Sunday, September 28, 2014

Having Long Tended to Delight in Confusion as Entanglements Unravel: Review of Jessica Piazza’s INTERROBANG

Jessica Piazza. Red Hen Press, $17.95 paperback (72p) ISBN: 978-1-59709-722-2

Painful and totally lacking in grace to the person undergoing it, the individuation process is a necessity nonetheless; it’s inevitable, anyhow, and the only way out, or through, is to keep on keeping on, hopefully discovering what (if not who) we are, along the way.  This phase of life happens to just about everyone sooner or later, but that never seems to reassure anybody: instead it dwarfs us in our own commonness, in the difficulty of not knowing where we are, and where we’re going – or maybe of knowing all too well.  Altogether the experience can make the lone soul feel like a dim speck in the vastness of intergalactic space.  Jessica Piazza’s first collection Interrobang deals with the fragmentation of identity head-on, and makes a virtue of it, by observing a prescribed, arbitrary set of formal strictures that serves to limit, direct and focus the author’s energies.  It’s an enjoyable read.
The concluding couplet from the book’s opening poem “Melophobia” evokes an open condition that amounts to a dilemma:

Sing into a conch and you’ll sound like yourself.
Sing into a conch and you’ll sound like the sea.

For all their rousing rhythm, these lines propose the composition of the book as a problem, the spiritual predicament its author had to write her way out of – a semiconscious self-identification with nature that’s known as the pathetic fallacy, a refuge from one’s fellow human beings, untenable.  Other poems restate this difficulty as a systemic flaw in perception:

furious fog hiding the highest peaks of a bridge inside her coat  (“Heresyphilia”)

that storm […] sang […] and fled / too frantically  (“Kopophobia”)

Like me, the tree’s worst weakness is its hollow.  (“Asthenophobia”)

When human relationships enter the picture, the players possess the chameleon karma of anyplace they happen to be at the moment, as in “Kopophobia,” where a dying romance between two tourists blends in with the ruins they’re visiting as sightseers:

Friday, September 26, 2014

Review of D. Harlan Wilson’s PRIMORDIAL: AN ABSTRACTION

Primordial: An Abstraction
D. Harlan Wilson. Anti-Oedipus Press, $13.95 paperback (167p) ISBN: 978-0-9892391-5-8

Academia's reputation has suffered in the twenty-first century: more competitive, yet less rigorous; fewer faculty positions, yet a more bloated and overpaid administrative class; prestige replaced with politics. D. Harlan Wilson illustrates this de-evolution with a Kafka-esque edge in Primordial: An Abstraction. Eighty-some-odd (and odd) chapters follow the narrator as he, stripped of his doctorate for "practicing a questionable pedagogy" and "writing a toxic strain of theory", is forced to return to university to re-earn his degree. It's the same basic premise of NBC's Community, but this version of a return to college is less sitcom and more a cynical nightmare.

Wilson represents the new academia's hopelessness and profanity in several brief scenes; some literal, such as the epidemic of hardcore pornography shoots occurring throughout campus, and some satirical, like an extended diversion  in order to determine, precisely, what is a provost. Anyone familiar with the vestigial titles unique to the university hierarchy will immediately relate to that confusion.

It is that same familiarity with the satire's target that may cause Wilson's (presumably academia-affiliated) readership to find Primordial's barbs a little stale and tired - many of these jokes have been made before, granted, not with Wilson's cuckoo tone and imagery. There is also a whiff of "get off my lawn" in Wilson's observations made through the lens of a middle-class academic's anxiety, like his narrator being constantly confused by the kids' calling one another "shorty", or the awkwardness of student-professor relationships on social media.

Despite that, the narrative moves at a ripping pace, and the reader tracks the narrator and the setting's development (or, rather, de-development) through the chaos. Wilson is at his best when he follows his whimsy and impulse to surprising places. In Primordial, he tacks too closely to sending up the object of so many of a professor's frustrations. The book struggles when it tries to dig beyond the satire, but Wilson undeniably lands many punches along the way. (September 2014)

Purchase Primordial: An Abstraction HERE.

