north of oxford book review
The World’s Lightest Motorcycle by Yi Won, Translated from Korean by E. J. Koh and Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello
By Greg Bem
Originally debuted in 1992 and then published in 1996 and 2007 in Korean, Yi Won’s The World’s Lightest Motorcycle is now available in English thanks to the efforts of E. J. Koh and Marci Calabretta Cancio-Bello, under initial guidance by Korean American poet Don Mee Choi. The book is a phenomenal accomplishment of keeping the Yi Won, a “computer poet,” current in the third decade of the new century.
The book presents Yi Won’s work in both the original Korean and the English translation, offering readers the opportunity to explore the form and format of the work between time and space. The poet’s works combine verse and prose in the same sequence, each piece rarely taking up more than a single page. There are two sections to the book: “When They Ruled the Earth” and “The World’s Lightest Motorcycle,” both which use a techno-surrealist base to explore identity, transformation, and, most prominently, the movement of the human figure in various situations and circumstances. These themes collect and coalesce to merge the literary and the digital into similar consequence.
Yi Won follows in the footsteps of the great feminists of Korean poetry, namely Kim Hyesoon, whose work has seen widespread attention and examination across translations across the last few decades. It is fantastic to see Yi Won’s work emerge alongside that of Kim Hyesoon, particularly as someone who has been both influenced by Kim Hyesoon and as someone who is gratifyingly similar in femininity and horror. As I have written about previously, Hyesoon established a mesmerizing and chaotic poetics capable of taking nearly all preconceived notions of the human body and deconstructing them in the context of the fluidity of life. We see this approach to poetry abruptly in Yi Won’s “A Night at the Gas Station”:
The man rips off the woman’s left torso, lifts the host and pumps gas. With his other hand, he strokes her neck and hair. (page 53)
Appendages emerging out of bodies, natural and human-made objects standing in place of humanity, and the mutation of perception alongside bizarre identities are all distinctly visible in Yi Won’s work, as influenced by Kim Hyesoon and others. And yet with The World’s Lightest Motorcycle, what we have is less blunt, more subtle, and more representative of presence than established or fixed image. As I read Yi Won for the first time, I was blown away the surrealism was so connected to a world of vast new connections, networks, and conceptualizations by way of technology. As early in the book as the first poem, “PC,” Yi Won comments on the presence of our dependence upon (and living through) computer hardware—so much so that it even dictates our human existence:
I lost my feet and my breath at the corner of the road I couldn’t reach to the end. I press the ‘me’ from that moment to print out those years. Some parts are faded or erased.
Yi Won’s comments on the blending and blurring of bodily form both human and computer is a delightful (if shocking) early peek into a cyborgish future of accessories and mobile devices, but there are darker, more foreboding subtexts that can be found within the wit as well. In “Tick, Tick, Tick, Tick,” a poem discussed thoroughly in the book’s translator’s notes, Yi Won’s everyday world is staggered and interrupted; the brief prose poem describes the life of a female protagonist, a life filled with interruption and disruption. Represented powerfully by the translators with English grammar, we have a world that is undergoing transformation and it’s encountered by the reader through visual and verbal tension:
she, stays still, stares at the shadow, tick, tick, the shadow disappears, she, continues to stare at the door, pours water in a cup, the world sloshes, there’s an empty road inside the sloshing sound
As with other surrealist Korean poetry, everyday objects are incredible symbols reflective of adversity and crisis. Yi Won’s work is no exception, namely as we watch movement describes by the speaker of these poems. Movement is relative to the speaker’s interactions, as well as perceptions. By far the greatest conduit of perception in this volume is “the mirror,” a dusty symbol that amazingly avoids cliché as it’s revisited in the digital age. In “A Bright Room,” Yi Won’s mirror is repetitive, ever present, fixed as an object at once hyper and abstract. I could not help but be reminded of the television show “Black Mirror” as I read the lines “In the mirror there’s a place that can’t get any darker / In this place the blinking stars keep rolling around” (page 47).
Even later, the mirror returns in the book’s second section, where it serves as both an object representing infinity and expansion as well as an object representing hollowness and stasis. “The mirror is endless,” Yi Won writes at the beginning in “My Face Runs.” Later she closes the poem: “My face is frozen in the mirror because it’s running too fast” (page 95). With similarities to Icarus, the speaker is both charged by and paralyzed from the potential movement seen in this complex object. How telling of the world that surrounds us!
