Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Review of John Carr Walker’s REPAIRABLE MEN

Repairable Men
John Carr Walker. Sunnyoutside Press, $13 paperback (120p) ISBN: 978-1934513477

            In his debut collection, Repairable Men, John Carr Walker offers ten portraits of modern manhood. Presented in another beautifully designed book from Sunnyoutside Press, Walker’s men are imperfect, and their stoic exteriors often mask anxieties and vulnerabilities they themselves are struggling to understand. These are not men in touch with their feelings; rather, they stumble through their days, blindly wrestling their demons, battles that often leave them battered, confused, yet sometimes, closer to grace.
            Relationships provide the touchstones of many of these stories. What better mirror does a man possess than the eyes of those he loves—or doesn’t love? The book opens with “Ain’t It Pretty,” a tale of how a man’s temper can turn him into an exile. “The Atlas Show” brings us a father and son forging a new territory after their shared dream has died. “Retreat” features a husband and wife who’ve grown apart after heartbreak and the loneliness that surrounds them when they need to make one of their lives’ most important decisions. Many of Walker’s men are haunted by their pasts. Their scars are hidden yet keenly felt. In this passage, a man attempting to reconcile with his brother recalls their upbringing:

“I can almost hear my mother’s voice. Reg and me, coming to the door caked in mud, open sores scabbed with mud, mud gelling in our hair and caking the grooves of our hands—Mom yelled but Dad was the punisher. Afterward, she would enter our room with the softest voice and talk about all the complicated ways he loved us.”

Complicated love—one finds it in abundance in these stories. Or perhaps the love is less complicated than its expressions, the imperfect words we offer one another, the gestures too little or too late.

            One of the rewards of reviewing is the discovery of new voices. Walker’s style is solid and his focus is keen. He peels back layers in a series of well-paced and precise observations, and by the end of many of these stories, we feel as if we’ve been on a journey of discovery, a journey not always comfortable but one that has led his characters closer to some kind of truth. Consider this final paragraph of “Candelario,” a story that examines how easy it is for a slighted man to turn to meanness and cruelty—and also how the grudges we hold can, if we’re not careful, end up defining us.

            “I’d been through that before, once, the year before Candelario first came to us. It poured on the crop and we almost lost our vineyard. What I didn’t know—still to this day don’t know—is if Candelario moved the world to protect or attack us? The crop stayed dry that year he danced over the fields and he hasn’t returned since. Years later, I took over the vineyard from my father and have two boys of my own. I wonder, sometimes, if by some miracle he’ll come back to pick my harvest. But why would he? He’s always known there are no repairable men.”

            “There are no repairable men”—this is the question that resonates through Wallace’s debut. True, his characters are damaged, too proud, too solitary, their deepest wounds self-inflicted. Yet most of his men are still searching, still asking questions, and in this light, I think, yes, perhaps they can still fix themselves. (October 2014)

Purchase Repairable Men HERE.

Reviewer 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.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Review of Amanda Earl’s KIKI

KIKI
Amanda Earl. Chaudiere Books, $20 paperback (130p) ISBN: 978-0-9783428-9-0

At first glance, Amanda Earl's Kiki appears to be a straightforward homage to the creative hub that was Montparnasse between the two world wars. But the poems within this book go far deeper than setting smoke-filled scenes, where Dadaists sip red wine and tap ash from non-filtered Gauloises while pontificating about their work and its muse. Earl's first full collection is as much an amalgam of tributes as it is a collection of poems. As the title suggests, Kiki, otherwise known as Alice Ernestine Prim, is the central figure, but this book has far too many layers to only be concerned with tipping its hat to the iconic muse, actor, artist, singer, writer and model that was the ‘Queen of Montparnasse’.

In order to fully appreciate what and who are being acknowledged within this collection it is worth considering the structural aspects of the work. It makes sense that the poet's chosen method for honouring a time and place of such ground-breaking art and artists would be presented in a style of writing that some consider synonymous with the surrealist movement itself. The cut up method has largely been attributed to Brion Gysin's influence on William Burroughs, but as Earl points out in her notes at the back of the book, “They say that Tzara inspired the cut up movement at a surrealist rally in the 20s when he offered to create a poem by pulling words at random out of a hat.”

