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 screamingwithbrevity.com

Friday, September 5, 2014

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

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 christycrutchfield.com

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.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Review of Lauren Becker’s IF I WOULD LEAVE MYSELF BEHIND

IF I WOULD LEAVE MYSELF BEHIND
Lauren Becker. Curbside Splendor, $14.95 paperback (112 pp) ISBN: 978-1-9404300-7-2

To some, a “challenging” book means one in which the writing is convoluted and “un-fun to read” and, possibly, isn’t worth the effort. Happily, if I would leave myself behind, a collection comprised of a novella and short stories by Lauren Becker, the effort demanded from readers is more than worth it. Becker’s stories challenge us in a couple ways to reveal the tragic aura of contemporary romantic relationships.

While “challenging” might suggest literary mega-fauna like Infinite Jest, Becker’s extreme concision is one demanding aspect of her stories. Other than the novella, the stories are flash-fiction length, and what’s included in these brief portrayals prompts readers to extrapolate what’s been left out and why. Becker withholds much, pushing readers into the mindset of her characters who are forced to make judgments about others on limited information. In Object Lessons: The Paris Review Presents the Art of the Short Story, Jeffrey Eugenides introduces Denis Johnson’s masterpiece “Car Crash While Hitchhiking” by saying that Johnson finds “a way to leave out the maximum in terms of plot, setting, characterization, and authorial explanation while finding a voice that suggest[s] all these things, a voice whose brokenness is the reason behind the narrative deprivation, and therefore a kind of explanation itself.” Becker also leaves out “the maximum” to plunge readers into the minds of the desperately lonely.

Similar to Johnson’s characters, Becker’s have a “brokenness,” though hers read more as “incompleteness,” which drives them to seek out unsuitable romantic partners. The protagonists know they’re unsuitable, too. For instance, the narrator of “boilerplate” sleeps with a man she doesn’t much like and actively keeps him at a distance. She wants only to remember “his common name,” which she “only borrowed for as long as it took to add to the list that I told myself again should end with the next.” He’s not a good match, and readers can see that she’s already imagining him as part of a prologue to her final relationship. Yet, she’s felt this way before and has thought each terrible choice would be the last, but they weren’t.

The above example illustrates the second way Becker’s fiction challenges. Readers may question this narrator’s choices, but Becker isn’t spinning out cautionary tales about the emotional tolls of sleeping around. She also isn’t trying to present well-adjusted and healthy attitudes toward sex. Instead, these stories ably tread a precarious middle where characters’ experiences occupy center stage rather than pronouncements about contemporary romance. Becker doesn’t tell readers about experiencing desperate loneliness, she—like Johnson—tries to make those tragic experiences the readers’ own. Yet, readers will find themselves grappling with their responses to these depictions. Becker’s portrayals throw our attitudes—be they sexist, puritanical, permissive, or whatever—into sharp relief, and we see that we’re clinging to ugly attitudes and not recognizing the tragedy in these characters’ loss of identity. The collection’s title implies this loss. When characters “leave themselves behind,” they deny their true selves. They begin not to like the “selves” into which they have fallen, and it’s as if the ghosts of who they really are haunt them and us. (June 2014)

Purchase if i would leave myself behind HERE.

Reviewer bio: Alex DeBonis’s work appears in The Ilanot Review, decomP, Esquire.com, American Book Review, and Small Press Book Review. Though his roots are in the Midwest, he teaches fiction writing, literature, and composition in West Tennessee, where he lives with his family.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

Review of Nikki Reimer’s DOWNVERSE

Downverse
Nikki Reimer. Talonbooks, $16.95 paperback (128p) ISBN 978-0-88922-854-2

In Downverse, Calgary poet Nikki Reimer’s second trade poetry collection, she explores the immediate cultural language of Vancouver housing, subjectivity, dysfunction, displacement and social media, including hashtags, YouTube videos and online commentary, as well as the very nature and purpose of writing itself. The quote that opens the collection, credited to an “inebriated audience member at a poetry reading” reads: “I hated your poem. / Your poem was so boring.” Further on in the collection, one of the quotes that opens the section “that stays news” reads:

“only a poet would say that the reason non poets don’t like poetry is because they don’t understand it. and therein lies the real problem. it’s not the poetry that is disliked. it is the poets who deliver it in such a way that they think they are somehow better, fairer, superior creatures than the rest of us that turns the stomach. you wrote some words that may or may not rhyme. you memorized them. you said them in front of people. they clapped. or didn’t. good for you. now go cure cancer.”

