NewPages Book Reviews
June 2, 2008
Lost Books of the Odyssey :: O Woolly City :: I Am Death :: Woman's Guide to Mountain Climbing :: Bob, or Man on Boat :: Best of the Bellevue Literary Review :: A Man of Ideas :: Breaking It Down ::Translator's Diary :: Human Mind :: Ravel :: Double Header :: Oh, Don't Ask Why :: Proper Knowledge :: Do the Math
A novel by Zachary Mason
Starcherone Books, March 2008
Paperback: 256pp; $16.00
Reviewed by Josh Maday
Something wired very hard into the human psyche lights up at the notion of discovering hidden things, putting the pieces together and finally accessing occult knowledge – wisdom or treasure or whatever seems to be missing from human experience – things which, when uncovered, could possibly explain our present situation and hopefully unlock the power to choose our future with certainty. Zachary Mason touches, tickles, and strikes these wires in The Lost Books of the Odyssey and, in the end, creates nothing short of a synaptic fireworks display.
Winner of the 2007 Starcherone Fiction Prize, The Lost Books of the Odyssey is at once a mind-bending literary fractal system and an enthralling collection of tales. Both the tales and the work as a whole can be read on many levels, inter- and intratextually, their individual structures mirroring the pervasive cyclical, self-consuming rhythm of the overall work. The tales are often labyrinthine, beginning in medias res and soon folding back into themselves. The passage entitled “Endless City” demonstrates this most clearly, opening with Odysseus being suspected once again of deception and even treason:
Ignoring his lies, the captain of the guard marched Odysseus through the night and brought him before Agamemnon’s throne. Agamemnon wearily lifted his head and in his face Odysseus saw festering pride and dull pugnacity, the spoils of a decade’s martial failure. The king wavered, and in a harsh croak said, “I brought you here by stratagem, and now I question whether I was wise to do so. You are known for cunning but not for loyalty.”
To which Odysseus replies (for the first or the eighth time, depending on how the tales are read), “Be patient and I will tell you the story,” and by the end becomes caught in a vicious circle of his own telling. The Lost Books functions in the same way: the tales, fragments, retellings, recollections, and alternative versions often contradict and consume one another, offering revised accounts and intriguing possibilities. One sketch shows Homer on a ship as a passenger or crew member lying in a hammock à la Darwin on The Beagle. As he looks up at the ship’s rigging and recounts the details of a story he has been composing, he falls asleep and dreams the essence of what would become The Odyssey. Meanwhile, another account entitled “The Iliad of Odysseus” suggests the authorship of Odysseus himself, embellishing here, twisting or omitting there, crafting a name and a legacy for himself.
Before I started reading The Lost Books, I figured I’d better refresh my familiarity with The Odyssey if I wanted to understand the references and allusions on which a book of this nature was sure to live and breathe. I was wrong. While even a rudimentary knowledge of The Odyssey will be helpful for catching the nuance Mason has crafted into The Lost Books, it is by no means a necessary prerequisite for understanding, and even less for enjoyment. The Lost Books is composed of one thrilling tale after another and seasoned with shorter fragments that are well-wrought prose poetry.
One of the most powerful pieces is among the handful focusing on Achilles, who in “Victory Lament” says, “I had not meant to do more than provoke [Agamemnon] into seeking out the greatest champions to kill me—that way I would know once and for all if I had any equal in the world.” But, finding none, Achilles took the key Odysseus gave him, unlocked the “iron gates of heaven” and “trudged upward for some indeterminate duration” until he reached Heaven.
Here, finally, was true power to oppose me but to my lasting sorrow I had forgotten what failure was and my blade flickered through the hearts of my antagonists until I came before the Emperor of Heaven who continued to disdain me even as I cut through his excellent jade neck. He came crashing down from his high throne, mountain ranges wearing away on the distant Earth as he fell and fell and fell. Now I have taken his throne and read his book and the now docile devas flit about my shoulders, waiting, perhaps forever, for me to impart my wisdom, which is that I have learned nothing, know nothing, wish I had never picked up a sword, left my hut, been born.
This is only a glimpse of the powerful tales, fragments, and revisions that comprise The Lost Books of the Odyssey. Zachary Mason has written a book that could pass for an ur-text of The Odyssey, opening imaginative new dimensions in one of the foundational works of Western literature, a bold undertaking at which he succeeds brilliantly. At the same time, it stands on its own as a richly imagined and emotionally powerful work that functions well and consistently on many levels, placing Mason in league with the likes of Borges, Coover, and Nabokov. Open The Lost Books of the Odyssey anywhere and begin reading – you will soon find yourself at the place you started, wishing for more and grateful to read on.
Poetry by Priscilla Sneff
Tupelo Press, June 2007
Paperback: 88pp; $16.95
Review by Cyan James
You’re in an abandoned house. The floorboards are damp and creak under you – what was the reason, again, you decided to go bare-footed? And once in a while something brushes against your face. Sometimes it’s the stray end of a cobweb, sometimes the rusty pull-chain to the chandelier. Sometimes you don’t know. Of course, the lights don’t work. You’re not quite ready to leave, but you’re starting to look for a way out. Sometimes you find stairs going up to strange cupboards; other times the stairs bear you down into musty basements.
For illumination, you’re using Priscilla Sneff’s first book of poetry, O Woolly City, a flickering flashlight of a book. Luckily, Sneff lives in an older world, a time littered with the clinker dust left behind by archeologists, scientists, and classicists. The words she uses to delineate that world come calibrated and weighed, dusted with history’s filmy detritus, offering moments both resonant and unidentifiable, like rare bones found intact in a mass of loess. Her ground is marked off by the elegantly-observed forms of her poems, though the buried bodies they lead to are occasionally too dry and delicate to withstand hearty examination.
That’s not always a bad thing. All of our sciences – and arguably our arts – begin with experiment, which by its nature is fated to fill a few dusty closets with what doesn’t work. What’s surprising in Sneff’s work is not the presence of lesser experiments, of poems leaning too hard on the arm of derivation or becoming lost in the archives of poetic form, but the number and range of poems that succeed in haunting.
