Abstract Romance: Review of Kristina Marie Darling’s COMPENDIUM + CORRESPONDENCE

Compendium + Correspondence
Kristina Marie Darling. Scrambler Books, $12 paperback (87p) ISBN: 978-0-578-12349-3

Once upon a time, separate from the agrarian economy of the countryside and the mercantile economy of the towns, an entrenched and precarious feudal power, perched atop a high rock in Limousin, employed a small number of young women as handmaids and a small number of young men as clerks.  With their queen’s amused endorsement, a kind of glamor sprang up from the amusements of this tiny semi-leisured subclass.  Naturally, these young people were interested in the arts and each other.  Also naturally, since marriage was deferred or impossible, they considered love a condition altogether separate and distinct from the solemn business arrangements of matrimony, and they considered it something different from sex, too.  They read Ovid and the Song of Songs.  A vernacular literature of their own existed all around them and they knew it well.  They had access to local music, and to modal traditions that reached them from the Levant by way of Venice, and they heard polyphonic compositions in church.  Young poets took note of this little hothouse of culture and transformed the ethos of its circle of lovers into a poetics.  The literary construct of fin’ amor was above all a game whose rules comprised the terms of a contract that offered entrée into the shadow aristocracy who knew how to behave in a new generation – one with the tiniest hint of what we now recognize as class mobility and gender equality.   An open secret, these “rules” of love were never really codified, and they form the subtext for the situations laid out in the poems.  The speaker of the Occitan poems is a lover, male or female, who, according to his or her predicament, tells how he or she understands Fine Love, and explains how it is with him or her.  The poetry was only one part of an entertainment, played out for a happy few to enjoy for an evening while cooped up in a castle, and it developed its own conventions.  In general the troubadour corpusdevalues carnality and makes virtues of lack, absence, the ethereal, and the disembodied.  Through Petrarch by way of Dante, Northern Europe caught on, and the rest is history.  Devotion to courtliness in the love game is a matter of temperament, and Kristina Marie Darling’s Compendium + Correspondence offers a presentation of the amorous as if the pith of love inhered not in the story of its existence but in an aura that encircled its effects, its blandishments, and its debris.


Guest Editor, Robert Olen Butler. Series Editor, Tara L. Masih. Queen’s Ferry Press, $14.95 paperback (160p) ISBN: 978-1938466625

In this extraordinary collection of small fictions—here defined as works fewer than 1,000 words—newbies get to rub elbows with old pros and brevity reigns supreme. Award-winning series editor Tara L. Masih passes the goods to guest editor (and Pulitzer Prize winner) Robert Olen Butler, and readers are gifted with stories that slap wings onto their backs or drop anchors into their hearts, oftentimes both. Stuart Dybek plays with misinterpreted intention inside a sandwich shop in the exquisitely uncomfortable “Brisket”. In James Claffey’s “The Third Time My Father Tried to Kill Me”, readers are drawn close to an abusive father where “The curtains were pulled shut, the room black as my mother’s insides.” A hard pill of sadness is served up in Emma Bolden’s “Before She Was A Memory” as a mother must identify her headless daughter. In “Chicken Dance”, Misty Shipman Ellingburg conjures a 100 word masterpiece about disillusionment. Humor lurks within these pages, too, as readers will find in Dan Moreau’s “Dead Gary”, where an oblivious and devout—and very expired—office drone continues to plug along. The great thing about concision, as it relates to successful writing, is its immediacy, its ability to attract the spotlight. The fifty-five authors represented here have all triumphed. They’ve sliced open secret passageways within language and kicked readers toward infinity. Yes, we’ve heard it before about the short form, and yes it’s true, “Less is more,” though here it could be “Less is” or “More is.” What we’re finding, or re-finding, is simply “It is,” and it’s wonderful. (October 2015)

Purchase The Best Small Fictions 2015 HERE.

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


Ghost Box Evolution in Cadillac, Michigan
Rosie Forrest. Rose Metal Press, $12 chapbook (56p) ISBN 978-1-941628-01-0

Rosie Forrest’s stories are fairy tales.  Minus the fairy godmothers, minus the happily ever after, minus the magic.The stories in Ghost Box Evolution in Cadillac, Michigan—winner of the Ninth Annual Rose Metal Press Short Short Chapbook Contest—align themselves more with the danger in those original, adult fairy tales. We find young protagonists in less than ideal situations.  We find absent parents and emotionally absent parents.  We feel a sense of danger as the characters venture on their journeys in the physical world or in their own minds.  We too “were raised to worry about the outside” like the children in “He Showed Us A Road.”  We hope the narrator of “Bless This Home” will heed her mother’s warnings and stay away from the bearded man’s cabin, although we know she won’t, although we want to see what happens if she doesn’t.

