NewPages Book Reviews

 

Posted July 14, 2011

Home/Birth :: Sleight :: The Guinea Pigs :: Parts of a World :: Either Way I'm Celebrating :: The Language of Shedding Skin :: Mid Drift :: The Monkey's Wedding and Other Stories :: Drive Me Out of My Mind :: The End of Boys :: The God Machine :: Caput Nili :: New Stories from the Midwest

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Home/Birth coverHome/Birth: a Poemic

Cross-Genre Work by Arielle Greenberg, Rachel Zucker

1913 Press, December 2010

ISBN-13: 978-0977935178

Paperback: 208pp; $11.00

Review by Erik Fuhrer

Home/Birth is a wonderfully intimate term that invites an exploration of the body and the space it inhabits. When I first noticed this book, I was struck by this term, not yet knowing that this book is literally about the physical act of home-birthing. When I began to read the book, I was comforted to find that its content matched the intimacy of its title. From the start, the reader is placed in the midst of a conversation between Arielle Greenberg, Rachel Zucker, and various other voices which are frequently quoted by the two authors. The conversation is very personal, often detailing individual accounts of birth both at home and at the hospital.

The thesis of this book is that women would often be safer, and more comfortable, at home in their own environment. The home is essentially represented as an extension of the body, a space that a woman can rely on during her labor. The hospital, in contrast, is depicted as a sterile, sanitized place where doctors operate according to their own convenience, often at the expense of the woman’s own needs. In keeping with the anti-institutional spirit of the source material, no formal citations are provided. The authors describe the result of this omission as providing for a “more organic, non-linear” fluidity. Surprisingly, the lack of footnotes does not detract from the authenticity of the third-person narratives quoted within the texts. These are often so powerfully rendered, that the reader does not question their truth. However, I do sometimes think that the factual numbers quoted in the text would have benefited from formal citations. Nonetheless, the voices, especially those of the authors, appear so clear and informed that it’s hard for the reader not to just take them on their word.

My main complaint with this text is that, though it was often heartbreaking and beautifully rendered, it did become a bit repetitive as it progressed. The same argument was being posed in nearly every section: that the hospital’s treatment of women is often abusive (forcing them to birth on their back, pumping them with drugs), whereas the home allows women freedom (of birthing position, of having the choice to eat and be free from drugs and other inhibitors). The only flaw in my own criticism is the afterword, where Arielle Greenberg gives a moving account of her stillbirth and her choice to continue to refuse hospitalization and birth the stillborn at her home. This was the most haunting and intimate section, and by far the longest, (mostly) uninterrupted personal narrative of the book. The reader follows Greenberg from the devastation brought by the news of her child’s death within her, through the tender portrait of her maternal bond with the child during her home-birth. It was a great note to end on, as it beautifully displays the rich bond between mother and child that home-birth allows for, even in the face of death.

I think that this is an essential book for anyone considering motherhood. It teaches the reader to trust birth, and even more importantly, to trust the body. It warns against the impulse to seek external aid: “All women need to know how infrequently we actually need interventions, and how interventions can make everything harder and dangerous, instead of easier and safer. There is nothing easy about having Pitocin, or a c-section.” While the authors do constantly remind the reader that there are indeed times when intervention is needed, they insist that more often the woman’s own body knows how to take care of itself. While this is undoubtedly a positive message, I was a bit wary when Greenberg focused upon her decision not to have an abortion: “for one thing, abortion sounded so much like all the hospital interventions we have tried so hard to avoid. And I thought, if I have this baby, I will ultimately never regret it, but if I don’t have it, I may regret it for the rest of my life.”

In a book that is attempting to extend woman’s rights and give them back control over their bodies, this statement did seem to be a rather startlingly conservative argument against abortion. While I understand the sentiments behind the statement, I do think that equating abortion with the often misogynist interventions detailed elsewhere in this book is problematic for women’s rights as a whole. This is a case where I feel the stance against any intervention might extend too far. For the most part, however, I do feel like the book’s overall argument against intervention is a rather progressive, liberating one.

Though distinctly about birth and the female body, the non-interventionist argument is also universally applicable, as it teaches the reader to question institutions and trust intuition instead. It designates the body as the primal site of knowledge and encourages that women, and by extension all people, learn to embrace this knowledge. Reading this book, I felt like I was let in on an intimate conversation and that I was part of these women’s lives. It was easily one of the most affecting books that I have read in years.

 

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Sleight coverSleight

Fiction by Kirsten Kaschock

Coffee House Press, October 2011

ISBN-10: 1566892759

ISBN-13: 978-1-56689-275-9

Paperback: 330pp; $16.00

Review by Alyse Bensel

The creation of an entirely new form of performance art—drawing from modern dance, spoken word, and architecture—provides a provocative debut novel by Kirsten Kaschock. Sleight attempts to address the ever-pervasive issue of how art should function in and respond to the tragedies of the modern world. With an array of characters depicted in lyrical, short language, the novel unfolds in traditional from, small plays, word sequences, and boxes filled with words that experiment with the novel form in a self-reflective manner, allowing further introspection.

