Stateside, by Jehanne Dubrow

Review by Lynn Marie Houston

419tVkReOWL._SX358_BO1,204,203,200_A holiday this past week went largely unacknowledged on my social media feeds. Wednesday, June 14th is known as “flag day.” In fact, the whole week of June 14th to the 18th is called “flag week.” It’s a holiday to commemorate the adoption of the official design of the U.S. flag by the Second Continental Congress in 1777. We’ve since added a few more stars to represent the total number of states in our nation, but it’s still the basic design we use today.

The passing of flag day with little fanfare makes me think of news articles I’ve seen over the last couple of years that attempt to remind the American people that we are still regularly sending troops to ongoing conflicts in the Middle East. Just last month, one of my college English students had to turn in his final portfolio early because he was deploying to Afghanistan with his National Guard unit. And yet, like flag day, these deployments seem to go widely unacknowledged. Some advocates have taken to calling the war in Afghanistan “Forgotistan” in order to underscore the lack of public knowledge and support for the ongoing sacrifices of our military personnel.

But it’s not just our military personnel who are continuing to make sacrifices without headlines; their families do, too. In fact, the spouses, parents, and children of our deployed service members have been long accustomed to making sacrifices without much public acknowledgement. I know a little bit about the latter kind of suffering, having supported the man I was dating through his deployment last year. In late August, the Heartland Review Press will be releasing Unguarded, my prize-winning collection of poem-letters written to him during our time apart. In honor of flag week and of Forgotistan, I’d like to draw attention to the poems of Jehanne Dubrow, whose 2010 collection Stateside rewrote the Penelope myth for modern times, capturing in poetry the quintessential 21st-Century experience of the woman who waits for her lover while he is at war.

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Pax Americana, by Kurt Baumeister

Reviewed by Jennifer Spiegel

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(Stalking Horse Press, 2017)

When I started the process of reviewing this book, my own small world was not exactly on my mind. More than anything, I eagerly opened my copy to see the workings of the indie press industry. How is Small Press America (there might be a pun buried in here) doing in 2017? There are, of course, a plethora of bookish offerings, but this particular one landed on my radar.

The funny thing is that my life inadvertently encroached. As I began reading this political satire, my husband and I finished another weirdly timed thing: a TV binge of “The West Wing” (a show that ended in 2006)—having ventured into it accidentally, without a thought about the current political climate. We just wanted to see it. Additionally, I was listening to Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale on audio for a future review with Snotty Literati, another dystopian-political-kind-of-book. And, well, we can’t exactly ignore the world into which this book was born, for better or for worse: the, um, “Trump Era.” Lastly, I’m a practicing—albeit unorthodox, rakishly anti-Trump, mildly castigated by more than a few—Christian. (Poor Baumeister! Should I even touch his decidedly anti-Christian political prose?) These things worked on me as I read this novel.

I opened the book—all Jed Bartlett-infused, Trumped-out, quaking from Atwood, and Christianized at heart. And, lo and behold, I just went with it. I went with the crazy. Politics as they are, imagination shaken, faith under fire, I read this indie offering. What did I find?

It’s a rollicking good time of wild satire, enmeshed with keen observation of rightwing ideology, and full-bodied (as in full-bodied coffee) prose. Prose that is alive. Prose with bite. Prose like a smack in the face.

Baumeister envisions a 2034 post-Bush America. He didn’t even know about Trump’s presidency yet, but it’s impossible to read it apart from The Donald now. (I did wonder if the timing of publication helped or hurt the book.) Part James Bond (with one tiny nod to 007 within its pages), part Austin Powers, part Arthur C. Clarke’s “Hal” in 2001: A Space Odyssey, and part Jerry Falwell, the narrative takes a humorous tone, but it’s almost as if Baumeister has read democracy’s entrails—the lingering odor of prophesy trails after each sentence.

Just look at some of the features of this new America:

The big evangelist is married to his fourth wife, named Kelly Anne!

The dominant economic ideology is Christian Consumerism, which includes “Christian banks and Christian department stores, Christian gun manufacturers and, of course, Christian defense contractors.” Christian businesses get tax breaks. “Vanderbilt’s Pat Robertson Seminary for Christian Capitalists” is one place of study. There is a “Virtual Jerusalem.”

