NewPages Book Reviews
October 1, 2009
Misfits and Other Heroes
Fiction by Suzanne Burns
Dzanc Books, June 2009
Paperback: 197pp; $16.95
Review by Laura Pryor
A handsome former soap star, tired of his shallow, fat-free life, kidnaps a pastry chef to do his bidding. A woman, suddenly obsessed with the domestic arts, breaks into someone’s home and begins cooking and cleaning while they’re gone. We all have strange, fleeting impulses – Suzanne Burns’s characters act on them.
Several of the stories center on people who, in a less sensitive era, would have been labeled “freaks.” “Triad” features a young man with a third hand growing from just below his wrist. The title character of “Tiny Ron” is just 18 ½ inches tall. The protagonist of “An Acquired Taste” falls for a woman who eats dirt, glass and coins. But as we read on, we realize that the supposedly “normal” characters are often just as freakish, if not more so, than the freaks themselves: Tiny Ron’s normal-size wife craves abuse, the fiancé of the three-handed man is in love with his third hand but not him, and the man in “An Acquired Taste” looks forward to all the attention he’ll get at the hospital when his new wife downs one too many quarters. There is no “normal”; as Lottie the coin-eater tells us, “Everyone hides things.”
Burns, who also writes poetry, tells her freakish tales with inventive, beautiful imagery, and a wicked sense of humor. In one of my favorite stories, “Tourists,” the main character falls in love with a figure from the wax museum where she works, and when she takes him with her on a trip to San Francisco he begins to melt in the sun. Burns writes, “It is hard to be philosophical when your boyfriend thaws one inch at a time.” It’s hard not to like an author who gives you a line like that.
Some of the funniest moments come in the story “Bittersweet.” Burns paints a hilarious portrait of Blake, the former soap star – he is both likable and ridiculously shallow. Musing on his relationship with Isabel the pastry chef, he thinks, “We’ll fall in love . . . but not the in and out way they do in soap operas. Ours will be substantial and real, like a Hugh Grant movie.” Isabel, whose L.A. bakery is failing, laments, “Selling one cupcake for Mary-Kate and Ashley to split doesn’t pay the bills.”
A recurrent theme in these stories is that of being seen, being noticed, having one’s existence confirmed. The protagonist of “Optical Illusion” is convinced she is becoming invisible, and craves the validation of being seen by her lover, George: “I didn’t like kissing him so much or sleeping with him, because he kept his eyes closed the whole time. And whenever George closed his eyes, I disappeared.” Later, when she discovers George has a glass eye, she takes it while he is sleeping (along with his “back-up eye”) and takes it for a joy ride. The eyes become “my blind navigators, immortally fixated on me, never even letting me down to blink.”
One can’t help but feel for Burns’s characters, many of whom are in pain; many have been abandoned or shunned. Burns makes us laugh at Olive, the woman who falls for the wax figure, and then weep for her just a few paragraphs later when she jumps off a pier after what’s left of her beloved statue:
Olive hoped to hit the water soft as the touch of melting wax. She hoped the last bits of her first love affair would greet her, a thousand bubbles skimming endearments across the water. As the flowers on her dress wilted and everything went dark, Olive hoped she knew how to rise to the surface. She hoped that someone, at least once in her life, had taught her to how to float.
A lovely example of just how freakishly talented Burns is. And I mean that in the best possible way.
The Mysterious Life of the Heart
Edited by Sy Safransky, Tim McKee, Andrew Snee
Paperback: 351pp; $18.95
Review by Jeanne M. Lesinski
The 35 fiction pieces and 15 poems from The Sun magazine collected for this anthology deal with passion, longing, and romantic love. As editor Sy Safransky so aptly describes this work, “[It is] about the room upstairs at the end of the hall, shared by two lovers who’ve decided to stay – for a weekend or forever, no one can say. Sometimes they kiss, sometimes they bite. They dream they’re in heaven. They swear they’re in hell. That room.” This room is occupied by a range of men and women of various cultures, ages, and sexual persuasions, and, as with any and all relationships, the dynamics of each relationship portrayed here is as individual as its author could imagine.
The Sun magazine is known for its affecting prose and verse in a narrative mode. Safransky challenges readers of this anthology to read from front to back to be able to discern the narrative arc. While most readers likely browse through an anthology, as I usually do, I took up the challenge and was surprised that the arc was not the Bolero-esque one I predicted. Instead, it moves from the "impetuousness of young love through marriage and devotion, temptation and betrayal, divorce and heartbreak, and finally forgiveness and mercy," just at the editor warns.
