Posted January 9, 2012
The Night Before Christmas :: Betty Superman :: The Weary World Rejoices :: Red Plenty :: By Word of Mouth :: Pulp and Paper :: Thrown Into Nature :: Death-In-A-Box :: Power Ballads :: The Blood Lie :: Songs My Mother Never Taught Me
Fiction by Nikolai Gogol
Translated from the Russian by Constance Garnett
New Directions, November 2011
Paperback: 80pp; $9.95
Review by Olive Mullet
Russian writer Nikolai Gogol is famous for his serious satiric novel The Overcoat, but The Night Before Christmas, originally published in a 1926 short story collection, was Gogol’s first work at age 27—an early contribution to Russian literature. Recognized then for its fine writing and humor, now it can also be appreciated as a charming picture of Ukrainian folklore. Instead of Scrooge or the Grinch, the devil and a witch make mischief on a night full of mystical forces, the night before Christmas.
Mischief must have darkness. On this beautiful moon and starlit night, the witch shows up first to “gather a whole sleeveful” of stars in her pocket. Then comes a wonderful portrait of the devil, starting with his appearance: a narrow face and legs so thin “he would certainly have broken them in the first Cossack dance,” a “tail as long and pointed as the uniform coattails of uniforms nowadays,” a “goat-beard under his chin,” little horns on his forehead, and finally “a behind no whiter than a chimney sweep’s.” He proceeds to seize “the moon with both hands, grimacing and blowing; he kept flinging it from one hand to the other, like a peasant who has picked up an ember for his pipe with bare fingers” and finally puts it in his pocket.
The conflicts of the story are first, the devil wants to be-devil Vakula, the pious blacksmith, for his painting of a church mural ridiculing the devil. Then comes relationship conflicts: Vakula is in love with beautiful, vain Oksana. Vakula’s mother, the witch Soloha, wants to marry Oksana’s rich father Tchub for his wealth. But in Russia, for both mother and son to marry into the same family would be considered incestuous.
Actually Soloha has many admirers among the prominent community men, a fact she hides from each of them. The complications develop in farcical fashion when she, in fact, has to hide them in coal sacks after each appears at her doorstep. These sacks fall into the hands first of the blacksmith and then of Oksana and her young friends who during this particular mystical night can predict their future and take off their crosses, which makes them vulnerable to the devil. Vain Oksana’s request that Vakula get her the same beautiful slippers as the Czarina Catherine’s in St. Petersburg causes him to get the help of an exceedingly fat cohort of the devil (a wonderful mini portrait) who says whoever has the devil on his shoulder doesn’t have to look far. The devil does indeed sit there, excited by finally besting Vakula in fulfilling his request.
The devil is, in fact, everywhere, in many conversational expressions like “that devil of a woman.” And the devil is able to be “flying down the chimney and back again,” because of the neglect to put a fire in the fireplace to ward him off. He even creates a blizzard, which “soaped Tchub’s beard and mustaches with snow more briskly than any barber who tyrannically holds his victim by the nose.”
Pictures of country life are delightful, like “the Christmas frumenty” with homemade vodka of different flavors such as mulled vodka and saffron vodka, which are sure to cause hangovers. The animals too are given character: “A bearded billy-goat used to clamber onto the roof, from which he would bleat in a harsh voice like the police-captain’s, taunting the turkeys when they came into the yard, and turning his back when he saw his enemies, the boys, who used to jeer at his beard.”
Even this 27-year-old Gogol gets in his satire of vanity involving cloth overcoats for showing social rank: “Things are queerly arranged in our world! All who live in it are always trying to outdo and imitate one another.”
Plus there is some wonderful writing, like a passage describing Vakula’s riding on the devil’s back:
It was quite light at that height. The air was transparent, bathed in a silvery mist. Everything was visible, and he could even see a wizard whisk by them like a hurricane, sitting in a pot, and the stars gathering together to play hide-and-seek, a whole swarm of spirits whirling away in a cloud.
Little portraits delight as well, like that of the fearsome Ukrainian fighters, the Cossacks, known for their blades slicing from shoulders to legs. Here they whine about their lot to Catherine the Great, to the disgust of their electoral representative Potemkin. Right up to almost the last word, “caca”—a word used when speaking to children, which means dirty and refers here to the devil—the reader gets a flavor of Russia and its folklore.
Fiction by Tiff Holland
Rose Metal Press, August 2011
Chapbook: 44pp; $12.00
Review by Pete Michael Smith
Ten stories make up Tiff Holland’s collection, Betty Superman. The stories themselves are short; altogether they fill only thirty-four pages, stapled into a lovely little edition from Rose Metal Press. But the size of Holland’s collection is deceiving. These stories cover the span of a life as only linked shorts can. They invite the reader to fill in the spaces between the wacky and outrageous scenarios our narrator and her mother, Betty, find themselves in.
We meet Betty in the first story, “Dragon Lady,” and the description reads like something from a personnel form at a company you wouldn’t want to work for: “What she wears: sweaters, tight over missile-silo brassieres. Pink. Yellow. Two pairs of support hose and open-toed shoes, even in winter. Estée Lauder perfume. Frills. Too much hairspray on her cotton candy hair. Make-up, every minute she is awake. False teeth.”
