NewPages Book Reviews

 

Posted June 1, 2011

Nobody Ever Gets Lost :: Utopia Minus :: Destroyer and Preserver :: Ordinary Sun :: The Really Funny Thing about Apathy :: Monster Party :: Crafting the Personal Essay :: Brook Trout and the Writing Life :: Zone :: Us :: Cowboy Maloney's Electric City :: The Bigger World :: The Whalen Poem :: Campeche

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Nobody Ever Gets Lost coverNobody Ever Gets Lost

Fiction by Jess Row

Five Chapters, February 2011

ISBN-13: 978-0982939222

Paperback: 196pp; $14.95

Review by Alex Myers

Seven short stories, linked by the event and resonance of September 11th, constitute Jess Row’s Nobody Ever Gets Lost. Modern, pertinent, worldly, these stories speak directly to the reader, drawing one in, compelling one to keep reading, to engage. Row’s prose is self-conscious but never awkward, rich and rewarding.

Though by no means a novel in stories, the pieces in this volume are meaningfully linked. From the backpacker in Thailand who falls in with a fanatic Christian missionary, to the Yale Freshman who must wrestle with the Islamic fundamentalism of a dorm-mate, these stories all revolve around religion, globalism, and the plight of the individual.

Whether set in America or abroad, Row’s stories grapple with the question of how to navigate the present-day world. As one of his characters, a Korean-American woman who has hired a half-Jamaican man to care for her ailing mother, laments: the world is so “fucking mixed up. Spring rolls and matzoh balls. Filipinos doing your nails and Koreans doing your laundry and Guatemalans bringing your Chinese food and Hasids handing you pamphlets every time you come out of the subway.” The world of these stories is real and complicated and so forceful is the fiction that one is obliged to believe.

Plot, character, setting, these basics of fiction writing are all in place. Beyond that, Nobody Ever Gets Lost offers philosophy. There’s the crazy fringe artist whose girlfriend is drawn into his revolutionary vision. There’s the father who, in a freak accident, lost his daughter and considers finding consolation through meaningful crime. Most intriguing for this reader was the linguist, the translator, who happened upon a newspaper article detailing the accidental death of two girls. Drawn in to the story in a way she doesn’t understand, the translator confronts her own existential crisis in a Duane Reade store, as she suffocates at the sight of merchandise and eventually:

sees the exit at the end of an aisle and hurries towards it, hardly able to stop from breaking into a run. White sunlight splashes her face, city sunlight, refracted by a hundred mirrored windows. Gratefully she breathes in exhaust and kebab smoke. What an American problem, she thinks, what to buy when nothing you can buy will make it any better, when no object makes any difference at all.

Like many of Row’s characters, this narrator doesn’t know which way to turn in this world, searches for meaning and wills herself to find it.

There are moments when the prose is too self-aware. Two of the stories in the volume, “The Answer” and “Sheep May Safely Graze,” feature first person narrators who are overly self-indulgent. This indulgence treads the line between character definition and authorial heavy-handedness, as when the college-age narrator of “The Answer” relates a simple scene:

Rafael stays seated, and I next to him, in a half-crouch, a helper’s pose. (I’m not blind to subtext. Say, for argument’s sake, that my heart is temporarily opened. Say that a look of torment fixes me to the ground.) And then he stands up and dusts himself off and twists away. There year – I should mention this, shouldn’t I? The year is 1993.

Passages such as this distract from the strong narrative, which does not benefit from these rather belabored and unnecessary moments of overwriting.

As a collection, Nobody Ever Gets Lost is, simply put, stunning. Pick it up, enjoy it, spread the word. This is writing to be delighted by and a writer to look for more of.

 

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Utopia Minus coverUtopia Minus

Poetry by Susan Briante

Ahsahta Press, March 2011

ISBN-10: 1934103195

ISBN-13: 978-1-934103-19-7

Paperback: 104pp; $17.50

Review by Alyse Bensel

The idea of the suburbs as a “Utopia minus” comes to the fore in a collection that laments the rise of the suburbs as a “rise into ruin.” Susan Briante has written a bold second collection that tackles issues plaguing the American landscape and, even more urgently, the American people. Utopia Minus challenges notions of industrial and social progress in emboldened poems, fearlessly examining the plight of current American culture and even addressing the wars in the Middle East. These poems seethe with a silent anger and worry for the future.

Prose poems and long-line lyrics intermingle the mechanization of the human world with the natural world. In the opening prose poem, “The End of Another Creature,” the speaker observes monarch butterflies in the city. The speaker claims that “For six days I watch monarch butterflies scatter across the Metroplex, dream their carcasses onto the highway, dream black beetles biting my fingers in your clasped hands.” The interaction with the man-made highway proves fatal for the butterflies, just as the poem ends on the premonition of the image of “the boxwoods where someone left chemicals.”

A series of poems interspersed throughout the collection juxtapose images within the titles. The speaker rides a train in Newark in “Windows, Roof, Wood,” saying,

From this train, you regard places you’ll never reach,
storage containers, Quonset huts, bricks in fields,
warehouses the size of a cathedral,
web of wires, porcelain floaters.
“Detox the ghetto,” a billboard reads.
We do not care for one another.

The distancing of people from one another, of the industrial ruin of the cities, rises in the language of the poem, stemming from the political American landscape.

War fringes the collection, seeping into poems that discuss the radiating effects of the war. In “Robert Mueller Municipal Airport,” the speaker observes, “At the city’s new airport, you empty your pockets: / a kind of downpour, a little divorce: / everyone can see what’s inside.” The exposure of the self, unable to escape from the X-ray machines, shows the vulnerability of the speaker, no matter the location. In “3000 Block Kings Ln—Demolished Apartment Complex,” the graffiti on the abolished buildings reads “It’s all George’s fault in black spray paint” while the speakers sees “black-eyed Susans / to which I feel no relation.”

