NewPages Book Reviews


Posted June 2, 2014

The Shelf: From LEQ to LES :: The Cage :: The End of the Sherry :: ATM :: I Was a Fat Drunk Catholic School Insomniac :: The Lost Letters :: Relics of Lust :: The Ants :: What I've Stolen, What I've Earned :: Orphan :: The Scent of Pine

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The Shelf: From LEQ to LES coverThe Shelf: From LEQ to LES

Adventures in Extreme Reading

Nonfiction by Phyllis Rose

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, May 2014

ISBN-13: 978-1934824689

Hardcover: 288pp; $26.00

Review by Lydia Pyne

The premise to Phyllis Rose’s most recent book is both compelling and fantastic. “Believing that literary critics wrongly favor the famous and canonical—that is, writers chosen for us by other—I wanted to sample, more democratically, the actual ground of literature.” One part literary criticism, one part memoir, and one part exploratory narrative, The Shelf: From LEQ to LES, Adventures in Extreme Reading is a vivid experiment in how to read and a challenge to read well.

What would such a challenge look like? “I chose a fiction shelf in the New York Society Library somewhat at random—it happens to be the LEQ-LES shelf—and set out to read my way through it.” Just as one would scope beta for a backcountry rock climbing route or obsess about an off-piste snow profile, Rose sets conditions for The Shelf’s extreme read: the shelf in question must contain an unread classic; it must not have any books by authors that she, personally, knows; and it can have no more than four books by a single author. The shelf might be random, but the selection and reading of the books is anything but haphazard.

The bookshelf is a particularly poignant object for such an experiment in reading. It’s an object that is both an anticipation and an expectation. A shelf reflects a particular worldview and order, whether it’s the Dewey decimal system in “the stacks,” statistician Nate Silver’s rather famous chromatic arrangement of tomes in his New York apartment, or the haphazardness of a four-year-old arranging picture stories. The bookshelf, itself, is how and where we create categories to sort knowledge and experience—a linear cabinet of printed curiosities. Rose’s literary experiment takes that seemingly innocuous material object—The Shelf—and turns it into a call to literary adventure.

The Shelf is organized around questions of feminism, historical contingency, to say nothing of how literature changes and evolves. Rose describes conversations with some of the authors and references the most unexpected—details about the life and times of Gaston Leroux, statistics about the representations of women in literature, books that are met as undiscovered friends, and books that are endured. All in the space of four linear feet.

If the shelf is the organizing material object for the book—literally and metaphorically—then it begs the question of what was on it. Books, obviously, but the life history of a shelf is iterative. It’s dynamic. One of the most interesting observations that Rose offers is the realization that her experiment—that she, personally—had an effect on what was kept on the shelf and for how long. The books and shelves are not static entities, but objects in motion that depend on the library’s circulatory system. In “Libraries: Making Space,” Rose describes the CREW process at Wesleyan University—Continuous Review Evaluation and Weeding.

So many factors affect a novel’s chances of surviving, to say nothing of its becoming one of the immortal works we call a classic: how a book is initially reviewed, whether it sells, whether people continue to read it, whether it is taught in schools, whether it is included in college curricula, what literary critics say about it later, how it responds to various political currents as time moves on. We like to think that merit is eventually recognized, that a great book will make its way, but we know only the success stories.

Thanks to Rose’s empathetically clinical description of CREW, we learn that if you want to “save” a book—to buy it more time on its shelf—the best thing you can do is check it out. In a bit of ironic snark, Rose observes that one’s crusade to save books doesn’t necessitate actually reading them, just checking them out of the library.

A shelf—whether her shelf or any other shelf in any other library—is inherently dynamic. A library shelf is dependent on the decisions and use patterns of those interacting with it; it is an object whose identity is constructed by a series of decisions. Out of curiosity, I went to the local library in Austin to see what books overlapped on shelves in the LEQ-LES range. I was shocked to find that there wasn’t a single shared book between the two shelves—each shelf was its own, unique object, and shaped by the decisions of its own library.

The Shelf: From LEQ to LES, Adventures in Extreme Reading asks us to think about reading. It asks us to think about underlying assumptions that we make about how to make sense of what we read. How do we think about literature as “good” and “bad?” What makes some writing good and other writing atrocious? How ought we to think about a book—or author’s—success? The legacy of the book’s appeal? How long a copy stays on a shelf? (And to that end, what kind of shelf life—literally—would constitute success?) And how do different audiences read these authors so differently?

The Shelf is a compelling literary criticism and adventure memoir. It laughs at itself and it tells unexpected histories. It has a serious fixation with the literary prowess of Grace Paley. It relishes the occasional deadpan comment. It dares to call a book dull and relish the honesty of such an assessment. But it is humble, slightly self-deprecating, and empathetic. It celebrates reading and the art of reading well—and it celebrates it wonderfully. The Shelf is everything that one wouldn’t think to expect in the story of reading a material object.

