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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Delicious Foods, by James Hannaham

Reviewed by Jennifer Spiegel

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Back Bay Books, 2016

I waited till the very end of 2016 to read it, though I picked up the paperback in January (it came out in hardback in 2015). I don’t know why. Nestled on my shelf between must-reads and supposed-to-reads, Delicious Foods remained unread throughout the year: missing the havoc of the election, skipping the annual list-making season in which readers formulate their Top Ten Books of 2016. My own book-reviewing gig, Snotty Literati, made its list. And, well, Delicious Foods is not on it.

It should’ve been. While not necessarily as large in its philosophy or cultural commentary as my 2016 pick for Best Book (which remains my first pick)—Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad—this one was among my favorite novels of the year. Delicious Foods is a great book. It’s an original story with a—dare I say?—suspenseful plot, soulful characters, and amazing language.

Start with the cover. Such a lovely cover. I love that cover.

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Parts Per Trillion, by Claudine Nash

Reviewed by Caroline Reddy

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Aldrich Press, 2016

Claudine Nash’s Parts Per Trillion is a collection of hermetic poetry that authentically embodies the human condition. Universal themes such as death, grief, longing and healing are deconstructed in a heartfelt and witty manner. Readers sink into philosophical realms where they hover and slip between half thoughts, somberly inspect unfinished business and speak unspoken words.

The psychological and existential notion of clinging, while longing to let go, threads throughout the collection. “Fine Print,” orbits the remnants of archival memories that lament “empty mood states” and “warped perceptions of reality.” We are advised that if we mull over infinite recollections we will be “spinning into loops and circles.”

Often, in poems like Hold That Thought, we linger in the subconscious and are instructed to “slip them into the sea as the tide sets out” and “become old school gangsters and make some silence.” In Insomnia we puckishly envision “the stalled night as nothing but a school girl playing hopscotch on the clock.”  Through reflection, stillness and “Micro moments,” the poet’s sagacious voice dissects our hearts and awakens our neurological palette. Continue reading

A Conversation Between Lois Marie Harrod and Christine Beck

Two poets published by Five Oaks Press, Lois Marie Harrod, author of Nightmares of the Minor Poet, and Christine Beck, author of Stirred, Not Shaken, discuss their works.

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(Five Oaks Press, 2016)

How we met—

Christine: Lois and I met at the Poetry Getaway in Cape May, N.J. in 2010.  Lois was leading a workshop on how to put together a poetry manuscript.  I was impressed with the generosity of her critique and used many of her ideas when I wrote my first book, Blinding Light, as my M.F.A. thesis three years later. I love coincidences, so when I discovered Lois lives in the town where my grandparents had their farm, I figured our paths would meet again.

Lois: That workshop was the first one I did on putting a poetry manuscript together, and I remember that there were 8 poets and 8 manuscripts which we looked at in 5 3-hour sessions. I remember thinking it was too rushed, so I am so pleased that Christine found it helpful. In workshops since then we have had fewer participants and spend 3 hours on each manuscript.  Maybe this is the place too where I should put in a plug too for Peter Murphy’s workshops and getaways—which offer “insightful feedback and an encouraging community” to poets and writers: http://wintergetaway.com/

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(Five Oaks Press, 2016)

I believe that writers write best when they are part of a community of writers.

How our collections came about—

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East Hollywood: Memorial to Reason, by Harry Northup

Review by Toni Fuhrman

 

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Cahuenga Press, 2015

East Hollywood is a neighborhood of some 80,000 souls in central Los Angeles. It’s shaped like a rough-cut diamond, cut through the middle by Santa Monica Boulevard, edged (roughly) by the Hollywood Freeway (101), Western Avenue, Hollywood Boulevard, Sunset Boulevard, and Virgil Avenue. On its borders are Hollywood, Los Feliz, Silver Lake, and Koreatown. Within its borders are Thai Town, Little Armenia, The Church of Scientology, Los Angeles City College (UCLA’s original campus), and a thriving Spanish-speaking population. From atop Mount Hollywood to the north, Griffith Observatory benignly stands sentry over all.

It is here, in this neighborhood, that Harry Northup lives, walks, and writes the poetry collected in East Hollywood: Memorial to Reason (Cahuenga Press, 2015). This is Northup’s eleventh book, and the voice we hear in the poems is exuberant, Whitmanesque.

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