Posted 1 February 2012
Against the Workshop :: Half in Shade :: St. Agnes, Pink-Slipped :: The Tin Ticket :: In the Absence of Predators :: Starring Madame Modjeska :: Exhibit of Forking Paths :: Lucky Bruce :: The City, Our City :: Disclosure :: Drunken Angel :: The Day Before Happiness :: Already it is Dusk :: Hypotheticals :: The Cisco Kid in the Bronx :: Lunch Bucket Paradise :: selected unpublished blog posts of a mexican panda express employee
Provocations, Polemics, Controversies
Nonfiction by Anis Shivani
Texas Review Press, October 2011
Paperback: 300pp; $24.95
Review by Patrick James Dunagan
Admitting his aim is to provoke, and filled with acidic rectitude, Anis Shivani rants on in Against the Workshop about what demonstrably awful affects MFA programs have upon American writing. Under his analysis, the entire academic system of American letters appears corrupt: a viral sham in which all involved would feel ashamed if only they weren’t so mired within its murky workings. Shivani’s not exactly wrong—his points are, for the most part, well made, and there’s no doubting his sincerity. Yet despite the at-times attractive bluster Shivani coats his commentary in, he fails to finally offer up any central focus for complaint. This haphazard collection of book reviews and essay-length, bombastic taking-to-task of academic career fiction writers and poets is finally nothing but a roller-coaster jaunt through several publications of the last decade or so; Shivani’s arguments realize no greater whole to counter his provocative railings against the status quo.
This is not to say that there’s nothing of fortune to be gleaned from his heavy-handed tirade. Many disgruntled MFA-ers (along with those potentially destined to be so, and those too snide to hold the degree to heart), will no doubt find they are thankful to Shivani for dispelling any and all assumptions of the MFA as a life-altering experience, so monumental as to be beyond criticism. Shivani has not bothered himself with holding back, and he skewers the ranks of his prey widely and gleefully. No doubt some joy, too, will be sparked within the professional field. Toiling young professors will delight in a sense of comeuppance reading Shivani’s hard to resist attacks against those more established. This satisfaction is sure to grow when he goes after the traditional stalwart guardians of the entry gates to wider acknowledgment, such as The Best American Poetry anthology series.
Shivani’s greatest strength is that his assessment is both honest and open. His opinions are stated plainly, even if they have since undergone further development. He admits that now, “I would go easier on Dave Eggers and Bob Hicok, for example,” squaring up his position on more conventional writing. He also claims he has “a greater appreciation for the pure play of language poetry and similar experiments,” while remaining certain that his criticism of the “rather self-satisfied posture” such writing assumes is quite sound. This is somewhat contrary to the hearty approval he gives poets Elaine Equi and David Brinks. That Shivani would locate his appreciation in two poets whose work is very much situated in “language poetry and similar experiments,” and who are not critical darlings of anybody in particular, shows strong promise that his criticism has the potential of developing into among the healthiest of our generation.
Readers should be wary, however, of the hazards that remain in Shivani’s arguments. In an essay bemoaning the lack of 20th century writers rising up from working class backgrounds, he grudgingly acknowledges in passing that “only minor writers, like Henry Miller or Louis-Ferdinand Céline or Charles Bukowski” are to be found. Shivani exerts tremendous effort raking over the coals fêted writers of distinction, yet aligns himself in agreement with the very same fêted-ness as he lazily disregards these three as “minor” without a second thought. What astounds most about this action is that he does so while essaying in search of writers who emerge from a working-class background, claiming: “the working man is a curiosity, whose very makeup must be repeatedly elaborated, to free him from the panel sitting in judgment, whose opinion is very severe toward his likes.” Yet Shivani passes negative judgment on the work of writers who elaborate upon the living concerns of that part of the population who identify with the “working man.” He resists, unwilling or unable to grant a high status to creative works which serve as a rebuke of the supposed literary standards it would appear he is so critical of. Why?
The real entertainment is to come. Yet to be seen is in what direction Shivani's own writing heads from here. He has several forthcoming books of creative work set for publication: poems, stories, a novel; as well as another collection of criticism. Will he remain outside the comfortable zones of the academic swill he so ruefully chastises? Much of his criticism is leveled against writers with decades of writing behind them. He must now commence his own charting of the same treacherous territories of American publishing. Will he successfully evade the same comforts which he faults others for having crumbled in front of? Perhaps not: either way, it will make for passing amusement worth observation.
Nonfiction by Judith Kitchen
Coffee House Press, April 2012
Paperback: 214pp; $16.00
Review by Ann Beman
A fan of Judith Kitchen’s Short Takes, In Short, and In Brief anthologies of flash nonfiction, I could not wait to get a hold of Half in Shade, which—it turns out—is not your standard memwah. Rather, it is a collection of prose poems disguised as essays, the only difference between the two being how they’re typeset on the page. Kitchen characterizes it as “a series of lyric pieces written variously to, from, or around old photographs found in family albums and scrapbooks.” Whatever you call them, each of the lyric tidbits develops before the reader as if with toners and fixers and gelatin-silver in a darkroom, the process yielding startling and wondrous results.
Like an album or scrapbook, the collection behaves as montage, sketching the anatomy of the author’s ancestry, her immediate family, and her grips with and recovery from breast cancer. “To underscore our fragile ties,” she wraps each of Half in Shade’s three sections with a meditation on illness. In fact, the entire collection is a series of meditations, thoughtful and thought-provoking vignettes—the shortest, a paragraph; the longest, 30 pages. “But each, in one way or another, delves into the mystery of another life, another time,” says Kitchen. “Since each photo was locked in its own era, I wanted language to bring it alive in new ways—to give it contemporary significance. Thus my challenge as a writer was not to describe, but to interact. Not to confirm, but to activate and resurrect.”
“This is what a scientist should look like.” So begins the piece titled “With Cloud Chamber,” in which the author affectionately resurrects her father, who would later work as a physicist with Corning Glass Works, Westinghouse Corp.:
The gooseneck lamp that twists in the direction of the glass rods that are somehow connected to the drum in which my serious young father is peering casts long shadows in stripes over the ceiling and down the far wall. . . . . . . He invents himself from shadow.
The author speaks often of shadows and shade, ghosts and out-of-frame subjects, what’s not in the photo and who’s not in the photo. In the Introduction, she says she became “fascinated with the ghost in every photograph—the unseen presence behind the lens whose eye shapes what, and how, we will see.”
In “What/Not,” we examine the black and white image of a snowman surrounded by women and children:
Not what it is, but what to make of it. Snowman wearing my grandfather’s cap. It could be my Great-Aunt Gretta, his sister. There she is, wearing her stylish tucked-waist coat, building a snowman out of nothing, a featherweight of snow. So little snow that he’s a ghost of a snowman, half leaf, half luster.
Later in the same essay, we focus on yet another photo. This time: “‘Not aunt Gretta.’ That’s all it says on the back, so what are we to do with this? Someone knows only the negative. That’s where this begins. Not only who she’s not, but also, obviously, what she’s not doing.”
As the book’s title indicates, we cannot know the full story of these photos. Like their subjects, we are—at least—half in shade. Thus, parts of Half in Shade are pure speculation, as in “Where They Came From, Where They Went,” in which the author imagines the story of a young couple, circa mid-1800s, their photo mistakenly included on Kitchen’s CD of scanned family photos. In the title essay, she speculates about the identities of two people, one whose face is eclipsed by a lit lamp, while the other is hidden under the same lamp’s shade. It’s a funny picture that yields poignant reflections on family resemblances, generational connections, and the tumult of memory.