Reviewer bio: Tom Taff lives and works in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Review of Christian Winn’s NAKED ME

Christian Winn. Dock Street Press, $18 paperback (210p) ISBN: 978-0991065721

Fair weather reader I, rarely does a season pass without my readying to give up on the short story collection. It’s too much an insider’s genre, I tell myself, meant for the MFA community and a few zip codes in Manhattan, Madison or Multnomah County. However, like Michael Corleone with the mob in Godfather III, every time I think I’m out, story collections pull me back in.

To be sure, 2014 has been a year of tremendous collections: George Singleton’s Stray Decorum, Claudia Smith’s Quarry Light, Adam Wilson’s What’s Important  Is Feeling, Lauren Becker’s If I Would Leave Myself Behind, to name a few. A quick look at some of the publishers of these titles, Dzanc, Magic Helicopter, and Curbside Splendor (a label I call home), might make evident that a reason for this surplus of good story collections is the rise of savvy small presses. Which makes sense: Who better to step into the breach than operations with two or ten people on the staff, all equally devoted to the book as art object and ice axe for the frozen soul. Every indie reader has her list, but whether your fave is Two Dollar Radio, Civil Coping Mechanisms or Publishing Genius, I suggest you add Dock Street Press out of Seattle, and what better way to get familiar with them than their second title, Naked Me, by Christian Winn.

Before Naked Me arrived at my house I hadn’t heard of the press, hadn’t read any work by its author, which created for me a very rare experience of utter novelty. From the book’s handsome production—and brazen placement of images of nipples on the cover—to the fifteen stories within, I found myself charmed and charged up to be far more aware of both Dock Street Press and Christian Winn in the future. As its back cover touts and its fiction foregrounds Winn’s penchant for dealing with characters on the fringes, bedeviled by bad jobs and bad choices, drugs, drink, and other vices, inevitable comparisons might be made to Carver, Tobias Wolff, Denis Johnson, and Willy Vlautin. Such comparisons seem even more appropriate in the light of the common settings of many of the stories: the Pacific Northwest and the Inland West. Yet Winn’s work shows more than a hint of originality; he’s keen to claim territories both emotional and geographical as his own. To wit, many of the central characters are not locals; they’ve left behind places for this grim and gloomy section of the lower forty eight, hopeful for renewal but wary, often to a fault. Take Stephen in “Mr. Formal,” who arrives in Boise with his philosophy professor father from San Jose, after “things broke down nasty.” Or Tompkins in “Rough Cut,” who left Seattle with his mother after “his father left them when he moved south and away four years ago.” That many of his characters still have opportunities to make choices that might elevate them from past calamities infuses a sense of optimism in the stories, releasing them from the occasional grim determinism found in fictions set in this region.

What’s more, Winn manufactures terrific atmosphere and setting, rendering worlds through deft detail that conjure up vivid backdrops to the urgent dramas faced by his central characters. In “Rough Cut,” “the summer creek runs slow and murky,” where in “False History,” “this desert valley lolls and dips in patchy shades of brown.”   He’s equally adept in some of the stories set in California, able always to find both the strange in the familiar and vice versa, thus establishing that sense crucial to story that Jim Thompson once offered:  that “nothing is as it seems.”

Most significant, though, to me, in Naked Me, is Winn’s formal exploration. One senses that Winn’s wanting to find forms for his fictions that avoid formula. Most of the time he does this exceptionally well, handling first and third person narrators ably, manipulating time through past tense’s retrospection and present tense’s shocks. Interspersed throughout the collection’s longer stories are a series of flash fictions or vignettes and none seemed alike; all possessed an integrity of form that warranted their length, prevented them from seeming like false starts or empty exercises in mood. And the longer stories demonstrate attempts to create tension and suspense apart from plot alone. The title story’s bravura ending hinges on a smart shift in tense and narrative angle—the narrator telling us mostly what he did not say—and in “Rough Cut,” a similar move to future tense makes even more aching the present action. An occasional misfire occurs from time to time—I wanted the wonderful cataloguing of dead celebrities  in “All Her Famous Dead” to mean more about whom the central character is—but in the main, Winn seems sure with his devices, adept with artifice. Never does the technique overshadow the very real men and women with which he populates these stories.

