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Book Review

Book Review

On The Edge

by on September 1, 2016

41p6CV9+ABL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_On the Edge, by Rafael Chirbes

Translated by Margaret Jull Costa

 

It is perhaps easier to see the beauty in art when that art deals with a subject that is, for lack of a better term, beautiful.  On the Edge, by Rafael Chirbes, does not deal in what most of us would consider beautiful.  But there is no denying the skill, emotive eloquence, and resonant power of this book.  It openly attacks youth-worshiping culture and sentimental idealism in a way that demands the reader listen, laying down the gauntlet after having slapped the face of naïve ignorance.  It manages to be both allegorical and extremely direct, doggedly rejecting subtlety but somehow rife with commentary and implications that take multiple reads to fully process.  This is the kind of book that, given its density and tone, you will want to reward yourself for having finished, and yet that same reward may very well be another crack at the text.

One of the best things about truly skilled authors is that, when they break “the rules” of writing, they do so in ruthlessly effective fashion, making their violations serve a purpose and enhance the atmosphere of the work.  Chirbes’ version of this is his mercilessly long paragraphs.  Whole sections of pages, whole pages, and even multiple pages can be taken up by the same interconnected, unbroken thought process.  Even to an experienced reader, this can be intimidating.  But the way to make this style work to the author’s advantage is to make excellent use of language and make the block feel authentic to the speaker.  Esteban, the novel’s protagonist, is bitter and desperate and intelligent and utterly lost.  His sentences are rarely complicated but they are delivered one after the other in otherwise unbroken litanies expressing his grievances and observations.  These paragraphs possess a deceptive and clever flow that both speed the process of reading them and immediately convey to the reader that Esteban has had enough time to carefully hone his thoughts in a highly organized and extensive essay on society.

Those thoughts are rarely unclear.  A reader can turn to any page of the text and pull something biting and poignant – “If money serves any purpose at all, it at least buys innocence for your descendants”.  But the lack of ambiguity is not a hindrance in the novel.  If anything, it assists the reader’s digestion.  The point is made, and the text moves on.  But that is not to say that there is not room for interpretation.  Moreover, while the novel gives us ample amounts of Esteban’s perspective, it doesn’t seem entirely settled on the idea that he is “right”.  For example, consider the following quote: “The easiest way to attract attention is to do extravagant, stupid things.  Standing out from the crowd because of your work is a lot harder.”  On the surface, the point is simple and particularly relevant in an age where Kim Kardashian and Farrah Abraham get more attention than most genuine, supremely talented artists.  But is this quote the resulting point of view of a bitter old man who watches as wealth and culture have left him behind?  Or is it the voice of someone who has suffered greatly from a system that extends far beyond his control?  An argument can be made for both, or neither.

Special note should be given for one of the most powerful and difficult moments in the book, in which Esteban gives his elderly, disabled father a bath.  The experience is described in intimate, uncomfortable detail that would be familiar to any who have dealt with such a situation before.  This is the book’s crescendo, where the sum total of its philosophy and perspective can be found in a multi-layered event.  And while it is perhaps the most strenuous part of the book to read, it deserves the utmost care while reading.  The relationship between generations of families and of nations, the human needs for understanding and respect, and the visceral, grimy nature of the book’s perspective on the world are all addressed as part of an intense metaphor.  It many ways, it leaves the strongest and most lasting impression.

Mr. Chirbes has written many stellar novels, and this definitely deserves to be counted among them.  On The Edge presents a demanding critique of modern Western society, including culture and economics, in such a way that it avoids the common pitfalls of soapbox preaching and not trusting the reader to common to their own conclusions.  The book is not for those who do not value a challenge, but, in all honesty, why wouldn’t we?

 

On The Edge is available now through New Directions Publishing Company.

 

 

Book Review

The Surrender

by on August 30, 2016

The Surrender, by Veronica Scott Esposito

 

2016 has been a year where many great novels, memoirs, and books of poetry regarding sexuality, identity, and the challenging of the gender binaries have been released. Authors like Susan Faludi, Drew Nellins Smith, and Robert Coné have found an imaginative way to present the aforementioned topics while allowing even the readers who may feel far removed from the topics to become absorbed in the literature. The same can be said about Scott Esposito’s collection of essays, The Surrender.

The essays supplement each other. They come together to form a magical journey that does not have a beginning, middle, or end. It is perhaps Esposito’s refusal to conform to a predisposed format that fascinated me. I wanted to keep reading because of the way the words moved on the page. Sure, it sounds a bit silly to say as such, but I found that within a matter of pages Esposito was able to take me from staring into a mirror at a woman who is captivated by her appearance to the heartbreaking pain a young boy feels as he sneakily tries on his sister’s bra. The incident with the bra is the first of a lifetime of feeling both shame and happiness. The narrator confides in the reader: “I had never felt revulsion at the thought of something I was wearing. I had never felt any feeling that remotely resembled this” but at the same time reveals: “Minutes later I wanted nothing more that to wear it outside of the bathroom, but I knew I couldn’t.” The contradictory revelation points to the way much of this essay is written. The narrator has many experiences where he is both shameful and enchanted to be wearing women clothing. Scenes like the one described above beg a larger question and one that should be directed to society: are we suppressing individuals by what we tell them to wear or by what we tell them not to wear?