Kitchen has won multiple awards, including two Pushcarts, one for “Certainty,” which anchors the book’s middle section and was originally published in Great River Review. Referencing documents such as her grandfather’s letters, her father’s fragmentary memoir, her mother’s journal, scribbles on postcards and envelopes, and handwritten notations on the photos themselves, she spent ten years constructing this memoir. Yet she says it took serious illness to arouse in her the notion that, “like the people in the snapshots, none of us knows what lies beyond the moment, outside the frame.” Thank you, Judith Kitchen, for seizing the day.
Poetry by Ann Cefola
Kattywompus Press, August 2011
Chapbook: 31pp; $12.00
Review by Alyse Bensel
Within this brief but multitudinous chapbook, Ann Cefola contemplates ordinary existence alongside the sacred. In 28 poems of varying form—some splaying across the page, others in neat, organized stanzas—St. Agnes, Pink-Slipped investigates the constant buzz and movement of modern existence through these lyrical narratives. The world of schoolboys, make-up counters, hotels that may appear familiar is elevated into something of greater importance.
While many characters inhabit this chapbook, many poems dwell on the lives of women. Early on in the chapbook, in “Girls’ Night Out,” a speaker is participating in a gathering of mothers taking a brief respite from their children. The speaker narrates, “Heavy-breasted, dark eyed, they praise / the rented lines and Kelly’s cut hydrangeas. / Lighting up, they smoke like soldiers,” while the speaker, without children, thinks, “I consider my uterus / untraveled as a new triple-digit Interstate.” This discomfort with everyday existence continues in “First Job” where a secretary in a low-pay job tries on shoes at Saks, thinking “Once again, I turn and walk, turn and walk, / knowing my tender foot can never wear this point, / this unsteady heel.”
An awareness of consumerism comforts continues to permeate the chapbook in “Price Club.” During a day out shopping, the speaker considers herself: “I am Solomon between expense and uselessness.” She thinks about her material purchases, then, projecting:
If I choose wisely,
a bell with ring, the cashier will wish me a nice day,
and I will preside over a new estate, closing
cupboards safely over bright-labeled cans,
arranging lipstick and comb in my new purse
that yields them back as I need them,
my small fiefdom, the serfs I can count on,
their tactile faces loyal and willing.
The combination of womanhood and its objectivity through buying continues as a motif, encapsulated in “Teint Pur Mat,” where the speaker recalls “how make-up marks my life” while watching her mother apply makeup and perfume. The speaker delights “when she buys my first / blush, plastic tube squirting peach, a lifelong quest // for color commences, etched joy, sparkle-laden brush.” This attention to the superficial, detailed in bright, colorful language, slowly shifts toward the pressing matter of temporality.
The chapbook’s title poem, crafted in meandering quatrains, depicts the speaker’s observations when the local hospital changes its name from the religious St. Agnes to Westchester Medical Center. The figure of St. Agnes comes to life as she leaves the hospital: “Melted halo / liquid light around her neck, once golden raiment a yellow / raincoat, hovering toes now firmly bound in sneakers.” As she continues her journey, “she asks for work. . . . Anything not to lose the perfume of seasons.” This pattern of longing continues through the rest of the chapbook, such as in “February,” a poem in tight quatrains, where the speaker laments:
I watch relative after relative disappear,
even my cat, sneeze, stretch, go limp.
My grandmother, small voice in a curled body,
Begs by phone: Pray I get out of here.
The poem then envisions these deaths, describing in haunting lyrical language “eyes dilated and astonished by pure light, / its full spectrum, warmth and speed.”
Tied together through close attention to language and detail, St. Agnes, Pink-Slipped mystifies yet clarifies through its emotional arc, appealing to the sensory details of everyday life and the spiritual beyond.
The Heroic Journey of Australia’s Convict Women
Nonfiction by Deborah J. Swiss
Berkley Trade, November 2011
Paperback: 384pp; $16.00
Review by Lydia Pyne
In the late eighteenth- through mid-nineteenth centuries, the British Empire exiled close to 162,000 men, women, and children under the Transportation Act to serve their prison sentences in Australia—simultaneously ridding Britain of an overcrowded prison population and providing the Empire with expendable colonists.
In The Tin Ticket: The Heroic Journey of Australia’s Convict Women, Deborah Swiss picks up a particularly poignant, and oft overlooked, aspect of this period. The Tin Ticket tells the stories of four early nineteenth-century women of London, arrested for petty theft and sentenced to serve their time in Van Diemen’s Land, modern Tasmania. Swiss uses these four stories to tell a complex narrative of Victorian socioeconomic tyranny against the gripping backdrop of Britain’s developing colonial efforts.
Writing about the history of any complex emergent historical identity is tricky—writing it well is even trickier. In The Tin Ticket, Swiss’s story picks up many types of interesting themes, many interesting histories if you will, and many ways of telling them. In her arcing narrative, Swiss shows the Victorian moral code—a Faustian social contract—that resulted in the social and gender inequality experienced by women from the back alleys of Glasgow to the prison of Newgate to the factories of Van Diemen’s Land. However, Swiss’s work tries to situate itself as not just a narrative of social injustice, but as part of an even broader history—one of Australia and Tasmania’s emerging national identity, with that identity strongly tied to its early women settlers.
The Tin Ticket takes its title from the small tin ticket each convict carried, stamped with a condemned prisoner’s unique identifying number. The narrative itself takes us to the early eighteenth century and examines the lives of four different women, all caught, in some way, through the cultural mores of Victorian England, condemned for their crimes, and exiled to Van Diemen’s Land to serve their sentences. These women (Agnes McMillan, Janet Houston, Bridget Mulligan, and Ludlow Tedder) survived the epic voyage from Newgate Prison to Van Diemen’s Land, with seemingly fated odds against them, and completed their sentences of factory labor.
Although The Tin Ticket focuses on these women, specifically, Swiss’s work strives to situate these women within their broader social contexts. She presents these relatively small narrative vignettes in the broader cultural context of the British Empire, particularly highlighting Elizabeth Gurney Fry’s work with prison reform and her demands for a more socially just system among the women within Newgate’s Prison.
Indeed, Elizabeth Gurney Fry becomes an interesting thread in the broader narrative of these women’s lives. Swiss shows the impact Fry’s gentle kindness had on Agnes McMillan and Janet Houston as they were held in Newgate, and the value that Fry’s quilting squares and charity sewing projects had for Ludlow Tedder during the sea voyage crossing from London to Van Diemen’s Land.
The Tin Ticket is a complicated piece of written history. It takes on complex social themes (like the economic tyranny of Victorian Britain) and tries to makes sense out of these contexts. Because The Tin Ticket tries to tell many kinds of history—biography, social history, gender history, etcetera—it begins to feel in parts a bit of the same uncertainty of direction as the women in the story. The reader is bounced from biography to a social history to a gender history to a nationalistic history, back to a biography, and so forth.
On one hand, these categories of history can certainly seem arcane at best and academic at worst. (What does it matter what “type” of history it is, just so long as the story gets told?) There can be a hesitancy on an historian’s part to intellectually commit to writing a history in a particular way. By picking one, it can feel like there is a part of the history that one is somehow “leaving out” if one chooses an overarching schema for one’s history.
