Review: CHAMIQUE by Chamique Holdsclaw

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Chamique: On Family, Focus, and Basketball
Chamique Holdsclaw with Jennifer Frey
Scribner, 2000
189 pages

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Much like Brittney Griner’s In My Skin, Chamique is a slapped-together memoir by a college basketball wunderkind, Chamique Holdsclaw, following the player’s uneven rookie year in the pros. Where In My Skin charmed with Griner’s honesty and desire for self-improvement, Chamique broke hearts with a tale that has since been proven to be an elaborate façade—although it’s not easy to tell if Holdsclaw herself understood the book’s content was a façade at the time.

This is pretty astounding, considering the many beans that Holdsclaw is willing to spill in Chamique. Pre-teen Holdsclaw is effectively forced to steal money from her parents, themselves nonfunctional alcoholics, to get food for herself and her younger brother, Davon. As she grows older, Holdsclaw dishes dirt about plenty of her professional relationships, including her displeasure with her WNBA team, the Washington (D.C.) Mystics, for allowing her closest friend on the team, backup Rita Williams, to be signed elsewhere.Continue Reading

Review: THIS IS THE HOMELAND by Mary Hickman

HickmanHomelandThis Is the Homeland
Mary Hickman
Ahsahta Press, May 2015
80 pages
$18.00

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Mary Hickman’s first volume of poetry begins dazzlingly with “Joseph and Mary,” a poem carved out of Joyce’s Ulysses. Whether this was done by dramatic erasure or by mosaic-like re-arrangement of fragments is hard to say, but however it was accomplished, it enchants. Hickman’s distillation of Joyce’s novel carries a distinct flavor of Stephen Dedalus, a Stephen who has perhaps changed genders, but is still a shape-shifting intelligence in exile, looking for a body it can call home.

The body may be the homeland named and claimed in the title. Names of the body parts appear frequently—forearms, hips, glands, knees, feet, spine. The poems sometimes invoke yoga (“The Locust,” “Woodchopper”) or chiropractic (“Spinal Twist”) or even the operating table (“Twelve hours his chest / cracked & / died”), but somehow our best efforts to name and claim the body leave an elusive remainder. “This is the homeland,” the final sentence of the first section of “Territory” confidently asserts, but by the end of the second section the poem is asking, “What land is this?” In This Is the Homeland, the body is both the only place we will ever live and a mystifying, unknowable other.Continue Reading

“We licked the dictionary off each other’s faces” : Bhanu Kapil’s Humanimal: A Project for Future Children

Sal_tree_Np copy 2What’s wrong with being raised by wolves? In Humanimal: A Project for Future Childen, Bhanu Kapil investigates “the true story of Kamala and Amala, two girls found living with wolves in Bengal, India, in 1920” (ix). But unlike a crowd drawn to witness a re-enactment, Kapil’s book instead involves “trying to see it” (17) and the creation of a work of radical empathy. Of becoming, not speculating: a desire to “write until they were real” (41).

In this complex “re-telling of planar space,” Kapil records her trip to the site where Kamala and Amala briefly lived “as girls,” her own father’s journey to England from India, where “his feet resembled those of a goat’s” and her childhood (35 and 64). Ridiculed by children in London after returning from India while still in school, Kapil remembers: “When I grew up, I wrote about the bloodstream of a child as intermingling with that of an animal” (40). And this is a book of so many interminglings that the differences can hardly be marked by its end, if only because “I was frightened and so I stopped” (1).Continue Reading

Review: MR. AND MRS. DOCTOR by Julie Iromuanya

mr & mrs doctor

Mr. and Mrs. Doctor
Julie Iromuanya
Coffee House Press, 2015
288 pages

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Job Ogbonnaya is a liar—or, depending on your taste, a dreamer. After his brother Samuel dies in the Biafran war, Job becomes the hope of his family. They send him to school in America to become a doctor. Job flunks out but keeps planning to go back, lying to his family and putting his father’s tuition money in savings bonds. After Job gets citizenship through a fake marriage with an American, and becomes a nursing assistant, he still tells everyone back home he is a doctor. His arranged marriage to Ifi is predicated on this fact.