Briante ends each section of the book with poems that act as letters to high-ranking government officials, called “Memoranda.” In “Dear Madam Secretary of Homeland Security,” the speaker asks the secretary after describing the aftermath of a hurricane: “Madam, do you ever get the feeling there’s something wrong with how things are run? […] And when a cardinal spits out his high, hard song, are we responsible to him as well?” She asks of the President for an exit in “Dear Mr. President,” finishing the poem with lyrical language that encapsulates this collection: “And pigeons swerve from north to east stained by a light that resembles an emergency exit’s red glow.” The poet tries to show a solution for the American plight, an exit linked to the natural world.

 

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Destroyer and Preserver coverDestroyer and Preserver

Poetry by Matthew Rohrer

Wave Books, March 2011

ISBN-10: 1-933517-50-6

ISBN-13: 978-1-933517-50-6

Paperback: 73pp; $16.00

Review by Michael Flatt

If you’re like me, the title Destroyer and Preserver will make you expect a speaker who finds himself filling both roles at once, somehow. You’ll long to embrace the conflict of some tragic irony. You’ll look forward to witnessing small, tender moments nestling together in the shadow of something supremely horrible.

And if you’re like me, you’ll have a hard time not being a touch disappointed in Matthew Rohrer’s new collection, but you’ll find something equally compelling in his speaker’s thought-out resignation. This collection seems to say, “The world is awful, but what can I do? Give $50 to Planned Parenthood and eat a date with bleu cheese spread on it.”

I suspect this is a mentality that would incite some resentment among the revolutionarily minded among us, and I must confess to some of this resentment. And yet, what exactly do I do? I give Planned Parenthood money regularly (something I have in common with this speaker), and I try to live my life the best that I can. I have no great plans to improve the world aside from by living my own life responsibly. The difference is, Rohrer’s speaker expounds this as an ideal, while I find myself a bit ashamed not to be starting a revolution on behalf of any of a number of worthy causes. For Rohrer, there’s a genuine commitment to this resignation. The collection’s concluding poem, “Wu Wei” (which also features that delicious snack I mentioned before) puts it this way:

…Like given
the choice to do something
stupid or to sit in a chair
everyone leaps up
with their eyes ablaze
he said, when the greatest
art is to turn back…

When I consider this passage, I feel as ambivalent as I do about the rest of the book. Perhaps this “he” has a point. Maybe there’s something to the idea of not choosing one’s battles, but choosing, consistently, to remain seated. Maybe Sweden had it right.

But then, is there anything inherently stupid about dropping everything and using your accumulated vacation time to drive to Tuscaloosa and help with the cleanup effort? Probably not. And while Rohrer seems very conscious of his speaker’s privileges, and perhaps selfishness—it isn’t an accident that his characters discuss this idea over brunch, as so many of us do—it still strikes me as a dangerous worldview: “How awful. Oh well.”

Though, it might make sense to assume I’m wrong about Rohrer’s stance on the self’s ideal relationship to world politics, and to just enjoy some well crafted poems. What has always attracted me to Rohrer’s poems is working better than I have ever seen it. His angular, juxtaposition-based approach to narrative and his commitment to the quotidian—the everyday-made-new—show his interest in New York School poetics. And as he did in his improvised collaborations with Joshua Beckman, Rohrer again demonstrates an enviable ease and deftness within this style. The best example may be “Two Hours of Crying,” a truly beautiful ode to parenthood—the title refers to a baby’s crying—which ends:

I must keep myself awake or
be visited with horrors. My love
hurtling toward me through vast subway
tunnels in one hour & twenty minutes.
I am a dream a black obelisk dreams
& forgets I haven’t
put much thought into it. I just feel good.

In a sense, in poems such as this one, Rohrer actually provides what his title might suggest. Here, he preserves his family in the face of potential horrors, and love is a thing both fast and threatening, a destroyer.

While one finds a similarly pleasing irony in “The Terrorists,” in which a terrorist “walks into a bar” and is healed by his first taste of beer, finding that “it was all of a big joke beauty / played on love,” it’s hard to believe that this is really all Rohrer has to say on a matter like terrorism.

 

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Ordinary Sun coverOrdinary Sun

Poetry by Matthew Henriksen

Black Ocean, February 2011

ISBN-10: 0984475222

ISBN-13: 978-0-9844752-2-3

Paperback: 108pp; $14.95

Review by Patrick James Dunagan

Matthew Henriksen’s poems are fun to read. They aren’t elaborate constructions, even when concerned with painful circumstances or disturbing displays of psychological torment, neither are they simple in statement or form. Tony Tost’s blurb mentions T.S. Eliot and Gram Parsons. This works as Henriksen is of a generation for whom turning from reading Eliot to listening to Parsons without missing a beat comes easily. (Parsons, after all is very much in Eliot’s lineage—wealthy white and southern, Parsons was a musical star who readily mixed country with rock, his personal setbacks and limitations reflected by his art and life.) Henriksen, however, is not merely deploying a grab bag of insights he picked up from the college dormitory. So, while there’s a bit of looseness deployed under cover of freehanded collage in these poems, Henriksen surprises as being far subtler a poet than to boringly lay everything straight out.

Ordinary Sun is broken into several subtitled sections of what are (for the most part) short lyric poems or untitled poem series. Some section titles make heavy announcements of subject “Is Holy” (Henriksen’s engagements with Christian faith don’t ring entirely tongue-in-cheek) or literary reference, “Beulah’s Rest,” while at the same time giving the impression of bold statement leaning towards manifesto, “The New Surrealism.” Much of the pleasure of reading around and through this book comes from Henriksen’s enthusiastic verbosity as much as demonstration of any poet-like skills or knowledge.

In Henriksen’s poems, such as “Fucked Up World,” the language needs not be heavily burdened—although it very well is—and is full of free floaters adrift in between the references and longings that make up his surroundings, aural drifts of a post-local universalism:

What can two people make but one bigger loneliness
before falling asleep shoulder to shoulder
in a room of crowded things
the same nameless light hits morning
after merciless morning?
A pile driver in the movie
slams mud until a slum apartment collapses,
Naples in black and white.
Pretend above all to love this thing,
this monstrous idea of a room.

