NewPages Book Reviews

June 1, 2009

Fog & Car :: A Theory of Everything :: Written on the Sky :: Dear Apocalypse :: Vanishing :: The Winter Sun :: Live with Meaning. Die with Passion. :: Songs of Love, Moon, and Wind :: From the Paris of New England :: AM/PM

Fog and Car coverFog & Car

Novel by Eugene Lim

Ellipsis Press, September 2008

ISBN-10: 0963753606

ISBN-13: 978-0963753601

Paperback: 276pp; $10.00

Review by John Madera

If divorce is a totaled car, then Eugene Lim’s Fog & Car is a multiple vehicle pile-up. Huge accidents tend to occur in rain or fog – the low-visibility tricking drivers into thinking other cars are further away than they really are. Throwing everything into darkness, Lim’s novel forces its characters, and the reader, to crane forward, to squint their eyes, to try get their bearings, just to keep from crashing. And all of this happens after an off-stage break-up.

Fog & Car’s chapters tick tock between Jim Fog and his ex-wife Sarah Car dusting themselves from the wreck of their marriage, licking their wounds, trying to make sense of their failures as individuals and as a couple, to redefine who they are outside of each other’s arms. Relationships often dissolve in order to escape boredom, chaos, or to avert some imagined disaster, but just like that car in a fog smashing into another car and that car smashing into another, sometimes a break-up leads to even further chaos and disorder. Mr. Fog and Ms. Car’s divorce leads to deep soul-scouring, mystery, chaos, some kind of redemption for one, and, for the other, dissolution, menacing darkness, and an augured, but still uncertain, end. Their surnames should have signaled that their relationship was doomed from the start, but Lim’s novel cannot be reduced to allegory.

Fog & Car is also about another marriage, namely, form and content. Lim has a poet’s eagle eye for resonant detail, an artist’s eye for symbolic representation. Throughout the novel, he plays with the book as an object, artfully “designing” his characters’ consciousnesses, their fragmentation, their confusion, their emptiness, on the page much like a painter would. Sarah Car, adrift and bereft, spends much of the novel’s first half figuring herself out, exploring things she’d forsaken, and ironically finds an anchor by learning to swim.

She swims with pleasure. The moment just previous to her entrance into the water is one of almost sexual anticipation. She thinks it may be a link to this other place, this relative place, one of body perhaps, except the anticipation seems to be not for any act but a void, or perhaps the body remembers something the mind, not being able to state, does not. In any case the actual swimming is also conscious, efforted, a process of learning. It is complex, in the end, and one which she enjoys participating in. The dive
     into the water, the random slush and splish of first movement and then that sounds relaxation into a rhythm of arm and water, distance and turn,
     turn and distance, forth
     and back.

Lim’s use of paragraph breaks captures Sarah’s movement as much as it slows time down, compelling the reader to take in breaths, falling into Sarah’s rhythm. It’s simply breathtaking. Furthermore, a whole study could me made of how Lim employs ellipses, caesuras, sentence fragmentation, and pages of white space.

But Fog & Car is no lifeless formalist exercise. Every word serves greater concerns, that is, attempting to define what love means, what solitude is, how to heal, how to make sense of meaninglessness. Jim, while picking at his scabs, and digging the lint from his navel, takes enlightening philosophical turns. Reflecting on what it means “to live alone,” he decides it had meant “a life directed interiorly, shaved of all other perspective.” He’d set his house to be a “simple machine, a portal made of comfort and minimum decoration, to transport [him] to the nation where [he] had lived, named Mind, peopled by characters called Memory and Dream.” It is Jim’s depletion, forced by the huge energy expenditure of a hermit’s life, which ushers his awareness that he’s failed to realize his ambitions. And he ultimately learns that “self-knowledge was a myth of varying degrees of falsehoods.”

