This Spring’s Must-Reads

Spring Reviews

Spring is in the air, and good books are in our hearts! Read on for our picks for this spring’s best literary offerings.

 

QuadeNight At The Fiestas
Kirstin Valdez Quade
Norton, March 23
$26
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Kirstin Valdez Quade is one of the National Book Foundation’s 5-Under-35 honorees, and her debut story collection proves that she’s a writer of remarkable depth and precision. With stop-offs in Utah and California, much of the collection is set in Quade’s homeland of New Mexico. Beneath her pen, an almost impenetrable landscape reveals a violent history that still beats with a tender heart.

Each of the ten stories offers a lyrical aria of its own, but together they create the music of generations, of families, and of a people. In “Nemecia,” a young girl hopes to step out from behind her cousin’s shadow by leading the Corpus Christi parade. “Mojave Rats” demonstrates how a day spent in a frigid trailer between mother and daughter can turn into a prescient portrait of their shared inheritance. A man’s ambition to carry the cross and bear the pain of Jesus during Passion week in “The Five Wounds” becomes complicated when his pregnant daughter appears at his doorstep. There are boa constrictors, faux family reunions, blueberry fields, and enough hard-earned resilience to withstand a tough winter, the long absence of a loved one, and the struggle of caring for a new life while growing old.

This is a collection to be celebrated not just for its fine storytelling and subtle sentiment, but for its cultural exploration of those who inhabit the hardened and tortuous lands of the mythic Southwest.

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New Ploughshares Solo: “Heading for a Total Eclipse” by John Philip Drury

Drury-Final-LoResWe are excited to announce the publication of our most recent Ploughshares Solo, “Heading for a Total Eclipse” by John Philip Drury! In our Ploughshares Solos series, we publish longer stories and essays first in an affordable, digital format, and then in our annual Ploughshares Solos Omnibus Series. For more information and some great reading material, check out our previously published Solos, or the Ploughshares Solos Omnibus Volume 2.

About “Heading for a Total Eclipse”
In this touching and humorous essay, John Philip Drury recounts coming of age during the Vietnam Era. With a low draft number and an exit from college looming, Drury faces the imminent possibility of fighting in a war that he opposes. In the meantime, he tries and abandons a dream to become a songwriter, labors mightily to lose his virginity, and looks to the adult world around him for models of what he most wants to be—an artist. “Heading for a Total Eclipse” takes a look at a young man’s attempt to maintain his integrity during a turbulent era, and in the face of impossible choices.

“Heading for a Total Eclipse” is available on Pshares.org for $1.99.

Here’s an excerpt from the Solo:

As the program began, a congressman who served on the Armed Services Committee reached down into a glass barrel and pulled up a blue capsule bearing the name of a month and a day. He was followed by young people, both male and female, who extracted the rest of the birthdays, plunging their arms into the big fishbowl. It didn’t take long for the suspense to end, since my birthday, June 4, emerged as number 20.

I was stunned at my misfortune. I wasn’t looking forward to returning to the one-bedroom apartment I shared with another sophomore, Glenn Twilley, whose lottery number turned out to be 366, the very last birthday selected by Selective Service, the extra day of leap-year. I felt annoyed, even bitter about the irony, since he was a Republican who supported the war—not that he wanted to go to Vietnam and do any fighting himself.

It struck me as ironic that earlier that year I had written, in a letter to a friend, “If I’m drafted I won’t go; if I go, I’ll enlist.” Now I was number 20, assured of being drafted if I ever lost my student deferment. On campus, male classmates greeted each other not with their names but with their numbers, laughing if they got above 200, groaning if they didn’t break into triple digits. Life, after all, was a numbers racket.Continue Reading

The Poetry of Subtle Movement

blue-agateIn recent months, Farrar, Straus and Giroux has released two poetry collections that encapsulate much of what I love about poetry: James Lasdun’s Bluestone: New and Selected Poems and Devin Johnston’s Far-Fetched. Lasdun and Johnston are quite different in style and subject matter, but they are both masters of the subtle shift, the poem that starts in an unassuming place and leads you away from the old logical paths to a fresh perspective.