On the other hand, Swiss’s reluctance to commit to one type of history leaves The Tin Ticket scattered and her, as a narrator, providing what feels to be historical moralizing, rather than insightful historical synthesis, to the reader. Rather than limiting one’s history, committing to a specific schema could help create a more clear narrative. And in this case, it could help the book keep from tripping over its own telling.
However, The Tin Ticket is a passionately written history and is certainly an interesting read. Moreover, and most importantly, it is clearly a history that Deborah Swiss doesn’t want to see relegated to some dusty back corner or some dungeon of an academic archive. She wants her audience to know, to experience, and to appreciate the realness of the stories and the history. The story she tells is one that stays with the reader—and it strikes me that at the end of the day, this is what the author really wants.
Fiction by Vinnie Wilhelm
Rescue Press, October 2011
Paperback: 156pp; $14.00
Review by Wendy Breuer
Vinnie Wilhelm's “Fautleroy’s Ghost,” included in his short story collection In the Absence of Predators, first appeared in the Virginia Quarterly Review. I remember reading it and feeling great affection for a writer who could encompass an empathetic account of the doomed revolutionary faith of both Leon Trotsky and Patrice Lumumba within a Hollywood spoof. Ben Stuckey leaves his leaky living room in Seattle to pitch his script for a bio-pic of Trotsky:
But what is Trotsky’s story in the end? He reclines on the kitchen floor, covered like history in blood. . . . He has lived and now died in the cause of rigid, high-flown ideals, but his path has been blocked at every turn by human weakness and chicanery. . . . What is the society of man, after all, but a vast conspiracy against the pure of heart?
A jaded producer leans across his card table desk after the pitch and says, “You don't get out to the movies very often, do you, Ben?” Stuckey reconnects with an old friend and known operator, Sam Raskin, gets played by him as he has many times before, and goes home. Think Woody Allen banging his LA rental car around in Annie Hall. A moment of particular brilliance involves a secret novel manuscript in which a mercenary spook turns movie director in order to hide video footage that exposes the covered-up circumstances of Lumumba’s assassination. Somehow Wilhelm manages to defamiliarize terrain we think we know. The story hints at more noir than it delivers, but with imaginative brio.
Several of the other tales involve protagonists who have arrived at some life impasse and take to the road and/or the bottle. Characters are presented with an ironic distance that underscores an alienation, the source of which may or may not be clear: femme fatales, repressed suburban wives, wizened Wyoming holdouts. There is some gratuitous cruelty towards animals (cat and chinchilla), which I found difficult to square with the deceptive facileness of tone. In the story “Cruelty towards Animals,” we are in Cheever country. The unhappy booze-addled suburban narrator is on the verge of carrying out a copycat of the chinchilla’s fate with the family dog when his six-year-old daughter pulls him back from the brink: “‘Daddy,’ she asked, ‘what are you doing?’” It opens up a moment of real connection for both reader and characters.
The title story, “In the Absence of Predators,” fulfills the expectations with which I opened this collection. It, too, begins with a man on the run. In a blinding blizzard, the narrator totals his car when he hits and kills a doe. Trudging to the Twin Pines Diner, he encounters three other stranded travelers whom he initially describes as types: prep-school runaway, sun-tanned patrician, a grizzled man who exudes hidden scars, and the counter man. “Like many . . . veterans of restaurant work, he projects a certain world weariness, a sense of sadness and wisdom.” These are people with no way out—stuck in the situation, stuck with each other. The narrator recounts the collision with the deer:
“She died,” I say.
“They usually do,” Lewis Fountain [the preppy] interjects. . . . “Ninety percent of all collisions with an automobile are fatal for deer. . . . Strange animals,” he says.
“Yes,” Martin [the rough character] agrees. . . . He pauses, and something about the way he does so gathers the room’s energy around him. When he begins again, his voice is measured, its cadence nice and slow. . . .
I am a drifter. I have no home.
Against expectation, the men open themselves to intimacy and vulnerability, each telling a story with the common threads of deer and death. The cumulative effect is a sense of searing loss and very male loneliness that hides under layers of experience and comes close to the beauty the narrator has described in the frozen terror of the doe.
The story collection builds in strength, ending with “In the Absence of Predators.” In the moments when Wilhelm gives up some of his ironic stance, the prose stops working too hard, and his restless vision begins to work towards letting the reader close to his characters. And I’d love to see him take the Lumumba story and run with it. I see it as a screenplay. Maybe Steven Soderbergh could direct.
On Tour in Poland and America
Nonfiction by Beth Holmgren
Indiana University Press, November 2011
Hardcover: 432pp; $39.95
Review by Patricia Contino
Prior to audio and video, theatre history is a frustratingly silent one. Reviews, illustrations, journal entries, photographs, designs, and prompt books are helpful—and rare.
But what about the performers and performance?
For Maria Modjeska (1840-1909), her “binational” acting career was fairly well-documented in her native Poland and adopted America. A talented, ambitious, and generous spirit, her pretty face sold picture postcards and candy. Modjeska’s immortalization was furthered by a guest appearance in Willa Cather’s My Mortal Enemy and one of the many droll lines delivered by George Saunders in All About Eve. In America, Susan Sontag’s last novel, re-imagines Modjeska’s early days on her unsuccessful California commune. Now Modjeska’s truly dramatic life is presented in Beth Holmgren’s Starring Madame Modjeska: On Tour in Poland in America, a fastidiously researched and fascinating portrayal of an actor’s life.
Before Eugene O’Neill borrowed his actor-father James (a contemporary of Modjeska’s) and the rest of his family history for writing material or Florenz Ziegfeld produced his Follies and Showboat, American theatre was as spread out as the growing nation. There was vaudeville, Wild West shows, circuses, and touring companies led by stars like Sarah Bernhardt and Maria Modjeska. From 1882-1907 Modjeska toured the United States 24 times, usually in need of funds for her large extended family. Her repertory included everything from the melodramas The Lady of the Camellias and Adriana Lecouvreur (better known today in their operatic treatments) to Schiller’s Mary Stuart. She was the first actress in America to portray Nora in Ibsen’s A Doll House. Holmgren’s selection of photographs attests to Madame’s appearance, described in a review as being
of middling height, although one might consider her a tall woman, with regular and expressive features. Her eyes and smile are capable of all manner of shading and play a key role [in her performance]. And she possesses that great harmony of form that the Greek art deemed most alluring in a woman.
A contemporary actress who bears a strong resemblance to Maria Modjeska is the talented and beautiful Charlotte Rampling.
Beloved in her native Poland for not performing in the occupying empires’ languages of German and Russian, she endeared herself to the American public for acting in English. Modjeska’s great love was Shakespeare. Her Ophelia led to the role being considered a major rather than a minor role (fans left after the Mad Scene), and she regularly performed Queen Katherine in the still rarely seen Henry VIII. While Poles and Americans adored her Shakespearian efforts, the British were not impressed:
Modjeska had sinned against a national taste in presuming to play a romantic Shakespeare heroine. . . . British reviewers, much like her critics in both America and Poland, had identified and praised Modjeska’s intelligent “self-conscious artistry” in other roles, qualities antithetical to the “naturalness” and “charm” so beloved of English actresses, and particularly of Ellen Terry, at that time. In the eyes of the Victorian English public Modjeska could never excel as a Juliet on account of her ethnicity and technique.
