NewPages Book Reviews

 

Posted August 1, 2014

Coolie Woman :: The Kama Sutra Diaries :: American Innovations :: Short :: Bottomland :: Happenstance :: How a Mirage Works :: Medea :: Phoning Home :: Someone Else's Wedding Vows

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Coolie Woman coverCoolie Woman

The Odyssey of Indenture

Nonfiction by Gaiutra Bahadur

University Of Chicago Press, October 2013

ISBN-13: 978-0226034423

Hardcover: 312pp; $35.00

Review by Lydia Pyne

Writing history is hard. Writing good history? Even harder.

Writing good history implies a fair treatment of one’s source materials, a readability of the narrative, and a clear voice. Juggling these three demands is difficult, to say the least. Writing history involves understanding the trade-offs between these three components. Different types of histories show different balances, and when one component is weighed over another, a different type a history emerges. Academic histories tend to favor attention to source material and detailed footnotes. Popular histories rely on readability. Memoir-infused histories blend present and past as the author’s own connections frame how stories are told. Even when given the same set of events, there are many ways to write about those events and many ways to write it well. Refusing to pick a specific frame, however, leaves loose threads in the historical narrative—threads that snarl and knot, distracting the reader from the author’s purpose.

Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture by Gaiutra Bahadur is a curious history. On one hand, it tells the story of the “coolie” indenturment in the British Empire (with a great introductory note about the use of the word “coolie”). On the other hand, it’s a story of family legacy. Coolie Woman grounds itself in the legitimacy of archival sources, interviews, and photos—its footnotes and documentation are extensive. The book’s sources span the India Office Records to the Colonial Office Correspondence in the UK’s National Archives. It uses quotes, through dialog, extensively. Its collection of historical photos and the deconstruction of the photos’ context is nuanced, giving readers a visual narrative to follow and faces to put with its history.

But Coolie Woman is fundamentally built around a family’s own genealogical history—it serves as memoir. The author’s own great-grandmother sailed from India to Guiana in 1903 as a “coolie” worker and part of the wider indentured movement of the twentieth century when Indian workers replaced emancipated slaves in British colonies. It’s impossible to talk (or write) about such a significant part of one’s family history without acknowledging and engaging with that genealogical legacy. Even the title speaks to the singularity and focus that inspired the extensive research in the first place. For Bahadur, to write about the broader historical movement is to write about her great-grandmother working in cane fields. It is also to write about her extended family and her own experiences emigrating from Guiana to the United States.

Bahadur situates her great-grandmother’s immigration from India to Guiana in the broader space of the early twentieth century British Empire. To understand what her great-grandmother’s everyday life was like, Bahadur steps back to a larger context—a context that tells many histories of life under the British Empire: social histories, economic histories, cultural histories, histories of science and technology, histories of networks, histories writ large. Bahadur’s history engages with the lives of indentured women from India who lived in the far-flung British colonies. These women were “widows, runaways, or outcasts. Many fled mistreatment, even mortal danger . . . to face a life of hard labor, dismal living conditions, and sexual exploitation.” Bahadur argues that she is writing a history of sexuality and identity. Yet, Coolie Woman spans a larger scope. It brings together economic, social, and cultural threads—it creates a stratigraphy of history, one layer at a time.

In these many histories, however, the frames are often cross-cutting. They pull the reader from one narrative and simultaneously cut against the grain of the other. There’s almost a franticness to Coolie Woman—a fear of leaving out some detail or some story. Each detail, every archival letter, each family photo that Bahadur includes speaks to her theme of courage and dignity. In writing Coolie Woman, she gives indentured Indian women a voice and a legacy where these women have typically lived in exclusion, stripped of any historical voice. Bahadur has given them an opportunity to speak. But the overwhelming cacophony of voices requires a patience to sift through. Everything is saved and everything is included. Every archival note makes it into the book. In juggling the components of good history, sometimes the hardest decisions a historian makes in writing their narrative is deciding what to leave out.

From the first page, Coolie Woman: The Odyssey of Indenture draws the reader in to the history of indentured women. In Coolie Woman, indenture becomes a real phenomenon—with real women, real lives, and real details. Where economic histories of the British Empire might focus on the impact of indenture, and social histories might focus on the legacy of its policy, a history like Coolie Woman gives voices and faces to those who participated in this history.

