NewPages Book Reviews
Posted 1 May 2012
The Edge of Maybe :: The Poetry of Thought :: The Severed Head :: She'd Waited Millennia :: Vladimir's Mustache and Other Stories :: Heavy Petting :: Beauty is a Verb :: Living Arrangements :: Cultivating a Movement :: Checking In / Checking Out :: Wild :: The Grey Album
Fiction by Ericka Lutz
Last Light Studio Books, March 2012
Paperback: 326pp; $15.95
Review by Jodi Paloni
Here’s an idea for a story. Take a beautiful life: happy marriage, comfortable home, and a smart and talented daughter, the three of you eating in a different restaurant every night. Ignore the husband’s loner party binges in the basement. Push aside the wife’s curiosity of her yoga teacher’s guiding hands on her hips. Everyone’s entitled to a little secret, except daughters. Don’t even suspect that daughters, locked in their rooms, are not doing homework. Now throw in a surprise visitor from the past and witness the beautiful life unravel. Next explore the aftermath from three points of view: wife, husband, daughter. Why not? All three are watching each other, and nobody’s really talking.
Ericka Lutz is a debut novelist, but as an author of seven previous books, she is no debut writer. While The Edge of Maybe may be a page-turner—I read the book in two sittings—Lutz conjures both place and character on multiple levels so that the reader isn’t reading for plot but to learn the outcome of the family’s wellbeing. Will they survive? What choices will they ultimately make, and at what cost and to whom? Lutz makes us not only care about the fundamentals of hearth and home but causes us to worry about each of the family members, even as they commit the worst errors imaginable.
How does she do it? One way is by giving each character a unique perspective on the same events based on gender, age, and willingness, or not, to assume responsibility. Kira combines the drive of an independent woman plumbing her mid-life soul with the practical compassion of a dedicated wife and mother. Adam, father of not-exactly-sure-how-many, mourns the loss of his punk rocker days through addiction while folding laundry and helping with homework. Polly, “wearing a backpack too large for her thin, thirteen-year-old frame,” experiences growing pains she wants to brand on herself, permanently, for the world to see. Separately they navigate the rules of a family altered by a disruption that challenges their previously “perfect” existence.
The novel begins with dramatic action and takes the reader on a tumultuous ride with little exposition and even less description, yet we see how the characters struggle to feel, often in private, and we understand why. Lutz uses point of view like a zoom lens camera: dramatic action, zoom in, emotional response, zoom in, and finally, interior monologue:
Polly waited until it was finally quiet. It was just so lonely in their house now with all of the people who didn’t love each other in the house . . . The pin prick on the tip of her index finger, that beautiful bead of red blood and the taste in her mouth filling and satisfying that urge . . .
Kira and Adam try to communicate, often with ambivalence and by subverting the truth. In the following scene that takes place in bed with Adam, Kira broaches the topic of polyamory, hoping to get permission to sleep with her yoga teacher, while Adam attempts to seduce her:
“But I am thinking it’s probably not such a bad thing, for a mature couple, just as a principal if nothing else.” She wondered if she sounded as rational as she was trying to be.
Adam looked distracted. The corner of her mind noticed the faint musk of pot on his breath. Stoned again.
And, Adam’s voice, in clipped diction, stream-of-consciousness thinking about an old fling as he approaches her house for a spontaneous visit:
He wondered how different he looked; less hair, bigger belly. The lines around his eyes. They hadn’t aged so well . . . All those years of decrepit living. Kira still looked so great because of her yoga, the best-feeling skin in the world . . . oh hell. Don’t think about that.
Each passage shows how the use of interior monologue in the third-person narrator serves to pull the reader into the character’s psyche.
While a novel about a seemingly perfect family suppressing underlying angst could be scrutinized as “already been done,” Ericka Lutz’s The Edge of Maybe does it differently. She depicts realistic people with common issues, ones we feel we know intimately, and throws unusual curve balls. So the yoga teacher wants a lot more than just crazy sex. The indigent visitor pours the proverbial cold water on Polly’s privileged self-pity. And Adam gets sick enough of himself to do the right thing. Now what?
By distributing the weight of troubled family life three ways, giving a distinct perspective to each character, and keeping the reader in anticipation of the surprisingly convincing move, we’re shown that right and wrong, black and white, yes and no, sometimes boils down to a simple maybe—the place where humbled characters like ourselves teeter on the edge.
From Hellenism to Celan
Nonfiction by George Steiner
New Directions Books, November 2011
Hardcover: 192pp; $24.95
Review by Patrick James Dunagan
Polymath George Steiner offers up an essay that will, in all likelihood, either send readers into the library stacks with a long list of sources for further reading or drive them away from finishing his text. There are instances here where on a single page, no less than ten names from a diverse range of languages and eras throughout Western thought are bandied about as if Steiner were relaying a conversation with a young child or a walk he takes to the park every day. It’s most likely to be found either hopelessly intimidating or a joke, depending on the temperament of the reader.
Steiner understands this. He acknowledges that “In many respects this little book, the interest and focus it hopes for from its readers—statistically a tiny minority—the vocabulary and grammar in which it is set out, are already archaic.” He’s well aware “eight- to eighteen-year-olds log about eleven hours of daily engagement with electronic media. Conversation is face-to-face. Virtual reality occurs within cyberspheres. Laptops, iPods, cell phones, email, the planetary Web and Internet modify consciousness.” These are realities not lost to his own “obsolescent, often technophobic consciousness,” yet he has written this text in the hope of contributing “an attempt to listen more closely” to what, for him, is an endless ongoing conversation between texts.
