Review of Sheldon Lee Compton’s BROWN BOTTLE

Sheldon Lee Compton. Bottom Dog Press, $17 paperback (164p) ISBN: 9781933964898

In Sheldon Lee Compton's debut novel, Brown Bottle, we are immediately introduced to our protagonist - and on occasion antagonist - Wade Brown-Bottle Taylor, a complicated man whose contradictory nature reflects the opposing extremes found in his Appalachian region of eastern Kentucky, a place of vast loneliness, natural beauty and man-made madness.

The only aspect of life closer to Wade's heart than the warm buzz of hard drink is his somewhat fragile relationship with his nephew, Nick. Upon discovering his nephew's increasing appetite for pharmaceuticals, Wade Taylor takes it on himself to intervene, a decision that sets him off on his own redemptive path. And it is a pathway paved with deceit, betrayal and blood.

While Wade faces problems typical of poverty-stricken Appalachia, in many ways he is a portrait of everyman. His battle is a familiar one as he struggles to make sense of the world around him, and, more importantly, his part in it.

Review of Leora Fridman’s MY FAULT

My Fault
Leora Fridman. Cleveland State University Poetry Center, $16 paperback (86 pages) ISBN: 9780996316712

     Leora Fridman’s poetry unveils an exposé of small instances that compose the idea of fault. The title itself is enticing – making the reader wonder what Fridman’s words might reveal. Is she confessing something, or is it something greater than that? It seems as though both of these questions are valid when reading My Fault. The ambiguity of several of the poems allows the reader to ask these questions, perhaps leaving without an answer. This vagueness is perpetuated through almost all of the poems through her simple use of language and sentence structure – most words do not require a dictionary at the ready, and the short sentence keeps the pace steady.
     One of the most poignant poems within this collection, due to its construction as well as its connection to the title, is “The Awning”:

I’ve roped myself
Out of another one.

I’ve left my favorite dress behind.
The way we move from crash to crash

Is like springing beasts, and I can’t take
Credit for the forward march.

     “I can’t take credit” lends itself to this idea of fault or lack thereof. Fridman connects with her readers, imparting upon them her innermost thoughts of what it means to harbor guilt, fear, and longing, without giving them all the answers.
     She bears her thoughts for her audience, refusing to hide behind perceptions. She embodies her actions, owning them, saying they are her “fault”. She is not really getting at the idea of her being wrong, but rather her ownership over herself, and her outspoken voice, taking that ownership. Through the collection of poems there is a sense of self-actualization and explanation. No one other than the speaker can explain herself, her actions, her faults. Now, while the speaker may not explicitly be Fridman, it seems as though she is a vessel or vehicle for the author’s thoughts. The speaker has authority and credibility in this proprietorship.
     My Fault ends with a revelation of the speaker’s actions, concluding with the ultimate result of claiming a fault. Fridman writes, “I went for the blaming/& found there more embrace”.  Claiming a fault, as the speaker has done, shows more character than hiding behind the names of others. It goes beyond following the stream, and plunges into the idea of growing into your skin and telling the stories that plague your mind. (April 2016)

Purchase My Fault HERE.

Reviewer bio: Morgan Leigh Plessner is an English Major and Photo Minor at the University of New Hampshire.

Review of Norman Lock’s THE BOY IN HIS WINTER: An American Novel

The Boy in His Winter: An American Novel
Norman Lock. Bellevue Literary Press, $14.95 paperback (192p) ISBN: 978-1-934137-76-5

Repurposing great works of literature, famous characters from same, and/or dead authors in modern ways and to modern ends is almost overdone as a phenomenon. Really, writers. Stop it.

I said "almost overdone" because, if I know publishing at all, they will collectively ride this hobby-horse's hooves entirely off. There are a few of these cultural appropriations that are enjoyable, of course, it's statistically impossible that such a gigantic amount of work won't produce a shining light now and then. I think of Catherynne Valente's Russian fairy-tale reinterpretation of Baba Yaga in Deathless and grin all over my face. So the tap will continue to drip even after the shower's over. It ain't over yet, though.

It's in that silver river-shine light that I approached The Boy in His Winter. Is this another misappropriation or maladaptation of a novel that's been entwined into the USA's sense of itself? Happily, no...but.

I love author Lock's prose (my copy of the book has 10 Book Darts marking especially lovely passages or especially telling insights). It slides easy, inviting toes to dangle or shoulders to float, gently rocking.

“To ennoble is to diminish by robbing people of their complexity, their completeness, of their humanity, which is always clouded by what gets stirred up at the bottom.”

Beautiful Behavioral Sink: Review of Lily Hoang’s A Bestiary

A Bestiary
Lily Hoang. CSU Poetry Center, $16 paperback (156p) ISBN: 9780996316743

            In “The Animal Mode of Inescapable Shock,” Anne Boyer writes, “If an animal is shocked, escapably or inescapably, she will manifest deep reactions of attachment for whoever has shocked her. If she has manifested deep reactions of attachment for whoever has shocked her, she will manifest deeper reactions of attachment for whoever has shocked her and then dragged her off the electrified grid. Perhaps she will develop deep feelings of attachment for electrified grids. Perhaps she will develop deep feelings of attachment for what is not the electrified grid. Perhaps she will develop deep feelings of attachment for dragging. She may also develop deep feelings of attachment for science, laboratories, experimentation, electricity, and informative forms of torture.”
            In her book-length collection of essays, A Bestiary, Lily Hoang explores this complicated relationship between abuse, attachment, affection, and autonomy. Juxtaposing fragments of the author’s personal life and other ephemera, Lily Hoang weaves together images of rats, tigers, fairy tales, a dead sister, Asian/Orientalism, time, an abusive ex-husband (a self-described anarchist who demands alimony), myth, memory, an occasionally lying, occasionally cheating lover, family etched onto the body, feminism, teaching, an addicted nephew, violence, compulsion, and one night of hedonistic pleasure with an old school friend. This structure, like Tender Points by Amy Berkowitz or The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson, works best when the fragments speak to each to create a whole, something larger than the sum of its parts. Hoang’s A Bestiary accomplishes this through both subtle and clever means.