This nationalistic snobbery would last until the latter half of the twentieth century with the emergence of brilliant Shakespeareans such as South African-raised Nigel Hawthorne, South African-born Antony Sher, and Australian Geoffrey Rush.
Not surprisingly, Modjeska advocated that non-British actors be routinely considered and cast in Shakespeare: something not just practiced, but celebrated for decades in regional companies and festivals throughout the United States and Canada. Other ideas proved equally prophetic. A survivor of the catty, backstabbing atmosphere of Polish theater, Modjeska called for the abolishment of a “star system”; performers are alphabetically listed in repertory companies and the New York City Ballet. Ironically it was Britain, not America, that took Madame’s advice for establishing a national theater.
What Maria Modjeska did accomplish in her lifetime was promotion of theater’s “refining and wholesome influence.” Holmgren points out that the combination of relentless touring of actors like Modjeska along with the seismic socioeconomic changes of the nineteenth century made attending theater accessible and civilized:
Theatergoing, as a respectable form of mass entertainment, also fundamentally changed the relationship between patrons and players. As women and children swelled the numbers of theatergoers and audiences were being educated about proper theater behavior, the spotlight shifted literally from the seats to the stage, with the house lights dimming as the show began.
Something not lost on Modjeska’s friend, poet Eugene Field. His poem, “Modjesky As Cameel,” is an affectionate first-hand account of Madame’s performance of The Lady of the Camellias:
A young chap sparks a gal, who's caught a dook that's old an' wealthy,—
She has a cold 'nd faintin' fits, and is gin'rally onhealthy.
She says she has a record; but the young chap doesn't mind,
And it looks ez if the feller wuz a proper likely kind
Until his old man sneaks around 'nd makes a dirty break,
And the young one plays the sucker 'nd gives the girl the shake.
While theater enthusiasts will enjoy the care and detail that Beth Holmgren took with Starring Madame Modjeska: On Tour in Poland in America, readers of history will appreciate the role this woman played on the world’s stage. It makes for great drama.
Poetry by James Grinwis
Coffee House Press, October 2011
Paperback: 79pp; $16.00
Review by Gina Myers
It is impossible to think of forking paths without recalling Borges’s garden of innumerable possibilities. And so in James Grinwis’s second book of poems, Exhibit of Forking Paths, selected by Eleni Sikelianos for the National Poetry Series, it makes sense that we find a poetry of possibilities and alternatives, a bit of play, an interest in “what the sounds mean before the definitions of sounds,” and a space where things can simultaneously be and not be. The title poem, which opens the book, presents different lives captured on numbered tablets, with the speaker coyly stating, “In the case of tablet 31, we will not speak.” Grinwis delivers a lot in this collection, but he reminds us we cannot have it all.
Throughout the book, there are many poems titled after electrical circuits that then begin with a diagram of the title circuit. In each case what follows is a prose poem that somehow springs from the shape of the diagram, as in “Capacitor” ( —| |— ):
On the way to the store a delivery truck collided into a wall, behind which a group of men were throwing javelins, many of which had thocked into the truck-rammed wall with the violence spilling out of the throwers’ hearts.
So the shape simultaneously explains the capacitor and, on another path, a truck and javelins rushing forth from opposite directions into a wall. In “NPN Transistor,” a boy thrashes around in a region of meditation, “[a] state of confusion, very lost and unusually shaped.” The circuitry pieces are imaginative and fun in their descriptions, which frequently use non-sequitur and neo-surrealist imagery, similar to other poets who have, like Grinwis, spent time in Western Massachusetts, such as Heather Christle and Eric Baus.
In addition to the circuitry poems, the book contains lyric poems that also play with alternate possibilities through lists and repetitions, such as in “Bird Sculptures 3,” which lists titles for various sculptures, including:
Bird Flash Unit
Circuit of Clothes Bird
Bird with Sponge for Face
Bird Made of 3 Twisted Leaves
While the lyric poems share many of the same qualities as the prose pieces, the constraint of the line, tightly controlled language, and use of fragments make these poems stand out in the collection. The third section of “Climograph” concludes:
The beyond goes only as far
as ourselves, she said.
The ocean seemed pummeled
with girls’ fists.
A general understanding of earth
made the windows of the apartment
glow and radiate a series of hums.
To be a wind funnel bent.
A cup of something strong
on the desk of an innocent.
A downpour caught
in a carton of flowers.
Overall the collection is full of stunning and sometimes eerie images that will last long after the book is closed, like phantoms, “fragile, grounded,” who need to be cared for (“Of Phantoms”).
A Literary Memoir
Nonfiction by Bruce Jay Friedman
Biblioasis, October 2011
Hardcover: 290pp; $26.95
Review by David Breithaupt
The title of Bruce Jay Friedman’s new “literary” memoir, Lucky Bruce, is an understatement. All the old adages about luck come to mind, you make your own luck, some are luckier than others, etc., but when you read Friedman’s life story you can’t help but agree: Bruce is one lucky guy.
One of the foundations of Friedman’s “luck” is an incredible talent for writing. As the author of numerous novels, short stories, plays, essays and screenplays, Friedman now adds a memoir to his cache and provides a sweeping view of his creativity and life, beginning with his 1930s childhood in the Bronx and continuing to his present-day plateau. Along the way is a steady parade of anecdotes and name-dropping. Friedman admits throughout his book to this latter habit, so be prepared to mingle with a plethora of writers, directors, miscreants and hanger-ons from the 1940s onward. There is even a story about “crazy” Joe Gallo, whose dinner invitation Friedman turned down the night Gallo was assassinated at a clam house in Little Italy. Of course no contemporary literary memoir is complete without a fisticuffs episode with Norman Mailer. Friedman does not disappoint on this matter.
I’ve spent the last five years reading memoirs of tragedy. You name it—drug addiction, bi-polar episodes, schizophrenia and childhood abuse; you can find it all between two covers, and I have sought it all out. I like to see how people grapple with the hurdles in their own lives, but an occupational hazard of such research can be a cumulative depression during which you finally wake up one morning and yell: “I can’t read another tragedy!”
Lucky Bruce is an antidote to such tomes. It is breezy, engaging, informative and funny. If you want tragedy, find some other book. Friedman is now close to 80, and the evident focus of his memoir is to look back with fondness. Within in these pages are the stories of his life, his time in the Air Force during the Korean War (he made second lieutenant for his ability to write memos) and his literary apprenticeship to Air Training Magazine. Lucky Bruce decided to fire a story off to The New Yorker at this time and promptly forgot about it. Lo and behold, he then received a letter of his work’s acceptance, and he was off and running.
After the service, Friedman eventually landed a job with a magazine management company that oversaw the editing, production and creation of several publications. Friedman began as a caption writer and worked his way up to features, finally earning his own magazine (Swank, the pre-porno version, which crashed and burned). Here he met other writers just starting out, such as Mario Puzo and Terry Southern, and forged bonds that lasted a lifetime. On his own time, Friedman found the space to write his first novel, Stern, which made its way to publication and critical success. Lucky Bruce made it look easy. He published more short stories and his second novel, A Mother’s Kisses, before leaving the magazine company in 1965.