Comically apt name-dropping runs throughout the narrative. Some Cheney here. Some Putin there. “Slick Willie,” “his wife,” and “the Kenyan” are all referenced.

And, best of all, there is “Righteous Burger,” an echo of Chick-fil-A. Blood of the Lamb Shakes and Freedom Fries are available and a Christian consumer might sit in one of the “Never Walk Alone two-seaters” with a “life-sized hologram” that sermonizes. Its bathroom is marked “HETEROSEXUAL MEN.”

Apart from the barbs at religion, though, clever innocuous commentary abounds. Having run through the gamut of the ordinarily named hurricanes, hurricanes are now given such creative monikers as “Biffy, Poffy, Tippy, Albertine, Screwy, and Lu-Lu.”

But the crux of Pax Americana is Symmetra, which is the computer software that might be said to meet the human need for meaning. Baumeister writes, “The dream was of no more cookie cutter gods. Everyone could have their own god, and that god would be Symmetra, and if everyone had it there would never be need for war again. And that dream was enough on its own.” The problem of world peace, then, is the most critical problem (as opposed to the problem of evil or the problem of existence). Consider this long-ish passage:

“The answer lay in the middle ground of coexistence, in finding a way to get past religion. And that was where Symmetra came in. Symmetra would break the old paradigm; free the world from men whose ideas were static and ancient—stupid at best, wicked at worst. It would free humanity from consequence-based religions, from the rigid stupidity of belief in opposites, the fundamental inability to understand the flexible nature of truth. That was what could save humanity, maybe the only thing that could, because the realization that everyone was wrong also meant that everyone could be right. . . Symmetra would change the meaning of spirituality.”

Intriguing, yes? You can see what’s at stake in this book, right? So, despite a plot that takes up the screwball antics surrounding global political machinations, the White House, spies, and private islands, there’s a philosophical conundrum at its heart. Though Symmetra is presented vaguely like a Magic 8 Ball, it is also like the Ark à la Indiana Jones. Yeah, it might be construed as anti-evangelical. But let’s be honest: right now, in America, the evangelical church has rendered itself out-of-touch, a little mean-spirited, jingoistic, and in pursuit of a bottom dollar-defined line. And I say this as one associated with evangelicalism. Baumeister certainly offers up an implicit challenge.

Make no mistake about it. Baumeister writes well. There’s quite a bit of dialogue—energetic, fast-paced, and character-oriented. There are colorful characters throughout—equipped with silver spoons and secret pasts. International espionage and old flames flicker. At times, he crafts pretty sentences with vibrant imagery, planting himself firmly on literary terrain. So, while we’re satirizing a mildly familiar reality, we’re also steeped in good storytelling.

With such a promising debut showcasing a range of literary talents, my guess is that we’ll see more from this author.

Jennifer Spiegel is the author of two books, The Freak Chronicles (stories) and Love Slave (a novel). She’s also half of the book-reviewing gig, Snotty Literati. Her website is at jenniferspiegel.com.

 

Autumn’s Yard, by Anne Averyt

Reviewed by Sarah W. Bartlett

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Finishing Line, 2016

From the first poem, “Autumn’s Yard” explores themes both enduring and endearing. In this debut collection, Averyt pays close attention to the vagaries of nature – from the external world of Nature we associate with trees, flowers and birds; to the inner world of nature as personal character and spirit; to the Big Questions concerning the nature of life, love, mortality, eternity.

The first thing the reader learns is that Averyt loves to move ordinary language around, catching both the unexpected and the doubly-intended meanings in a single pass. This she achieves through word order, reference and line breaks as much with as the sound of words themselves.

For instance, in the opening poem she writes “Here the doves in coo/mourn . . .” where the pun on here/hear immediately alerts the reader to a needed second look at the stanza. Then of course the mourning dove, rather than cooing, is “in coo,” both a reversal of the anticipated order of the phrase and an added level of meaning. Continue reading

Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders

Reviewed by Jennifer Spiegel

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Random House, 2017

I love George Saunders, and I’ll read anything he writes.

