NewPages Book Reviews

 

October 1, 2010

The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris - Richard Yates - Clockfire - The Inquisition Yours - Phantom Noise - Yankee Invasion - I Just Started Lately Buying Wings - The Art of Description - Monkey Bars - To Light Out - The Mothering Coven - The Art of Recklessness - Our Jewish Robot Future - The Plumber's Apprentice - Hotel Under the Sand

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The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris coverThe Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris

Fiction by Leila Marouane

Translated from the French by Alison Anderson

Europa Editions, June 2010

ISBN-13: 978-1-933372-85-3

Paperback: 224pp; $15.00

Review by Sara C. Rauch

Brace yourself for The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris by Leila Marouane. Not only is it hilarious and disturbing, it is also disorienting, cunning, and bizarre.

Translated from the French by Alison Anderson, Marouane's possibly metafictional tale about an Islamic Algerian man desperate to escape the confines of his religion and life in the suburbs, is a many-layered, nuanced, sometimes outrageous, story about independence and the impossibility of escaping the past.

Marouane's narrative is intriguing: told in the first person, yet filtered through a third party. The reader is never quite sure if Basile Tocquard's retelling of events is his own, or if it is being rewritten without his knowing.

Basile, born Mohamed Ben Mokhtar in Algeria, but educated in France, has Frenchified his name without the knowledge of his family so that he may escape the prejudice he feels directed at him. Despite his light skin, French name, well-paying job at a top bank, he is riddled with inadequacy and the desperate desire to escape his family and religion. His mother clearly adores him, even at the end of the novel after he's repeatedly lied to her and broken plan after plan. After procuring an expensive apartment in a desirable neighborhood, Basile sets out to lose his virginity. He meets woman after woman, all of whom know the novelist Loubna Minbar. This coincidence never causes Basile any trouble, even as the women repeatedly mention her presence in their lives.

As the novel progresses, Basile becomes more and more delusional, and instead of successfully embracing his new life, he relives the same events over and over with different women. These women, despite their oddities, actually have more depth than Basile does, unobsessed with paradise as Basile is. A few women into Basile's independence, the reader starts wondering about his plausibility, and ultimately, his sanity. Take for instance, his encounter with the second woman he meets: 40-something, Algerian, and ultimately, a lesbian. Despite her rebuffs, first gentle, then more insistent, finally making an escape in a taxi with vague promises to meet again for lunch. That night, Basile comes up with excuse for why she turned him down: "Could it be, too, that she had never suspected a cool dude like myself would court her, so she had neglected to wax? or she had her period?... Was I not the ideal candidate? The sultan of Saint-Germain? An excellent party, who would give her nothing to be ashamed of?"

Basile's incessant, dead-end quest for a modern life is filled with plenty of unexpected discoveries. His entire family is harboring secrets behind their perfect Islamic facade. The cousin he idolizes has two wives and several mistresses, and was perhaps the latest victim of the deceitful author, Loubna Minbar, who pops up with more and more frequency as the novel progresses. The ongoing clash between tradition and modern life, between religion and sexuality, between mother and son, and between brother and brother, courses through the novel. In fact, despite Basile's escapades with woman after woman, and his expressive floundering of exorbitant sums of money, and his repeated erotic day dreams, the meat of the novel comes from these clashes – because Basile never learns from the previous encounter, no matter who it might be with, his endless bumbling and pretending is fascinating, comedic, and rather telling of the lies people cling to in their lives.

The confessional tone of the book makes Basile a sympathetic, if pathetic, narrator. He is comical in his ignorance, and sometimes infuriating as well. His bravado is honest, indeed he seems not to know enough of the world to keep his hero-worship of himself to himself. But then, everything with Basile is pretense, so each of his interactions, and ultimately the entire book, is untrustworthy.

The Sexual Life of an Islamist in Paris toes the line of farce. But Marouane's deft handling of the deeply human struggle of reality versus fantasy, familial obligations versus individual desire, religion versus culture, keeps the dizzying novel from falling into madness. Marouane's complex, increasingly circular plot pulls the reader in and leaves one delightfully disheveled, amused, and wondering for more.

 

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Richard Yates coverRichard Yates

Fiction by Tao Lin

Melville House Publishing, September 2010

ISBN-10: 1935554158

ISBN-13: 978-1935554158

Paperback: 206pp; $14.95

Review by J. LaLande

With his first novel Eeeee Eee Eeee, I encountered the spine-tingling creature known as the “contemporary writer” – contemporary in both the sense of writing now and writing at an age close to my own. After coming to terms with Lin’s persona (an unfortunate combination of reading the back cover of books and the Internet), fiction diverged from my ideas of authorship and the dead white guys who’ve historically run the show.

Short version of that story: I liked the book; it struck me in a way tales of articulate prostitutes in 18th century France could not. Even though many critics have derided Lin for writing in an inane, juvenile and inanely juvenile style, the questions of permanence and lasting artistic worth continued needling the part of my brain habitually evaluating such considerations. His second novel, Richard Yates, will not escape similar accusations by the unfeeling masses of established, literary thought, whose viscous arterial fluid has seemed to have stiffened to the point that locomotion is just possible, but alteration and innovation of direction remains a burden too taxing. Who really gets these damn kids anyway?

Richard Yates charts the relationship of Haley Joel Osment and Dakota Fanning. The former works at a library in NYC for the necessities and publishes fiction because of necessity of expression; he has the compulsion at 22 years-old. His girlfriend, Fanning, is a student and sporadically employed, menial laborer from New Jersey; and six years Osment’s junior. At sixteen, she lives with her mother in the fashion most popular with teenagers. This age disparity, while in vogue once among cafeteria philosophers for its systematically arbitrary distinctions of birthdates and numbers, seems oddly unimportant throughout the story, except when an outside force – the mother, for instance, or a sudden surge in brain chemistry – pops up. (And yes, the age of consent in New York State is seventeen, so the occasions of sex are illegal according to the bevy of informative results on Google.)