The translators share that Yi Won was influenced by a plethora of visual artists, including painters Edward Hopper and Francis Bacon, and photographer Robert Frank. Links to vast worlds constructed by and explored with elements of the visual are heavily present in this book across its pages, and in combination with the themes of abstraction and identity mentioned above they present a scenery that is at once connected in its nature and disconnected in the poet’s experience. Perhaps the attempt to explore and understand can be traced to the incredible movement of the characters of the poems (when they aren’t busy staring at themselves in the mirror). Exquisitely the poem “Nike—Edge” shows us this movement directly:
Wow-wow-wow! In the heavy downpour, children run to the square. This world is inside of an egg. Torrential rainfall. It pours downward at such an alarming rate that it becomes a wall of rain, yet in a matter of seconds is dismantled. The concrete floor is impervious to the collapsing world.
If the world is collapsing, be it by way of history and technology, Yi Won offers a resounding response. It is within the practices of measured examination that this volume offers stability and foundation throughout the horror. Process and reality is, as translators Koh and Cancio-Bello have demonstrated, rough and choppy, but within the chaos is an elegance, persistence, and awe.
You can find the book here: https://www.zephyrpress.org/product-page/the-world-s-lightest-motorcycle
Greg Bem is a poet and librarian living on unceded Duwamish territory, specifically Seattle, Washington. He writes book reviews for Rain Taxi, Yellow Rabbits, and more. His current literary efforts mostly concern water and often include elements of video. Learn more at gregbem.com.
Empty Graves: Tales of the Living Dead by Jonathan Maberry
By Alex Carrigan
Jonathan Maberry is probably one of the most notable horror authors alive today. With five Bram Stoker awards and dozens of books, comics, and anthologies to his name, this New York Times bestseller has defined himself as one of the greatest horror authors of all time. In the latest collection of Maberry’s work, Empty Graves: Tales of the Living Dead, fifteen of Maberry’s previously published stories and one new story have been collected to show the author’s range of zombie fiction. With a foreword written by Dawn of the Dead star Ken Foree, this anthology covers the zombie tale in a wide variety of settings, cultures, and tones, all to show how dynamic the living dead can be in fiction.
Each story in the collection is preceded with a short introduction from Maberry explaining how he came to write each story and what he wanted to explore in the work. With a collection spanning nearly two decades of Maberry’s work, it is fascinating to see the connecting threads that hold it together like the last sinewy muscles keeping a shambling corpse’s limbs attached. While there are some commonalities throughout the stories, such as many stories occurring right at the breakout of the zombie pandemic or the zombies keeping similar traits throughout (slow walking, blackened blood, maggot infestation), it’s the thematic elements that make Maberry’s collection stand out.
First, Foree’s introduction isn’t the only connection this anthology has to George A. Romero’s pioneering Living Dead film franchise. Maberry knew and worked with Romero before the director’s death, and the author was inspired by Night of the Living Dead when it was first released in 1968. Several stories are directly influenced by the work, such as “Cadaver Dog,” whose characters deal with an outbreak caused by a falling space probe, a reference to the film’s explanation to the plague. Then there’s the two-part stories “Lone Gunman” and “Not this War, Not this World” which is set in the Living Dead universe and follows a lone soldier trying to survive, whether it’s hiding under mounds of zombie corpses or taking shelter in what is implied to be the same farmhouse from the film. These stories play with tropes from Romero’s films but in a way that allows for examination of other subjects, such as “Cadaver Dog’s” clash between generations and gender and the two-parter’s look at Vietnam-era soldier mentality.
As mentioned previously, several of the stories also use zombie tropes and elements in other cultures and time periods in order to explore these elements in new contexts. Some are transplanted to other countries, like “The Death Poem of Sensei Ōtoro,” which moves the zombie story to late 19th century Japan and has the zombie virus represent the growing Western influence as it clashes with samurai and feudal Japanese culture. Then there’s “A Small Taste of the Old Country,” set in the late 1940s in Argentina and mixes the zombie with German, Austrian, and Romani culture for a tale of revenge and retribution.
There are also a few stories that play with periods of American history and use the zombie as an element of folklore. “Calling Death” uses coal miner country folklore to show how the zombie can represent the evils caused by greed and environmental destruction. “Pegleg and Paddy Save the World” is a mostly comedic tale that reveals the truth of the Great Chicago Fire as one part supernatural event and another part absurd escalation. Lastly there’s “Son of the Devil” which examines how the zombie can be a tool of revenge as part of America’s history of lynching and hypocritical and pious Christianity. Each of these tales show how the zombie can be a force of nature or a force of evil inflicted on the innocent and the guilty, and how the myths around them can be amplified by cycles that are difficult to break due to how ingrained they are in American culture.