Kaschock creates a new performance art named sleight, an art created by Antonia Bugliesi, a ballet dancer who found drawings from a 17th century Frenchman Jesuit and brought them to life with glass and wire structures, designed by architects and manipulated by dancers. Nearly a century later, a modern sleight troupe director, West, decides to revolutionize sleight, deciding that he must imply meaning into the performance in response to a couple’s murder of various nameless children. He recruits two sisters Lark and Clef, one a former and one a current sleightest, to implement this new sleight performance. The sisters must navigate their relationship to each other and their relationship to sleight, highlighting dilemmas of how art functions in today’s society.

While the beginning of the novel may be difficult to navigate, Kaschock provides ways for the reader to adjust to the novel’s abstractions and dense language with its short, direct sentences that attempt to tackle complex ideas. Footnotes provide background information for the sleight, including defining unfamiliar terms, explaining histories, and giving other necessary background information. The novel’s language reads much like a poem (Kaschock authored two poetry collections) in its musicality and rhythm. For example, during a sleight performance, the writer of the troupe describes it “As if they were all just masks with nothing behind, or else wreckage. …He was dumb, although the words came and hung from him like a noose. He tried to offer the audience this same terrible stillness.” This tension in art permeates these artists as they try to grasp the art they continue to perform.

Sleight questions underlying notions of meaning and meaninglessness in art through its complicated nature, but it does not become the most challenging aspect of the novel. Lark, the former sleighest who is married with a child, speaks about ridding herself of her “Needs” by crushing them into powder. In a conversation with a writer for the troupe, she attempts to explain a Need, saying “‘Desire is what I do. A Need does desire to me.’” Lark then paints wood knots with a paint derived from the powder and calls them “Souls.” A few moments in the novel imply that these souls belong to some of the artists yet are owned by others. By transforming the unseen into the real, concepts become an unsettling reality. Always disorienting yet fascinating to watch unfold, Sleight provides a deep examination of art and those who engage with its ever-shifting presence.

 

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The Guinea Pigs coverThe Guinea Pigs

Fiction by Ludvìk Vaculìk

Translated from the Czech by Kača Poláčková

Open Letter Books, May 2011

ISBN-10: 1934824348

ISBN-13: 978-1-934824-34-4

Paperback: 180pp; $13.95

Review by Jeremy Benson

Though hardly a household name in the U.S., Ludvìk Vaculìk is probably best known first among historians for his provocative publications during the Prague Spring in 1968, and then among the more eccentric students of literature and journalism. Even then, he’s not recognized for writing, but for championing modes of literature: samizdat, the precursor of underground DIY zines, which enabled Prague writers to thrive under harsh censorship, and the editorial street-beat columns known as Feuilleton. A Cup of Coffee with my Interrogator, published in 1987, collects Vaculìk’s feuilletonic samizdat essays for an English audience.

Would it be too easy to call The Guinea Pigs hezky česky? Compared to Kundera or Škvorecky, who’ve found significant success in North America through cosmopolitan and globalized writing, Vaculìk’s work maintains a typically Czech feel, localized in scope and mood. As told by State Bank clerk Vašek, the novel follows a mysterious disappearance of money from circulation, while at home, the arrival of guinea pigs lightens the burden of this knowledge. Vašek’s narration often bumbles between the two spheres of influence sans segue, though they contrast and inform each other as foils, finishing each other’s sentences.

Vašek has a fair dose of Good Soldier Švejk-like idiocy, too; one can’t speak of his innocence with much certainty. His job is limited to counting and stacking 100-crown bills, and he claims to know nothing about advanced economics, but he spends each night calculating, and hides his figures in the bottom of the guinea pig cage. Of course, feigned ignorance is key to survival in a politically-unfriendly environment.

The lynchpin—so to speak—for the Pigs, and arguably for Vaculìk’s political editorials, is the desire for sovereignty. In his “Two Thousand Words,” Vaculìk urged citizens to take action in spurring the communist party toward more democratic policies, which would give workers more freedom in their individual choices as well as an increased say in government. (Vaculìk and his liberal allies also hoped progressive policies would undermine the Soviet influence over Czechoslovakia.) Likewise, the narrator Vašek is acutely aware of his lack of influence. “As you know, a man can be a prince or the merest of the prince’s non-devoted slaves...The one at the bottom is unhappy because he has to obey everybody, and there is no one to obey him. But if he finds that he has at least one creature even one creature lower than himself,”—like a guinea pig—“the world takes on an entirely different aspect.” As Vašek observes and tests his guinea pig subjects, so too are his authorities keeping a close watch over Vašek, testing to see how much he knows.