They met online and most of their communication occurs on Gmail chat, if they’re seeking real time interactivity; via email, for more thought-out discourse; or text message, capturing that long-distance-relationship-on-the-go feel. In Lin’s emblematic style – only imperfectly described as declarative minimalism – the two threaten one another in the playfully hyperbolic argot of sarcasm with which the Internet generation communicates.

“Where’s your mom,” said Haley Joel Osment.
“She’s watching TV. She thinks I’m researching college shit. I think I’m fucked for college. I don’t know where to go. And I only have an 1100 on my SATs.”
“Don’t worry about that. You’re committing suicide this year probably.”

When financially possible, one or the other makes the two-hour trip by train, but very little transpires in the traditional sense of “meaningful action.” Speaking to one another, the book details their back-and-forth of protestations of boredom, anger and sadness – usually in flat declaratives such as, “I felt stupid,” or “I think obese people are assholes, they take up more room.” These dialogues generally happen during dinner at a Chinese restaurant, while stealing organically sensible foodstuffs, or walking nowhere with their earbuds snugly in place. There is much dissonance between the action/speech/thought patterns, interplaying broody self-deprecation and doubt, the importunate material desires of youth, and the wanton emotional fluctuations of romantic involvement.

But this constant drone of intelligible or less than intelligible improvisational dialogue encapsulates Lin’s poignancy. The story of Osment and Fanning’s tabooed love could easily have been written by a Flaubert or de Maupassant, but Lin manages it without the Rococo prose and traditional structure. Each outburst of irreverence, be it Osment’s penchant for hamster metaphors or Fanning’s faux(?) self-violent declarations, eradicates literary contrivance and in its place erects a monument of modern hyper-realism.

This confinement rectifies the lack of authorial fine-tuning in reality with the unnatural act of writing. The bon mot does not exist in Richard Yates, and if it does appear, it’s the result of chance concurrence between the unconscious and talking to talk – both products of a compulsion for sympathy seeking and mutual understanding between cerebrally isolated beings.

The actuality of alienation underlies their peregrinations of speech and action. When the two lovers struggle to understand one another, they do so wistfully but truthfully, relegating passionate subtlety for verisimilitude. This truth-seeming resonates for anyone whose prose sensibility has been rattled by the histrionics of Anna Karenina or the machismo of Hemingway. Lin absorbs the commonplaces of everyday life and creates pure products of this actuality, but luckily – and this is where Richard Yates rises above its predecessors – does so while tackling social deviations beyond those categorized as infantile and superficial.

In Shoplifting from American Apparel, there is a similar unity between style and Zeitgeist. The novella, Lin’s previous, was equally open to concerns of self-irony taken too far. Could it be criticized without a loophole already existing within the minimal material within? Richard Yates escapes this tendency by dealing with a contentious subject without denouncing the stylistic innovations so necessary to Lin’s artistic expression. Dakota Fanning is sixteen years-old. Her mother, initially, freaks out upon catching them together, though her type of “freaking” involves a depressing phone call concerning “intentions” and Osment’s depressive, self-destructive tendencies in life and in Literature. Ultimately, something grand is being explored in a way, lasting or not, that merits the few hours and puzzled expressions to read it.

 

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Clockfire coverClockfire

Poetry by Jonathan Ball

Coach House Books, October 2010

ISBN-13: 978-1-55245-263-3

Paperback: 103pp; $14.95

Review by Gina Myers

In his “36 Assumptions About Playwriting,” José Rivera instructs, “In all your plays be sure to write at least one impossible thing. And don't let your director talk you out of it.” Jonathan Ball takes this idea to a new level in his collection, Clockfire. Billed as poetry on its press release, this genre-defying collection consists of “blueprints for imaginary plays that would be impossible to produce.”

The collection appropriately opens with an epigraph from Artaud, and the prose pieces that follow fall under the umbrella of his theatre of cruelty: plays where the spectators are at the center of the spectacle, where they must engage the performance. Further, there is something sinister at work in these imaginary productions; the spectators will be changed forever by the performances they witness and ultimately are a part of. In many instances, the performances never end, as in “The Audience is Called”:

The audience is called to the stage from their seats. The actors tutor them, not how we might expect, but rather to undo their social training, to act on their basest impulses. Once they have lost all self-control, they are set loose. Theatres are abolished. Everywhere now, everywhere one looks, some nightmare unfolds as they perform.

The spectators are again and again called forth and let loose into a darker reality. In “The Coffee Shop,” the play calls for a simple scene: “Everyone enjoys a hot cup of coffee while, outside, something terrible is coming to change everything.” Though often the audience is unaware of the future that awaits them, sometimes they welcome it, as in “Tabula Rasa”:

As the members of the audience enter the theatre, their memories are wiped clean. This is all advertised on the posters, and the actors warn the audience members again as they enter. And still, the line extends for many miles.

The darkness in this collection is certainly not without humor. There is something of Jackson Mac Low’s dances in these pieces, where the instructions to the performers sometimes lie outside of the realm of the possible, as in “Breakdown”: “The audience comes apart, breaking into individual atoms.” There is also something of Italo Calvino’s Imaginary Cities, with Clockfire’s constant re-imaginings, and something of Borges too, with its repetitions and infinite regressions. Overall Clockfire is a fun read, worth re-visiting, though if a Clockfire Festival ever does come about, as is mused in “Autography,” it might be wise for the audience to stay at home, and Ball will then have an answer to his questions regarding a play without an audience: “And what of the show? Must it go on without them?”