The author of a small handful of works, including her first trade collection, [sic] (Calgary AB: Frontenac House, 2010), and two chapbooks—fist things first (Windsor ON: Wrinkle Press, 2009) and that stays news (Vancouver BC: Nomados Literary Publishers, 2011)—Reimer’s work has long been engaged with the social concerns of a number of other West Coast language poets connected (in even the most tangential ways) to the Kootenay School of Writing in Vancouver (a city she recently returned to Calgary from)—such as Stephen Collis, Kim Minkus, Dorothy Trujillo Lusk, Jeff Derksen, Soma Feldmar, Cecily Nicholson and Peter Culley—and yet, the poems in Downverse display a distrust of those same systems of language, and how they retain and even create a distance between the author and reader. The poems in Downverse are centered in rage, boredom, grief, confusion and despair. Reimer displays a mistrust in the poem, while concurrently stretching the scope of what just might be possible. As the poem “television vs. the real” opens:

we watched Dr. Phil who told us to get a job!
& take responsibility for our marriages!
& create equal partnerships on an emotional, physical
& financial level!

the ultimate truth! … a phallus, I confess

we watched Tyra who told us to forget about money
& stop selling our souls to our jobs

Dionysus cannot ensure you
an accomplished sexual relationship

we watched Oprah who challenged the truthiness
of the memoir

what lengths men go to make Woman exist

(June 2014)

Purchase Downverse 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 robmclennan.blogspot.com

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Review of Tom Williams’ DON’T START ME TALKIN’

Don't Start Me Talkin'
Tom Williams. Curbside Splendor Publishing, $15.95 paperback (220pp) ISBN: 978-0-9884804-4-5

Why do you pick a book up? This book, not that book, a blue cover or a red jacket or a picture of a headless male torso glistening with glycerine sweat as he rubs his abs? What makes the choice for you?

Like picking a radio station on a road trip, picking a book from among the numberless offerings of eager publishers large and small is a matter of click, of fit between your brain and its style. The cover...the intro of the song...has to tickle a little place inside you that feels so good, makes a little smile come on your face. Then a short flip through some pages, look at a few sentences, like listening to the vocals come in or the horns join the bass. Does this one have what it takes? Hit the tuner, put the book down, or settle in with the cruise control set and the spine snugged in your palm?

So start with the cover. Curbside Splendor is a small house. They're based in Chicago. Neither of these things matter much until you see what they're doing. This cover is blue like the bluesmen in it. This cover is lifted, aesthetically, from 1956 and the Verve/Decca/Mercury aesthetic; the book's trim size echoes an album's proportions (or a CD's, for y'all young'uns); and the chapter list is an old-fashioned album label with the twelve chapters (like the number of tunes on an old 33-1/3 album) named and numbered.

They got me with the design. It spoke to me, old man that I am, and it spoke to the contents of the book, and it gave itself the side-eye in the text, knowing that it's not necessary for the reader to know, or care, about these things to get, really fully gut-level get, this book's beauties and strangenesses. But it helps.

Road novels all get compared to On The Road whether they need or deserve the comparison or not. Well, not me, not this one. This isn't the Quest Novel writ American. 

I wonder if {he's} made it to the Delta, been inside a real jook. Many a blues lover flies to Memphis, rents a car and drives down 61, though I hear now Tunica and its casinos sits there like a juggernaut, keeping most from even making it to Clarksdale, let alone Rolling Fork or Alligator, or across the river to Sonny Boy's town, Helena. Truth is, though, {he} must have hired some good people to construct the building. Much study of old photographs and newsreels went into the work, maybe even a visit or two to Junior Kimbrough's place near Holly Springs. I allow my eyes to follow {his} hand to the Nehi, Jax, and Falstaff signs, artificially rust-spotted and rakishly hung on the exterior walls, which are made of a material that looks as faded and ready to fall apart as the warped and rotted shingles of a genuine jook but is surely as sound as a dollar and will probably be around for hundreds of years...There's even an empty sack of Sonny Boy corn meal next to the checkerboard atop an old wooden barrel. I try to jump a white piece with a black piece but they're all lacquered in place.