However, some of the strongest stories in Maberry’s collections are the ones that use zombie tales to tell stories about familial love and attachment. “Gavin Funke’s Monster Movie Marathon” is a tragic tale of one man’s attempt to survive the zombie apocalypse while still holding on to the now zombified relationships he has. “Jack and Jill” follows a boy with cancer, one who knows death is coming for him, forced to watch as death comes much faster for his family when an outbreak happens in his farming community. Lastly, in one of the strongest pieces in the collection, “Sisters” follows two young girls who were raised in the post-apocalyptic setting doing everything they can to survive when they come to find humans are more dangerous than the zombies. Each of these pieces are a lot sadder in tone, but also the more effective. In these tales, the zombie apocalypse is the reckoning with death we all have to face, but with characters now seeing how little control they have or how it can easily control can be taken away from them no matter what they do.
Empty Graves is peak horror fiction. Every story plays with the zombie tale in fresh and impactful ways, using their settings and themes to explore the full range of emotions and character beats that can emerge in the apocalypse. Maberry’s collection is a great entry for those who want to see more experimentation with genre fiction, and each person who reads is sure to find at least one story that will be their nightmare or their fantasy, depending on how they see themselves in the apocalypse.
You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Empty-Graves-Tales-Living-Dead/dp/1680572237
Alex Carrigan (@carriganak) is an editor, writer, and critic from Virginia. He has had fiction, poetry, and literary reviews published in Quail Bell Magazine, Lambda Literary Review, Empty Mirror, Gertrude Press, Quarterly West, Whale Road Review, ‘Stories About Penises’ (Guts Publishing, 2019), ‘Closet Cases: Queers on What We Wear’ (Et Alia Press, 2020), ‘ImageOutWrite Vol. 9,’ and ‘Last Day, First Day Vol. 2.’ He is also the co-editor of ‘Please Welcome to the Stage…: A Drag Literary Anthology’ with House of Lobsters Literary.
Max Turns Yellow by Martha King
By Jim Feast
Although Martha King’s Max Turns Yellow is a standalone murder mystery, a reader familiar with her last book, Max Sees Red, will be able to see how, taken together, the two books serve as an interesting commentary on the course of gentrification and the place artists play in the process. Let me say a little something about that before I get to this book’s special charm.
Red is set in the Soho of the mid-1970s, which is turning from what, in the time of the Abstract Expressionists in the 1940s and ‘50s, was an industrial neighborhood of small factories with a few artists’ loft scattered among them, into an attraction where New Jerseyites and other tourists come to gawk at the Bohemians. At that time, Max Birtwhistle is still making a name for himself as a painter and is living in this area where he can keep his finger on the art market’s pulse. At the same time, more successful artists are colonizing the Hudson Valley, much to the chagrin of the locals who resent the intrusion of Manhattanites who are buying up all the old family manses. Jump ahead ten years to 1986, and Max has become successful. However, instead of lighting out for the sticks, he helps to start the latest hip trend and moves to the Brooklyn waterfront, taking a place in Dumbo. There he can get cheaper space (in an old pickle factory!!) and quiet. Although the district has few inhabitants, the locals who are in residence are disturbed by this growing incursion. This is especially the case for those in the Mafia-connected restaurant, who would prefer fewer peering eyes.
The change of geographic focus can be tied to formal differences in the novels. Where Red, in keeping with a story that takes place partly in Soho and partly in a rural enclave upstate, is a sprawling work, filled with varied subplots, shifting milieus and a diverse cast of rambunctious characters; Yellow, set in an under-populated neighborhood, is more focused in plot and delves more deeply into the psyches of its fewer characters. It is a more intense read. But it is also Max’s own status that changes the tones of the book. In Red, as an up-and-comer, he has to be out circulating at the Soho bars – one is lovingly described in a delightful thumbnail – and gallery openings. The book is chock full of incident. In Yellow, Max is established and doesn’t have to gad about so much. He can stay home and concentrate on art making, up to a point.
The point is murder. But the killing is different than in the last book. There, in keeping with the book’s picaresque quality, Max gets involved because an oddball writer of his acquaintance has entangled himself in the murder of his editor. Often, though, since he is only peripherally involved, Max watches from the sidelines.
This time it’s personal. Max is living with his girlfriend Britz. She goes out one night when he is asleep and doesn’t come back. Soon enough, her body is found floating in the river. Max is devastated. His sadness throughout the book gives the text a somber complexion, new to King’s writing. Moreover, another new element, as he gets involved in investigating what happened, Max uncovers a mystery in triplicate. Not only is there Britz’s death but, as it turns out, her brother Theo is facing the possibility of being sued for plagiarizing from his writing teacher, even accused of killing him. Moreover, Britz’s earlier life, which she had been cagey about revealing to Max, is itself filled with shocking secrets.
While Red was an engaging read, it was not put together along the lines of a traditional murder mystery in the way Yellow is. In line with generic conventions, this new book begins with a shocker, is filled with unexpected but plausible twists that keep piling up, has moments of real menace (especially in relation to the Mafia’s hangout), and there are times when suspense is ratcheted up to exquisite heights.
