We <3 Chapbooks

A huge & heartfelt *thank you* to everyone who submitted to our [CHAP] book contest. We had almost three hundred beautiful babies arrive in our arms & we’ve selected five for the final round of consideration. Congratulations! & to all of you: keep reading, keep writing–keep doing your thing.

SHORTLIST

Taryn Tilton, Cherry Cherry

Bill Lessard, OPERATING SYSTEM

Gabriel Garcia Ochoa, The Hypermarket

 Maya Sonenberg,  After the Death of Shostakovich Pere

Stacy Austin Egan, You Could Stop It Here

From the Cover of the Village Voice’s Queer Issue

by Isabella David

 

It was the summer of 2008 when I posed for the cover of The Village Voice’s Queer Issue. Gay marriage would not be legalized in the state of New York for another three years. Not even a decade ago, but it was a different time. Even though gay marriage wasn’t legal, I felt that living in a big city exempted me from worrying about narrow-minded provincialism.

I didn’t realize provincialism is a state of mind not an actual state of the union.

I thought I didn’t need to compute how the law or how some small-minded people still felt about gay marriage when I agreed to pose for the cover. What I computed was the honor it would be to pose for an iconic paper like the Voice—a paper I hoped one day to write for, although that’s fast becoming more of a pipe dream due to budget cuts than the idea of a chubby, pasty theater actress like myself modeling.

Not least of all, I computed how talented the crew for the shoot was: Virginia Bradley regularly styles for Vogue. Nikola Tamindzic, our photographer, had been recently profiled in The New York Times. I happily agreed to his concept, involving me and the beautiful Julia Standefer, clasping each other in an almost passionate embrace.

What I didn’t compute was any negative consequences that shoot might mean for my career, not least of which was the effect the heat would have on me. It was my very first official modeling gig. Julia was an old pro and radiated coolness, her makeup pearlescent throughout the shoot.

Me on the other hand?

At one point, I literally collapsed from the 95 degree heat. It didn’t help that the statuesque Julia was so much taller, I had to wear 5 inch heels under a long, black wool John Galliano gown in order for my lips to parallel her lips. She stood barefoot in the photographer’s living room. A mattress stood on end, providing our backdrop.

I could sense her discomfort, and we had to stop periodically to let her exhale and relax. The concept was cinematic in scope, different from a regular modeling shoot. It was part of why I’d been selected. At that point, I’d been a crazy New York city theater actress for two years. I didn’t see anything too wildly difficult in holding a lovely Julia close to me, pretending passion.  I’d played drug addicts, housewives, victims of abuse, even murderers. I’d played a lot of parts that weren’t me, and what with the glamorous gown I had on, apart from the heat, I was having a lot of fun playing this one.

However, when we took individual shots, I found it challenging to look into the camera without flinching.  Julia on the other hand sent the crew into ohs and ahs of admiration when she posed. She simply stood there, yet there was so much more to it: she radiated confidence, ease, glamor, beauty, innocence. It was a lesson to me: there was an art to modeling. The evening ended with shots on the street in another Galliano get-up. When I didn’t have to look at the camera, I was happily lost in the character I’d created. When asked to look into the lens, I resembled a deer in headlights. All in all, it was a very satisfying night: I learned a lot and made several new friends.

A month later the cover came out. I probably broke several laws, emptying one of those ubiquitous, red Village bins that pepper New York. The image Nikola crafted showed all of the character-building with none of the painful 5 hours of labor that had gone into creating it. (At one point we had to break, so the hair stylist could run to the bodega for orange juice. I’d fainted from the combination of the heat and the sheer heaviness of that wool gown.) I was blown away by the artistry of illusion and by the team effort that went into one picture. To say I am proud of that image is to understate it.

Naturally, it took pride of place in my burgeoning “book”—model speak for the book of 9×12  pictures models used to carry around with them before iPads started taking over.

I don’t have to tell you that I’m not a lesbian, because my sexual orientation shouldn’t matter in the context of character-acting, but it did. I fell in love with my husband all over again when I found out he’d experienced 15 minutes of fame in the ‘90s, working as a peer counselor who went around to high schools talking about gay rights. Later when he was interviewed for the “straight athletes” chapter in Jocks: True Stories of America’s Gay Athletes by Dan Woog, Woog marveled that my husband never once prefaced a comment with “not that I’m gay.” The excuse is an apology. And what is there to apologize for? What does a person’s sexual orientation matter or say about their worth as a human being? Nothing. Nothing whatsoever.

And when it’s a matter of art, shouldn’t it matter even less? Obviously, this is still not the case, as many people objected to Matt Bomer being cast as Christian Grey. Why, because a BDSM-obsessed billionaire turned Prince Charming is a realistic concept to begin with? It’s about the character you’re playing.

Personally, I thought The Voice cover was beautiful, powerful, and expressed sapphic love in a sweet, respectful and unusually non-exploitative fashion. I didn’t realize yet my concept of the New York modeling world was tinted with the lens of the New York theater scene. I didn’t see myself as a commodity, branding herself with a carefully crafted image, but as an artist trying to learn and experience as much as she could. I didn’t realize clients would see the image as provocative, and I still wonder why they did, when so many modeling shots feature half-naked bodies or heavily pouting expressions. Julia and I were fully clothed in couture, gazing at each other, not even quite kissing.