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The Kama Sutra Diaries coverThe Kama Sutra Diaries

Intimate Journeys through Modern India

Nonfiction by Sally Howard

Nicholas Brealey Publishing, May 2014

ISBN-13: 978-1857885897

Paperback: 224pp; $17.95

Review by Girija Sankar

There are 1.2 billion Indians today, and the fertility rate for an Indian woman of childbearing age is 2.59. So, Indians must be having a lot of sex. Ah, but if only sex were all about copulation. How can India produce the Kama Sutra, venerate literal reproductions of the phallus, and yet, as a society, hold seemingly regressive attitudes about sex and women’s sexuality? In The Kama Sutra Diaries: Intimate Journeys through Modern India, British journalist and freelance writer Sally Howard asks this question that has been previously expounded upon by historians, academics and hippies hibernating in Goa. What she brings to this debate is a fresh perspective, new voices and a judgment-free approach to 21st century India’s attitudes about sex, sexuality, women’s lib, kink, sex work, and romantic love.

Howard undertakes the journey through modern India to reexamine society’s tacit condoning of sexual assaults, verbal abuses, and casual groping, sometimes referred to as “eve-teasing,” a uniquely Indian term that connotes anything ranging from whistles from roadside Romeos to flashing. In an interview, Howard explains: 

For Western women who, like me, are frequent travelers to the subcontinent, such incidents can be quasi-comic: the auto-rickshaw driver who distracted a male companion so he could honk my breasts like car horns, for example; or an enterprising cyclist who kept pace with a female friend’s train carriage, adroitly masturbating with his free hand.

The Kama Sutra Diaries reads well as a travelogue and sports the right accoutrements to keep the reader engaged.

Tagging along with Howard on her jaunts is Dimple, a young, recently divorced single mother. Howard and Dimple’s journey begins in Khajuraho, home of the erotic temple with friezes showing courtesans (animals included) performing sexual acrobatics in twosomes, threesomes, orgies and as voyeurs. Howard argues that the Khajuraho represent a liberal Hinduism, but when discovered by British surveyors, were derided as a “threat to public morality.” The Victorian British saw in India a rugged, rudderless and morally decrepit society which they sought to civilize by denotifying hitherto traditional classes such as the devadasis and hijras.

Howard and Dimple then explore Shimla, the summer capital of the Raj, and a place for the Victorian colonialists to unleash their sexual proclivities. The pair then continue on to New Delhi, which was reeling from the rape-related death of a 23-year-old medical student during their visit; and to Amritsar, Punjab where young men in pursuit of sculpted six packs downed steroids that could, ironically, render them impotent. In Shillong, in the northeast, they meet young men looking to regain a foothold as “the first sex” in traditionally matrilineal communities that afford them little control over family wealth and inheritance. From the northeast, the pair jet down to Kerala, a state known for its high literacy rates, holiday destinations and “blue” film actresses of thunderous thighs, voluptuous breasts and come hither looks. In the city of Chennai, capital of Tamil Nadu state, which Howard writes is “home to the last surviving classical civilization and last living classical language,” the travelers meet up with sexologists advising couples illiterate in the ways of sex. Their journey ends in Bombay, long considered the nation’s cosmopolitan capital, and:

home to Asia’s most famous red light district, and is where the divide blurs between young boys and girls hoping to make it in Bollywood and those willing to turn tricks for a quick rupee.

If there is a grand lesson for Howard, it is that western and Indian sexuality are inherently different: young Indian couples are engaging in relationships that are informed by home grown love epics and ballads, and western notions of sexuality are tame. There is a sexual revolution in India she argues and adds:

as India takes its first, awkward steps towards its societal and sexual revolution, I hope that . . . India’s sexual revolution will be infused with its ancient myth and spirituality, and with the inheritance of the great Indian love stories.

But Howard goes on to also suggest that somehow that may not happen because the Kama Sutra omits the all-important aspects of sexual union—interaction and relationship. There is little in Howard’s travels and experiences, however, to suggest that there is a sexual revolution in India. Changing attitudes, yes, progressive public policy, for sure, but a revolution? Then again, using the same West vs. East dichotomy that Howard employs, one could argue that the author perceives a revolution simply because the West tends to glorify revolutions in the East. It is perhaps perceived as an indicator that the East is moving onward, and heading west. For Indians living and breathing India, the glorious past of the Kama Sutra and Mahabharata may well be mere remnants of a mythic past, a distant mirage.

The Kama Sutra Diaries excels as a travelogue and the writing is often humorous, reflective and sensitive, with none of the navel-gazing solipsism of an Eat, Pray, Love. Howard does the title of the book justice by anointing every chapter with quotes from various translations of the Kama Sutra. In opening the chapter on Chennai, Howard draws on this quote:

The women . . . though they are rubbed and pressed about at the time of sexual enjoyment, have a slow fall of semen; that is they are very slow in the act of coition—Kama Sutra, On Sexual Union, Burton translation.

Howard’s observations of India and Indians are laden with humor and pathos:

. . . when it comes to the petty sexual molestations I’ve experienced, I never count India. [ . . . ] After all, ISPs, or Indian Sex Pests, are par for the course for the white woman travelling in India; as are the Weekend Crotch Watchers who gather to ogle white women in bikinis on Goa’s beaches.

