NewPages Book Reviews

February 1, 2010

Easter Rabbit :: Shot :: The River Flows North :: Tsim Tsum :: Catch Light :: The Bigness of the World :: Dangerous Places :: Death at Solstice

Easter Rabbit coverEaster Rabbit

Fiction by Joseph Young

Publishing Genius Press, December 2009

ISBN-10: 0982081340

ISBN-13: 978-0982081341

Paperback: 100pp; $12

Review by John Madera

With their directness and precision, their attention to what Ezra Pound would call “luminous details,” Joseph Young’s microfictions might be mistaken for Imagist poems, but with their shift away from showing “things” as “things” toward “things” as something else, or, rather, toward portraying both the “thingness” of the thing and of some different “thing,” his miniatures suggest something altogether different. But where they fit is less important than what they do, how they make you feel. In Easter Rabbit’s miniatures, its sharp sentences focused on often mundane details, Young offers epics. Seemingly channeling William Blake, he offers further “auguries of innocence,” further testaments to worlds in granules, heavens in flowers, and – well, suffice to say, these are sentences to linger over.

Young’s command of consecution and recursion appears effortless on the page. For instance, while “History of Encaustic” is most likely a tribute to Christine Sajecki, Easter Rabbit’s cover artist, it’s also a veritable celebration of the short sounds of “i”:

Someone had burned a candle, the wax spattered on the cement, pills of it in the trickle of the river. She lifted her arms and shouted, It’s later than you think! laughing at the echo. He watched her feet rise and fall, marking so little in the yellow silt.

Those short “i” sounds I’m referring to are most evident in the whispery phrase “pills of it in the trickle of the river,” and then also mirrored in “so little in the yellow silt.” And notice how that “o” sound in “echo” is echoed later in ”yellow.”

Speaking of yellow, Young finds wonderful correspondences in “Yellow”:

The water falling smelled of ammonia and copper, slick as grease. Trapped in an eddy, swinging toward the edge, the banana was fluorescent, a crescent of sun. He was close enough to hear the graze of her breath, trapped at the edge of inertia.

Moments like finding both the banana’s fluorescence and its crescent abound in Easter Rabbit and can only be attributed to a patient and attentive mind. But while Young certainly attends to language’s materiality, its concordant and discordant tensions, the possibilities within it for rhythmic play and falling cadences, his miniatures ultimately privilege the seduction of the five senses, that is, whatever triggers, as Young writes in “At Last,” that “atlas of synapses.”

It’s really difficult to cherry pick when every fruit here is shiny and ripe, but “Where the Woods Is Darkest” is definitely one of my favorites; it proves that, while wholly grounded, Young can also take the absurd bend in the road. In “Valentine,” another favorite, he marvels at “impossible things” like smoke from a concrete pipe. And then there’s “The Gossipers” where lovers are reduced to objects, sounds, and events, she: a red sweater and gilt wheels, he: a voice and explosions, and friends look on with “amusement and teeth.” Wonder suffuses even the most ordinary things like the revelatory view caused by an open front door in “Interruption,” the coin in “&1/4,” the light bulb in “Menlo Park,” the cows and small shirt in “80,” the “sun’s neat sugarpill” in “Second Certainty, Physic,” and, in “St. Avia’s Epistle,” the “[w]et pills of dirt at the grass’s white radicle, the half-worm breathing consonance.”

Besides Easter Rabbit, I’ve read and reviewed three other books from Publishing Genius Press including Light Boxes, MLKNG SCKLS, and A Jello Horse, and if there is a sensibility to their catalogue, it is this: exact descriptions, all dross whittled away; weird, out of nowhere events; a winsome narrator marked by melancholy. And if all this is true, then Joseph Young’s Easter Rabbit is a distillation. These miniatures come from an unwavering ear and unblinking eye. And though the “humid cloud of words” is “impossible to understand,” as Young writes in “Epistemology,” we could have no more dependable pilot than him to guide us through the fog.

 

Shot coverShot

Poetry by Christine Hume

Counterpath Press, December 2009

ISBN-10: 1933996161

ISBN-13: 9781933996165

Paperback: 104pp; $14.95

Review by Marthe Reed

Christine Hume’s language, “alive and lying,” takes us – shot or shunted – down into night, the imaginal-space of gestation. Mina Loy’s daughter-poet, Hume composes a Baedeker of the body pregnant, mapping a haunted landscape with a language she makes strange, dream wording a dream world: “I hear myself coming from your thoughts . . . Skull pockets that burn without warnings.”

