Literary Magazine Reviews
Posted May 28, 2008
Bejeezus - Calyx - Chattahoochee Review - Cincinnati Review -Fairy Tale Review - Hollins Critic - Kenyon Review -New South - Oxford American - PMS poemmemoirstory - Silk Road - Tin House - Yale Review - Zahir
Review by Denise Hill
Bejeezus is subtitled “Reclaiming Southern Culture,” but its coverage of culture extends far beyond its Kentucky roots. Encompassing the broad categories “See, Watch, Read, Eat, Listen, Make, Visit, & More…” the magazine provides short columns on each, keeping the publication varied and concise.
As a regional publication, there are some purely local features with which I could make no connection – the “Eat” section promoting local donut shops. At the same time, there were features that weren’t local and for which I still couldn’t connect – “Foods to Live By,” highlighting three random food products, seemed not in caliber with the rest of the magazine. Getting past those, which unfortunately opened the publication, the wider-reaching works began to filter in.
“From the Vogue to the Alamo” by Rod Whiteneck laments the loss of art house theatres, but has hope restored in local film fests. Reading this just after visiting a film festival in a town whose art house theatre still thrives, this struck a chord. “Eternity for Sale” by Julie Leidner takes a critical look at the art of Damien Hirst, Simen Johan and Mark Swanson, and Eric Rickert extols the beauty of the Polaroid with, of course, accompanying photos.
Interviews include folklorist Shirley Collins and graphic artist/author Laura Szumowski, whose book Tip of the Iceburg, a handbook to the clitoris, is the first in a series focused on women’s health and sexuality. The “Listen” section dredges local musical culture with rare photos and discussion of Emmett Miller, and introduces Pokey LaFarge. The article on Freeman Kitchen, whose small town post office is combined with a record shop, and accompanying piece on the Carter family provides an in-depth study. Certainly, I know the Carter family, but I didn’t realize how little I knew, and how much more I could appreciate, until I read these articles.
Jonathan Hawpe’s “Between the Boxes: Comics and the Human Condition” offers support for comics as a literature that gives insight into our existence. And there is “& More…” to this publication, much more. Each turn of the page is a continuation of a cultural romp – full color (and often full bleed) artwork, photos, and design. My advice: visit LaFarge’s MySpace page, put his vocals on in the background, fix yourself a glass of sweet tea, hunker down, and enjoy the thoughtful pleasure trip through the south and beyond that this publication offers.[www.bejeezuszine.com]
Volume 24 Number 2
Review by Mary Baken
What impressed me the most about this issue of Calyx was how it contained an extraordinary range of voices and styles while still maintaining a high standard of artistic craft that managed to speak to a highly diverse audience. While some of the poems, stories, and artwork in this issue didn’t strike me as “read-again” favorites, there was no question in my mind that they were examples of excellent, above average work.
Out of the twenty-one poets in this issue, I particularly enjoyed Amanda Turner’s “Shringara (the erotic),” Mary Grover’s “My Father on the Phone,” Grace Danborn’s “After I Lied Straight Through My First Confession,” and Jeannine Hall Gailey’s “My Little Brother Learns Japanese.”
Of the artists represented, I was particularly impressed with Donna Dodson’s wooden goddess sculptures, feminized animal totems with a wink toward the playful and humorous, but I was somewhat disappointed in the other artists represented, a possible problem being the lack of color in the reproductions.
I thoroughly enjoyed the short stories by Heather Taylor
Johnson, “Rain and Sun,” and Teresa R. Funke, “Lucy—Freer Than
I’ve Ever Been.” But it was Donna Miscolta’s “Strong Girls” that
was so completely and utterly wonderful that it was well worth
the price of the magazine on its very own. Portraying the short
high school wrestling careers of overly large identical twins
Ofelia and Norma, professionally known as “Oafie and Abnorma,”
this story is so perfectly rendered in its tone, craft, and
execution that I urge everyone to rush out and read it.
Volume 28 Number 1
Review by Mary Baken
For those of you familiar with the Chattahoochee Review’s twenty-five year publishing history, this probably won’t come as a big surprise; but for me, a newcomer to the magazine, I knew as soon as I read John Stazinski’s heartbreaking short story “Waiting for a Dog to Run,” that the CR had achieved a level of literary sophistication that far outran the rest. I instantly realized I now had a new standard with which to measure my critiques.
