Sometimes our best is not good enough. We make mistakes. The most painful ones are those that harm a loved one. Stress and grief leave us in agony, and we play our choice repeatedly wondering if we made the right decision. We cannot let ourselves off the hook either merely because we are human.
In Joan Schweighardt’s Gifts for the Dead, Irishman Jack Hopper arrives home barely alive and without his brother. What could he have done differently? Guilt-ridden, he needs time to sort through the events in South America’s jungle. In the meantime, his mother and his brother’s sweetheart, Nora, nurse him back to health. They wait patiently to learn specifics of Bax, Jack’s brother. To make matters worse, Nora eased Jack’s pain and he liked it. He had always secretly cared for her more than he should have. As time passes and Jack heals, and the two grow closer until they take a trip to South America where Nora then learns the truth.
Schweighardt is masterful at historical fiction and Gifts for the Dead is an example of her skill. Not only does she entertain with accounts that examine the perplexities of being human with its heartening moments and struggles, but she also inspires thoughts about the human condition.
How does one justify bad choices simply because they are human? Why can we not be better than that, and what about the good that comes from bad choices as a result? Will Jack Hopper find that good thing?
Gifts for the Dead is a thoughtful and entertaining read, especially for those who enjoy historical adventure mixed with suspense and a little romance. A wild escapade that thoroughly entertains.
Review by Christina Francine
Christina Francine is an enthusiastic author of a variety of work for all ages. When not weaving tales, she teaches academic writing at the college level. She’s also a licensed elementary teacher. Picture books: Special Memory and Mr. Inker. Academic: Journal of Literacy Innovation.
In the second edition of Poems for the Writing: Prompts for Poets (Texture Press, 2019), authors Valerie Fox and Lynn Levin provide 18 entertaining and motivating prompts that range from the light-hearted to the serious and challenging. Drawing on both traditional forms and contemporary experiments, the authors encourage the use of found text, song titles, facts, and quotations. They propose scenarios and invite a poetic response. They even show how to “translate” the text of a poem written in a language you can’t read! Each prompt is followed by suggestions for getting started and sample poems written in response. What distinguishes Poems for the Writing from other poetry-prompt collections is that most of the sample poems are by undergraduates, community workshop participants, and some working poets. The responses are fresh, energetic, and unexpected.
This is an excellent book for poets and for teachers of poetry. The authors, both poets and teachers themselves, have selected prompts that work well in the classroom—for poets at any level and just about any age. They encourage emotional orientations, helping the students to plumb their personal experiences—and with just enough structure to help students struggling to organize and articulate emotional responses. But all of this comes with a touch of levity. Like Fox and Levin’s own approach to teaching, the book is friendly, open, and eclectic. The results are a testament to the extent to which prompts can trigger new and imaginative insights and jog one out of a routine approach to the blank page. Prompts are entry points—doors and doorknobs, as the authors put it—to new rooms, new emotional and intellectual spaces. The results are likely to be both surprising and satisfying.
Review by Antonia Clark
Antonia Clark has taught poetry and fiction writing and is co-administrator of an online poetry forum, The Waters. She is the author of a poetry chapbook, Smoke and Mirrors, and a full-length poetry collection, Chameleon Moon (2014, 2019), and the forthcoming Dance Craze. Her poems and short stories have appeared in numerous print and electronic journals, including The Cortland Review, Eclectica, The Pedestal Magazine, and Rattle, and she has reviewed poetry collections for The Rumpus, Literary Bohemian, Wild Goose Poetry Review, and IthacaLit. Toni lives in Vermont, loves French picnics, and plays French café music on a sparkly purple accordion.
David Salner‘s The Stillness of Certain Valleys is impressively sustained. I could quote memorable lines from every poem. "Beer for Breakfast" is a pitch-perfect opening poem, and the subsequent sequence "A Dream of Quitting Time" is very strong. Then comes the agonizing "Goodbye to My Big Toe." Salner writes with gritty authority about many kinds of work, including a stint as a cab driver in "Like Silver," as well as in steel mills and coal mines. Now that world is in a state of collapse, hence "water drips from a tipple / to wild strawberries sprouting from rail beds" in the title poem. I admire the moving way he evokes the dignity of a working man in "Horse Trailer with Beans": "nothing / but the dirt under his nails / and who he is." This first section concludes with the understated "Steel Lunch Pail."