The description goes on, through the obnoxious singing, the inappropriate dancing, the bad job, the bad mom, the bad habits, and ends with the emphysema that will color our understanding of Betty in the following nine stories. We see Betty as the narrator sees her, and that means that our picture of her shifts all the time. In “Hot Work” we see her as a child might, and in “The Barberton Mafia” Betty and the narrator are almost equals, or the very least, on the most even of mother-daughter playing fields.
Betty is complex, and the format of this book (the winner of Rose Metal Press’s fifth annual Short Short Chapbook Contest) allows for those complexities to exist in a way that a novel could not. A novel would be given to explanation and exposition and some sort of superstructure in the time-space continuum that Tiff Holland has no need for. Instead, we are free to move from third husbands to animal carcasses to lesbian aunts and the men they love. Our time in the transvestite beauty parlor is all too short, and yet, I’m happy to move on to Shakespeare in gardening hats and domestic assault.
So skillful is Holland in creating empty space that one comes to savor the things made explicit all the more: “Sometimes I had my students do ‘procedural writing’—write how to do an everyday activity in the smallest detail.” And from there, we are with Tiff Holland’s narrator as she explicitly describes to Betty the process of pumping gasoline. So tender are her directions, and careful her considerations that there is no doubt in the readers’ minds of her concern for her mother and the millions of everyday obstacles that stand before her.
It takes care, too, to keep from conflating Holland with her narrator. Their histories have some overlap, and the book itself is dedicated to the author’s mother, Polly. It’s an exercise in imagination to think of the litany of things that Holland has kept from us—for being too personal, too sad, and too honest—if in fact these stories are mixed with truth. Whether we take this little book as fiction-washed memoir or not, Tiff Holland offers us glimpses and peeks at a world and a family that it would be—if not a pleasure—interesting to know.
Poetry by Steve Fellner
Marsh Hawk Press, October 2011
Paperback: 64pp; $15.00
Review by Kevin Brown
Steve Fellner’s collection of poems, The Weary World Rejoices, has much more weariness in it than rejoicing, but that is only because, as he writes in the first of three odes to Matthew Shepard, “Explanation never // satisfies. It / always wants // something / like redemption.” Fellner is not trying to explain what it is like to be a gay man in 21st-century America; instead, he is trying to redeem it by showing the varieties of that life as it actually is.
One of the main ways he does this is to present readers with absurd situations, often framed by the openings of poems, to remind us that such a life is full of absurdity. For example, a poem about the first time he has sex is titled “Ode to Miss Piggy” and begins:
The first time I made love,
I heard your karate chops
swishing the air,
punctuating my head
hitting the headboard.
As he moves out from this opening, Fellner shows us a scene where the speaker is having sex for the first time with a man whose children are being entertained by watching The Muppet Show, while their father is in the bedroom with the speaker. The contrast of innocence and the loss of it is only heightened by how the situation must be kept secret.
The absurdity of life is reinforced by the following poem, one of three prose poems Fellner writes with his husband, Phil E. Young, titled “Doctor’s Note,” which opens:
His doctor told him that he was allergic to music. This explained the sudden rashes at the Scottish bagpipe festival, the nosebleeds at the high school chorus recital of Carmina Burina, the deep red welts that appeared halfway through a set by the band Sparklehorse at the 40 Watt club.
In this poem, Fellner (and Young) remind readers of a life lived without something essential, a theme that runs throughout this collection, as the speakers of the poems are often looking for something that is missing from their lives, which they often fill with sex that they admit is meaningless while looking for love.
The opening poem points to these two extremes as the speaker of “Globalization” remembers his sixth grade geography class where “We needed / to memorize the world. / I started with Antarctica, / then Zimbabwe. I’ve never liked / middles.” When describing himself as a student later in the poem, he says, “Much to my shame, / I still can only remember one thing: / the correct answers. / Everything is either true or false.”
Of course, life is not simply a beginning and end or true and false, and Fellner shows us the complexities of it, especially in the final section, a series of poems about Matthew Shepherd. However, he does not address Shepherd directly in most of the poems, using the metaphor of a crossword puzzle or crafting a scene where he sees a student in a bar one Saturday night to talk about what happened to Shepherd. In the final of three odes to Shepherd, Fellner describes a conversation with a poet who writes poems in the voices of people who died in the 1918 influenza outbreak. He worries that she is co-opting their stories—a fear she does not seem to share—but he ends his poem by saying that he is trying not to do the same with Shepherd: “I promise, Matthew, // I will never speak / for you. Only, I hope // near you.”
Not all of the poems, though, focus on the weariness that comes with being a persecuted minority in America, as there are moments when Fellner’s speakers find happiness, if only fleetingly. The best example is his poem for his husband, “A Love Poem for Phil.” While the poem does begin by referencing trips to the psych ER, it moves to sharing sundaes at Friendly’s and ends by saying:
See the exclamation
are for you. I promise
there’s more where
those came from.
The collection’s dedication reads, “for the young gay men / who never found a way.” In this book, Fellner is trying to show that some gay men do find their way and that there are moments of rejoicing, even if they are few. This book is not an explanation of this fact, but it can give glimpses of redemption.
