NewPages Book Reviews

May 1, 2008

Arkansas :: Sensational Spectacular :: Oh Baby :: The Strange Case of Maribel Dixon :: Behind My Eyes :: You Must Be This Happy to Enter :: City of Regret :: Spring Wind Brings the Fireworks :: I Was Told There'd Be Cake :: The Musical Illusionist

Arkansas coverArkansas

John Brandon

McSweeney’s, March 2008

ISBN-10: 1932416900

ISBN-13: 978-1932416909

Hardcover: 224pp; $22.00

Review by Matt Bell

The characters in John Brandon’s crime noir novel Arkansas are men who, finding themselves unsuitable for the everyday world of work, leave the straight life behind for more illicit activities. When twenty-something Kyle Ribbis is laid off from his job in a bicycle shop, the narrator explains:

He had attempted working in the straight world and doubted he’d ever attempt it again. He couldn’t believe people crammed their lives into belittling routines just for steady money. What was the big deal about getting money steadily? Was that so enticing, getting a tiny check made tinier by taxes every two weeks for the rest of your life, continually voicing the same stale complaints that working stiffs have been voicing for centuries, that the people in Kyle’s apartment complex voiced each evening? Alarm clocks, layoffs, cigarette breaks, backaches, carpal tunnel syndrome, company parties, and always the steady little checks.

Eventually Kyle finds work as a drug runner, as does his co-protagonist, the college dropout and estranged but dutiful older brother Swin Ruiz. Both men are young and disillusioned, itching with angst at the offerings of a straight life, at the men they could be working for and the women they might be dating. Kyle was orphaned as a teenager by the accidental electrocution of his mother; her death “mere verification…that the world had no intention of offering him a worthwhile life,” while Swin left academia a disillusioned petty criminal, stating that “there was no more rebellion for the thinking man… Rebellion was stored in a distant warehouse under a fake name.” Thrown together on a run, they become marooned as subordinates of Kyle Bright, a minor drug boss posing as a park ranger, whose park becomes the launching pad for the rest of the novel.

Interweaved into Kyle and Swin’s story is the second-person narrative of Ken Hovan, better known as Frog, the drug boss whose organization Kyle and Swin work for. Frog’s story is a classic rise to power, revealing a small-time storeowner who unwittingly becomes a drug lord. His first two employees, the countrified brothers Tim and Thomas, are subjected to an orientation filled with his unique mix of dress codes, job descriptions, and mobster threats:

You are the boss. They may never quit, may never refuse an order. If they ever run off, you will hunt them down and kill them, no matter how much you may have grown to like them. Things may move slowly at times, you say, but they may not complain or second-guess you. You are a killer, they are not. You are smart, a city slicker from South Memphis. They may not tell a soul what they do or who they do it with. They are not allowed to drink or get a side job. They are not allowed to bring girls around. Tim will no longer wear his earring. You will get a condo for the three of them, and in a year or so, if things pan out, you’ll move out and give it to them. In time, they might take over the operation, cutting you in for a percentage.

The book is peppered with this kind of talk, the language of work insinuating itself into the lives of all these men who pretend to disdain it. Kyle and Swin work as state park employees under Bright’s supervision, providing them with both a cover story and daily chores, while at the same time relieving Bright of the day to day business of the park. When Frog begins looking for employees, he notes that his first runners “will drive only until other drivers are added, and then they’ll be management.”In this way, everyone in the organization gets promoted sooner or later.

As the two men find their place in Frog’s empire, they also find their own strength, uncovering hidden stores of resourcefulness and ingenuity inside themselves. If it is not enough to keep them safe forever, it is perhaps through no failing of their own. Over and over, Kyle and Swin remark that they are not made for the world other people live in. This is just as true of the other characters in Arkansas, all of them misfits in one way or another, all of them finding places where they finally fit in only to have these refuges prove temporary at best and dangerously wrong at worst.

