Buddha vs. Bonobo, by Brendan Walsh

review by Kristen Leigh

 

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(Sutra Press, 2017)

“…how far from where stories shaped/ their mouths and not/ the other way around.”

It is in the above line from Brendan Walsh’s latest collection, Buddha vs. Bonobo (Sutra Press), that I read an inquiry of human communication quintessential to the author’s body of work. Walsh’s commitment to fusing feeling with intellect and presenting the idea within the container of a poem is more than just pleasure reading—although there is much pleasure in the lyricism of his language and imagery. Walsh’s previous work asserts him as a minimalist of material goods, yet nearly hedonistic in his consumption of experiences, culture, language, travel, love, friendship. He communicates a drive, ravenous, for a common shared experience. We are talking about the work of a man who feels it all—who chooses to feel it all—and hopes you might join him in this lettered search for the origin of human compassion. It might be surprising to find it resting in hearts and on haunches in, at least on these recent pages, bonobo communities.

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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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We Are Traveling Through Dark at Tremendous Speeds, by Sarah Sadie

Reviewed by Karla Huston

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(Lit Fest Press, 2016)

I’m one of “those” readers who begins at the beginning of a volume of poems. I don’t page through, lighting on a title to stop to read only to flit off again. I do not read the end of the book first, although as I write this, I wonder, if perhaps I should.

While reading Sarah Sadie’s poems, I start at the start, but first, I read the narrative that scrolls across the bottom of the page like the Breaking News! crawl on national news-tainment channels.

A volume of poems unlike most, it has a sense of “other.” First, Sarah Sadie is the nom de poem used by Sarah Sadie Busse, Middleton, Wisconsin. It is appropriate she has named herself as such, since these poems are about of becoming, of defining and refining the self as (not?) “Middle-aged, middle-class, middle-western. [Middleton?] Flyover territory.”

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Just Kids by Patti Smith

Review by Jennifer Spiegel

Who isn’t listening to audiobooks these days? I was late, as I am to many trends, as I was with Patti Smith. I think I only “discovered” her in the nineties. Actually, I know exactly when and where I was. The nineties, the East Village, a used record shop (are they still there?) Me, trying, failing, to be cool. I bought Patti Smith’s Gone Again. Hooked, ready for Horses.

I finally listened to Just Kids, which is narrated by Smith. It’s extraordinary. Though the book focuses on her relationship with Artist Robert Mapplethorpe (who, admittedly, interests me considerably less), it was Smith who lulled me with her prose. When poets commit to narrative, sometimes amazing things happen.

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The Neapolitan Novel Quartet by Elena Ferrante

review by Jennifer Spiegel

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My Brilliant Friend (2012), The Story of a New Name (2013), Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (2014), and The Story of the Lost Child (2015): doesn’t this four-book-in-a-row thing blow you away?

My introduction to Ferrante came on the operating table, minutes before I had both breasts cut off. Probably my most-trusted literary confidante had told me to read Ferrante’s The Days of Abandonment (2005), and—for some no-doubt predestined reason—that was the book I took to the hospital to get a double mastectomy in the summer of 2015. I read parts of it, in a hospital gown with only socks on—no underwear. The protagonist’s marriage was over. Reality, contorted. I woke up and read again. My body, compromised.

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Slouching Towards Bethlehem by Joan Didion

Review by Jennifer Spiegel

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I can’t believe it took me so long to read (or listen to) this! I’ve had this latent, mildly unkind disinterest in Didion’s work for a dumb reason. I had to read one of her books in an undergrad class called “Politics and the Novel” (I won’t tell you which one), and I guess I didn’t like it. The class was taught by a Poli Sci prof who liked to read, rather than a stuffy old English prof or a chic/smarmy writer-type: the course was a noble endeavor, but somehow I missed out on the heart of the Didion conversation. Continue reading

Californium by R. Dean Johnson

Review by Paul Fuhr

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(Plume Books, 2016)

There’s a moment midway through R. Dean Johnson’s Californium (Plume Books, 2016) where the novel’s teenage protagonists are comparing the logo of their new punk band to the iconic ones from the legendary bands before them: “Pretty soon, all we’ll need is the top part. Like how people know it’s the Dead Kennedys just by seeing the tomahawk or the Clash when all they see is the guy bent over, smashing his guitar.” It’s a moment that speaks to how emblems, symbols and patterns embed themselves in our consciousness and stay there, triggering instant recall upon seeing them. This is also true of Johnson’s writing: the longer you stay steeped in his words (SoCal, circa 1980), the longer it stays with you and the faster you identify with it. Johnson’s characters—Reece, Keith and Treat—join forces against the headwind of adolescence through the shared love of punk rock. Continue reading