Her analyses of colonialism through the prism of sex and sexuality are well-researched, informed and intelligent.

If India is a study of contrasts, then navigating Indian sexuality is like trying to intellectualize a Bollywood film. Just don’t do it. The Kama Sutra Diaries is best enjoyed as a travel memoir, peppered with offbeat characters and sensitive portrayals of everyday Indians muddling through love, romance and sex.

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American Innovations coverAmerican Innovations

Fiction by Rivka Galchen

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, May 2014

ISBN-13: 978-0-374-28047-5

Hardcover: 192pp; $24.00

Review by Elizabeth O’Brien

The ten stories that make up Rivka Galchen’s American Innovations are compelling and unsettling, and feature female protagonists who are themselves unsettled. Some are predictably unsettled by men, husbands and love interests while others are entirely misfit within their lives, within their worlds. Many of the characters are reeling from a recent loss—of a job, or a relationship, or of innocence itself.

Take, for example, the protagonist of “The Lost Order”, a young woman who is recently unemployed, and has just taken a phone call from someone who thinks he’s ordering takeout from a restaurant. Rather than correct his mistake, she hangs up, and then frets:

I pour myself a glass of water, but first I spill it and then I altogether drop it, and then I clean that up poorly. I don’t even own a silver leotard. Yet I had been called out by a small and omniscient God.

She swerves from one upset to the next, giving each the same weight.

“The Lost Order” comes to an uneasy conclusion, but overall, the stories don’t resolve so much as they simply drop off. “Wild Berry Blue,” “The Entire Northern Side Was Covered With Fire,” and “Real Estate” in particular all seem to end a half-beat before readers might reasonably expect them to, a move that adds to the sensation of uneasiness. A few stories stray into the territory of the supernatural—a woman develops a breast-sized lump on her side overnight in “American Innovations” and a woman’s furniture and personal effects abandon her as she watches from the sidewalk outside her apartment in “Once An Empire” . But even in the outwardly realistic stories, the space between Galchen’s narrative world and our own is certain. These characters don’t act in ways readers will expect, and yet, their actions never completely defy the bounds of expectation, either.

I did find myself wondering about the reliability of the narrators more than once, as when the young woman in “The Region of Unlikeliness” receives a phone call from a man she has earlier been told is deceased—whether she believes that she’s being duped or that the supernatural is at work is never made clear. Are the characters deceiving themselves? Are they deceiving readers? Or are they being deceived by their worlds? Rather, it seems that the narrative space Galchen creates is an unstable one, where furniture can evacuate an apartment in the middle of the night, and the rest of the world will simply go on as it did before.

Stylistically, the prose is both elegant and sparse, and the imagery is consistently memorable. “I feel a whole birch tree pressing against my inner walls, its leaves reaching to the top of my throat—the awful sense of wanting some other life,” the pre-teen protagonist of “Wild Berry Blue” says, deep in the throes of a crush on a much older man named Roy. Galchen’s control of the narrative begins at the sentence level: the details often have a tangential quality initially, but by the end of each story, very little is wasted. And she is deft at delivering emotional vulnerability and deadpan humor in the same sentence.

“The tales in this groundbreaking collection are secretly in conversation with canonical stories, reimagined from the perspective of female characters,” the book’s jacket copy says, which is sort of an odd assertion, since it’s generally safe to assume most creative work is in dialogue with existing work of its type. In any case, readers will find echoes of the greats here—Thurber and Borges as well as Carver and Munro—but it’s also a lovely book all on its own. One need not have read any other canonical American short stories to enjoy American Innovations and the cracked-mirror version of reality it delivers.

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Short coverShort

An International Anthology of Five Centuries of
Short-Short Stories, Prose Poems, Brief Essays, and Other Short Prose Forms

Edited by Alan Ziegler

Persea Books, March 2014

ISBN-13: 978-0-89255-432-4

Paperback: 368pp; $16.95

Review by Matt Weinkam

Amid the ever-increasing number of short-form anthologies, Short: An International Anthology of Five Centuries of Short-Short Stories, Prose Poems, Brief Essays, and Other Short Prose Forms attempts to distinguish itself through comprehensiveness. As the unwieldy subtitle demonstrates, all genres, modes, centuries, and nationalities are fair game and the only limitation is that the piece be “fewer than 1250 words.”

The result is a diverse collection filled with the usual suspects (Mallarmé, Edson, Borges, Beckett, Davis, Tate, Williams) along with more than a few pleasant surprises (Moacyr Scliar, Luisa Valenzuela, Jack Anderson, Ana Maria Shua, Max Frisch, Francis Ponge), adding up to a complex picture of short-form work designed to blur boundaries and defy categorization.