With its mash-up of work and drug dealing, Arkansas is as much an exploration of the failure of modern employment to further define our lives as it is a crime noir novel, an arrangement that provides its slower middle portion with enough intellectual momentum to keep it from veering off the tense path the novel has built to that point. By the time the story moves on from the day-to-day life at the park toward its brutal and surprising climax, it has built both an intriguing argument and an emotional connection that makes the ending hit that much harder.

This is a ferocious debut, and with it, John Brandon emerges as a writer that will not go unnoticed. As if we have a choice. Like the drug addicts hidden behind the scenes of Arkansas, reading this book is guaranteed to leave you wanting more, more, more.

 

Sensational Spectacular coverSensational Spectacular

Nate Pritts

BlazeVox [books], September 2007

ISBN-10: 193428906X

ISBN-13: 978-1934289068

Paperback: 108pp; $14.00

Review by Cyan James

Nate Pritts lives in a sealed chamber. At least, I think he does, or wishes he did. Whether the voice in his poems is his own or an invented persona is unclear, but the question is soon overwhelmed by the noisy glass cubicle of his poetic consciousness – things don’t hesitate to boom, explode, and self-destruct. The place simply simmers with internal threat. After all, volcanoes are exploding here, dinosaurs are waiting, lighting strikes, the roller coaster won’t stop, the wind won’t stop, violent floods of emotion assail him, and the light is dangerously perfect. But you only know it because he tells you so. You can’t see it. You can’t break through those glass barriers – no one can. Not the woman Pritts longs after with potent intensity, and not the nameless friends he apparently lives amongst.

Pritts’s poems are landscapes of bottled chaos: this is the eternal now he creates in his poems, where he wakes every day to a treadmill of relentless turbulence while the world continues to wend its determined way beyond his barriers, where he is not seen or thought of.

This one-way mirror effect lends both perspective and claustrophobia to Pritts’s precise, immaculately rendered work. His psyche seems to reel with exhaustion and yet with certain joy – to outward appearances, he seems a man stripped by circumstances and left bereft of anything save his frayed, twitching nerve-ends – yet Pritts’s voice is that of elation as well, of ebullience in the expressive powers of description itself:

my friend & I got ourselves trapped in individual-sized
prisons. We could no longer perform our secret handshake,
kept distant from each other by the unique quality of the bars.
The prisons themselves seemed to grow smaller as night
came on & then, with a blink, they were gone. We were ecstatic until,
in daylight, we realized the bars had formed snug to our bodies,
that we’d wear them always & unnoticeably.

A beautiful description there, one, which starts with implied threat, travels through a moment of glory, then introduces something unsettling. In fact, Pritts seems to revel in introducing an unsettling tone throughout his manuscript. He wants to impress you, to stay tough but to get through somehow, to find a space where longing and frank need appear touching and honest instead of plainly weak and naked. He can startle you with his closeness while simultaneously revealing the vague threat of danger we shelter in all our relationships, as in “Without a Net”:

all the different aspects of myself that I used to hold dear
are trapped in clear bubbles; somewhere, each one
is getting smashed open & what comes out comes out
shivering & afraid. The sunlight turns orange.
For your love, I’d cross from one mountain to another,
walking slow on the long rope bridge to your heart
& I wouldn’t turn back even if I saw you
trying to undo the knots that hold me up.

His deliberate, delicate vulnerability also reveals the way his narrator explores the fragmentation of personality. To Pritts, the self is not complete. It has all sorts of ways of expressing its varying facets, and refuses to be tamped down to just one “personality.” Pritts will acknowledge this explicitly in some places, but in others, it’s left to readers to discern what’s going on. For example, Pritts mentions a variety of “friends,” identifying them only by the name of a color, creating characters who might actually be shades of a single personality, one that is terrifyingly coalescing into a lonely whole. This interpretation perhaps assumes too much, but whether Pritts is talking about friendships with others or fragmentation within himself, he’s a master at delineating the shadow lands of despair, as in “Runaway Room”:

What I hate is when my friends & I
are all having a serious conversation
about appropriately serious subjects
when—out of nowhere—the floor of the room
rips itself out of the building & hurtles
into orbit above the Earth,
ccreating too vast a distance for us to bridge.