And yet, for all these similarities, Yellow is not a typical mysteries. First, there is a depth of characterization in the portrayal of Max that is unusual. As already noted, Max is broken-hearted and much of the book is pervaded by a carefully rendered sadness, quite different from the equitable tone of other crime novels. Max’s circumstances after the disappearance change in a paradoxical way. From living a quiet life with Britz, he now becomes entangled with her brother and with her now-separated parents, whom Britz hadn’t seen for decades. Hadn’t seen for good reason as they were cultists who, when they were growing up, had taken her brother and her from one wacko organization to another. Moreover, to suggest some of the complications, Max is disoriented by Britz’s mother. When he first meets her, “Max’s mouth went dry. The slender woman with silver-gray hair walking toward the glass bus terminal door could have been Britz perhaps twenty years older.”
This can be disconcerting, especially as he is putting her up in his space until the funeral. Meanwhile, the father, who hasn’t been in New York for many years and who from all reports was a burned-out hippie, turns out to know some of the big corporate players connected to the large cancer research institution where Britz worked. Max is forced to contend with these complex and semi-antagonistic personalities as well as with the police, the Mafia (who may be involved), the researchers from Britz’s company, and others who come out of the woodwork. All this happens as he is beset with a grief and misery that is little alleviated by his hunt for the killer.
Second, the book further differentiates itself due to the already suggested, serious thematic substructure which makes location crucial to the story. King shows how people’s lives, their plots as it were, are intimately shaped by their surroundings. With uncanny precision, she evokes the ambience of the area, which is so attractive to artists. She describes Max’s morning walk, “Whatever the weather, it was bracing to trot through the waterfront streets at dawn. Harbor water scented the air even though access to the river itself was for the most part blocked. The variation in light and weather fascinated Max every day. The rhythms primed him for his work.”
Dumbo is edging from being a dilapidated manufacturing zone to being a classy, pricey neighborhood, so it is ambiguous territory. At this point in time the residents find both the joys of solitude, as in our hero’s morning wanderings through deserted streets, and the dangers of the evening. This last is illustrated by the night Britz disappears. Someone from work asks to meet her in her neighborhood at 10 pm. In most parts of the city, the streets would still be busy, but in this area to get to her rendezvous she must walk past the cavernous warehouses and shutdown factories. It is with an observant eye that King paints her unforgettable portrait of a neighborhood shedding its skin.
While her first murder mystery was a well-structured, lively tale, the purist mystery reader might have found that book too full, with many cross-currents that were not part of the central crime. With this book, King has supplied all the prerequisites of a crime novel, including a taut story, which goes twisting and turning without losing its tight focus, and other elements already enumerated, that are so pleasing to the mystery buff. She does this while offering a profundity of theme and character that goes beyond generic expectations.
You can find the book here: http://www.spuytenduyvil.net/max-turns-yellow.html
Jim Feast is the author of two poetry books, the latest being A Strange Awakening of Light that Takes the Place of Dawn (2020).
What Are the Chances? By Robert Scotellaro
By Charles Rammelkamp
In the story “Plink!” in Robert Scotellaro’s new collection a man stands at a window, mesmerized, watching diamond-like hailstones falling out of the sky, pelting the asphalt, the sidewalks, the sides of cars. “Then it stops. The way magic often does.” That’s an apt description of the sixty-eight marvelous little stories, ranging from a couple of paragraphs to no more than three pages, that make up What Are the Chances? First of all, they do feel magical, with so many strange characters, often costumed, popping off the page, snaring your attention – like hailstones – and then the payoff, the flash that makes “flash fiction” flash fiction, the sudden illumination of character or scene. And then the story stops.
Stories like “Mr. Nasty,” “The Cleaning” Girl,” “Bad-Boy Wannabe and the Cephalopod Empire,” and the single-paragraph, “Death’s Late-Night Walks,” among others, feature characters in dress-up; the German word maskenfreiheit – signaling the freedom conferred by masks – come to life. In “Mr. Nasty” a man flirts with a hired birthday party performer, who is dressing up as Snow White, the entertainment at a party for his daughter, while aware of the watchful eyes of his mother-in-law and wife. Nothing comes of it, of course, but the tension is like lightning. Similarly, the Bad-Boy Wannabe watches his devil’s mask blow away from his head in a breeze, exposing him, while he tries to impress a girl in a squid mask, the two sharing a joint. But, unmasked now as he is, she is out of his league. The cleaning girl dresses up in her employer’s jewels and furs while the homeowners are away, fantasizing the luxury, only to get a bad scare when the doorbell rings, sure she’s busted. However briefly, we feel all of these characters’ illicit feelings, the lust, the covetousness, the fear.
