[REVIEW] Communion by TJ Beitelman

communion

Black Lawrence Press, 2016

 

REVIEWED BY JONATHAN DUCKWORTH

“Most things don’t take root, and that is as it was intended.”

The above quote, a cryptic line from the story “Sister Blanche” in TJ Beitelman’s Communion, captures much of the magic and tragedy suffusing the collection’s stories—stories of marriages halfway ended, affairs partway consummated, vows only partially kept, and conversations only begun but never finished.

The full title of Beitelman’s new book is Communion: Stories, but that doesn’t quite describe the animal that is this book. While in places a reader may well be lulled into thinking they’re leafing through an ordinary short story collection, such as in “Antony and Cleopatra,” or “Joy,” other sections will lead to questions of genre. The early short pieces of the collection (“Artic Circle,” “Masks”) could be read both as prose poetry as well as flash fiction, testament to Beitelman’s lyrical dexterity as well as his strength at setting a scene and selling a mood. In a further departure, the book’s longest piece, “Notes on an Intercessory Prayer,” is less a story and more a lyric essay with brief fictional incisions into what is by-and-large a tribute to the late Benazir Bhutto. The last flush of stories (“Hope, Faith, and Love,” “Communion”) toward the end of the book can stand as individual pieces as well as chapters to a larger surrealist work that tells the myth of a working-class Messiah and the family he leaves behind without saving.

While most of the stories in Communion are set in Southern locales, their characters traditional (after a fashion) Southerners of working-class extraction, there are some notable exceptions. One of my favorites, “Yoi, Hajime” centers on a Japanese chicken-sexer reflecting on his time working in Atlanta, Georgia alongside a young black woman who he longs for but never gets around to courting. The model guiding most of Beitelman’s stories is less the lopsided pyramid taught in creative writing workshops around the country and more the asymptote: the curving line that draws closer and closer to the line that would be its mate without ever touching. The endings are often open-ended: pots left simmering on the stove. A wonderful example of this is the excellent flash piece “Blackface,” which leaves the reader with a powerful and pervading sense of mystification mixed with enlightenment as we see a drunken teenager break into a neighbor’s house only to come face to face with his own mother—naked and in blackface. The motivations are irrelevant, as are the consequences to the characters in the aftermath—all that matters is the powerful moment of recognition between the mother and son before the son flees the house.

TJ Beitelman’s Communion is not a conventional short story collection, nor is it the sort of collection that one could use as an easy, marketable model for putting together a first book. It is, however, memorable and equal-parts troubling, affecting, and inspiring.

[REVIEW] A Taxonomy of the Space Between Us, by Caleb Curtiss

 taxonomy

 

Black Lawrence Press

37 pages, $8.95

 

Review by Katie Schmid

 

Caleb Curtiss’ first chapbook is a chronicle of a sister’s death in a car accident; it is the story of the moment of the death and the moments after. These poems are also poems of memory, as the speaker here watches the past become inflected with (and infected by) the knowledge of the loss that is to come, as in “Self-Portrait With My Dead Sister” where the speaker reflects on a day at the beach with his sister when they were young,

one will grow up and keep on being real,

while the other will grow up and be dead.

In this memory, the speaker’s sister is already dead though she still lives on the beach. The bald truth of a sister whose memory is both alive and dead seems an obvious enough observation about the nature of loss, but in Curtiss’ poems, it becomes a paradox, something that is troubled and fraught, an obsession—Curtiss questions what it means that his sister can be both real and not real, what it means that he dredges up her memory, over and over, to live in these poems, and finally what the space of grief is for. Continue reading

[REVIEW] Families Among Us, by Blake Kimzey

families

Black Lawrence Press

40 pages, $8.95

 

 

Review by Thomas Michael Duncan

 

In the first episode of his podcast, The Monthly, Mike Meginnis observes that the chapbook, as a form, appears to be something “people enjoy publishing much more than they enjoy reading.” This struck me as a smart, if generalized, reflection on the medium. Like new literary magazines, a spattering of chapbook publishers appears to sprout from nowhere every few days. This is likely an outcome of the current economic and cultural climate, where it is too expensive for upstart presses to print full-length books when more and more readers gravitate towards digital editions or free online content. The chapbook offers a cost-effective way to put something physical in a reader’s hands, but the ease of production also lends the form to hurried publication and incohesive collections.

Yet when a publisher puts real time and consideration into a chapbook, when a writer tells vibrant stories that bleed into the margins, and when a sharp design meets fitting, fascinating artwork, the result is too great to ignore. In other words, the result is Families Among Us, winner of the 2013 Black Lawrence Press Chapbook Competition. Continue reading

[REVIEW] Scouting for the Reaper by Jacob M. Appel

 

reaper

Black Lawrence Press

194 pages, $15.15
Review by Max Vande Vaarst

 

 

Jacob M. Appel’s Scouting for the Reaper is a masterpiece of human hysterics. In nearly each of these eight collected stories, which shift in perspective across age and gender lines, yet hold firm throughout to their essential self-seriousness, the Dundee-winning biochemist polymath Appel makes a habit of substituting obsession for conflict and the paranoiac for the poignant.

Our first encounter with Reaper’s “Dear Diary” brand of melodrama comes in equal doses through the three adolescent-narrated openers, “Choose Your Own Genetics,” “Creve Coeur” and the title story “Scouting for the Reaper.” The love interests here manifest themselves early, entering their respective scenes accompanied by hammy giveaway lines such as “He was a broad-shouldered, square-jawed teenage dreamboat…his cheeks blossomed like peonies” and “At that moment, the girl – the most alluring creature I’ve ever seen, stepped angelically into our artificial winter.” Continue reading

[REVIEW] The Aversive Clause, by B.C. Edwards

~ by David S. Atkinson

9781937854249

Black Lawrence Press

$16/180 pgs

I always hate to display my ignorance, but I will be forthcoming here and admit that I was not familiar with the work of B. C. Edwards before grabbing a copy of his short story collection The Aversive Clause. However, despite my unfamiliarity and despite this being Edward’s first prose book (he is also the author of the poetry collection To Mend Small Children), I still had high expectations.

After all, The Aversive Clause was the winner of the 2011 Hudson Prize. In addition to a long list of journal publications, Edwards has been nominated for a Pushcart and is a Literary Death Match Champion. I’ve even heard that one of the stories in this collection (“Illfit”) is being adapted by the Royal Ballet of Flanders. To make a long story short, I was expecting great things when I opened the cover.

Having opened this review in such a manner, I should immediately turn to whether or not my high expectations were satisfied. By way of answering my own question, let’s take a look at a portion from “The City of God is Your Town, America…If You Make an Effort!” as an example:

God descended to Earth into a lackluster soybean field somewhere in Kansas. “No,” he said when we asked him if it was the end of the world. “Oh heavens no, no, no,” and he waved his god-hands furiously causing minute divine ripples through the heat that ruined all our hairstyles. “No, really, no.” And God smiled like he was trying to convince us and him at the same time. And his smile was strange, awkward like the handshakes when you don’t realize you’ve met someone before and reintroduce yourself. Continue reading