[REVIEW] Washing the Dead, by Michelle Brafman

dead

Prospect Park Books

344 pages, $19.99

 

Review by David S. Atkinson

 

Barbara confesses an odd thing to her sonographer when eighteen weeks pregnant with her daughter. She says she “prayed that God had spared a girl from landing in [her] womb.” That’s a pretty heavy way to start Washing the Dead, the debut novel by Michelle Brafman (a teacher at The Johns Hopkins MA in Writing program whose writing has appeared in Fifth Wednesday Journal, the minnesota review, Blackbird, Slate, the Washington Post, and elsewhere). Regardless, knowing what I know now, it seems like a pretty apt place to begin.

Barbara is terrified about raising a girl because of her traumatic relationship with her mother. Her mother was loving, but could occasionally be inexplicably distant:

My mother’s mood hovered over us, a mist that could either turn to rain or vanish into the sunlight. During our family walk to Shabbos services, I saw her eyes honeying over, the first sign that at any moment she could dip away from us, into that place inside herself. Even since last April, the mist had turned soupy, and I worried that we would both drown in it.

“Let’s do the last block fast, Mom.” If we moved quickly, we could outrun the fog.

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[REVIEW] The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli (translated by Christina MacSweeney)

teeth

Coffee House Press

184 pp, $16.95

 

Reviewed by Leland Cheuk

 

In Valeria Luiselli’s first novel Faces In The Crowd, a promiscuous, melancholy mother loses herself so thoroughly while translating the work of a Mexican poet named Gilberto Owen that her narration slowly becomes that of the equally promiscuous, swashbuckling poet. In Luiselli’s funny new picaresque The Story of My Teeth, Gustavo “Highway” Sánchez Sánchez picks up where Owen left off. He too is a charismatic raconteur whose first-person narration simultaneously charms and cuckolds. Highway not-so-humbly describes himself as “the best auctioneer in the world.” He collects all kinds of objects, including the teeth of the famous. He claims to be wearing Marilyn Monroe’s choppers. He’s got a serious case of Napoleon Complex because he attributes many of his unusual aphorisms to Napoleon (I doubt the French emperor ever said “it wasn’t all velvet petals and marshmallow clouds”). As an auctioneer, Highway spins elliptical, impressionistic love letters about the objects he’s trying to sell. About Plato’s teeth, he says:

Our first lot is a piece in a somewhat deteriorated state…Significant flattening of the point leads to the supposition that the original owner, Mr. Plato, talked and ate continuously…Mr. Plato once made a comparison between the period of dentition and a man falling in love: “In this state, the soul enters into effervescence and irritation; and this soul, whose wings are just beginning to develop, can be compared to a child whose gums are inflamed and enervated by its first teeth.”

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[REVIEW] The Girls of Usually, by Lori Horvitz

girls

Truman State University Press

238 pages, $16.95

 

Review by Erica Trabold

 

 

Lori Horvitz’s The Girls of Usually chronicles the most defining moments of the author’s life. From performing magic tricks to traveling the world to learning more about herself and her sexuality, thirty-two brief essays support a loose narrative that begins with Horvitz’s childhood and ends somewhere mid-life, a pause for reflection amidst a string of failed relationships.

Horvitz holds nothing back. On the page, her prose breathes contentment, curiosity, and energy— she is eager to share insights gained through personal experience, however unconventional her life may be. At the forefront, Horvitz addresses potential concerns about the scope of the project, which spans an entire lifetime. In an author’s note, she reminds readers that most scenes have been reconstructed to serve the book’s larger inquiry and essence. No transcripts exist to verify action, intent, or dialogue down to the very word. As is the case with most writers of nonfiction, Horvitz bases her exploration on the kinds of source material readers would expect, information gained through access to journals, personal interviews, and memory. Continue reading

Books We Can’t Quit: The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard

fire

Picador

 

Review by Martha Anne Toll

 

I heard her on the radio; I found her book at the library. Neither sufficed. I had to own Shirley Hazzard’s The Great Fire. The leading man in this taut, beautiful novel is Aldred Leith—measured, strong, true—crisscrossing continents out of duty, curiosity, and ultimately love. Co-starring are Helen and Benedict Driscoll, seventeen and twenty respectively; together, a single force of nature. Winner of the 2003 National Book Award, The Great Fire inspires and intimidates. I would die happy if I could execute a single sentence as compact, poetic, and meaningful as any in this novel.

