Month: March 2012

Into This World – Review by Lavinia Ludlow

Sybil Baker is the author of comical book The Life Plan, the dramatic novella Talismans, and recently, she’s released a third novel titled Into This World through Engine Books.

Into This World opens with a detail-packed introduction of the protagonist, Allison, a thirty-something divorcee who recently moved back in with her parents and is unsatisfied with the the state of her current life. She’s childless and still pining (fourteen years) over her married and womanizing asshole of a boss. The stress of her failed marriage and the distance of her lover infects her mind and body, resulting in heartbreaking consequences like repeated miscarriages and nightmares.

One evening, while Allison is sitting at the dinner table being mini-lectured by her parents about inexplicably giving up the stability of her job, her half sister Mina calls and quickly hangs up. The familial bitterness between the children and the parents is revealed early, and it’s easy to guess that Mina, the “adopted” daughter is actually Allison’s half sister, fathered when her dad did a tour in Korea. With some pressure from her parents, Allison decides to embark on an international excursion to reconnect with her half sister. Though a seemingly stereotypical tale of female suburban adversity, Allison uses the trip to rediscover who she is underneath all the layers of “coveting,” heartache, and misery, and also to find a connection with her distant sister.

At times, the story does come off soap opera-ish, the opening is burdened with an information overload of character facts and histories. However, as the text continues, Baker presents the flashbacks through a succession of well-crafted chapters which jump between Allison’s present and her father’s life when he was stationed in Korea. During this time, he had an affair with a Korean woman and fathered a baby girl whom he eventually “adopts” and brings back to the US. Fast-forward through some family drama, interactions with a few secondary characters, ones I felt needed a bit more build and personality, and in the end, Allison forces the two lying men in her life (her boss and father) to face the consequences of their actions.

Baker definitely presents the “stranger in a strange land” storyline well as exhibited in Allison’s culture shock of Seoul’s city life, the language barrier, and differences in things as simple as the local stores and housing accommodations. On the flip side, Baker also hit the mark with Mina’s cultural and ethnic identity crisis of growing up half Korean with no real tie to her roots in Seoul.

Baker’s writing has definitely matured throughout the years which she exhibits in this finely crafted piece of literary fiction. Into This World was truly enjoyable to experience, its prose so engaging and polished that the pages turned themselves. Pick up a copy over at Engine Books and definitely check out Baker’s past novels The Life Plan and Talismans.

Compartments – Review by Carol Hawkins

Carol Smallwood’s poetry exposes the active inner life of a curious observer.  In her collection, “Compartments,” she reveals the mind and heart of a poet who knows how to unravel mysteries with sensory details and probing questions.  Structured forms, like the villanelle and the triolet, frame fluid topics.  Smallwood invites visitors to share her vision of her thoughts.  Elements of time and place ground the reader to a particular setting that allows access to the poems.  This poet likes to grasp at ordinary things, turning them around in her mind and then translating her ideas into strict lines that reveal truths about unknowable things.  This poet desires to know all, and to share her intimate vision with her readers.

For example, in the poem, “By the Barb Wire Fence,” Smallwood takes on the villanelle to corral the passing of time.  Lily, the protagonist, seeks refuge among the birds and bees, but not in some silly romantic sense.  On the contrary, she hides her tears, weakened by some weight of memory and regret, perhaps a gripping need for something permanent, but the recognition that nature doesn’t hold still.  One dominant image in the poem, a stone foundation, reveals a mystery.  The poet writes:

Lily went where bees made blossoms fall,

near a stone foundation too old to recall.

Even the stone foundation shifts from an assumed place of permanence to a place unknown, an inner mystery, the awareness that nothing is fixed, not even our desires or intentions.  No one knows what the foundation once held up.   Yet, this place of decay holds life:   “bees make blossoms fall,” and “birds built nests without trepidation,” shifting scenes that allow the narrator to turn inward, to seek further refuge, near “the barbed wire fence.”

The triplets within the villanelle create a context from which to describe the natural world, while the reframe and conclusion in the closing quatrain leave the reader in a setting of peace.  The center line in each triplet begins to reveal a conflict:  the narrator’s need to break from “obligation” and seek out an old tree in a quiet spot to “linger as the sun sank.”

The rhythm of the poem echoes the rhythm of life, always moving but seeking pause.  “The Barbed Wire Fence” opens up a Pandora’s Box, a bundle of different meanings, each dependent on the reader’s own associations.  This reader sees a narrator, who appears trapped, yet the fence is down, she can run if she chooses, a breach in the enclosure allows her to leave, but she stays, and settles for a pause.  Why?  “Family obligations” that make her wonder how it all turned out this way?  Did she ever really have a choice?