 

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The Inquisition Yours coverThe Inquisition Yours

Poetry by Jen Currin

Coach House Books, April 2010

ISBN-13: 978-1-55245-230-1

Paperback: 96pp; $14.95

Review by Catherine Daly

In this, her third book of poems, Jen Currin is at her most elliptical. Yes, it’s a somewhat useless term, one replaced by something even more vague by the critic who coined it, but it is a term which has come to indicate a certain sort of poem to me, which Jen Currin’s poems are: not really fairy or folk-tale-like, but having commonalities with fantastic narratives with an object lesson; not really domestic surrealism, but certainly in love with the idea of slippage, the morphology of phrases when juxtaposed, etc.; not really symbolism in a heavy handed way, but light, contemporaneous, elliptical indications of meanings just beyond the text.

These are poems which conjure thoughts, ways, gestures, fleeting glances, slipping glimpses, as indicated by the book’s epigraph, “Magicians were and will always be my companions,” and magic’s appearance and reappearance in the text. Does it add up? Is there pressure toward? This is not poetry about that: this is poetry about the numinous, the subtle and slightly esoteric ways of getting through days.

One of the markers Currin “elliptically” dodges is religion. She’s author of one book entitled Hagiography with no saints in it, and now a book with “Inquisition” in the title and the word “martyrs” repeating in several poems, but “Saint Beauty is a girl from elementary school” (“A Patriot”). Another marker might be politics. Lenin appears twice, but then, so does Buddha.

The poems are well-stitched to remind us we are in poems. Sound effects including slant rhymes and near-sounds create surface tension: “numb brides? Idols? Idle Minds?”, “ponder or wonder.” Most of the poems consist of honed couplets or single lines, although there are all varieties of free verse stanzas.

The poems in the QUESTIONS section are personal: a dead father is conjured to answer to the mother in the first, PAPERS, section. The poems in the third and last CHRONICLES section become angry, more fierce and full as they take on days lived under patriarchy, during war, entangled in gender relations and sexual politics. The joke in “Patriarch” is funny, a laugh is enacted, and we do laugh; “Subjective Data” is a fine poem. I find “Draft of an Essay” clever because a draft is an attempt and an essay is an attempt. Jen Currin writes “The tailor is now tearing the cloth” to end the poem, and this seems a very good way to run against the idea of the well-made poem, to indicate that the person assembling the clothing of the poem (usually by carefully piecing it), has resorted to tearing the fabric, tearing the scrim, indicating, uncovering, reality.

 

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Phantom Noise coverPhantom Noise

Poetry by Brian Turner

Alice James Books, April 2010

ISBN-13: 978-1882295807

Paperback: 112pp; $16.95

Review by John Findura

My grandfather used to tell me and my siblings stories about World War II all the time. But he never talked about Alsace-Lorraine. He never talked about whether he heard the potato masher that filled him with shrapnel. He never talked about if he saw from where the bullet came that shredded the nerves in his right arm. He never talked about how he was presumed dead, like everyone else in his unit by the German army that day. He never talked about crawling through the woods while trying to keep his consciousness. He never talked about the year in a British hospital. He never talked about why he hated fireworks, or backfiring cars or popping birthday balloons. He never talked about why he woke up every night of his life in a sweat until he was 75. He never talked about the small pieces of metal that would work their way out of his skin and end up next to him in bed some mornings. He never talked about a lot, but he wrote a lot of it down, in the margins of his bankbook, in a photo album, scratched onto the back of his Purple Heart.

Brian Turner, author of Phantom Noise, and his previous collection Here, Bullet, manages to talk about a lot of things: smells, sounds, how the word for “mortar” sounds like “howl wind.” He talks about dreams you have when asleep in a desert, where “On a mattress of sand and foam, there / in the motor pool, she waits to kiss bullets into your mouth.” He talks about

Sgt Rampley walking through –
carrying someone’s blown-off arm cradled like an infant,
handing it to me, saying, Hold this, Turner,
we might just find who it belongs to
.

Turner’s book of poems is something that transcends poetry, and any attempt to review or critique it. Do the poems work? Yes, they do, because Turner is a good poet. But more important than that is that this book, like its predecessor, is a document of our times. It’s a first person account of a history that new high school freshman have never not known. When the class of 2014 graduates, will any of them be able to recall a time before the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq? Will they ever remember what the New York skyline looked like on September 10, 2001?

To review Phantom Noise as just poetry is something that I am unable to do. This week my cousin, who deployed a few weeks ago, posted a Facebook message from his FOB somewhere in Afghanistan: “i think i lost like 20 pounds on patrol yesterday. But it was a good one cause im still alive.” Anything I can say about enjambment or nice turns of phrase seems rather unimportant in the long run. What I can say is that reading this book is like watching someone else’s house burn down: it is in turn beautiful, and dangerous, and all you can do is stand by and thank God it isn’t yours. Especially when it gives you dreams where

Sometimes the gunman fires into the house.
Sometimes the gunman fires at me.
Every night it’s different.
Every night the same.
Some nights I pull the trigger.
Some nights I burn him alive.

 

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Yankee Invasion coverYankee Invasion

A Novel of Mexico City

Fiction by Ignacio Solares

Translated from the Spanish by Timothy G. Compton

Scarletta Press, May 2009

ISBN-10: 0-9798249-4-X

ISBN-13: 978-0-9798249-4-4

Paperback: 256pp; $14.95

Review by Alex Myers

For those readers drawn to history and psychology, Solares’s Yankee Invasion is a novel certain to intrigue. Set in the aftermath of the Mexican-American war of 1846-48, the novel is narrated by Abelardo, who struggles to write an account of the recent war even while he is still dominated by the mental trauma of the conflict.