Refusing comfort – or the comfortable – these poems inhabit disturbance, the ragged border edging desire from terror. The speaker’s voice fights its way into existence against itself and night: “I stuffed night’s hem into my mouth” as “If I could move toward it while moving away,” simultaneously turning toward the dark and seeking a way out. In Hume’s Shot, light and waking are doubtful promises, and like night, too potent to either ignore or trust: “The more I battered the moon, the more I could be it.”

Hume’s speaker inhabits a liminal realm, where dread is as near as hope, the body’s disturbance inseparable from the workings of mind:

Steel birds fly from clocks
Striking the hour in rounds
A freak disease tears across the vista
You’ve been told this is the year of medicine
Lunar halo must bother you tonight with some life
War shine and flare lit in the lips

Hume writes us into a delirious landscape, monstrous and lovely, where “stars are swinging doors that miracle the shift,” her night made ours. The body, transformed by the growth of another, becomes defamiliarized, unreliable, given to dry heaves, leg cramps, and night sweats; hormonal, it grows false nipples. Impossibly demanding “She . . . get [her]self out of that flesh suit,” the speaker of these poems knows that she has lost control: “this night your existence depends upon the doubt of a single pair of eyes stoning you from a low bridge.” Hume, in the dark and floundering, chastens herself and us: “Pound at your own belief until it’s empty of you.” Her language wedding illusion and certainty, ambiguity like quicksand under our feet, she dares us, “In what direction do the lost veer?”

Shot opens with a dialogue between mother and unborn child, voices whose intentions and desires move in perpendicular orbits, question and response, the gap of understanding increasing as the dialogue progresses.

Can you hear my lullabies?
As when you descend into the ocean, you find yourself immersed in song; my whole body, made of water and umber, reverberates self-melodies.
. . .
Why do you kick at words?
To get your songs off my hands, I wade through their falls and uplifts. I dreamt a dog was trying to dig me out.

In “AMBIEN ANTHEM,” the border separating mother and child collapses, forming a single space in which the reader falls, re-encountering immersion/loss/doubt: “An infinity you cannot stop infinity / Each moon each mother each cross-eyed ghost / Containers to be opened only in total darkness.” Here “The future of memory is a motherless force / In the pharmacy of amnesias.” At the forgotten border, two or one, what am I, the body wonders. Hume writes us back into the dark world in which we began, back into that strange condition of both and neither.

Inner and outer worlds shadow one another, the external one entering the strange space of the inner dialogue. “Thank You for the Flowers” hurls color at us that has abandoned description’s passivity: “Orange crawls my skin. It narcotically ticks in my nose. Orange advances earth’s roundness while the reds’ musty stacks are hard to read….Their explosions embed our bed with broken teeth.” Shot’s voices, self and other dialogue, doubt, push back, articulating passage through the estranged body, “love letters” to a self and memory whose forms are permeable and shifting: “dangling in that display, feelers floating out of the rest of the accident.”

“Interlude”: midway, Hume introduces other voices, the mothers. Mother Estrogen. Mother Broker. Mother-in-the-trees. Mother Diazepam and Mother Defect. Cold Mother Plunder and Mother Tomorrow. The voices of desire and horror, of the irreconcilable self, the perpetually constructed persona, role-to-play: what is it, this mother? And who that grainy other in the ultrasound? Another nightmare, dream dialogue ricocheting away from itself: “An owl reshapes its face to shove a new sound down its ear. When you dream, you do the same.” “What will it be like when the fontanel closes for good?” “I can hear the raw wind nursing your sores.” Like the speaker of these poems, we’ll “wake in the uncanniest room of all – my body asleep.” What is this body, the poems query.

Shot follows that body digging itself out, escape and birth one narrative. Even when the blurred boundaries resolve themselves, two distinctly two momentarily, still certainty and comfort refuse themselves. “I Exhume Myself,” the final poem in the collection, warns us in nursery rhymes gone-awry,

Waiting for morning is not the same as sleeping.
A dream is a naked idea snapped awake.
The backward splashes of your feet running through rain.
Singing bye-bye baby gauntling. Daddy’s gone drinking.
(You are not there where I have looked.)
When I raise the manhole lid, I am dead on my feet.
None of the babies come out alive.