Anyone can and many have cut up texts and stuck them back together in a worthlessly random fashion. Rehashing old words into a half-coherent order isn't anything particularly spectacular in itself. Whoever started this strange way of creating new context from old words is beside the point; what matters in this case is whether Earl's tribute breathes any new life into this literary tradition. Poetry is arguably the most subjective of all the art forms and its potential beauty will largely depend on its reader’s perspective. After all, it is in the magic that happens between the page and its interpreter that brings a poem to life. Having said that, there are obvious goals any forward-thinking poet should strive for: accessibility, relevance, individuality, a good sense of rhythm, honesty and so forth. By taking on the task of writing poetry about a time and place she can only know through research and study, Amanda has set herself a much more complicated goal. And it is a task she has clearly not taken lightly.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Review of Jessica Goodfellow's THE INSOMNIAC'S WEATHER REPORT

The Insomniac’s Weather Report
Jessica Goodfellow. Isobar Press, $15 paperback (108p) ISBN: 978-4-907359-07-2

Jessica Goodfellow's The Insomniac's Weather Report envelopes you in its haze, twists you up in its entwined questions, and holds the answers maddeningly just out of your reach. Like the poems themselves, you feel always about to grasp something solid and definite, only to have it evaporate under your fingers, ideas and phrases circling back on themselves.

            As Goodfellow writes in "Frost":
                        Ice embossed on grass is easily chased

                        away. Like sleep. Like hope. And so beware--

                        Don't ask the sleepless one what he has lost.
                       
            As she writes in the opening poem, "Why the River Flows Away from Its Source":
                        See, there is no water in this poem.

                        There never was.

Eluded by sleep, by solid ground, by orderly trains of thought, Goodfellow plays recurring themes and ideas against each other in varying combinations throughout the book, punctuating them with small, clear moments, memories, stray bits of conversation. This culminates in the book's final section, "Alphabet: Fugue:", a group of poems strung together by their subjects like a delicate chain.

In "Form: Shadow:" Goodfellow echoes the linked structure of the titles:

                        A sacred property of glass is translucence.


                        An unlucky property of glass is translucence. Light's

                        entrance is also its exit: moon trapped in revolving door.

           
                        An unlucky property of breath is translucence. The visible

                        is easier to forgive. Early windows were thin sheets
                       
                        of alabaster. Earlier still, shutters of dragonfly wings.

That is not to say that the mood of the collection or its repetition robs it of power, or of precision. As incorporeal as her subject matter may be, Goodfellow's construction and choice are exact and apparent. The structure of the poems varies from couplets to chunks of prose, but each individual piece is well-balanced and has a form serving function. Goodfellow gives the reader dozens of new angles from which to examine her themes, each a new opportunity to try to put things in order, to see them clearly.

With this collection, Goodfellow invites you into a small world of sleep (or the pursuit of it), wind, rain, music, math, birds, and chaos. The same things return in new formations, burrowing their way into your mind, so even though you've finished reading, you are still thinking about them, vaguely but persistently, unable to pin down any single one. (May 2014)

Purchase The Insomniac’s Weather Report HERE.

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

Sunday, September 28, 2014

Having Long Tended to Delight in Confusion as Entanglements Unravel: Review of Jessica Piazza’s INTERROBANG

Interrrobang
Jessica Piazza. Red Hen Press, $17.95 paperback (72p) ISBN: 978-1-59709-722-2

Painful and totally lacking in grace to the person undergoing it, the individuation process is a necessity nonetheless; it’s inevitable, anyhow, and the only way out, or through, is to keep on keeping on, hopefully discovering what (if not who) we are, along the way.  This phase of life happens to just about everyone sooner or later, but that never seems to reassure anybody: instead it dwarfs us in our own commonness, in the difficulty of not knowing where we are, and where we’re going – or maybe of knowing all too well.  Altogether the experience can make the lone soul feel like a dim speck in the vastness of intergalactic space.  Jessica Piazza’s first collection Interrobang deals with the fragmentation of identity head-on, and makes a virtue of it, by observing a prescribed, arbitrary set of formal strictures that serves to limit, direct and focus the author’s energies.  It’s an enjoyable read.
The concluding couplet from the book’s opening poem “Melophobia” evokes an open condition that amounts to a dilemma:

Sing into a conch and you’ll sound like yourself.
Sing into a conch and you’ll sound like the sea.