With no immediate prospects and a family to support, Friedman was suddenly awash in projects from Hollywood and even began writing his own plays, starting with Scuba Duba, which embarked upon on a successful theater run. It was this play that later sparked Friedman’s tussle with Norman Mailer. While at a party at Norman’s brownstone in Brooklyn Heights, Friedman ended up in a fight outside the building with the volatile author. At the time, Mailer’s own play, Deer Park, was not doing well, and he wasn’t handling his drinking either. He ended up shouting, “Scuba Duba sucks, Scuba Duba sucks!” while circling Friedman with punches. Lucky Bruce claimed eventual victory.
Through all the anecdotes, only fleeting mentions are made of failing marriages and trips to psychiatrists. Readers might glimpse a more personal view of his life from reading his novels. How much of Friedman is in Stern or Harry Towns, the hero of his later novel About Harry Towns? I’ll let a good biographer untangle that one. Friedman’s other books include the novels The Dick, The Current Climate, The Lonely Guy’s Book of Life, Tokyo Woes, A Father’s Kisses & Violencia; his recent nonfiction includes Even the Rhinos Were Nymphos and Sexual Pensees.
Friedman rounds out his publishing stories with tales from the film trade. His screenwriting credits are many, including Stir Crazy, Splash, Doctor Detroit, Fore Play and Steambath. For relaxation (while on the east coast), there are tales of Elaine’s restaurant for the literati on the upper east side of Manhattan. These stories could fill a chapter on pecking orders in a sociology textbook as the illustrious patrons vie for table positions. Heller, Truffat, Sinatra, Puzo, Plimpton and Mailer—again, still fighting, this time leaving a cracked wall after a scuffle with Jerry Leiber . . . they all left their scents in some manner in this eatery. It was the closest NYC ever came to Paris in the 1920s.
Friedman has few regrets looking back on his life. There is the time he turned down dining at Sinatra’s table at Elaine’s, and the Matisse he could have bought years ago for a cheap price. He also regrets not going to Harvard. I wish these were my regrets and after reading this book, and I suppose they are, vicariously.
Friedman ends one chapter with these words, an apt summation of an interesting life: “And always—no matter how weak the knees and frail the bank account—there has been the pleasure at customs of filling the blank for Occupation with the single word that has always felt treasured and benighted: writer.”
Poetry by Wayne Miller
Milkweed Editions, September 2011
Paperback: 104pp; $16.00
Review by James Crews
The principal aim of The City, Our City, the latest poetry collection by Wayne Miller, is to construct a difficult, philosophical poetics that most audiences will have trouble wrestling into meaning. I have no problem with being pleasantly mystified or even confused (Lynn Emanuel’s latest work baffles me even as I gasp with wonder), but this book straddles a fine line between unsettling readers and completely turning them off. Since Miller’s previous volumes, especially The Book of Props, have won praise from many circles (including The New Yorker), perhaps he need not worry about losing readers; his audience may well be confined to those in the academy. And after all, The City, Our City does still showcase the poet’s remarkable skill, though it should be noted that his most successful poems establish a scene and context in which his talent begins to shine. In “Winter Pastoral,” a quiet love poem, he writes:
The sound of the wind—but the wind
has no sound, we hear
only the vibrations
of whatever it touches. How silent
this room would be
without the creaking trees . . .
Language like this appeals to the ears and has the power to change how we think of something as simple as the wind. Another piece, “Those Boys,” memorably gives us (as the title helpfully indicates) a group of boys, fresh from a soccer game, standing over an open grave filled with rain. The penultimate poem in the collection, “Our Last Visit,” is dedicated to the poet’s father and serves as a gorgeous, affecting elegy, which stays with the reader because, from the start, we know the situation: the speaker and his father are walking together in a large city. Miller does not even need to specify the place here; simply by bringing these two men together and precisely detailing what they see, what they share (“a man was sailing / tinfoil boats on a silent fountain”), he creates a vast literal and emotional landscape, giving us all we need to enter that tender moment with him
Much of The City, Our City, however, is uneven and scattered as it seeks to examine war and construct a kind of symbolic realm. Like many young poets writing today, Miller’s work is lyrical and strange, but in the pursuit of universality, he fails over and over to locate readers in a specific time and place. One could say that both war and the current culture in America create dislocation, and that Miller and his ilk are simply reflecting that fact in their work. But writers cannot have it both ways: to disrupt or disquiet a reader, one must first establish a solid place from which to stray. With the exception of a few pieces, Miller seldom does so. And the numbered (and untitled) pieces of a long poem broken up (somewhat illogically) throughout the book do not help either as they hint at a semi-mythologized, never-named city that eventually seems to come under siege:
And then war. Even balloons
became weapons, as did bottles
and kites and those strange
new flying machines the academics
had mocked for their uselessness.
These poems often sound like intellectual exercises for the poet and provide few of the necessary inroads for a reader, who begins asking questions rather early on: Where is “the City”? Why are we never told whether or not it actually exists? Is it merely a pastiche of different places and different time periods? Consider the first line of the book’s opening poem, “A Prayer (O City—)”: “O arrow landed deep in Harold’s eye . . . ” We know an arrow is being addressed here, but without any help from the title or the context an epigraph might provide, we have no idea to whom this arrow belongs or even who “Harold” might be. Already, Miller has us flipping to the Notes section in the back, hoping he might clarify; he does (Harold and his forces were defeated by William the Conqueror in 1066), but then he also explains yet another reference later on in the poem to Whiteman Air Force Base, and then another reference to the fact that “a particular Wal-Mart folding lounge chair . . . fits perfectly in the back of the bomber’s cockpit.”
I am not trying to be nitpicky here; this all occurs before we even move beyond the first line of the first poem. Does Miller honestly think even the most patient poetry reader (and poetry readers are nothing if not patient) will read a whole paragraph of explication simply to understand his poem? Most of his work makes allusions for which almost all readers will need explanation, and it’s worth pointing out that often Miller does not provide enough guidance even in the aforementioned Notes section for us to make complete sense of a piece. Though the language of the poems is intoxicating, for the most part we’re left on our own, scratching our heads.
One hopes that, in future volumes, Miller will find ways of including more readers by crafting poems that are both accessible and complex, both heart-wrenching and intellectually astute at the same time. A poet need not be obscure or detached to make work that challenges readers. He can choose to invite us into a piece, to share the wonder of experiencing our world more deeply.
Nonfiction by Dana Teen Lomax
Black Radish Books, December 2011
Paperback: 81pp; $15.00
Review by Aimee Nicole
Disclosure is by far one of the most interesting books I have ever read. It should perhaps be called “Full Disclosure,” as Lomax presents us with so many fragments from various areas of her life. Some pieces disclosed to us are FAFSA forms, an acceptance letter into the Peace Corps, pay stubs from several different jobs (including Taco Bell), student reviews of her teaching skills, bank statements, and medical forms. Lomax has no qualms about baring all of the personal, private information in these documents.
We learn many interesting things about the author’s life. Her dog was impounded from being left in a hot car, her banking is done with Wells Fargo, and she was almost a straight A student. She even includes an income tax form stating that she owed the state ten dollars and eighty-two cents. Rather than reading lengthy prose full of description and scene setting and explanation, Lomax strings together 81 pages of self-explanatory photocopies. Each stands on its own, telling an individual story, but works with the rest of the items to weave the life story of Dana Lomax thus far.