The poet writes:

Lily wiped her tears as the kids still small

returned from a game of interrogation

Explicit tears for implicit reasons, except for her close reference to “kids” as they come back from a game of questions that must seem difficult to answer.  Lily’s mission, “to see the oldest tree of all,” opens and closes the poem, as she resonates with her surroundings:

Lily went where bees made blossoms fall

and birds built nests without trepidation

near a stone foundation too old to recall.

Another concrete scene, this time “A Vision Triolet,” contains a doctor, a stain, a reality check, and a photo.  Again, the impermanence of life, the passing of time, aging.  More lines of tight rhyme, eight lines per stanza, the repetition of entire lines, like the villanelle.  The length of lines matter, tetrameter, ABaAab, as in “quick, case, photographic; quick, Geographic, space,” followed by AB, “quick, case.”

A Vision Triolet

A digital fundus photo is quick,

recommended for anyone just in case–

each eye must stare till photographic;

a digital fundus photo is quick,

the results rival a National Geographic

glossy spectacular of outer space.

The digital fundus photo is quick

recommended for anyone just in case.

The optometrist pointed to murky stains

“Due to common aging,” he explained

fed by vessels deep in my brain.

The optometrist pointed to murky stains

foreign as a NASA Mars terrain–

the exposure, dull red, self-contained.

The optometrist pointed to murky stains

“due to common aging,” he explained.

Just in case of what?  Those questionable “murky stains” may “be due to common aging” but what does that say about life ahead . . . a red stain, a void, a “dull red, self-contained.”  The poet found the whole scene strange, although the image seemed quite familiar to the optometrist.  The poet’s confused.  Isn’t the poet’s job to make the strange . . . familiar?

This tricky triolet, a quirky form meant to grasp what is slipping away, the poet’s most valuable tool, sight. The repetition of “stains” in the second stanza work well to drive home the point of over exposure, in this case, to time, “the dull red” left behind.  A moment of vision, indeed, of the mystical kind, and the repetition of the line:  “the digital fundus photo is quick” liking the sound of these words and the image of National Geographic, the “result rivala lyrical quality with tight rhyme—“glossy spectacular.”  The artist works here, in and among these forms, such as the villanelle and the triolet, to craft common themes, like aging and regret, in mirroring reframes.

Many poems, like the earliest triolets in English, were written as prayers.  This collection of Compartments could hold the same intention, like chants of extreme repetition, limited rhyme, limited lines that allow the structure to disappear, even though it dominates.  These qualities of form, combined with the simplicity of content, convey a shared understanding, to make Compartments a good read.  The personal becomes universal through images and sounds, and meaning moves closer, with each carefully constructed line.

Carol Hawkins holds a Ph.D. from the University of New Hampshire. She has taught writing and directed writing programs for over twenty years, in public and private colleges and universities, both nationally and abroad. Her writing appears in the National Women’s Studies Journal and Praxis: A Writing Center Journal; Women Writing on Family: Tips on Writing, Teaching and Publishing (Key Publishing House, 2012). Currently she is working on a memoir that explores the intersections of gender, economic class, and literacy.  She lives and writes from her home in Downeast Maine.

The Conium Review

Two literary journals arrived in the mail last week.

One — which shall remain nameless — is pretty well known, includes work from some big names you’ve probably heard of, and includes some mildly snarky, clever, self-aware, and affected stories, poems, and essays. In short, it’s the kind of journal that all the hip kids publish in, but one that leaves me a little cold.

The other journal was The Conium Review, and it’s everything the first journal isn’t. Though I did recognize one of the names (Howie Good), the rest were all completely new to me, and their work was spectacular. Indeed, paging through the journal was like stumbling upon a treasure trove of works by up and coming writers.

Admittedly, some of the works are  odd, albeit in an endearing way. In one piece of flash fiction, for example, a young man dreams of eating glass despite the protestations of his girlfriend. In another, a sterile woman stirs up a baby in a pot of leftovers. In both cases, a distinct sense of loneliness permeates the narratives. Yes, we’re bearing witness to the bizarre, but it’s not just bizarre for the sake of bizarre. It’s a brand of bizarre that offers insight into the human condition.

And then there are the works that are just plain good. In a novelette titled “Dear Penthouse,” a fashion model struggles with addiction and body image issues to harrowing effect, while in a poem titled “Earl Grey Moonlight,” a homeowner laments the passing of the wall that once separated his kitchen from his dining room. These works alone would make the journal worth the $12 cover price, and the fact that the other works contained therein are equally engaging makes The Conium Review a journal to watch.

Isaac: A Modern Fable

As Ivan Goldman’s Isaac: A Modern Fable nears its conclusion, one of the novel’s narrators makes a telling observation: “Whatever we think we know, we’re just guessing, like everyone else.” In context, the narrator, Ruth, is commenting on her familiarity with a slippery and sinister academician named Borges, but the line also captures the essence of the novel itself. Drawing heavily on the Biblical tale of Abraham and Isaac, this “modern fable” serves as a telling commentary on humanity’s ongoing struggle with questions of religion and our intimations of the divine. To wit: What’s the difference between those who claim to hear the voice of God and those who are just plain crazy?

