[REVIEW] Washing the Dead, by Michelle Brafman


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] Tollbooth, by Bud Smith

Tollbooth cover
Piscataway House Publications
312 pages, $12.00

Review by David S. Atkinson

The summary on the back of Tollbooth by Bud Smith (author of Or Something Like That and Lightning Box and host of the interview program The Unknown Show) might lead one to expect a very familiar story. You know the one: guy in crap job can’t grow up and is about to lose the best relationship of his life. We expect such a story to concentrate on the emotional crisis he undergoes that brings him to growing up, finally realizing his course in life, and redeeming himself with the girl. Then, everything will be happily ever after, or at least mostly so.

There are endless examples of such stories, but Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity is the only one to make a lasting impression on me. I didn’t dislike High Fidelity, but it has become emblematic to me of a certain kind of often-examined thirty-something male life crisis. I had some concerns after reading the summary that this is what Tollbooth was going to be. However, Tollbooth didn’t end up being so easily dismissed. Continue reading

I Am a Magical Teenage Princess, by Luke Geddes (A Review by David S. Atkinson)

Chomu Press

234 pgs/ $14


Bygone pop culture images affect us in curious ways. Things like Scooby Doo episodes, fifties educational hygiene films, and bad girls in trouble movies, they were shallowly designed for surface appeal and quick consumption. However, these images were part of a shared experience and became imbued with the force of that, as well as whatever personal electricity they managed to pick up along the way. As such, I would suggest that they are like magic sigils, almost shorthand forms that can manipulate forces in us that we do not fully understand.

You might laugh at the ideas I suggest in the paragraph above, but I’m betting that Luke Geddes would not. Judging from I am a Magical Teenage Princess, I think Geddes knows well the energy locked inside icons such as Betty Page, Papa Smurf, and beach blanket films. After all, he makes such excellent use of such as base materials for the stories in this collection.

For instance, consider the story “Betty and Veronica.” Given what I’ve already said, I think you know what Betty and Veronica we are talking about. Explanation is unneeded. To the contrary, floodgates of response inside you have likely already swung open. But, to continue, Betty slaves over sewing a dress in order to dress identically to Veronica at the school dance and antagonize her. Subsequently:

Betty shakes free and lets Veronica chase her out into the halls and into the girls’ restroom. Once inside, Veronica checks under the stalls to make sure they’re alone and Betty locks the door.

They kiss. Like always, it’s different than with boys: wetter and softer, almost- like marshmallows soaked in hot chocolate. Where a few minutes ago Veronica pulled at Betty’s hair, now she runs her fingertips along a loose strand. Betty, suddenly ravenous, clenches Veronica’s hips and leads her to the sink. Veronica sits on the porcelain edge, letting her high heels drop off her feet. Betty draws her hands up Veronica’s thighs while outside the boys holler and pound on the door.

One thing that should be evident from this passage is that Geddes is not just making cheap use of our nostalgia by way of these cherished characters. This isn’t just simple parody or parade, but rather a starting point for serious emotional exploration. Geddes isn’t just satisfying a tawdry underground comic fantasy that Betty and Veronica are more into each other than Archie and Reggie; he actually moves these two-dimensional cartoons into the multi-faceted experience of the real human world: desires and pain beyond the original formula. Continue reading

A Hollow Cube is a Lonely Space by S.D. Foster (A Review by David Atkinson)

Eraserhead Press

108 pgs/$9.95


 As a preliminary matter, I am not an expert on bizarro fiction. In all honesty, I’ve never been able to truly define what it is, or is not. I’ve never been able to really be sure whether a story is truly bizarro fiction or whether it is just strange.

I do happen to enjoy bizarre and absurd stories. In fact, I adore them. However, a great deal of what people tell me is bizarro fiction ends up confusing me. I can appreciate good writing when it is there, and I can enjoy the absurdity, but often I am left puzzled as to what exactly the story is. This is not a fault of the particular story in question, or at least not most of the time, but is actually an indictment of my apparent ability to understand a majority of the bizarro fiction that is out there.

Frankly, I find a lot of bizarro fiction incredibly difficult to follow. I am not a casual reader. I’ve enjoyed books such as Infinite Jest, In Search of Lost Time, The Recognitions, House of Leaves, and many other such books that could not possibly be considered light reading. Still, a lot of bizarro fiction seems to me to be more experimental, very convoluted and complex in both language and structure. In a great deal of cases, it seems incomprehensible to me.

You can imagine my hesitancy when I considered picking up Foster’s A Hollow Cube is a Lonely Space. However, the buzz I’d heard about the book piqued my interest to the point that I couldn’t refuse. My interest overcame my fears.

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God's Autobio by Rolli (A Review by David Atkinson)

Now or Never Publishing

233 pgs/$17.95

To be honest, I wasn’t really sure what to expect when I picked up God’s Autobio by Rolli. I hadn’t heard a lot of talk about the book. In fact, I hadn’t really heard much at all. Frankly, I’m not sure what I expected. One thing I am sure of is that I did not expect to have this much fun reading.

Rolli seems to have a particular talent for off-hand humorous manner. There is just such a effortless, droll quality to the way that some of the stories in this book are presented that I couldn’t help but enjoy myself. The very first opening paragraph from the first story of the collection, Von Clair and the Tiger, is a perfect example:

Having never been swallowed by a tiger before, Professor Von Claire wasn’t sure what to do about the situation. Strange—whenever one of his colleagues presented him with a dilemma, he could come up with ten solutions on the spot, with plenty of literary allusions, and quotes running gleefully from his pores. It had occurred to him, more than once, that this might be the reason others referred to him as “Tweedmouth,” if that was the term.

 Seriously? This guy is swallowed by a tiger and that situation takes a backseat to his colleagues opinion about him? Frankly, the professor’s approach to the whole set of circumstances is so off-kilter from what it should be that I couldn’t help getting interested in the story. As a reader, I admit that I love the loveable oddball characters.

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Shenanigans! by Joseph Michael Owens (A Review by David Atkinson)

Grey Sparrow Press

100 pgs/$9.99

I’ve heard that by the time Bukowski was really into the swing of things as a writer, he had stopped reading much of anything.  He did not feel that most of what he came across had life; he thought it felt dead.  As such, he couldn’t read it.  I can’t really say for absolute certainty because I didn’t know old Buk’, but I believe he would have felt very differently about the writing in Shenanigans!  If there was ever writing with life, Shenanigans! is it.

In some cases, I mean this quite literally.  The writing in “Contemptibly, A Hair” blasts out of the page with more energy than a hyperactive toddler on meth, though with considerably much more pleasurable results. Consider the opening:

       CONTEMPTIBLY, A HAIR—not one sprouted from Ben Manley’s own largish pores—floats, follicle and all, atop the khaki-colored surface of his steaming cup of white- label coffee, flavored artificially with powdered non-dairy hazelnut creamer, the kind that tends to clump together when introduced to a liquid, rather than dissolve completely, since creamer and powder are two mutually exclusive substances. Continue reading