(Re)Defining America, One Story at a Time

American Fiction, Volume 12
Edited by Kristen J. Tsetsi
Guest Judge: Josip Novakovich

Review by Emily  Wojcik
November 28, 2012

Fiction collections are a tricky business, and none more so than those that aim to compile “the best” of anything—in this case, “the best unpublished stories by emerging writers,” as the title page promises. I say “tricky” because if one is prone to cynicism (as this critic is occasionally), the urge to be reactionary can be difficult to subdue. What makes these stories the “best,” and by what standards? How do you define “emerging” anyway? And does the “American” of the title lend the stories a yet unearned canonical gravitas (recalling, say, Ernest Hemingway or Raymond Carver), or does it simply provoke an arbitrary nationalism?

These are the kinds of questions that came to mind when I received the aforementioned collection, the latest in an annual series published by New Rivers Press, from Minnesota State University Moorhead. New Rivers is dedicated to publishing “imaginative work from emerging and established writers,” a potentially risky goal when it comes to short fiction. The stories published in American Fiction Volume 12 represent the winner, runners up, and honorable mentions of the New Rivers annual fiction contest, judged this year by Josip Novakovich, a Croatian-American-Canadian writer for whom nationality is more a problem to be wrestled with than a point of pride. Indeed, given his own background and style, Novakovich is an intriguing choice for judging such a collection, and the resulting stories challenge many of the snarky assumptions behind my initial reservations. Continue reading

Risky Business

Love, In Theory
By E.J. Levy

Review by Amanda Mead
October 29, 2012

Author E.J. Levy navigates the topography of intellectual love to an often times troubled affect in the 2012 fiction collection Love, In Theory.  Flannery O’Conner award winner for short fiction, these ten stories measure betrayal, passion, and heartbreak against scholarly “theories” that illuminate what it means to be in a relationship in the information age.

The majority of Levy’s characters are academics: a professor of creative writing at a small town university, a graduate film student relocating from Colorado to Ohio, and a self-proclaimed philosopher who suggests that love is a “messer-upper.”  Despite a deft acquisition of book smarts, these characters are stumped when it comes to love.  If there are ways to explain the physics behind string theory, or constants and variables in a mathematic equation, then what makes deconstructing our most intimate relationships an exception? Continue reading

Physician, Heal Thyself

Kore: On Sickness, the Sick and the Search for the Soul of Medicine
By Andrzej Szczeklik

Review by Emily Wojcik
October 23, 2012

It is a privilege to be healthy, one that we egregiously take for granted when we are well and become all too aware of once we have lost it. Literature about illness is a mainstay of the contemporary memoir—there are books detailing battles with cancer, anorexia, bipolar disorder, the loss of limbs, strokes, childhood diseases—as well as popular tomes about the quirky or tragic histories of such maladies and their cures.

While the illness memoir may be a relatively new phenomenon, the worlds of literature and medicine have long been interconnected, particularly for practitioners in the field. Western literature is full of doctors who were also writers or artists, from Copernicus to Anton Chekov to William Carlos Williams and, today, Oliver Sacks, Atul Gawande, and others. This should perhaps be unsurprising. As Andrzej Szczeklik makes clear in Kore: On Sickness, the Sick and the Search for the Soul of Medicine, medicine has long been as much about interpretation and narrative, metaphysics and superstition, as it is about diagnosis and treatment.

Szczeklik, who passed away in January of this year, was chairman of the department of medicine at Poland’s Jagiellonian University, and author of Catharsis: On the Art of Medicine, an earlier work of similarly thoughtful essays. In this philosophical exploration of the “soul of medicine,” Szczeklik takes the reader through a brief history of the profession, interspersed with his own autobiography and digressions into specific maladies and breakthroughs that changed the way we think about the body. Continue reading

Beyond the Pale

The White Forest
by Adam McOmber 

Review by Emily Wojcik
October 15, 2012

When a lonely girl with a baffling “gift”—the ability to see the souls of man-made objects—meets an aristocratic young man and a moody, beautiful young woman, intrigue, jealousy, and the supernatural are bound to follow. Particularly when their friendship is set against the backdrop of gothic London, some time in the mid-nineteenth century, as the Crimean War comes to an end and the western world teeters on the brink of modernity.