“Song,” for example, gleams with quiet control and delightful rhythmic surprises:
Whether he live or no
The meadows shimmer as ever
And heat render the long stems low
And the sun stroke the river
And silence takes me in
Undoubling its front door
To a room like the room inside my skin,
Its broken furniture
And I lie on the single bed
Older; the brown linen is taut
My own bare arm lies under my head
Shifting little or not
When night calls to its own,
Ruffling its owls together,
And their eyes blink in the shining moon,
And the moon glows in the river.
What else does Sneff keep in the deep bins of her hypothetical agora stand, offered for sale to shoppers courting seductive surprise? Lyricisms. Ballads. Lullabies and prose poems, Pastorals, elegies, and spare little things that totter like skeletal fawns on astonishingly fine legs. The manuscript comes sectioned into five portions, each of which displays its own syntax and emphasis while adhering to general thematic threads of shifting change, developing expression, and mutating modes of language.
Sneff displays sensitivity to language as its own entity, as in poems like “The White Stone,” where she writes, “Word, and words, and fuck / Words slip-up in a wave-slap, the black and glass / Waterwings that seabirds ride the backs of.” Again, in “Advice to Penelope”: “Snap the looms into Lego-sticks, confound, misline / The knitting needles into elbowed clackers; / Broider-hoops beat down to cellulose, and pack / Your thimbles into nutprincecrackers.”
In other places, it’s the precision of imagery that awes more than the density of wordplay and language, as in “Poem,” where she writes, “And here is my heart, it’s something I’ve grown / In a rib-cage life climbed up then down on, some ladder.”
Often the images seem referential and more rooted in classicism and oft-favored poetic expressions, as in “Colloquia,” where Sneff writes, “Here Christ Pantokrator flares against bleu du ciel…the small, pale astonished moonfaces of immured nuns are borne here on a tide of black habits pouring like darkness itself through the stone corridors of the ancient, the sea-gated,” echoing Pound’s petal-faces and black boughs. I admire Sneff’s skillfulness, but find myself occasionally wishing for her to pursue with more elegant savagery the flashes of originality she showcases elsewhere.
Those who mull this book over are sure to find vivifying richness of form, allusion, and textual layering. And at the bottom of it all, after searching through Sneff’s bins and attics and archeology sites, we’re left impressed with a deceptively simple beauty. At the risk of begging the collection’s title, the word “woolly” might be a keystone to comprehending Sneff’s artfulness. In her poems, the word seems to describe not only her layering of colloquial and classical, but also the way the world’s dust and laundry lint transform ordinary objects into strangeness. This linguistic shagginess adds mystery as it weaves itself into poetic shapes you’d wish to neither shear nor sacrifice.
Sneff perhaps sums it up best herself in “Poem,” with the words, “I hear in the deep night the I love of ghosts.” After reading O Woolly City, so do we.
Two novellas by Gary Amdahl
Milkweed Editions, May 2008
Paperback: 216pp; $15.00
Review by Matt Bell
Gary Amdahl’s I Am Death collects two novellas, the crime story “I Am Death, or Bartleby the Monster (A Story of Chicago)” and “Peasants,” a tale of hostile office politics. The two novellas are strikingly different in setting and tone, allowing Amdahl to display a range of abilities as both a writer and a storyteller.
“I Am Death” is reluctantly narrated by Jack, a Chicago journalist, who declares at the onset: “this is a story I am compelled to report. I don’t want to, I’m tired of banging my head against the wall, no one I know is the least bit interested in cause anymore, effect is everything.” It is a statement that at first seems at odds with the story he relates, which begins when Jack is contacted by George Swanson, lawyer for the brutal mobster Frank Fini. The men commission Jack to write Fini’s biography, but Jack soon finds that Fini’s presence is as catatonic and reserved as the Melville character that lends his name to the novella’s title, the mobster preferring that Swanson speak for him on every topic.
Jack and Swanson are both sharply self-absorbed, an attribute that is a source of both introspection and delusion. Both are given to grand pronouncements and grander aspirations: Jack writes notes to himself ripe with self-predicating sentiments such as “am going to pieces in a calm and methodical way” while simultaneously convincing himself that this is the story that will finally take his career to the next level. Swanson too prefers speeches to open dialogue. He makes a variety of overreaching statements, such as when he compares his life in organized Chicago crime to Al Jolson’s days as a blackface singer, saying,
“Guy spends his whole life being someone else—but those were different times. My point is, if you can’t be who you are, you be whoever you can be, whoever your audience will let you be. They couldn’t be Jews so they put on blackface. See, this is George Swanson in mob face.”
The tension between Jack and Swanson is offset and reflected by Jack’s relationship with Henrique Friend, a driver for the city morgue and the subject of the newspaper article that originally brought Jack to Swanson’s attention. It is Henrique’s job to drive the van that picks up the city’s deceased and transports them to the morgue. Depressed with his work, he tries to kill himself only months before being interviewed by Jack, explaining that dealing with the dead makes him feel helpless: “like I’m late, I missed it, there’s nothing you can do. You figure out how to be here and you get used to it.” This last sentence is close to the heart of this novella, a single phrase that provides one way to judge these characters. On one side are those who have become part of this world, who have compromised themselves in order to be successful. On the other side are those who have not or cannot, and who will therefore be destroyed by their inability to live with the nature of their lives.
In “Peasants,” protagonist Walter Rasmussen is an up-and-coming employee at a publisher of guidebooks for the users of geographic information systems. His job is to come up with projects that can be made into books, on subjects such as “[linking] certain business opportunities in outer space and sustainable development practices on the ground.” As his own upward trajectory begins to level off, Rasmussen experiences a variety of professional and personal failures. Seemingly sabotaged by his boss, his co-workers, and his soon-to-be ex-wife, Rasmussen leaves behind the jovial camaraderie of his workplace for schemes to advance himself amid the crumbling ruins of his department until “a long and confusing dark age [falls] over not just the team and the company, but, at least from Rasmussen’s perspective, the entire world, as well as the whole of his life, past, present, and future.”
Rasmussen’s fall from grace begins slowly, and it takes him a long time to hit bottom. Eventually, he finds himself involved in a series of necessary, and perhaps life-saving, separations and severances, without which he would be forever trapped in the petty orbits of his fellow office workers.