In fact, when one bridal designer reached the picture in my book, her reaction could be described as nothing less than apoplectic. Her eyes widened with almost comic horror, bulging out of her head, and then she shut my book with a snap, practically shoving it into my stomach and asked me to leave the casting.

I remember as I stumbled out of the hotel room, I saw all around me long, white gowns lovingly laid out on the beds and couches of the suite. I remember thinking they were the mirror opposite of the long black gown I wore in that shot she’d found so offensive. And I remember wondering why was heterosexual love sanctified and homosexual love treated as less than worthy?

It made me see marriage as a sort of benediction of hypocrisy. I won’t say I made a Dax Shepherd/ Kristin Bell/ Angelina Jolie/ Brad Pitt level promise never to marry until gay marriage was legal, but I did feel as if I’d seen the curtain pulled back on the other side of the 40 billion dollar wedding industry in a time when gay marriage was universally illegal, and what I saw was a lot less pretty and sweet than that cover that had so offended.

Needless to say I did not get that job. I’m sad to admit I thought about removing the picture from my portfolio, but ultimately, I decided I didn’t want to work with people who viewed art or sexuality through a distorted lens of their own neuroses.

When I married my husband four years later, I chose a white dress, but it was short and plain and only cost a couple hundred dollars. I could wear it again and again and planned to. Best of all, we got married at city hall.

There were plenty of gay couples in attendance that day, waiting in line with us. I thought back to that hot night in the Lower East Side when I stood for five hours in a black wool gown, and I thought of how I had unwittingly been standing for more than a modeling shot. I had stood up for the world I want to live in, where sexual orientation is just a choice and doesn’t define a person.

Best of all, I’m glad to see times are changing, how differently that picture is already viewed. In fact, even the conservative wedding industry is showing signs of change: this season’s Say Yes to the Dress included several episodes with same-sex brides, shopping together.

Sometimes I can’t believe how much has changed from the bad old days when my husband had his life threatened for daring to speak up for gay rights to only eight years ago when I lost work for posing for the Queer Issue to now when in a lot of mainstream media orientation is viewed more like a couture touch for a character: something to put on or take off, depending on the sweet soul’s choice of the individual person.

There’s still a long way to go as has been shown by the recent ridiculous bathroom controversy, as ridiculous as finding an image of two women hugging offensive, not to mention any individual who agrees with Donald Trump. Still, I think the strides that have been made in less than a decade are inspiring.

 

 

 

Isabella David is an actor and author of The Voices of Women, shortlisted for the 2015 International Venture Award. She’s also an editor at Easy Street—a books and culture off-shoot of The Lascaux Review. Other work has appeared in Tampa Review, 100 Word Story, Adbusters, Hello Giggles, and elsewhere. When not working on her first novel, she mothers a menagerie of animals and children, who are all almost (as in not at all) potty-trained.

[REVIEW] The Kingdom by Fuminori Nakamura

 

Soho Crime, 2016

 

REVIEWED BY GABINO IGLESIAS

While most contemporary crime writers attempt to breathe fresh air into the tropes of the genre, Japanese noir wunderkind Fuminori Nakamura is writing some of the most unique noir narratives by leaving the tropes and expectations of the genre to the side and tackling it from a plethora of different angles. In The Kingdom, which he describes as a companion novel to The Gun, he places a woman at the center of the action and replaces guns with the human body and criminal intent with a secret agenda that has more to do with emotional distress and love than with becoming rich or exacting revenge. The result is an emotionally gritty and surprisingly fresh story that is as dark as its sister novel but occupies an entirely different space.

Yurika works as a freelancer in Tokyo’s underworld. To the casual observer, she is just another upscale prostitute, but she targets powerful men for a reason. Instead of having sex with her johns, Yurika drugs them and takes risqué photographs in order to blackmail her targets. The images are turned into the men she works for, a shady organization whose inner workings she ignores. The money is a good and she can keep her identity intact, so she is satisfied with the working arrangement and has learned to do her job quickly and efficiently. Unfortunately, a figure from Yurika’s past resurfaces, and that makes her realize that her secret agenda may not remain secret much longer. Before long, Yurika is caught in a deadly game of secrets, desire, and bad intentions where her past, her present, and her future seem to collide and fall into the hands of some of the most powerful and sadistic men from Tokyo’s criminal underworld.

One of the elements that sets Nakamura apart from his contemporaries is that his sharp, lean prose manages to deliver full, nuanced narratives despite that fact that most of his novels can, and almost demand to, be read in a single sitting. In the case of The Kingdom, he does this with a story that simultaneously occupies two worlds: that of Yurika’s memories and motivations and that of the evil men she works for and their victims. The way these worlds clash and interact makes The Kingdom a brooding existential thriller and allows its author to delve into philosophy, history, and an exploration of human nature.