As many authors before him have discovered, it’s a setup rich with creative possibility, and in his first novel, The White Forest, Adam McOmber balances the clichés of the genre with gorgeous writing and a dense, twisting plot. The dark corners of a dying aristocracy, and the inevitable triangles that result when bored teenagers find themselves thrown together on the grounds of a half-abandoned manor are in full force. Yet McOmber follows them to intriguing new places, pushing beyond youthful angst to explore the thin line between curiosity and obsession, religion and the occult, love and madness. Continue reading

Mapping the Void

The Invisibles
by Hugh Sheehy

Review by Josie E. Davis
October 12, 2012

In the opening pages of The Invisibles, the 2012 Flannery O’Conner prize winner for short fiction, author Hugh Sheehy creates a landscape so bleak and ordinary that the obscurity, horror, and ambiguity of what happens next is a near contrast to the sublime. The collection begins with “Meat and Mouth,” in which Luke Dixon, a mournfully peevish character whose refuge from an ultimately disposable father is likened by his own invisibility at school – Dixon’s attempt at personifying and mentally defeating his daytime bully, Davey Schwartz, is thwarted by an all too real hostage situation controlled by two much older and armed former students.  The story’s narrator, Maddy, “cradles” Dixon to sleep in the school boiler room after witnessing Meat kill off Dixon’s father in cold blood.  The gravity of adulthood and a series of irreconcilable psychologies leave Maddy to consider how and if Luke Dixon will “beat the odds” of a future easily disrepaired by solemn and selfless choices – and seemingly indefinite time.

The collection revolves from one “invisible” to another and stories pronounce, with a terrific thrill, the darker and more dreaded turns in life that leave the reader falling “through the cracks” and forever wanting to be seen.  Sheehy makes his mark in fiction with a vast range of characters – missing and invisible, disconsolate and notorious in their longing for revenge; near addicts and the unborn – calling out from the most conventional and hapless Americana.  This is Sheehy’s gift: balancing the horrific and the humane in stories that exfoliate the more painful triumphs of American adulthood.  Continue reading

God is my Lobbyist: Politics, Religion, and the War on Welfare

Faith Based: Religious Neoliberalism and the Politics of Welfare in the United States

By Jason Hackworth

Review by Emily Wojcik
September 25, 2012

Those of us who watched in mild confusion as the Tea Party became a significant political force in a matter of two years—despite its angry and, at times, incoherent blend of libertarian ethos and quasi-religious placards—will find in Faith Based a welcome guidebook to the wilderness of conservative politics. At once a critical history of the more conservative arm of the contemporary Right; a penetrating sociopolitical analysis of the party’s dismantling of social programs, particularly welfare; and a theoretical exploration of the ramifications thereof, Jason Hackworth’s study is a timely and welcome addition to the crowded field of political tomes.

Hackworth, a professor of geography and urban planning at the University of Toronto, tackles a subject that most of us know very little about—the intersection of neoliberalism and fundamentalist Christianity in the United States—and does so in a way that is clear and very readable despite the preponderance of research (this  book is intended for other scholars). I don’t mean to imply that having done his work thoroughly is a problem; it’s refreshing to read a book that tackles a potentially explosive subject so comprehensively without falling back on bombast and snark. But Hackworth’s style is otherwise so engaging that the depth of research can feel a bit oppressive to the more casual reader—one hopes that he might one day write a book for a lay readership. Continue reading

Flora, Fauna, and Firmament: Rekindling our Communion with the Natural World

Things That Are by Amy Leach

By Amanda Mead

Sometimes we overlook the wonders of this world.  At times we forget the marvels of nature. Amy Leach illuminates these forgotten splendors in Things That Are, a collection of short essays attributed to the natural world around us and above us.  Fascinated with the smallest and largest things in the world, Leach divides her attention between tiny dust granules and the light of the sun.  Depicting the rich and enchanting lives of the flora, fauna, and firmament without any direct reference to the man-made, this collection outlines poetically vivid images while enriching the core of our imagination.

Things That Are is Leach’s debut book and it comes as no surprise that her literary praises precede her: a Whiting award, a Rona Jaffe award, a Best American Essays selection, and a Pushcart Prize.  Her work has appeared in A Public Space, Tin House, Orion Magazine, and the Los Angeles Review.  A graduate of the MFA program in creative non-fiction from the University of Iowa, Leach currently teaches literature at the University of St. Francis in Joliet, Illinois.  An accomplished bluegrass musician, Leach infuses essays like “God” and “Memorandum to the Animals” with audio renditions available through the Milkweed Press website.  This soundtrack offers the reader the added pleasure of hearing Leach’s weighted tones and patterned syntax as she recites her own words over well fitted drum kicks and banjo twangs.

Leach anticipates a predisposition to the natural world and encourages readers to extend their imagination beyond the man-made.  Capturing the long awaited transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly in “You are Going to Fly” and the rotation of the moon, earth, and sun in “Sail on, My Little Honeybee,” her approach to these grade school science lessons mirrors a 19th century poet, taking inspiration from John Dunn’s “metaphors from science” and Chaucer.  Delightfully silly in its Lewis Carroll invention, the book is most successful as a descriptive field: “jellyfishes’ curly gauzy watercolor streamers” and “when trees dream of being trees.”  Instead of falling down a rabbit hole into Wonderland, Leach falls up a staircase to heaven, “my ascent has acquired the helpless nature of a descent: I am Alice ascending.”