I first fell in love with Devin Johnston’s work while reading his 2011 poetry collection, Traveler, and his prose collection, Creaturely and Other Essays. There’s a Thoreauvian sense of wandering in all his prose and poetry—a wandering over the landscape, language, and history of the United States—coupled with a mastery of form uncommon in an American poet. In Far-Fetched the tone is usually serious (except when he’s skillfully imitating Scottish lyric or translating Catullus or bouncing through rhyming couplets) and there is a prevailing mood of quiet and contemplation.

Better to show than tell. Here’s “Orpingtons,” originally published in the July/August 2014 issue of Poetry magazine and included in Far-Fetched:

A pair of Orpingtons,
one blue, the other black,
with iridescent necks
and fine, ashen fluff
cackle through the dark,
their damp calls close enough
to chafe, a friction with no spark.

They settle down to roost,
two rests along a stave.
Each curls into itself,
comb tucked beneath a wing,
as the days grow long enough
to kindle in each a yolk,
the smallest flame of spring.

To me, the two most telling lines in this poem are, “They settled down to roost, / two rests along a stave.” In this musical metaphor, the Orpingtons become rests, the symbols for silence in a musical score. To the audience, the rest doesn’t exist (because a rest is precisely that which can’t be heard), but the rest exists for the musician because it is seen written on the page. It’s all about perspective. Through imagination (and we first see the imagination flare up in that synaesthetic phrase “damp calls”) the poem pierces the surface world of the observer and lets our perspective shift to the private knowledge of the observed.Continue Reading

THE NEUTRAL CORNER: Michael Hofmann’s “Where Have You Been?” And Gottfried Benn’s “Impromptus”

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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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gottfried benn_michael hofmann_IMPROMPTUSMichael Hofmann’s most recent book of translations is Gottfried Benn’s Impromptus: Selected Poems and Some Prose (FSG, 2013). I love Benn’s dark wit, and find a kind of courage in his pessimism, as in the ending lines of “No Tears”:

please no tears
no one say: oh I was so lonesome.

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Review: THE PAPER MAN by Gallagher Lawson

paperman

The Paper Man
Gallagher Lawson
Published: May 12, 2015
Unnamed Press
261 pages

Buy: book

 

A man with a papier mâché body and hair made of yarn attempts to break out of his protected, isolated, and stagnant life and escape to an unnamed city. On the bus, a one-eyed man steals his belongings. Caught in a scuffle, the paper man’s arm tears, and on his own for the first time, he faces the menace of rain, which could turn him to pulp. A mermaid lies dead on the sidewalk and an unemployed fur model who collects (and smells of) mushrooms takes him in. Even this strange world full of outsiders is, it turns out, a dangerous place for a man made of paper, forcing him into dependence on others, vulnerable to becoming their “project,” made and remade by them.

This is the somewhat surreal and dystopian premise of Gallagher Lawson’s The Paper Man, in which lines between life and art and art and politics are not always clear. Part Frankenstein, part Pinocchio, attracting comparisons to Kafka’s Metamorphosis, The Paper Man resembles magical realism in its pairing of fantastical elements with a matter-of-fact, even earnest, tone. Michael, once human but rebuilt and reanimated by his artist father after an accident, evolves in the course of the story from creator to creation to creator again, constantly blurring life and art. Originally named Michaelangelo, becoming an objectified outsider fixed up, torn down, and re-created again by others, he is renamed David. Then, gradually if uneasily and somewhat horrifyingly, he triumphs over his own creation, Adam.

