Review of Norman Lock's THE PORT-WINE STAIN

The Port-Wine Stain
Norman Lock. Bellevue Literary Press, $16.95 paperback (224 pages) ISBN: 978-1-942658-06-1

The Publisher Says: In his third book of The American Novels series, Norman Lock recounts the story of a young Philadelphian, Edward Fenzil, who, in the winter of 1844, falls under the sway of two luminaries of the nineteenth-century grotesque imagination: Thomas Dent Mütter, a surgeon and collector of medical “curiosities,” and Edgar Allan Poe. As Fenzil struggles against the powerful wills that would usurp his identity, including that of his own malevolent doppelgänger, he loses his mind and his story to another.

My Review: I’ve read other reviews in the book-blogosphere that were, shall we say, indicative of a certain disappointment in the blogger’s experience reading The Port-Wine Stain. I am not among these bloggers. I liked the book. In fact, I liked it the best of The American Novels cycle that Bellevue Literary Press will be publishing through 2018. I asked their publicist for all of them published so far, since I was that curious about Lock’s aims. When they arrived (thanks again!), I started from book 1, The Boy in His Winter, which wasn’t a favorite of mine; American Meteor, second in the cycle, which definitely was a favorite of mine; so now, by book three, I think I might have absorbed a sense of purpose and a trust in Lock’s craftsmanship and artistry that others might not have the advantage of possessing.

Or maybe I just have really good taste. This book was shivery-good.

He knocked absurdly on the skull like a man impatient for a door to open. His eyes glazed over. He appeared to be in the grasp of something beyond the reach of ordinary mortals.
“Time is slowing,” he said in a leaden voice. “Each moment grows and fattens like a drop of rain on a window sash, waiting to fall.”

Review of Jon-Michael Frank’s HOW’S EVERYTHING GOING? NOT GOOD

Jon-Michael Frank. Ohio Edit and Cuneiform Press, $21.95 paperback (98p) ISBN: 978069253193-852195

For a book whose title could stand in for any given day of content on Google News, Jon-Michael Frank’s collection of one-panel poem-drawings, How’s Everything Going? Not Good, curiously and perhaps mercifully contains not a single topical reference. Anything like a reflection on political or economic matters has to be taken through inference, from the sly reverberations of these ragged, inward-looking and uniquely affecting scrawls.

In keeping with the drawing style, the accompanying text is direct and biting, rarely more than a handful of words. As we might pick up from the early drawings (i.e., image: spotty banana / text: THE ORGANIC THING TO DO IS DIE), these pieces make use of big, basic motifs: death, water, the heart. Frank’s simple but startling constructions return to these motifs over and over again, as if gently insisting we look at the fundamentals of human existence on their own terms rather than in idealized form.

To what degree is one lying by constantly mustering, no matter the circumstances, an upbeat answer to “How’s everything going?” If the same degree of dishonesty—subtle, widespread, constant—is at work in the notion that life is an “adventure,” with each human fully free and capable of manifesting success, this book is notable for its ability to grasp (and effectively mock) our collective wishful thinking. Frank aims his repertoire of often-hilarious jabs at the artificiality with which culture attempts to pull away from nature.

Review of Anthony Michael Morena’s THE VOYAGER RECORD: A TRANSMISSION

The Voyager Record: A Transmission
Anthony Michael Morena. Rose Metal Press, $14.95 paperback (168p) ISBN: 9781941628041

You’ve probably heard of the Voyager Record, the golden record (or really records) sent into space in 1977 with messages from Earth to intelligent life that might happen upon it.  You might have questioned the choice of sounds and images chosen by Carl Sagan and his team to represent Earth.  You most likely haven’t spent as much time thinking about or listening to the record as Anthony Michael Morena.  Morena has taken his self-proclaimed obsession with the Voyager Record and created a lyric essay that manages to be a critique and tribute at the same time.

In the book, Morena references his own love of mixtapes and playlists, and what is the Voyager Record but a mixtape?  What is a lyric essay but a different kind of mixtape?  Morena artfully shuffles between the factual, the analytical, the imaginary, and the personal. The book is peppered with snippets from the record, ruminations on the politics behind them, imagined and tragic scenarios of aliens who come upon the record, playlists that could have been, Morena’s own life as an alien in Israel, and fictionalized vignettes of Sagan’s personal life, all orbiting each other and returning.