For all their rousing rhythm, these lines propose the composition of the book as a problem, the spiritual predicament its author had to write her way out of – a semiconscious self-identification with nature that’s known as the pathetic fallacy, a refuge from one’s fellow human beings, untenable.  Other poems restate this difficulty as a systemic flaw in perception:

furious fog hiding the highest peaks of a bridge inside her coat  (“Heresyphilia”)

that storm […] sang […] and fled / too frantically  (“Kopophobia”)

Like me, the tree’s worst weakness is its hollow.  (“Asthenophobia”)

When human relationships enter the picture, the players possess the chameleon karma of anyplace they happen to be at the moment, as in “Kopophobia,” where a dying romance between two tourists blends in with the ruins they’re visiting as sightseers:

Friday, September 26, 2014

Review of D. Harlan Wilson’s PRIMORDIAL: AN ABSTRACTION

Primordial: An Abstraction
D. Harlan Wilson. Anti-Oedipus Press, $13.95 paperback (167p) ISBN: 978-0-9892391-5-8

Academia's reputation has suffered in the twenty-first century: more competitive, yet less rigorous; fewer faculty positions, yet a more bloated and overpaid administrative class; prestige replaced with politics. D. Harlan Wilson illustrates this de-evolution with a Kafka-esque edge in Primordial: An Abstraction. Eighty-some-odd (and odd) chapters follow the narrator as he, stripped of his doctorate for "practicing a questionable pedagogy" and "writing a toxic strain of theory", is forced to return to university to re-earn his degree. It's the same basic premise of NBC's Community, but this version of a return to college is less sitcom and more a cynical nightmare.

Wilson represents the new academia's hopelessness and profanity in several brief scenes; some literal, such as the epidemic of hardcore pornography shoots occurring throughout campus, and some satirical, like an extended diversion  in order to determine, precisely, what is a provost. Anyone familiar with the vestigial titles unique to the university hierarchy will immediately relate to that confusion.

It is that same familiarity with the satire's target that may cause Wilson's (presumably academia-affiliated) readership to find Primordial's barbs a little stale and tired - many of these jokes have been made before, granted, not with Wilson's cuckoo tone and imagery. There is also a whiff of "get off my lawn" in Wilson's observations made through the lens of a middle-class academic's anxiety, like his narrator being constantly confused by the kids' calling one another "shorty", or the awkwardness of student-professor relationships on social media.

Despite that, the narrative moves at a ripping pace, and the reader tracks the narrator and the setting's development (or, rather, de-development) through the chaos. Wilson is at his best when he follows his whimsy and impulse to surprising places. In Primordial, he tacks too closely to sending up the object of so many of a professor's frustrations. The book struggles when it tries to dig beyond the satire, but Wilson undeniably lands many punches along the way. (September 2014)

Purchase Primordial: An Abstraction HERE.

Reviewer bio: Tom Taff lives and works in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Review of Christian Winn’s NAKED ME

NAKED ME
Christian Winn. Dock Street Press, $18 paperback (210p) ISBN: 978-0991065721

Fair weather reader I, rarely does a season pass without my readying to give up on the short story collection. It’s too much an insider’s genre, I tell myself, meant for the MFA community and a few zip codes in Manhattan, Madison or Multnomah County. However, like Michael Corleone with the mob in Godfather III, every time I think I’m out, story collections pull me back in.

To be sure, 2014 has been a year of tremendous collections: George Singleton’s Stray Decorum, Claudia Smith’s Quarry Light, Adam Wilson’s What’s Important  Is Feeling, Lauren Becker’s If I Would Leave Myself Behind, to name a few. A quick look at some of the publishers of these titles, Dzanc, Magic Helicopter, and Curbside Splendor (a label I call home), might make evident that a reason for this surplus of good story collections is the rise of savvy small presses. Which makes sense: Who better to step into the breach than operations with two or ten people on the staff, all equally devoted to the book as art object and ice axe for the frozen soul. Every indie reader has her list, but whether your fave is Two Dollar Radio, Civil Coping Mechanisms or Publishing Genius, I suggest you add Dock Street Press out of Seattle, and what better way to get familiar with them than their second title, Naked Me, by Christian Winn.