The collection is broken into two segments entitled “Things of Earth” and “Things of Heaven” with essays ranging in length depending on tone and subject.  Shorter pieces like “Trappists” suffice with one page, whereas “Love” divulges the reader in eight pages of flora associated by name: love-in-idleness, love-lies-bleeding, love-blind.  Essays are appropriately titled with the exception of “God” and “Comfortless,” both of which appear to be miscataloged.  A subjective narrative placed under the section “Things of Earth,” the essay “God” suggests the ambivalence of a Higher Power:  “The word refers to someone no one has ever seen. Perhaps that is why people say it over and over, as if the repetition of a word can make up for the absence of its referent.” In “Comfortless,” Leach uses a tear in her great-aunt’s comforter as a metaphor for life slipping through her fingers as she searches to fill the comforters’ seams.  The subject and perspective in “Comfortless” is inconsistent with the rest of the collection and it is difficult to say whether or not the essay has much of a place in the book at all.  Leach’s first person voice is transparent and the essay takes on an man-made, tangible affect – that of a comforter, if nothing else.

With seemingly made up language reminiscent of Anthony Burgess in A Clockwork Orange – albeit more floral and innocent sounding – Leach creates prose for plants and animals with words that seem unreal.  Her language proves oddly satisfying and seemingly convoluted, but for those of us needing a supplementary explanation, the glossary abets any ecological and linguistic ignorance. Many of these terms are archaic and mythological:  “Muspelheim,” derived from Norse mythology’s ‘realm of fire’ used to describe a cosmological effect, or “argle-bargle,” a term first used in 1872 to describe a wrangling argument. Who knew a “mouldywarp” was a mole?

Leach enlivens the page with verbal delights such as this address to the moon: “you are not an idea; you make the Earth’s heavy blue waters heave up and down!”  But these swift dedications are contrasted by more philosophical observations, “some memories are so fragile they bury themselves,” phrases that connect the tangible to the ethereal in what is already an evident theme running throughout the book.

Things That Are is a collection for anyone seeking a delicate and honeyed perspective on the natural world. Leach carves out an ingenuous mysticism with playful language and antiquated terms supporting the worth of the slightest things. A genre bending collection of poetry-prose, Leach beguiles her readers from the eyes of jellyfish to the core of the moon, from the life of pea tendrils to notions of God.

Amanda Mead is a freelance writer based in Chicago. She is an active contributor to Sixty Inches from Center, an online archive of the Chicago art scene. She graduated from Beloit College with a joint degree in Creative Writing and Art History.

Things That Are By Amy Leach
Publisher:  Milkweed Press, 2012
Pages: 185 pages
Price: $18.00
ISBN:  978-1-57131-334-8

 

 

 

Lost and Lonely but Not Looking

The Other Shoe

By Matt Pavelich

Review by Julie Morse
July 27, 2012

Welcome to Red Plain, Montana, where life moves as slow as wet clothes drying under a dark cloud.  Hot air cakes the smell of fried eggs and diesel. Citizens swear by the power of Jesus, and even strangers call you “honey”.  A town where Matt Pavelich conjures up his latest work of backcountry crime, The Other Shoe.

Henry and Karen Brusset have spent their lives hibernating in an aluminum trailer perched in the Montana backcountry.  Karen Brusset is a rare breed, a refurbished doll that embodies anything but the “feral nymph her mother wanted.”  Her hands are disproportionately large, the color of “bronze to khaki depending on the current warmth of her blood.” From an early age, Karen’s disinterest in socializing rendered her a superfluous member of the family without a diagnosis for her aberrant behavior.

A mutual outcast, Henry is the first friend Karen makes in her teenage years while attending a social gathering at church.  Nearly twice Karen’s age, the two become life companions on their “tiny, barren continent of marriage.”

This companionship is severed when Calvin Teague, a young, guileless, aspiring pharmacist whose decision to venture from Iowa to Montana – combined with a naïve spirit for adventure and inept hiking skills – render him lost and wandering on the highway.  Intrigued by the prospects of more youthful companionship, Karen decides to test her social graces by extending an invitation for Calvin to stay the night, and in a twisted effort to be polite, asks Calvin to help her bathe.

The interlocking of these characters in what can only be described as an inbred backwoods murder underpin a more acute understanding of provincial life in Red Plain.  Half-way through the book, Pavelich devotes a chapter to the struggle of a farmer to uproot his cow from the mud, in an austere Cowen-Faulknerian portrayal of the Wild West. Hoot Meyers, the county attorney, addresses the population as the “lunatic fringe of the United States.”