If Lim’s focus remained here, that is, on the contrast between Jim and Sarah’s ways of handling their divorce, Jim wavering between navel-gazing and nostalgia, Sarah allowing everything to fall apart, it would have been enough. But the narrative, in a manner at times astounding and often confounding, takes off in unexpected directions, much like the dream-logic of a David Lynch film. The mysterious twist begins when Sarah discovers a lost friend of Jim’s, named, appropriately enough, Frank Exit. Through a series of serendipitous encounters all threads somehow intertwine. How Lim manages to negotiate the reversals, to maintain believability, to take the reader with him, is only part of his success, for it is, ironically, the story’s lack of resolution that brings satisfaction.

Divided into three sections, “Mirror,” “Marriage,” and “Mirage,” Fog & Car masterfully navigates the subtext beneath dissolved relationships, paradoxically uses silence to create form. It balances, albeit in a detached tone, compassionate depictions of moral dissolution with Murakami-styled fabulist plot departures, dramatic reversals, and coincidental connections. It leaves the reader with a balled up jumble of narrative threads, but in such a sophisticated and befuddling manner as to force Murakami’s own mind into a tailspin. Fog & Car is an extraordinary debut.

 

A Theory of Everything covera theory of everything

Poems by Mary Crockett Hill

Autumn House Press, January 2009

ISBN-10: 193287027X

ISBN-13: 978-1-932870-27-5

Paperback: 63pp; $14.95

Review by Roy Wang

This boldly titled collection is split into cleverly named sections, such as “everything before us,” “in spite of everything,” and “the end of everything,” so that we immediately get the impression that we will be taken through a giant landscape of image and emotion. However, we are misled in the scope; the landscape presented is largely personal, the everything particular to her universe. The titular poem suggests she will relate the universe to ourselves, not that the universe (or perhaps more specifically, string theory) is a metaphor for our lives, which is perhaps more the case with these poems.

That said, the poems are quite good, full of curious, self-aware observations that escape the notice of most people. And perhaps most impressively, Hill keeps the heart front and center, able to render her questions emotional without pathos or sentimentality. The lead poem uses a casual, wondering tone to achieve this:

I also believe it has something to do with dogs.
For who else has such capacity to forgive
an entirely other species? Well, yes, God
but I don't mess around with God.
So in my theory, the wet nose of a dog
fits in the space where our heart has been cut out.

The simpler poems are really the strongest here, able to get their points and emotions through clearly. Hill has a good sense for rhythm, and the shorter poems allow her various effects to reinforce the meaning. Consider:

Must we flap our way windward – feathers
whirling like confetti, always muscle, always straining, always
honk, honk, honk, honk?

These poems also allow her stand-out lines to well, stand out. A few examples include, “love for babies is a stout brown goose rife with worry,” “the careless abundance of orange,” and “let all this suffering be about something / other than suffering or math.”

The poems that feature longer lines and denser imagery allow Hill to mull some interesting ideas and places. Body odor, the welfare of fleas, how to extend charity to crazy people – these are all engaging enough, but the turns at the end fall a little flat, lacking a sufficiently strong cognitive echo. Take the end of one such poem, “and above, a speckled bird / holds whatever she's forgotten in the dusk of his ruby red throat.” It holds most of the hallmarks of a good ending, but it just doesn't quite work. Perhaps it's the surfeit of r's, or that the line runs the same length as the preceding ones, but in the end it fails to engage us, to digest the perspective she has labored for.

However, the best of these longer ones does manage to bring it all together. In “Wes,” we have some good single lines, a well-paced recounting of events, but most importantly, a genuine strangeness that distorts what should be a normal encounter into something that touches us beyond expectation. It helps that the last lines work: “‘You have everything here. Everything.’ / And I can't help thinking, what in the world could he mean?

This question captures the fundamental essence of these poems that search for a frame of reference that might answer a rather perplexing life. It is a shame that, like many poets who appeal to science metaphors, the full potential is not reached. For example, “Newton's Cradle” highlights the presence of these toys on rich men's desks, with no nuance of oppositional forces or sublimation. It is hard to find the theory of everything when you can't see the connections.