Stazinski’s beautifully rendered short story manages to comment on the current crisis in our healthcare system, our economy, and in academia, all through the very particular crisis of a very particular marriage. It’s the characters in this story that truly move me: Paul’s admirable yet “dog-like” devotion, Alex’s determination to out-gamble the odds. As in real life, this is a marriage where overt blame is fruitless, where all solutions to keep the marriage moving forward will ultimately lead it catawampus rather than straight ahead.
The poetry in this issue is likewise well above standard. I loved the family portrait poems by Josie Sigler, particularly “The Lingerie Mother” and “Uncle Walt,” and was completely astonished, broken, and stalled by John Guzlowski’s Holocaust poems.
This issue has a special focus on Japanese fiction. The preface by Mariko Nagai serves as an introduction for those new to contemporary, or “living” Japanese writers. This section includes stories by Haruki Amanuma, Novala Takemoto, and Keiichiro Hirano, an interview between Nagai and “mystery” writer Natsuo Kirino, and non-fiction essays by Kyoko Mori and Jeanne Larson.
The stories struck me as highly experimental and strange,
dark and pessimistic, intriguing and unsettling. As Nagai points
out in her Preface, Western readers may find these stories
disappointing because they do not fit “the familiar formula of
storytelling.” While Western readers typically expect some form
of climax and conclusion, or “doing” as Nagai names it, Japanese
readers are content with simply “being.” But, for me, the
strangeness of these stories seemed artificial and gratuitous,
experimental for the sake of being experimental. I felt as if I
were reading a literary style in transition, a pushing and
shoving that hadn’t quite realized its form. This is not to say
it wasn’t an extraordinary read; I was fascinated by the voices
in these stories, and likewise fascinated by the actual voices
in the interview between Nagai and Kirino. And finally, I
thoroughly enjoyed Kyoko Mori’s nonfiction essay “The Language
of Flowers,” which beautifully depicts her experience of
straddling two cultures through the differences in their
languages and alphabets.
Volume 4 Number 2
Review by Cara Blue Adams
The Cincinnati Review has, in its five years of existence, built a reputation as an outstanding, and beautifully produced, literary magazine. Each issue includes a full-color portfolio of a contemporary artist’s work, as well as three writers’ reviews of a single book, allowing for dialogue between and among the arts.
The fiction in this issue is varied and lively. Michael Knight’s “Love at the End of the Year” performs a difficult feat for a short story – the duties of narration are passed from character to character, circling back at the end to Katie, with whom the story began. Peter Levine’s “The Seldom Brother,” about a man who spends his adult life fleeing the conventions and comforts of his suburban boyhood, followed by the relentless calls of a high school friend with whom he hasn’t spoken in years, skillfully navigates subtle emotional territory without lapsing into melodrama or allowing the story’s tension to slacken. And Edith Pearlman’s “Hat Tricks,” in which four girls pull boys’ names from a hat and set out to marry the boys whose names they drew, seems ready-made for the big screen.
Nonfiction is equally strong. Peter Selgin’s essay “Keeping Up with the Days,” about his obsessive practice of keeping a journal, is funny and personal, but also feels bigger than its ostensible subject matter. Selgin is talking not just about himself but about the complex, often troubled nature of everyone's relationship to memory and to the past when he says, “And so I wrestled with [the words], pinning them to page after page, not realizing that the words had me pinned, that my notebooks were writing me, displacing my life, consuming and ruining it.”
Over forty poets’ work is represented here. From prose poetry to a Dickinsonian poem by Rowena Hill, called “Emily D. on the Beach,” their offerings take many forms, adding to the journal’s variety.
With work of this quality, The Cincinnati Review is
sure to garner the attention and accolades it deserves. Grab an
issue now so you can say you knew it when.
The Violet Issue (3)
Review by Cara Blue Adams
An ornate frame graces the cover of the Fairy Tale Review, now in its third issue. Inside the frame, a stark grey-and-white etched oval that opens a space in the violet background where a cloaked woman embraces a cloaked child. Both rise from the supine body of a menacing creature – a wolf? – who lies on his back as if dead, but whose open eyes and waving limbs suggest otherwise. “Violet,” editor Kate Bernheimer writes, can be misread as “violent,” and, as the cover image and this mistake-in-waiting suggest, fairy tales traffic in this tension.