While the anthology is ideally suited for academic use—best for introducing young writers and scholars to different artists working in the form—it is also a pleasure to pick through. Common themes and formal experiments echo across time and genre. Skipping from Montaigne’s “Something Lacking in Our Civil Administrations” to Kafka’s “Poseidon” to Wenderoth’s “In Response to the Disciplinary Action Taken Against Me by the Human Resource Manager,” illuminates the timeless indignities of bureaucracy. Different pieces complicate and enhance each other through proximity alone; after reading an office worker’s last mundane hours before the apocalypse in “Agenda of Executive Jorge T. Flacks for Judgment Day” by Moacyr Scliar, Amelia Gray’s morning directives in “AM:3” take on richer and more ominous tones.

Editor Alan Ziegler—a writer of prose poems and short-short stories as well as the instructor of a Short Prose Forms class at Columbia since 1989—reveals more such threads in his introduction to the anthology, at one point linking Bertrand to Baudelaire to Altenberg to Kafka to Edson to Davis to Unferth. While he does take more space than necessary to define the four most common short forms—prose poem, short-short story, brief nonfiction, and fragment—Ziegler uses the introduction more to raise questions about genre and labeling than to provide answers, thus enlarging the work within rather than closing it off.

True to his vision, Ziegler does away with labeling the pieces in the anthology, forcing the reader to approach each work without any of the baggage that comes with this or that particular terminology. It’s a smart move that shifts the focus from what we should call these pieces to how we can appreciate all these authors can do in such a small amount of space.

But, as with any anthology, individual readers will no doubt take issue with which of their favorite writers are missing or why one particular piece was chosen over another. For instance, only one work by Anne Carson appears to Kenneth Patchen’s four, out of all of Diane Williams' remarkable work, “Glass of Fashion” is the only story included, and in the entire 352 pages, Rilke is nowhere to be found. Injustices abound for the sake of space but if the collection leaves readers seeking more Aimé Césaire, for instance, or appreciating Walter Benjamin’s work in a new light, we can call it a success.

One major shortcoming is that the anthology leans heavily toward narrative with only a handful of pieces landing more firmly on the non-narrative poetic side of the spectrum. Evidently by “prose” Ziegler primarily means story, and while he touts the “subversive proclivities” of the pieces, no more than a half-dozen of the several hundred here try anything unconventional with formatting. Standouts like Jack Anderson’s “Phalaris and The Bull: A Story and an Examination,” which takes the form of a thirteen-question reader quiz based on a four-line story, only highlight how much the collection could benefit from more daring selections.

The greatest disservice to the anthology, however, is Ziegler’s decision to order the pieces chronologically by author’s birth date. Rather than giving a sense of how short-form work evolved over time, it only reinforces the way Western writing as a whole has evolved—a history most are already familiar with. Shuffling the order and letting the new go to bed with the old would better serve the reader and the individual works by sparking more enlightening juxtapositions. In fact, this anthology seems primed for an e-reader edition where a reader could choose which way to order the works—by style, sensibility, subject matter, even genre label. If there were ever an argument for the advantage of digital over print, it would be the undeniable benefit of an interactive anthology that provides greater reader engagement.

But every anthology has its shortcomings and whatever problems Short has, it’s long on great work by great writers. Even if you take issue with individual aspects of it, Alan Ziegler’s anthology provides such a diverse and refreshingly label-less mix of short work all in one place, you’ll want to make sure to have a copy on your bookshelf.

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Bottomland coverBottomland

Poetry by Laressa Dickey

Shearsman Books, February, 2014

ISBN-13: 978-1848613263

Reviewed by Jolene Brink

Laressa Dickey’s first full-length collection, Bottomland, portrays a familiar American landscape with a deeply private undercurrent. Pastoral images and their inhabitants play a central role in the journey, but they keep their secrets.

The first section begins with a dark barn and a distinctly rural “dry leaf crackle” among the stripped “tinny tobacco leaves,” with an unexpected reference to Paris in the fourth line: “Now, everything in Paris tastes salty.” A rare proper noun, this is the only time Paris is mentioned in the book. It juxtaposes a familiar outside world with Dickey’s Bottomland, where the only landmarks are Rick’s BBQ joint and the names of family members. The rest is a cascade of images and fragments held together by a thin thread of association, which leads the reader to understand that along with not being a glitzy tourist destination like Paris, this bottomland is not easily found. Nor does it seem to want to be found.

Now, everything in Paris tastes salty. The still rain.
There’s the dry leaf crackle, there’s diligence.
What is better than the willow branch bending?
You sort yourself out, what doesn’t come from cotton.
Tomahawk hatchet, croissant. On the bobbing river or in the row.