Another reason I enjoyed The Surrender is because it is many things at once. The collection can be viewed as a memoir, film criticism, essay, theory, and even perhaps as a bibliography of sorts. Esposito’s last essay, “The Surrender,” conveniently reveals a sort of works cited where he divulges the different books and authors who have influenced him in some way or another. I can definitely see Esposito’s collection being taught in a Queer Studies or Women Studies class. At least, I hope a professor will encounter Esposito’s collection and get the same valuable information I received in the matter of a hundred pages or so and share the information with students in the hope of creating a dialogue both in and out of the classroom.

If one thing is to be learned from reading the collection is that identity is fluid. We live in a society where the media dictates what women and men should be wearing and how they should be acting. However, identity is not always related to our gender. Our identity constantly changes as we associate ourselves with other individuals and the different personas we constantly take in order to feel like we belong. This intersectionality of identities creates borders that we must see beyond. Ultimately, the reader is able to take away that identity is fluid not stagnant and is instead formed by the way in which an individual is socialized. I believe the point of Esposito’s words is to remind us that we can change the way we view each other. We can argue for the fluidity of identity and a remapping of our cultural topography.

 

The Surrender is available now through Anomalous Press.

Book Review

Alien Weaving

by on August 25, 2016

alien-weaving-cover-350x450Alien Weaving, by Will Alexander

 

In the Allegory of the Cave, Plato writes about a man who has literally added an entire dimension to his thinking.  The man’s eyes are opened to the world’s depth and complexity in a way that nearly blinds him twice.  And when he tries to share his newfound knowledge with his friends, they reject him and it in favor of their comforting darkness.  I cannot help but think of the Allegory of the Cave when I read Alien Weaving, by Will Alexander.  The protagonist of the story, a woman named Kathrada, reads as if she is stepping into the glare of the sun, her skin and retinas searing but vehemently resisting destruction, as if through sheer determination she can transcend physical limitation.  She goes on a psychological and metaphysical journey that somehow encompasses the entire planet and yet never truly leaves the confines of her cacophonous mind.  The result of this transformative trial of endurance is that she becomes a prophet of perspective.

The first thing that takes hold of you as you read Alien Weaving is the language.  From the first paragraph, the complexity and the intricacy of the word choice and sentence structure are of paramount importance.  It could said that this is the case for any work of literature, regardless of quality, but the difference here is that Alexander is using every vocabulary tool the English language can provide to describe the sensations and thought processes that Kathrada experiences.  It transcends pretention through sublime specificity, and it makes no apology for its quest to find the place where language and reason meet.  In fact, the closest thing to an apology is a demand of the reader: “You must excuse the complexity of my aboriginal fulguration, of my feral-first seeing.”  And, indeed, you must, if you have any hope of traversing the text.  Make no mistake – this work is demanding, challenging, and complex.  It is not for casual reading, winding down, or clearing the mind.  Kathrada has had her mind opened to the hypercomplexity of the cosmos and its vast interconnectedness, and she has no reason to wait for those who lack curiosity.  The words pour from her like light that simply cannot be contained by her physical vessel.

But for all of her intellectual apotheosis, Kathrada is still remarkably human, and that fact keeps Alien Weaving accessible and relatable through the myriad vistas and experiences.  As so many revelations are, the concepts that she encounters and describes are alternately beautiful and horrifying.  The aloof distance in the tone (made ironic by the use of the 1st person) buffers tragedies in a fashion reminiscent of Vonnegut – “When I renounced the Christ child as phasma I was no longer spared by believers, I was plunged into thickets of anathema, and then labeled as protectress of infernos.”  The descriptive terms are vivid and poignant, but the many sentences like these are spoken of in remembrance, almost as if they had happened to someone else, a possibility that, given the transformation of the character, is philosophically justifiable.  This distance cracks more than once, however, giving the reader critical insights – “I am an exile because of this fierce resistance I carry about me.  I refuse to be a resident within the statutes of crime.”  Lines like this are delivered with sudden venom and a flavor of defensiveness as if, even post-evolution, she still feels an instinctive impulsive to guard and justify herself.  Moreover, the work’s repeated invocation of the concept of vertigo is very telling.  Kathrada is overtaken by it more than once.  As she slips in and out of the flow of time, across the wide expanses of nations, and between schools of thought, she seems to be able to sense the sheer distance she has traveled and can traveled.  She finds it nauseating as often as any other descriptor.  Whether her alchemical reshaping is, as of yet, incomplete, or she exists in some Christ-like duality of human and divine is left for the reader to decide.

Alien Weaving is an amazing text and something of a love letter to the act of writing.  When Kathrada opens the text by stating “I create.”, she means that on multiple levels.  She understands now that, as a writer dedicated to her craft and crafted by her experiences, she possesses the tools and capacity to shape reality itself.  Moreover, she understands the responsibility that comes with such power, but she does not let it burden her.  She weaves in spite of the wounds, allowing blood the mix into the tones, forsaking the pristine in favor of the real.  Mr. Alexander has presented a masterclass in the use of language and the interconnectedness of emotion, thought, and existence.  I would encourage anyone who dreams of being a writer to engage this text again and again, so that they might see what can be achieved through choice alone.

 

Alien Weaving is now available through Anonymous Energy.