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The Cage coverThe Cage

Graphic Novel by Martin Vaughn-James

Coach House Books, October 2013

ISBN: 978-1-55245-287-5

Paperback: 192pp; $22.95

Review by Elizabeth O’Brien

Martin Vaughn-James’ The Cage, a graphic novel originally published in 1975, was re-released by Coach House Books at the end of last year in a new edition which includes introductions from the author and Canadian cartoonist Seth. Interestingly, both artists try to explain what The Cage is ultimately about in their introductions.

“What is the cage?” Seth asks. “I don’t think there’s one correct answer.”

Meanwhile, author/artist Vaughn-James says, “Fuelled by the basically simple idea of murdering the ‘character’ and of recreating or disposing of the evidence, the engine is cranked up and set in motion.” But he also seems at a loss to describe what exactly the project intends to convey, when he continues, “I have no satisfactory answer, an author orphaned by his own creation, baffled and pleasantly surprised to see that the monster has once again arisen.”

It is true that The Cage is an oddity in the realm of graphic novels, but I was surprised to find it presented with so many prefatory warnings; both introductions seem to attempt to warn off readers who might be disappointed by the book’s lack of plot. Perhaps it would be helpful to readers and to the author to class the book as a work of “graphic poetry” rather than as a graphic novel. Because, no, the book does not have a plot, or characters, but the progression of the images is affecting, and the interaction between the images and the text operates like lyric poetry.

The images are highly detailed, and they portray unpopulated spaces—rooms, buildings, and so on—which are whole in one frame and then in a state of disarray or decay elsewhere in the book. The unpopulated spaces are juxtaposed with images of spindled blankets and clothing, blank sheets of paper, and bulbous black splotches that in some contexts appear to be ink or oil, and in others appear to be blood. The images are ordered so that they possess a tension that increases bit by bit as the book progresses, as the images move from imposing cityscapes to images of a bundle of sheets and clothing bound by ropes and held pinned by bricks, suggesting nothing less than a person being drawn and quartered. The abstract suggestion is quite disturbing, and the book’s final pages—portraying a building in ruins and then a return to the images of blank pages and a desolate chain link cage—effectively release tension.

Occasionally the text describes or otherwise directly corresponds to the images, but more often the text moves independently of the images, describing scenes that seem to have occurred at earlier points in the book, or are soon to occur. Time is both disjointed and static. Every “event” seems to be simultaneously occurring and frozen in frame, so as viewers, we feel suspended from a normal progression of events. Seth’s introduction refers to the book’s text as a “voice over,” and this is an apt description, although at times the text also itself reads like poetry:

a frozen geometry of mutilated props a silent
drama a wingless crippled and carnivorous
repertoire of shrieks . . .

The tone is nightmarish, dystopian; the book moves beyond story and offers readers an experience that is intuitively felt, rather than intellectually understood. As both introductions seem to preemptively defend against, The Cage is the kind of book that will puzzle and probably frustrate readers who expect a traditional graphic novel.

This is not to say that it isn’t worthwhile to strive to come to an understanding about what a book is “about,” or that it isn’t good practice to try to decode language in difficult books. But doing so can deprive readers of the essential experience of language, of the way words (or images) in a particular arrangement make us feel. The Cage is not a traditional graphic novel, and it is likely to frustrate many readers, but it is also quite good. The effects Vaughn-James creates through his artwork and the interplay between the images and the text are vivid, disturbing, and ultimately intriguing.

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The End of the Sherry coverThe End of the Sherry

Nonfiction by Bruce Berger

Aequitas Books, January 2014

ISBN-13: 978-1929355952

Paperback: 316pp; $19.95

Review by Girija Sankar 

The End of the Sherry is a beautiful memoir chronicling the life and times of Bruce Berger in Southern Spain as a young, 20-something American.  Berger flew to Spain from California, abandoning graduate school in Berkeley, his story following the footsteps of a friend, his dog and a dodgy car. His friend soon decided to go his separate way and Bruce found himself in a sleepy, small town in Southern Spain, picking up his own little entourage and filling in as the pianist for several rock and roll bands playing at night clubs.  With his home base set up at campgrounds close to town, Berger often spent the day entertaining his friends at home: “Drifts of free time washed them daily to my tent, sometimes bearing bread and cheese.” 

Essays delve into Berger’s varied experiences in Spain—encounters with local eccentrics, the highs and lows of playing in a band, nascent romances, faith and life under Franco, with each experience rendered in prose laced with pathos and humor, demonstrating an innate curiosity for place, context and culture.  When writing about his dalliances with religion as a child in the Christian Science tradition, Berger writes that in Spain he:

. . . never mentioned that the Protestantism I grew up in was Christian Science, whose tenets would have disqualified me as a rational being. Looking back on childhood, I could see that I had tried to hold onto Sunday school theology in the way one clings to the atmosphere of a dream, even when that dream is not entirely pleasant-but it was hard to believe in the non-existence of matter when the tweed I was forced to wear itched on my neck.