Still, a theory of everything is very good work, full of direct, interesting poems. The main shortcoming is only one of ambition. Perhaps she lost sight of the global structure in compiling the poems, or merely overstretched in the title and introduction. Either way, Mary Crockett Hill's latest collection is well worth reading, and I look forward to her next book delivering fully.

 

Written on the Sky coverWritten on the Sky

Poems from the Japanese

Translated by Kenneth Rexroth

New Directions, April 2009

ISBN-10: 0811218376

ISBN-13: 978-0811218375

Paperback: 96pp; $12.95

Review by Vince Corvaia

These ancient Japanese poems, translated by Rexroth and selected by Eliot Weinberger, are mostly about love, and one who has never loved would be well advised to avoid them. The heartache in many of them is palpable, both through imagery and direct statement. Several, though, are nature poems keenly observed, as in this one by Fujiwara No Sueyoshi (1152-1211):

The crying plovers
On darkening Narumi
Beach, grow closer, wing
To wing, as the moon declines
Behind the rising tide.

But for the most part, these are laments from lovers past or lovers in turmoil, and can be as short as two lines, as this by Empress Yamatohime (7th c.): “Others may forget you, but not I. / I am haunted by your beautiful ghost.”

Kenrei Mon-in Ukio No Daibu (12th c.), writing as a lover in turmoil, combines simile with direct accusation:

My heart, like my clothing
Is saturated with your fragrance.
Your vows of fidelity
Were made to our pillow and not to me.

The despair of love is an equal opportunity tormentor. Here is Fujiwara No Atsutada (d. 961), in which there is no room for the natural world to impose itself:

I think of the days
Before I met her
When I seemed to have
No troubles at all.

And Lady Horikawa (12th c.), whose beautiful language is a testament to all of the poems here as supremely translated by Rexroth:

How long will it last?
I do not know
his heart.
This morning my thoughts are as tangled
with anxiety
as my black hair.

 

Dear Apocalypse coverDear Apocalypse

Poetry by K.A. Hays

Carnegie Mellon University Press, February 2009

ISBN-10: 0887484956

ISBN-13: 978-0-88748-495-7

Paperback: 88pp; $15.95

Review by Cyan James

Dear Reader,

Please read Dear Apocalypse. Please read it carefully, with attention to talons, to feathers, to the complicated ways of both God and migratory pathways. (Perhaps they’re the same thing? Perhaps K.A. Hays thinks they’re the same thing?)

You don’t have to start at the beginning. But if you don’t, you’ll miss Hays’s apocalypse, flayed out and intellectually parsed in her “Letters” section. Everything after that is the aftermath and fall-out, including the hands-on Middle Western earthiness of the “Labors” section, and the slow mental withdrawal of the “Mind” section. Finally, all that are left are the birds, flitting over disaster or weightlessly succumbing to it.

These birds of hers aren’t the canaries that died as little warning flares in our mines. They’re the flags left flying after the dust settles, and it’s their rustling and unease that gives this collection of poetry its loft and tension. These are poems concerned with airspace and the spaces within the mind.

Consider one of the poems I most believe in, “Letter from the End of the World.” I’m betraying the power and craft of the poem’s set-up by giving away the ending, but I’m going to do it anyway.

Meridians, you who guided and lulled us,
we accuse you.
Your spins left circular runnels
in the sky, through which we can see the great arbiter,
as bland and ready as a cast-iron pan – in whose image
we fear, squinting, we were not made.

There’s an admirable precision of language here, and the force of a powerful image, the banding meridians, peeling back to confront us with what we do not even believe. Note how Hays slips “squinting” into that last line. Gorgeous!

