Month: September 2011

Censory Impulse

Erica Kaufman’s poetry collection Censory Impulse opens with a stanza that reads, “first i think i need/to come to terms/with amputation.” Pregnant with possibility, this opening sets the perfect tone for what’s to follow: a series of meditations on loss and absence. Indeed, the idea of coming “to terms” with amputation and all that it implies is at the heart of this book, as struggling over terms—which is to say words—is much of what Kaufman does throughout the volume. Words, of course, carry meaning in this collection, but they also frequently and purposefully fail to do so. They are, in a way, amputated or cut off or at least distanced from immediate meaning, as when the poet writes, “past sorrow ripening allegro/often easy to learn on a door/the scaleability appealing/in my own jaundiced way.” Individually, the words have meaning, but in context, they struggle against each other until meaning is, apparently, eviscerated, thus forcing the reader to meditate further both on their relationship to each other and the ways in which language itself works: words fail, at times, but in their failure, we create and discover new meaning. And in the absence of meaning, in the failure of words, in the disjuncture between the terms we use and what they pretend to mean, we struggle to find new language and new modes of expression. In Kaufman’s words, “i don’t stand/for vocabulary only.” And neither should we, if this challenging yet engaging collection is to be believed.

Tom Mahony’s Flooding Granite – Review by Lavinia Ludlow

Tom Mahony’s well-crafted book Flooding Granite details the life of a river guide named Zack as he maneuvers his way through dodgy excursions in the Sierra Nevada (both natural and social). Furthermore, he becomes increasingly haunted with the guilt of abandoning his child and girlfriend in the name of “freedom and adventure.”

Regret seeps from his pores as he reflects on this mistake in an almost reverse mid-life crisis: “Over the last year he’d sampled the joys of bachelorhood and spontaneous philandering. He’d enjoyed the life for a few months, but the hedonism had turned stale and pointless. As the year passed, he’d realized with building certainty that he’d made a horrible mistake—a tragic blunder, caught too late.”

So Zack trudges forward with his life, this time into the Sierra Nevada with a group of professional guides and civilian clients where they meet an array of challenges such as inclement weather, injuries, treacherous rapids, and dwindling supplies.

This novel has an earthy and contemporary writing style that reminds me of writers like Norman Maclean and Jim Harrison: “Sunlight washed over his face. Wisps of cirrus drifted east, a golden eagle left its pine-snag perch and flew upriver. Paintbrush, lupine, clarkia, and mariposa lily dappled the drab green slopes with color. A black bear and two cubs loitered in a riverside meadow, watching the rafts for a moment before shambling off into the bracken.” Cross that style with the adventure and suspense of a film The River Wild and you have Tom Mahony’s novel Flooding Granite in your hands.

This title will release over at Casperian Books on October 1st, 2011.

Should Have Killed the Kid

R. Frederick Hamilton’s Should Have Killed the Kid evokes distinct shades of Abraham and Isaac, as both stories are about sacrificing a child to avoid the wrath of an other-worldly and seemingly irrational power. In this case, however, the protagonist, Dave Thomas, fails to make even a token gesture toward killing the kid in question, and the result is Armageddon. The only solution? Another stab at infanticide.

Despite its bleak subject matter, Should Have Killed the Kid is an engaging and entertaining novel, a curious mix of Douglas Adams and Philip K. Dick. The characters are strong and well-rounded, the humor dry and subtle. Additionally, while Hamilton has many talents on display in his latest outing, the strongest among them is his ability to conjure a believable — and palpably oppressive — universe. The highrise office building that serves as the last bastion of humanity comes across as fittingly claustrophobic as it is self-contained, and the rundown resort where the hero first meets the man who appears to be the devil incarnate feels like a cross between the Bates Motel and the Overlook Hotel.

If I have a complaint at all, it’s that the book could have used a stronger copy-edit. Granted, books that come my way are usually marked with a disclaimer warning that I’m about to read an uncorrected proof and should bear that in mind when I come across any and all typos, but this book didn’t come with such a disclaimer. My best guess, then, is that I was reading a corrected copy and that a large number of typos made it through the editorial process — a fact that caused some degree of distraction while reading the novel. Overall, though, the narrative is strong, and Hamilton is certainly a novelist worth watching.

J.A. Tyler’s A Shiny Unused Heart – Review by Lavinia Ludlow

To me, J.A. Tyler’s novella A Shiny Unused Heart is an in-depth depiction of a man who loses his sanity the moment he hears he is a father to be. This book is hardly an easy read as it contains the incessant despair and hopelessness of a man who sees the conception and birth of his child as a death sentence. At times, his madness runs so deep, I swear I’m reading bits of Scott Peterson’s journal entries, as if a Chappaquiddick Incident is lurking right around the corner.

The novella opens with an unnamed protagonist in the heart of his conflict, teetering on the edge of suicide, or maybe psychosis. One page later, the book flashes to the beginning of this man’s journey where he appears to be quivering like a fifteen year old girl with a pee stick’s plus sign in hand: “Her, pregnant. Him, seeing himself falling away. Seeing himself falling down. Seeing himself tumbling. He sees it as a film reeling in his mind, a stumbling bouncing fall. Head. Knee. Ankle. Arm. He hears his bones breaking. He hears his bones crunch. He sees the world in trip, trip, fall. He flips and cartwheels, lands, splashing like dimes. His body shatters. Pieces swim in the tile and the perfect lines of grout. He is screaming and pushing. A body flies from his body.”