Although some of the stories are truly grim, ominous, like the title story in which the protagonists come home to find their home robbed and a lethal butcher knife displayed on the bed, or “The Pencil,” in which a schoolkid hides in a bathroom stall while a shooter guns down his classmates, most are funny. They feature likable schmoes to whom we can all relate, walk in their shoes – in their masks – indeed. In “Those Eyes in the Rearview,” a man gets into the Uber he’s just called. “I saw his eyes in the rearview. They were red and crazed.” The driver tells his passenger that he’s just killed a man he caught sleeping with his wife, and the passenger is his hostage. Like the passenger, we feel our blood pressure rise, our pulses race; only, two-thirds of the way through the story, the driver “pulls off his mask,” reveals he is an aspiring actor and was just having the passenger on. “That was some top-notch acting, right?” he boasts. “Come on, give me that.”
In the story, “Flatware,” we encounter a similarly bizarre situation in which a man is sure his home is being broken into and stabs a fork into the neck of the “intruder,” only to learn that the intruder is the brother of his neighbor, come to retrieve a ball his nephew has knocked over the fence into the protagonist’s yard. A comic rush to the emergency room follows, the protagonist taking full responsibility. When they return, the protagonist apologizes again (and again), shakes the man’s hand, returns to the kitchen where he’d been eating his Chinese takeout (hence, the fork conveniently in his hand when the “burglar” came in), “wondering if I should call Tina at her sister’s, where she always went after one of our big blow-outs.” In a flash, then, we see the backstory, why this guy was on edge in the first place.
In the story, “Wise Sunglasses,” the lonely unnamed female protagonist collects sunglasses – her mask. In an aside, Scotellaro writes, “The heart-shaped pair were Pete’s favorites. ‘My Lolita,’ he’d say, though she was far from it, and he’d find the real thing soon enough.” That’s about all we hear about “Pete,” but in a flash we intuit the protagonist’s loneliness, the betrayal at its base. She’s wearing her owl sunglasses when the story concludes, “not feeling the least bit wise.”
In “A Disadvantage of Momentum” we encounter Phil and Nan, post-surgery in a hospital room where Phil lies, recuperating. At their weekly session with a couples counselor, Heidi, they’d been told to “spice it up” after they’d become empty-nesters, the last kid off to college. Nan goes along with one of Phil’s adolescent fantasies, while they are driving home from dinner, her face in his lap, but a sudden fender bender at a stoplight results in a bite too deep. Nan asks Phil, “Anything left?” “Enough,” he replies. The story ends:
They heard some laughter and watched as shadows gathered behind the curtain, grew. Then a hand reached in and swung it open.
Of course, some stories are better than others. I’m not going to rank all sixty-eight, but every one of them does pack that flash punch. Robert Scotellaro is a master of this form. It’s magic!
You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/What-Are-Chances-Robert-Scotellaro/dp/1950413268
Charles Rammelkamp is Prose Editor for Brick House Books in Baltimore and Reviews Editor for The Adirondack Review. His most recent releases are Ugler Lee from Kelsay Books and Catastroika from Apprentice House.
Cuban Health Care – The Ongoing Revolution by Don Fitz
By g emil reutter
I am not a fan of the oppressive government of Cuba where there is no vote, no guarantee of freedoms we here in the United States take for granted. As with all the revolutions in the last century based on Marxist philosophy the Cuban revolution devolved into a cult of personality. Unlike the others, Russian elitism and Chinese embrace of corporate identity to support the establishment as opposed to utopia, Cuba did establish two elements foreign to other Marxist revolutions. Cuba established an outreach of medical care for the poor and rural and a literacy campaign to educate the population.
The United States began to assert care for the elderly and unemployed with Social Security and Unemployment Insurance under Roosevelt, morphed into Johnson’s Medicare and Medicaid and finally the Affordable Care Act under O’Bama. Yet health care remains out of reach for millions of Americans. For profit health care seems to dominate the nation as drug companies charge outrageous prices for medicine although most all appear to be produced overseas at cheap rates. Health insurance rates remain high. Political attacks on Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid continue even as the programs continue to assist millions and for those who have forgotten we do pay our share for these programs through taxes.
Fitz provides a fascinating read of the history of Cuban health care and its outreach to the poor and needy. It is one of only two bright lights of Marxism in Cuba and coupled with the literacy program should be deemed replicable in other nations throughout the world and yes here in the United States. Health care and literacy are basic human rights.