This is poetry positing birds as prophets, and humans as just another disorderly flock upon the planet. “Some think after our extinction / earth might be calm – but I doubt it,” Hays claims in “Letter from the Afternoon.” And we’re inclined to believe her. We, too, may feel like sitting down with her to “talk epistemology with something ugly/and inanimate: the earth, for example.”

The earth itself and what grows upon it and lives there become Hay’s way to interpret our own mindsets and meanings. She hints that it may be better to go through life like a turtle, piled in mud upon other turtles “to stay alive by being nearly dead,” instead of being dragged under like a hapless duck floating upon the clear surface.

Loss and rot – and not just random accident – become themes as well, precisely conveyed in images as neat as the split-heart footprint a passing buck leaves in the snow. They’re even wished for, as when Hays begs in “Exodus” for “any mass / rebellion of the quiet functioning things.” These are poems with impact and after-shock that awe with their precision.

If they fail at all, it’s towards the end, when Hay’s images and references begin to fade into catalogues closer to a bird-watcher’s life list than fully realized poems imbued with the meaning instilled in the earlier sections. A few weaker poems attempt to blend pilgrimages, religious imagery, and birds, but when dealing with some of these often-cited themes, the poems and symbols fail to crystallize or surprise.

Even then, though, Hays’s language stuns. Tea is “peppery gold clairvoyance”; swans are “plump and unholy, loaded up / with bone and blood and pipes / that allow, for the moment / their thousand piccolo calls / and the mess that pours through them.”

The language is the light bone inside these poems, and this flock of poems is going to fly a long way. Listen to them before they’re gone!

 

Vanishing coverVanishing

Memoir by Candida Lawrence

Unbridled Books, June 2009

ISBN-10: 193296166

ISBN-13: 978-1-932961-66-9

Paperback: 316pp; $23.95

Review by Christina Hall

Candida Lawrence’s fourth collection of memoirs feels real and honest. From the opening chapter on her first college level paper to the closing chapter on her eighty-four-year-old sister’s unpredictable romance, Lawrence seems to tell it how it is, although she considers herself “the one in the family who is a veteran embroiderer on reality’s edges.”

Perhaps the feeling of truth is all a credit to Lawrence’s talent for writing intriguing and beautiful biographical prose. After all, the first chapter could be an essay on creative non-fiction. In “Everything She Does, and Says, and Is;” Lawrence is a young college student, asked to write 1,000 words on a member of her family. She knows she should write “a Reader’s Digest saccharine ode to a member of one’s family,” but can’t bring herself to write what is expected of her because she dislikes “every member” of her family. She has a particular grudge against twisting the real truth to create a fictional truth, due to her famous journalist father’s articles with her as the primary subject. “He came in free,” she writes, “in a newspaper, a place where I fervently believe truth must live, with fiction about a real daughter.” Lawrence includes examples of her father’s essays with her version of the truth as a rebuttal. Her version is more direct, less pretty, and thus, more real. Or so her straightforward and harsh writing style makes us believe.

The reason Lawrence refers to herself as an “embroiderer on reality’s edges” is because of the perfection she attained in the “art of lying” when she kidnapped her own children. Her third chapter, “Vanishing: 1965,” reads as a how-to guide to disappearing with your children. Brilliant and brutal, Lawrence details the steps taken in order to remove her children from a home with a verbally abusive and inappropriately intimate father. Written in the second person point of view (“While you are still in the life you are leaving, the Before, you will be acting a role . . . There will be a lot more lying in your future.”), she sounds like an expert, a professional. The authoritative voice Lawrence adopts here adds to the truthful and honest feel of the book.

Whether Candida Lawrence is subdued and factual, as in the reliving of her abortion, or surreal and absurd, like her rendition of the death of an Ortolan Bunting, her memoirs are as fascinating as fiction while maintaining an almost unprecedented feeling of complete and utter reality. And our response is similar to hers when she is at one point faced with an interesting comment from a friend: “Should I congratulate him for his honesty, slug him for his rudeness, try to walk away, faint with shock?”