Though Tyler writes in poetic prose, at times, the melodrama (images of a horrific crash, being held hostage, suffocating in a coffin) becomes a bit overwhelming and takes away from the severity of what he’s trying to convey. “Ramming, running, he pushes off, trying to close an unclose-able door. He turns a key and an engine again. Towing his own heart behind him with a chain the size of the world. With a chain that fits in the palm of her hands. Straining against the friction of their bodies. Thighs on thighs. The asphalt black in his pupils, the way lust hovers, heatstroke waves riding the surface, surfing. Rolling. Surfacing only now and again. Surfacing, fireworks outside a tepid window. Chimes, bells, bliss, glory. A sun sized universe, lowering itself onto their backs, making them glow.”

Seasoned with the dark essence of Bukowski, J.A. Tyler harbors a dismal narrative voice all his own.  His prose is rich with analogies and raw emotion, his underlying motive laid out in a series of short chapters, think Ben Tanzer’s short and impactful style. A Shiny Unused Heart is an imaginative novella with a unique and contemporary perspective. It is currently available for purchase over at Black Coffee Press

Dear Future Boyfriend

Dear Future Boyfriend offers fans of Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz a glimpse of the poet’s bittersweet past. The book is a reissue of her debut collection, which was initially published a little over a decade ago. As the title suggests, the focus of the collection is young love in all of its forms — excerpt, perhaps, the requited variety. Rather than coming across as a hopeless, pining adolescent throughout this volume, Aptowicz endears herself to the reader by coming across as a witty, charming, and self-deprecating adolescent who also happens to be hopeless and pining — a teen who wants nothing more than to be loved but also can’t help stopping to observe that a 25% off coupon for a discount bra store in the largest outlet mall in Pennsylvania does not make for the most romantic of anniversary gifts. Moreover, the poet doesn’t focus entirely on young love in this collection. Aptowicz also takes time to pay touching homage to her parents, her hometown, and the friends who shared the experiences that led her to becoming the poet she is today.

Of special note, at least for a Philadelphia native like myself, are the poems “August in Philadelphia,” which offers a backwards glimpse at the City of Brotherly Love as the poet prepares for her first big move to the Big Apple, and “To the Boy Who Builds and Paints Sets at the Arden Theatre Company in Philadelphia,” which is a fitting paean not only to the “boy” in question but also to hopeless infatuation itself. Also noteworthy are “The Guy Who Hated My Stuff on Poemfone (A Found Poem),” in which the poet reproduces a borderline psychotic voice-mail response to one of her poems to great comic effect, and “Hard Bargain,” which sees the poet making an IPO of sorts for the rights to her virginity.

Anyone who’s ever been young and in love will find something to enjoy in Dear Future Boyfriend. What’s more, fans of Cristin O’Keefe Apotwicz will enjoy bearing witness to the initial stirrings of wit and sharp observation that mark her later work. Overall, a fun and at times moving read.

-Review by Marc Schuster

and then there were three – Review by Carol Smallwood

The memoir and then there were three has a photo cover of Supriya Bhatnagar, the author, as a child with her family. It looks at a childhood in a diverse, changing India beginning with the chapter, Prologue. The three refers to the family loss of her beloved father when Supriya was nine and her mother moves the two daughters from Bombay to Jaipur: “Even though Jaipur was a metropolis where streets had been paved, the city retained the inherent quality of the earth it lay upon.”

Indian culture is deftly sketched by the Maharani Gayatri Divi Girls’ Public School, tea, shopping, street cleaners, and details about Amma, her tiny grandmother with a “little chignon at the nape of her neck”  and a “big bluish green vein that ran down her hand.”

Supriya experiences the blackouts of the 1971 war with Pakistan, the heat and cold of India. The haunting memoir includes universal types such as nosey neighbors, lecherous storekeepers–and what it was to be Hindu woman and not going into any temple during her menstruation: “Customs and traditions become ingrained in us to such an extent that to this day I follow this restriction without questioning its logic.”

The author does not have an arranged marriage but after a long traditional courtship marries Anil who lives on the next street: “I loved the smell of Old Spice, his after-shave, and it was a familiar and strangely comforting smell as Daddy had used it everyday.” Her first kiss at seventeen is a delightful passage about her confusion. She comments about her own children, “As my children grow, I find myself dwelling not so much on the color of their skin but more on their health, their education, and their future.”

It reminded me of God of Small Things by the award-winning Indian writer, Arundhati Roy, with its insight into human nature, the portrayal of the enduring complexities of India, its touches of humor, life through a child’s eyes. I enjoyed the author’s sharing her wide reading and deep appreciation of the classics growing up and concluded how her well-educated parents couldn’t but have had an influence on her becoming the Director of Publications for the Association of Writers & Writing Programs headquartered in Virginia which supports writers and writing programs around the world. A version of the chapter “Shattered” appears in Artful Dodge. One of her short stories appears in Femina, a leading English magazine in India.

Carol Smallwood, in Best New Writing 2010, latest books are: Writing and Publishing: The Librarian’s Handbook (ed.), American Library Association, 2010; Lily’s Odyssey, All Things That Matter Press, 2010.

Nailpolish Stories

Just a quick post to say that Nicole Monaghan, editor of the forthcoming volume Stripped: Anonymous Flash has started an online journal called Nailpolish Stories. The basic idea? Hint fiction (i.e. 25 words — no more, no less) with titles borrowed from shades of nail polish. For example, in a piece titled “Frozen Fantasy,” author Misti Rainwater-Lites writes, “He worked hard on my triple locked door.  There was something chilled yet bubbly behind there, waiting.  When I came it was February stars, falling.” And Monaghan herself wrote a piece titled “Posh Trash”: “We wrapped borrowed scarves around our curved hips, as if that were payment.  Mom snapped her gum, looked into our eyes, sorry, asked about lay-away.” Who knows… Maybe we’ll see another collection from Nicole sometime in the near future.