The issues raised by the novel remain highly relevant, as they likely always will. As protesters in the Arab world demand more personal sovereignty and more transparency of their governments, and as the Obama administration throws the book at watchdogs and whistleblowers, Open Letter Books’s republication of The Guinea Pigs couldn’t be more timely.

 

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Parts of a World coverParts of a World

Fiction by A.G. Mojtabai

TriQuarterly Books, June 2011

ISBN-10: 0810127660

ISBN-13: 978-0810127661

Hardcover: 208pp, $24.95

Review by Alex Myers

Tom Limbeck, a social worker in New York City, lives a mundane life. His office life constrained ever more by budget cuts, his social life limited by his own depressive and obsessive tendencies, his world is restricted and hemmed in. But one thing fascinates Tom: a homeless young man named Michael who becomes part of his caseload. Such is the premise of A.G. Mojtabai’s novel Parts of a World.

Relentless in its reality, this novel portrays the grittiness of life on the streets. Michael is a habitual dumpster diver who suffers under the delusion that his mother is somehow providing for him through the garbage. The narrator, Tom the social worker, struggles to understand this existence: “What should I call them, those shadow people in the alley? Collectors? Recyclers? Redeemers?” He wants desperately to help Michael, yet his every effort is thwarted.

Parts of a World becomes a novel about religion and desire. Tom wants salvation, wants to know he is helping others. He also yearns to feel and believe, something that his charge, Michael, clearly does, feeling and believing that the city is providing for him, even as he is poisoned and sickened by the food he scrounges. Yet, Tom realizes as he watches the dumpster culture that “nothing discarded was ever really lost.” This tension between waste and want is one he feels in his own life.

As it turns out, it is Tom who needs the help even more than Michael. As he tries to help this lost young man, his own life fizzles out. He struggles to maintain even the veneer of normalcy after his longtime girlfriend leaves him. He reports, optimistically, that “although I took my suppers alone, I set my place with care. I attended to what I was eating: I took the time to set down a plate. Now, as before, it was mainly takeout. But no more eating out of paper cartons.” His existence, though a step above dumpsters, is still a marginal one.

Ultimately, the novel resolves itself around the idea that Michael is no different than any other person. As Tom, haunted by his client’s disappearance, goes around the city searching for him, he shows a sketch to various people, only to be told that “the man in the picture here, he could be anyone—you , me, anybody.” This idea of universality seems to be the theme that Mojtabai is reaching for: the homeless aren’t any different, aren’t truly other, than the mainstream. We marginalize them to make ourselves feel better.

The richest parts of this work come from the social observations and from the moments when the mundane is lifted to the spiritual. However, too much of the novel is mired in cliché. On page after page, phrases like “hoping against hope,” “shaking like a leaf,” and “once-burned…twice-shy” cropped up. These overused phrases broke the spell in what was otherwise fine prose. Together with a plethora of exclamation points, the effect was one of reaching, wanting to achieve a moment, rather than letting the story make its own mark.

 

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Either Way I'm Celebrating coverEither Way I’m Celebrating

Poems & Comics

Poetry by Sommer Browning

Birds, LLC, January 2011

ISBN-10: 0982617755

ISBN-13: 978-0-982617-75-5

Paperback: 96pp; $16.00

Review by Elena Spagnolie

I don’t claim to understand all of Sommer Browning’s poetry, but I can say that I thoroughly enjoyed reading her first full-length collection, Either Way I’m Celebrating. Her work is smart and requires some effort to interpret; the eccentric, stream of consciousness writing subtly shifts from thought to thought and challenges readers to follow. And it’s certainly worth the undertaking. Browning’s poetry is flat out funny. For example, in the poem “Sideshow” she writes:

We only shelled out a buck,
knew The Snake Man
was a sham and Electra,
someone’s mother. We were promised
The Smallest Woman in the World,
but expected some specimen in a jar.
Instead, The Smallest Woman in the World
asked for money to buy a wheelchair, said
she was from Trinidad.
We’d never heard of it.

Her voice is delightfully unique (especially in my favorite poem “Vale Tudo” in which she describes the absurdity of the Walt Whitman Mall on Long Island), if not a little odd, and Browning creates vivid images that linger in readers’ minds. For example, in her poem “To the Housesitter,” she writes:

The House
marks it. The new light bulb burns out a month from
now. And naturally, it cools in its socket until someone
can’t see to find the flour. Cold when the cooking stops,
when the television blackens, when the woman sleeps,
her body releasing by degrees. The stomach and heart
fatten out, each blood cell walks her body.