If “Peasants” seems to be merely good, it is perhaps only because it is placed side by side with “I Am Death,” a truly masterful novella. I Am Death is a fine book and an excellent introduction to Amdahl’s work for anyone who missed his stunning debut in 2006’s Visigoth. At his best, he combines a deep thoughtfulness with compellingly athletic prose, creating a collection with both beauty and brawn to spare. Luckily, his best is a frequently occurring phenomenon, and we can only hope that there is more still to come.
Poems by Jane Augustine
Marsh Hawk Press, March 2008
Paperback: 118pp; $15.00
Review by Deborah Diemont
The poems in Jane Augustine’s A Woman’s Guide to Mountain Climbing confront, rather than bypass pain, and their “golden and piercing” music is made from a rugged but precise lineation and a relentless eye for detail.
The poem “After Yeats” presents a heroine who is a picture of romantic beauty – a young woman in jeans and a halter top eating blackberries while on horseback:
she thinks, and unromantic, sworn to accost
her self-deception, but is re-reading Yeats—mistake—
and loves his elegance, wants to bypass pain and sing
a desert world in music golden and piercing.
By contrast, the men who watch her, including her “lover, almost-ex” are “abashed.” She certainly resembles a Yeatsian figure of female beauty – that double-edged sword, with a power equal only to its limitations when it comes to getting a woman what she wants. She is also a younger version of the woman who inhabits the other poems: a mother of grown children, divorced from a man who made her afraid. She seeks her independence in the Colorado mountains, experiencing climbing as a late rite of passage.
Despite my admiration for the mountain climbing poems, I prefer others in the book that are peripheral to that theme. The hiker’s real journey is interior; nevertheless, the spell of a poem gets broken when it’s clear that emotional “work” is being done. I sense that the breathtaking atmosphere, in which Augustine vividly captures moon, sun, rock and tree – as well as the obstacles a climber faces – is rich enough to yield transformation. When, in “The Passes: Hardscrabble, Independence,” she remembers “a Jew and refugee, / who until the war’s end hid / in a Bavarian cave, / . . .then married an angry man, but rich,” the comparison of “I” with “other” makes sense, yet, if left out, would allow for greater impact of lines such as the “road rising so slowly one doesn’t / notice then steep narrow / . . . by the overhang of Suicide Spire / named for a pair of teenaged lovers.”
There are poems I wanted to scoop and hold tightly in my hands, such as “Rosita Cemetery,” which draws bittersweet meaning from carefully chosen details, as in the lines, “Plastic wreaths / are sadder in / their lasting // than an obelisk / with no name.”
This book, as with Augustine’s previous Night Lights, shows a genius for free verse. Augustine makes perfect couplets or tercets when a poem asks her to, but she groups lines in a variety of ways. Where many poets’ creative lineation strains the eye, hers uses negative space for clarity. There may be some influence from H.D., of whom Augustine is a scholar, yet A Woman’s Guide is less mythological, more grounded in worldly phenomena. Tampons in a backpack are listed among gear that “a woman can’t climb without” and “almost can’t climb [with].” Likewise, “Motors [that] outroar the waterfall,” inspire a “Digression on Trailbikers,” where the mystique of the natural landscape is broken by human interference.
A Woman’s Guide to Mountain Climbing represents several decades of writing, yet the poems come together as a unified work. Augustine’s poetics involve precise lines, images, and structures. As in the poem “Locoweed,” which describes a flower that drive cows mad if they eat it but that humans gather “by the armful,” the most powerful poems bind beauty inextricably to pain.
A novel by Peter Markus
Dzanc Books, June 2008
Paperback: 136pp; $13.95
Review by Blake Butler
The collected work thus far of Peter Markus could be likened to an early earth encyclopedia, or a table of the elements. In Markus’s world, though, the elements are not cryptic chemical symbols devised and laid in line by science. Instead, they are the epoxy of existence – they are the things we know without having to decipher, they are brothers, fish and mud. One could cut to most any page in a Markus apparatus and find these common images there repeated, like age lines encased in a tree trunk. Markus’s word channels the innate. Each sentence placed next to one another as if by nature, his layered phrases cause an incantation.
In his first two volumes Good, Brother and The Singing Fish (both available from Calamari Press), Markus brought into the world these brothers, these fish and mud, and made them things that anyone could recognize as his. Using his elements somewhat like stones placed in a very certain order to make a pattern, Markus develops a base-terrain that seems to out-Hemingway even Hemingway, to primordially out-lurk even McCarthy’s Child of God. It is a statement to his cryptic senses, to his bare and yet mesmerizing speech, that with such spare tools Markus can create so consuming and explicit a word world.
Markus’s new novel Bob, or Man on Boat is another entry in the spare, unleavened world Markus has created, though in a slightly shifted sketch of terrain. It deals with precisely the man it’s named for - Bob, who lives on a boat. Bob spends his every hour in the river flowing through a small town where he fishes for fish with an affluence unlike any other. The fish are compelled to Bob, and Bob to them. There are many reasons Bob does not leave the water, but, for the most part, it is because it’s what he knows, it’s what he lives for.
The novel is narrated by Bob’s son, Bob, who also has a son of his own. Much of the novel follows Bob’s observations of his father Bob, of the folklore that surrounds the man on the river in the boat. It is Markus’s DNA-like prose that makes the rendering of these Bobs and their surroundings so provocative:
Nights when the moon is full, it is so lit up on the river that Bob in his boat looks like he is glowing from inside him.
As if Bob is made out of light.
- - -
Bob is a man made out of flesh.
Once, when I shook Bob’s hand, there was bone there for me to shake.
I’m Bob, I said, and I stuck out my hand for Bob to take it.
It’s true that Bob hesitated at first, Bob looked at my hand, but then he took it, my hand, the way that a fish might look at a rusty hook before taking it into its mouth.
Like other writers who elicit as much or more from tone and phrasing as they do actual occurrence - say, Dawn Raffel or Brian Evenson - much of Bob, or Man on Boat comes off hypnotic in a timeless, storybook kind of way: the sort of thing one might find themselves reading to their child and hearing things they know the child does not understand completely, but takes delight in, and likewise the child might hear things the adult does not. In this way it manages to stimulate not only the child in the man, but the man in the child, channeling somehow in the ground between the two. This is Markus’s magic.
