Bright Shards of Someplace Else
University of Georgia Press, September 2014
Every writer has faced the age-old question, “What makes a story?” History has provided us with plenty of satisfactory answers—in the excitement found in novelty or the resonance found in the ordinary. Monica McFawn’s short story collection Bright Shards of Someplace Else somehow encapsulates both. It features a world we simultaneously recognize and have never seen before. The collection was recently awarded the Flannery O’Connor Award for Short Fiction. Its eleven stories differ in length, in location, and in perspective. They tend to feature imperfect characters trying to solve complicated personal problems, and most of the stories take place over the span of a few hours. A much more poignant commonality between them, however, is the precision with which they are written.
A frequently irritating job of the writer is to describe fleeting, often inchoate day-to-day experiences. Bright Shards of Someplace Else is full of deftly captured moments: thoughts and feelings that we all have likely experienced but which might never have previously been expressed with such clarity. The stories in this collection, without seeming the slightest bit too long, manage to create worlds in which each passing thought or environmental detail lends itself to a greater significance. In one story, “The Slide Turned on End,” an artist asks a skeptical reporter to view the aesthetically pleasing aspect of amoebas on microscope slides. For a split second, the reporter sees and understands the beauty, and then the images shift. The artist mutters, “I know. It’s beautiful for a moment and then it’s garbage.” This capriciousness is inherent in art in many forms, including writing. McFawn’s collection manages to highlight individual moments in the instant when each is most unexplainably beautiful.Continue Reading
Aimless Love: New and Selected Poems
Random House, October 2013
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Three thousand miles away from my library—most of it translated literature, most of it tortuously postmodern—I turned in a lonely hour to my dad’s hardcover copy of Billy Collins’ Aimless Love. I’d never read much of Collins, and what I’d read I hadn’t read seriously. Collins is enjoyable, and I distrust joy on principle. The Concerned Readers of Serious Poetry know that Collins isn’t a true poetic genius because 1) we can understand what he’s saying and 2) his books actually sell.
Yet Collins’ poems were, on the whole, far more fulfilling than I’d expected. They exemplify not just a powerful poetics that can actually move people emotionally but a literary politics that find myself agreeing with.Continue Reading
Zoologies: On Animals And The Human Spirit
Alison Hawthorne Deming
Milkweed Editions, October 2014
As children, many of us felt instinctually connected to and curious about animals. Maybe we even found solace in imagining our personal dinosaur counterparts. Alison Hawthorne Deming’s book Zoologies: On Animals And The Human Spirit reawakened that in me.
In this collection of essays, Deming shares fascinating animal behaviors and the incredible history of humanity’s relationship with animals. Biology is the study of living things, and she does it justice by truly digging in to the meaning of life.
Deming travels all over the world seeking to understand the human and animal condition. She explores the forests of Oregon, the isles of Maine, the villages of Brazil, the plains of Tanzania, and the Sonoran desert of her current home. She describes the surplus killing enacted by hyenas, the companionship of crows, the post-traumatic stress of elephants, and the transgenic experiments of the spider-web-producing goat and the glowing rabbit. She goes beyond asking how to ask why, what it all means, and where it will lead us. Such is the nature of her mind and her writing. “This bestiary for the twenty-first century,” she says, “is my gratitude, my reverence, my penance, my secular prayer for the beauties and beasts of Earth.”Continue Reading
Like a Beggar
Copper Canyon Press, March 2014
Exquisitely wrought in language and imagery, Ellen Bass’s third collection meditates on sequencing images. Her poems open in one place and close elsewhere. She signals this with titles that point toward the firsts and lasts, such as “The Beginning of the End” and “The Morning After,” but also by focusing thematically on endings and beginnings (e.g. death, initial desire, birth.) to highlight how life presents one version of experience, one extraordinarily changed by later viewing.