In a town defined by estates, farms and manual labor, Henry is charged guilty and useless.  After quitting his local construction job and claiming disability for arthritis, Henry’s futility fosters him a steady prescription drug addiction. Once arrested and jailed for Calvin’s death, he becomes increasingly quiet and obtuse.  He flounders to a state of listlessness, succumbing to his jail cell as would a despondent fish pacing in its bowl.

The framing of Calvin’s murder is stretched across the first third of the novel, followed by a close-up rendering of a painfully slow trial. Members of the court receive torpid and churning introductions, while Pavelich invites us to poke fun at Karen’s dopey cartoon personality.  When asked her position on Henry’s case she responds, “my position, I’ve never had one of those before.”

Apparently, Henry always hoped for Karen’s departure, believing “she could never learn so long as she was with him.” His desires are upheld after being locked up when, despite all efforts, he ignores any requests by Karen to see him:  “[M]ore than anything else, he wished to be absent, and it was pleasant to think of himself wild-eyed and aloof in some woods – young again, whole again for being hunted.”

Karen continues to fumble after her separation from Henry, unaware of how to create a future on her own. The novel evolves into a study on her opaque journey of self-discovery. We observe her longing for Henry, her letter writing and weak farming skills.  Most of the time we stare back into her blank, languid eyes, hoping she will wake up to the fact that Henry wants nothing more than for her to move on.

The Other Shoe is not unlike a “Law and Order” spin-off set in the wild.  So much of the novel is an ostensible diagnosis and examination of  characters.  A meticulous background check, the book prohibits the reader from cultivating any sense of belonging and intimacy with the story.  When love is defined by precaution, who can manage to stay innocuous forever?

Julie Morse is a contributing writer and artist based in San Francisco. Visit her online at juliemorse.tumblr.com

The Other Shoe by Matt Pavelich
Press:  Counterpoint Press
Pages:  320
Price:  $11.58
ISBN:   978-1582437958

Same Game, Different Losers: Rethinking the Public School “Syndrome”

Someone Has to Fail: The Zero-Sum Game of Public Schooling by David F. Labaree

By Emily Wojcik

Every year or so – more often during election cycles – politicians, reformers, and the public turn their attention to the public school system. This came to a dramatic head during the summer of 2011, when Wisconsin governor Scott Walker and his Republican majority pushed through a budget that eliminated collective-bargaining rights for teachers. The move inspired a walkout of Democratic legislators and a weeks-long protest on the steps of the state capitol, culminating in the failed gubernatorial recall vote earlier this month. The lines were drawn: demoralized progressives and teachers on one side, frustrated voters and budget hawks on the other.

These lines are nothing new: Walker’s budget was merely the latest shot across the bow in a nearly 200-year-old battle over public education in the United States—a fact made clear in the course of David F. Labaree’s comprehensive and enlightening book, Someone Has to Fail: The Zero-Sum Game of Public Schooling. Continue reading

Beyond Tragic Irony: The Life and Death of a Literary Enigma

 

By Cory MacLauchlin

Review by Emily Wojcik
May 28, 2012

Literary suicides hold a special place in our collective imagination, especially when they contain a healthy dose of irony. The story of John Kennedy Toole, author of the posthumously Pulitzer Prize-winning A Confederacy of Dunces, is a particularly intriguing case, as Cory MacLauchlin demonstrates in his new biography, Butterfly in the Typewriter: The Short, Tragic Life of John Kennedy Toole and the Remarkable Story of A Confederacy of Dunces. Not nearly prolific enough to have amassed a serious archive, and something of an enigma even to those who knew him best, Toole has remained a figure trapped in apocryphal cliché. His novel represented the culmination of a lifetime of thwarted literary genius, real and imagined, and his failed efforts at publication—following a lengthy and ultimately disappointing correspondence with Simon and Schuster editor Robert Gottlieb—ended in Toole’s suicide at the age of 31. Continue reading

What Would Madonna Do?

Madonna & Me: Women Writers On The Queen of Pop
Edited by Laura Barcella

Review by Alle C. Hall
May 21, 2012

Women of the MTV generation will likely remember where we were when Madonna died. I will learn about her death when The New York Times app embedded in my old lady reading glasses pings gently. I will fade out the holograms sent by my grandchildren on Mars, showing me what they learned in pre-school about gender: “What parts you have, what you like to wear, and what you like to play with.” A retrospective will stream: the writhing on the bridal veil, the cone bras, the masturbation that continues as she ages – to a point. Around the time of Obama’s sweeping re-election, she begins aging backward, spiraling closer and closer to her Virgin self, then past it, into a pretty, brown-haired six-year-old with incredible muscles and a fabulously virile 23-year-old boyfriend. Continue reading