This is Hero's Journey, and the Hero changes more than once. Ben's the Last Delta Bluesman. Peter's the acolyte. But what's a Hero for but to make room for the next one? What's the point of a journey when each rest stop could lead to the dirt nap? Peter's place is beside Ben, picking up, moving on, cleaning the gene pool around the eminence of fame. 

"Lawd but I hopes everyone all right," Ben says, his head tilting forward, his shut lids squeezing out tears.
"No one was hurt," the cop says. ... He stops, rubs a finger over his chin and turns to Ben's driver's license. "Just what brings you to Florida, Mr. Mabry?"
So here it is. Bad enough Ben was reckless—though I doubt the retirees slaloming through the lanes in their Caddies earn more than a warning—we're dressed like pimps, operating a vehicle preferred by drug dealers, and an out-of-state one, to boot. ... I read the cop's name tag and wonder if Officer Reese ever shed a tear for a song sung by Charlie Pride or O.B. McClinton. If it helps, I'll get out my harp and play "Okie From Muskogee."
Ben lifts his head, sniffles, and says, "My son and I here to look at some them whatchamacallits? What is they, junior?" He turns to me. Fuck if he doesn't wink. His son? We don't even look alike. "Them houses," he continues. "The connected kind. ... Start with a c. Kuh-kuh-kuh."
My cue, I guess. I stammer, "Condominium," getting stuck on the c and losing track of how many m's are needed. I know Ben's scheming to make us seem harmless—not sharp or belligerent—and Officer Reese is now smiling at us, though he does click his ballpoint pen.

But he's also absorbing and internalizing the ways and means of a dead, or dying, world's beauty. He's learning the music that grew from a fucked-up mating of meanness and stupidity with fear and desire. He's coming into an inheritance that he, only he, can have. He's becoming a blues man.

"Brothers and sisters been tired for years with that old, broken-down woke up this morning bullshit of yours. Tired." I'm now aware of people watching, none of them Ben, but sound crew, maintenance men, the pair of massive security guards. Perhaps this audience causes my voice to rise, or I just want to be absolutely sure {he} hears me. "Least we playing something. Besides other people records." Before {he} can say another word, I've got my harp in hand and blow the intro to "Fattening Frogs up For Snakes." I keep my eyes wide open now, watching...as each note flies past him. And because I'm sure he doesn't know the tune, I put down my harp and sing the first line:
It took me a long time, to find out my mistake
Took me a long time, long time, to find out my mistake
It sure did, man
But I'll bet you my bottom dollar, I'm not fattenin' no more frogs for snakes.
Don't need to sing or speak another word. Pocket my harp, turn around, and there's Ben before me. I blink. My contacts shift and settle. "Sam," he says, "you done been practicin'! ... Couldn't have drawn it up better myself," he says. "You just wrote your way into the book, Pete. ...You just wrote your first few sentences with that scene back there. ... Exactly the hook every kind of writer loves," he says. "Trust me."

Who's the hero, the teacher or the taught? The trust Ben talks about is unearned but deeply merited. The trust Pete can't give, only give up.

Trust Tom Williams, y'all. Give it to him, or give it up for him, he earns and he merits every eyeblink and pulse-pound you give him on this road trip. Wry knowing grins and purse-lipped nods await your crow's feet. Have I ever told you how lovely you are when you snort knowingly at an in-joke? Be lovely for me. We can't sell it, our used furniture, but let's sit on it and savor the dying licks from Pete's harp. (February 2014)

Purchase Don’t Start Me Talkin’ HERE.

Reviewer bio: Richard Derus is a biblioholic and a passionate reader. From underneath his tottering towers of unread tomes, he writes obsessively about his darlings at Shelf Inflicted (a group blog), Goodreads (where he is a Forbes 25 top reviewer), LibraryThing (where his personal library is comprehensively cataloged), and Expendable Mudge Muses Aloud, where many otherwise unknown books are praised, panned, or poked fun at.

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