The poems in Sensational Spectacular are full of despair that whispers in one’s ear even as it prepares to launch a surprise napalm attack. It’s this finely keyed emotional intensity, sometimes soft-pedaled and sometimes surreal, that drives the lush simplicity of Pritts’s language, and makes reading this collection such a delicious experience.

 

Oh Baby coverOh Baby

Kim Chinquee

Ravenna Press, February 2008

ISBN-10: 0979192188

ISBN-13: 978-0979192180

Paperback: 88pp; $13.95

Review by Ryan Call

Those familiar with the writing of Kim Chinquee will be pleased to read the seventy-four flash fictions and prose poems collected in her book, Oh Baby, not only for the satisfaction of revisiting a few select, memorable pieces, but also for the opportunity to see Chinquee work at length, crafting with a spare and precise language the most complicated, emotional stories possible per page.

We can see this language at work in the first story, “Batter,” quoted here entirely:

I washed my grandma’s chickens, soaking bodies, stripping feathers, headless. Kool-Aid made me hiccup. My father yelled shutthefuckup. I pretended. My mouth was taped with duct tape. I caused my father’s ulcers. I was about to bat. The coach said I was bunting. I knew how. I was fast.

The first sentence seems simple enough. We imagine the narrator at the sink holding the birds underwater, plucking feathers from their cold skin. But then Chinquee disrupts the sentence with “headless,” suddenly breaking the pattern, and we pause to reorient ourselves against this new danger. It’s a quick pause, painless really, because it’s clear what “headless” modifies, but just long enough for us to realize that Chinquee is teaching us how to read: she expects us to participate in the making of the story. And we gladly do: Now we see danger in the threat from the father, in the exposed position of a batter preparing to bunt. Suddenly, a day in this child’s life takes shape. Here is a narrator, quick and smart, prepared to take us through each story, if only we can keep up.

The texts are beautiful, intricate pieces individually, but it is when they appear together that they begin to resonate, like chimes tuned to some higher natural frequency. What originally seem to be stories about a number of different narrators become the disordered chunks of one entire narrative. Of course, this particular reading depends upon a sympathetic reader, one willing to accept minor differences from one text to the next. It’s an idea worth entertaining, because the book functions much the same as its stories, each requiring the reader to make connections on his or her own. Just as we must make the blind step between seemingly unrelated sentences, so too must we leap between each fragmented story.

Such a reading takes us into a number of emotional situations in this narrator’s life. We see her as a child growing up on a farm, helping with chores, stealing beer with a friend, eating with her family at McDonald’s on a Sunday. She joins the military, gets married, has a son, and then divorces. We hear stories about the ex-husband and a number of boyfriends after him. We watch the son as a baby, and then the son grows older, dyeing his hair blue, lying in a hospital bed. The narrator describes some of the happiest moments she has experienced, as well as the saddest. But unlike a traditionally organized book, Oh Baby resists even this loose attempt to impose any sort of narrative order upon it, because it lacks a clear beginning and ending. What’s the importance, then, of such a thing?

For this reader, the answer lies in the story “Wagon,” again quoted here entirely:

After plowing, my father drove the tractor, and my mother and my sister and I sat on the wagon. When he stopped, we got off and collected stones, tossing them on. My hands got dry and callused, and we all got sunburned. Around lunchtime, my dad stopped the tractor, and my mom opened the cooler, and we all ate the sandwiches she’d mustered. We chugged milk. We threw stones onto the wagon, and when it was full, my dad drove us to the pile that had been there for generations. We unpacked. We added to the old pile, ridding ourselves.