While most of the shorts create a sense of dread for the reader, they also create a sense of wonder, rooted in Forrest’s precise language and vivid worlds.  So maybe I was wrong about the magic.  Forrest masters the short with openings that spark us: “On Wednesdays they played dead because Jesse had a basement that was good for morbid games.” She makes the worlds real and full and populates them with real and full characters. In “We’ll Go No More A-Roving,” two girls inspect an abandoned church where “the four parking spaces behind the building are five white lines and nothing else.”  As the children in “He Showed Us A Road” escape, they pass, “a scrap of tire, an old plaid shirt, what remained of Mr. Lipscomb’s property after the fire, the dip in the asphalt where an arm of gravel collected…”  In “Where We Off To, Lulu Bee?” we feel every pinhole of a daughter’s embarrassment as her mother rides a toy horse they’re both too old for.

The hardest and often best part about flash fiction, about all literature, is the ending, and Forrest doesn’t disappoint.  Instead of a moral at the end of these stories, she twists our expectations, leaving us with a something we often can’t quite place.  A something that moves in our stomachs just the right way. (August 2015)

Purchase Ghost Box Evolution in Cadillac, Michigan 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 christycrutchfield.com

Show Us Why Your Tongue is Covered in Hooks: Review of Jarod Roselló’s The Well-Dressed Bear Will (Never) Be Found

The Well-Dressed Bear Will (Never) Be Found
Jarod Roselló. Publishing Genius, $14.95 paperback (210p) ISBN: 978-0-9906020-4-0

            In Sandra Beasley’s poem, “To the Lions,” the speaker exhorts the lions to find their true feral nature: “Time to stop lifting the wallet/ from the corpse’s pocket./ Time to gather your most/ fuckable queens.”  At the end of the poem, she delivers one last command: “Stop this kitty kitty nonsense,/ this apologetic yawning./ Show us why your tongue/ is covered in hooks.”  In the wake of Cecil the lion’s shooting by the now-internet-famous dentist, and the subsequent backlash against prioritizing animal deaths over human deaths (especially POC deaths), The Well-Dressed Bear Will (Never) Be Found fits in perfectly.
There are two parallel narratives in The Well-Dressed Bear Will (Never) Be Found: the text, which tells the story of a persistent wrong number, and the artwork, which tells the story of the Well-Dressed Bear’s persecution.  Although seemingly separate, they occasionally merge within the artwork.  The wrong number that rings, again and again, evokes Murakami while the menacing streets filled with hooded figures and helicopters beaming searchlights evoke a kind of noir/sci-fi mystery.  Rosello does an excellent job in finding the strange in the ordinary and making the unfamiliar familiar.

Review of Bud Smith’s F 250

F 250
Bud Smith. Piscataway House, $13 paperback (236p) ISBN: 978-0996352659

                From the very first pages of Bud Smith’s recently released novel F 250, I felt myself in familiar territory. Spider Bar could have easily been Lucky’s back home, and the characters crashing through the novel’s pages had the faces of friends and enemies, drinking buddies, guys in the band and that one dude who always hung around for every show, hoping someone would spot him a beer. In short, Smith’s tale of music, mayhem, bad decisions and lost dreams is as authentic as it gets. Many a novel has tried to walk the line Smith takes here and the story ends only in hipster posturing and pretention. Without a doubt, Bud Smith’s F 250 is the real deal.
            With this in mind, I’d have to say that F 250 is for real readers of this genre as well. With an abundance of sex, drugs and rock n’ roll, this isn’t your mama’s novel. The main character Lee Casey is floating through life on a tide of desperate, drugged-out friends and half-way talented musicians. The fact that Lee’s main band, Ottermeat, is a noise band is indicative of Lee’s life; it’s messy, distorted, full of heart, but often directionless. A description of Lee playing a gig in a nearly empty bar perfectly captures his state of mind: “I tried my best to fake it through the songs, but it was pretty obvious that shit was all wonky. It was just me and Seth up there; I didn’t have any place to hide.”
            F 250 is weak on plot, but in this case such a deficiency works because it mirrors Lee’s life. In many ways, F 250 is an intense character study. It is the relationships in Lee’s life—with his friend and drummer Seth, with two listless but sex-crazed girls K-Neon and June Doom—that are at the core of this story. The actual events that throw these characters together are second to how they react with one another: pin-balling into each other in volatile, often humorous and often heartbreaking ways. In one of the most honest passages in the novel, as Lee contemplates the convoluted love triangle he has wandered into, the crux of both the character and the story is illuminated: “I took whatever opportunity presented itself to show them the depth of my oddness and the way I belonged nowhere and everywhere at the same time.”
            In contrast to the fluidity of Lee’s character, Bud Smith’s prose style is staccato and sharp. His sentences smash into one another in a cacophony of hyper-realism that sounds overwhelming, but works perfectly on the page. Smith’s attention to detail is spot on and while at times perhaps too much information was provided, the world that is spray-painted across the page is raw and vivid. Bud Smith reminds me of a young Bret Easton Ellis, if Ellis were slumming it in New Jersey. With F 250, Smith has most certainly stamped out his mark and I can’t wait to read what he hurls at us next. (May 2015)