Through a series of essays, Don Fitz lays out the amazing story of Cuban health care from its infancy, elimination of disease on the island to the export of health care to poor nations around the globe. In this time of corporate and university medical systems control of health care in the United States; the lack of basic health care and hospitals in rural areas, unaffordable care in urban areas, Fitz’s essays are timely and an essential read.
You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Cuban-Health-Care-Ongoing-Revolution/dp/1583678603
g emil reutter is a writer of poems and stories. He can be found at: https://gereutter.wordpress.com/about/
Paula Regossy by Lynn Crawford
By Jim Feast
While in writing Lynn Crawford has veered between realism (as in Shankus & Kitto) and near sci fi (as in Fortification Resort), her new book, Paula Regossy, combines elements of both by mixing contemporary reportage into an imaginative novel of spies and fairy tales.
The founding premise is one familiar from espionage fiction. The lead characters all work for an unnamed NGO, which is discreetly commissioned to bust crime. “We are contacted and hired by the few in the know. Our fees are high.” The operatives primarily investigate people who work for companies that balance on the knife edge between philanthropy and skullduggery. “Our marks are wealthy companies that wreak wide-scale damage yet contribute. For example, they authorize toxic dumps in waterways and launch and fund charitable and arts foundations.” Most of the chapters describe the experiences of Regossy and agents she has trained.
(Let me mention that in an email exchange with the author, Crawford said she sees these trained agents as aspects of the main character. She writes, “The book is titled Paula Regossy and is, in fact, a portrait of her. … No piece is ALL of her. Each one is PART of her. What we end with (in my head) is a picture of SOME of her but, of course, not ALL of her.)
Unlikely as this may seem, what is fundamentally a crime story is structured so as to allow Crawford a chance to display her knowledge of the Detroit arts scene. The title character has broken a rule of the agency by getting emotionally involved with a suspect and so has been reassigned to Detroit where, while getting her priorities back on track, she takes as her cover identity that of a Bohemian art maven, who supplies the reader with descriptions of the budding, bubbling creative community. A note at the back of the book tells us that Crawford was inspired to compose this book by her viewing of a number of gallery shows, including some described by Regossy. She tells us, “Each chapter in this book is my personal (but faithful) response to works by various Detroit-based artists and spaces.”
In this way, the author grounds the cloak and dagger narrative in a world she knows well. However, if she gives it a realistic edge here, in other sections, she lets the story lift off into wild reaches of the imagination. For instance, in a story that explains how Joan became an individual whose skills proved very useful in sleuthing, we learn of Joan’s devastation when her brother dies tragically in his youth. After this trauma, she develops odd physical symptoms. “For a while, I stopped growing. Then I shrank.” Next, her changes get even less explicable. “Another thing happened: my new body stopped respecting gravity. I was permanently airborne, hovering or flying. And I emitted a sound, a buzz.”
So far, I have dwelt on the novel’s extremes, from the most matter-of-fact depiction of art openings to the most fantastic, an agent moving from one species to another; but this might provide a slightly distorted picture as most of the book centers on more novelistic stories of the genesis and activities of agents. Most of these crime-busters have been touched early on by violent deaths, which oriented them to pursuing law enforcement careers. A few of these stories are almost procedurals where the detective explains how she or he nabbed a criminal, usually by employing unorthodox methods.
Another attribute of these agents touches on themes found earlier in Crawford’s Fortification Resort. There (with some tongue in cheek moments) she describes the activities of personal assistants, gym trainers, party curators, travel guides and others who work directly with a refined upper class clientele. This is a world slightly in the future where the hyper-sensitive services carried out for the elite have been enhanced. As I wrote, reviewing this book in Rain Taxi in 2005, Crawford’s “language is modeled on—and quietly spoofs—upscale New Age promotional writing, fluff that would extol a spa, new skin enhancer, Pilates program or other psychic or physical rehabilitation. Crawford never voices open criticism of the group, but offhandedly skewers the pretensions, muffled cruelty, and sometimes downright wackiness of her characters.”
The link to the present book is that this type of hyper-sensitive modulations of the self are not carried out for the elite but have become regimens used to attune agents to their jobs. Paula’s morning routine, for instance, is made up of “EXERCISE, BATHE, MEDITATE, EAT, DRESS, SOUL BUILD.” Each of these routines is precisely and subtly geared to her professional duties. As to her breakfast, “Morning meals vary, depending on what lies ahead. Desk days it is quinoa with butter and syrup. Push days usually mean a circle of nuts around something vegetarian.” She adds, “TANGENT: I do sometimes use nuts, usually almonds, to kill.”
