Sunday, July 20, 2014

Review of Harmon & Mancuso’s THE LIFE AND TIMES OF GROVEY CLEVES

The Life and Times of Grovey Cleves
Scott Mancuso. Illustrated by Mickey Harmon. McCharmon (publisher) at Esty, $25 paperback, hand-sewn w/letterpressed cover (40p)

Grover Cleveland may seem like an odd choice for anything: a play, a movie, a song, an illustrated book of fiction, but for Scott Mancuso and Mickey Harmon the choice couldn’t be more appropriate. They both reside in Buffalo, New York, a place where the presence of Grover Cleveland is tangible. The former president has had all manner of things named after him, including a now defunct hospital, a park, a golf course, and a couple streets. There’s also a statue of the man at City Hall. But I would not classify The Life and Times of Grovey Cleves as a biography.

In fact the book doesn’t appear to claim a genre, which adds to the mystery of just how much accurate history we're going to get, or how much we should expect.

On the surface it does read like a children’s biography of the 22nd and 24th POTUS, but the writing, and as I’ll get to later, the art, builds toward something darker and more complex, often using levity. Cleveland's name for instance is changed to the funnier Grovey Cleves of the Caldwell, New Jersey Cleves (Cleveland's actual hometown). A consistent metaphor throughout the book refers to Grovey's light, which exists inside of him, is filled up by the sun, and is responsible for his drive and energy. This light serves as a way for Mancuso to negotiate Grovey's determination to become adored, known, and successful in his lifetime.

Mancuso's deftness with the narrative is at its best when he is exploring the aspects of existence most children's books tend to avoid. In Chapter Two Grovey is made sheriff of Erie County and puts to death two prisoners by hanging. Mancuso's treatment of death and its effects on Grovey is especially notable:

“Grovey kept his hand on the lever that had held the trap door in place between John Gaffney and not John Gaffney. Not John Gaffney and not Patrick Morrissey were part of Grovey now because he had pulled the lever and he had turned the people into not people and their souls had to go somewhere. Grovey felt them in his chest like he was three people now (William had said he was starting to look like three people now) and they harnessed the light howling inside of him and told him to move, move, move because it was only going to get darker.”

The book is a true collaboration, however; each page contains both text and a drawing. If you are not familiar with Harmon's art outside of this book, your time would be well spent seeking it out. It often depicts Buffalo architecture with a thick-lined style, cartoon-like and pleasantly proportioned, often with vibrant color. The art in the book makes strong use of whimsy yet manages not to avoid the more tragic images of the story. There is a somber feel to characters’ expressions that lends the book a certain quietude. And instead of making the book feel quiet, it makes it feel odd and a little offbeat. The book didn't make me imagine true events alongside it as so many biographical books do. Instead I imagined a strange analog to our world, a black and white place of broad lines, full of pain and opportunity and light and history. If only one of the halves of this book, either the writing or the art, was effective it would be worth the read, but because both are creative, strange, and affecting, we are left with a fun and beautiful take on a president who never seemed so interesting. (March 2014)

Purchase The Life and Times of Grovey Cleves HERE.
Free digital edition available HERE.

Reviewer bio: Brian Mihok's work has appeared or is forthcoming in Rain Taxi, Everyday Genius, 1913, and Fast Company. His debut novel, The Quantum Manual of Style, was published by Aqueous Books in 2013. He is editor of matchbook, a literary journal of indeterminate prose, and associate editor at sunnyoutside press. He lives in New York City where he makes videos and takes pictures.


The Tranquilized Tongue
Eric Baus. City Lights Books, City Lights Spotlight No. 11, $13.95 US softcover (70p) ISBN 978-0-87286-616-4


The tidal nerves were moon-burnt at birth. The grass the doves grew inverted the canopy. The stunned deer fished for glass oxen. The ur-creature’s escape elongated the animals. The statue stirred its ghost in a jar.

