charles rammelkamp

Ghostographs: An Album by Maria Romasco Moore

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By Charles Rammelkamp

Subtitled An Album, Ghostographs is like the memoir of an alternate universe. In her Author’s Note, Maria Romasco Moore mentions buying a Whitman’s Sampler box full of fading photographs of strangers at an antiques market in Altoona, Pennsylvania, when she was a child and imagining the lives of the people in the snapshots. That’s Ghostographs in a nutshell. The thirty-three short fictions that make up the book are all accompanied by the photographs that inspired them. Yet they all add up to a picture of a small town in post-industrial America, though with certain magical additions.

An example of how Moore’s imagination works is the story, “Aunt Beryl.” First, though, you must realize that there are a handful of aunts, as we learn in the story, “My Great Aunts,” accompanied by a photograph of five middle-aged women surrounding a child. “I had more of them than was strictly necessary,” she writes, displaying her sly sense of humor. “Everybody said so.”

Aunt Beryl is one of these aunts. The photograph that inspires her story shows two small children in the foreground, the black-and-white photograph overexposed as family photos tended to be back in the day, the faces washed out, hard to distinguish. The shadow of a woman in a hat stands before them; the sun behind her, her shadow shows a figure wearing a floppy hat. The story begins, “I’ve met her many times, but I couldn’t tell you what she looks like. I never once got a good look at her face.” She goes on to describe the floppy hat. “In my memories of her, it is the hat that stands out most. I would recognize that hat anywhere.” Indeed, the hat on the shadow figure hangs over each side of the face like forlorn donkey’s ears.

Moore sketches the town with its iconic landmarks – the abyss, a potent metaphor, like Hades in Greek mythology (“We were proud that a town as small as ours had an abyss of its own.”); the river that runs through the town. Back in the day, the river ran milk and people brought their glass bottles there to fill them. Then came the factories, and soon the milk was gone. In its place, molten glass, irregular jeans, clusters of caramel popcorn. And then the factories disappeared, and this indeed is how small-town America has evolved over time. This story is accompanied by a black and white snapshot of what appears to be a family swimming in a river.

“The River” is followed by “My Father,” with a photograph of a man standing in the river. “…my father made his living fishing for phantoms.” He “sold his ghost fish to the butcher, who knew how to prepare them….”
Thus Moore casually sneaks in references to her most potent theme – the haunting of the past that leaks into the present. And isn’t that what “an album” is? Take the photo album off the shelf, blow away the dust, look at the photographs of yourself and your family decades ago! Indeed, this is the secret of the title, Ghostographs – for just as “photography” literally means “writing with light,” these are the stories of ghosts caught by a camera lens.

It’s no surprise, then, that light and shadow, light and darkness are apt metaphors in Ghostographs. In stories like “Different Kinds of Light” and “Light” and “God in the Garden” we learn, via her grandfather, about the many kinds of light. (“Time is a kind of light, my grandpa told me,” she writes in the story, “Time.”) A girl named Tess, whose story is accompanied by an overexposed photograph of a little girl in a white dress, such that the girl glows, luminescent, is so radiant that “Moths migrated from miles around just to throw themselves at her…It hurt our eyes to look straight at her.” Later, Tess loses the light and in the children’s games of hide and seek, she is impossible to locate!

Three of the stories are entitled “Hide and Seek” and this is yet another of the threads Moore weaves through her collection. It’s easy to make the connection between visible and invisible, light and dark, the dichotomy of ghost and person in that pair of words.

Moore introduces a number of memorable characters, in addition to Tess. There is Lewis, a disdainful contemporary who grows in stature and at last becomes unrecognizable. There are the aunts, Edna and Ruth, Beryl and Millie, a woman named Hannah, the postman’s wife, who sends away for a mail-order baby. There is Rhoda, who adopts a baby pig, is rumored to suckle it at her breast. “Lewis saw her holding its front trotters in her hands, trying to teach it to walk on two legs.” (A photograph of a woman cuddling a pig accompanies this story.) There is Mabel, who “slept all summer and only woke up when it snowed.” And there are her father and mother and sister and grandpa.

The final story, “Ghost Town,” is almost elegiac in tone, accompanied by a photograph in which nothing can be clearly distinguished – only ghostly images. It’s about that unnamed hometown, which might be Altoona, Pennsylvania, but could just as easily be Potawatomi Rapids, Michigan, or a thousand others like them. “…they aren’t the people I used to know. The people I used to know are only ghosts.”