In Shot, “Dreaming is a blindness that looks back,” Hume’s rearward glancing taking us in – into the body’s innerscape, nightmare and dream, into the dark unfathomable one-become-two. Gorgeous, unsettling, her language pushing at boundary and expectation, willing its transformation along a parallel passage with that of the gravid, burgeoning body: growth, dis-ease, illness, ill-at-ease, self and not self, bodied and born. Bodying birth. Hume writes a language of the body, a bodied language. A vocabulary of gestation, mother and child, lover and beloved, two selves, or many, one, Shot barrels down a frayed border where no relation is a settled one, the words that compose her journey rocketing us into that fabulous other world where “your skin itself is a black moon / Set against the black lapping.”

 

The River Flows North coverThe River Flows North

Novel by Graciela Limon

Arte Publico Press, March 2009

ISBN-10: 1558855858

ISBN-13: 978-1-55885-585-4

Hardcover: 177pp; $24.95

Review by Christina Hall

The beauty of Graciela Limon’s writing lies in her unadorned, tell-it-like-it-is style. While you’re reading, you don’t get tripped up and mesmerized by crafty phrases and descriptions so original that you have to stop and think in order to actually see them. All you see in The River Flows North is character. People. Their painful pasts, difficult voyages, and hopeful futures.

The novel covers the journey of seven Mexicans and their guide, Leonardo Cerda, across the desert where they hope to slip into the United States via la Ocho, or Interstate 8. Dona Encarnacion Padilla says,

I joined a group of migrants on the verge of crossing El Gran Desierto. I did not know their names, but I recognized the expression on their faces. There was sadness because something had uprooted them, yet there was also hope that a new life waited for them.

In each chapter, Limon’s characters tell his or her story of how they ended up on the dangerous immigration path. Whether the story is told to the other travelers, such as the elderly Don Julio Escalante’s tale, or told only to the reader, such as the tragic history of Menda Fuentes, you begin to see the wide spectrum of catalysts that drive these very different people to take the five day trip through a desert where “many migrants vanish without a trace.”

Even the shifty Cerda, who nobody trusts, has a story to tell. Torn between being “texano or mexicano,” where his family frequently shifted during Cerda’s youth, he tells us that he never really fit in anywhere. On top of questioning his national identity, he was the odd boy out in his family. After feeling like a frequent disappointment, he finally became a nomad and eventually a guide where he takes people through the Arizona desert to Interstate 8 for a high fee. He admits sadly that he “was a real asshole.” Limon does an excellent job of showing us that even Cerda, like the other characters, and most importantly, like the reader, is still, and merely, a human.

While the stories are heart wrenching and create a deep empathy within the reader, they are not wholly original. They are tales of death and loss, hope and disappointment, war and abuse. We’ve heard them all before, but this actually adds to the moving nature of Limon’s book. She isn’t writing a sensationalist novel. She’s not that songwriter who writes a sad song for the ratings. These stories feel real, and it is as if we are reading a collection of memoirs, interviews of people who actually attempted the difficult expedition into a life of hope and freedom.

Although it’s the individual stories that Limon focuses on, and the relationships between the migrants are subtle, the intercommunication is still a major part of the novel. Both the moments of utter distrust as well as the surreal instances of joyous comradeship mirror the painfully beautiful contradiction of the lives we all know. All of the relationships and stories feel so obvious and basic that you wonder why you didn’t see the truth in them before. It’s as if they are all stories we have inside of us somewhere, our own histories.

 

Tsim Tsum coverTsim Tsum

Poetry by Sabrina Orah Mark

Saturnalia Books, October 2009

ISBN-10: 0981859127

ISBN-13: 978-0-9818591-2-5

Paperback: 65pp; $14.00

Review by Roy Wang

Tsim Tsum derives its title from an idea in Kabbalah that a being cannot truly exist unless the creator departs from his creation. This must refer to the fact that the two main characters, Walter B. and Beatrice, seem like abandoned children left to find their way through a fairy-tale landscape of allegorical friends and props. Rather, the spirit must have left them and their world midway through creation, as both characters have just enough intelligence to be confused. This is the central dilemma of Tsim Tsum.