 

The Winter Sun: Notes on a Vocation coverThe Winter Sun

Notes on a Vocation

Essays by Fanny Howe

Graywolf Press, March 2009

ISBN-10: 1555975208

ISBN-13: 978-1-55597-520-3

Paperback: 196pp; $15.00

Review by Cynthia Reeser

Fanny Howe, author of more than two dozen books of fiction and poetry and two collections of essays, comes forth with a poignant new collection of essays in The Winter Sun: Notes on a Vocation. Hers is an idea-driven collection that reveals her pursuit of the writing life, her “vocation that has no name.” The Winter Sun is ultimately a necessary work that finds its own moment in time both by looking back to trace the flight pattern Howe has traversed as an author, and by analyzing the means at which we come to arrive in the present.

Time as past, present, future and eternity recurs throughout the nine essays, which tend to build upon one another: each essay provides a background for the material that follows. In this way, each work in the collection is dependent on the others to form a coherent whole, even though each could well stand alone. Together, the essays read like the parts of a symphony, with recurring themes and counterpoints providing balance and support for those found in other sections. Time, for instance, is the trope that appears with some regularity, initially in “The Message,” whose opening reveals a perspective concerning the nature of the individual as it can be interpreted against past, present and future, along with that of the world and its inhabitants:

If you could take my hand and lead me along the streets and paths with your free hand outstretched and finger pointing to a future place and say, That is where we are going. Then even if what I saw ahead was chaos and pain, I could think, There is no reason to fear after all.
If you could say, We will have to travel along separate roads battered by tumultuous weather, disappointment, starvation, hospitals, jails, and physical pain, but we are going There, to that point you see up ahead. There is where we will be together at the end.
Look, see our future out there?
Then I would be able to say now, All will be well.

Of events to come, Howe writes, “The future is only the past turned around to look at itself.” It is this sensibility – that of the blurring of past with present – that informs much of her perception. From her World War II childhood through her involvement in the Civil Rights movement, Howe writes the history of her experience.

The events comprising the fabric of that history and thus her path as a writer – her experience growing up in World War II Boston, her father’s position as a defense attorney for Harvard professors accused of charges by the House Un-American Activities Committee, her friendship with Robert Lowell, her meeting the Dalai Lama, and many more – provide her with a forum for discourse. Light functions as a central metaphor, informing Howe’s early experience. She describes her first sense memories as culminating ultimately in a synaesthesia, with the audible, visible and other senses working in concert to form a hypersensitive perception. In “Branches” she writes,

It was through my window facing onto [an Episcopal convent] that the sun fell around the walls as a living presence that I called (secretly) God. Whether it was cold, yellow, white, warm, orange, or a spread of violet, that light was my surrounding other. I now suppose it was equivalent to the geistige that the philosopher Edith Stein describes as being always present to consciousness; it refused to go away, and it refused to be located.

As an early sensory experience, light paralleled the events of the wartime climate and illuminated the young author’s sensibility. The dramatic Boston sky is compared directly with the events of war (“The war contributed to every shadow and drop”), and the light without is a near-physical presence. The awakening of her consciousness to the natural world as an entity endowing her development lends to discourse on the individuation of consciousness and identity, which is formed “Like the sky dappling the cover of a river with refractions and reflections of all kinds.” The sun, its light, is an influence over all.

Jacques Lusseyran, author of And There Was Light, who shared a similar fascination with light, was blinded in early childhood. In “Person, Place, and Time,” Howe writes of the French author that “The first thing he discovered, soon after his accident, was that there was a source of light that was not the sun; it hid within his body; he was flooded by it and because of it, he felt the presence of others.” The internal light may be read as spirit, or consciousness, or perhaps even a state of self-awareness. Howe ultimately explores the metaphor of light and of consciousness, how it informs the individual, and the individual’s place in history, and time.