Fiction by Francis Spufford
Graywolf Press, February 2012
Paperback: 448pp; $16.00
Review by David Breithaupt
As a kid growing up in a rural community in central Ohio during the 1960s, I heard the word “Communist” bandied about as if it were the lowest form of life to crawl across the American landscape. I thought for a time they had to be like the ogres in Grimm's fairytales who kidnapped children and ate them. Surely they lurked behind every corner. They were to be feared and exterminated. Commies were bad.
When I reached high school and escaped somewhat the backwoods dogma of my town, I began to read about Communists on my own. What was all the fuss? They didn't seem that bad. The Russians, those mysterious people, simply had a different form of government. Did they really want to take over our country, give us a “red Reader's Digest” as Allen Ginsberg wrote in his great satirical poem, America? Who was marketing all this fear? What did Communists look like? Who were they? By the time I reached college, I knew at least that Communists did not eat children.
I wish I’d had Francis Spufford's wonderful new book, Red Plenty, back then. Here is a fine work that presents the Soviet people to us in ways we haven't seen before. Included is a series of episodes ranging from the late 1930s to the early 1970s, which show us aspects of the Russian people we may not have encountered in other more traditional writings. Many of the blurbs for this book have used the word “strange,” but I find it imaginative. It is a bit of a genre-buster, and perhaps that is what mystifies some readers. Spufford states in his introduction that his book is neither a novel nor a work of history. What is it then? “Best to call this a fairytale then,” Spufford writes, “though it really happened, or something like it. And not just any fairytale, but specifically a Russian fairytale, to go alongside the stories of Baba Yaga and the Glass Mountain that Afanaseyev the folklorist, collected when he rode over the black earth of Russia, under its wide sky, in the nineteenth century.”
Indeed, this collection of stories or episodes, snapshots maybe, will leave you walking away with a more intimate relationship with the Soviet Utopian Experiment. In the story titled “Prodigy, 1938,” a boy genius is hired as a consultant by a plywood factory to increase production efficiency, then begins to ponder his applications on a grander scale to take it to the next level, and then the next. Until what? Until the entire Soviet economy is fixed?
“Little Plastic Beakers, 1959” tells of an American exhibit at a conference on youth and sport by the Moscow City Soviet. This is my favorite East meets West story, in which two Russian university volunteers are delegated by district officials to “give comments” while on tour of the exhibit. Armed with “debating points” amidst a crowd of fellow Russians both envious and curious about the American way of life, one of the volunteers presses the tour guide with more and more statements attempting to diffuse the near-utopian presentation of US living:
“You make everything in America sound so good,” Galen broke in with a rush. “You make it sound as if the country is nothing but a garden of roses. But this is not true at all is it? Because in America, there are terrible social problems. What, what about, the great terrible evil of racial discrimination, which you must know very well yourself?”
Roger, the tour guide, a student of Russian from the University of Virginia, holds up well under the assaults but eventually wears down. So do several of the exhibit-goers. “Why don't you leave the poor boy alone?” hisses a woman in the crowd. Encapsulated in this moment is that famous meeting between then vice-president Nixon and Krushchev at the American National Exhibition, with the former bragging of the magnificence of the American washing machine. That meeting was a battle of wills. Neither backed down.
“The Unified System, 1970” is a more offbeat story, perhaps one of the pieces which earned the book the “strange” monikers. Here we have the medal-laden Lebedev attempting to meet with a Soviet minister. He is put on permanent hold in the waiting room while others come and go. He is told to come back another day. He prefers to wait. While he waits, a parallel story unfolds describing in almost medical terms what 50 years of smoking has done to Lebedev’s lungs. Descriptive portraits of how the chemicals in tobacco smoke have invaded his DNA and disturbed the cell tissues eventually causing a carcinoma are given. His increase in coughing worsens to the point where he is forced to leave without even having glimpsed the minister, but not before one wonders about the dual journey of his lungs’ struggle to survive and Lebedev’s own life's story.
I can see this book as having a fairytale life down the road, though right now it seems too close to our present time to take on that aura. But it will in time, I’m certain. And I wonder how future generations will perceive it. Spufford writes:
The Russian fairytale began to be told in the decade of famine before the second world war, and it lasted officially until communism fell...This book is about that moment. It is about the clearest version of that idea, the most subtle of Soviet attempts to pull a working samobranka out of the dream country. It is about the adventures of the idea of red plenty as it came hopefully along the high road.
I thank Mr. Spufford for this long overdue adventure.
Poems from the Spanish, 1916-1959
Translated from the Spanish by William Carlos Williams
Edited by Jonathan Cohen
New Directions, October 2011
Paperback: 167pp; $16.95
Review by Patrick Dunagan
After more than fifty years of James Laughlin’s New Directions publishing the work of William Carlos Williams, to have yet another new collection is a splendid surprise. Although many of these translations already appear in Williams’s Collected Poems, when all are gathered together from these separate sources and placed in company with a few other renegade poems not found there, the continuing necessity of considering the influence of Williams’s biracial heritage upon his work is evident. To not recognize this aspect of Williams’s identity is to risk missing a key component of his poetry. This is a danger editor Jonathan Cohen notes with his assertion that “Pound failed to understand that Williams identified himself as American because of his Hispanic background.” The multi-layered cultural identity of Williams celebrates the rich, fertile brewing ground that the Americas remain.