Just when you think that the writing is getting denser with some intense recounting of childhood memories of church and faith, Berger brings the reader back into the here and now and reminds you that yes, of course, while at Sunday school, one has to worry about itchy tweed jackets and the sheer textural and tactile experiences of quotidian life. 

Months passed. Berger’s mother visited him in Spain, triggering a not altogether unexpected existential crisis. What are you doing with your life, his mother asked him. “‘Living it,’ I declared with what I hoped was finality. ‘That’s no answer,’ replied my mother. ‘We all live our lives. What are you doing with yours?’” Berger then rationalizes his time in Spain as the fruits of a delayed youth: “As an actual teenager, immersed in books or the family Steinway, alone or with adults, I hadn’t even been young at all, and perhaps it was important to get it all in even if it was out of sequence.” Berger refers back to this notion of “out of sequence,” and it serves in the end, as a leitmotif of his times in Spain.  

Indeed, he was living his life, and chalking up experiences, ranging from the ordinary to the bizarre as a part-time itinerant fishmonger and English tutor to a monk. Perhaps many of these forays were laced with the ulterior motives of a fledgling writer: “If I was an achieved atheist, I was only as aspiring writer, and felt I should be exposed to everything if only to have experience to draw on.” 

The End of the Sherry also serves as a useful ethnographic portrait of Spain under Franco. Berger’s words describe the general air of malaise and despair in small town Spain mingled with a certain fatalism that allowed the Spaniards to take life as it came.  

The End of the Sherry is a classic, coming-of-age memoir that doesn’t reveal itself as such until after the fact. And that may be the best thing about it. Coming-of-age novels and memoirs are often cloyingly laden with seemingly instructive and life changing moments, crescendoing up to where the writer or the protagonist is in the here and now. Berger’s stories are light and airy, unfettered by the usual burdens of having to create a whole, of rendering something greater than the sum of its parts. The ‘whole’ does emerge but rather like sherry, the fortified wine that Berger is initially curious about in his early days in Spain, the full effect of Berger’s reminiscences should be allowed to marinate and age, almost “out of sequence” to truly enjoy it. Therein lies the beauty of The End of the Sherry.  

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ATM coverATM

Poetry by Christopher Salerno 

Georgetown Review Press, March 2014 

ISBN 978-0-615-90617-1 

Paperback: 67pp; $11.00 

Review by Andrea Dulberger 

There is something so predictable about the transactions we have with those quiet machines that feed us our money: the ‘automated teller machines.’ The poems in Christopher Salerno’s ATM often return to routine transactions with these devices and tug at where mundane moments can lead attention. With humor and melancholy, they collect details of ways the concrete and the ethereal mash together in modern life—how this exchange gives us a “sense of the world / as souvenir.”  

The phrase ‘sense of the world’ seems a good starting point for where and how these poems move. Within the world of contemporary poetry, one of the common streams seems focused on the holes in language and how the sense of self we create from language is an unstable thing. The poems in ATM do have a type of stable self, as there is a narrator who speaks in a consistent tone throughout the works. This is a calm voice that often arranges words in couplets on the page, with language that feels carefully selected. Yet there is a kind of instability to this self’s experience of the world. The happenings and phenomenon of life are deeply unpredictable, and observations shift quickly to reflect this.  

The first poem, one of a few called “$,” begins: “I hope you like black comedy. / The black market in the rain.” The narrator moves from observations of a bird chase to a mention of soldiers’ prosthetic devices on the radio to wondering if he had heard the wrong word, perhaps it was ‘prothesis,’ used by the ancient Greeks for preparing the dead. Then the narrator remembers that: 

. . . Language only blows 
a thought apart, says Aristotle. 
If you can hear this thought 
you are inside a minor elegy 
after a war. The black market  
is filling with treasures. 

Thus, we are introduced to an observer who will follow thoughts to unexpected places. In the second poem, sarcasm creeps in as the narrator waits at the ATM “for the wonderful machine to cough // up my balance.” But the poem returns to two elements mentioned in the previous poem—birds and explosiveness—and ends with a nature scene beside the bank machine: 

I notice a large robin  
egg on the sidewalk- 
near the building, some tulips open  
too wide to go on living. 

Sometimes the voice of the poems speaks in a way that compresses what sounds like an old aphorism into casual speech. The poem “8:19 AM | 8/16/12 | WTHDRWL” begins, “Probably the world was once deluxe. Every city worth / seeing at least once. . . . ” In “$$”: “People are getting free shipping, and all the bees are gone.” These are both moments where poems begin with an understated sadness at some current outcome of this commerce-stained world. The second couplet of the second poem titled “$” leads to tongue-in-cheek aphoristic announcements after its unique beginning: 

Slept in headphones, dreamed of Henry  
Thoreau with coke on his nose. 
There is no way of firewalling dreams  
from the excesses of dreams. 
I went to the woods for business purposes. 
To redefine the word “afford”. 