As Carlos Fuentes, who introduces the novel, notes, Solares writes “from the precarious point of the future immediate to the novel.” This position is, indeed, precarious, for Abelardo veers in and out of his past, flashing from the present of writing his narrative, to the events before and during the war. Time is fluid and fast-changing, or as the narrator puts it: “time seemed to be doing continual somersaults.” Readers might find this effect rather disconcerting, but Solares makes it rewarding as well. While he struggles to separate past from present and to organize his memory into a sensible story, Abelardo finds himself in “a situation that could swallow up the present and the future, like the sea swallows up shipwreck victims.” These reflections make it apparent that time itself is one of the major themes of the novel. Even as the characters note, we “can only understand reality from the point of view we find ourselves in at the moment,” so too the reader must slip into the timestream of the novel and not worry too much about what is past and what is present.

For all that the novel does move around, it is also anchored in history. Some of the richest parts of the story come during the moments of attack, when the American army closes in on Mexico City. At the heart of the novel, as the memory moves closer and closer to the decisive instant, the narrative focuses on a section of the Mexican Army holding position in a convent. The action is tense and peppered with winning details: “Their ammunition runs out and so they turn to the supplies sent to them by Santa Anna, but they find it is all nineteen-weight ammunition, a caliber far bigger than the fifteen-weight bullets which they need. The cartridges do not begin to fit in their arms.” The utter futility, the looming defeat, is made more wrenching by the nuanced recounting of such scenes.

Of course, it is possible to have too much of a good thing, and for this reader, sections of Solares’s novel were impenetrable thickets of Mexican political history. In a chapter that reads more like pages from a history textbook than a work of literature, the reader is berated with the biography of Santa Anna; the exposition recounts that the leader “ended up at odds with the federalists, the centrists, the clergy, the poor, the working class, government employees and capitalists (from whom he was constantly demanding money). For example, he fired all government employees who did not adhere to the Jalisco Plan and the Principles of Tacubaya – triggering an unprecedented rate of unemployment.” As history textbooks go, the material is compelling, but for a novel, it can create some difficult and tedious sections.

However, if one wades through the history, there are charming insights that make the effort worthwhile. For instance, a friend of the narrator’s contemplating the changes wrought by the recent war reflects on Mexico’s new borders: “Without Texas, our country will have the shape of a horn of plenty…except that the opening of the horn faces the United States!” Witty observations, many of them with intriguing possibilities of contemporary meaning, abound.

Richest though, are Solares’s observations about humankind and psychology. As poor Abelardo tries to make sense of what has happened to him, he muses that “perhaps things actually aren’t the way we live them but the way we remember them.” No line comes closer to summing up the nature of this text. In essence, Solares’ novel is a novel of remembering, or memory as an act of creation. Dense and complex, this is not a volume to be read lightly.

 

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I Just Lately Started Buying Wnigs coverI Just Lately Started Buying Wings

Missives from the Other Side of Silence

Essays by Kim Dana Kupperman

Graywolf Press, July 2010

ISBN-13: 978-1-55597-560-9

Paperback: 224pp; $15.00

Review by Ann Beman

“Perhaps it’s the more subtle experience of relief as a kind of lifting up that most interests me,” says Kim Dana Kupperman in her collection’s opening essay, “Relief.” But what makes the compilation of linked essays interesting to readers? Through deftly untwining stories from her life, she manages to lift us up even as her topics are decidedly downers.

Death, child custody battles, domestic violence, failed relationships, and more death parade through the book’s pages. In three distinct essays, the author spreads ashes – her mother’s, her brother’s, and her father’s. Yet, there’s no whine or moan to these pieces. Rather, Kupperman observes, records, and reports to us remembered details of these incidents, giving voice to moments that often go unspoken, releasing them into the air like her loved ones’ ashes. In doing so, she makes us hear the sounds around her, feel the objects she’s handling, and know the heft of each memory:

You wrap and store the leftovers, wring out the sponge used to clean the counter, turn out the light on the fingerprints that linger on the refrigerator door. Later you touch and sort, discard or keep for another time all the artifacts that testify to a life that has passed – a tiny bear carved of jade on my mother’s perfume tray, a fur hat on my brother’s bureau that my father cannot wear but which fits me...

As she deals with the necessary “arrangements” for her brother who has died of AIDS, she says, “I like to think of him lifting off from the landscape of pain his body had become. Like the heron I once saw that unfolded its wings and levitated from the road.”

Kupperman “likes to think.” Period. Her skill with the essay form makes this clear. But nowhere is her prowess more evident than when she partners with her own lively imagination. In “Habeus Corpus,” for example, her dying father finally presents her with the court transcripts from her parents’ custody battle for the 8-year-old Kimmie. Despite the pages and pages of orders, writs, and testimonies, the author must still supplement the documents with imagined nuances of detail: “Angry that things weren’t going her way, my mother would have suddenly appeared taller than she was; her very dark brown eyes would have seemed hot if you could touch them.” She imagines her mother’s lawyer, Sidney Koblentz, “as a lunchtime Scotch drinker (straight, no chaser), with a taste for beautiful women, fast cars, and expensive suits.” Speculating on the omissions of her Russian émigré grandmother, Kupperman combines known facts with family legend to re-create Fanya Weckstein’s story: “My grandmother stands on the deck to take some air, the late winter sunlight twining in and out of her auburn hair, lightening her already pale green eyes … She talks of Chekhov, perhaps telling the young man that she feels like Masha in Three Sisters, dressed in black because she is ‘in mourning for my life.’”

