried like rodents. Shelters appeared, and trenches. Young women pierced their skin wrapping barbed wire around obstacles built to prevent tanks from penetrating the city. We all waited for the attack and prepared to defend our city block by block, building by building, hand to hand.
But the tanks never rolled in. They stopped outside the city, and how much simpler it would have been had they kept coming.

Even before the siege begins, the narrator is already a man incapable of controlling his appetites, particularly his sexual longings for women who are not his wife. In a storyline that parallels several others, the narrator commits adultery repeatedly, often with other women working at the Institute, even though he loves his wife and always returns to her, holding her above all the others. Still, Alena is barren, a contrast that sets her apart from the other women at the Institute, and just one of the many such pairings that make up much of the book's thematic bulk: barrenness vs. fertility, hunger vs. gluttony, life vs. death.

In the end, the narrator both admits and then dismisses his guilt, saying, "If I am a coward, then what I fear are my own thoughts. And my own thoughts were precisely what cold and hunger delivered to me. Brave of body and weak of mind, yes, and alive to think about it." It is this self-recognition – and the symbolic gesture it leads its narrator to make in his New York apartment – that brings home the true force of what he has done and what it has cost him.

Hunger is a particularly powerful fable in these present times, in an America that has spent six years embroiled in a war that, at least for those of us without loved ones overseas, has involved almost nothing in the way of sacrifice. By inventing this narrator who, among a company of Russia's greatest botanists sacrificing all, saves himself first, Blackwell gives us a parallel to our own countrymen – and yes, our own selves – who have surely forsaken some part of our convictions in the name of security and safety. In this way, as her narrator reveals the dark shame inside himself, he also reveals what he too may have hidden away inside us.

 

The Temple Gate Called Beautiful coverThe Temple Gate
Called Beautiful

Poetry by David Kirby

Alice James Books, April 2008

ISBN-10: 1882295676

ISBN-13: 978-1882295678

Paperback: 96pp; $14.95

Review by Micah Zevin

David Kirby is the rare poet who juxtaposes humor and satire with a serious academic and classical knowledge without pandering exclusively to one or the other. It is a balancing act that is quite successful because it appears effortless. Mr. Kirby has a niche and a style that does not vary stylistically from collection to collection, a consistency that is not a weakness but a strength. If you desired, you could group David Kirby’s witty poems with the likes of Tony Hoagland, Dean Young and Bob Hicok. Kirby is a specialist, strumming his voice, his lone unique instrument, like a speed-reading comedian who makes the reader read until they are out of breath but rarely dissatisfied. In his new collection, this exploration of humor through knowledge and vice versa is gladly continued.

In “Elvis, Be My Psychopomp,” he sees his dead parents in a ticket line and at the supermarket and tries to communicate with them in one of the many mini-epics that populate this collection: “they vanish, Like the gods in The Iliad. / They’re my age now—or not my age, for if they are sixty, / then I am twenty again, so young and unhappy, / though I don’t know it.” Throughout, Kirby makes reference to classical epic narratives of fathers, mothers and their sons, using these known relationships to inform his own relationship with his parents.

The issue of aging, mortality and what lies beyond it is one of the central themes in Kirby’s poems. In “The Only Good Question,” the erosion of appearance is addressed.

“And then your looks leave,” she says,
and I can see them headed out the swinging door:
your taut skin, your high fanny, your shiny eyes and hair,
and I ask myself, Where do they go,
your looks, which sounds like a good question,
and certainly it’s the kind of question I would ask
if I were writing the poem ten years ago,
but it isn’t—now there’s only one good question,
and that’s “What the fuck?”
I mean your looks do leave but then
so does everything else.

This poem’s whimsical tone of voice takes the subject of aging and makes it a humorous yet unfair conundrum that can be questioned with exasperation and zeal but cannot truly be rectified. In this poem, Kirby further explores all the unique hardships the advancing years can bring, such as living while your friends all pass away or taking care of a loved one with Parkinson’s Disease.

In the title poem, “The Temple Gate Called Beautiful,” our notions of heaven and hell are deconstructed William Blake style, laying bare their inherent absurdities and contradictions. This poem centers around outsider artist W.C. Rice’s house in Prattville, a character the author uses as a conduit or device to explain who goes to heaven and who goes to hell in this society and what does it mean if anything.

When some audience members
booed a drunk Jerry Lee Lewis one time,
he gestured toward the back of the hall
and said, “Them doors swing both ways.”
Not here on Highway 86 near Pratville, though,
not on Mr. Rice’s property. Doors only go one way here;
you’re either safe or out on Mr. Rice’s
diamond. You’re kosher or treyf. It’s Heaven or Hell for you,
not to put too fine a point on it, and usually Hell.
But as the smart-alecks say, if you go to hell
for doing Satan’s work up here, why would
he punish you when you got to his place?