Kim Addonizio’s poem “Snow White: The Huntsman’s Story” re-tells the familiar tale from the huntsman’s perspective. Ordered to kill Snow White, he does, he tells us, though we might want to believe otherwise: “Think what you like: / that I spared her, that she sang / while keeping house for seven little men.”
Other works approach the fairy tale theme, and the idea of violence, more obliquely. Aurelie Sheehan’s story “Small Animal” manages to make archetypal elements – a house in the woods, a stranger with a mysterious bundle – fully contemporary by introducing the material of our modern world, including the Hawaiian shirts of Trader Joe’s, where the main character, a poet named Sara, works. When the bundle is unwrapped, what Sara finds is both symbolic and psychological. Looking at what is revealed, we are told, “It was as if someone had shown her ugly pictures of herself, or as if she were not herself, had no real life of her own.”
Another treat is the excerpt from Irlanda, written by the Spanish writer Espido Freire and translated by Toshiya Kamei. The novel, published to much acclaim in Europe, begins with a restrained but resonant line that sets the story’s grave, honest tone: “Sagrario died in May after much suffering.”
The range of work in the Fairy Tale Review speaks both
to the pervasive influence of fairy tale, and to Bernheimer’s
broad-minded interpretation of what the intersection of fairy
tale and contemporary writing might look like. Like the picture
on the cover – “Born,” by artist Kiki Smith – what we find here
is the stuff of dreams and myths, what we are born into and
from, rendered in strikingly individual terms.
Volume 45 Number 1
Review by Rachel King
This issue of the Hollins Critic focuses on Milton Kessler. The front cover features a portrait sketch and an excerpt from his poem “Tiny Flashes Always”: “To sing was the only way through High School and life.” Liz Rosenberg’s essay lauds Kessler as a teacher, a poet, and a human being. He had an eclectic teaching style in which he would ask random questions and make poets post their poems around the room. Although he wrote a lot of poetry, he rarely sent his work out to be published. He also “helped [poets] with their personal lives and health and finances,” so that his actions spoke as loudly as his poetry (4). Rosenberg’s essay celebrates Kessler’s life and poetry, and the two dozen excerpts included make the reader want to read more of Kessler’s work.
The rest of the issue contains three poems my favorite of which is Dante Di Stephano’s “The Orchard Keeper” on the journal’s back cover. “My dad wanted to be an apple orchard. / To this end he spent thirty years tortured / by the hum of letter sorting machines, / which shuffled neither rain nor sleet nor snow / nor hail, until his face assumed the sheen / of a red delicious, whose sorrow / the worm only knows.”
Also included is a section of short book reviews entitled
“Books in Brief” containing Thomas Mann’s review of Ocean
Effects by Brendan Galvin. The Hollins Critic is a
good read, one you can – and most likely will – finish it in one
Volume 30 Number 2
Review by Rachel King
The Kenyon Review opens with a note from David H. Lynn describing a new project: KR Online. Although the editor mentions that pieces selected for online publication may be different than those selected for the journal, he promises that the “critical judgment and standards will remain intact.” If the online pieces are held to as high standard as those in the journal, readers should check out this new online addition.
Meanwhile, in this paper issue, the nonfiction is particularly strong. In “A Life in Pods,” Michelle Richmond’s nuanced argument uses various metaphors relating to “pods” (coffee, chocolate, peas, whales, The Matrix, etc.) to show how technology has made our lives more isolated and less three-dimensional. “It is also much easier these days to disconnect…in a self-styled pod of personal convenience in which productivity may be increased but pleasure…is exponentially decreased.”
“Salter’s Gift” by Jeffrey Meyers is an excellent introduction to this lesser-known writer. And in “No,” Brian Doyle humorously reflects upon the giving and receiving of rejection letters.
My favorite story is Carolyn Buchanan’s “The Road,” in which an emotionally disturbed, mentally challenged narrator details his relationship with family members. Although short, this piece deftly demonstrates how the handicapped person negatively perceives his family’s friendly overtures. Although his illogic and abnormalities come through clearly to the reader, the narrator is oblivious to his own handicap/illness.