“Acts of omission,” as the author calls them, become the focus of two of the essays, one about Kupperman’s family history, and another about the culture of silence that permeates the lives of the battered women with whom she once worked. In “Teeth in the Wind,” she posits that the details we omit in our own life stories define us as distinctly as those details we choose to include. And those stories trickle forward, coloring the family history for generations: “Perhaps we participate in acts of omission to shape memory into something manageable and safe. Who has the room inside their psyche to remember everything, carry the weight of how things felt, and still get out of bed each morning?”

In referring to the autobiographical essays as missives, Kupperman imbues them with an even stronger dose of the personal. And her ordering of essays, which defies a linear timeline, mimics the flow of a conversation between friends. One of the most innovative missives is “Nine Segments of Orange,” in which the author worries about the meaning of the color orange. The whole is composed of nine mini-essays, or segments, each considering a different aspect of the color: “For example, in foods I no longer eat – Creamsicles, Cheese Nips, and Orange Crush – but whose familiarity somehow anchors me.”

Neither last nor least, the book’s title essay reproduces a conversation in which the author asks an elderly woman friend to divulge her fried chicken recipe. The response is pure poetry, and worth the price of admission: “Her voice, like some holy place, issues from a warm brown prayer of a face.…When she’s done speaking, she rocks in her rocker, hands loosely clasped in her lap. We sit in silence, the secret she has spoken floating between us as if it were a feather.”

 

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The Art of Description coverThe Art of Description

World into Word

Nonfiction by Mark Doty

Graywolf Press, August 2010

ISBN-13: 978-1-55597-563-0

Paperback: 152pp; $12.00

Review by C.J. Opperthauser

Celebrated poet Mark Doty's how-to guide of writing poetry, The Art of Description: World into Word, is a book on writing that stands out among many of its kind. From the very beginning we see a passion for the language and a romanticism in it, making the word-loving reminisce and the non-word-loving fall in love. The book serves as a microscopic view of poetry, detailed and scientific. Doty skillfully picks apart the language into its most simple and primal qualities and shows the reader how to utilize them. In sections, he uses established poems and poets to function as a sort of body for dissection and observation. For one in particular, Elizabeth Bishop's “The Fish,” Doty devotes an entire chapter in which he breaks down the poem piece by piece and describes to the reader why the poem works so well. This happens a few more times in the book, as well, and they all benefit the reader greatly.

Doty's ability to describe the art of writing is from a voice of experience and know-how. He uses poetry lingo quite often but he also goes out of his way to make clear what these words mean to those who are unfamiliar. He even goes so far as to compare the use of adjectives and adverbs to spices: They can zest up a poem but too much can deter from the real taste. Instead of merely telling about writing, he makes the reader think about writing, making the journey through the book more involved and exciting. This is an element void in most books on writing. He also discusses topics absent in many books of this kind, including the use of technology and computers in poetry today.

The latter part of the book is an alphabetic collection of statements Doty has to make about the craft, a section he calls “Description's Alphabet.” From “BEAUTY” to “YIELD,” the reader has a chance to explore the jargon and the general guidelines of the art of writing. However, the reader should not expect to finish up this book and suddenly possess the ability to describe everything to perfection. “What we say about things can't ever be conclusive,” Doty says, and he is absolutely right.

 

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Monkey Bars coverMonkey Bars

Poetry by Matthew Lippman

Typecast Publishing, October 2010

ISBN-13: 978-0-9844961-0-5

Hardcover: 61pp; $21.95

Review by Jeremy Benson

I read Monkey Bars initially while on vacation with my family. It was a warm, pine-and-campfire-scented weekend, full of moments like the one described in Matthew Lippman’s title poem, “dying from laughter, / the joke funny / the bust-the-gut hysteria, hysterical.” I read the poetry as such, too; when I reached the author’s biography – “He teaches English and Creative Writing to high school students” – I even thought to myself, holy cow his students must have a blast!

But this second time around is a bit different. Back to the grind, I read Lippman’s poems for what they really are: lamentations of a suddenly-aware child. Some of the speakers of Monkey Bars are grasping, groping behind for either a lost innocence, or the childhood idea of the adult world (“All I ever look for in a movie these days / is something akin to Pacino,” Lippman writes in “Akin to Pacino,” “How in the hell can I be like that? I wondered, / ten and all”).

Others are too busy to grasp, their hands held up in shielding their eyes from the hideous world. From “The Fraternity,”

That’s when I close my eyes
push, pray,
my foot
all the way down on the gas

The common denominator is this other character that keeps showing up: “my kid in the back, saying, Daddy, check that out” (in “The Fraternity”), “My kid cries because her hands are wet” (“Marriage Pants”), “and I missed my daughter; asleep” (“At Keelers”). It’s the daughter’s presence in the book – and in life, too, I imagine – that brings Lippman and his poems to question the absurdity and horror of the world, which both creeps in and leaps from our own hands. “We bring these kids into the world. / We have no idea what we are doing.” So opens the closing poem, “The Spread-Legged Horror.”

Comparatively, Lippman is enrolled at the same school as Tony Hoagland (who even provides a blurb on Monkey Bars’ dust jacket), but Lippman’s getting his test answers on the sly from Cormac McCarthy (or Mr. Kurtz). The result is humorous and horrifying, yet, in a way, touching.