There are no timestamps in Bottomland—no mile markers or guideposts. The speaker tells us, “Some stories are shapes burned / together,” and the result is a fusion of time and place. Dickey’s images smolder with unknowns and “ripped strips of memory” where poems jump between decades or generations with subtle references that make it clear details are less important than lyric quality and voice. Characters make cameo appearances throughout the six sections, but no single voice comes close to rising above the rest:

In the photograph, his grandmother sat on the moon. She
resembled dotted daises, ticked by blushing. Not a moment too
soon the red haw. Condense. The family crossed for sixty-eight
dollars a person, onerous now, her garland nose.

And later:

. . . My brother makes pecan pies and wears a blue hat. In the corner, our
mother murmurs the prayer of the 7th horse and rolls a penny along the
slanting floor. No one comes to talk with me. . . . Our mother stomps
mushrooms with her open hands and they puff out smoke.

Dickey’s prose poems vibrate with references to a place that exists more in feeling than in substance. The story that emerges is one of a former home observed from a distance without the expected nostalgia or remorse of leaving. The speaker observes, but doesn’t romanticize the distance, leaving the reader with enough space—often too much—to bring their own variations of home and distance to the work.

What grows toward home? The season
for passage. Timeshuffling
a stiff deck. Who kept score I’m
not recalling.

To walk into the bottomland is to discard notions of understanding exactly who and what have passed through it, and to feel their presence touching every angle of the landscape. I found the poetry bewildering until I let go of the notion that I could follow the story of a place and its people. They are preserved in an intimate texture of space and language, defying any narrative that would seek to pin them down. The Bottomland is not solid ground. It leaves space between things unsaid and takes patience to walk through alone.

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Happenstance coverHappenstance

Nonfiction by Robert Root

University of Iowa Press, November 2013

ISBN-13: 978-I-60938-191-2

Paperback: 296pp; $25.00

Review by Cheryl Wright-Watkins

Robert Root begins Happenstance by explaining his plan for the memoir: “to write about one hundred days of my childhood in the next one hundred days of my age, to capture one hundred recollections of the past over one hundred days of the future.” On the eleventh day, however, his father died, and Root shelved the project for four years, until one of his creative writing students told the story about the chance meeting of his parents, prompted by a fly ball at a summer softball game. Haunted by the realization that numerous instances of happenstance had conspired to create this event, Root resumed researching family records, photo albums, and items he identifies as “literary remains.” The result is not so much a nonfiction narrative, as he writes in a guest blog post on Michael J. Steinberg’s site, but “the prose equivalent of a medieval polyptych, a multi-paneled altarpiece, especially since it is also full of photographs.”

Root masterfully weaves together three strands of narrative—the Hundred Days vignettes, the photographs, and the nature of happenstance versus the nature of choice—to create a vivid portrayal of his family in a small American town during the years following World War II. He recounts many turning points in his and others’ lives, speculating which events were deliberate choices and which were happenstance, which occurs when, “We find ourselves in circumstances we didn’t predict or produce but which influence our behavior or limit our options or change the course of our lives.”

Hoping the book will enlighten his children as to the circumstances that created his identity, Root’s Hundred Days entries describe events of his childhood, having been the firstborn of a couple separated shortly after marriage when his father was stationed overseas in World War II. He reveals his and his family members’ actions, decisions, happenstances, reactions, and secrets through a lens of remarkable compassion. For example, when Root learns, after his mother’s death, that his younger sister was fathered by a man his mother had an affair with while his father was serving in the war, he empathizes with the young woman who was left to fend for herself as a single mother for the first three years of marriage. Emotionally detached from his father, Root never discusses this family secret with him, but he gains appreciation for the man whose sense of responsibility convinced him to stay with his wife and raise the child as his own. His tone remains compassionate, even when revealing his mother’s many ignoble, duplicitous deeds—the affair, lying in order to have her second marriage annulled, and conniving with her mother to borrow money without his father’s knowledge. Despite Root’s capacious compassion, his mother eventually loses her son’s good will. Immediately after her death, Root realizes that she lied to his father for years, convincing him to work three jobs to pay for Root’s college expenses, while she took the money for herself and her son struggled to pay back enormous student loans. As testimony to his recently acquired admiration for his father, Root spares his father’s pride and never shares this revelation with him and declares, “I would not forgive my mother for this betrayal.”

Root examines family photographs like a detective searching for clues. He notes the quality of focus and light, the expressions on faces, the reasons for particular groupings, and the reasons for someone’s absence from the frame. His close reading and interpretation are aided by the knowledge he’s acquired since first viewing or posing for these photographs. With his careful attention to detail, a photograph of a casual outing becomes a study in family dynamics. Perhaps his sister is absent from the photo simply because she was the photographer, or perhaps her absence represents something deeper, like the chasm growing between their parents.