Following The To Sound (Wave Books, 2004), Turned Droves (Octopus Books, 2009) and Scared Text (Center for Literary Publishing, 2011), Denver, Colorado poet Eric Baus’ fourth poetry collection, The Tranquilized Tongue is a book-length suite of short poems that owes much to a French tradition. This is a tradition that includes, as the back cover tells us, Francis Ponge, Pierre Reverdy and RenĂ© Char, a tradition characterized by explorations of ideas, a sense of the concrete versus the abstract, and the sentence. Extending his ongoing book-length exploration of the prose poem, there aren’t many poets who work the abstract book-length fragment in the way that Baus does, or so well, managing an anchor of concrete sentences that somehow accumulate into something larger and far more nebulous. The work of American poet Kate Greenstreet comes to mind, as does the work of Joshua Marie Wilkinson, or Sylvia Legris: three poets who also manage to stretch out the particulars of a concrete idea and situation through an accumulated abstraction. Through short, dense poems, Baus manages to utilize each sentence as a single point, accumulating those points into a far larger shape, one as much created by Baus as by each reader’s experience.


The embers cloaked the sleeping storm. The photograph of a bomb placed inside a rattled out lightbulb replaced the wind. The bird-child’s bed was hidden in the chimney. The invisible sisters collapsed. The mirror forgot what an hourglass was. The pharmacy filled with sand.

In a recent interview over at the Touch the Donkey blog, Baus discusses some of the construction of the current book: “My newest book, The Tranquilized Tongue, does contain a handful of true fragments in that they are not fully developed sentences. Some of that has to do with constraints that I used to write that book (I tried to write one poem every day, I generally limited myself to the vocabulary of poems that I’ve already written, and I often used cut-ups as a way to enliven the raw materials.) Sometimes during the course of writing my poem for the day, the raw materials I was drawing upon felt nearly exhausted, so I shifted the scale of the poem to become very, very small to avoid repeating myself or to change the pace of the book to give the reader space to rest before being launched into another dense paragraph.” (April 2014)

Purchase The Tranquilized Tongue HERE.

Reviewer bio: Born in Ottawa, Canada’s glorious capital city, rob mclennan currently lives in Ottawa. The author of nearly thirty trade books of poetry, fiction and non-fiction, he won the John Newlove Poetry Award in 2010, and was longlisted for the CBC Poetry Prize in 2012. His most recent titles include notes and dispatches: essays (Insomniac press, 2014) and The Uncertainty Principle: stories, (Chaudiere Books, 2014). He regularly posts reviews, essays, interviews and other notices at

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Review(s) of Lance Olsen’s THEORIES OF FORGETTING & [[THERE.]]

Theories of Forgetting
Lance Olsen. Fiction Collective 2, $22.95 paperback (384p) ISBN: 978-1-57366-179-9
Lance Olsen. Anti-Oedipus Press. $13.95 paperback (142p) ISBN: 978-0-9892391-3-4

            Lance Olsen’s books Theories of Forgetting and [[there.]] are works of radically different type united by their convention-defying formats and their (sometimes uncomfortable) intimacy. Theories of Forgetting is a novel in two halves, two narratives that bisect the book horizontally, never letting you forget one while reading the other. [[there.]] is a book in fragments, echoing David Markson, bursts of observation and contemplation written while Olsen was at the American Academy in Berlin. Reading them together amplifies Olsen’s skill at constructing narratives in unexpected and innovative forms.

             Theories of Forgetting is the story of a family: a husband, a wife, and their daughter and son, told through mysterious manuscripts and marginalia. The characters try to connect to each other, to hold on to themselves, or to disappear entirely, amid a world of lurking dangers including a quickly-spreading, terrifying disease called The Frost. The book is complex and disorienting, requiring and worthy of intense concentration and effort. The mystery of what has happened to his characters is as compelling as Olsen’s command of each interlocking aspect of the story.

            [[there.]] is about countless things, each note building on or jumping off of the last, covering vast terrain in Olsen’s mind. The book builds a picture of its writer through art, language, literature, and travel. It shows how travel, and the powerful memories of travel, can draw out aspects of ourselves. In Theories of Forgetting, Olsen (through his character Alana) writes, “People don’t take trips. Trips take people.” It is significant that Olsen wrote [[there.]] while away from home because in it, place and experience become as important as identity.

            When writers experiment with the textual form of their work, they run the risk of alienating the reader from the story. If the format is too obtrusive, it can keep the reader from becoming invested, from sinking past the surface. Not so with Theories of Forgetting and [[there.]], which are as engrossing as they are challenging. They invite exploration deeper and deeper into the text on a quest to fit the many intricate pieces together. (2014)

Purchase Theories of Forgetting HERE.