Though it is a novel that can be finished in one evening’s read, Bob, or Man on Boat is the kind of work that moors in your head and, like Bob on his river, never leaves. Markus makes myth so well that it seems like child’s play, like a humming game, but those who’ve tried to write so sparsely know that these kinds of creation gifts only come innate. If it is truly the inimitable that lasts forever, consider Markus going down with the ship.
Ed. Danielle Ofri
Bellevue Literary Press, February 2008
Paperback: 312pp; $16.95
Review by Sean Lovelace
No human thing is more universal than illness, in all its permutations, and no literary publication holds more credibility on the subject than The Bellevue Literary Review. I say this with upmost confidence as an English professor, a registered nurse, and as someone who recognizes the historical and philosophical origins (and namesake) of this fine literary periodical: Bellevue Hospital Center.
Most know Bellevue Hospital for its history (the nation’s oldest public hospital), for its prestige (Nobel Laureates in medicine, the development of the polio vaccine, etc.), or for its fame (celebrity and literary patients; a locale of several films – the hospital continues to enliven the national imagination). Yet, the grounds of Bellevue offer even more, nestled in an office on the sixth floor: The Bellevue Literary Press, a publisher of highly regarded books, a prestigious literary magazine, and now a compilation of the magazine’s finest work, Best of the Bellevue Literary Review.
This is an anthology of immediacy. Doctors, nurses, technologists, students, patients, family members – they know too well the blue clutch of illness, healing, and failure of healing. These are their pages, their words, of evocative honesty, of powerful voice, and whispered suffering. Of sometimes wonderful, sometimes terrible, but always urgent and necessary, truth.
Jan Bottiglieri shows in her flash fiction “Having an MRI/Waiting for Laundry,” how illness affects memory, transforming the ordinary moments of life into sweet, treasured nostalgia: “Because the noise here inside the MRI machine is so common, so familiar, that within seconds I am leaning against the wall near the back door of my mother’s house, circa 1975, listening to the green Maytag spin.” As she lies supine and still inside the MRI’s cold metal tube, the patient’s memories (“An aching love for even the smallest detail”) spin, the images focus, “as clear as the sunlight through the open door.”
In his poem, “Revelations,” David Shine writes of another patient:
Before he died,
the man with the new
in his striped hospital robe
and spoke in a whisper
The hardest part, he said
is not having a heartbeat,
just a whir.
But no one asked about
being afraid, how it felt
without the pounding.
If his joy was tempered
by the resolve of the device,
never racing or skipping a beat.
Or whether in sadness
an ache gripped his chest
like pain in a phantom limb.
What an odd and beautiful poem. The idea of change – of the winding path of illness, with all its thickets – is physical, but also inevitably of the soul. The heart is never only an organ. Illness is never exclusively an experience of flesh. And patients need to voice their stories, to be asked to give testament in words of revelation. This narrator’s illness isn’t like yours or mine; his heart isn’t (literally), but, still, we all share trepidation, and suffering.
A physician’s perspective may differ from a patient’s, but the strange power of illness persists: often in the form of uncertainty, a reality of medicine we rarely glimpse in the role of patient. As Dr. Sherwin B. Nuland (an esteemed surgeon, teacher, and author) notes in his opening to the collection, “There are lots of things we can't solve . . . sometimes you have to hold the patient's hand and cry with them.”
In the section titled “Doctors,” we get poems of a surgeon’s “trembling fingers” (“She Makes the First Cut” by Linda Tomol Pennisi); of a physician watching helplessly as a patient, “boils in his skin in the valley of thirst / He is a burning man. He is sick. Low sick. He suffers” (“Prisoner” by John Stone); of the oft indifference of our fragile existence: “You know enough that for every miracle / on this earth, there’s at least three / that are grinding their marvels in reverse (“First Born” by John Grey).
Obviously, the strength of this collection is its quantity of voices and viewpoints on illness (the chapters are segmented in wide-ranging headings such as “Coping,” “Family,” “Madness,” “Death,” and so on), but I emphasize the most significant finding of this reviewer: the consistent quality. To put it simply, for literature to elicit understanding and empathy (clearly one goal of this publication), it must be written well. The excerpts listed here provide only a sampling, and the remaining pages glow with vivid imagery, energetic prose, a writer’s eye for verisimilitude and exactness of phrasing. During my years in healthcare, we had a term for such a powerful and essential thing: “Good Medicine.” Strong and stirring, often painfully honest – but always efficacious.
and Other Stories
Fiction by David Galef
Noemi Press, December 2007
Chapbook: 54pp; $7.00
Review by Rav Grewal-Kök
“Beware the impractical man,” warns the narrator of the title story of David Galef’s chapbook collection of short and flash fiction: “Their wives either cherish or divorce them, and their sons and daughters, in reaction, often grow commonsensical and a little costive.” That’s funny, but we shouldn’t miss the menacing undercurrent. The unfortunate ideas of Bernardo Lazar – a backyard smelter, a “Reaction Recovery” device, and “a project about giant vegetables” – put his wife and young children through a comic set of trials. So light is Galef’s touch that we hardly notice, until the final sentence, that the Lazar family has come undone.
So go the rest of the stories, hooking us from the outset: “As a souvenir from her stay in Botswana, Mary Edwards brought home a slave” (“Hers”); “I didn’t know whether to bring flowers, which don’t say much to someone from a basic subsistence culture” (“My Date with Neanderthal Woman”); “Pat’s a better man than I am, even though she’s biologically female” (“Going Nowhere”). Galef plays these bizarre situations straight, but nightmares lurk beneath. In “Going Nowhere,” the narrator’s affectless prose winds us from that droll opening to a harrowing conclusion in just a few paragraphs. What begins in comedy ends in the exhaustion of marital ennui and despair: “The trick of marriage isn’t doing it once but again and again. It takes more effort every year. I have nothing to add, only subtract.”