Book Review

Radio: Wireless Poem in Thirteen Messages & Uncollected Poems

by on August 23, 2016

diseno-de-tapa-kyn-taniya-print1Radio: Wireless Poem in Thirteen Messages & Uncollected Poems by Kyn Taniya

There is something to be said about the importance of translation in regards to literature. I would not have been able to experience the work of so many writers that I love and admire if it were not for the endeavor of translators. Sometimes, the translation is coupled with a work being re-issued after many years, shining light on authors that may not have had much exposure outside their language. Allowing the work to breathe new life and hopefully widen the reach of their powerful words. When I am handed a book of translation it is quite frequently an exciting moment. The gravity of the process that it took in order for the book to reach my hands does not fall lightly on me. This was especially true with the book Radio: Wireless Poem In Thirteen Messages & Uncollected Poems by Kyn Tania.

 

Originally published in Mexico in 1924, where it now considered a cult classic of the estridentista avant-garde movement, Radio has now been translated after 92 years for a new audience to experience. The first thing that strikes about this bi-lingual collection is the sheer modernity of the work. The poems in this short collection feel like they could have easily been composed today as they were in the early 1920’s.

 

Poems discussing wireless technology and celestial objects, making reference to radio waves, could be seamlessly interchanged to discussions of cell phones and Wi-Fi signals. An example of this is in the poem “Midnight Frolic”:

 

           Silence

Listen to the conversation of words

in the atmosphere.

 

There is an insupportable confusion of terrestrial voices

and of strange voices

faraway

 

The feeling of connection in these poems – that is hopeful in many ways – still bleed so beautifully into the feelings of unease that has only grown exponentially as technology has grown. Today the voices we hear are schizophrenic and never ending (unless you are lucky enough to pass through a data dead zone which is becoming more and more infrequent). The idea of broadcasting yourself out in the world is still such a novel idea today, one that I grapple with on frequent occasion. Because it is still so new, the rules and etiquette are ever changing, what may be socially acceptable one day may be strange another day. You just have to listen to the right voices.

 

The concepts and feelings in regards to technology are coupled with social unrest, political instability on a global level, and loss of loved ones to make poems whose words are cutting, sincere, and contemplative. In the poem “… IU IIIUUU IU …” (of which there is a great recording online of the poet reading it) we are presented with broadcasts of problems and occurrences around the world: Deaths in Chicago, unrest in Bagdad, sports heroes, and more all for sale to consumers at low prices. So quick and accessible it would be a shame not to take it all in.

 

When I read these poems I was given the realization of how much the world has really not changed. There have been advancements in technology that have pushed us closer together, closer to the stars, yet closer to oblivion; however the sentiment, the soul of what concerns us as human beings is still very much the same. The poems that live within this collection are fresh, and vibrant. Just as alive as when they were written.

 

Radio by Kyn Tania is available through Cardboard House Press

Book Review

I Want Love So Great It Makes Nicholas Sparks Cream In His Pants

by on August 19, 2016

COVER18_Love_So_Great - Copy

I Want Love So Great It Makes Nicholas Sparks Cream In His Pants, by Calvero

 

A very large and ongoing conversation regarding poetry is: what should a poem do or be? Despite the many essays and all of the anthologies that exist on the subject of poetry, whether a poem is aesthetically pleasing to the eye and to the mind is always, arguably, up to the reader. This conversation is important when discussing Calvero’s I want Love So Great It Makes Nicholas Sparks Cream in His Pants. Calvero writes a little over two hundred pages of love poems, writing love in ways that make reading the words aloud may sound humorous, or may sound just like one giant dark satire on modern love and life. However, the words on the page are so frank, so unfiltered as if they were peeled off of the speaker’s mind like a sticker. They transfer onto the page as one (sometimes more than one) blunt, original, train of thought about things such as the woman that the speaker of the poem sexually desires, loves, sometimes even hates. This is the kind of poetry that forces oneself to think about our own writing. Whether it is a poem, a story, blog, Facebook status, or a page in our diary, what kind of agency do we give to our own thoughts? At what point do we decide which thoughts are the ‘good enough’ ones that are going to be seen by the rest of the world? The speaker in Calvero’s poems would probably say: fuck it, all of them.

I envy Calvero for what the speaker in his poems was able to deliver consistently from the first poem to the last- an unfiltered, unapologetic confession. Perhaps this was not his aim, but when I read the lines in his title poem at the end of the first chapter “I wanna fuck the woman/ of my dreams/on top of the Eiffel Tower,” I couldn’t help but wonder why he opted out of decorous, superfluous language. I thought about John Donne’s poem “The Flea,” where the speaker of his poem is using a Flea to convince the women in the poem why she should have sexual relations with the speaker. While Donne’s poetry is mainly described as metaphysical poetry, comparing the two poets’ style helps add to the larger conversation.  Needless to say, Calvero’s poems are anything but your typical hallmark card about love. This thought about Calvero’s poetry persisted into the second, third, and fourth chapter. In the penultimate chapter “Love from Afar,” the poem c.t., stands out as a moment where the speaker reaches a moment of clarity regarding the disdain that may come from love, or self-love. The speaker calls for one to allow your passions to consume you, to let our passions grow until they crush us, because “it’s the only way to live / and it’s the only way to die.” Often times in poetry, we are left to wonder if there is any big, capital “T” truths in it. We become heavily invested in trying to figure out if there is a point. However, in the poem c.t., I admire these words for their accessibility. At face value, the speaker may be offering us a way to deal with the heartache that comes from love and life, but simultaneously it is unaware of its audience. This poetry does not care whether you will listen to what it has to say, or whether you care about the words on the page sounding like they are trying to follow a popular literary convention.