Here is a deep unpredictability of reality: that first line stands in for how tangled the past and present are in the narrator’s consciousness. The amusing strangeness of placing a symbol of the life of deliberate simplicity right up against what was once the ‘toy’ drug of the NY wealthy back in the 80’s is an effective way to jar a reader to pay attention. The “excesses of dreams” Salerno describes may just be more pronounced versions of excesses in regular life and how that life is experienced. Later in the same poem, the narrator muses about the feeling of owing money, how for future humans, “Possibly all / we’ll have is the pale sensation // of a debt coming due.”  

The poems of ATM occupy a world with an intense awareness of money as a habit or a pressure on the back of the mind. About half of the titles refer to bank card numbers, money symbols, or specific moments of making deposits or withdrawals. Yet, although the narrator attends to this material world, he tells us, “My money is // always hiding.” These are poems that look at how attention shifts and discover unexpected moments of gain and loss. I found lines often rose off the page, such as with the end of “Representative” when the narrator, trying to remember an ATM password, imagines “The name of your / favorite pet echoing through the house.” And these are poems that are as much about consciousness—how it moves, how it ‘transacts’ with the surrounding world and the world of memory—as they are about the suburban New Jersey landscape this poet is from.

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I Was a Fat Drunk Catholic School Insomniac coverI Was a Fat Drunk Catholic School Insomniac

Nonfiction by Jamie Iredell

Future Tense Books, November 2013

ISBN-13: 978-1892061461

Paperback: 210pp; $15.00

Review by Girija Sankar

Jamie Iredell’s I Was a Fat Drunk Catholic School Insomniac is a collection of essays following the trajectory of the essayist’s life, from school, through college and eventually, to life as a father to his young daughter. The collection of 19 essays delves into topics as varied as body image, obesity, alcoholism, drug abuse, feminism, racism, sexism, corny pickup lines and fatherhood.

Particularly captivating are chapters on smoking and Iredell’s tempestuous and disastrous relationship with his girlfriend from his college years. Throughout, Iredell warns the reader that these essays do not serve to moralize or sermonize. And yet, the chronological arrangement of the essays, from school through the drug-addled years of college, graduate school, insomnia and fatherhood do have that effect on reader—and not in a bad way.

Certain essays stand out in memory for their sheer candor. “The Most Disgusting Things I Did While I Was a Smoker,” true to its title, takes the reader on a nicotine-induced romp through the high and lows of Iredell’s tobacco addiction. The essay lists ten disgusting things, including a particularly cringe worthy No. 6:

Some jackass once told me that it was good for my plants if I put my butts into the soil, and I want a cigarette bad enough to retrieve even these molding spent cigs, turning some shade between green and blue. I crack all these open into a heap of stinking, mostly burnt tobacco that I roll into new cigarettes. This tastes exactly how you imagine it might taste. It tastes like shit, if shit tasted like previously smoked, multi-day-and-in-some-cases-multi-week-and-month-old cigarette tobacco.

Essays on religion and homosexuality titled, “The Gods of California and North Carolina Fistfight in Heaven,” and one on Superheroes, titled “Why We Need Superheroes, or, A Parental Theory, or What Was Just a Review Of Chronicle Before People Were Murdered While Watching The Dark Knight Rises” lose the reader a bit and seem almost shoehorned into this collection to allow for diversity of topics. An essay titled “How Unattractive People Really Are,” however, is a candid, judgment-free assessment of the imperfections of everyday people, like those that visit the pool at Piedmont Park in midtown Atlanta. People, Iredell, observes, are:

. . . all so average looking. They slip their shorts back over their swimsuits before they leave. Raise their arms through their T-shirts and tank tops. It’s amazing what this clothing does: all these little imperfections again hidden. But for the glorious moment these people, like me, left them bare. We were all gazelles at the one waterhole for miles around. Maybe we were more like chimps. Maybe more like humans.

Likewise, Iredell is more than happy to turn the lens inward and discuss his own imperfections. In fact, the collection’s first essay, titled, quite simply, “Fat” does just that. In it, Iredell talks about his lifelong struggle with being heavy and society’s framing of “fat.” Iredell eschews the word “obese”:

. . . I’ll rail against the “obese” label. I am fat, which implies the big, jolly, loveable guy I know that I am most of the time. Not the diseased, sick, addicted-to-an-unhealthy-lifestyle and poor-decision-making person that “obese” implies-even if I have and continue to display some of those characteristics.

Iredell’s narrative style combines conversational with erudition. Like many talented American writers of his generation, Iredell seems to force a certain banality into the prose to avoid what the writer may perceive as being seen as too esoteric. This reticence to acknowledge the author’s scholarship, notwithstanding, I Was a Fat Drunk Catholic School Insomniac is a great read and an honest, brutal and at times fingernails-on-the-blackboard style cringe inducing exposition of the high and lows of human existence.

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The Lost Letters coverThe Lost Letters

Poetry by Catherine Greenwood

Brick Books, September 2013

ISBN-13: 978-1-926829-85-2

Paperback: 88pp; $20

Review by Kelly M. Sylvester

Catherine Greenwood opens her collection of The Lost Letters with the energetic and musically driven “Monk Love Blues.” As my heart and mouth sang these words, which reminded me of poems from the great Langston Hughes mixed with Maya Angelou, I wondered if the collection could live up to its promising start. Greenwood does not disappoint—from start to finish, this beautifully crafted song soars.