 

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To Light Out coverTo Light Out

Poetry by Karen Weiser

Ugly Duckling Presse, April 2010

ISBN-13: 978-1-933254-63-0

Paperback: 72pp; $15.00

Review by Katy Henriksen

So it goes, and a mollusk can not draw
the machine as we can not draw the heart
– from “So It Goes” in To Light Out
 

Karen Weiser’s To Light Out is deceptively slim. In 72 pages of compact poems, an intro and notes, she finds “the angles in language through symbols,” explores Jack Spicer’s metaphor of the poet as radio, quotes from Emanuel Swedenborg’s Heaven and Hell, and meditates on how it feels to be forming new life within her womb – “The static was less a sound than a sense that the flickering of snow on a TV screen had been made into liquid.”

The deft economy of language renders concepts such as the big bang, cell formation, and fugue patterns taut while at the same time connecting complex creations, juxtaposing opposite forces to make sense of both cosmic and earthly chaos. Here we find the furniture/DNA “spiraling into its own pulse” and the universe “is both inanimate and alive.”

At once a heady investigation into cosmological philosophies and a rumination on what it is to be of this organic world of constant decay and rebirth, it is also a celebratory exploration in the delights of language, one in which playfulness and reverence are equal. Closing poem “A Makeshift Symmetry of Cells” tells of possums, nebulas, pianos, circuits, and angels, all in 19 lines. In lesser hands these odd companions could seem like simple gimmicky, in Weiser’s they culminate in an “ethereal pulse.”

 

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The Mothering Coven coverThe Mothering Coven

Novel by Joanna Ruocco

Ellipsis Press, October 2009

ISBN-10: 0963753622

ISBN-13: 9780963753625

Paperback: 123pp; $14.00

Review by Laura Di Giovine

Robert Coover is one of my favorite writers. With quirky, mythical tales of magic realism, it’s no wonder he endorsed The Mothering Coven, the fabulist debut novel by Joanna Ruocco. Throughout this slight, but fertile novel, Ruocco plays with language and creates an inventive world filled with richly crafted characters.

Mrs. Borage is about to turn 100 and she is the mother figure in a household of seven women – artists, scientists and witches alike. As the women prepare for Mrs. Borage’s birthday, they dream and wonder where their missing housemate Bertrand disappeared to – perhaps she is in the North Pole or on the Trans-Siberian railroad or on Taketomi Island?

The women love eating cinnamon toast, discussing politics, preparing for the monumental party and receiving visits from the vigorous and (wonderfully named) Ms. Kidney and the shy, half-blind neighbor enamored with Mrs. Borage, Mr. Henderson. In particular, Ms. Kidney, who loves to yell, is a force to be reckoned with as “[s]he trudges into the house in her parka and her great swamp boots. Only Ms. Kidney could get away with drinking Honey Bishops from the ladle! She stands by the pot, drinking and laughing. She throws her parka on the rug and her frozen purple overalls start to steam.”

Ruocco paints her pages with bright, strong women who clearly revel in mischievous and playful language:

“I caught a herring once,” announces Mrs. Borage, “in Lake Chargoggagoggmanchauggagoggchaubunagungamaugg.” Mrs. Borage sits down. “That felt wonderful,” says Mrs. Borage.

Some other memorable characters from this motley coven include Agnes, a paleozoologist devoted to witchcraft; Hildegard the foreign student; Bryce the painter; and Dorcas, who dabbles in shamanism. Will Bertrand return in time for the birthday party or will her absence threaten the stability of the household? In Ruocco’s deft hands, The Mothering Coven takes readers on a delightful romp through a uniquely imagined universe.

 

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The Art of Recklessness coverThe Art of Recklessness

Poetry as Assertive Force and Contradiction

Nonfiction by Dean Young

Graywolf Press, August 2010

Paperback: 184pp; $12.00

Review by Catherine Daly

“My argument is abandon and tells me to abandon every argument.”

This, Young’s first work of poetics or prose about poetry, is written in an offhand, talky manner: by turns like an e-mail or comment stream to the endless listserv and blog debates about the usefulness of MFAs, repurposed essays, advice gleaned from conversations with other poets, quotes from authors who have come before his poetry (all male but Stein), and metaphors – more or less useful, often flogged to death.

The first major point he makes is that poetry doesn’t hurt anyone and people attempting to write poetry can’t hurt Poetry. He makes his case intelligently, in sympathy with both unschooled would-be poets and beleaguered poetry students and/or workshop leaders, yet not in an unduly professorial way deriving its authority from his named chair or prestigious fellowships. Yet, while Young compares poetry to fire-as-a-classical-element, how can poetry of great power, emotional force, elemental strength, “assertive force,” be harmless? Is this a poetry which is not mightier than the sword, or which cannot forge swords into plowshares?

Young devotes much of his attention to the poetry with which he is somewhat idiosyncratically associated: Coleridge and Wordsworth of the Romantics, and the schools of twentieth century art and writing, Dada, Surrealism, OuLiPo, and the New York School. “Idiosyncratically,” since Young is associated in a different way with these lineages than the second and third generation New York School writers, many of whom studied or worked with the first group of New York School writers, the new conceptual poets’ NuLiPo’s association with current members of OuLiPo, the Beats and the surrealists, the ethnopoets and Dada through Jerome Rothenberg, or the langpos and their students with any of these lineages, including Romanticism.

This difference is important since, for example when considering the Dadaists, “All dada’s proponents shared a profound disgust with society, politics, and culture, and chose to make a celebration and debacle of this disgust.” Later on the same page, talking about some of their happenings/protests, he comments, “Sounds like the usual military operation to me.” Really? The first radically pacifist art movement in the 20th century used the military tactics of the time, which were based on stasis and antiquated, rigid strategy in the face of overwhelming technology? Or is this a hidden reference to the term avant garde?