One feature central to many of these prose poems is a misunderstanding or redefinition of a basic word, such as “housekeeping.” Often, the characters conspicuously attempt to use a mangled phrase, ending up in a circular conversation about its meaning and consequences. A charitable analysis would determine that this is simultaneously whimsical, clever, and surprising. There is also a tantalizing sensation that this is very much roman à clef: if we could just find the code, it will make so much sense. But more critical reading would liken this to taking a dinner table conversation and randomly replacing nouns, rolling the dice and praying for midnight.

Interesting effects are sometimes achieved, moments that seem worth capturing or constructing. But in a long enough collection, whether due to vision or statistical randomness, this is inevitable. And in the end, it is difficult to see past the conscious application of this “replacement” technique, regardless of one's evaluation of its merit.

One poem that has both some interest and an emotional flourish is, “The Reality Testing Booth”:

They brought with them four things to test: hat, love, day, and the delectable . . . It was strange to choose, but It seemed only right to first test an object, so they held the hat up first and waited for the printout . . . Beatrice listened. She listened carefully, and as she listened she began to grow very fond of Walter B. As if it was actually he who was the love that made each of her days delectable.

An admirable achievement Mark maintains throughout is that the characters' genuine goodness shines through the random, distracting language. Whether with romantic overtones or sibling affection, the childlike, plodding utterances and ruminations have at their heart an ineluctable innocence. Take for example, “Forgiveness”:

Walter B. had an idea. He would arrive at the door in a white linen suit with scarlet cuffs and beg for Beatrice's forgiveness. Should he bring for her a fork or a spoon? He could not decide. He would ask the horse.

Mark's rhythms are very deliberate, and here is where the art most shines. The hesitant pacing and robotic grammar give the sense of characters who must use the utmost brain power just to wash their hands. It also lends to the fairy-tale effect. Like Hansel and Gretel, there needs to be a pause before every decision, every utterance, as consequences vague and grave abound.

One such example that captures much of the above comes from “Long Ago and Far Away”:

“To the ramparts!” shouted Walter B. “Yes, dear,” said Beatrice, snapping him in, “to the ramparts.” And off they went to look for the Walter B. Walter B. once was before the terrible mistake of the carousel ride.

Tsim Tsum will certainly appeal to those who enjoy whimsical story and non sequitor, and once there, Mark's crafting can begin to be appreciated.

 

Catch Light coverCatch Light

Poetry by Sarah O’Brien

Coffee House Press, September 2009

ISBN-10: 1566892376

ISBN-13: 978-156689-237-7

Paperback; 92pp; $16.00

Review by Gina Myers

Selected by David Shapiro for the National Poetry Series, Sarah O’Brien’s debut book of poetry appears at first glance to be an extended meditation on photography. The collection is divided into seven sections, with each one made up of lyric poems investigating what it means to see something – to capture a moment, even if it’s blurred.

The book opens with two epigraphs: one from W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants which is about a man whose face and hands turned blue (or developed) due to silver poisoning, and the other from a tour brochure of Indonesia which says, “The Beauty of an Object Lies in The Beautiful Heart.” The opening poem describes a city painted white with the white rubbing off on the hands of the people. Simply titled “One” and placed outside of the seven titled sections, the poem, combined with the epigraphs, sets the tone and hints at what is to come: a keen eye able to look with wonder at the world and capture it in all its strangeness and beauty.

Throughout the collection, O’Brien is attempting to do what the title orders: catch light. While “catching light” is an explanation of what a camera does, it is also here what the poet is doing. In “Light Matters,” she writes, “Memory is in light.” Memories, in light, can be captured in photographs, just as they can be captured in poetry.

Formally, the poems vary in length and style from prose poems to lineated poems with lines that cascade across the page. Regardless of the form, the language is tightly controlled without a single word wasted. This restraint adds to the feeling of removal that exists in these poems. The speaker is separated from the subject as if by an apparatus, but there are wonderfully surprising moments when suddenly the speaker forgets her role as woman-behind-the-lens, like in “Five Eyes.” The first four sections of the poem discuss eyes, from doll eyes to glass eyes to Darwin’s description of elephants shedding “abundant tears in situations / of pain and sorrow” (which the speaker notes has sadly been disproven). In the fifth section, the poem opens suddenly just as it ends:

To eye. A change in weather or the quality of a painted-on iris. As it comes
closer it is less distinct.
Skin, water, the sun overhead until you can’t look at it. Letters
read into a sea. In low or intense light
all detail is lost in perceiving the sheer. Light travels and picks up
every particle on the way and illuminates it. You see the air moving, like that.
There must be distance, he said,
for the thing to be seen. So I hold you out in front of me and say now –
let me look at you.