While the cut-to-the-bone prose, ultraviolent imagery, and philosophical ruminations are all staples of Nakamura’s work, there are two new elements at play here, one that works very well and one that quickly becomes the novel’s only detraction. The first is that The Kingdom is steeped in a sexual atmosphere that bridges the gap between danger and desire. Nakamura hasn’t shied away from eroticism in his previous work, but it is so permeating here that it becomes a silent character that affects every other character in the book in various ways. The second element, the one that should have been caught by the editor, is the constant use of heat. Yurika feels heat in her mind and body and wonders about the heat inside her. This is not a sexual heat but rather a term that is used for everything from arousal to fear and from obsession to shame. By the last third of the novel, the repetitive use of the word in a never-ending array of contexts becomes slightly annoying.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about this novel is its protagonist. Yurika is deep and complicated, but she’s also unlikeable and detached from the world around her. She is also obsessed with understanding desire and the ways it correlates with destruction. Most of the men who come in contact with her ignore the fact that they are victims, and when Kizaki, the underworld boss that changes her life forever, changes that dynamic, Yurika’s whole being is shaken up. However, before that moment comes, Nakamura allows the reader to look into the psyche of a woman who understands pain on a personal level but for whom chaos and uncertainty are a welcome way of life:

“I looked straight at him. He’s kindhearted eyes got me hot all of a sudden. If I entwined my legs with his under the table, what kind of face would he make? He mistook me for good-natured. I wanted to ruin him. He had been by my side since I was a child thrown out into the world without knowing anything. I wanted to dirty all of his beautiful memories. He would probably be depressed to know the woman I actually am, but in the end, he’d probably try to sleep with me. It would probably be all right to sleep with him. But which would be more intense? The heat when he slept with me, or the heat from making him obsessed with me, then betraying him, and ruining this good man’s life?”

The Kingdom is dark and strangely seductive. It explores the lives of a group of individuals who live outside societal norms and who possess unique moral compasses. As with all previous novels, Nakamura pushes against the boundaries of crime fiction here, and he does while pushing readers into uncomfortable terrain. Furthermore, the author’s ability to pull elements from other genres as well as his knack for filtering the worst side of human nature through philosophy make this a recommended read for fans of noir as well as for anyone looking to be mesmerized by a masterful storyteller entering the kingdom of nightmares, bad intentions in hotel rooms, violent sex, and broken hearts.

 

 

IDENTITY

BY JAMIE LOWENSTEIN

 

Artist’s Statement: 

Changing the format of a poem from visual (reading) to visual (video) and auditory (spoken word) stretched my imagination and forced me to rely on intuition, friends, and my theatre training. My poetry writing tends to start with a small idea or phrase, and then goes onwards with no clear direction in mind, mixing metaphors, and ending eventually when there is not much steam left to go on. In my everyday life, I tend to have more direction with the same result- stopping when I run out of steam. In this case, I had already completed this step because the poem, which acted as the foundation, was already written. The small idea, identity and identifiers/labels, had coal thrown on its fire, and the steam powered it on for 5 pages. I finished the poem, reflected on its exploration of how one identity for an entire person is minimizing because people are inherently intersectional–“i am at the intersection of all my identities”–and set the poem to rest. So, how did I find a way to further explore a piece that I felt was finished?

In a class I’m currently taking, we spend a lot of time discussing media as a form of performance, and how this type of performance, in a Warholian way, either is or is not a reflection of our truth. So, my first idea was to film myself looking in the mirror in order to turn a private moment of performance public. Publicizing intimacy normalizes it, and allows an audience to feel personally understood. Next I thought of writing my identity labels on my body. Originally I wanted them to circle my neck like a noose, and then up onto my face like a tool of asphyxiation. However, I ultimately decided against that idea because of simple practicality and the worry of breaking out even more–maybe “vain” should have been a title in that list. In any case, I now had a new idea to further my work: the inability to change how others perceive you visually i.e. based on skin color, acne, etc.

With this idea in mind, I mapped out what the camera would be showing the audience for each beat of the poem, bringing out images in the poem more clearly and concretely. Once I had planned each beat, I knew I could not do this project myself. I am not a drawing artist, and I couldn’t pan around my own body. I reached out to 2 friends of mine who do have these talents, and they were extremely helpful, doing their best to help me achieve my vision. The process mirrored my theatre work, meaning that it was collaborative. I gave Ray a lot of liberty to draw the pictures however she wanted, which ended up with a beautiful result going down my spine. The filming went a similar way. Jen apologized for her shaky hands and not getting the timing exactly right, but I assured her that all small flaws could be embraced because the poem is not about being perfect, but rather about falling apart at the seams. The video both adds to this idea, but also contrasts it: showing me free of labels in the end, no longer dictated by the text of the poem. The last shot is very similar to the first because the text mirrors itself, but at the end the “i” words do not make me blink because I am controlling my own identity and what you see of me when.

The audio experience of the poem–my harsh assonance and stabbing pronunciations, contrasted with the Chopin piece–are used to further the contrast of the visual with the text. My voice reflects the uncontrollable spiral of self-doubt and the overwhelming power of others’ impressions. However, self-doubt is often internal. The most seemingly stable, happy person can be torn apart internally. And that is the function of the song- to reflect the external performance of someone struggling to come to terms with their identities’ intersections.

 

Jamie Lowenstein is a poet and actor based in New York City currently at Pace University in its International Performance Ensemble. He’s interested in diverse stories, especially within the queer community.