Maria Romasco Moore has a vivid and empathetic imagination. Her stories honoring that very real alternate universe are a delight to read.

You can find the book here: https://rosemetalpress.com/books/ghostographs/

Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for Brick House Books in Baltimore, where he lives, and Reviews Editor for Adirondack Review. His most recent books include American Zeitgeist(Apprentice House) and a chapbook, Jack Tar’s Lady Parts ( Main Street Rag Press). Another poetry chapbook, Me and Sal Paradise, is forthcoming from Future Cycle Press.

 

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Reader Picks for the Holidays 2018

 

The following list consists of 15 book reviews published in 2018 that have generated the most interest from our readers as of November 2018. Click the links and consider a purchase for your holiday gift giving.

Gessner

The Conduit and other Visionary Tales of Morphing Whimsy by Richard Gessner

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2018/02/01/the-conduit-and-other-visionary-tales-of-morphing-whimsy-by-richard-gessner/

border

Border Crossings by Thaddeus Rutkowski

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2018/06/01/border-crossings-by-thaddeus-rutkowski/

mailer

The Gospel According to the Son by Norman Mailer

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2018/07/01/the-gospel-according-to-the-son-by-norman-mailer/

appearances

Appearances by Michael Collins

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2018/01/01/appearances-by-michael-collins/

young

The Infinite Doctrine of Water by Michael T. Young

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2018/08/01/the-infinite-doctrine-of-water-by-michael-t-young/

attic

A Look Back- Antic Hay by Aldous Huxley

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2018/04/01/a-look-back-antic-hay-by-aldous-huxley/

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Leaning into the Infinite by Marc Vincenz

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2018/07/01/leaning-into-the-infinite-by-marc-vincenz/

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Monte Carlo Days & Nights by Susan Tepper

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2018/03/01/monte-carlo-days-nights-by-susan-tepper/

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The Gates of Pearl by Jill Hoffman

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2018/05/01/the-gates-of-pearl-by-jill-hoffman/

ornaments

Ornaments by David Daniel

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2018/04/01/ornaments-by-david-daniel/

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A Bright and Pleading Dagger by Nicole Rivas

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2018/09/01/a-bright-and-pleading-dagger-by-nicole-rivas/

thieves

Thieves in the Family by Maria Lisella

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2018/09/01/thieves-in-the-family-by-maria-lisella/

gil-fagianis-logos-book

Logos by Gil Fagiani

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2018/10/01/logos-by-gil-fagiani/

fire-without-light-copy

A Fire Without Light by Darren Demaree

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2018/02/01/a-fire-without-light-by-darren-demarre/

Lasater Philosopy of Ranching by Laurence M Lasater cover photo

The Lasater Philosophy of Cattle Ranching

https://northofoxford.wordpress.com/2018/01/01/the-lasater-philosophy-of-cattle-ranching/

 

 

Sidebend World by Charles Harper Webb

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By Charles Rammelkamp

The title poem of Charles Harper Webb’s new collection is an apt metaphor for his poetic vision. “When I lean to my right, left arm stretched / over my head…” the poems begins: all sorts of fresh angles and relationships appear. “All cars / in the condo parking lot incline.” What else? “All waves / tilt as they roar toward shore….” Charles Harper Webb looks at the world from a unique perspective, reminding us of Emily Dickinson’s “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” With refreshing, original metaphors and vivid language, Webb tilts our vision as well.  And his poems are often just so funny!

Take the poem, “Rain Stick,” sprung from the contemplation of one of those long hollow tubes filled with pebbles or beans, pins arranged in the inside of the tube so that when you upend it, it sounds like rain, and “you feel released,

as if the clenched world has relaxed, yielding
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to tears, orgasm, the laughing relief that soaks you
when the lab test comes back negative.
Its reprieve, resuscitation, the stopped breath
re-starting before a single brain cell dies,
the baby splooching out as the uterus sighs.
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 And you thought it was just a stocking stuffer or a tchotchke! So many of the poems in Sidebend World – and throughout Webb ‘s work generally – spring from these casual observations of mundane objects we might normally overlook – “Dominion of Blue” about the Galapagan booby made famous by Charles Darwin; “Box of Butterflies” with its curious observations (“Monarch: orange and black Majesty to which I bowed, seeing you / flap, frantic, on my killing jar’s drenched throne.”); “Bait Ball,” a poem shaped like an ornament on the page, “Not really round, but / suitable for bouncing.” He notes later in the poem: “London, to the / Luftwaffe, was a bait ball.” “The Woman on the Cover of Glamour Magazine” “so full of tigress-in-bed- / and tyrant-in-the-boardroom.”