Although Greenwood delights readers with her well-read nods to literary giants, her innovative work clearly demonstrates her authentic and powerful voice. Frequently she delves deeply into the insect, rodent and reptile community. Two of my favorite examples of the unique voice and soft song she gives to nonhumans can be heard in the “The Natural History of the Hamster”:

A minimalist, without stuttering
she utters her one-word poems—kernel,
liquid, snooze—just once
before scratching them in sand
in a delicate script read only by rain
erasing her small hand.

and in “Sow’s Ears”:

Articulate as arrowheads the ears
piled in a bulk-aisle bin like a mound
of dead leaves rustle imperceptibly
when touched. Slightly greasy, stiff
triangular scraps of improperly cured
vellum, amber leather that smells a bit
of old baseball mitt.

Greenwood periodically tucks some more experimental poems within this collection. Her fragment poems, being arguably the most experimental, on surface seemingly lack her poetry’s usual depth, but then slowly, almost without warning, the hidden layers reveal themselves as readers dig deeper. In some of her experimental poems, readers could play with reading horizontally and also vertically to uncover new meanings.

Greenwood pushes metaphor far beyond expectation and creates multiple meanings regularly throughout this book. A beautiful example of this comes from the poem “Dusk,” which ends with the following lines:

The faded signs posted on the fence
read Danger: Thin Ice. All summer long
I’ve been following your trail of evasions
like some scavenger of discarded butts,
gleaning whatever unfiltered
tip of suggestion has been
touched by your lips
then stubbed out. Skating a line
between paranoia
and insight. I really don’t want
to break through.

Similarly, Greenwood also writes the bare bones of a moment to unveil the bigger picture, such as in “Company Town”:

They watch their team tank
in the playoffs. A stripper grinds
the pole deeper into unplanned
obsolescence, her mechanistic
scissor kicks barely raising
a sweat on their beer glasses
and failing to jump-start
the local economy.

Greenwood continues these types of strong, stark realizations in her poem “Charity.” In this heart-wrenching poem, she recognizes a childhood acquaintance in a down on his luck, potentially homeless customer looking for a coat and recalls their assigned roles in an elementary school play. She compassionately chooses to not embarrass her former classmate with this revelation, because she “wished him luck, but didn’t speak his name.” A recollection which lives only in the poem and in her head.

Most of these examples provided are all ancillary to the central theme of Greenwood’s work The Lost Letters, which is inspired by the forbidden love and letters shared between Abelard and Heloise. In Greenwood’s notes, she provides backstory for the ill-fated twelfth century lovers. Abelard was the teacher of Heloise. They had a son and a secret marriage; however, they suffered severely for their love. Abelard was castrated and Heloise was forced to join a convent. Although the complete backstory of Heloise and Abelard adds a heavier weight of meaning on the poems inspired by their letters, Greenwood’s version of their song captivates as a stand-alone art.

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Relics of Lust coverRelics of Lust 

Poetry by Lynne Savitt 

NYQ Books, 2014 

ISBN-13: 978-1-935520-82-5 

Paperback: 256pp; $18.95 

Review by Aimee Nicole 

 Relics of Lust includes both fresh poems for new and loyal readers of Lynne Savitt as well as selections from her previous collections. Working through this particular collection, I found myself weeding out the stronger poems. There are several sets of themed poems, likely parts of larger sets in the books they were originally published in, that I found myself glossing over. I would like to think that they did not appeal to me as a reader because the poems included in this book were missing parts of the whole and therefore just did not satisfy.  

Savitt’s unique voice certainly remains consistent throughout the collection, and I am convinced that if I read a random poem without the author’s name listed under the title, I could easily match the style and voice to Savitt. More often than not, the title of the poem flows into the first line and creates an uninterrupted read, a style becoming harder to find. This is not attributed to Savitt’s inability to think up a title; often I found myself doubling back to restart reading the poems because the titles are so strong on their own. Another interesting point to consider is that Savitt began publishing these poems in the 1970’s. Reading about sex and affairs and lovers going to jail seems like typical topics in our current age; however when Savitt began publishing, I doubt the language she uses was common dinner conversation.  

One of the best ways to explain Savitt’s writing is to use a verse from her poem “New York City 2003.” It considers youth at an age when someone the narrator cares for is dying: 

how do we honor the people 
we love them hard & to the bone 
& now & like there’s no tomorrow 
& if there is we try again & then 
regrets are a bill we won’t have  
to pay we live to love another day 

Throughout the book, a constant theme is love and sex, and the difference between them. She can only love as much as she can love someone and cannot be asked for anymore. She doesn’t want to know a man’s name because then she will have to remember it and think of him after they sleep together. Yet from these lines, it is clear that she does truly love; it is just in her own way. And don’t we all love in our own ways after all? 