My review, in summary: he’s brilliant, a genius even—but Lincoln in the Bardo, his first novel which follows a stellar short story career, is more like an amazing exercise to be appreciated and discussed, from somewhere below; however, it failed to do what I personally like in a novel, which is for someone else’s story–besides mine!—to absorb me. That’s a lot to ask, but I often ask it. This explains my love of big, bulky stories like The Nix or The Goldfinch. Saunders offers fascinating ideas, brilliant collaging, and great sentences—but I wasn’t overcome, and I wanted to be. Did I step outside of myself and into the life of another, much like the Bardo “ghosts” step into the lives of the living? Am I closer to the human experience?

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Nobody’s Jackknife, by Ellen McGrath Smith

1st Place Winner for Poetry in the Wordwrite Book Awards 2016

Reviewed by Lynn Houston

 

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(West End Press)

Ellen McGrath Smith’s book of poetry, Nobody’s Jacknife, is a brilliantly executed poetry-memoir. A hybrid text in many sections, it intertwines prose poetry with verse (and excerpts from other works) in order to document, in the first section, coming-of-age moments in which a child becomes aware that she has an identity outside of her family unit, and as she becomes aware of the gendered lens through which she is seen by the rest of the world.

What flag can a teenage girl fly that isn’t already translucent,
x-rayed by the sun, its diurnal laws, golden gavels, ramrod
pillars of heat and becoming?. . .

Section two (and beyond) follows this female speaker into adulthood, where the lessons of her childhood play out in her romantic relationships and her own experiences of motherhood.

One of the major themes of this collection is the practice of yoga, how the speaker’s mother teaches her to do various positions at a young age. The speaker’s memories of and reflections on life are rooted in those yoga poses. And I mean “rooted”: this collection is about how to bloom in a hostile landscape after you’ve tried, and failed (as a child), to find wings.

As a poetry memoir, this is a book of relationship poems. But these are not recollections from an insulated middle-class lifestyle, the kind often associated with yoga. In a few of Smith’s poem, she talks very frankly about troubled economics, even the high price that practitioners pay for the services of a Yogi. Instead, the practice of yoga becomes a way of narrating the body’s role in its own existence, its grounding in space—literally, in one poem, folding a map like a body.

My east surrenders to my west: sun is setting,
houses, faces, facts forgotten;
the day dissolves into skin-creases.
Chin against the shin—long razor-bone;
breasts on kneecap—rainclouds, stones.

Surrender to the time the body measures
and the time that measured breath refers to
far beyond the body. My north
and my south have never known

each other’s worth; I fold the map.

Baseball is another major theme in the collection that helps draw out the politics of gender and race that undergird Smith’s work—the speaker is a precocious young woman with a conflicted relationship with her father; she documents her initial exposures to sexism and racism. Referring to a baseball game when Puerto Rican outfielder Roberto Clemente was playing, Smith’s speaker narrates:

K
is what you put down for a strikeout. One time,
some fans draped a banner at the stadium
consisting of three Ks. It gave me chills when I first saw it,
but all it meant was they were rooting for the pitcher
to retire a whole inning’s worth of batters.

The conditions of her childhood are a through-line that establish the tone of her sexual encounters into adulthood, set against the race riots of the late ‘60s. The gender dynamics of her childhood—her understanding of her father and her time with her brothers and childhood friends—set her up for troubled relationships later on, but at the same time they provide her with a nearly idyllic beginning—her innocence, the amount of time she spends in nature, observing it. The practice of yoga is the dividing line between the child and the adult, a separation bridged by kinds of knowing that involve the body, ones where she is more in control of her physical experience than in other activities.

Ultimately, Nobody’s Jacknife affirms that sitting still is an act of self-love and empowerment, that stillness is necessary for one to take root and bloom.

 

Barrel Children, by Rayon Lennon

Review by Lynn Houston

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(Main Street Rag Publishing, 2015)

With Ishion Hutchinson’s recent win of the National Book Critics Circle Award for Poetry, it is perhaps time to have a larger discussion about the work of poets who are writing about their relationships to Jamaica. One such poet local to the New Haven area is Rayon Lennon, whose work has won a Rattle contest, among many other accolades. Tess Taylor, from the NBCC board, writes about how Hutchinson crafts “poetry [that] compresses witness” and that “concentrate fervor and anger.” Rayon Lennon’s collection Barrel Children has a little of both the poetry of witness and anger, but it also captures those moments when, despite economic hardships spawned by colonialism, we discover or create connections—sometimes unconventional ones—with other people.