Meaning comes not from the narrative itself, but from the act of storytelling, the clearing of the field for the next crop, the piling of stones. Through the accumulation of these small texts, Chinquee is able to connect with her readers, with generations past and present, in a unique way. The effect is freeing, for both author and reader, allowing us to rid ourselves of certain passive expectations so that we might better pick through the stories Chinquee has given us.

 

Strange Case of Maribel Dixon coverThe Strange Case
of Maribel Dixon

Charles Jensen

New Michigan Press, November 2007

ISBN-10: 1934832006

ISBN-13: 978-1934832004

Paperback: 26pp; $8.00

Review by Matt Bell

Charles Jensen’s The Strange Case of Maribel Dixon is an ambitious book, highly entertaining yet formally daring. It incorporates a variety of prose and poetic forms to tell a love story that spans most of the twentieth-century and at least two dimensions, all within the space of a mere twenty-one pages. Comprised of diary entries, academic papers, and shredded documents full of supposed “automatic writing,” this slim volume weaves a mysterious love story with far greater gravity than its size on paper would suggest possible.

The plot revolves around an inventor and physicist named Edward Dixon, who develops a device known as a physiotranslator to reach the Ghost-World, a dimension he’s discovered which is made up of “determinate intangibility,” where all that exists are disembodied voices, or, as Edward calls it, “language and verbalization: the sound wave.” Faced with his wife Maribel’s imminent death from cancer, he uses the physiotranslator to send her into the Ghost-World. The attempt is dangerous, but without the Ghost-World she will die before the end of the year:

It was a risk, Maribel knew, going first. But what was love if not our first and most important risk? She had loved Edward until now. Her molecules refused to unknow him; her energy, she was sure, would remember to love him.

Unfortunately, the physiotranslator only works once, and Edward spends the rest of his life trying to contact Maribel and to follow her into the Ghost-World. Various diaries and documents make up the evidence of these attempts and of Edward’s mental and spiritual disintegration during Maribel’s absence. A bit of Dixon’s diary reveals a message from the Ghost-World, “Be brave. Imagine a room full of shoes, how much potential that is,” while recovered automatic writings offer comforts and accusations, such as the lines “To be shapeless / is what you’ve given me / I can’t describe the form of your voice, its energy / or the timbre of our love, which has its own noise.” Academic articles provide semi-plausible explanations for what eventually happens to Edward and Maribel, but in the end they lack finality, their exasperated authors stating that “we have yet to draw any significant conclusions regarding the Ghost-World, about Maribel Dixon, and about the fateful machine that possibly turned human flesh into dynamic, non-corporeal energy.”

Like the best mysteries, there are no sure answers to be found in the pages of this book. Edward could be mad or brilliant or both, he could be dead or missing or gone into the Ghost-World looking for his lost love. It hardly matters in the end. The final poems and journal entries are less focused on the mystery of Edward’s disintegration, turning instead to the great love story between Edward and Maribel. Early on, Edward says that “to have love and to lose it is our only failure; to have love and destroy it, our only crime.” This conflict is at the crux of his love for Maribel, and his attempts at its resolution are the true heart of The Strange Case of Maribel Dixon. Charles Jensen has accomplished a major work here, one that can be read in a single sitting but which reaches far beyond. Like the voice of Maribel herself, his poetry resonates, haunting its reader with its tale of ghostly love, of beautifully destructive despair, of getting lost and of finally being found.

 

Behind My Eyes coverBehind My Eyes

Li-Young Lee

W.W. Norton, January 2008

ISBN-10: 0393065421

ISBN-13: 978-0393065428

Hardcover: 144pp; $24.95

Review by Micah Zevin

Li-Young Lee’s fourth collection of poetry is an elegiac march through a landscape of prayer, death, love, the eternal strife of family relations and the omnipresent political realities that come with the immigrant identity. More than any other theme, the status of the displaced illuminates these mysterious and evasively simplistic poems.