The fact that Henriksen appears not concerned with knowing what to do with experience itself is one of the saving graces of his writing. His comfort to be caught up with wondering his way through puzzling detours presented by life via language affords him opportunity to weave the reader into the presence of being with the poem. He doesn’t push any agenda, but gives way to the visions of the poem that they be manifest, as in “Resolution”:

I made a whisper to make her body blink.
Her fingers rooted upon unnamable waste.
Her spine wound like a spire out
of time, contorted unclimbably.
A sickness grew out of my love, so I loved her sickness
and spoke in terms to make it grow.
I grew sick of repetition and so my love.
My love fell into the sickness of her well.
I fashioned a bower to keep out birds.
I feigned company and spoke in shades.
Pretending to hear her, I cried, “Invisible sky.”
I begged her back but brambles she became.

The only disappointingly dull rumble to be found here is the title poem “Ordinary Sun,” the final and one of the longest poems in the collection. Whether written at an earlier time than the others or a more recent dive into the ambition to write “a long poem” it needn’t been included. The stream of conscious imagery which slides throughout attempting to bind stanzas together fails to compel with the strength of poems in other sections of the book. Given the immediacy such tightly contained glimpses hold, the onslaught of rapid-fire, never evolving one-liners such as:

Bitterly the butterfly,
she said. The evening must go on.
Even if Satchel Paige must appear.
Even if Lester Young must solo on a late Billie Holliday recording.
Even if Charlie Parker must never run out of veins.
When R.E. Lee finds the infinite playground.
I am playing chess with Salman Rushdie, damn rules.
Swathed in iron, lost in government,
the critic’s history sang reverence to God
of the arbitrary structure, and
each arbitrary structure sang.

It comes across as nothing more than a slamming together of disparate parts that leads to no greater whole, quite an “arbitrary structure” indeed. While this longer poem seeks function the same as Henriksen’s shorter ones, it fails harnessing the means for doing so. Somehow the lack of space as is given between sections of earlier poem-series, or poem sequences, designating a determined breath space for pause and reflection, spoils the delight and wonder which Henriksen’s collaged lines succeed best at conveying and the slumped mass that’s left is nothing but a shrug and easily left in haste.

Henriksen writes from a perspective based on trust and is therefore trustworthy, or better be—after all, if he believes what he says it’s his own life on the line. It’s clear that he’s not faking it, “My mind tastes bitter this morning. I’m fortunate / enough, green leaf.” Whatever the grief be which drives the heart of such an Orphic song, he has lived through it enough to be recognized. Take note reckless would-be poets, Henriksen elucidates upon a few of the hazards which await you.

 

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The Really Funny Thing about Apathy coverThe Really Funny Thing about Apathy

Stories by Chelsea Martin

sunnyoutside, November 2010

ISBN-10: 1934513245

ISBN-13: 978-1-934513-24-8

Paperback: 68pp; $13.00

Review by Sara C. Rauch

If you’re the sort of reader who likes a nice, linear plot and a trustworthy narrator, then Chelsea Martin’s charming collection of stories, The Really Funny Thing about Apathy, is probably not for you. If, on the other hand, you delight in the odd, the cerebral, the uncanny, and you love the possibility of language and the unexpectedness of the human brain, then by all means, go get your hands on a copy.

This slim volume, easily slipped into a pocket and enjoyed on the go, contains four short stories. These somewhat stream-of-conscious narratives follow the mildly deranged, somewhat neurotic, and very amusing thoughts of someone (could be anyone—anyone who has had a father or eaten at McDonald’s or felt insecure).

Take the opening piece, “At the End of This Story the Door Will Open and Under Eight Seconds will have Passed.” Like an increasingly complex game of Telephone, the story moves point A, “I heard a knock at the door and got up to answer it,” to point Z, to point Y, to point B, and onward; thirteen pages later, you have no idea if the door has been answered. But that’s not the point. The point is the labyrinthine, bizarre workings of the human brain. It takes twenty minutes to read a story in which only eight seconds have passed: how is that possible? In Chelsea Martin’s world, it is.

Or take the third piece, the sardonically titled “McDonald’s is Impossible.” With wit and weirdness, it begins, “Eating food from McDonald’s is mathematically impossible.” The narrator then traces, with a slightly psychotic intensity, the story through depression, sex, drunkenness, reading books (or not), in-school suspension, loyalty, and more, until the piece comes full circle.

Curious and perambulatory, these pieces are honest in the most endearing, unknowable ways. The Really Funny Thing about Apathy is a fun, fleeting romp through the strange language of the mind.

 

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Monster Party coverMonster Party

Fiction by Lizzy Acker

Small Desk Press, December 2010

ISBN-10: 0978985834

ISBN-13: 978-0-9789858-3-7

Paperback: 84pp; $12.00

Review by Tessa Mellas

Lizzy Acker’s book Monster Party is hard to categorize. Is it a fiction chapbook? A novella? A story cycle? Maybe a fictive autobiography? Maybe a collage of short-shorts? Or should we call it a badass bildungsromanesque manifesto with a poetic ode to the 90s computer game Oregon Trail thrown in? Whatever it is, it’s a must-read. Especially for all you 20 and 30-somethings who grew up on He-Man and Nick at Nite. And you literary types who have always wanted to do something gnarly and totally against-the-rules with metaphor. And especially all you who may be considering boob tubing it tonight—Acker’s protagonist would—but are thinking it’ll be loads more fun hanging out for eighty pages with a slacker tomboy named Lizzy who drools sarcasm, shoots Fourth-of-July bottle rockets out of her mouth, and accidentally participates in the murder of a possum because she thinks it’s mortally wounded when the poor critter is just playing dead. Trust me, friends. This hipster hip, tough girl, love-rock, indie narrative word-thing is for you.