Purchase [[there.]] HERE.

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

Friday, July 11, 2014

Interview with the author: Jim Breslin

Jim Breslin is the author of Shoplandia, a humorous novel about the working lives of show hosts, producers and crew at a home shopping channel set in suburban PA. His short story collection, Elephant, came out in 2011. Jim's short fiction has appeared in Schuylkill Valley Journal, Molotov Cocktail, Turk's Head Review, and other journals. His micro-publishing project, Oermead Press, has also published Chester County Fiction and a poetry chapbook, Exit Pursued by a Bear by Virginia Beards. Jim is the founder of the West Chester and Delco Story Slams. 

I recently spoke with Jim about his work.


Curtis Smith: I love the premise of SHOPLANDIA. It’s such a world unto itself—while also being a reflection of the larger culture.

Jim Breslin: Thanks, Curtis. A television studio is a unique place, and when you insert the content of the production, and the characters involved, it often feels like a three-ring circus. I worked as a television producer at QVC for seventeen years, so that was the inspiration for the novel. 

CS: What do you think the future holds for such a marketing/sales model? Is it something that will be supplanted by online shopping or other technologies—or does it provide a kind of removed intimacy that gives it a unique niche?

JB: I was working at QVC before Amazon was even founded, and we had concerns about online shopping. It’s been interesting though. I think there are many women who like to shop – they shop for entertainment – and these are the folks who love watching shopping channels. There really is a relationship between hosts and customers.

CS: I imagine a live, 24-hour environment like QVC must be almost surreal at times. It’s such a rich backdrop. There must have been real-life situations every bit as crazy as those in the novel.

 JB: Definitely. The moment that defined my time as a television producer at QVC occurred one day while I was walking through the studio with a newly hired Vice President. We were celebrating our new studio with a Gala – a huge multi-hour live show. So we’re walking through the studio and all our guests were busy preparing for their presentations – Richard Simmons, Ernest and Tova Borgnine, the Spanx lady, infomercial pitchmen, celebrity hairstylists and make up artists, soap opera stars, etc. The VP turned to me with an incredulous look on his face, and exclaimed, “this is like a Fellini film.”

CS: You’ve also published ELEPHANT, a story collection. I know writing stories and novels each bring their own rewards and challenges. Can you describe your journey and experiences down these paths?

JB: The collection ELEPHANT came together after I started having a few short stories published in journals. I was writing a lot of stark, middle aged angst, suburban stories. Some were humorous stories, others were dark. With SHOPLANDIA, my goal was to capture the spirit of the live studio. I really wanted to tap into the feel of a unique workplace, a subculture that has not really been written about.

CS: I’m interested in the idea of literary citizenship. It’s one thing for us to write our stories and books—it’s another to give back and create for the community. With this in mind, can you tell us about your role as founder of the West Chester Story Slam? What have you—and the community—gained from this experience?

JB: West Chester Story Slam has been such a rewarding experience. I held the first one in my living room with some friends. Now, we’re holding our fifth season and the event sells out almost every month. Anyone can take the stage and tell a story based on the theme. We hear about ten stories on a night. It’s kind of like reading an anthology. I always walk away in awe of at least a few of the stories. Storytellers sign a release and I put the stories on the website and also produce a monthly podcast. When someone tells a story, they reveal something about themselves, and so friendships develop. I’ve met so many awesome people over the five years – and I’ve heard many incredible stories.

CS: You’ve also stepped into the other realm of the publishing world by starting your own small imprint, Oermead Press.

JB: I call it “my micro-publishing project.” We’ve published CHESTER COUNTY FICTION, which really received nice press from Main Line Today and WHYY. Again, it is about building community. In addition to my two books, we’ve published a poetry chapbook EXIT PURSUED BY A BEAR by retired Penn State Professor Virginia Beards.

CS: What’s next for you as a writer and as a publisher?

JB: To celebrate the fifth year of West Chester Story Slam, Oermead Press is publishing WEST CHESTER STORY SLAM—SELECTED STORIES 2010-2014 this November. I’m also producing a new event that will feature curated stories. West Chester Center Stage: Faith is coming in September. As for writing, I’m dusting off an old novel and taking a fresh look at it. I also have an idea for a novella that I’m tinkering with. And of course, I’ll keep writing flash fiction.