This e-mail sent to Lomax in September 2010, made me laugh out loud:
Hi Ms. Lomax,
Thank you for your interest in our Twin Registry. You have been a member since February 2009 and we’d like to have your twin register so you are eligible for studies.
Twin Research Registry
All of her entries are entertaining and make you laugh, sigh, or applaud her accomplishments. Copies of her physical examinations were interesting to read, especially as they were created for a live person rather than a fictional character. One of the notes says: “has yeast, using vagina cream.” There are no embarrassing explanations or hiding of information. Lomax presents us with unaltered documents to read and ponder before moving on to the next piece of the puzzle. She once received a bill from a radiology appointment for $800 with a handwritten note on it:
Please call our office regarding your insurance.
It is such a typical happening that it makes me laugh, having received a similar bill demanding money even though my insurance was supposedly still active. The book is concise and beautifully arranged; each artifact propelled me forward and made me hungry for more. An intriguing way to present the concept of memoir, Disclosure is a pleasure to read.
Nonfiction by Alan Kaufman
Viva Editions, November 2011
Hardcover: 360pp; $25.00
Review by Audrey Quinn
It’s clear within the first few paragraphs that Alan Kaufman has no intention of holding anything back in Drunken Angel. The book brings the reader into his life as a young writer, a soldier in Israel, a husband, an addict, and finally a father, with many more twists and turns throughout. There were moments, while reading, that I disliked things he did and had I met him then, I probably wouldn’t have liked him very much. However, Kaufman’s willingness to open up so completely to his reader, to put himself in such a vulnerable position, won my respect.
Kaufman is a poet and it is clear in his prose. When talking about his childhood, which probably could have filled a book on its own, there were parts that seemed a little disjointed or cut off from the rest and I couldn’t quite sink into the book the way I wanted to. Knowing that Kaufman is a poet, I read those sections the way I imagined he would read them at a poetry slam, and it made a huge difference in my experience as the reader. His voice, spoken and written, is so distinct that once I let myself just go along for the ride, there was no way the book was going to let go.
The combination of things that Kaufman experiences are completely unique unto him. I’ve never been part of the military, never been married, don’t have any children, never struggled with alcohol—yet I always felt like I could relate to Kaufman in a strange way. He has a wonderful way of inserting universal elements into almost outlandish situations and they quickly, while remaining relevant to the story, give us a relatable insight into him and ourselves. The moment that drew me into his story and made me feel invested in him, was one of these moments:
For this reason I read voraciously. Books filled my vacant psychic well with content: social codes, subtleties, perspectives. I had an aptitude for absorbing and regurgitating quantities of commentary, ideas, tastes, preferences, attitudes drawn from whatever book I happened to be immersed in at the time. I would be Faulknerian one week, Hemingwayesque the next, and Hamsun-like the week after. Even my ways of speaking changed to reflect those shifts in reading.
It may not be the most eloquent or interesting part of the book, but it hit so close to home that it was impossible to skim over. Everyone who reads this book will have one of those moments.
Kaufman’s story is entertaining, at times heart-breaking, and thoroughly engaging. There will be times that you may not like him and you just want him to get his act together; other times you will pity him. He’s funny and can be endearing. Even if you go through part of the book not liking him too much, like I did, you will respect the passion and honesty that it took for him to be able to write his amazing story.
Fiction by Erri de Luca
Translated from the Italian by Michael F. Moore
Other Press, November 2011
Hardcover: 175pp; $16.95
Review by Olive Mullet
Erri de Luca’s The Day Before Happiness, a bildungsroman set in Naples after WWII, shows both memories of the war and the city at that time, focusing on characters in an apartment complex. It also offers poetic insights along with humor. The lyrical style ultimately doesn’t distinguish the two main characters, even though one is a boy and one his caretaker/mentor, but the humor does distinguish another character in his nouveau riche ignorance.
Our narrator is an unnamed orphan (only referred to as guaglio, short and generic for boy/young man) whose education in this book ends when he is eighteen. He lives at the lower level of an apartment complex with the building’s portiere/doorman/caretaker, Don Gaetano. Since education is free for everyone, even the poorest, the studious boy learns Greek, Latin and the process of Italian unification. From Gaetano he learns the man’s experience in the Four Days of Naples, the popular uprising of September 27-30, 1943. We see why the Italians to this day don’t warm up to the Germans: the Germans were ruthless in their retreat just before the Americans entered the city by the sea. Gaetano also teaches the boy to play a card game called scopa or “sweep,” which is “a fight between order and chaos,” like life itself.
While playing a ball game, the boy discovers a trapdoor, one of the building’s secrets, an underground hiding place where Gaetano once hid a Jew during the war, a place also useful to the boy later. He is a contortionist, winning a chance to play with his contemporaries by being able to squeeze into narrow places. At the same time he is also trying to catch the eye of a girl behind a balcony window. She never comes out, but he never forgets her even after she leaves the apartment building. “Out of that whole childhood, the missing thing I chose was the girl in the window. When she disappeared, life shrank to little cages. I had to live without the freedom of lifting my eyes.”
The boy learns Gaetano’s electrical and other fix-it skills, becoming useful to the apartment dwellers even beyond these abilities, and learns about his surroundings by climbing Vesuvius and fishing off Ischia. Ultimately this orphan learns the possessive “mine”: Instead of being “a fragment” of the building, he learns of his parents and ironically follows the path of one of them. The conflict comes with the consequences of his reunion with the girl. He must also belong to Naples, and ultimately he must learn to fight like a true Neapolitan.
The boy opens up to the apartment dwellers, their fights called “paste-ups” from their living one on top of the other. One dweller cannot be laughed at, though he provides most of the book’s humor: he is an uneducated gangster, full of malapropisms, like confusing “mastiffs” and “martyrs.”
Most of the learning comes from Gaetano and his war experience, his compassion, but the author also includes interesting facts about Naples, such as that buildings are made of tufo or soft volcanic rock and that originally, “Naples is Spanish, it’s in Italy by mistake.”
Gaetano, who can hear other people’s thoughts, offers the most poetic insights:
Any moment is right to do something good, but to do something evil takes opportunity, convenience. War is the best opportunity to do rotten things. It grants permission. To do a good deed requires no permission.
. . .
First of all, don’t call them people. They’re persons, each and every one. If you call them people, you lose sight of the person.
Gaetano also teaches about being an orphan (since he was one himself); about what it’s like to be part of a revolt; about the city at night, when no explanations are necessary and it is a “civil place”; and ultimately how “happiness is truth and its price blood.”
The book’s title comes from the Jew Gaetano sheltered: At the Jewish New Year in September a stone is cast in the water, a gesture to be delivered from sin. As the Jew explains: “The year for us begins tomorrow. Ours would have it that today is the day before happiness.” You have to do something on that day before because “freedom has to be earned and defended. Not happiness, which is a gift.”
Gaetano finally acknowledges, “I have to teach you, then lose you.” Then for the eighteen-year-old boy, history becomes his “inheritance.” As he puts it, Gaetano’s stories “became my memories.”
The reader can find much to enjoy in The Day Before Happiness: the author’s lyrical style as truths are transferred from mentor to student, the picture of the Italian struggle and Naples at that time, and the humor, including the Italian perspective on Americans during the war.