This collection of poems also includes a number of Browning’s strange comics—breasts being drawn towards a telephone as if by magnetic force, a finger sticking out of an olive—which are largely scatological or sexual in nature. I found myself cracking up at the randomness of them more than the funniness, but they made me chuckle all the same. So if you think a penis riding a bicycle is funny (and it is kind of funny; it’s okay to admit it), look no further. Browning’s collection of poems and comics is sharp-witted, poignant, goofy, and certainly well worth reading.

 

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The Language of Shedding Skin coverThe Language of Shedding Skin

Poetry by Niki Herd

Main Street Rag, January 2011

ISBN-10: 1599482673

ISBN-13: 978-1-59948-267-5

Paperback: 62pp; $14.00

Review by Alyse Bensel

A painfully articulate and driven first collection, The Language of Shedding Skin employs the powerful force of words to speak about struggles with race and gender. Niki Herd, a Cave Canem fellow, follows in a tradition that engages with lyric and rhythmic language, using song as a guiding principle. In poems that freely range in form yet always possess an emotional depth, this compact debut collection will captivate with its spirited language.

Some poems try to resurrect and reclaim family and racial history with the use of song. In “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” the speaker mixes song lyrics with couplets, such as when the speaker addresses a you, “dirt digging and planting mums the color of tangerines. / He’s got the whole world … hands no stranger to cast iron // skillets, the combing of defiant hair.” Language beats rhythmic in “In the Company of Women,” where the speaker recalls “my first feminists” who were “big / booty wearing grape blowpop smacking kick / ball playing wash cars on saturday black & proud” when she lives in Cleveland. Many of these poems respond to and provide closure for longer poems.

Herd prefaces and ends the collection with two poems that echo and respond to one another by addressing hot and relevant topics concerning race and art in today’s society. The opening poem, “50 Bullets, One Dead, and Many Questions,” distills the fervor of the Sean Bell killing by NYPD officers in December 2006. The reader is immediately immersed in Herd’s lyrical language as the speaker says:

Remember every bullet is a hymn
every hymn a taut line of rope
a row in a cotton field
a path to the back of the bus
a razor’s edge as it cuts.

Over the course of the collection, the final title poem earns its joyful uprising by subverting the lines of the original poem. The stanza provided above is altered slightly, with the first line saying “Remember each ancestor is a hymn.” Instead of reiterating curses, the speaker celebrates a love that she brings about through art.

 

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Mid Drift coverMid Drift

Poetry by Kate Hanson Foster

Loom Press, May 2011

ISBN-10: 0931507278

ISBN-13: 978-0931507274

Paperback: 64pp; $15.00

Review by Renee Emerson

Mid Drift is Kate Hanson Foster’s first book of poems. Written in free verse, the poems are lyrical, dark as they plunge into snapshot memories of her past, and powerful. The poems take place in the city, at night, circling images of water, particularly of rivers, and the narrative, though only seen in glimpses, reveals a betrayal, an affair. Lowell is a recognized influence, in the last poem “Dear Lowell,” where the speaker claims, unconvincingly, to plan to leave the place she has written about so meticulously in poem after poem. The line in “Mill City,” “My mind is filthy with old, dear secrets” encapsulates the book—the speaker simultaneously holds the past “dear” yet recognizes it as “filthy.”

The speaker begins a number of letters to God—“Dear God:” is a phrase that occurs in several poems in the collection, but the thought is often left unfinished. It is first seen in the first “Prayer” poem in the book, where the speaker muses on “what has gone wrong with [her] life.” Never coming to an answer, she instead turns further inward, analyzing her prayer to God as a “hymn that tolls and darkens” or a “church bell shaking / off the birds.” Her poems on family in the second section carry the same tone, hinting at suicide and mental illness “running in the family,” speaking, never quite directly, of the death of close relatives.

Mid Drift is from a distinct perspective, a distinct place. There is the mill, the river, the dark city—the writer never abandons those elements, while still exploring variation, primarily through structure and lyric rhythm. It is a cohesive, lyrical first book of poems, the first of what I hope are many such collections from Kate Hanson Foster.

 

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The Monkey's Wedding and Other Stories coverThe Monkey’s Wedding and Other Stories

Fiction by Joan Aiken

Small Beer Press, April 2011

ISBN-10: 1931520747

ISBN-13: 978-1-931520-74-4

Hardcover: 203pp; $24.00

Review by Laura Pryor

British author Joan Aiken died in 2004, leaving behind a huge volume of work, including over a hundred books. She began with short stories, and this collection of nineteen tales is a fun introduction to Aiken’s quirky, imaginative style. The word “tale” is particularly apt for these stories; many of them read like old folk tales handed down through generations.