Of course, “monsters” and “heroes” both get a slightly different look, too, in Webb’s sidebend world. In “Here Be Monsters,” he dismisses Cave Bear, Saber Tooth, Scylla, Charybdis,  Dracula. “Now monster means the flippered child, / the protoplasmic blob.” “Monster’s // a murderer with bulging, jailhouse arms. / A job-search agency. An energy drink.”  Monster is the disfigured prom queen burned up in an accident with a drunk driver, the one “every boy wanted, just last year / to kiss.”  The poem, “You Don’t Want to Meet the Ai-Uru” takes another sideways look at a monster, and “Fear Factor,” a satire on Reality TV, similarly describes a rescue gone wrong, despite the hero’s “class-president grin.”

Which indeed takes us to heroes. In “Meanwhile, back on Mt Olympus…” we get Webb’s amusing take on Achilles and the limping god Hephaestus who makes his shield. In Webb’s sidebend world they seem like ordinary people, if only because he elevates us all to the status of “hero.” “Hero Food” riffs on an instruction from Food Styling for Photographers that is its epigraph. For although we need heroes more than the Greeks did, what we get is “Kenny Carrot leading the Allied Vegetables / against the merciless axis of Tooth Decay,” as Webb’s imagination takes us laughing all the way through a Homeric epic of the staging of a photoshoot for canned corn.  (Take “canned corn” in both senses!)

But he can also be empathetic in his sardonic way, displaying a real tenderness for his son. In “Emergency” we see him and his wife overcome with despair as they have visions of the boy’s life “leaking away” to some mysterious disease. “Barred / from the spinal test for meningitis  – “Can’t have fathers / passing out!” – I roam the halls, dodging other dads’ dead eyes.” In “Nice Hat” he watches his son trying to master skateboarding, knowing the boy is “too thought-bound ever // to dissolve into pure speed. The jabs of “I might / fall,” “I’ll look bad,” “It’ll hurt,” punch / through his guard, bloodying his nose….” Yet he protects his son from the “mohawked thug” who calls him “Dickweed.” How protective we are when we see our loved ones are so vulnerable!

The best of Webb’s poems are the ones like “A Far Cry from Eli Whitney” and “Down the Bayou” that start us out in one place but by the time they’re over have taken us someplace totally unexpected. ”Hey, The Sopranos / are on TV!” he writes in “Down the Bayou.” “Five minutes in I’m calling guys // “Frankie the Frog” and “Lenny Lasagna,” / swigging vino, yelling “Fugedabout it”…” and only a stanza later, having caught a snatch of “She Loves You” on the stereo, he’s “tromping / through cold Liverpool rain, winking at birds, / all of whom I’ve shagged, and now call Luv.

Sidebend World is Charles Harper Webb’s twelfth collection of poetry. Any of them will take you inside, outside, sideways down with, as one critic puts it: “compassionate intelligence and an abiding wonder at the beautiful strangeness of the world.” Amen.

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You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Sidebend-World-Poetry-Charles-Harper/dp/0822965615/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1538521669&sr=1-3

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Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for Brick House Books in Baltimore, where he lives, and Reviews Editor for Adirondack Review. His most recent books include American Zeitgeist(Apprentice House) and a chapbook, Jack Tar’s Lady Parts ( Main Street Rag Press). Another poetry chapbook, Me and Sal Paradise, is forthcoming from Future Cycle Press.

Distance Traveled by Michael Chin

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By Charles Rammelkamp

Michael Chin’s Distance Traveled is a touching series of vignettes – flash pieces, meditations – that ultimately address, in an understated way, a first-love break-up between a man and a woman, and in measuring the distance that that relationship travels, the stories also shine a light on the fantasies and obsessions that can dominate us all our lives, out of which we sometimes (often) grow – or travel beyond.

Most of the nineteen stories that make up Distance Traveled involve the narrator and his childhood buddy Vinnie, growing up in a town in upstate New York (Chin grew up in Utica), obsessively following NBA teams in the context of their turbulent junior high school lives. But the first two (“History” and “I Believed in Magic”) and the last two (“Sea Level” and “Hall of Fame”) that frame the collection are told when the narrator is well into his thirties.  While also couching larger issues in terms of basketball, they address the heartbreak and disillusionment that inevitably come with adulthood. The chunk of fifteen stories in between set us up for all the real-life joy and misery that the game of basketball involves for the fans who follow the teams and the players, who learn to refer to teams in terms of “we” and “our” and “us.”