Some poems are less deep, less to think about, and invoke such laughter you forget yourself in public. One of my favorite poems is “High School Sex,” dated 1963: 

. . . you couldn’t 
kiss a boy more than twice 
or you’d get pregnant cramps 
always in my right hand from 
jerking them off in church 
parking lot while they moaned 
oh, god!   oh, god!   oh, god! 

Sure, you can read into the irony a bit that the girl is fooling around at church where she should be praying and god-fearing; however, it’s so easy to just sit back and appreciate the poetry. I enjoyed some of the new poetry but would likely rather have the original books the other poems came from. Although, if you are already a Lynne Savitt fan, there are some new Mrs. Lattrice poems for you to enjoy!  

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The Ants coverThe Ants

Fiction by Sawako Nakayasu

Les Figues Press, July 2014

ISBN: 978-1-934254-54-7

Paperback: 90pp; $17.00

Review by Patricia Contino

They populate cities, rural areas and suburbia. Outdoors they assemble in perfect formation between sidewalk cracks or pile on top of what must appear to them a Himalayan mountain of dirt. Their living arrangement is more noticeable and precarious if they take up residence inside a human home. Spiders are artisans; fireflies decorate summer night skies. Ants are just their industrious, ungainly selves.

Or are they? Sawako Nakayasu’s meditation on The Ants goes beyond children tormenting them with sticks, politically correct Pixar storylines, or controlled classroom experiences, placing or imagining the insects on a human level.

The Ants is a series of unconnected short pieces either about ants or about the author’s fascination with them. As a kid, Nakayasu’s parents denied her repeated requests for an ant farm. Indeed, she traces her artistic development to using pencils filled with crushed ants, resulting in lines “coming out funny.” In this particular literary instance, adulthood has its advantages because she never has to search for her inspiration, and the styles she applies are impressive.

The two-paragraph “Harsh Edit” combines the absurd with the metaphorical when her editor demands more of what “looks cute” and the two-way revision process between writer and subject trying to broker “what is truly best for all of us involved.” Nakayasu never takes her editor’s advice to reduce her friends to cartoon level. They do not have cute names; they remain anonymous. The animation is in the writing, not the result. The author applies her impressive observation skills in several creative ways. “Apple Seed” is part field notes, part blank verse:

The time it takes for a single ant to eat an entire. Apple. The fact of the matter is, working along makes the task excruciatingly. Slow. Working alone, a single ant is unable to eat the entire. Thus a new replacement ant must.

The interaction between the author and subjects is more personal in “Carrot Cake,” which the ants “insultingly enough, did not find it good enough to eat,” and choose instead to live inside.

Most of the pieces explore life in the ant world. Nakayasu gives the insects human traits that, perhaps, are universal for all creatures. Some vignettes, such as “Ladybug” when a friendship ends because the ex-ant friend prefers the prettier insects, are humorous. Most are not. “Decay” is one ant’s desperate attempt to do something meaningful before its brief life ends. “Hazing” describes a rite of passage for those seeking indoor living accommodations. “Ant Liberation” follows “freethinking” ants from Yorba Linda, California conducting extensive research on finding the perfect home…only to have the author’s mother find them.

The Ants is a peek into an alternative world that exists a few steps away. Just be careful where you walk.

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What I've Stolen, What I've Earned coverWhat I’ve Stolen, What I’ve Earned

Poetry by Sherman Alexie

Hanging Loose Press, November 12, 2013

ISBN: 978-1-934909-32-4

Paperback: 160pp; $19.00

Review by Kelly M. Sylvester

“14. Am I defined by what I’ve seen, or do I define the world by what I’ve witnessed? O, what beautiful or terrible thing waits around the next corner? Who isn’t in love with this mystery?” This final line in “Sonnet, With Some Things That I Have Seen” states the central questions burning in the heart of Sherman Alexie’s book of poems, What I’ve Stolen, What I’ve Earned. Alexie, in a uniquely experimental way, delivers a punch with his deceptively lighthearted, yet exquisitely pointed, commentary on topics as complex as life on the reservation, family, gay marriage, death and loss, terrorism, racism and much more. With his fresh twists on traditions and invigorating perceptions, perhaps readers of Alexie’s work will resoundingly answer that the poet was born by his ability to define the world he witnesses.

One of the many fresh twists on tradition comes in Alexie’s play on form. His book contains a series of sonnets; most are crafted in block paragraph form, and the only resemblance to a sonnet is the numbering of fourteen potential line breaks. Form, however, is not the only tradition subjected to Alexie’s innovative instincts. In “The Shaman of Ice Cream,” Alexie begins with a quote from Wallace Stevens’s “Sunday Morning” and then twists Wallace Stevens’s “The Emperor of Ice-Cream” in an unbelievably powerful way with this concluding stanza:

In his coffin, our father is cold to the touch.
He’s dead, dead, dead. There is nothing to touch.
His skin is no longer skin.
His eyes are no longer eyes.
His bones are no longer bones.
He is a fossilized hive.
If I picked him up, I could shake him
like a gourd rattle.
Let this goodbye be a death scream.
The only shaman is the shaman of ice cream.