After Ifi arrives to Job’s mysteriously run-down bachelor apartment in Nebraska, her husband still leaves every morning in a white labcoat (he changes into his nursing outfit in a parking lot). The lies mount and then begin to collapse. How can he speak with such certainty, Ifi wonders at one point, about what be both know to be false?Continue Reading

THE NEUTRAL CORNER: Nicholas Fox Weber’s “The Bauhaus Group”

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The neutral corner is one of the two corners of the ring not used by boxers between rounds. It is also the corner a boxer must retreat to after he has floored his opponent. The Neutral Corner was also a bar in Saratoga Springs, New York, that I frequented when at Yaddo in the late seventies. Framed photographs of famous fighters, signed to the owner with effusive greetings, covered the walls. They would have been impressive except that the handwriting on each was identical.

This blog series, the Neutral Corner of Ploughshares, will bring attention to new books, mostly poetry, and to older books that have recently given me pleasure.

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The outer part of Cape Cod, where I live, contains numerous examples of modern architecture, almost all of which appear in Cape Cod Modern: Midcentury Architecture and Community on the Outer Cape by Peter McMahon and Christine Cipriani (Metropolis Books, 2014). This beautiful book contains exquisite color plates of houses designed and built by Marcel Breuer, Serge Chermayeff, Olav Hammarstrom and engineer Paul Weidlinger. A vibrant community gathered here which included Walter Gropius and many of his Bauhaus faculty.

weber_BAUHAUS GROUPA few years ago, I attended a panel discussion at the Wellfleet Public Library led by McMahon on that group of architects and artists. It featured painter Peter Watts and Walter Gropius’s daughter, Ati, who was approximately 82 at that time. She was asked how her father managed to keep the Bauhaus faculty in harmony, considering its many distinct personalities, including Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, and Johannes Itten, who was a member of a fire cult. She said whenever there was a strong disagreement about policy or practice, her father canceled all classes and declared a three-day party. At the festivity’s end, she said, everyone forgot what they had been fighting about. She added that Gropius provided the same solution to academic strife when she was a student at Black Mountain College and he was on the Advisory Council there. She said that he gave a costume party where everyone had to dress as a favorite tree. “It worked,” she said. “It was impossible to stay angry at someone who was covered in branches and leaves.”

The talk led me to Nicholas Fox Weber’s book, The Bauhaus Group: Six Masters of Modernism (Knopf, 2009). He discusses Walter Gropius, Paul Klee, Wassily Kandinsky, Josef Albers, Anni Albers and Ludwig Mies van der Rohe. In clear and lively prose, Fox Weber defines and characterizes each person and his aesthetic.Continue Reading

“If I could I would cut off my lovers’ heads” : Eunice De Souza’s Nine Indian Women Poets

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“Anthologists invariably make enemies,” Eunice De Souza notes in her introduction to Nine Indian Women Poets. This anthology is unlike most anthologies, as De Souza takes up her editorial role to rally against universality, mapmaking, and flattery. De Souza isn’t seeking to make enemies, but she realizes that all choices for anthologies suggest other choices: those poets who are left behind.

For Nine Indian Women Poets is itself a corrective volume: here are Indian women writing poetry in English who have not only gone unrecognized by white canonical anthologists or critics (save the rare reader like Bruce King), but who have all written for upwards of twenty years without such recognition.

What makes these poets’ work strike sharply together? They all write in English; all own or disown this language, exploring its twists, barriers, and perpetuations. Kamala Das, the oldest poet in the anthology, draws English as: “The language I speak / Becom[ing] mine, its distortions, its queernesses / All mine, mine alone” (10). For Das, queernesses enable a crucial ownership of the language. The language allows one to name herself and others, so that Das, by the end of the same poem, proclaims: “I too call myself I” (11).

Mamta Kalia, the poet placed immediately after Das, writes: “I am no longer Mamta Kalia” (26). By contrast, Kalia’s poems revolve around a radical empathy that practices negation: “How close we felt / discussing our dislikes / sharing a few hatreds” (22). The venom of an evil actually engages us: it brings together those who feel invariably shunned by an unjust and misogynistic world.Continue Reading

Review: IN MY SKIN by Brittney Griner

brittney griner_IN MY SKINIn My Skin
Brittney Griner with Sue Hovey
itbooks, 2014
216 pages

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No matter how un-invested an athlete is in the production of their own book—no matter how transparently the ghostwriter has sat down with their subject for as few hours as possible, then hurriedly stretched the transcribed interviews into something like a narrative in as few weeks as possible—a book is always long enough that something meaningful-feeling about the athlete’s true self feels shared, even if—especially if—done so unwittingly. The resulting portrait can be wickedly unflattering. Sacrifices endured and relationships suspended in pursuit of victories can fade, chapter by chapter, from the dedicated to the maniacal. The athlete’s account of perceived slights and hardships can betray a tectonic-sized ego, a self-started requirement to be eternally pampered.