Not that Steiner is overly generous with explaining anything. There’s a small note on the copyright page: “Publisher’s Note: At New Directions’ request, the author has provided translations of some of the longer passages quoted in the original in The Poetry of Thought.” It appears Steiner would have preferred to leave his readers to fall back on their own means when it comes to his frequent citing of non-English sources. His has been a life of reading and study. The Poetry of Thought wagers a passionate display of erudite reflection upon the nature of poetic use of language in philosophic writings. Steiner’s take is needless to say quite broad:
As Hamlet instructs Horatio, the matter of philosophy is “dreamt of.” Concomitantly there is no literary text, be it a lyric poem, a detective story, a science fiction or romance which does not contain, either declared or veiled, metaphysical coordinates, logical axioms or spoors of epistemology. Man narrates worlds possibly alternative, contrapuntal to his bounded, parochial reality. The philosophic and the poetic are indivisibly conjoined as are “Borges and I” in that parable of mirrors and inevitable duplicity. Both arise from the inexhaustible ubiquity of speech acts.
The above is extracted from his sashaying out the work of Jorge Luis Borges as one example. His garrulousness in citing authors and leaping from one exemplar instance of language use to the next as clarification and further expansion upon his argument doesn’t, however, make him incapable of concision at times:
The point I have been trying to clarify is simple: literature and philosophy as we have known them are products of language. Unalterably that is the common ontological and substantive ground. Thought in poetry, the poetics of thought are deeds of grammar, of language in motion. Their means, their constraints are those of style. The unspeakable, in the direct sense of that word, circumscribes both.
Yet he soon launches off again on an endless sourcing of examples. Steiner has a hard time resisting his own recalling of textual anecdote. For Steiner, the library is such the bustling hive of interconnected argument and jabbering hullabaloo that he can’t resist bringing it all to bear on his argument. Throughout the essay’s progression, Steiner offers his own favorites, spins from off a lifetime’s reading. His remarks on Borges, Husserl, Descartes, Marx, Sarte, Merleau-Ponty, and Wittgenstein are among the many well worth attending to. Throughout, the function and presence of dialogue is of central concern:
The dialogue predates Plato. Aristotle’s dialogues are lost. Of all forms, dialogue comes nearest those ideals of query and refutation, of correction and reprise enjoined by Plato in his critique of writing. Dialogue performs orality; it suggests, even in writing, possibilities of anti-authoritarian spontaneity and fair-play.
Martin Heidegger and Paul Celan, and the mixed-bag role the relationship between language and thought plays in the horrors of genocide, lie at the heart of a discussion which Steiner originally wished to bring forward as an at-once conclusive closure to his argument. It’s an extrapolation upon the meeting-point of Heidegger’s “dichtendes Denken” that is “thought as poetry” with Celan’s reactive, irrevocable “Denkenden” as Steiner relates it: “‘thought in advent,’ beyond any individual speaker. It speaks the speaker.” Steiner is unable to quite achieve what he had originally hoped for, but his discussion of the infinitely expanding conversation between poetry and philosophy and the various figures seminal to his thinking remains compulsively alluring.
The Severed Head
Nonfiction by Julia Kristeva
Translated from the French by Jody Gladding
Columbia University Press, December 2011
Hardcover: 176pp; $34.50
Review by Patricia Contino
I never forgot that photo. It was in a history of the Metropolitan Opera, and soprano Olive Fremstad was Salome holding the platter with John the Baptist’s head. Even by 1907 standards, her beaded costume and big hair were beyond camp, but to my teenaged self the waxy, dead head looked real enough. I was sufficiently creeped out to avoid Richard Strauss’ opera until adulthood, when I discovered Salome’s true horrors: placing unrealistic demands on its lead to perform a striptease to music that’s impossible to dance—let alone time the tearing off of seven veils—to, before singing a punishingly long monologue to the Baptist’s head prior to kissing it (gross . . . even if it should resemble Bryn Terfel, a recent Met Baptist). With the exception of Electra, Richard Strauss was never again so creatively daring.
Julia Kristeva begins The Severed Head with her own first encounter with a headless body, a picture drawn by her mother of a melting snowman “as though severed by the invisible guillotine of the sun.” Her indelible childhood image is the starting point for the exhibit Kristeva—a novelist, professor, and political scientist—curated for the Louvre on the art of decapitation. Creepy? Definitely. But this is not an exhibition catalogue that might upset sensitive children, squeamish adults, or opera fans who like their favorite bass-baritones intact. Rather, The Severed Head is an intellectually rigorous overview of why this particular image continues to haunt artists and viewers alike.
Like the non-confrontational, user-friendly periods of art history (Egyptian, Renaissance, French Impressionism, celebrity fashion designers) that are selling points for museum exhibits and coffee table books, there is a long tradition of decapitation; every era has a culture that specialized in it. Obviously, a head detached from its body is sensational. Kristeva knows this and uses The Severed Head as a reminder that
The horror of these decapitations and the impact of their reproductions inevitably evokes for us the photographs and televised reports of recent civil wars. In Biafra, Vietnam, and again, now, in Rwanda and Algeria, where fundamentalists currently practice slaughter and slice throats. So frequent are these practices in some areas of the world that global opinion, initially shocked, eventually shuts its eyes.