The type is big. And by the looks of the coloring, book font and vintage-looking playground graphic on the cover, you’d think it was a young-adult read. But the book’s playful façade, though certainly representative of a charming childish innocence, disguises something gritty and dark. It’s not quite as sad as it sounds. Possum aside, Acker leaves serious tragedy off the page. But the narrator’s life is so painfully mundane, hopelessly aimless, and unrequited in every way that Acker’s sparse prose is a sliver of metal that slips through your skin, enters your bloodstream, and pierces your organs again and again and again.

She starts with the story “The Basement,” which gives us a quick glimpse into the lives of a pack of ethnically-diverse children living in the same apartment complex. They test the limits of how hard they can pump their legs on the swing set without clearing the top metal bar and follow Ricky into the basement laundry room where he demands that the little girls pull down their underpants so he can flash pictures of them with his animal cracker box camera. He explains that he can sell the pictures to his uncle, who works for Playboy, and make them all famous. The juxtaposition of simple childish language and the uncomfortable turn toward sexuality at the end kicks off the collection with a quick glimpse into the protagonist’s childhood. The innocent logic and poetry of minimalist observation speak softly but leave a trail of chills.

Acker hurtles us through Lizzy’s childhood quickly. By the third story, “Shark Week,” she is a teen adrift in her hometown. Her parents have moved, so she surfs couches, trying not to piss off her hosts. She hangs out with a bunch of dude friends, making up drinking games to the sitcom flop Sister, Sister. And she is excruciatingly in love with Joe, whose glasses are just a bigger version of hers, who owned a Razor scooter at the same time she did so they rode “around town like a two-man gang,” and once fell asleep with her in his parents’ back seat coming home from a Scandinavian Festival. As Lizzy waits for her boyfriend to arrive at a hotel room she’s rented for two nights, she drinks wine with Joe. Acker writes, “and the lights were out and I was whispering something in Joe’s ear about Painting with Bob Ross and he said, ‘That IS strangely hot but I don’t know why.’ Then I went down on him, even though my best friend from third grade had to go on antidepressants after she broke up with him senior year and also everyone knows that back when he tried to break the record for masturbating the most times in a day and he got somewhere like forty-six times, he did permanent damage to his penis.” I know no other writer who so authentically and sympathetically inhabits the teenage mind.

The fourth story “Fall” is brilliant in what it leaves out and how it situates a humdrum month of Lizzy’s college career against her past and future. It is the October she stops eating and “spen[ds] the month walking around Seattle.” She turns a college party into a costume ball via mass e-mail, spends weeks making her costume, and admires the sexy way her shoulder blades stick out from it at the party. Acker ends this two-page short-short: “This was before the summer, when I rode my bike in the middle of the night to the Mennonite church twenty miles out of town and slept under a tree and waited for Ben to call me on my cell phone. Before he didn’t, when I rode back home in the dark.” This story hints at significant plot points in Lizzy’s life, but it opens more gaps than it fills. The gaps offer a certain poetry that sings of the sad familiarity we have with our own memories, so chronic and packed with worthless meaning, untranslatable outside our own heads. Yet somehow here Acker’s unfamiliar references to moments in Lizzy’s life hit painful notes of nostalgia—for a time of starvation and wandering, a time infinite in its isolation and loneliness.

Later in the collection, Acker seems to switch style and genre completely. Take the story “Alien Vacation,” which opens: “The two aliens are at a Bingo game. They are confused. They are not used to Bingo games and they are trying to understand Earth culture but Earth culture is very hard to understand.” Acker describes the alien’s jaunt through San Francisco, the number-one tourist location for their species. Other hot spots include Taco Bell and the edge of the highway. But something magical happens at Bingo. Acker writes, “Alien One lets her hand glide over Alien Two’s hand, slowly. She feels the texture of his skin. He feels the texture of her skin. Her hand stops. They hold still like that, one hand on top of the other. They are having alien sex.” Has Acker slipped into sci-fi mode? Hardly. She’s doing clever things with metaphor instead. Is teenaged Lizzy telling herself this sci-fi narrative in order to exoticize an uneventful adolescence? Or is this adult Lizzy looking back on an innocent teenaged interaction, an experience whose eroticism is wholly foreign to her grown-up self? The metaphor functions in manifold ways. And again, in two pages, Acker works magic, creating a powerful ache with what seems at first glance to be simple sentences and a silly plot.

Acker’s tight sparse stories, with their enlarged font and generous use of white space, seem simple and sweet and youthful at first glance, but with each page you realize that the way she manipulates and complicates language and emotion, retrieving that special brand of adolescent torment, powerlessness, and disappointment from all of our pasts, is nothing short of brilliant. Her style is wholly unique and new. Get the term Lizzy Acker-esque ready. There’s a new literary monster on the block. Her debut is a huge accomplishment unto itself and predicts great things to come.

 

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Crafting the Personal Essay coverCrafting the Personal Essay

A Guide for Writing and Publishing Creative Nonfiction

Nonfiction by Dinty W. Moore

Writers Digest Books, September 2010

ISBN-10: 1-58297-796-8

ISBN-13: 978-1-58297-796-6

Paperback: 262pp; $17.99

Review by Laura Pryor

Perhaps the highest praise I can offer Moore’s instructional book on writing the personal essay is this: when I started reading it, I had no intention or desire to write an essay, and now, having finished it, I already have a list of potential projects I’m ready to begin. His easygoing, conversational style and encouraging tone (“Everyone has bad days. So don’t beat yourself up about it”) make the book an easy read, and most of his advice is concrete and specific.

Moore begins with an overview of just what defines the personal essay: “A successful essay,” he writes, “is a hunt, a chase, a ramble through thickets of thought, in pursuit of some brief glimmer of fuzzy truth.” The chapters that follow examine specific types of essays: memoir essays, lyric essays, nature essays, spiritual essays, travel essays, and so forth. He offers both writing exercises and topic ideas in each section. He also analyzes successful essays by Agnes Repplier, Michel de Montaigne, Virginia Woolf, and himself.

Throughout the entire book, he illustrates his own suggestions through his own essay in progress, the finished version of which is included in one of the appendices.