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BY JACKLYN JANEKSELA

 

Science claims the bilingual to be of two characters, of two people.  The shift doesn’t happen consciously, at least not that I’ve noticed; however, I am certain that I do not express myself in the same way between the two languages.  That means my voice changes, my vocabulary varies, and the rate at which I speak fluctuates.  And then something occurs to me, perhaps the shift indicates something more sinister happening inside of me –after all, my late paternal grandmother was schizophrenic.  I worry –in both languages.

 

Saying that I always knew I’d marry someone who didn’t speak my native tongue would be presumptuous, it would indicate that I have some soothsaying gene and somehow seized or, at least, pre-determined my destiny.  And it was sort of like that, actually.  From early on, even before I even understood the concept of languages, I created my own sounds –tucked in the back of my childhood closet.  Peeking out from the closet to admire my all white canopy bed, I pretended to be a defiant princess hiding from her parents, my stuffed animals –my servants and friends with whom I spoke.  No alphabet or any real pattern to my language, but it was not from this world –that much I knew.  And when I first heard words like South America and Africa and Europe, I was certain I was conjuring an ancestor –if not from my heritage, from any number of them.

 

My husband has heard this story several times, but never in my native tongue.  It’s much less fantastical in his language, but I paint him a picture that satisfies the rules of his language while mine are ignored.   I am so aware of how it sounds when I speak it.  And I know there are details that are tossed aside or poorly articulated, whereas others go unnoticed.  How strange to talk about childhood in a language with which I was not born speaking.


Being married in a second language means other things, things I might not share with my husband.  Things like I can really tune out of a conversation much easier –I daydream often during movies or in small talk at gatherings that are in his language.

Things like I can pretend to not understand, as in that word is not part of my second-language vocabulary, so I can get him to speak to me more often because he’s quite reserved.

Things like I can challenge his use of his own language by referring to grammar rules and thus discuss the nuances between our languages but I really mean us.

Things like I can laugh at the strangeness of idioms that are equally as strange as those in my own language, but I secretly think his are more absurd.

Things like I hate arguing in his language because I get all flustered and things never come out they way I want them, too –it’s hard enough to argue in one’s native tongue.

But there are cooler things that happen.  Like I have sex in a second language, we have taboo conversations right in front of other people who don’t speak his native tongue, and we talk about art and life in his language which makes it all sound quixotic.

My life in a second language isn’t any stranger than anyone else’s –of that I’m quite certain.  Those who teeter between the two begin to notice slight changes that snowball into other things, beasts perhaps.  Like many times I cannot recall a word in my own language and to compensate, I covert the second-language word into a word that suits my language.  Sometimes this works, but when it doesn’t work, it really doesn’t work.  Like when I hear myself speaking my native-tongue I become self-conscious.  I can feel and hear each and every saliva string.  Like sometimes I’m not sure in which language I responded or in which language I was listening –yes, that is real.  Like I feel more natural speaking in my second-language to animals and children.  It’s like my language isn’t made for soft things.  Like I use my first language when I want to feel more me or conjure some ancestors with whom I haven’t spoken to in a while.  And when I need comfort from so many years removed from my country.

I remember important words like bones, blood, all types of illnesses in his language because life.

It’s not easy to navigate dreams under the influence of two languages, I choose silent dreams.

My cat speaks his language and doesn’t respond to mine.

I talk to myself in both languages.

Learning a third language is influenced by my second language more than my native tongue.

My third language accent is affected by the second language.

When I see someone that needs help, I use my first language to facilitate the situation.

I still don’t know some basic words in my husband’s language and verb conjugation is a real struggle.

The flexibility of my husband’s language makes life easy.

When I fill out forms in my native language, some of his language creeps in there.

So what happens when I try to be nostalgic in his language when I’d prefer mine?  I adapt.  And because of this I become a better writer.  No, not a better in the grammatical sense or even the publishing sense, but I have more fun with language.  Because I don’t take it so seriously, I see the humor in life, in words, in playing with words.  I might say something like the house of my mother instead of my mother’s house; it rolls around and takes it’s time to make a point and I like that.  I might say the way in which my father looked at me rather than how he looked at me; the reader gets to take a small journey through his eyes rather than feel my experience.  These small nuances elevate my ideas of language, of me, of my art.  And I am in awe of the process.  It’s like becoming a child all over again.  Where I sit beneath my canopy bed and wait for the night’s coming so I can watch the shadows play on the walls that are covered with rosebudded-paper; I am for sleep, I have sleep, I am full of sleep.

 

 

 

 

jacklyn janeksela is a wolf and a raven, a cluster of stars, &  a direct descent of the divine feminine.  jacklyn janeksela can be found @ Thought CatalogLuna MagazineTalking BookThree Point PressDumDum MagazineVisceral BrooklynAnti-Heroin ChicPublic PoolReality Hands, Mannequin HausVelvet-TailRequited Journal, The Feminist WireWord For/WordLiterary Orphans,& Lavender Review.  she is in a post-punk band called the velblouds. her baby @ femalefilet.  more art @ artmugre & a clip.  her first book, fitting a witch//hexing the stitch, will be born in 2017 (The Operating System).  she is an energy.  find her @ hermetic hare for herbal astrological readings. 