Kristeva thus commences her tour, an always engaging combination of history, theology, anthropology, literature, and art. Readers should find her references interesting enough to investigate on their own. Because the curator/author is based in France, it is not surprising that the French Revolution is examined in lurid detail. Not only was there public debate on the invention of the guillotine, but “rules of art” were applied to its creation; its inventor, Tobias Schmidt, was a harpsichord maker.
The author is extremely thorough connecting religious images of dead/ floating heads that might at first seem incredulous. She observes rather striking similarities between the Greek Medusa of freezing stare and flowing serpent locks and Jesus Christ:
But we know that Gorgon heads in particular were still reproduced on objects from the Byzantine period and continued to serve as talismans. Bearded masks with long curly tresses that recall the image of certain Gorgons . . . and Christ on the mandylion [holy image] are sometimes found in Edessan [ancient Mesopotamian] buildings from the second and third centuries.
Kristeva makes another parallel between the two: that Christ’s image was used for indoctrination and fear of damnation and Medusa’s to reinforce a fear of women and sex (i.e., castration).
There are three female biblical characters that evoked—and provoked—the same reactions as Medusa. Kristeva names Delilah, Judith, and Salome as “female avengers” with specific axes to grind against a wartime enemy, slavery, and dysfunctional family, respectively. The Severed Head is not even 200 pages long, but it is no abbreviated catechism either. The author succinctly recounts each woman’s story using strong secular sources including the historian Flavius Josephus and Flaubert, a womanizer who struggled completing Herodias (the mother of Salome, who made her ask for the Baptist’s head as reward for her dance) because, as he said, “I am sick of the fear that Salome’s dance inspires in me!”
Kristeva’s best argument for the serious re-examination of biblical bloodbaths is Artemisia Gentileschi’s Judith. A female Renaissance artist, Artemisia continues to be treated as either a politically correct art history reference or rape victim who took out her anger on her attacker/husband out on her canvas. There is nothing politically correct about her art or her painting of Judith and her maid holding down the drunken Assyrian general Holofernes as they slice off his head with a sword. Again, Kristeva chooses her words well:
The important thing that is that she painted like no other woman before or after her, and she did not paint just anything, but a well and truly a violated man—and even better: decapitated by her own hand, the brilliant Artemisia!
Artemisa’s Judith is angry and determined. By comparison, Klimt’s Judith is an ugly, spoiled rich woman high on morphine.
Anne Boleyn, Mary of Scotland, and Marie Antoinette form a famous trio of beheading victims whose biographies have been fictionalized, romanticized, and bowdlerized. Kristeva mentions them in passing in favor of making the larger point that decapitating a ruler debunked the “sacred” aura of royalty, for “the fact remains that the closer we come to modern times, the more decapitations becomes the concern of men.”
Which is why The Severed Head is a reminder that art can be the best teacher, particularly when the topic is an uncomfortable one.
Poetry by Lizzie Hutton
New Issues Poetry & Prose, October 2011
Paperback: 74pp; $15.00
Review by Alyse Bensel
She’d Waited Millennia, Lizzie Hutton’s debut poetry collection of lyrical free verse, finds its emotional core by navigating through the rises and falls of motherhood. Poems ranging in stanzaic and linear form encompass the breadth of intimacies in relationships: from mother to child, lover to lover, and friend to friend. Each inextricably linked poem gathers strength through an accumulation of immediacy with images that build upon one another; the speaker’s examination of the world reveals a close and complicated relationship with description’s power.
A narrative arc runs through one poem as a speaker struggles to conceive a child and then, with child, considers the role of a motherhood and femininity. Once pregnant, the speaker reflects on her childhood memory of attending a wedding in “The Interstate.” In language both intensely lyrical yet translucent, the speaker thinks of how
It reminds me how memory can turn, how my boy
gets rolling sometimes in my middle
like an ocean, with the jointy
movements of a wave curling in
upon itself, a little ear
turned only to its own hum.
While the child begins to change in the movement of the stanza, his movement becoming akin to a wave, the simile remains rooted within the poem. Without growing into the fantastical, these poems about motherhood create reverent moments situated within memory, such as in “Lullaby” where the speaker thinks how this moment “will one day reverb / only in the memory,” and continues to speculate on “The mind’s dark / seasoned soilbed from which, soon, / life too will seem to grow.”
A series of poems interspersed throughout the collection takes up the issue of clear, definitive narrative. In “Fugue,” the speaker takes up the theme of the fugue, claiming
I’d tried to calm
wanting a child. But calm meant nothing
to its smeary
Fact, the body’s
that moves itself.
The sudden break of the line to begin a new capitalized stanza (otherwise unused in the rest of the poems, which follow conventional punctuation) demonstrates the associate leaps of the speaker as she juxtaposes image against image, the thought of her own body and the trunk of a tree with its full canopy of leaves. Hutton employs similar moves in “The Lyre,” where the speaker observes her son “Hunkered in crib-dark” and thinks of his sleep “like Hades’ wife / at the plush edge of her sleepy // Rebedding.” The integration of mythology and the sleeping son layer the poem to highlight the succession of images.
In a collection dealing with the emotional intensity of what may appear to be everyday interactions, She’d Waited Millennia reveals the hidden intimacies of these relationships. Concerned with the power of image, the poet constantly revises each lyrical moment in this book, adding a sense of self-awareness and self-guidance through each crafted yet bare poem.