In “Self Help for Fellow Refugees,” an integral part of the first section of this work, the author imparts advice of a personal nature to other incoming immigrants to this country that encompasses the trials of motherhood. It asks what dignity is lost, what secrets are kept, to protect ones’ children.

If you happen to have watched armed men
beat and drag your father
out the front door of your house
and into the back of an idling truck
before your mother jerked you from the threshold
and buried you in her skirt folds,
try not to judge her too harshly.
Don’t ask her what she thought she was doing
turning a child’s eyes
away from history
and towards that place all human aching starts.

As readers we are presented with lines that resonate around the complicated issues of motherhood and fatherhood: How do we define the transient qualities of creation? Where will the depths of love for our creator take us? When we are listening to our own thoughts, are they merely reflections inspired by the words we were raised on?

In the last stanza of “Mother Deluxe,” Lee celebrates his first night on earth, a night he could only imagine and never possibly remember: “Good Boat, first boat, old boat, Mother / my first night with you lasted nine months. / Our second night together is the rest of my life.” In this poem about motherhood, and in the poem “Have You Prayed” about his father, there is a worshipful remembrance of the past: “When the wind turns traveler / and asks, in my father’s voice, Have you prayed? / I remember three things. One: a father’s love / is milk and sugar / two-thirds worry, two-thirds grief, and what’s left over / is trimmed and leavened to make the bread / the dead and the living share.” The world of the deceased and the living converge until they are forced to share in the sorrow of the other.

In the collection’s second part, Lee confronts childhood, death and the role of the apple in the Biblical creation myth, especially in conjunction with how we define motherhood and fatherhood. In “First World,” he addresses his sister: “Sister, we died in childhood, remember? / Toward all of sky we perished so completely / our mother cried, ‘Where are my little ones?’” In this poem, death is a transient being that can morph into whatever concept or object it so chooses. In “Mother’s Apple,” the main character is his “mother’s apple and that’s that.” In “Father’s Apple” he is told by his father that “He won’t always be an apple. / Descended from a book / that is my chief end, he says.” Here, the biblical myth of Adam and Eve and the forbidden apple is given an allegorical twist, until it becomes, in “The Apple Elopes,” a narrator ripened, a living flesh from which there is no returning.

In the final section’s “God Seeks a Destiny,” a “child climbs into the apple tree / and can’t get down / and can’t cry out for fear / he’ll wake the baby inside the house,” and by the third stanza of “Virtues of the Boring Husband,” the husband character has become a kind of god himself, eventually lulling his wife to sleep with his droning narrative.

The audience, like the poem’s wife, will be ready to rest by now, hypnotized by the prophetic truths of the narrator, but before we close our eyes we too will be comforted by the memories that remind us that we have lived, loved, faced death and reconciled the conflicted teachings that our parents have passed on to us. There are certainly still mysteries left to uncover, giving us a reason to look forward to Lee’s next collection, which will hopefully be just as subtle, precise, and instructive as Behind My Eyes is.

 

You Must Be This Happy to Enter coverYou Must Be
This Happy to Enter

Elizabeth Crane

Punk Planet Books, February 2008

ISBN-10: 1933354437

ISBN-13: 978-1933354439

Paperback: 184pp; $14.95

Review by Matt Bell

In Elizabeth Crane’s You Must Be This Happy to Enter, her third collection of stories, she tempers a sometimes pessimistic worldview with an exuberant joy that suffuses her stories from start to finish. From the bouncing opening story “My Life is Awesome! And Great!” (which may contain more exclamation points than every other short story collection published this year combined) to the warm familial ending of “Promise,” Crane takes her quirky style and uses it to bring a variety of mostly female protagonists to life, including a woman who gets turned into a zombie at a JoAnn Fabrics store and ends up as a contestant on reality television, a girl obsessed with staying inside her boyfriend’s closet, and a teenager whose forehead is covered in ever-changing multi-colored words who meets a boy whose face displays polaroids.