At his best, Kirby used a comedic and philosophical style of poetry to deliver what elsewhere poetry lacks. He is a poet who peels away the layers of our skin to show us who we are: our weaknesses, our strengths and our hilarious obsessions. In this collection, Kirby is a student of language and how we misuse it to serve our own ends. These mini-epic poems demonstrate a mastery of the turn of phrase, leading us onward toward Kirby’s inevitably laugh-filled punch lines, little bits of heaven left behind for us to contemplate in the here and now.

 

Spooky Action at a Distance coverSpooky Action at a Distance

Fiction by Tom Noyes

Dufour Editions, March 2008

ISBN-10: 0802313469

ISBN-13: 978-0802313461

Paperback: 160pp; $14.95

Review by Anna Clark

What to make of Spooky Action at a Distance? The title of Tom Noyes’s story collection borrows a phrase from Albert Einstein that described his feelings about a phenomenon in quantum mechanics where two particles separated by vast distances – say, millions of light years – become entangled, so that changing the state of one of the particles will instantaneously change the other. The father of relativity thought this was counterintuitive, he never fully accepted quantum mechanics as a system for understanding the microscopic world.

Indeed, there’s an element of the counterintuitive in Noyes’s stories as well. Absurdity meets tragedy in these tales of lonely folks. Consider the character of a novice body-builder who finds himself in possession of his neighbor’s saber. A whiff of the epic emerges in the stories’ flirtation with spirituality, and varied landscapes that count Erie, Pennsylvania, Terre Haute, and Albany among their numbers. Humor, surprise, and eminently engaging narrators keep this collection from falling into the one-note brood that its lonesome stories of family, religion, politics and community might invite.

There’s a story about a man who, upon seeing his son as a man for the first time, finds reason to question his memories. Another story settles for a time in the mind of a boy who can’t read; yet another introduces a man who’s about to go over Niagara Falls in a barrel. One story is told by an expectant first-time mother who lives with the man who will be her child’s father. This man creates an alter ego – “Phantom” – at first as a joke to the narrator, but one that grows increasingly weird and isolating.

The story that sticks in my mind is the first one, “The Straightened Arrow.” The narrator is on a road trip across the U.S. with the Ten Commandments monument that was banned from the grounds of an Alabama state judicial building by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2004. On a mission from his church to tour the monument across the country, and in exile from his uneasy marriage, the narrator’s company is only Vance, a reporter for a Christian magazine. That’s the easy stuff to describe. What’s difficult is how the trajectory of the stories veers at a tour stop in Indiana, when the pair meets locals that are unexpected emotional triggers. From here on out, as with most Noyes stories, it’s too slippery to be summarized, but its closing litany still rings in my mind: “I shalt, I shalt, I shalt.”

It’s interesting to think that Spooky Action at a Distance was a finalist for the Grace Paley Prize in Short Fiction from AWP. While Paley’s stories are embedded in the peculiarities of place and voice, Noyes’s are not. He has a different project, one that’s interested in surprise, in people on the edge and those drawn to symbolic action.

 

Apologies Forthcoming coverApologies Forthcoming

Fiction by Xujun Eberlein

Livingston Press, June 2008

ISBN-10: 160489007X

ISBN-13: 978-1604890075

Paperback: 142pp; $15.95

Review by Matt Bell

In "Feathers," the third story in Xujun Eberlein’s debut story collection Apologies Forthcoming, a young Chinese girl named Sail is forced by her mother into subterfuge to keep her grandmother from finding out that Sail’s sister has been killed while away at school. The lie continues for years, forcing ever more elaborate fabrications from Sail:

Every few weeks Sail wrote a letter in Jia's name and read it to Gaga. They sat down on the narrow sun porch of their apartment, Gaga lying on the weathered bamboo chaise, squinting in the spring, summer, or autumn sun. Windy stuck a bamboo-claw into Gaga’s collar and scratched her back, and Gaga sighed with joy. “What a luxury, what a luxury.” Then she fell into an attentive quietness as Sail cut open the glued envelope. Illiterate Gaga had great respect for the written word. She nodded every so often to what Sail was reading, and each nod gave Sail warm encouragement, while Windy ran around Gaga's chaise and Sail's wooden stool. It was almost a perfect, happy scene, except Mother neither read nor listened to the letters Sail wrote. As for Sail herself, at times she believed the letters were real. More real than Jia's death.

In this way, many of the characters in Eberlein's stories must create their own stories – their own myths and poems – to fill the void left in their society by China's Cultural Revolution, as well as the more personal tragedies of their lives. Despite the similarity of setting, each story feels distinct and fresh, written with a keen understanding of how the political impacts the personal at every level of a society, whether the characters are poets or revolutionaries or children.

If there is anything that detracts from these stories, it is that the history lessons sometimes intrude too much, but even this is a minor complaint. Mostly, the information is necessary for the intended American audience of these stories, and without it the reader would be lost. Thankfully, Xujun Eberlein is an excellent guide to the foreign experiences of both China and Communism, and her characters provide rich human points of focus that easily stand out against the larger social and political backdrops of this fine debut.