I also liked Deborah Schwartz’s “The City and the Moon,” a quietly sad story about how, in a short period of time, death takes a number of people closest to the main character. The concluding note is not despair, for he still has a loving wife, but a sense that memories will haunt his nighttime hours. Schwartz masterfully uses scenes and back story – instead of mere words – to accomplish this mood.
The simple and elegant titles and generally classy layout
enhances The Kenyon Review’s good content. Although
fiction, nonfiction, and poetry are dispersed throughout the
journal, the title page lists the pieces by genre, an
organization which assists a reader interested in specific
genres. I don’t fear – at least not yet – that the online
journal will supersede The Kenyon Review’s niche.
Volume 1 Number 1
Review by Cara Blue Adams
America is the land of reinvention: we love people and institutions that arise, phoenix-like, from the ashes of their old selves, glittering and new. Now New South, a dazzling literary magazine out of Georgia State University, has joined the ranks of Madonna, the U.S. Mint, and other such American institutions. Formerly GSU Review, New South’s inaugural issue features a snazzy red plane flanked by two smaller planes, jetting into a future that looks wide open.
The strongest offerings are poems – fitting, perhaps, since poets are our visionaries. A stand-out interview with Jake Adam York about the consolations and limitations of elegy precedes a portfolio of his poems. York says that when writing his poems, which deal with racial violence in the South, he wondered how elegy might “leave a residue of violence or loss as a way of recognizing the impossibility of rescinding loss or suffering,” and experimented with pairing brutal subject matter with a beautiful and consoling cadence. His interview alone is worth the price of the magazine. So too are his poems, one of which begins, “A cloud of starlings drifts from the river, // at first, a smudge on the sky / or the hospital window, // then more definite, // contracting then scattering / like pain.”
In another kind of elegy, the speaker of Billy Reynolds’ “The Unfledged Ducks in the Abandoned Clarifier” remembers a trip to a water plant with a friend he has lost touch with and presumes dead. The friend risked his life to rescue a family of ducks: “It is still summer, and you hang on the edge ready to drop down. / I’m on my belly snaked under the guardrail. By now I have my hands / on your wrist, waiting. It looks as if the entire sky is waiting.” We are left with an image of grace, the ducks departing, the friend counting them, “each number mouthed without any sound, like a teacher asking / for a show of hands, each hand held higher, and higher still.”
Flash fiction has found a haven here – it makes up nearly half the fiction pieces. Michael Czyzniejewski’s “The Magic of Oil Painting” is particularly successful. A longer story, “Marietta and the Money,” by Lucy Berrington, in which a woman makes Christmas ornaments out of dollar bills to spite her alimony-paying ex-husband, is also not to be missed.
This reinvention is a success. If this issue is any
indication, New South is on its way to becoming an old
Review by Rav Grewal-Kök
The resilient southern quarterly features essays, poems and journalism on a range of sports, both major and minor (for the latter, see Mike Powell’s essay on dog shows, “the most allegorical sporting event in America”). Some of the themed pieces are amusing but slight, more Sports Illustrated than New Yorker. Others, however, shade into poignant territory.
In Beth Ann Fennelly’s poem “First Warm Day in a College Town,” the narrator notices a group of young men running bare-chested near the campus where she teaches. She smiles at these “taut colts,” but later realizes that a day will come when they will no longer smile back. The poem ends as a lament against aging and mortality: “hard to think of that spring, that // distant spring, that very very very / (please God) / distant / spring.” John Updike’s “Baseball” attends not to the heroes of the game, but those doomed to fail in youth, who “at first base are scared / of the shortstop’s wild throw / that stretches you out like a gutted deer.”
For me the highlights of this issue are two (non-sporting) short stories by Mary Miller and Mark Edmundson. The first-person narrator of Miller’s “Leak” is an adolescent girl isolated from the world following the death of her mother. The story is understated, entirely unmaudlin, and deeply moving. Edmundson’s “One Life” features three characters (a graduate student “who thought of herself as a serious scholar,” an obese janitor who lives in a trailer, and the janitor’s wheelchair-bound mother) who would easily have become caricatures in the hands of a lesser writer; Edmundson endows them all with moral and spiritual complexity.