That gesture of holding someone – a long lost friend, a distant relative – out at arm’s length to have a look is something so human, familiar, and warm. Yet there is a duality to the image, that to really see something, distance is required, so once again the speaker is slightly removed, and perhaps what is at arm’s length is not a friendly face, but a photograph, a book, an object.

It becomes increasingly clear throughout the collection, that this isn’t only about capturing a moment on film. Moments are also captured in words, and they are captured in memories, no matter how brief or confused those may be.

The third section, “Captions” plays with the fluidity of memory, as it matches poem captions up with blank boxes, much like Brandon Shimoda does with his series “The Headmaidens and Bridesmen” in The Alps. The boxes slow the reader down and forces him or her to really focus on the image and imagine what should exist inside. The images being described change over time from new knowledge being learned (“once / you’re told it’s a name, you read it, you can read the water now”) to the speaker noticing new details (“And a slight blur in the background, a bird you didn’t even notice taking off”).

In brief language, O’Brien masterfully re-creates scenes that feel familiar, that feel like photos I’ve seen before with light-erased faces and roads stretching outside the frame. There is a magical quality to them, as the imagined photograph captures a swimmer whose hand, while pulling himself out of the water, “rests exactly on the surface of a lake.” Another “photo” has frozen time, with its subject caught forever walking in a field and “[a] storm permanently poised on the edge.” Even though time has passed since the image was taken, what exists inside the photo is always happening in the present tense. Another caption wonders “what is that seeing called” when you see something clearly but only for a split second, and the final poem in the “Captions” series explains why the box above is empty: “Weather is abstract until it touches the skin. There is talk of snow beginning, of that instant that has never been captured on film.”

“Optical Toys,” the second section, has a playful quality to it as it is made up of poems mimicking the toy they are named for. “Kaleidoscope” uses anaphora for its form – the pieces repeating but creating something new with each turn. In “Stuttersight,” O’Brien writes, “Here is a beginning without an end and even though you’d like to, you can’t see it any other way.” “Zoetrope” imagines the repeated image: “A whole herd of horses, or one.” These optical toys, often associated with childhood, are excellent tools for O’Brien to dissect the world with.

This is a strong debut, and it makes sense that Shapiro, who is also an art critic, would be drawn to this collection. The book is compact and makes for a quick read, but the poems are rich and invite multiple readings as they open up in various ways with each new seeing.

 

The Bigness of the World coverThe Bigness of the World

Fiction by Lori Ostlund

University of Georgia Press, October 2009

ISBN-10: 0-8203-3409-x

ISBN-13: 978-0-8203-3409-7

Hardcover: 214pp; $24.95

Review by Laura Pryor

It seems fitting that this debut short story collection by Lori Ostlund won the Flannery O’Connor award for short fiction, because Ostlund’s writing has a classic, timeless feel to it that would not have been out of place in O’Connor’s time. The title story, the first story in the book, could have been written last week or fifty years ago. Ostlund creates an eccentric nanny, Ilsa Maria Lumpkin, charming enough to rival Mary Poppins, though life for her two charges, Veronica and Martin, is no fairy tale. Ostlund writes with great sensitivity about children, and the inability of adults to understand their point of view. In addition to the title story, “The Day You Were Born” and “All Boy” both deal with a child’s view of their parents’ crises; in the former, a young girl copes with her father’s mental illness and the resulting disintegration of her parents’ marriage, and in the latter, an effeminate eleven year old boy copes with the stigma of being different, at the same time that his father admits that he is gay and moves out of the house.

Relationships on the decline seem to hold a particular fascination for Ostlund; four of the eleven stories deal with lesbian couples whose relationships are rapidly deteriorating. In “Upon Completion of Baldness,” a woman’s partner returns from Hong Kong with her head shaved, and their communication has broken down so completely that she can’t find the words to ask her about something so obvious. Unfortunately, the characters in these stories are so similar that afterwards, I couldn’t remember which story was which, though all of them were well written. The lesbian couples in the stories are all teachers of English or math, usually in their thirties or forties, and often travel abroad.