This book is for those who are poetry opportunists, those who are willing to use the circumstances that Calvero has provided for us in writing, and use them to their advantage, i.e., a poem will make you feel something or perhaps nothing at all, and that is okay. In the culminating chapter “Finding Love in Unexpected Places,” Calvero expresses cynicism while still providing a sort of closure. In his final poem, “Happiness Revolution 4/15/13”, the lines “this is me / rebelling against everything shitty / that makes me / me” echo throughout and serve as a reminder to the speaker and the reader, that rebelling against oneself and the world around us is part of what makes us human. Our feelings are sometimes bigger than our own shadows, sometimes bigger than our logic at a particular moment in time: human heart > human brain. For seventeen pages, he constantly tugs at our failures as humans as orthodox, nothing more. Often times as readers or writers, we look for answers in what we read, but sometimes sit uneasy to voice our questions to get them. This is why Calvero’s choice of words throughout this book of poems is important—he champions the everyday voice in our head no matter who we are. It is okay to not have answers; it is okay to only have questions, to kick, scream and yell during our path to our own happiness revolution.

 

I Want Love So Great It Makes Nicholas Sparks Cream In His Pants is now available through University of Hell Press.

Book Review

The Information Crusher

by on August 12, 2016

informationcrusherThe Information Crusher, by John Colasacco

 

Many of our stories follow a certain structure, one that feels as though it fits with causality, or rather what we wish causality meant.  But slipping out from underneath such a definition can lead to experiencing a profound freedom of perspective.  John Colasacco’s The Information Crusher is a case study in such an experience.  The text is presented not as a puzzle with pieces meant to be rearranged “correctly” by the reader, but as the fragments of a shard of four-dimensional reality, intentionally smashed and left to create patterns based on existential whim.  No judgment is forced on these patterns.  They are allowed to be the product of random chance or the careful machinations of fate; sometimes both.  The fragments have connective tissue that is readily apparent, but that tissue is not so binding as to prevent the reader from creating her or his own meaning.

If that point sounds intellectually vague, it is because The Information Crusher is so open to personal interpretation that any attempt to rigidly define it is terribly vulnerable to counterattack by contradiction.  Is this book written in prose, poetry, or prose poetry?  Are there multiple perspectives in the novel or is it a singular mind smashed into tense and time fragments like the text itself?  Is the narrator only one of the characters or the author in some grandly mutated autobiography?  Does the narrator address the reader or one of the characters, or does the act of reading the text make require the reader to become a character in Colasacco’s story?  The real power of this book lies in, rather effortlessly, making the reader ask all of these questions while retaining both interest and intrigue.  The whole of The Information Crusher explores the fluidity of identity, be it with respect to sexuality, gender, childhood, parenthood, siblinghood, friendship, cosmology, or biology, and it consistently remarks on the inadequacy of outdated definitions – “In the middle of the night you were amazed your mother’s clothes would go onto you just as easily as your own”.  There is a story in the text, one of jealousy and consequence and need for acceptance, but discovering that story is akin to seeing the pieces of a former vase present in a mosaic.

There is a moment in the mosaic in which one of the primary characters falls off of a bridge that, for reasons made apparent through the novel, has a very direct metaphorical resonance.  It is not entirely clear whether or not the fall happens before or after the events that make the fall poignant, but that is part of the point.  The character injures his arm and says “But I wouldn’t admit to myself it was broken.  I could see and hear that it was broken, but I refused to accept it.  It felt like air blowing into a part of my armpit it had never touched before, nothing worse than that”.  In the interest of creating subjective meaning from a novel that embodies subjective perspective, I see that quote as a critical theme running through the text.  The character, a proxy for us, cannot accept that his body, his reality, his sense of self is broken.  He has been presented with the sharpness of circumstance, that existence is not the neatly structured arrangement he took for granted, and he refuses to accept it – until, of course, he later passes out from the pain and injury that he refuses to acknowledge.  This whole novel can be seen as a struggling and, at times, very brutal effort to escape from underneath a dominant ideology, as well as the violent, ignorant, and instinctive resistance against such movement.

This book deserves multiple reads from each of its readers, and readers of this book deserve to give themselves multiple angles from which it experience it.  Like a puzzle with disfigured pieces or an unfastened mosaic, The Information Crusher paints a new picture with each pass, many of which I doubt even Colasacco intended.  It is one of the most thoroughly engaging novels I have ever read, not because of immersion or agreeable tone, but because it has the frankness and trust in the intelligence of its readers required to make demands of them.  It challenges you, in what language it chooses to include and leave out, in how it presents itself as a beautifully and intentionally unfinished idea, and in what river bank it deposits you on at the end.

 

The Information Crusher is available now through Spuyten Duyvil.

Book Review

Baho!

by on August 9, 2016

9525a5_ab5c974884a648cb865219e102fe9de2Baho! by Roland Rugero

 

There is something enchanting about the dichotomy of simultaneous simplicity and complexity.  The intertwining of the two, I believe, creates some of the best writing ever made.  In a time when Hollywood and many publishing houses are on the perpetual search for the next apocalyptic franchise, the beauty of a focused, microcosmal narrative is too often overlooked and undervalued.  There is no shortage of such narrative or such beauty in Roland Rugero’s Baho!, a novel that, despite (or perhaps because of) its brevity, provides an enthralling and profound slice of life.