[REVIEW] Super Extra Grande by Yoss

 

Restless Books
June 2016

 

REVIEWED BY Gabino Iglesias

Science fiction is a place where minority authors have brilliantly mixed the possibilities of the future with the sociopolitical problems of their time. Everything from politics and sexism to racism and the silence of the subaltern (the one Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak wrote about) have been explored within the context of a narrative that takes place in a fictional future. Cuban science fiction author Yoss’ Super Extra Grande does all these things, but he wraps his sociopolitical arguments in so much humor, adventure, and raunchiness, that it is easy to miss it. Yoss, the pen name taken by José Miguel Sánchez Gómez in 1988 after winning the Premio David in the science fiction category, marries hard science with wild invention and throws that mix into a hilarious, politically and sexually charged universe where all alien races have stopped being unknown to each other. The result is a witty narrative that proves that, when done right, science fiction can be the most entertaining genre even when delivering a message.

 

Super Extra Grande takes place in a distant future in which Latin Americans have invented a way of travelling that’s faster than the speed of light and which has put the members of all seven intelligent species in the universe in contact with each other. Dr. Jan Amos Sangan Dongo is a veterinarian who works with the largest creatures in the universe. At the beginning of the novel, Jan Amos is deep in the bowels of a gigantic sea creature on a mission to recover a piece of jewelry for some very important people. The mission is dangerous and messy, but the mess he’s thrown in after makes it look like a walk in the park. When a colonial conflict threatens to make war explode between the seven intelligent species, Jan Amos is forced to embark on a perilous rescue mission that will make him go inside the most gigantic creature in the universe to find two swallowed ambassadors and bring them back. Unfortunately, the two ambassadors he must rescue also happen to have a shared past with him, and the nature of their relationship could complicate things quite a bit.

 

Super Extra Grande imagines a Latin-Anglo future in which Spanglish is the official language shared by the seven intelligent species. Besides the beautiful implications and the fact that Yoss is pointing at something that is plausible if looked at through the lens of the shifting linguistic dynamics in the United States and the growing use of both English and Spanish is schools and households in various countries across Latin America, the truth is that having Spanglish dialogue enriches the narrative and makes it crackle with authenticity. Here is an example of an admiral discussing the mission the galactic veterinarian will end up in:

 

“Probablemente it’s sad, pero it’s también very realístico. Besides, nosotros no somos rivales. Not ahora, anyway…Pero I insist in any case that Doctor Sangan should be given as little información as possible. Él es just un civilian. And the truth is, you’ve already told him demasiado.”

 

The way that Spanglish is constructed feels legitimate, and it helps those unfamiliar with Spanish to get the gist of it based on context. In this regard, kudos must be given to translator David Frye for his outstanding work.

 

Besides the space it creates to discuss alternate realities, the best science fiction is that which delivers on the promise of its name, and Yoss pulls it off with flying colors in part thanks to his degree in biology and in part thank to his fearless approach to creation. The variety of creatures he crafted for this relatively short novel is a testament to a powerful imagination, and the fact that he managed to flawlessly merge them with a larger narrative without bogging down the action is proof that he is a talented storyteller. Furthermore, Yoss’ work deserves attention because regardless of what he does in the story, he always keeps his focus on subverting the order of things:

 

“As it turns out, the large eels with six “nipples” are all males. And the few that swell with eggs to double their size, as well as the intelligent humanoid beings who build ships powered by the Arnrch-Morp-Gulch entailment (that is, the Tunnel Macroeffect or González drive) and who defend their space borders so aggressively, are all female.”
Yoss tackles science fiction with the attitude of a rock star, and he has the talent to make even his wildest ideas work. Super Extra Grande follows the parodic tradition of Cuban science fiction and treads new grounds in terms of the amount of imagined science and fauna found in its pages. This is a narrative in which anything is possible, love and desire are thrown into the tumultuous new territory of interspecies relationships, and Spanglish is the unifying language of the galaxy. In other words, this is science fiction at its best: wildly imaginative, revolutionary, full of strange creatures, and a lot of fun to read.
 

Gabino Iglesias is a writer, journalist, and book reviewer living in Austin, TX. He’s the author of ZERO SAINTS (Broken River Books), HUNGRY DARKNESS (Severed Press), and GUTMOUTH (Eraserhead Press). His reviews have appeared in Electric Literature, The Rumpus, 3AM Magazine, The Collagist, Heavy Feather Review, Crimespree, Out of the Gutter, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, HorrorTalk, Verbicide, and many other print and online venues. You can find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.

[REVIEW] One With the Tiger: Sublime and Violent Encounters Between Humans and Animals by Steven Church

Soft Skull Press
November 2016
300 pages

REVIEWED BY Hollynn Huitt

 

Steven Church is betting that you’ve stood outside of a lion enclosure at the zoo and, for at least one long second, thought about jumping in. But not because the lion is cute, or looks like a big, sweet cat lounging in the sun. You want to jump in because you’re afraid, deeply afraid, and that fear draws you to animals like a magnet. One with the Tiger opens with the story of David Villalobos, a young man who jumped into the tiger enclosure at the Bronx Zoo, where he was promptly mauled. Church has a casual and compelling style of writing, and the opening chapter seems to be setting us up for a deep dive into David’s psyche when he jumped into the cage. And the book does do that, in it’s own way, although not by interviewing David, or diving deeper into the story. Instead, David’s dangerous compulsion is the starting point for an in-depth exploration of what it means to be drawn to, and get too close to, dangerous and wild animals.