Twenty-Five American Muslim Women Break it Down in the Name of Love

Love, InshAllah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women
Edited by Ayesha Mattu and Nura Maznavi

By Amanda Mead

InshAllah, or “God Willing”, embraces the notion that it is only through the will of God that the individual attains what they seek in life.  Health, prosperity, and love, as exhibited by twenty-five American Muslim women in Love, InshAllah, a collection of essays compiled by first time editors Ayesha Mattu and Nura Maznavi.  Mattu and Maznavi begin by stating that “this book is not a theological treatise or a dating manual. It is a reflection of reality,” articulating their choice to publish work authored by an active, yet highly disregarded, cultural and ethnic minority.  Although the premise of the collection does not lie in representing each and every American Muslim woman or issue of female politics, Mattu and Manzani offer Love, Inshallah as a way to begin a conversation that may otherwise not be had. Continue reading

A Close Look at W.S. Merwin: What’s At Stake?

Until Everything Is Continuous Again: American Poets on the Recent Work of W. S. Merwin 
Edited by Jonathan Weinert and Kevin Prufer

By Deborah Bacharach

W.S. Merwin is one of the most influential poets writing in America today. He has written over twenty books of poetry, twenty books of poetry translation, and won nearly every poetry award possible starting with the Yale Younger Poets Prize, the National Book Award, and two Pulitzers.  Oh yes, he was the 2010 United States Poet Laureate.  For editors Jonathan Weinert and Kevin Prufer, Until Everything Is Continuous Again: American Poets on the Recent work of W.S. Merwin fills what they see as a void in Merwin scholarship.  These fifteen essays, approximately ten pages each, focus on the later half of Merwin’s oeuvre.  They range from close readings of individual poems, to placing Merwin in a political, cultural, and artistic context, to an interview with Merwin himself.  Should you read this collection?  That depends on who you are.

If you are a literature scholar, this book was written for you.  The essayists presume a strong background in literary history and vocabulary.  As a literary scholar you are familiar with Dante’s Inferno, Merwin’s exploration of “absence” in his early work, and Emmanuel Levinas’s notion of illeity.  You probably don’t have to go look up (as I did) words like “agon,” “plangency,” and “somatic.”  These essays are solid scholarly research that increase my respect for Merwin’s craft and philosophy – they develop arguments based on close readings of the poems, address counter-arguments, and connect these arguments to the greater discussion of Merwin and poetry in general. If nothing else, all poetry scholars should read H. L. Hix’s essay, “Prolegomena to Any Future Reading of The Folding Cliffs”, which lays out a helpful and fascinating grid of questions that develop when scholars let go of “Is the poem good?” and try out “What’s at stake?” Continue reading

Libraries of the Holocaust: What is Written will Never Die

Epistolophilia: Writing the Life of Ona Simaite by Julija Sukys

By Meredith Wood Bahuriak

What we learn from our predecessors, we leave for some successor to follow. In Epistolophilia: Writing the Life of Ona Simaite, author Julija Sukys dances with the ghost of Ona Simaite in order to remember and honor not just the Holocaust, but Simaite’s life, thoughts, views, and actions. As Sukys unravels the biography of Simaite, she struggles to understand the story she desperately seeks to find.

A treasurer of words, Simaite carefully collected, preserved and archived a written record of her life including thousands of letters, scores of diaries, articles, and press clippings.  A librarian at Vilna University, she used her position to aid and rescue Jews with the excuse of retrieving overdue library books from Jewish students as an entry into the Vilna ghetto. Continue reading

Softies

Sensitive Matter: Foams, Gels, Liquid Crystals, and Other Miracles by Michel Mitov

Review by Amanda Mead

What do carrots and a flat-screen television have in common? Put this orange tuber root next to a 40” high definition TV, and the shared elements might not be obvious. But according to physicist and research scientist Michel Mitov, it’s soft matter that makes the difference.

In Sensitive Matter, Mitov addresses the mysteries behind the bubbles in champagne, the controlled release of drugs, and the ‘polywater’ that inspired Kurt Vonnegut’s controversial Cat’s Cradle.  The everyday object is more than what meets the eye, holding within itself the complexities of sensitive, soft, matter.

Sensitive Matter clarifies the mysteries of these lesser-asked and more obscure questions in science. Mitov utilizes each chapter as a lesson in physics, dealing with one individual concept at a time. If you don’t remember your grade-school lessons on the different parts of a cell or how surface tension works, you’ll feel as if no time has passed as Mitov describes the thread-like liquid crystals of soft matter arranged like a school of fish, or quicksand as a reference to the maximum angle of stability. Continue reading

Daunting Dad

Descanso for My Father by Harrison Candelaria Fletcher

By Julie Morse

In October of 1987, Ray Fletcher visits his wife Renee Candelaria in a dream to forewarn her of their daughter’s doomed marriage. A silent woman since losing Ray to lung cancer in 1964, Renee places her faith in the church – no longer welcoming her husband’s nightly visitations. Renee tells Ray to leave – at which point Ray waits on the porch of their home in rural Albuquerque, hoping to be let in again.