In an often nightmarish narrative in which every element feels representational, a stand-in for something else, a Symbol with a capital S, thematic with a capital T, there are moments that I wished Lawson had followed the advice of Michael’s sadistic childhood friend Mischa: “Stop thinking and feeling so much and just do your art.” But ultimately, this is a compelling story that sticks with the reader, examining art and its creation from a dizzying variety of angles and raising fascinating questions about ownership, celebrity, autonomy, the limits of self, and the essence of our humanity.

Lawson’s dark vision proves both intriguing and disturbing, partially summed up when one
character says to another, “Creativity is nothing more than transferring emotions, mostly
anxiety and fear, to the outside world.” But, of course, ultimately it is more than that. This is an unusual story about art’s costs and its capacity for exploitation, political influence, and profound change–and for its ability, finally, to humanize.

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Nancy McCabe is the author of four memoirs, most recently From Little Houses to Little Women: Revisiting a Literary Childhood. Her creative nonfiction has appeared in Prairie Schooner, Gulf Coast, Fourth Genre, Newsweek, and many other magazines, won a Pushcart, and six times made the notable lists of Houghton Mifflin Best American anthologies.

Review: GUTSHOT by Amelia Gray

amelia gray

Gutshot
Amelia Gray
FSG Originals
Published: 4/14/15
224 pages
$14.00

If Amelia Gray’s collection, Gutshot, was choreography, it would be comprised of violent, animalistic phrases: bodies smashing into each other and hands clawing into skin. But on the page, these assembled short stories use a vocabulary of the body to examine the manifestation of humanity’s deepest fears and darkest impulses. In this smart, irreverent collection, Gray’s language growls, hungrily; her characters express yearnings that can’t be satisfied through ordinary human interaction.

Gray’s characters recruit others into their fantasies to satisfy their own lust. In “House Heart,” a couple hires a girl and imprisons her in the air ducts of their home. “Fifty Ways to Eat Your Lover,” originally published in McSweeney’s, is a progressively grim meditation on how love consumes. “When he says goodbye,” Gray says, “eat his heart out.” “The Moment of Conception,” which follows “Fifty Ways” echoes its sentiments of two lovers becoming one, and pushes the boundary between metaphor and imagination. Gray’s impulse is to probe into difficult images. She wields discomfort like a narrative weapon.Continue Reading

When We Are Given a Feast of Flesh

Sunday_Book_Market,_Daryaganj,_Delhi

How do I remember spaces? Bedrooms, beaches, backseats, bazaars. The time between dreams. Night. The no-man’s land of a twelve-hour flight. I remember the world as words.

I spent my last few weeks in Delhi hunting for books. For relatives, for friends, but, finally, for my own sake: to call back India when I was back in the states, when I was back in the spaces that were so familiar they faded into blurred backgrounds. Reading often works as incantation: in a second I am summoned back to the bookshop where I first flipped through a novel or the waiting room in which I finished the final page.

A place is defined by what I read when I’m there, the words wrestling for attention before memories awake. My months in India involved a mix of glum history, map-filled guidebooks, critical theory with cracked yellow spines, and poetry. So much poetry, in fact, that I bought another grey duffel to check to ship it all back. “What’s in here? Bricks?” asked a friend, hefting one of my bags as we headed to the Indira Gandhi International Airport. Bricks of books that weren’t yet architectures of recollection, reminders of cows crowding the street, cars hugging curbs and honking hello, city skies shot through with smoke and sun.

Give Us This Day a Feast of Flesh by N.D. Rajkumar took up only a little space in my grey duffel. The volume, at barely one hundred pages, contains poetry translated from Tamil by Anushiya Ramaswamy and is bookended by a critical essay examining the history of Dalits in India and their literature.