Is Dada’s lesson idiocy, the violent opposite of its violent nihilism, and to be rejected in favor of Young’s union of irreverence and its opposite, the reverence, reference, “faith,” or “fidelity” of language (not the reverence or fidelity of craft)? Is the idea of “play” present in Stein, but not in OuLiPo, which “tells us nothing of life”? Yet idiocy is important to Young, as a tool to get to the truth, as a means to vision and revision “making strange” before the poet lends the coherence of art and language, not as an end. It is in this difference that the “contradiction” of the title occurs. The metaphors here are centripetal force vs. centrifugal meaning. The Art of Recklessness is a long plea for a dialectic poetry based on a series of dichotomies.

Young quotes William de Kooning to emphasize Young’s definition of recklessness, which is a conviction arising perhaps out of the surrealist idea of “first thought, best thought.” In discussing an asemic work of Man Ray’s, he considers it a way to articulate what can’t be articulated; poetry as code and reading as deciphering. Reader/Response theory becomes the rule of thumb, “Poetry endeavors to make the reader a poet.” Among the definitions and quotes are other thoughts about profligacy and proliferation, about imagination as a sort of trial and error, i.e., as an existential ideal. He prefers the fragmentary survival of a whole to a fragmentary presentation of a nexus.

How useful is Dean Young’s book? He’s introduced some opinions and materials that even still can be difficult for some students in rather dull writing programs to access. The chatty tone of the book does not easily display his meanings. Many of these meanings may have been more richly encapsulated in poems. But, neither is it like reading turgid literary theory. If encountered on a comment stream on fragments, one might think “don’t get him started on fragments!” or, equally likely, “Hmmm.” In a book, to serve as an introduction of the “out there” for the isolated, a table of contents with a list of the section breaks (there are no chapters), a bibliography with a list of people and texts quoted (many in their entirety, many with equally important translators as authors) is necessary.

 

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Our Jewish Robot Future coverOur Jewish Robot Future

A Novel About the Garden of Eden & the Cyborgian Transformation of the Human Race

Fiction by Leonard Borman

Scarletta Press, November 2010

ISBN-13: 978-0-9824584-1-9 (trade)

ISBN-13: 978-0-9824584-2-6 (e-book)

Paperback: 280pp, $14.95

Review by Alex Myers

Margarita and Alex Haralson are just average Jewish parents. Sixty-somethings, recently retired, they want nothing more than to get some grandchildren, and quick. But their two grown children refuse to cooperate (marijuana usage, potential lesbianism, and other obstacles get in the way of progeny production). So, Margarita and Alex do what, perhaps, any folks would do: they turn to robots. Or, to be more precise, the robots turn to them. Hey, whatever it takes to get some grandchildren!

Borman’s book is filled with humor and bizarre delightfulness. As the title itself suggests, Our Jewish Robot Future mixes two distinct worlds. On the one hand is the typically Jewish world occupied (at times) by Margarita, who, like any Jewish mother, relishes hearing about a potential mate for her son. As she listens to news about a friend’s daughter, Margarita “remembered Shirley, a good-looking girl, personable and intelligent. Finding out she was single was a godsend.” These words could come from any Jewish mother anywhere. Likewise the Yiddish that Borman sprinkles liberally throughout the novel, such as when Margarita threatens her son that she will “kick every gebuttska and give orders like Mussolini.” Odder, though, are the moments when the Jewish and robot worlds meld, giving rise to phrases like: “don’t let him fill your head with any of his cyborgian kvatsch.” The book sparkles with bits of quirkiness, such as the binary page numbers on the even-numbered pages (odd-numbered pages are rendered in standard Arabic numerals).

The novel is structured around Margarita talking to her newborn child. She and Alex follow a plot-line similar to the biblical Abraham and Sarah, having this late-life baby. As a result of the structure of Margarita speaking to the child, the entire plot of the novel is cast as back-story. Things get even trickier when there is back-story within the back-story. The end result is an unfortunate amount of rather plain telling as, for instance, happens when Margarita and Alex try to explain what has happened to their rabbi:

I calmed down and began again. Alex tried to speak but I told him to shut up. I am the storyteller. A robot named Jonathan Chapman cunningly kidnapped Alex and took him to the Garden of Eden on a distant planet. Meanwhile, at home a robot that looked just like Alex was a stand-in while my Alex was away. At first I didn’t notice anything different since my dear husband often goes through periods of having a somewhat metallic personality. One day, all was revealed when Robot Alex sat next to me on the couch and started crying like a baby, literally – he hadn’t been programmed to cry like an elderly Jewish American.

What an amazing this scene this would have been to experience! But compressed into a rather flat retelling, the richness of the narrative disappears. Unfortunately, too much of the novel is told in this manner.

Borman clearly enjoys playing with ideas of religion. As robots take Alex to the planet Airets, he experiences an engaging hybrid of evolutionary and biblical ideas: Neanderthals alongside the Garden of Eden. Indeed, at the heart of this novel, beyond the robots and the over-sexed elderly Jews trying to conceive a child, lies an engaging exploration of morality and Jewish law. On Airets, Alex examines some the underlying rules governing what is Kosher, coming to the realization that there are “godly and non-godly powers. The sense of touch was non-godly and had its own set of rules: no stealing, no murder. But what’s so horrible about eating?” What unfolds following this revelation is a unique reconsideration of Jewish dietary law.