For example, here’s the opening line to “Girl in a Whirl”: “Her name was Daisy and she was a smasher, the crispest colleen in Killyclancy.” With an opening like that, the reader might be expecting a tale of a charming milkmaid in a rural village. But this is Aiken, queen of the unpredictable, so Daisy is not a milkmaid, but a stunt rider who rides a motorbike round and round inside a metal cage. In another story, a woman stranded on a deserted island learns to communicate with some very sophisticated mice that enjoy discussing philosophy. In my favorite story, “Red Hot Favourite,” a nearsighted misogynist loses his glasses, and finds the perfect woman.

Aiken’s versatility gives the collection tremendous variety. Some stories, like “Water of Youth” and “The Sale of Midsummer,” have a fairy-tale feel; others are reminiscent of creepy tales you’d tell around a campfire with a flashlight under your chin (“Wee Robin,” for instance, opens with, “This story was told me by my aunt Martha,” and tells of a little boy who mysteriously appears and disappears in the home of a Countess). A few stories, however, are achingly sad and poignant, such as “Hair,” the story of a man whose young wife dies while on their honeymoon, and the title story, “The Monkey’s Wedding,” in which an elderly woman loses her beloved son and discovers a grandson she never knew existed.

Aiken clearly had a wild imagination, but it is her skill as a writer that makes her odd yarns so engrossing. For instance, in this passage, the young widower in “Hair” thinks of his departed wife:

Matter can neither be created nor destroyed, he thought. Not matter, no. The network of bones and tendons, the dandelion clock of fair hair, the brilliantly blue eyes that had once belonged to Sarah, and had so riotously obeyed her will for a small portion of her life—a forty-second part of it, perhaps—was now quietly returning to earth in a Christian cemetery in Ceylon. But her spirit, the fiery intention which had coordinated that machine of flesh and bone and driven it through her life—the spirit, he knew, existed neither in air nor earth. It had gone out, like a candle.

Contrast that passage with the opening of “Water of Youth”:

Gay and glorious, one day every year, the market square of this little town is, and that’s the day in September when the fair comes, and music peals, and roundabouts whirl, and the through-traffic, if it wants to get by, has to give the town a miss and scrape along side lanes past sodden blackberry hedges.

This versatility is reflected throughout her career; she wrote stories for literary and women’s magazines, as well as dozens of children’s books, including the popular “Wolves of Willoughby Chase” series.

The collection includes an introduction by Aiken (written in 1995) and a longer, biographical introduction by her daughter Lizza. In the author’s introduction, Aiken claims that many of her stories are inspired by dreams. I only wish my dreams were half as entertaining as Aiken’s tales.

 

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Drive Me Out of My Mind coverDrive Me Out of My Mind

24 Houses in 10 Years

Nonfiction by Chad Faries

Emergency Press, June 2011

ISBN-10: 0983022623

ISBN-13: 978-0-9830226-2-6

Paperback: 254pp; $16.00

Review by Holly Zemsta

It takes a while to settle into Chad Faries' Drive Me Out of My Mind: 24 Houses in 10 Years. A memoir that chronicles the author's itinerant childhood, the book devotes a chapter (including a foreword and afterword, as well as three unnumbered “lost chapters”) to each childhood home. The book's format is important, as it provides structure for the narrative events, flights of fantasy, poetic imagery, and dreams contained therein.

Faries grew up in the 70s, chiefly in Michigan, bouncing back and forth between the Upper and Lower Peninsulas with the occasional short-lived move to Texas or Florida. His memories serve as a window—albeit a murky one—to not only the gritty details of rural Midwest poverty, but also the 70s themselves. The author's mother personified that decade, cruising through her days in a haze of drugs and sex and what we would regard today as nearly criminal child neglect.

Rather than look back at this through an adult lens, Faries chooses the child's point of view with its concordant difficulty of the reliability of memory. Saddled with the obvious problem of how to write the earliest chapters that took place when he was an infant, he employs a mix of narrative, metaphor, and fantasy. Faries's main strength lies in the vivid images he creates from this material, such as a line from when his mother and her friends, still teenagers, are at a restaurant when he isn't yet two:

“Fuck you!” I interjected, and they all laughed and stamped their feet and shook their heads frantically, shaking their cigarettes in the air and exhaling a thick braided smoke into the deep fried air of Speed's.

At other times, the child's standpoint allows Faries to defuse parts of his youth, such as witnessing numerous sexual acts of his mother's. Of his introduction to oral sex, he says simply, “Mother was so hungry she started eating men.”

Using this perspective is a wise choice, as many readers might focus on the shock inherent in certain aspects of a memoir like this—full of chaos, fear, and base levels of humanity. Faries sees—and imitates—a lot of sex, smokes pot numerous times as a small child (“Give him a hit! That's so fucking cute.”), breaks a bone, and lives through an inadvertent poisoning when his mother washes his mouth out with soap:

There were certain periods where mother would jump on the “responsible parent wagon” and punish me for things she figured it was traditionally right to punish kids for. But there was no consistency in it, and she often got it wrong. For example, this time it was bad soap. Gramma said it had a “solvent” in it. We called some special number on the telephone and then Mother hung up and ran to the kitchen to get a quart of milk and made me drink the whole thing.
“I'm sorry, I'm sorry,” she kept saying and hugged me a lot. I didn't know if she was sorry for not leaving me in the basement or for censoring me. It didn't matter much anyway because I was comfortable.