Baho! ends almost as quickly as it begins.  The novel is not even a full one-hundred pages and yet it tells a story that weaves across and around generations from Kanya, a village in Burundi.  Time is an ever malleable concept in the novel, with the story’s plot and narrative structure delivered out of chronological order.  The narrative jumps between perspectives and between present, past, and future tenses.  In the vein of proper poetry, words are never wasted on the page.  The word choice is never pretentious and the sentence structure is never boring, leading to that rarest of combinations – quick pacing and rich language worth unpacking.  All of these effects flow together to leave the reader feeling as if no time has passed at all, whether measuring the minutes spent reading or following the lives of the characters.  This is beautifully exemplified by the novel’s use of the Kirundi word “ejo”, which can be translated into English as either “yesterday” or “tomorrow”.  There is very little difference between the two in Baho!, lending the story a cyclical nature that is pregnant with commentary on human nature.

And if Baho! has a great deal to say about time and the repetition of events, then it has a veritable oration waiting for patriarchy.  All of the horrific events mentioned in the novel, ranging from war and murder to rape and domestic abuse, are laid at the feet of a deeply sexist system.  Feminine sexual “purity” is regarded as a matter of life, death, and eternal salvation for the village of Kanya.  When a suspected rapist is caught, the group of judges that have taken justice into their own hands cry out “Let’s go, men!  We must defend ourselves!”, as if masculine honor and pride are of higher priority than personage of the potential victim.  The female characters, especially the poignantly unnamed, one-eyed woman, provide ironic and unintentional commentary on the mixing of alcohol and perceived emasculation.  Sexist ideology is so ingrained that the one-eyed woman, herself an otherwise strong-willed character, recites a story for children that can only be seen as romantic through male-dominated lenses that treat women as wares.

Rugero’s skill is doubly apparent in moments such as this because the reader is never instructed on how to think about the issue – he merely presents a sequence of events and allows them to speak for themselves.  All of the social commentary present in Baho! is expressed in this way.  The scars of war, the twisting of morality to justify fear and vengeance, and the very human need for scapegoats are all addressed as part of an interconnected landscape, not pleading to be the center of attention but also impossible to ignore.  This, in turn, plays perfectly alongside Rugero’s use of form and structure.  Just as is the case with his use of time, Rugero’s style alternates between all available to him, from Western hero’s journey to African oral tradition.  The novel tries on different presentations like a person tries on clothes, sampling the comedic, the absurd, the tragic, and even a pinch of deus ex machina which, rather than detract from the story, provides its own commentary on the nature of family and obligation.

I imagine that the comparisons this novel will draw are going to be multitudinous, but I am reminded most pleasantly of both Chinua Achebe and William Faulkner as I read it.  Baho! is a story of pride and masculinity run amok, of the aftermath of war and what it means to have definitions forced upon you by society.  It is a beautiful breath of perspective from the type of voice that we in “Western society” so rarely hear (oftentimes because we willfully ignore such voices).  And as the translator, Christopher Schaefer, so aptly points out, Baho! does not spend its time on the wider conflict between the Hutus and the Tutsis.  Rugero seems to understand that many of his potential readers have, rather shamefully, become desensitized to large-scale statistical depictions of the violence in the region.  So he has narrowed our focus down to a few people, a single village at the widest, and made us see the people as people, rather than numbers in a news report.  I highly recommend this novel, for the strength of its story, for the depth of its characters and commentary, and for the fact that you probably have read nothing it like it before.

 

Baho! is available now through Phoneme Media.

Book Review

Arcade

by on August 4, 2016

9781939419729Arcade by Drew Nellins Smith

 

It is difficult to try and explain what Drew Nellins Smith’s debut novel, Arcade, is about. At its most basic level, the novel follows the unnamed narrator who refers to himself as Sam as he tries to anatomize his almost-closeted gay persona and the role society expects him to play. Other times, the novel switches to Sam’s desperate attempts to get back together with an ex who has long moved on. Even then, that’s not what the novel is about. Smith’s novel emphasizes the space the arcade —a place where otherness and anonymity mingle in between racks of porn DVD’s and dim-lighted booths where men (and sometimes couples) see their sexual fantasies come to life— takes in Sam’s life.

Sam is lonely and fails to know what he wants many times. In particular, the short chapters in the novel reveal Sam’s inability to figure out what it is he wants to do with his life. In fact, the chapters devote a sufficient amount of time and space to describe Sam’s job, the new relationship his ex-lover has, the peepshow arcade, and the sexual escapades that occur within it. As for the sex in the novel, Smith captures both intimate sex and the wild, almost neurotic, and detached sex —sex Sam only sees but rarely participates in. Though I really liked how the sex is presented, it is not the only reason I enjoyed Arcade.

Astoundingly, I believe it is the novel’s refusal to be a coming out novel that made me want to keep reading. For a long time, the gay novel genre has revolved around portraying male homosexual behavior and stories about their acceptances or rejections. However, Sam never outright admits he is gay and it is only his actions that ultimately portray him as a gay man. Of the topic, Sam says “And the truth is I’m telling people that I’m not really gay or whatever, but that I’ve fallen in love with a guy.” When asked what is the distinction between being in love with a guy and being gay, Sam’s response is that he does not want to think of it and that he “doesn’t even care if [he’s] gay or whatever.” Smith’s rejection of the typical gay novel allows the reader to focus more on the space, literal and imagined, of what it means to be a gay man never truly participating in sexual acts but watching them.

Though some may shy away or be offended by the frankness in which Sam recounts his time at the arcade, it is this very honesty that kept luring me to turn the page. Smith does not hold back in his novel: he patiently and carefully walks us down the lobby, through the aisles, and into the booths to join Sam to question the space which has been provided. The reader faces the truth of a situation where men like Sam are forced into literal dark spaces in order to satisfy their sexual needs.