In “Emmanuel,” Crane combines the surreal quirkiness of her prose with what a strong dose of pop culture to tell the story of a mother who wakes up one morning to find her baby reborn as an adult Ethan Hawke, taking in stride her new child’s explanation that she should have known “that children in Los Angeles grow up quickly.” As the narrator and her husband adjust to life with their now-famous son (who still has the motor skills and temperament of a baby), they attempt to raise him as they would any other child while also dealing with the unexpected consequences of his fame. In this way, Crane creates a story that disguises its deft exploration of the act of parenting behind a smokescreen of weirdness. As the narrator explains to a weepy Ethan Hawke about both the nature of heaven and the meaning of life, she says:

We had to explain that we were here in our earthly lives for a reason, and of course he wanted to know what that reason was, and we said to do the will of god, and he said how do you know what this is, and we said we pray and listen for answers, and he said how do you know it’s god talking and we said that we always tried to be mindful of anything that might be the word of god, since we know that he doesn’t just come walking up and ringing your doorbell but that on any given day there could be dozens of moments that maybe seemed like they were only coincidental… but how many people take the time to really consider that on a deeper level?

In this way, Crane is able to write about topics that would come off as schlocky or clichéd in the hands of a less capable writer.

In the title story, Crane continues to buck the trend of dour literary protagonists with a photographer who always focuses on the best parts of life. Visiting a gruesome art exhibition at the beginning of the story, she reacts by saying, “I don’t care if you think the only thing worth depicting in your art is a soulless, violent, war-torn world,” a philosophy that is tested by the rest of the story’s events. The narrator starts her own gallery, hanging photos of people being happy, including a series of pictures entitled “Happy Dude, Happy Dude Wearing Shorts, Happy Dude Wearing Shades, Happy Chick, and Happy Chick with Rainbow [Thinking about Unicorns].” When she’s arrested and jailed for being happy (which her cellmate explains is “no longer legal in three states”), she still manages to make the best of it, ending the story with a smile on her face and a hopeful future ahead of her.

In many ways, this is what Crane promises over and over in these stories: Not eternal happiness, not an escape from pain and misery and sadness, but instead a reminder that there is always something to smile about, that there is always a parent or a friend or stranger waiting to help relieve you of the worst of your burdens. Her characters are challenged by both the surreal situations of their lives and the very realistic tragedies that befall them, but most rise above with a combination of faith and optimism. In the same way, you may start You Must Be This Happy to Enter in any variety of moods, but Crane’s wit and sincerity guarantees that you will leave more joyful than you came in, as worthy an effect as any book can hope to have had on its reader.

 

City of Regret coverCity of Regret

Andrew Kozma

Zone 3 Press, October 2007

ISBN-10: 097861271X

ISBN-13: 978-0978612719

Paperback: 74pp; $14.00

Review by Deborah Diemont

The poems in Andrew Kozma’s City of Regret spring from a source of electric personality and emotion, striving to escape grief by staring at it unblinkingly until it becomes something else. Surrealistic images stretch and bend until they encounter recognizable truths. Metaphors, which may at first appear too close in the mirror, shift to give perspective: the poem becomes a unified field of beauty. For example, in “The Cleansing Power of Metaphor” we see:

A portrait of my father in this sterile room:
Gulliver staked by the Lilliputians, pierced
. . .
a snarl of spaghetti entrenched in sauce;
a maze of overpasses, cloverleafs, turnabouts,
HOV lanes, on-ramps, accidents at all the exits

The father ends as “a drawing scribbled through,” and by then we have shared an experience we might have wished to run from. The poem is a “list” poem, yet it travels far from the ho-hum, the standard. Each item is a switch that makes us flinch, but by the end comes a deep breath of catharsis, a feeling that “this needed to be said.