The collection begins with translations first attributed solely to the poet’s father, William George Williams, originally appearing in the small avant-garde magazine Others, of which Williams was an associate editor at the time. Cohen argues for their inclusion based on the fact that during the same period, father and son collaborated on a translation of Rafael Arévalo Martínez’s story, “The Man Who Resembled a Horse.” As Williams later writes, “In his last years when [my father] was getting ready to die [of colon cancer] I tried to invent ways to keep him entertained, one of them happened to be to help me translate Rafael Arévalo Martínez’s story.” In Cohen’s opinion, “another, surely, was the translation project for Others,” as he notes, “George Williams was very much a traditionalist in his own literary taste, and naturally inclined towards translating poetry in the prevailing Victorian manner, not in the ‘new verse’ manner of Carlos Williams, using colloquial speech without rhyme and abandoning meter for measure.” While Cohen’s reasoning is sensible enough, he also offers further assurance from Williams’s biographer, Paul Mariana: “I have a strong sense that they really did work together on these.”
And in case of further doubt, Cohen’s annotations to José Santos Chocano’s poem “The Song of The Road” (La Canción del Camino) offer the opening lines as rendered by John Pierrepont Rice for comparison with Williams’s own translation. As with all of Cohen’s excellent annotations, the soundness for inclusion of this work as identified with Carlos Williams is redoubled in strength. Here are the first four lines in Chocano's Spanish: “Era un camino negro. / La noche estaba loca de relámpagos. Yo iba / en mi potro salvaje / por la Montaña andina.” Here is Rice’s version: “The way was black, / The night was mad with lightning; I bestrode / My wild young colt upon a mountain road.” And here is Williams’s: “It was a black road. / The night was mad with lightnings. I was riding / my wild colt / over the Andean range.” Not only does the immediacy of Williams’s version irrefutably announce it as a product of the Modern Age—“It was a black road” and “I was riding” as opposed to the Victorian happenstance of “The way was black” and “bestrode”—but Williams carries over Chocano’s specificity as well, retaining its locality as “Andean range”—"Montaña andina". Insisting a focus on what the words are (“lightnings”), not necessarily how they function, Williams doesn’t seek to gloss over the texts with any additional polish. If there’s a grade of evaluation he seeks to be met with his testing of the English language’s ability to carry the Spanish, it is what in later years he terms as the American Idiom, his contribution towards an international conversation of poetry.
The second section of the collection, “And Spain Sings / 1930s,” is comprised of poems from Spain dating “from around the fifteenth century (possibly older) and also from the late 1930s, specifically, the years of the Spanish Civil War,” the event of which devastated Williams. These translations provide him with opportunity to explore his own interests in, as well as show his support for, the continuing strength of the imagination as evidenced in Spanish poetry. One noted result of this shared conviction among writers of the time is And Spain Sings: Fifty Loyalist Ballads Adapted by American Poets, where several translations by Williams appear.
The third and final section, “Sweated Blood / 1940s & ’50s,” contains translations of Latin American poets. Many are poets Williams had the opportunity to meet. Quite a few were also texts brought to his attention by Rutgers professor José Vázquez-Amaral, who after much struggling became “in 1971, founding chairman of the new Spanish and Portuguese Department” there. Also included is a poem by Williams’s own mother Raquel Hélène (Elena) Rose Hoheb Williams, “her only poem!” And with a nice bit of panache, the final poem is Eunice Odio’s "To W.C.W.," written after a visit to his home where she had felt she was “facing a true poet.” For Odio: “En el estaba contenida / la enramba.” (Or, as Williams phrased it, “The whole arbor / is contained in him.”)
Fiction by Josh Rolnick
University of Iowa Press, October 2011
Paperback: 192pp; $16.00
Review by Jodi Paloni
Josh Rolnick writes like a storyteller. He places his characters in the middle of complex situations, but doesn’t leave them stranded. Instead, he inhabits their psyches and builds compelling scenes for them to respond to trouble in the best way they know how, by lunging headlong into it. Meanwhile he creates scenes that rivet you to a sliver of time and the gloom of place, sweeping you up in the first sentences of his eight tales and setting you down at the end of each one with greater faith in the human race.
His prize-winning debut collection, Pulp and Paper, is rife with snarky narrators. An angry father, against his better judgment, finally confronts his grief when he agrees to meet with the cheerleader who killed his son. Two youths attempt to woo a couple of female out-of-towners on holiday at a seaside resort by dazzling them with smelly eels and fish guts with heart-breaking results. Small town tragedy brings a local burned-out newsman face to face with the limitations of his dying pride. And after three years of filling the niche of man around the house, a young boy attempts to sabotage his mother’s budding romance, employing imagination with a vengeance.
Normal people in difficult situations make gratifying choices in the final hour of discovery. And that’s just in New Jersey. The second half of the book, and four more stories, are located in New York.