For certain basketball fans, too, the period of Chin’s fandom as a teenager evokes real nostalgia for the game, its drama and melodrama, as it was played in the last decade of the twentieth century, with “Magic” and “Larry” and “Michael” and “Shaq” and “Kobe” and all the others we first-named as if we knew them. There are stories about Patrick Ewing and Jeff Van Gundy, Muggsy Bogues and Latrell Sprewell, all with grave moral applications to the lives of teenage boys. And George Mikan? Does that name ring a bell?

Indeed, Chin’s collection provides a fresh take on the old saw that sports is a metaphor for life.  As the narrator notes in “The New York Knicks, 1994,” in which the beloved home team (“the Knicks – the team based Downstate, but the jersey said New York, no City, so we could still claim them.”) loses the championship in the seventh game of the finals to the Houston Rockets: “And I discovered that magical thing about the game. That win or lose it went on.  No permanent victories or defeats, just the ones you let stick to you, the ones that rolled off.”

But while this collection may ultimately be about the narrator and Claudia, the girl who leaves him for another guy, it’s the narrator and his buddy Vinnie as young teens who really touch the reader’s heart.  The narrator and Vinnie are obsessed with basketball. It’s the ultimate basis of their friendship; it’s what they bond over, and not just the hero-worship. They admire the acrobatics, the strategy, the work ethic. They learn about the point spread from the narrator’s father and apply the principle to their nascent love lives. They bond over the triangle offense, brainchild of Phil Jackson. As Knick fans, they loathe Reggie Miller, the Indiana Pacers’ three-point artist (“Everybody Hates Reggie Miller”). And yet, reflecting on Miller’s childhood when he wore leg braces because his hips were out of place, and all the obstacles the future star would have to overcome, the narrator observes that it’s easier to be a victim – a role Miller did not adopt – than to be a villain. (In an act of will, the narrator resists “adding fucking before or between Reggie and Miller.”)  The villain, after all, is a celebrity, part of the sports pantheon of gods. Think Loki. Think Beelzebub.

Possibly the most amusing and endearing instance of the boys’ innocence comes in the story, “A Piece of the Man,” which focuses on Dennis Rodman. You remember Dennis, the original American diplomat to visit Kim Jong Un, years before Donald Trump. “Tattoos and neon hair. Number ninety-one because those were the first two digits people dial in case of emergency.” The boys are trading sports cards. The narrator offers Vinnie a Glen Rice rookie card and a Fleer Scottie Pippen for Vinnie’s Rodman card. “I already knew he’d say no.”  While they dicker over the cards, the narrator tells Vinnie that Rodman had dated Madonna. “You think he kissed her?” Vinnie asks innocently. The narrator tells him the truth about Dennis Rodman and Madonna. “Vinnie was at that fulcrum age, both naïve and instinctually inclined to want to put his dick in anything that moved.” It’s almost as if the narrator has had to tell Vinnie there’s no such thing as Santa Claus.

A natural storyteller, Chin’s narrative voice is wise and confidential, unafraid to acknowledge vulnerabilities and weaknesses. He sucks you in with his casual references to the dysfunctional family life that basketball seemingly saves him from.  But there’s not a trace of self-pity in Distances Traveled. Just as Reggie Miller had to fight for everything he had, the narrator confides, “I can relate. We all think we can, right? It’s easy to play the victim.” Chin, too, refuses to play the victim. Instead, he simply moves on – “that magical thing about the game.” Win or lose, life just goes on.

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You can find the book here:

https://bentwindow.com/books/distancetraveled/

Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for Brick House Books in Baltimore, where he lives, and Reviews Editor for Adirondack Review. His most recent books include American Zeitgeist(Apprentice House) and a chapbook, Jack Tar’s Lady Parts ( Main Street Rag Press). Another poetry chapbook, Me and Sal Paradise, is forthcoming from Future Cycle Press.