Poetry by Joe Fletcher
Brooklyn Arts Press, September 2011
Paperback: 52pp; $8.00
Review by H. V. Cramond
Brooklyn Arts Press has entered the business of publishing chapbooks with a collection about endings. Joe Fletcher, whose previous publications include the chapbook Sleigh Ride (Factory Hollow Press), evokes in Already It Is Dusk a world drunk on its own decay, whose fields are “abandoned by sowers” and whose “soldiers stare blankly at the smoldering embassy.” While not as bleak as, say, Blake Butler’s Scorch Atlas, this world is peopled with monsters such as “Ben Nez the Winged,” who threatens to suck the breath from that poem's narrator, so that he “drag[s his] boots to smear [his] tracks.” More often than not, the monster is within, such as in “Hunting” when the hunter must “Pry the chickens' chests open / with my beak” after they “walk right up into my outstretched arms.”
Like the children in “Islanders, “Fletcher builds with the materials offered to him:
The children like the bones
and make small forts with them
in the sand. A boy whistles to me
through a massive ribcage.
The pieces are small: characters may find moving from Dallas to Lubbock the most they can muster, but that move is a revelation. Similarly, Fletcher constructs worlds from short lines. “Solstice Sequence” in particular is relentlessly end-stopped, a poem circling itself like wherein
The glinting midway smells of fried sugar.
A pear thuds on a corrugated shed roof.
A theatre troupe performs to a half-circle
of bored citizens.
In “I am Young,” punctuation sticks words in the reader’s throat like a teenager’s attempts at conversation: “Night. Along the road crushed / leaves exhale. June. Fog muffles.” And again, later in the same poem: “It's late. No cars. Wet streets.”
However, endings are never final. Try as the narrator might to prevent his own death throughout the collection, and to prevent birds from devouring the attractive corpses covering “The Dead Sea,” he eventually lays down among them, finding their company preferable to the passing convoy. In fact, in poems like “Our Passage” and “The Shaft,” the collection's two prose poems, strange, dream-like journeys end with hints of waking-hour shifts that are the beginning of life in a new form:
The train’s whistle-blast followed me up the
shaft and echoed through the conduits. Then all was dark and silent
except my own slithering and panting. I returned as dawn touched
grayly the walls of my room. Someone had extinguished my lamp.
Throughout the collection, “mushrooms sprout from rot” and “A delphinium is potted in the upturned skull of a man.” By becoming the monster, one can “bite the mouth that eats me.” Death, then, is merely the compost upon which new life begins, and movement comes from a sense of receptivity that’s presented in the collection’s opening poem, “Antenna”:
Listen. Watch for what comes out
of cracks in the tundra, out of
the sink in the demolished villa, out of
you, who want so badly for things
to be stirred
Poetry and storytelling here function as a way of receiving, a contrast to when “swords clatter deep / in museums,” the spastic, jerking violence that threatens to "put your hand inside us, / put your hand all the way inside us / and stop the bell, the rusted bell that is ringing."
Fletcher’s frequent rhetorical questions continue the work of the drunk, pensive characters wandering through “Returns” and “Islanders” whose “sky is gray / but we stare right through it to our god.” Through communication, one can “see the artery that runs between” people. While there seems to be an attempt to keep the folks of Dusk on the treadmill: "They leaned against / each other as if it were the last / thing to do."
In “The Wounded Americans,” a fitting end to the chapbook, “the story drifted from mouth to mouth” as speakers share a story “that seemed to fit them all.” Fletcher’s poems mirror our darkness and fear, but the reflection shines.
Poetry by Leigh Kotsilidis
Coach House Books, October 2011
Paperback: 96pp; $15.95
Review by Alyse Bensel
In Hypotheticals, the scientific method breaks down into a scattering of hypothetical circumstances. Leigh Kotsilidis’s debut poetry collection delves into the reimagining of knowledge and personhood, questioning, on an elemental scale, the configuration of the world. A variety of formal and free verse poems, Hypotheticals takes a hard yet lyrical look at the creatures and objects that inhabit our planet, inviting the reader in to experience these strange and surprising sensations.
Divided into four sections, Hypotheticals follows its own four-part trajectory of Evidence, Variables, Falsifications, and Conclusions. This ordering provides the feeling of a progressing scientific report rather than a book of poems, but takes these underlying principles and explodes them open with rich, figurative language. In “Darwin’s Family Tree,” the speaker explores the ever-shifting landscape of evolution, claiming:
How to classify—
when new species pop up like finch,
when there is no stasis,
when every platypus, squid
and moose turns
Through the human desire to impose order upon what appears to be a constantly changing world, these poems already begin to dissemble themselves, unable to pinpoint “the point where mouse / turns vole, where the distinctions are not arbitrary,” where the poem begins.
By the third section, Falsifications, each poem takes new approaches to language, playing with word choice, sound, and sense. The phonic interactions in the sonnet “Wetherspoons” force together a mish-mash of transitioning “w” sounds, creating a sense of sonic pleasure yet cognitive confusion: “With a wily wink she sinks her teeth in, / weeds you out, well-wrought from the whacked. / In no time flat, she has you warbling.” This experimentation continues in “Flukes,” as the speaker examines how metaphor functions, even commentating on the writing process itself as an odd ars poetica. The poem continues with the first fragmented metaphor:
With catfish, let’s blot the moon.
Chew clouds through.
Shake hummingbirds from seaweed.
Let’s never go back. Only revise.
This juxtaposition of images of the natural world in fragments allows a fresh perspective on how, perhaps, these ecological systems function in (or out of) context to the human condition.
While many poems use natural imagery against natural imagery, much also dwells in the human body. In the foreboding “Nervous System,” the speaker addresses a “you” against natural phenomenon, saying “lightning / unbundles too soon, / an onslaught of moon / scathes down the spine” and brings the reader to dwell on human mortality with “You think, / there are other omens to show you / you are dying.” This relation to the natural occurrence and the human mind ties our own reliance and dependence upon what we consider natural signs of death and decay.
Kotsilidis’s work brings a humbling sense of the human place within the world, but also demonstrates how imaginatively wrought language can infuse a sense of wonder and play within the human perspective. Presented in fragments yet inextricably tied together, Hypotheticals combines scientific and poetic inquiry to startling effect.
Episodes in the Life of a Young Man
Fiction by Miguel Antonio Ortiz
Hamilton Stone Editions, January 2012
Paperback: 206pp; $16.95
Review by Paul Pedroza
The Cisco Kid in the Bronx is a Caribbean emigrant bildungsroman that at moments may remind the reader of the classic collection Drown by Junot Diaz. Ortiz’s collection certainly fulfills many of the conventions of what could be considered a Caribbean Diaspora literature.
The subtitle of this book is Episodes in the Life of a Young Man, and although I didn’t find it to be useful, it does lend the reader an idea of how a good deal of these stories operates. Certainly too many read more like vignettes than stories, but they all contribute to the understanding of how two entirely different cultures blend to create a unique third mode of identity.
The book is structured in three parts, bookended by two standalone stories that familiarize the reader with the dim days in Puerto Rico of the protagonist, Mario Ortega. These two stories are compelling in the ways the character reflects on how his life has changed by being forced to leave his home at a young age. These, along with “Yesterday,” are the most noteworthy in this collection. “Yesterday” explores how Mario’s seemingly most important relationship blossomed and then fell apart thanks to unpredictable variables, such as parents sabotaging their relationships with other family members. Mario longs to repair the damage but nothing can be done. The ramifications are so brutal that Mario forgets to name his wife in the final story of the book, and we are left to wonder what sort of woman could persuade him to settle down and even take the place of Isabel.