In searching for the one thing that kept me reading for four hours without looking up, I discovered that there wasn’t just one thing, but the confluence of interesting plots, heart-rich interactions, and the odd humor of grave situations. Yet, the cream that kept rising to the top was in the striking descriptions that both skimmed the surface and reached for depth in the same string of sentences. I noticed a pattern. First, the observation. Next, a simple example followed by another or two. Then a strange twist, one that often verged on sarcasm, exposing the underlying struggle.
Here’s one from the opening story, “Funnyboy”:
For a while, there is genuine sympathy. People you don’t know come to your house with a tuna casserole. The phone rings so often you have to shut it off before you go to bed. You get crayon drawings from school children. One little Picasso sent us a picture of a stick bicycle, broken in two, with tears streaming form the handlebars.
And, another from “Innkeeping,” where each of the rooms in a dilapidated ocean-side guesthouse is named for a literary writer, and a boy eavesdrops on his mother’s date:
Silence. And this time the silence held. From the timbre of the wind in the duct, though, I knew that I was still getting clear reception from the Melville Room. At first, I thought maybe Tweedy [mom’s new boyfriend] was just tongue-tied. But as the quiet swelled, reality slapped me in the face like a renegade wave.
And here’s a favorite, from “Mainlanders,” a story that taken alone is worth paying full price for the book as two adolescents grapple with lip-glossed love. It goes like this:
We sucked in our stomachs, puffed up our chests, selected the biggest waves and rode them all the way into the sand crab zone, a skipped shell from their sun-kissed toes. And if they happened to look or god forbid smile–if they made even fleeting eye contact–our entire world opened up, and every other thing in our lives, good, bad, or ugly, sloughed away.
Train wrecks. Abortions. Unrequited love. Missed opportunities. Second chances.
One trouble after another, told with compassionate details that make a difference in keeping the reader reaching for what comes next, only to be left bereft when the last story is told. Not because the ending to this remarkable double quartet paled, but because after a full afternoon of reading masterful prose by a lake in the sun, the collection was done. Or, as our Rolnick’s carousel man points out in the final sentence, “as quickly as it had come to me, it was gone.”
Fiction by Milen Ruskov
Translated from the Bulgarian by Angela Rodel
Open Letter, November 2011
ISBN 13: 978-1-934824-56-6
Paperback: 294pp; $15.95
Review by Wendy Breuer
Novels that focus on contemporary foibles are often flattened in time by the ephemeral. In Thrown into Nature, Bulgarian writer Milen Ruskov sidesteps the obsolescence problem by giving us a picaresque novel set in sixteenth century Spain. Guimarães da Silva, acolyte and student, narrates his adventures with his mentor, Dr. Monardes, a true figure out of history, the "discoverer" and promoter of tobacco as the cure for whatever ails you.
The work purports to be a compendium of cures attributable to this miracle drug: against intestinal worms, female swelling; driving away spirits; curing lovesickness, bad breath, aching joints; the healing of scabs, toothaches, fevers; elimination of indecision, resolution of doubts; against headaches and plague. This “cutting edge” practice sends Monardes and da Silva into contact with historical and fictional characters in full renaissance dress. As the story romps along, the author occasionally gets carried away, bringing in everyone from the Lope de Vega and Ben Jonson to the Barber of Seville, and somehow throwing in Ralph Waldo Emerson for good measure.
Delightfully translated, the work reads with deadpan zaniness out of Monty Python and the Wizard of Oz. The ironic humor is aimed at humbug, greed, and received wisdom in all its forms, afflictions that never seem to go out of style. Ruskov slyly takes on greed, jingoism, class privilege, and corruption in high places. We are also treated to a spot-on fractured take on history. Regarding the Spanish Armada: "They wanted to cleanse Spain a little. So they loaded up as much Castilian scum as they could, they loaded up misbehaving nobles, they loaded up Lope...Have you heard of Lope?" Or this: "[W]e must give up the Low Countries because…señores—we have already stolen everything valuable there." The reader can easily see past the costumes to recognize present day analogs, yet suspension of disbelief is pleasurable and easy.
What raises this novel above a simple spoof of anachronistic science is the sometimes dubious voice of the narrator, da Silva. A Portuguese scamp passing as a Spanish aristocrat, before signing on with Dr. Monardes he made his living blowing smoke rings for money in bars. A mix of literalist, romantic and skeptic, he begins by tossing aside religion, the idea of the soul, and the unlimited potential of reason:
the world is simply mad Nature's work…the incarnation of chaos. […] If Nature put on a human face and strolled around the streets of Sevilla, she would have long since been locked up as a dangerous maniac, perhaps even burned at the stake by the Inquisition…she alone is the procreator of the world. Not the Devil or God…
He addresses the reader directly, expressing constant adulation for his teacher even as his growing skepticism eventually blossoms into full-blown charlatanism. He also talks aloud to his secret inspiration and muse, French poet Pelletier du Mans: "Life is a strange thing, isn't it, Pelletier? You want it and you don't. It lures you and repulses you. Like a bitter medicine or like a sweet drink that makes your head hurt afterwards." Required to give a smoke enema to the five year old future Felipe III, he remarks: "I imagined what would happen if he were to get the runs while I was blowing tobacco fumes into the tube. In Sevilla there is a man everyone calls Shit Mouth, thanks to his habit of always making gloomy prophesies but, of course, this expression could also have a literal meaning."