In the main, Naked Me offers proof that the short story collection isn’t as much on life support as we fear: it’s still a fine showcase for a writer, like Winn, testing his strengths against the limits imposed by the forms he embraces. Is this collection serving as a laboratory for a novel? Who knows. Winn seems a writer we’ll always be wanting to hear from, no matter what kind of fiction he fashions, for he has in Naked Me made that crucial discovery: that the key to most readers’ hearts and minds is not telling them what they’ve never heard, but finding ways to make the most humble, the most familiar seem limitless in what they can share. (July 2014)

Purchase Naked Me HERE.

Reviewer bio: Tom Williams is author of two works of fiction, The Mimic’s Own Voice and Don’t Start Me Talkin’. His collection of stories, Among the Wild Mulattos and Other Tales, is forthcoming from Texas Review Press in 2015.

Friday, September 12, 2014

Review of William Bryan Smith's FREE RANGE MEN

Free Range Men
William Bryan Smith. Main Street Rag Publishing Company, $12 paperback (130p) ISBN: 1-59948-486-0

Free Range Men is a modern day tragicomedy set in home-town Pennsylvania. William Bryan Smith burrows into the heart of bad choices and their consequences in this well-crafted piece of literary fiction.

T. J. Beckerman is an adjunct professor embittered by the slow demise of his marriage and struggling to accept his recent divorce. Vocally he insists on a deep-seated hatred for his unfaithful ex, however, in his quieter moments we are privy to his true feelings.

"I like to remember her this way: the kiss in the snow outside of the deli on Ferguson Street (which is now an accountant’s office); the night we finished the bottle of Chablis and I read my failed novel to her; the pride I felt in her as she lay exhausted in her hospital bed after the birth of our son."
(From Ch 4 Pg 43)

Deep down he wants nothing more than to fix his family unit and go back to being his son's hero and his wife's confidant. In a misplaced effort toward compensating for all he has lost Beckerman seeks out solace in all the wrong places, the results of which range from mild discomfort to irreversible depredations.  Unable to let go of the past, he makes one bad decision after another with disastrous consequences. The majority of his time is spent in the company of two drinking buddies, Lyon and Donnelly, who are at least as self-destructive as Beckerman. Particularly in the case of Donnelly, a muscle-bound, steroid-pumped womaniser whose inability to accept reality results in a restraining order and a spell in the psych ward.

"Even when I'm at my lowest, I always say it could be worse: I could be Donnelly. Jesus Christ. I could be Donnelly."
(From Ch 6 Pg 64)

Lyon may be the more level headed of Beckerman's friends, but he is busy hopping from one meaningless physical encounter to the next in an effort to block out his own loss of love. All the relationships in this wistful tale are either in tatters or doomed to fail. Free Range Men is not so much a story of lost love as much as it is a story of learning how to live, or perhaps how not to live, in the aftermath of rejection.

"There's nothing left to say. We stare out into the darkness, out into the nothing, as if the answer lies out there, just beyond our reach."
(From Ch 2 Pg 26)

Smith writes with a haunting sadness which he balances out perfectly with cynical humour and sarcastic wit. In one of Berckerman's many reminiscences we hear one of Donnelly's childhood anecdotes involving a real-life mail-order monkey, blood, deception and death; which is as moving as it is hilarious and leads on to one of the novellas most sobering portions where the passing of Beckerman's beloved dog represents the breakdown in a twelve year marriage. 

Various people come and go along the way, all with their own emotional baggage. None more so than Lyon's sister. In and out of rehab, Penny is the most obviously screwed up of Smith's characters and as such shows the well-intended and unguarded side of our protagonist.

"...I want to forget that she's my best friend's sister, that she leads a questionable lifestyle - that she's an addict. It feels good to be wanted by someone; it helps that she is lovely and vulnerable. For a moment, I fool myself into believing I can save her."
(From Ch 5 Pg 56)

A colleague in similar dire straits recommends a wholly unethical scheme for a professor of English to make a few extra bucks. And so, bit by bit, T. J. Beckerman rids himself of his last shreds of integrity until there is little left but shame and regret. It's safe to say that Beckerman's questionable decisions are at their most devastating within his professional role and subsequently lead him to not only question his position as a trusted faculty member but also as a human being.