The first of the three main parts is entitled “Rogers Place,” and the stories are set in a small, close-knit neighborhood in the Bronx. As children, Mario and his brother cope with the crushing anxiety caused by the feeling of not belonging by exploring their world in imaginative ways—marveling, for instance, at snow and the deep cold of a Northeast winter. Mario is the Cisco Kid referenced in the title, a kid who fancies himself not only a protector of the neighborhood, but also worthy of attention and affection and never afraid to seek out adventure. The story encapsulates how other family members immigrated to New York and failed to assimilate, and how the Ortega family barely manages to scrape by no thanks to predatory lenders and vendors.
The second section, “A Higher Education,” explores Mario’s days as a college student, although it is fair to speculate that this may have more to do with how he learns to love and interact with the opposite sex than his academic studies. (In fact, we learn fairly late in the collection that Mario is a poet, and it’s rare that his writing is ever mentioned. This is definitely a missed opportunity on the author’s part.) Most of these stories deal with the various ways that Mario falls into sexual encounters, and this section, more than the others, feels composed of vignettes rather than stories. In the end, they just don’t add up to anything substantial other than a foundation for the aforementioned story, “Yesterday,” and all of its ramifications.
The final section is also called “Yesterday,” and in it, Mario has achieved adulthood. Most of the stories here deal with Mario’s job at an employment service and his life in a converted apartment in a former light industrial area. The reader gets a sense of how Mario has been able to achieve a respectable stasis as compared with the drug addicts, prostitutes, and general troublemakers who share his building and workplace. This stasis is somewhat troubling as Ortiz seems to lose the thread of the Cisco Kid himself while focusing on secondary and tertiary characters. Nevertheless, the book ends on a strong note, and overall, it is definitely worth checking out for those interested in fiction focused upon the experience of the immigrant.
Fiction by Fred Setterberg
Heydey Books, November 2011
Paperback: 256pp, $15.95
Review by Audrey Quinn
In Lunch Bucket Paradise, Fred Setterberg gives a vivid description of life in California from the 1950s-1960s. Setterberg’s style of writing quickly pulls the reader into his world. I’ve never been to California, my parents were born in the years when his story begins and I seemingly have nothing in common with Setterberg’s experiences, but that doesn’t matter at all. The people in his “true-life novel” are so vivid that almost instantly you understand how their minds work and their relationships to each other.
The plot of the book focuses on the childhood and teenage years of Setterberg living with his family in California. There is a subtle but clear exploration of what life is like in the post-war culture that the author experienced. He has a war veteran uncle and parents who take interest in politics, but the novel never feels particularly political. Simply, it’s about the growth of a boy. There’s a real honesty and almost a sense of wonder (while refraining from being naïve) about life, the good and the bad.
Finding a memoir that is free from cynicism of any kind is a rare feat, and Setterberg delivers that with humor and a thoughtful approach to post-war life. That being said, it never seems that he is writing from a naïve standpoint or through rose-tinted glasses. He is honest and unpretentious about topics such as war and politics that could have easily detracted from the overall narrative:
They agreed that one large rectangular campaign sign, royal blue and white, reading KENNEDY FOR PRESIDENT! would be posted squarely in the center of the backyard lawn, where nobody could see it. Then Lloyd Barnes, our neighbor who my father despised, plastered four NIXON/LODGE stickers across his emerald Pontiac's fat rear bumper, and Dad thought he saw the opportunity to patch things up. He retaliated against Barnes, moving KENNEDY FOR PRESIDENT! out onto the front lawn and tilting the sign so that whenever our neighbor opened his curtains, its banner blared into his living room.
This may be the simplest way to put it, but I enjoyed reading his book. I looked forward to being able to sit down and lose myself in the world he created. Setterberg establishes people and circumstances that you will feel invested in, which led to this being a quick read in the best way.
Poetry by Megan Boyle
Muumuu House, November 2011
Paperback: 96pp; $12.00
Review by Aimee Nicole
selected unpublished blog posts of a mexican panda express employee is a collection of unpublished blog entries that teeters between poetry and prose writing. Rarely do I come across writing that can pass as both styles, which is interesting. There are no capital letters in the entire book, which adds to the informal tone. Assuming the collection is autobiographical (as it stems from blog posts), Boyle is a 23-year-old bi-curious stoner who records her life. It is one of the most honest pieces I have ever read; she even lists every single person she has had sex with, never leaving out minor details such as whether or not they used condoms and if she had orgasms. After describing each of her 21 partners, Boyle enters a brief moment of self-reflection: “relieved I don’t have AIDS or children.”
Although the title of the book lists Boyle’s line of work, there are no details, explanations, or ventures into her working life besides a few references to coworkers. I found this slightly disappointing as I was rather intrigued to read about her experiences at work. There are no page numbers and the only numbering system appears to be the dates the blog posts were written. 1.13.09 gives us a list of many things that Boyle wants:
i want to make eye contact with a stranger and say ‘fuck’ in a way that makes them feel like i’ve caught them doing something shameful
i want my legs to be 50 feet long and i want to step on things and say ‘oops’ very sarcastically
i want to interrupt a game of magic the gathering by busting through a wall on a motorcycle
i want to delete everything from someone’s computer except a giant microsoft paint picture of a dick that takes forever to load
Each thought introduces us to another part of who Boyle is. As a reader, you often get to know a censored version of characters; you learn the dimensions and details of a character that are essential to the story. In Boyle’s book, you get to learn an almost infinite amount of details about her life that are insignificant yet essential at the same time.
There are rarely titles to the entries in addition to dates. One that interested me was called “i am kind of a disgusting person.” I almost didn’t want to continue reading, but my curiosity was piqued and I read on:
i do not to dishes for a long time
shrimp and green peppers are shriveling in my refrigerator
i do not clean my cats’ food dishes regularly
they do not seem to mind
after lying in bed for awhile i like to smell under the covers
if i see food in the trash that looks okay i’ll eat it
i eat old food
i haven’t cleaned my toilet yet and i have lived here for four months
i pick my nose in traffic and wipe it on the floor
There is no importance or complexity to Boyle’s writing. She is simply recording her life as she sees it and sharing all of her intimate experiences and details with the readers. She admits that even her dad sent her a note mentioning that he has just read about all the people she had sex with. Yet Boyle never seems ashamed or apologetic for her honesty. The reader can either take it or leave it. I won’t lie, sometimes I was disturbed by what I was reading; however, I appreciate that she shared her life with me, and I respect her honesty.
Her last blog entry is lies she has told. During a previous entry, Boyle admitted to masturbating when she was eight years old; it was even brought up at a parent-teacher conference because apparently, she wasn’t being very secretive. I found the following lie very amusing:
‘i’m itching my belly button’
i masturbated a lot as a kid. this was what i would tell my parents i was doing when they would try to talk to me about it. i remember seeing them look at each other with concerned, yet amused faces.
Boyle kept me interested throughout the book. I’m not sure I ever became very attached to her “character,” but I remained intrigued and read through the entire book in one sitting. She has had an interesting life thus far, and her honest revelation of her experiences was impressive. By refusing to gloss over any of those intimate, sometimes inconsequential bits of her life, she highlights the concept that these idiosyncratic details are in fact what make us all unique.