Saturday, December 20, 2014

Review of Sam Pink’s WITCH PISS

Witch Piss
Sam Pink. Lazy Fascist Press, $8.95 paperback (112p) ISBN: 9781621051343

Imagine, if you will, a Shakespeare play dedicated entirely to the gravediggers in Hamlet. The interesting part about the Bard’s comic characters — not only the gravediggers, but Lear’s fool and the underappreciated Autolycus — is that they are smarter and more honest than their neighbors of higher social standing. Sharp wits and true souls, always taking the piss out of the upper-class twits around them. Sam Pink’s characters share the same qualities. He’s as obsessed with the down-and-out as Shakespeare was and James Kelman is. So much so that Pink devotes all of Witch Piss to the homeless and destitute of Chicago. They’re addicts and drunks and sinners and thieves. Most are a bit off their rocker. Like Shakespeare’s fools, insanity is part of the package. But they make no apologies. Nor do they operate under any delusions. Pink cares enough about the characters to show them at face value and not romanticize anything. Sometimes they’re extremely funny, other times sad and self-destructive. Denizens like Spider-Man (who is so named for the obvious reason that he tries to dress like Spider Man) and his girlfriend Janet come across not as clichés but living breathing complex human beings. Anyone who lives in a large city knows them well.

While Witch Piss doesn’t boast a plot, it still grabs you. The big draw is Pink’s use of language. It’s downright lyrical, percussive, and sharp. Even when writing in dialects or broken and slurred english, he finds a poetic flow to the characters’ voices. While not having a story per se would hamstring some authors, Pink turns the novel into the equivalent of a photo essay. Each chapter is a snapshot of a group of locals doing exactly what they do on any other day, laid out in Pink’s high-contrast delivery. The narrator, who is present in the story, but essential only as a recorder of events, is shoved to the side. Here and there he utters a platitude or two, from which we can tell that he is as lost as the others. In many ways, he finds his humanity by joining their circle. But the spotlight is not on him. For some this may strike a sore point, but it’s the smarter choice. The narrator really is a stand-in for the reader. Pink smartly keeps the focus on people like Spider-Man who naturally have more interesting things to tell us about human beings. The reader can’t help but get caught up in their stories. Sometimes there is a point, sometimes not. Sometimes it’s really funny. And at other times, the reality of their situations throws a gut punch. In the end, Pink never drags the novel down to a sordid level. Nor does he sugar coat anything. Like life itself, Witch Piss is funny and sad, often at the same time. (February 2014)

Purchase Witch Piss HERE.

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

Friday, December 19, 2014

Review of Steph Post’s A TREE BORN CROOKED

A TREE BORN CROOKED
Steph Post. Pandamoon Publishing, $15.99 paperback (234p) ISBN: 9780990338963

Bear with me because I’m going to do this thing a little unconventionally and start out with the ending of the book. Don’t panic: no spoilers here.  Just from reading the jacket copy or the first few pages of Steph Post’s A Tree Born Crooked, you’ll know that down-on-his-luck, ex-Florida native James Hart is on his way home.

The narrative kicks along dragging landmines that intermittently explode into the next bleak landscape of armpits, stale fries, fried chicken and booze so seamlessly that by the time Post unleashes these last words, “There was no denying it now. He was home,” you’re so soaked in this world that you feel like you’ve suddenly hit on a rain shower. And it feels as refreshing and right as it does to Hart.

Which is to say, everything you need to know about misfits is summed up in the idea that crooked trees stand best together, or that family is king, even if you have to settle for the self-manufactured kind. This is, of course, the story behind the title and clearly a lesson that Post has learned well for herself.

Review of Sheldon Lee Compton's WHERE ALLIGATORS SLEEP

Where Alligators Sleep
Sheldon Lee Compton. Foxhead Books, $18 paperback (160p) ISBN: 978-1-940876-08-5

Where Alligators Sleep is a collection of flash fiction, containing stories usually two or three pages in length. Sheldon Lee Compton demonstrates a flair for capturing the grotesque in the everyday. From the opening tale 'Ouroboros' onwards, the reader is presented with a range of situations that simmer with violence and explore how extreme consequences grow out of an inability to speak up or listen. At the heart of the collection is a parade of dysfunctional families, particularly fathers and sons who are not on speaking terms. Arguably, Compton catches the theme best in the title story, a subtle tale about a family ignoring relatives they should perhaps be doing a better job caring for. The collection builds into a series of variations on the themes that are established. If the collection has a weakness, it is perhaps too bound to notions of literary respectability regarding length. The book contains over 60 stories, which feels like a defensive compensation for the genre chosen rather than value for money. As a result, some of the effect of the flash is diminished. In general, the writing is high quality, engaging and vivid. Compton is obviously an extremely talented writer who deserves attention, bending familiar themes to produce work that feels fresh. (August 2014)

Purchase Where Alligators Sleep HERE.