Here’s the opening, two sentences to illustrate the depletion of war:

Now they were starting. Finality ran through the train, an exhalation.

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[REVIEW] Everywhere Stories: Short Fiction from a Small Planet, edited by Clifford Garstang

Everywhere

Press 53

234 pages, $19.95

 

 

Review by Denton Loving

 

 

“You just don’t know who your enemies are. And your enemies are so often your friends, Molly. It will always be like this, I fear,” says Lana, the narrator of Alden Jones’ “Heathens,” one of twenty stories collected from twenty different authors from around the world and edited by Clifford Garstang in Everywhere Stories: Short Fiction from a Small Planet.

Lana is an American teaching in a village in Costa Rica. She is well loved by her students and the community, but in the story, she is caught up in teaching a lesson of a darker kind to Molly, a teenaged innocent visiting Costa Rica as part of a group of fly-by Evangelical missionaries.

Lana discovers that the world is dangerous, which is also Garstang’s first thought in his introduction to the collection. These diverse stories range from every continent, from toothless bikers in New Zealand to young women approaching adulthood in the Congo, from a boar attack in a German park to a suicide bomb in Israel. If these stories share a single theme, it is of this danger that permeates our human existence, regardless of our geographic location. Continue reading

[REVIEW] Witchita Stories, by Troy James Weaver

Witchita

Future Tense Books

200 pages, $12

 

Review by Ryan Werner

 

Previous general portrayal of the Midwest has been decidedly not-my-Midwest: Garrison Keillor’s rosy-cheeked shitheads and the good-guys-win-bad-guys-lose world of John Hughes. My Midwest is boredom and its trappings—drugs and sex and Tori Amos tapes—and as those ideas run through Troy James Weaver’s Witchita Stories, it does to Wichita, Kansas what Gummo did to sub-rural Ohio or what Alice Munro did to small town Canada. It shows how those not on the map survive without the map.

Opening jam “Summer” is the best of them all. It doesn’t go far, because nothing in town goes far. “My sister is sixteen and she’s already at that stage in life where she’s bringing over guys that look like Fonzie or Vanilla Ice.” That’s the first sentence, and I wish I had written it. I wish I had written the next part, too, about these guys and their bad music, their misappropriated styles. How the sister is distracted to a point of neglect and how hot it is outside and how you just won’t die one way or the other, won’t melt away in the heat and won’t freeze to death in counteracting it.

And that’s it. 329 words and maybe ten steps off the front porch, a walk into the kitchen to eat what your sister didn’t make you. Continue reading

[REVIEW] Debridement by Corrina Bain

debridement

greatweatherforMEDIA

98 pages, $16.00

 

Review by Jay Besemer

 

One risk with the personal review is that one’s own experience insists on taking up space in a conversation about someone else’s work. But a book like Corrina Bain’s first full-length poetry collection Debridement demands a greater degree of transparency and subjectivity in a reviewer. So here’s my little bit of space in this conversation: I am a transgender man, moving through a “transition” that will actually continue through the rest of my life, as my middle-aged, chronically ill body continues to work with the testosterone that has saved me. I experience and write about Debridement from that highly embodied, complexly irreducible subject position. It is not the same position as Bain’s gender non-conforming one, and that also needs saying, because these nuances of position are at once subtle, mobile, difficult to navigate and vitally important.

This means I am not the same reading (or writing) person I used to be. My previous version would have been uncomfortable weighing in on a book whose violence is both unapologetic and necessary. For that’s what Bain’s book is—violent and necessary, and violent by necessity. I’m not talking about the violence of content, though there is that kind of violence in these poems. I’m talking about a surgical violence. A radical, invasive disruption of one’s person and body for healing purposes. Only here, the poet is not telling readers about a healing trauma (or about healing from trauma). In Debridement, Bain is both holding the knife and under it. He is cutting away his own dead parts as well as ours. And make no mistake: we need this. Continue reading

[REVIEW] Life is Short – Art is Shorter: In Praise of Brevity, edited by David Shields and Elizabeth Cooperman

Life
Hawthorne Books
320 pages, $18.95

 
Review by Dinty W. Moore

Life Is Short Reviews Itself

[An assemblage of sentences lifted, Shields-style, from Life is Short – Art is Shorter: In Praise of Brevity.]