Before Naked Me arrived at my house I hadn’t heard of the press, hadn’t read any work by its author, which created for me a very rare experience of utter novelty. From the book’s handsome production—and brazen placement of images of nipples on the cover—to the fifteen stories within, I found myself charmed and charged up to be far more aware of both Dock Street Press and Christian Winn in the future. As its back cover touts and its fiction foregrounds Winn’s penchant for dealing with characters on the fringes, bedeviled by bad jobs and bad choices, drugs, drink, and other vices, inevitable comparisons might be made to Carver, Tobias Wolff, Denis Johnson, and Willy Vlautin. Such comparisons seem even more appropriate in the light of the common settings of many of the stories: the Pacific Northwest and the Inland West. Yet Winn’s work shows more than a hint of originality; he’s keen to claim territories both emotional and geographical as his own. To wit, many of the central characters are not locals; they’ve left behind places for this grim and gloomy section of the lower forty eight, hopeful for renewal but wary, often to a fault. Take Stephen in “Mr. Formal,” who arrives in Boise with his philosophy professor father from San Jose, after “things broke down nasty.” Or Tompkins in “Rough Cut,” who left Seattle with his mother after “his father left them when he moved south and away four years ago.” That many of his characters still have opportunities to make choices that might elevate them from past calamities infuses a sense of optimism in the stories, releasing them from the occasional grim determinism found in fictions set in this region.

What’s more, Winn manufactures terrific atmosphere and setting, rendering worlds through deft detail that conjure up vivid backdrops to the urgent dramas faced by his central characters. In “Rough Cut,” “the summer creek runs slow and murky,” where in “False History,” “this desert valley lolls and dips in patchy shades of brown.”   He’s equally adept in some of the stories set in California, able always to find both the strange in the familiar and vice versa, thus establishing that sense crucial to story that Jim Thompson once offered:  that “nothing is as it seems.”

Most significant, though, to me, in Naked Me, is Winn’s formal exploration. One senses that Winn’s wanting to find forms for his fictions that avoid formula. Most of the time he does this exceptionally well, handling first and third person narrators ably, manipulating time through past tense’s retrospection and present tense’s shocks. Interspersed throughout the collection’s longer stories are a series of flash fictions or vignettes and none seemed alike; all possessed an integrity of form that warranted their length, prevented them from seeming like false starts or empty exercises in mood. And the longer stories demonstrate attempts to create tension and suspense apart from plot alone. The title story’s bravura ending hinges on a smart shift in tense and narrative angle—the narrator telling us mostly what he did not say—and in “Rough Cut,” a similar move to future tense makes even more aching the present action. An occasional misfire occurs from time to time—I wanted the wonderful cataloguing of dead celebrities  in “All Her Famous Dead” to mean more about whom the central character is—but in the main, Winn seems sure with his devices, adept with artifice. Never does the technique overshadow the very real men and women with which he populates these stories.

In the main, Naked Me offers proof that the short story collection isn’t as much on life support as we fear: it’s still a fine showcase for a writer, like Winn, testing his strengths against the limits imposed by the forms he embraces. Is this collection serving as a laboratory for a novel? Who knows. Winn seems a writer we’ll always be wanting to hear from, no matter what kind of fiction he fashions, for he has in Naked Me made that crucial discovery: that the key to most readers’ hearts and minds is not telling them what they’ve never heard, but finding ways to make the most humble, the most familiar seem limitless in what they can share. (July 2014)

Purchase Naked Me HERE.

Reviewer bio: Tom Williams is author of two works of fiction, The Mimic’s Own Voice and Don’t Start Me Talkin’. His collection of stories, Among the Wild Mulattos and Other Tales, is forthcoming from Texas Review Press in 2015.

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