Meanwhile, the self-described “humanist and renaissance man” Monardes holds forth about bodily humours, blockages and the unlimited properties of tobacco in restoring balance. He travels to England to engage in a debate on tobacco duly reported by his assistant in a hilarious chapter entitled: “On the Debate by the Honorable, Learned Scholars Dr. Cheynell, an Englishman, and Dr. Monardes, A Spaniard, with the Foolish and Ignorant English King and His Sycophantic Servants Who Present Themselves before the Civilized World as Physicians—to Their and Their Chieftain's Great Shame.”
But the reader can see that Monardes leads his patients and da Silva down the path of logical fallacy, consistently confounding association with causation, his own smooth bedside manner being one of the principle confounding variables. In the end, da Silva's take on chaotic Nature has the last word as he deduces that the miracle cure is slowly killing his mentor. Yet this does not prevent him from seizing the opportunity to carry on the “great work” when Monardes succumbs. There is a dark Eastern European cynicism behind the drollery here.
Fiction by Alta Ifland
Subito Press, January 2011
Paperback: 95pp; $14.00
Review by Patricia Contino
“We are nothing but characters in a book” surmises the child narrator forever staring into the window of “Mrs. Q.’s Drugstore.” It is left to the reader to determine the exact relationship among the trio of peepers and if they ever work up the courage to see those “things that she must have at the counter.” But by the end of Death-In-A-Box readers will have a very good idea of Alta Ifland’s writing talent.
As an anthology Death-In-A-Box is refreshingly hard to pinpoint. Some pieces, such as the title work, are miniature horror stories. Others are short essays or autobiographical sketches. What makes Death-In-A-Box a bit more than a graduate school portfolio (the book was published as the result of being awarded the 2010 Competition for Fiction sponsored by the University of Colorado at Boulder’s Creative Writing Program) is how imaginatively Ifland incorporates her Romanian émigré background into her writing.
The first way she accomplishes this is by creating a sense of isolation. The three children afraid to enter the drugstore are never apart but “spend most of the time at the window, watching the world outside.” This brings to mind images of the thousands of physically and mentally abused and abandoned orphans that international media outlets exposed in the violent aftermath of Romanian dictator Nikolai Ceausescu's downfall in 1989.
A sense of belonging neither here nor there empowers the author. In the powerful “False Memories Of Not Myself”—a piece of memoir writing that will assist younger generations of readers and writers in understanding what life in a Soviet satellite state was like—Ifland recalls returning to America from a trip and realizing
that my only possession, besides my body, was the luggage I had with me…It was as if I didn’t exist—if one could say that. It wasn’t a painful realization, on the contrary, it came as a lightness overcoming the darkness and heaviness of being. If the plane had exploded, we would have dissolved into thin air and disappeared without a trace…Often, when I walk around and do things, I am nothing but pure-impure air. And something inside me keeps muttering, “not-a-soul-not-a-soul.”
Ifland is able to laugh at her immigrant status, as she does in “The Garbage Woman” when adding extra ingredients to the phrase, “That takes the cherry off the cake!” More seriously, a western observer might be labeled culturally insensitive for making this welcome, all-too unspoken observation in “False Memories Of Not Myself” regarding the universal characteristics of narcissism:
Those who “resist” under dictatorships are those whose only power is that of silencing their survival instinct, those for whom career and honors, that is, the recognition of one’s ego, mean nothing or not enough, or those who are on the edge of society and have nothing to lose. Each time I find myself before someone who displays great pride in the big leather armchair she is sitting in, I wonder what they would have done in other circumstances, another country, another time.
Other memories of her homeland are more truthful and non-pleasant. The strong narrative of “False Memories Of Not Myself” contains sinister fairy tale characters who are real:
They were nice people, especially the women, who were always eager to lend you a bit of sugar and flour, depending on the circumstances, or even money, who would take care of your progeny almost with a maternal tenderness while you were at work, and who, with the same undiminished ardor, would write anonymous letters to the neighborhood police to inform the authorities that you were a traitor and a spy. Not that they like to write, no. In fact, for the most part they were illiterate. But they wanted to participate in the life of the community, and what ties to community together better than lying and denouncing?
Another way Ifland keeps her writing original is by relishing her literary ancestral ties to Dracula without adding another vampire tale to an already bulging canon. “Fried Brains” is a gory parable of the final years of the Ceausescu regime. Her plot and word play on the idiomatic Romanian expression “Fried patience,” which translates as “nothing to eat,” is too good to reveal. In “Twin Sisters” Alta meets Alda, her new neighbor who may or may not be her dead twin reincarnated. In a twist on the vampire legend, Alda sleeps all day, not because she is under a spell but because she
hates reality. She thinks that the real is a prison for people with no imagination. So each afternoon I give her a medicine that puts her into a deep sleep. It is a sleep like death—or so she told me, because I never tried it—and each time, she wakes from it with a sense that life has just started.
This parallel universe, along with those of fact, fiction, or a combination of both, is what makes Death-In-A-Box a wild journey.