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A Bright and Pleading Dagger by Nicole Rivas

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By Charles Rammelkamp

“In those years I still believed in magic,” the schoolgirl narrator of the story “Bulldog” tells us after she has been informed by the boys in the schoolyard “no girls allowed” when she tries to participate in a game of handball. That night she dreams about her transformative powers. The stories in Nicole Rivas’ collection, A Bright and Pleading Dagger, winner of the 2018 Rose Metal Press flash fiction chapbook contest, brim with magic as young women cope with their powerlessness in the face of the abracadabra of love and ambition. So often, the magic lies in the contradictory pull of toughness and tenderness, as if the collision of the opposites creates a spell all its own. Emblematic of these opposing impulses is the image that concludes the story, “The Butcher,” in which the girl protagonist takes on her father’s butcher job. She routinely brings scraps of meat to the feral cats in her neighborhood. “…the cats slip and turn around her calves like warm and eager lovers, ready to strip the butcher of everything she has to offer them.” There is so much violence implicit in this image, yet so much affection.

Or again, take the conclusion of the story, “The Comedienne” (note that Rivas uses the obsolete term to identify a female comic), a story in which a young woman is effectively ostracized from a party after she makes a crude joke; she accidentally breaks her mimosa glass on the handrail going out, getting shards of glass stuck in her palm. Rivas writes about the pieces of glass that Sam, the protagonist, has removed from her hand, “If she arranged them one way, they looked like a dagger. If she arranged them another way, they looked like a halo.” Murderer or angel, sinner or saint?

And yet another example of this DNA-coiling of the yin and the yang, comes at the end of the story, “The Woman on the Bus,” when the narrator observes, “Though you know it’s unwise, you will continue to love and hate him until you can no longer tell the difference between the two.” In this story, the protagonist, “you,” is a young woman on a date with a man who clearly annoys her. Yet when he gets food caught in his throat and she has to perform the Heimlich maneuver to save his life, she speaks to him “in the soothing voice of a mother.” The woman is taken by surprise to hear herself, “the way it leaps out of your throat like a warm blanket.”

In all twelve of the stories that make up A Bright and Pleading Dagger these same contradictions are at play (or war), and the result is magic. “Gretel’s Escape,” which plays on the Hansel and Gretel fairy tale, may be the most magical of all. In this version of the story, the brother and sister are – surprise! – lost in a deep dark forest and they come upon a ruin. Sound familiar? Only, Gretel discovers a charred hardback (it’s apparently Grimm’s Fairy Tales) in which she reads about her brother and her being duped by a witch in a candy house. The witch tries to eat them, they get away, a lesson is learned, blah blah blah. Gretel’s reaction? “She was tired of being simultaneously lost and bound to fate.”  She tries to ditch her brother, but she’s ultimately resigned to her fate. The story ends: “Gretel exhaled sadly, knowing Hansel would find her again, once upon a time.”  Once upon a time. The love and the resentment are both so nakedly apparent.

Indeed, the fairy tale, with its implicit magic and its didactic moral message is the perfect genre by which to understand Rivas’ flash fictions, except that she turns it on its head: there is no moral; there is no bright distinction between “right” and “wrong” and “good” and “bad.” There is savage and there is compassionate, there is violent and there is kind, but they are never separate, only barely distinguishable.

These are all stories about girls navigating through some bizarre #Metoo world, at once victims and agents of their own fate. The teenage girls in the title story are picked up by some older hillbillies in a truck near Savannah. We don’t know what happens to one of the girls, Jada, who wanders off with one of the men when they park in a field miles from town, except that she’s apparently uninjured, but the unnamed narrator is sitting in the truck with her guy who masturbates while talking to her about scifi thrillers. Gross. Jada meanwhile quits her job and the narrator never sees her again. In the story, “Death of an Ortolan,” the young narrator is drawn into a relationship with Penny, her gynecologist, a woman more than twice her age.  How can this not be exploitative?  But the narrator seems to know what she’s doing.

The magic and the just plain weird aspects of these stories (In “The Staring Contest” a young woman speed dates – and falls in love with – “the oldest man in the world,” who dies sitting across from her) add up to a dark humor that takes the edge off the savage undercurrents, but the sheer menace just around the corner makes these stories extremely potent.  This is a collection you will read straight through.

You can find the book here:

https://rosemetalpress.com/books/a-bright-and-pleading-dagger/

Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for BrickHouse Books in Baltimore, where he lives, and Reviews Editor for Adirondack Review. His most recent books include American Zeitgeist(Apprentice House) and a chapbook, Jack Tar’s Lady Parts ( Main Street Rag Press). Another poetry chapbook, Me and Sal Paradise, is forthcoming from FutureCycle Press.