The reason novels like Smith’s are important to read, especially given the recent Orlando attacks, is because the reader is able to see others have the same issues. Sam is not the only man in the booths but there are times when he might as well be. Sometimes he feels connected to the other men at the arcade knowing that just like him, they are looking to satisfy and be satisfied. However, more often than not, Sam feels detached from the location and the people in it knowing that most of the men go back to their wives and families and jobs and pretend the arcade does not exist. Sam does not have that option since it seems he is always thinking about the arcade, the people in it, and how he feels about it every time he steps inside and feels the surveillance the store is subjected to.

Arcade is a short novel in which Smith’s prose is straightforward and captivating. The series of scenes which are introduced with each new chapter create a cohesive story about Sam figuratively and literally watching others engage in sexual acts within the arcade. The men thrive in knowing they are anonymous since outside of the arcade those same men live normal heterosexual lives. Perhaps the arcade can be best described by Sam:

“Of course I could tell which men were rich or poor or middle class, but it didn’t matter out there. After the three dollar threshold, we were all the same… I liked the idea that most of us never would have met or interacted if it hadn’t been for that place, divided as we were by our jobs and incomes.”

Arcade is available now through Unnamed Press.

Book Review

The Hermit

by on August 2, 2016

lucy-ivesThe Hermit by Lucy Ives

 

Solitude. The first thought that this concept strikes within me is one of solemn and despondent feelings. Of hopelessness, the sheer and unbearable weight of being alone in the world, existing in a place, real or metaphorical, where you are left to your own devices. However, within this place that real introspection can occur. Where one can begin to process life’s eventualities, the brief moments that make up the whole, and the successes and failures that makes life worthwhile. It is exactly these things that Lucy Ives is exploring in her recent poetry book “The Hermit”.

At first glance this book is quite sparse. Blank space is at a premium in this text with many sections encompassing only a paragraph, sentence, phrase or other musing. This is not to the books detriment though. The emptiness of it all forces one to be more tuned in to the feeling of isolation, but more so to the language that is being used here. Language that captures quite powerfully the feelings or ideas Ives had set out to explore. Words are examined with precision, ideas are tackled with ease, and the reader is forced to examine language in modes that may twist your mind theoretically. Ives use of language is at times quite lyrical, thoughtful, poetic, introspective, philosophical or all of these at once. Small moments in life, moments that may otherwise go unnoticed are given the chance to shine in the limelight of existence.

The book is hard to pin down because it is ultimately so many things at once. It is a book about process: the process of writing, writing poetry and prose, how art comes into that process, and all the things it can encompasses. But it is also a book about emotions, either miniscule in their initial impact or devastating in those moments of inception, that dig into you so deeply that they become a part of who you are. The idea of these moments and emotions cycle back and we are presented with how Ives takes these emotions and turns them into something beautiful. So we now cycle back to the idea of process, but not as course one takes in order to create, but as a means to make sense of the world, to heal, to cope with the weight of it all.

It is within this realm of process, that the book that Lucy Ives has written becomes something remarkable, personal, and quite human. Ives breaks down fragments of her existence into the pages of this book and lays them out bare. The reader is given a glimpse into a world that otherwise is sealed; and by the end of the book you may not understand a single thing, or you may now be privy to many things, however this exploration will no doubt open doors inside your own soul to allow the band of thoughts and memories, and emotions to play their song and hopefully make you dance, at least a little.

“What if a person will always be a few steps from life, whetever that is, and what if this person will feel dissatisfied, imperfect on account of this distance? What will we say to them? Do they become a character typical of their time? And, if such a person cannot become such a character, what is the use of them?”

The Hermit is available now through The Song Cave

Book Review

Neon Green

by on July 28, 2016

51riiFrjYQL._SX321_BO1,204,203,200_Neon Green by Margaret Wappler

 

Most any reader can come up with a circumstance in which descriptions cannot do a novel justice.  When I was asked to review Margaret Wappler’s Neon Green, I was told it had aliens and environmentalists and cancer, and I took the book with one eyebrow raised.  Now, in all fairness, this book possesses all three of those things in ample supply.  But I have not regretted taking the book for an instant.  Neon Green is not science-fiction adventure, or science-fiction horror, or a morality tale on the treatment of the planet.  At its heart, the novel is a questioning of beliefs, of self-importance, and of our multitudinous blind spots.

The strength of this novel lies in its use of little absurdities to camouflage the poignant realism at its heart.  The presence and occasional perspective of the aliens are jarring interruptions to the mundane lives of the Allen family.  The agreement between the federal government and the aliens to allow visitation through sweepstakes is as ridiculous as it is random.  The suddenness of Cynthia’s cancer and its lack of concrete explanation seem to be products of an author trying to create conflict for her characters.  And yet none of these are true.  Despite their self-absorption, the Allen family is forced to come to terms with the notion that they are part of a larger universe, and a universe that is not going to behave in patterns that they would find acceptable.  Wappler sets the stage for some grand conspiracy reminiscent of that in “To Serve Man” by Damon Knight, but there is no forced payoff or glaringly obvious “aha!” moment.  Everything may happen for a reason, but that reason is beholden to no one’s ability to understand it.