The novel centers on the romance between its two narrators, Lenny and Ruth. Complicating matters is the fact that Lenny is actually the Biblical Isaac, reports of whose death, he quickly informs us, have been greatly exaggerated. Indeed, he’s managed to hang on to his life for over 200 generations without aging so much as a day—forgotten, in his words, by God and the world. But not, it turns out, by another immortal known only as “the beast.”

The fantastic nature of the novel suggests a more mature, not to mention literate, version of the Twilight series. But if Lenny is a world-weary answer to Stephanie Meyer’s Edward Cullen, Ruth stands out as a far more willful, mature, and headstrong antidote to Bella Swan. That the novel also takes shots at ivory-tower academia and celebrity culture while dropping references to the likes of Don DeLillo, Thomas Pynchon, Jorge Luis Borges, and Toni Morrison only adds to the fun.

A tale of Biblical proportions playing on the fringes of magic realism, Isaac is a compelling novel about what we accept and what we deny and how we struggle to tell the difference.

Meditation on Woman – Review by Carol Smallwood

Meditation on Woman is a collection of fifty-six prose poems to be read slowly, a few at a time, to fully appreciate their impact. Each, simply and economically written, begins with the two words, “A woman.” Some of the journals that published a version a few of these reflective poems include Kenyon Review, The Binnacle, and Poetry Midwest.

A recent Poets & Writers featured six articles in a special section in the magazine from leading writers about inspiration: the importance of slowing down, making room for contemplation, and the possibilities for discovery for the creative writer. Meditation on Woman supplies readers with examples of this in abundance as this poetry collection turns the ordinary upside down, leaving the reader, man or woman, to look at things differently.

In the opening work, “The Third Eye”, woman catches the cycles of her garden on video-winter cracks the lens, spring splinters it as the cycles continue. “In the end, the lens cracks again, into many parts, facing down, angling up, fractured.  New shoots.  The gardener’s boots. Ants.  Blooms.  All splinter, like a kaleidoscope.  Her eye captures fragments of brown, green, blue, pink, the blinding yellow-white of the summer sun.”

The garden features in other poems too. “Eden” contrasts the garden dream with its reality; “Nature” addresses the distance between pristine and artificial nature; and the suburban attitudes in “Weeds” drives a woman into the city.

“Evolution” recalls the magical-realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Isabel Allende: the blending of what is real and unreal as it relates a woman who grows a tail, senses what animals desire, joins them, growing a coat of hair like them as winter approaches.  A woman’s connection to the world recurs in “Far and Near.” One woman “gazes out a plane window at fields quilting the landscape thirty-five thousand feet below,” while the other “hikes a woodland trail and stares into the underbrush.”

The first sees the world at a distance: “The roads make squares and rectangles around the fields.  Lakes are thumbprints pressed into the land.  Rivers squiggle and canals angle in thin blue lines.  Tree patches are dark and fuzzy.  Little towns clump together; house roofs glint in the sun.”

The second sees it in close detail.  “She picks a Queen Anne’s lace to take home.  It’s umbel is so perfect, the white lace fans out in a curve that fits in her cupped hand, and the tiny black floret draws the gaze of her eye to the center of its lacy snow, like a single jet against a sky full of clouds.”

Making one’s own world is also reflected in “A Question of Balance” where a woman “owns the river, owns every bird that skims.” In the surprising poem about a woman being roasted on a fire: “And as she turns, her eyes shimmer in tune with the heat and see in every direction. The earth, all motion, spins with her and she with it.”

Readers can easily relate to: “A woman is good at guilt. Palpable and breathing, it lives in her house. It lies down and sleeps in her spare bed” and understand the mixed feelings the duality in relationships: “The woman looks at her sister. She loves her and hates her as much as ever.”

The familiar scene of waiting for an x-ray, the description of hospital gowns, the gowns spilling over in bins, the closed doors marked with signs, makes the 134 words in “Horizon” especially memorable:

Staff only

Wait until called

Door to the outside world

In each poem the poet is seeing herself and in the process, the universal-an activity so simple and yet complex, full of surprises and reflections of wonder. I’m looking forward to her next collection to savor, open my eyes, enjoy the company of a uniquely gifted poet. She clearly is familiar with Doris Lessing’s advice: “Have you found a space, that empty space, which should surround you when you write?” Women will especially relate to this contemplative collection by Aline Soules, but they are so universal that men will appreciate them and be awed as well.