Travel is another recurrent theme in the collection; “Idyllic Little Bali” centers on a group of Americans who gravitate towards each other at a hotel in Yogyakarta, tired of explaining themselves to the locals. As we learn more about each character in the group, it becomes clear that they are as foreign to each other as the locals are to them. This story showcases Ostlund’s dry wit, as in this passage describing Joe, one of the Americans:

He lied his way into a progression of increasingly better-paying jobs, his favorite for the chamber of commerce, where he was the guy that got sent out with giant scissors to cut the ribbon when new businesses opened, from which he learned that women really gravitate toward a man with big scissors.

“Idyllic Little Bali” is about as informal as Ostlund’s prose gets. In the title story, Ostlund writes that Ilsa Maria Lumpkin “did not use contractions and scolded us when we did, claiming that they brought down the level of the conversation.” Apparently this is an opinion shared by Ostlund, who uses them only when quoting characters in conversation. This gives her writing a formal (occasionally stilted) feel. I enjoyed, however, the absence of those short sentence fragments often found in contemporary short fiction; Ostlund deftly crafts long sentences, adding clause upon clause without once compromising clarity, as in this passage from “Idyllic Little Bali”:

There, with the night receptionist just outside their door and Indonesian businessmen snoring away behind the paper-thin walls on either side of them, his wife had wakened him in the middle of the night to tell him that she was thoroughly and profoundly miserable, that she had been for years and had been concealing it from him, and that she now understood that he was to blame for all of it, even the fact that she had been concealing it.

A favorite of mine in this collection is “Dr. Deneau’s Punishment,” about an eccentric math teacher whose objection to the school’s encouragement of mediocrity goes unheeded, largely in part to his unorthodox personality and lifestyle, which attracts more attention than his sensible suggestions.

Overall, this is an impressive collection of stories that range widely from tragic to comic (often within the same story). Ostlund has a keen insight into human behavior that allows the reader to recognize themselves in characters with whom, outwardly, they have absolutely nothing in common. And her writing has an old school quality that draws attention not to her style, but to the characters and their stories, which are always compelling.

 

Dangerous Places coverDangerous Places

Fiction by Perry Glasser

BkMk Press, November 2009

ISBN-10: 1886157693

ISBN-13: 978-1-886157-69-9

Paperback: 192pp; $16.95

Review by Alex Myers

This volume, which won the G.S. Sharat Chandra Prize, features six pieces that bring the realities of human nature into focus. It is the realities, not the dramatics, that Glasser writes about. His stories have familiar surroundings, familiar people, and are written in prose that is a flowing, melodious tune – one you could hum.

Opening the collection is a novella-length story “An Age of Marvels and Wonders,” which features a retired businessman, Bob, with macular degeneration helping a single mother start a house-cleaning business. For all that, the premise is quite normal. The plot moves at a rapid pace, driven along by Raylene’s, the single mother, relentless determination. In this story, as in the others, Glasser meticulously creates both foreground and background. Take, for instance, Beth Ann, the checkout girl at the supermarket, who, at the start of the story, has “seen from the vantage point that is Register 4 all life has to offer . . . customers are spittle afloat in the clear pool of her existence.”

Even as the story mostly orbits around Raylene and Bob, Beth Ann crops up on several occasions, becoming pregnant and finally noticing her customers, or as Bob puts it, he has “achieved visibility.” There is, on the surface, nothing remarkable about this interaction, yet it gives the story texture; Glasser’s attention to the minor characters, noting their words, dress, and action, adds depth to the primary plot.

The other pieces in this volume measure up to the high standard of the opening story. In particular, “The Veldt,” which concerns a middle-aged man just laid off from his job, climaxing in a scene in which a younger man cuts him off, taking a parking space he was waiting for, does a remarkable job for taking a realistic scenario and intensifying the meaning. Samson, the man who has been laid off, is surrounded by the banalities of life, like high blood pressure and a wife who makes him eat healthily: “poached and snotless eggs quiver on [his] bacon-free plate.” But he is also, as a leadership trainer, aware of himself in a psychological and evolutionary sense, able to gauge his flight-versus-fight reaction, knowing that “his instincts will kill him,” that as much as he loves greasy foods, “you cannot cheat McDeath.” “The Veldt” develops a whole new layer of meaning as it engages with this evolutionary language, until finally, Samson confesses his fears to his wife and they, together, accept “these truths: Keep silent. Keep together. Seek shelter. Run close to the earth.” Glasser writes not just about these characters or this situation, but creates a wider philosophy.

