Review of Pattie McCarthy’s X Y Z & &

x y z & &
Pattie McCarthy. Ahsahta Press, $12 US paperback (50p) ISBN 978-1-934103-55-5

& to & such a pretty bird. this is
the first sonnet for the third baby. if
I sound prepared for that, I am not.
let me know you’re all right in there, would you?
Kevin says : I dreamt it was a boy.
my brother says : your favorite presidents
cannot be F D R & Jefferson—
that’s illogical. Emmett says : when I
was pregnant with you, that was a tough week too.
Asher says : seashell, voilà.          & the third
(having outgrown a perfect, fragile world)
baby (       bird from brid OE from unknown
origin)                                 “because he was crying
I like him most of all,” says my son.

And so opens Philadelphia poet Pattie McCarthy’s new chapbook, x y z & & (Boise ID: Ahsahta Press, 2015). McCarthy is the author of four trade poetry collections, most recently Nulls (Grand Rapids MI: Horse Less Press, 2014), as well as a handful of poetry chapbooks, and her x y z & & is a suite of thirty-three pages that explores and extends her work in collage and accumulation, stitching together scattered notes on parenting, language, nursing, childbirth and babies. McCarthy magnificently articulates the anxiety, distraction, exhaustion and bliss of parenting small children, as she writes: “I had four hours in a row alone / to work & I looked at photos of them / & remembered the limitless mistakes / it was possible to make with the piano.” In an interview recently over at Touch the Donkey, she briefly discusses the chapbook:

Review of Nicelle Davis & Cheryl Gross’ IN THE CIRCUS OF YOU

In the Circus of You: An Illustrated Novel-in-Poems
Nicelle Davis and Cheryl Gross. Rose Metal Press, $14.95 paperback (104p) ISBN: 978-1-9416280-0-3

In elementary school, I anticipated my school’s annual book fair.  I didn’t have my eyes set on The Babysitters Club series or the sticker collection books or even the new Magic Eye calendars.  I was set on the Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark series, written by Alvin Schwartz and illustrated by Steve Gammell.  They were full of urban legends and folktales, creepy and ironic with a hint of dark humor.  The accompanying drawings often had the same humor, but there was a darkness that always unnerved me.  The bodies were disproportioned.  Everything was dripping or hairy, those stray hairs in just the wrong place.
I hadn’t thought about the series in maybe decades until I read Rose Metal Press’ latest release In the Circus of You: An Illustrated Novel-in-Poems.  Each poem by Nicelle Davis has an accompanying sketch by Cheryl Gross.  While each also has a spark of humor, the book is dark.  Rather than urban legend, poems and illustrations focus on the circus, on freaks and clowns.  The circus is a metaphor for adult fears: the end of a marriage, the trials of motherhood, the struggles of knowing and being yourself.
Davis’ poems take many forms, from traditional stanza to prose poem to hourglass shaped poems.  They seek to disturb and surprise and are at their most successful when the surprise is visceral and grounded.  In “On It’s Haunches,” the speaker places her head inside a poodle’s mouth (not a lion’s) and watches as a neighborhood boy is tricked into eating worms:  “…What are you/looking at? He asks me. Kicks the dog. Yelp folds into bite./My face is a circle of puncture. The boy calls me, Freak.”   In the found poem “My Understanding of Love from a Man—or—The Rubber Boy (born the same year as I, 1979),” we’re told the story of famous sideshow contortionist who, “Dislocates hips and shoulders./Carefully rearranges ribs. Drops heart/below sternum. So an audience can/watch it beating.”
Gross’ sketches interpret the poems literally, while adding an extra level of the grotesque.  The characters are bloated.  The skin is full of folds.  Spines are coiled and hooked.  Body parts are replaced by wheels. 
While the book is full of imagination and surprise, the extended metaphor was sometimes too much for this reader, especially when I was pulled too far from the concrete.  There were times when I wanted more of the real, which might’ve been more disturbing than the figurative clowns or dead birds.  But the stories of famous sideshow freaks and their renderings in both verse and drawing kept this scary story enthusiast turning the pages.  (March 2015)

Purchase In the Circus of You HERE.

