Month: March 2011

The Orange Suitcase

The mind says: Releasing The Orange Suitcase on the heels of Do Something Do Something Do Something is a smart move on the part of author Joseph Riippi and his publisher Ampersand Books. Where Do Something introduced us to an author adept at plumbing the depths of the human heart in long, flowing, stream-of-consciousness paragraphs, The Orange Suitcase gives us a new perspective from which to triangulate the author’s raison d’etre. In this volume of ultra-short “somethings” (as Riippi calls them), we discover an author who is as comfortable exploding the details of a moment or a memory in the space of a few-hundred well-chosen words as he was exploring the inner turmoil of the lonely denizens of 21st cetury America in his previous outing. Additionally, the whimsy of some passages in The Orange Suitcase serves as a nice counterbalance to inherent gravitas of Do Something. Yet while The Orange Suitcase sees Riippi perhaps having a little more fun with both language and his subject matter than he did in Do Something, it is, nonetheless, a serious volume, touching as it does on topics like aging, death, and the passage of time (among many others). To put it another way, The Orange Suitcase offers a healthy balance of exuberance and sincerity, and, more to the point, demonstrates that the two qualities aren’t mutually exclusive.

The heart says: I want to take these short pieces — these “somethings” as the author calls them — and plaster them all over my quiet suburban town: staple them to tree trunks and telephone poles, stuff them in mailboxes, trap them beneath the windshield wipers of strangers’ cars. I want to share the work of Joseph Riippi with the world, want to show the world what writing can do, what writers can do, how well-wrought prose can make good neighbors of us all. And I want to believe the world will read his words and be changed in some way, to be moved enough to say yes to life, to love, to change, to all he has to share about all we have to share.

-Review by Marc Schuster

Scorch Atlas

With the rumored apocalypse looming somewhere in 2012 (not to mention the almost willful and continuous damage our species has been inflicting over the past half-century on the only planet we have at our disposal!), the literary world has seen a spate of works depicting variations on the end times. Zombies, of course, are big, as evidenced by the recent popularity of The Walking Dead in both comic book and TV form, and epic struggles for survival in the wake of global disaster a la Cormac McCarthy’s The Road are also in vogue lately. Joining the fray — albeit reluctantly and perhaps more artfully — is Blake Butler’s collection of post-apocalyptic short fiction Scorch Atlas.

While Scorch Atlas bears superficial resemblance to a lot of recent titles depicting the end of the world, what sets it apart is the intimate scope of Butler’s narratives. We’re not seeing humanity’s epic struggle to survive despite some horrendous global fate in this book. Rather, we’re witnessing individual human moments, watching almost voyeuristically as children struggle to make sense of their suddenly damaged world and parents do their best to hold everything together. In one story, for example, Butler depicts the life of the first student stricken with the disease that will eventually quarantine the entire school. In another, he gives us a mother who watches with horror as the dehumanizing nature of life without hope swiftly changes her otherwise gentle children into savages. Throughout the book, Butler’s focus is on the domesitc (as opposed to the global). As such, it’s all the more chilling.

Of course, due consideration should also be given to the book’s design. I was reading Scorch Atlas while waiting for a haircut one morning, and three people interrupted me to ask what I was reading — mainly, they said, because the book looked interesting. Tall, narrow, and blackened, the volume looks like something salvaged from an actual disaster, the last record of a fallen world.  Needless to say, this appearance perfectly reflects the contents of the book, for each story reads like a testimonial bearing witness to the final days of humanity.

Gripping, haunting, moving, and, in places, disturbing, Scorch Atlas is most definitely not a testament to human resilience and our strength to endure. Rather, it reads more like a dire warning from the future, a cautionary missive from those who’ve experienced first-hand the hell we’re creating and would do anything to change it.

The only real question is whether anyone will listen.

- Review by Marc Schuster

Aquarium – Review by Lavinia Ludlow

Ryan Bradley has a way about him, and more than a Billy Joel song can describe. His poetry touches on the facets of family, creating a family, being a part of a family. In Aquarium, he’s managed to convey complex emotions in just a few short lines. Example, in his poem “Dinner with the Family,” he writes, “We sit, feral beats/ tearing apart the days,/ basking in unheard mutterings/ of mother and father/ whose breath is laced/ with the stink of disappointment./ We are artists, all of us,/ whipping into creation/ the silence of dementia/”

He maintains a contemporary feel to his writing, titling his pieces things such as “After Reading, I want to get Drunk” and “Have You had a Sex Dream about me?” but still harbors eloquent realism to his lines. In “Strippers Don’t Dance to the Beatles,” he writes, “Strippers don’t dance to the Beatles,/ they save their jar-faces and swollen hearts/ for the mirrors tucked in their purses,/ only letting loose the hidden purity/ of their public bodies for sleep, dreams/”

Aquarium, to me, is Bradley’s poetic introduction to the world, and I look forward to many more years of his releases. Check out his other chapbook titled “There Will Always Be a Better,” a group of poems that touch on the burdens of being unemployed in an economy like today’s.

Editor’s Note: Special thanks to Lavinia Ludlow for this review! Lavinia is the author of alt.punk, which, as I may have mentioned in an earlier post, has all the makings of an underground cult classic. Buy it!

Suddenly Something Happened

I like Jimmy Beaulieu’s Suddenly Something Happened for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is that he devotes several pages of his autobiographical graphic novel to explaining his love for the music of Brian Wilson. In this brief passage, Beaulieu’s gifts as a story-teller are on full display in that the artist reveals both his affinity for the self-proclaimed “psychadelicate” pop star and his own uncertainties about his own role as a man and an artist in post-post-modern society. Indeed, what makes Beaulieu’s work so endearing throughout this graphic novel is his willingness to explore all of his insecurities — from his bad luck with women throughout his early adulthood to his long-term ambivalence over living in Montreal.

Throughout the volume, Beaulieu also does some interesting things with narrative structure: in addition to jumping back and forth in time to illustrate the ways in which the past is always with us, he also manages to illustrate the ways in which we’re always in two places at once — within our mental space and our physical space — by offering competing narratives within the space of a single story. A trip to a boutique to help his girlfriend find a dress, for example, becomes two stories in one as the dialogue focuses on the girlfriend’s purchase while the narration reveals Beaulieu’s inner thoughts regarding the state of popular music and his own peculiar guilt and ambivalence over being a fan of the genre.

Interestingly, the author also has the humility to note in a brief epilogue that he’s concerned about “every awkwardly constructed sentence” in the book because English is not his first language. Yet what the written word doesn’t convey as elegantly as the author might like, the image depicts with absolute clarity. In terms of line drawings, Beaulieu is the master of the subtle (and not so subtle) facial ticks that reveal the deepest and most pressing of emotions. Despite the book’s title, Suddenly Something Happened offers readers a glimpse of the gradual blossoming of young artist into adulthood.