Review: Zen Bow, Zen Arrow by John Stevens

Zen Bow, Zen Arrow: The Life and Teachings of Awa Kenzo
John Stevens
Shambhala, 2007
101 pages
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In John Stevens’ half-biography/half-koan-medley Zen Bow, Zen Arrow, we visit bamboo-fenced dojos, learning from early 20th-century Japanese master Awa Kenzo how archery can be a vessel that improves a whole person. In particularly zen fashion, piercing the bullseye doesn’t seem to be the primary requirement in demonstrating an improved self. Indeed: “Kenzo argued that in today’s world the true purpose of archery is to perfect the human spirit.”

Admittedly, some of the koans–spoken by Kenzo, translated by Stevens–read as much like a line of dialogue for a cross-legged yogi in a Saturday Night Live sketch as they read like actual wisdom. The tenth and ultimate level in shooting prowess is, I guess, achieving “a shadowless moon-mind.” Your guess is as good as mine here.

Plenty of times, though, it feels like Kenzo’s aphorisms scratch meaningfully beneath the surface of physical activity, recording the ways in which the spirit moves with the body. A personal favorite: “If you look at the target as your enemy, you will never make progress. The target is a reference point, not your opponent.” I’d like to think that “target,” here, can be read not just as the archery-specific bullseye but also as any of life’s targets that we, you know, aim for. Usually it feels like we’re doing battle with our goals in life–some days it would seem they have picked a fight with us–but in Kenzo’s approach these objectives aren’t battling with us any more or less than a mirror is battling with us. The mirror, the bullseye are reflections of ourselves as we truly are.Continue Reading

This Winter’s Must-Reads

There is no better way to pass the coldest season of the year than by cozying up with a good book, and 2015 has started off with a bang. Here are our picks for this winter’s best literary offerings.

Asali Solomon
FSG, February 3
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Meet Kenya: acute observer, recurrent sleepwalker, a young woman who feels the shame of being alive. Growing up in West Philadelphia in the 1980s as the daughter of a man obsessed with Frank Lloyd Wright’s butler, Kenya straddles her father’s subversive world and the more stable life her mother desires. After the abrupt dissolution of her parents’ relationship, Kenya attends a mostly white girls’ prep school where she’s forced to learn how to navigate a world she doesn’t have the freedom to call her own.

As she grows, Kenya’s mother and father take turns rescuing their daughter and needing to be rescued by her. Her imprisoned father doesn’t send a single letter; instead he entrusts her with the beginning pages of his novel. Her mother becomes increasingly oblivious as Kenya dodges the lecherously cheerful eye of her stepfather.  She falls for a young artist who is only interested in white girls, she takes a chance and befriends an estranged sister, and she learns the weight of a gun in her hand and the shock of pulling the trigger.

A cutting and contemplative coming-of-age story, Disgruntled deftly charts the lonely terrain of self-discovery and the impenetrable bonds that ever beckon us homeward.

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(Writing) Exercise: Self-compassion

Mask image

I’m talking here of memory’s difficulty. Difficult not in the way I have to wrack my weak brain to remember what happened, but in the way I’m forced to face that time I let my brother, bleeding from the mouth, run the mile home alone. Difficult in the way that looking back prompts me to see myself, as James Agee puts it, “disguised as a child.”

And what an ugly costume it could be. Holding my youth at arm’s length makes clear how royally fallible I really was. I see my foibles for the first time. My limitedness had hid them from me—a kind of Dunning-Kruger effect. And this is difficult.

As in looking back on the stack of birthday cards from my grandmother I tossed out, thinking my desk had no room. Into the wastebasket that lets every memory in and none out. I didn’t know what should be kept and what chucked. I didn’t know I was in the room with my grandmother herself, who had touched the card at its edges, wheezing over the short note with her reading glasses on. And I didn’t know that the thrown-away card would become sad and inimitable when she dies.

My grandmother tried to warn me. She dated the card at the top right corner so that I too would know posterity as always looming. Of course I see this looking back. She dated it to please the grandfather she knew I’d become, on whose lap she sat with a little girl’s wide eyes, nearing the end, nearing the beginning.Continue Reading

Review: COYOTE by Colin Winnette

Colin Winnette
Les Figues Press, 2015
96 pages

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It’s a natural tendency to summarize, to distill entire constellations of events and details into a single swallow of information. Near the beginning of Coyote, Colin Winnette’s protagonist attempts just this, saying “I tell the same story every time: we put her to bed, and when we woke up she was gone.” The “she” in question is the young daughter of the story’s two main characters, who vanishes in the night with no clear explanation. What follows, what makes up the rest of the story, are all the murky details filtered out of that simple synopsis: a curious detective, a bathroom filled with bees, a toxic marriage, and an imperfect memory.Continue Reading

Review: THE QB by Bruce Feldman

qbjpg-60749c0583313eaaThe QB: The Making of Modern Quarterbacks
Bruce Feldman
Crown Archetype, October 2014
304 pages

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Like the casting of James Bond or the election of presidents, the styles, moods, and values of the NFL’s starting quarterbacks in any given generation provide a meaningful reflection of where American masculinity is oriented. So no big surprise, then, that the manicured post-adolescent quarterbacks profiled in Bruce Feldman’s The QB—and, but of course, their omnipresent and phenomenally expensive private tutors—resort to the airy jargon and buzzwords of modern business whenever they get excited.

One of the main characters in The QB is Trent Dilfer, who was an average quarterback—as far as NFL-caliber quarterbacks are concerned—from 1994 to 2007. Dilfer’s verve for life, though, seems to have been only awakened in retirement by running Elite 11, a workout-camp-slash-TV-show focused on grooming the nation’s most promising high school quarterbacks. Excuse me: Elite 11 is a “forward-facing platform” focused on establishing a “holistic coaching ecosystem.”Continue Reading


bright shardsBright Shards of Someplace Else
Monica McFawn
University of Georgia Press, September 2014
176 pages

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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

Review: AIMLESS LOVE by Billy Collins

collinsAimless Love: New and Selected Poems
Billy Collins
Random House, October 2013
288 Pages

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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-230Zoologies: On Animals And The Human Spirit
Alison Hawthorne Deming
Milkweed Editions, October 2014
272 pages

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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

Review: LIKE A BEGGAR by Ellen Bass

like a beggar book coverLike a Beggar
Ellen Bass
Copper Canyon Press, March 2014
70 pages

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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

Review: Dismembering the American Dream: The Life and Fiction of Richard Yates

Adobe Photoshop PDFDismembering the American Dream: The Life and Fiction of Richard Yates
Kate Charlton-Jones
University of Alabama Press, August 2014
279 pages

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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