Root recounts his decision to write about the hundred days in the order that he remembers them, the first depicting him running home one afternoon after a day in elementary school. He describes the sights he encountered between school and home, the vivid details perhaps imprinted on his memory because of his heightened emotional state that day, which he describes as “exuberant.” Throughout Happenstance, he laments experiencing this feeling of exuberance only once in his life. Having written the book in part as an attempt to explain his own identity, he ends with a story about visiting his children, playing with his grandchildren, making up stories with them. He writes:

So is this my identity at last, the man writing with his grandsons? It was mere happenstance that I would have such moments with them so close together, though perhaps my choices made them possible.

Describing the joy of spending time in the children’s worlds, he writes, “And while I was there, I felt exuberant.”

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How a Mirage Works coverHow a Mirage Works

Poetry by Beverly Burch

Sixteen Rivers Press, April 2014

ISBN-13: 978-1-939639-04-2

Paperback: 96pp; $16.00

Review by Andrea Dulberger

Some narrative poetry unfolds with loops of discursive detail, painting moments or scenes with long sighs of description. Not Beverly Burch’s work: these narratives hum with an electric attention to words. Poem after poem in How a Mirage Works centers on the kind of ‘mirages’ familiar to any of us, such as memory or our changing identities in life. Yet even when imbued with melancholy, the pace and language of these poems create worlds that crackle with a surprising suspense.

The book is organized into four sections that hint at allusive threads arcing under the themes and imagery: ”Cardiac Events,” “Little Dream,” “Dumb Trust,” and “Ex-Communications.” Sprinkled throughout are nine poems with two-part titles that are like poems of their own: “[Final Exam] Give a brief history of rejection—,” “[Final Exam] Decode the mystery of decay—,” “[Final Exam] How does a woman become a diva?” The first few lines of “[Final Exam] Explain the phrase cut to the chase—” show Burch’s skill at direct, lyrical detail and quick metaphors:

Notice the tongue looks like a knife.
It makes a clever move, something gets sliced—
loaf of bread, thin skin of a plum, someone’s
soft marrow. A gifted cleaver with a ruinous mark.
Then, the remorse. . . .

The biographical note on the book’s flap mentions how the author has a psychotherapy practice in California, and I can see how the work of listening and untangling stories of human lives influences Burch’s poetry. The “Final Exam” poems ostensibly examine language and the meanings of words or phrases, but they also engage with challenges no teacher could grade, such as how meaning is created by context. The haunting “[Final Exam] Describe how a mirage works—” follows a woman who has arrived in “a small town in the South” and now “walks down / the sidewalk, slow as a damp fuse.” Details accrue weight with every line, from the clothes she wears to how “She might be looking to steal your man” and

                         [ . . . ] on every porch
someone watches. She keeps coming, gets nowhere.
If you live in the town, she isn’t really there.
If you’re the woman, the town isn’t really there.

A double-mirage! Those last two lines switch so deftly between two different experiences of erasure, giving the reader multiple ways to ‘test’ how real the poem’s observations feel.

Throughout How a Mirage Works, the voice of the poems is direct and straightforward while leaning into moments where dreams, memory, and that which we do not control hover near. One of my favorites that does this, a poem titled “Sight Blindness,” begins with a compact assessment of a relationship in trouble and how it works on the narrator’s mind:

What I couldn’t love in me
turned up in her. How could I stay?

Then I dreamed white hounds
carried her off. I woke in an arctic sweat,
fell back to sleep to save her. . . .

The enjambment in the second and fourth lines helped create the pace and feeling of a woman caught. Visually, although the line lengths vary, the poem has a structure like an inverted sonnet with its beginning couplet and three four-line stanzas. This play with traditional form is joined with imagery that nods at the Romantic poets—that threat of ‘hounds’—but, unlike the standard imagery of those days, the impulse for chivalry here is between two women. The poem turns from an anxious dream to an understanding in the light of day when “we” returned to a meadow and:

There I swear by the swoop of birds,
streak of the bluebottle fly,

I felt light-headed again.
I saw green, swaths of green,
sky hanging blue—
and poppies, a dazzle of orange.

This break-away into color, into letting color represent the nameless range of their relationship, took me by surprise as I read it and left me feeling like I was on the edge of my seat.

This second book of poems from Beverly Burch is full of moments where attentive writing brings an emotional acuity to the page. Words are not wasted in How a Mirage Works. Though novels rather than poetry are thought of as the page-turners of the literary world, as I read these poems, I just wanted to keep going, slowly flipping the page to see what would come next.