In some of the stories, wit and bite come together in satire. Galef’s final story, “Waste,” is his sharpest. It's a monologue by a convict sentenced to serve the community by cleaning up roadside trash in the summer heat. The convict is an intemperate fellow, and we wonder about his crime. Was it theft, drunk-driving, solicitation, or something even more sinister? He comes clean at the end:
You want to know what I did? I was caught dumping trash, a whole carload of It – all the manuscripts that I received as editor of a magazine called The Maximalist, jettisoned out the window to smack facedown on the pavement or drift sheet by sheet in the backdraft to settle in the roadside weeds. Pages and pages of broken-up couples, dumb male rage, dead animals, senile relatives, trailer park antics, hokey regionalism, instant insanity, and present-tense limbo sent by all of you who never read a lick of literature but figured what the hell. Toss in all those manila SASE’s and castoff copies of journals like Cloned Quarterly and More Stuff, and it can spread over a lot of ground. When the cop cruiser flashed its lights at me, I was still feeling righteous and gave him an earful. I decided to represent myself, but it made for an odd case. Maybe the judge was right. So here I am, picking up your trash.
In other stories, Galef dabbles in metafictional play, winking at the reader out of the text. When Elma, the barfly heroine of “Returns” tries out a line, we’re told not to bother with the flat character who receives it: “‘Living out my days, that’s not enough,’ she remarks to the bartender, whose function in this piece is to be dead.” Yes, acknowledges the narrator, this is all artifice, and now can we dash on with the story? Galef has to be quick, for none of the pieces are longer than six generously spaced pages.
For all the varied terrain of this collection (Galef also covers Plato’s allegory of the cave, the genesis of poetry, and bad novel-writing), what linger are his intimations of dread. Galef returns again and again to the difficulty of intimacy and the twinned impossibilities of solitude and love. In “With,” a one-page flame of a story, Galef takes us through the arc of a middle-aged affair to its inevitable end: “But [Lydia] was preternaturally alert, sensing when the moment had passed even before it arrived. She never thought what she had with Daryl would last.” Fear, suggests the narrator, always stalks emotional freedom: “That old what-iffer, sniffing around the dank clouds of our possibilities. That inveterate duo, love and lack.”
Like Ben Marcus (who blurbed the back cover) and Paul Auster, Galef is testing language and narrative form to illuminate, however tenuously, dark recesses of human experience.
Flash fiction by Rusty Barnes
sunnyoutside, November 2007
Paperback: 100pp; $12.00
Review by Matt Bell
Rusty Barnes’s Breaking It Down collects nearly twenty flash fictions into an attractive, pocket-size book, a rare instance where the size of the book accurately depicts the size of the stories. Luckily, it is only the page counts of the stories that are small, as the themes and characters contained within each tale loom larger than life, like the low-class tall tales they are.
Standout stories include “Gross Imperfections,” about a group of grocery store workers all in love with the same female customer, and “Pretty,” about a woman who turns an unwanted BDSM session into a chance to assert herself, to hurt someone else the way she’s been hurt.
The men and women who populate Barnes’s stories are frequently on the down and out, often chafing at the blue collar luck and sexual deviancies that are all they have left after other, better lives passed them by. Which is not to say these characters are victims, or at least not merely so. Instead, most are dynamic and willing to lock horns with the world around them. On the other side of their complaints lies action, as in “Class,” where an unnamed narrator attempts to smile through the torturous life left behind when his wife marries his next door neighbor. The narrator sees a kindred spirit in his tormented mastiff/pit bull mix, Spud:
Pay careful attention as Spud lunges to the end of the logging chain you’ve bolted to the side of your garage and connected as well to a railroad tie driven three feet into the soft loam of your backyard. Imagine Spud slavering at them, running to the end of the brown dirt circle of lawn his incessant pacing has claimed for his own, rimmed with grand piles of week-old shit and the remnants of chewed plastic bowls and battered iron ones.
The second person narration is a cattle prod of words meant to stir up the reader, goading him into cheering the narrator on as he charges into the house of his former wife with his fingers wrapped around a loaded shotgun and Spud on a woefully insufficient leash. This is how Barnes operates over and over again. With stories too short to allow the reader’s first reactions of moral superiority or indignation to surface, Breaking It Down instead offers raw characters rendered quickly and delivered with the visceral jolt of a bar fight, of a pickup truck tryst, of a car crash that happens every five pages. There is plenty of wreckage along the way, and many of his characters do get irreversibly injured, but there are also those who emerge as strong survivors, forged anew in the trailer park crucibles of their lives.
As the editor of Night Train, Rusty Barnes has championed flash fiction for over five years now, and his own book is as fine an affirmation of the form’s potential as any other. Breaking It Down is a promising debut, and one that shouldn’t be missed by anyone who considers themselves a fan of flash fiction.
Poetry by Jon Pineda
New Issues, March 2008
Paperback: 57pp; $14.00
Review by Laura Eve Engel
The cover of Jon Pineda’s second collection, The Translator’s Diary, which depicts a graceful and nebulous spiral, is eerily reflective of the poems it obscures. Pineda’s poems turn in on themselves, each a pointed and intimate introspection sheathed in the gauze of the lyric, accruing momentum in a sort of ripple effect as the book progresses.
What results is a gradual, initially fragmented but ultimately poignant, deepening: Pineda plays with the notion of translation, widening its meaning to include reflection, memory, illness, and even metaphor. Each poem contains the integrity to stand on its own, but are best taken together, one after the other, as he writes in the collection’s title poem, “each color will form on its own / in the hoarding of fragments, rough // or smooth, carefully pieced together, / until, moment by moment, the image emerges.”
The image that emerges from this spiraling, comprehensive collection is one composed of many fragments: Fear of memory loss and one’s inability to articulate, complex theories of the image, a sister who died too soon. “This elegy / would love to save everything,” Pineda writes, and the book works to weave its pieces into rich tapestry, composing the narrative of a maturing poet, a poet whose images, owing to their haunting persistence, will become a part of the reader’s own narrative.