In circumscribing the events of her life, Howe narrates a past that lends to thoughtful reflection, both in her own writing and for the reader. Her style juxtaposes narrative with insight and experience, allowing the reader to draw his own conclusions. In offering up these poignant moments from the past, Howe consistently connects them with the present. Her writing is multi-layered and invites close reading just as it rewards re-reading.

Through an exploration of the writings of Simone Weil, Michel de Certeau, Jacques Lusseyran, Sara Grant, Antonia White, Socrates and others, Howe probes questions of the internal light, of philosophy and time. Howe is a philosopher, an examiner of experience: both her own and others’. In “The Land of Dreams” she writes, “For we gather and discard simultaneously as we move in time”; life requires a constant shucking of the present for moving into the future, and the simultaneous gathering of knowledge and understanding that happens along the path of experience. Howe’s voice is strong, clear and reasoned; she draws from a fascinating wealth of experience, thought and analysis, and her writing rewards close reading.

 

Live with Meaning. Die with Passion. coverLive with Meaning. Die with Passion.

Nonfiction by Fumitada Naoe

One Peace Books, September 2009

ISBN-10: 0978508459

ISBN-13: 978-0-9785084-5-6

Hardcover: 160pp; $19.95

Review by Cyan James

Do you ever listen to your parents’ advice? Fumitada Naoe, a minority displaced in 1980s-era Japan, certainly tried to. On page 9 of his strange, elliptical, memoir-cum-self-help-book, his mother tells him “Rich people and poor people all eat the same grain of rice. The time given to them is also completely the same. You have an enormous amount of time left. So it’s harder to find a reason for not being able to achieve.”

Naoe uses the rest of his 160 pages mostly telling us what he’s done with his time, and how we should spend our own time. His advice – sometimes edging toward simplistic bromides, sometimes pithy insight – comes sandwiched between photojournalist Takashi Owaki’s grainy, black and white photographs of street children and everyday life. (We’ll get to Owaki later.)

His greatest puzzlement, Naoe tells us, was what to do with his time. Why was he even alive? His existential quest brought him more satisfaction once he realized he inevitably would die along with the rest of us. At a former girlfriend’s funeral, he remembers insisting that a pitifully askew portrait of her be straightened. From then on, he decided to find dignity, even a mission, in bringing affordable, customized funeral services to Japan, where expensive, highly ritualized services failed to give grieving families much choice.

Willpower, creative thinking, and discipline launched his business into the 30 million dollar range by the time he was 27, and the grit and details of how that happened (though he remains a little reticent) are what really captivate me. Naoe dishes out these details in brief chunks sandwiched between pages of sometimes simplistic general advice. He labels each section with headers like “Use the fluctuations of your heart as a springboard,” and bolds the advice that really matters: “Decide on your own what matters to you. Do not break promises you make to yourself.”

Unclear purpose and mismanagement of time is what stymies so many people, Naoe concludes. He urges readers to follow his example: Live life. Establish independence. (For example, in one of his testimonial sections, Naoe relates how he bankrolled his funeral business by taking out heavy credit card loans rather than seeking angel investors or cheaper bank loans, because he wanted the responsibility and risk to remain firmly his.) Love yourself. Look cool. Divide your day and life into manageable sections with achievable goals. Prioritize. Anticipate difficulties and accidents.

Nothing revolutionary, true, but good, solid advice we could all afford to reflect upon. Naoe seems to write to slightly younger people, in hopes of inspiring them, and they do seem his most likely audience, since they, too, still have so many years to live. Perhaps Owaki’s photographs – usually scenes of Asian street life, particularly portraits of children – are meant to speak to this demographic as well. They’re beautifully composed images, though they don’t seem to support Naoe’s text in any particular way.

I find myself skipping some of the photographs, and toning out while reading the more general self-help advice. It’s the insight Naoe gives about himself that I really care about. Towards the book’s end, he even includes examples of charts that help him plot his day. In sum, this is an odd book, easily read, but not quickly mastered.