The book is split into 8 sections, each one loosely themed around an incident involving humans and animals, or humans behaving like animals. Take the “Timothy Treadwell” section, which focuses on grizzly bears–both the author’s personal experience and the documentary and the enigma of Timothy Treadwell, star of the Werner Herzog documentary, Grizzly Man. Church is exceptionally gifted at writing about movies–his spare but warm style gives lends just enough detail to make you feel like you’ve seen the movie, and his enthusiasm about each of the scenes he describes in One with the Tiger is contagious. I watched Grizzly Man after reading and honestly preferred Church’s description and analysis to the actual movie.

Church brushes on the innate savagery within humans as well, in his chapter “Iron Mike” (roughly organized around Mike Tyson’s ear biting of Evander Holyfield) and how we are little more than raving raging animals underneath all of our culture. This part of the book is full of boxing facts, which can get tedious, but is ultimately carried on the strength of Church’s skillful weaving of real life events, movies and literature in a snappy, easy-to-read digest.

But it’s the third category of incident that Church is most fascinated with, the one that David Villalobos presented to us at the beginning of the book–people who willingly go into cages or environments with dangerous animals with not because they want to die, but because they they feel an almost indefinable pull, perhaps because of adrenaline, or because it’s forbidden. Church is obsessed with this particular demographic, in part because he has felt the call, and he’s betting that you do, too.

The book an easy and fun read, and strangely holds together, despite being fragmented into parts and missing a basic narrative arc. We subconsciously hold out hope for a plot twist at the end: that Church will step into a cage, or that he’ll be able to speak with David Villalobos. Maybe then he could clue us in on something we couldn’t read for ourselves in the news or media. But instead he is relegated to rehashing news clippings and interviews. Church’s subject matter, horrific and compelling in a train accident sort of way, is the strongest quality of the book, and he handles it without machismo or affectation. He’s just a regular guy trying to come to terms with the strange obsession he feels and by the end you’ll be looking at the world–the world of dangerous animals at least–in a whole new way.

[REVIEW & INTERVIEW] Am I Alone Here? by Peter Orner

Image result for am i alone here peter orner

Publisher: Catapult
Publication date: November 1, 2016
Number of pages: 276
Price: $15.25

REVIEWED BY Mandy Shunarrah

To label Am I Alone Here? as any one genre is to do it and the reader an injustice. Part memoir, part literary criticism, and all love letter to literature, Peter Orner’s essay collection is the kind of book readers can’t help but cherish. My copy of Am I Alone Here? has as many flags and sticky notes as the stylized book on the collection’s cover. I read it with splendor.

With each essay, Orner measures his life in books—namely how, as a book lover, the literature he’s reading informs and intersects with his life. Reading is the lens by which Orner looks back on teaching law in Prague, the dissolution of his relationship with his ex wife, and his now-deceased, emotionally unavailable dad who haunts the stories like the ghost of Hamlet’s father. Bibliophiles will recognize the seamless neural connections that inextricably link existence and books in each piece.

You need not have read all the books and authors Orner mentions to appreciate the resounding influence literature has had on his life. He only tells you what you need to know to understand each essay and doesn’t burden the reader with extraneous details. Even if you haven’t read the stories the essays hinge upon, you get the impression you’d enjoy them just as much as Orner does. In none of these essays is Orner attempting to prove a supposed superior taste in literature—you can tell he genuinely delights in these stories and wants to share them with others who might enjoy them, too.

When you read Am I Alone Here? you feel as though you’ve read a hundred books and lived as many lives. For bibliophiles, the question of whether we are alone here is a rhetorical one: a question we ask ourselves with every book we read. The question “Am I alone here?” is at the heart of why we read and why literature is an art essential to life.

I talked to Peter about his reverence for the written word and the process of writing his first full-length work of nonfiction. (This conversation has been lightly edited for clarity.)

Mandy Shunnarah: Tell me about how these essays came to be. Since this essay collection bends genres and your past works are fiction, I’m curious to know if these essays poured forth organically or if a change of direction was something you’d been planning.

Peter Orner: Writing, any kind of writing, is hard for me. I’ve always felt it was like squeezing blood from a stone. These essays began (and ended too) with me sort of talking to myself in the very early hours of the morning. I think of them as morning notes to myself. I never plan very much. But after a certain point I realized these notes were speaking to each other.

MS: When you would discuss where you were in your life at the time you were reading a particular book or story, I believe the youngest age you mentioned was 19. Were there any books you felt a connection to before that time?

PO: You know that book about the little bird who’s born while his mother is off getting food? And he flies around asking every other animal and a bulldozer, too, if they are his mother? [Are You My Mother? by P.D. Eastman] I remember holding that book and wanting to hear it again and again. What a sad, beautiful book that is. I think it all started with that one. What would a psychologist do with this answer?