Fiction by Will Boast
University of Iowa Press, September 2011
Paperback: 184pp; $16.00
Review by Ryan Wilson
Will Boast’s Power Ballads, winner of the Iowa Award for Short Fiction, can at times feel as layered and as over-produced as its moniker. For one, the book, thematically linking the lives of various musicians, unfolds as a short-story cycle, which by the nature of the form allows a freedom and an unevenness to the storytelling on par with, say, Van Halen post-David Lee Roth.
It’s the sort of collection that goes down easy with both hipsters queued to the scene and those un-hip and ready to critique both hipsters and their scene. Boast threads that needle via the details. For example, in “Lost Coast,” when we meet West Coast upstart singer-songwriter Keaton Wilding (one part Bon Iver, two parts Fleet Foxes), a childhood friend turned music critic need only judge his fashion choices to understand Keaton’s philosophy: “The sandals and ball cap were gone, replaced by threadbare cords, a faded Members Only jacket, and, the latest in affections, a pair of boat shoes, no socks. Clothes chosen to be a parody of clothes.” Yet this zeitgeist specimen fares better than his backing band: “your typical bunch of wasters—longhaired, glassy-eyed disciples of their instruments who could break your heart with a string bend, a rim check, a double lead—who in ten years would probably be redoing the siding on your house.”
It would be both easy and interesting for this music critic to narrate a traditional novel full of musician characters, but Boast returns throughout Power Ballads to the adventures of the more subdued jazz drummer, Tim. In the lead story, “Sitting In,” Tim is a middle-school kid addicted to playing polka music with middle-aged men each Sunday night in southern Wisconsin. In the title (and most amusing) story, Tim gains experience by playing the skins for the reunion tour of a little remembered 80s hair band called Soldier, in which each band member dresses in some sort of military garb on stage (“you’re describing the Village People,” Tim’s girlfriend tells him). They also recreate the Iwo Jima Memorial on stage each night during songs such as “Iron Curtain” and “DMZ,” heavy metaphors for the various combats of the heart. Later in “Dead Weight,” Tim turns into the veteran musician when he’s hired by the studio to tour with a radio-friendly act of young twins “concocted in some secret lab buried deep in the vanilla heart of America.” The twins sing songs entitled “Crazy Girrrl” and “Hooded Justice” as Tim pretends to play the drums behind them to a soundtrack being cranked through the sound system.
While Boast’s humor and cynicism regarding the industry are pitch-perfect, he also invests in Tim as a character, complicating his story arc with troubled relationships with his fiancée Kate and his father. Several of the best stories don’t involve music at all, but instead delve into the sacrifices children make for their aging and disabled parents. In “Beginners” Tim must weigh his own dreams of playing with a notable jazz musician across Europe while visiting his blue-collar father who’s just suffered an industrial accident. In “The Bridge,” Tim visits Kate, who’s put her life on hold to care for her fragile mother who never liked her daughter dating a musician. In the finale, “Coda,” Tim reflects back on his disjointed relationship with Kate, and how his waking hours of the day were so divergent from her mainstream life.
Besides “Lost Coast,” only two of the stories veer away from Tim’s orbit. “Sidemen” taps into the long-suffering spouse of a John Prine-ish folk singer. But her longings are what you’d expect: insecurities about motherhood and fidelity. “Mr. Fern, Freestyle” is the typical redemption song of a retired funkmaster turned choir teacher who wakes up one day when his students decide to make music of their own. Though thematically relatable, these two offerings feel more like B-side material.
Given his eye for detail and the scope of the lives he’s created, Boast’s first book ironically feels as promising as the much-hailed EP his singer-songwriter Keaton Wilding releases in “Lost Coast.” Boast’s collection earns his own generic praise: “An astonishing debut.” And yet Power Ballads still feels like the EP paving the way for something more: the LP, or in Boast’s case, a complete novel.
Young Adult Fiction by Shirley Reva Vernick
Cinco Puntos Press, October 2011
Paperback: 137pp; $15.95
Review by Aimee Nicole
The Blood Lie is labeled as a Young Adult/Jewish Studies book, but I think the main intention of the writer was to present it as Jewish Studies. The characters, plot, and narration did not seem aimed at appealing to the young adult reader, but at telling a story of Jewish history. A young girl, Daisy, gets lost in the woods and the Jewish people of the town are accused of kidnapping her for a blood sacrifice for Yom Kippur. These people are soon ostracized and forced to band together.
Jack’s love interest in Daisy’s older sister Emaline is compelling, as is the religious conflict between them. Nowadays, religion and background do not need to match in order for a relationship or marriage to be socially acceptable; however, in the late 1920s, Jack’s concerns are realistic and intriguing to read about. Many things remind Jack of the tall wall of religion between them: “Jack tried to think of something else to say, but Emaline’s pendant commandeered his attention. The crucifix. It’s what stood between Emaline and him, like an electrified fence, all glittery and metallic and masquerading as jewelry.”
