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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Olio, by Tyehimba Jess

Review by Joshua Jones

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Wave Books, 2016

Tyehimba Jess’s most recent volume, Olio, documents the lives and voices of African American performers in the latter years of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. This Olio, which the front matter helpfully defines as “a miscellaneous mixture of heterogeneous elements [or] the second part of a minstrel show,” meditates on the masks these performers inherited and subverted. These masks sometimes manifest literally, like the blackface made from burnt cork ironically donned by black performers Bert Williams and George Walker, but sometimes suggestively, like the persona of the disabled savant worn by Blind Boone and Blind Tom. The voice that ties the collection together, Julius Monroe Trotter, who conducts interviews about the life of Scott Joplin with many of the volume’s speakers, wears a prosthetic mask to hide a wound from the First World War. Trotter, while serving as a thinly-veiled stand-in for Jess collecting narratives of the past for a book, discovers and pushes back against his own minstrelization. His interviewees often understand him better than he understands himself, and while early on he doesn’t “think of [himself] as a performer in a minstrel show,” by the book’s conclusion, he escapes the murderous envy of a white train engineer only by running off with the “North Star Traveling Negro Troubadours” to play piano.

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At Whatever Front, by Les Kay

Review by Lynn Houston

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Sundress Publications, 2016

In At Whatever Front, Les Kay brings his readers to the daily battlegrounds of working class life and excavates them for the commentary they provide on cultural notions of masculinity. Kay’s tightly coiled voice invites us to look at manhood the way Dante gives us a tour of hell or Prufrock invites us to walk lonely city streets with him. This act of looking, of providing witness, is essential to the collection, just as it is to any true war story. Because both war stories and the daily lives of the working class involve bodies that are broken or breaking, ones that die without media fanfare. About the speaker’s father, in “Blue Memento” Kay writes: “his ears hummed / like alarm clocks. . . fresh paper cuts / remapped the calluses of forty years / with tributaries of blood, and his eyes blurred with the repetition of movement. . .” The speaker establishes his lineage as cyborg—part human and part of the machines in the warehouse that formed his father’s physical appearance.

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Violet Hours, by Jeanie Tomasko

reviewed by Karla Huston

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(Taraxia Press, 2016)

Meet Violet, the eccentric child birthed by Jeanie Tomasko and brought into the world by a new, Wisconsin publisher, Jeannie (F.J.) Bergmann’s Taraxia Press. Violet Hours is crafted as a sweet gift, a small, hand-stitched book with a French wrap cover and violet flyleaf. The cover art is of a sedate teacup and sugar bowl with a partial skull, waiting like a treat, next to it, a warning, perhaps, of what is to come.

Violet is a precocious child: “They say I was born in a cold spring, the morning/after my mother put up twelve pints of violet jam.” She’s a girl who is curious, filled with the desire for magic, a child’s need to know, to wonder.

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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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A Free, Unsullied Land, by Maggie Kast

1st Place Winner for Fiction in the Wordwrite Book Awards 2016
Reviewed by Amalia Cabral

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Fomite Press, 2015

A Free, Unsullied Land is a fully-fleshed rendering of a historic period, 1927-1933, a time of Jim Crow racism, a virulent form of panic about communism, Prohibition, and the Great Depression.  Kast does not use the period as mere window dressing but instead recreates the uncertainty, fear and rather fraught exploration of the freedoms of the time – like a franker expression of sexuality, experimenting with roles of women, political activism.

The main character, Henriette Greenberg, is a perfect vehicle for channeling the stresses and opportunities of the era.  She is a puzzled seeker, a restless and dissatisfied young woman from Oak Park, Illinois finding her way through parlous times.  She is a reluctant academic, a confused sexual seeker, an untried political activist. One of the strongest parts of the novel is her naïve journey to Scottsboro to protest the conviction of innocent black men accused of rape, a journey that frightens her more than she’d expected yet at the same time anneals her growing interest in fighting injustice and oppression.

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Uncovered: How I Left Hasidic Life and Finally Came Home, by Leah Lax

1st Place Winner for Memoir in the Wordwrite Book Award Contest, 2016

Reviewed by James Knight

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(She Writes Press, 2016)

Leah Lax’s stunning memoir, spanning forty-plus years of her life, from her searching teens in the turbulent ‘70s to her rebirth in the first decade of the twenty-first century, begins, appropriately, in a moment of transformation: her marriage, when she abandons life as “Lisa,” child of decidedly liberal Reform parents—“hoarding artist mother and mentally ill father”—and becomes Leah, “Hasidic woman.” Though she fails to feel the “wonder moment of recognition” at the sight of her contractually betrothed—stable, doctrinaire Levi—she is “gleeful” before her mirrored reflection the day after the wedding. It’s just such moments of affecting ambivalence, most rendered in the intimate immediacy of the present tense, that organize a narrative of astonishing honesty and admirable (at times saintly) equanimity.

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