MS: It’s clear you’re an expansive reader. Was it difficult to choose what authors and stories you would include in the book? Are there other books you’re deeply fond of that didn’t get mentioned in your essays?

PO: So, so many. In the introduction to the book I list a few including Bessie Head (wonderful, deadly writer from South Africa/Botswana), Evan Connel (the great story writer from Kansas City), Calvert Casey (a Cuban Irish story writer), and Penelope Fitzgerald (the British novelist whose work, all of it, floors me)…There is also a piece I’ve been working on in my head about Primo Levi for many years about reading Levi in a cemetery in Bolinas, California. One day I’ll actually write it. Or maybe not; it is better in my head.

MS: Since completing Am I Alone Here? have you read anything you wished you’d read sooner so it could’ve been included in the collection?

PO: I recently read Patrick Modiano’s weird memoir, Pedigree, and took a lot of notes in the margins. Got me thinking. And earlier this year I discovered the work of the American story writer and novelist William Goyen. Goyen’s been largely forgotten. He deserves some serious resurrection because he’s an original. He’s fearlessly vague, and like Modiano, obsessed with memory.

MS: Your contentious relationship with your deceased father is a recurring theme in many of the essays. Did writing about him after his passing help you understand him in a way that wasn’t possible while he was alive?

PO: I wish I did. I think I’m more confused about him than ever. But I’m suspicious of answers in general, and much prefer questions. Will I ever get to the bottom of the strange person who was my father? Probably not. Writing about him made that question less even less answerable.  

MS: What are you working on next? Since you’re primarily a fiction writer, do you anticipate writing nonfiction again in the future?

PO: This will be my last book that incorporates specific aspects of my own life—he said, hoping it was true. I live and die by fiction… But in a way nonfiction is just fiction with a little more literal facts. Either way, like I say, it’s all hard for me.

 

 

 

Mandy Shunnarah is a writer based in Columbus, Ohio, though she calls Birmingham, Alabama, home. She writes personal essays, book news, and historical fiction. Her writing has been published in The Missing Slate, Entropy Magazine, PANK Magazine and Deep South Magazine. You can find more of her work at her website, offthebeatenshelf.com.

[REVIEW] Fuego by Leslie Contreras Schwartz

Image result for fuego leslie contreras schwartz

Saint Julian Press, Inc.
March 2016

 

REVIEWED BY Jennifer Morales

 

FUEGO, Leslie Contreras Schwartz’s debut poetry collection, is, as its title (“fire” in Spanish) suggests, a sprawling and hungry force. The poems, like the flames of a well-fed fire, arc widely, touching many topics. Schwartz, a mother of young children, writes about the limits and wonders of the pregnant body, about the fruits of labor — whether it be a tomato from the garden, a baby, or a poem — and about the struggles of children to assimilate to the confining world of adults. Several of the poems are ekphrastic responses to the photography of Amy Blakemore, who uses cheap equipment and highly refined developing techniques to make portraits that are rich in palette but often hazy in form. Others celebrate the daring and lonely feats of legendary endurance swimmer Lynne Cox.

It was this latter set of poems that tipped me off to Contreras Schwartz’s theme of boundaries —of bodily autonomy and bodily integrity, of unreachable shores, about the thick margin between being a writer and being a mother. “The Swim to Antarctica,” portrays Cox in her struggle to force herself to swim through 22-degree waters: “… her own voice breaking through to say what she/always/wanted to say to the body/you are owned, not owner …” In “Long-Distance Swimming,” the poet considers the teenaged Cox’s advance toward the unknowable land of adulthood: “… a lighthouse/rising to meet her on some continent,/some mainland she doesn’t have a name for yet.”

Contreras Schwartz’s poems alternately attempt to acknowledge and obliterate these boundaries, giving FUEGO a tug-of-war rhythm — fierce resistance followed by rest for the next hard pull. This struggle/rest rhythm feels apt for a book that includes many pregnancy and childbirth poems, mimicking as it does the pattern of labor contractions.

Even with all this back-and-forth, the threat of engulfing stillness is always present. One can sense a fear of inertia — a swimmer suddenly swallowed by the sea, a writer who loses the thread of a poem. In “The Falcon,” the life of a bird of prey is hemmed in by injuries, and the bird, in its flightlessness, has become a useful educational display for schoolchildren. Many poems deal with the stillness of the mother-body, while on bed rest or on the operating table during a c-section, or while endlessly breastfeeding a newborn.

The poet pushes back against that stillness in the title poem, “Fuego,” insisting that “This is not/a woman, sitting in a room/writing. It is a woman/whose hair has grown/wild fire, melting every/frozen moment in her house.” Later, in “Gardening,” one of my favorite poems in the book, she welcomes it: “… We all/need retreat, to rest, to feel/sometimes that it will come to us/by itself, a heavy plate that/says this is all yours.”

Contreras Schwartz celebrates the small triumphs of children against the strictures of adulthood. “My Daughter Sees Clouds” is one of the most powerful poems in the book, speaking of a child’s growing agency in the world as she gives names to the forms she sees in the sky. This self-granted authority to label the clouds is in high contrast to the rest of her day, a day governed by others: “… Everybody’s hands/pull and push her/into seats and halls, into lines and restrooms,/down to sleep and wakefulness. …”

She also quietly revels in women’s power to bring forth life while simultaneously bucking narrow world views that say that a woman’s value lies in her reproductive capacity. In “Burwell v. Hobby Lobby,” a found poem, she cleverly satirizes critiques of “Women who wish to run./Free-” levied by the plaintiffs in the infamous birth control coverage case.