Most of the suggested writing exercises are helpful, though some may seem familiar to those of us who have read a few (or few hundred) writing manuals. One exercise offers up the topic, “Why Do I Write?”, a subject I’ve encountered more than once in manuals and workshops, as is the directive to write about a childhood memory. Part Two of the book, which covers writing habits, revision, and publication, includes information found in pretty much every writing book out there: establish a regular writing routine, know your market, don’t get discouraged by rejection slips, and so on. It’s good advice, but if you’ve been writing for any length of time, you’ve heard it before.

Show, don’t tell: that’s another piece of advice you’ll hear over and over again, and Moore’s book proves it. The portions of the book where he uses examples of well-written essays to illustrate his points are by far the most helpful, and the most interesting. He uses three essays of his own, which allows him to explain his thought processes throughout the writing (something he obviously can’t do with Woolf or Montaigne). My only nitpick on this point: I wish he had used a humorous essay from Robert Benchley, Dave Barry, or David Sedaris, because while his own was mildly amusing, it was not what you’d call a knee-slapper.

I think my favorite chapter is “Write What You Wish You Knew,” in which Moore recommends using your essay writing to investigate subjects of curiosity. He references one writer who went back to his childhood summer camp as an adult camper, and A.J. Jacobs’s book The Year of Living Biblically: One Man’s Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible. He also provides a fun list of seven-day experiments to spark the reader’s imagination (a week watching nothing but the Food Network, for example).

As Moore describes it, writing the essay sounds like a lot more fun than the perennial start-of-school slog through “What I Did Over Summer Vacation.” I highly recommend taking his advice for a “ramble through thickets of thought.” Who knows where you’ll end up?

 

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Brook Trout and the Writing Life coverBrook Trout and the Writing Life

The Intermingling of Fishing and Writing in a Novelist’s Life

Nonfiction by Craig Nova

Eno Publishers, May 2011

ISBN-10: 0982077149

ISBN-13: 978-0982077146

Paperback: 176pp; $15.95

Review by Alyse Bensel

Craig Nova’s quirky memoir mixes his life as writer, father, and husband in a series of short essays that all revolve around his life as a fly fisher searching for the native brook trout. This reprint and expansion of the original 1999 publication incorporates simple prose with wit and humor. Although predominantly known as a fiction writer, Nova, in a series of twelve non-chronological essays, informs the reader about how he developed his obsession with fly-fishing alongside other stories about his shared passion with friends and family. These essays, with a charming voice, invite the reader to share with Nova in his memories and pieces of advice that enrich the memoir.

We learn in vivid detail the process of crafting different flies, casting techniques, and the habits and appearance of the brook trout. Nova claims he learned much of his fishing techniques simply from watching. He observes that he has “learned something about the length of leaders and the thickness, too, but all of this, which I learned so slowly and with such effort, came from watching.” With descriptive prose, Nova uses his observational skills to tell of his first encounter with a brook trout. He recalls: “What I remember about catching my first brook trout was that ominous tug of it: sudden, serious, with all the purpose that millions of years of evolution can bring to one small act.” After he catches the trout, he describes “dark squiggles on its back, a line of red dots on its side” and the “gray sparkle and red dots” of its flanks. These descriptions lend a sense of detailed and tight prose among essays that possess more of a conversational tone.

Alongside the brook trout, Nova recalls life experiences as writer, husband, and father, with each essay accompanied by family photographs. He describes writing his second novel: “I sat alone in a room and looked at the pages I had written. Hands sweating. Money running out.” Nova even doles out advice about the writing life, adding a rooted dimension to a world that at times may not seem so real. He reminds readers and fellow writers alike that “a large part of the work is not between you and the book you are writing but also between you and the people who publish it and represent you.” Once again, fishing for the brook trout never seems far off. He thinks of his wife as he eats a meal of brook trout, saying, “I thought of the gorge, of Christina’s hand emerging from the shadows and the shining leaves.” Later, he shows his daughter Abbey how to fish. He catches the fish on the first cast, with “all the urgency of a promise being kept.”

Nova always returns to fly fishing whenever he needs inspiration. In the second essay, with a newborn child and catching a snag in writing a novel, his wife advises him to go fishing, telling him, “We always seem to see things more clearly after you come back from the river.” And the common thread of fly fishing provides the hook for this memoir, threading various events together in a series of essays that will entertain with uplifting spirit.

 

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Zone coverZone

Fiction by Mathias Enard

Translated from the French by Charlotte Mandell

Open Letter, December 2010

ISBN-10: 1-934824-26-7

ISBN-13: 978-1-934824-26-7

Paperback: 517pp; $16.95

Review by Olive Mullet

Zone is a contemporary Homeric epic, 500 pages of one sentence–and it works. Enard’s message is that no matter where the conflict takes place and what the issues are, the human atrocities are the same. Therefore, the style allows for the account of one savage leader and his victims to bump up against others with not even a comma in between:

all those faces are superimposed on each other now, the
terrified the decapitated the burned the bullet-pierced
eaten by dogs or foxes the amputated the broken the calm
the tortured the hanged the gassed, mine and others’ the
photographs and memories the heads without bodies the
arms without bodies the dead eyes they all have the same
features, it’s all of humanity one icon the same face the
same sensation of pressure in your eardrums the same long
tunnel where you can’t breathe, an infinite train a long march
of the guilty of victims of terror and revenge

For those squeamish about gory details, they are too many and too brief for any to cause nightmares. And there is a hook to keep us reading beyond a morbid fascination. But the reader will never think of the most picturesque tourist spots like Corfu, Venice (its foggy, mildewy beauty, as the most freezing Mediterranean city), even Florence and Rome the same way again: we are walking on bones.

For even a reader sensitive to comma splices, this novel flows easily, even though there is not much plot with our being in the mind of the main character throughout. Francis Servain Mirkovic—a warrior for Croatian independence and afterwards a French Intelligence Officer who collected Mediterranean stories of atrocities—is traveling by train from Milan to Rome. There the Vatican will pay him his “pieces of silver” for his suitcase of stories. At that point, he dreams of being free of the Zone, the organization which had him seek out the stories from the areas between Barcelona and Beirut. However, besides reliving his contacts with his dangerous and cruel contacts, some smiling and pleasant–he wonders what his future will hold. The train goes in and out of dark tunnels while he unfolds the suitcase’s dark contents and gradually even his life.