The commentary provided in this denied resolution is brilliant and powerful.  It takes the Allens, especially Ernest, a long time to arrive at their understanding.  Aliens have been visiting for some time and yet Ernest’s primary focus is about his involvement in the local Earth Day celebration.  After Cynthia’s diagnosis, he becomes convinced that he is on the trail of, at best, a gross oversight, and, at worst, a terrible machination.  Through his example, the reader is driven to think beyond their figurative and literal spheres of influence, to question their sense of self importance.  Ernest’s quest to root out pretenders to the environmental cause and Gabe’s obsession with posers and quality musical tastes are biting critiques of what it means to be a “believer”, or an activist, or to have passions about a particular topic.  They force readers to ask themselves where true dedication ends and using a cause for status begins.

In order to accomplish something like this while avoiding heavy-handedness or soap-box preaching, an author has to carefully weave the messages into the story in such a way that the reader only realizes what they have seen well after actually reading it.  Wappler achieves this through fantastic control of language, scene, and pacing.  The book opens with description that is extremely vivid and pregnant with commentary, but delivered in a tone that suggests sterile observation and a heightened sense of being watched.  Then, without visible effort, it flows into an over-the-shoulder view of Ernest and his thought process, which describes the most mundane details with a nervous passion that are immediately telling about his character.  This flow happens with stellar ease throughout the book, and it allows Wappler to introduce things, like alien visitation sweepstakes, in a way that causes the reader to do a satisfying double take.  At the same time, Wappler breaks from several writing conventions to drive home the nature of the universe that she is describing.  White space breaks happen right in the middle of scenes, with no indication of time or perspective change, emphasizing the futility of trying to contain events into narrative cause and effect.  Ernest, the “hero” and protagonist, is continually denied an enemy that he can fight, or even an enemy that can regard him, and his attempts to create one only do him harm.

It is no easy feat to write something that is both simple in its delivery and yet vividly complex in its meaning, but Wappler has pulled it off.  And in that very act, there is yet more commentary.  The novel itself is an exercise in looking at the universe not from the perspective of a protagonist from some grand, carefully plotted story, but from the point of view of one piece of a larger cosmos.  It suggests that readers should take a moment, fight the instinct to take the familiar for granted, and appreciate the scale and depth of what lies around them.  And while the novel fully acknowledges the fear and strain of such a change in understanding, it also delivers a taste of the awe and majesty on the other side.

 

Neon Green is available now through Unnamed Press.

Book Review

John Travolta Considers His Odds

by on July 26, 2016

img_9330-e1469550929673John Travolta Considers His Odds by Emily Hunt

 

Emily Hunt is a poet based in Los Angeles, and like many before her, has set her sights upon it–and its milieu–in her debut chapbook titled, John Travolta Considers His Odds. Hunt has put together a thoughtful collection that is often blackly humorous, satirical, naive, and sometimes all at once. There are pieces here that meditate upon the superficial beauty of the city–and its celebrities–to reveal places of sadness, insecurity, and despair. John Travolta Considers His Odds is a great and necessary indictment on the surface level beauty of celebrity, that ultimately asks us in the titular piece, have we refused to let our celebrities live?

The titular poem, “John Travolta Considers His Odds,” deconstructs–in a blackly humorous way–the vanity of the Hollywood actor, and in this case, John Travolta. The poem depicts Travolta in a state of unease and extreme vulnerability; gazing at his forehead that “blinds him in the mirror,” hairpieces that melt to mold his head, and wondering whether he will be buried in his famous Saturday Night Fever or Grease costumes. Hunt uses blunt and straightforward language, tinged with some subtle irony and humor, to relay the sadness and despondency that Travolta is feeling. At the end of the piece the mirror is turned on the reader, on the media, and on the culture of celebrity and declares that “we refused to let [Travolta] live.” The piece is an excellent reminder of the malignant influence of celebrity culture and mass media in Los Angeles.

“The Year The Cheerleaders Were Pretty” is not explicitly about Los Angeles, but implicitly feels like another indictment on idealized beauty, with a careful eye focused on the kind of beauty magnified in a place like Los Angeles. The piece is imbued with a certain gleeful optimism that is crushed fairly quickly: “it was the year before everyone started dying.” The poem paints an idealistic and almost naive sense of beauty. In this way it reminded me of a cheerleader squad that would be featured in a Todd Solondz (Welcome to the Dollhouse, Happiness) movie. Beauty that is so disproportionate and exaggerated that it becomes satire. In “The Year The Cheerleaders Were Pretty,” everything seems to be throbbing with idealized beauty. The cheerleaders’ hair is described as smelling like caramel ice cream, and the girls are “seventeen” and “attentive and perfect.” On the surface the piece seems to be refreshingly void of cynicism but there is a dark underbelly to the piece that transforms it into a vaguely unsettling and darkly comical read. Mixed in with the images of beauty are threatening scenes of the earth drying up, people dying, and of a dairy burning down. There is an almost apocalyptic undercurrent to the poem that works nicely to give off the faint scent of misanthropy.

“Good Enough” reflects back upon the naivete of school girls and school boys and the  pre-adolescent search for the “perfect lover.” The piece reads like a kind of alt-lit Men are from Mars / Women are from Venus in its cataloging of what boys look for in a girl and vice versa. The piece is ultimately a jarring indictment on the naivete of pre-pubescent love, and the male / female relationship dichotomy. “Good Enough” laments that boys “…didn’t lie in the dark staring into the vague shadows on the / ceiling, the shapes / of nighttime flickering, bending, twisting overhead / and wonder if that one was the one, perfect one. Or did they?” What we are left with is a feeling that one can only understand when coming to the adolescent realization that the “perfect lover” might not exist. The piece ends up cynically reclining to the idea of finding a lover as a search for someone that isn’t “perfect” but “good enough.”