The prevalence of musical references within this collection adds an extra element of gaiety, particularly in his “Odes to Now” section. “Phone Calls from Ex-Lovers” contains a dose of delightful commentary on free verse poetry and its limitations, which is, “Free verse isn’t designed to be / Memorized.” Alexie “interrupts” his poem to list “The Top 100 Songs of 1984” with the belief that readers will remember the lyrics to almost ninety percent of the songs listed because “(m)emory requires rhythm and rhyme.” Alexie also writes a couple Odes to [insert song title]. These odes contain examples of Alexie’s ability to craft beautiful tempo, sound and subtle rhyme. Take Alexie’s opening stanza in his “Ode to ‘My Sharona’”:

It opens with that insistent drumbeat—
And then that filthy bass riff—
And then he pleads—
He sings—he preaches—he lifts—
He st-st-st-st-st-stammers his need
For Sharona. He doesn’t hedge or hide—
He interrogates—he declares—
He sweats and swears—
He loves her kind—he wants her eyes and thighs—

Due to Alexie’s heritage and references to powwows, drums make a frequent appearance in his poetry. As a child, I attended powwows and owned a few cassette tapes of drum circle groups, like Smokeytown Singers. I couldn’t separate these experiences when reading Alexie’s poems, nor would I want to. It deepened my experience to feel in my bones what Alexie was saying when he wrote, “During powwow, even God wants to sing and dance, / So God makes thunder, lightning, and rain with drums. // Nobody has gone to bed yet. We’ve been awake for days. // Sometimes I think that every Indian is made of drums.”

Alexie’s poems cut through the masks, the war paint, the dance regalia, or whatever other disguise people like to hide behind. The naked honesty in his poetry helps us to “find the strength / To remove our clothes / And give away the width, depth, and breadth / of our fragile bodies and finite souls.” Perhaps Alexie’s poems will inspire all his readers to try to define the world we have witnessed, rather than letting ourselves be defined by what we have seen; to infuse fresh, innovations to our traditions and upbringing; and to love and question this mystery called life experience.

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Orphan coverOrphan

Poetry by Jan Heller Levi

Alice James Books, January 2014

ISBN-13: 978-1938584039

Paperback: 80pp; $15.95

Review by Emily May Anderson

Orphan is an initially surprising title for Jan Heller Levi’s third collection of poetry, but after some thought, it strikes me as completely apt. While a few of the poems in the book relate specifically to the speaker’s parents, many others cast her as an orphan in other ways. The book opens with the poem “enter the tree” reproduced on the flyleaf inside the front cover. A brief eight-line poem, it describes “the snake” and “the woman”—a clear Garden of Eden reference to the original orphans, the sinners cast out of paradise by a sometime father; Levi’s woman, however, “doesn’t want what he’s offering // she just wants out / to see if there are other women / around.” This version of Eve is not a temptress or a victim, but a curious agent of her own destiny.

The image of the speaker as an outsider, a solitary presence, carries through into the book’s first three sections. The book proper opens with an epigraph from Muriel Rukeyser (whom Levi has studied and written on extensively) that asks, “Are there songs rising from the broken sources?” The answer of course, in Levi’s book, is yes. As humans, we are all broken, the book implies, yet all still capable of song.

The state of being broken is a theme taken up in various ways throughout the book, and one which the arrangement itself reflects. Structured in five unnamed parts, its organization seemingly lacks deliberateness and clarity. The poems themselves are powerful, and filled with humanity, honesty, and passion, but the book lacks a clear through-line.

The first section includes several poems about the speaker’s husband, whom she calls “the adventurer.” Although he is a wheelchair, the two enjoy traveling. In “Because we like the maps,” the speaker writes about the process of lifting him from his chair to get into the car:

marry him, some good friends said.
Your life will be so circumscribed.
At the top of the lift, we’ve added a kiss
                                    . . . a gentle
fuck you to anyone who’s watching
who thinks our life is less than theirs.

The speaker is not alone here, but she is sometimes separate. In “Unlucky,” for example, she writes of herself as “wanting to help, not able to help.”