Smith is an exceptional storyteller who expertly develops his characters with equally loathsome and endearing qualities. For all of Beckerman's flaws he is never portrayed as a bad guy. In fact, in spite of their darker moments, all of the story's main players are not only likeable but on a painfully human level they are intrinsically familiar and easy to relate to.

Several literary giants are acknowledged throughout the text. This can be a risky business for a writer as it leads the reader to draw comparisons when considering the author's style of prose. However, William Bryan smith writes with an excellent measure of brevity and a remarkably well executed use of dark humour. This reader would happily place Free Range Men on the top row of his bookshelf alongside books by his own literary giants. (September 2014)

Purchase Free Range Men HERE.

Reviewer bio: Matthew J. Hall is a writer who lives in Bristol, England. His poems have been published in various literary mags and he regularly highlights new and exciting writing within the small press on his blog

Friday, September 5, 2014

Review of William Todd Seabrook’s THE IMAGINATION OF LEWIS CARROLL

William Todd Seabrook. Rose Metal Press, $12 chapbook (44p) ISBN 978-0-9887645-7-6

A few of the beloved characters in Wonderland make cameos in The Imagination of Lewis Carroll, but William Todd Seabrook focuses the chapbook on Carroll’s life outside his writings.  As the collected shorts reveal, however, this separation is not entirely possible.  We see Carroll split between two lives, that of logician and deacon Charles Lutwidge Dodgson and that of the household name and pseudonym Lewis Carroll.  We quickly see that he feels his true identity is as Carroll.

Seabrook is not writing biography.  The shorts break into the fantastic and the satirical, creating what might be described as biography-fueled imagination.  We see Carroll as prankster, chess player, game inventor, dueler, opium user, photographer, and control freak.  We see his inappropriate attachment to Alice Liddell.   We see him run from the Jabberwocky and recoil from the Dodo, as the Red King lurks in the corners.  Appropriately, the book often dwells in nonsense, strange logic, and dark humor.  Carroll’s watches include one the runs fast, one that runs backwards, one stuck at 8:34 that he checks twice a day, and one made of paper gifted to him by Alice.  When he mistakes a public execution for a public performance, he bursts into applause thinking, “What great minds we have…to come up with such delight.”  He gives a three-day sermon that ends in a two-minute amen.  When a Bishop tells him his jokes alone won’t get him into heaven, he replies, “That is if you assume that this life is not already a joke, Your Excellency.”  And one short is written entirely backwards, the title mirroring the previous page.

But as the shorts develop, we see that beyond the play and the Wonderland-ian turns, Carroll is a disconnected man.  When reflecting on a trick he performs with an apple that leaves tiny holes in the skin, he thinks: “But children didn’t often see those imperfections, unlike the harsh, penetrating eyes of an adult.”  In one of the most poignant and complicated shorts, “The Solutions of Lewis Carroll,” he develops a nude photo of Alice Liddell – “He did not wear gloves, as he had no need to in the presence of Alice” – and discusses eternal life.  Alice wants Carroll to take a picture of himself as well so he can also live on forever.  When she says, “At some point you’ll be the only one who doesn’t know what it’s like to die,” Carroll replies, “Better to be dead than to be lonely.” 

This mix of the dark with the ridiculous sets the perfect tone for the project.  The Imagination of Lewis Carroll is a quick and interesting read, and another beautifully made chapbook with the solid and well-crafted fiction that Rose Metal Press is known for. (August 2014)

Purchase The Imagination of Lewis Carroll HERE.