Fiction by Stephan Eirik Clark
Russian Life Books, February 2012
Paperback: 168pp; $16.00
Review by Lydia Pyne
In 1953, Isaac Berlin composed what is perhaps his best known essay, “The Fox and The Hedgehog,” in which he outlines two specific types of literary genius. He describes Russian writers like Fyodor Dostoyesky who focus narrowly on a character—exploring the every nuance and complex mystique of an individual within his broader context. Authors like Alexander Pushkin, on the other hand, utilize a broad long duree approach to narrative, giving the reader such a sweeping perspective that the individual is simply one part among many of the fabric or context that surrounds him. In short, Berlin’s “foxes” and “hedgehogs” are a useful structure for making sense of two different traditions of literature—particularly Russian literature—along a continuum, and Berlin’s allegorical mammals become a shorthand reference to a specific perspective or type of narration. Vladimir’s Mustache and Other Stories by Stephan Eirik Clark is a brilliant collection of short stories that illustrate the genius of both fox and hedgehog types in Russian literature. Each of his short stories is a fox or a hedgehog with a unique or ironic plot twist that brings to light Clark’s dark absurdist humor.
Through all nine of his short stories, Clark’s narrators explore the question of Russian identity from the time of Peter the Great to the years of the post-Soviet collapse. Perhaps the most unique aspect of Clark’s writing is his ability to manipulate and repurpose the role of the narrator. The narrators in Clark’s short stories—whether they are literature professors exploring the world of mail-order Ukrainian wives, an Italian castrato whose life-long dream is to sing for the tsar, or Kamkov the astronomer who is constantly “re-educated” in camps—all manage to eke out some sort of claimed existence through their dark humor. They are characters who can and are read in complete sympathy by the audience—even the Stalin-era method actor who learns the hard way the danger of losing his own, claimed identity after he has been cast as the role of Hitler for a play, owing to his stature and his moustache. These narrators are fundamentally sympathetic because there is a certain dark sympathetic humor about them that lets them uniquely identify with their Russian history.
Two of the short stories stand out within Clark’s collection of foxes and hedgehogs. In the first, “Kamkov the Astronomer,” two astronomers are trying to decide whether a particular constellation is Cassiopeia or Orion. In Stalin’s presence, their argument runs the gambit of astronomy, philosophy, and logic and eventually descends into a bout of fisticuffs as they cannot come to an agreement about evidence, argument, and how any and all of this might be evaluated for Stalin. The ironic bend in the story, however, begins to develop as the reader is told that all of the knowledgeable astronomers have been put into camps and there is no intellectual community left to be able to check the claims that the two astronomers have made. Eventually, Kamkov the Astronomer is called from a prison camp to determine the argument, but his knowledge brings no reprieve toward his broader fate as Stalin has already signed an execution order for him without making any connection between Kamkov the Astronomer whose expertise he sought and Kamkov the Astronomer whom he ordered executed.
A similar sense of fated irony is seen in “The Castrato of St. Petersburg,” where the dream of a young castrato, Petrus, is to become a famous singer and perform for the tsar. After overcoming many obstacles, when the castrato finally has an audience with the tsar, the reader is convinced that Petrus’s dreams are to be realized completely. However, Clark’s fantastic bit of narrative twist comes in in the last section of the short story where Petrus, who in reality had very little musical talent, is put into the tsar’s “cabinet of curiosities” as a living specimen for victors to see and to hear sing. Petrus is indeed immortalized by the tsar and is more than resigned to it—he embraces his immortalized self.
Vladimir’s Mustache and Other Stories is a brilliant collection of short stories—full of complexly simple characters with enough twists and turns in every plot to keep the reader hooked in Clark’s historical imaginings. This collection shows both the foxes and the hedgehogs of Russian literature, and Clark proves to be a master of both.
Poetry by Gregory Sherl
YesYes Books, September 2011
Paperback: 128pp; $16.00
Review by Katy Haas
In Gregory Sherl’s book Heavy Petting, he presents a sometimes funny, sometimes touching collection of brilliant poems. The book is broken into four sections, each with different themes and different styles. Despite these small differences, the sections share the common thread of Sherl’s distinct voice which is as poetic as it is easy to read. Along with his voice, other commonalities sprinkled throughout various pieces become apparent: Crystal Light, Tylenol PM, leaving conditioner in for the full two minutes.
Beyond these small similarities, I enjoyed picking out the bigger themes that repeated several times throughout the sections of Heavy Petting. Many of Sherl’s poems speak of being in a relationship. In “Notes on a Candy Cane Tree,” there’s a sugary view of love: “Let me just say this: I’m going to kiss you until my lips fall off. If my lips don’t fall off, I will kiss up your spine until I run out of spine. Then I’ll start over.”
Poems like “This Is Probably True” cover the aftermath of a relationship: “She holds the door open, so I can carry a box of my books out of her apartment . . . She doesn’t wait till I’m at my car to turn off the porch light.” Whether focusing on the blissful beginning of a relationship or its end, Sherl writes both with conviction and relatability.
A different relationship that drew me in is the one Sherl has with OCD and bipolar disorder. The poem entitled “OCD” gives a snapshot of what life with the disorder while in a relationship may sometimes be like:
You come home from work and I’m standing in
the middle of the kitchen, naked, my feet puddles
of water. There were no more clean towels I say.
Later pieces continue to bring it up, as in “Everything Between Here Is Still Here and Then” when he writes: “Watch me sanitize my hands after washing them. There is more alcohol on me than in me.” In these poems about the disorders and the pieces on relationships, I appreciated the simple honesty of how Sherl feels about them at different times.