Visit Jim Breslin HERE.

Interviewer bio: Curtis Smith's latest book is Beasts and Men, a story collection from Press 53. In early 2015, Dock Street Press will release Communion, his next essay collection. In 2016, Aqueous Books will publish his next novel, Lovepain.

Monday, July 7, 2014

Review of Ben Tanzer’s LOST IN SPACE

Ben Tanzer. Curbside Splendor Publishing, $14.95 paperback (200p) ISBN: 978-0988480469

Tanzer’s disarming and addictive prose rules the day in this heartwarming collection of essays about fatherhood. Always seeking sleep yet always alert and being a father of two boys (one of whom, as a child, “had only one adult tooth come in, and it was enormous and weird, and awesome to behold when he laughed.”) Tanzer keeps watch so the rest of us can chill. Whether his senses are being pummeled by a colicky baby, or he’s trying to understand why a child is more concerned with the reason for half seasons of Glee than with the concept of individuality, or whether he’s giving himself a timeout to quell some inner rage with some Rage Against the Machine and shadowboxing—or with a run: “Because even more than writing, or escaping into a book, when the world is spinning just a little too much beyond what I can control or make sense of, it is running that usually allows me to get by.”—Tanzer’s desire to share his life and to impart his wisdom is unflappable. Pop culture references abound, parenting insights are gleaned from an episode of Mad Men, and though certain references might be lost on some readers it won’t matter: It’s Tanzer’s charm that shines through and carries the load. There are standout passages throughout this outstanding collection, and this particular passage about 9/11 and how life doesn’t stop really stood out to this reader: “And yet, it has barely been 48 hours. Unbelievable maybe, but true. Only 48 hours since the Towers fell and planes dropped from the sky, and the world in so many ways, big, small, and otherwise, has gone on. People are at work. The highways are crowded. Starbucks everywhere are making coffee. And as we whip along the highway, blue skies above, lazy clouds lolling about, playfully really, even the leaves are starting to change.” Beneath this collection’s levity, and also interspersed with it, are powerful moments that demonstrate a true ease of emotion when it comes to a parent connecting with a child or, as is often the case here, an author with a reader. Both yielding and relentless, the writing itself reflects the core lessons offered within the pages, that life does indeed go on and control is but an illusion. (March 2014)

Purchase Lost in Space HERE.

Reviewer bio: Mel Bosworth is the author of the novel FREIGHT. Visit his website at

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Points to be Scored, Games to be Won: Review of Michael Kimball’s GALAGA

Michael Kimball. Boss Fight Books, $14.95 paperback (136p) ISBN: 978-1-940535-03-6

Galaga is Michael Kimball’s love letter to the game of the same name, his textbook, his instructor’s manual, his encyclopedia and fan fiction, and is so much more than any of these things.  The book covers every nuance of the game, references in pop culture, merchandising, and just about any other thing related to Galaga.  Tattoo anyone?  He’s got those to talk about, too.  No worries.  And that’s fine and good, but there’s something Kimball displays with this book – courage and love and survival.  How’s that for a magic trick? 

Released July 1 from Boss Fight Books, Galaga is a work structured into 255 “stages”.  Not chapters.  Stages.  That’s right, you heard me.  Why?  Simple.  The game itself, the muse as it were, is made up of the same number of stages.  Kimball knows this, and hundreds of other things about Galaga, having discovered the game in the arcade at the height of the boom and too long before the bust, when kids were stacking quarters for next in line and Madonna was just painting herself into a pop goddess.  Kimball was there, best friend in tow for some of it, living truly free in his own little patch of 1980s paradise.

Galaga can work on several levels.  Readers can enjoy the areas of the book that deal exclusively with the game itself, or they can read the autobiographical stages, a more human layer, and enjoy it at that level, as well. 

The stages are mostly brief and strongly built, and rotate from sections devoted to game play and advice and the cultural significance of the game, to sections about anything other than video games.  These sections that break away from talk of the game are a testament to Kimball’s bravery as a writer.  In these sections, he opens his chest to show the arteries across his heart, those swelled with hope and those crushed from pain.  He offers it all.

And that offering begins with this: “I always wanted to be playing some kind of game.  The terrible stuff happened when I wasn’t playing games.”