The American dream is also a common theme throughout the novel, which strikes a chord with the reader, as many of us are fortunate to already be living in the States. Sometimes it is easy to take that luxury for granted, and so it is always nice to be reminded of the struggle people go through to live here. The Blood Lie challenges this dream by exploring the reality that some people, who moved their entire lives to America in order to be free, were often barely able to get by in the 1920s. Jack sees Massena, New York as a trap. Generations continue working hands-on jobs, whereas Jack wants to be a musician and break free of his predetermined future.
Two conflicts fought with each other throughout the entire book. The story was either about the tension between the townspeople and the Jews as a result of the Daisy “kidnapping” or about Jack’s future and preparation for his interview/musical audition. However, there was nothing cohesive about the two ideas; they just alternated rather than meshing together to create a believable and credible story. The fact that the book begins by introducing Saturday, September 22, 1928 as Jack’s birthday was an interesting choice. The birthday did not seem to have an impact on the storyline and could have been left out, producing an almost identical story.
By the end of the story, Emaline has suggested that Jack take Sarah (a nice Jewish girl from their town) to the fall festival dance. The dance was not an important part of the story, and Emaline’s suggestion came out of nowhere. She said that she would really like to go with Jack, but knew it could never happen. Although the characters are clear in their feelings and intentions through dialogue and narration, I didn’t really believe them. I didn’t get too invested in the characters, with the exception of Jack’s future as it was so important for him to get out of Massena; however, we never learn how the interview/audition goes and whether he goes to the new school. The themes of alienation and religious conflict work well in the book, but I found myself unable to fully enjoy it.
Poetry by Murray Shugars
Dos Madres Press, April 2011
Paperback: 63pp; $18.00
Review by Kevin Brown
Murray Shugars’s collection of poems, Songs My Mother Never Taught Me, is clearly divided into three sections with distinct differences in approaches to the craft. The first section, which gives the book its title, is the strongest of the three, as Shugars creates a distinct world in this section. These poems are much more narrative than the other two sections and draw mostly on his childhood, though the speaker of the poems moves into adulthood in the poems about war.
What gives these opening poems such power is the strong sense of place Shugars is able to create. While it is a place where people are clearly suffering, he is able to show us the beauty that is found even there. In “Plastic Milk Jugs,” for example, Shugars shows us a friend’s father: “Bobby’s dad, John, sways in the doorway. / He has his eyes closed and head bowed / like a deacon praying. He’s hugging / a muzzle-loading rifle. He lets out a snore.” The father seems a sympathetic character, as we are told about his injury and the painkillers he takes, which lead to this semi-sleep that he walks around in. By the end of the poem, though, John has shot Bobby’s dog instead of the plastic milk jugs of the title; in the distance, “The big saw at the mill is screaming / down the middle of a pine log. / Sawdust piles on the floor / faster than a boy can sweep,” showing how both Bobby and the speaker feel about their lives.
Shugars also does a good job showing these characters’ desires, especially the speaker’s growing desire for Holly Anne, a girl he later he realizes he did not care about as he once thought. In the first poem where she appears—named after her—she and the speaker are lying in the hayloft, probably having sex, though that is left to the reader to decide. Shugars describes the scene: “Wind through the open loft like a naked boy / Diving from the high banks of Crockery Creek.” The line break here emphasizes the scene we are currently seeing, giving us the impression the speaker is naked, though that is never described. The second line, though, connects to another poem later in the first section, also about Holly Anne. In “Rhapsody,” the speaker is older, now married, but remembering when he was fourteen when “She languished on a hill above / the desperate splashes I made / diving naked from the high banks.” These connections that run throughout the opening section provide a depth of character and place lacking in the rest of the collection.
The second section, “A Litany of Things Known,” moves to more imagistic, almost surrealistic poems. One of the best examples of this approach is “Self Portrait Holding the Camera at Arm’s Length,” a clear reference to Ashbery’s “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror,” though Shugars updates the technology to a camera, with a mention of Frank Stanford, as well (there are others throughout the collection). Instead of the narrative poems of the first section, here we see lists of images piled one on another:
I wrote the forty-one verses of the universe on an acorn.
I have the manifest humility of the peacock.
I am the cat that trods to all the measures of the music,
the russian blue who left the mouse’s head
at the foot of your mother’s bedstead.
I the thieving squirrel of beech tree birdseed.
I the purple rook who steals
only the best handmade shoes.
This shift helps lead the reader into the final section, which is made up of one longer poem in five sections: “Searching For Duende.” In this poem, Shugars channels Ginsberg, while making numerous allusions, including several to The Odyssey, Neruda, Shakespeare, and García Lorca, among others. As in the previous section, we have a speaker who makes declarations about himself through one image after another in an attempt to evoke an emotion, not create a narrative to follow. Section V begins:
I am a furiously militant Odysseus lost between distant war
and home, hollow-eyed and hungry but still dancing,
a lunar paralytic on the splintered deck of my craft, the odor
of nocturnal ports in my hair. The sea repeats
the unrepeatable approach of the papal nuncio night.
In this closing poem, Shugars comes back to themes and ideas he has worked throughout the book. He talks about love and the pursuit of it, with the connections to The Odyssey, while also commenting on war and writing, two other themes that have come up throughout the work. While the last section is not as strong as the first, it still does an effective job of wrapping up the collection, though I am left wishing there were more of the earlier poems.