Fiction by Angela Woodward
Ravenna Press, November 2007
Paperback: 50pp; $12.95
Review by Anna Clark
It would be easy to urge you to read The Human Mind because of the natural lure of the characters that people its short prose. There’s a man made of smoke and another of glass; a woman who slips her fingers into the stringy coagulation of her thoughts kept in a bowl; an impoverished Edgar Allan Poe who supports himself “on what he could squeeze out of his brain, a kind of black milk of his words.”
That, I think, might be enough to incite you to pick up the book, but it wouldn’t do justice to Woodward’s talent. More than a collection of exhilarating novelties, The Human Mind plays on the quiet shock of persons who bristle at the edges between themselves and the natural world. From odorous fire to watery depths, from wild-eyed horses to honeycombs to the weird abnormalities of other people, Woodward’s characters startle in the dissonance of themselves juxtaposed with the living elements around them.
In its leaps and obsessions, even our human mind seems to be a living thing that is not quite ours. Like the woman who wets her hands in her bowlful of thoughts, Woodward’s characters possess minds that seem to move without their will. In “Lydia,” an alchemist presents bottled starlight to the aristocracy. The substance with self-giving light lures another scientist:
Just as light is preserved in phosphorescent stone and powder, so the mind stores its pictures, reasoned Royal Curator of Experiments Robert Hooke. The brain, he said, the wonderful Elaboratory of the human body, must operate in a similar manner as the soulful substance, holding its images of childhood friends, waterfalls, or paths through forests, these lingering pictures that so animate the inner man. Whenever he closed his eyes, he saw the face of his daughter Lydia, seven years old, carried off by croup. She glowed within him, without burning, though if he gazed at her too long, his eyes began to sting. And if he was alone, he would sit down and stare unmoving at whatever hit his retina, sometimes for hours.
This disconnect between an individual and his/her mind is brilliantly manifested by Woodward’s play with point of view and protagonists. Omniscient stories turn swiftly into first-person, while in others the reader is startled to be directly addressed. Historic figures brush shoulders with those that seem to be emphatically imagined, such as the demon that shows Edgar Allan Poe a daguerreotype of the entire universe.
But what might be merely a “thought experiment,” (as the collection’s second piece is titled) is instead fixed in a physical space. Not only are we pulled into the abstractions of William James’s mind, but we are with him on a walk where “the philosopher dropped to his knees and vomited” while he “felt the sun warm the exposed back of his neck.”
Bodies, human and otherwise, ground the setting throughout the collection’s loose evocation of a nineteenth century landscape. The new London Zoo of 1826 is particularly memorable with an elephant that, like a beagle, is taken for nightly walks.
At 50 pages, The Human Mind can be read in a single sitting. Taken in like an extended inhale, Woodward’s book is like a night’s worth of dreams weighing on you in the morning with their slippery truths.
A novel by Jean Echenoz
Trans. Linda Coverdale
The New Press, June 2007
Hardcover: 192pp; $21.95
Review by Sarah Sala
Jean Echenoz’s latest work Ravel, translated from French, is a novelistic rendering of the final ten years in the life of Maurice Ravel, a wildly famous French concert pianist and composer. Adhering to the musician’s real life in extraordinary detail, Echenoz pens a seamless entry and exit into the previously unexplored soundscape of Ravel’s mind. In a novel consisting of only 117 pages, there isn’t one unnecessary syllable, let alone a dissonant note.
Ravel begins the story by shutting up his house in Montfort-l'Amaury, France, and scrambling to make a train to the harbor station at Le Havre. Once aboard, he will embark on a four-month concert tour of North America. At the conclusion of the first chapter the narrator matter-of-factly states that from this moment on Ravel “now has ten years, on the nose, left to live.” Thus he begins the riot of luxury, loneliness, chronic insomnia, and exultations had during the wonderfully tragic final span of his life.
Ravel impresses the reader as an eccentric and a first-rate dresser, who at the beginning of the work packs up, “among other things—sixty shirts, twenty pairs of shoes, seventy-five ties, and twenty-five sets of pajamas” to schlep to North America. A chain smoker of Gauloise cigarettes, he plays his concertos to sold-out venues enraptured by his music, the crowd unbothered by his imperfect piano skills caused by his utter loathe of practice.
Ravel’s greatest triumph in the world of music is Boléro. A piece devised for the ballet, it is a largely repetitive movement rumored to have been the product of his escalating dementia:
There’s no form, strictly speaking, no development or modulation, just some rhythm and arrangement. In short, it’s a thing that self-destructs, a score without music, an orchestral factory without a purpose, a suicide whose weapon is the simple swelling of sound.
Not long after the great success of Boléro, Ravel is involved in a debilitating car accident which accelerates the pace of his deteriorating cognitive abilities. In a surreal climax to the novel, the reader watches as surgeons tinker inside the skull of the artist, an experimental craniotomy the means to his end. Though the doctors are possessed with the task to “repair” the damage done to his brain in order to provide Ravel with a few more years of artistic productivity, Echenoz proves the creative soul is by no means a tangible element. A wonderfully poignant conclusion to a slow-beginning work, it is as if Echenoz has managed to translate the immutable qualities of Ravel’s music into his insistent prose.
Prix Goncourt-prize-winning writer Jean Echenoz has seen five of his novels translated into English. Writing in a vernacular, starkly descriptive manner, including almost no overt dialogue, the author is an expert at wending the reader through the life of a complete stranger, while recreating the familiarity of one’s own thoughts. This novel is an amazing tribute to a widely appreciated composer, but also a fascinating look into the creation and destruction of a major artist. Ravel compelled me to consider the creative process long after I had closed its chapters.
Fiction by Suzanne Burns
Future Tense Books, January 2008
Chapbook: 40pp; $5.00
Review by Matt Bell
Suzanne Burns’s Double Header is a slim chapbook comprised of just two short stories, “An Acquired Taste” and “Tiny Ron.” Both stories are full of magic (one more literally than the other), and both have marriage at their centers, both thematically and as plot devices.