While this theme links this book to the former novel, there is a perspectival shift. While Resort is a cutting, low-key satire on the New Age-y fads of the upper crust, in this book the trendy treatments are used to sustain and strengthen the principled fighters against abuse and corporate malfeasance. On this note, it might be suggested the novel is partly science fiction because at this point it nearly takes an alternate reality viewpoint to imagine an NGO facing off so resolutely (and effectively) against the corporate/governmental machine that is polluting the waters and air while killing off irreplaceable animals and plants. Paula Regossy is one of those creative works that reimagine social justice and ecological thinking. It is a vision within a forward movement, a forward movement that takes us backward to the world of indigenous, ecologically oriented civilizations, where people were more in touch with Nature and willing (through prayer and ritual) to right the wrongs done to her.
You can find the book here: https://mocad.myshopify.com/collections/all/products/paula-regossy-by-lynn-crawford
Jim Feast is the author of the just published (August 2020) and long-titled poetry book A Strange Awakening of Light that Takes the Place of Dawn: Poems for Lady Bunny, Chicago: 1972-1975.
Dead Shark on The N Train by Susana H. Case
By Lynette Esposito
You can find the book here: www.BroadstoneBooks.com
The Tiger in the Grass by Harriet Doerr
By Ray Greenblatt
Harriet Doerr (1910-2002) grew up and married in California. For nearly twenty years she and her husband ran a mining company in Mexico. In 1984 at the age of 74 she published her first book Stones for Ibarra, which won the National Book Award. Her third and final book, a collection of short stories, The Tiger in the Grass was published in 1995. This review will be a discussion of how effectively she developed setting and character and the essence of her philosophy after such a long and fruitful life. And she used poetic prose to accomplish that.
In the story LIKE HEAVEN the major character Elizabeth has returned to a town she had summered in for years. She wondered if her memories matched the reality of the place. “Beyond Elizabeth, the pink stucco post office was closing for the night. A border of nasturtiums erupted against its side in hot reds and lemon yellows, the intense shades that figure more often in memory than in fact. Elizabeth turned to face the ocean.” Doerr’s use of color is always vivid and varied, often using flowers to represent a particular hue.
“Life on the hill had not been flawless. Elizabeth vaguely recalled the occasional tears of children and slammings of adult doors. But the immense peace of the place drowned out these events, leaving only a shimmering calm behind. Under its protection, summer days could scarcely be told apart and ran together. So that, even while being lived, they had seemed eternal.”
Mexico plays an important role in Doerr’s life and writing. In the story THE SEASONS now in Mexico, color again plays a major role. “Yellow is the color of fall. The cottonwoods burn with it, and only flowers that are yellow go on blooming. At the edges of fields, against unmortared stone boundaries, in roadside ditches, grow all the wild daisies in the world.”
Sudden though infrequent storms punctuate the landscape. “When there is a storm, the thunder rolls up the mountain and down the cobbled street. It stifles the backfire of the passing truck and silences the church bell ringing for vespers. It mutters imprecations in the distance.”
“The lightning forks into an ash tree, into the windmill tower, and finally into the transformer, causing a power failure that may last all night. In the flash there is a second’s eternity of total exposure, the plow left in the furrow, the dented pot on the fire, the woman’s face in the cracked mirror.”
Some women in these stories are angry and depressed because they have not found who they really are, or in trying to live through their husbands the wives always come up short. Doerr can be very insightful focusing on one individual. In CARNATIONS Ann “lives with herself. They no longer speak. She can’t remember being shut away. Life, like a subway train, simply began to recede, taking the people she knew out of earshot. Either they have stopped listening or she has forgotten the words. In the case of Elliot, her husband, she is out of sight and sound. His eyes focus behind her and his voice is directed to one side. His arms do not reach through the unseen walls.”
On a car trip through Italy with her husband she sees a flower seller who becomes a symbol of what she desires. “Ann supposes that their fragrance hangs about him like incense. He is hatless and wears sandals. They are about to pass him. She hasn’t had time to say ‘Stop.’
Then, in an impact as clear and sudden as the clash of cymbals, Ann’s eyes meet the eyes of the vendor. Their smiles meet and fuse. The second is held in timeless suspension, like a raindrop on a spiderweb.
His arms, lifting the carnations like lanterns, are open in an encompassing embrace. They hold the terraced vineyards and the twisted pines, they hold the marble figures in the tapestried palace walls, the tile on hillside houses and the stone on Roman roads.” This man is so much a Christ figure; and the brilliant flowers again are so important.
Doerr is also effective at handling multiple characters. The story THE EXTINGUISHING OF GREAT-AUNT ALICE offers us several. “Weeping. It seemed chronic rather than acute, a way of life rather than a trauma.” Alice is old and sad but still retains a vigorous imagination. She shares “the same crystal vision” with her great-niece, eleven-year-old Elizabeth.