Although the language in FUEGO is occasionally burdened with some unproductive repetition (e.g., many things in these poems“bloom” or are “tiny” or “deep”), there are moments of true transcendence. As a fellow mother/poet, I’m grateful for Contreras Schwartz’s passionate exploration of those opposing hemispheres of identity.

FUEGO is Contreras Schwartz’s debut. I hope more of her creative flame is going to burst out of the writer’s room soon.

 

 

Jennifer Morales is a poet, fiction writer, and performance artist. She is the author of Meet Me Halfway: Milwaukee Stories (University of Wisconsin Press, 2015), the Wisconsin Center for the Book’s 2016 Book of the Year selection. Her poetry has appeared most recently in Glass Poetry Journal’s special edition, Pulsamos: LGBTQ Poets Respond to the Pulse Nightclub Shooting, Kenning Journal, Verse Wisconsin, and Stoneboat, and is forthcoming in MAYDAY Magazine. Jennifer received her MFA in Creative Writing from Antioch University-Los Angeles in 2011, and currently serves on the board of the Driftless Writing Center in rural Wisconsin.

[BOOK REVIEW] A Sky the Color of Chaos by MJ Fievre

Image result for a sky the color of chaos

Beating Windward Press
November 2015

 

[REVIEWED BY HOLLY HUITT]

MJ Fievre’s first English language book opens with a blast of swirling, sticky, language so descriptive and powerful you’ll break a sweat before you’re one paragraph in.

“Port-au-Prince, Haiti—where the sun burned, and the clouds didn’t break into rain. Collars melted against necks and Eskimo ice creams melted down hands. Grass withered. Madansara birds fell into parched silence. Taptap and kamyonèt shot by, honking, and the clouds of dust they stirred up took hours to settle.”

A Sky the Color of Chaos is the author’s own story, set in a politically unstable and dangerous Haiti where gunshots and power outages are a part of daily life. Fievre begins with seven-year-old Jessica (as she calls herself in the memoir) who lives in an apartment in the thick of Port-au-Prince where she wastes no time introducing the unpredictable violence both in the streets and in her home. Jessica’s abusive father is central to the book, and so much of her world revolves around him as she grows up in their middle class home, as a student in a strict but encouraging Catholic school, and later, as a rebellious teen in the rusted out cars of her teenage boyfriends. Jessica’s coming-of-age is darker than most, not only because it is set in the turbulent landscape of Haiti, but also because she grows from a child who both loves and needs love from her father, to a pre-teen who despises him and fears she is like him, to a young adult who realizes that, as her mother tells her early on, “Things are not always black and white.”

The most remarkable thing by far in Fievre’s memoir is the rich language, written with a poet’s ear and eye for description and rhythm. Fievre’s astonishing  similies and metaphors, heaped upon each other for paragraphs at a time are dazzling, like this passage about her sister, Soeur:

I looked a Soeur in the stutters and twitches of sleep, her arms in disarray like fish confused by waves. Her body flinched, and it clicked, and it dreamed. The flickering of eyelids, like moths that slowed their flight before landing.”

Even the most gruesome passages, where a young Jessica is confronting death—the burning of a man in the street, the stack of decomposing bodies in the morgue, are painful and lovely. The backdrops of Jessica’s life shine with incredible clarity and heart.

Fievre’s beautiful language is sadly absent from the lengthy footnotes that sometimes creep across multiple pages, informing the reader of historical facts in a professorial tone that seems at odds with the rest of the book. There is an obvious urge to cover a vast amount of information in a relatively short time, both in the footnotes and the way Fievre races through the years, sometimes devoting an entire few years to a single short-paged chapter. In particular, we speed by the moment when Jessica’s father goes from raging, controlling patriarch to indulgent, checked-out father who allows drinking, partying, and much free time with boys. Jessica the narrator is, rightfully so, caught up in the heightened drama of being a teenager in Haiti, where your love interest could also be a member of a deadly, torturous secret police force. But, it is still a shame that the core tension of the story—that of her relationship with her father—fizzles out so soundlessly.

The description of Jessica’s three boyfriends, each wonderful and threatening in their own way, come fast and indulgently, and they are a pleasure to experience. Fievre taps into the emotional and physical experience of being a teenager, with descriptions of Jessica’s inner turmoil that are both highly specific to her and universal at once. It is hard to read them and not feel tinges of recognition at the angst and attempts at self-realization that come with teenage years. She writes masterfully of emotion, giving concrete weight to words that are otherwise just floating, fluttering ideas.

Even if A Sky the Color of Chaos were only the story of a remarkable girl surviving and overcoming violent and overwhelming odds to reach her dream, it would be worth a read. But it is also an incredible portrait of Haiti in a time where much of the world only associates the country with its devastating earthquake. It is tough and wistful and empowering all at once. In other words, it’s the kind of book that you could (and should) read over and over again.