In “An Acquired Taste,” Roland is a widowed magician who opens the story explaining that he could sometimes be found breaking glass, saying, “Goblets, mugs, tumblers, I threw them against the walls of Portland restaurants until waiters knew me and the ring I still wore.” During this dramatic coping process, he meets Lottie, a woman whose insatiable pica is a stark contrast to his dead wife’s anorexia:
Lottie promised not to die from her compulsion. On our second date she told me she understood, through trial and error, the near-fatal level of any product. One lick of bleach tingled along her every nerve. One bite of chalk dried her mouth like antiperspirant. One teaspoon of a particularly virulent brand of glue, though, had damaged her already myopic left eye. Afraid of going blind, Lottie crossed out bathroom cleaners and any other kind of solvent from her list, then added in postcards, coins, and her favorite, dirt.
As Roland and Lottie circle each other, each trying to explain the kind of marriage they want from the other, it becomes obvious that they have very different needs. These wants and desires are amplified by the failures of their first marriages, by Randall’s loneliness and Lottie’s need to try to feel normal. Common wisdom says marriage is about acceptance and compromise, but Lottie begs to differ, wanting something better, arguing that “being in love… should cancel out shame,” but also trying vainly to ward Randall off by protesting his optimism, noting that “better versions are impossible to find because there’s something wrong with everyone.” In a story full of heartbreak, it is hard not to cheer for Randall’s imagined version of their future together, but it is also easy to sympathize with Lottie’s reluctant heart, with her lacking self-esteem and ever-present cynicism.
“Tiny Ron” captures a couple at a different place in their relationship, opening with this attention-grabbing line, “The women who admire Tiny Ron have no idea how it feels being married to the world’s smallest man.” An eighteen-inch-tall actor, Ron is a self-absorbed, abusive lover, pinching and biting and otherwise injuring his wife. When the narrator suggests that she “[wants] to be one of those couples who convinces themselves that they love each other,” Ron disagrees, saying that “the more we focus on each other, the more we forget to hate ourselves. That’ll get us a lot further than love.”
Although it is thematically as strong as its counterpart, the less likable characters in “Tiny Ron” make it slightly harder to care about them or their problems, especially Ron, who for much of the story comes off as just another spoiled celebrity. By the end, both of them have revealed enough of what makes them tick to engage most readers, but they still don’t end up covering quite as much emotional territory as Roland and Lottie do in “An Acquired Taste.”
Suzanne Burns does an excellent job depicting the way we define our future with our past, and how the damage done to us by our last lover can make it hard to trust the next one or to see them for who they really are instead of just who we want them to be. The plots of both stories revolve around the way these kinds of expectations are both met and thwarted over the course of a courtship, and the final effect is a recognition that will take you to the core of your feelings about love and commitment. Double Header is a fine work of fiction, and well worth the afternoon it will take you to read it.
Fiction by Dennis Must
Red Hen Press, January, 2007
Paperback: 160pp; $15.95
Review by Sarah Sala
Dennis Must’s stories are at times both unsettling and tremblingly genuine, and once the reader gives herself over to them, worth consideration. Not that stories about immolation, cross-dressing, prostitutes, Bible study beauty pageants, family, and loss normally aren’t. It’s just that the stories come on slow, and before you know it, you’re sitting in your living room pondering whether you should be imagining a grieving widower dressing up in his dead wife’s clothing.
Must is capable of creating dynamic sentences, and while he uses words not necessarily foremost in everyone’s vocabulary (some dictionary checking is necessary and beneficial), once understood, these words explode into perfect meaning. There is nothing more satisfying than setting off a phrase that energizes an entire paragraph.
Must’s best assets are his descriptive abilities – architecture, landscape, furniture, people – and his unparalleled expertise with men’s and women’s clothing. His best stories include both these qualities, and his worst limp along with painfully overwritten dialogue or unjustifiably obscure story endings.
With this description of an aging prostitute in “She’s a Little Store Inside,” the care and mystique Must imparts is refreshingly original:
Like a plaster of Paris palmist inside a cloudy glass arcade box she sat staring out her window. You place a nickel into a slot, her wooden hand overturns a Queen of Spades, a cardboard fortune drops out a cupped opening—somewhere, you imagine, below her skirts.
My favorite stories were “The Hireling,” with its rich landscaping descriptions, and “Star-Crossed,” which takes place in a mortuary. Closely following were stories like “Queen Esther,” where a son is introduced to the secret campy world of his mother’s women’s Bible study, and “Lament,” where all of the narrator’s dead loved ones inhabit his mind.
Must’s successful stories work because he grants the reader admission into places we normally wouldn’t be allowed access. His stories work to make the unfamiliar familiar, and in the process they often become uncanny. Take this moment from “Star-Crossed”:
Tom opened the doors of a giant metal cabinet, a walk-in closet set against the wall of the cavernous garage. On one side were shelves of car door handles, carburetor heads, boxes of spark plugs, distributor caps…; and on the opposite side, trays of eyes—every shade imaginable—false teeth, reading glasses, drawers of toupees, vials of coloring to shade the paraffin wax, limb prostheses, plus a separate compartment where mourning suits and dresses of every vintage hung.
While the short length of the stories made reading them manageable, I began wishing towards the middle of the collection that some were longer. It would have been nice to inhabit a story for a while before exiting it and working to enter the next one. Interestingly, since the stories were brief and included similar characters, if not recurring life details, the pieces began to blend together, lending cohesiveness to the collection.
Though there were some infelicities in the writing, I would recommend these stories to a reader willing to investigate, not only the more closed-off areas of society, but also the deep sounding of the human heart while attempting to understand loss.
A Novel by Michelle Latiolais
Bellevue Literary Press, May 2008
Hardcover: 192pp; $22.95
Review by Cynthia Reeser
A Proper Knowledge, Michelle Latiolais’s follow up to the family-centered novel Even Now, is another novel focused around family and relationships. Luke is a dedicated, perceptive Los Angeles doctor with a practice treating autistic children – his career choice influenced by his own late sister, a schizophrenic whose memory haunts him at times.
