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.