Another thing that attracted me to Heavy Petting was how quirky it is. Poems about Mel Gibson and sestinas dedicated to John Cusack and Celine Dion had me not only smiling but also admiring the ease in which he pulls off the fixed verse poems. These poems and the drawings in the piece “When I Look Up, I Look Up” all serve to make this book entertaining and interesting.
Whether he’s writing about Mel Gibson’s racism or concocting prose poems about being in love, Gregory Sherl writes in a unique and inviting voice that provides fun, exciting, emotionally provoking pieces. With the variety in style, subject, and creativity, Heavy Petting is an entertaining read that I know I’ll want to revisit soon.
The New Poetry of Disability
Edited by Jennifer Bartlett, Sheila Black, Michael Northen
Cinco Puntos, October 2011
Paperback: 326pp; $19.95
Review by Aimee Nicole
As the subtitle notes, Beauty is a Verb has been marked as the new poetry of disability. After a “Short History of American Disability Poetry,” this hefty anthology is broken off into sections, for example: “The Disability Poetics Movement,” “Lyricism of the Body,” and “Towards a New Language of Embodiment.” Rather than just including the actual poetry, authors preface their work with short autobiographies. They touch upon their disabilities as well as how they affect both their lives and their art. This allows the reader to have a more personal interaction with the poetry, as there is a foundation for the words and for the experience.
Just as all disabilities are different, the authors all have different styles and approaches to their craft. One author, Jim Ferris, refers to the percussionist Dame Evelyn Glennie in his prose. After losing her hearing, she learned to hear pitch by feeling the vibrations on her body. Glennie said: “I see the body as a huge ear. Deafness does not mean that you can’t hear, only that there is something wrong with the ears. Even someone who is totally deaf can still hear/feel sounds.” This remark was especially insightful to me. Ferris’s poem “From the Surgeons: Drs. Sofield, Louis, Hark, Alfini, Millar, Baehr, Bevan-Thomas, Tsatsos, Ericson, and Bennan” takes a look at certain dates and follows a medical diagnosis including history, physical examinations, progress notes, etc. Under the date 11-8-63, Ferris writes: “Progress Notes. This bot has received his long leg brace with the caliper extension today. The brace is satisfactory, except for the fact that the ankle joint is rigid and he has a great deal of difficulty getting his trousers on and off and needs to split the seams.” The details in each recollection allow the readers to almost become a part of the diagnosis and feel the author’s frustration in a clinical manner.
In addition to this clinical medical angle, the book also contains light and comical parts that allow the reader to laugh and connect with the narrators. John Lee Clark has an amazing poem titled “Deaf Blind: Three Squared Cinquain.” Here is the first of three stanzas:
BARBARA WALTERS IS IN AWE
of a deaf-blind man
who cooks without burning himself!
Helen Keller is to blame.
Can’t I pick my nose
without it being a miracle?
Every single person on this earth has had to adapt in order to survive, whether due to a physical disability, to fit in at school, or to get a promotion at work. Since the world was not made to accommodate each and every person, we have to adapt to the world around us in order to succeed. Clark hits the nail on the head with this commentary and was able to make me laugh in the process.
Hal Sirowitz also crafts an ingenious poem, titled “A Step Above Cows.” As much as I want to type the whole poem in here, you will have to get the book in order to finish after the teaser:
I read somewhere that a cow
can only walk up stairs but
not down. Even though I have
Parkinson’s, I’m a step ahead
of a cow. I can walk up or down
without much trouble.
While appearing funny and light, this poem continues along to be both insightful and persistent.
Jennifer Bartlett brings up an interesting point in her piece “Exit through the Gift Shop.” She asks: “What responsibility does the poet have, if any at all, to question and/or resist stereotypes?” This is a question many writers struggle with throughout their careers, whether they are women, of a minority race, or suffer from a chronic illness, like me. However, whatever your approach or views, once you break the ice with your readers you have an audience with nothing but ears. And this insightful new collection deserves the widest audience possible.
Fiction by Laura Maylene Walter
BkMk Press, December 2011
Paperback: 175pp; $15.95
Review by Mantra Roy
Winner of the prestigious G.S. Sharat Chandra Prize for Short Fiction, Living Arrangements, a collection of short stories by Laura Maylene Walter, offers the reader thirteen well-crafted stories, crisp in their language, tight in their structure, and thought-provoking in their effect. Most of the stories deal with loss, memory, family relations, and a variety of “living arrangements.”
In the first story, “Living Arrangements,” the reader visits all the physical buildings and inner spaces a woman inhabits from the first few months of her birth until after her death. Loss of a secure childhood in a suburban house, a lonely college dorm, a single-bed apartment rented on a good salary from her first job, a dismal marriage in a spacious house, a hospital bed where her mother lies dying, and finally her own lonely death after which her spirit unites with her favorite dog’s—it is a solemn, reflective journey that a reader takes with the first person narrator as she ruminates on the living arrangements which marked milestones in her otherwise unremarkable life. That many readers will share the arc of the protagonist’s living arrangements makes this story poignant.
The other stories that engage with physical spaces include “Live Model,” “The Last Halloween,” and “Return to Stillbrook.” In the first story Walter raises questions of beauty and its commodification in our society through the tale of an assistant in a lingerie store who models live in the store window, an act that successfully boosts sales. While some are shocked at the exploitation of the female body to enhance profits, others throng the store and purchase merchandise. As the protagonist positions herself in the window like a mannequin for several hours, Walter draws attention to our age of instant celebrity and the role of sexualized media images of femininity. What makes “Live Model” touching is the assistant’s inability or refusal to admit to her exploitation because the attention she receives is a highlight in a life accustomed to being compared to an “ugly” TV star.