Out of Renee’s five children, Harrison Candelaria Fletcher is the only one who chases the memory of his father. Descanso for My Father is a stream of narrative sketches – a non-fiction compilation of essays in which Fletcher – author and son – attempts to remember his father despite not ever knowing him.  Before writing Descanso for My Father, Fletcher’s knowledge of Ray was limited only to “seven stories,” disclosed by Renee “again and again with folded hands and a breathy voice until her words became my own and my father became a myth.” Continue reading

Moving beyond the Legacies of Constraint

“99 Girdles on the Wall” by Elena Louise Richmond
By Amanda Mead

The debut memoir about a woman’s lifelong struggle against the repercussions of her repressive upbringing, 99 Girdles on the Wall follows author Elena Louise Richmond on her pilgrimage to escape the suffocating fundamentalism that has affected the larger part of her life. From childhood until mid-adulthood, Richmond attempts to outgrow a series of metaphorical girdles in religion, womanhood, and family.  99 Girdles on the Wall is an honest appeal to the vulnerabilities, painful recounts, and darkly comic instances of a life led in constraints.  Continue reading

Failing the Art of Impersonation

“I Didn’t Mean To Be Kevin” by Caleb J. Ross

by Julie Morse

Caleb J. Ross explores the nihilistic underbelly culture of the American Midwest in his latest novel I Didn’t Mean to be Kevin. It is a reverse coming-of-age story in which Jackson Jacoby and the friends he makes each attempt to uncover a childhood they never had.  Jackson embarks on a road trip from Kansas to Delaware in search ofa mother who is looking for her son, Kevin Mason.  Jackson is lost and ferociously defensive, yet aching to be nurtured.

The novel is full of abandonment and desperation. Jackson wears both these qualities valiantly and his traveling companions – either physically disfigured or motherless – all contain a similar despair. Continue reading

How to Stay Fresh for Dinner

The Infernal Republic’ Stories by Marshall Moore

By Josie E. Davis

In The Infernal Republic, Marshall Moore’s darkly amoral short story collection about contemporary relationships and their unforeseen endings, happily ever after isn’t always what it’s cracked out to be.  Dirty and deafening.  Satanic.

What would you do for love?  The question abounds the opening of Moore‘s second full volume of previously published stories including “Town of Thorns,” in which a man is haunted by the abrupt and unwelcome loss of his distanced lover, Michael, who in the aftermath of a Portland gay bashing, feels more like himself than ever before.

Through the slums of Los Angeles to the angelic red light district of Amsterdam, Moore sums up a gritty world in which “you stop being desirable.  People stop treating you as if you can think for yourself,” where flesh becomes something of commercial market value as in “Putting the Damage On,” when a woman surgically borrows, preserves, and wears the features of younger assistants in order to upgrade her physical and corporate appeal.  Continue reading

Poetry: In Michael Hettich’s 7th collection, “The Animals Beyond Us,” grief and nature have no limits

By Deborah Bacharach

Michael Hettich‘s seventh collection of poetry, The Animals Beyond Us (New Rivers Press, 2011) has the wonderful quality of reading like one long integrated poem instead of a pastiche.  The connections are thematic and stylistic, and the layering makes each individual poem reverberate more powerfully than if it stood alone.

Although the book touches on many themes–long-term marriage in particular–in essence it is about grief and how we manage it.  The opening poem, “Widow,” has the griever both cut off from the world, “When it’s cold you understand things by leaving them alone” and “burning inside.”  In this poem, Hettich controls the mood through syntax.  By setting up subjunctives and not completing them he creates a great sense of anticipation:

If silence were a creature like a dog, and could follow you
around like a dog does, and come when you called.
If silence were a housecat you rescued from the alley.

Continue reading

“Wall-E” meets “Gravity’s Rainbow” as Boudinot gives birth to the next generation of sci-fi fantasy in “Blueprints of the Afterlife”

By Alle C. Hall

Rebecca Brown once told me that she wanted sentences to so capture her that she had to stop reading, to go,Huh …  wow.” 

Ryan Boudinot writes, “The world was full of precious garbage.”  Wow.