The shortest piece in the chapbook, “Light,” perfectly crystallizes the overarching sentiments of the collection. It paints an image of a blond girl named Bailey that “barfs up glitter.” The piece seems to illustrate a cynical and ironic view of blond beauty. Unlike the cheerleaders in “The Year The Cheerleaders Were Pretty,” Bailey seems to radiate with a different kind of beauty, a “depressing luminescence.” This was another piece that brought me back to the work of filmmaker Todd Solondz in it’s introversion of what it means to be blond and sharp use of black humor to critique and deconstruct prototypical beauty.

Hunt’s debut chapbook works well to deconstruct and satirize the very Hollywood notion of perfect lovers, perfect movie stars, perfect cheerleaders, and perfect blonds. She has succeeded in giving us a disturbed portrait of modern life, with a sympathetic eye, and devilish wit.

 

John Travolta Considers His Odds is available now from Whitehorse and Slaughter.

 

Book Review

Zero to Three

by on July 21, 2016

21922683Zero to Three by F. Douglas Brown

 

Zero to Three makes parenting, life, and death relevant to the reader’s life through words that bring the feeling of a moment in time in one’s life in which exists through the dichotomy of one word: fleeting. The words on the page leave a lasting impression, all the while touching upon parts of our lives that we remember as “passing us by so fast.” This book of poems begs us to ask questions such as at what moment are we alive, at what moment do we accept death, and how do we deal with bringing a child into a world where it is in our human fact to falter, to inflict emotional pain on others. This poetry invites us to relish in the beautiful and the ugly, because both foster growth. The words on the page go from “Zero to Three,” that is to say, they journey us through those formative years of life not often spoken of—and in brevity, they bleed on the page up until the “life” beyond ones own grave. They delight in new beginnings and try to capture the emotional enigma of endings, and sometimes vice versa.

In the opening poem “Zero,” the reader learns that a new life is soon to begin, but the speaker of the poem expresses the anxiety—the arithmetic process of coming to terms with the presence of Zero, the moment when life begins. “So soon, another body, her body will thump / My palm rolling/across her bare belly / after nine months, skin at its full potential.” While we often think of the number Zero as representing nothing, Zero is less than any whole number. Here we learn that we are wrong. Zero is everything—it is the instance of running to answer the phone, to know that your whole life is about to change in what feels like Zero seconds. In a space of nothingness, “all variables equals baby.” As the collection continues, it does not yearn to give us answers but rather is constantly nudging at us to remember about all of the mystery in the various stages of life, and touches upon the experience of learning from a new baby life. Similarly, like the son or the daughter in the poems of this collection we learn that we too are children, to our own experiences. In the book of poems, the child is who reminds the speaker of being inherently flawed, beautiful, and most importantly—human. Just as the reader learns every time the page is turned and the experience is felt.

In part II of this collection, a poem named “Finding Glee” focuses on how one can experience a kind of growth that goes beyond the physical growth of the body. Simultaneously, it speaks on the fleeting moment of realization that one has when thinking about our belonging in a world full of unpredictable chaos. Being young is not easy, and being grown up does not strip away the difficulties either. The author writes: “Finding glee in a world / That quickly turns cold in civil dispute / Seems nearly impossible…  By the time we get to “Finding Glee” we find ourselves once again, with the speaker of the poem, trying to find the beauty in the ugly. Other poems in this collection use different ways to rapture such moments. “Body Stubborn” includes lines from a song by hip hop trio A Tribe Called Quest, “Can I Kick It,” and is successful at not only celebrating pop culture, but using it in juxtaposition to show maturation in a fundamental period of human life through this bop style poem. Brown’s poems draw inspiration from other writers and styles in ways that we are reminded, in the same sense that T.S. Eliot once coined about the “past-ness of the past and the present.” Brown is paving the way equally elevating writers and musicians of the past and the speaker’s own life in the present moment in which we are reading about it. At the turn of every page, there is a spectrum of new ideas that are presented and we realize that word placement becomes extremely vital in this book of poems. It guides us, like a parent to their child—telling us when it is best to slow down or speed up, when to begin or end. On the surface, this feeling the reader experiences through language play seems a bit paradoxical to the questions that his poetry seeks to leave at mystery to the reader, but without resistance it reinforces a learning experience that is bigger than ourselves and the control we have on our own lives.

The final section of Zero to Three consists of all prose poems numbered 1-13. They are poems that deal with loss but consistently elevate our humanness and the circle of life. Probing the mind again, making way for questions that the reader is left to relish in, for themselves. Often times we are told that finding the answers to the questions we have about our lives are the beautiful moments, the moments where we discover ourselves, a beautiful clarity. Zero to Three permits us to embrace the questions as they are at face value, like a birth mark on our skin, because our insecurities are very much a part of what allows us to evolve. “No such thing as flesh dying—the body will be the body again and again.” Suffice to say, F. Douglas Brown is not done here—his many stylistically different poems that sting with personal memories and the dismantling tropes of being a human “end” on not a definitive stance, but a longing to continue learning to embrace and welcome the different rhythms during our lives as we move forward to the next destination—wherever that place may be next.

 

Zero to Three is available now through the University of Georgia Press.

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