Naoe closes with an injunction that would probably make his mother proud, telling us to pursue what stirs our souls, to share ourselves, to begin “to die with passion.”

 

Songs of Love, Moon, and Wind coverSongs of Love, Moon, and Wind

Poems from the Chinese

Translated from the Chinese by Kenneth Rexroth

New Directions, April 2009

ISBN-10: 0811218368

ISBN-13: 978-0811218368

Paperback: 96pp; $12.95

Review by Vince Corvaia

This collection of Chinese poems, translated by Kenneth Rexroth and selected by Eliot Weinberger, is review-proof. These poems have endured centuries and still stand as models of economy and beauty. All a reviewer can do is offer excerpts from some of the most memorable of them.

Su Tung-P’o’s “Thoughts in Exile” perfectly captures the mindset of one who can never return to his beloved homeland. He watches “[t]he phoenix and the snowy swan / Cross the heavens in their migrations,” free to wander and to return to their homes. The dilemma is articulated explicitly when Tung-P’o writes, “I am forbidden to visit the Western Lake. / There is no place else I want to go.” In the end, he has only his art, which must suffice: “But nobody can stop me / From writing poems about the / Mountains and rivers of Wu.” Sadness and beauty encompass the poem and make it representative of the whole of this collection. Rexroth’s translation expertly captures the simplicity and beauty of the language.

Mei Yao-Ch’en’s “An Excuse for Not Returning the Visit of a Friend” is, on the other hand, lighthearted even while the friends of the poem remain separate. The dilemma is that the speaker has two small children who “hang on my clothes / And follow my every step.” The front door is as far as she can get. “I am afraid / I will never make it to your house.”

Spring with a capital “S” is a prevalent season in these poems. In the loveliest of them, “Spring Ends,” Li Ch’ing-Chao writes of the passing of Spring and the passing of a loved one, or perhaps the end of a love affair: “It is the end of the time / Of flowers.” The speaker lacks the will to comb her own hair: “He no longer exists. / All effort would be wasted.” The last five lines encompass all that is beautiful and sorrowful about this and so many of these poems, all of which deserve to be read and treasured slowly and often:

I hear that Spring at Two Rivers
Is still beautiful.
I had hoped to take a boat there,
But I know so fragile a vessel
Won’t bear such a weight of sorrow.

 

From the Paris of New England coverFrom the Paris of New England

Interviews with Poets and Writers

Nonfiction by Doug Holder

Ibbetson Street Press, January 2009

Paperback: 133pp; $18.50

Review by Jeanne Lesinski

At a time when many newspapers – if not going out of business altogether – have cut arts coverage, it’s reassuring to see that poet Douglas Holder works as the arts editor for The Somerville News, in Somerville, Massachusetts, a city on the outskirts of Boston and Cambridge. From the Paris of New England is a collection of Holder’s “Off the Shelf” column interviews and Somerville Community Access television show “Poet to Poet: Writer to Writer” interviews with literary figures, many of whom live in this city. The literary luminaries in this volume include Martha Collins, Mark Doty, Timothy Gager, Miriam Levine, Dick Lourie, Afaa Michael Weaver, Marc Widershien, and twenty-two others.

Readers will likely find something of interest among the varied genres and experiences represented here, especially because Holder knows how to ask the important questions. He often inquires about inspiration, pivotal life experiences, themes, accessibility, talent, and craft. For example, when plied about his writing habits, Marc Widershien answered, “I wrote between the lines of my existence,” and about advice to novice poets, “Think of everything you do as grist. Talent is vital, but study, experiment, self-discovery through art are indispensable.” Other writers were equally forthcoming on subjects important to them.