Love and death are poetry’s most common themes, and Kozma’s poetry explores similar territory: death, the irrevocable loss, and the great enigma of love. The poems wield dissonant parts, trespass familiar borders, creating a book that is both hard and cold while still allowing the reader to feel great warmth while gazing upon a dying father, or a lover who “[will] accept my body, note the cost.” If I never understood what Dickinson meant about poetry making her so cold no fire could warm her, I do now. City of Regret is awake, buoyed by melancholy and longing, but unsentimental.

Though City of Regret is a first book by a young poet, it suggests years and lifetimes behind it. It rewrites a personal history and a reading history of Homer, Tolstoy, the Bible, and the lives of the saints. In “That We May Find Ourselves at Death,” the poet seeks a lost father, a real or imagined memory of Greece, a woman: “Does she remember our room / an oven? If we had known, would we have made love?”

Kozma’s poems are not easy. Some do not seem as if they were easy to write; you can sense the long nights behind them. Others, like “The Nuns Remove Their Noses and Lips,” though dark and powerful, feel as if they were born whole:

What did the nuns know
while the brightening abbess
prayed over the paring knife
that wailed against the whetting stone?
The nose is where temptation rests

City of Regret is a beautifully and tightly made work of art. At once, it pulls you out of yourself and connects you back. There are so many new books of poetry out there, and this is one well worth choosing.

 

Spring Wind Brings the Fireworks coverSpring Wind
Brings the Fireworks:

Translations, Variations and
Responses to the Poetry of Xin Qiji

Christopher Kelen and Agnes Vong

Virtual Artists Collective, April 2007

ISBN-10: 0977297497

ISBN-13: 978-0977297498

Paperback: 161pp; $15.00

Review by Roy Wang

The title of this collection ambitiously suggests that after the first part of translations, the following variations and responses should enlighten our skies and blow us away. And while it doesn’t deliver the promised symphony of fire, it does burn in a few impressions that will last after the words have faded.

The book begins with an example of a translation, variation, and response to one poem, “Spring as the Brocade Attests,” illustrating the methods to be employed. It is an unfortunate start, as the translation is by far the best of the three methods, calling the whole exercise into question. Consider the lines “so delicate a woman / I’d rather miss her than see her […] curtains stay drawn / eyes fix on the jade screen.” The poem is full of the Chinese capacity for acceptance of denial and suffering, characteristically leaving so much unsaid. The variation of the same poem mimes the invocations, but seems to miss the point without generating a new one. The response that follows gets better mileage, recalling both Rilke and some of Xin Qiji’s other moments: “there’s no delaying Spring with offers / nor can we know where it goes.” However, it ultimately lacks unity, jumping too quickly from plaintiveness to dreaming to resignation. This is likely from a misunderstanding of the timing of the line, which gives breath to pause on images, but slips away on phrases such as “somewhere in the world / or under perhaps.”

That said, some of the later responses do move in genuinely surprising directions, and without the translation to distract us, Kelen and Vong draw us directly into their meditations on this Song-dynasty poet. The ideas here are what matter, especially when they run counter to the general expectations and conventions of Chinese poetic thought.

Xin Qiji is best known for his ci lyrics, on which this entire collection is based. Ci uses rhyme and the tonal pattern from a song the poem is named after, meaning the title may not have anything to do with either the subject or another poem of the same name. We find some nods to the formal structure in this collection, with a few parallel constructions that remind us of the regular ci lines, as well as some of the characteristic end rhyming. However, it would have been nice to see a fuller English analogue to the Chinese formalism. Instead, they often use syntax that gives a pseudo-translation feel rather than use the advantages of English.

Still, there are many good spots further in, such as lines from “song of a river city” like “white hair and pale face—such work to be old! / wine won’t restore youth but it makes words bold” or these lines from “god of water”:

I laugh at the water god
wonder what angers him
. . .
I take a walking stick
to the dark green moss
was it I who asked for this wind
for this rain
all these thousand years?