Nothing more is said about it. No adult perspective is needed for such events; readers can supply their own horror, muted somewhat by the author's own dispassionate portrayal of his life.

One constant throughout Faries' chaotic childhood is movement: the rocking of a plastic hobby-horse, the hum of a station wagon or motorcycle underneath him, the frenetic movement of sex and the waves of sound that assault him as a result. And, of course, the same sentence that closes each chapter:

And then we moved.

Reading the book is a bit like stepping onto a carnival ride, but after a while, one settles into the author's rhythm in much the same way he must have settled into his own life. Occasionally, his poetic turns of phrase take the prose somewhat over the top, in a narrative already laden with drug trips and a child's escapist fantasies. But overall, his style lends itself well to the memoir format, shaping and presenting events without making them feel overly massaged. It's a tribute to Faries's skill that the poignant last chapter, which serves as a bittersweet what-if and a gentle disentangling from the muddled lives in the story, is told from the point of view of a pet hamster.

One inevitably wonders about the now-grown Faries, who occasionally tosses an adult comment or chapter into the book—how he survived such a childhood, and what form the inevitable fallout from it might take. A mention of a part two in the dedication suggests that more is forthcoming. After the rollicking, sometimes horrifying, sometimes laugh-out-loud lunacy of Faries's first ten years of life, his teen years sound promising indeed.

Drive Me Out of My Mind can be placed in the same category as memoirs from authors like David Sedaris and Augusten Burroughs, but is set in its own sordid wonderland of plastic welfare chips, furniture and pillows fashioned from the garbage of others, trailers with a single running faucet, and near-feral children playing naked together. It's his unflinching look at this strata of society, and the unconventional love found within it, that sets the book apart from others of its genre.

 

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The End of Boys coverThe End of Boys

Nonfiction by Peter Brown Hoffmeister

Counterpoint Press, June 2011

ISBN-10: 1593764203

ISBN-13: 978-1593764203

Paperback: 224pp; $14.95

Review by Ann Beman

It could have gone the other way for Peter Brown Hoffmeister. He could be strung out, in prison, or dead. In his first book, Hoffmeister chronicles his adolescent downward spiral and the events which signaled that he needed to pull up, one way or another, into wild, blue manhood. “When I think about my childhood, I am confused,” he says. “There is a lot about everything I don’t understand.” We readers are game to grapple alongside for understanding, as the author doles out suspenseful moments, employing super-tuned senses, providing rich imagery, grounded reflection, and the tension inherent in a coming-of-age tale in which drugs, violence, and a genetic tendency toward OCD conspire—“I bite my fingernails until they bleed, then I bite them over again to make sure they’re all even. They never bleed evenly enough. There is so much I can’t control.”

Pressed by a mother whose “strings aren’t tied correctly,” and by a father whose “rules are like the edges of sheet metal, sharp and paradoxical,” the boy relents to an inner voice:

At night when I am alone, the machine comes suddenly like an old relative. The machine moves in, settles, unpacks its suitcases in the closet, hangs coats on the bedroom hooks. …the voice comes after. The voice demands. Calm. Insistent.

Booted from boarding school to boarding school, from one Lord of the Flies-like episode to the next, he eventually lands on a downtown Dallas bus station floor. Ultimately, he realizes the source of the voice and reaches for his own—“I start writing. …Try to write about my schools and my expulsions and traveling and Dallas. But I can’t…How could I write about love and anger and truth and pain and compulsion and starting over?” How indeed? This vivid memoir supplies the answer.

 

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The God Machine coverThe God Machine

Fiction by Robert Fisher

Blue Cubicle Press, May 2011

ISBN-10: 0982713630

ISBN-13: 978-0-9827136-3-1

Paperback: 122pp; $10.00

Review by Hazel Foster

Robert Fisher’s The God Machine takes after Orwell’s dystopian classic, 1984, with bits of Margaret Atwood’s more modern approach, Oryx and Crake. In The God Machine, a planet is harvested and controlled by “God.” God is, in fact, a computer maintained by a “superior” race of humans. The inhabitants of the planet, bred and brainwashed into submission, lead lives tightly controlled by the computer and its manipulators. That is, until Walter Dodge. Dodge questions, finds the truth, and reveals all, in turn becoming a god-like figure and bringing down the machine. This all happens in “Part 1.”