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Medea coverMedea

Fiction by Richard Matturro

Livingston Press, May 2014

ISBN-13: 978-1-60489-137-9

Paperback: 190pp; $18.95

Review by Patricia Contino

After discovering she is pregnant, the most famous mother in Greek mythology prophetically admits being “scared.” In Richard Matturro’s inevitable and absorbing Medea, she has every reason to be. Her troubles began long before the births—and deaths—of her twin sons. The Princess of Colchis (located in the Caucasus Mountains on the eastern edge of the Black Sea) is a practicing witch who lost everything helping her future husband Jason steal the Golden Fleece from her father King Aeëtes.

Along with Euripides, Medea has fascinated artists including Chaucer, choreographer Martha Graham, composer Samuel Barber (who wrote Cave of the Heart for Ms. Graham), SFX pioneer Ray Harryhausen and master myth adapter Rick Riordan. Like this diverse group, Matturro too applies the well-known episodes of Medea’s life to mold them successfully into a novel that should appeal to those both familiar and new to her story. Her crime of filicide will come as no surprise with dropped hints such as “I never thought I wanted them,” or “…she had been living for years with something she thought she could not bear for an hour”—but is by no means condoned. However, because the author chose to make his female protagonist multilayered instead of a soulless bitch, her motivation for doing what she did is very clear.

Matturro goes to great lengths establishing Medea’s lifelong reputation as a “half-wit” shunned for her witchcraft, anti-social behavior and crossed eyes “directed at something else, some invisible thing hovering the vacant air between you.” Medea and Jason share nothing except sex. In her adopted homeland of Corinth (Jason’s choice, not hers), the closest thing she has to a friend is Lyctaea, a prostitute and perceptive outsider like herself. Matturo also writes of Aunt Circe the Sorceress, whose sharp stare is more dangerous than her spells. All three are interesting choices to comment on the invisibility of non-immortal women in Ancient Greece.

The author’s choice of language is also apt. Medea speaks directly and never shrieks. King Aegeus of Athens, who provides Medea with safe haven after her crime, personifies the spirit of his City-State. “None of us is very civilized when you come right down to it. The best we can hope for is a small improvement, a little advancement,” he tells her at their first meeting. Glauce, King Creon of Corinth’s daughter and Jason’s intended second wife had no say in marrying Jason, but also has no problem labeling herself “dull.” Medea’s treatment of this stupid girl is decidedly unsympathetic.

Then there is Jason. To Matturro he is neither hero nor victim. Many versions of this myth/revenge tale treat him otherwise. It is a refreshing switch. Here, Medea’s vengeance for his plan to divorce, exile, and gain sole custody of their sons surprises him—because he loves himself more than he loves anyone else. “You are the strangest, the most beguiling creature I’ve ever met,” he says trying to impress her with big words at their first meeting.” He goes on to tell her, “You scorch my skin,” a forewarning not for himself but for the people who, likeable or not, he used like Medea. The quest for the Golden Fleece brings Jason and Medea together and is immortalized in song and word, but is there any glory in a stealing a “curtain”?

Therefore, Medea is more realistic than revisionist. “Medea has a mighty soul,” Aunt Circe warns the unconcerned Jason. “Tamper with her at your peril.” He does, providing a valuable opportunity to see her side of a terrible story.

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Phoning Home coverPhoning Home

Essays

Nonfiction by Jacob M. Appel

The University of South Carolina Press, May 2014

ISBN-13: 978-1-61117-371-0

Hardcover: 136pp; $24.95

Reviewed by Girija Sankar

Phoning Home is a collection of essays by Jacob Appel, a prolific writer whose achievements in other disciplines such as medicine and bioethics provide him with a distinctive writer’s voice and acuity. The essays span the writer’s professional and personal lives, each adding depth and perception to the other. Essays on Appel’s Jewish heritage and family are at once poignant, witty and insightful. In “Mr. Odd and Mr. Even,” Appel profiles his maternal and paternal grandfathers, both in many ways polar opposites—one, a conformist and the other, someone who “made a point of sticking his neck out as far as his tiny, rounded shoulders would permit.” Who he should take after, Appel wonders. The rule breaker or the follower? In presenting their life stories in parallel, Appel marvels over the pull and push of familial bonds that mold us into who we are today.

In writing about his grandparents’ migration from Europe to America, Appel uncovers truths half-hidden in the fog of war and new beginnings. In the “Man Who Was Not My Grandfather,” Appel starts with a simple story about his grandfather receiving a letter in the mail from a woman whom he had taken out on a date many years ago. But remarkably, the story morphs into something more profound than just a love letter from an ancient flame. We also find out in the same story that his grandmother refused to marry a cousin, possibly bringing him and his family to the United States and escaping death at the hands of the Nazis. But that didn’t happen. She married his grandfather instead. These are the stories that remain untold, Appel says, the “holocaust narrative we rarely tell, the opposite of Anne Frank and Schindler’s List, the tale of those who make the sacrifices necessary to save the lives of others.”

