Monday, February 23, 2015

Now It is Time to Wake: Review of Jonathan Harper’s DAYDREAMERS

Daydreamers
Jonathan Harper. Lethe Press, $12 paperback (164p) ISBN: 978-1590212967

In the inimitable Gilmore Girls, Lorelai Gilmore is born into a life of wealth and privilege, a life of strict rules and etiquette, a life that she finds suffocating.  At age 16, she becomes pregnant, and her parents plan out her future: She and Christopher will get married.  Christopher will work for Lorelai’s father, Richard.  Lorelai will raise a daughter in a stifling house with stifling rules.  Not knowing where she is going or what she ultimately wants, only what she doesn’t want, Lorelai runs away.  She settles in the small town of Stars Hollow and raises her daughter Rory alone, creating a life of pop tarts and coffee and wacky but loyal friends, a job first managing and then owning a small Inn, and finally, even a relationship with Luke Danes, the diner owner.
            This was the series I returned to while reading Jonathan Harper’s collection of short stories: Daydreamers.  The characters in these stories often don’t know what they want, but they are clear on what they don’t: they don’t want a house full of hovering Aunts, they don’t want a twin bed in “a frilly pink hell with floral wallpaper and Precious Moments figurines,” they don’t want a life of religious structure and persecution, they don’t want to be merely houseboys.  What they do actually want, though, is a bit more shadowy: a half-remembered dream covered in mist.  Like so many of us, these characters wander through life, hoping to stumble head-first into meaning.
            This desire for a bodily transformation, a transcending of the mundane, often leads these young men into gnawing obsessions that reveal the body at its most vulnerable.  In “Nature,” August becomes enamored with body modifications and suspensions.  In “The Bloated Woman,” Jeremiah finds a dead woman on the beach who haunts his thoughts.  The unnamed narrator of “Costume Dramas” fixates on his husband’s new tenant, and in a furious attempt to reconcile a fractured marriage, demands a violent and intimate reckoning of the body.

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Interview with the author: Jacob M. Appel

Jacob M. Appel’s first novel, The Man Who Wouldn’t Stand Up, won the 2012 Dundee International Book Award and was published by Cargo.  His short story collection, Scouting for the Reaper, won the 2012 Hudson Prize and was published by Black Lawrence Press in 2014.  His most recent books include a novel, The Biology of Luck (Elephant Rock, 2013), an essay collection, Phoning Home (University of South Carolina Press, 2014) and a short story collection, Einstein’s Beach House (Pressgang/Butler University, 2014).   Two additional collections, Miracles and Conundrums of the Secondary Planets (Black Lawrence) and The Magic Laundry (Snake Nation) are due out in 2015.  He holds an MFA in fiction from NYU, an MFA in playwriting from Queens College and an MD from Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons.

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Curt Smith: You’re widely published in the lit journal world, yet you waited a relatively long time before publishing your first story collection. Can you describe your journey?

Jacob Appel:   My long apprenticeship was not entirely by choice.   I had published nearly two hundred stories in literary journals before I managed to sell my first collection.  I suspect one of the reasons for this is that my stories are rarely connected in the tangible ways (eg. geography, subject matters, common characters) that make a collection easier to place with a publisher.  Whenever I sit down to write a story, I try to imagine a world as different from the worlds of my previous stories as possible.  This approach leads to more original work, but less cohesion.  The result is that I was out lurking in the literary ether for many years.  I sold my first serious story to the journal Fugue in 1997, but didn’t sell my first collection until Scouting for the Reaper in 2012.  In between, I toiled away below the radar screen and prayed to the patron saint of small miracles; of course, I’m not a Catholic, which may explain why he took so long to answer my prayers.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Great Things On the Horizon: Review of THE MASTERS REVIEW VOL III

THE MASTERS REVIEW VOL III
Storied selected by Lev Grossman. Edited by Kim Winternheimer and Sadye Teiser. $9.99 paperback (125 pages) ISBN: 978-0-9853407-2-8

To MFA or not to MFA. The debate over the necessity of graduate-level creative writing has been bubbling the past few years and shows no signs of stopping, and that’s okay. One thing that graduate programs have going for them is talent like that in The Masters Review: Volume 3. The collection of ten pieces, chosen by Lev Grossman (author of Codex and The Magicians Trilogy), is an attempt to highlight some of the best work being produced by graduate level writers. Thankfully, this attempt is a successful one.

What makes this collection so strong is that the stories, when taken together, are reacting to the human experience in such different ways. We are not seeing the same thing over and over. Instead, we are dropped into ten different worlds with ten different sets of characters that are shouting for us to pay attention.

The opening story, “The Behemoth,” begins “A giant person fell out of the sky. That’s the best we can explain it.” Immediately, readers are transported to another place, reminiscent of Marquez’s “A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings.”  We as readers believe that a giant has fallen from the sky because the author, Drew Ciccolo, makes the story not about that. We believe it because we see the people exhibiting real human emotions in regards to the giant. They gawk and they wonder. Their experiences are palpable and that is what makes this an engaging piece.

Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Drowning in Confusion: Review of Ryan Blacketter’s DOWN IN THE RIVER

Down in the River
Ryan Blacketter. Slant Books, $19.80 hardcover (216p) ISBN: 978-1625640376

A corpse, ultra-conservative Christians, and the beautiful Pacific Northwest. What more could you ask for from a novel? Ryan Blacketter’s Down in the River delivers all of these elements in a macabre, heartbreaking story.