In “The Last Halloween,” childhood fascination with the nighttime celebration ends with a hint at the rape of Ariel, a small girl, who is trapped in a heap of leaves with a burning jack o’ lantern nearby while her friend, the protagonist, rushes home to seek help. Walter creates an atmosphere of excitement as the two friends, dressed in costumes, venture into the neighborhood for trick or treating. Having the protagonist dressed up as Sylvia Plath works as a subtle premonition as the tone of the narration darkens. Walter is perfectly honest when she makes the terrified child-protagonist report first on her stolen book and then on Ariel’s predicament, as an after-thought. But by then it may be too late, readers realize. The story reflects on the drastic changes in the living arrangements of pre-teen girls: the familiar friendly neighborhood is now a place of fear, danger, and trauma.
In “The System of Counting” Tabitha, leading an otherwise ordinary life, has a compulsive disorder. She cleans her apartment several times a week and counts everything she does multiple times. Her obsession with the number of times she does something makes her unable to sustain any healthy relationship. At the end of the story, she breaks up with her boyfriend, and her girl friend refuses to pamper her odd habits and leaves her. But the story ends with a disturbing image of Tabitha closely inspecting a lightning bug dancing around a bulb. Her inner living arrangement consumes her to an extent that she can’t function in the world inhabited by other people. But in the obsession with numerical counts perhaps lies a need for emotional stability. At least the numbers don’t fail her. Walter, through her undramatic language, sensitively draws the reader’s attention to the most intimate but barely perceptible necessities of people who are often dismissed as dysfunctional.
Relationships with earlier generations become the focus of “How to Speak Czech,” in which two Czech sisters prepare to welcome a granddaughter. The granddaughter, a young and successful American with little affinity for traditional concepts of home and hearth, finds her world of canned and take-home food colliding with her grandmother’s world, in which stews and pies are made from scratch and the range and oven never seem to be turned off. Walter positions the American granddaughter in the Old World tradition of serving the head of the family, her father, while the women busy themselves in the kitchen to satisfy him. Moreover, the two Czech women sort their old tensions as the single sister, out of long habit, almost succeeds in attracting the attention of the visiting granddaughter while the matriarch of the family resists openly. Walter paints the picture of a family that is fast disappearing from American life: inter-generational differences and the compelling need felt by immigrant generations to pass on their heritage, divorce and break-up of nuclear families begun by American children of European immigrants, and the generation that has no memory of its family’s immigrant experience. The author’s lucid word choice, direct narrative voice, and transparent style add impressively to the human angle of sibling tensions, parent-child distances, and grandparent-grandchild bonding in the living arrangement of family visits that perhaps offer a rooted sense of identity.
Walter’s collection of short stories stays with the reader for a long time. Her accessible but not simplistic style adds value to the writing. The stories make us reflect on incidents in our lives that shape our identities in imperceptible ways. They also remind us of the range of instincts that make us complexly and helplessly human. Although Living Arrangements is her first collection of short stories, it is no surprise that Walter is already an acclaimed writer who successfully engages with a variety of human emotions, relationships, and institutions.
An Oral History of Organic Farming & Sustainable Agriculture on California’s Central Coast
Edited by Sarah Rabkin, Irene Reti, and Ellen Farmer
University of California Santa Cruz Library, September 2011
Paperback: 340pp; $19.95
Review by Alyse Bensel
Gathering from the oral tradition of organic and sustainable farmers along the coast of the Central California region, Cultivating a Movement compiles selected interviews from key farmers that began and continue to pursue the sustainable agriculture movement in the United States and Mexico. While this project highlights only 27 individuals and couples, the vast online archive contains many more interviews with key farmers, politicians, academics, scientists, and many more ecologically minded individuals that contribute to this movement. Ranging in age, gender, class, and ethnicity, all of these farmers are involved with organic and sustainable farms that vary in size and crop.
In the foreword of the book, Linda L. Ivey, a professor of history at California State University, East Bay, articulates the goals of this collaborative project, only a small fraction of which can be contained in a print volume. Ivey states that the “voices captured here provide a first-hand account from one of the epicenters of the early organic farming and sustainable agriculture movement. In doing so, these interviews are nothing short of essential historical resources in the social, cultural, and environmental history of California.” Readers should note that the book’s entries are compiled through a series of interviews, in which the answers to questions are pieced together by the interviewers to create narrative. At times, due to page constraints, these narratives can seem disjointed, but for the most part they carry through in a clear fashion for the reader.
Each interview captures the distinct speaking style and dialect of these varying individuals. Andy Griffin, noted as having roots that “reach back to California’s 1970s organic farming renaissance,” speaks of his journey into organic farming. He talks about his business partner’s perspective on organic farming: “He didn’t want to see organics become an elitist sort of crop. He wanted food to be grown organically for everybody. So we were selling food for people.”
Nesh Dhillion, one of the younger players in the environmental movement, claims that “there’s a lot of inherent problems in supporting the old system. Whereas if you support a decentralized local system, you know what you’re getting and who you are getting it from. You’re looking the farmer in the face.” And, accompanied by photographs, these interviews give a face to the farmer.