What stand out are his two warrior friends, Andrija and Vlaho, with whom the song “the three drummer boys coming back from war” fits. But even more vivid are his three girlfriends Marianne and Stephanie, both of whom he breaks from brutally, so that only the “distant” Sashka can he dream of reconnecting with in Rome. In his “long solitary wanderings as a depressed warrior,” he is often drunk.

The hook is the question as to whether he can escape the Zone considering how much he knows. He has changed his life three times, but this time he has erased his identity and adopted that of a childhood friend Yvan Deroy, now insane in an institution. Will he die like his friend Andrija? Where can he go to escape his memories, the weight of that suitcase, even after its delivery to the Vatican?

Famous writers like William Burroughs and Malcolm Lowry appear because of their brutal acts against their wives. Plus songs—Sinatra’s “My Way” along with “Lili Marleen” metamorphose in different places and finally in Guantanamo. Caravaggio, the painter, is repeatedly mentioned for his fascination with decapitation and death. But the most consistent allusions are to the classics—such as Achilles, Zeus, even Dante, right up to the end:

I thought about all those movements in the Zone, ebb
flow, exiles, chasing other exiles, according to the victories
and defeats, the power of weapons and the outlines of
frontiers, a bloody dance, an eternal interminable
vendetta, always, whether they’re Republicans in Spain
fascists in France Palestinians in Israel they all dream of the
fate of Aeneas the Trojan son of Aphrodite, the conquered with
their destroyed cities want to destroy other cities in turn,
rewrite their history, change it into victory

In the beginning, Francis meets a madman in the Milan train station who holds out his right hand and shouts, “comrade one last handshake before the end of the world,” and at the end we come full circle.

This novel might have been more intense with fewer words. With blocks of print, at least there are chapter breaks. However, even Odysseus has a real resolution after he returns home, which is not the case here. Therefore, readers must be aware that the style’s openness means even if there finally is a period, it is not the end of the sentence (in more than one sense of that word).

 

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Us coverUs

Fiction by Michael Kimball

Tyrant Books, May 2011

ISBN-10: 0615430465

ISBN-13: 978-0615430461

Paperback: 203pp; $14.95

Review by Audrey Quinn

Reading the first, very short chapter of Michael Kimball’s Us, I knew the book was going to make me cry repeatedly. A husband wakes to his wife having a seizure in their bed, and from that point we experience the complete change to their lives as he cares for her until her death. Their story is told from the point of view of the old man and there is no dialogue in the book. We are completely immersed in his experience as he tries to keep his wife alive and then helps her prepare for her death. I say “experience” because he is so unsure, scared, and sad that his descriptions are very physical because he doesn’t quite know how to process them: “I couldn’t feel any breath coming out of her anymore. I held onto her nose and tried to breathe some of my breath into her mouth. There didn’t seem to be enough air inside of me anymore to get her to breathe.” There are dozens of moments like this through the book, ones that start with a play-by-play description of what is happening and end in heart-wrenching realizations.

Upon starting Us, I questioned whether or not I would be able to be absorbed in Kimball’s writing style and then one afternoon, when I was about 25 pages in, I sat down with the book and didn’t get up until I finished without realizing that any time had passed. The slender book seems like it would be a quick read but the emotions linger over the pages and the impact of the book lasts much longer than it takes to read it. There are fifty short chapters and the book is split into seven parts, but the narrative never feels rushed or short. The man’s story is heart-wrenching and he holds onto you without letting go, not that you would ever want him to.

 

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Cowboy Maloney's Electric City coverCowboy Maloney’s Electric City

Fiction by Michael Bible

Dark Sky Books, 2011

ISBN 10: 0-983-06744-9

ISBN 13: 978-0-983-06744-9

Paperback: 85pp; $10.00

Review by Hazel Foster

At first glance Michael Bible’s Cowboy Maloney’s Electric City is adorable, akin to an oversized coaster and just a quarter-inch thick, but inside, the prose is blunt and cut-down, and the illustrations match: page sixty’s is of black swans smoking cigarettes in a white lake.

The layout facilitates the prose’s bluntness. Each page is like a chapter break but less abrupt, beginning a new anecdote in the overall plot. Each page is a blip in the most positive way the word “blip” has ever been used, a blip of story and language crammed into a half page, like the words have some kind of magnetic charge pulling them all together, which is true both visually and figuratively. Though several plotlines progress independently throughout, a magnetic charge pulls them together to form a larger narrative about Maloney, our narrator.

In one plotline, Maloney, his horse Forever, and Princess Hypochondria are on a journey:

We ride on dreams of whim and caprice. I call my horse, Forever. He is out near the dunes chasing black butterflies down toward a river. He wears an eye patch over his good eye to make the bad one better. I build a fire. Princess tried to hang herself but lived and now she stands by the water checking for tumors in her reflection. She escapes into the forest looking for cures.

This plotline, being one of two main ones, factors heavily on the experience of reading this short book. This fantastical journey bleeds into the second, more realistic plotline, giving the book an odd, but pleasant haziness.

The second plotline follows the relationship of two young people: Maloney and Kelly Kelly. Also in this plotline is Mrs. Kelly, Kelly Kelly’s mother. Mrs. Kelly takes on the roll of MILF to Maloney:

Did I mention the hidden cameras? After her shower I admire the lace Mrs. Kelly puts on. She taught me many things: art and literature, how a naked woman behaves when she thinks no one is watching.

At first, these two plotlines appear separate, sharing only a narrator, but soon they overlap, showing that the journey occurs after Maloney’s experiences with Kelly Kelly:

Princess finds a dog. We name it Heather after Heather from that movie. She is a sweet sheep dog with sweet paws. I think of Kelly Kelly and her love of animals. How once we dressed her mother’s cat up as a dog. I dressed up as a Wild West star and we wrecked her mother’s car into a lake.