Blueprints of the Afterlife runs a gorgeous gamut: complex, blunt, evocative, grimy, and disgusting; full of pain, of hope, of pure bliss. The plot is your straightforward sci-fi fantasy based in post-apocalyptical Seattle, Georgetown to be precise. This is the second novel for Boudinot, the Seattle resident and Professor of Creative Writing at the Goddard College Low Res MFA Program in Port Townsend, after Misconceptions (2009) and his debut short story collection The Littlest Hitler (2007).  Valued garbage is everywhere. Food is yucky. Joys are few. Anti-heroes must save humanity. Don’t yawn yet. The sheer imagination with which Boudinot’s tale unwinds is stunning. Continue reading

Eating with the Masters: Sushi with Shiro

By Autumn Widdoes

Shiro:  Wit, Wisdom and Recipes from a Sushi Pioneer is the remarkable memoir of sushi chef and legend Shiro Kashiba.  The book opens at the peak of the author’s childhood in post-World War II Japan as Kashiba recalls his initial fascination with American culture.  The memoir follows Kashiba as he makes his way to North America bearing his culinary traditions and a career dedicated to the Japanese art of sushi.

Kashiba began his career in Japan as a young sushi chef on the Ginza working under chef Jiro Ono (pronounced a National Living Treasure by the Japanese Government).  Kashiba left Japan to pursue the American dream of owning a restaurant.  At the time he was one of a handful of individuals to bring sushi to America and contributed greatly to the shift in the American palette.  Kashiba discusses the consumer demographic which only a generation ago avoided raw fish, and now worries about the direction in which American fusion sushi has gone. Continue reading

Blase Bonpane: An Autobiography of Human Rights

By Cara Diaconoff

The “renegade” Maryknoll priest and peace activist Blase Bonpane is a sort of Zelig of the major human-rights struggles of the last fifty-some years. His autobiography presents a fascinating, fly-on-the-wall view of the intersection of history with the daily life of humanitarian witness. Here are stories of organizing cursillos in the 1960s (Spanish for “short course”—communal retreats within the Catholic church) as part of the resistance to the repressive Guatemalan government, of leading teach-ins and demonstrations on California campuses against the Vietnam War, of braving arrests and violence as a leader and member of the International March for Peace in Central America in the mid-1980s, and of flying to Iraq with a peace delegation on the eve of the bombing in winter 1991.

In plain-spoken fashion—memories alternating with reflections on liberation theology, university pedagogy, and the wickedness of leaders both elected and self-elected—Dr. Bonpane, now eighty-two years old, tells the story of a life committed to principles of service, love, and justice. Since 1983, he has been dedicated to his work with the Office of the Americas, the nonprofit education and publishing organization he founded with his wife Theresa, and since 2000 he has been publishing book-length works of political theory and personal history. Imagine No Religion is the first of his books to gather together his whole life-story; it is his fourth title published by Red Hen Press. Continue reading

Faith, Fiction, and Bin Laden’s Bald Spot

By Josie E. Davis

How is faith like a bald spot?  How is marriage like a bus tour?  Is confession any good if I don’t believe and what should I believe in, anyway?  Why not, for instance, believe that there is a bald spot shaped exactly like Iceland on the back of Osama Bin Laden’s head, which comes fully equipped with the Vestfjarda Peninsula to the west?

Believing is the specialty of Brian Doyle in his latest short fiction anthology, Bin Laden’s Bald Spot & Other Stories.  Published this fall by Red Hen Press, these twenty five remarkable vignettes are a necessity for any shelf.  Peculiar and confrontational, the book is a world wrapped between the sheets of unforgettable circumstance and it’s a wonder how Doyle has learned to pace himself.  Award winning author and editor of Portland Magazine, Doyle leaves no time for dawdling in these morally off beat and nonsensical tales of what humanity would look like with consequences strung aside.  What really happened to Bernard Francis Cardinal Law, archbishop of Boston and the man who waved a hand at child molestation?  Would anyone notice if you locked your sister’s loser boyfriend in the trunk and went on a cruise with the kids?  How would you react if you discovered your neighbor’s new born baby gently buried in your backyard? Continue reading

5 Under 35: National Book Award Nominees Announced!

The National Book Foundation will recognize the 2011 5 Under 35, five young fiction writers selected by National Book Award Winners and Finalists, on Monday, November 14, once again at powerHouse Arena in DUMBO, Brooklyn. This year’s celebration will be hosted by filmmaker and author John Waters, with poet and National Book Award Finalist Patricia Smith as DJ.

According to Rebecca Keith, Program Manager at the National Book Foundation, the 5 under 35 program “has honored some of the best young fiction writers in the game since its inception in 2006. We’re pleased to see this year’s list of authors expand into new territory, with John Corey Whaley, the first ever Young Adult novelist honored, and Shani Boianjiu, one of our youngest 5 under 35 authors ever, at 24, who is completing the manuscript for her first novel.”

This year’s novelists include:  Shani Boianjiu, John Corey Whaley, Mary Beth Keane, Melinda Moustakis, and Danielle Evans.