With the exception of "Evening Voices" by Jeff Walt and "Marriage" by Lou Lipsitz, the poems fell flat to my ear, so it's fortunate that the majority of the collection is made up of prose works. Each of these stories has a strong enough narrative voice and plot that whenever I was interrupted by my life as I carried the book around with me for a month to read, I could immediately re-enter the tale without the need to reread. This staying power speaks highly of the writers' skill.
Of the stories, Leslie Pietrzyk's "Ten Things" is the most daring structurally in its mosaic-style and wonderfully lyrical, particularly when the husband compares his wife to an avocado, calling her "tough on the outside" and "a little intimidating." The husband continues, “But inside, you're soft and creamy. Luscious, just like a perfectly ripe avocado. That's the part of you I get. And underneath that is the hardest, strongest core of anyone I know." I'd take being likened to an avocado any day.
The lingering aftereffect of The Mysterious Life of the Heart is longing, that merging-on-painful wish to change the past, to uncover that indefinable something or someone to fill the aching emptiness. Since few are immune to the need to be in community with others, this quality will leave readers questioning their own lives and relationships. What more can a writer (or the editor of an anthology) ask than to somehow transform readers through the power of art?
Poetry by Claudia Keelan
New Issues, October 2009
Paperback: 79pp; $15.00
Review by Vince Corvaia
Missing Her is a moving, elegant series of poems, or elegies, that examines loss on both a very public and a private level. Keelan’s topics include Mary after the birth of Jesus, the Vietnam War, September 11th, Hurricane Katrina, and the death of her father. In “About Suffering They Were,” she writes, “There are no old poems, / Only new textbooks directing / The unprepared student to the painting / Behind the poem.” In Missing Her, we are all unprepared students, and Keelan leads us not merely to her poems but to the truths behind poetry.
“Mary Wasn’t Sure” is a prose poem in eight paragraphs. In it, Jesus’ mother is unprepared for the historical role she has to assume: “Mary wasn’t sure about any of it. She didn’t like her traveling cloak and she didn’t like the donkey.” The source of her discontent is her realization of what the future holds: “She didn’t like the story, except the beginning, she didn’t like the way she knew how it was going to end.” The end here is not the glory of the Resurrection, but a mother’s loss: “No, she saw it all, she knew it all already, and so did Jesus in his baby sleep, dreaming himself the dead man his mother would hold forever in her lap.” Keelan, finally, makes the Pieta personal, and thus this becomes the most truly spiritual of poems.
In “Little Elegy (Ground Zero),” Keelan’s references range from Faulkner to Wim Wenders as she ponders the horrific spectacle of 9/11: “A man and woman in business suits, / Choosing their means of dying, / Living to the last in air / Instead of fire.” Instead of the planes crashing into the towers or the Pentagon or the Pennsylvania field, she grasps the most personal of images to convey the horror and wonder of that day: “the fire from the plane’s / Crash so hot, they clasped / Hands and stepped / Off the broken tower.”
The centerpiece of the book, and American Poetry Review’s winner of the 2007 Jerome Shestack prize, is the tour de force, long poem “Everybody’s Autobiography.” Keelan writes,
This is the autobiography of everyone because all lives
and books begin and end.
This is the autobiography of everyone
and is for all of us still alive in the broken middleness,
mouthing our stories.
The poem has eight sections. The overriding subject is the death of the poet’s father, seen most directly in the first part: “In the end, they placed him in a bag, I heard / the zipping and though I didn’t watch, I heard the effort they made lifting, / and he was gone, no sirens, before my son woke.” She pulls back in subsequent sections to recount the historical events of the year of her father’s birth, the monopolization of California by the Southern Pacific Railroad, a chronological “History of the Major Oil Companies in the Gulf Region,” and even 9/11. All of it is tied in with her father’s passing. “This [9/11] has something to do with my father, with oil, with me. / My government and with you.” “Time,” she writes near the end, “is eternal in space. Trapped radio waves prove it, / as does my dead father’s DNA wound through me.”
Missing Her is Keelan’s sixth collection of poems. Parts of it will stay with you long after reading, as with this passage from part three of “Tide Table”:
I am so sorry. I was supposed to look after you. But along the way,
I made some bad decisions and in the end,
Turned you into me.