Life on earth is confusing enough for the Haralsons – adding robots and visits to Airets makes the whole matter completely opaque. Our Jewish Robot Future rollicks with raucous scenes and is chock-full of crazy concepts. The ridiculous turns of plot, the absurd events cannot only be forgiven but enjoyed. Even the haphazard science (the robots are invented in the following manner: “He built a prototype.” End of description.) can be excused in light of the depth of other concerns. Harder to forgive is the relentlessly flat, overly declarative writing style: “After a few moments in silence, I said we were skirting the issue. The children must be told about the robots and the importance of them getting married and having children. Your father said I had a luncheon date with Roman, so broach the subject with him. I said I was afraid of how he’d react.” Nonetheless, Borman’s novel is one-of-a-kind, a daring combination of real and unreal, expressing a creative and unique vision of what is and what is to come.

 

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The Plumber's Apprentice coverThe Plumber's Apprentice

Poetry by Joe Weil

NYQ Books, August 2009

ISBN-13: 978-1-935520-10-8

Paperback: 99pp; $14.95

Review by Thomas Hubbard

Here is a collection of poems for hard times. The first section, "There Goes the Neighborhood," re-examines life's past warts and pimples. Weil's poem, "In My Neighborhood, Everyone Almost Wins the Lottery" looks at where he grew up and says,

...No one ever wins. Everyone knows someone
who would have won, if only they had followed
their hearts, or remembered an address, or
been born on a lucky day

The second part of the book, "How Holy," calls out faith in friends or religion for its shortcomings. "Practicing Betrayal" is a poem about his childhood friends. In it, Weil writes:

At eight, I was encouraged
to dive in the filthy river.
All my friends stood at the shore,
promising they'd go next.
As soon as my head bobbed up,
I heard their laughter,
my eyes level with their sneakers,
dripping sewage, I could smell
their contempt.
They called me shit-boy for a year

"It's Like This," the third section of the book, acknowledges irredeemable loss and irreparable ruin, but leaves both poet and reader standing strong in defiance, which is captured in the poem “Checkmate,” a poem about facing illness:

There will no longer be good days
and there never was
a reason except maybe some
hidden test you failed
some gene you inherited
some corner of the universe
that you happened to sleep in
where all the shit piled up.

Joe Weil looks at beauty and sees the bloated underside where ugly makes a home; tells beauty to take a walk and falls in love with ugly. He examines his faith and everyone else's to see it fail; tells faith to take a walk and revels in small depravities. He stares loss in its face and spits whatever was retained; Tells loss to take a walk and carry all the rest with it. Despite the darkness, Weil leaves us a kind of determined strength. In "Clap Out Love's Syllables,” he writes, “Stocks fall, leaves fall, we fall, yet, falling, praise / the fields of lust on which our bodies graze.”

This is a book that invites bereavement to sit down, then fleeces it by cheating at poker. All the rules we thought written on stone have faded; the stone was wax. We were mistaken. I will surely wear this book out.

 

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The Hotel Under the Sand coverThe Hotel Under the Sand

Young Adult Fiction by Kage Baker

Tachyon Publications, July 2009

ISBN-13: 978-1-892391-89-6

Paperback: 192pp; $8.00

Review by Rebecca Landau

The Hotel Under the Sand is a sweet, touching and funny story aimed at children from about 8-12 years old. Fans of Eva Ibbotson will love the friendly ghosts, gentle tone and quirky characters. It has a charming old-fashioned feel. Children books nowadays tend to be hectically paced adventures defeating terrifying villains. This quieter, sweeter yet witty book makes a nice change.

The story starts with Emma, a nine-year-old girl, orphaned in a metaphoric storm. What the storm is exactly is never explained:

It might have been a storm with black winds, with thunder and lightning and rising waves. It might have been a storm with terrible anger and policemen coming to the door and strangers, hospitals, courtrooms, and nightmares. It might have been a storm with soldiers and fire and hiding in cellars listening to shooting overhead. There are different kinds of storms.

The storm maroons Emma on the Dunes, a desert island. She finds food and makes a shelter for herself. Then she meets Winston, an eager to please ghost of a bellboy. He doesn't scare her – she reacts to him with the same sort of matter of fact dream logic that applies to most of The Hotel Under the Sand. He tells her his story: He was an orphan put to work shining shoes. He "became the best shoeshine boy he could be" and was promoted to working at a fancy hotel and then as a bellboy. Then Masterman Marquis de Lafayette Wenlocke III, a rich and brilliant but slightly sinister inventor, offered him a job at The Grand Wenlocke, a very fancy hotel at the Dunes. The Grand Wenlocke had an engine that slowed down time so vacations could go on forever. But it was buried in the sand by a storm one hundred years ago.

As Emma and Winston talk, another storm uncovers The Grand Wenlocke. Inside, they realize the hotel isn't totally empty. Mrs. Beet, the plump, motherly cook, has been napping there for a hundred years. Winston tries to reopen the hotel but the telegraph line goes into the sand.

Then Captain Doubloon, a pirate who insists he isn't one despite his wooden leg, eye patch, parrot and Jolly Roger, comes to the hotel to find the treasure Masterman Marquis de Lafayette Wenlocke III owed his grandfather. He leads them on a treasure hunt across the hotel. They find, along with some gold bars, Masterman Marquis de Lafayette Wenlocke III's spoiled great grandson Masterman Marquis de Lafayette Wenlocke the 8th. He's run away from boarding school and his evil uncle.

The telegraph under the sand reached some strange magical people. Emma and her friends run the hotel for them.

The story ends on what seems more like the beginning of an adventure: moving the hotel across the ocean to avoid the storms at the Dunes. Perhaps Kage Baker was intending to write a sequel before she died. Either way, the story doesn't seem quite complete at less than 200 pages long. However, it is well worth reading for the journey.

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