The premise of Lennon’s collection is the experience growing up as one of the barrel children, like many children in Jamaica, whose fathers send items back home to them from America, where they have gone to be able to support their wives and children with better wages, but where they also often start new families are never seen again. The items they send back to Jamaica are shipped in barrels. Continue reading

Small Ceremonies, by Cynthia Snow

Review by Lynn Houston

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(Slate Roof Press, 2016)

Small Ceremonies by Cynthia Snow is an indispensable poetic catalogue of what you never knew you needed, a paean to our last moments of earthly things. Snow’s work makes present a million tiny apocalypses, not the grand disasters that summon horsemen, but the subtle hurricane of otherness that loss ushers into our most intimate spaces.

Snow’s book has been exquisitely put together by Slate Roof Press using a letterpress printer, and deliciously textured cardstock with an oval cut-out front cover over laid onto an illustration of ceramic birds. The book includes a few photos of gardens and bowers that echo the intimate quality of the poet’s voice. The poems in Small Ceremonies are often like secrets whispered to childhood friends. The voice offers up its lyricism as sanctuary, ushering us into a sanctified space even when it confides erotic happenings.

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The Philosophy of Unclean Things, by Rosemarie Dombrowski

Review by Lynn Houston

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(Finishing Line Press, 2017)

As editor-in-chief of Five Oaks Press, I should disclose that I published Rosemarie Dombrowski’s first poetry collection, The Book of Emergencies, in 2014. What I loved most about that book is the same element that shows up in her latest collection The Philosophy of Unclean Things published by Finishing Line Press–how life provides an ethnographic symbolism for her art. The Philosophy of Unclean Things is a collection that Rosemarie has jokingly referred to as her “dead bird poems,” and a reader can see why. She makes a lens out of a fascination with decay, with how things inevitably and organically waste away and return—not all at once—to earth. In her previous collection, in which she wrote about the challenges and miracles of raising her autistic son, family life became the site of a tenuous nesting. Here, Dombrowski expands her view—The Philosophy of Unclean Things gathers life, art, and relationships from far and wide, even including the rift between a citizen in her country in a series of poems that explore the psychology of the expatriate, another wonderful kind of dis-ease in Dombrowski’s universe. Continue reading

The Clothing of Books, by Jhumpa Lahiri

Review by Deborah Karahalis

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(Vintage, 2016)

Pulitzer Prize–winning author Jhumpa Lahiri’s most recent book is an 80-page memoir filled with deeply personal reflections on book covers and authors.  This novella started life as a lecture for a literary festival in Italy which Lahiri then expanded into a larger piece. This is Lahiri’s first book written in Italian. It was translated by Alberto Vourvoulias-Bush.  Lahiri explores how a book cover impacts the potential reader and how the book cover reflects on the author; “The right cover is like a beautiful coat, elegant and warm, wrapping my words as they travel the world, on their way to keep their appointment with my readers.”

Lahiri’s exploration of the significance of book covers begins when she compares them to her own experiences of being the child of Indian immigrant parents who wished her to dress traditionally while she, a rebellious teenager in America, wanted to dress exactly like her friends; “When I was a child, expressing myself through clothing was a source of anguish. I already felt different, conspicuous because of my name, my family, my appearance. Continue reading

Born to Run, by Bruce Springsteen

Review by Jennifer Spiegel

Simon & Schuster, 2016


Bruce likes to write.

Actually, Bruce loves to write.

Over 500 pages, this memoir covers a lot. From his Italian/Irish/Working Class/Catholic/Crazy Dad/Longsuffering Mom/Freehold, New Jersey childhood to his happily-married/empty nest/post-Clarence Clemons/horseback-riding sixties. Bruce is headed into old age, my friends.

The Word on the Street: Springsteen wrote the whole thing himself, by longhand, over the course of seven years. I believe it. Typically, I’m mildly cynical about “celebrity memoirs”—but the book is so wonderfully Springsteen-esque, which is to say it’s rambling, poetic, repetitive, heartbreaking, a little longish, sometimes profound, and totally engaging. A ghostwriter wouldn’t have lingered so long over every single album. Every. Single. Album. (I highly recommend the audiobook because Bruce narrates it; however, I’d be listening and he’d say, “Chapter Fifty-three . . . Chapter Sixty-seven . . . Chapter Nine Thousand.”)

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