Carol Smallwood co-edited (Molly Peacock, foreword) Women on Poetry: Tips on Writing, Teaching and Publishing by Successful Women Poets (McFarland, 2012)Compartments: Poems on Nature, Femininity and Other Realms was nominated for the Pushcart. Women Writing on Family: Tips on Writing, Teaching and Publishing Key Publishing House is a 2012 anthology.

Harvitz, As to War

About 100 pages into Ben Nadler’s Harvitz, As to War, a young drifter captures the novel’s ethos almost perfectly: “A lot of kids are out there, you know, looking for something… What’s worse, some kids are out there, like animals, not looking for anything… And some kids are running from something.” Falling into each of these categories at one point or another throughout the narrative, the novel’s narrator and protagonist, Sammy Harvitz, does a lot of drifting as he tries to figure out what he wants out of life and where he fits in. The problem, however, is that he doesn’t really fit in anywhere, so his drifting continues throughout the proceedings.

The events in Harvitz, As to War occur at a fast clip. Sammy drops out of Hebrew school, his mother dies, he takes up with a handful of punks, he sees some shows, he starts a band, he finds himself a girlfriend, the girlfriend gets pregnant, he joins the army. None of these details are spoilers in the technical sense since they come and go so quickly that there’s no time to really anticipate them or register shock once they’ve happened. The events, of course, are spread out over the course of many pages, and many other events intervene, but the overall feeling of the book is that of rushing through a stranger’s most personal moments.

More practically, Harvitz, As to War feels like the bible Nadler will mine as he continues to grow as a writer — returning to the events sketched out therein and fleshing them out over time and the course of several novels. I can imagine, for example, a touching, meditative novel about Sammy’s grief over the loss of his mother, or a novel that focuses entirely on Sammy’s experience in the army. For now, however, the sketch that is Harvitz serves as a starting point for a journeyman novelist on his way to doing grander things.

So Different Now

Ben Tanzer is a machine when it comes to putting out novels, novellas, chapbooks, and short story collections, my favorites being 99 Problems, a chapbook released through the CCLaP, and his novel You Can Make Him Like You, released through Artistically Declined Press. Recently, CCLaP released another chapbook of Tanzer’s shorts called So Different Now, which consists of nine micro short stories about man-boys who’ve yet to mature (do any of us?). Central themes include reflections of childhood bullies and lost loves, and current dissatisfaction with marriage and life in suburbia. And a Tanzer collection wouldn’t be complete without his trademark theme of infidelity, or rationalizing the urge to cheat.

Each story ends with a punch to the stomach (or face or kidney) in the form of a twist or blatant shock. I read this collection from cover to cover with the takeaway message that life sucks sometimes. Growing up sucks. Suburbia sucks. Marriage can suck.

This may sound strange, but Tanzer is amazing at writing the tempted-to-cheat male mind. His narrators’ thoughts flow naturally, and the internalized cognitive dissonance is well-played. There are always plenty excuses and more excuses about why the protagonist feels the need to cheat or stray or maintain a wandering eye. Take this line from A Single Bound, where our subject tries to rationalize his cheating thoughts with something as arbitrary as Spiderman, speaking through a third-person POV: “He is a superhero at work, but the rest of the time he is just a regular guy trying to deal with people’s expectations of him, his wife included. It’s not that his wife doesn’t appreciate him. It’s just that his wife doesn’t appreciate him like the intern does. The intern has no expectations at all, and frankly it’s refreshing.”

There was a laugh-out-loud moment for me in Cool, Not Removed along the similar topic: “Now, does he feel like being married is like being in jail? No, of course not, not for the most part anyway. There are moments, though. Does he get to do whatever he wants whenever he wants? No, not at all. Does he care? Not really. But is that kind of like being in prison? Sure it is, a little.”

Every story left me feeling intense emotions about the protagonist or his situation, weather it was victory, defeat, or a just plain, that totally sucks, and that’s what Tanzer does. He can evoke an intense reaction in his reader in a mere flash fiction piece. All the characters yanked at my heart strings in one form or another, I felt sympathy for them no matter how confused or fallen they were.

So Different Now reflects on the protagonist’s past, growing up terrorized by the neighborhood bully only to find out twenty-five years later, that the bully is dating one of his childhood sweethearts, if one could call her that. In Stevey, the kid doling out sex and dating wisdom brings his friends home to a father who brags about how he cheated on his wife, the narrator ending the story with, “Maybe we found ourselves resenting the fact that [Stevey] wasn’t in control all the time, that he was flawed, and that we hated ourselves for trusting him so much when he struggled just like everyone else did.”

My only criticism is that I wish the collection was longer, I think there was still so much left Tanzer could have said in his chapbook, there was some missing element that I kept searching for. Regardless, I’ve always adored Tanzer’s writing style, and this collection, So Different Now, has taken a place at the top of my list. Get a copy now over at CCLaP. It may be short, but it’ll take a swing at your thoughts on life and leave a lasting red mark.

-Review by Lavinia Ludlow