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

Review of Madeline ffitch’s VALPARAISO, ROUND THE HORN

Valparaiso, Round the Horn
Madeline ffitch. Publishing Genius Press, $14.95 paperback (246p) ISBN: 978-0-9906020-0-2

            Reading Madeline ffitch’s short story collection Valparaiso, Round the Horn is like going away to summer camp. Filled with wonder and rashes, nostalgia and mosquito bites, Valparaiso nestles in that magical place between discovering a new found freedom and being wretchedly homesick. ffitch’s stories abound with cruel children, wild animals and anxious, fallible parents.  There is an earthy quality to all of her tales and the pieces in the collection work together to create a rich tapestry of masterful storytelling.

            My favorite story in the collection is “What Wants to be Shot,” an account of teenagers wiling away the summer with rifles and footraces and flirtations. The prose here is delicious as ffitch perfectly recreates the sticky stillness of an aimless afternoon: “Each storefront had a stoop, and each stoop was baked hot in the afternoon sun the day they came to the intersection. They all noticed how quiet it was, as quiet as if they’d drawn the place with a crayon as they came along.” There is an edge of menace to “What Wants to be Shot” as Flip, Thomas and Hayworth wind up shooting more than beer cans and windows, and this is typical of ffitch’s stories. They are beautiful tales of discovery, but often a raw darkness is slowly bubbling underneath the surface.

Review of xTx’s TODAY I AM A BOOK

Today I Am A Book
 xTx. Civil Coping Mechanisms, $13.95 paperback (120p) ISBN: 978-1-937865-37-5

I am an avid reader of xTx's work and have been for a handful of years, since around the time her book Normally Special was published. If there is one thing I can say about xTx as a writer, it is that she does not flinch, not ever. Given her typical range of subject matter, it's not an easy feat, and it's the tight but complete vision of her stories that gives them their power. In Today I Am A Book, a collection built around a single phrase, the stories sometimes feel like blows raining down, relentless, strong, and vivid. They are arresting, and then captivating. The narrators of these stories do not need to shout. You will lean in to catch every word.

The book's great strength lies in its cohesion. If it were merely a batch of stories strung together by the opening line, "Today I am a..." it could read like a bad workshop exercise. Instead, it feels like the characters are all calling out from the same cavernous place. Their stories are a whirl of desire, violation, denial, desperation, stubborn hope, deprivation, and futility. xTx has taken more than thirty stories, all only a few pages long, and made them feel like one. The title is appropriate.

From one of the standout stories, "Today I Am A Genie," comes a passage that communicates the conflicting, tortured nature of so many of the characters:

"I am a maker of miracles. I am so very coveted. I am fulfiller of dreams. I am that of dreams. I am also the opposite. I am so very lonely. I am despair-choked inside a well of fetid darkness. I cannot pray enough for my undoing."

And in "Today I Am A Farmer":

"When I see the stalks are right, I pull them. Each time thinking, this time will be different."

All of the characters are somewhere in this process, pulling up stalks, when each time before they have yielded nothing. They are pulling stalks, or they are already resigned to let them rot in the earth. They are from all different circumstances, facing different insurmountable difficulties, but they are all either approaching or have stepped over that line of surrender. As a reader, it is a scary but emotionally resonant place to inhabit with them.

With Today I Am A Book, xTx's work is greater in scope than it has ever been, while retaining her signature sharp, visceral focus. This book should not be missed. (March 2015)

Purchase Today I Am A Book HERE.

Reviewer bio: Taylor Breslin graduated from the University of Pittsburgh in 2012. She lives in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. She is on Twitter: @taylorbreslin

Review of Brooke Wendt’s THE ALLURE OF THE SELFIE

The Allure of the Selfie: Instagram and the New Self Portrait. Brooke Wendt. Network Notebooks 08, Institute of Network Cultures, Amsterdam. (50p) ISBN 978-90-822345-1-0

                I’ll just come right out and say it: Brooke Wendt’s The Allure of the Selfie was not what I expected. I mean, the title has the word ‘selfie’ in it. The cover is stamped with silhouettes of a bikini-clad woman. I think I was imagining something along the lines of an art book filled with rows and rows of duck-faced teenagers and twenty-somethings. I was expecting a spectacle.

            Instead, Wendt took me to a place I haven’t been since grad school. Her collection of five essays, plus introduction and conclusion, are fully researched academic pieces that will make you think. Think. On a topic that sounds seemingly shallow, Wendt has produced a carefully thought-out, deeply analytical pop culture investigation of self-obsession in the twenty-first century. At forty-five pages, it is a short collection, but certainly not a quick read, and I’m not ashamed to say that, yes, I had to look up some words.