Also not to be missed are James Perry Walker’s photographs of
underclass (but not downtrodden) men and women in 1970s’
Tennessee and Mississippi, and an illuminating essay by David
Payne on the persistent Northern condescension towards Southern
writers. The Oxford American provides a window into a
rich and varied literary culture. For this Northerner, it is a
Review by Mary Baken
I had high expectations for this special “all-black women’s issue” of PMS. Guest edited by renowned poet Honoree Fanonne Jeffers, this issue featured several mega-literary names like Lucille Clifton, Patricia Spears Jones, Nikki Giovanni, and Edwidge Danticat. As a white woman only vaguely immersed in black women’s writing, I was thrilled and eager to dive in, more than anxious to finally become edified in this wonderful and “sassy” universe.
This issue begins with a wonderful and informative interview between Remica L. Bingham and Pulitzer Prize winning poet Natasha Trethewey. Trethewey discusses, among other things, her experiences with “The Dark Room Collective,” and her particular intrigue with photography. Following this interview, there is an overwhelming series of forty-six poems by thirty-four different poets; overwhelming in its multitude, but also in its levels of quality.
While some of the poems struck me as being outstanding, such as Elizabeth Alexander’s “Poised,” Patricia Spears Jones’s “Last Seen Wearing (Sylvia Plath),” and Nikki Giovanni’s “No Heaven,” many others seemed somewhat repetitive, somewhat generic, and somewhat less than grand in their scope. This may have had more to do with their placement, one after another in the text, but the standouts seemed to me to be few. Overall, I found myself slightly disappointed by the vast poetry selection in this issue.
On the other hand, the highlights of the Memoir section were definitely Edwidge Danticat’s humorous portrayal of her profane, meaning cussing “Uncle Moise,” and Trellie James Jeffers’s memories of her extraordinary childhood in “From the Old Slave Shack.” And, by far, the highlight of the Story section was Ada Udechukwu’s horribly haunting short story the “Empty Vessel.”
Despite being thematic in its approach, this issue covers an
extraordinary range of writers and definitely deserves the
compliment of being “sassy.”
Volume 2 Number 1
Review by Rachel King
The subtitle for Silk Road is “A journal of writings on place.” In an interview with John Rember, he coins a contemporary definition for place: “Place used to be something that stayed the same, by which you could measure changes in yourself. Now you have to stay the same and watch while place changes. It means that place, if it’s going to exist at all, has to become internal rather than external.” Silk Road’s authors write about different places in the traditional sense – as physical entities – but they also inevitably write about the internal sense of place as well. An excellent example of this duality is in John Rember’s own story, “When a Cold Place Turns Hot”: “Can you ever really know a place if you keep changing?” his narrator asks.
The poems tackle international as well as domestic places. Kenneth Parsons’s “A Beijing Playground in Early Winter” compares the elderly Chinese leisurely lifestyle to the hurried younger generation: “These modern ones, what are they reaching for?” The narrator in Heather Hallberg Yanda’s “In the Jewish Cemetery in Prague” also compares the past to the present: “I have become a trespasser here. / In my mind I apologize to the stones, to the spirits / surrounding me.”
“An Old Song,” “Sea and Death,” and “The Depths of Hell” are all in their English translations as well as their original language (Lithuanian, Spanish, and Polish, respectively), further enhancing a sense of a different place.
The final nonfiction piece, Bette Lynch Husted’s “Looking for Soapstone,” is set amid the origins of the journal: the beautiful Oregon woods. Through a funny narrative, Husted tells of how she learned about a place by being lost in it. Nature’s forest, like any place, can bring danger as well as solace.
Although Silk Road is only in its second year, this
issue’s content demonstrates that Pacific University’s
low-residency program is on its way to producing a great
Volume 9 Number 3
Review by Rachel King
Tin House is thick – 200 pages – and it contains enough variety and ingenuity to enthrall even the pickiest reader.
If you want humor, flip to the back, where Martin Preib’s “The Unemployment Stew: A Chicago Delicacy” or Anne Elizabeth Moore’s “17 Theses on the Edge” will keep you in stitches. Preib’s essay describes how to cook a meal with minimal ingredients. The humor comes from Preib’s narrator, who acutely reminds the reader of the angst and despair resulting from unemployment. In her narrative/list (complete with drawings), Moore contemplates what “the edge” means. One of my favorite definitions: “Edginess is a precondition of coolness. What is not edgy will never become cool. Once cool, a thing will then become trendy, then popular, then mainstream, and then lame.”