This detail of time gives the journey a sense of brooding and sorrow. Maloney remembers back to Kelly Kelly with remorse, though most of the pages devoted to the Kelly Kelly plotline detail sexual encounters. This contradiction suggests a change in character. At the time of the Kelly Kelly plotline, Maloney views her with a sex-driven immaturity. At the time of the journey plotline, Maloney’s view of Kelly Kelly extends beyond the carnal to the sentimental.

Overall, Michael Bible’s eighty-five page romp is fascinating. The prose, so tight and poetic in construction, builds the plotline without the reader being completely aware of its complexity. This book deserves at least two readings to truly appreciate all that is going on.

 

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The Bigger World coverThe Bigger World

Poetry by Noelle Kocot

Wave Books, March 2011

ISBN-10: 9781933517520

ISBN-13: 978-1-933517-52-0

Paperback: 78pp: $16

Review by Gina Myers

In The Bigger World, the reader is presented with the “character poems of Noelle Kocot,” as noted on the title page. And each poem does present a new character or two and a glimpse of their lives. The poems, written always as a single stanza, read like fables or fairy tales with their fantastic elements—whether it is Horatia giving birth to a fully grown man, a phoenix talking to a monk, the head of a woman becoming a house plant, or a wing-faced dentist who used to love war—and with their seemingly moralizing messages. At the end of “Rainbow Lanes,” Kocot writes:

The remedial darkness fell.
Saskia was afraid to look outside.
So instead she looked into the void,
And there were rose petals.

Quite a few of the characters in this collection seem to be looking into the void and discovering, if not rose petals, than acceptance of things as they are. “Welcome Mat” concludes, “All was right with the world.” In “Homage,” an unnamed she admires an unnamed he, in whom she sees “the will to truth.” Often, in the world of these poems, this search for truth results in recognizing limitations. The opening poem, “God Bless the Child,” ends with the characters, Horatia and her son, finding a sort of acceptance:

Horatia felt at peace, finally, after so
Many years of bottled-up hatred
And fear. She and her son walked
Silently on, not out of the flames
Or anything, but just walked on.

They may not be walking out of the flames, but they are walking on, perhaps “freed / From the demon of grief,” as the sleeper is in “Fourth of July.” This zen-like acceptance is found again in “Red-Eye,” which ends:

…They kicked a
Red ball back and forth for hours
Until Molly was exhausted.
And so she went back home,
A song lingering, an agony
Played backwards, superimposed
Upon her, and she looked in
The mirror for signs of anguish,
And, not finding anything, she slept.

While this seems to be a predominant theme, things do not turn out so well for all the characters. In “True Story,” Millie winds up being torn to shreds, and “The Last Time She Saw Him” is about a father who attempts to abduct his child. This tale does not end pleasantly:

She wanted to tell him just one
More thing before the police
Took him. It was that she wanted
Something of his for comfort when
She slept, maybe a sweater she could
Wear and unravel ten years later
And tie into a net before he thudded
Onto the gray littered street from a hotel.
Instead she became a mute six-
Year-old stepping from the porch
Onto midair, not knowing if anyone
Would be there to catch her
If she ever happened to land.

With the use of all the names, the more macabre moments recall Edward Gorey, but the lighter or more playful poems recall Amanda Nadelberg’s character poems from Isa the Truck Named Isadore.

In The Bigger World, we’re reminded again and again that there is a bigger world that exists outside of these individual lives. This collection makes for a quick read, but a number of the poems are worth revisiting in order to let their moments of beauty, or their moments of horror, sink in.

 

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The Whalen Poem coverThe Whalen Poem

Poetry by William Corbett

Hanging Loose Press, February 2011

ISBN-10: 1934909130

ISBN-13: 978-1-934909-13-3

Paperback: 61pp; $16.00

Review by Stephanie Burns

William Corbett's The Whalen Poem is an enticing experiment and one I'm sure many poets would love to try. He describes the long poem as a response to reading Philip Whalen's Collected Poems. Whalen's style and influence permeate the book, but while Corbett revels in Whalen's signature stream-of-consciousness approach, it is clear that the consciousness propelling the poem is distinctly different. Corbett's poem is full of names and anecdotes, baseball statistics, and literary references. He seems to savor the sound and rhythms of these people and places he mentions, and it is fascinating to watch him sample culture and current events in this way. Still, the book is at its most compelling when Corbett delves into something closer at hand:

My plan is teach until
I forget everything I once remembered
And have my subscription to Life
Cancelled before I have to fill out
Any of the (blank) forms.

These lines, which follow a memory of his father-in-law dying of cancer, resonate with the kind of raw closeness that stream-of-consciousness can deliver. Here, the poem most closely approximates Philip Whalen's prevailing spirituality, something otherwise lacking in Corbett's response to the Zen Buddist poet. Corbett does, however, manage to capture a unique sense of a mind immersed in several decades of culture and history at once. His literary and cultural references place Deborah Kerr, Cèsar Vallejo, and Bashō on the same page, giving each a consideration similar to that he bestows on the people he mentions from his own life. In this way, The Whalen Poem taps into something that seems both singularly human and tellingly modern, a feat which elevates it beyond a simple tribute to its namesake.

 

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Campeche coverCampeche

Poetry by Joshua Edwards; Photography by Van Edwards

Noemi Press, April 2011

ISBN-10: 1934819190

ISBN-13: 978-1-93489-19-7

Paperback: 109pp; $15.00

Review by Marcus Myers

Joshua Edwards and Van Edwards’ Campeche, an ekphrastic collection of poems and photographs, meditates on the self as a song caught within the larger music of the world in decline. The book has a unique architecture, which derives its structure from both its historical setting and subtle references to ancient Greek and Judeo-Christian apocrypha. Arranged in seven sections, and consisting of thirty poems (three of which are translations) and forty photographs, the book launches its lyrical flights over Galveston Island, grounding symbolic expression in a real place already imbued with intrigue—the 18th century pirate Jean Lafitte, a man without a nation-state to call home, named this island “Campeche.”