As a practicing bioethicist, Appel is often confronted with situations that, while morally ambiguous, also demand an immediate and almost prescriptive response to matters of life and death. Appel presents these everyday dilemmas with a humility that belies his intellectual capacity, training and expertise. The essay titled “Opting Out” is about Appel’s role as a bioethicist in deciding whether or not doctors should reveal a cancer diagnosis to an aging woman whose daughter has forbidden them from doing so. This story of an old Russian cancer victim is an entry point into a thoughtful and informed deliberation on western societies’ seemingly conflicting value systems that, on one hand, support full disclosure (of a patient’s diagnosis to the patient), but on the other hand, support certain cultures’ rights that go against the mainstream—Christian Science followers’ refusal of antibiotics or Scientologists’ rejection of psychiatry being cases in point. In “Our Incredible Shrinking Discourse,” Appel laments the shrinking public space for debate and discourse in contemporary society. When people with opinions from the far right or far left of any issue speak up, their voices are drowned by the majority, whose rabble rousing, Appel argues, has the opposite effect of driving those with extreme views further out. Appel writes:

[I]ncreasingly we engage with only people who agree with us. Those who disagree are not merely mistaken-but downright evil. [ . . . ] When we forget that the underpinnings of our society are conscious choices, we become woefully unable to challenge those choices. We also become ill equipped to defend them.

In essay after essay, Appel holds the reader’s attention through a combination of wit, self-deprecation, wisdom, incisive knowledge and a deep sense of compassion and empathy for his fellow human beings. Phoning Home is a worthy addition to the pantheon of great American essays and Appel proves himself to be an astute observer and chronicler of the modern human condition.

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Someone Else's Wedding Vows coverSomeone Else’s Wedding Vows

Poetry by Bianca Stone

Tin House Books, March 2014

ISBN-13: 978-1-935639-74-9

Paperback: 88pp; $14.95

Review by Jolene Brink

The loaded title of Bianca Stone’s debut collection, Someone Else’s Wedding Vows, carries the weight of the marriage-industrial complex on its shoulders. The modern wedding is a complex maze of consumerism, family tradition, and DIY design. But this book isn’t about weddings or bridesmaids. It’s about lovers discovering the space of a long-term relationship, and the poems vibrate when they touch on the tension between self-love and love for another self.

In “Driving Our New Car,” the narrator explores the act of co-ownership when she and her partner inherit a family vehicle (“the car was always / an extension of her: parent vessel, the / sticky seatbelts forever released”). It signifies a coming-of-age milestone and shares a refreshing take on the innocence felt at the reality of the transaction.

Your father had the wipers and brake pads replaced
before he set us into it,
two shy giants locking into their ship.
We drove it to the city, filled with vanity and fear, your hand
on my leg.

The reoccurring image of ships and capsules—from the escape pod in “You Were Lost in the Delta Quadrant” to the dark pods in “Monsieur”—reinforces a tone set by “A Bewilderment” at the beginning of the first section, where the speaker tells us:

I have lost all luscious dreams
beyond all kingdoms of thought.
But then I feel happy thinking of you
the way we invite our love to the table
to eat what’s left.

The speaker makes it clear this partnership is a worthwhile sacrifice. The contentment is cautious, and I cheered to discover lines that contemplated the “luscious dreams” (“I want to go out / and ride the back of a parable … look / for something that thrilled me back in the day”) and lines that describe love as so meager “I have to hold it in my hands / like a white moth.” The line describing the moth manages an image that is both delicate and confident. We sense the tenderness it takes to love, and all the patience it requires to keep it safe.

Is it possible to say something original about the worn-out theme of love and commitment? Stone deftly articulates the act of modern partnership in a post-feminist landscape where a vow does not equal ownership. Why do we choose a partner? What do they provide? What are we required to give of ourselves? In “You Were Lost in the Delta Quadrant,” Stone sets the reader adrift in a debate between two lovers, which could also be a conversation between a mother and an unborn child, or two personalities in the same body. The room left for interpretation in a poem that spans three pages is a testament to Stone’s talent.

You were a governess and I was an energy field.
You drank vegetable bullion, suffering in solitude.
I wanted to bloom in a field of toxic dust
And you talked me out of it.
. . .
I told them to take you away at once
and then shook without you in my presence.
I wanted to live with you on an uninhabited planet
and build you a house.
You wanted to see Bloomington, Indiana again.

The poems in Someone Else’s Wedding Vows are vibrant with a voice that sees the world from every angle. Entire poems down to individual lines challenge the way we see relationships, whether with another person or ourselves, leaping from the mundane co-existence of daily life to the wilder possibilities of imagination.

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