Reviewer bio: Simon Travers published his first collection of poems, entitled 'Anatomy', in November 2013. It is available from http://stackhousejones.com/anatomy/

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Review of Blake Kimzey's FAMILIES AMONG US

FAMILIES AMONG US
Blake Kimzey. Black Lawrence Press, $8.95 paperback (40p) ISBN: 978-1-62557-995-9

Winner of the Black River Chapbook Competition, Families Among Us offers readers a look inside shape-shifting family dynamics through six short stories. From the onset it is apparent that these families will defy convention as the title story opens with the line: “Four of them, a family, crawled naked from the sea clutching plastic suitcases.” Moving forward and landward we see this family attempt to acclimate though the children resist, bringing things to a startling finish. In “Up and Away”, a winged boy who is loved and supported by his family struggles with his desire to leave them and explore the world. “The Skylight” finds a young man enamored with a mysterious, veiled woman who sneaks away to the roof of an apartment building at night. Things grow tense as her father asserts his disapproval of the narrator’s interest in his special daughter. In “Tunneling” a boy is born with a unique deformity, “His midsection was a slick gelatinous cushion, the skin accordioned like concentric bands ringing his abdomen from waist to collarbone.” In “The Boy and The Bear” a child is at the whim of heredity, growing, as did his elder brother, into a bear-boy. “And Finally The Tragedy” provides a lovely and majestic finish as a boy falls from the heavens. Using fantastical elements that push effortlessly through the narratives, Kimzey has fashioned six allegories about the inevitability of change, people trying to love what is different from themselves, and the hardship and heartbreak that comes with being part of a family. (September 2014)

Purchase Families Among Us HERE.

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

Review of Josh Olsen's SUCH A GOOD BOY

SUCH A GOOD BOY
Josh Olsen. CreateSpace Independent Publishing, $5.99 paperback (98p) ISBN: 978-1495311642

Olsen’s Such a Good Boy is a solid collection of flash fiction. Not only are these deeply personal short pieces complete in and of themselves, they also fit together as an autobiographically themed collection. Olson has an eye for the ostensibly insignificant, which he uses to strip down the finer details of human connection and abstract communication. This is particularly evident in the story “Then I…” where the narrator becomes obsessed by the prospect of connecting with a previous owner/reader of Richard Pryor’s memoir “Pryor Convictions.” What stood out most about the book for this narrator, more than anything else, wasn’t even a part of the text. It was an arrow. A simple, black arrow that some previous reader had scribbled in the margins that pointed to the one and only underlined sentence in the entire book: “Then I stabbed the white motherfucker in the back six or seven times.” (From “Then I…” p.10)

Through childhood reminiscences, parental confusion, crude imaginings and unhealthy fantasies, Olson pours himself onto the page with an unabashed honesty. He pokes at the absurdity of life by mercilessly assassinating his own character, using longstanding personal failings and hypocrisy as a paradigm for the larger issues at hand. And they are issues he is not necessarily interested in resolving as he makes comment on the pain of loss, inadequacy, sickness and death.

Monday, December 15, 2014

Review of MY VERY END OF THE UNIVERSE

MY VERY END OF THE UNIVERSE.
Chris Bower, Margaret Patton Chapman, Tiff Holland, Meg Pokrass, and Aaron Teel. Rose Metal Press, $15.95 paperback (328p) ISBN: 978-0-9887645-8-3

If you read the stunning 2011 release They Could No Longer Contain Themselves, you know the strength of Rose Metal Press’ compilations.  My Very End of the Universe is no exception.  The book, focusing on the novella-in-flash, is the perfect combination of hybrid text and education that the press is known for.  Billing itself as “a study of the form,” the book is comprised of reprints of the 2011 and 2012 Rose Metal chapbook contest winners, Betty Superman by Tiff Holland and Shampoo Horns by Aaron Teel, alongside the novellas Here, Where We Live by Meg Pokrass, Bell and Bargain by Margaret Patton Chapman, and The Family Dogs by Chris Bower.  Each novella begins with a craft-based essay by the author, and the collection is introduced by Rose Metal’s own Abigail Beckel and Kathleen Rooney, exploring the genres and histories of flash, the novella, and the novella-in-flash and adding a new level to the reader’s interaction with the text.

Some works feel more traditionally like novellas, like Patton Chapman’s and Pokrass’, with arcs and resolutions.  Teel’s flashes, while not linear, spiral around an event and around a boy’s coming of age, developing in the way we might expect from a novella.  Meanwhile, Holland and Bower’s work take less traditional (even for a novella-in-flash) routes, Holland’s work resembling linked stories and Bower’s work similar to a set of monologues.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Review of Ryan MacDonald's THE OBSERVABLE CHARACTERISTICS OF ORGANISMS

The Observable Characteristics of Organisms
Ryan MacDonald. University of Alabama Press, $16.95 paperback (160p) ISBN: 978-1-57366-182-9

Every short fiction in Ryan MacDonald’s sublime collection is an adventure. There is so much movement and variety in these tiny stories you’d swear they’re alive. There is gut-punch sadness, gut-bust humor, and cruelty served up so casually it’s disarming. A narrator offers domestic observations on life without TV, a dog seizes behind a closed door, another dog rots on a lawn, a child loses his foot in a bear trap, and the poet Peter Gizzi makes a surprise appearance and tries to sell a book. In “The Recent Local Phenomenon” an out of control bear population terrorizes a town by chewing through telephone poles. In “The Hole” a crowd has gathered though the narrator is unsure why: “I asked the woman next to me what we were looking at. She bit into a potato as though to end its suffering. She looked at me and said a word or maybe two with her mouth full of potato.” There is often great and exciting mystery within these stories, and also ruminations on mortality. “It’s Only a Matter of Time” finds two people around a campfire cooking a can of beans: “’Someday we’ll both be dead together,’ she said to me, grinning at the flames and then down at the beans.” Despite the recurrent, heavy theme of death, MacDonald’s easy presentation and humor gives the pieces great buoyancy and an electric wisdom. Best of all is MacDonald’s ability to surprise with fantastical turns, knocking readers belly-first onto language grenades, blowing minds and hearts and guts wide open. (September 2014)

Purchase The Observable Characteristics of Organisms HERE.

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