Objects are real. Details matter – to the devil and to everyone else, including and especially writers. It was assumed that I would have a fedora hat of my own by the time I was twelve years old. In honor of the hybrid spirit of the form, stage your prose poem in such a way that you get at what is to you one of life’s crucial paradoxes. You’re white an dewy an tickin like a time bomb an now’s the time to learn. This assignment is similar to the one for “Object,” except the image or object you choose is now in dynamic movement. In the middle of the ride something grazed my head. There was a metal bar hanging loose along one of the corners, and each time we whipped around it, the bar touched me. Write two stories or essays, each 500 words long, in which you first see through the male Continue reading

[REVIEW] strange theater, by John Amen

strange

 

NYQ Books

112 pages, $14.95

 

Review by Brian Fanelli

 

In his essay “Litany, Game, and Representation,” poet Tony Hoagland says that American poetry is informed by “new tensions, new understanding, and new possibility.” He adds that American poetry currently has no preference for “narration, description, or confessions of the autobiographical self,” and poems of the “new poetry” shoot off in dozens of aesthetic directions. In many ways, John Amen’s latest book, strange theater, is very much of the “new poetry” that Hoagland defines. The collection contains different aesthetic directions, prefers the surreal over straightforward narrative, and though many of the poems are dedicated to people, the poems generally resist the confessional and autobiographical.

There were shades of the confessional in Amen’s previous collections, but strange theater relies more on strange and unusual images and poetic leaps of imagination. In the beginning of one poem, “yr opportunity,” there is an image in the opening stanza about scorpions crawling across someone’s palms on a Saturday and waltzing, dragging along violins. In another poem, “the son we never had,” there are hints of confessional narrative in the opening line, but the poem, like many in the book, turns to the uncanny and the surreal, perhaps as a way to address more complex issues or even memory.

the son we never had
crawls through our kitchen
linoleum cracking beneath his impatience

he studies us as we sleep
sifting through our trophies & urns
clutching his banister of space

he wanders the dim corridors
glimpsing a bedroom that might’ve been his
streaking invisible prints on panes & ledges

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[REVIEW] Lucky Alan and Other Stories, by Jonathan Lethem

lucky

 

Doubleday

 

$24.95, 157 pgs

 

Reviewed by Jonathan Russell Clark

 

 

The short story form serves Jonathan Lethem well. An imagination and intellect as keen as fertile as Lethem’s can take any idea and run with it for as long as he likes, which can result in, for instance, his disastrous 2009 novel Chronic City. Or it can produce something wondrous like The Fortress of Solitude. But Lethem’s stories, like his essays, allow him to explore a conceit with the same brilliant mind while simultaneously preventing him from wearing out his literary welcome.

His third story collection Lucky Alan and Other Stories shows Lethem in total control of his prodigious skills and cultural insight. These nine stories cover many of the themes Lethem finds himself returning to again and again, but their economy ups the punch considerably. But perhaps most important to the success of these tales is Lethem’s acute understanding of the worlds over which he hovers.

Take, for instance, the story “Their Back Pages,” which features a group of long-forgotten comic book characters crash-landing on a tropical island. I couldn’t help but be reminded of George Saunders’s “In Persuasion Nation,” a similarly satirical romp featuring characters not from comics but from commercials. Saunders’s aim is very different, yes, but there’s also something else: Saunders necessarily remains at a distance in “In Persuasion Nation,” because the object of his story (commercials) is not a world of which he’s a part. Lethem, who has himself written comic books, clearly knows the realm of paneled storytelling intimately, so “Their Back Pages” wins as both a funny satire and a knowledgeable artifact of Lethem’s vast cultural reach. Continue reading