Latiolais forms a smooth, continuous narrative within the characters' lives, opening them up to the reader in all their endearing quirks and inside jokes. Meanwhile, rewards are offered up via the sparkling glimpses into Luke’s treatment psychology; he is a doctor whose gentle observations and interest in his patients bleeds over onto the reader. One of Luke’s patients, Stan, speaks only in lines from The Lion King and The Manchurian Candidate, a mystery that Luke seeks to unlock with his inherent perceptiveness:
Stan stands very still, a small, narrow statue; there is a tremendous, calamitously still anger rigidifying his body, and then the anger is kinetic and he begins to turn, his arms held close to his body, turning, turning, dervishing, his arms open to maintain his balance, and Luke knows he must wait, maybe five, maybe ten, maybe fifteen minutes before Stan stops, and that, in fact, it is therapeutic for Stan to twirl, that he’ll be calmer afterward, his coordination better.
Unfortunately, the book is not without its flaws. Luke’s concern for his friend Naila – a new mother and doctor who is married to another, controlling, doctor who would rather see her give up her career for child-rearing than he would himself – goes unresolved after the issue’s initial presentation.
Through this couple, Luke meets his new love-interest a floral artist named Alice whose work evinces deeply mysterious psychological overtones. Luke first falls in love with her work and then, before really getting to know her, the woman herself. His head-over-heels fascination in Alice is inexplicable beyond his admiration of her work, and he is asking her to move in with him by the second date.
Through Luke’s quick-witted, imminently likeable mother, the novel questions how much Luke’s interest in Alice crosses the line between personal and professional. Does Luke have a savior complex because of his sister? Does he see quiet, reclusive Alice as a stand-in for his sibling, or for his patients? Is she someone he can nurture, cure? Latiolais writes:
He has thought to find in her life what went wrong, the catastrophic, but he’s weary of those thoughts right now, understands them to be less about Alice than about what has happened to Alice, that there is a distinction and that locating trauma serves his profession but not his heart.
The potential for imbalance in Alice is part of what makes her work so successful, so sought after. There is an unfettered, unsuppressed subconscious mind at work in her arrangements, but with all that’s made of Alice’s state of mind, nothing ever comes of the hints that she will somehow affect the treatment of Luke’s patients. More importantly, her suggested past traumas never surface, and, disappointingly, she turns out to be surprisingly normal. Luke spends a good deal of time pursuing Alice, but once she agrees to meet with him (a meeting and subsequent relationship that come too easily for such a private woman), stories about his patients fall off and the rest of the narrative centers on their interactions.
The novel is as much about compassion as it is about understanding one’s own inner processes. These themes are perceptively interlaced into a winsome, albeit flawed, love story that is as serious as it is funny. Overall, the colorful characters and intelligent observations carry the novel. In spite of its imperfections, A Proper Knowledge presents a compassionate, inquisitive look at the mysteries of the mind and the intricacies of human relationships.
Poetry by Emily Galvin
Tupelo Press, April 2008
Paperback: 79pp; $16.95
Review by Roy Wang
Emily Galvin likes details. In her mini-plays that make up the first half of the book, she pencils every texture, breath, and tilt of head with conspicuous meticulousness, as if the rabid observation of minutiae should yield meaning like the sudden breakthrough in a mathematical proof. This approach often leads to pieces that are more description than dialogue, but with focus that renders it powerful, rather than an inanely panning camera eye. The terse dialogues that do ensue have an amplified gravity, and given their binary form, cannot fail to call up Endgame or another of Beckett’s masterpieces.
With the increasing impact of science and technology, it is no surprise that many writers are turning to these to find new metaphors and structures for their work. With Wikipedia, it has become even easier to find easily digestible bases for our fiction and poetry. Unfortunately, Emily Galvin’s use of mathematical ideas in her forms and writing is immediately seen as a gimmick to anyone who happens to know enough about math to understand the implications of the structures. There is even a four-page introduction by a mathematician that doesn’t really explain the math used by Galvin and the relevance to the themes; it just blithely acknowledges the presence of math in poetry.
Galvin makes much use of the Fibonacci sequence, which characterizes natural growth, spirals, and most famously, the Golden Ratio, yet there is no sense of these issues in her poems aside from syllable counting. She also calls on Euclid’s algorithm for finding the greatest common divisor of two numbers. However, almost all her poems use numbers that are relatively prime, which renders the algorithm meaningless beyond the trite observation that they have nothing (or one thing) in common. The beautiful lattice of relations in mathematical spaces has been negated, not used. She may just be using these ideas as a novel framework, but form without intent renders the form irrelevant. The simple idea of facing a brutal reality, characterized by the phrase “do the math,” may be the main thrust, but using complex structures to do this seems misguided.
Not that these poems are bad. In fact, the first section is quite captivating, and she demonstrates a good ear, using short, repetitive phrasing to highlight the drama of the moment:
In the room, the light is slanting and yellow. This is winter afternoon light, the light that hits an Iowa cornfield at about 3:00 pm on a sunny day in February. Very deep slant, very warm yellow. It is hitting the aspens in pieces.
If there could be a little wind, that would be nice.
Galvin’s poems excel in rendering distance by close focus, zooming in on lips searching for words that never come. In her mini-dramas, we see the spiral of unknown motivations lost forever in the characters, repeated actions as futile as counting to infinity. Consider the scene after a couple has an inexplicable fight over the woman looking for her hair clip:
BEN waits until there are creaks overhead. He turns, looks at the armchair. He sits. He stares out in front of him. Then, without moving his eyes from the point in space on which they’ve been fixed, slowly brings his left hand to his right breast pocket. He pulls out a small, purple, rhinestone hair clip, shaped like a dragonfly. He brings his hand, dragonfly in it, to his lap. He lays his left hand on his open right hand. He looks down at his hands, at the hair clip. Twenty seconds goes by in this position.
BEN (Without moving anything but his mouth, calling upstairs) I can’t find it!
The book finishes with Galvin’s lyrics, which are generally less interesting. She is again at her best when most stark, most evocative, probing the internal rather than drawing on external phenomena, with one notable exception: “Sometimes, if things get really hot, the stars turn iron into gold, and then, and then just to make the alchemists weep, gold into lead.” The book, in fact, feels the same way: pressure brings out her best at the beginning, and then the loss of focus that arises from sustained forcing devolves into the end pieces.
All in all, Do the Math showcases an artist with wide potential. Dramatist, poet, polymath, it’s only a matter a time before Emily Galvin crystallizes a true winner from the chaos of her myriad of interests.