I bought the Rajkumar at the Oxford Bookstore in Delhi. At the time, I thought Oxford was affiliated with Oxford University Press, and I shrank at the idea of supporting a historically colonial enterprise with my purchase of “alternative” Dalit poetry, a poetry that rallies against caste and hierarchical Brahmin values. The Oxford Bookstore chain actually shares no affiliation with the Press, nor is it even based outside of India. The colorful and clean stylization of the bookstore’s orderly insides betray the ecstatic violence and vulgarities of Rajkumar’s verses, where “I watch the old woman in the moon / Clinging to her walking stick / Bend, spread her legs / And piss into the moon” (50). The next poem ends: “I strike the master in his heart.” Perhaps Rajkumar sings of insurrection, but could I even begin to approach this song in this place that sold expensive infused teas and cappuccinos? “If anyone not our kind / Happens to read this manuscript: / Heads will roll,” Rajkumar raises as an omen in the third song. The poems of Give Us This Day a Feast of Flesh are not named, but numbered, like tallies struck against a maker.Continue Reading

Review: Michael Jordan and the New Global Capitalism

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Michael Jordan and the New Global Capitalism
Walter LaFeber
W.W. Norton, 1999
191 Pages

Buy: book | ebook

It doesn’t take very long for a revolution to seem quaint. In 1999, the year that Michael Jordan and the New Global Capitalism was published by Cornell Professor Emeritus of history Walter LaFeber, the concept of a cellular telephone was enough to count for a revolution. No wires! Conversations outside—anywhere! Woah! Fifteen years later, one is only enamored with that original, novel lure of the cell phone when willfully strolling down memory lane. Remember when we were so simple.

So it goes with Michael Jordan’s basketball career—or, to be more accurate, the societal impact of Michael Jordan’s basketball career. In the book, LaFeber bestows revolutionary language upon the types of business deals that fueled Jordan’s career. Considerable time, for instance, is spent detailing the newfangled business strategies from Nike, the shoe company that helped propel Jordan to global fame, and vice versa. Nike, an American company, produced and sold most of their shoes in other countries, which LaFeber identifies as a revolutionary new way of doing business, of the world interacting with itself.

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Blood Memory

“There is only one of you in all time; this expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost.”—Martha Graham

Dance was my first foray into art, and I studied it for sixteen years with the kind of blind passion you can only cultivate before puberty, before cynicism and self-doubt set in, gnawing at your dreams.

Though humble, those years of dance training gave me my first taste of expressing myself through art, of channeling meaning. Though I wobbled and my turnout failed when I danced en pointe to Vivaldi’s “Spring,” I understood the rapturous feeling of new growth, the sun on one’s skin after winter. Vivaldi translated his feelings about spring into music, and we small town Carolinians tried our best to bring those ideas to life with the body. Though our results were what you might expect from a studio that shared space with a gas station, our effort was noble.Continue Reading

The Summer of Salinger, A Review

Thomas_Beller_JD_SALINGER JoannaSmithRakoff.jacket

My Salinger Year
Joanna Rakoff
272 pages
Knopf
$25.95

buy: here

J.D. Salinger: The Escape Artist
Thomas Beller
192 Pages
Icons Series, New Harvest
$20

buy: here

 

As a boy in Manhattan, Thomas Beller frequented the Museum of Natural History, struggled with his Jewish identity and didn’t apply himself in school. Now he’s our, “ideal guide to J.D. Salinger’s world.” As a young woman from Brooklyn, poet Johanna Rakoff stumbles into this world, testifying, “We all have to start somewhere.”  Last summer both authors released books with Salinger’s name in the title, but that’s about all they have in common.

With J.D. Salinger:The Escape Artist (New Harvest, June 2014), Beller embarks on a “quest biography…as much about the biographer as the subject.” It’s a questionable premise. Does Beller think he’s that interesting? There’s no denying Salinger—from Manhattan, to Normandy, and New Hampshire—lived an intensely singular life. How can Beller expect to measure up?

We never get answers to those questions (or any others), because The Escape Artist is more literary walkabout than author analysis. Our guide wanders off near Riverside Drive.

Beller acknowledges an, “aura of trespass,” yet he slogs on, describing Salinger as he’s been described to oblivion: “consummate outsider,” “genius recluse,” and—of particular significance to Beller—“half-Jewish.”Continue Reading