Like A Beggar opens with the empathetic line, “Bad things are going to happen” (3) to offer a list of bad things, from tomato fungus to infidelities. Bass doesn’t leave us in regrets, but offers a turning final image on the tasting of sweetness. She concludes “Relax,”
Oh, taste how sweet and tart
the red juice is, how the tiny seeds
crunch between your teeth. (4)
The coupling of fungus with sugar makes the sugar sweeter by lifting the reader from the bad to the buoyant hope of some future good. Other first lines startle, as in, “The first time I saw my boyfriend’s penis” (10), while more startle only momentarily before offering storytelling openings such as, “What did I love about killing the chicken? Let me start” (31). Such beginnings open the door of the poem, welcoming the reader with common knowledge.Continue Reading
Dismembering the American Dream: The Life and Fiction of Richard Yates
University of Alabama Press, August 2014
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An English professor, a former colleague of mine, once admitted to me that he wasn’t much of a fan of the novelist about whom he had spent his entire career writing. I’m sure the look I gave him summed up my feelings. Really? Are you kidding? Sadly, I’ve since met other professors who’ve held similar dim views. Consequently, libraries are full of such clinical, soulless monographs written by hazmat-wearing academics decontaminating their authors. And so when Kate Charlton-Jones writes in the introduction of her book Dismembering the American Dream: The Life and Fiction of Richard Yates that it’s “an extended appreciation of Yates’s work,” I said aloud, “Thank God!”
Later, she writes, “It is my hope that this book will add to the real resurgence of interest in Richard Yates’s fiction and help to persuade those who have either dismissed it or have yet to read his stories that they have made a grave error of omission.”Continue Reading
‘Tis the season for gift giving, and what makes a better gift than an unforgettable book? 2014 has been a great year for books and television both, so here are some pairings to help you shop for the TV enthusiast in your life.Continue Reading
Dr. Mütter’s Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine
Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz
Gotham Books, September 2014
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As a schoolchild in North Philadelphia, Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz went on class trips to the Mütter Museum in Philadelphia, which housed a collection of medical artifacts and oddities, many of which had been amassed by Dr. Thomas Dent Mütter, a physician at the turn of the nineteenth century. Aptowicz, a poet who is also the author of another nonfiction work (Words In Your Face, a history of the spoken word movement), became intrigued with Mütter, and researched his story.
And what a story it was. Orphaned young, he traveled widely and acquired skills. He faced up to the establishment of the time, overcame opposition and became one of its most celebrated members, only to die tragically young.
The subtitle, “A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine”, indicates Aptowicz’ dual focus in her book. She offers a tale of Mütter’s life and his innovations, both in close-up and in panoramic views, telling a compelling story of medicine during a transitional phase, and of one person’s enduring influence, by combining extensive research and deft expression with the pacing and detail of a densely plotted thriller.Continue Reading
Literary luminaries like Salman Rushdie (The Satanic Verses) and Kamila Shamsie (A God in Every Stone) have dominated the South Asian writing landscape, but there are more heavyweights who merit recognition. The following authors offer a glimpse of contemporary English writing emerging in the subcontinent.Continue Reading
Super Bowl champion and/or spiritual guru.
The Inner Game of Tennis: The Classic Guide to the Mental Side of Peak Performance
Random House, 1997
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Perhaps this moment feels like the second half of a joke that starts, “You know you’re in Seattle when . . . ” but it really happened: I was putting my groceries on the little conveyor belt thing, and I looked up to see Pete Carroll, the head coach of the Seattle Seahawks, staring at me from the cover of Mindful Magazine.
It’s a pretty rare cover for Mindful Magazine, and not just because it featured a football coach instead of any number of the world’s more conventional health-and-wellness gurus. On most covers of Mindful Magazine, we see the subject kneeling in lotus, beaming, impossibly large, and generally just super-duper well-rested and overjoyed to be alive!! These covers just might turn off or even intimidate readers with their smarm. Carroll, meantime, is perched on a stool, quietly poised in a business suit. Perhaps, if the picture were cropped differently, one would see the Super Bowl ring on his finger.Continue Reading
Copper Canyon Press, July 2014
Imagine a strange land where tumors that resemble “terrible frogs,” a man with an “unbuttoned” face, and an ever-returning sea beast dwell, and where motherhood is a “grand opera staged in a cave.” This is The Infinitesimals by author Laura Kasischke, her ninth poetry collection (in addition to nine novels), which was published by Copper Canyon Press (July 2014). Here, illness and mortality assume anthropomorphic contours, wherein the loss of Kasischke’s mother, for instance, becomes “birds on the other side of . . . binoculars” who stare her (and us) down.
As with Space, In Chains (2011), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award, Kasischke’s latest collection, tight with her distinguishing concision and strong lyricism, continues to invent and explore new terrains. Never over-the-top with her surrealism, Kasischke aims to excavate the “infinitesimal” in this collection, which seventeenth century philosopher George Berkley, in the epigraph, defines as “the ghosts of departed quantities.” Put in another way, she challenges us to consider what we cannot see, explain, or portend.Continue Reading