The next two sections continue, in large part, the ideas of separation, of being orphaned in various ways. We find poems about the speaker’s parents in both sections, and about the poet Jane Cooper just before her death in two poems in the second section. Many of the other poems in these two sections center, in some fashion, on gender and family. Sometimes it’s bittersweet, as in “You Can Tell,” when the speaker meets a woman on the street who tells her fortune all too accurately. “I take my hand home, and my instant of believing,” the speaker says in the last stanza. “Okay, no kids, but I’m / going to live till I’m 80. And how / do you know I’m a woman? You can tell / by the way I’m smiling.” Other times, as in “Tributary,” there is nothing but the ache. The final line, set within dashes, in its own isolated stanza reads: “—I will leave this earth unblooded, blood related to no one—“

After the loss and loneliness of the second and third section, the book shifts rather dramatically into a fourth section of praise poems to six female poets, composed from a Google Books list of frequently used words in each poet’s work. The praise poems possess different styles, fitting to each poet: June Jordan, Muriel Rukeyser, Jane Cooper, Edith Sitwell, Emily Dickinson, and Levi herself. The inclusion of the writer in this list feels aspirational rather than arrogant, and the section as a whole reads as a celebration of women writers and as a way of finding a connection that goes beyond blood. The Jordan poem ends, “Walk through the walls. Be a woman, be women.” And Rukeyser’s poem concludes with the line, “Trees are turning into voices, waking women into waves.” This is by far the most cohesive section of the book and would’ve provided a lovely sense of closure had it been the final one.

The book doesn’t end there, however, but continues on to a numbered multi-part poem called “lo yang,” after the gate at which Lao Tzu wrote The Tao. In both subject and style, this section seems almost to be part of a different book, which is not to say that the writing is less accomplished, simply that it didn’t seem fully connected to the rest of the book.

Overall, Orphan is a collection of strong poems, of honest emotion, and in spite of its title and the loneliness that’s present in many places, it is a collection that sings.

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The Scent of Pine coverThe Scent of Pine

Fiction by Lara Vapnyar

Simon and Schuster, January 2014

ISBN-13: 978-1-4767-1262-8

Hardcover: 192pp; $25.00

Review by Olive Mullet

Lara Vapnyar’s The Scent of Pine is a lyrical short novel (perhaps partly autobiographical) about the awakening of sex and love in a perestroika-era Russian children’s camp, an awakening which has repercussions later in the United States. The main character Lena, like her creator, came to the U.S. as a young married woman, but the more important parallel can be found in Lena’s youthful experience as a camp counselor for the pre-teen children. The writing is lovely, which is amazing since Vapnyar came to this country without knowing the language, yet decided to write all her novels in English. But what hits the reader particularly are the surprises at the book’s end.

The opening description of the pines is ominous:

It was never quiet in the woods at night. There would be a creepy rustle in the grass, or a branch would snap here or there, and that unceasing choir of cicadas. The smell was creepy too. It ought to have been some kind of romantic smell, something like pine sap heated by the sun during the day. There were plenty of pines, and it was summer with a lot of warm, bright days, so couldn’t it have smelled nice at night? But it didn’t. The smell was moldy and damp and a little putrid.

Not only is this the place where she meets and holds hands with Danya, but it is where Danya later disappears—the third of Lena’s dates to do so.

Lest we forget the sexual theme, the very next sentences refer to “Hands over the blankets,” which was the motto to prevent children from masturbating under the covers. Another theme is happiness, and Lena, who has lived in the U.S. for thirteen years, is not happy with her marriage or the country:

For her happiness was more like peace, contentedness, feeling you were in the right place. She’d never had that with Vadim. Even when they first got married, she couldn’t shake off the feeling that they weren’t right for each other. She did feel affection for him, and she was moved by the very fact that he was so familiar, that they’d known each other so many years. She would pass him as he sat at his desk and inhale his smell—she always imagined that he smelled like freshly sawed wood—and her eyes would fill with tears, because this was the most familiar smell in the world for her. She never felt peaceful or contented around him, though. She kept telling herself that happiness was a luxury.

Her unhappiness is similar to Ben’s with his fiancée, whom he has known for a long time. Lena meets Ben at a conference, has sex with him, and begins to fall in love. On a road trip to his Maine cabin she becomes Scheherazade: “If only she could learn some of Scheherazade’s storytelling magic and make it last.” Lena’s camp roommate and fellow counselor Inka:

said that The Canterbury Tales were about telling stories with the purpose of suppressing time, killing it so the journey seemed faster. And The Arabian Nights were about telling stories to stretch time, to make it stop so that you don’t die. It’s over as soon as your last story is over. But as long as the story continues, it’s never over.

Lena tells tales from the camp days, especially about a boy, Sasha, who is forever throwing up but is also very artistic. Though she did not become close to the children or even to Inka, Lena does eventually care about Sasha.

This is a book with several themes: the awakening of sexual awareness in Lena, when she was a camp counselor at the age of eighteen, and also in her charges. It is a story of love and sex again when she meets Ben. It also examines the theme of happiness—its anticipation, its inevitability, its impossibility. But the novel, rather than being an immigrant’s story, is about the echoes of the past in the present, the similarities between her life at the camp and her observations in the present, at the conference and with Ben. This is a story about storytelling as she remembers and tells of the camp during the road trip with Ben, just as she used to tell stories to the children when she was eighteen. The movement between past and present takes at most a page break, but it’s smooth because similarities bring the past to realization in the present.

This is not a titillating book, though at every turn of the story, sex is mentioned—in terms of sexual experience (or lack thereof) or as new awareness of feeling. More importantly, through it all Lena performs her Scheherazade role well as she confronts the twists and turns of her own life.

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