New Novel of Family Rupture, Immoral Vacations, and Wild Women in the Arizona West

By Josie E. Davis

Who doesn’t love a vacation?  We want them, we pay for them, we plan them and we make videos of them to show our grandkids.  They’re temporary obsessions that outlast us even after we’re gone, made to be good despite the usual mishaps like getting lost or running out of money or losing track of your daughter or simply forgetting where home was to begin with.

This is what I think about as I read the opening pages of HISTORAMA, the debut novel by Diza Sauers, who gives “vacation” a meaning more wrought with familial dysfunction than the word itself perhaps deserves.  Sauers‘ leading persona, Riva, is an about average teenage girl whose repulsion and embarrassment for her mother, Mallory, is the catalyst for one family’s inevitable breakdown just miles from where the pair leaves their home on the other side of the Arizona desert.

The book opens on a rainy night with an empty tank of gas and no money as Mallory whoops and hollers about life on the road before parking – terminally – outside a desert ranch now renovated as a historic tourist must-see layover of the wild west.   “DON’T MISS OUR HIST-O-RAMA,” reads the flashing welcome billboard of a deteriorating cowboy.  What begins as a poolside stay is quickly weighted down by the advent of adopted children, elaborate money making schemes (think human trafficking and the Calamity Jane wild west show), the occasional affair and really, the possibility that one history can be traded for another, just like family. Continue reading

Elizabeth Searle Unravels the Mystery of Terrorists and Teenagers in Suburban America

By Josie E. Davis

Imagine your 15 year old son, well behaved but departing – perhaps faster than you expect – into his years of teen rebellion.  Now imagine yourself.  Full time mother and wife, part-time teacher and dedicated member of the local PTA.  Dedicated, as Elizabeth Searle explores in her latest novel, to protecting.

Based on a true story (see video), Girl Held In Home is a thrilling reflection of post 9/11 suburban America, capturing the small encounters which make every day life appear inconsequential. The fourth and most recent novel published by author Elizabeth Searle, the story trails two families and one young girl held hostage in the basement of the neighborhood Muslim “terrorist cell,” as lives are quickly entwined in the days following September 11 with the desire to break free from familial obligation.

What I love about this book is the conviction of Searle’s leading narrators, Maura and Joezy, to achieve their goals.  Searle doesn’t guarantee her characters all they are after, but she offers the reader the same promise she gives her characters – hope. “I did what I could; I’ll do what I can; I did what I could,” remarks Joezy, Searle’s asthma struck super-hero smitten coming of age teen, reflecting upon his own insurmountable attempt at rescuing – and protecting – the one he loves.

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Moscow, Mormonism, and the Bittersweet Truth

By Josie E. Davis

“I think it is all a matter of love: the more you love a memory, the stronger and stranger it is,” quotes Vladimir Nabokov in an interview with the BBC discussing his life’s work as a Russian-American novelist.  Memories, as Nabokov tells us, are the very essence of immortality.  Nabokov might agree that just like his own distant memories serve him to “feel Russia” across the water, there is a strangeness to the ways in which memory embodies the things we choose to love, and forget.  But what is a memory without the desire to create, to experience, and to forgive?  In her most recent novel, author Cara Diaconoff approaches this question in the eyes of Lucas Tiller, the Mormon Elder and software programmer living in Moscow, Russia.  The book, I’ll Be a Stranger To You, is a seductive and raw portrait where-in Tiller comes to terms with his own sexuality, the end of a marriage, the salvation of his priesthood and a lifelong relationship to God, and a handful of unforgettable backstreet Russian encounters thrown in for kicks.

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No Word for Welcome: The Mexican Village Faces the Global Economy

By Josie E. Davis

The archives are stuffed with the how-to’s and what ifs of globalization and the often unsuccessful attempts to resist it.  But here, in the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, we find a map of village persistence amid “signposts of globalization” as translator and grassroots organizer Wendy Call follows over a decade long response to “El plan de Ochoa,” the Mexican government sponsored Megaproject to instill new highways, shrimp farms, and a handful of development projects affecting farmers, schools, forests, and fishing communities across the Isthmus region. Continue reading

Strap on your boots and join the Estby girls for … The Year We Were Famous

By Josie E. Davis

“I was as jumpy as a colt smelling cougar scat.” And so begins the cross continental journal of Miss Clara Estby, a blossoming young woman made famous for one year alongside her mother, Helga Estby, in a series of suffragist and life threatening efforts to save the family and their farm in Mica Creek, Washington.

By the end of the introduction I’ve fallen back in time to 1896 and into the shoes of Clara.  What strikes me as famous, even more than walking from Spokane to New York, is the ability of Carole Estby Dagg to bring to life such a breathtaking account of the American landscape through the narrative of a young woman who is both fiction and family. Continue reading