In his interview with Hugh Fox, Holder asked Fox how he is able, when reviewing works, to get “to the essence of a book with such few words.” As Fox stated, “Before I go to bed I always read a few things. Then I just react to it. It’s funny; it is like I listen to an inner voice. The inner voice tells me what to write.”

My inner voice told me that the interviews in From the Paris of New England may pique the interest of readers who know little or nothing about the writers included, while those who already have some knowledge of them might prefer the longer, in-depth interviews that literary journals often publish. Unfortunately, the inelegant book design and the typographical inconsistencies and errors also mar what is an otherwise interesting book.

 

AM/PM coverAM/PM

Stories by Amelia Gray

Featherproof Books, August 2009

ISBN-10: 0977199274

ISBN-13: 978-0977199273

Paperback: 144pp; $12.95

Review by Brian Allen Carr

Amelia Gray is not Amelia Grey. Grey writes romance blockbusters with titles like A Duke to Die For, and Gray’s debut AM/PM is anything but a blockbuster. I’m not even sure if it’s a book. It might be an indefinable thing.

A patchwork of form-rejection sized vignettes, AM/PM is billed by Featherproof Books as a flash-fiction collection that follows, “the lives of 23 characters across 120 stories.” In their promotional material, Featherproof claims that, “If anything’s going to save the characters in Amelia Gray’s debut from their troubled romances, their social improprieties, or their hands turning into claws, it’s a John Mayer concert tee.” But that’s a bit misleading. The 23 characters do need saving, but the tee only has a cameo in the vignette titled “AM:80”:

Good morning John Mayer Concert Tee! You seem to have weathered the past few days rather poorly. Your cuffs are split, you’re stained at the neck. The graceful visage of The One Who Will Play the Smooth Guitar is sullied by dirt scrub and bent into a permanent, unnatural shape.

John Mayer Tee. Our hero?

To truly understand AM/PM, you must understand how it was conceived. In Gray’s own words from her interview with Orange Alert:

AM/PM is a collection of 120 pieces ranging from vignettes to short-short stories. I wrote one in the morning and one at night every day for two months in the summer of 2007. The editing of the book didn't include much of a selection process because most of the stories did make it through edits and into the final copy.

That’s the literary-interview equivalent of a shoulder shrug, hair flip, and a drag off a cigarette followed by the phrase, “I just wake up looking like this.” Featherproof must agree. They feed into the confident disposition. Because while every vignette in AM/PM sits lonely on the page, the head shot of Gray is postcard sized and forces the “About the Author” credits onto a page of its own.

To be fair there is some fun writing in this debut. “AM:58” for instance:

Missy had legs, and she knew how to use them. She slid them into jeans or wrapped a skirt around them. She walked with her legs to the grocery store. She used her legs to help haul everything up the stairs and into her kitchen, and she used her legs to walk back into the bedroom and back into bed. It was easy to use her legs, she thought, drifting off.

Gray also writes some pretty nice mock-self help sketches, as evidenced in “AM:72”

Are you growing mistrustful of others? Do you suspect your wife does not actually have cancer? Is every trip to the mailbox an exercise in loathing and remorse? Are your coworkers having trouble finding anything interesting to say when they talk about you behind your back? Do you deeply despise people who possess many of the same opinions and motives as your own?

But I’m not sure how this collection works as a whole. I’m not sure that there is enough time to truly establish any meaning from page to page. I’m not sure that there is enough of a thread to justify their being lumped together. Is there a story? Is there a lager fiction at play? Or is it just a multitude of jump cuts? No panoramas? No views?

I do admit that at some level it’s an intriguing ride – in the same way that Invisible Cities is structurally attractive – and I would recommend taking a gander at it. If nothing else you should hop over to Featherproof’s site for the free mini-book version of AM/PM. It includes five of the vignettes you’ll find in the full-length, which might be the perfect amount of these gems to digest at a time. You won’t get carpal tunnel of the eyeball. You won’t get to thinking, “This again,” every time you turn the excessively-white page.