Before Kimball actually pulls us along with him into the complex world of the game of Galaga, we’re given those two sentences.  When I read them, I literally caught myself holding my breath.  It was unexpected, that’s all.  Unexpected in the best possible way, in the way that lights up the heart while the brain is already firing away.  All systems go.  But this was a book about a video game, right?  Well, yes.  But then there were these two sentences.

Then, just like that, we’re back to Galaga, and maybe there was just this momentary mention of a troubled childhood to frame Kimball’s knowledge and interest in the game.  Nope.  A short while later, Kimball shares, “To understand how much Galaga (and other video games) meant to me, you have to understand the difficulty of my adolescence.”

By the time I came across the second reference, read it, and moved on, I found myself enjoying the facts and figures about Galaga, but on the look for more from Kimball’s troubled youth.  Soon, though, I felt relaxed again.  And then, another stage with tension and abusive fathers and brothers and the need for escape and a place to feel safe.  And…wait. 

The pattern of being relaxed and then tense, at least for this reader, began to mirror what the young Kimball must have felt – relaxed and safe when in the safety of the arcade and then tense while at home, a place where he could be attacked at any second without warning.

The book continues in this way, and successfully so.  The autobiographical moments do not render the moments detailing the game of Galaga uninteresting.  It just isn’t possible for that to happen given Kimball’s obvious savant-like knowledge of the game.  And if there were any question about this last statement, moments like this consistently put that notion to rest: “Somebody who goes by Kaden Dragon made a little Galaga scene of M&Ms, which is great even if the colors aren’t exactly right.”

I’ve never said this is a review, but the ending of this fine book is amazing.  The duel means by which Kimball presents both the game of Galaga and his life in connection could not be more expertly faded out to its natural conclusion. 

Trust me, you’ll get your quarter’s worth. (July 2014)

Purchase Galaga HERE.

Reviewer bio: Sheldon Lee Compton is the author of The Same Terrible Storm. He survives in Eastern Kentucky. Visit him HERE.

Sunday, June 29, 2014

Review of JoAnna Novak’s LAPS

JoAnna Novak. another new calligraphy, $12, paperback (76p)

“The worst toy for a bulimic is a garbage disposal.” This is the first lesson we learn from the story “Lisa in the Water.”  As you can guess, the story focuses on a teenage girl with an eating disorder.  This is the second story in JoAnna Novak’s fiction chapbook Laps, and it gives the reader a lens to view the rest of the collection.  When food pops up in other stories, and food is central to virtually all the stories, the reader can’t help but see obsession in it, which is fitting because obsession and desperation are also central to Laps. 

Most of the characters in the collection are young women in their teens and early twenties, a time when bodies become a focal point and worth becomes a question.  Appropriately, the characters in Laps are consumed by hunger.

Characters pine, like JoAnna in “Ratchet,” who scrapes by at a call center and dreams of trying snoot.  Characters forgo, like Tony in “the Hairdresser,” a story bloated with descriptions of the Italian ices and gelatos Tony denies himself. Often, the characters do both, but sometimes they indulge, as in “Rods,” where a gaggle of girls huddle close to a laptop to watch James Deen porn. 

Hunger works in these stories literally, but it also works thematically.  Often the hunger is for something other than food—for love, for control, for change, to be someone different.  Denial is not just for control but reflective of what characters think they deserve or what they think they can’t have.  It becomes clear that it’s more than just food our protagonist denies herself in “Lisa in the Water.” Indulgence is stitched with something darker than satisfaction.  We see the consequences of saying no and saying yes in “Laps,” perhaps the most compelling piece in the book.  Novak’s sprawling prose, full of long sentences and formal structures, adds a pleasing neurotic tone to the book that matches the struggle of the characters.

We may seem oversaturated with writing about disordered eating and indulgent eating, but I find a good amount of work covering these subjects do so for shock value.  Novak covers the want behind the hunger, the real people behind the hunger.  She takes us to the desperation we remember from adolescence, and made this reader grateful she never has to be a teenager again. (May 2014)

Purchase Laps HERE.

Reviewer bio: Christy Crutchfield’s novel How to Catch a Coyote is forthcoming from Publishing Genius in 2014.  Her work has appeared in Mississippi Review online, Salt Hill Journal, the Collagist, Newfound, and others.  Visit her at