Reviewer bio:  Christy Crutchfield is the author of the novel How to Catch a Coyote.  Her work has appeared in Mississippi Review online, Salt Hill Journal, the Collagist, Newfound, and others.  Visit her at

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Poignant & Plain Groovy: Review of Greg Santos’ RABBIT PUNCH

Rabbit Punch!
Greg Santos.  DC Books, $17.95 paperback (60p) ISBN: 978-1-927599-22-8

Help is on the way for the Anglophone reader in a global poetry world.  Rabbit Punch!, the second collection by Greg Santos, offers an admirable finesse to the reader who craves good verse.
In an oversaturated poetry “market” whose only reward, arguably, is bragging rights, and in an age of enforced specialization, in which most people who write poems are denied much attention, it might be worth a moment to acknowledge the fact that despite the pretensions to spiritual authority which often prevail among poets, not all of them escape the temptation to employ techniques of self-promotion that – depending on who you ask, of course – collectively go by the derisive term “careerism.”  The question whether this is a matter of degree or kind is probably best settled on a case-by-case basis: but either way, it’s still true (for example) that frequently in debut poetry collections the names of the authors’ grad school professors appear everywhere in the book – below blurbs on the back cover, in “personal” acknowledgements on the flyleaf, on dedication pages, on copyright pages as journal or press editors, and so on – everywhere, in short, but in a poem, where presumably a poet simply means it.  And it isn’t that one doesn’t understand why – but also, it kind of is….  By contrast, Greg Santos’ candor in Rabbit Punch! is refreshing.  Alongside touching dedications to his family (“To my wife, Maryn, and my children, Rosemary and Arthur, you are my muses.  I love you”), we read this:

Sunday, August 24, 2014

The Polemical Forensics of Beauty: Review of David Herrle’s SHARON TATE AND THE DAUGHTERS OF JOY

Sharon Tate and the Daughters of Joy
David Herrle. Time Being Books, $15.95 paperback (198p) ISBN: 978-1568092225

The black and white photograph shows an elegantly dressed and coiffed blonde of about thirty sitting at the wheel of a convertible with her head tilted slightly back and a gaping wound where her left eye should be.  A hand belonging to someone unseen is applying lip gloss to her half-open mouth with a brush.  There’s a disturbing contrast between the subject’s composure and the gruesome condition of her face – or at least there would be, if you didn’t recognize right away where the image came from: it’s a production still from Chinatown, and the woman is actress Faye Dunaway, in the role of the widow Evelyn Cross Mulwray, in the final scene when she gets shot by the LAPD while fleeing with the teenaged child of an incestuous union with her father, corrupt businessman Noah Cross, played by John Huston – while private detective Jake Gittes, played by Jack Nicholson, helplessly looks on, panicked and dismayed.  It’s generally agreed that the film’s grim conclusion captures a real sense of the spirit of Los Angeles – and not only in 1974 when it was released, but enduringly.  And that’s especially significant because Evelyn and her sister/daughter escape and drive off to freedom in Robert Towne’s original draft screenplay, whereas director Roman Polanski fought to give the ending its present pessimistic finality, creating what would become an LA neo-noir classic, his first American work after several years away from Hollywood and out of the country altogether.
            The story is well known: Polanski had left the US following the grisly 1969 murders of his wife, actress Sharon Tate, and several of their friends at their home by members of the Manson “Family.”  Returning five years later to make Chinatown the Polish auteur saw the city clearly, exactly as those who reside there know it to be, a sun-blasted wasteland, the place itself one enormous boulevard that evaporates into the atmosphere taking people and dreams along with it.  In a worldwide marketplace of attention, the multinational corporations of the contemporary global entertainment industry take the Hollywood of bygone days as a precondition of present-day spectatorship, building upon the films of yore to produce images that will have an archetypal blockbuster appeal for a new mass consumer audience living anyplace at all where market research can reach.  And one of those archetypes is a new Beauty that must appeal to the modern moviegoer, concertgoer, magazine-reader, and so on.  Our preconscious association of physical comeliness with goodness and innocence causes us to register a deep shock, and to recoil in horror, when beautiful people are destroyed under any circumstances, and that’s the dark side of the old Tinseltown glamor, just as it will be the dark side of tomorrow’s dispensation too.  This conflict in human nature is the subject of a new poetry collection by David Herrle entitled Sharon Tate and the Daughters of Joy, an exceptionally ambitious book whose theme is the relationship between poetry and popular culture in an anxious Now that’s crammed with immediacy and alienation.