And the book also frames its contents within the story of Prometheus’ son Deucalion, who had been warned by his father of a great flood that would wash away the known world. From here, Joshua and Van Edwards look out to sea and look inland. They scan the thin, distant line stretched between water and sky, as Lafitte had, for vessels to appear and carry a glint of light for a moment or two before “the horizon / destroys itself as I replicate a fist again and / again and again in the palm of my hand.”

Realizing that the self is also subject to entropy’s deluges, these poems and photographs register both futility and hope, a sort of horizontal or material dread buttressed by the vertical or spiritual lift of wonderment. Poem after photograph after poem, Campeche turns over sublime images, collecting evidence of the self’s interplay among earth, sky, and spirit, and then it builds a case out of them. Joshua Edwards has a knack for correlating complex ideas with compelling imagery. Working within the wide parameters of Lafitte’s legendary island, the Deucalion myth, and his father’s photographs, he writes from personal experience while muting personality enough to invite his readers into the poems.

In the book’s first section, “Deucalion,” the speaker triangulates between photographs of decay and growth, and the Greek version of the great flood myth. Reflecting upon the seascape along the island, his imagination mediates the real sky, sea, and land. And his utterances, filled with personal symbol, sing a song of the self fully aware of mortality; and this song knows all too well that the world itself will also reach its terminus. Consider these lines from “Vapors”:

…Fangs grow
from those stars. Day after day, the sea spits
up at the sky, always from new mouths,
and sometimes a cloud obscures the moon
just as two people step out onto a balcony.

And these gorgeous lines from the next poem, “Cold Green”:

…I have found
these things in song: a bird too tired to fly,
secrets of pronunciation, a defeated harvest,
an old refrigerator full of architectural plans.

The section’s last poem “Farewell” focuses the remainder of the book, which not only comes to terms with the world’s dissolution, but embraces it: “I organize life with old ideas, in silence, / and with a cosmic sense of nature failing / I set off into southern wilderness to seek / some subtle center.”

“Life Studies,” the following section, contains only Van Edwards’ photographs of Galveston. The photos outline the book’s phenomenology: strange birds, bird nests, human-made structures, two dead rabbits in separate phases of decay, a close-up of an elephant’s eye, taxidermy mounted on a wall, and beachgoers interacting with the Port of Galveston’s mascot, “The Friendly Seagull.” These photos not only locate the speaker’s “subtle center,” but they also connect with the next section “Campeche,” in which the speaker, perhaps channeling Lefitte, defines the contours of his perspective:

When clocks chime, I groan.
The falling world finds pleasure in despair
Because to suffer means to be alone,
And I suffer through all the accidents
Of change as though I were settling a score,
As if to disinvent what death invents.
I once built a castle, now I do chores.
To pass the time I rearrange my things.
To fall asleep I recite the names of kings.

“I plan a leave of absence,” the speaker says in “Drift,” “I have seen footage / Of violent waves bearing down on man / Outside his very door. Lives come apart / Like books when they get wet.” The last line’s statement “Departure starts my voyage” reiterates the kinetic and transformative power of severe weather. Mimetic of this theme, the last two poems in this section, “Song” and “Vanishing Island” signal a break in form. Interestingly, each of the book’s previous poems had been composed in single blocks without stanzas. The remaining poems depart (“come apart”) from the initial form, have been organized into tercets, quatrains or drop-lines, and drift in white space. While subtle, this shift does not seem accidental, and it indicates Joshua Edwards’s careful attention to form across the length of his book.

“Two Old Bouquets,” the book’s fourth section, gives the reader two long poems in quatrains addressing nature’s destructive power and humanity’s efforts to keep it back. Metaphorically, the poems contemplate how the larger forces of nature, specifically the obliterating sea, not only wear away the land, but also the self. “Love of air and water / Joined in apprehension, / Perhaps you know what’s there / By way of fear,” the speaker of “Leviathan” begins. “Noah had seven laws, / You have only one—eat / To build life out of death, / Survive above all things.” In “Sea Wall,” the speaker describes the dialectic between the islanders’ work to maintain a boundary between themselves and the storm-driven waves that work to break through. After a hurricane smashed over the shoreline “Early last century, / Elegant architects / Walking through the rubble / Sadly took account of // The stricken city that / Papers said lay prostrate / Under catastrophe.” After rebuilding, these workers erected a seawall “Against the water’s teeth,” and the islanders spent “Important afternoons / Of dazzling bodies” to put up a “memorial to / Protect against and taunt / The ocean’s forceful art.” These two poems read as microcosms of civilization’s endeavoring to maintain order, to shore against the forces of nature with human systems and forces of our own.

The fifth section, “Three Translations,” offers Joshua Edwards’s translations of spare, imagistic four-line poems by Meng Haoran, Luo Binwang, and Liu Zongyuan, respectively. This section works as a sort of thematic interstice between “Two Old Bouquets” and the book’s last two sections “Diptych” and “Anxiety Sutra.” In these two sections, the speaker locates his self within American history, within the traditions, customs and symbols of democratic ideals that have shaped his identity. “United Stations” places the speaker “on a hotel room balcony” during his honeymoon, while his “bride, inside, is showering.” Looking toward the sea, he has what Freud terms an oceanic experience, a momentary connection with the infinite, in which the tensions between civilization’s demands and the desire for personal freedom dissolve. And yet his feeling of wholeness is complicated by thought. He daydreams “in classic tones / Of far-off places you’ve never been, women you’ll never know, / and the heroic triumph of love over the worldly call / Of adventure.” We get the sense that the speaker’s poetic intelligence—so mindful that the imagining self creates art and artifice alike—won’t give him the moment’s peace. Toward the end of the poem he muses: “The Arch in St. Louis was started in 1963, / Christened in 1965, as a testament to how we / Love to liberate ourselves and then quickly construct fences / To keep what’s ours in.”

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