“Elizabeth brought strange maps she had drawn of India, France, and Peru, striped with rivers, crocheted with mountains, shaded with forests, dotted with wheat, rice, and corn, red-circled with capitals, and all bounded by shores of a thousand parentheses.”
We meet a kaleidoscope of people, old and young and in between. Alice’s middle-aged son Theo has not found himself and is trying to fit in socially. “He had made a thorough search of the anniversary classes and encountered only eight alumni of his year, all so altered by time and varying levels of despair that none recognized the others.”
Among these uncertain souls stands a solid citizen. “The driver of the station wagon wore thick brown-rimmed glasses and a lime-green pantsuit. She had planted both feet on the ground when she was one and a half, and an aura of common sense hung about her like the aroma of wholesome food. Today she had realized at once that she must pilot the rudderless into safe waters, and set off with purpose and without surprise.” A few strokes by a skilled writer fully rounds a character.
Some Mexican characters are distant as in the story WAY STATIONS. “There was something in the old woman’s blackbird eyes, something about her slippered feet set parallel on the floor, that discouraged intimacy.”
Others are more outgoing as in SUN, PURE AIR, AND A VIEW. “’Consider this, senora,’ Carlos said, and from the edge of the terrace where they stood, he embraced the landscape, drawing to him the municipality of Santa Felicia, the presidencia, the cathedral, and the zoo, as well as all the plowed and wooded world beyond.”
And in what I think is the most shocking story in the collection, ironically SAINT’S DAY, we see tragic individuals. “Remembering the annoyances that have plagued his life, along with the great injustices, he allows rage to possess him, lets it burn hot and blind and pure, until at last he strikes the back of the bench and bloodies his good hand.”
His wife has been traumatized to near immobility. When her son Paco asks her for help, “she neither looked at him nor moved from where she sat on
the edge of the bed, her elbows on her knees, her thin fingers pressed to her eyes, rocking back and forth, as if the rocking itself might serve for something. As if it, more than tears, might speak for her.”
Paco is still a fanciful little boy. Strangely he reminds me of the little boy from John Updike’s short story You’ll Never Know, Dear, How Much I Love You. Both boys love the thrill of the carnival. However, Updike’s character has the entire world ahead of him to look forward to. Paco is from a distressed environment without much hope for the future. His immediate goal is to ride on the carousel. “Now, for five minutes, Paco is a child without past. This interval contains his whole life. So his day ends almost as he had planned, riding a horse to music under stars.” Meanwhile, his sister is being raped by the father.
So many of these stories, and so many of these events that I believe actually happened to Harriet Doerr are involved with memories. Her five senses enable her to call up actions that occurred seventy-five years before. She remembers the walls of their house from A SLEEVE OF RAIN. “You knew them best by touching them, by moving along the half-finished wall, your hand sliding from one rough surface to the next. Dry, hard, complex, indifferent, they were the fiber of your world.”
She claims that she does not clearly know why these memories are dear to her, but I can guess that they recall when her family was close and solid.” Years later and possessing at last the long view, I cannot say whether I touched the wood to claim the house, to establish a connection, or simply for the sake of the shingles themselves, to feel their texture, to smell forest.”
It is an extreme advantage for a writer to have such vivid recall, especially of such positive moments in one’s life. From LOW TIDE AT FOUR: “Back on the beach, our heads under the umbrella, we lie at compass points like a four-pointed star. The sun hangs hot and high. Small gusts of wind lift the children’s corn-straw hair. We taste salt. Face down, arms wide, we cling to the revolving earth.”
The child sometimes feels the center of the universe, but an author can achieve great power of creativity with this feeling. “I call up my interior reserves and gather strength from my blood and bones. Exerting the full force of my will, I command the earth to leave off circling long enough to hold up the sun, hold back the wave. Long enough for me to paint and frame low tide.”
Harriet Doerr facetiously states that in a writing class she took “all we wanted was the perfect word in the perfect sentence that, when multiplied, would fill the pages of the perfect book.” It is what all writers hope. A symbol for her was THE TIGER IN THE GRASS. A writer must persist through all uncertainties, all fears to achieve the best writing that she can. “I think of what it is like to write stories. It is a completion. It is discovering something you didn’t know you’d lost. It is finding an answer to a question you never asked.” Through her writing Harriet Doerr found her true self. Considering her style I am surprised that she never wrote poetry.
You can find the book here: https://www.amazon.com/Tiger-Grass-Stories-Other-Inventions/dp/0140251480
Ray Greenblatt is an editor on the Schuylkill Valley Journal. His book reviews have been published by a variety of periodicals: BookMark Quarterly, Joseph Conrad Today, English Journal, the Dylan Thomas Society, and the John Updike Society. His new book of poetry, Nocturne & Aubades, is newly available from Parnilis Press, 2018.