The second section begins with a boy learning to be an artist, which could be the poet himself or Winslow Homer: "He creases uniforms, / inks the hollow of a gully. With purple shadows / he molds the blunt, half-buried stones." Then come a series of poems about major American figures: Whitman during the Civil War, Melville brooding on human pain, Frederick Douglass working at the dry docks in Fells Point.
The third section features poems about his grandparents and growing up, before returning to the world of work, which Salner always depicts with convincing precision. Near the end in “The Lakefront Closes at 8 PM," the poet notices as he walks to the parking lot how the weeds have "white flowers." It's that impressive eye for telling detail that make the whole collection a compelling and convincing read. Salner has been there, done that. As Whitman once said, "I am the man. I was there."
Review by William Heath
William Heath has published three books of poetry, The Walking Man, Night Moves in Ohio, and Leaving Seville; three novels, The Children Bob Moses Led, Blacksnake's Path, and Devil Dancer; a work of history, William Wells and the Struggle for the Old Northwest; and a collection of interviews, Conversations with Robert Stone.
Although published in 1951, any person serious about literature would do well to read or reread Nabokov’s captivating autobiography, if not for the rapture of his complicated life, then for the beauty of his syntactical architecture. A master of form devoted to meaning, Nabokov relays the truths of a man twice removed from his home country of Russia, once by revolution and again with the rise of the iron curtain. He renders through complex but clear sentence structure the pains of diaspora and the call to home which he can never truly answer. Within this beautiful prose he also provides insight into his master works Lolita, Despair, and The Gift. He dangles before the reader a maze of sentences each providing a decadent feast for those who value—above all—the meaning-making capacity of provoking syntax.
Even his first sentence tells the reader more about his lost home and life than many lesser writers could conjure in a length of chapters, “The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness.” Although he plays at the duplicity of life and death, so does his opening sentence relay the pain of a man who can never truly return to the womb of his mother country nor escape its call through death. Nabokov rewards the keen reader. He displays the full power of a prose master and does so with all the beauty of a life richly lived.
For those readers who seek reward through art, no writer has ever provided as much in their autobiography as Vladimir Nabokov.
Review by Justyn Hardy
A haunting meditation on the legacy of racism, violence, and abuse, Relief by Execution: A Visit to Mauthausen by Gint Aras is a gut-kick of a memoir in which Aras contemplates the far-reaching tentacles of anger and hate from the normalized cruelty of a boy’s childhood to the genocide of World War II. After a prolonged bout of PTSD following a violent attack, Aras visits the Mauthausen concentration camp in Lithuania and reflects on its horrors, acknowledging that as a descendant of Lithuanians, there exists within himself “the energy of the victim and the perpetrator.”
While depictions of the Holocaust remind us of the enduring human capacity for dehumanization and extreme cruelty, Aras’s essay is at its strongest when recounting the socially accepted racism of his Lithuanian-American community in Chicago. Jesse Jackson’s 1984 Presidential run provides a backdrop for Aras’s father’s racist diatribes; the community’s anti-Semitism is equally virulent and ingrained in their language. Aras writes: “The Lithuanian word for Jew is žydas. My family used this word to mean snot, and for a time I knew no other word. Mother would see me picking my nose and scold me, Netrauk žydų, or Stop pulling out Jews.” Aras draws the connections between the family’s denialism and scapegoating of Lithuanian Jews as Soviet collaborators with their refusal to see the physical and emotional abuse perpetrated against him by his tyrannical father. As an adult, Aras confronts his father in a harrowing scene, yet a cathartic reckoning remains elusive.
Aras reflects on whether he is imposing “the personal on the collective,” but most readers will recognize how hate, in its various manifestations, informs the cultural assumptions we carry. Aras’s willingness to confront this legacy is a useful reminder that we all bear the responsibility to do the same.
Review by Chuck Augello
Chuck Augello is the author of The Inexplicable Grey Space We Call Love (Duck Lake Books - April 2020). His work has appeared in One Story, Literary Hub, The Vestal Review, The Coachella Review, and other fine journals. He's a contributor to Cease Cows and publishes The Daily Vonnegut, a website exploring the life and art of Kurt Vonnegut.
The descriptions of people, the universe, and abstract concepts are always lyrical and moving. The characters, though isolated in their narrative spheres from other characters, all relate in symbolic ways, interacting like entangled particles.