Review of Mark Polanzak’s POP!

Mark Polanzak. Stillhouse Press, $16 paperback (238p) ISBN: 978-0-9905169-2-7

On the surface, Pop! is a book about grieving. One day in 1998, while playing tennis, Mark Polanzak’s father dies. We learn quickly, though, that there’s more to it than that. We’ve only made it to the second line when we learn that “Mark Polanzak’s father exploded.” So begins Polanzak’s attempt to make sense of the loss of his father. Through a mixture of short stories, essays, and other recollections, we learn what it means to lose, and what it means to work hard to understand that loss, even when we’re not sure that we can truly understand what is in front of us.

Pop! is an interesting hybrid work, in that it weaves the aforementioned styles of prose together to form one coherent piece that keeps you turning pages, trying hard to understand—if you’ve never lost a parent—what it is like. You’re just as likely to encounter a short story recalling the day Polanzak’s father died as you are an essay following the author as he attempts to speak to another boy who has also lost his father.

The short story sections in Pop! might be polarizing too. They read at times like Introduction to Fiction stories, filled with the devices and moves of an artist seeking to find his or her footing. When seen repeatedly, these could become a bore—or, worse, an annoyance—until you realize this is, in a way, how people grieve. We obsess over the same scenes, the same images, reimagining the minutiae because that is all we have left. Polzanak, later in the book, sums it up while talking about his own experience playing tennis with his father: “I just wanted to win without trying, without putting in the time. Like everything else. Like writing. I just wanted to be gifted. At tennis. At art. At grieving. But it all takes practice.

Review of Tara Laskowski’s BYSTANDERS

Tara Laskowski. Santa Fe Writers Project, $15.95 (238p) ISBN: 9781939650382

Laskowski’s collection Bystanders explores the not-quite-everyday occurrences of everyday life. Each story is different—there are no extending plots throughout the collection—which makes each story refreshing. However, the magnifying glass Laskowski uses to peer into the human mind is something that’s prevalent throughout.
In “Death Wish”, a woman becomes obsessed with her coworker’s killer. In the wonderfully terrifying “The Monitor”, a family has a baby monitor that broadcasts horrifying images. Some stories are grounded with heavy tones and diction, while others are slightly shorter, less explicit, and provide a broader scope. “The Cat-Sitter” features a couple who trespasses into their neighbor’s apartment, revealing a shocking truth about one of them. In “Support”, a widow receives a letter from her dead husband who wants to visit her. “Entrapment” depicts a divorced news reporter covering a Judge’s infatuation with young girls.
Laskowski uses the length of the stories to enhance or obscure her characters and their innermost thoughts. “The Cat-Sitter” is one of the longer stories, and because of this we see an unsettling evolution in the characters as the plot unfolds. Other stories like “The Oregon Trail”, in which a family of three set out on a road trip, are a little less complex, where the reader is slightly displaced from the events. Regardless of length, Laskowski still manages to capture the essence of her characters. How much of this information she chooses to impart is important: Her characters and their intuitive actions are what drive each story, and her endings are largely ambiguous.
Laskowski’s words draw you in and hold fast your attention. Her stories ride the spectrum of strange or unnerving to downright frightening. (May 2016)

Purchase Bystanders HERE.

Reviewer bio: Morgan Leigh Plessner is an English Major and Photo Minor at the University of New Hampshire. 

Review of Lavinia Ludlow’s SINGLE STROKE SEVEN

Single Stroke Seven
Lavinia Ludlow. Casperian Books, $13.60 paperback (188p) ISBN: 9781934081518

There’s a great moment in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Demons (or The Possessed or The Devils depending on which translation you’ve read) where a group of pseudo-intellectuals and revolutionaries gather to discuss their political activities. The meeting quickly turns into a great comedic set piece (and one of Dostoevsky’s funniest moments), where rather than reaffirming their commitment to the cause, the members of the secret society proceed to bicker over who are the true revolutionaries. In modern language it would read something like, “Yes, yes, we are all nihilists, except for Comrade Petrovich who is not a true nihilist!” Unless someone can cite an earlier case, it seems to be the first modern portrayal of what is common practice in all underground movements: calling out the posers. Campus socialism, black metal, punk rock, evangelical Christianity, and so on and so forth. There’s always some guy who wants to insist he is the purest form of the ideal and can only make the gathered group believe so by hacking another member off at the knees. Often, the hacker is the guy who is overcompensating for some lack of authenticity in their back history.

In Lavinia Ludlow’s Single Stroke Seven, it’s personified by Duncan, a stand-in for all those trust-fund kids playing at being dirty punks. He leads the band at the center of the story and proceeds to adversely impact his fellow bandmates at every turn. If someone doesn’t want to go along with his schemes, they are quickly denounced as being less than true to the cause. No one suffers worse than Lilith, the drummer and only female member of the band, who is perhaps the one person that holds everything together in the first place.