Review of Norman Lock's AMERICAN METEOR

American Meteor: A Novel
Norman Lock. Bellevue Literary Press, $15.95 paperback (208 pages) ISBN: 978-1-934137-94-9

At some point in this brief, pithy book, I caught myself wondering why I was turning pages so fast, why I couldn’t wait to find the next golden moment described in lovely, burnished prose, when I knew how the story ended already. It’s not a mystery, it’s not a puzzle novel, it’s a meditation on the Manifest Destiny era. The myth of the poor lad who comes from nothing and nowhere to make a fortune is an oft-told tale. Lock’s spin on that is to have the traditional humble lad, this one named Stephen Moran, as protagonist:

“While my father was out boozing, she'd read to me by the stub of a candle, a thread of soot twisting upwards from its pinched, meager flame. By her voice alone, she could raise up the old stories from the bones of their words and—lilting between shades of comedy and melodrama—turn the dreary space around me into a stage for my wildest imaginings.”

And while she’s creating the world anew for her son, she’s also priming the pump for his life-long belief that there is fate even if there isn’t a god to be found, since all the old fairy tales involve come-uppances and just desserts.

Review of Leaf Seligman’s A POCKET BOOK OF PROMPTS

Leaf Seligman. Bauhan Publishing, $9.95 paperback (96p) ISBN: 9780872332003

Memoirists, personal essayists, confessional poets, and diarists will get much use from Leaf Seligman’s A Pocket Book of Prompts, which challenges writers to engage with their lives. For writers who need help to get moving, Seligman’s book offers a gentle shove.

The prompts are open-ended and varied. For the taciturn, most prompts include follow-up questions to encourage more depth. Divided into two sections, “First Day Prompts” contains quick starter questions such as “If you could interview one person from history, who would it be?” In the right hands, this prompt might spark historical fiction or fever-dream poems. The other section, “Prompts for Deeper Reflection,” includes more elaborate assignments, such as completing a series of 5-sentence autobiographies.

This book isn’t for everyone. Some readers will be turned off by the New Age tone. And writers for whom personal reflection is creative kryptonite might not gravitate toward this book. But there are some prompts even for them. Several, for example, encourage writers to imagine fictional scenarios or interactions with intangible concepts (“Write an ode or a make-up letter to uncertainty”). And fiction writers of all persuasions will find this book helpful as a tool for character development.

As with writing prompts themselves, this book is what you make of it. Anyone looking to discover more about their “authentic self” will find a trove of possibilities here. And those wanting to start a daily habit of personal writing will find these prompts up to the challenge. (July 2015)

Purchase A Pocket Book of Prompts HERE.

Reviewer bio: Jeannie Hoag’s chapbook of poems, New Age of Ferociousness, was published by Agnes Fox Press, and her work has recently appeared in Divine Magnet.

Review of Hasanthika Sirisena’s THE OTHER ONE

Hasanthika Sirisena. University of Massachusetts Press, $22.95 paperback (160p) ISBN:

I’ll be the first to admit that I am mostly ignorant of the Sri Lankan civil war. Everything I know about Sri Lanka comes from reading works by Michael Ondatje, and, more recently, Nayomi Munaweera (whose debut Island of a Thousand Mirrors is an absolute must read). Hasanthika Sirisena’s story collection The Other One did not bring me any closer to understanding the facts behind the Sri Lankan war. It did, however, open my eyes in an astonishing, brutal way. With an absolute, unflinching drive, Sirisena’s stories both elucidate and explore the vestiges of the war and, most importantly, show how everyone who is touched by such violence is a survivor.

The Other One
is not a ‘feel good read’ and I doubt Sirisena meant it to be. Each story examines characters who have felt the effects of war in some form or fashion. From third country nationals working in Kuwait to grandmothers struggling to help their families come into the modern age, these characters all move within the shadow of sorrow and violence.

Review of Sheldon Lee Compton’s BROWN BOTTLE

Sheldon Lee Compton. Bottom Dog Press, $17 paperback (164p) ISBN: 9781933964898

In Sheldon Lee Compton's debut novel, Brown Bottle, we are immediately introduced to our protagonist - and on occasion antagonist - Wade Brown-Bottle Taylor, a complicated man whose contradictory nature reflects the opposing extremes found in his Appalachian region of eastern Kentucky, a place of vast loneliness, natural beauty and man-made madness.

The only aspect of life closer to Wade's heart than the warm buzz of hard drink is his somewhat fragile relationship with his nephew, Nick. Upon discovering his nephew's increasing appetite for pharmaceuticals, Wade Taylor takes it on himself to intervene, a decision that sets him off on his own redemptive path. And it is a pathway paved with deceit, betrayal and blood.

While Wade faces problems typical of poverty-stricken Appalachia, in many ways he is a portrait of everyman. His battle is a familiar one as he struggles to make sense of the world around him, and, more importantly, his part in it.