Torched Verse Ends
Poems by Steven D. Schroeder
BlazeVOX [books], 2009
Paperback; 78pp; $16.00
Review by Roy Wang
Steven Schroeder and his brain like to wander. Whether physically through the landscapes of Colorado, or mentally through recollections of schadenfreude, Schroeder drags his rucksack of modern references behind him. String theory, Asimov, army-town life, thermodynamics – all pop up naturally in the course of his bizarre musings.
But what exactly is he trying to get through? The most telling page of the book is the “Index of Selected Subject Matter” where he lists the pages that reference alcohol, insomnia, and television. There is no mention of themes, and this is the most direct statement of the collection's unity. It's another small-town isolation of a bruised, insular kid, using his slightly above-average intelligence to justify his misanthropic judgments. The index, burrowing in minutiae, perfectly sums up the personality the speaker has cultivated throughout, twitching in almost-involuntary directions.
There are three sections to the book, roughly focused on nature, urban scenes, and miscellany related to death and collapse. There isn't much transition between them in terms of style. The first poems feature no speaker or personality, producing an illusion of seeing his images through a lens transparent as the Colorado air. One standout (“Hayman Wildfire Set by Forest Service Worker”) uses the subjunctive mood to good effect:
That you spotted the fire and the starter
That he drove a gold minivan
That replanted ponderosa pine seedlings can feed on satellite feeds for twenty years
That fire started you
There are some neophyte musical moments here, making one hope that Schroeder is being ironic. Alas, he is not, as in “In This Country, Trail Breaks You”: “Rocks jammed in your backpack / launched uphill avalanches / in air so sheer and sharpened / it hyperventilated // your ice-carved lungs.”
The second section introduces a speaker more presently, but the personality is still elusive. Plenty of sarcasm, but it's a mistake to confuse that with character. Still, with titles such as, “Sweet Mother of Crap, What Did the Bookcase Ever Do to You?” and “I've Been Told to Correct My Passive Voice” we get some more traction. We also get some cognitive echoes showing some artistry: a billiard table pocket's open mouth showing surprise or hinting that eating carne asada daily is like eating shit in life.
It's also funny when he wants it to be. Consider this from “Pick Your Punchline”: “Yesterday, the umpteenth woman ran out crying after a date with me. // She acted like she'd never seen a pair of night vision goggles before.”
The final section has some science fiction apocalyptic flourishes, including a poem that looks like some basic computer code. Interesting, but like the last line, “Go to zero. Do not divide by zero. Error error error” (“Robot Rhetoric”), we ultimately don't know what to make of this book, and unfortunately, we don't care.
We do go out with a good one in “Prayer to a Higher Horsepower,” which highlights while we may not know where we're going, we're sure going to try and get there fast:
Vehicle of the Second Law
and Car of Infinite Cylinders, lay waste
the energy of this engine,
the change beneath our seats,
the road eroding under that–
and stall all that matters
to uniform zero RPM.
break us down with breakneck speed
while we speed ahead without brakes
The Warmest Place of All
Picture Book by Licia Rando
Illustrated by Anne Jewett
Pleasant St. Press, September 2009
Hardcover: 32pp; $16.95
Review by Jessica Powers
This children’s picture book follows Sophie’s search for the warmest place in her house after spending time outside playing in the snow. Ultimately, the warmest place is snuggled up next to her parents in their bed during the middle of the night. The story is light and sweet while the illustrations are delightful and fun. Altogether, a great book for bedtime.
Children’s Novel by Sharon Jennings
Second Story Press, October 2009
Paperback: 152pp, $8.95
Review by Jessica Powers
I loved this book! I think I fell in love with it the first time the main character, Lee, mentions Anne of Green Gables and her excitement about meeting a “real-life orphan,” Cassandra, who is moving in with a relative next door. Anne was my favorite character from children’s books when I was a kid. She felt like a real person to me – a friend, someone I wanted to meet, someone I wanted to be like, someone I was – dare I say it? – jealous of – exactly the way Lee feels. But being an orphan in real life isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, as Lee finds out when she becomes friends with Cassandra.
Lee struggles with all the normal childhood problems – a former best friend who hates her now, a bully down the street, a mother with a harsh and critical tongue. Precocious and smart, a chatterbox, misunderstood by a lot of the adults in her life except a beloved teacher, Lee’s a completely loveable character. And she has very few problems which she doesn’t cope with in her own special way. But soon she learns that the worst problem of all is one only Cassandra can help her navigate – the problem of not belonging to anybody or anywhere. A fun and engaging read from start to finish.