This is a tale about skydiving, the brave divers through the sky, and the diverse revelations they encounter on land and in the arms of God, up in the air, floating like angels, hovering above the ball and chain of their earth, which to some is an Eden, and to others, an egg, flush with history, pregnant with myth.
It is also about childhood and escape, tragedy, and the infinite potential of the future, told in convincing voices with heart and love and joy. I was enchanted by the realistic characters, the effortless flow of the evocative language, the precise word choice, effective dialogue, and seamless storytelling. The novel works on multiple levels at once, guiding the reader through layers of meaning. It does not engage in handholding, nor is it like wandering a labyrinth. Reading it is like falling—which is a metaphor the novel makes ample use of—into a magical realm. The picture widens as you proceed, and the sky behind you is full of Halley’s comets, decaying gods, and past memories discarded like ballast.
There are many brilliant moments of interstitial congruency, like the following quote: “With the advancement of technology, he knew the future, however distant, would reveal the reality of alchemy.”
Sea Above, Sun Below is literary alchemy. A magnificent novel.
Review by L.S. Popovich
L.S. Popovich is the author of Undertones and Echoes From Dust. They have always been a cat person (a person who like cats, not a cat human hybrid).
Exploring the complexities and absurdities of grief, Book of Mutter is a lyrical text that will leave readers returning to its textured fragments of memory and meditation again and again. And each time, those moments will reassemble into something new and incisive.
Kate Zambreno, whose previous book O Fallen Angel won the Undoing the Novel—First Book Contest, reflects on and interrogates her relationship with her dying mother in this 2017 publication. Her mother proved such an invasive force in her life that Zambreno couldn’t help but turn to writing as the only hope she had to “expel [her] from my body.” With some photographs, spent lipstick tubes, hoarded kitsch, and a gardening journal, Zambreno sorts through these “ruins” in search of both a connection to and deliverance from the long shadow of a troubled relationship.
Far from conclusive or definitive, Book of Mutter offers something tragically beautiful and genuinely vulnerable to the perennial struggle of grief. While every page is not filled by text, they are all complete with curious and inviting moments of anger, confusion, peace, and yes, absence.
Review by Mark Smeltzer
Today we’re bringing you a tall stack of award-winning fiction and poetry books published this past month. Click Read More to find the full list.Read more...
Shanan Ballam’s newest book, Inside the Animal: The Collected Red Riding Hood Papers, published by Main Street Rag Publishing Company in 2019, pushes the persona poem to its most shimmering and starved limit. Blending her voice with the perspectives of a depraved wolf, a blossoming girl, and a wilting grandmother, Ballam continually smashes wide the familiar fairy tale and trades reader comfort for animalistic truth. What empathy can be had for the predator? Is there a love story folded into the sheets of Grandmother’s bed? Would Red Riding Hood slip into the wolf again? Continuing the work begun in her 2010 chapbook The Red Riding Hood Papers and furthered in her 2013 book Pretty Marrow, Ballam writes deeply into new velveteen layers of the aged cautionary tale.
Divided into six parts, the childhood world is rewritten for an adult understanding of intimacy and separation, ecstatic connection and pain. Through her passionate mastery of syntax and imagery, Ballam pulls readers deeper into a psychological landscape as sharp and mesmerizing as a kaleidoscope. The new Poet Laureate of Logan, Utah, as well as current faculty of Utah State University, Ballam writes with the bone-deep need to reclaim the story of monsters and naughty little girls into a truth more complicated and warm. Wholly driven and new, Ballam’s tangled reimagining of the condemning Red Riding Hood fable will mark up the mind.
Reviewed by Brittney Allen
A psychoanalytic spin on the “unthought known” stream of one woman’s stumble upon the narrative of self, reflective of intuitive synchronicity, Inheritance: A Memoir of Genealogy, Paternity, and Love bursts the bubbles of vintage notions of the perfect family, or at least the façade of what the perfect family should have been.
In this memoir, Shapiro takes readers on a rocky ride through her personal genealogic discoveries; specifically, finding out after five decades that the man she knew as her father was not her biological father. Shapiro elaborates on how he was the only father she ever knew, and they shared an unbreakable bond until his passing when she was in her twenties. She tenderly recalls how he taught her about his Jewish heritage, which makes up a major part of the fabric of her self-narrative surrounding her paternity. She encounters rough waters throughout her quest, yet love remains the “unknown thought” she never gave up on.Read more...