            The Allure of the Selfie is, at its core, an exploration of how Instagram and our creation of selfies have changed the landscape of self-portraiture and self-identity. The first essay in the collection, “Message: Camera Ads and Smartphone Commercials” traces the influence picture taking has had our psyches through the last hundred years. Wendt analyzes Kodak print ads and smartphone commercials to arrive at the ultimate conclusion that will steer her essay collection: “We use social networks to elevate ourselves, and Instagram helps us to position selfies as the center of our universe.” As Wendt reminds us several times throughout The Allure of the Selfie, we have become more than narcissists. We have become complacently obsessed with ourselves and the instant gratification of showcasing ourselves to the world on the platforms of social media.

Now It is Time to Wake: Review of Jonathan Harper’s DAYDREAMERS

Jonathan Harper. Lethe Press, $12 paperback (164p) ISBN: 978-1590212967

In the inimitable Gilmore Girls, Lorelai Gilmore is born into a life of wealth and privilege, a life of strict rules and etiquette, a life that she finds suffocating.  At age 16, she becomes pregnant, and her parents plan out her future: She and Christopher will get married.  Christopher will work for Lorelai’s father, Richard.  Lorelai will raise a daughter in a stifling house with stifling rules.  Not knowing where she is going or what she ultimately wants, only what she doesn’t want, Lorelai runs away.  She settles in the small town of Stars Hollow and raises her daughter Rory alone, creating a life of pop tarts and coffee and wacky but loyal friends, a job first managing and then owning a small Inn, and finally, even a relationship with Luke Danes, the diner owner.
            This was the series I returned to while reading Jonathan Harper’s collection of short stories: Daydreamers.  The characters in these stories often don’t know what they want, but they are clear on what they don’t: they don’t want a house full of hovering Aunts, they don’t want a twin bed in “a frilly pink hell with floral wallpaper and Precious Moments figurines,” they don’t want a life of religious structure and persecution, they don’t want to be merely houseboys.  What they do actually want, though, is a bit more shadowy: a half-remembered dream covered in mist.  Like so many of us, these characters wander through life, hoping to stumble head-first into meaning.
            This desire for a bodily transformation, a transcending of the mundane, often leads these young men into gnawing obsessions that reveal the body at its most vulnerable.  In “Nature,” August becomes enamored with body modifications and suspensions.  In “The Bloated Woman,” Jeremiah finds a dead woman on the beach who haunts his thoughts.  The unnamed narrator of “Costume Dramas” fixates on his husband’s new tenant, and in a furious attempt to reconcile a fractured marriage, demands a violent and intimate reckoning of the body.

Interview with the author: Jacob M. Appel

Jacob M. Appel’s first novel, The Man Who Wouldn’t Stand Up, won the 2012 Dundee International Book Award and was published by Cargo.  His short story collection, Scouting for the Reaper, won the 2012 Hudson Prize and was published by Black Lawrence Press in 2014.  His most recent books include a novel, The Biology of Luck (Elephant Rock, 2013), an essay collection, Phoning Home (University of South Carolina Press, 2014) and a short story collection, Einstein’s Beach House (Pressgang/Butler University, 2014).   Two additional collections, Miracles and Conundrums of the Secondary Planets (Black Lawrence) and The Magic Laundry (Snake Nation) are due out in 2015.  He holds an MFA in fiction from NYU, an MFA in playwriting from Queens College and an MD from Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons.


Curt Smith: You’re widely published in the lit journal world, yet you waited a relatively long time before publishing your first story collection. Can you describe your journey?

Jacob Appel:   My long apprenticeship was not entirely by choice.   I had published nearly two hundred stories in literary journals before I managed to sell my first collection.  I suspect one of the reasons for this is that my stories are rarely connected in the tangible ways (eg. geography, subject matters, common characters) that make a collection easier to place with a publisher.  Whenever I sit down to write a story, I try to imagine a world as different from the worlds of my previous stories as possible.  This approach leads to more original work, but less cohesion.  The result is that I was out lurking in the literary ether for many years.  I sold my first serious story to the journal Fugue in 1997, but didn’t sell my first collection until Scouting for the Reaper in 2012.  In between, I toiled away below the radar screen and prayed to the patron saint of small miracles; of course, I’m not a Catholic, which may explain why he took so long to answer my prayers.