Even the college-age narrator of “Fishhook,” a ne’er-do-well student who has been ordered by his father to take up summer employment at Roger’s Sporting Life, shares in this tendency to create profound understanding from the simple facts of life. Glasser makes a convincing voice for this character – as he does for the others in this volume – describing his plight: “But my monomaniac father calls up his old buddy and zap, here I am, snared in Roger’s Sporting Life…. You go, Dad.” Even as Glasser maintains this sarcastic adolescent voice, he still plumbs the depths. The narrator watches a shoplifter abscond with a bunch of merchandise and reflects that “at the same time he is being robbed of maybe a hundred dollars worth of junk, Roger the success sells a $1,100 stationary bicycle guaranteed to make you sweat and go nowhere.” These are stories that point out life’s essential truths.

There are no duds in this collection; it is a well-deserved prize winner. The only spot of unevenness that I felt was in the volume’s other (almost) novella-length story, “Jody’s Run.” This piece, about a young woman who meets with one of her father’s former girlfriends, is separated into five distinct sections. The structure of the story casts a lot of the plot in the past, and the retelling often ran flat, taking the momentum out of the piece. I am loathe to criticize the story too much, however, because of its marvelous central image, which spins out metaphorically into the rest of the piece: the wheel of death. A former circus worker gives the main character this advice as she relates the time she was once strapped to the wheel and found herself unable to look away from the knives being thrown at her. That’s okay, she says, “Every woman is a target . . . you may as well keep your eyes open. Take it all in. No one gets more than one chance on the wheel.” It is a wonderful metaphor for fate, deftly handled throughout the piece.

Glasser has put together an excellent volume. This was a collection I had a hard time setting down, and I expect I will return to it in the future.

 

Death at Solstice coverDeath at Solstice

A Gloria Damasco Mystery

Novel by Lucha Corpi

Arte Publico Press, September 2009

ISBN-10: 1558855475

ISBN-13: 978-1558855472

Paperback: 239pp; $15.95

Review by Elizabeth Townsend

I can honestly say Death at Solstice by Lucha Copri has taught me something. I like mystery novels. I’ve avoided reading them if I could for most of my life because I thought I didn’t like them. Now, this is not the first mystery I’ve read, but it did confirm that I enjoy the genre, something I’d been wondering about recently. It’s likely that having started reading this thinking that I didn’t like the mystery genre may have led me to being more critical of this story than I normally would have been towards a novel. Having said that, there were a great many things about this novel that I did enjoy.

The novel centers on the character of Gloria Damasco, a detective with a ‘dark gift’ that shows her visions of the future. Most of her visions are what keep her in the detective business, that and her need to save those in her visions from death or destruction. Her most persistent vision shows a phantom horse and rider, a woman crying for help, and Gloria herself trapped underwater and desperate for air. Trying not to think about the vision too much, Gloria drives up to California’s wine country to help a friend try to find out who stole an antique pair of diamond and emerald earrings that once belonged to the Empress Carlota of Mexico. The investigation into the theft uncovers a bigger mystery of murder, the kidnapping of a young girl that some believe can perform miracles, and the ghost of the legendary Joaquin Murrieta. Gloria uses her skills as a detective to piece together what seem to be random clues that lead her to a Witches’ Sabbath where she hopes to rescue the la santisima niña before she, or someone else, is killed.

When I first began reading this book, I had trouble connecting to the main character of Gloria. Reading about her made her seem as if she was a character I should already know and care about and that worried me. However, after doing a little investigating I discovered that this novel was only the latest edition in a series of books. So, as it turns out this was a character that I would have known and cared about had I read the other books, and once I got further into the story I did feel like I had gotten to know Gloria and cared about her. This was probably my biggest issue with the book, but it was something that I was able to overcome.

Something I really enjoyed about this book was how Gloria dealt with whatever situation she found herself in. She reacted to nearly every situation she came across with a fairly calm and practicle nature, even when she found herself standing among a group of people waiting for aliens to come and contact them. After the people left Gloria said:

So there I was on a rock between heaven and hell, with a White Supremacist alien spacecraft hovering beyond the Sierra Nevada range. I was watching out for an alleged ritualistic murderer who had also kidnapped a young woman said to be a saint able to perform miracles. The absurdity of it all was worth a laugh.

Passages like this were what made me think this book was worth reading.