“Part 2” is where the novel takes shape and distinguishes itself from other dystopian novels. “Part 2” follows Sara, the child of two God-followers who were murdered by Dodge. Sara seeks to undo all that Dodge has done. She is ruthless and focused. She is the protagonist every dystopian novel needs. As she journeys across the planet, seeking a way to reboot “God,” she witnesses the horrors of a planet run by the Dodgists:

a bonfire of burning electronics and optic cables yanked from the bowels of the Cathedral bloomed on the rocky beach, casting a yellow and green glow across the water. A pile of twenty or so corpses lay on the opposite edge of the settlement.

Fisher’s The God Machine is a quick read and brings up an interesting question: does the idea of “God” maintain civilization?

 

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Caput Nili coverCaput Nili

How I Won the War and Lost My Taste for Oranges

Poetry by Lisa Gill

West End Press, May 2011

ISBN-10: 098269685X

ISBN-13: 978-0-98226968-5-9

Paperback: 144 pp; $16.95

Review by Richard Oyama

If a writer addresses conditions of extremity, does that exempt the work from critique, putting it somehow beyond the pale? Objectivist poet Charles Reznikoff wrote Holocaust, a volume based on testimony from the Nuremberg Trials. There were times when it seemed to me that collection lacked what Gabriel Garcia Marquez considered a first condition for literature: “poetic transfiguration of reality.”

Caput Nili, a hybrid work of poetry and prose by Lisa Gill and art by Kris Mills, details the poet’s “impossible journey” through the mental health system, exploring sexual abuse and American violence. Mills’s “Portrait of Woman with Rabbit Hole” alludes to Alice Liddell of Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, and Gill’s account has a Through the Looking Glass quality as the author negotiates a system seemingly predicated on illogic. The collection is fierce, harrowing, clear-eyed, flawed, and necessary.

Gill recounts her early history of medication for mood swings and insomnia, and her childhood determination to write. Doctors labeled her manic depressive, the old term for bipolar disorder. Later, Gill would be diagnosed with temporal-lobe epilepsy, said to account for her ecstatic states. The effect was devastating: “Everything mysterious and beautiful was becoming clinical.” Mills’s art deconstructs and “re-visions” female representations much as Gill challenges psychiatric orthodoxies.

For Gill, medical records comprise a counter-narrative that lessens her authorial power. As an NEA poetry fellowship recipient, however, Gill’s recognition is its own validation.

“Interpersonal Arghing” looks at violence in daily life—as threat, predation, and reciprocity. Gill describes horrific experiences of domestic abuse in plain language as though simply to tell effort is enough. Therapy and education is clearly part of the poet’s intent, hence lines that are more like epigrams: “self-preservation is instinct.” While Gill’s language is precise as always, what often disappears is the verbal play of volumes such as Red as a Lotus and Dark Enough; she even opts for a bromide: “Did I tell you I love life?”

“Fuse” addresses sexual assault and domestic violence. One in four women will be victimized by sexual assault, most rapes occurring between 16 and 24 years of age. What the author learned from such predation was to fight back, to “call bluffs,” to challenge racial myths about rape.

In “White Coat Cavortions,” Gill recounts her threat to hold up an MRI clinic with a shotgun, an act eventually validated by a confirmation of “severe multiple sclerosis.” As with the other poems, Gill writes with an awful flatness: “when I held a cigarette to my arm / when I quit eating / when I overdosed / when I put a blade into my wrist.” While medication can stabilize, the diagnosis of mental illness has the consequence of stigmatizing, marginalizing, rendering the patient voiceless. The author exposes hierarchies of power, even acts of predation, within the health care system itself.

Gill’s description of untreated MS symptoms reads like slapstick: “I’d become a stumblebum, a teeterer, a total wobbler…Wriggle, flinch, cartwheel.” She wrests linguistic delight from the body’s loss of control. Sensation in a toe leads from despondency to a “wiggling rejubilation.”

Most affectingly, Gill recalls her post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD):

The muck.
The mire.
The partially remembered
and mostly forgotten.

She writes, “The MRI is a crime scene photo” of abuse. According to Harvard psychiatrist Martin Teicher, “such abuse…induces a cascade of…neurobiological effects that irrevocably alter neural development.” Thus Gill discovers a linkage between trauma and disease, arriving at something “akin to acceptance,” yet her memories of childhood abuse remain fragmentary.

Though her research shows only “correlations” between trauma and disease, a Veterans Administration study demonstrably proved that the percentage of veterans with an autoimmune disorder is higher among those who have PTSD. A World Health Organization study showed that women who were domestic violence victims experienced poorer health later in life than those who weren’t.