Fortunately, there’s a healthy proportion of athletes—in this way sports is just like any other business, or any other slice of the world—who can’t not be cool people, who induce your sympathies just by presenting themselves. Brittney Griner, 6’8” wunderkind of women’s basketball, shows herself to be one of the latter types of athletes in her 2014 memoir, In My Skin—even though her career has endured enough scandalous downs you’d think, just to follow the headlines, that she’d be one of the former.Continue Reading

Interactivity and the Game-ification of Books

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As an undergrad studying creative writing one of the first things I remember learning was the sin of gimmickry. Readers, I was taught, would see through your cleverness—it would be vile to them and they would hate you. But as a kid and teenager my favorite books employed some pretty neat sins and I don’t remember ever hating those authors. I relished a novel approach to novels and welcomed those books that didn’t just swim in standard conventions. Some of the most memorable artifacts of my youth, in fact, were more bound riddles than books, and each riddle taught me how to open myself up to uncertainty, ambiguity, and irresolution (all concepts more true to life than your traditional cut and dry, happily-ever-after tale).

More specifically, the books I tended to gravitate toward were texts in which the role of the reader could more aptly be described as that of a player, or collaborator. (Though one could argue all books are collaborative in nature, the ones I tended to flock to were especially open-ended, demanding a higher degree of interactivity.) I would remain captivated by these books infused with a sense of play/collaboration and it would eventually become an important element in my own work.

I first devoured picture books like the Where’s Waldo series, for instance, less interested in the eponymous red and white striped protagonist than in the sheer overstimulation of colorful characters and anachronistic situations swirling in the background. They might have been my first writing prompts, actually. I remember writing little stories about the wizard and how he came to be lost in the scene, or what events must’ve transpired to rip a Viking out of time and space to plop him smackdab in the center of a bustling mall.Continue Reading

REVIEW: Belief is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe by Lori Jakiela

belief is its own kind_lori jakielaBelief Is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe Lori Jakiela August 4, 2015 Atticus Books 290 pages Preorder Halfway through her new memoir, Belief is Its Own Kind of Truth, Maybe, Lori Jakiela comes across a mall kiosk selling Russian nesting dolls.

“The doll in the woman’s hand looks a little like my daughter—blonde, rosy-cheeked, green eyed,” Jakiela writes, “—which means she looks like me, too, and probably like my sister and probably my birth mother and so on.”

The doll strikes her as a metaphor, “a tiny sarcophagus, a little hollowed out self” that “fits into another tiny sarcophagus, a series of tiny sarcophagi tucked into other sarcophagi, selves into selves, until they end up with a larger self that looks whole but isn’t.” Through such metaphors and a fragmented, lyrical style that reflects the writer’s background as a poet, Jakiela communicates the sense of a fragmented self experienced by many adoptees with little information about their origins.Continue Reading

Review: GET IN TROUBLE by Kelly Link

get in trouble_kelly link

Get in Trouble
Kelly Link
Random House, Feb 2015
352 pages

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For a long time, with all due respect to the memoirists, I’ve believed that fiction holds a particular truth in literature. Maybe by removing the self from the work, and unburdening the story of actual events and dialogue and timelines, the writer can more fearlessly probe and weave and build a world that ultimately reveals a truth.

As I’ve gotten older, I’ve started to extend this theory to believe that there is a deeper level of truth revealed in fiction that takes place in an alternate reality. Some might call this science fiction or magic realism, and certainly these terms have been associated with fiction writer Kelly Link, though I’m not sure if any pre-existing term can aptly qualify her work.

Her latest book, the superb and unusual short-story collection Get in Trouble offers a view of the world that at first glance seems probable enough, if not exactly familiar. But soon each story veers into the surreal, and we find ourselves in a world peopled with superheroes, supervillains, and sidekicks, and those trying to move past the stereotype of having two shadows. There are pocket universes where you can go to get drunk and/or laid or retire in tranquility, and mermaids who have become an invasive species. The stories in Link’s collection left me with some simple and daunting conclusions that might not be achieved, or could feel melodramatic in less fantastical work—realizations along the lines of: This too shall pass, and We are all part of a mirage.Continue Reading