Purchase F 250 HERE.

Reviewer bio: Steph Post is the author of the debut novel A Tree Born Crooked. Her short fiction has most recently appeared in Haunted Waters: From the Depths, The Round-Up and Stephen King’s Contemporary Classics. She currently lives, writes and teaches writing in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Review of Ben Tanzer’s THE NEW YORK STORIES

The New York Stories
Ben Tanzer. Chicago Center for Literature and Photography, $14.99 paperback (224p) ISBN: 978-1939987334

Cheever may have swum through the calm pools of suburban New York, but in The New York Stories, Ben Tanzer fights the floodwaters that have the power to mold and destroy entire communities.

The New York Stories is a combination of three previous volumes by Tanzer: Repetition Patterns (2008), So Different Now (2011), and After the Flood (2014). While each catalogs life in Two Rivers—a stand-in of sorts for Tanzer’s hometown of Binghamton, NY—they do so much more than that. Throughout, Tanzer has his characters battle with the mundane as well as the life-changing in small town America. In “The Babysitter,” for example, the narrator wrestles with memories he has of his babysitter, Tracey, and her friends. While everything—from sleeping around to having babies out of wedlock with teenagers—seems to be going on around him, the narrator sits and observes, steady as a rock. Towards the end, he says, “And me, I never leave the neighborhood. I don’t see any reason to. It’s quiet and I like it that way. I stay long enough, in fact, to watch everyone eventually move back.”  It’s this point of view—that of the diligent observer—that makes Tanzer’s stories so rich and so engaging. His eye for detail is the eye that his characters use to get through life.

It is Better to Travel in Hope than Arrive in Despair*: Review of Greg Shemkovitz’s LOT BOY

Greg Shemkovitz. Sunnyoutside Press, $16 paperback (272p) ISBN: 978-1-934513-49-1

There are few places worse than a waiting room.  Whether you’re waiting to see a doctor or just waiting to get your car fixed, it’s a terrible process.  Best case scenario, you spend a bunch of money and return to homeostasis.  Worst case scenario, whatever you’re trying to fix is beyond repair.  Either way, you remain in a state of anxious indeterminacy until someone more knowledgeable than you (and you hope, as trustworthy) gives you the news. 
This sense of anxiety and the desire for something better infuse Lot Boy by Greg Shemkovitz.  Set in the bleak winter landscape of Buffalo, Eddie Lanning, son of “Big Pat” Lanning, spends his days at his father’s Ford dealership as the resident lot boy.  Emptying the oil drums, sweeping the floor, detailing the cars, going on parts runs—all of these are the menial tasks that occupy the narrator’s day.  He stomps around, full of rebellion and a bad attitude, wanting nothing more than escape—to get away from his crass and ill-tempered father, to get away from the drudgery of the dealership, to get away from the endless snowy fields and strip malls of Buffalo. 
Each night, he only makes it as far as a joy rides around town in one of his father’s cars, occasionally getting picked up by the police.  The opportunity for a more permanent escape presents itself in one of Spanky’s schemes, a mechanic whose catch phrase is “Shit’s fucked up, dude, you know?”  They will order extra parts and sell them to one of Spanky’s associates, a terse man with linebacker goons.  From the outset, it is obvious what a terrible idea this is.