Cultivating a Movement showcases the diversity of the farmers involved in these practices of biodiversity. This snippet of written oral history can serve as an essential text for any student of organic and sustainable agriculture by providing a multi-faceted perspective in the farmer’s own words, serving as important primary source material. In addition, for those who wish to read or listen to more material, the book provides the following site to visit: http://library.ucsc.edu/reg-hist/cultiv/home.
Nonfiction by Christopher Schaberg and Mark Yakich
NO Books, October 2011
Paperback: 112pp; $9.95
Review by Cheryl Wright-Watkins
In this book, the two writers explore various elements and facets of modern air travel. The design of the pocket-sized volume is unusual: it is reversible, each half reflecting the unique perspective of its author. Both men are professors in the English Department at Loyola University in New Orleans where they met. Checking In contains the observations and experiences of Schaberg, who once worked as a cross-utilized agent for SkyWest Airlines at the Gallatin Field Airport near Bozeman, Montana while he was attending graduate school. In Checking Out, Yakich explores his lifelong fear of flying. Schaberg and Yakich recently launched a website, www.airplanereading.org, on which they publish an ongoing anthology about air travel in their effort, according to the website’s mission statement, to take airplane reading “beyond throwaway entertainment or mere distraction.”
Schaberg describes in his narrative the myriad of duties he was required to perform as an airport employee, from arranging passengers’ reservations to checking in travelers for flights to loading bags into cargo holds to cleaning the crafts between flights. Schaberg’s prose, often about mundane airport items, is often lyrical, as exemplified in his detailed account of searching for FOD (foreign object debris) on the tarmac, where the most frequently found items were luggage zipper pulls: “There are probably millions of derelict zipper pulls scattered around airports all over the world, accumulating like an abandoned currency, waiting to be excavated by future archaeologists.”
Schaberg deftly depicts the widespread impact of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 on air travel, “commercial airlines had simply been grounded into the unforeseeable future”; on his job at the airport, “the terminal seemed at once totally chaotic and oddly frozen” ; on his university freshmen English students, one of whom insisted that “We [the United States] need to bomb people, NOW!”; and on him personally as an airport employee on his day off on 9/11, when the absence of planes was “a kind of kink in the muscle memory that any job creates over time: where Delta’s 737 usually flew overhead from Salt Lake City at noon, there was only silence and sky” and as an English teacher of college freshman studying Mark Twain’s “Two Views of the Mississippi River,” which seemed suddenly to demand a third perspective—an aerial view, similar to the reconnaissance images that bombarded us from our television screens from the war in Afghanistan.
In the epilogue, Schaberg describes meeting Yakich, who picks him up at the airport when he flies to New Orleans to interview for his job at Loyola University. Over lunch that afternoon, Schaberg shows Yakich an internet photograph of a recent jet crash, and Yakich subsequently suffers a panic attack.
The first part of Checking Out focuses on Mark Yakich’s shame—about his fear of flying, about his admission that he’d read only two different novels (one of them he read twice) by the time he was twenty-five years old. For years, he claims, he was ashamed of being a poet.
Yakich explains the duality of checking out: “the wonderfully strange, zoned-out feeling of actual flying” and “the persistent thought that the plane is going to crash and I’ll soon be checking out with the rest of the passengers in a fiery ball of metal and plastic.” He describes trying to overcome his fear through meditation, medication, and sublimation. In one moment of hopeless desperation, Yakich considers a final, drastic cure for his anxiety: running inside the terminal and screaming, “Bomb, bomb, bomb! until the authorities inscribe [him] into their special [no fly] list forever.”
Yakich sprinkles his narrative with enough dates, details, and facts about plane crashes throughout aviation history to give any reader second thoughts about flying. He threads references to poetry, books, films, music, television, and popular culture throughout his stories to add a deeper layer of resonance and another connection to the reader.
Yakich insists on reading meaningful literature while flying because he doesn’t want his “potential last thoughts to be the stuff of typical airport reading.” He explains his belief that reading is the only aspect of flying that he can control: “I feel that nothing bad will happen in-flight while I am reading mid-sentence, and yet I don’t like to prolong mid-sentence for fear that I won’t get to the end if something bad does happen.”
This book is compelling and thought-provoking and would make for an interesting in-flight read. The writers have provided an insightful look at aviation that travelers and aviation buffs will appreciate and enjoy, and it may make readers more selective about what they read on their next flights.
From Lost To Found on the Pacific Crest Trail
Nonfiction by Cheryl Strayed
Knopf, March 2012
Hardcover: 336pp; $25.95
Review by David Breithaupt
In the mid-1990s, Cheryl Strayed hit a wall. Her mother died of cancer at age 45, only 49 days after diagnosis. Soon after, her marriage unraveled, and she took up with a man of dubious qualities who introduced her to heroin. She liked it, smoking the black tar and occasionally sniffing the powder. It was certainly easier than coping with the out-of-nowhere shock of her mother’s death, coupled with the dissolution of her union with a man she once loved and perhaps still did. She was beating a steady retreat into oblivion.
Her friends noticed that sort of ghostly mimicking of life that earmarks the heroin user. A best friend confronted her, along with her estranged husband, who traveled across many states to do so. They expressed their concerns, yet Cheryl continued her dangerous floundering.
An epiphany arrived, a sort of low-key moment of clarity, but enough to give her a foothold out of the dark recess in which she found herself. Cheryl noticed a pamphlet, or maybe it was a book, that featured the Pacific Crest Trail that meanders north and south along the US western coastline. An idea began to take shape. She left the boyfriend, quit the heroin, and started considering a trip. A trip on foot. From California to Washington State. She could do it, she thought, and began to plan. Cheryl quit her waitress job, grabbed her savings, and hit the road.