Gill’s possession of a shotgun leads to an unexpected but unapologetic epiphany: “Violence is learned and I’ve been schooled.” She rejects victim status. Violence is “Entrenched. / Ingrained. / Systemic.” Its psychic costs are fear, submission, and dissociation. The epiphany leads her to self-empowerment, female empowerment, and the work to build a burgeoning life. If PTSD is linked to disease, Gill speculates about the potentialities of life’s pleasures: “Listening to Monk and pining for your own Nellie at dusk.”

 

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New Stories from the Midwest coverNew Stories from the Midwest

Edited by Jason Lee Brown, Jay Prefontaine

Swallow Press, May 2011

ISBN-10: 0804011354

ISBN-13: 978-0-8040-1135-8

Paperback: 281pp; $16.95

Review by Olive Mullet

Lee Martin’s introduction in New Stories from the Midwest promotes Midwest writers, sometimes overlooked by East Coast literati; however, this collection of nineteen writers illustrates less a sense of the Midwest than daring developments of plot and character, which illustrate contemporary realities.

Two stories that have clear Midwest settings are Micah Riecker’s “The Drowned Girl,” set on a quiet lake near Petoskey, MI, and Chris Leslie-Hynan’s “Pure Superior,” set in the Upper Peninsula, Michigan and in Sault St. Marie, where the worry is “Our dignity about coming from a Boring Place is very sensitive.” Of course, other stories make brief Midwest references, like Beth Mayer’s “The Way to Mercy” referring to Mercy Hospital, Chicago and also to a favorite Midwestern fish, the smelt.

Mostly the masterly writing stands out. As Martin says, the stories have to do with “the human desire for connection.” However, these are contemporary stories—fortunately, except for one (“Bedtime Stories for the Middle-Aged” by Christie Hodgen), not experimental in form but rather in defying the expectations of the traditional plot. For instance, the usual love story gets transformed. Gregory Blake Smith’s “Being and Nothingness (Not a Real Title)” is the kind of indirect love story written today where a man sharing his apartment with a woman falls for her, even though she is into a million disguises and performances, so that at the end he has to confess his love openly: “The Boyfriend has art and spectra of a thousand digital boyfriends reinforcing him. I have only my bruised and lonely heart, have only the real world, with Venus missing.”

Micah Riecker’s “The Drowned Girl” unfolds like a regular love story except the title reminds us of a reality that at the end must be faced. Chris Leslie-Hynan’s “Pure Superior” is about the strong friendship/quasi-lesbian love between a Russian girl and a girl in a wheelchair (from polio), which becomes desperate at the end, and is so different from other so-called friendships: “Friends are awfully inconsiderate. They leave you where you lie, just anywhere. They go off after their own fun. Friends are pitiless.”

One of the most daring love stories, Benjamin Percy’s “The Tree” is moving, even from the extraordinary point of view of the tree, first growing, and then being loved by a little girl and when the girl goes away, doing anything to get her back home. As Lee Martin says, the sense of loss is a Midwestern theme, here again unexpectedly developed.

In Janice Deal’s “Dinosaurs,” it’s not just the loss of the husband but as the mother-in-law suggests, the future loss of the daughter as she grows up. In Judith Cooper’s “Sister Light-of-Love Dove,” it’s a loss fulfilled in death. The loss of a wife is so strongly felt in Rosellen Brown’s “The Threshold” that up to the last sentence it seems unlikely that a second marriage will survive. Another story of loss defies expectations, with a realistic portrait of an unlovable mother. Carol K. Howell’s “Blood and Milk” has this unlovable mother in a dying coma with her unforgiving daughter talking to her mother’s best friend:

“Mother’s Day. It takes forever to find a card that doesn’t lie. They’re all full of this You-were-always-there for me/What-is-a-mother?/Now-you-are-my-friend bullshit. I have to search hard for one that says something neutral like Enjoy your day…I hate the media, our whole culture, all our institutions presume that everyone had this wonder Ur-mother. There are nauseating little poems in the paper, magazines do mother/daughter stories…Call talk shows share the best advice their mothers gave them. Dear Abby runs her treacly annual tribute…Not everyone had a mother who loved them.”

Just about all the writers deal with the effects of loss: Abby Geni, Bonnie Jo Campbell, Bryan Furuness, James Magruder, and Richard Burgin even to the point of dangerous desperation in his “Do You Like This Room?” And the most experimental in form is Christie Hodgen’s “Bedtime Stories for the Middle-Aged” which parallels stories, some with the same characters, to indicate how common the problems are.

Another unusual but contemporary subject appears in Hubert Ahn’s “Korean Wedding.” The main character has never gotten anything below an A+ in school and knows every kind of music but is a “loser” because he is unable to move either to “get the girl” or decide his future.

Finally the best story in the collection is “Rubber Boy” by David Allan Cates. The structure is so good that only at the end does the reader realize what the story is all about. Every event repeats how the main character comes back with difficulty from a crisis.

But this whole collection is outstanding and showcases some of the talent coming from the Midwest.

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