If you want poetry that pulls at your heartstrings, check out Marie Howe’s “Hurry” or “Why the Novel is Necessary but Sometimes Hard to Read.” In “Hurry,” the narrator regrets having told her daughter they need to rush through their errands: “Where do I want her to hurry to? To her grave? / To mine? Where one day she might stand all grown?” The latter poem reflects on one of the purposes of a story – to make the reader empathize with disparate characters: “you must try to understand who you think / each of them is because of who you believe yourself to be in relation to their situation / or to your memory of one very much like it.”
Some people in J.C. Hallman’s essay “Application to Utopia” sound like fictional characters. Maybe the line between fact and fiction blurs in this Virginian community because the community members are trying to live out an ideal society. Hallman records his three week stint on this forty-year-old rural “utopia” and discusses its pros and cons.
Within Tin House there is also fiction, book reviews,
and interviews. Its writers and subject matters are diverse and
eclectic, and its pieces can be categorized as edgy, cool,
trendy, popular, or even mainstream (for the literary world) –
but definitely not lame.
Volume 96 Number 2
Review by Rav Grewal-Kök
Its website identifies The Yale Review as the “Nation’s Oldest Literary Quarterly.” The magazine is august, perhaps, but not stodgy, on the evidence of its most recent issue. The strength of this installment is in its poetry, particularly in the selections from Louise Glück, David Wagoner, and Carl Phillips. Glück’s four poems look at themes of loss, in the personal and natural realms. Her final poem, “Sunrise,” connects both spheres: “I had to see if the fields were still shining, / the sun telling the same lies about how beautiful the world is / when all you need to know of a place is, do people live there. / If they do, you know everything.”
Edmund Keeley’s translations of two epigrams by Asclepiades demonstrate that the extinguishing of love, and life itself, are preoccupations as old as antiquity: “Let’s drink, sad lover. Not far down the road, poor soul, / we’ll have an endless night to rest.”
Peter Demetz was born to a Ladin Catholic father and Jewish mother. His “Days of 1939 and 1941” testifies both to the horrors he witnessed in wartime Prague and Berlin, and to his own longings (for love and literature) that the war could not extinguish. Paula Fox also contributes a memoir of her encounter, again in the 1940s, with Frieda Lawrence in a rugged and now-vanished Taos.
This issue closes with over fifty pages of lengthy book,
music and film reviews. In the last of these, Bert Cardullo
reviews five older films that he once thought to be minor
masterpieces (including Terence Malick’s Badlands and
Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller), but now finds
diminished and contrived. The point of the essay is not to
indict these films, however, but instead to demonstrate how the
critic must “continue knocking holes in the past for the sake of
furnishing out the present.” Experience and judgment come at a
price: the loss of a youthful capacity to be astonished. It’s a
provocative conclusion, and one I’ll ponder long after putting
down the magazine.
A Journal of Speculative Fiction
Review by Kenneth Nichols
The stories presented in this issue of Zahir challenge the conventions of speculative fiction. Instead of tracking plots inspired by a unique idea or extrapolation of science, the reader is invited to consider the consequences of the hook at the same time as the characters.
James W. Morris’s “Rosamond” turns on an idea we have seen before. Instead of explaining the mechanism, Morris wisely opens his story with the straightforward, “William Shakespeare, alive.” What follows is an interesting act of ventriloquism. The author narrates through the perspective of an inexpert literary mind and must present the synopsis of a play that sounds feasibly close to a new masterpiece from the Bard. This play and quirky flashes of the narrator’s own life help the story lay out new ground.
“Shipping Tomorrow Backwards” takes for granted that a widow hears her husband’s voice. Andrew Hook packs a great deal of characterization into the brief story, and I enjoyed the unconventional climax. It’s always fun to see a sentimental condition dealt with in less-than-sentimental terms.
Time machines are certainly nothing new in speculative fiction. Karen Wendy Gilbert’s “The Time Machine” acknowledges this. The protagonist, Faye, inhabits a gloomy, realistic version of New York City. Faye discovers a group of kindred spirits in the Village who help her find the meaning her life was lacking.
Dolores de Leon’s “Fingers” plays with a myth borrowed from
Gypsies in southern Spain. The story is a modern fable, asking
the reader to reconsider their notions of their responsibilities