Now let me tell you up front that this is not a corny, pilgrimage type of story, not a book-length metaphor of philosophical mishmash. It is simply a story of a woman walking out of despair rather than continuing on her present path to nowheresville. There are no lightning flashes of rejuvenation, only the slow easing of burdens that had darkened her life.
I must take a moment to mention that Cheryl Strayed was the secret identity for quite some time of “Sugar,” who penned the “Dear Sugar” advice column for the literary online site The Rumpus. She outed herself last Valentine’s Day in San Francisco, feeling for some reason it was time to reveal her identity. If you have not already done so, you should visit The Rumpus online and see for yourself its wonderful myriad articles on lit and politics and of course advice, courtesy of Sugar/Cheryl Strayed.
So that having been said, we can continue the hike. The next best thing to hiking is reading about it, though for some of us, reading about it is the best thing. You feel for Cheryl as she plods along, mishap to mishap, overcoming each and continuing along. She is a novice outdoors person, fresh from a serious flirtation with heroin, which isn’t exactly the best preparation for hiking a nation’s coastline. Her pack is too heavy and is remarked upon by almost every hiker she meets. Her boots are the wrong size, causing her to chafe and eventually lose half of her toenails. She has equipment breakage, gets lost, is too hot or cold, and is detoured by heavy snows in the higher altitudes. But there are many moments in between of breathtaking scenery, encounters with wildlife, and best of all, solitude that nurture her bruised memories and losses. And yes, she is a woman hiking alone, a young attractive woman armed only with a screech whistle that couldn’t be heard for more than a few miles if needed (fortunately she doesn’t need it). She keeps company along the way with the books she brought: Faulkner, Joyce and Adrienne Rich, burning them page by page as she reads them to lighten her load.
By the end of the hike, she is not saved, but she has traveled through something. This could have been a heavy-handed book, yet it isn’t; it is simply a story of what happened and how one person grappled with the pitfalls which plague us all. When I finished the book, however, I had sympathy blisters—watch out for that. Summer is almost here. I say you should get on the trail with Cheryl. Just make sure your boots fit.
On the Blackness of Blackness
Nonfiction by Kevin Young
Graywolf Press, March 2012
Paperback: 492pp; $25.00
Review by Ann Beman
Kevin Young is smarter than I am, and a galactically better poet. Reading Young’s The Grey Album makes me feel dumb and confused, and part of that is due to his poetic leaps in tone from academic to vernacular. It’s also due to the fact that I’m ignorant. I am whiter than blank, and ignorant of more than half of Young’s references. But reading The Grey Album also makes me feel like reaching, like the exchange student who doesn’t yet speak or read the language, but her eyes and ears are burning to. With time, she’ll understand. With time, she’ll connect, become a part of the conversation. She just needs time. I just need time with Kevin Young’s essays.
His collection’s title borrows from music producer Danger Mouse’s 2004 concept record, a mash-up of The Beatles’ The White Album and Jay-Z’s The Black Album. Young describes his book as “an attempt at a unifying theory, or evidence of my search for one. It is the story of what I read, heard, and saw at the crossroads of African American and American culture.”
The author plots American culture x as revolving around the y axis of black culture. But his book is anything but formulaic. Instead it bounds and riffs, producing its own mash-up of personal essay, cultural critique, poetry, and blues shout. It attempts to lead the charge “to rescue aspects of black culture abandoned even by black folks, whether it is the blues or home-cookin’ or broader forms of not just survival, but triumph.” To rally that charge, he dissects elements of blackness, spanning from slave narratives to mix tapes, from bebop to hip-hop to poetry: “A poetry not of witness, or of victimhood, or of experience or innocence, but of the moment after: write like a saint, not the picture of a saint. Write like the bone in the box, the relic to be kissed.”
In addition, the author evokes a Basquiat painting of his own mind and its cultural influences. The best example occurs in “Broken Giraffe,” a chapter in which the author reflects on his artistic relation to and deep appreciation of Beat poet Bob Kaufman, whose line “could be thought of as the series of riffs, of repetition with variation, that mark a jazz line.” Named after Kaufman’s poem “Song of the Broken Giraffe,” this essay tells as much about Young’s influences as it does about the surrealist Beatnik, its tone striking a note hovering effectively between personal and cultural, reflexive and informative. Young, too, has heard the broken giraffe’s song.
Broken is a refrain throughout The Grey Album, as are escape, freedom, shadow, that which is “left out,” pseudonyms/renaming, and the counterfeit. Of the last, he writes:
. . . the written, textual “counter fit,” which inverts the white-based construction of authentication. Instead of relying on the authority (and resulting authenticity) of white “fact,” the black author counterfeits such authority by way of fiction. Since previously conceived notions of truth have often oppressed black people, the counterfeit is a literary tool that fictionalizes a black “troof.”
In the chapter “Broken Tongue,” Young digs, performing literary archaeology with such artists as Paul Laurence Dunbar, the first widely popular black poet. This essay also aims to set the record straight regarding African American vernacular versus African American dialect. Young describes the latter as a product of the white plantation tradition—think Uncle Remus—while the former is a form of code, intended to confuse as much as to communicate, to remain “untranslatable,” dividing black from white, new-school from old-school, in-touch from out-of-touch: “English broken here.”
Come to think of it, broken is the best way to read this book—broken into tracks. Put the playlist on shuffle. Listen and respond. Listen some more.