The story, on a surface level, has all of the elements that could make it a highly interesting novel. Lyle Rettew is a mentally-unbalanced teenager whose family—his fragile mother and hard-lined older brother—was kicked out of their ultra-conservative church when his sister, a meth-addled firebrand named Lila, dies by drowning. The patriarch in the family died in a similar fashion. Now living in Eugene, Oregon, Lyle acts out and puts stress on his family. He’s supposed to be medicated but does everything in his power to avoid taking the drugs.  Lyle vacillates between understanding he is sick and ignoring it. One night, after hearing from his friend Martin that a little girl who died is unable to rest peacefully in her grave because she’s buried in a manner that goes against her religion, Lyle goes with Martin and against Martin’s wishes, Lyle steals the girl from the mausoleum. He then spends the next few days getting high with a girl while he totes the corpse of the girl around in a backpack. Eventually, he goes on the run, finally lays the corpse to rest, sort of, and is apprehended.

The basis for this novel—the stealing of a corpse by a high teenager—is weird. There is no two ways about that. It’s macabre and unsettling and, has the potential for some readers to be a sticking point of engagement with this novel.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Review of Colin Winnette’s COYOTE

Coyote
Colin Winnette. Les Figues Press, $17.00 paperback (96 pages) ISBN: 978-1-934254-56-1

I’m not giving anything away when I say Coyote is about a missing child. It’s the first thing you find out in the first line of Colin Winnette’s new novella. But what follows is not stock mystery or suspense. All tropes are thrown out the window. The disappearance of the child is treated almost like a natural disaster. Something that couldn’t be avoided, much like a tornado. And now the parents must pick up the pieces and get on with their lives. Easier said than done. Things have become too quiet. The talk shows are no longer calling them, the investigation ground to a halt months ago, and one of the two might be losing their mind. Winnette expertly turns this into a twisted and morbid tale of a married couple falling apart one day at a time. It’s almost as if he heard “Song of Joy,” the macabre opener of Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds Murder Ballads, and said to himself, “I can top that.” Coyote is also a confession of sorts, but the story swims in even murkier waters.

Winnette is an effortless writer. He has his tricks and his way of playing with the novel form, but his prose is so relaxed, so surefooted, you almost forget that you’re reading the blasted thing. The story flows out naturally, riding the waves of the narrator’s voice. The chapters are short and punchy, but full of amazing depth. A perfect example: the wife never refers to her spouse as her “husband.” Only as the child’s “dad.” It’s a simple swap in identities, but it speaks volumes about the distance between the married couple. Winnette shows real skill in making you feel as if everything that occurs in the novella is part of the natural world. You can see the trees and the field and the fence surrounding that tiny house out in the middle of nowhere. And then he gut punches you with this simple but dark story. At times you almost feel as if you’re watching a time-lapse video of someone losing their mind over many months. In lesser hands, Coyote would’ve been too caught up in the noir of it all or deteriorated into MFA writerliness. Instead, Winnette delivers a taut story that never feels overwritten. Each word counts and drags you deeper into the whole maddening tale. Bloody hell indeed. (January 2015)

Purchase Coyote HERE.

Reviewer bio: Ken Wohlrob is the author of the novel No Tears for Old Scratch and two short story collections.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Review of Alex Phillips’ UNKINDNESS

UNKINDNESS
Alex Phillips. H_NGM_N Books, $14.95 paperback (102p) ISBN: 978-0988228795

Unkindness is Alex Phillips' second book-length poem. It is split into thirty six multi-layered sections, where shifting perspectives cover various acts and consequences of human cruelty. The poem, as its title suggests, tumbles through an amalgam of animosity ranging from basic and personal selfishness, neglect and abusive behaviour to crimes of terror and the unjust tragedies of war. There is an underlying sense of regret and an overwhelming feeling of helplessness which gains momentum as the poem's intensity increases. The piece begins matter-of-factly—

My species is engaged
              in furious

 acts

—setting an obvious precedent which in spite of the poem's more obscure sections is maintained throughout the book.  As the pace progresses so does its wordplay which skips and dances with rhythmic repetitions that hint more than state, leaving plenty of room for interpretation. It is the building momentum in subject matter and poetic phrasing which makes the poem work in terms of payoff. While there is a clear and definite narrative, it is formed in thought-like patterns which slip in and out of ambiguous territory as though the conscious and subconscious mind are taking it in turns to tell the same story.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Interview with the author: Ryan MacDonald

Ryan MacDonald wrote a book called The Observable Characteristics of Organisms. Ryan MacDonald has a fine beard. Ryan MacDonald moves, like you, through the wonder and whimsy of this modern world. Such lucky beasts are we! Recently I connected with Ryan to learn about his book, how the poet Peter Gizzi wiggles, and the marvel of “It”.

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Mel Bosworth: Wow. How about it?

Ryan MacDonald: I know, right? I think about it all the time, mostly in the shower but often while driving too fast down the back roads of the Valley. It comes to me usually as a feeling but ends up as something more like a memory. I’ve fed it and loved it and let it out as often as it wants to be let out and still I think, wow, how about it? It’s never, how about that? Or, how about this? It’s always, how about it? Though I guess sometimes it can be what about it? And then it’s just like, wow.

MB: What did you do this morning? What did you see through your window? What did you have for breakfast?

RM: I am in North Carolina visiting family for the holidays. My mom made eggs and bacon. Over breakfast I saw through the window, one poodle humping another poodle in my parent’s garden. They were both staring at me. Afterwards we took my nieces to an aquarium in a giant mall. We watched a manta ray, like a horse, eat chunks of fish out of some lady’s hand.