Kelen and Vong have already done some of the work of digesting these poems for us, silhouetting their modern view against the strangeness of Xin Qiji, whose military and administrative sense of duty often produced lyrics somewhat removed from both a contemporary perspective and the erotic moods often associated with ci poems. This ground work makes it easier for the Western reader and writer to absorb what is useful for present day demands, getting us to the crux of our own disappointments with an Eastern efficiency.

 

I Was Told There'd be Cake coverI Was Told There’d Be Cake

Sloane Crosley

Riverhead Trade, April 2008

ISBN-10: 159448306X

ISBN-13: 978-1594483066

Paperback: 240pp; $14.00

Review by Matt Bell

Sloane Crosley’s debut collection of essays is the kind of book that causes deep bouts of guilty recognition almost as often as it induces laughing out loud. Crosley’s essays are self-deprecating and self-obsessed, written with a style reminiscent of David Sedaris but with a voice that’s all her own. Chronicling her disasters more often than her successes, Crosley relates everyday abilities like constantly losing her wallet and locking herself out of two different apartments on moving day, plus more specialized skills at ruining weddings and investigating unexpected “presents” left on her bathroom floor after dinner parties. The best of these is “Bring-Your-Machete-To-Work Day,” about the ancient computer game The Oregon Trail, and Crosley’s subversive playing style:

Like a precursor to the Sims, you were allowed to name your wagoneers and manipulate their destinies. It didn't take me long to employ my powers for evil. I would load up the wagon with people I loathed, like my math teacher. Then I would intentionally lose the game, starving her or fording a river with her when I knew she was weak… It was time to level the playing field between me and the woman who called my differential equations "nonsensical" in front of fifteen other teenagers. Eventually a message would pop up in the middle of the screen, framed in a neat box: MRS. ROSS HAS DIED OF DYSENTERY. This filled me with glee.

I Was Told There’d Be Cake is a reminder that our best intentions frequently lead to our most shameful failures, and that often, when we are at our pettiest, we’re simply being ourselves. Like it or not, these are the moments that define us too. Luckily, Crosley knows how to make us laugh, not just at her but also at ourselves, taking some of the sting out of the often-overwhelming self-recognition her essays are sure to engender.

 

The Musical Illusionist coverThe Musical Illusionist

Alex Rose

Hotel St. George Press, October 2007

ISBN-10: 0978910311

ISBN-13: 978-0978910310Paperback: 160pp; $14.95

Review by Matt Bell

Alex Rose’s The Musical Illusionist is a work of ambitious fantasy, written not as a novel or a collection of stories but as a guide to the myth-like Library of Tangents, “an archive not of history but of possibility.” These fictions (which are not properly stories, with the possible exception of the excellent title piece) take the form of articles describing the Library’s many exhibitions, including fantastical cultures, books, paintings, numerous foreign lands, even psychological disorders and microorganisms. Each entry is written so credibly that disorientation and disbelief go hand in hand, as the convincing prose and accompanying diagrams, photos, and maps seek to stun the reader into believing in even the most outlandish of exhibits.

Rose writes with an authority that will have you searching the internet for more information on subjects such as The Book of Glass, whose form morphs as the reader progresses through its thousand years worth of stories printed on its ever-changing pages, or the city of Waldemar which has “no windows, no parapets, no indicators of a world beyond,” but which does have rooms, “countless chambers of countless variety,” a “vast network of cubes, each holding a series of possibilities.”

At the beginning of the title fiction, Rose writes that “The world repaginates; every so often, human concerns either crystallize, taking shape and developing order, or vanish into obscurity.” In many ways, this phrase illuminates more than any other the deep magic at the heart of The Musical Illusionist. This is a chronicle not of the wonders of the world as it is, but a menagerie of what might have been, if only the forces of history and creation had been half as imaginative as Alex Rose is here.